Wednesday, March 30, 2011

When You Like a Book Better than You Thought You Would...

Book Reviewed: Rocket Boys, by Homer H. Hickam, Jr.

Every spring, our county library puts on a program called One Book, One Michiana. For a whole month, local libraries, schools, and businesses hold events and promotions centered on one chosen book. Last year it was To Kill a Mockingbird. This year it was Homer Hickam's memoir, Rocket Boys (also known as October Sky). Originally, I wasn't very happy with this choice. I'm not interested in overly-earnest memoirs, and I couldn't care less about rockets. But when my book club decided to read the book so we could take part in the One Book discussions, I figured I better join them (being the nominal leader and all). Turns out, this book is about a lot more than rockets. And the earnestness didn't even bother me.

In the late 1950s, Hickam was a teenager in Coalwood, West Virginia, a coal-mining company town. His dad was a foreman, loved and hated in equal measure by the other miners in town. After the Russians sent Sputnik into orbit, Hickam became obsessed with space. He gathered a group of friends with the goal of finding a way to emulate Hickam's hero, rocket scientist Wernher von Braun. They began to build rockets. At first, they blew up fences and failed more than they succeeded. But as they began to test different models and fuel types, they found success. Eventually, their experiments took them to the National Science Fair.

This story has a lot of other things going on, too. It's a coming of age story more than anything. There are the usual problems you might expect in a mining town - accidents, labor strikes, etc. There's Hickam's very strained relationship with his father, as well as the very tense situation between his parents. People around Hickam battle major illnesses and tragedies, and eventually, he realizes his town is dying around him. There's something here for everyone.

I liked this book much more than I thought I would. It probably won't make my Top Ten list at the end of the year, but I definitely enjoyed it while it lasted. Hickam gives you a real feel for the town and its inhabitants, and he makes you care about them. I love reading about small rural towns; this book could have just focused on that and I would have been happy. So you can imagine my surprise at discovering I actually liked reading about all the rocket stuff. It amazes me that people can be this clever, willing to work so hard to find the right fuel mixtures, the right mathematic equations. Reading this book, I couldn't help but marvel and envy the ingenuity of these kids. I sure don't have that kind of go-get-'em that they have.

So if you live in Michiana and want to participate in One Book, you can't go wrong with giving this one a shot.

Monday, March 28, 2011

A New Sarah Vowell Book Is an Event...For Me, Anyway

Book Reviewed: Unfamiliar Fishes, by Sarah Vowell

Sarah Vowell is one of the only writers I actively follow, meaning I jump on every new book by her the day it comes out. Last Tuesday, when Unfamiliar Fishes was officially released, I occupied the very first hold position at my library. I waited two months after placing that hold, so as soon as the book came in on Tuesday, I pushed aside everything else I was reading. I finished it in two days. Such is the power of the Vowell.

Since I first read Asssassination Vacation as a teenager, then went back to read her books of essays, I've been obsessed with her funny, intelligent writing style. She takes history subjects I think I have no interest in - Puritans, President Garfield - and makes me care about them. I still think Assassination Vacation, about the first three presidential assassinations in America, is her best book. Every page presents some new, bizarre fact that grabs me. I was a little disappointed that her last book, The Wordy Shipmates, didn't interest me in quite the same way. Same goes with her new book, Unfamiliar Fishes.

Unfamiliar Fishes is a look at the history of Hawaii and its relationship to the United States. Missionaries arrived in Hawaii in the early 19th-century with the hope of converting its inhabitants to Christianity. They were mostly successful in this goal, but the changes they wrought had some unsavory impacts on the island nation. In an interview Vowell did with the AV Club, she mentions that she saw Fishes as a kind of sequel to The Wordy Shipmates. After all, these missionaries are descendants of those original Puritans who wanted to carve out a new world and ended up pushing out the natives. Vowell clearly comes to her research with an agenda, but because these books are simply little looks into important and strange events, this hardly matters. What matters is how interestingly she presents the information. Frankly, I found Unfamiliar Fishes to lack a little in the interest department. I did not have the same kind of emotional or intellectual fascination with this book that I had with Assassination Vacation.

That being said, a so-so Sarah Vowell book is still better than most things out there. I had absolutely no knowledge of Hawaiian history before starting this book, but I felt pretty well-versed in the island's last 200 years by the time I finished. It's a fascinating subject. And reading about Hawaii during a yucky late-March cold snap definitely had its perks. It wasn't my favorite Vowell book in the world, but it was still a pretty great way to spend two days.

Note: Sarah Vowell is one of the few writers I recommend without limit. She certainly won't be for everyone, but when I pass her essays or books on to family members and friends, they usually find at least something to like there. If you are a Vowell newbie, I suggest starting with her excellent essay collection, Take the Cannoli, which is nerdy and hilarious. I also think Assassination Vacation is a good place to start. That book is all kinds of awesome and informative. She's also one of the only writers whose audio books I can stand. She reads her own work, and she does a fantastic job. If you put on one of her audio books while cleaning the house or doing your hair, you are bound to have more fun than originally planned.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Poem of the Week: "Chester," by John Koethe

I found this poem while lazily searching through the Poetry Foundation archive. I like it because it 1) features a cat, 2) says something I've often felt myself, and 3) has a really awesome quote from the top. Also, the poem's title is a family nickname for our super-adorable, very funny cat, Winchester. Enjoy! Chester, by John Koethe

Saturday, March 26, 2011

This Week in Trashy Reads 2011 #4

Trashy Read 2011 #4: The Lost Duke of Wyndham, by Julia Quinn

I'm not sure why I love Regency romances so much. I don't have any particular fondness for that point in history, nor do I care much for the ideas of dukes and inheritance and whatnot. In fact, I get down right tired of wealthy heroes with property and servants, in both historicals and contemporaries. So why do I love historical romances by people like Lisa Kleypas and Loretta Chase so much?

It's all due to the inherent escapism the genre provides. Not only am I entering a romance, which is as escapist as genre fiction gets, I'm going far enough back into time that I can suspend all belief of the story's happenings. I don't have the time-period-accuracy hang-ups to keep me from just enjoying the book. Sometimes, someone will say something that makes me roll my eyes and say, "Not back then, silly." But overall, I am willing to completely do away with believability just to have a good story. I want the characters to be well-established, for their motivations and actions to be believable. But when I'm reading this kind of book, that's all I'm in it for - characters and fun. You'll never see me reading super-serious romance (okay, Laura Kinsale excepted) because I'm into it purely for the escapism.

That's why I can read a book like Julia Quinn's The Lost Duke of Wyndham and not throw the book across the room. I don't have to believe in all the silly plot points. I just have to believe in these characters. And I do, even though I don't find them nearly as enjoyable as, say, Daphne and Simon from Quinn's own The Duke and I. I like that Grace comes from a respectable but fairly-low background, and I like Jack's charm well enough. They made a good couple, and I really felt for their predicament. They just didn't win me over as much as I would've liked.

That being said, this is a pretty good book, especially at its basic roots. Jack Aubrey gets recognized by the dowager Duchess of Wyndham as the possible son of her own dead, favorite child. Jack is dragged kicking and screaming into a world of nobility with which he wants nothing to do. The only thing he enjoys about this ordeal is the friendship of Grace, the dowager's companion. The group ends up having to travel to Ireland, the place of Jack's birth, in order to find out if his birth was legitimate. In the meantime, Grace and Jack have fallen in love and feel great pain at the realization that if Jack ends up being the lost duke, he can never be with Grace, as she is not much better than a servant. I was surprised by how much I actually cared about this plot wrench. After all, it's completely true. Of course, everyone gets what they want in the end, and all is well. But I did feel enough anguish on the behalf of Grace and Jack that it made the ending worth it.

Overall, it was a breezy if not terribly fulfilling read. Apparently, there is a second book that takes place at the same time from the point of view of Thomas Cavendish, the man who held the title of Duke of Wyndham before his missing cousin ruined everything. Thomas starts off as being kind of annoying, but he really grew on me by the end, as did his eventual love interest, Amelia. I doubt I'll read this second book (it's gotten some terrible reviews), but I will continue to dive into Julia Quinn's backlist. She knows how to entertain me.

Note: This is the third trashy read (out of four total) I've read this year featuring a hero with some kind of learning problem. And it's the second case of dyslexia. In this book, the hero's dyslexia kind of came out of nowhere in the last quarter of the book, which had me rolling me eyes. But when done right, this is an incredibly effective plot device, as it's a very real problem with which real people struggle. That being said, how often can it be used before it gets to be a cliche in the genre? It's like hero daddy issues, but not as hilariously over the top.

Next in Trashy Reads: Who knows? Erin McCarthy has a new racing book, The Chase, coming out next month. It's safe to assume that I'll be reading that sometime in April or May.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Books and TV

Story Reviewed: "Fire in the Hole," by Elmore Leonard (from the collection When the Women Come Out to Dance)

I love TV. As someone who tries so hard to be intellectual and bookish, it's embarrassing just how much I love the medium of television. Now, I agree with the rest of the world that 97% of what's on on any given day is total crap. But I also think that too many people dismiss the entire medium without taking into account all the great programming out there. There's nothing quite like Mad Men (my favorite show) out there in books or movies, art or music. It exists in a kind of isolated awesomeness. Same goes with cancelled shows you can now only enjoy online or on DVD, like Freaks and Geeks, or the often beautiful and emotionally-satisfying Friday Night Lights (which will air its last season on NBC starting next month). TV is capable of providing very solid entertainment; and as someone who loves lingering, complicated narratives, the long-form series on TV satisfy me in a way that movies do not. I am way more attached to my favorite TV shows than I am to my favorite movies.

Not surprisingly, I am also way more attached to my favorite books than my favorite TV shows. But sometimes, these two mediums connect in interesting ways. I have been following the bloody FX show Justified since it's very beginning last spring. I always knew that the series was based on some Elmore Leonard books and stories and that the pilot had basically been lifted wholesale from Leonard's short story, "Fire in the Hole." However, it wasn't until the AV Club did this feature on Elmore Leonard (a mystery writer that even my lit profs followed religiously) that I finally decided to read this story.

It was totally worth it. I love the pilot episode of Justified, and reading this story brought into focus all the reasons why. There's the sheer badassery of the main character Raylan Givens, a U.S. Marshall who's a little too good with a gun. There's the setting of the backwoods Kentucky crime scene. Best of all, there's all sorts of underlying tensions beneath the surface of Raylan's relationship with Boyd Crowder, the story's villain. Boyd runs a neo-Nazi group, and he's super-self-righteous. The marshalls want him for murder and a handful of other crimes. Raylan and Boyd have known each other since high school, back when they used to dig coal together at the mines.

In the meantime, there's the murder of Boyd's brother by the brother's wife, Ada, a strange kind of accidental, rural femme fatale. When all these plot strings tie together at a final scene at Ada's house, you feel like the story was two or three times longer than it actually is. Leonard never directly points to the actual relationship between Raylan and Boyd. It all comes out through dialogue and action. The story's final line, a piece of dialogue spoken by Raylan to his boss, packs a great punch.

I really enjoyed reading this story, just as much as I enjoy the TV show. Whole chunks of dialogue and backstory are taken from this story to the pilot verbatim. But the ending has a different outcome, and there's more gaps you have to fill in yourself as the audience. Overall, I have to recommend "Fire in the Hole" and Justified equally. They are both exciting, simmering tales about where one comes from and how people can take divergent paths and still end up in the same place. I am definitely going to have to check out more Elmore Leonard in the future.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Poem-Related Interview of the Week

I am in the middle of completely cleaning out and re-organizing my bedroom closet. I can't even begin to describe just what a huge task this is. There are things in that closet that have been there since I was a little kid. In the end, this mess will be worth it. But in the meantime, it's very time- and thought-consuming. So my mind is having a hard time thinking about poetry right now. So instead, I am posting a link to an interesting interview from the Poetry Foundation website with actor, writer, and renaissance man James Franco. I have mixed feelings about Franco. I've been fan of his acting since I was a teenager, but I find his artsy-preciousness a little grating. And as someone who has struggled to get into an MFA program despite being a writer for my whole life, it annoyed me that he basically walked into one of the best programs in the country and published a book immediately afterwards.

But I can't argue that he does come across as a genuine poetry fan. There are so few poetry lovers out there that this interview reads as very exciting to me. Also, I am now all set to see this new movie about Hart Crane. It makes me like James Franco all over again (even if he does have a bit of annoying pretension to him). Enjoy!

James Franco Interview

Thursday, March 17, 2011

This Week in Trashy Reads 2011 #3

Trashy Read 2011 #3: A Lot Like Love, by Julie James

Almost exactly one year ago, I began the This Week in Trashy Reads feature in honor of reading Julie James's fun contemporary romance, Something About You. Well, it seems fitting then that I celebrate this dubious anniversary by reviewing James's new book, A Lot Like Love.

For this romance, James returns to her world of the FBI office in Chicago. Here, we meet Nick McCall, an agent who excels at undercover jobs. He's uber-masculine and not particularly attached to any real, rooted life because of his work. Through a series of events, his next undercover job involves pretending to be the date of gorgeous heiress Jordan Rhodes at an exclusive wine party. Jordan owns a successful wine store, and she is willing to help the FBI in exchange for her brother, Kyle, being let out of prison early. Unfortunately, the couple gets stuck having to continue to pretend they are dating after the bad guys start trailing them.

The suspense plot of this book is admittedly a little weak, although I do appreciate the connections to Something Like You and the promise of more FBI books to come. But I loved the main characters. I started the book expecting to be annoyed by the oh so rich and pretty Jordan, but instead I ended up wishing she was a friend of mine. She's surprisingly likeable, and as bit of a wine fan myself, I loved all the wine talk in this book. Any book that makes a joke at the expense of white zinfandel is bound to win my heart. I also appreciated how the book turns a tired idea on its head in the form of the man being the one who feels pressured to choose between love and his career.

I think Julie James is an excellent pick for readers who are looking to step out into romance for the first time. Her books have a touch of suspense and the sex isn't as prominent as it is in, say, Erin McCarthy's racing books. Her characters have jobs they like and are comfortable in their own skins, which is refreshing. They have their own lives and friends outside of their romantic lives. I am definitely a Julie James fan. And I look forward to her next book, which will be about Kyle Rhodes, Jordan's wayward brother.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011


Book Reviewed: Light in August, by William Faulkner

Whenever I think about the three most famous and beloved American writers of the 20th century - Hemingway, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald - I have to remind myself that they were all writing at basically the same time. The writings of these three men have nothing but the concerns of time and place in common. Their styles are as different as could be, their characters could never reach across books to be friends, and their personal lives were just as disparate. Fitzgerald's books are concerned with class and couplings; his style has a perfected, shiny gloss to it that at its best results in a lovely and poetic energy and at its worse is near-impossible to take seriously (and I say that as a major fan). Hemingway is all about the modern man, and his revolutionary prose is famous for its brevity and neatness. Faulkner is a completely different beast altogether. His style is as wordy as Fitzgerald's, but it also has the more modern feel of Hemingway's directness. His subject matter lies in his own deep-South upbringing, with many of his characters being the impoverished and disenfranchised that Hemingway and Fitzgerald never did like to deal with in their work. He also uses something that Fitzgerald and Hemingway never would've thought about utilizing: stream-of-consciousness prose.

For years, it was this last point that I thought kept me from liking Faulkner. I read a couple Faulkner novels in my first few years of high school, and I strongly disliked them. The style was confusing, and I hated the characters. Now, I realize that I was simply too young to be reading those books in the first place. What you read when you're a teenager has a surprisingly big impact on the rest of your reading life. The same year I claimed I'd never read Faulkner for fun was the same year I declared Fitzgerald as my favorite writer ever. I was fifteen.

But Faulkner is one of the "important" writers out there, and I always felt guilty for disliking him. So I decided that as an adult and college graduate, I might change my mind about the man and his books. As a Virginia Woolf fan, I even have a higher tolerance for stream-of-consciousnes now. With that idea in mind, I tackled what many consider his best work, the novel Light in August. And I came to two conclusions upon finishing the book. One, Faulkner is a genius. Two, I still don't like reading his work.

Light in August begins with a young woman on the road. She's very pregnant and looking for the baby's father, who left her in Alabama with lots of sweet and meaningless promises. Eventually, she makes her way to a small Mississippi mill town, where she meets Byron Bunch, an all around good guy who works hard and never makes trouble. Byron promises to help her find the man, who at this time has taken up the name of Joe Brown and lives in a cabin with another mysterious man named Joe Christmas. The book then goes on to explore the life of Joe Christmas, who is mixed-race but has no proof of his own ancestry. He spent his early years in an orphanage, was adopted by a super-religious man and his weird wife, then turned into a drifter and eventual criminal. Christmas is responsible for the death of Ms. Burden, a wealthy town outcast who becomes his much-older lover. While Christmas is on the run from the law, other parts of the story play out, including the relationship between Byron Bunch and a disgraced minister named Gail Hightower, the birth of Lena's child, and the discovery of Christmas's parentage and remaining family. The book gets fairly bloody and brutal in the end (what else would you expect from Southern lit), but it ends in a nice circular fashion with Lena on the road again, her circumstances only marginally changed.

There is a lot going on in this book. There's some pretty heavy Christian themes, with Christmas set up to be a kind of Christ-like figure (admittedly, I had trouble with this whole thread, as I didn't get all the parallels others have made in regards to this). There's a pretty strong thread of misogyny, and I haven't decided whether or not its intentional. Issues of race and race relations are probably the most important aspects of this book, and the ones that were the most obvious to me as I was reading it. Faulkner writes about race in a way that's very honest and rare even to this day. Despite Light in August being published in 1932, there's some very contemporary ideas still at play here.

Faulkner is an important writer, and I would definitely go out on a limb and say that he might be the smartest of the Fitzgerald/Hemingway/Faulkner smartfest. He deserved that Nobel Prize and more. While reading this book, I was often reminded of Tolstoy (my second-favorite novelist after Fitzgerald). Tolstoy is often credited with revolutionizing the format of the novel into what we know it as today. Faulkner is definitely the American version of that revolutionary spirit. The book goes back and forth in time and doles out histories when they are needed, which means we get a main character's backstory in the final pages. I really love and admire the way Light in August is structured. More importantly, there were sentences in this book that wowed me with their simple and descriptive grace. Without a doubt, Faulkner is a master of the form.

That being said, I can't say I particularly enjoyed reading this book. It gave me a lot to think about, and it showed me just how wonderful Faulker is as a writer and thinker. But I disliked all the characters and felt bogged down by the oppressiveness of it all. I like a tragedy as much as the next person, if not more. But this book was not fun to read at all. If I want to think and admire what writing can do, I might go back to Faulkner (and I'm sure I'll read more of his work in the future). If I want to enjoy myself and want to get stuck in a story, I'm going to stick with my man Fitzgerald.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Poem of the Week: "Cold Spring," by Lawrence Raab

It appears that winter is finally coming to an end! This winter hasn't been very kind, with blizzards and icy temperatures and general grossness. I'm not sure there has ever been a year where I've been more ready for spring. And even though it's only a few degrees warmer lately, I've been back to going on walks and breathing in the fresh air. A couple weeks ago, I even got a taste of my beloved spring thunderstorms! Luckily, things in my personal life are going pretty well these days, too, so everything seems just that much better. Here's a poem that captures the feelings of this time of year. I hope you'll agree that it's a lovely little piece. Enjoy!

Cold Spring, by Lawrence Raab

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Poem of the Week: "As I Walked Out One Evening," by W.H. Auden

I think I've probably posted this poem somewhere on this blog before (but not under the Poem of the Week mantle). Frankly, I don't care. This poem is all kinds of awesome - strange and startling imagery, lilting language, and soothing rhythm. I've been thinking about this poem a lot lately, so I thought I'd post it here for all of you to enjoy.

As I Walked Out One Evening, by W.H. Auden

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

February 2011 in Review

Total Pages Read in February: 1,383

I didn't read as many pages in February as I did last month, which I could blame on the shorter month or the fact I was out of town two separate weekends. But honestly, it's just that I read shorter books. So sue me.

Once again, I didn't read any classics. However, I did read some poetry, including Richard Siken's Crush, which is one of the best collections of poetry I've ever read. That book will undoubtedly be making an appearance on my best-of list at the end of the year. I also read a book that reminded me why reading and writing is important (Stephen King's On Writing), visited the land of trashy romance, and reread one of my new favorite books, American Gods. Neil Gaiman, by the way, is still the master.

March looks to be an interesting reading month. I decided to give Faulkner another go around, so I'm reading one of his novels right now. I've also got a lot of poetry books and romances stacked up in various corners of my bookshelves. Should be a good one!

What were your favorite reads of February, and what books do you hope to tackle in March?

I Can't Believe I Haven't Read This Book Before

Book Reviewed: On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, by Stephen King

I've only read a small handful of Stephen King books, but I've always been a fan of the man himself. He writes a lot of reviews and essays, and I enjoy getting a glimpse into his mind. He's a successful writer without pretensions or snobbery. Somehow, he's managed to earn lots of money and fans without changing his basic personality as a blue-collar nerd. He's proof that sometimes people who work hard at their craft are rewarded in great ways. So why haven't I read his memoir/writing guide before now?

For years, I was a huge book snob. I wouldn't read genre fiction at all, and I had no time for anything that smacked of the fantastical. It's only in the last couple years that I've discovered how much fun Stephen King can be. I've also come to the conclusion that he's not as one-note as I thought. He gets how people work, and his work is surprisingly well-rooted in basic human patterns. A couple years back, I read Salem's Lot and enjoyed it immensely. Since then, I've discovered a deep love for genre fiction. It's safe to say that now I understand why Stephen King is so universally loved. It was finally time to read On Writing.

On Writing is a really good book, which shouldn't have surprised me. King loves the act of writing so much that it's hard not to get excited about it, too. The first half of the book lets King explore some of the most important or memorable moments of his life as they relate to his development as a writer. The second half works as a writing guide, in which King explains his own writing habits and hands out some advice. I tend to hate writing guides, as they are often a lot of bluster and little action. This is not one of those guides. King is funny and opinionated, and he clearly just wants readers to go out and write what makes them happy. There's some genuinely great advice in here, including some tips I might steal for my own purposes.

The book's final pages center on the horrible accident that nearly killed King a decade ago. He was in the middle of writing this book when a car hit him as he was out on a walk. The accident almost turned fatal, and King spent months afterwards having to relearn how to walk and sit for long periods of time. Writing was hard, but he kept himself going at it. He credits it with helping him heal. Much like the alcoholism and drug problems that nearly derailed him in his younger years, the accident eventually taught him a lesson about the two things that made his life worth living: his loving family and writing. The book is as much a love letter to writing as it is a memoir.

There's a passage from On Writing that I think I'm going to adopt as a slogan. King tells a story about a giant desk he bought in 1981 and placed right in the middle of his study. During that time, he was usually wasted and incapable of dealing with real life. After getting sober, he moved the desk to a corner and turned the room into more of a den where his kids could come hang out with him somtimes. King ends this story with a wonderful piece of advice: "It starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn't in the middle of the room. Life isn't a support system for art. It's the other way around." I love that quote because it's so honest and against the instinctive thought process of so many writers. Writing adds to the joy of life, but it should never replace the actual living. That's some damn good advice. Maybe if more writers listened to King, they wouldn't be such pretentious bastards all the time. Myself included.