Friday, December 31, 2010

The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

The ImperfectionistsThe Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I took breaks from this book throughout the day, because it was SO GOOD that I didn't want it to end. No, really. I rarely feel that way, but apparently, that is the experience I'm looking for when I open a novel. This is a novelized set of short stories tied together by the history of a newspaper and its demise, and each chapter focuses on a figure related to the paper. Sometimes the chapter/story would end and I'd find that all of the sudden I felt deep compassion for these fictional characters, and I was sad to see each of them go despite/because of their quirks and bad choices. Rachman is a powerful storyteller and I can't believe this is his first novel!

Happy new year, everyone!

Monday, December 27, 2010

Please Help Me Love J. M. Coetzee

Every once in a while, I read a book because I think I should. Maybe an author has been nominated for an award, or wins an award, or keeps showing up on those lists of books you "should" read. So I try.

The first book I read by J. M. Coetzee was Disgrace, and I read it in 2006. To me, it was the epitome of what has almost become an archetype in modern literature - the depressed, amoral, worn-out, male academic. My dislike was severe, I was surprised I finished it. I wondered if it was just because I couldn't identify with it, as a 28 year old who had just finished a graduate degree, at the beginning of her career and quite happily married. Imagine my horror upon discovering that this actually won the Man Booker Prize in 1999! Ha.

For whatever reason, probably the "shoulds," I read Slow Man in 2007. It had actually been nominated for the Man Booker Prize in 2005. It contains a character from a previous book that I have not read, Elizabeth Costello. The main character was similar to the one in Disgrace, to the point that even the other characters in the novel point it out!

"She could not stay with a man who was tired all the time. It was hard enough to hold her own tiredness at bay. She had only to stretch out beside him in the too familiar bed to feel the weariness begin to seep out of him and wash over her in colourless, odourless, inert tide. She had to escape!"

When I was selecting books to read over the long holiday break, I thought maybe I would try giving Coetzee another chance. I brought three of his books home with me - Diary of a Bad Year, Summertime, and Elizabeth Costello. I made it through Diary of a Bad Year, but found it suffered similar issues as the other two. Add to that the tone of it being written in an autobiographical tone (I believe it has even been called autobiographical fiction, a subgenre quite a bit of his work falls under), and the divided writing style, and it was torture.

I read the first chapter of Elizabeth Costello and of Summertime, but just couldn't force myself. I might just call it quits on Coetzee, kind of like I had to do with Brahms as a young pianist, after each reading through of a piece was worse than the one before. Maybe he would mean more to me later on in life. I hope not, because I fear that to identify with him more would be to have lived in misery.

But seriously, what am I missing? I am willing to continue forcing myself to have an open mind.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Great House by Nicole Krauss

I finished this book a couple of weeks ago, one of the finalists for the National Book Award for 2010. I've waited to review it for a bit so I could mull it around in my head.

There are heavy themes here, of loss, obsession, and also how they relate to Jewish history and identity. This is far more delicately handled by Krauss than by Howard Jacobson in The Finkler Question, where the characters are always informing each other that they are thinking about their Jewish identity.

When it comes down to it, most of the stories center around a desk and interweaving versions of loneliness. This is also handled in a subtle way, and in some cases the desk doesn't even show up for a while. It varies in importance, and she crafts interesting characters with unusual tendencies. I was actually sad to reach the end because I was reluctant to let the stories go.

"In life we sit at the table and refuse to eat, and in death we are eternally hungry."

I would give this one 5/5 stars, and recommend reading it.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Why I Didn't Finish

I keep copious lists of the books I want to read, have read, and even the books I have abandoned. I adopted Nancy Pearl's philosophy that life is too short to read a book you aren't into, and in general I give books a good 50 pages, 100 if it has been recommended to me or nominated for an award.

Okay, some books I give fewer than 50, and some I moan that I bothered finishing once I get to the end (Freedom, anyone? I'll quit picking on that book eventually, maybe it will be my New Year's Resolution).

I think the book I was saddest to abandon so far this year was I Hotel by Karen Yamashita. It was one of the finalists for the National Book Award in the fiction category, and it is about my favorite city on earth, San Francisco. It chronicles ten years during the civil rights movement, focusing on different characters and movements in each section. The story is told through prose, poetry, scripts for faux documentaries, and other narrative tricks.

In the first section, I was actually really into it. I liked the characters, I loved how the author incorporated the historical research into it, and I even marked quotations that I liked. ("I've been too busy missing you to be angry" was my favorite, from a poem written on the wall by an immigrant.) But then I got into the second section, and discovered all the characters I had started to grow fond of and interested in had been abandoned for an entirely new set of characters and situations.

I don't want to say there is no overarching plot, because I didn't read until the end to find out if they return. But I had the sense that the characters aren't the point - the city is the point. The city and the themes among those fighting for their rights in the 1960s and 1970s - this is the focus. The characters help to tell the story and then they move on.

I'm still chiding myself for not having enough patience, but around page 215 (see, more than 50 pages) it started to feel formulaic, patterned, and insincere. Life is too short, so I allowed myself to quit.

I actually wonder if it might be better in the context of a history class than read straight through - specific sections paired up with deep looks into different groups of people who settled in the bay area, and their struggles for survival and identity. It might be a better use of the creative presentation of what was a fascinating time in United States history.

Friday, November 26, 2010

National Book Award Reviews - YA Fiction

I think it is a mistake to assume young adults won't notice that a book is preachy just because they are young. I think it is a mistake to award books for being didactic without thinking first if they are enjoyable. In that regard, the National Book Award people made some interesting choices as finalists for what they call the "Young People's Literature" category. Let me just say that to me, the majority of the books chosen for the finalist list were clearly chosen by adults because of what could be learned, not because of how good they were.

Luckily, a few escaped and made it into my first category, the definitely read list.

Dark Water by Laura McNeal was the hardest book on the list to find, but I finally found it from a library in Annapolis, Maryland. At first, I was worried this was another didactic book with a plot thinly veiling a lesson to young people about migrant workers, but it soon shifted into a beautifully love story between a young girl who lives on an avocado farm outside San Diego but doesn't speak Spanish (really?) and an illegal worker who can't speak. The ending is fearless, and I think young girls in particular would be drawn in by this story.

Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi was a surprisingly enjoyable read. I had read The Windup Girl earlier in the year but enjoyed this one much more. It is about kids who live in a post-disaster future America with prevalent hurricanes and the only way to really make a living is to salvage materials from the ships that regularly wreck on the shore. It is gritty and I really enjoyed it.

The next category are the books that are good, kind of, but read rather preachy for my tastes. Boys and girls, let's open our books to page....

Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine covers a lot of Very Important Issues - school shootings, dealing with death and loss, Autism Spectrum, etc. The main character, Caitlin, is learning how to make friends while she tries to find closure for her brother's death. I thought it was heartfelt, and I think it might make kids want to try to be more accepting of people who are different than them. But should we have to make them through fictional characters? See, that's the whole issue I have. Apparently enough people believed so, because this book won in the category.

One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia chronicles the crazy summer of three sisters who are sent to Oakland to live with their mother shortly after the death of MLK Jr. She turns out to be involved with the Black Panthers, and the girls learn about the movement and explore California. It is more than a little unbelievable, and packages up the time period a little too perfectly, but the oldest daughter is an interesting independent female, which is nice for young people. At least, from an adult's perspective it is.

The last book, I just didn't like.

Lockdown by Walter Dean Myers is a hopeless story about a boy in jail who will probably never escape the system. If I was supposed to get more out of it, I'd love to hear a counterargument. The author is known for working in the juvenile system, but I did not find him to be inspiring at all. Maybe reality isn't. At least it wasn't preachy.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

So Much for That by Lionel Shriver

So Much for That was one of the books selected as a finalist in the fiction category for the National Book Award. They have already picked winners, but I'm still slogging my way through all the finalists.

I previously reviewed Parrot & Olivier in America by Peter Carey, since it was also shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize this year. So Much for That is only the second of the five novels that were finalists for this year's prize in fiction.

The majority of this book is probably the biggest downer I have ever read, and I've read some depressing books! Add that to a swirling prominent preachy thread of the problems with the health care system in the United States, and you have a recipe for a disaster. Most depressing books have me internally begging with the author to just get on with it and to give me my life back. Despite what most critics say, I almost always feel that way about McEwan (except with Solar), and the last Franzen made me feel that way too.

Except. Except, except, except. Shriver writes fearlessly and honestly, with excellently written characters, and this made it interesting and pleasing to read. I read the majority of it in one day.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Book Review - The Shallows by Nicholas Carr

I remember Nicholas Carr because of an article he wrote back in 2008, Is Google Making Us Stupid?. According to his notes on The Shallows, he actually expanded on the ideas of the article to write the book.

I picked up this book for a variety of reasons. As a librarian who often does information literacy/fluency instruction, I want to learn as much as I can about how students think and process information. We make decisions all the time about materials - do we stick with print or order eBooks? Is an online periodical sufficient? Can we discard our print reference collection? The answers are not always easy. I can't shake Nicholson Baker and his harsh judgment on libraries, ever since reading Double Fold, and that was also in the back of my mind as I read. The Shallows is a clear picture of where information has come from compared to how we tend to access it and use it in the present day.

The other perspective I'm bringing to this is that of a reader, a great lover of the printed page, of holding a book in my hands and shutting out the world. Carr discusses changing attitudes toward reading at great length. People abandoning the idea of reading because the internet makes it easier, because they no longer "have to," or because they are finding entertainment elsewhere.

"We are now seeing such reading return to its former social base: a self-perpetuating minority that we shall call the reading class.' The question that remains to be answered, they went on, is whether that reading class will have the 'power and prestige associated with an increasingly rare form of cultural capital' or will be viewed as the eccentric practitioners of 'an increasingly arcane hobby.'" (108)

The idea of deep reading gets discussed, as well as what it can do for a learner to shut off everything and focus on reading an entire book, rather than living solely in the shallow world of the internet. I also enjoyed the bits about the history of the printed page, and all the prophets of doom throughout the centuries who have wrongly predicted the end of the book.

I think this is a valuable read for anyone interested in how people learn, how technology changes our brains, and the value of reading.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Literary Blog Hop Week 2 - Most Difficult Literary Work

Literary Blog Hop
This week's question comes from Debbie Nance at Readerbuzz
What is the most difficult literary work you've ever read? What made it so difficult?

I imagine that since it asks "read," that implies actually finishing. Otherwise I'd be talking about how many times I have started-but-not-finished Ulysses by James Joyce. My only strategy with that one is to read it out loud, but I still end up putting it aside for something else. Nothing like a difficult book to get you to develop reader's ADD!

Some books that I've tackled that sometimes are considered difficult, such as Gravity's Rainbow, Les Miserables, and so on - these have been so enjoyable that it seemed completely worth it.

I'm going to choose Moby Dick for my answer to this question. Ah, Melville. I read this along with a group that was reading a chapter a day, and as Moby Dick has 365 chapters, it took a year. If I had read it on my own, I would surely have read it more quickly, so the process itself was a little tedious. I know this is supposed to be one of the great novels of life and death and obsession, and I definitely enjoyed the bits that had interesting characters and plot. Right when I would get into the story, Melville would go off on a tangent and talk about whale biology or the history of the shipping industry. Difficult books might give me reading ADD, but Melville clearly had writing ADD! Revenge, redemption, oh look, there's a pony! It was distracting and I wanted to abandon ship (har har) more than once, just on principle.

At the same time, I think of how many times reading one book has sent me off in search of more information about history or philosophies or people represented within it. Perhaps Melville was doing me a favor by providing all the possible context within the pages of one integrated novel!

As many difficult books as I have enjoyed, I still have several major ones I haven't gotten around to reading. I am trying to decide between War and Peace and Infinite Jest as the book I'll tackle during the winter holidays.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

National Book Award Finalists 2010 - Poetry

The finalists for the National Book Award were announced on October 13, but only three out of the five poetry finalists are available for purchase as of this posting date.

The first nominee is The Eternal City by Kathleen Graber. The poems are invaded by deliberate intelligensia, which is sometimes effective and sometimes annoying. It was less grating on the second and third reads through. Clearly, if I knew Aurelius as well as Graber, I could have gotten much more out of the entire second section, although I appreciated the idea of using poetry to reflect to another type of literature, and the threads of connectivity moving through.

The key themes seem to be loneliness and disappointment. The poem the book is named for even includes the line "Loneliness, our one defendable empire." (The Eternal City)

"A yellow wind whispers its one note over & over into the willow's ten thousand salt-blistered ears. Just now, only this - something so small not even you have given it a name." (Florum Principi)

The next volume is Lighthead by Terrance Hayes. This was easier to read, as it seemed more experience and emotion based than needing to have read obscure writings by historical figures. Some history is involved, largely to do with African Americans that have had public struggles and victories. Then there are some poems inspired by the Japanese presentation style of pecha kucha, which was a little startling.

Don't get me wrong, I actually really enjoyed this book of poetry, but I was left feeling as if I haven't lived enough. But really, Hayes is using the experiences of others in his poetry, but the way he writes makes them seem like he has also shared in those experiences. He makes them personal rather than universal, and this adds a power that I really liked.

"Friend, sometimes the wind's scuttle makes the reeds
In the body vibrate. Sometimes the noise gives up its code
And the music is better at saying what I meant to say."
-from "Liner Notes for an Imaginary Playlist"

The third book of poetry, I don't even feel qualified to judge. She bases the poems (loosely, I guess) on George Herriman's Krazy Kat comic strip. What? If I hadn't read that, I would never have made that connection. The poems are sparse and emotional, not really cats and bricks. I almost wish I didn't knew. I think I'd like them more without that bizarre connection.

Here is a great example of the imagery she creates:

Ignatz Domesticus
Then one day she noticed the forest had begun to bleed into her waking life.
There were curved metal plates on the trees to see around corners.
She thought to brush her hand against his thigh.
She thought to trace the seam of his jeans with her thumbnail.
The supersaturated blues were beginning to pixillate around the edges, to become a kind of grammar.
She placed a saucer of water under her lamp and counted mosquitoes as they drowned.
Soot amassed in drifts in the corners of the room.
She pressed her thumb into the hollow of his throat for a while and then let him go.

(Does anyone else see cartoons? I'd be happy to have someone explain the connection to me, and shame me in my ignorance.)

I hope that at some point, By the Numbers by James Richardson and One with Others by C.D. Wright become available for purchase, so I can compare all of them with each other.

Until then, I'd pick the Hayes book as the top poetry finalist so far. I don't think the National Book Award people pick one book in every category, but I'm going to start there.

Literary Blog Hop

Literary Blog Hop
For the first ever Literary Blog Hop, hosted by The Blue Bookcase, I am supposed to talk about one of my favorite books and why it would be considered "literary."

That word, literary, it just begs to be snooty and elitist, doesn't it? But to me it is the difference between artisan and supermarket (see my baking blog for a much more developed baking story!), mainstream and indie, blockbuster and art house film. Most literary novels don't end up as mass-market paperbacks.

I have a lot of favorites that are obviously literary, but I'm going to choose Justine by Lawrence Durrell. I would call it literary because it combines historical accuracy with complex characters and a multifaceted story. I love it because the writing is beautiful, one of those reading experiences where I would read passages twice because of the sheer joy of it, and as soon as I finished it I went back and read the beginning again. I don't have this experience with every literary novel, but I will never forget my first time with Justine.

I am really interesting in exploring novels that are selected for award lists, and most of those are probably considered literary. That is what this blog has been about so far, and there is a long queue of books to read and reflect on along those lines.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Booker Prize Shortlist 2010

Jenny's booker-shortlist-2010 book montage


In a Strange Room

The Finkler Question


The Long Song

Parrot and Olivier in America

Jenny's favorite books »

Although the Man Booker Prize has already been selected for this year, I was determined to make my own judgment on who I would have awarded it to. I wish they had more time between announcing the shortlist and announcing the winner!

First of all, I was disappointed by a few that were left off the shortlist, particularly David Mitchell. The Dunmore also sounds interesting, and similar to content often awarded the prize, although I can't speak to its literary merit yet.

Two of the books really rose to the top of the heap this year. Room by Emma Donaghue was the first one I read, and I was amazed by how she used such a limited setting and the confines of a room to create a story with so many layers and unexpected twists. It wasn't as dark and depressing as it could have been, because it was told from the perspective of the young boy who has only known the room.

The other book I would place in this category is C by Tom McCarthy. To be honest, I feel like this book has grown on me since I finished it, and hearing the interview Michael Silverblatt did with McCarthy on Bookworm made a difference there. I thought I was reading traces of other novels throughout the book, and hearing that confirmed just made it all that much better for me. This book made me wish I was more well-read, knew more about history, but what I did catch made the reading experience even better.

Worth the Read, but Not the Award
Two books that were nominated are in my middle-ranked category, still very much worth reading but not necessarily stand-outs. The first is unfortunately the book awarded the prize, The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson. The book is about old men and Jewish identity but it is rather circular and repetitive. I feel I could have jumped in at any point and read a different version of the same story.

Parrot & Olivier in America by Peter Carey is a book I was really torn on. I had to take a break in the middle because it got pretty tedious, but the last 75 pages or so were a fantastic blend of storytelling and social commentary. I just wish he'd gotten to that point sooner. The version of American history told is from an unusual perspective, and that made a big difference too.

I would skip
It seems unfair to put a book in this category, I mean, these were short listed for the Man Booker prize! But I don't see why. In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut is written in such a way, switching between first and third person, that you can't possibly get close to the narrator. And despite the fact that he is traveling through interesting places and meeting interesting people, nothing interesting actually happens to HIM. If it hadn't been nominated for this prize, I would not have bothered finishing it. At least it goes by quickly.

The last one in this category I'm not sure it is fair to rank since I'll admit I couldn't even finish it. The Long Song by Andrea Levy uses that technique of showing characters so uninformed as to be ridiculous, but partnering that with their racism and written dialects, I just couldn't commit to it. I tried two different times and forced the first fifty pages, but that's the only length I'll go to, even for a prize-nominated tome.

What is your favorite Booker?

Monday, October 4, 2010

Dylan Thomas Prize Long List 2010 - Novels

I finally finished the nominees for the Dylan Thomas Prize Long List, although not before they announced the short list. Fair is fair, and I don't agree with their long list entirely, so I am still going to share my thoughts on the matter.

The best of the best
My favorite novel of the lot was The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton. Half the story is told inside a saxophone teacher's studio, and the other half is told somewhat from the perspective of a young man in his first year of acting school. Except the narrators are unreliable and it isn't even clear if what is happening is real or part of a play. I almost forgot to eat lunch one day because I was so immersed in it.

Really good and worth the read
An imaginary friend, or a ghost, or a personality? You can decide, but In This Way I Was Saved by Brian DeLeeuw is disturbing and yet I couldn't put it down!!! The narrator kind of doesn't exist and he also doesn't understand everything he sees. I wish the end had been more fleshed out but I continued to think about it after I was done.

The Still Point by Amy Sackville was a journey inside an isolated woman's life to discover the romance of her grandparents in the Alaskan tundra. Impossible to explain but beautifully written.

Interesting reads, but optional
The Girl with the Glass Feet by Ali Shaw is actually one I read before I knew about the prize. It was set on a cold weather island, so I thought it was made for me, but I remember very little of it. It was an easy read, but forgettable.

Desperation and reconciliation plague a family in Ireland, in The Road to the Sea by Ciara Hegarty. It was bleak and not wimpy.

I think a Room by Emma Donaghue is a better book about a child growing up with one parent in an isolated setting, but And This is True by Emily Mackie had some interesting quirks too.

Both Family Planning by Karan Mahajan and Black Mamba Boy by Nadifa Mohamed have interesting settings and tell new stories, which I imagine is the reason they both made the short list. I personally felt that I would have rathered a different author tell the story, if that makes sense. In Family Planning the story just goes nowhere, although the characters are fascinating. In Black Mamba Boy there is too much crammed into 280 pages, so the entire novel just feels scattered.

So there you go. The selectors agree with me on The Rehearsal for the short list, but we'll have to wait until December to find the verdict.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Dylan Thomas Shortlist Announced

The Dylan Thomas Prize shortlist was announced. I am still only halfway through the novels, so I am going to wait to reflect on that aspect of the shortlist (although I can already say that one of the novels they picked would not have made my cut)!

I had pinpointed three as deserving the shortlist, knowing they probably wouldn't pick three poets, but they agreed with two of my three. Adebe D.A. was excluded, which is a shame, but I'm still following her in Facebook so I can keep up with what she does next. Both Watering Can by Caroline Bird and Clamor by Elyse Fenton made it to the shortlist. I fully expected Caroline Bird to as she seems to have more of an established career than the others on the longlist, including prior nominations, but I was pleased that they had the same experience with the Fenton that I did.

We all still have a lot of time, at least to get through the shortlist, because the winners won't be announced until December 1.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Poets on the Dylan Thomas Longlist

Dylan Thomas Prize Longlist 2010

Jenny's favorite books »

As I believe I've mentioned before, I like to use award nominees as a way to expand beyond what I would normally read. One blog I follow, Rebecca's Pocket, often has links to various book prizes and articles containing different themed lists. I blame her for my to-read list now approaching 400, actually.

One day there was a link to the Dylan Thomas Prize Longlist for 2010. I'd never heard of it, so I went to check it out. The Dylan Thomas Prize has been around since 2006, and awards writers under 30 who have written in the English language. This year's nominees include poetry, plays, and novels.

I'm trying to get through everything, but I focused on the poets first. For me, the poetry volumes fall into three categories.

Not my thing:

Cailleach: The Hag of Beara by Leanne O'Sullivan.
The entire volume revolves around the concept of Cailleach, a Celtic wise-woman figure. A nice exercise, but I just wasn't into it.

Shore Ordered Ocean by Dora Malech.
I felt like she was trying too hard, experimenting with grammar and vocabulary in a way that made my head hurt rather than spurn me on to further reading.

Enjoyable but ultimately forgettable:

One Eye'd Leigh by Katherine Kilalea.
Sometimes I think poets, particularly female poets, get into a rut of only writing about their immediate daily life. I think I feel the same way about Linda Pastan, actually, and she is acclaimed, so there are people who will also really like Kilalea. I think because of the mundane subject matter of the poems, I just don't remember anything about them.

Superb, hoping they make the shortlist:

Clamor by Elyse Fenton.
This entire volume is from the perspective of the poet whose husband is deployed in Baghdad. I said earlier I didn't care for concept poetry, but this is fantastic. She is so honest about the balance between support and worry, violence and the media, and the reality vs. the fantasy after someone returns from war. These were gut wrenching.

Watering Can by Caroline Bird.
I would be surprised if she didn't make the shortlist. Bird's poems are enjoyable to read, some of them are hilarious, and they demand to be read out loud. Lost Tuesday is my favorite, and meant even more because I read it on a very bad Tuesday!

Ex nihilo by Adebe D.A.
I have to say, I think this poet has the potential to be great. She has a unique voice and balances extreme intelligence with cultural resonance. My favorite of the group of poets nominated this time around. I particularly enjoyed "New York, My Future Love," "Colour Lessons," and "I Am Not Cleopatra."

The shortlist is supposed to be announced sometime this month, but I'm working through the novels soon. I read The Girl with Glass Feet a few months back because I was at the public library and it had a pretty cover, but there are still eight to go!

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Thurber Prize 2010

Thurber Prize Shortlist 2010

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress

How I Became a Famous Novelist

Why Is My Mother Getting a Tattoo?: And Other Questions I Wish I Never Had to Ask

Jenny's favorite books »

The Thurber Prize is an annual prize awarded for humor in American writing. Three novels were nominated this year, see the links above for the titles. Well, really, one was a novel and two were memoirs, if we're being particular.

I don't know what to think. What does a book have to include to be considered funny? Am I looking for something that makes me laugh out loud? Is a chuckle sufficient? What if it is something so close to home, so accurate, that it makes me groan instead of laugh?

I recently asked one of my online book clubs what books they found funny. (See the Sword and Laser discussion, What Books Make you LOL). To be fair, it is a sci-fi/fantasy book club, so I shouldn't have been surprised by the number of recommendations for Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, and Wodehouse. I haven't tried Wodehouse, but the humor in Adams and Pratchett is the type that doesn't actually make me laugh. I understand *why* it is funny but it is more annoying than laughable. I just don't have a British-humor sensibility.

Let me pay more attention to the nominees for the Thurber Prize Award, which doesn't get awarded until November. I really enjoyed the Janzen book, although not because it was "funny" per se. She is a skilled storyteller, and between her husband leaving her for Bob from and her tales of growing up Mennonite, it was an interesting and personal read. It actually made me wonder if I grew up Mennonite without my knowledge, particularly in one moment where her Mom sings this song in the car that my mother always sang in the car. (You can see the lyrics here, it alone is worth a laugh!)

While I liked the Janzen the most, I would probably consider Hely's book, How I Became a Famous Novelist, the "funniest." It is about a writer, Pete Tarslaw, who decides to write a novel and become famous to get back at his college girlfriend. It is also somewhat of a commentary on the publishing industry and the world of readers and how there is no accounting for popularity! Strangely, the plot sounds strangely similar to another book I have on my to-read list, Thieves of Manhattan. They will be interesting to compare.

You may notice I'm not really talking about the Dunn book that was nominated. I had to force myself to finish it, despite its brevity. I didn't find it funny or clever or interesting. Not everyone should write a memoir! I think her biggest failing was to write about her crazy family and not separate herself from them. It would have been much more entertaining if there had been a contrast, but no! Instead she talks extensively about how she is just like them, which to me shows she lacks the perspective to tell the story from a humorous perspective. Since she worked at Rolling Stone and MTV but didn't seem to fit into that world, I think that would have been more interesting. Maybe for her second work.

What writing do you find funny?

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Re-examining E.M. Forster

When pressed, I always include E.M. Forster on my list of favorite authors. But then a friend quoted the "Only connect" passage from Howards End, a book I haven't ever managed to read, despite it being Forster's best known work. I decided it was time. And really I hadn't read anything by him in maybe ten years.

"Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die."

I first encountered E.M. Forster around the time that I read all the other English novelists, my senior year in high school. It was also around that time that I saw the movie adaptation of The Wings of a Dove in the old Roseway Theater in downtown Portland, which also took me on a Henry James reading spree.

I'd have to go back and read A Room with a View and Where Angels Fear to Tread to know for sure, but I think what 18 year old me loved about Forster was how desperately romantic it all was. Young people breaking out of their expected roles to fall in love with unexpected people, usually while living abroad. That was, of course, very appealing. And Forster has this way of inserting Great Thoughts on the Universe in between dialogue and plot, and I think these really resonated with the girl getting ready to go to college and start living her life.

What 18-year-old me didn't really notice was the incredible sexism in Forster's novels. Since I'm just a reader of Forster and not a scholar, I'd like to assume that the comments on men dominating women, anti-womens suffrage, and on female domestic roles were to make a point; that he included strong, intelligent women against traditional bumbling men to show that the cultural assumptions were wrong, but honestly I don't know if that's true. Now that I've written it, I feel like I'm trying hard to justify the passion I had for his work.

Even now, while annoyed by the silly female characters in Howard's End, it still pulled at something internal for me. Forster has a knack for creating moments of emotional resonance. Of course the novel doesn't just remark on gender roles, but on the classes within society, capitalism, and empire. At the heart, though, are the relationships, between people, and in this case between people and a special house called Howard's End.

Margaret and Helen are two sisters who take care of each other as well as their younger brother Tibby. Their parents died while they were fairly young, but they are financially stable, giving them no idea of the hardships of struggling to make ends meet. This is what adds to them coming across as silly and careless. They take music and travel for granted, in fact Helen expresses more than once how she would be devastated without these things.

"Not to move about the world would kill me."

When Helen discusses settling down vs. adventure with Mr. Bast:

"If I could only get work - something regular to do. Then it wouldn't be so bad again. I don't trouble after books as I used. I can imagine that with regular work we should settle down again. It stops one thinking."
"Settle down to what?"
"Oh, just settle down."
"And that's to be life!" said Helen, with a catch in her throat. "How can you, with all the beautiful things to see and do - with music - with walking at night -."

These moments are surely what redeem Howard's End for me. I forget about the sexism, the oppression, and the unfairness of what life was during that time. I think deep down I'm still a little starry eyed.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Hugo Awards 2010

For my first actual post, I wanted to discuss the Hugo Awards, since they are less than a month away from being announced. Up until a couple of years ago when I first joined The Sword and Laser Book Club, I really didn't read a lot of science fiction and fantasy. So the books they would pick were what I would read in that genre. I learned in library school to select books that were nominated for awards in a specific genre, or at least the winners of those awards. Some of them, like the Bookers, seem a little too publisher-driven to be "honest." The Hugo Awards are run by and voted on by fans, which I thought was pretty impressive. The Hugo is awarded for excellence in the field of science fiction and fantasy, and has been going for over fifty years.

Wonder of wonders, this year I actually saw the list of 2010 nominees early enough to read the majority of them and make my own predictions. If I wanted to, I could pay the $50 to join the World Science Fiction Society and to get to vote, and that would have come with copies of all the novellas and short stories, not all of which are available online. I found this out after I'd read almost everything, however, but I may do it next year. It actually is a pretty good deal price-wise!

The majority of the non-novel nominees were available online, and I read enough to make a prediction in three categories.

For novel, I would love to see Palimpsest by Catherynne M. Valente win it. The story was unique, about people who travel to a fantasy world by connecting to other people who share their mysterious skin tattoos in the real world, and the writing was just spectacular. I found myself holding my breath and I wrote her a fangirl e-mail immediately after. I've also sat and read through everything I could get my hands on by her afterwards, and while I love her poetry just about as much, I think it is her best work yet.

I can imagine Windup Girl or even The City and The City winning, particularly because of how well-known Mieville already is. I have to admit I didn't care much for it, and I've heard his other work is better. And for me the Bacigalupi had interesting ideas but the pacing of the story was way off.

I didn't make a decision on novella, because only 2/5 were available to read online.

For best novelette I enjoyed It Takes Two by Nicola Griffith the most, with the ideas of advanced medicine and mind control. The Swirsky was a fun read, but some of the others in the category are exemplary for why I thought I hated science fiction so long - too many details, too many spaceships or aliens, too much geekery.

For short story, I think I would go with Bridesicle by Will McIntosh, because I loved the somewhat humorous look at the future of cryogenic life extension. I half expect Spar by Kij Johnson to win this category, because it definitely causes a strong reaction. When you write first-person about eternal alien rape, you are bound to be memorable. It was incredibly oppressive and uncomfortable to read; is that genius writing or a trick?

The Hugo Awards will be announced Sunday, September 5, but that's in Australia so maybe we'll hear about them on Saturday in the states. I'm eager to see if I share any of the opinions of the voting majority!


I have been wanting to start a reading blog for some time, but couldn't find a title that seemed appropriate. I wanted Greedy Reader but someone thought of that already, and then randomly today, a Facebook conversation led to the title.

Reading Envy - I have it. My to-read list keeps growing exponentially, and I love hearing what others read. And while I post reviews to GoodReads (links on the right) and keep track of quotations in a Google doc, I don't have one cohesive place where everything goes. I have a few friends with book blogs, and I've been longing to copy them, so here I am.