Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Jenny's next book: Postwar


It has been so long since I've written a real preview post, that I can't quite remember out naming protocol for it. Sorry about the awkward title of this post.

This is sort of a weird choice for my next book. After all, I'm taking 3 classes this quarter, and the summer quarter is short---only 6 weeks. You'd think I'd tee up the Madonna book, but I've picked this super long World War II book (next year, I pledge to make my TBR war book *not* about WW2!) by Tony Judt. It's called Post War: A History of Europe since 1945. 

I originally read about this book at the site of my favorite blogger, Ta-Nehisi Coates at the Atlantic. Basically, this book is right in my wheelhouse. I've read a lot of books about Europe during the war, and I read a book about Japan after the war, but not as much about Europe after the war.

Now, you might be wondering why on Earth I would tackle this behemoth of a book right now. The actual number of pages in the book is north of 900, but of course there's the huge number of endnotes. So what was am I thinking? I am thinking I had to burn an audible credit, so I looked to see which of my TBR books was available--and, voila! Postwar, weighing in at a massive 45 hours long. Is that normal?! It seems terrifically long, but then again, I'll be driving back and forth to Evanston three times a week, which is at least 45 minutes each way from my house. This is a lot of listening time!

I listened to the first 45 minutes today in the car. It's a little weird to listen to *history* rather than *a story*, and certainly I think there are going to be some problems when it comes to all of the names in other languages, etc. However, I am willing to give it a shot. I think I might have to review the text sometimes when I get home, but overall, I feel pretty hopeful about this as a way of tackling the text.

Speaking of which, I finally finished listening to the Veronica Mars book! I liked it. I think the best part of the book, honestly, was listening to Kristen Bell say "fuck" so many times. Hahah. I hope there's another one!

How are things going on your end?

Completed: Presumed Innocent

Dear Jenny,

Completing this book was something of a personal accomplishment because it's been sitting on my TBR pile since 1996. That means this book has lived with me in 9 different homes and I have moved it across the country twice.

Oddly, in a heroic fit of "Throw it away!" I donated it to my local library immediately upon finishing and now I'm bummed I didn't take a photo for this post. Heh. Oh, well. The thumbnail photo shows what it looked like, basically (found image online, complete with messed-up nearly 30 year old paperback cover).

That cover image is actually pretty good -- the partial fingerprint is a major plot-point. Makes me think about how many book covers have nothing to do with the book at all.

What seemed like a pretty straight-forward "legal thriller" at the beginning got really interesting when I started to wonder "Did he kill her? Or didn't he?" At first, it seems like he was framed, but as the evidence adds up, I wondered about his reliability. I know we frequently post spoilers around here, but I feel guilty posting the end of this book, so I'll just say: I didn't see it coming.

I guess this was a pretty popular movie, so I probably should have known the entire plot all along, but I'm not really into thrillers...  I've only read a few and have maybe seen a handful of movies. I think, in some ways, that makes them more "exciting" to me --  a practiced thriller-reader probably could have predicted everything from the start.

I just googled this book (because I do that when I am trying to both remember the book and find intelligent things to say about it...) and I discovered this essay that calls it ground breaking -- it's interesting to read about the influence that it had on the genre (according to this author, at least). He mentions Gone Girl, (one of the few thrillers I have read) which I thought of several times as I had my "Did he or didn't he?!" moments throughout.

Overall, I enjoyed it. I only had a couple of minor problems with the writing. One was keeping track of character names -- it reminded me of a Russian novel with all of the darned nicknames, and all of the characters are referred to interchangably by first name, last name, and nickname (Main character: Rozat “Rusty” Sabich. His buddy: Dan “Lip” Lipramzer. His lawyer: Alejandro “Sandy” Stern. The opposition: Nico Della “Delay” Guardia.  Just to name a few.)

Also, it's set in fictional "Kindle County," which seems to be a thinly veiled Chicago (although it's frequently referred to as "Tri Cities") and that was disconcerting at times. I kept thinking, "Where are we now?" It's fine to make up a whole town, but because of the similarities to a real place that I am somewhat familiar with, I kept looking for references to actual details which would then be missing/changed.

Other than that, it was a fun read -- it kept me guessing and I didn't expect the ending, so that was good.  Have you read it or seen the movie?


PS -- I called this one "Book 4" in my Status post, so I'm all out of order, but hey -- it's done! I have finished Detroit City is the Place to Be and am feeling somewhat stymied by all that I want to say about. Just need to Get! It! Done!

Monday, June 23, 2014

Completed: American Gods


I feel like of all the books on my list, I feel like this might be one that you have already read. I got it from a co-worker, Sam, after we were talking about foundational myths and how kids don't really know them anymore. At that time, I was experimenting with doing some myth work with them, but it's been tricky. Maybe reading this book will help me rethink it.

American Gods was published in 2001, and it's easy to see how it led to children's books like the Percy Jackson series. In this book, a man named Shadow is about to be released from prison. However, days before he is released, he finds out his wife has died in a car accident. Upon leaving the prison, he meets a strange man named Wednesday who turns out to be Odin, Thor's father, and they embark upon a long adventure through godless America.

The premise of the plot is that the old gods from other countries were brought here by immigrants, but over time, they were forgotten and replaced by new gods: the gods of trains, cars, and the internet. Wednesday convinces Shadow "a storm is coming": a war fought between the old gods and the new ones. Shadow must help Wednesday as he travels the country, marshaling the old gods together to fight the new ones.

I would not say that I loved this book. It's hard to put my finger on what I didn't like about it. I think, maybe, it was trying to do too much: an adventure! a love story! a meditation on the role of religion and belief in modern life! a mystery! a commentary on Americans and America! For me, it just felt like it was trying to do too much. I don't want to give anything away, but I also felt like it was anticlimactic---sort of like the end of that last awful Twilight book. You spend *hundreds* of pages leading up to the big battle, and it ends with someone explaining to everyone else what has really been going on. I sort of hate those endings.

I realize this is a pretty lackluster review, but it's sort of how I feel about the book. It was okay. There wasn't much to dislike, but there was nothing to rave about either. My most important feeling upon finishing this book is relief that I have knocked another one off my list!

I'm not sure what will be next. I'll have to take a look and see. BUT, my first class of the new quarter is tonight, so I'm pretty happy to have completed this book and its review!


Sunday, June 8, 2014

Completed: Bring Up the Bodies


Here's the story: at a Bar Mitzvah in February of 2010, I was sitting with some other book nerds, and they recommended Wolf Hall to me. It had already been on my radar because it won the Booker Prize, but a personal recommendation always moves books up to the top of the list.

I never wrote anything official about Wolf Hall, as I'm fairly certain it predates this blog. However, Wolf Hall was just a thrilling read, partly because of the difficulty. I'm not often challenged by reading, but something about this one---the historical background, the writing style, the complex story---made it just an awesome read. I loved it. A few years later, in the summer of 2012, the sequel came out. I believe I pre-ordered it on Amazon, but I didn't read it. The next March, it was in the Tournament of Books, and I read *every other book that year* except for Bring Up the Bodies. Weird, right? To be honest, I think I just feared disappointment. What if it wasn't as good, and it ruined Wolf Hall, too? (Let's call that the Breaking Dawn effect, mm'kay?)

You'll be pleased to know that Bring Up the Bodies was just as great of a read as Wolf Hall, but in an interesting and different way. BUtB was highly readable, fast-paced even, while Wolf Hall was more measured and slow to unfold. The novels are set during the reign of Henry VIII, but the main character is his right-hand man and advisor, Thomas Cromwell. In the first, Cromwell engineers the dissolution of Henry's marriage to his first wife, Katherine of Aragon. This causes the break with the Church, and also paves the way for Henry's marriage to Anne Boleyn. The novel ends with the execution of Thomas More, but rather than showing him as a heroic protector of religion, Wolf Hall shows him as small-minded and petty.

Bring Up the Bodies takes up a few years later, as Henry's marriage to Anne is failing. I will be honest that the first 50 or 75 pages I probably didn't pay as much attention as I should have. I read it in fits and starts as school was ending. However, it picked up, or at the very least I became more focused, and it was a great read. I'm mad at myself for putting it off for so long!

In this book, the focus is again on Cromwell as he leverages Henry's will to end his marriage to Anne in favor of the more genteel, and less threatening figure, of Jane Seymore. One of the interesting things about this book is that Jane herself is a mere pawn in the machinations of the court, whereas Anne is a complex character with her own desires in Wolf Hall. In BUtB, events start to change direction as Anne is unable to produce a male heir, and Katherine of Aragon dies. Henry starts to wonder if Anne has duped him, and his desire for a new woman, one who is more pliable, leads him to think he can cast off yet another wife. It is Cromwell who makes it happen.

Believe it or not, even though you know full well what's going to happen, Mantel is the master of creating a sense of dread and despair as we watch Cromwell set his traps and snare his prey. It becomes clear that his ruthlessness is bound by nothing---and that he is using the opportunity to not only get rid of Anne, but also to settle some old scores. At one point, he explains his mercilessness by saying, "Once you have exhausted the process of negotiation and compromise, once you have fixed on the destruction of an enemy, that destruction must be swift and it must be perfect. Before you even glance in his direction, you should have his name on a warrant, the ports blocked, his wife and friends bought, his heir under your protection, his money in your strong room and his dog running to your whistle. Before he wakes in the morning, you should have the axe in your hand" (351). In other words, watching him take no mercy as he fulfills the King's wishes is to watch a master at work.

I would say, the other fascinating thing to watch in this book is how she sets up Cromwell's own demise. We know that the King will turn against Cromwell one day, and this book is full of warnings, of his own consideration of how he might act if he were ever facing death, and is all foreshadowing for the last and third installment of the story, scheduled for a 2015 release. This time, I promise to not wait to finish it.


As a weird aside, I have only one complaint about this book: I intensely disliked the paper it was printed on. I know this is churlish, but it was made of recycled paper, but the feel of the paper was rough and unpleasant. It felt like rather puply construction paper. I usually don't have a problem with recycled paper, obviously, but for some reason, the entire time I was reading, I was sort of bothered by the tactile feeling of these particular pages. There was a disconnect between the quality of the paper and the hardback book. I guess I expect cheap paper in mysteries and paperbacks? I don't know. It bothered me more than I'd care to admit.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Completed: On Writing

[Edited to add: I actually finished this post yesterday, but I knew you'd be wrapping things up at work today, so I waited to publish because... it is very long (Sorry!) so I hope you will have some time this weekend to sit down, grab a cup of coffee and read the world's longest book review...]

Dear Jenny,

I burned through this book in January, told you all about it on the phone and then promptly failed to write about it here. Whee. In my defense, the ToB took up a lot of book-ish thinking in Feb and Mar. What? We're halfway through April already in JUNE?! Yeah. I got no excuses.

This book is part memoir, part writing instruction, part publishing advice. The memoir and writing instruction were great.

I am normally loathe to recommend a book when I have not finished it because then I feel guilty if it finishes badly, but when I was halfway through this, I was loving it sooo much that I started gushing about it.

King begins the book reminiscing about his childhood, then focusing on his early writing career and there is some absolutely hilarious content in here.

After that, he moves on to some great advice about writing -- easily digestible stuff that almost anyone could apply immediately to their own writing for improvement.

At this point, this is where I was really shooting my mouth off to everyone who would listen how great this book is! And then... it fell apart.

Things suddenly take a very boring turn. From great advice about writing (useful for everyone), King turns to very specific advice for fiction writers trying to get published. This topic might be interesting (an inside look into the world of publishing? Sure!) but not the way King writes it here. Ugh -- totally yawn worthy.

He then returns to his memoir and offers details about his accident, which is interesting, to some extent (I mean, I'd heard the news -- getting his first-hand account was a unique opportunity) and then he explains that the accident happened as he was writing this book... basically at the very point when the interesting dried up. What a huge bummer.

I'm not quite sure how else he could have handled that -- the accident really took its toll on him, which is completely understandable. So what to do? Just have someone else wrap it up while it was still good? Wait until he had recovered more to continue? (I read Doctor Sleep last year -- his writing chops are definitely back!) Again, I don't know.

Having said all of that, I think the book is totally worth reading, but I also think having this caveat is useful. Be prepared for it to not be so engaging/amusing/charming about 2/3 of the way in. Going in prepared always helps, right?

Ok! The reason it has taken me so long to write this is that I wanted to include a crapload of quotes that either cracked me up or just spoke to me and I've been lazy about getting them down. Ideally, they'd be artfully woven into the review above, but sometime perfectionism is the enemy of done, so I'm just jamming them in down here so I can hit Publish on this sucker.

Generally Hilarious Lines

Here are a collection of lines that just made me laugh out loud...

From the First Foreword, questioning whether or not anyone would want to read a book that he would write on writing:
Colonel Sanders sold a hell of a lot of fried chicken, but I'm not sure anyone wants to know how he made it. [8]
From the Second Foreword:
This is a short book because most books about writing are filled with bullshit. [...] I figured the shorter the book, the less the bullshit. [12]
Reminiscing about a babysitter he had as a kid and how she prepared him for life... in a rather... er... unconventional fashion:
Eula-Beulah prepared me for literary criticism. After having a two-hundred-pound babysitter fart on your face and yell Pow!, The Village Voice holds few terrors. [20]
Love this observation:
I don't want to speak too disparagingly about my generation (actually I do, we had a chance to change the world and opted for the Home Shopping Network instead)... [62]
Recalling the first time he was drunk (on $1.95 whiskey -- blech):
The room is a turntable, I am the spindle, and pretty soon the spindle is going to start tossing its platters. [89]
(Seriously... I spent a lot of time laughing *out loud* while reading this book!)

On Writing

Since the book is called "On Writing," it should be no surprise that he has some great observations on that very topic. This first one is pretty funny:
One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you're maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones. This is like dressing up a household pet in evening clothes. The pet is embarrassed and the person who committed this act of premeditated cuteness should be even more embarrassed. [117]
One to embrace and remember:
Remember that the basic rule of vocabulary is to use the first word that comes to your mind, if it is appropriate and colorful. If you hesitate and cogitate, you will come up with another word -- of course you will, there's always another word -- but it probably won't be as good as your first one, or as close to what you really mean. [118]
And this just made me laugh:
Grammar is not just a pain in the ass; it's the pole you grab to get your thoughts up on their feet and walking. Besides, all those simple sentences worked for Hemingway, didn't they? Even when he was drunk on his ass, he was a fucking genius. [121]
Regarding the Evils of Passive Voice:
It's weak, it's circuitous, and it's frequently torturous, as well. How about this: "My first kiss will always be recalled by me as how my romance with Shayna was begun." Oh, man -- who farted, right? [123]
He hates adverbs and goes a long way towards backing that opinion. But here's a great soundbite:
Someone out there is now accusing me of being tiresome and anal-retentive. I deny it. I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs and I will shout it from the rooftops. [125]
(That quote and the surrounding text have made me very sensitive about adverb usage since reading this book, I gotta tell you!)

On Editing

He also has a lot to say about editing -- both self-editing (which is my biggest writing downfall -- look at this epic damned post!) and being edited.

He included a reproduction of the first editorial review he had at his first writing job (he laments that he does not have the original, but says it looked something like this):

He goes on to say he learned more in 10 minutes from that editor's markup than in his two years of English Lit in college:
When he finished marking my copy in the manner indicated above, he looked up and saw something on my face. I think he must have mistaken it for horror. It wasn't; it was pure revelation. Why, I wondered, didn't English teachers ever do this? [57]
The editor then says he "only took out the bad parts [...] most of it is pretty good" and goes on to say:
When you write a story, you're telling yourself the story [...] When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story. [57] 
Such a great piece of editing advice! And I need to write this next one on a Post-it note:
Formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft - 10% [222]
(Believe it or not, I have actually removed 10% of this very post in the past 24 hours!)

On Reading 

He talks a lot about how writers must also be readers. The following quotes made me think, "Stephen King and I are twins!" (Well, except that he's a phenomenally successful bestselling writer and I'm... struggling to get posts up on this reading blog I keep with my best friend... but whatevs.)
I'm a slow reader, but I usually get through seventy or eighty books a year, mostly fiction. [145]
Me, too! High five, Stephen King! He also talks about finding time to read...
There's always the treadmill, or whatever you use down at the local health club to get aerobic. I try to spend an hour doing that every day, and I think I'd go mad without a good novel to keep me company. [148]
Me, too! Gosh, Jenny, if you and I weren't already besties, I might have to go over to Stephen's house. HA.

Comedic Observations on Alcoholism

Never thought I'd type that sentence in my life, but there it was. A lot of the book deals with his battle with alcoholism and substance abuse (in fact, he claims that he doesn't remember writing Cujo at all, because he was so wasted). Here's a truth, told in a funny way:
Telling an alcoholic to control his drinking is like telling a guy suffering the world's most cataclysmic case of diarrhea to control his shitting [95]
This one also made me laugh (and cringe):
A year or so before, observing the rapidity with which huge bottles of Listerine were disappearing from the bathroom, Tabby asked me if I drank the stuff. I responded with self-righteous hauteur that I most certainly did not. Nor did I. I drank the Scope instead. It was tastier, had that hint of mint. [97]

In Conclusion...

This isn't really a conclusion, but I'm concluding this post with this final quote, so I'm calling in the Conclusion!

It's bagging on writers' workshops (not all of them, but certain ones...) Forgive me -- this is a long passage. But take a moment and read through it, because 1. As both a teacher and a student, I think you'll be able to appreciate some of this and 2. Reading it all makes his final angry line all the more epic (I laughed right out loud. On a plane.)
And what about these critiques, by the way? How valuable are they? Not very, in my experience, sorry. A lot of them are maddeningly vague. I love the feeling of Peter's story,  someone may say.  It had something... a sense of I don't know.... there's a loving kind of you know... I can't exactly describe it...
Other writing-seminar gemmies include I felt like the tone thing was kind of you know; The character of Polly seemed pretty much stereotypical; I loved the imagery because I could see what he was talking about more or less perfectly.
And instead of pelting these babbling idiots with their own freshly toasted marshmallows, everyone else sitting around the fire is often nodding and smiling and looking solemnly thoughtful.  In too many cases the teachers and writers in residence are nodding, smiling, and looking solemnly thoughtful right along with them.
It seems to occur to few of the attendees that if you have a feeling you just can't describe, you might just be, I don't know, kind of like, my sense of it is, maybe in the wrong fucking class. [233]

Whew! Believe it or not, I deleted 10 other quotes from this post that I had also bookmarked! So even with my whole, "Only 2/3 of this book was good" disclaimer at the top... that 2/3 was really damned good.

And I am... DONE.


Tuesday, June 3, 2014

2014: Kelly's Status Report (June)

Dear Jenny,

What the ever-loving heck?! I managed to keep on top of this TBR business for three years running (okay, I did have some harrowing end-of-the-year page counting marathons there, BUT... not until the end!) and then this year... it's all fallen apart.

Since I feel like I keep getting further and further behind, I thought I'd write a little Status post and maybe, just maybe, get back on track?!

Book 1.14: On Writing

I actually wrote a preview post for this book and I am done reading it!

But I had soooo much to say about it that my post keeps getting longer and longer, I get bogged down, and then I abandon it. Maybe after I finish this post, I'll finish that one. We'll see.

Status: Completed book. Half completed blog post.

Book 2.14: Detroit City is the Place to Be

Oh, come ON! I also wrote a preview post for that one and didn't even remember writing it! (Although, re-reading it, I do remember our lengthy discussion on the colloquialism "party store" in the greater Detroit area...)

I enjoyed the first part, but then got bogged down in some heavy-duty history (which I don't really enjoy at the best of times, but given *all* of the Detroit history I have read in the past two years, I just didn't need any more). However, it was starting to pick up and then... I don't know. I got distracted.

Status:  Halfway through book.

Book 3.14: Cry, the Beloved Country

Surprise! I'm even out of "preview posts" at this point in the stack. Sooo... I guess this post can serve as one, right? This book was pressed into my hand a couple of years ago at a used bookstore by our friend Stuart who said, "You MUST read this. It's SO good." So I bought it. (Note the sunset-and-acacia tree treatment over there... although the publication date on this book was pre-Lion King. So this issue goes back further than that.)

About a quarter of the way into this book, I texted Stuart and said, "I'm gonna take a stab here... this doesn't suddenly get a lot happier, right?" He replied, "Nope." And... it didn't. I had a lot of thoughts about this book when I read it and I probably should have written my post then. I hope my notes and post-its are enough to refresh me. Cause...

Status: Book is DONE. Need to write blog post.

Book 4.14: Presumed Innocent

Yet another no-preview-yet-I'm-done puppy over here. This book had the distinction of being, by far, the longest book to ever sit on my TBR pile. A friend gave it to me in... 1996. Seriously. I don't even know why I kept it all that time, but at some point, it turned into, "As God as my witness, I WILL read this book!" So I finally did it. Now I just need to tell you about it.

Status: Completed book. Need to write blog post. (Sensing a theme here...) (Glad I am writing this post...)

Book 5.14: Digressions on Some Poems By Frank O'Hara: A Memoir

I bought this book on my second date with Bill -- after dinner at the House of Nanking (have you ever been there? Hilarious [and somewhat frightening] "Soup Nazi"-style service, but the food is amazing), we went to City Lights and I found this book, which had just been released. In 2003. So I've had it for awhile. I've always loved Frank O'Hara's poetry, so I was interested to learn more about him (apparently not that  interested, as it has sat on my TBR shelf for almost 11 years, but... well, you know.)

I just started reading it a couple of weeks ago and am LOVING it so far. Which makes me wonder... why the hell haven't I finished it and written about it? Oh, because I fell into a Buffy shaped hole -- my library has the Buffy the Vampire Slayer comic books and I have just burned through Seasons 8 and 9. If you have access to these, I recommend them -- you can totally hear the characters talking, which is awesome. (Although... Season 8 gets squinchy weird in the end... but I can overlook it because... Scoobies!)

Status: Just started the book.

Book 6.14: ?

Yup. It's technically June, so I should have a Book 6 chosen. But look at this list! I'm so far behind! So I'll work on these first five and try to determine what my quickest read on the list would be... maybe On Being Brown: What It Means to Be a Cleveland Browns Fan? Perhaps topical with all of the recent "Johnny Football" talk. Or...something. I dunno.

Status: Need to pick a book!

Overall Status

Here's where I stand... it's June, so I should be halfway through reading and writing about my list by the end of this month. That's six books.
  • Completed books awaiting blog posts:3
  • Books awaiting completion *and* blog posts: 2
  • Books I need to actually choose and get started on: 1
Well... that's not sooo bad, right? Hrm. Time to get hustling over here!

How you doin?