Saturday, April 13, 2013

Sigh. The Casual Vacancy.


I was so excited by the "let's read this book at the same time" plan. Too bad this book is so awful. And I've gotta tell you, I can hardly believe I wrote those words. It's J.K. Rowling! How can I think it's awful? I feel like I just punched one of the Weasley twins in the face.

We've talked a lot about the weight of expectations. But what do you do when you expect not to think much of a book and your expectations are low...and you actually dislike it MORE than you expected. Oof.

Here's my problem. I'm about 25% of the way through the book. Right now, if it wasn't for you, I'd put this book down and never pick it back up again.

1) Despite the rather exciting and dramatic inciting incident, there has not been a single other noteworthy plot element that has taken place in the book. And I've gotta tell you, this is *killing* me. I guess I did have one expectation going into this, which is that at the very least I could count on J. K. Rowling to have a well-plotted book. But nothing is happening. And because of nothing happening...

2)...None of the characters seem interesting, exciting, likeable, or distinctive. Literally every time the book switches perspective, I have to force myself to remember any sort of salient details about the person and his or her relationship to the other characters.

3) Speaking of characters, am I the only one who thinks that there are just too many of them? And that we know the perspectives of too many of them? My favorite phrase for this is "head hopping" and usually I actually don't usually mind perspective switching. I like knowing what everyone is thinking. But they also have to be *doing* something apparently. As it is, this is just a maelstrom of angry, worried, small-minded people thinking mean, uncharitable thoughts. Mmmm. Fun.

4) I have an awful feeling that this isn't actually a book, but rather Rowling out to prove something: let me take all the awesome and great things about Harry Potter and do *everything exactly the opposite* so that all these adult readers get that I'm serious and I mean business and that I'm a real author now! The problem to me is that the net result, at least so far, is a misanthropic, meandering mess. I'm not saying that books need to be sunny and bright and cheerful in order for me to read them, but this has really nothing to offer me.

I'm struggling.

PS How do you say Pagford? Pag rhymes with Lag? Or more like page?
PPS How many times will she use the term "casual vacancy" and why does it make me feel like she thinks I'm too dumb to remember; Or perhaps she's worried we won't get the metaphor, yes, yes, it's about death. I get it.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Kelly's Book 4.13: Grand River and Joy

Dear Jenny,

My mother-in-law recommended this book a couple of years back. The only thing I really know about it is that it's set in Detroit -- Grand River and Joy are streets downtown. (You can see the intersection here on Google Maps, if you're interested.)

Random note about the street "Grand River." On the freeway, it's abbreviated "Gd River" and the GPS also says "Gd River." When we first moved here, I was using the GPS to navigate and I told Bill, "Get off at Grand (?) River. At least, I assume that's 'Grand' -- it's abbreviated as 'Gd' everywhere -- it's not God damned River, is it?" You never know -- Detroit can be pretty tough! Heh.

I'm also currently reading Detroit City is the Place to Be and Belle Isle to 8 Mile: An Insider's Guide to Detroit, which is an exhaustively comprehensive guide to the city. (Honestly, I have never read a more detailed city guide in my life.) So, you know... I'm gettin' all Detroit-y!


Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Completed: Why I'm Like This

Dear Jenny,

This book was... okay. A little bit of a disappointment because I had really expected it to be hilarious. I don't know why I expected that, but I did. I guess part of it was this quote on the front: "Striking a note somewhere between David Sedaris and Anna Quindlen...." and on the back: "Knee-slapping hilarious."  And also this awesome opener that I already mentioned to you: "Author's Note: I have changed the names of some people and some places because my editor made me." Funny shit, right?

I can't remember now I even came across this book. I'm guessing I read a review, someone said it was hilarious, I read one hilarious snippet and picked it up (I really should leave myself a little note in these books to remind my Future Self why I was interested in the first place... when I *buy* a book, it just never occurs to me: "I might not read this for a long, long time." But it should. I think this blog is a good indicator that this is a Thing for me. So... yeah.)

Back to the book, then. This was a book of short "true stories" (subtitle on the front) from the author's life. Many of the stories were quite poignant. And not poignant-but-funny. Just poignant.  (So on the David Sedaris <---> Anna Quindlen scale, coming in waaaaay closer to AQ than DS.) She's a good writer and she writes her stories well -- it just wasn't what I was expecting. And I can't help but feeling like, "For that amount of time, I could just call a friend I haven't talked to in awhile and catch up with their stories." I now know quite a bit about this author and we're not even friends. After reading a book, I don't like to think, "How could I have better spent my time?"And I had that thought with this one. It's not a bad book. It's just... not what I wanted. Fortunately, it was a very quick read!

The first story was perhaps the funniest, but when the camp reject turned out to be someone else, I thought, "Huh. Who is this person?" The author tries to paint herself as sort of wacky "outsider" but  she's never the "true weirdo" in these stories (which... would probably be funnier, right?) Really... she's just a chick. Living any chick's life. She loves her grandma, her husband is the Best. Guy. Ever! and her son is pure perfection. You know... a chick like you and me. I liked her just fine. But as I said... she's not my friend. I would rather read 206 pages written by you, Jenny. (Which is why I joined Facebook, of course... Heh.)

I wrote about this in the comments on your March book post, but I'll babble on a bit more about it here... it hardly seems fair to a book (or author) but so much of a person's opinion of a work can be influenced by expectations. (I include almost anything in this, really -- movies, plays, a new album... Christmas!) I expected this book to be hilarious. It was not. I was disappointed. It wasn't a bad book. It was just not the book I expected. (Sometimes it works in favor of the book/movie/etc: I expect it to be horrible and when it's just fine, well, "That was actually all right!")

Okay... to give a quick "highlights reel" then...  the stories in the beginning of the book are funnier ("Had I known what high school would be like, I would have asked my parents to set me adrift on an ice floe at puberty." [11]) but the final ones are pretty much all-poignant-all-the-time (seeing a man in a wheelchair buying children's clothes and reflecting about her own good fortune; observing her grandma's obliviousness to her own decline; you know... poignant shit).

However, one of the most powerful parts of the book does come out of the, as I so elegantly put it, "poignant shit" (I'm a goddamned artist with words, aren't I?):
When my son emerged from his watery nest in my belly last year, my husband, conversely, submerged. He dissolved with a celebratory fizz followed by silence  like the flattening of champagne, like a bromide, into the murky depths of fatherhood, which is nothing akin to husbandhood. It was not at all his fault, but my own. I cast him off. That I did so unwittingly is not much of an excuse. But I did not know that my son would displace him so thoroughly nor that my episiotomy would hurt for almost a year. [190]
I see friends of mine wrestling with this issue (or not wrestling with it at all...) constantly. At this point in my life, it's the primary reason I don't have kids: I am selfish and want my husband all to myself. (No joke. He's mine and I'm not sharing.) I'm not saying that this happens to every woman -- in fact, I know that it doesn't! But the fear that it could happen to me (confirmed by this author and many others) is enough for me to decide that it's not worth the risk (of course, I was never all that interested in having kids anyway -- I admit it! But reports like this... they seal the deal.)

Soo... while that passage is good and moving and honest... it's not really "funny." I guess the thing about the episiotomy tries to bring the humor at the end, but... that's a valid fear for me too! I'm a slow healer! So... no. Not funny. But touching (she does re-connect with her husband in a later chapter, so that's really where the touching part comes in...) and definitely real. I think that even moms who have done a good job of balancing can still see some truth here -- any time when the choice has to be made between being "mother" and "wife," I would think that the reality of the "murky depths of fatherhood [being] nothing akin to husbandhood" are probably true. (Feel free to tell me I don't know shit about this, btw -- I'm *not* a mom, so I can only observe and report!)

Finally, I will finish on a positive note. A line that made me laugh out loud (so you know it was from the beginning of the book). She is telling a story about camp. She goes on a long riff about s'mores, which I appreciate because her deep and abiding love of the s'more is clearly similar to my own. And then she says: "I'd had seven. Which as anyone knows is four too many."[7] Bwahaha. Of course. The Universal S'more Scale, right?

After that... well. I know a lot about Cynthia Kaplan's personal life now. I didn't need to, and I'm not worse off for knowing it, but... well. It just wasn't what I was expecting.


Monday, April 1, 2013

Jenny's Book 4.13: The Making of the Atomic Bomb


It's April and the sweet glow from the Tournament of Books is starting to fade. Sigh. You know what that means, time to replace the sweet glow with a slightly more scary nuclear one! Heh. Just kidding. The nuclear glow at Chernobyl was literally a killer: one dude looked straight into the reactor core and was dead meat.

Before I talk about this month's book, a quick review of the TOB. This year I completed a record best: 17 of the 18 titles by the final match-up. It's strange that the one I didn't get to was Bring Up the Bodies, but I honestly thought it would make it to the final round and I'd have more time for it. Oh well, I am sure I will get to it sooner or later! Interestingly, I'm supposed to read Wolf Hall for my book club next month. I'm thinking I should reread that first, and then go directly to to Bring Up the Bodies

In other news, I did make an April selection. It's called The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes. You may remember my long standing fascination with nuclear disasters. Given that, it seemed like a shame to miss out on this rather epic tome. I think I must have bought this book around the time of the tsunami and nuclear disaster in Japan. I think I might have come across the title while searching for books about nuclear power. 25 years ago, this book won the Pulitzer AND the National Book Award AND the National Book Critics Circle Award, so needless to say, that seemed like a good bet for readability. I actually have a copy, but once I committed to it for the month, I put it on my Kindle. Weighing in at approximately 900 pages, this one seems like it will be better as an eBook. It's prodigiously footnoted, but they are academic footnotes, and I tend to skip those and just skim through them at the end anyways. As we have discussed previously, Kindles and footnotes are unmixy things.

I'm also linking to a pretty interesting article about why Amazon acquired Goodreads. The most astounding fact in the article is that only 19% of Americans do 79% of the book reading. Maybe we should make a t-shirt that says, "We are the 19%!"  Heh. I do have a Goodreads account, but I do most of my list-making and such here. I'm only really active in the one group of TOB readers. I don't know why I don't use it more, you'd think it would be perfect for me. Hmm..something to consider, I guess.

I've started The Making of the Atomic Bomb. It's interesting, because although you'd expect it to start right with the Manhattan Project. However, I've been pleasantly surprised to find that it instead goes back all the way to the turn of the century with the earliest scientists working with nuclear physics and radioactivity. So far, I've read about Rutherford and now the author is introducing Bohr. I hope there's a part about the Curies! I've always wanted to know about Marie Curie.

The only question at this point is whether I can get through such a one in a single month!