Monday, February 28, 2011

The Child as Narrator, and why do we read books anyway?


I've recommended Room to a few people, and most of them have really loved it. Yes, it's creepy and disturbing...but so good! But my friend Mary Jo hated it. Ugh. I hate that feeling. There's a strange sense of guilt: I sold you, and you hated it. I wasted your time.

Interestingly, the thing that I loved about the book was one of the thing that Mary Jo hated about it: Jack's narration. I guess from here you need a little backstory, and it might be something you don't know about me: I hate children as narrators.

I'm not entirely certain when this dislike of child narrators became such a passionate feeling, but I'm pretty sure it has to do with To Kill a Mockingbird. TKM is a book almost everyone universally loves. But after a few years of teaching it, it's a book I've come to strongly dislike. I think this is true of teaching books in general. Some books I dislike, but come to appreciate. For me, the best example of this is The Pearl by Steinbeck. I'll never love this book, but I liked teaching it. I grew to appreciate it's structure and it's simple but elegant metaphors. On the other hand, some books become more grating and annoying as you teach them. My colleague, David, has a fiery, burning hatred for Lord of the Flies after years of teaching it to 9th graders. It is not an understatement to say that I have come to have similar feelings for To Kill a Mockingbird. Luckily for me, I shuffled it off to the 8th grade and don't have to teach it anymore. Whee!

One of my biggest problems with TKM is Scout. I just don't believe her. Kids don't think and talk and see the world the was Scout does. As a matter of fact, when I read The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, I had a similar response: kids don't think this way! There's this sleight of hand that authors use that's supposed to make it okay---this is an adult who is looking back on her childhood. This is not a child, but an adult narrating their childhood. That's why I thought Jack from Room was so fresh. He is a child, he thinks like a child, and perceives as a child. Mary Jo's argument was, essentially, that he's no better than Scout, he's just the polar opposite of her.

This got me to thinking about a very important question. Why do we read books anyway? After all, the truth is NO ONE thinks about their life the way people in books think about their lives. Novels seem so normal to me because I spend so much time reading them, but in reality, life isn't one clean story with a straight linear path. Life's messy and complicated. While it is happening, it's impossible to know which events are meaningful. It's only with time that I have been able to look back and see the narrative structure of my life. But that's also something I've been able to do as an adult. Looking back to 5 or 9 or 11, it's a blur. It's hard for me to believe any child could look back and weave together a coherent story out of memories. Ultimately, I just don't buy it. If I doubt the narration, I can't enjoy the pleasant escape from reality that a book promises. Hmm...maybe my real problem is with FIRST person narration, but it's particularly noticeable when that narrator is a child.

Believe it or not, this brings me back to Skippy Dies. You'll remember that I was pretty dismissive: too sloppy, too much going on, not enough payoff. Skippy Dies is the very celebration of the idea that stories are complex and confusing. After talking to Mary Jo, I started to think about the narrative voice, and why we read, and what it means to tell a story. It made me appreciate Skippy in a new way. Maybe it's a great thing to read a big, sprawling mess of a book. Skippy Dies is certainly more like life as it really is, and not the way life is usually portrayed in novels.

Hey, maybe this blog will bring me to some grand unifying theory of fiction?

Prefaces, Forewards, and Introductions... Oh, my!

Dear Jenny,

Do you read Prefaces? Forewards? Introductions? If yes or no, why or why not?

I used to always read them, until I read a Preface that gave away a key plot point rather nonchalantly -- something to the effect of: "When the protagonist's husband dies halfway through the book..." WTF, people? I cannot remember which book, but I know it was considered a classic, so perhaps they assumed that "everyone" knew the ending. Well, I did not. And I've been a lot more careful about what front matter I read ever since!

I mention it because The Screwtape Letters has two Prefaces, both written by C. S. Lewis. One was included in the original published work and the other was written almost 20 years later. I avoided the latter for the reason stated above, but I went ahead and read the original, which did give me some groundwork and didn't give anything away. When I finish the book, I'll go back and read the other one and see if it had any spoilers. I've never found another book that did, but I'm always super nervous now. Jerks.

Meanwhile, I'm 18 pages in and I can already tell this is going to be a verrry difficult book to sum up. So get ready!


Sunday, February 27, 2011

Kelly's Book 3: The Screwtape Letters

Dear Jenny,

Another book I've had on my TBR shelf for quite awhile -- college, I'm guessing. The copyright on this edition is 1982, but I'm sure I didn't buy it when I was 9, so I must have gotten it used. It's clearly never been read, so I guess the previous owner had it on their TBR pile for awhile but never got around to it.

I cannot recall exactly why I bought this book. Years ago, I saw an incredible production called "C. S. Lewis on Stage" performed by the amazing actor Tom Key, and that was probably what ignited my interest.


Completed: Tess of the d'Urbervilles

Dear Jenny,

Well, I finished Tess and have mixed emotions about it. It really was good. But sad. Really sad. First, let's finish off my summary of the book...

(Bill says I should be warning that there are spoilers here... perhaps if someone else visits our blog, they may not want to know the end of books. So for anyone who is not Jenny reading this: I am about to give away the ending of Tess of the d'Urbervilles.) (Which I thought was sort of understood, but if not, there's the Fair Warning.)

The Conclusion of Tess
When last we left Tess, her husband (Angel) was trying to decide what he was going to do about Tess's revelation about her past. He decides to leave her, at least, "for awhile," until he figures his shit out. He goes to Brazil to see if there is potential to start a farm there. He leaves Tess some dough and tells her that if she needs more, she should contact his parents. He asks her not to contact him, saying he will send mail when he is ready to deal with the situation. And then he splits. (Psst: He's an asshole.)

Tess is a strong and proud, so she goes back to farm work rather than ask his parents for money. This time, it's no happy milk-maiding -- she ends up doing brutal work with a thresher and then harvesting turnips out on barren land. Our girl Tess is a worker. During this time, she bumps into her rapist, who has become some sort of Revival Tent-style preacher and claims he is repentant for his sins. He apologizes to her... sort of.

However, once a douche, always a douche -- this guy then claims that Tess is "tempting" him again, so he decides that, since he's a sinner, he might as well give up preaching and go back to his sinning ways, which include... trying to seduce Tess. Greeeat.

Tess refuses his advances because she still loves her husband and is waiting for him to come back to her (and also, you know, cause she doesn't like this guy AND he raped her AND he pretty much ruined her life).

Alec (that's the rapist) continues to pursue her saying shit like "You will be mine again," and claiming that he is "rightfully" her husband, since, you know, he did her first. (Blech.) Despite her refusals, he keeps at her, much to her chagrin.

So she sends her husband a letter begging him to come back if he ever loved her at all. It's pretty heart-breaking -- she says she would even be his servant, if it meant being close to him. So. Painful!

Tess's mother falls ill, so she goes home to care for her. While she's there, her father dies. Bad news, as her family then gets evicted from their home. Tess gathers everyone in a wagon and heads to another town without much plan in mind, except: "We gotta figure something out."

At this point, we flash on over to Angel in Brazil. He has received Tess's letter at just about the same time that he has the revelation: "Hey! I've been an asshole!" (Ya think?) So he heads on back to Tess. It's a long journey as he tracks her down, first going to his own family to see if she's been in contact with them to get money (which she has not, he is surprised to learn), then to her family's prior home, then to her mother's new digs, and then finally to Tess. When he ultimately tracks her down, he discovers... that she's married Alec.


Soooo... Tess went ahead and married her rapist because he could provide for her family when she could not. She's upset at Angel's arrival and she turns him away. Then she loses it on Alec because he had convinced her that Angel would never come back for her and he wore her down in her time of need. And then she stabs that m-f'er and kills him. Yup.

After killing Alec, she runs to find Angel and tell him what she's done. They set out on foot and eventually come upon an empty mansion to hide out in for week -- it's a rental property and there's no one in it, so they hole up for a bit and have a wonderful time together -- kind of the honeymoon they never had.

When the mansion's housekeeper finds them, they have to leave, and they continue to run. They stop for a rest at Stonehenge, but when they wake in the morning, the cops are there to take Tess away. The book ends with Tess being hung for her crime. Damn it.

After my last post, you made a comment wondering why my grandfather loved this book so much -- it's Tess. If you read this book, you have got to love Tess. I'm not doing this book justice with my retelling, because when you read the book itself, you fall in love with Tess. I really enjoyed the Afterward by Donald Hall included with this edition. He writes:
"There have been other novels about social justice as well observed as Tess, but they do not have its resonance. For one thing, Hardy was clearly in love with Tess, and he leaves his readers in the same condition."(424)
Yes. That's it!

This Afterward is really great -- I love his analysis of the characters and the plot, as well as the insight about the time that the book was written (it was originally rejected by the publishers for being too sexy!) I almost want to include more of it here, but I have already gone on too long about this book. I thought the strangest and possibly best part of it was the final paragraph:
"But surely more than any generalization we are left with the sense of a particular girl, a woman finally: one's sense of this novel is one's sense of her. She dances on the green with the maidens. She is raped in the woods at sixteen. She buries her child in secret. She milks a cow named Dumpling. She hacks turnips on a barren farm. She hides at night among the dying birds. She longs to be dead with her ancestors. She stabs a man. She hides in an old house with her lover. She wakes to a circle of police, to a noose in the morning." (430)
I guess I could have just skipped right to the back of this book and written all of that down right here instead of my much longer re-telling on this blog. ;) Such a weird thing to put at the end of a book, but also kind of moving if you've just finished the novel itself.

Tess v. Lisbeth
While reading Tess, I kept thinking of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Both protagonists are a little odd, doing things their own way, perhaps not likable in a typical sense, but strong women written in such a way that the reader loves them.

Both girls are raped at a young age and both exact revenge on their rapist, but where Lisbeth gets away with it (is, in fact, celebrated for it), Tess is immediately and mercilessly punished for her action.

Final thoughts
I started reading this book with much trepidation, but, despite some griping, I loved Tess. Other than the part where she was so angsty about telling Angel about her "past" for way too long, it went pretty quickly.

I teared up at the end, sighed when it was over, and I will think about the heartbreaking story of Tess for a long, long time.


Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Unintended Hilarity of Autocorrect, or Sloppy Dies


As you know, I sent you a text earlier today with an autocorrect error. My phone changed the title Skippy Dies to Sloppy Dies. This turns out to be somewhat appropriate freudian slip courtesy of my iPhone. Skippy Dies is a big ol' mess.

This book weighs in at a hefty 661 pages. I'm a fast reader. I like reading. I'm not intimidated by long books. 500+ pages of Harry Potter, or Civil War history, or a novel about Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII and I'm there. But 661 pages of a book where I already know the ending? This is a problem. Not only does the title of the book reveal the ending (hey, does Skippy DIE? No shit!), but in case I missed it or was hoping it was a metaphor, there's a prologue which outlines 14 year old Skippy's tragic death at the donut shop.

It's not all awful. There are genuinely funny scenes, I have laughed out loud several times. I have even posted some of the more funny lines to my Facebook status. For example, at one point Skippy is sent to the school counselor, a priest. Father Foley happens to be deaf, so he can't really understand what Skippy is saying to him. He lectures Skippy while occasionally stopping to ask a question. He asks Skippy what he's been feeling lately. Skippy's response is to mumble something about his thoughts, which Father Foley isn't able to hear. But he hears enough to think, "Did he say thoughts? It sounded like he said something about thoughts. Well, well. The pieces begin to fall into place. The disappeared ambition, the blank stare, the sociopathic attitude, the constant twitching---Puberty, we meet again" (411). I literally laughed out loud when I read this. I've spent a good part of my life surrounded by 13 year olds. Trust me when I tell you this line is hilariously on the mark. And, let it be known that after reading this book, I will literally never be able to read The Road Not Taken the same way again. Ever.

My problem is that there is too much going on in this book but without enough payoff. There are multiple narrators: Skippy, his friends, his enemies, his teachers, their friends, their enemies, the principal, etc. It's overwhelming. It is a book desperately in need of a good editor.

I feel determined to finish this book, although I don't really know why. After all, I know what will happen. The dramatic irony is keeping me from fully engaging with the characters. It's not creating the pleasant buzz of: Oh, no, Skippy don't do that! Instead, I feel distant from Skippy and his problems: Oh, I wouldn't worry too much about that girl you like, Skippy. After all, you're going to die. This is wasted angst. It's going nowhere!

One last observation. In the Tournament of Books, Skippy Dies faces A Visit From the Goon Squad in its first match up. They are similar in some ways, especially the multiple points of view and the layers of information revealed through the structure. However, Goon Squad is as tight as a drum. Nothing feels extra. It's controlled and deliberate and it should crush Skippy in round one. Maybe Skippy will recover, and I'll let you know. But right now, I'm limping across the finish line. Of course, since I'm only on page 435, that finish line is nowhere near as close as I would like.


Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Oh, Tess

Dear Jenny,

Let's catch up with Tess, shall we?

Since last we left her, she's become a milkmaid at a farm 40 miles away from her hometown. It's work that she enjoys with company she also enjoys -- her fellow milkmaids and milk... men? (Milkmen? Sure.) and the farmer and his wife are all good people. So things are looking up for dear Tess.

Now, remember when I said that there was a guy near the beginning of the book who didn't dance with her at the May Day-style shindig, but then noticed her on the way out? I wrote, "Perhaps we will see more of him in the future? (I would hope. Otherwise, this is a useless path we've gone down)." Right. So we've met up with him again -- he's a milkman at the dairy with Tess.

His name is Angel Clare and he's the son of a parson. His two brothers have also gone on to be men of the cloth, but he's not interested, so he's been working on various farms to get all knowledgeable to start his own farm. At this particular one, he finds Tess and falls for her. And she, for him. They're really cute and in luuuurvve. Sounds good, right?

Of course, you know it can't be that easy.

Tess is beside herself because she is worried about her past (the rape and subsequent kid) and thinks that she isn't fit to be anyone's wife. But she's also afraid to tell him about it because he'll reject her, so she's freaking out worrying about what to do.

She tries to tell him a few times, but he stops her, saying there will be time to learn each others' intimate details after they're married, so she doesn't get it out. At one point, she writes the whole story down in a letter that she slips under his door. Next morning, he's still nice to her, so she thinks that perhaps her past doesn't matter. Yay! Later on, she goes to his room and realizes that the letter actually slipped under the rug and he never read it. Boo! So she destroys it.

This was all pretty agonizing to read -- Tess, all angsty, Angel all confused by her angstiness. It was a bit much, but I also have to say that it worked, as I was anxious myself during this entire part of the book. Will she tell him? Will he reject her once he finds out? Will he find out some other way? Will she be able to keep the secret? Who! Knows!

Tess asks her mom for advice and her mom essentially tells her to shut her piehole and get married already. In the end, that's what she does. (After many, many more pages of angst and worry and hand-wringing, of course.)

On their wedding night, it's time for them to confess their deepest secrets to one another (because it's good to wait until after you're already married to bring this stuff up... right... ?) Clare admits he's got a confession of his own, so he goes first: he had some 48 hour sex binge with a chick down at the docks a few years back. He's ashamed and begs for her forgiveness. Tess is elated to hear this, because she feels she's got a similar confession to make! She instantly forgives him and tells him her story. In response, he loses it. Grr.

The scene is heart-wrenching. She begs him to forgive her and he is just furious. She says she will do anything to gain his forgiveness, and he says, "It strikes me that there is a want of harmony between your present mood of self-sacrifice and your past mood of self-preservation." (247)


She points out that she was a child and didn't understand what was happening. To his credit, he does say, "You were more sinned against than sinning, that I admit." (249) But still... he maintains that he cannot forgive her and says that he no longer loves her.

Right now, I'm at the point where they are figuring out what to do next. Tess has suggested divorce, but Clare says they cannot:
"I mean, to get rid of me. You can get rid of me."
"By divorcing me."
"Good heavens -- how can you be so simple! How can I divorce you?"
"Can't you -- now I have told you? I thought my confession would give you grounds for that."
"O Tess -- you are too, too -- childish -- uninformed -- crude, I suppose! I don't know what you are. You don't understand the law --- you don't understand!"
"What -- you cannot?"
"Indeed I cannot." (255)
I don't know why, really. Perhaps if I was more versed in Victorian ways, I would know. It might be his station in life -- he's from a much higher class than Tess. Could be the religious thing, being a son of a Parson and all.

Then she offers to kill herself, but he doesn't want her murder on her hands, so that's out too. All in all, it's painful stuff. I'm in the midst of them deciding what to do right now, so I'll leave you with that cliff-hanger.

As for progress, I am about 60% through the book and the end of the month is fast approaching, but I have a last-minute business trip this week, so I'll have plenty of time in the sky to read. The nice part about reading a paper book (vs. an ebook) is that you can read it during take-off and landing. Heh.

And in a totally odd coincidence, I'll be going to the Detroit airport and I'm using that boarding pass stub from my grandfather from DTW as my bookmark. So it will be passing through the same airport that it went through when it was originally issued, some 20 years ago, on almost the exact same day. So weird, eh?


Monday, February 21, 2011

Tournament of Books Update


The brackets were released today for the upcoming Tournament of Books---only 2 weeks away! I felt so great about the progress I was making a week ago, but now the grim reality of my situation is setting in: there's no way I'm going to get all these books read before it starts. Time to think strategically.

Here are the match-ups and my progress so far:

March 8 : Freedom and Kapitoil.
So I'm holding on both of these for the immediate future. I can't get both of them read by the time it starts, so I might as well wait for the winner to be declared.

March 9: Room v. Bad Marie
Excellent. I've read both of these already.

March 10:
Savages v. The Finkler Question
I read Finkler and hated it. That means I can safely wait to read Savages until the 2nd round if needed, but I'd like to get this one done before the match-up. I'm sure it will advance...that's how bad Finkler was.

March 11: A Visit From the Goon Squad v. Skippy Dies
I read Goon Squad in December. I've started Skippy Dies, I'm about 180 pages in. Problem is that sucker is over 600 pages. This is what I'm working on now. I'll finish it. I like it so far, and it's getting better as I read.

March 14:
Nox v. Lord of Misrule
I'm not reading Misrule because of the "Horses are Boring" rule. I think Nox will be quick, so I'll try to read it before this match-up.

March 15: Next v. So Much for That
I"m planning on skipping So Much For That, but I started Next when I was stuck somewhere with my phone and none of my other books. I liked it, and I'd like to get it done beforeahand, but I'm willing to wait to see what happens. If it gets knocked out in this round, it might turn into a post-tournament read.

March 16: Super Sad True Love Story v. Model Home
I haven't read either. They both look good, but I can wait and see on this one, too.

March 17: The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake v. Bloodroot
I've read both of these! This is also the day before my 2 week spring break starts on the 18th. Lots of good reading time then.

So here's my new and improved reading plan. I'd like to finish these before the tournament starts on March 8th.
1) Skippy Dies
2) Savages
3) Nox
4) River Marked
(New Mercy Thompson comes out March 1! I think I can make time for that).

After that, we'll see. I might have to wait and see what advances and then read from there.

How's Tess going?

Friday, February 11, 2011

Completed: Amsterdam


I finished Amsterdam. I'm trying to think about why I bought this book, but I don't think it was anything special. I'm guessing that I might have picked this up after reading a previous novel by McEwan, Enduring Love. Of course, after actually reading it, I'm wondering why I bothered to move it thousands of miles---not just once, but twice!

Let me say that this little book felt compact and easy to read. The story begins with a funeral of a woman named Molly. The two main characters, Clive and Vernon (so British!), are good friends, but also former lovers of Molly. The successive chapters switch perspectives from both men. Clive is a composer writing a symphony to celebrate the end of the Millennium. Vernon is a newspaper editor trying to keep his paper from failing.

The plot speeds up as Vernon is offered an unbelievably tasty scoop from Molly's husband: salacious photos of a high-ranking politician. When Vernon first sees the photos, I thought McEwan was going to pull a Pulp Fiction-esque move and never tell what was really in them, instead leaving it to the reader's imagination. This was annoying, until the content of the photos was revealed--the man was dressed in women's clothing. Yawn.

The writing is beautiful, even stunning at times. McEwan writes dazzling sentences. However, the whole plot left me cold. Vernon and Clive disagree over whether the photos should be published. They argue. Things escalate to the point where each one plots to kill the other? Um, okay. Sure, I totally believe that that would happen.

It just all goes completely off the rails for me by the time they leave London and go to Amsterdam for the first rehearsal of Clive's symphony. I don't know. A bunch of shit happens at the end. Clive kills Vernon, Vernon kills Clive, and it turns out that all along it was the dastardly plan of Molly's husband who was always resentful of them. Whaaattttevvverrrr.

Thank goodness it was only 187 pages, or I really would have been angry. As it was, it was just a baffling couple of hours. Oh well, they can't all be winners, right?


PS. In a brief TOB update: I finished Bad Marie and quite liked it, which surprised me. After reading the description, I figured I'd hate it. I'm almost done with The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. We will definitely be discussing that soon!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Still in Progress: Tess of the d'Urbervilles

Dear Jenny,

The month is about 1/3 of the way over and I am about 1/3 of the way through Tess, so I feel like I'm on track. Plus, it's going waaaay better than I thought it would!

As predicted/feared, Tess does get raped. And, as predicted/hoped for, the Victorian writing style glosses right on over it. For a couple of pages, Hardy wrote about, basically, the fate that has most likely befallen more than one of Tess's ancestors. If I had not been expecting it, I might have even missed that it was happening. Excellent!

I now understand why there are seduction/rape debates about this, because she really didn't understand what was going on, the guy has been wooing her for months, and the language is so opposite-of-graphic, it's almost easy to miss. But I'm gonna say... 16 year old has sex with someone she doesn't really want to have sex with? Yeah. Rape.

She later reprimands her mother and says, "What the heck? You could have told me could happen!" (I'm paraphrasing, of course.) She's angry because she really had no idea that sex could even happen, so she was ill-equipped to either a) avoid the situation (by not going off alone with this guy) and/or b) defend herself in the situation (since she didn't know what was happening). Her mom doesn't have much to defend herself with and apologizes to Tess. This message still rings true today -- parents who don't tell their kids about sex because they are trying to "protect" them are not doing them any favors. Maybe Tess could do a PSA? Heh.

After she gets raped, she falls into a fit of understandable depression, so we ride that out for a bit. The writing here is really lovely, I must say, as Hardy describes Tess's distance from her family and those around her. Very evocative.

After this, a new section opens and there's talk of fields and crops and harvesting. I lost focus for a few pages here, as I had no idea what this had to do with Tess's story or where it was going. After re-reading the pages about the harvesting machine a few times to try to find what the heck I had missed, I decided to press on.

Finally, we find some folks working in a field. As we slowly zoom in on the workers, we find out that one of them is... Tess! As we continue to observe Tess, her sister comes by while she's on her lunch break and hands Tess a baby. To breast feed. Wow! Say what you will about the Victorian writing, but this was really beautifully done (after I got past the seemingly unrelated harvest talk). The "zooming in" was just, well, artistry. I didn't see it coming that Tess had a baby as a result of the rape. Perhaps if I was more experienced reading Victorian lit, I would have picked up the cues (all that harvest talk, maybe?) but I did not. So I was all, "Wow! Baby!"

Fortunately or unfortunately, the baby gets sick and dies almost immediately. This scene is very powerfully written. Tess is filled with angst that the baby is going to die without being baptized, and when her father will not let the parson into the house, Tess decides to baptize the baby herself. Totally heartbreaking. After the baby passes, she asks the parson if her baptism is "just the same" as if he had baptized the baby. I thought this passage was really amazing:
"Having the natural feelings of a tradesman at finding that a job he should have been called in for had been unskilfully botched by his customers among themselves, he was disposed to say no. Yet the dignity of the girl, the strange tenderness in her voice, combined to affect his nobler impulses -- or rather those that he had left in him after ten years of endeavour to graft technical belief on actual scepticism. The man and the ecclesiastic fought within him ,and the victory fell to the man.

"'My dear girl,' he said, 'it will be just the same.'" (112)
Unfortunately, he cannot take this too far and when Tess asks if the baby can be given a Christian burial, the parson has to do his job and refuse. Therefore, the baby is buried in the unconsecrated ground of the cemetery. Really heartbreaking, although Tess bears it all very stoically. She's a strong one, that Tess.

I continue to be surprised by this book -- I find myself getting more and more invested in Tess. How on earth is her story going to turn out? The flowery language can, at times, be difficult to wade through and I must admit that focusing on really reading can be exhausting (when I realize my mind has wandered, I have to go back 2-3 pages and re-read) BUT there are some parts where Hardy has really nailed it -- especially when describing the sky. I've been bookmarking these passages, so perhaps I will devote an entire blog post to Hardy's Beautiful Descriptions of the Sky. Really lovely stuff.


Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Our Blogoverse Doppelgangers


You have to check this out. I might have to follow this blog...just because.


Monday, February 7, 2011

Jenny's Book 3: Amsterdam


Choosing the next book is difficult, and I'll tell you the truth about how I selected Amsterdam for my third choice. I lined up the books, and then picked the way any self-respecting middle schooler would: by seeing which one was shortest. Amsterdam is a lightweight, weighing in at only 187 pages.

Normally, this isn't the way I choose books. But in the particular case, I'm gearing up for my favorite reading event of the year, The Morning News Tournament of Books. I discovered the Tournament of Books back in 2009. I think I discovered it mid-way through the competition that year, and I only read 2 books out of the 16. Last year, I did much better. I read 6 of the 16 before the Tournament ended. I read the winner, Wolf Hall, later that summer. This year, I'm hoping to read even more of the titles. The Tournament starts on March 7th and will run for a couple of weeks.

The bottom line: I want a short read because I've got a lot of books already in the queue, and that queue is time sensitive. If I can finish Amsterdam in February, it clears the decks for my Tournament of Books reading.

Here's the Tournament of Books list and my progress so far:

1) Room by Emma Donoghue
2) A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
3) The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson
4) Bloodroot by Amy Green

I actually read the first 3 over the Christmas break while we were in Houston. I loved Room. I though Goon Squad was a solid effort, although it left me wanting more. I hated Finkler, and only read it because it was the Booker Prize winner. As you may remember, reading the winners of the Pulitzer, Booker, and National Book Awards has been my New Year's Resolution for the past few years. Bloodroot was fabulous. It is set in the Appalachians in Tennessee, and it is not my usual type of reading at all. It's books like this that make me love the Tournament of Books. It jolts me out of my usual reading patterns.

Available in my school library:
5) Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
6) Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart
7) Skippy Dies by Paul Murray

Trying to save a few bucks here. I'm hoping to borrow and read these.

I've bought them and just need to read them:
8) Nox by Anne Carson
9) Model Home by Eric Puchner
10) Kapitoil by Teddy Wayne
11) Bad Marie by Marcy Dermansky

I bought Nox because it just looks super cool. I went to the actual Barnes and Noble with a gift card on Saturday and picked up Kapitoil and Model Home. They didn't have any of the other titles in stock.

I'll order you once I figure out how to use the stupid B&N gift cards online:
12) The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender
13) Savages by Don Winslow
14) Next by James Hynes

I have about $40 in Barnes and Noble gift cards left. I'm feeling sort of pissy about this. I entered the gift cards to my B&N account, thinking that it would work like Amazon and "save" them to apply to future purchases. But I'm worried this may not be true. They might only save them for use towards eBooks. If that's the case, I'll download the Nook app and read them on my phone. But let's just say there's a reason I'm an Amazon shopper. I'm not so impressed with the B&N site right now.

No, Thank You. I don't think I'm going to be reading you.
15) Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon
16) So Much for That by Lionel Shriver

I checked Lord of Misrule out of my school library. It won the National Book Award, so I felt obligated to read it because of my New Year's Resolution. Problem is this book sucks. I read about a quarter of it and I'm rejecting it. You know what, you want me to read your books, use effing quotation marks. Oh, and horses are boring.

I've got a Lionel Shriver book in my TBR pile, so I'm leaving this one on the road. So much for that, you know?


PS One more reason for reading Amsterdam this month. I applied for a travel grant from school for Darrell and I to go to Amsterdam this summer to see the Anne Frank house. They'll announce the recipients at the end of the month. Maybe it's good karma to read Amsterdam since I'm hoping to go to Amsterdam?

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Completed: Oracle Bones


You know what will really help with getting reading finished faster than anticipated? 2 snow days in a row---thank you Blizzard of 2011! I wonder if any of those poor saps stuck on Lakeshore Drive all night long had a kindle with them to pass the time?

Overall, I liked this book a lot. I'm drawn to narrative non-fiction that tells a good story rather than just recounting facts and statistics. I think Peter Hessler is a great writer. I find myself very swept into his stories about living in China.

The book's official title is Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China's Past and Present. The book is sort of strangely organized, into both numbered and lettered chapters. The numbered chapters follow his life in China in chronological order from about 1999-2002 or so. The lettered chapters tell the story of the history of China through the story of something called oracle bones. It's a complex narrative structure, and the whole time I was reading the book, I was sort of bothered by it. The stories were interesting, but I couldn't help wonder if he was trying too hard to include too many disparate stories. I'm still torn by this, even after finishing the book. However, the alternative probably wouldn't be that compelling either. Would I have purchased this book if it was just a collection of his previously published pieces? Most definitely not. It wouldn't have felt like anything new, and this book definitely works hard to weave together many different threads into a coherent whole. I think he pulls it off in the end, but it never truly feels seamless. (By the way, I'm amused at my use of crafting analogies to try and describe this.)

The Numbered Chapters
Although these chapters are in chronological order, they are further broken down into 3 types of stories.

1) His visits with his former students and descriptions of their lives and the challenges they face as young adults in a rapidly changing China.
2) His friendship with a Uigher (pronounced wee-ger) man named Polat. The Uighers are a cultural minority group in China.
3) His life as a journalist and "foreign devil" in China, including traveling around and talking to people.

These chapters probably account for 70-75% of the narration. I enjoyed these stories. He captured the culture of modern day China, and I enjoyed that. I learned a lot of random and interesting things about China, the world, and even America. For example, there's a radio station that's broadcast everywhere else in the world, funded by the US Government, called The Voice of America. They don't broadcast here because it's against American law to broadcast it here for fear it would become nothing but propaganda. Anyways, it broadcasts in many different languages, but the most popular is in something called "Special English." Special English is limited to a vocabulary of 1500 words and simple sentences. Thousands of people learn English by listening to the Special English broadcast of the VOA. Isn't that fascinating?

The book is filled with fascinating stories like the VOA. I have tons of post-its in my book, things that were especially interesting, that just tickled my funny bone, or showed an especially poignant moment with the Chinese friends he makes. I couldn't even list all of the places, people, and adventures that Hessler takes his reader in China.

The Lettered Chapters
These chapters were a little more dense, as they contained stories about China's history. The common thread in these chapters are the oracle bones. The oracle bones were used to divine the future during the Shang Dynasty. The bones were cracked---no one knows how they did it---and the resulting patterns were read and used to tell the future. Hessler uses the idea of the Oracle Bones to describe the thought processes of the Chinese people throughout the thousands of years of Chinese history. He investigates the life of an Oracle Bone scholar named Ch'en Meng-chia. Meng-chia's story is tragic as he gets tangled up with the Cultural Revolution and ends up forced into committing suicide.

These chapters were also very interesting, but they were also much harder to follow. Each lettered chapter is about a certain artifact, and then a rumination on what the artifact reflects about Chinese culture. Along with the description of the oracle bones, there are chapters about the Chinese language (completely interesting), archeological digs for ancient Chinese settlements, stories of the Cultural Revolution, descriptions of various museums and their collections.

It was with this structure that I really started to feel the organization of the book was forced. For example, the first lettered chapter is A. Then the continue being lettered until the penultimate lettered chapter, which is L. But the last lettered chapter is Z. Why? Why not just go to M? I mean, would anyone number chapters consecutively, but then feel compelled to make the last number 100? Ugh.

After writing all of this, here's my conclusion: this felt a lot like 2 books jammed into 1. I see what Hessler was trying to do, and in many ways, it works. But ultimately, although I found myself able to follow the numbered chapters pretty easily, the lettered chapters were more difficult. My knowledge of Chinese history is already limited, and now that "historical chapters" are scattered throughout the book. Every time I started a lettered chapter, I had to actively remind myself of what had happened previously. If I could do it again, I wonder what it would have been like to read the lettered chapters straight through, and then go back and read the numbered chapters?

I hate that this ends on a negative note. This book was interesting, informative, and a pleasure to read. I just wish that the author would have trusted us to follow the stories without the strangely complicated narrative structure.


In Progress: Tess of the d'Urbervilles

I'm 50 pages into Tess and it's not as bad as I had feared. Not a rousing endorsement, I realize, but after two of my closest friends (including you) shuddered and said, "Ugh. The Victorians" when I mentioned this book, I was nervous. The language is a bit thick, but it's actually been a quick read so far. (Which is saying something for me, as I am not that fast of a reader!)

The groundwork is laid: Tess's peasant father stumbles upon a parson who tells him he is actually descended from royalty, but it doesn't do him any good, as there is no land or wealth to inherit, so he's stuck with his lot in life. He only hears the part about "royalty" and decides to party it up, even though, as the parson mentioned, there is nothing of value tied to the line anymore. He seems like a dufus.

Meanwhile, Tess is dancing at some town square May Day-style shindig (there is way more detail about this, but that's the gist of it) and some guy dances with another girl, but then notices Tess with interest on his way out. Perhaps we will see more of him in the future? (I would hope. Otherwise, this is a useless path we've gone down).

Back at the ranch (where "ranch" = "poverty-stricken hovel"), her father is hungover, so Tess and has to drive their cart to market. She leaves the house at 1am and ends up falling asleep at the reins. The resulting accident kills their family's horse and Tess takes full responsibility for the misfortune. Guilt-ridden, she agrees to the plan her father has hatched: visit a distant d'Urberville relation in hopes of ingratiating herself to them and... perhaps get married off to nobility? Tess abhors the idea of this, but wants to make up for killing the horse.

And that's where I've left off.

Huh. More has happened than I realized -- maybe this "writing about books" thing is going to be really good for me!

Meanwhile, I'll tell you right now that I am dreading what is going to happen to Tess. The blurb on the back says she is "victimized by lust, poverty, and hypocrisy" and I'm nervous that "victimized by lust" is a euphemism for "rape." I'm going to be super pissed off at this book if Tess gets raped. Of course, given the Roman Polanski movie connection... yeah. That doesn't bode well.

On a lighter note... I found a Treasure From the Past in this book (I also found one in the last book -- a Post-it note with my full name from high school written on it in a hand I do not recognize as well as "9L". I have no idea what that meant.)

This one is way better than that and Kaesea wants to show it to you:

Hey, Kaesea, let's get a closer look at that -- is that a... boarding pass stub?

Why, yes! It is!

My thoughts when I found this:

"Wow. There's no year on this. Wonder when it's from. But, oh, hey -- it's from 28FEB of that year. That's cool, because I have to have this book done by Feb 28! I wonder where my grandpa was going... looks like probably Detroit Metro to La Guardia. Probably a connection, since he did a lot of overseas travel... Hey... wait a minute... what does that say... ?"

Smoking: YES.

Holy wow. It's difficult to remember a time when people were allowed to smoke on planes, but here's the proof! Nuts, eh?

(It also makes a good bookmark. Don't need bookmarks for Kindle books, but then you also don't find relics from the past wedged in the Kindle, either. Heh.)