Sunday, July 31, 2011

July 2011 in Review

Total Pages Read in May: 2,104

What a successful reading month!  I read more pages in July than any other month yet this year, and I enjoyed all but one of them.  Not too shabby, if I do say so myself.

There was one misstep this month in the form of a book club read, Three Cups of Tea, that I really didn't like.  But the rest of the month was filled with books that really required me to think and work for my love, and they were all worth it.  Wuthering Heights, some Neil Gaiman and Alice Hoffman, a new Loretta Chase, and the amazing A Visit from the Goon Squad - what more could a girl ask for? 

I'm not sure what August has in store, as I will be going back to school at the end of the month.  I do know that in the next week or two, you will hear me go on and on about a new F. Scott Fitzgerald book entitled A Short Autobiography, in which Fitz's best essays are put in chronogical order to show a linear personal account of his life.  I've been anxiously awaiting this book since February, so I am pumped to finally read it.  I'm sure I will be fitting at least one more Alice Hoffman book as well.  And maybe another romance or two.  See you then!

There's a Reason This Book Won a Pulitzer

Book Reviewed: A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan

I believe that life is too short to read books you don't like.  If I start a book and it's falling flat for me, I stop reading it.  It's a great belief to have, and it's certainly saved me time for better, more interesting books.  But sometimes our deepest beliefs can fail us.  I finally picked up Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad (this year's Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction) after months of putting it off.  This book came loaded with ridiculously good reviews, awards, and a strong word of mouth.  So when I found myself put off my the first 20 pages, I worried that it wasn't the book for me.  I sent a plea out on Facebook asking friends if it was worth continuing.  One of my writer/reader friends said she loved it and urged me to continue.  Thank God she did.  If she hadn't talked me into it, I might never have read this incredible novel.

A Visit from the Goon Squad lives and dies by its construction.  There are two main characters that ground the book - music producer Bennie Salazar and his assistant Sasha - but each chapter takes place in a different time and place, giving it all the feel of a short story collection.  When we meet Bennie, he's turned into a bit of a hack producer, ruining all the promise he seemed to have when he was younger.  He's failing with women, family, and his job.  He's not entirely unlikable, but he's not someone you necessarily want to be friends with, either.  Meanwhile, his assistant Sasha is also a mess.  She's a compulsive kleptomaniac who doesn't seem at all comfortable in her own skin.  In the first two chapters, I judged these characters as a little too quirky and strange for my taste.  Then the third chapter kicks into gear and this book really gets moving.

Goon Squad is separated into chapters that jump back and forth through time, settling on different people with connections that reach into the past (or in the case of one chapter told entirely through PowerPoint slides, the future).  We get to meet Bennie as a young man playing in a band in California, his friends already lost in their youth.  We hear their voices, and from their stories we get the life of Bennie's hero, a morally-corrupt producer, and that man's children.  Then we see Sasha through the eyes of her suicidal best friend in college, then as a teenager in Italy struggling with her past while being reunited with her uncle.  We even get to see Sasha's future children.  This book is bursting with different people at different time periods, but it never becomes too confusing or off-track.  Instead, it enriches the experience of meeting these characters.

The "goon" in the title refers to time, the enemy of Bennie and possibly the savior of Sasha.  A Visit from the Goon Squad is as postmodern as that phrase implies, but it's also a very beautiful book featuring very real people.  At first, the East Coastness of the book annoyed me, but as the stories spread out, this becomes a book about what it means to live in the modern, digitalized America of our time.

I've read a lot of books I've liked in the last year, often for a variety of reasons.  But I'm not sure any of them quite left me with my mouth hanging open in awe like this one did.  I can't even imagine having the talent to put something like this together the way Egan did.  It's not a book I'd necessarily recommend to just anyone because it can be a little off-putting at times and the characters are awfully frustrating people.  But if you're a reader looking for something completely new and rewarding in its tiniest connecting details, then this is the book for you. 

Friday, July 29, 2011

Memory, Loss, and the Classics

Book Reviewed:  Nox, by Anne Carson

Nox (which means "night" in Latin) is a strange book.  For starters, it comes in a box.  The book itself folds out in accordion-style, but is printed on only one side so you can turn "pages" like you would in a regular book.  It's a collage of photographs, excerpts from a Latin-to-English dictionary, and memoir-style writing by Carson.  The book itself is actually a printed version of a scrapbook Carson made in order to remember her dead older brother.  She calls it an "epitaph in the form of a book."  It's not easy to read, but it sure is interesting.

Carson's older brother Michael was a very troubled soul, one who fled his home and family as a young man in order to escape a short prison sentence.  He spent his last few decades wandering Europe, gaining love and suffering losses, and mostly ignoring his parents and sister back home.  In 2000, Carson found out her brother had died of a heart attack a couple weeks earlier, and she went overseas to see his widow.  This book is Carson's reaction to that experience. 

Nox is by turns baffling and heartbreaking.  Nearly every-other page carries an excerpt from a Latin-to-English dictionary, featuring repetitive entries that Carson clearly added her own writing to in spots.  It's easy to want to skip these parts, but they often contain nuggets of ideas that are important to the piece as a whole.  Carson is a classicist, so there's a lot of references to history and myth.  The book is full of tiny, one-off sentences that are tells to Carson's inability to figure out her brother in life for death.  Most importantly, the book features excerpts from letters Michael wrote to his mother, as well as snippets of phone conversations he had with his sister.  These add an extra dimension to the entire thing.

This book is so strange that it can be a little off-putting at times.  Occasionally, it feels like we're peeking into something too private for public consumption, which is initially what this scrapbook was.  I'm glad Carson published it because it's really interesting and says a lot about the strangeness that is siblings, beings with the same genetic make-up who are nevertheless completely different creatures.  I can't say I loved this book, but it was definitely worth reading.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Good and Moody

Book Reviewed:  The River King, by Alice Hoffman

After falling in love with Alice Hoffman's latest book, The Red Garden, I decided to go back and read her older work.  It's been a hit or miss experience, but in general, I think I can consider myself a Hoffman fan now.  Last month, I got online and read summaries for all of Hoffman's books, then put all the ones I was interested in on hold through the library.  It's been a fun process so far.

At the top of that list was The River King, a novel published in 2000.  The book sounded moody, filled with a wide range of character types - the kind of Hoffman I like best.  I was dead-on in this guess.  This is a book that thrives on the dark, passionate moods Hoffman builds through language and setting.  The book is filled with so many descriptions of water and damp and thickness that you can't help but feel like you're trying to walk through mud while reading it.  It's an appropriate effect; after all, this is a book about a suspicious drowning.

The River King takes place at a prestigious Massachusetts boarding school located in Haddan, a town that's always clashed with the school's residents.  We meet townspeople and school people alike, and both are filled with the good and the bad.  At the school, we have Carlin, a swimmer who's trying to hide how poor she really is in the middle of a bunch of rich kids, and August Pierce, a struggling loner.  Once tragedy strikes these two, they begin to affect others around them, particularly new photography teacher Betsy and Haddan cop Abel.  A student is found drowned in the river, and while others expect suicide, Abel follows his hunches and believes something more dangerous is at play.  The story unfolds through the affects of Abel's investigation and Carlin's grief, both equally important at keeping the drowned student's ghost afloat - literally.

Like most of Hoffman's work, this book is touched by both everday magic and the supernatural.  Although her writing is a little too on-the-nose at times, Hoffman certainly knows how to create mood through lush descriptions of place.  Her characters aren't always super-deep, but their feelings and actions really punch me in the gut sometimes.  I really enjoyed this book, with its depth of feeling and evocative dankness.  I wasn't totally sold on the ending, which felt a little rushed, but I was happy to see where each character ended up.  Overall, a lot of fun.  Expect to see at least one or two more Hoffman books show up here in the next month.  I think I'm addicted to them!

Monday, July 25, 2011

Poem of the Week: "The Swan," by Rainer Maria Rilke

I try not to get too personal on this blog, so I won't go into too many details about a recent death in the family.  It's been a bit of a rough week, but as with most things in my life, I take comfort in the wisdom of good writing.  Rilke is a poet obsessed with death, sometimes in profound ways and sometimes in strange, unsettling ways.  My favorite Rilke poems tend to present ideas about death that, for some reason, comfort me.  This is one of those poems.  It's not a poem about grief but rather a poem about striving for acceptance of the fate we all share.

The Swan, by Rainer Maria Rilke
Translated by Stephen Mitchell

Sunday, July 24, 2011

This Week in Trashy Reads 2011 #6

Trashy Read 2011 #6:  Silk Is for Seduction, by Loretta Chase

I haven't touched a romance novel since April.  The plots were all starting to feel interchangeable, the characters boring, and the writing unfortunate.  The last romance I read, Loretta Chase's not-very-good The Last Hellion, did not help matters.  So I stopped reading trashy books, although I continued to glance at all the unread ones on my shelf.  Then, with three months worth of palate-cleansing books, I decided I might try to give the genre another whirl.  You see, Loretta Chase came out with a new book.  The story didn't sound particularly interesting to me, but it got good reviews, so I figured what the hell. 

Well, I'm glad I bought a copy of Silk Is for Seduction.  Because you know what?  It was kind of awesome.  As in, I'm-back-in-the-historical-romance-game awesome.  Silk Is for Seduction is supposedly the first in what will be a series of three books about the Noirot sisters, French-English dressmakers who make a splash in the London fashion scene with their beautiful designs and savvy business sense.  This book centers on Marcelline, the designer and eldest sister.  Marcelline is willing to do whatever it takes to get what she wants, and she comes from a long line of genius poseurs and gamblers.  When it's announced that an engagement between Lady Clara Fairfax and the Duke of Clevedon is imminent, Marcelline decides she must become Clara's primary dressmaker.  She wheedles her way into the Duke of Clevedon's world, mostly through nefarious means, in order to talk him into letting her dress his eventual bride.

Of course, things don't go to plan.  Marcelline and Clevedon can't help but be attracted to each other, and as Clevedon becomes more and more a part of Marcelline's public and private life, things become complicated.  He grows close to her daughter, Lucie, and he finds himself wanting to help her business.  Meanwhile, Marcelline becomes more and more attached to Clevedon, letting her heart take over her more sensible head.  Unfortunately, both society and their mutual pride gets in the way of their feelings.

It's a very basic plot, and a bit cheesy at times, but it's a lot of fun.  I've mentioned over and over again that Loretta Chase is my favorite romance writer, and this book proves that my dislike of The Last Hellion was only a bump in the road of my feelings about ther writing.  She's not writing gorgeous or interesting prose, but her style is fun and easy to read.  As usual, the dialogue is the best stuff in this book.  Marcelline and Clevedon are both extremely clever people, and their conversations sparkle with humor and warmth.  I really enjoyed Silk Is for Seduction.  So much so that I'm willing to call it my second-favorite Loretta Chase book after Lord of Scoundrels.  No small feat, I can assure you.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Poem of the Week: "On Last Lines," by Suzanne Buffam

I often talk about  the last lines of poems on this blog.  I am a sucker for the killer ending, as endings make or break a piece of writing for me.  Here's a very short and very astute poem about what last lines are.  It might give you a little more insight into why I put so much stock into endings.  Enjoy!

On Last Lines, by Suzanne Buffam

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Not Exactly My Cup of Tea

Book Reviewed:  Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace...One School at a Time, by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin

The danger of book clubs is that they sometimes require you to read books you really would rather not.  This is one of those times.  I had no real interest in reading Three Cups of Tea.  But our club decided to try some nonfiction, and it came between this and Eat, Pray, Love.  Since I absolutely refuse to read Elizabeth Gilbert's super-famous, self-indulgent book, we went with the tale of Greg Mortenson.  For those of you who haven't already been exposed to Mortenson's story, it's pretty simple.  Greg Mortenson, an avid climber with an unsettled but interesting life, decides to start building schools in Pakistan in order to improve the lives of poor villagers through education.  It's a noble goal, and you can't help but be inspired by it.  But Three Cups of Tea - written by journalist David Oliver Relin - isn't interesting enough to make me care that much.

In the last year, there's been a lot of controversy surrounding Mortenson's charity work (just take a look at the guy's Wikipedia page), so it's a little hard to judge the contents of the book.  But overall, I mostly felt bored by the whole thing.  There is some interesting information here; I was glad I read the book if only to get a much fuller understanding of Pakistan and its people, a subject of which I'm largely ignorant.  And Mortenson's work is definitely inspiring.  Even if his Central Asia Institute charity has been mishandled over the years, you can't deny that his heart was in the right place at the beginning.  Also, you can't argue that his belief that a proper, free education fights terrorism is wrong.  In fact, it's probably one of the smartest arguments to come out of the how-to-stop-terrorism debates.

But Relin, while a very capable writer, isn't a particulary good storyteller.  The book has some nice scenes, but since it's all secondhand stories, the moments never quite feel like parts of a whole.  Also, while we do get a glimpse at some of Mortenson's faults, we mostly get a portrait of Mortenson as a saint.  He has some deep flaws, but Relin only skims the surface of them.  It's okay to portray a hero as someone riddled with problems.  If anything, it makes the good they do seem that much more important.  Mortenson's work is worth hearing about, and I think this book makes some good points about how to help the Middle East, but overall, I was mostly bored.  Which is never a feeling you want to have after reading about inspiriting charity work. 

Wednesday, July 13, 2011


Book Reviewed:  Anansi Boys, by Neil Gaiman

After finishing Wuthering Heights, I decided I needed to read a book that I knew would be completely different.  Something with a lighter touch.  So obviously, I turned to my old favorite, Neil Gaiman.  I know what you're thinking.  Beth still hasn't read every Neil Gaiman novel out there?  Nope, I haven't.  But now I'm one step closer because I settled on Gaiman's Anansi Boys as an anecdote to Heathcliff and Catherine.

Like American Gods, Anansi Boys is about the gods that live among us in the real world.  This book focuses on the sons of Anansi, the African trickster god.  Fat Charlie, an extremely average guy living in London, finds out his estranged father has died in Florida, and when he flies there for the funeral, he finds out from an old neighbor that he has a brother he doesn't remember.  Fat Charlie (who isn't fat, just a little soft and easily embarrassed) ends up meeting this brother, Spider, and things begin to spin out of control.  Spider is everything Fat Charlie isn't - confident, charming, and with powers like their father.  Spider wrecks havoc on Fat Charlie's life, and when Fat Charlie tries to get rid of his newfound brother, things get even worse.  In the meantime, love is lost and won, a conniving businessman commits murder, and trickster stories are shared.  The book ends up being about a man, Fat Charlie, who learns to be his true self.

Anansi Boys is quite funny, particularly in the sections focusing on Grahame Coats, Charlie's horrible boss.  As always, Gaiman's writing is smooth and easy to read, with a few nice moments between characters.  Overall, though, I thought the book was lacking in, say, the emotional complexities of American Gods or Coraline.  I wanted more scenes between Fat Charlie and Spider, as I thought this book would be more about the brothers' relationship than it actually was.  I can't say this is a Gaiman novel I'll go back and happily reread, but it was a pleasant enough experience.  And it washed the taste of tortured love affairs right out of my mouth. 

Monday, July 11, 2011

Poem of the Week: "July," by Kazim Ali

While searching for poetry about the month of July, I found this short poem and fell in love with it, mainly because it uses the word "sipped" in a wonderful way.  I like poems full of things unspoken between the lines, and this poem has both spaces and unsaid words in spades.  Enjoy!

July, Kazim Ali

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Book Baggage (Oh, and Tortured Love Affairs)

Book Reviewed:  Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë

Sometimes, the baggage we bring to books ends up being more interesting or important than the books themselves.  I'm talking about all the extra stuff you bring into a reading experience - your personal life, your reasons for reading the book in the first place, other people's thoughts about the book.  And sometimes, its the baggage that makes you decide to read the book at all. 

This is what happened to me with Wuthering Heights.  Somehow I made it through four years of high school and four years of being an English major without once touching this classic novel.  I've known lots of people who've read it, and I've known people who either hate this book with every ounce of their being or love it without reason.  (I even knew a guy in college who said it was his favorite book.  Had I read the book at that time, I might have known better than to harbor a bit of a crush on him in my last weeks before graduation).  Wuthering Heights is one of those books that inspires great emotions in people, be they positive or negative.  I've heard close friends rant against it until red in the face.  But there are writers I respect who adore this book.  One of my favorite Anne Carson poems, the epic "Glass Essay," is largely about Emily Brontë and her only novel.  It's one of only a handful of classic books that has such an omnipresence in contemporary culture.

And yet, none of this was quite enough to make me read Wuthering Heights So what changed my mind?  Netflix.  I got a Netflix account and found it was full of PBS Masterpiece Theater series.  One was a 2009 BBC production of Wuthering Heights that starred Tom Hardy as Heathcliff.  "What the hell," I said to myself.  "I might as well at least know what the hubbub's about."  HOLY. CRAP.  Even though tons of people have told me how they feel about this story, not a single person mentioned that it was absolutely crazypants.  I finished the series by tweeting that I found it so insane, I was sure I would never read the book.  Flash forward to a few days later, when I absolutely cannot get Wuthering Heights out of my head.  Suddenly, I had to drop all of my other reading plans and read this book.  It became an obsession.

For those of you who don't know, Wuthering Heights is the story of the tormented love affair between Heathcliff, a foundling, and Catherine, the somewhat wild daughter of the respected Earnshaw family.  This is only a part of the story, though.  Rules of class dictate that Heathcliff and Catherine can never really be together, so they torture themselves and others over this great loss.  Catherine marries the overly-patient and wealthier Edgar Linton and eventually dies at a young age.  Years later, Heathcliff, still taking out the horrible deals given to him on others through elaborate revenge schemes, forces Catherine's daughter (also named Catherine) and his super-annoying son, Linton, to marry.  The narrator of the story is Mr. Lockwood, who meets this second generation of assholes at the book's start, but the one who tells most of the tale is Nelly Dean, a maid for the Earnshaw and Linton families.  There's a lot of hearsay going on this book, that's for sure.

Why do I call this story crazypants, you might ask?  Well, let's start with the fact that Catherine's ghost might just be haunting the moors and its occupants.  Then there's Heathcliff digging up Catherine's body decades after she has died.  There's Catherine's older brother, Hindley, who is the cause of much of the book's misery.  Hindley comes home after his father dies to take over the manor of Wuthering Heights and tortures Heathcliff, making him a servant.  Hindley's son, Hareton, then has the same injustice done to him by Heathcliff in revenge.  It's amazing the way these people scheme against each other! 

Every single character in this book is deeply unlikable.  Nelly Dean comes off as a tattle-tale, Edgar Linton as a pushover, Linton Heathcliff as a whiny bastard, and Catherine Earnshaw as a jealous, inconsiderate hussy.  I can't even begin to mention what a complete and total monster Heathcliff is.  The only character for whom I had any sympathy was Hareton Earnshaw, who doesn't realize he's been done any wrong but who also seems like the only one of these people capable of an honest emotion. 

Yet, despite hating all these people, I found I couldn't hate this book.  In fact, I couldn't stop reading it.  It's an all-consuming novel, that's for sure.  Heathcliff and Catherine may not be worthy of my love, but they definitely deserve each other.  Their tortured pleadings of love and loss over one another are some of the richest sentences of pain I've ever encountered.  In fact, this book has some really lovely prose at times, particularly the last sentence, which is a perfectly unsettling finale.  I have never in my life been so confused over my feelings for a book.  I could never, ever call it a favorite.  It's too strange and dark and twisted for me.  But you know what?  I'm glad I finally read it. 
Note:  For those of you who have read this book, what did you think?  And were any of you like me and thought that you would've liked to had a peak in on those years where Heathcliff, Hareton, and Joseph all lived alone together in the Heights?

Monday, July 4, 2011

Poem of the Week: "Firecracker Catalogue," by Jay Hopler

I am cheating big-time this week.  While looking for a poem appropriate for the 4th of July, I couldn't find one I liked nearly as much as the one I used last year, Jay Hopler's "Firecracker Catalogue."  I love this poem.  It's just so much fun!  So I decided to force you all to read it again.  I hope you can forgive me, and I think you will.  Enjoy!

Firecracker Catalogue, by Jay Hopler