Saturday, October 29, 2011

Book Nerdery

This post is my entry in the Book Nerd Out giveaway hosted by Book Riot: Reviews, Recommendations, and Commentary about books and reading (but, you know, fun).

Dear Kelly,

I have been reading a new book blog, Book Riot, for the past few weeks, and they're offering a $100 gift certificate to the bookstore of your choosing if you win the giveaway. The topic seems like it has the potential to be pretty funny: when's the time you went crazy nerdiest for a book?

I was thinking it would be amusing, considering how long we have been friends and because we are each other's primary audience, to reminisce about my early book nerd days.

Ladies and gentlemen, I bring you the Jenny of the Sweet Valley High years. I was obsessed--Obsessed! I tell you--with those books. There were so many ways I was nerdy about them that I think I might actually have to make a list.

1) According to Wikipedia, the first book came out in 1983. This makes sense, because I seem to most remember these books in 5th and 6th grade.

2) I still can recite from memory that exposition about those damn twins: Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield. Beautiful blondes, they are a perfect size 6 (this is sort of funny, now, right? I'm sure this is fat to today's teenagers), they are too wonderful to wear something as pedestrian as lockets...these girls have lavaliers!

3) I had my own little Sweet Valley High library. In fact, I used to pretend I was a librarian, and actually put tape at the top and bottom of the spines of each book. The books just looked a little more professional that way.

4) Obviously, the tape was unnecessary given the weirdest quirk I had as a child: I NEVER broke the spine of a book. I used to hate how a it looked. When the spine was broken, especially on a longer book, the pages would drift outward at an angle. I liked my book pages to be flat and straight. I didn't dog-ear, either. The horror! This is beyond weird. Why did I do that? I vividly remember that it drove you crazy because you used to say that you never could read the words in the gutter of the page. I didn't care, though, I knew it was better to have pristine books.

5) I could read a Sweet Vally High book at light-speed pace. Once, I got the latest release at mall's Waldenbooks, I believe it was #10. I read it while my Mom was getting her hair cut. The lady at the front desk watched me read it and suggested that I should just to return it and get my money back. After all, it looked unread and it was only an hour later. I was horrified at this suggestion for many reasons. Having a complete, unbroken-spined set meant something to me. And, I was a good girl and that would have been stealing. Or something like that.

6) Despite my love of the physical objects that were the Sweet Valley High books, I don't quite remember what I got out of them. I identified with Elizabeth, the good twin. That scheming Jessica didn't deserve her. There was one book where Elizabeth goes bad. Shocking, although I'm sure all was right in Sweet Valley by the end.

7) I started to tire of Sweet Valley High. The thrill was gone, but I was determined to end with a nice round number. I'm pretty sure that I continued to buy up until #30 because I couldn't bear to end with an random number like 28.

8) And yet, I have no idea where they all went. I must have dumped them at some point...or my Mother did. Too bad. I bet a pristine set of Sweet Valley High books would be worth something on eBay. Hah.

9) Today at the bookstore, I saw the new "grown-up" book meant to appeal to readers exactly like me. It's called Sweet Valley Confidential, and it was released sometime this year. You'll be proud to know I wasn't tempted for a minute. I bought The Marriage Plot instead.

10) Okay. I did pick it up and read the back cover. I figure it will land on the remaindered table sooner or later and I can get it then. I'm only semi-kidding.


Completed: Seeing

Dear Kelly,

This month, my TBR book was really a two-fer because I reread Blindness before tackling its "sequel."

The experience of rereading Blindness
This book still had the power to shock and horrify me. I remembered the basic plot pretty clearly: The book starts with a man at a stoplight. He suddenly loses his vision and everything is blinding white. Like dominoes, the other people he comes in contact with also become blind. Only the Doctor's Wife continues to see, but she pretends to be blind to stay with her husband. The first group of blind people are taken away to a mental hospital and quarantined, and most of the novel follows them in this miserable hellhole. I vaguely remembered that none of the characters are given names. Although I did forget just how many people ban together under the care of the Doctor's Wife. I was surprised by the WALL OF TEXT, long pages without any paragraph breaks and very little punctuation. I had completely forgotten.

Basically, I was reading at half-cringe the entire time. I just was waiting for the "we'll trade you some food for your women" scene. Which, by the way, was worse than I had remembered. A lot worse than I remembered.

I felt a little battered having read it again, but in a weird way, I was happy about it. It's nice to see that my reading memory isn't as completely useless as I thought. One thing that surprised me is how bleak the ending is, despite the fact that they escape from the mental hospital and eventually regain their sight. I remembered that there was some sort of redeeming moment, where the Doctor's Wife was in a church. But this time around, it just felt like a damning indictment of humanity. We are all stumbling around blind, being awful to each other, and there's not much to be done about it.

On that cheery note, I moved on to the sequel.

This is, perhaps, the worst book I have ever read. And I don't mean "worst" because it was upsetting. I mean because it sucked. The action takes place in the same nameless country of blindness. On election day, the citizens mysteriously avoid the polling places all day, until, like zombies, they start to appear to vote at around 4pm. However, when the votes are counted, 80% of them are blank. From there and for the next 180 pages, the government freaks out, reacts, overreacts, etc. THERE ARE NO CHARACTERS. Just the shadowy "government" trying to find somewhere to pin the blame.

Remember back in senior year when we read some absurdist or surrealist novella (The Metamorphosis, perhaps)? And one of our assignments was to write an absurdist piece of our own? Well, that's how this book read: like it was churned out, overnight, as a half-assed response to a ridiculous assignment from an English teacher. "Imagine a scenario where the government acts in a totally absurd fashion," the English teacher trilled, "and make sure there are no characters, and no names, and no paragraph breaks! Tra-la-la!"

Kelly, if it wasn't for the fact that I didn't want to start another book, I would have dumped this sucker 20 pages in. As it is, I skimmed---and I mean skimmed, motherfucker---until about page 180. It is there that some semblance of plot revealed itself. The First Man to go Blind writes a letter to the government revealing that the Doctor's Wife never went blind, and he suggest that she may be responsible for the blank votes. It turns out that he and his wife have divorced and he's holding a grudge against the Doctor's Wife. Why, you may ask? Because the asshole can't get over the fact that his wife slept with other men when they were blind. That is, that his wife was gang-raped in exchange for food while they were blind. What a twat-waffle.

Anyways, it really all goes downhill from there. The police superintendent investigates the matter (he does think the First Man to go Blind is a jerk, and points out to him that he did eat the food she brought back, so maybe he shouldn't be such an ass). He quickly determines that the Doctor's Wife is innocent and refuses to frame her for the blank votes. In the end, both he and the Doctor's Wife are assassinated by the government.

This book was just awful. The thing about Blindness was that it was so shocking and terrifying; I was immediately swept up in the agony of these characters. In Seeing, the central problem was just a total yawn. People cast blank votes! I mean really, who cares? In the end, it is even more bleak, but at the same time, the theme is so apparent it was like getting hit in the face with a 2x4. The government is WILLFULLY blind---get it? They killed the only people who could see. Get it? Get it? The ending is, quite literally, overkill.

All in all, a depressing month in TBR-land,

PS I realize this review is full of profanity. It's a reflection of my sheer annoyance with Seeing. I do apologize. 

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Kelly's Book 10: The Book of Vice

Dear Jenny,

Well, I've stuck to the schedule for most of this year, but got thrown off this month. I stalled out on my Sea-Wolf review because I just had so much swirling around in my head that I couldn't get it all down (I probably should have done some "in progress" posts on that one... Note to Self: When you start to feel overwhelmed by a book, it's time for Progress Posts!)

And then, since I hadn't made the post, I didn't pick the next book! And now there are only five days left in the month for me to read The Book of Vice. As a side note, I've read about 8 other books in the past month (mostly trash, so no report) -- they just weren't TBR books. Whoops. Oh, yeah -- and I also listened all of the Hunger Games audiobooks. Loooved them!

At any rate... do you remember when I bought this book? It was when we went to see Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me. Unbelievably, that was in June 2009! Did you ever listen to that particular show later? At the very end, when the audience is cheering, you can actually hear me whooping. I wasn't sure if it was me, so I had Bill give it a listen. He looked at me and said, "That is totally YOU." If you want to hear for yourself go to this page, click on the last segment, "Prediction," and at right about the 1:57 mark, get ready. You'll hear the signature Kelly Whoop right there. Heh.

I'm hoping this book goes quickly as it appears to be short stories. Unfortunately, it is in direct competition right now with two other books I am engrossed in... one is a dumb supernatural YA series that I downloaded for cheap (do you ever read any .99 or 2.99 Kindle books? If so, how has your experience been with that?) and the other is the audiobook version of The Night Circus, which has me completely under its spell, although it's the first audiobook I've listened to that I would maybe have preferred to actually read myself -- there are a lot of characters and a lot of different plot lines and it's difficult to refer back to previous chapters to look people up in an audiobook. But I'm still hooked. Have you read it?

So I may do some "in progress" posts as I read the short stories because I doubt I'll be able to remember them all at the end of the book. (Also ... it may be handy to cover up the fact that I'll actually be bleeding over into November...)

Side note... November! WOW! I cannot believe it's been almost a year since we embarked upon this journey! Ready to do it again in 2012?


Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Completed: The Sea-Wolf

[I started this post nearly a month ago... I have struggled to write something brilliant, but am now giving up to move on... it is what it is.]

Dear Jenny,

Well, I'm counting this book as "read," even though I listened to the audio book. Bill still maintains that it's cheating, but I'm stickin' with it. Also, I have to say that I did have the book in hand as I listened. There were many passages that I re-read after hearing them, so I feel like I was an "active" reader.

Sooo... about the book, then. :)

I loved it! It kept me on the edge of my seat (or "feet," as I frequently listened to it while walking) the entire time. There was a real tension throughout this book that almost killed me (I hate suspense) but the ending was so damned satisfying that it was all worth it.

Plot Summary
(If anyone who is not Jenny is reading this and does not want to be spoiled, now is the time to stop, because I'm about to give the whole thing away...)

Do you know the plot? I knew absolutely nothing about this book when I picked it up, so I really had no idea what to expect. The book jumps right into the action as the narrator, Humphrey Van Weyden, is traveling in a ferry across the SF Bay (Yay!) when it runs into another ship and sinks (Oh, no!) A seal-hunting schooner, the Ghost, picks him up and he thinks they will return him immediately to land (Yay!) But Wolf Larsen, the captain of the ship, don't work that way. He needs another crew member, so Humphrey is kidnapped and becomes an unwilling member of the crew (Oh, no!)

Wolf Larsen is a character. Powerful, frightening, ruthless, incredibly intelligent. Not formally educated, but amazingly well-read. He has a vice-grip on everyone on his ship, both mentally and physically. I can't do this description justice because, well, I'm not Jack London. Even though it seems so easy to categorize this man -- Let's just hate him! -- London has created a complex character that also demands respect and, in the end, even sympathy.

So Humphrey joins the crew and the book covers the brutality of life at sea, particularly at sea with Wolf Larsen (the seal-hunting was a bit difficult to take... I had to distract myself during those scenes). But things get really interesting when they take on another shipwreck survivor: Maud Brewster. A poet and, more importantly, a laaaaady. Humphrey had written a review of her book, so they know of one another from their previous lives. Not long after she arrives, Humphrey falls for her... and so does Wolf Larsen. And that made me mighty nervous, I gotta say.

At one point, Humphrey catches Wolf assaulting Maud and decides right then to escape. We've already seen things turn bad for the other folks who have tried to escape, so this is nerve-wracking. 600 miles off the coast of Japan, these two steal a bunch of provisions and a sealing boat and hit the open water. This part had me just feverish with anticipation: Will they make it? Will Wolf catch them? What will he do when he does?!

They land on a deserted island and they manage to set up camp and live pretty well there for several weeks, hoping that someone will sail by and see them. Humphrey hides his love for Maud the entire time and we get the idea that Maud is falling for him too, but she's also keeping it to herself. I guess this part was somewhat unbelievable... two people, shipwrecked on a deserted island, attracted to each other... we'd probably see a little bow-chicka-bow-wow here. But they keep it G-rated. And you know I'm okay with that. :)

After they're there for a couple of weeks, who should turn up run aground on the beach but... Wolf Larsen and the Ghost! (Dun-dun-dun!) He's had an ongoing revenge war with his brother (Death Larsen -- nice family, eh?) and his brother has finally won. Death has stolen all of Wolf's men and sabotaged his ship, setting Wolf adrift at sea. By sheer coincidence, he washes up on the island where Humphrey and Maud are camping out. (Okay. Writing that now I see how very, very unlikely this is, but while totally engrossed in this book, I did not care.) Throughout the book, Wolf has had debilitating headaches and they are now getting worse. His most recent bout has caused him to go blind and he's decided that his plan is to go ahead and die on the Ghost, grounded on this island.

Humphrey and Maud have other plans, as they'd like to get the hell outta dodge and, if they can repair the Ghost, they can make that happen. Wolf forbids them from fixing the ship, but his blindness has taken its toll, so he's not as powerful as he once was. Even so, he does manage to throw a few wrenches in their plans, so this part of the novel continues to be fraught with tension: Will they get the ship fixed before Wolf sabotages it? When he does sabotage it, will they be able to repair his damage? Will Wolf kill Humphrey? And...Why doesn't Humphrey just kill Wolf?!

Oh, dear Humphrey! He cannot bring himself to injure or kill a man who is not physically threatening him and Wolf knows this and uses it to his advantage. He actually has the gun on Wolf and Wolf is mocking him and taunting him to pull the trigger but dear Humphrey cannot. I would argue that Wolf has been "threatening" Humphrey since he kidnapped him into forced servitude, but Humphrey can only act defensively, so Wolf is safe from harm at Humphrey's hands. At one point, he tricks Humphrey into getting very close to him (by faking a headache spell and falling down some stairs -- Humphrey! Don't do it! He's faking!) and nearly crushes him to death, but Maud clubs Wolf over the head. It's definitely a "YEAH! You go, girl!" moment. After that incident, they handcuff Wolf. He still manages to set his mattress on fire in an attempt to burn the boat, but they put it out in time. See what I mean? Excitement at every turn! The tension was palpable, even with Wolf practically debilitated. The character is that powerful.

In the end, they get the boat going and do get off of the island. Wolf dies at sea so they heave him over. They see a friendly US ship and when they know they're going to be rescued, they finally admit their love for one another and seal it with a kiss. The End.

Okay! Now that I've told you the entire plot (I didn't really mean to... it just sort of happened), here are a few totally random thoughts and observations... it's time to get this thing posted!

Wolf and Humphrey
What a complex relationship these two have -- just fascinating! It's easy enough to vilify Wolf for kidnapping Humphrey. And yet, Humphrey ends up being grateful to Wolf for making him the man that he is in the end of the book.

Upon meeting him, Wolf questions Humphrey about what he does for a living, and when Humphrey says that he'll pay Wolf good money to return him to land, he growls, ""Who earned it? Eh? I thought so. Your father. You stand on dead men's legs. You've never had any of your own. You couldn't walk alone between two sunrises and hustle the meat for your belly for three meals. Let me see your hand" (25). It is, of course, soft.

As the book proceeds, those hands toughen up. I love this line (Humphrey is thinking to himself): "I had not been called 'Sissy' Van Weyden all my days without reason, and that 'Sissy' Van Weyden should be capable of doing this thing was a revelation to Humphrey Van Weyden, who knew not whether to be exultant or ashamed" (79).

By the end, he does become "exultant" by these changes. When he is repairing the shipwrecked Ghost to save himself and Maud, his pride in his work is palpable. Sooo... Humphrey would not have had these hard-core survival skills if it had not been for Wolf Larsen kidnapping him. But then... if Wolf Larsen had not kidnapped him, he wouldn't be in the position where he needed the survival skills in the first place.

I'm sure this topic is hotly debated in literary circles and I don't know which side I favor. Part of me feels that yes, Humphrey is a better man for having gotten his hands dirty doing manual labor. On the other hand, I'm outraged at the idea of anyone being kidnapped and forced into labor against their will. Well done, Jack London. Well. Done!

The Writing. It's breathtaking.
Besides the exciting (if, at times, improbable) story, the writing that really makes this book. It is so lyrical -- the poetry of it really swept me away. Here is one of many amazing descriptions -- Wolf's eyes the first time Humphrey sees them:
The eyes -- and it was my destiny to know them well -- were large and handsome, wide apart as the true artist's are wide, sheltering under a heavy brow and arched over by thick black eyebrows. The eyes themselves were of that baffling protean gray which is never twice the same; which runs through many shades and colorings like intershot silk in sunshine; which is gray, dark and light, and greenish gray, and sometimes of the clear azure of the deep sea. They were eyes that masked the soul with a thousand guises, and that sometimes opened, at rare moments, and allowed it to rush up as though it were about to fare forth nakedly into the world on some wonderful adventure -- eyes that could brood with the hopeless sombreness of leaden skies; that could snap and crackle points of fire like those which sparkle from a whirling sword; that could grow chill as an arctic landscape, and yet again, that could warm and soften and be all a-dance with love-lights, intense and masculine, luring and compelling, which at the same time fascinate and dominate women till they surrender in a gladness of joy and of relief and sacrifice. [24]

And re-reading it here, I can hear the narrator of my audiobook -- Frank Muller, who did a wonderful job -- reading it in my head and he really nailed it. He brought the poetry of the words to life! I could cite about a dozen more examples in this book where I either rewound (what do we call "rewinding" now in the all-digital world? I still find myself saying, "books on tape," so I am apparently hopeless) or grabbing the book itself to re-read the passage. Really breathtaking.

A quick comment on other reviews...
This didn't end up being much of a "review," I must admit (although I'm not sure that any of my "reviews" really are... is there a class for this? I don't think I was very good at "book reports" as a kid... should I be trying to write 5 paragraph essays here?) so I read some other reviews to see what 1000s of others have said before me.

I agreed with many of them except: it seems as though the "romance" part of the book is frequently considered the weakest point, but I was so happy to discover that it's a happy-ending love story that I actually said, "Hey! It's a love story!" when it ended. Out loud. Walking down the street. By myself. So I was all right with it.


PS - I took the photo in this post one morning as I headed out for a walk, listening to The Sea-Wolf. My grandmother always used to say, "Pink sky at night, sailors' delight. Pink sky in the morning, sailors' warning." Although... the day that I took this photo turned out pretty nice, so I guess it's not always 100% reliable.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Jenny's Book 10: Seeing


If I were to make a list of the most unforgettable and harrowing novels I've ever read, Jose Saramago's Blindness would definitely be in the top 5.

We've discussed before how easy it is to forget the salient details of the books we've read. I can look at a book and know that I've read it have only the vaguest recollection of the major details. Plot, character, setting, it all just blurs together at some point. And then there's Blindness. I have vivid--VIVID--recall of certain scenes and characters from that book.

I read it back in what must have been 1998, because it was my first year at that dingy little middle school in Berkeley. There's something about that book that has always stuck with me. I know that you've read it, and I believe we talked about what it all means.

Needless to say, I picked up the sequel, Seeing, at some point. My copy of it is a hardcover, but I honestly don't remember if I bought it right away when it came our or at some point later. I've never read Seeing because I knew I'd want to reread Blindness first. I was curious about the accuracy of my memory, but mostly I'm interested to see if it has the same effect on me. Some books gain emotional power with rereading, while others lose their magic. I wonder which category Blindness will fall into?

I actually started Blindness today and am about 60 pages in. So far, it's just as engaging as I remember. Already my experience of reading it is very different. One particularly poignant realization is about the first man to go blind. He's 38. This would have meant nothing to me when I read it at 25. But I'm about to be 38 in just a few weeks. Something about that gave me the shivers!

Also, as I was looking for images for this post, I realized that they made a movie about Blindness. I bet that is one bleak motherfucker. I think I'll skip that.


* This might make for an interesting blog post. What are the most harrowing novels you've ever read? For sure Toni Morrison's Beloved and Cormac McCarthy's The Road would be on my list.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Oh, Toni.


This was not my favorite Toni Morrison novel ever. This short novel centers around a mythic figure, Bill Cosey, who ran a hotel and resort for wealthy blacks in the decades after World War 2. Bill himself isn't a character in the novel as much as he is a ghost. It's the memory of him that lives on in the town: among his friends, his granddaughter, and his wife.

The major part of the novel is about the disagreement over who is the rightful heir to his property: his last wife (he was married a few times) or his granddaughter. Heed, the wife, and Christine, the granddaughter,  are living together on the property in a state of open warfare. Who is the rightful heir and why are they both so determined to hate each other?

The novel quickly sets up the conflict and it has the sharp writing you'd expect from Morrison. She is an amazing observer of human behavior. I kept marking particularly pithy sentences that capture something true and right about the human condition. For example, a young woman relates her experience of working at Cosey's hotel. Vida is a good cook and an excellent worker, but she "knew she had more to learn than registering guests and handling money. As in any workplace, there were old alliances here; mysterious battles, pathetic victories" (37). These lines really struck a chord with me: how many places have I worked where everyone gets caught up in politicking over something that's largely meaningless? (The answer: a lot.)

But the novel also has some of the regular Toni Morrison challenges. For example, it took a long time to figure out who's who, who's related, and how all the players fit together. One particularly challenging thing to figure out was why Heed called Bill, who was her husband, "Papa." In fact, I spent a few chapters sort of annoyed by this because...WTF, Toni? You can't make it easier on your readers? And then the tales of Heed's relationship got even stranger. At one point, she throws a fit about something Christine did and right there at the table, Bill spanks Heed in front of other people. Jeez, you want to do a little spanking in the bedroom, that's one thing, but to have your husband spank you publicly for misbehaving as if you were a child?

It was shortly after this bizarre spanking scene that the central "mystery" of the plot was revealed. The reason Heed calls Bill Papa is because HE MARRIED HER WHEN SHE WAS 11 AND HE WAS 52. He BOUGHT her from her father. And he basically think he's an okay guy because he even though she was a child bride, he waited until after her first period to bed her.

Kelly. Never before have I felt so grossed out by a book. I mean, I know this shit happens. But....ewww.

I soldiered on but it got worse. Basically, Christine and Heed had been best friends as children until Bill marries Heed. Christine's mother, who apparently was crazy in some ways but sharp as a tack in others, sends her daughter off immediately after the marriage. She had rightly deduced that Christine probably wasn't so safe from the attentions of her own grandfather. (Can we say ewwww again?) Most profoundly, the friendship between the girls is irreparably harmed. Both girls feel ashamed, frightened, and guilty. Instead of turning to each other, they turn against each other. Although the novel ends with a reconciliation of sorts, the tragedy is that they were never able to get past what was done to them as children.

I don't know. Many of Morrison's novels feel "epic" to me in their scope. This one felt insular and isolating, I'd even go so far as to say claustrophobic. It just felt small. I suppose that was the point, but I can't say that I particularly enjoyed it.