Cardboard, corn cobs, and crepe paper.
More or less. I’ve got a lot of books to catch up on. Here’s the first batch.
Beartown — Fredrik Backman (2017)
Dropped it after just a couple of chapters. I like hockey but not this much. And I don’t simpatico with the characters. The idea of an entire town’s future resting on the backs of a bunch of high schoolers is just to familiar. Small town football and the predictability of the thing…. Etc. Anyway I didn’t read it past about the 20% point.
* Just didn’t care what happened. *
Paris in the Present Tense — Mark Helprin (2017)
More academics behaving badly. And late life existential crises. There are some lively descriptions of music, a young woman, and Paris. The side kick is helpfully vapid but don’t actually know why I finished this one. It’s been highly praised but I found it predictable. And the ending well, it’s far too pat for me. Though the murder mystery from the murderers point of view is kind of amusing. The writing is nicely competent.
* I read a lot of stories about Paris lately. *
On Imagination — Mary Rufle (2017)
I’ve read this twice and will read it again. There is a small goat with a silver bell on a blue ribbon around it’s neck living in Mary Rufle’s attic. How she (he? Rufle never do says if her goat has a gender) got there is the matter of the essay. On creativity, the muse, and what imagination actually means.
Rufle says that asking a poet to describe imagination is like asking a fish to describe the sea. It is that in which the creative swim and it doesn’t ever stop being a part of the thought process if not the entire thought process. She goes on to characterize the relationship between the thinker and imagination in startling deep ways.
It did feel a bit predatory to pay 8 dollars for what amounts to a mid‐sized essay But I think that there is enough meat here to make me feel like I got value for the money.
* I might by the paper copy just to have the illustrations done up nicely. *
The Undoing Project: A Friendship that Changed Our Minds — Micheal Lewis — Narrated by: Dennis Boutsikaris (2016)
Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman invented the field of behavioral economics. This book, sadly, isn’t about that, it’s a biography of an intellectual collaboration that derails in spectacular fashion and frankly it’s a little bit creepy. I’d have rather heard a lot more about the things that they are researching than the gruesome details of their lopsided working relationship. When the end of a relationship between two researchers is characterized as a divorce… And while I appreciate the effect that the Holocaust, the German occupation of France, and their experiences in Israel after WWII had on the two men, I really didn’t need the in‐depth history lessons. If you’re looking for a book that will bring you up to speed on the various tricks and illusions that your mind brings to the decision‐making process (and that is what these two men were studying) look elsewhere.
* There must be a better resource than this. *
The Graveyard Book — Gaiman — Narrated by the Author (2008)
I love this story of Nobody Owens raised by his Guardian and looked after by the denizens of a cemetery after the (in true fairy tale fashion) grisly death of his family while he is a toddler.
* It magnificently satisfies the urge to be told a story. *
Lincoln in the Bardo — George Saunders (2017)
Also listened to Lincoln in the Bardo — having read it recently. The audio production includes dozens (hundreds?) of voices and is fun to listen to but if I hadn’t already read the book I would have been utterly lost. This one is best read in the format it’s designed for — the large pages of the hardback edition.
* so many voices, so much fun *
Several books in this issues point to a trend: writers seem to be losing the magic in their work. Is it age, too much writing, or the unbelievably cartoonish reality of the times? Whatever, the magic is gone from a lot of writing at the moment.
* Magical Realism can’t keep up with the zeitgeist. *
Dust: La Belle Sauvage — Philip Pullman (2017)
This is a (pr)equel (that’s Pullman’s term) to the His Dark Materials books. La Bell Sauvage describes how the young Lrya came to be at Jordan College Oxford. This book lacks the surprising grandeur of the Golden Compass but will that ever be topped? If you’re willing to set your sights little lower, then you’re in for enjoyable ride down the flooded, muddy, treacherous Thames river.
LBS is set up in a small village on the Thames above Oxford were we meet Malcolm a mild‐mannered, curious child who lives and works in his parents pub. Malcolm meets the infant Lrya while running errands for the sisters at the Godstow nunnery. Known for his curiosity and frankly a bit of a busybody, Malcolm is recruited by an Oxford scholar who is studying the aleithemeter and who works with a secret organization that opposes the Magesterium to use his friendship with the sisters to keep an eye on the coming and goings near Lyra. As things develop the Magestrium, in light of a mysterious prophecy, wants to take control of the infant Lyra.
Just as the Magersterium gets Lyra in to their clutches, a flood of possibly supernatural origin occurs and Malcolm and Alice (the pot washer at his parents pub) by happenstance find themselves racing down the flooded river in Malcom’s little boat (the Belle Sauvage of the title) with the baby Lyra. There’s thrills and spills and fairies and the scariest villain so far with a hideous maimed hyena daemon.
There were parts of the end of the book that left me literally breathless and made me seriously reconsider what I was reading at bedtime. There were images that I didn’t just need in my brain as I was drifting off to sleep. But I persisted as do Malcolm and Alice and in the end Lyra is safety delivered to Jordan College.
The main characters Malcolm and Alice are comfortable drawn children/teenagers. One thing that did confuse me a bit was the age gap between Malcolm and Alice. At the beginning of the book Malcolm is presented as 12(ish) and Alice as 16. That’s a big gap for kids. Given the age difference, some the later material borders on creepy as they interact.
In the end while it’s a nice book and had some lovely light moments and some real moments of terror. It’s very prequel and the ending is only satisfying because I know how things work out in later books.
* Lyra as MacGuffin *
Practical Magic — Alice Hoffman (2003)
What happens when your sister shows up with a dead body in the trunk of her boyfriend’s car? You help her bury it in the back yard of course. At least I’m pretty sure that’s what I would do. And that’s what Sally Owen does when her sister Gillam shows up with the very dead Jimmy.
The main characters are the Owens sisters Sally and Gillian. Daughters of the witchy Owens family, as children they were alternately shunned and tormented by their classmates. Once old enough they both run as far as they could from the legacy of their mothers, grandmother, and aunties. Sally and Gillian are a bit predictable as the good sister who settles down and strives for normalcy and the bad sister who runs around and has lousy taste in men. Though this predictability leads to the fun of watching solid, stable, desperately normal Sally completely lose her ability to control her world when a certain investigator from Arizona appears looking for Jimmy the backyard denizen.
The characters of the Sally’s two daughters are much more realistic than most portrayals of teenagers as secondary characters. This makes me happy. The ending isn’t as scary as I had hoped it would be.
* Do I remember the movie correctly? Wasn’t Jimmy a zombie in the movie? *
The Refrigerator Monologues — Catherine M. Valente (2017)
Valente takes Gail Simone’s 1999 exploration of the misogyny of the world of comic books and super heroes and builds her own world around it. Simone pointed out that the female characters in most (nearly all) of the world of comics and super heroes are mere plot points, facilitators for the story arc of the male super heroes. This book is a collection of self‐narrated stories of these “refrigerated” females. In Valente’s book each of the members of the Hell Hath No club tells her story. There is the plucky heroine who discovers (accidentally of course) the secret formula that transforms the hero from a everyman to a superman and then gets herself killed by the villain looking for the formula for his own uses. The girl whose child is killed so that the hero can shout “for the death of my son” every time he goes onto battle with the villain who killed his son. The girl is of course forgotten as soon as the child is ripped from her arms.
There are the female (semi)villains. A couple of girls who serve as keys — literally — they mostly let/get the real male villains out of some sort of confinement. And the super girl whose fabulous power out strips the guys but who lacks control, turns to evil, and must be destroyed for the greater good. The subtext being that, of course, a male would be able to control these powers but being a girl she can’t.
Each of the tellers of these stories is disguised version of a female character in the world of comics and superheroes. It can be a bit of a party game to name them all.
The stories have Valente’s usual facility with language and the point is well made.
(Though am I the only one who misses her less commercial forays — those brilliant mythopoeic constructions that made up Palimpsest and the Orphans Tales?)
* an Alexander DeWitt festschrift *
In the Midst of Winter — Isabel Allende (2017)
Every year on January 8th Allende starts a new book. One recent year she was a bit behind in coming up with an idea for a book and so she and her family brainstormed the ideas that would become this book. It’s got a bit of the feel of a TV show with individual episodes with the life stories of the characters hanging on the loose overarching plot line of the discovery of a dead woman in the trunk of a “borrowed” car during a NYC blizzard.
There are three characters — Richard Bowman, a stultified 60‐something professor, the vivacious older Chilean college instructor, Lucia Maraz, who is living in his basement apartment, and Evelyn Ortega an undocumented Guatemalan immigrant. When Bowman runs into the back of Ortega’s employer’s Lexus during a blizzard, the three characters are thrown together and a caper begins. Each character’s back story is effecting and provides a glimpse into the immigrant or ex‐pat experience from a very different perspective.
The Guatemalan girl — as effecting as her personal story is — is just the mute donkey that carries the two older protagonists towards each other as the story winds down to its inevitable conclusion the old folks fall in love at long last.
* you never know what you’re gong to find in the trunk *
Poetry Toolkit: The Essential Guide to Studying Poetry, 2nd Ed. — Rhian Willimas (2013)
One of the better poetry text books. This is all the stuff about poetry that you need to know to write that essay your instructor asked for. It includes a wider selection of poetry examples than many of its sort.
I still can’t manage the bullshit level necessary for “close reading” in the academic sense. Too much imputing intention to poets for every little thing that the reader can find in a poem. Don’t get me started on how many close readings straitjacket a poem into the reader’s pet set of literary theories.
Still. If you need a backup text to make the one you’ve been assigned this isn’t a bad place to start. It’s hella cheaper than Fussel and lacks some of his more objectionable attitudes.
* logically organized and not too painful *
Rag Pickers Guide to Poetry — eds: Eleanor Wilner and Maurice Manning (2013)
A collection of small essays and samples of poetry from folks who have taught at the Warren Wilson MFA program. Most of these essays consist of: here’s a poem or three and here’s what I think about my own work without proposing a larger idea. There are a handful of good essays here. Among the more worthwhile essays — Chris Forhan suggests removing words like because and although from your vocabulary and seeing where the more declarative and definitive take you. Rick Bardot has interesting ideas on stepping away from the visual. And finally there is this lovely quote from Heather McHugh which I am taking entirely out of context:
“The poem engages in a sort of network’s pleasure, making its cat’s cradle, using the oddest threads it could find, in the spool‐rooms or yammer and yarn.”
It is, I think, the truest thing I have read about poetry in quite a while.
* poets talking to themselves about themselves *
The Cuckoo — Peter Streckfus (2004)
One of the poets that I discovered via the Lousie Gluck introductions in her American Originality. These poems are chewy and thick and not at all sweet. There are strands drawn from several traditions, including Chinese legend and the Old West. All woven cunningly into narratives that almost make sense and leave you wondering how you can put in the few missing pieces.
* poems that invite your imagination in.
Innocents Abroad: Or the New Pilgrim’s Progress — Mark Twain, Narrated by: Grover Gardner (2011)
Classic Twain — long, detailed, and alternately broadly and slyly funny. Twain’s reports from a 6 month round trip voyage from New York to the Levant. It’s Twain. It’s a classic and many of the attitudes that Twain makes fun of still grate on the soul.
The narration is pitch perfect. The very slight drawl that one associates with Twain’s diction is here. And the thing is read “straight” which makes the satire all that much sharper. There is no winking at the listener on the part of the reader. At least no winks that aren’t in Twain’s original. Good job.
* really, real trip recounted in seriously unreal episodes *
Heartburn — Norah Ephron Narrator: Meryl Streep (2013)
An oldie that stands up well enough other that a couple of anachronisms. ($50 shuttle flights between NYC and DC.) It’s kind of light and has a lovely bitter bite to it. The ending is happily ambiguous. Meryl Streep is the perfect narrator. Her slight accent (from where I’ve never figured out) lends just the right upper class touch to the story. Streep can do bitchy like no one’s business and she applies that perfectly‐ just a hint in the story of marriage gone comically wrong. Nothing deep here. Just the banal things of marriage and betrayal and cooking. I like having Meryl Streep read to me and I wondered what else she’s read. Answer: a lot of children’s book including Beatrix Potter.
* the recipes aren’t all that, but who reads fiction for the recipes? *
Born A Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood — Trevor Noah narrated by the author (2016)
The stories are effecting and sometimes very funny. The author is after all a comedian. There is no self‐pity and no self‐aggrandizement. Just the honest stories of one boy/young man growing up in a particular historic time and place. I laughed a lot in that knowing way that lives somewhere between funny and poignant.
Aside from all the rest, (and you can look up any number of deservedly glowing reviews elsewhere) Noah’s take on tribalism and how tribe, race, and language are used to manipulate the emotions and actions of people who is rooted in the workings a complex society formed around many literal tribes. This book gave me much to think about with regards to our own country and it’s issues of race and class.
* maybe I should start watching late night television *
PS from Paris — Marc Levy (2017)
As close to a pure romance as I am likely to read. Two disaffected characters: a writer hiding from his past success and an actress hiding from her current marital problems. The twist is amusing — the writer, an American living in Paris — is popular mostly in Korea, for what seem like inexplicable reasons. But there in lies the secret to that character’s path to redemption. Remember this is a romance and the guy needs to have an epiphany to make him worthy of the female character. Who is kind of not really worth being worthy of in my opinion. She’s just suffering from fame and all that. Kind of cute but the trajectory is inevitabl
* beach read *
Lincoln in the Bardo — George Saunders (2017)
A tale told entirely in dialogue among dead people and excerpts from both true and fictional accounts of the presidency of Abraham Lincoln.
You need to know The Bardo is before the book makes sense. In Tibetan lore it is the intermediate state between one life and the next. In which all sorts of odd things to happen to the “self” including illusions and delusions.
It seems that you can remain tied to the earth is you are willing to believe that you are “Sick” rather than dead. The characters in this particular grave yard are grotesque parodies of the earthly selves with physical characteristics that hint at their fulfilled and unfulfilled secret desires while alive.
Abraham Lincoln comes to visit his son Willie’s grave and seeks solace in the young beautiful corpse. Young Willie is trapped in the Bardo by his yearning to comfort his father. It’s kind of gruesome but made completely understandable. and then is
The format of the novel is experimental. There are two methods of moving the story forward: the dialog and internal dialog of the characters in the Bardo, and excerpts both actual and fictional from the accounts of the Lincoln’s presidency. Many of these accounts disagree with one another but serve to give a background against which you can measure the state of the President’s mind. And it’s his mind that in the end is the crucial turning point of the book. His hesitancy and grief become a beacon to the folks in the Bardo and they attempt to persuade him first to let his son go and then … is this spoiling the book? To say that the black residents of the black cemetery — next to the fenced white cemetery finally get their look in and influence Lincoln’s resolve re the Civil War and it’s causes and needed outcomes.
I’m not sure where this book’s reputation for difficultly is coming from. It’s complex and multilayered for sure. But difficult? No. Other than requiring that you actually pay attention to who is speaking and the motivations and past sins of the speakers. I suppose a lot of the difficulty comes from the nontraditional format. Dialog along side the excerpts defies traditions. It works just fine is you read it like play with the reviews interspersed. Some people are comparing this to Joyce’s Ulysses. It’s just not that difficult. Maybe I am “special” in that it only took me 10 or 15 pages to “get” the way the book is written.
* oh, just read it *
Trajectory — Richard Russo (2017)
Short stories by one of my favorite creators of characters. The middle story is a longish novella that I couldn’t manage to make my way through. Retired professor makes a mess of a class and his relationship with a “special” student and then goes to Italy where his brother does a bunco on him. That’s as far as I got. No idea what was actually up with the greasy brother didn’t care.
The other stories are classic Russo and worth your time. I especially liked Milton and Marcus — Hollywood follies are always good for laying open character. Though Russo is better at longer lengths were he can stretch out and take his time building his characters.
* waiting for the next novel *
Life A User’s Manual — George Perec (1978)
I’m lost. Utterly and all the time. Yet, I’m still enjoying reading this tale of a french apartment building and it’s occupants. It’s immense and is taking quite a while to get through. But I love how the pieces fit together like the jigsaw puzzles that are at the heart of one man’s story. Room by room and apartment by apartment there are lives and loves and a certain amount enmity. Lincoln in the Bardo has been compared to Joyce’s Ulysses. This is a much better match for that comparison. Both Perec and Joyce write circuitous novels that will leave you with many puzzles to solve.
* a book to be read more than once? *
The Moth Presents All These Wonders — Catherine Burns (2017)
A known franchise. The Moth series of events presents quick takes from people’s lives on themes such as “Pulling Focus: Tales of Insight” and “Into the Wild: Stories of Strange Lands” broadly interpreted. These are the small plates of the essay world and can be relied on for effective and effecting pieces.
* bite sized wonders *
American Originality Essays on Poetry — Louise Gluck (2017)
A handful of essays on various poets and other writers in the first two sections.(Including an essay on Buddenbrooks that nearly bored me to tears.) A section of 10 of her introductions to books in the Yale Younger Poets Series and then a short section that includes essays on the writing of poetry. For me this is mostly a book that illustrates how the academy talks about poetry. Useful in that way but not one that excites the poet in me. I did discover a couple of new to me poets through her introductions. Much here appeared in the Three Penny Review previously. TPR is one of those things. I ought to enjoy it when I read it, I rarely do.
* too much navel gazing American exceptionalism *
Fish Whistle — Daniel Pinkwater (1990)
Tiny little humorous essays that Pinkwater did for NPR’s “All Things Considered.” There are gems here and as in any collection of this many things a few clunkers. Sized just right for 10 minute reads. I was looking for a particular essay on reading and writing that had been recommended to me but it wasn’t in here. Still looking for Pinkwater on writing.
* NPR humor is strange *
All I Did Was Ask: Conversations with Writers, Actors, Musicians, and Artists — Terry Gross (2005)
Terry Gross’s interviews on Fresh Air are well‐known. These are mostly from the 90s and they do feel a bit dated. Who cares about Nicholas Cage anymore? Her infamous dust‐up with Gene Simmons is included. It only confirms my opinion that the fellow is three bricks shy of a wall and just about a whole wall shy of humanity. Other subjects including several of the meritorious dead. Among them Johnny Cash and Maurice Sendak (that one is particularly enlightening) as well as living popular culture icons. My only real wish is that a couple of the interviews had gone on longer than they did. Often the topic gets changed just as an interesting insight is on the horizon. It’s also enlightening to see exactly how short a half hour interview is on the page.
* I’ll be looking for more up to date material *
Heavy on the audio books this month. A lot of listening while knitting or other domestic activities happening.
Lucy and Edgar — Victor Lodato (2017)
I finished this out of a dogged sense of loyalty to the old woman who dies at the beginning of the book. The characters are stereotypes without any sort of depth to make them anyone you care about. In fact other than Edgar, the child at the center of the book, I could have done without any of the others and their predictable behaviors.
But… like I said dogged loyalty — which is in part what this book is about. There comes a point at about 75% of the way through the book where there looks to be only two possible outcomes, and neither one of them is satisfying. I guess I also held on to see if the writer could pull off something moving that wasn’t easy or manipulative. And I think he did — mostly. It’s one of the obvious possibilities from the middle of the book but it’s done in a way that keeps you from wanting to the throw the author off of the train. (And I can’t be any more specific about it than that or I’d spoil the book for you.)
Still, I don’t understand the huge amount of praise that has been lavished on the book by critics and reviewers. It’s just not that interesting or original.
* one more lousy mother and damaged son *
Geek Love — Katherine Dunn (2002)
Weird, but I think that was the point. The Binewski tribe is tragic in all kinds of ways and a perfect object lesson about the dangers of family. While the characters here are freaks on the outside they point out to us the fact that we are, most of us anyway, freaks on the inside and our world is warped around that freakishness. I don’t like to think of people being unselfconsciously malicious; though I see the evidence of just that sort of behavior every day. In this book the havoc wreaked by one selfish ego‐maniac (Arturo) is stunningly wide and entirely believable. In fact one of the things that I liked most about this book was how believable the most outrageous characters and situations were.
The writing is lovely enough to keep you involved in the book when the plot and characters get beyond your comfort zone.
* humanity with all its gross, ickiness on the outside *
The Sleep Walker Guide to Dancing — Mira Jacob (2014)
I didn’t get very far in this, I think because it seemed too familiar and I was looking for novelty.
* I might pick it up again later. *
Books Listened to:
The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender — Leslye Walton (2014)
Narrator: Cassandra Campbell
I read this one a couple of years ago. It’s a lovely story with amusing and intriguing characters. The story begins with Ava’s grandmother’s tragic, ghost‐filled family history and continues on to describe a line of women with what might be charitably considered to have terrible luck in love, leading up the birth of the twins Ava and Henry. Ava is born with wings and Henry with what we might assume is autism but by the end of the book seems more like a prophetic gift of muteness. As Ava grows her wings come to define and circumscribe her place in the world. The tragic ending you expect is averted, but only narrowly, and only after a good deal of damage is done. But hope is a thing with wings. And so is Ava.
The writing is clear and glistens with the subtle rain washed hues of the Seattle climate.
The narration is quite good. Worth a listen if you haven’t read the book already.
* loved it again *
The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. — Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland (2017)
Narration: Cast of dozens :)
The new Stephenson. The title character — one Melisande Stokes an underpaid under appreciated lecturer in linguistics — finds herself involved with a mysterious government agency and the possibility of magic in the mundane world. There follows the usual byzantine plot and riotous complication of details that I love in a Stephenson book.
One of the few writers that I automatically listen to rather than read. I think that his in‐depth asides work best if you are forced to give them equal weight with the narrative and that is most easily done when the woods are read to you.
DODO is good clean — slightly fantastic fun. A change from Stephenson’s most recent work SevenEves which was anything but light‐hearted. The collaboration is seamless, with no jumps from one writer to the other.
Narration is good, though the accents are a bit over done.
(Oddly there is a painting called Melisande by a woman named Mariane Stokes — this cannot be a coincidence, not in a Stephenson book.)
* there are cat’s Schrodinger and otherwise *
Middlesex — Jeffery Eugenides (2002)
Narration: Kristoffer Tabori
Briefly reviewed in September 2015. I found the book just as enjoyable the second time around. Perhaps more so because I have become more aware of the conversations surrounding sex, gender, and identity and appreciated the light touch that the author uses in insisting that we look more closely at our assumptions.
Narration is good, and the voice used is just ambiguous enough to make the fluid gender of Cal(liope) audible.
* the sins of the old country come home to roost in middle class Detroit *