Summer reading

In brief…

Fidelity, by Wendell Berry. This might just be my favorite author of all time. In case you are not familiar with Berry’s fiction, he writes a lot about the rural town (or as he calls it, the “membership”) of Port William Kentucky, in stories that take place during the early part of the 20th century. The stories are mainly about farmers and how they take care of each other and the land, and part of the fun is the way that the characters recur: a small child in one story may reappear as an old man on his deathbed in the next. He believes land conservation is a Christian duty, and Berry practices what he preaches — he is a working farmer and political activist himself, at age 77. There is no way I can describe how lovely and beautiful his writing is. You just have to read it yourself.

Steal Across the Sky, by Nancy Kress. So, aliens land on the moon. They explain that ten thousand years ago they committed a terrible crime against humanity and now they wish to atone for their crime. The crime, it turns out, was that they performed experiments on humans by removing the gene for a sixth sense that allowed us to communicate with the recently dead. In other words, they deprived us of the uncontestable certainty that there is life after death. All this we learn in the first third of the book. Pretty amazing premise, no? Well the reason I’m giving you this great big spoiler is because unfortunately the rest of the book did not deliver. There is SO MUCH you could do with a premise like that, but the story just devolved into an action thriller with totally stock characters and predictable twists. Very disappointing.

Oreo, by Fran Ross. This one, wow, where do I begin? Don’t remember how I stumbled across it, but… whoa! This thing is a total romp. Satire in the grandest tradition, with racism as its subject. The main character, Oreo, is a biracial girl who at age 14 goes off to NYC in search of her white Jewish father, Sam Schwartz. Of course there are many Sam Schwartzes in the phone book, and her quest turns into quite an adventure. This girl possesses blazing intelligence, brilliant wit, and the ability to get herself into and out of the most incredible situations. If you loved The Sot-weed Factor, or Don Quixote, or are a fan of George Saunders, you should totally read this.

The Girl Who Played With Fire, by Stieg Larsson. I came kinda late to this party. Everyone and their sister has read and adored the whole series. I actually skipped book one and started off with this. Did not expect to love it, just ’cause I’m a snob and if everyone and their sister love it there must be something wrong with it, right? Well ha ha, I loved it just as much as everyone else! Like all great thrillers there were a few unbelievable plot twists, a few situations carried to unrealistic extremes, but what the heck. If we wanted realism we wouldn’t read thrillers, right? And I should add that even though I was coming in in the middle of the series, I didn’t feel the least bit confused. Of course I don’t know what I might have been missing, but it seemed to me that this worked just fine as a stand-alone novel.

Hummingbirds, by Joshua Gaylord. Prep school book. Snatched in a hurry, randomly, off the library book shelf. I almost hated it. But somehow I ended up loving it. Basic plot is: teachers and students at a fancy expensive private school for girls in NYC. Both sides lead complicated, intertwined lives. There is romance. And awkward social situations. And vandalism. And department politics. And stuff like that. If that’s not your bag, you still might give it a try. It’s not my bag either, but I did like it.

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The Fifth Child, by Doris Lessing

Whoa! This was a freaky book. I can’t even remember the last time I read a book in a single day, but that’s what I did with this one yesterday. It went so fast that I never even had a chance to post it in my sidebar.

The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing is the story of a young couple, Harriet and David, who fall in love, get married, and buy a gigantic old house which they plan to fill up with babies as fast as they can. And they do: four children in six years. And despite financial worries, they are quite happy & content.

When Harriet finds herself pregnant with number five, though, things become difficult. This pregnancy is not like the others; even in the first trimester the baby kicks so hard that she is in constant pain. And when Ben is born, he is difficult to love. He looks like a troll or goblin, he has cold beady watchful eyes, he shows no love or affection ever, and he is preternaturally strong. As he grows up he becomes increasingly violent and difficult to care for. His behavior has a negative effect on the entire family. The older kids spend as little time at home as they can, Harriet and David’s marriage suffers, and their extended family becomes estranged. Various strategies are attempted but there is no real resolution, no happy ending.

This is a book that could totally overwhelm you, especially if you have kids. However, it is actually quite readable, and the reason why (I think) is because it feels more like an allegory than a novel. It is quite short and there are no subplots. The characters are not quite real. What this is about is the dangers of complacency. Because before Ben comes along, Harriet & David are quite smug. Their parents don’t approve of their large family and their fiscal irresponsibility, but Harriet and David are happily united in their self-congratulations. It’s obvious from the very beginning that they need to be shaken up — that they are headed for a fall. And although elements of Ben’s character seem based on real-life diagnoses (autism, hyperactivity, sociopathy), in fact he is more like a fairy-tale changeling.

My favorite part about this book, actually, was the house. I love it when the setting plays an important role in the plot, and I particularly love it when that setting is a big old house.

Corrupting Dr. Nice

Well this is a pretty interesting book I’m reading. Corrupting Dr. Nice, by John Kessel. This one comes from the time travel satire loony romance department. I imagine if Douglas Adams and Philip K. Dick wrote a book together it would turn out something like this. I have a feeling if you don’t like Adams or Dick you might not like this either. I myself am not a big fan of Douglas Adams; his books are just a tad too determinedly quirky for me. But I do like Philip K. Dick so all the stuff about the paradoxes of time travel & the nature of reality are grist for my mill even as I slide over the “quirky” parts.

Reading: The Enchantress of Florence

I’m about a quarter of the way into this book and whoa! It is absolutely fantastic. Oh that Salman Rushdie! *swoon* He is truly one of my all-time favorite writers.

I can’t really “review” this book since I’m only on page 91 but I can tell you about the setting. The Enchantress of Florence is a historical novel that takes place during the mid sixteenth century, mainly in India. At that time India was part of the Moghul Empire which originated with Genghis Khan. The empire was huge, covering much of Asia including the Silk Road.

The novel is set during the reign of the emperor Akbar the Great, who was quite a fascinating character. I know this because I looked him up on Wikipedia to find out how much of Rushdie’s portrayal of him is fact and how much is, well, Rushdie. From what I can tell he was nearly as fascinating in real life as he is in the book. He was quite the puissant warrior, but also a sensitive soul who grieved whenever he had to kill somebody. He was charismatic and philosophical: a whole religion sprang up around him. He was an enlightened ruler: he married off the daughters of rival chiefs to form alliances instead of killing them, he didn’t interfere with local religions, etc. Here is a taste:

The country was at peace at last, but the king’s spirit was never calm. The king had just returned from his last campaign, he had slapped down the upstart in Surat, but through the long days of marching and war his mind wrestled with philosophical and linguistic conundrums as much as military ones. The emperor Abul-Fath Jalaluddin Muhammad, king of kings, known since his childhood as Akbar, meaning “the great,” and latterly, in spite of the tautology of it, as Akbar the Great, the great great one, great in his greatness, doubly great, so great that the repetition in his title was not only appropriate but necessary in order to express the gloriousness of his glory — the Grand Mughal, the dusty, battle-weary, victorious, pensive, incipiently overweight, disenchanted, mustachioed, poetic, oversexed, and absolute emperor, who seemed altogether too magnificent, too world-encompassing, and, in sum, too much to be a single human personage — this all-engulfing flood of a ruler, this swallower of worlds, this many-headed monster who referred to himself in the first person plural — had begun to meditate, during his long, tedious journey home, on which he was accompanied by the heads of his defeated enemies bobbing in their sealed earthen pickle-jars, about the disturbing possibilities of the first person singular — the “I.”

Akbar obsesses over the possibility of referring to himself as I instead of We quite a bit. He actually tries it out on his favorite wife (who happens to be imaginary, yes I said imaginary), but finds it impossible. I don’t know why but I just find that so touching.

There’s a whole plot going on besides, and the main instigator is a young man who has come from Europe to Akbar’s court. I will save this character for another post after I’ve read more, but in the meantime I’ll just tell you that this guy is one of the grandest fictional rogues I’ve ever met. Oh heck, one more quote:

Near the end of his long reign, many years after the time of the charlatan Mogor dell’Amore had passed, the aging emperor nostalgically remembered that strange affair . . . . When the emperor learned the truth he understood all over again how daring a sorcerer he had encountered on that long-ago morning after the dream of the crow. By then, however, the knowledge was of no use to him, except to remind him of what he should never have forgotten, that witchcraft requires no potions, familiar spirits, or magic wands. Language upon a silvered tongue affords enchantment enough.

Oh yes it does!

My favorite class in college

Ok, another prompt. Because it’s only 9:30 p.m. but I’m totally wiped out. So, what was my favorite class in college? I had quite a few good classes, actually, but if you looked at all closely at my list of 1001 books it might not surprise you that my number one favorite was a course called “The Russian Novel.”

I wasn’t an English major in college even though I love to not only read but also to analyze & discuss books. But those college English classes were just not my thing. This was the mid eighties when all anyone could talk about in English classes was “unpacking the text” and “deconstructing” stuff that in my opinion had no relevance at all to the actual story. (Do English majors still unpack the text, or has that gone out of fashion now?)

So in The Russian Novel, which was not an English class at all but taught by a professor from the Russian department, we actually read the books and talked about them instead of unpacking or deconstructing them. And even better, the prof was amazing at giving us the historical, cultural, and political context, which seemed to be totally lacking in the English classes. I seem to have an affinity for Russian novels anyway; they feel familiar to me in a way that I can’t really explain. So I loved them to begin with, and then it was such a relief to have actual honest discussion. And I also think being aware of the larger context in which the books were written is so important. Any book I ever read, I always like to know the copyright date and preferably the author’s birthdate as well. Adds a ton to my appreciation of the book.

A love poem

Drawing a blank today. Haven’t been sleeping well lately (darn kitties!) and I’m fuzzy and groggy and I have a canker sore on the inside of my lower lip. Last resort? Well, there’s always the wordpress prompts

Let’s see. Vanilla versus chocolate? Um, no. A photo of my house? Hell, no! Oh wait, here’s one: “if you could bring one fictional character to life for a day…” Ha, that’s a no-brainer. Easy peasy.

Stephen Maturin.

Oh my dear Stephen. I would give anything to bring you to life right now so that you could learn about germ theory and evolution and antibiotics. So that you could play Brahms’s chamber music and a million other gorgeous pieces that were written after your time. I want you to know what we now know about addiction and autism. I want to meet your pale reptilian gaze. I want to tell you that I agree completely that “question and answer is a most illiberal form of conversation.” I want to hear you speak Catalan. I want to hear you speak Irish. I want to hear you speak Latin. I want to see your Breguet watch with the repeater, whatever that is. I want you to tell me the dog watch pun and I promise to laugh even though I’ve heard it, and told it myself, dozens of times over.

My friends, if you haven’t yet discovered the amazing world of Patrick O’Brian please go get yourself a copy of Master & Commander and dive in, for all love.

Smoke and Mirrors

This is another book I read while we were on vacation: Smoke and Mirrors, a collection of short stories by Neil Gaiman.

You’ve probably read something or other by Neil Gaiman, haven’t you? Pretty much everyone has. I myself have read The Graveyard Book, Coraline, and American Gods. And now this. And I have to say, I’m starting to think Gaiman is a one-trick pony. Nothing wrong with that, though, if you like the one trick. Gaiman’s one trick is crazy-beautiful prose and fairy tale/mythical elements turned upside down. I like those things. I could happily read one of his books every 5 years. But a whole collection of his short stories over a two-day period is too much. This would be better kept in the bathroom, if you know what I mean.

That said, my favorite story was “Murder Mysteries.” It features actual Old Testament angels, you know, with names ending in el. I am a sucker for Old Testament angels. Cf. Many Waters by Madeleine L’Engle. And the setting is hard-boiled noir, for which I am also a sucker. Cf. anything by James M. Cain.

There were some other cool stories in this collection too. There is also some poetry that will stick with you for a while. There’s also some extremely explicit sex, so if you wanted to read a book with your kid this might not be the best choice.

So… yeah. Here’s my final recommendation: if you’re a Neil Gaiman fan, you’ll like it. If you don’t know whether or not you’re a Neil Gaiman fan, it’s definitely worth trying. If you already know that you don’t like Neil Gaiman, skip this one.

Eight more rules for writing fiction

Yesterday Kim at Fast Approaching Middle Age posted a link to this article in The Guardian, “Ten rules for writing fiction.” It begins with Elmore Leonard’s ten rules (sample: “Don’t go into great detail describing places and things, unless you’re ­Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language.”) and follows up with ten rules apiece from a number of other writers including Margaret Atwood. Some funny, some profound, all worth reading.

And worth adding to. True, I’ve never written a novel, but I’ve read a few, so I think that qualifies me to dictate how others should write them… right? Ok, here ya go:

1. Enough with the lengthy acknowledgements. Why do so many mediocre and first-time novelists out there feel compelled to thank everyone who had any contact with them whatsoever while they were writing their novel? If you did serious research during the course of your writing, and some scientist or archivist or whatever took a lot of time out of their busy day and did stuff for you which you could never have done on your own, okay, it is proper to thank them. But your writer’s group? Your book club? Your sister-in-law? Acknowledging them for their “guidance” or “support” or whatever smacks of false modesty.

2. If you need to provide a “Cast of Characters” or a “Glossary” there is something wrong with your writing. It should be obvious from the context, or the narrative voice, who is who. Dickens’ novels have casts of thousands and it’s no trouble at all to keep them straight. Don’t force me to keep flipping back and forth just so I know who’s talking.

3. Don’t begin the first sentence of the first chapter with “It was” unless you are writing A Tale of Two Cities.

4. Don’t try to create suspense by giving clues to the protagonist and withholding them from the reader. I’m thinking of Dan Brown here. If I recall correctly there was a scene in The Da Vinci Code where the main character gets a letter, opens it, reads it, obtains clues from it, and the content of the letter isn’t shared with the reader. That is the cheapest sort of manipulation. Very uncool. If you’re going to write a mystery at least make it potentially solveable by the reader.

5. Please leave spoilers off the cover. Surely this needs no explanation.

6. Avoid large blocks of italics. I think I’ve already made my feelings on that topic clear. In fact, unless you are Ray Bradbury, try not to use italics at all. (I wish I was better at following that rule myself.)

7. If a novel is based on true events let us know up front. I agree with Elmore Leonard on the subject of prologues (“Avoid prologues: they can be ­annoying, especially a prologue ­following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in non-fiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want.”) However, knowing that a story is based on historical events can put a whole different spin on the book and I always feel very frustrated and annoyed if I don’t find out it was “true” until the end. This applies to movies also.

8. Publishers, please give credit to the book designer and include a Note on the Type. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, just pick up any book published by Alfred A. Knopf. You’ll find the Note on the Type either by itself on the very last page or under the copyright info along with the designer’s name. Dear old Alfred A. Knopf!

Man, this post was fun to write! What rules would you add?

Half Broke Horses: awesome!

Half Broke Horses is another book I read on vacation. This is one my mom brought, not something I planned on reading. But there it was, so I picked it up, and man! It was soooooo good!

Half Broke Horses is Jeannette Walls’ biography of her grandmother, Lily Casey Smith (1901–1968). Well, it’s sort of a biography. It’s subtitled “A True-life Novel” and it is told in the first person from Lily’s point of view. Can I just say, I am totally in favor of that. Who wouldn’t rather read a biography in novel form? Although, come to think of it, this book would not have been nearly as good if it was fiction. True grit is awesome. Made-up grit is nothing.

So. Lily Casey Smith was born in a dirt dugout in West Texas. She was breaking horses by the age of five. Think about that. My kids couldn’t even ride two-wheelers when they were five! In the course of her eventful life she ran cattle ranches, flew planes, raised kids, taught in one-room school houses, wore dentures, fought discrimination, loved, laughed, grieved. Indomitable is one of those over-used words, but it really does describe her. And all this, I might add, written in Jeannette Walls’ beautifully spare, clear-eyed, unsentimental prose.

There’s another dimension to this book, which is that Jeannette Walls is also the author of The Glass Castle, a memoir of growing up in dire poverty with kooky, neglectful but loving parents. If you’ve already read that, you’ll be even more fascinated to read Half Broke Horses. Lily, of course, is the mother of Jeannette’s own mother, who is quite a character herself.

This book was a great read. It totally sucked me in. I think I finished it the same day I started it. It oughta be on the 1,001 books list.

A lukewarm book review

So we were out of town recently, lolling about in the Caribbean while the kids had a week off from school. (Before you get any ideas, no, this vacation was paid for entirely by grandma and grandpa, bless their generous hearts.) While there I read a ton! It felt so good! I bet I read a thousand pages over the course of the week. Amazing what no internet will do for ya.

One of the books I read was Walk Two Moons, by Sharon Creech. This is a kids’ book, a Newbery winner in fact. I don’t tend to read too much kidlit or even YA, but I made an exception in this case because. Because… man, there is no way I can tell you this without feeling like such a braggart! Ok, here goes. Because my 12yo daughter took it upon herself to ask her English teacher if she could borrow two copies of the book to take on vacation so that we could read it simultaneously and discuss it. Am I the luckiest mom in the world or what???

Well don’t tell my daughter, but I thought the book was not that great. It’s a pretty typical kids’ coming of age story. The main character learns to accept that she is motherless; she gets a wider perspective on life, the universe and everything; there are eccentric but loveable old people; and there is a mystery to be solved. It’s basically a dumbed-down version of To Kill a Mockingbird without the race issues, with less symbolism and more beating you over the head with the theme to make absolutely sure you get it. I’m sure it’s a great choice for a sixth grade English class, and I loved talking about it with Elle, but I wouldn’t recommend it unless you have a young bookworm to share it with.