Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Completed: On Being Brown: What it Means to Be a Cleveland Browns Fan

Dear Jenny,

I loved, loved, loved this book. Despite the horrendous finish to the season that my beloved Cleveland Browns have just had, I am a die-hard fan and I thought this book was terrific.

My parents actually gave it to Bill about... 8 or 9 years ago, I think. He read it then and passed it on to me and it's been sitting on my TBR shelf ever since. I read it before the season started, so I still had a lot of hope in my heart upon finishing it. It's probably best read as an off-season book... you know... several months after the pain of the recent season has worn off.

I'll get this out of the way up front: I find the title a little awkward... although the subtitle clears up the initial confusion, when I see "On Being Brown," I think, "This book title does not mean what you think it means..." Heh.

Other than that, it's great. There are a series of reminiscences by the author himself on growing up as a Browns fan in the 70s and 80s:
A Browns game. When I was 12, a Browns game lived somewhere in my spirit between a presidential inauguration and New Year's Eve -- it was the first true event I can ever remember, trumping weddings and bar mitzvahs, holidays and anniversaries in importance in my mind. I remember gatherings of men outside the catering halls, smoking cigarettes, heads bent over transistor radios, during autumn weddings held, recklessly, on Sunday afternoons. That was a clue to what was important.
The Browns were important. They may or may not have been important to the outside world, but they were important to us. [13]
And those personal essays are interspersed with interviews with Browns legends like Lou Groza, Jim Brown, Ozzie Newsome, Otto Graham and, of course, Bernie Kosar (My favorite.) (19 should be retired!) and reviews of some great (and not-so-great) Browns moments throughout the years like the 1964 championship game, Red Right 8, and, of course, the troubles with Denver (oof).

This book was published in 1999, on the brink of the team returning to Cleveland after that no-good son-of-a-bitch moved them to Baltimore. I actually teared up several times while reading it, vividly remembering the hope and excitement of that time. I loved reading players' memories of being Browns and their emotional comments also choked me up. Seeing my waterworks, Bill said, "Hrm... I don't remember crying while reading that book..." (He is also a Browns fan, but, of course, not nearly as emotional about it... it's Bill. You know.) So I'm not sure that everyone would have such a strong emotional reaction but... I sure did.

I also had a lot of "Hell yeah!" moments... the chapter covering Browns Backers organizations (of which I am a proud member); the author's Dad's unofficial code of behavior while attending games (including: "#2: Inclement weather is part of the deal -- it's part of the fun. Rooting for the Browns when it's 10 degrees and snowing is harder than rooting for the Browns in front of your television; anyone could do that.  That's what makes this fun. That's why we're here." [30]); and, in general, all of the talk about the spirit of Browns fans, who love this team despite its never having been to a Super Bowl (only one of four NFL teams, if you were curious) and the repetitive crushing of our hopes year after year.

I could keep on gushing, but I won't. It was great. I would recommend this book to any Browns fan (or anyone who is interested in figuring out what it means to be a Browns fan.) But, again... they might want to wait until the summer to read it.


Completed: The Size of Thoughts

Dear Jenny,

As I write this, it is December 30. I have two days left this year to finish my final book (Tim Gunn's Fashion Bible) and write up three other books from earlier this year (I guess you could say I am "Under the Gunn" Har har.) I was already under pressure, but my unexpected delay this week has definitely moved my situation from "tight" to "darned near impossible." But... I will try!

So! The Size of Thoughts is a collection of essays by Nicholson Baker. As you know, I am a big fan of his, The Mezzanine being one of my all-time favorite books (which you, of course, introduced me to) and I wrote about Double Fold on this very blog back in 2012.

The photo at the right is actually not the same copy I have, but the picture better illustrates how I felt about this book as I tried to read it quickly at the end of the year... not so fast with the Nicholson Baker reading.

It's a collection of essays very much in the true Baker explore-a-topic-ad-infinitum-with-extreme-verve-and verbosity style. Which I do enjoy, but some of these fell flat, I must admit. A lot of them felt like there wasn't really enough of the idea to fill a whole book, so here, let's just put these scratch pages into a collection together (in fact, one "essay" was actual discards from a novel he had written!) and really, for this style of writing to work (for me), it needs to be tightly, tightly edited, which much of this was not (or, at least, did not feel as though it was).

However, there were some good things in here and I am now going to randomly spew them at you... sorry about this, but I just gotta get it done.

Changing one's mind: In one essay, he explores the concept of changing our minds, he brings up two very interesting points:  One, that our minds often change through natural time progression and many times we don't even notice it (even when we feel strongly about something or are, shall we say, opinionated -- ahem. Not that this applies to either one of us at all. Heh.) Since reading that essay, I have thought a lot about this -- being mindful of mind-changing. Not that I am trying not to do it -- I think changing one's mind can be a very good thing -- more that I am trying to be less strident when stating my opinions. Who knows? My mind might very well change about that thing, even if I am passionate about it today.

And another way the mind changes is by comparison -- he gives a great, well-written example that basically boils down to the difference between the thinking, "Gosh, I'm old!" (say, for instance, when listening to an 11-year-old talk about music) vs. "Hey, I'm young!" (when, say, considering the impact of the flu on a 93-year-old) So we often "change our our minds," based on the situation at hand (he explained this far more eloquently, but I think you get the idea.)

Reading tip: In a surprisingly engrossing essay about the history of nail clippers (yes, nail clippers), he dropped a little nugget in a way that assumes that every reader is already doing this, but I did not and now do -- did you know you can mark passages in pBooks by dragging your fingernail on the page? Like a little underline etching? It works amazingly well. As you know, I use tabs on the sides of my pages to mark interesting passages, but this fingernail thing is a great way for me to mark what I am interested in on that page if/when I do not have a pencil! (Obviously, I cannot make notes, but underlining is helpful!) And the fingernail marking is less intrusive -- although I know you're having your own annotation odyssey right now...  this is a great technique when you really just can't write in the book.

Stephen King: Did you know that he and Stephen King apparently have a bit of a rift going? King once called Baker's book Vox a "meaningless little finger paring." Baker doesn't say anything directly negative about King, but the way he dissects this phrasing makes it pretty clear that he is not thrilled with the comment. So it might not be a "rift," but it kind of feels like one. Funny! (Authors are people too!)

Awesome writing: I'm not going to get too much into the context of this, but Baker was doing a book reading and he examines his feelings about that activity. I thought this line was so great:
"These formerly silent words unfolded themselves like lawn chairs in my mouth and emerged one by one wearing large Siberian hats of consonants and long erminous vowels and landed softly, without visible damage, here and there in the audience, and I thought Gosh, I'm reading aloud, from Chapter Seven! [63]
"Unfolded themselves like lawn chairs in my mouth" is just about the best possible example of why I love this man's writing.

Recipe! He writes an extremely detailed description of how to make a chocolate sauce that hardens over ice cream. The big finish is that you store it in the pan in the fridge, with the original spoon in the pan. So that "when you put it back on the heat source, you'll be able to brandish the whole solidified disk of chocolate merely by lifting the spoon. It looks like a metal detector." [120] HAHAHA! (Side note: The sauce sounds terrific. I need to make it sometime.)

Suzanne Vega: This is not at all a critical point in this book, but he talks about CD-ROM of poetry (ha! Remember those?) he is about to listen to and he refers to "removing the Suzanne Vega CD" that was in his CD drive. You know she's my favorite, so I absolutely loved that -- Nicholson Baker also likes Suzanne Vega! (And that was written in 1994, so long after the Luka hype!)

In conclusion: I will conclude this post with Baker's final line of the book: "All the pages I have flipped and copied and underlined will turn gray again and pull back into the shadows, and have no bearing on one another. Lumber becomes treasure only temporarily, through study, and then it lapses into lumber again. Books open, and then they close." [355]



Thursday, December 25, 2014

Completed: All the Names


Well, looks like the combination of Option 2 and a plane ride were a good choice. I have to admit, the very idea of somehow downing 500 pages of Postwar in the last week of the year seemed impossible.

So, this probably has been on my TBR shelf for over ten years! As you know, I was a huge fan of Blindness, and I'm sure I bought this book when it came out---which according to the copyright date, was 1999! As you also know, Jose Saramago is of the "wall-o-text" writing style, but honestly, it's so over the top wacky, that the lack of quotation marks doesn't even bother me. There's no paragraph breaks for dialogue, there's sentences that run for paragraphs, and paragraphs that run for pages.

Another funny aside before I get started. I don't usually annotate in books that I am reading for pleasure. This is tricky, because there's a big push to have kids annotate in school books, and I'm actually pretty ambivalent about it. I think annotating is a highly useful skill, and yet it's one that's difficult to master. Kids either hate it or love it, but the ones who love it just write all over every page and then their annotations aren't helpful. I'm honestly wary of it for middle schoolers, but it's hard to buck the party line, so I do lots of "guided annotations" where I ask kids to look only for very specific things. However, just last week, I read this article by Tim Parks at the New York Review of Books blog. In quite enjoy his writing about how to read, and this came to mind when I sat down to tackle All the Names. 

As I started to read the wall-o-text, I could tell I wasn't paying attention. And Saramago novels are driven more by flights of fancy than they are plot, so I decided to read with a pen in my hand. Kelly! It made a huge difference for me. I was far more attentive to the text, to the sentences and ideas I liked, to noting the strange behavior of the main character, etc. I especially liked Parks' suggestion to "always make three or four comments on every page, at least one critical, even aggressive." I mean, why not? For example, at one point the narrator thinks of someone as a "nincompoop" and it's clearly a strange translation error. What a bizarre word! And yet, I woulnd't have paid much attention to it had I not been reading with a pen in my hand. 

As for the story, it's about a town with a Central Registry, in which the births, divorces, and deaths of all the townspeople are recorded. The Registry is staffed by an actual pyramid of desks: 8 clerks in the front row, followed by 4 senior clerks, then 2 deputy Registrars, with The Register, an all-knowing, God-like figure in charge of it all. The main character is one of the lowly clerks, a 50 year old man named Senhor Jose. Jose lives in a house adjacent to the Central Registry and he has a sad and lonely hobby, that of collecting information about the most famous people in the town. One day, while surreptetiously collecting the registry cards of five famous people, Jose accidentally pulls the card of a regular, unknown woman. Jose becomes obsessed with knowing this woman, determined to know more than just her birth and divorce information, and sets out on a strange quest to discover the story of her life. 

Overall, I liked this book. I certainly liked the feeling of being done with the 2014 list, but I also found myself really enjoying the "work" of annotating this book. Not only underlining words and phrases, but also having little arguments with the author in the pages. Rather than saying a whole lot more about the plot, I thought I'd share some of the sentences I annotationed (in bold) and then what I wrote in the margins (in brackets, you know, the square ones. Ha!).

...He went into the stationer's and bought a thick notebook with lined pages, like the ones students use to make notes on their school subjects, believing that they are actually learning them as they do so (41). [Ouch!]

Here's a two parter. Jose has just broken into a school in order to find the school records of the unknown woman. This is the last sentence at the end of the chapter. 
Then, straightening up, he reached in, fumbled for and found the window catch, dear God, the risks burglars take, opened it wide and, grasping the windowsill, his feet frantically scrabbling for non-existent footholds, he managed to lift himself up, raise one leg, then the other, and finally drop through to the other side, as lightly as a leaf falling from a tree (73). [Bullshit! No one drops as lightly as a leaf from a tree!]

So, this is the sentence at the beginning of the next chapter, at the top of a turned page.
Respect for the facts, and simple moral obligation not to offend the credulity of anyone prepared to accept as plausible and coherent the difficulties of such an extraordinary exploit, demand immediate clarification of that last statement: Senhor Jose did not drop as lightly from the windowsill asa  leaf falling from a bough. On the contrary, he fell very heavily, the way an entire tree would fall, when he could perectly easily have lowered himself gradually down from his temporary seat until his feet touched the ground (74). [Ha!]

In other circumstances, it might have occured to Senhor Jose that, just as he had enriched his collection of clippings with copies of the relevant birth certificates, it would also be interesting to add documents regarding attendance and success at school. However, that would never be anything but an impossible dream. It was one thing having the birth certificate in hand in the Central Registry, quite another having to wander the city breaking into schools to find out if so-and-so got an eight or a fifteen in math in the fourth year...And if, in order to get into each of these schools, he had to suffer as much as he had suffered breaking into this one, then it would be better to remain in the peace and quiet of his home, resigned to knowing of the world only what the hands can grasp without actually leaving the house, words, images, illusions (86). [Before Big Data and the Internet! Now it's all possible!] As an aside, there were lots and lots of passages like this that sort of predicted the crazy things that would be possible one day. 

Metaphors have always been the best way of explaining things (228). [I agree but others don't. Is this a statement about the meaning of literature?] 

And with that, Kelly, I put a lid on the 2014 list. Honestly, I never thought I would get it done. 

Monday, December 22, 2014

The Postwar Situation


Got home and checked out Postwar. I have 500 pages to read before the end of the year.

Option 1: Get the hell off the internet and actually *start* reading some more of the damn thing, to the tune of 50-75 pages per night.

Option 2: Put it on my 2015 list and read the 264 total pages of the last book on my list, All the Names.

Option 3: Continue to stall and read As You Wish instead!

Grrr...argh! Decisions. I'm going to be honest with you that Option 2 is looking pretty darn good right now.


Saturday, December 20, 2014

Finished: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

Dear Kelly,

As previously discussed, we both enjoyed Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. However, this one was not my favorite. I really hope The Bone Clocks does not make it into the 2015 TOB, because I might be all David Mitchell-ed out for a while.

It's interesting to think about the two books in context, because Darrell and I have a long-running conversation about artists (me authors, him filmmakers) who are working with the same theme. This conversation started when we saw Boyhood this summer, and we spent a lot of time talking about Richard Linklater's exploration of how people change over time.

Given my experience with these two books, it seems obvious that David Mitchell is also interested in the profound impact of time. However, unlike Cloud Atlas, which leapfrogs hundreds and thousands of years into a bleak future, Jacob de Zoet goes back to 1799. The setting is Japan, specifically the city of Nagasaki, which was the only Japanese port that was open to Europeans for trading. Even more specifically, the Dutch are the only European trading partners, and they are restricted to an island in the Nagasaki harbor called Dejima.

The novel itself centers on Jacob de Zoet, who is newly arrived in Nagasaki with the Dutch East India Company, hoping to make his fortune and return to Holland to marry. However, after his arrival, he meets and falls in love with a Japanese midwife, Orito.

If I were to categorize my problem with this book, I guess I'd say this: the author clearly spent a lot of time doing fascinating research on the Dutch trade in Nagasaki, Japanese culture and language, medical practices of the late 1700s, etc. However, the book lacked interesting, compelling characters and conflicts to make all that research come alive.

The book has 5 parts, only one of which I would say I truly enjoyed. Part 1 (175 pages long), introduces Jacob and the ins and outs of the Dutch-Japanese relationship. The trade part was super boring and not that interesting to me. Jacob's infatuation with Orito isn't very believable. It's just not all that well-developed, and therefore it just all felt a little confusing. There were lots of characters with complicated Dutch and Japanese names acting out small, political motives that only become clear later, if at all. It was tiresome. I almost gave up.

Part Two was the only part of the novel that I truly enjoyed, about 150 pages. In this section, Orito's father has died, and to pay for his debts she has been "sold" to a monastery to be a nun. However, this is like no monastery you have ever heard of. The nuns are "engifted" by the monks as determined by the word of a goddess. The nuns then think the babies are taken down the mountain to the local villages. Orito starts to understand that she has not been brought to the monastery to be "engifted" herself, but rather for her skills as a midwife. Honestly, this whole part of the book is just awesome. I was trying to figure out the horrifying mystery of the monastery along with Orito, and cheering her on as she plots her escape. Also in this section, her former suitor comes across a scroll detailing the secrets of the monastery and he plots to rescue her. It strikes me as entirely plausible that I liked this section the best because it was purely fiction. I seriously doubt there were monasteries where the monks were killing babies and drinking their blood to achieve immortality. Because it was cut loose from most of the burden of all that research, it was far more enjoyable for me. Unfortunately, this section comes to an end too quickly.  

By the way, my favorite sentence in the book appears in this section. At some point, Mitchell must have found such interesting research on surgical practices that he felt he must include it in the novel. He includes a scene where a man's kidney stone is to be removed---without anesthesia or painkillers! The doctor is training another and describing how the surgery will be performed in front of the patient. Here's the sentence that's given right before the surgery, "The rectum of Wybo Gerriszoon releases a hot fart of horror." Hahah. I laughed out loud.

Part Three (130 pages) tells of a British ship trying to horn in on the Dutch port and Jacob's attempts to salvage Dutch control of Dejima. This section is probably the one where Jacob seems the most fully formed as a character, remembering his earlier failings and trying to stand up for what is right.

In Part Four (10 pages), Jacob has been in Japan for over ten years and is now a father. He meets Orito one last time and tells her how he hoped to save her, but regrets that he didn't. This is, presumably, the section that is meant to tie up the interesting Orito plot that was left hanging 200 pages earlier. It's not at all satisfying, but then again, I guess life isn't. Sometimes you just don't see someone again for ten years. Also, Jacob has this moment where he thinks about his son, "How quickly you grow...why wasn't I warned?" But ultimately, this statement even though heartbreaking in some ways personally (his son, like mine, is 11), doesn't carry any real emotional weight. The boy's been in existence on for 4 pages, we never saw him being born, growing up, or losing a mother. We don't know anything about Jacob's life for these past years, and so his sadness about the passing of time ultimately feel empty.

Part Five is only about 6 pages, and details Jacob's return to Europe after 20 years in Japan and his death of old age.

I don't know. This was a bit of a clunker for me. I guess with historical fiction, if you veer too far from "fiction" you might lose me. I'll take my history straight, but something about history with a thin veneer of plot just isn't very satisfying.

One more to go!

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Completed: The Sisters Brothers

Dear Jenny,

I know you have read this book (winner of the 2012 Tournament of Books!) so I feel the freedom of not having to give you too many details. Heh.

First I must say that this book cover design is one of my favorites of all time. Seriously brilliant -- I might have to frame this dust cover and hang it up. It's just terrific.

Okay... now. Onto the book. In a nutshell, I loved it. Can I just stop there? Heh. All right -- I'll say a bit more... but just some random thoughts. This is an incomplete list, but the orange "Publish" button is calling my name...

Random thought #1: Eli's intelligence
Because I was feeling "under the gun" (that's a pun. Har har.) I did a aBook/pBook combo on this one -- reading the pBook when I had time to sit and read and listening to the aBook when I was on the move. And I must say that this sort of affected my reading. Because... the narrator of the aBook probably sounded more intelligent than I think the author intended Eli to be.

I had some notes to talk more here about Eli's "intelligence," but I can't remember what I was going to say. Basically, he is supposed to be dumb, but his language and the thoughts that he has are... not at all dumb. Mostly, I found this to be charming, but every once in awhile, I did think, "Waaaait a minute...." But if he came off as dumb as he is supposed to be, the book probably would have sucked.

Random thought #2: Violence
I was a bit reluctant to read this book because I understood it to be violent and rough, but actually... it wasn't so bad for me. Which makes me feel like, "What kind of psycho am I that I wasn't bothered by that horse's eye getting removed with at spoon?!" I mean, sure, I was bothered by it. But it wasn't intolerable. Perhaps it was one of those situations where I had heard how terrible everything was, I was braced for it and it ended up being not so bad.

I'm curious about your reaction, because you had certainly heard far less about it: Was the violence horrific for you?

Random thought #3: Story telling
The writing was pretty fantastic. One notable example is the graceful way we find out exactly what "Sisters Brothers" means. We get early on that they have been hired to kill someone, but we do not know that these are notorious and feared killers.

The first time the reader gets an inkling, Eli says something like: And so I told him my full name and let it sink in. And then again awhile later, with the direct reference to the "Sisters Brothers" and seeing the panic on the person's face. It's just really artfully done. (I am not reporting it artfully at all here, but I'm sure you know what I mean. Bear with me -- gotta get this done!)

Random thought #4: Words!
I love the name "Hermann Kermit Warm." That is all.

Random thought #5: New cover? Nooooooo!
I just looked this book up and saw this seriously craptacular book cover  that apparently went with the paperback. What?! First of all, why mess with one of the best cover designs ever? And secondly... Eli is supposed to be overweight. Who is overweight in this weird picture? UGH. Publishers!

And... that's it. I thought this book was fantastic. I burned through it and did not want it to end. I will be recommending it to many, many people. (I've already passed it on to two others!)


Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Completed: Arc of Justice

Dear Jenny,

Okay. Time to churn these puppies out -- I've only got 14 days left!  I don't know why I have gotten so bogged down this year talking about my books -- I just feel like I have so much to tell you. This is my most recently finished book. I actually wrote a preview for it in October. Gonna burn through it here.

This book tells the true story of a black doctor (Ossian Sweet) and his family who moved to a white neighborhood in Detroit in 1925. Predictably, the neighbors were not happy and mobbed the house. Once the mob started throwing stones, the family and friends inside the house fired some shots into the crowd, killing someone on the street.

So, of course, everyone in the house was arrested and detained in jail for many months (that's a total of 11 people. For, you know, one shot.) In the end, everyone was (miraculously) acquitted. Take note: That was a short sentence I just wrote there, but the jail time and the prolonged trial did not pass nearly that quickly.

While much of this book made me feel like "nothing has changed in this world!" the fact that the innocent black people were found innocent (whoa!) actually made me think, "Aw, crap... we're actually going backwards." Sigh.

It's a good story well told, but the exhaustively reported research was sometimes a bit too much. Beyond the key story (in which eight full pages were devoted to jury selection), the author went into great detail describing the historic background of the main characters, their extended families, and, delving even deeper, the history of race relations in our country for a couple of hundred pages. It's valid reporting, but not key to the story and I did find myself slogging through it.

Of course, I will admit some reader bias there... the ground covered was not new to me. But... I have to think that anyone who would pick this book up in the first place would know at least a bit about the history of race relations in our country. If not, I guess it's a good thing to have this in-depth primer.

Okay. Now I'm just going to fire off some random comments/observations about this book and be done with it. Cause... I have 6 more to do in the next two weeks.

1. The hospital where Dr. Sweet worked was in the news earlier this year because it went up for auction with a starting bid of $3,800. I actually said to Bill at the time, "Let's buy this!" cause it's amazing. It sold for $198k, but has since been recovered by the Detroit Medical Society.

2. The Sweets' house is still standing in Detroit (no mean feat in a city where 40,000 buildings were recommended to be torn down earlier this year). It's a historical site, so it will probably remain for awhile, but it's still a private residence and, of course, not in a great neighborhood. The house itself looks to be in decent condition (check it out here) but... I did a little Google Wandering and found this one directly across the street. Traveling down that street via Google finds more and more blight. Oh, Detroit.

3. In an effort to speed my "reading" along, I also listened to the aBook. It was well narrated except that the narrator kept pronouncing the NAACP as "N-A-A-C-P" (vs. "N-double-A-C-P") and that was distracting. It's a minor nit, but it comes up a lot in this book and just sounded so odd. Other than that, her reading was spot on and engrossing, which was helpful when I got distracted during the really deep delving into history.

Aaand... done. I am doing this book a disservice, because this story is an important one ("The most famous civil rights trial you never heard of," according to the New York Times) and this book tells it well, but... I gotta get sh*t done around here. I do think that this book will stick with me, though... I finished it a few weeks ago and still find myself thinking about it.

How's your list going?


Sunday, December 7, 2014

I'm not actually sure I can pull this off, Kelly.


It's December 7th. I just want you to know that this may be the year I don't make it across the finish line. I am hopeful for a last minute sprint across the finish line once Winter Break starts...but...it seems so daunting. I am finding The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet sort of boring, and I still have at least three or four hundred pages left in Postwar.


How about you?