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!

Hello, world!

Heh, post number four with this title.

Soooo, here I am again. This time, sporting a new theme called Mystique. So far, I like it. My one complaint is that the main navigation under the header is a little off with the padding — it doesn’t look vertically centered, at least in Chrome. But it gives you the full content instead of just excerpts for the archives and that makes me very happy. And it gives you text in Myriad Pro (if you have it installed on your computer), and that makes me even happier.

Anyway, it’s been about six weeks since my last “daily” post. Since that time I have been busy indeed. And the thing is? Since I mostly telecommute? And I write emails all day long? I am writing every day. Writing lots. Just not here.

There is so much going on at work, on so many different levels. I am learning a ton about how to run a nonprofit — because that’s basically what I am doing even though my job title doesn’t (yet) reflect it — everything from budgeting to managing volunteers to event planning to fundraising…

Fundraising! I had no IDEA how amazing fundraising could be. My previous experience with fundraising consisted of paying the fifty bucks to opt out of having to sell pizza kits and cookie dough for the co-op preschool. Ugh. But when you are passionate about your mission, and your donor shares your passion, why, it often turns out that they are even happier to give than you are to receive. So I am obsessing now about “donor stewardship” — a phrase I’d never heard until just a few weeks ago. Very cool.

Other than that… well… there hasn’t been much other than that. I haven’t read any good books lately, except re-reads. Not that there’s anything wrong with re-reads — au contraire! — but honestly what is there to say about The Chronicles of Amber except that I like it enough to be reading it for the third or fourth time. Well, I guess I could say that what I like about Amber is that although it is fantasy it’s not high fantasy, and not a heroic quest. It has swords & sorcery but it’s also gritty and a teeny bit psychedelic and the writing style is a tad unusual. Best of all the fantasy world has (sort of) a rationale for its own existence. Authors who attempt to give an explanation for the existence of magic, however goofy, always get lots of bonus points in my book.

Ok, that’s it for today. I hope to be back tomorrow. We’ll see.

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.

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.

A guilty pleasure

Asleep: The Forgotten Epidemic that Remains One of Medicine’s Greatest Mysteries, by Molly Caldwell Crosby. This is a book about a truly hideous disease: epidemic encephalitis. It’s described in excruciating, gruesome detail. The symptoms, the desperate victims and their families, the heroic doctors working round the clock trying to discover its cause and cure… it’s grueling.

So why is this book so fun to read?

Well partly it satisfies that voyeuristic disease of the month schadenfreude thing. You know what I’m talking about, you know you do.

And partly also, it’s the writing style. It doesn’t read like nonfiction. It reads like a lurid bestseller. At times, it goes overboard. With sentences that begin: “It was almost as if…” Now, sloppy writing like almost as if may be acceptable in trashy fiction, but for investigative journalism, not so much. Ditto, the detailed descriptions of weather, cloud formations, dappled sunlight streaming in the windows of doctors’ offices eighty years ago. Not only is that not necessary to our understanding of the disease, but it seriously detracts from the author’s credibility. I mean, come on. Was that in the patient’s chart???

Yeah, this book is definitely in the Guilty Pleasure genre. Highly recommended if you like this sort of thing. Which I… um… do.

Smilla: first impressions

Well, four people voted on my poll and two of them voted for Smilla’s Sense of Snow, so that’s what I’m reading now. The poll was sort of silly, since I actually own all of these books and I can read them any time I want. But it was a fun excuse to try out the poll thing anyway.

Anyway, Smilla. I am on page 68. So far, so good. My BFF read this recently and when she was about halfway through she told me I had to read this book and I would love it and the main character actually reminded her of me. Hmmm. She is my BFF and all, and we do have pretty similar taste in books, but still. Bud at Older Eyes recently wrote a hilarious post about how he finds himself “repelled by other people’s enthusiasms” — and I have the same problem.

On the other hand, when someone you’ve known since age 10 tells you the main character reminds her of you, well, that’s not to be taken lightly.

So, Smilla. First of all, I hate her name. Try saying it out loud: “Smilla.” Hard not to giggle and feel like a jerk for being such a stupid provincial monoglot.

Other than that? She thinks math is beautiful (so do I!) and she craves solitude (so do I, oh so do I!). She’s a sad, tortured soul, though, and I hope I’m not too much like her.

The story is unfolding very nicely, with a perfectly-proportioned mix of present action and backstory. The prose, translated from Danish, is solid and evocative. The suspense is building. The setting is coming into sharp focus (Copenhagen, mostly, with detours into Greenland). It’s a cold, wintry book: a sharp contrast from my previous read, which was set in Haiti. Here’s a sample:

I feel the same way about solitude as some people feel about the blessing of the church. It’s the light of grace for me. I never close my door behind me without the awareness that I am carrying out an act of mercy toward myself. Cantor illustrated the concept of infinity for his students by telling them that there was once a man who had a hotel with an infinite number of rooms, and the hotel was fully occupied. Then one more guest arrived. So the owner moved the guest in room number 1 into room number 2; the guest in room number 2 into number 3; the guest in 3 into room 4, and so on. In that way room number 1 became vacant for the new guest.

What delights me about this story is that everyone involved, the guests and the owner, accept it as perfectly natural to carry out an infinite number of operations so that one guest can have peace and quiet in a room of his own. That is a great tribute to solitude.

Nice!