shiny things in messy little piles

Category: books (Page 3 of 10)

Pachinko — Min Jin Lee

(pub. 2017)
The game of pachinko is lit­tle like pin­ball and lit­tle like a slot machine. You don’t need to know much more about the game oth­er than to under­stand that the machines are manip­u­lat­ed in much the same way the slot machines are pro­grammed. To favor the house at all times but to allow enough win­ning to make the thing addic­tive. There is always hope. Con­tin­ue reading

Women & Power: A Manifesto — Mary Beard

(pub. 2017)

Two essays pub­lished in the Lon­don Review of Books in 2014 and 2017
In the Pub­lic Voice of Women, Beard shows the depth and breadth of the prac­tice of the silenc­ing of women. She begins with the silenc­ing of Pene­lope by her son Telemachus in the Odyssey. When Pene­lope enters the hall to ask that the singer to lit­er­al­ly change his tune, her young son Telemachus tells his moth­er to be qui­et and go back up stairs, Con­tin­ue reading

The Books Of January


Artemis — Anthony Weir

From the guy who brought you The Mar­t­ian, one of the finest sci-fi adven­tures of the last 20 years, Artemis is anoth­er adven­ture in space. This time on the moon with lots of sci­ence: lunar shel­ters and man­u­fac­tur­ing in zero G and more than most of us need to know about weld­ing. It’s com­pe­tent and amus­ing, but in the end not near­ly as sat­is­fy­ing as The Mar­t­ian was. In large part because I don’t buy the voice of the nar­ra­tor. She’s one dimen­sion­al, a stereo­typ­i­cal rebel­lious too smart, smart mouthed ear­ly 20-something char­ac­ter at odds with the Man. (Or in this case Woman.) At first I couldn’t fig­ure out what was both­er­ing me about her but then some­one point­ed out she has the sense of humor of a 12 year-old boy. Any woman that smart and that far out of on the edges of soci­ety should have a sharp­er, more sophis­ti­cat­ed sense of humor. The “ho ho I just made a sex joke” thing gets real­ly old, real­ly fast.
I hear that there were some very good short sto­ries released while this book was in the works. I’ll go find them.

* I don’t like girls who sound like they are just boys with dif­fer­ent plumbing *

Fresh Complaint — Jeffery Eugenides

Short sto­ries by the author of the won­der­ful Mid­dle­Sex. But these… well many of them don’t hold my atten­tion. In fact I had to go back and look at a sum­ma­ry of the sto­ries to be remind­ed of which ones were here. They are most­ly old­er sto­ries and the lack of mas­tery that Eugenides showed in Mid­dle­sex is evident.
Am I just being cranky or did these real­ly not meet expec­ta­tions? I am in ret­ro­spect unset­tled by the misog­y­ny of sev­er­al of the sto­ries. Noth­ing bla­tant just the feel­ing that the women in the sto­ries are not only not val­ued by the male char­ac­ters but also not val­ued by the author. And the last sto­ry in the bunch about a girl who “ruins” her­self and an inno­cent man to avoid an arranged mar­riage is just plain creepy because the girl sim­ply gets away with it and feels not a moment of remorse. I sup­pose you are meant to feel sym­pa­thy for the man ruined but all you feel a great deal of antipa­thy for the girl.

* this col­lec­tion should have stayed uncollected *

Charming Billy — Alice McDermott

The Charm­ing Bil­ly of the title is a dead guy whose wake is the set­ting for the reveal­ing tale of his life and loves. The tragedy of the “death” of his first love and his sub­se­quent mar­riage to a woman who devot­ed her life to him — drunk as he was. Like all McDer­mott the Irish Amer­i­cans and plain old Irish shine out. You even like Bil­ly who objec­tive­ly was more than a lit­tle bit of an ass­hole. Var­i­ous points of view add up to an entire story.

* more Irish-American loves, laugh­ter, and tragedy *


Where the Past Begins: A Writer’s Memoir — Amy Tan

A mem­oir, writer’s guide, and extend­ed philo­soph­i­cal mus­ing on what it means to be a daugh­ter. Through mem­o­ry and memen­tos Amy Tan exam­ines the truths and fic­tions of her child­hood and rela­tion­ship with her fam­i­ly, all with the under­stand­ing that these things are what makes her the writer that she is. Some episodes here are frankly ter­ri­fy­ing and many oth­ers will make you smile or chuck­le in recog­ni­tion. In many ways fam­i­lies are all alike. They cre­ate their sto­ries with the often unclear moti­va­tions of pol­ish­ing things up. But the unpol­ished ver­sion are always there under­neath direct­ing the fam­i­ly in its way. And that con­trast is what allows us to cre­ate our fic­tions and realities.

* a love­ly blend of mem­oir and mus­ings on the muse *

Jane Austen at Home — Lucy Worsley

I rarely read biog­ra­phy — pre­fer­ring to learn about a per­son though their cre­ative output.
Austen’s work’s pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with the need to find a home — in par­tic­u­lar to make a good mar­riage is the lens used here to relate her life. Austen’s grad­ual falling down from the bois­ter­ous, com­fort­able home of her youth to the cramped and stingy home of her lat­er life is shown in  oppo­si­tion of the hap­py end­ings that she gives her heroines.
Maybe I’m just not good at read­ing biog­ra­phy. But I remain uncon­vinced that I have learned much about Jane Austen but instead heard a sto­ry that her biog­ra­ph­er wants to tell. Though real­ly — can there be biog­ra­phy with­out the fin­ger­prints of the biographer?

* rec­om­mend­ed to for those with a taste for fem­i­nist indignation *

The Books of December

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 *

The Books of November

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 *

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