Thursday, July 28, 2011

July Round Up


Harry Potter & The Goblet of Fire, The Order of the Phoenix, The Half Blood Prince, and the Deathly Hallows
I spent most of July rereading the Harry Potter series. Mmmm...still so good even though I knew everything that was going to happen.

First of all, reading them all in one big gulp has me seriously wondering how in the hell we were able to wait years between books. I remember how it felt when a new book came out---that desperate need to just find out what happened! I literally didn't do anything else for the 10 days I blew through these. On each day that I finished one, I'd watch the movie that night, and then pick up the next book the following morning.

It was so much fun to rediscover Harry and his world. I remembered the big, sweeping arc of the plot; I had forgotten all of the fun details and interesting characters. I laughed out loud as Tonks and Mad-Eye discussed the possibility of accidentally removing your own buttocks by sticking a wand in your pocket. I forgot how Dobby, so annoying at first, became the most lovable little character. I grieved for Harry when Sirius died. I cheered madly as they all defended Hogwarts from the Death Eaters. I'm not kidding when I say that I'm half tempted to start all over again.

And yet, I also found myself wondering just what exactly it is about these books that makes them so spectacularly addictive. The descriptive writing is solid, but the dialogue could be a little wooden. I'm a fan of the elipses...but Rowling is...crazy...about them. It's downright bizarre that more of those didn't get edited out. The characters interesting, but many of them are one-dimensional. The cynical part of me wants to point out how clear-cut it all is: very few shades of black and white in these books. So easy to cheer on the good guys. And they books are predictable; after all, did any of us actually doubt that Harry would eventually win out over Voldemort?

In the end, none of that matters. These books are 4000 pages tightly packed with plots, subplots, mysteries, comedy, friendship, and most importantly love. I think I love these books because these characters have so much *heart.* Harry, Ron, and Hermione are the central figures, but they are surrounded by loads of everyday people just trying to do what's right.

It was interesting to read a book and then immediately watch the movie. I got a better sense of what was left out or changed. I had never even seen the Half Blood Prince. The movies are action packed thrillers, but they just can't really capture the emotional fullness of the books. I enjoyed some of the movies more than others. I guess I'd say that Prisoner of Azkaban, Order of the Phoenix, and Deathly Hallows 2 were the best films. I still disliked the Goblet of Fire movie, which just cut too much. The special effects in the movies are awesome, and you can really see how far CGI has come in the last 10 years! My favorite scene is probably the fight between Voldemort and Dumbledore at the Ministry of Magic at the end of Order of the Phoenix. I love the part where Voldemort breaks all the glass and sends it towards Dumbledore, who turns it into sand.

I'm not sure I could name a favorite book. I guess the middle 3 are the best to me, from Prisoner of Azkaban through Order of the Phoenix. Chamber of Secrets is my least favorite. It always just seemed a little more boring than the others.

And, on a final note, after downing 5 Harry Potter books and 8 Harry Potter movies in a roughly 2 week period, my dreams were totally fucked up. If you ever need someone to pilot a flying car, DreamJenny is your girl.

The Paris Wife
So, I didn't love this book. It was a quick read, but it felt sort of clumsy and strange to me. It's a fictionalized account of Earnest Hemingway's life in Paris in the early 20s. The Paris Wife is mostly narrated by Hemingway's first wife, Hadley. I say "mostly narrated" because there are occasional chapters narrated by Hemingway---or maybe I should say "mostly narrated" for his chapters, because they are in italics, and these chapters only happen a few times when the author needs to disclose something Hadley doesn't know. It's awkward.

Part of the thing that really bugged me about this book is this fictionalizing of a real person's life. I had a similar problem with a book I started and then abandoned called The Women, which gives the same treatment to Frank Lloyd Wright's wives and mistresses. Here's the deal: I don't mind historical fiction, which is the creation of fake characters in a real context. But making up an inner life for a real person? Hmmm....I just don't know.

There are 2 issues for me with this kind of book. First of all, the events of the book seem too recent, too close. Hadley died in 1979 and presumably has living descendents who could offer up information about her real feelings. After doing a little research, I discovered that there is at least one biography written about her. Hemingway's own memoir, A Moveable Feast, which was published after his suicide, apparently covers their life together in Paris. Given all the real information available about her, why was I reading a fictionalized account of her life? Interestingly, I loved Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, which does something similar with Thomas Cromwell. But that dude lived 500 years ago! He's a blank slate and it seemed a little less...offensive? create a backstory for him on whatever historical record exists. The second problem is the creation of the inner dialogue. If this story had been presented as a film ("hey, come see this movie about Hemingway's first marriage!"), I wouldn't have thought twice. But when you as an author are actually putting fake thoughts into a real person's head? Not okay.

Finally, the book just felt a little heavy handed. Hadley is the good girl, bullied by big, bad Earnest Hemingway. Maybe that's true, but as a reader you can't help thinking that poor Hadley is a real fucking pushover. At one point, she actually lives openly with Earnest and his mistress, even though she doesn't really want to. Perhaps she even has a sexual encounter with the other 2 on one afternoon (a little vague there---made me wish that scene was written by a romance novelist so I really knew what was going on. Heh.)!

The Paris Wife is a page turner and an easy read. But here's the kicker: at the end of the book, when I finished the last page and thought about what I was taking away from it, there was nothing there. I was definitely interested in Hemingway and in knowing more of the real story. In other words, the take away of The Paris Wife was that I should have read A Moveable Feast instead.

The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean
This just might be my favorite (new) book of the year so far. I'm a big fan of narrative non-fiction, especially about science topics. I think my science knowledge is seriously lacking---I blame our high school for this---but lately there's been a few books that combine scientific history or knowledge with personal human stories. I love reading a great story AND learning something at the same time. (FYI: 2 other books I enjoyed were Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything and Richard Holmes' The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science. Of course, the gold standard in this category is probably Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air.)

I first heard about this book when I read a review of it in the New York Times Book Review. I picked up a copy at the Borders Bender a few months ago. It was as spectacular as promised. Casey explains that for hundreds of years, mariners have reported being tossed about by 100 foot waves (stop a second to contemplate that---as tall as a 10 story building. Yikes!). Scientists had thought such waves were impossible until a ship on a scientific expedition was able to record such waves after being trapped in a nasty North Atlantic storm.

The book tells the story of the science behind freak waves (often these 100 footers are rogue waves that appear in storms where normal swells are maybe only 60 feet) by visiting places around the world where they are most likely to happen. The author visits scientists in a remote part of Alaska, marine salvage experts at the tip of South Africa, and the insurance house Lloyds of London. Casey alternates these more expository chapters with chapters that follow an elite group of surfers, primarily Laird Hamilton, as they crisscross the globe in search of the perfect, surfable, monster waves.

This book was captivating. The lives of the surfers and what it takes to tow-surf into a 60 or 70 foot wave is fascinating. And even the science-y chapters, which you might think are more boring, are completely interesting. Casey does a superb job of explaining how and why waves, and why they are so completely dangerous to any ship in its path. This is a book that makes me vow to never set food on a cruise ship while simultaneously making me want to learn how to surf. Now this is what I call a summer read!


Jenny's Book 8: Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee


I cannot for the life of me remember why I bought this book. I sort of remember picking it up a few years ago, sometime after we moved to Chicago. This is definitely a book that was in the "reading ether" for a long time---I'd heard good things from people that have read it, it bubbled up in conversations, etc.

I'm guessing, based on the cover art, that I might have bought it when HBO made a documentary about it. Knowing me, I probably thought: Hey, I've always wanted to read this! And now I will! Obviously, the prudent thing to do would have been to just watch the damn thing on TV.

Another possibility is that I had someone recommend it during last year's Civil War kick--Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee covers the years from roughly 1860-1890, which overlaps with the Civil War and Reconstruction, etc. The treatment of Indians ended up being an ancillary part of many of the Civil War books I read. Maybe I just wanted a book that would cover that part of our history head on?

Finally, it might have also been related to my failed attempt to read Little House on the Prairie to Darius last fall. I *loved* those books when I was younger. And yet, I just couldn't bring myself to read them to him. They are so painfully white-centric and racist against Indians. It's awful. We got maybe 30 or 40 pages in before I gave up. Interestingly, the newest generation of books set in that time period that are more culturally respectful are written guessed it...Louise Erdrich. The only one I've ever looked at is called Morning Girl, but I believe that she's written others for young readers.

There are 2 major reasons I'm choosing it now. First of all, it seems appropriate to read it after The Plague of Doves. Erdrich's books are set on Indian reservations, some go back to the late 1800s, and others are more modern day. Although I don't remember her books dealing specifically with Indian removal schemes, that history still beats in her stories. And, if I'm going to be honest and admit that this book seems the "heaviest" and most intimidating of my remaining books. Probably best to tackle that in summer while I'm still off of work. I keep reminding myself that I felt that way about Nature's Metropolis, too, and I ended up loving it!


Wednesday, July 27, 2011

This is a test

I'm test-blogging from my phone. When I tried this two or three years ago, it was a mess. Improvements? We'll see.

And now... a photo of Kaesea:

Friday, July 15, 2011

Mid-July Round Up


I've finally hit my summer reading grove. I realized I'd better post a mid-month round up so as to not overwhelm you at the end of the month. Also, I've been writing a little after finishing each book, whereas before I had been waiting until the end. I apologize now if these are too long! Amazing how much more detail there is when it's all fresh.

Succubus Shadows
This one might be one of my favorites so far. I enjoyed the glimpses of her past and the revelations of her regrets. I thought this book’s plot—trapped by the evil dream-making monsters---was a smart solution to provide more of her backstory.

However, there was one thing that really bugged me. She’s owed a favor by Jerome, and there’s this long, lingering confusion over the validity of her “contract” with Hell. So rather than deploy her wish to figure out what’s going on with her contract, she wishes to be magically transported to Seth for 3 days? Is it just me, or is that a really stupid move? And then after she’s basically ruined Seth’s life, she’s annoyed that he’s bitter and angry and selfish. I didn’t really like her too much at the end, there. But I guess if I’d been trapped in torture dreams, I’d be a litte emo, too.

Ack. I’m such an idiot. I love series with repeating characters, but at some point, I get frustrated when the plot just endlessly circles the drain. It really makes a series of books so much better when they build to a rousing conclusion and finale! Hm. That makes me sort of want to reread the Harry Potter series.

This was one of the Tournament books that I never got around to reading. As I was packing for NYC, I grabbed it. I love to “read locally” and this novel is set in New York in 1999. This was an interesting little book. The main character is Karim Isser, a computer programmer in New York from Qatar to work on the impending Y2K problem. In the course of his work, he invents a program called Kapitoil that makes huge profits for his firm. He gets embroiled with the CEO, who wants to steal Karim’s intellectual property; worries about his sister and controlling father back in Qatar; and enters into a romantic relationship with a co-worker, Rebecca.

The novel is written in the form of Karim’s diary. He’s a very linear thinker, almost autistic-like in some ways, and the combination of that with the fact that he’s not a native speaker makes for a distinctive “voice.” He misunderstands much of the idiomatic language others use with him. The end of every entry is a list of words and phrases that he learns in his conversations with others.

I liked this book! It was a fun and fast read and reading it while in New York really added to the strong sense of place in the novel.

The Church of Dead Girls
I have TBR book stashed all over my house. This one was by my bedside table and closest to the back porch. Darius was outside playing; I got bored and grabbed this book. I got it from one of the Upper School English teachers who was thinking of using it for a course called Monster Lit.

The story starts with a prologue describing “The Church of Dead Girls.” 3 teenage girls have been kidnapped, killed, and tied to chairs in an attic. The book then starts by going back and explaining the whole course of events and all the things that happen in the small town as the people become more and more frightened. It’s basically a novel about the power of suspicion. People start to suspect each other, even though they have known each other their whole lives. As their fear escalates, so are the boundaries on what is seen as appropriate behavior. There is no more “privacy” if everyone in town is a suspect. Honestly, I assumed it was some sort of metaphor for fearmongering, post-9/11 America, but then I saw that the copyright date was 1997. Guess some fears have been around a long time and we just fix them to whatever political event seems most relevant.

I don’t know if I’d recommend it. It was slow and boring at parts as the narrator described every minute detail of life in the town. I guess the first person narrator in is a brilliant choice for this particular theme: I was both skeptical of the narrator (I was sure that he would end up being the killer!) and also more sensitive to the heightened fear that people faced (each person is now under a cloud of suspicion). In that way, the reader functions as one of the townspeople. Everyone is suspect, I didn’t know who could be trusted.

Unfortunately, it had the first-person narrator problem that I really fucking hate: somehow the narrator knows everything that everyone is thinking and saying to each other. Authors can’t have it both ways. By choosing a first person narrator, one must necessarily limit that narrator. Dobyns tries to get around this by occasionally throwing in a “this person told me” as a way of explaining, but it doesn’t work. Instead, I kept wondering how the narrator knew what everyone else was thinking all the time. I guess I will say this: I was determined to find out who the murderer was and that suspense kept me reading. But at the same time, I read as fast as I could because I just wanted to get finished. I even considered skipping ahead and just reading the end. How’s that for a mixed review?

Harry Potter the Prisoner of Azkaban
We watched the first 2 movies with Darius this weekend, and then he bailed when this one got too scary for him. It inspired me to pick up the books and start reading. Prisoner of Azkaban has always been one of my favorites. I think this is where the series starts to pick up moral complexity and interest. I'm never that interested in reading the first 2, although I hope to read them TO Darius at some point!

I still love the character of Sirius Black, and the idea that Harry could have some family that wasn't the stinking rotten Dursley clan. But I forgot how much fun and whimsey are in these books: the Firebolt, Honeydukes sweets shop, the Maurauder's Map! At the same time, Harry, Ron, and Hermoine are coming into their own, as individuals and as a threesome. It's been a long time since I've reread them all, and I think I might make my way through them again. As for the movie, we're slated for HP7.2 on Sunday evening. I can't wait.

Silver Sparrow
Have you heard about my great reading quest? It seems so simple, yet it is so difficult to find: books with black characters that aren’t impoverished, imprisoned, or enslaved. You know, a book about a regular, middle-class black family. This is a huge problem in YA books especially---I mean, it would be almost comical if it wasn’t so damn depressing. So far, the grand total of books I’ve found that fit the bill is ONE: Eighth Grade Superzero by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich.

Anyhoo, my colleagues at work all know about my quest, so my friend Sarah brought Silver Sparrow back from a conference and passed it along to me. It’s a great book (sadly inappropriate for middle schoolers) set in Atlanta during the 80s. James Witherspoon is a bigamist. He has 2 wives and 2 daughters, only a few months apart in age. Lavender is his wife, and Chaurisse is his legitimate daughter. Gwen is his second “wife” and Dana is his secret, one that he successfully keeps hidden from his first family for almost 20 years.

This book is told through the eyes of the daughters. Dana is the first narrator, and she has known all along that she is second best. Gwen is both resigned and angry, and she and Dana spy on James’ other family, simmering with resentment that they are not treated the same way. The second section is narrated by Chaurisse. She and her Mother have no idea that James has been betraying them for 20 years, and her section tells the story of how the secret finally comes to light.

Jones’ writing isn’t fancy and frothy, but it packs an emotional punch. She’s very precise with her descriptions. When Dana traps her father in a lie, she thinks, “It’s funny how three or four notes of anger can be struck at once, creating the perfect chord of fury” (45). The author makes every female character sympathetic, which is no small feat when you consider the subject matter. It was definitely a good choice to start the narration with Dana, who gives her mother’s life dignity and purpose. When the narration switches to Chaurisse, I was primed not to like her, but then I realized how innocent she was of the whole situation. In many ways, her life is more difficult than Dana’s. She considers herself plain (a sparrow), while Dana is beautiful and smart (a silver girl).

This is really a book about strong women. James and his brother (he’s complicit in keeping the secret for so long) are there, but it’s watching the women deal with their lives that is the focus of the novel. Most poignant are the words of advice that the different generations of women tell each other about how to survive, about what is worth fighting for. Dana's mother tells her, "Love is a maze. Once you get in it, you're pretty much trapped. Maybe you mange to claw your way out, but then what have you accomplished?" (116). In this world, being hurt by a man is both inevitable and unavoidable. Near the end of the novel, Chaurisse goes to her Uncle looking for an explanation and says, “nice guys break your heart but manage to make you feel like they’re the ones who have been done wrong” (324). I loved this book. I can’t recommend it highly enough.


Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Completed: The Plague of Doves


I finished The Plague of Doves while mediating a ridiculous dispute among 8 year old boys. Grrr...teaching children to be nice to each other is no easy feat.

The Plot
The Plague of Doves is told through several narrators spanning a period of about 80 years. When the book starts, the narrator is a school girl named Evelina. She is fascinated by the stories of her grandfather and great-uncle. One day they reveal a chilling story about an entire farm family that was found murdered back in 1911, with only a baby left alive. The townspeople are convinced that a group of Indians killed the family. The white men hang the Indians, including a 14 year old boy, in an act of brutal vigilante justice. It is 50 years later, and the novel shows how the descendants of both the hanged men and the white men are now entwined and entangled in their small North Dakota town, Pluto.

In subsequent sections, we see Evelina grow older and leave the reservation to go to college. There are 3 other narrators: Judge Antone Bazil Coutts, a man who marries Evelina's aunt; Marn Wolde, a young woman who falls in love with a traveling preacher; and Doctor Cordelia Lochren, an old woman in the novel who it turns out is child that survived the murder of her family back in 1911.

The Writing
I just love Erdrich's writing style. Most of the time, her writing is lyrical and poetic. She has a gift for describing both the natural world around her, but also for describing the complex tangle of human emotions. Here's her description of Mooshum, Evelina's grandfather, when he describes what it was like when he saw his long-deceased wife for the first time:
Mooshum paused in his story. His hands opened and the hundreds of wrinkles in his face folded into a mask of unsurpassable happiness....The Holy Spirit hovered between them...Then her mouth opened. Did they kiss? I couldn't ask Mooshum. Perhaps she smiled. She hadn't had time to write his name even once upon her body, though, and besides she didn't even know his name. They saw into each other's beings, therefore names were irrelevant. They ran away together, Mooshum said, before each had thought to ask what the other was called. And then they decided not to have names for a while---all that mattered was they had escaped, slipped their knots, cut the harnesses that relatives had already tightened" (12).

I love this description of falling in love at first sight, and of how the years fell away from his face as he thought of her. But just as beautiful as the prose, the characters are also very earthy and funny. One of my favorite part of the book is later on when Evelina is about 19. She wants only to go to Paris, and she spends all of her spare time studying French out of books. One day at the diner where she works as a waitress, her boss Earl mocks her for studying French. He hates her books and one day says to her, "The French are pussies." Her Uncle Whitey happens to be in the diner, and he quickly fires back, "Take that word back, or I'll fight you. Thou shalt not take that word in vain" (186). This whole exchange cracked me up. I thought it was hilarious that her Uncle would basically declare his love of pussy in front of her while at the same time being too squeamish to say the word in front of her.

The Magical and Fantastic
I wouldn't say that Erdrich's genre is magical realism, but these characters definitely believe in magic and grace and the power of the unknown. Evelina's great-uncle is called by a vision to the banks of the lake. Days later, a mysterious canoe with only a beautiful violin inside drifts straight to him. Later, they find a note in the violin explaining how it was set adrift, like a message in a bottle, 20 years before it arrives on his shores.

Several characters in the story collect stamps, and the story of how they are found and destroyed is both ethereal and beautiful. Some stamps are magically recovered while others are carelessly destroyed. Letters are sent but never received, or received by the wrong person or many years too late.

A man gets his mistress pregnant. Her brother comes to ask him for money, rather than give it to him straight out, the man concocts a sinister but brilliant plan. He convinces the brother to kidnap his wife so that he can pay a ransom. Although the kidnap plot goes off without a hitch, the wife is never the same. He finally admits the truth to her and goes to jail. Both the mistress and the wife repudiate their love for him once they know what he has done.

Marne has an affinity for snakes. She coils huge, venomous snakes up with her and harvests their venom. One night, she plunges a syringe full of venom into her husband's heart, killing him instantly. Her husband was the brother from the previous anecdote, the one who kidnaps the wife to get money for his pregnant sister. As another murder in the book, it seems to imply that her actions are vigilante justice gone awry.

The Final Analysis
At the end of the book, there was a list of magazines and journals that published certain chapters as short stories. I had a bit of an A-ha! moment. Although I liked the book tremendously, it just didn't "hang" very well as a novel. It's roughly woven together, but it never really builds up in intensity and strength the way I expect from good novels. I almost wish I would have known that beforehand, because I think I would have "rolled with it" a little more. Instead, I found myself frustrated by the loose threads and wondering how it was going to all come together. Even the last section narrated by Cordelia feels a bit off. She's not a major part of the novel at all, and she only narrates this one last section. It seems like she's the bow meant to tie it all together at the end. That's clearly her "purpose" for narrating, unlike the others who have interesting stories to tell. It feels forced because she's a new narrator at the very end, yet she was largely irrelevant to the thrust of the main narrative.

I still enjoyed the book, there was too much interesting stuff there that I really liked. I just wish is would have been woven together a bit more convincingly.


Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Is this a message?

Dear Jenny,

I've been struggling a bit with The Master and Margarita. Every time I start to get into it, a new chapter starts and it feels like an entirely new cast of characters gets introduced. I'm beginning to see the plots interweaving, but keeping focused has been a bit difficult. Maybe it's just Summer Brain, but it's not yet coming together for me.

All of the Russian names are not helping. Not only the whole "I am struggling to keep these long-ass foreign names straight" issue, but also because the Russians loooove nicknames. So you have to keep track of several names for every Russian character. Whee!

Honestly, I've considered making this my first "bail" book of the year (although it is really hard for me to dump a book.) (Really hard.) and then I was at Powell's this past weekend and saw this:

Ha! It's a t-shirt for The Master and Margarita! And doesn't that cat look like he's judging me? "What do you meeeean you're not going to finish this book?"

So I guess I gotta finish it. The damned t-shirt cat has judged me and I refuse to let him win.


PS -- They had a ton of other book cover t-shirts there, including The Great Gatsby. I was sorely tempted, but it was a truly hideous royal blue color that I just couldn't get behind.