Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Gravity's Rainbow Progress Report

I'm almost halfway through Gravity's Rainbow, so I figured it's time for a progress report. I know GravRain fans aren't necessarily going to like this, but so far, comparing it to the other epics I've read recently, I find it less intellectually challenging than Finnegans Wake, less entertaining than Infinite Jest, and less profound than War & Peace. This really isn't intended to be all that critical, considering the novels I'm comparing it to, but I think it highlights more than anything that I don't quite have a grip on it yet. Probably the companion would have been helpful. (I'm using this, which is great but basic.)

The best scenes so far have a level of surrealist absurdity in a Catch-22 mold. (I think Slothrop with all the licorice candy is the best scene in the book so far.) But more often it just feels, to me, overstuffed and confusing. Maybe it's just the current section I'm reading, which moved from the zeppelin-pie getaway (surrealist absurdity, thumbs up) to some Tchitcherine/Enzian backstory that keeps losing me. I'm perfectly willing to concede this as a personal failure, and will endeavor to do better in part two.

I should say that some of the writing is gorgeous and I have dog-eared a lot of pages. This is from today's reading:

"Cows--big lummoxes splotched black and white, harnessed now for the plowing because German horses in the Zone are all but extinct--will drudge with straight faces right into minefields, sown back in the winter. The godawful blasts go drumming over the farmland, horns, hide and hamburger come showering down all over the place, and the dented bells lie quiet in the clover." (pg. 337)

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Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Lit (by Mary Karr)

This is the third memoir by Mary Karr, author of The Liars' Club, which is only the best literary memoir of all time, that's all. This book has been on my to-read shelf forever--I think I got it for Christmas in 2010. But my friend Chris inspired me with his "shelf-cleaning tour" so I cracked this one open. It's been a nice read-a-few-chapters-before-bed book.

It's hard not to compare this book to The Liars' Club, which as I said is genius, or her second memoir Cherry, which didn't live up to it. It could just be my expectations placing Lit somewhere in the middle. The subject matter is extremely interesting: her alcoholism and her sobriety, marriage and divorce, motherhood and David Foster Wallace, failure and her rise to literary fame. And she's obviously an amazing writer. But I feel like Lit is ultimately flawed.

One problem is that she doesn't dive that deeply into her relationship with her husband. I don't quite understand him as a character, I don't understand why she hung on so long, I don't understand his reactions (or non-reactions) to her drinking and sobriety. I was waiting for a real confrontation or catharsis that never happened. I get the sense (from the intro) that she is protecting him, but as a result, that relationship isn't compelling to read about.

I also feel like she doesn't go quite in-depth enough about recovery or about Catholicism, which are two major forces in the book. She touches on interesting issues about sobriety and faith, various relationships in her life, but I don't know, I kept wanting more to chew on. Probably the most vividly drawn character here is her mother, and her relationship after a childhood of abuse. (Which is incredibly well-drawn.) But it's hard to say what the focus of this book is--it seems like a string of vaguely chronological memories, not all of which contribute to an overall narrative.

I'm glad I read it, because it's impossible for a book by Mary Karr to be anything other than well-written. But I didn't love it.


Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Sushi for Beginners (by Marian Keyes)

I'm not sure when I acquired this book, but it's been sitting on my shelf for a while. I was leaving for the airport and grabbed it as a nice, fluffy airport read. And it was perfect for that! Not only is it a fun, breezy romantic comedy, it is also dense enough that it lasted me through both the flight to and the flight from Vegas.

The book reminded me fairly strongly of Love Actually, actually. (See what I did there.) It's an intertwined set of stories revolving around three women in Ireland: a power-hungry magazine editor from London, her insecure assistant editor, and the assistant's rich but unhappy best friend.  There are tons of other characters that add texture and unpredictability to the book. (For example, there is not one clear love interest for each woman, and things like professional fulfillment and childhood trauma and female friendship are important plot points.)

So there's the intertwined stories, plus the explorations of not just romantic relationships but also working relationships, relationships and rivalries between friends, and relationships with parents and children that also factor in. There isn't a 100% perfect, happy ending for every character, but it still overall is a feel-good ending. The description of one of the characters (a wildly good-looking photographer) made him sound like Chiwetel Ejiofor, so I just went ahead and cast him in my mind. There's also the magazine editor who starts out mean and then softens up, so of course I imagined Colin Firth for that one. Both in Love Actually. See what I mean?

The book is a little slow-paced, but I read so fast that I appreciated the tangents and the meanderings, which were often fun or interesting. I ordered another book of hers, set in the world of book editing, which I hope will inspire agents who are reading my manuscript to write me back with offers of representation. I'm really not sure how reading a novel about editors will make that happen, but I'm going to go ahead and give it a shot. Thumbs up for this one!


Friday, August 09, 2013

The Rosie Project (by Graeme Simsion)

I forget where I first read about this book, which is not coming out in the U.S. until the fall. But I couldn't wait, since I'm a sucker for British romantic comedy, and so I hunted up a used copy and read it.

I've been slightly hesitant to write about it since the main character is implied to be on the Asperger's spectrum, and I'm really not sure how well the book handles that. He's an incredibly compelling and loveable character, as is Rosie, the woman he doesn't realize he loves. And as an obstacle, I think his own internal emotional process is a good one.

However, it seems like the character gets sold out a little bit towards the end of the book. He seems to suddenly have social skills that he has never had before, and that I'm not sure is truthful to the character, or people on the spectrum. That being said, as a purely rom-commy book, I really did enjoy it. There are a lot of really fun, funny scenes (the cocktail scene being a particular standout) and I even cried at the end. What more can you ask for?

(As an aside, the character of Don felt very familiar, since I read Sherlock fanfiction, and Sherlock is often written as having Asperger's type qualities, to a greater or lesser extent.  It makes him all the more endearing to visualize that he looks like Benedict Cumberbatch.)


Tuesday, August 06, 2013

The Stranger Beside Me (by Ann Rule)

I don't know why I was suddenly compelled to read this book about Ted Bundy, but here we are. I guess I'd been hearing about it for years as a classic of the true crime genre, and was having a macabre day, and decided to go for it.

The hook of this book is that author Ann Rule was an ex-police officer and crime writer who was writing a book about a series of unsolved serial killings. She gradually realized that the main suspect was someone who happened to be her longtime friend from their days working together on a suicide prevention hotline, Ted Bundy. So as the investigation unfolds, she begins to wrestle with whether Bundy is guilty or innocent, and how to make sense of his actions, and to what extent to be loyal to her friend.

The edition I read has had several epilogues and updates; I gather the first edition of the book came out before Bundy was executed and before his infamy really hit its peak. It was also before he confessed to and gave details about some of the crimes. So this reads a little disjointedly, since it started out as one thing and then kept getting added to. But it's fascinating, almost impossible to put down.

Rule does use the word "coeds" a lot to describe female college students, and does get slightly victim-blamey at parts, talking about women who escaped from Bundy and how they fought and screamed and trusted their instincts, implying that his victims did none of those things. She also puts a lot of emphasis on the tragedy of the victims' beauty and promise. (This is just a minor undercurrent, but I feel compelled to point it out anyway, because I am me.)

It's also a little unclear whether she actually feels Bundy is guilty, or what she thinks of the evidence against him. (One of the "frequently asked questions" she addresses in one of the epilogues is "do you think he did it," so it wasn't just me.) She does clarify this in the epilogue, though. She is definitely a little way too sympathetic towards Bundy at various points, but I think this makes for an interesting read.

I really liked that this book explored both sides of Ted Bundy and her conflict in writing about him. She admittedly fell under the spell of his charisma to such an extent that she was still writing to him and sending him money in prison, out of friendship more than journalistic desire. After I finished it, I immediately went down the Wikipedia/YouTube rabbit hole to watch his confessions and read up on the more lurid details of his crimes.

I followed it up immediately with a chick lit book to cleanse the palate. But if true crime is your thing, check it out.


Sunday, August 04, 2013

Entertainment Weekly's "Best 100 Novels" List, 76-100

76. The Golden Notebook. I remembering being underwhelmed by this one. But hey, Doris Lessing, she probably deserves a spot. (But so does Iris Murdoch; where is she on here?)

77. Tom Jones. Have not read this, and probably should. It’s famous and stuff!

78. A House for Mr. Biswas. Ugh, I hated this book. And in my head I still call it “A House for Mr. Dishwash” because Ian named it that.  Maybe I just dislike post-colonialism? But I loved White Teeth! I’m so confused.

79. Bring Up the Bodies. I love that this is on here! I kind of preferred Wolf Hall, although Bring Up the Bodies was less annoying with its pronouns, but it is a great book. They should just have put both on here though, since the list lumps books together like the Rabbit series or His Dark Materials. Just put these two plus whatever the third one will be, because you know it will be fucking fantastic.

80. Swann’s Way. At the top of my to-read pile. 

81. Frankenstein. I’m going to say this is a good spot for it. After teaching it last semester, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s somewhat poorly paced and overlong.  I still appreciate that it is iconic, densely thematic, symbolic, and by a woman, so hooray to all of that!

82. Disgrace. Another ‘90s book that I haven’t heard of. You know who I have heard of? Henry fucking James. (Sorry, couldn’t resist. I’m sure this is a good book.)

83. The Stone Diaries. 1993! No idea!

84. Clockers. 1992! Not a clue!

85. Catch-22. Oh hell no, this is lower than A House for Mr. Dishwash? This is in my top 30 for sure. And on the top of my re-read list. And I love it.

86. A Home at the End of the World. Well I have heard of it, and I have meant to read Cunningham, but it was published in the ‘90s, so nope.

87. White Teeth. Hey, speak of the devil! Glad to see it on here. And it was published in 2000 so I was able to escape the 1990s moratorium when I was apparently too busy dressing in flannel and making out with boys in bands to read, and I actually read it.  Love this book. Happy to see it.

88. The Bonfire of the Vanities. I read this (in a hammock on the beach in Cancun, Kailuum 4eva), and it was fine. But I am abruptly reminded that All the King’s Men has not been on this list, and All the King’s Men is an amazing, amazing novel, and it stuck with me far longer than Bonfire even though I think I read them both around the same time. So you’ve got some ‘splaining to do, list!

89. Tristram Shandy. Have not read it, but want to!

90. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. This is the book I feel most guilty about not liking (yes, even more than Midnight’s Children) (I don’t feel guilty for not liking Wide Sargasso Sea, although I’m kind of surprised it isn’t here anyway.) I found the central Christ figure thing obviously symbolic and irritating.  I maybe should give it another chance, because this was one of the first books I read for my reading project, and I think I started in 2005.

91. The Leopard. The what now?

92. The Glass Bead Game. Have never even heard of this, even though Herman Hesse apparently won a Nobel Prize for it. Well I guess I’ll give it a try then!

93. Bastard Out of Carolina. If you’re going to put memoir on here, from the 1990s, there’s no excuse for picking this instead of Liars’ Club. I mean this book is good and obviously sad and powerful and all that, but Liars’ Club is exquisite. I should re-read that one too!

94. The Moonstone. Apparently one of the first detective novels ever written, in 1868. Well then, I will read this one too!

95. The Poisonwood Bible. Have not read.

96. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler. On my nightstand, thanks to Ian. On my “to-read” list. I think based on the first few pages I will really love it.

97. The Big Sleep. Fun, though I preferred The Maltese Falcon for noir and would probably swap them out.

98. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. I love that this book is on here. Absolutely, awesome pick.

99. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Ditto, this is a great comic novel and deserves to be here.

100. The Joy Luck Club. I haven’t read this in years, but I remember it being really good.

The final count is 30% women. It is slightly depressing to me that as I was going through this list, it seemed like a lot! But it does make sense given the historical canon and whatnot. Off the top of my head I would have added Flannery O’Connor, Daphne DuMaurier, Iris Murdoch, Joan Didion, and Shirley Jackson. I would have kicked out Ayn Rand in favor of Henry James, though.

Thanks for reading all my blatherings. I am done!