Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Kelly's Book 2.13: 13, rue Thérèse

Dear Jenny,

I know it's not quite February, but I'm dying to dive into this book, so I'm going to. I bought it at a recommendation from my mom's friend Susan, an avid reader whose opinions on books I respect.

I bought it at my favorite bookstore in the world (Powell's, of course). I knew I had to buy the pBook because there are a bunch of artifacts depicted throughout and the eBook still can't quite handle that -- at least, not on the Kindle devices that I currently use.

It looks like a sweet little... romance? Mystery? I'm not sure -- there may be some magic going on. Honestly, I don't know much about it, but I like this cover and you know I'm always a sucker for a book that incorporates photos of artifacts. Heh.

One thing that's interesting so far is the name of this book:  In English, "13" is pronounced "thirteen" but in French, it is pronounced "treize," which sounds very similar to "Thérèse." So the name of the book is far more lyrical in French than in English. 


PS -- Oh, crap! I just realized I have not perused a TBP book this month! First month in, and I'm already almost behind. Ack! Ok. I'll do that tonight and dive into this one tomorrow.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Tournament of Books Update


We are both having good luck with Tournament reading so far. Even though I know it's not your intention, I like that you're going to be able to follow more of the Tournament with me this year!

I've read 9 of the 18 so far, and have abandoned one. Let me give you an update.

Gone Girl
The truth is, I read this quickly and enjoyed it. My initial response was just to think it was a fun page-turner, and perhaps a bit too manipulative. But this one has really stuck with me in ways I didn't expect. I think of it often, trying to figure out it's hold over me.

The Fault in Our Stars
I can't think of another book that has dealt so movingly and maturely with death. In particular, the book's exploration of what it feels like to know you're time is up when you're not yet done living.

Frankly, a disappointment. It starts with a great premise: a young family participates in the building of a commune. But once the main character, a young man named Bit leaves the commune behind, most of the energy in the book just seeemed to disappear. Also, this book traffics in the annoying no-quotation-mark thing which I hate.

Where'd You Go, Bernadette?
A book about hating Seattle? I literally could not be a more perfect audience for this book. It helps that it's fantastically funny. 

Definitely "the find" of this year's TOB for me. I loved this book. The author makes himself a character, and this guy does a lot of hand-wringing over how characters get created and the way that we turn history into fiction. I bought this for my Kindle, and I love it so much I'll probably buy a hard copy.

The Yellow Birds
A thoughtful and meditative look at a the life of a soldier home from Iraq. I think it faltered at the end, but it had it's moments of reading pleasure. Honestly, though, it seems like a lightweight compared to other war novels I've read in the past few years. Comparing it to Matterhorn and The Things They Carried, might not be fair, but there you go.

The Round House
The most interesting thing about this book for me was how it stepped away from Louise Erdrich's usual style of having multiple narrators. I enjoyed it, but the further I get from it, the more it felt like the characters were just a vehicle for teaching "the lesson" about tribal injustice. Not my favorite of hers, but that could also be because of the lack of quotation marks.

The Orphan Master's Son
Just finished it today and liked it. I thought it was well-plotted and well-paced. I won't spoil it since I know you're listening to it, but I found the way the author delineates between the two halves of the book to be interesting. I'll be curious to hear how the handle this with the audiobook. This book has the potential to send me on some sort of weird North Korea kick, because I found that to be fascinating.

Building Stories
I was wary of this one. I'm such a fast reader, but you really have to slow down and be careful with a graphic novel. That's a good thing for someone like me. I found the stories here to be very moving. I'm fascinated by the things the author was doing with time. In one section, there's a view of a staircase, and you see a young girl age to an old woman right there in one page. I thought it was stunning. My only advice is to read the Brandford the Bee sections in the middle. I ended with the Brandford book and it was a mistake. In the middle, it would have felt like a pleasant interlude. At the end, it felt disappointing and a bit strange.


This book sucks. It's unreadable. I literally got about halfway through and just thought, This isn't worth it. I couldn't even begin to tell you what it was about. It's future, dystopian New Jersey? There's some time-jumping back and forth. One of the characters is a bus driver? I mean, there was something in Swamplandia! worth hating, but this book I just feel sorry for. It's like an ugly girl who comes to school wearing ugly clothes. You want to reach out and help, but it's just easier to look away in pity.

Currently Reading
I've got this one on my *awesome* Kindle paperwhite. Every night, Darius and I lay down to read and I like to read on my Kindle in case he wants to turn out the lights, but I still want to read a little more. It's sweet. Another book about the Iraq war. So far I like it, but we'll see how it goes.

Still To Go
Of the remaining titles, 2 are so far down on my list I don't know that I'll ever get to them unless they advance past the first round. That's Song of Achilles and How Should a Person Be?  I think it's because people I know and like have both disliked them. Easy to push them down to the bottom of the list.

That leaves Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, Dear Life, Bring up the Bodies, Beautiful Ruins, May We Be Forgiven. I either own them or have them from the library. I'm thinking a non-fiction palate cleanser from the TBR pile before I tackle more novels.

Overall, not a bad start, right?

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Completed: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

Dear Jenny,

Well, as I have been whining about for the past 3 weeks... this book was looong. And, apparently, I cannot stop reading a book. I guess I kept at it because I kept wanting it to "get good." And things did get going in the last 100 pages. But... that's a lot to slog through before getting to the good stuff.

I have just read a bunch of reviews to see what others have to say and people seem divided between "I love this book! [because I love Dickens, Austen, the Victorians, etc.]" and "This book was too long." Obviously, I side with the latter camp.

The story was interesting but could have been even more so: the basic premise is that these two magicians start off as allies (Strange is Norrell's student), disagree about the study of magic, and split ways, each to his own magical pursuit. But there was zero bite in this fight: They weren't at odds so much as they just wandered away from one another. In the end, when they have to join forces again, it's like, "Oh, yeah. We're back together." (yawn) and then... what they intended to do together was actually done for them by someone else, but they don't even realize it. What?!

It just felt like there could have been waaaay more excitement infused into the writing of this story: there are fairies and enchantments, places get moved around, people are raised from the dead, etc. That's some good meat! But it's overcooked and slogging through the surrounding... er... potatoes (?) was wearing.

Oh, yeah. And there was a crapload of endnotes, which I stopped reading almost immediately. I guess, if I was into the book and the style, I would find the fake endnotes (referencing text that does not actually exist) charming. And might even enjoy the misspellings of "chuse" for "choose," "surprize" for "surprise," and... weirdly, "shew" for "show" (the first two examples sound the same, but that last one is bizarre... maybe with an English accent...? I don't know.) But instead, it was just more work.

In my review reviewing, I did see some of that "Harry Potter for adults" comparison that you mentioned hearing when this book came out and I'm gonna say... No. Both involve magic, but that's where the similarity ends. In fact, I would love some more HP infusion in this book (and there were opportunities for it — several individuals sign up to be Strange's students and there is even a failed attempt at a School for Magic — but none of that gains any traction. Of course.) but the story is not nearly as exciting as an HP story!

I guess, if a person is "into" this sort of prose, this book would be good for them. I am not. Sometimes, the slowness reminded me of Tess (set in the same enormous time period generally classified as "Victorian") but I honestly thought the story of Tess (while also slow) was far more engaging and far more beautiful. This book left me feeling like, "That's it?" Which is, of course, a big bummer.

The good news is that I pretty much burned through it (I'm not nearly as fast of a reader as you are. Covering 846 pages of a book I'm not that interested in in 3 weeks is speedy for me!) I will also admit that the book might have suffered because I listened to two other completely engrossing audiobooks this month while reading it (The Fault in Our Stars and Gone Girl), so I did wish that it was more like those (that is to say: holding my interest...)

Oh, yeah! I also highlighted (highlit?) a couple of interesting quotes, so this isn't a total bag-athon:

From Norrell to Strange, as he takes him on as a pupil — I love this commentary on England: "You must argue and publish and practise your magic and you must learn to live as I do — in the face of constant criticism, opposition and censure. That, sir, is the English way.” [483]

Insightful observation on the problem of having two magicians in England:
“I mean that two of any thing is a most uncomfortable number. One may do as he pleases. Six may get along well enough. But two must always struggle for mastery. Two must always watch each other. The eyes of all the world will be on two, uncertain which of them to follow." [455]

And this made me laugh right out loud, as I have both known travelers and been a traveler myself — so true! “Oh! I shall not spare you. It is the right of a traveller to vent their frustration at every minor inconvenience by writing of it to their friends. Expect long descriptions of everything.” [598]

Overall, a good idea for a story, but way too slow. My next book is going to have to be a page-turner (sorry for the pressure, next book!)


Saturday, January 19, 2013

Zombies, Run!


We've talked a lot about the audiobook experience vs. the reading experience. Although you are a more faithful listener to audiobooks, I know we both agree on their greatness. I've never quite understood the "it's cheating" argument when it comes to audiobooks. Stories were an oral medium for thousands of years! There's nothing better than being swept away by a good story.

That leads me to the genius of the Zombies, Run! app. Unlike Swamplandia!, here's a title that deserves its exclamation point. As you know, I've taken up jogging in my new quest to be in shape. I can't really say running because I'm pretty slow, but I've come to enjoy it as an activity, and I never thought that would happen.

However, because it's dark early and because I don't think it's a good idea to run in my neighborhood when it's dark, I do most of my running on our treadmill. I didn't actually know until recently that some runners look down on treadmill running, but for me it's perfect. But to be honest, treadmill running is pretty boring. I definitely see the appeal of running outside--at least the scenery changes! I've found that if I put my iPad in front of me with an action movie, it helps my workout go by faster.

A Facebook friend recommended I check out an app called Zombies, Run! Kelly, this thing is genius. It's a story that integrates with your music playlists. The story starts as a helicopter crash lands in a zombie infested territory outside of Abel Township, which is protected area. The Township relies of various runners to distract the zombies or run for supplies. The people in Abel Township dub you Runner Five. As you're working out, you hear various narrators---doctors, radio operators, other runners---telling Runner Five about the surrounding areas. Each mission is about 30 minutes long and each time more and more of the story unfolds. Interspersed between narrators, it will play songs from iTunes.

As I've run, I've thought a lot about what we've talked about with audiobooks. I can't wait to get on the treadmill and run another mission and see what's going to happen to Runner Five next. It's a hoot. The only problem is that apparently it's a lot better when you do run outside and it can track you using the GPS. I think every once in a while, it sends a zombie horde after you and they yell, "RUN!" and you have to run faster. Although I've set it up so that it knows I'm running on a treadmill, it obviously doesn't quite recognize my speed. I don't really care, because I'm in it for the story. Knowing I can't find out what happens next until I exercise is a great incentive!

It's 45 and semi-sunny out today. I might try to run outside today just to see what it's like. It's too bad they don't have Zombies, Bike! because this is the best app ever: a story that gets you to exercise.


Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Completed: The Abstinence Teacher


I picked up this book a few days ago, hoping it would be a quick read. I guess I was right! I don't actually remember how long ago I bought this book. I definitely remember that I picked it up from the sale section of the Borders that used to be in my neighborhood. It was hardback but marked down to 5 or 6 bucks, and since I'd heard good things about it, I grabbed it.

The Abstinence Teacher tells the story of a small northeastern town. I kept picturing Stars Hollow, but I don't think it was quite *that* small. There are two main characters, the first is Ruth Ramsey, a 41 year old divorced mother of two. She's been the sex-ed teacher at the local high school for years. (I guess that's the clue that it was a bigger town. Not many schools that I know of have a dedicated Sex Ed teacher, that's usually just one unit in a larger health curriculum. But I digress!)

In the previous school year, Ruth got into some trouble with the local crowd of evangelicals. When a student asked her about oral sex, Ruth said, "Well, from what I hear about oral sex, some people enjoy it." Oops. This single comment causes the kind of uproar that could only happen in a very small town or in a novel. Ruth gets into big trouble and the pastor of the most conservative Evangelical church, Pastor Dennis, causes such a stink that the school is forced to adopt an abstinence-only curriculum.

Alternate sections of the book focus on the other main character, Tim Mason. Tim is the soccer coach for Ruth's daughter. Tim comes into the picture when Ruth witnesses him leading the team in prayer after a particularly close game. Ruth freaks out and pulls her kid out of the prayer. The next section is Tim's and it alternates from there.

It's in the first Tim section that I started to feel...uncomfortable...with the book. Tim is a recovering addict and born-again Christian. Pastor Dennis' church "saved" him, and it's clear that Tim feels much more confident and happy. At the same time, the author shows all of Tim's ambivalence. The author seems to be hinting that perhaps Tim has traded his addiction to drugs with an addiction to Jesus.

Part of the reason this made me uncomfortable was because it doesn't seem all that fair to Evangelicals. I don't know a whole lot of people (any?) who are born-again Christians, and so maybe I was reading Tim as symbolic of all Evangelicals. But it Tim is a symbol, then is the author trying to paint them as sort of a desperate, pathetic lot just looking for a way out? That doesn't seem fair. I'm guessing that like most people, BACs (Born Again Christians is getting burdensome to type out) are genuinely trying to live their best lives. At the same time, the message of BACs does center around the idea of "being saved." The language, being saved, implies that you are in trouble or have screwed up. Do regular people who think they are okay find this message appealing? As Ruth considers Tim, she thinks, "It made perfect sense to her that people who'd hit bottom would be attracted to Christianity and find solace in its message of forgiveness, the idea that it didn't matter how badly you'd screwed up your life, there was always another chance to start over and get things right. Where she always came up short was in figuring out how that part of the religion coexisted with the sanctimonious and intolerant part, the angry, Goody Two-Shoes Christianity that was always gleefully damning people to hell and turning its believers into hypocrites" (192).

However, my worries didn't last for long. As the book continues, the author does show both Ruth and Tim as fully developed characters. They aren't cartoonish, which was what I was sort of expecting: Ruth, the angry liberal! Tim, the self-righteous BAC! In fact, many times Tim is more likeable and even-keeled. For example, Tim is able to look at the post-game prayer and realize he was wrong. He thinks, "He wasn't sorry about saying the prayer, and he certainly wasn't sorry about offending someone like Ruth Ramsey, but he was deeply sorry about putting Maggie [Ruth's daughter] in that awful position, embarrassing her in front of her teammates, taking what should have been a nice moment for all of them and turning it into something ugly and confusing" (136). On the other hand, Ruth sees it as an example of her getting pushed around one more time, and makes it all about her. She's unable to see how her own daughter feels. At other times, Tim seems like a jerk, while Ruth is more calm and adult-like. In other words: it's a lot like life.

One of the things that seemed weird about this book at first, but I grew to like it, was the lack of REALLY BIG, DRAMATIC events. If anything, the events in this book are so mundane and ordinary. On the book jacket, it breatlessly gushes that "a controversy on the soccer field pushes the two of them to actually talk." Trust me, it's a lot more low key then that in the book, as are the repercussions. Ruth and Tim just live their lives: raising their kids, going to work, gossiping with coworkers, worring about bills, surfing the net, making dinner, and going to bed. In other words: it's a lot like life.

In the end, I found the very ordinariness of their lives to be charming, and I raced through to the end. Nothing really gets solved, and the confusing and ambivalent problems get untangled...but only a little. I'd recommend it.


PS There was only little quirk in the author's writing style I found a little weird. He would build up to a scene, for example Tim is going to come over to meet Ruth for the first time in person and talk about the post-game prayer. There's be a little break in the page, and you'd then expect the scene to start. Instead, the next line is, "All in all, Ruth thought as she slipped her nightgown over her head, the meeting had gone surprisingly well" (192). A few sentences later Ruth thinks back to the meeting, and it gets replayed then. It was sort of weird. There were all these "time jumps", and at first I thought they were some sort of device used by the author to convey...something...but it just started to feel more like a quirk of the author. There's a lot of memory and reminiscing in this book, so much so that I felt like it was often "showing not telling." I can't decide if that was purposeful or not. What is it that people tell themselves about who they are and how they came to be that way? It was not bad or good, but noticeable.

Kelly's TBP List [redux]

Dear Jenny,

At the beginning of 2012, I ambitiously created a "To Be Perused" (TBP) list of a bunch of art books I own that I have never spent time perusing.

A couple of moves and some other personal crap later, I only finished perusing two of the books on that list last year. Sooo... I'm going to take another stab at it. I have added two books to replace the ones I did finish so that, like the TBR list, I have 12 books + 2 alternates, in case I can't get through 2 of them.

Here are my TBP books:

(click to see that bigger)

In alphabetical order, they are:
  1. Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty by Andrew Bolton (Author), Sølve Sundsbø (Photographer) (Completed 03.06.13)
  2. Art for the People: The Rediscovery and Preservation of Progressive and WPA-Era Murals in the Chicago Public Schools, 1904-1943 by Heather Becker
  3. Art of Modern Rock by Paul Grushkin
  4. The Audrey Hepburn Treasures by Ellen Erwin
  5. Decorate: 1,000 Design Ideas for Every Room in Your Home by Holly Becker
  6. Design*Sponge at Home by Grace Bonney
  7. East Bay Then and Now by Dennis Evanosky
  8. Helvetica and the New York City Subway System: The True (Maybe) Story by Paul Shaw
  9. Lost Detroit: Stories Behind the Motor City's Majestic Ruins by Dan Austin (Author), Sean M. Doerr (Photographer)
  10. Pictoplasma by Robert Klanten [Completed 02.21.13]
  11. Plymouth in Vintage Postcards by Elizabeth Kelley Kerstens
  12. Prom by Mary Ellen Mark
  13. Punk House: Interiors in Anarchy by Abby Banks
  14. Robert Bechtle: A Retrospective by Janet Bishop
I am pretty excited to get into these books (especially since most of them are heavy and I have now moved them... twice. It's time to get crackin!)


Sunday, January 6, 2013

No More Books Without Quotation Marks...EVER! /mommie dearest


I finished The Round House, and I have decided to stop getting worked up about this quotation mark thing. How, you ask? BECAUSE I AM NEVER AGAIN GOING TO BUY A BOOK WHERE THE AUTHOR OMITS QUOTATION MARKS. Although I am disappointed by Louise Erdrich, I am not going to write her a letter.* I'm going to let my wallet do the talking and just stop buying her books.

There. I just made it my New Year's/Forever Resolution. It's going to mean constant vigilance: taking the time to download a sample before purchasing the eBook; rifling through the pages of a pBook before taking it up to the checkout counter. Life's too short for me to read books that make me feel like the author just took my money and then gave me a swift kick in the teeth.

I actually had a rather involved conversation about this in a private Facebook group today, which helped to clarify just why I find it all so annoying. I'll summarize for you here.

The omitting of quotation marks rides, in my mind, on a ridiculous premise: that punctuation is somehow standing in between a reader and the author's meaning. The whole purpose of punctuation to make written language concise and precise. To cherry pick *one punctuation mark* and decide that it must go--it's just bizarre. So quotation marks and quotation marks only are some sort of veil of mist, confusing the reader and making the author less clear? The very opposite it true. Now I know the difference between speech and thought, between speech and action. Maybe it's because the quotation mark is so often misused that authors have given up on it. But, come on, that's hardly the quotation marks' fault!

A friend replied that "Quotation marks serve to enhance the illusion of realism. Eschewing them emphasizes the subjective, private nature of the narrative. It's fine to hate it, but there's a reason authors choose to do it." 

I reject this reasoning, too. Literature itself is a construct. NO ONE thinks like characters in books do. The idea that you can make a narrative more introspective by taking away a punctuation mark just seems silly. Even in Erdrich's novel, it's clear that Joe, the narrator, feels voiceless. In fact, Joe's family, tribe, and entire race of Native American people have been voiceless. This idea is cogently understood from the narrative. What kind of weak sauce is it to use punctuation to prove the thematic point of your novel? It seems like the exact opposite problem of a child who punctuates a sentence with too many exclamation points. At the end of  sentence, the only thing a hundred exclamation points proves is that the writer doesn't know how effectively use expressive language. If an author must prove their point by taking away punctuation marks, that must mean they aren't confident enough in their language alone.

Another friend pointed out that there are different punctuation conventions in different parts of the world. I know that. Ireland comes most readily to mind, where authors start quotations start with an em dash. I don't have a problem with this at all. They are authors following the punctuation conventions of their own culture. But what else am I to make of only *certain* American authors deciding that going quotation-mark-less is the thing to do? Maybe it's my own experience of spending time with teenagers. It feels an awful lot like something the cool kids are doing. Cormac McCarthy did it, and so we should mimic him! Ugh. Grow up.

Finally, and most importantly, I don't actually believe there are readers out there who ACTIVELY SEARCH for books with irregular punctuation. I think there are folks who don't mind it, or folks who can live with it. But is there anyone out there picking up books and saying, "Oh, this novel uses standard punctuation. I better give this one a pass." I doubt it. Which leads me to believe that authors are doing it for their own pleasure or satisfaction, while not caring about their readers. And that's just fine with me. It's your book, write it how you want. I'm voting with my dollars and refusing to buy your book. Now we are all satisfied.

Nothing proved my point today as well as the other book I finished, The Yellow Birds, by Kevin Powers. This novel is intensely introspective, a soldier's recollection of events during the Iraq War. At one point, John's mother encourages him to spend time with his pre-War friends. He demurs, and she pleads with him to "just think about it." He snaps back at her, "Goddamnit, Mama. All I fucking do is think." And he's right. John is caught in a maelstrom of painful memories of what he saw, what he did, and who he was.  The Yellow Birds was definitely less plot-drive and more internal than The Round House, yet it still employs standard punctuation. Not once while reading did I think that less punctuation would have made the author's point more clearly.

I am woman enough to admit that there may be exceptions. Teju Cole's Open City, a TOB book from last year, is a good example. As the novel progresses, it becomes clear that the narrator himself is unreliable. He lies to himself about what other people say. The quotation marks are a subtle clue that he's not telling the truth. This is one of those books with staying power, something about it really stuck with me. I'm happy to have read it. However, I'm not all that sure it was necessary. I think the book would have been equally as powerful with regular punctuation. 

 This is a literary trend that I'm done with. There are more books out there then I could possibly read. Will I really be missing anything except my (most likely irrational) anger? 


*As for Louise Erdrich, I briefly considered penciling quotation marks into my copy of The Round House and sending it to her at her bookstore. But even I know that's crazy. And it would take too long. But I still can't believe that line at the end, she has the narrator look at a stack of books and think, "There were no quotations in my father's repertoire for where we were..." I mean, really?!?!

But you know what I'd do if I had all the time in the world? I'd start a blog called Necessary Quotation Marks and put quotation-mark-less passages from books, followed by the same passages with quotation marks. Hah!

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Kelly's Book 1.13: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

Dear Jenny,

I'm going to kick this year off with a big one -- Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. I'm traveling next week, so I'll have some quality time to make a dent in this big boy. It's not my longest (that's 1Q84) but it's a leftover from last year's TBR list, so I felt like it was time to take it on.

Honestly, I bought this book such a long time ago that I really couldn't remember what it was about. I re-read the description before putting it back on the TBR list for 2013 and it still seemed interesting, so I'm in.

This one is an eBook and we've talked before about some of the (less obvious) differences between eBooks and pBooks -- here's one: It's waaay easier to tell at a glance how long a pBook is. :) When I bought this eBook, I didn't even look at the page count, whereas if I had picked it up physically in a bookstore, I would have known right away that it's huge. In fact, I didn't really notice until I was counting up pages towards the end of 2012 as I was racing to finish my list.

From now on, I might make more of a point to check page count when buying eBooks.  I don't mind a long book, but I think it's good to know what you're getting into from the start (before you see the looooong line of dots on your Kindle...) How about you -- do you check out the page count when buying an eBook?