Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Paper Towns (by John Green)

Given how much I loved Looking for Alaska, and how much my friends love his other books, I'm going to work my way through Green's ouvre. So this one is Paper Towns and it's also awesome. It's got an Alaska-ish character named Margo and a Miles-ish main character named Quentin, but it also has fun characters and unique situations and surprising depth for a YA book. I particularly loved the crucial role played by Walt Whitman. Gotta love it.

Anyway, Green is awesome. If you like YA, give him a shot.

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Help (by Kathryn Stockett)

I picked up this book as an airplane read, but then got stuck on De Zoet and didn't get to it. But I picked it up a couple of days ago and I have to say, it's a page-turner! Just as advertised. So I stayed up late last night finishing it.

So, the author is a white woman, and she writes in the voices of three different characters, two black maids and one white woman. So the book opens up with some heavy dialect like "Her legs is so spindly she look like she done growed em last week." And it kind of makes you go, hmm, is this problematic? However, it also made me think of the discussions about white authors writing characters of color and the inherent issues of privilege that come into play. Ultimately the takeaway was: it's better to try, even if you aren't 100% successful, than not to try at all. Especially if you are an established writer, including people of color in your work is better than omitting them.

So maybe I wished this book was by a writer of color. But given that Stockett was a white writer drawing from her own experiences of growing up in Mississippi and her relationship with her own maid, what were her alternatives? To write her whole book from the POV of white people would negate her whole point. And not to try and all would be a shame, because the characters and the story are compelling and--yes--the dialect ends up feeling appropriate to the characters, time and place. She also acknowledges some of the issues in her afterword: of feeling like it wasn't her place to presume to tell the story.

But ultimately, it is a really well-told story with great characters and a compelling plot. I would recommend giving it a chance. And I'd love to hear other points of view on the whole issue of white privilege, too, because I think it's important to think about.

Friday, July 16, 2010

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet (by David Mitchell)

David Mitchell is one of my favorite living writers; Cloud Atlas and Black Swan Green are both masterpieces. So I had to pick up his newest book, about a Dutch trading post off the coast of Nagasaki, in old-timey imperialist days. Plus: Dutch people!

(One disappointment is that there really wasn't much Dutch language in it at all. 99% of the Dutch conversation is rendered in English.)

It's fully realized and epic in scope, great characters (especially the main character, Jacob, and the translater, Ogawa Uzaemon) but it was a bit of a slog. At least that's how I felt until I got to the ending, which is amazing. The final few chapters are just pitch perfect. (There's even one that is a long passage of rhymes, ending gorgeously.) And it made me feel the Mitchell magic for the first time.

I admit I like his postmodern stuff better, on the whole, and I wasn't as fired up about this one as I was about Cloud Atlas. But Mitchell writes a hell of an historical epic, with a lot of depth. I mean, of course he does.

(P.S. Here's a great interview with Mitchell about the book.)

Monday, July 12, 2010

Vacation Reading: Time 100

I was hoping to finish the Time 100 list this year--which would be less of a problem if Gravity's Rainbow weren't on that list. I was up to 67 at the beginning of the year, but I'd only read a couple more before I left on vacation. So, when I decided to order a bunch of used books from Powell's before my trip, I figured it would be a great opportunity to get some of these out of the way. And it was! Here's what I thought about the six books I read on vaycay:

Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion (finished June 15)

My favorite of these six books, and also the first book I read on my first flight out of town. I'd never read any Didion (no, not even Magical Thinking) and this makes me realize what a gap that is in my reading! It's a terrific book--a blackly comic (but tragic), economical, atmospheric book set mostly in 1960s Hollywood. Please feel free to recommend more Didion, because I loved this one!

The Spy Who Came In from the Cold by John LeCarre (finished June 17th)

The anti-James Bond. I wanted a little more "inside baseball" on the spying--a trip to the D.C. spy museum was way more interesting than this novel in terms of the nuts and bolts of the spy trade, which was disappointing. I did enjoy the suspense and the boldness of the ending. But I also didn't find the main character to be smart or savvy enough for it to be wholly satisfying. I guess I just wanted to be inside Leamas's head a little more.

The Sportswriter by Richard Ford (finished June 23th)

I took this novel along with me to a series of Irish pubs, where I read some of it every night over a pint. So I have fond associations with this book! Still, I really liked it--to my surprise, because Ian hated it and we usually have the same taste in books. Interesting ideas and a super banal unreliable narrator. I enjoyed his banality and his unsympatheticness! But according to the book cover, this is supposed to be a portrait of "humane decency" which makes me nervous. I liked him in a way, but he's kind of an awful person--did I miss the point?

I did scrawl down this quote, which I loved, from page 97: "What is friendship's realest measure? I'll tell you. The amount of precious time you'll squander on someone else's calamities and fuck-ups."

The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosinski (finished June 27th)

Well, Bad Things Happen To Animals, A LOT, so you know I wasn't going to like this book much. I did find it interesting on an allegorical level--the suffering of animals makes sense when it is dealing allegorically with the Holocaust. But it's pretty relentlessly brutal and awful, and paints an unpleasant pictures of the "ordinary people" who allowed the Jews to suffer and die with glee, while basically raping, murdering, and torturing each other on the sidelines. Interesting to find a lot of controversy as to how autobiographical it is--I thought the allegorical nature of it was obvious and would never have considered it autobiographical. But the author comes across poorly in all the controversy, and I'll be glad never to open this book again anyway. Shudder.

Ubik by Phillip K. Dick (finished July 4th)

Inventive and interesting (I loved Joe Chip and his front door) but I had some issues with it, which I will now enumerate:

1. Runciter seems like a complete asshole at the outset, so the loyalty to him was confusing.
2. The pace is super fast, and I would have liked it to slow down a little bit so the inertials could have pieced a few more things together. I also loved all the details of the world, so more would have been nice!
3. And related to that, I felt the characters were not set up enough or distinct enough (like, Wendy's relationship with Chip would have been nice to explore), and there's really no scenes of the characters doing their jobs, which seems like a weird omission.
4. The clothes jokes were overused. The book didn't have enough of anything, except clothes jokes!
5. I felt it lacked internal logic, and the "rules" of the world never quite made sense or hung together.
6. Sexist! Like, there's this whole futuristic world, but the bosses are men, the secretaries are women, and women are still automatically taking their husband's last names? And also, the female characters are immediately plotted on a fuckability scale as soon as they appear. Very irritating.
7. Joe Chip is a super passive character--I thought he should have figured out more or explained more or done more.

All that being said, and I know those are a lot of criticisms, I kinda liked it! Chris, if you're reading this, maybe you can rebut some of my points and/or suggest one of his other books that I might enjoy more. I did love the crazy world he created, and ultimately several of my criticism are just that I wanted even more of them.

Neuromancer by William Gibson (finished July 6th)

Speaking of sci-fi, the final book I read was Neuromancer. And immediately I thought, "Snow Crash is like this, only about 100 times better, but I have a feeling there would be no Snow Crash if it weren't for Neuromancer." Sometimes books end up on the list because they are groundbreaking, and I think this is one of those. (In looking at the list again, I see Snow Crash is also on there, yay.) (The Time list really is a very good book list, overall.) And I did read up on Gibson and discover that, among other things, he coined the term "cyberspace." So I was right about him being a groundbreaker!

I thought this book erred a little bit on the side of being confusing. I don't need everything spelled out, but a tiny bit more explication at points would have been helpful. I found myself hunting for nonexistent explanations of things more than once, and I'm usually fine with just going with the flow of an invented world or language. I just thought it was a shade too opaque. I also found it ooky that the only characters of color were Rastas. And at the end, I found that I didn't really get what had happened, and I also didn't care to think about it too hard and figure it out. So, there you go.

And those were the books I read on vacation! Now I just have to finish The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, and I guess go out and buy Gravity's Rainbow...


Saturday, July 10, 2010

Vacation Reading: Other

I toyed with the idea of getting a Kindle for my three-week trip, but ultimately decided I couldn't afford it. So instead, I ordered a pile of used books from Powells and figured I could just read the books and leave them behind in hotels and B&Bs as I went, which is exactly what I did.

I'm going to have to break this into a couple of posts, since I read a dozen books on the trip (listed below). I'll do one for the Time 100 books, which are bolded in the list below, and one for "other," which are the unbolded books. The list:

1. Play It As It Lays, by Joan Didion
2. Avalon High, by Meg Cabot
3. The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, by John LeCarre
4. Dubliners, by James Joyce
5. The Sportswriter, by Richard Ford
6. Out Stealing Horses, by Per Petterson
7. The Painted Bird, Jerzy KosiƄski
8. By Strange Paths, by a Benedictine of Kylemore Abbey
9. Looking for Alaska, by John Green
10. Ubik, by Phillip K. Dick
11. Neuromancer, by William Gibson

12. All We Ever Wanted Was Everything, by Jannelle Brown

Aych asked me what I'd read on the trip and what I'd liked the most. The ones I liked the most were Play It As It Lays and Looking for Alaska. I'll get to Play It As It Lays next time, but as for Alaska, I actually didn't pick up the next book for a couple of days because I wanted to stay in the world of that novel a little longer. So it was my favorite of the "other" books. Runner up was probably Dubliners. Here are all the books, in chronological order, and my thoughts on them...

Avalon High by Meg Cabot (finished June 16th)

A YA retelling of Arthurian legend, very fun and charming, as all of Cabot's stuff is, but also very fluffy, especially when compared to the other YA I read, which had a lot more depth. A fun, light read. I actually think it would have been a fun audiobook.

Dubliners by James Joyce (finished June 19th)

I ordered a terrible edition of this (they used QUOTATION MARKS, which Joyce abhorred) but I still got a kick out of reading Dubliners in Dublin. (And the introduction by Brenda Maddox is really good.) My favorite stories were "An Encounter," "Clay," "A Painful Case," "A Mother," and obviously "The Dead," which I've read (and taught) before. In my notes it says, "Makes me want to re-read Ulysses, as many of the characters recur there. What an amazing, cynical, unblinking collection of stories!" Also when I stayed in Ennistymon, which is not a touristy town, I met a lot of drunken Irishmen who seemed like they'd stumbled straight out of the pages of Joyce. I had a real Joycean time in Ireland: arrived on Bloomsday, went to Davy Byrne's on my last day in town, and couldn't get Joyce's work out of my head. Dubliners made me a real fan. Terrific.

Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson (finished June 25th)

This is our book club book, so I won't say too much about it. Turning to my notes: "Was expecting a little more at the end--a revelation, maybe something to do with [redacted]? And there is a lot of scenery description, which makes it pretty slow-paced. But it has depth--I feel like it's a re-reader, and that I'd get more out of it the second time. I also really liked the main character and his dog (great dog descriptions! Very real) and I enjoyed living there in the cabin in the forest." I also enjoyed the subtlety of the ending, and probably upon a re-read, would enjoy the subtlety of the book as a whole. Am interested to see what the rest of the book club thinks!

By Strange Paths by a Benedictine of Kylemore Abbey (finished June 28th)

One of my favorite books of all time is In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden, which is about a Benedictine monastery full of nuns. So I'm driving through Ireland and I see this and I stop (because hello, I have to take some pictures of it) only to find out that it's full of Benedictine nuns! And I got to hear them sing the Divine Office! And it was SO EXCITING! So anyway, at the bookstore was this book by one of the nuns who died in the 1950s, mostly about her experiences in WWI and how she got to Kylemore, so I bought it. And I wrote: "Nun book! She was so happy to be a nun--wanted more details of the nunning, but it was like a long, charming letter and very enjoyable." I also bought a vase made by nuns. It was all very exciting for a nun fan like me.

Looking for Alaska by John Green (finished July 1st)

So, as I said, this one was my favorite. Really terrific YA with a ton of depth. It's forthright about sexuality, sophisticated in its themes, very honest. It might be to a certain extent autobiographical, in fact. It's about a boy who goes to boarding school and meets a girl named Alaska who changes his life. But the characters are well-drawn and it tackles some of the Big Questions in life. It's not perfect, so I feel like I'm overselling it. But I really loved it. And so did Eliza!

All We Ever Wanted Was Everything by Jannelle Brown (finished July 7th)

I can't decide if this is really good chick lit or really fluffy literary fiction, which means it hits the sweet spot right in the middle of both. I couldn't put it down; I actually did stay up until 2am finishing it. She is great with little details that strongly evoke character or place. I actually didn't leave this book behind because I wanted to take a look at her use of details again and maybe try to learn something I can incorporate into my own YA novel in progress. Anyway it's set in the Bay Area, the story of a mother and her two daughters, told in shifting perspective. The characters all seem real (and very flawed) and their problems don't have easy solutions. A lot of fun sex and drugs and stuff, but there are some bigger themes about materialism and feminism and class embedded in here too. Recommended by my colleague and friend Katie.

Phew! That's it! Stay tuned for part two: the Time 100 list books.