Sunday, January 30, 2011

Stepping into a Fantasy World

Book Reviewed: Stardust, by Neil Gaiman

I've never liked fantasy. Even when I was young and most vulnerable to my imagination, I disliked it. I wanted to read stories that reflected the world around me as I knew it. That's changed a lot in the last couple years. I've found movies and TV shows about the paranormal or bizarre that I really like. More importantly, I discovered Neil Gaiman's books. Gaiman, like the best fantasy writers, uses the fantastical to shine a light on actual human interactions and emotions. A vampire can be the most humane character in The Graveyard Book. Angels can be as capable of jealousy and passion as their creations in Murder Mysteries. Gaiman made me realize the joy of invention that can be found in fantasy.

That being said, I still like Gaiman's most "realistic" books best. I love American Gods because Shadow is such a perfectly human protagonist; same goes for The Graveyard Book's Bod. For this reason, I've been a little apprehensive about trying out one of Gaiman's most famous books, Stardust. Stardust is real fantasy. It has a human (well, half-human) protagonist and begins in a little English village. But most of the book takes place in the land of Faerie, and a star is a major character. Just looking at this book made me wary. However, one of my friends absolutely adores Stardust, so I was willing to give it a try.

I have to admit; it wasn't my cup of tea. Like all of Gaiman's books, it takes very human concepts and glances at them through the window of the bizarre and magical. But this book was very much fantasy. Tristran Thorn, born almost eighteen years earlier under mysterious circumstances, leaves the village of Wall in order to retrieve a falling star coveted by his crush, Victoria. To do that, he must pass into the land of Faerie. There, he does find the star (who looks and behaves like a human girl) and much trouble. He's not the only one looking for her, you see. But he is the only one unwilling to destroy her to get what he wants. There's adventure and sacrifice and romance along the way, and everyone gets what they deserve at the end. It's a perfect example of a fairy tale. Unfortunately, I've never liked fairy tales. So this wasn't quite the book for me.

That's not to say that I actively disliked this book. It's impossible for me not to enjoy a Neil Gaiman novel. I loved the character of the star, Yvaine, who wasn't all sweetness and sugar like you might expect. Also, the humor is dry and understated in classic Gaiman fashion. That's one of my favorite things about Gaiman. He doesn't underline the jokes like so many other writers. You have to be fully immersed in the story to get just how funny some of his sentences are. The final few pages of this book also make it worth reading. It's a happy ending, but it's not overly schmaltzy or perfect. I actually got a little choked up at the ending sentence, a lovely little summation of everything that works in this book. The first chapter is pretty awesome, too.

I can see why my friend loves Stardust so much. Indeed, it's a very winning story. Unfortunately, it just doesn't do it for me the way parts of American Gods or Gaiman's best short stories do.

Poem of the Week: "Psychology Today," by Darnell Arnoult

I found this poem at the Writer's Almanac site, and I thought it managed to be funny and insightful at the same time. I love the little switch-around at the end of the poem. Enjoy!

Psychology Today, by Darnell Arnoult

Friday, January 28, 2011

Making Near-Death Experiences Funny

Book Reviewed: Sleepwalk with Me: And Other Painfully True Stories, by Mike Birbiglia

Mike Birbiglia has been one of my favorite comedians since high school. At heart, he's an awkward nerd whose best jokes have an equal amount of sweet whimsey and weirdness. He's not a comic who works for everyone, but he's always been right up my alley. So when my friend Amy reviewed his new book over at her blog, I knew I had to follow suit.

As Amy mentioned in her review, much of the material in these personal essays has been explored before in Birbiglia's CDs and TV specials. If you think these stories were funny the first time, though, then they're still funny here. Birbiglia isn't the strongest writer in the world, and the structure of most of the essays seems a little messy and underdeveloped. But that didn't keep me from enjoying the book.

The book builds up to its last two essays, "Sleepwalk with Me" and "One More Thing," which have the distinction of being the best pieces in the whole book. They tell the tale of Birbiglia's struggles with a sleep problem called REM behavior disorder, which causes sufferers to have extremely vivid dreams that they then act out while unconscious. Before being officially diagnosed, Birbiglia spent years trying to ignore the problem. After crashing through a second-story hotel window during a dream and ending up in the hospital, he finally sought help. These two essays deal with this whole story in a funny, informed, and poignant way. The final scene of the book, where Birbiglia confesses to his crotchety father that he's had problems dealing with the disorder, manages to be honest, sweet, and hilarious all at once. This book was worth reading just to get to that well-done ending.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Who Doesn't Love Judy Blume?

Book Reviewed: Everything I Needed to Know About Being a Girl I Learned from Judy Blume, edited by Jennifer O'Connell

This last weekend at a family get-together, my older cousin asked what I was reading. When I mentioned the title above, she smiled and said, "I lived that book." An avid Judy Blume reader when she was younger, this same cousin gave me my first Judy Blume book when I was seven. I then went on to become a Judy Blume fanatic. That's the amazing thing about Judy Blume: she's one of those authors that people love to pass onto the next generation. It's amazing that books she wrote thirty, forty years ago still have the resonance they do today.

When people ask who my most influential writers are, I name off the usuals - Fitzgerald, Roethke, etc. But they're always surprised when I say that Judy Blume is the most important writer of my life. When I was seven and that cousin gave me Superfudge for Christmas, it changed my life. I read that book and couldn't believe that someone could make me say, "Me too!" in that way. Suddenly, I knew that I had to start writing; I had to start forming connections through words and stories. People laugh at this anecdote, but it's completely true and not particularly funny to me. Judy Blume's characters reflected my own experience so completely that they carved out the rest of my life, turning me into a lifelong reader and writer.

That's why I was so excited to see that this book existed. Judy Blume is one of those writers that binds people together. I can meet someone I find annoying or don't particularly like, but if she mentions an affinity for Judy Blume, I suddenly treat her like she's my best friend. None of my other favorite writers are quite like that. I assume it's because people become hooked to her during their most impressionable years, at a time when it's not always easy to feel understood or to find books that speak to your experience.

So anyway, I finally checked Everything I Needed to Know out from the library and read it. It was an overall enjoyable experience, even though some of the essays rang much more true for me than others. A lot of people love Judy Blume for books like Deenie or Forever..., which explored off-limit topics like sex or masturbation. Most of these essays were about those two books, and since those are two of the only Judy Blume books I've never read, I couldn't totally connect to them. I was more into Judy Blume for her looks into how families and friendships work. For this reason, my favorite essays in the book were Megan Crane's "A Long Time Ago, We Used to Be Friends," about a close friendship that eventually ends and a reflection on Judy Blume's Just as Long as We're Together (one of my favorite Blume books, I must add); an exploration on family upheaval and moving away by Melissa Senate called "Then Again, Maybe I..."; and Kristin Harmel's essay on divorce and It's Not the End of the World, "It Wasn't the End of the World."

My favorite essay, for obvious reasons, was Cara Lockwood's "Superfudged," about the trials of being an older sibling. This essay hit the closest to home for me. When I was little, I hated being the older sibling. I thought my little brother, a tiny charmer if there ever was one, got more attention than I did. It seemed like no one else realized how annoying he could be. At the same time, though, I loved him and looked out for him. No one else was allowed to hurt him expect me, dammit. That's why Superfudge, the story of Peter Hatcher and his annoying little brother, made such a huge impact on me as a first-grader. Peter Hatcher had the exact same problems I did! In her contribution to the book ("The Importance of ABC's," which I wasn't particularly fond of overall), Kayla Perrin hits the nail on the head of what it means to read Judy Blume: "Her stories touched me right in the center of my emotional core. I read her books knowing that someone understood the trials and tribulations of grade school kids, and even more importantly, someone cared....And that's huge when you're young and often feel alone."

I often found the writing in this book to be a little weak or overly naval-gazing. I also wished it hadn't focused on the "being a girl" aspect and featured some essays by male writers as well. (Also, no one here even mentioned one of my all-time favorite Judy Blume books, the fantastic Here's to You, Rachel Robinson). But overall, it was fun to spend time with people who love Judy Blume as much as I do, people who found in her the understanding and care that will continue to make her a perrenial favorite among children. I know that if I or my friends or my close family members have kids, they'll all be receiving copies of Superfudge as soon as they hit grade school.

Monday, January 24, 2011

This Week in Trashy Reads 2011 #1

Trashy Read 2011 #1: The Duke and I, by Julia Quinn

It's been quite awhile since I indulged in some historical romance. The last few historicals I picked up did nothing for me, and I threw each one to the side after only fifty pages or so. The heroes kept coming off as too macho, the heroines too weak, or the writing too insufferable. So I was a little wary when I picked up Julia Quinn's beloved The Duke and I at a used book sale for a quarter.

Luckily, this particular historical rocked. Daphne Bridgerton is one of four siblings, and the first daughter to hit the London social scene in search of a husband. Her mother is adamant she find someone, but Daphne hasn't had much luck. She's very likeable, with her open face and open personality. Unfortunately for her, that likability makes men want to be friends with her rather than lovers.

So when one of Daphne's brother's friends - the hot Duke of Hastings, Simon Basset - offers her a clever way to trick men into falling for her, she takes it. They pretend to be attached. This works for both of them. Once men realize that a duke is after Daphne, they begin to take notice of her. Meanwhile, society mothers back off on constantly throwing their daughters into Simon's path, freeing him from social annoyance. Things take a turn, though, when both Simon and Daphne realize they are actually in love with each other.

Here's the plot kink: When Simon was a child, he had a very bad stutter. His asshole father basically disowned him, and he spent his life never really feeling loved. He overcame the stutter, but the whole situation turned him completely off the idea of having a family. Like so very many romance heroes before him, Simon thinks having children will turn him into his father, and he refuses to let that happen. So when he and Daphne end up getting married in tense circumstances, he tells her he can't give her kids.

You can guess what happens in the end, with happy endings and whatnot. So why was this basic-plot romance so enjoyable? Because Simon and Daphne are strong characters, and they make a fantastic couple. Through the whole book, they genuinely like spending time together. Despite his lingering bitterness over his childhood, Simon is surprisingly witty and charming. He has a big heart, even if he doesn't realize it. Daphne, meanwhile, is funny and sweet without coming off as too perfect. They both have faults, but they are also fundamentally good people. I like these kind of characters in romances, particularly historical romances, which have a tendency to get too wrapped up in brooding to make me want to be friends with the hero and heroine. I loved just hanging out with Daphne and Simon, and I wanted things to work out well between them. I will definitely be reading more Julia Quinn in the future.

Next in Trashy Reads: Erin McCarthy's Hard and Fast. Yes, I realize that title is ridiculous.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Poem of the Week: "The Lifeguard," by James Dickey

The other day, I walked into the living room to see my dad watching the end of Deliverance on TV. And right away, I thought about one of the very first poems I ever read and fell in love with, way back during my sophomore year of high school. How on earth did I connect a beloved poem with one of the most infamous movies ever made, you might ask? Well, James Dickey, the guy who wrote the novel Deliverance, was actually a very successful and respected poet. Isn't the world of literature weird sometimes?

Anyway, thinking about that poem made me realize I needed to go back and reread it. I hadn't seen it in years, and I only remembered the gorgeous language and moonlit tone. I am glad I found this poem again. It's so beautiful and painful. That last line is an absolute killer. Enjoy!

The Lifeguard, by James Dickey

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Adventures in Re-Reading: The Book Thief

Book Re-Reviewed: The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak

I accidentally started a book club. Back in November, I did a program at my library where I led a discussion of Kathryn Stockett's The Help. Only a few people attended, but they were all interested in continuing with further book discussions. Because my library branch only has the financial backing to do one program per month, I had to take the book club project into my own hands. I chose The Book Thief as our first official book because I loved it so much and wanted to share it with other people. The discussion is on Thursday, so I'm not sure yet how many people read it and liked it. However, my mother read it and absolutely loved it. So I hope that means other people will enjoy it, too.

So anyway, I had to reread The Book Thief. Luckily, it's such a good book that I don't mind digging into it again only six months after my first reading of it over the summer. I won't bore you with details of what the book is about or my basic feelings about it. I covered that pretty well in my first review. Let's just say it's a tremendous book and leave it at that.

I've always believed that good books should be read at least twice. I always get more out of the second reading than the first because I'm not worried about plot anymore. Instead, I can enjoy the language or the dialogue or the character development for its own sake. This time around, I was really impressed by just how damn ambitious this book is. I don't think this novel is perfect by any means; it gets maybe a little too sentimental at the end and sometimes the writing style can get a little repetitive. But you have to give Zusak some major credit for taking on this kind of project and pulling it off so beautifully.

I think the reason the book works so well lies in its narration. Making an inhuman figure like Death the narrator of a book about the nuances of language and humanity is a pretty tricky prospect. Zusak uses it to his advantage, making his strange, choppy style (which can even be off-putting in his earlier books like Fighting Ruben Wolfe) come from the voice of someone who can't help but look at things in an episodic, off-handed kind of way. I applaud Zusak for taking risks that even the most admired masters of literary fiction don't even attempt.

The other thing that struck me when reading this book again was the relationship between Liesel and Rudy. In my original review for the book, I gushed about how much I loved Rudy and his friendship with Liesel, but somehow I missed just how truly bittersweet the whole thing turns out to be. There's so much regret and lost opportunity by the end of their story that it made me cry all over again. Having read the book once and knowing everything that was coming made their scenes together towards the end just that much more heartbreaking. There's a scene where Rudy and Liesel are hanging out in his father's shop at Christmas that almost hurts to read. The amazing thing is that the bittersweet elements don't come solely out of the fact that [SPOILER ALERT] one of them eventually dies. It also comes out of the fact that they are just at that age where first crushes and missed opportunity go hand in hand. Fourteen year olds are supposed to feel too scared to act on their emotions, and Zusak understands this perfectly. He seriously gets everything right about their situation, and it makes the book just that much more wonderful and sad. I am super-excited to see what he does in the future. When the official date for his next book is announced, I will be pre-ordering it months in advance.

To be brief, this book remains as amazing as ever. I definitely did not regret re-reading it so soon.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Poem of the Week: "Sad and Alone," by Maurice Manning

I have a terrible confession to make. Maurice Manning's newest book came out last April, and I still haven't gotten my hands on it. How could this happen? He's one of the only contemporary poets I actively follow!

Well, I am waiting no more. My reading backlog will have me covered for the next month or two (I still have Anne Carson's latest to digest), but I hope to get my hands on that Maurice Manning book very soon. In the meantime, here's one of his poems that came out in Poetry magazine a couple years ago. I quite like the funny little ending. Enjoy!

Sad and Alone, by Maurice Manning

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

List Lovers Rejoice!

Book Reviewed: Inventory: 16 Films Featuring Manic Pixie Dream Girls, 10 Great Songs Nearly Ruined by Saxophone, and 100 More Obsessively Specific Pop-Culture Lists, by the writers and editors of the AV Club.

Over New Years weekend, I ended up with a nasty sinus infection. With a high fever and no desire to move, I couldn't concentrate on books with plots or involved writing. Luckily, a friend had just given me the AV Club's Inventory as a Christmas gift just a few days earlier. I could not have read this book at a better time. Lists of bizarre and hilarious pop-culture topics were the perfect thing for my fevered, list-loving mind.

It's no great secret here that I love the AV Club and will read anything they publish. This book actually came out at the end of 2009, but my library didn't have a copy and the big book seemed a little too inconsequential to buy with my hard-earned money. That's why it was a perfect gift: something I'd like but wouldn't buy myself. Inventory is a book for people who know a lot about insignificant things. It's a compilation of lists about specific pop-culture subjects, a collection of the Iventory feature that the website runs every Monday. Lists about things like songs that hate on specific cities, movies too brutal to watch more than once, and books with strange plots make this book a blast to read. Seriously, I had as much fun reading this book as I might have had actually seeing any of the movies listed in this book.

Some of these lists went a bit over my head, talking about bands or foreign films that I have very little knowledge about. But some were just pitch-perfect, making me laugh or think in equal measure. A few of my favorites include "Tell Me a Tune: 26 songs That Work as Short Stories," "Peter Parker Had It Easy: 18-plus Truly Tough Superhero Adolescences," "Superdrunk!: 10 Film Alcoholics Who Sober Up to Save the Day," "Noises Off: 15 Movies with Great Dialogue-Free Scenes," "Night of the Killer Lamp: 22 Ridiculous Horror-Movie Adversaries," and many more. But without a doubt, my favorite list is one that also doubles as the AV Club's memorial to Kurt Vonnegut, "So It Goes: 15 Things Kurt Vonnegut Said Better Than Anyone Else Ever Has or Ever Will." It's a surprisingly moving and wonderful list, one that makes me miss Vonnegut's writing and personality very much. Great job, AV Club! I doubt I've ever read a list that brought tears to my eyes like this one did.

Side Note: Apparently being sick makes me crazy for lists. The other thing that kept me occupied while I was stuck on the couch was VH1's five-part series on the 100 Greatest One Hit Wonders of the 80s. This list kicked some major synth-laden ass. I've been listening to selections from it on Grooveshark ever since.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Poem of the Week: "Arrival," by Heidy Steidlmayer

This is another poem I discovered on my Poetry Foundation phone app. I love this app so much; it's tailor-made for poetry nerds looking for something new to read.

We received record amounts of snow up here in the South Bend, Indiana, area this weekend, so everything is cold and white. Midwinter is one of my least favorite times of year, but it can also be very beautiful at times. Unfortunately, that doesn't mean I don't want to get away from it sometimes. Here's a short and lovely little poem in that spirit of mind. Enjoy!

Arrival, by Heidy Steidlmayer

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Poem of the Week: "Burning the Old Year," by Naomi Shihab Nye

I thought this poem was a perfect fit for ringing in a new year. I love the language of this poem, how the sounds of the words create an image of fire on the tongue. I'm always in awe of poets who can use language this effectively. I hope you'll agree that this is a pretty cool poem. Enjoy!

Burning the Old Year, by Naomi Shihab Nye

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Happy 2011!

Welcome to a new year, everyone. It's time for New Year Resolutions, and I have a few myself. On the personal front, I've got the usuals: losing weight, managing my money better, etc. On the literary front, I've got much more specific goals. 2010 was the year I realized the entertainment potential of genre books, but it wasn't a very intellectually-fulfilling year for reading overall. So in 2011, I want to tackle more classics. When I was a teenager, 80% of my reading time was dedicated to old, famous novels. I miss those books, so I hope to tackle at least one good one a month. To be super-specific, I want to read at least one Shakespeare play and one Faulker novel, as they are both writers I was exposed to too early in life and didn't understand or like at that time. I want to see if my opinions have changed as I've gotten older and wiser.

This isn't to say that I'm done with Trashy Reads or Neil Gaiman or teen books, of course. I plan to read a couple more Gaiman books in the coming months, and I have a very awesome pile of historical romances stacked on my desk. I hope to continue supplying this blog with reviews of books from all kinds of genres. It's what makes my life (and hopefully yours) interesting.

What about you guys? Do you have any books on your to-read list that you absolutely are determined to get to this year?