Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Young Adult Novel (by Daniel Pinkwater)

Okay, this "novel" is fifty-eight pages long, so how does this even count? That's the thing with "read 50 books a year!" drives. I think they're cute and motivating and all, but I could read all 12 Lemony Snicket books in a day, whereas it will probably take me 12 months to read Finnegans Wake. Not to say that one is inherently superior, because god knows I will probably enjoy Book 13 more than I enjoyed, say, An American Tragedy... but number of books read is a semi-meaningless statistic.

I'm still shooting for 100, though.

Lucky for me I read this one, then! It reminded me a lot of Gordon Korman's Don't Care High (maybe crossed with a little Obnoxious Jerks by Stephen Manes) except it suffers by the comparison. As much as I love Pinkwater, and as clever as it is, it's merely a fleeting diversion. If you're looking for some good, funny YA you can't do better than Pinkwater's own The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death, or Korman's Son of Interflux. Both awesome.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Goodnight Nobody (Jennifer Weiner)

The one thing I really like about Jen Weiner is that she doesn't write the same book over and over again. Her characters have complicated relationships, and she's written about romance, sisterhood, parenthood, and now, identity. Or Wisteria Lane-type suburban intrigue, if you want to look at it as a more fluffy novel. But Weiner is always pushing herself (or at least so it seems to me) to get deeper as a writer, and even if she's no Virginia Woolf, it does show.

This book is a quick read, but I wouldn't quite dismiss it as "chick lit," although I was reading it alongside All The King's Men, which is so unfair, because that has to be one of the most marvelously written books of all time. The ending of Goodnight Nobody was somewhat of a cop-out, and it isn't transcendently written or anything like that. But enjoyable, relatable, and interesting nonetheless.

(ETA: Even her fans seem to hate this one, so take it with a grain of salt. I'm easy.)

Friday, July 14, 2006

Housekeeping (by Marilynne Robinson)

I think I liked this book better in aggregate than I did while I was reading it. In other words, I loved its overall theme and meaning more than I did some of its sentences. This response surprises me, since it's surely a poetic book and I am in theory a poetic-type person. And yet for all its lyricism and truthiness and precision of language, there were many instances in the book where I felt the descriptions were not precise enough, and it was somewhat frustrating.

One example I fixed in my mind (so that I could tell you about it) was when the narrator says that she and her sister are sitting "across from each other" (sure, okay) and "also from Sylvie" (their aunt). I spent like five minutes trying to visualize how they could be sitting across from each other and also across from their aunt. Once I had some kind of picture in my mind, I went on to read that Sylvie had a picture window opposite her, and they were all three staring out of it. Maybe the author's intended seating arrangement is perfectly clear to you, but it confused me for a while. This happened to me a number of times throughout the book, making things seem not quite real to me, since I couldn't visualize them. I also didn't get a quite clear enough picture of the main characters; for me they weren't described enough, or well enough, or something.

I assume that there's something wrong with me, by the way, rather than the book, since it's so well respected by people I respect. Which is not to say I didn't like it or don't feel like re-reading it; I did, and I do. It's got amazing insight into human nature and a lovely story and I certainly recommend it. I just don't think it's as well crafted as it could be. Sorry, Housekeeping fans. Maybe my standards as a poetic-type person are too high.

"That most moments were substantially the same did not detract at all from the possibility that the next moment might be utterly different. And so the ordinary demanded unblinking attention. Any tedious hour might be the last of its kind." (Page 166)

Saturday, July 08, 2006

The Hound of the Baskervilles (by Arthur Conan Doyle)

As I was going through my reading list to cross off The Bridge of San Luis Rey (turns out it's on the Modern Library list and the Time Magazine list, and on another list of "most influential" novels, so I did a lot of very satisfying crossing-off). I was reminded that I'd never read The Hound of the Baskervilles. (It's also on the list of "influential" novels but I love the Sherlock Holmes stories, so I would have read it regardless.) I have nothing in the way of criticism to offer, though. It's Sherlock Holmes; what's not to love?

"On the contrary, I have been to Devonshire." "In spirit?" "Exactly. My body has remained in this armchair and has, I regret to observe, consumed in my absence two large pots of coffee and an incredible amount of tobacco."

The Bridge of San Luis Rey (by Thornton Wilder)

I picked this up off of Ian's bookshelves, looking for something to read. It's a slim volume, but it won Wilder a Pulitzer Prize, and I'd definitely heard of it. It's not on my Radcliffe list (only two books to go on that one) but I'm sure it's on one of the others. Finding the premise intriguing, I began reading it.

It's a lovely little gem of a book, a meditation on fate and love and life. The premise is that a bridge (the titular bridge, of course) collapses, and five people die. A priest tries to prove, through this event, that the reason was divine intervention, thereby proving that there is a God. I'm not explaining it well, but I don't want to give anything away. I'll just say that it's a quick read, but a profound and very beautiful one. I'd love to teach this novel one of these days.

(ETA: I went to look up Wilder to see if he is an American author who might fit into a Great American Novels class. I hadn't recognized the name, but he is the same American author and playwright who wrote Our Town. And yet he captured the world of Lima, Peru, in such an authentic way! I was sure he was Spanish somehow, but he's from Wisconsin. Wow.)

"He divided the inhabitants of this world into two groups, into those who had loved and those who had not. It was a horrible aristocracy, apparently, for those who had no capacity for love (or rather for suffering in love) could not be said to be alive and certainly would not live again after their death. They were a kind of straw population, filling the world with their meaningless laughter and tears an chatter and disappearing still loveable and vain into thin air." (Page 112)

Friday, July 07, 2006

Twelve Sharp (by Janet Evanovich)

I read an interview with Janet Evanovich recently where she basically admitted that her books were formulaic fluff, but was like "what the hell, this fluff made me rich and successful, people like it, I'm gonna stick with the formula!" I loved Twelve Sharp, and it's exactly what this series usually does, but it's done very well. The love triangle (which needs some new developments if you ask me), Lula's wackiness (she joins a band, and it's hilarious), some sex (the scenes in the sex shop are priceless), and a big bad that threatens Steph (I don't want to give too much away, because I think this plot is one of the best in the whole series). A fast, breezy, fun read, and if you're not afraid of formulaic fluff, you can't really do better.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Lost and Found (Carolyn Parkhurst)

By the author of Dogs of Babel, which I've not read. I was intrigued by this one because it's about the participants on an Amazing Race ripoff reality show. My big "complaint" is that I wish it had been longer, and gone into great depths on more characters. But the characters that are covered (notably Abby, Justin, Cassie, Laura, and Juliet) have a lot of depth to them, their stories are interesting and unpredictable, and the book as a whole is well written. One of the couples on the show are a married "ex-gay" couple spreading the Lord's word, for example, and their trajectory is really interesting. The reality show angle makes it fun for me, as a huge Amazing Race fan. I wanted it to be thicker, denser, and more. I guess that's kind of a complaint in the way of a compliment!

A Cook's Tour (Anthony Bourdain)*

Bourdain has his schtick, and this is more of the same, but I enjoyed this book a lot more than Kitchen Confidential. It's the story of Bourdain's travels around the world in search of the "perfect meal." He attends a pig slaughter, eats the heart of a cobra (which is still beating), and eats that famous poisonous blowfish. He even eats at the French Laundry, which tragically I have yet to do. We listened to this as we drove across boring-ass Nevada, and it really did make the time go by.

Although the book was well written and evocative and full of personality--and I really enjoyed the job Bourdain did of reading it, which he did himself--it did come across as poorly organized. He spends an awful lot of time in Vietnam, but he doesn't put all the Vietnam material together, just scatters it all over the book. And then he doesn't really explain why; I get that he loves Vietnam, but after a couple of chapters, I already get it, and it seems to be belaboring the point.

Anyway, if you're a foodie, you might enjoy the stories Bourdain has to tell. He's really pretty good as a writer, and definitely entertaining. Especially in boring-ass Nevada.