Monday, December 31, 2012

Beth's Best Reads of 2012

Time for my annual list of the best books I read this year!   Here's the rules: The books can be any age, but I had to read them for the first time in the calendar year of 2012. No re-reads allowed. The books are listed in a countdown fashion, so my favorite read is at the bottom of the list at #1. I'm also attaching links to my original review for each book.

10.  I'll Be There, by Holly Goldberg Sloan.  This emotional, satisfying YA novel had me holed up on the couch for an entire day because I couldn't put it down.  The story of two brothers growing up with an schizophrenic father who is ruining their lives, I'll Be There is sweet and terrifying in equal measure.  The brothers, Sam and Riddle, meet a stable family that they become a part of for a brief time, but it's not until the boys' father takes them on a dangerous roadtrip that the book really gets good.  The book's middle 200 pages made me feel like my guts were slowly being wrenched out me from empathy for these poor kids and the choices they have to make.  The end gets a little too pat for my taste, but overall, I'll Be There really had me in its clutches.

9.  The Duchess War, by Courtney Milan.  I only read a handful of romances this year, but half of them were by Courtney Milan.  Although Trial by Desire featured my all-time favorite romance hero (Ned Carhart) and The Governess Affair was unlike any other romance I've ever read, The Duchess War is the one that came out on top.  It might be the single most emotionally-rewarding romance novel I've ever read, in which I felt that both the hero and heroine had to actually fight for their happy ending and earned it completely by the epilogue.  This is the first in a trilogy, and I absolutely can't wait to read the next two books in 2013. 

8.  Skin Horse, by Olivia Cronk.  One of the strangest and most interesting books of poetry I've ever read, Skin Horse is not for the light of heart.  Dark and domestic, Skin Horse's every page is completely unexpected, each line diverting from its original premise.  I can't say I understood what was going on through any of the book's broken narrative, but I didn't care.  I enjoyed the ride.

7.  Helsinki, by Peter Richards.  I read at least 50 books of poetry this year, but I can honestly say that none of them grabbed me in quite the way Helsinki did.  I read it the way I would a novel, devouring it in a single day.  The book read like some kind of low-key science fiction, where the protagonist encounters weirdness and heartache and homesickness through a heightened sense of language and image.  Of all the poetry books I read this year, Helsinki is probably the one I'll return to the most often. 

6.  Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn.  I tend to have a knee-jerk reaction to critically-beloved bestsellers, meaning I often don't get around to reading them until the excitement has died down a few years later.  But I couldn't resist the praise (or the great cover design) of Gone Girl for long.  Of all the books on this list, this one is definitely the only one that genuinely shocked me in any way.  The first half is really great, and then a major twist happens halfway through that absolutely changed everything I read up to that point.  The book's a genuine roller-coaster, and an incredibly well-written one at that.  The married main characters, Nick and Amy, are possibly the worst people you could ever imagine spending 400 pages with.  That being said, they were completely fascinating.  Nick Dunne was perhaps the most realistic character I encountered all year, an extreme version of everything I find intriguing and frustrating about Midwestern men.

5.  The Revolution Was Televised: The Cops, Crooks, Slingers and Slayers Who Changed TV Drama Forever, by Alan Sepinwall.  This nonfiction look at TV drama by one of my favorite television critics, Alan Sepinwall, feels like it was written just for me.  As a TV fanatic, I couldn't get enough of this book about the changing field of the TV drama over the last 15 years.  Sepinwall divides the book into twelve chapters, each about a different series that changed the way viewers and critics see television today.  I hope the book's surprise success will open the doors to more and more books being written about contemporary television.

4.  Where Things Come Back, by John Corey Whaley.  When my friend Amy recommended this book to me back in January, she sold me on a few choice words: "zombies," "Sufjan Stevens," and "asshat."  And despite the fact that these three things are all in this terrific YA novel, they only hint at the awesomeness of the story itself.  The book's narrator, Cullen Witter, is a fairly normal, small-town teen with an awesome best friend (the ever-loyal Lucas Cader) and a cool little brother named Gabriel.  One day, Gabriel goes missing and everything changes.  Where Things Come Back is a book that covers all the important YA themes - friendship, family, what it means to grow up, etc - but it doesn't feel like anything else I've ever read before.  I was incredibly impressed by this tender, realistic, beautiful story, and I can't wait to see what Whaley does next. 

3.  Bandit Letters, by Sarah Messer.  Helsinki might have been the most intense of all the poetry books I read this year, but Bandit Letters still came out as my favorite.  As a poet interested in history and how we narrate history, I could not have read a better example of these interests than Bandit Letters, which plays with the romantic idea of the American Outlaw.  Messer does some fascinating things with gender and storytelling and role-playing in this book, and I was enthralled by the language and the way the poems were built from the first page to the last.

2.  The Raven Boys, by Maggie Stiefvater (audio version read by Will Patton).  This is the first time an audiobook has ever made this list, and it made it all the way to number two!  I have explained time and again on this blog that what I'm most interested in in fiction is a good, emotionally-satisfying story.  The Raven Boys brought that in spades.  The teenage daughter of a psychic, Blue Sargent, gets more adventure than she could have ever bargained for when she meets The Raven Boys, four students at the local private boarding school.  I'm a sucker for stories about male friendship, and this YA novel brought the goods, along with some really great plots involving class, family, and (most importantly) fate.  There are three more years of the Raven Cycle to come, and I am absolutely going to devour them.  I haven't been this caught up in a series in a long, long time.

1.  The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach.  This was the very first book I read in 2012 and it remained at the top.  As I started putting this list together, I didn't expect The Art of Fielding to make it all the way to number one.  Yet as I looked at my candidates, I realized that the book I was most emotionally involved in was this one.  It's a fairly long book, but I finished it in a couple days because I couldn't get enough of its story about baseball and liberal arts colleges and relationships.  Best of all, The Art of Fielding featured my favorite character of 2012: the badass, troubled, delightful Mike Schwartz.  Harbach's novel has gotten a lot of backlash in the last year because of all the praise it got upon its release in 2011, but I don't care.  I loved this book, and it was the single most engrossing thing I read in all of 2012. 

Honorable Mentions: Drive, by James Sallis; Prepare to Die!, by Paul Tobin; Wisconsin Death Trip, by Michael Lesy. 

Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Power of Television

Book Reviewed: The Revolution Was Televised: The Cops, Crooks, Slingers and Slayers Who Changed TV Drama Forever, by Alan Sepinwall

I love TV.  If you gave me a choice between TV and film, I will pick TV almost every time.  I love the way a series spins out over time, deepening characters and plots and often confronting some major themes or subject matter through story.  It's the closest visual equivalent we have to literature.  I follow a handful of TV series, and I own quite a few series on DVD.  I also follow a lot of TV critics, including Alan Sepinwall, who writes TV reviews and recaps for HitFlix. 

A month or so ago, Sepinwall self-published the ebook, The Revolution Was Televised, which takes the common knowledge that TV has been its best in the last decade or so and then spins that idea out further.  Sepinwall focuses on twelve drama series from the last fifteen years, using his own ideas about the shows, the words of their creators, and lots background stories, to talk about exactly why TV has been so good lately.  I used this book as the carrot at the end of the stick that was finals week, rewarding myself with it only after I finished all my papers and projects and settled back in at home for winter break.  It was completely worth it.  This is probably the best nonfiction book I read this year, and it's definitely the best (okay, maybe only) book I've read about contemporary television.

The book starts off on the premise that the drama revolution didn't start with The Sopranos, as most people think.  Rather, Sepinwall argues that it was actually the HBO prison drama Oz, created by Tom Fontana in 1997, that actually set off a chain reaction.  This strangely mirrors my own development as a TV fan, going from someone who casually enjoyed television, to a complete fanatic once I saw all the seasons of Oz in a one-month period as a college junior.  Despite how flat-out weird that show could be, especially by its last few years, Oz made me realize that television was wholly capable of spinning out long, strange, occasionally beautiful, deep stories over a period of years rather than hours.  I like movies but rarely feel emotionally involved in them.  TV gets me emotionally involved.  Oz was revolutionary because it had both the ability to create interesting characters and the benefit of premium cable, without language or nudity barriers, to actually make those characters more realistic and interesting.  It was the first in what would become a long tradition of great cable television.

From there, Sepinwall concentrates on eleven other shows, in chronological order: The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood, The Shield, Lost, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 24, Battlestar Galactica, Friday Night Lights, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad.  I've only seen 5 of these shows, and I only closely follow two of them (Mad Men and Friday Night Lights).  But even the chapters on shows I've never seen are fascinating, making an argument for the way television has built upon its successes to reach ever-greater heights.  Sepinwall proves himself a good journalist, as he gets a lot of juicy and fascinating information out of the show's creators, producers, and stars through interviews done for the book.  Sepinwall clearly loves television, but he's not afraid to show how often shows seem to come together almost accidentally or how the divisions between creative and business personalities often sink great shows.

My only criticism of The Revolution Was Televised is that it mostly concentrates on shows that worship at the foot of the anti-hero.  Obviously, it's the development of the anti-hero as protagonist that has single-handedly changed television the most in the last two decades.  Sepinwall mentions anti-heroes without really making them part of his argument.  In a way, the book doesn't have a clear thesis that argues for any particular reason why these TV shows all belong together in one book (except, possibly, an argument about the importance of a strong-willed, talented showrunner as the single most necessary ingredient in good TV).  For this reason, some chapters seem a little out of place.  Despite the fact that it is my single favorite TV show of all time and features some lovely insights from Sepinwall, the Friday Night Lights chapter is the most glaring example of a show that doesn't quite fit the pattern here.  FNL is one of the best shows of the last decade, and Sepinwall makes a strong argument that its production and airing was certainly revolutionary (NBC and DirecTV split costs in exchange for rights to air at different times, effectively saving the show after season two).  But as a show simply about realistic people trying to make good choices and coming up against social and economic barriers that force them into lives different from the ones they expected, it feels a bit out of place in this list of oft-violent TV series.

That being said, I still think this is a delightful and insightful book.  Sepinwall self-published it, but within a couple weeks it was reviewed by the New York Times and made Michiko Kakutani's Top 10 year-end list.  It's a book that anyone with a passing interesting in contemporary television absolutely must buy and read. 

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

This Week in Trashy Reads 2012 #9

Trashy Read 2012 #9: The Duchess War, by Courtney Milan

Those of you who read this blog on a regular basis know by now that Courtney Milan has quickly become one of my favorite romance writers (probably second only to Loretta Chase).  Of the nine romances I have read in 2012, five have been written by her.  Last May, I became obsessed with her novella The Governess Affair, which was sweet and emotionally engaging in a way that's rare in historical romance.  That novella was supposed to be the prequel to a new series called The Brothers Sinister.  At the time The Governess Affair was published, the first full-length book in the series was due to be released later that summer.  Then it got pushed back to September.  Then October.  And then Courtney Milan admitted that she didn't know when it would come out.  Well, it finally hit Amazon as an e-book at the beginning of December.  I bought it the moment she posted the link on Twitter and began reading it as soon as finals week wound down.  I worried it wasn't going to be worth the long, agonizing wait I had spent until its release.  Luckily, I was wrong.

I loved The Duchess War.  I wrote on this blog once that the appeal of Nora Roberts's romances rests in the characters' inherent goodness.  I enjoy reading romances featuring protagonists who are good people trying to do the right thing.  I think Courtney Milan has become the historical romance equivalent of Nora Roberts.  Her books just make me feel warm.  A Milan novel is funny, sweet, and VERY emotionally rewarding.  This book in particular made me really feel the intense emotional struggles of its hero and heroine and then rewarded me with an ending that felt honest to these people.  I actually got a bit choked up at the end, and despite my generally-emotional reading habits, I never, ever cry while reading romances. 

The Duchess War takes place almost three decades after The Governess Affair, focusing on the son of that book's villain.  Robert Blaisdell, a duke (obviously), knows of his father's horrible past transgressions, and he's made it his life's goal to undo the man's mistakes.  He finds himself in an English industrial town, writing handbills under a pseudonym, trying to get pensions for workers and beat the corruption inherent in the factory system.  Robert wants nothing more than to be the opposite of his father.  He strives to be a good man who never takes advantage of anyone.  He meets Wilhelmina Pursling, the ultimate wallflower, who wants nothing more than to be ignored as she tries in her own small way to improve the lives of the town's citizens.  Minnie has a sad, weird past that she has been trying to avoid by becoming a non-person.  But Robert, of course, sees through the act to the real, passionate Minnie.  Their lives become more and more entangled, until they can't help but fall in love.

I'm not used to being surprised by romances.  In fact, I often enjoy them for the comfy formulas.  But The Duchess War genuinely surprised me in the way it unfolded.  Wilhelmina's secret is something I've never encountered before in romance, and it's nice to see a heroine's past be about a very different type of "ruin" than we usually see in historical romances.  Meanwhile, Robert's desire to be part of a family and his desire to be loved adds actual emotional stakes to the story rather than feeling like a crutch or a cliche.  The way the book's last fifth unfolds actually made my heart hurt.  I love romances because of the way they aren't afraid to be emotional, but I tend to read them with a bit of distance, enjoying the emotional ringers the characters go through without ever quite feeling involved in them.  The Duchess War kept me involved.  I could barely stand how much it made me feel for the hero and heroine, two people whose angst actually felt earned rather than dictated by an all-seeing author.  What makes this book, and by extension its author, so good is the feeling that everything is natural and earned.  I can't get enough of Milan's books, and this one might be the best yet.

Note:  This is probably my favorite Milan book in terms of story, although I'd say that Ned (from Trial by Desire) is still my favorite Milan hero.  He's probably my favorite romance hero ever, actually.  That being said, Robert was pretty great himself.

Note 2:  I absolutely cannot wait for the next book in this series, which focuses on Oliver, the son of the two protagonists in The Governess Affair.  Oliver seems made of win, and better yet, he's not a wealthy aristocrat!

Sunday, December 9, 2012

This Week in Trashy Reads 2012 #8

Trashy Read 2012 #8: Suddenly You, by Sarah Mayberry

Despite my love for romance novels of every shape and size, I have never read a category romance.  Category romances are those thin, cheesy-looking paperbacks that you see at the supermarket.  They cost much less than a regular paperback and come as part of a "line," such as Harlequin SuperRomance or Blaze or whatever.  There are dozens of them released every month, and they tend to be a lot less substantial, story-wise, than regular mass-market romance novels.  They make a lot of money and get a lot of attention from my favorite romance blogs, but somehow I have never been brave enough to pick one up.  They are daunting to me.  How do you know where to start?

Luckily, I listen to the Dear Bitches, Smart Authors podcast (hosted by Sarah Wendell from Smart Bitches Trashy Books and Jane from Dear Author).  They often talk about romances from every subsection of the genre, including categories.  And they are always talking about their mutual love of Sarah Mayberry.  After I heard them praise a book called Suddenly You a month or two ago, I decided I'd give this category thing a try.  So I picked up Suddenly You from the library and gave it a spin.

It was a good experience.  The story revolves around mechanic/sometimes-bad-boy Harry Porter and his attraction to single mother Pippa White, who once dated and was mistreated by Harry's best friend.  Pippa struggles to raise her infant daughter and keep afloat financially, and she takes Harry up on his offer to help her fix her car and ramshackle house.  They can't fight their mutual attraction, though, and things get complicated when Harry realizes just what an asshole his best friend has been to Pippa in the last two years.  The story definitely feels character-based, which I appreciated.  Harry and Pippa's mistakes are based on their personalities (which, admittedly, are not particularly complex but which are pleasant to read about nonetheless).  Mayberry writes in a natural style, brief and to-the-point.  Overall, it was a perfectly reasonable and entertaining way to spend a few hours.

Suddenly You might not stick with me forever.  I enjoyed the interactions between Harry and Pippa, as well as the way the story lets them make actual adult decisions about their lives.  That doesn't mean it's going to end up on a favorite books list anytime soon, though.  Considering that I read romance just to spend a few comfortable hours in a fictional world that has nothing to do with my life as a frustrated graduate student, though, that's not a bad thing.  Best of all, I can now say I have actually read a category romance.  And you know what?  I would totally read another one. 

Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Voice from the Other Room

(Audio)Book Reviewed: The Raven Boys, by Maggie Stiefvater; read by Will Patton

I've never enjoyed being read to, not even as a kid.  Sometimes, I'll pick up a nonfiction audiobook if I know it's going to be funny and well-read (like a Sarah Vowell book or Tina Fey's memoir).  But despite my love for podcasts and comedy albums, I couldn't get into the sound of people reading me a fictional story.

Well, friends, things have changed.  Forever.

A few weeks ago, I picked up both the print and audibook versions of Maggie Stiefvater's latest YA paranormal-esque novel, the first in a planned series of four.  The Raven Boys came recommended already by a good friend (the ever-dependable and oft-mentioned librarian, Amy), but I assumed I wouldn't have the time at the end of the semester to actually read it myself.  I figured I'd give the audiobook a spin, not expecting to actually enjoy it.  The second it began, though, I was hooked.  I'm not sure who to give more credit to - Stiefvater for writing such a kickass story, or narrator Will Patton (aka the white coach from Remember the Titans!), who made an excellent reader.  Either way, I fell absolutely in love with this book.

Initially, my plan was just to turn on the CD player while I did my hair in the morning or cleaned the ktichen on the weekend.  Instead, my obsession became so fervent that I turned the book on with any chance I got.  Making a quesadilla?  Raven time.  Painting my nails?  Raven time.  By the tenth and final disc, I had run out of chores and excuses.  I turned the book on and paced the house.  I laid down on the floor and took it in.  I sat on the couch for awhile and almost cried.  It's been a few months since a book took me in so completely.  This more than made up for the dry spell.

The Raven Boys hits everything on my teen book must-have list.  Sensible and ordinary heroine?  Check!  Angsty prep school boys?  Check!  Male friendship and socioeconomic-class-related guilt complexes?  Check and check!  I don't normally do books that involve psychics and ghosts and love triangles, but Stiefvater balances the natural and supernatural aspects of this book so artfully that I couldn't help but be impressed.  Blue Sargent, the daughter of a psychic who lives in a house full of other psychics, finds out the name of a boy who is supposed to die soon: Richard Gansey, a student at the local fancy private school, Aglionby.  When she gets caught up in the world of Gansey and his friends - Adam Parrish, Ronan Lynch, and Noah Czerny, things change irrevocably in all their lives.  Gansey and his friends are studying ley lines, hoping to find the spirit of a dead Welsh king with whom Gansey is obsessed.   Blue joins their search, but her ability to increase psychic energies (although she herself does not have psychic powers) makes things more intense and fraught.  This is a dangerous world, and there's no way it won't eventually crash down around these five teenagers.

Despite all the paranormal storylines, The Raven Boys is primarily concerned with relationships.  There's the mother/daughter bond of Blue and her single mom, Maura.  There's the intense and poignant friendship between the rich Gansey and the poor, proud Adam.  There's rough Ronan and the baby raven he's adopted.  And of course, there's the hint of a love triangle between Blue, Adam, and Gansey.  I have never, ever, ever been a fan of love triangles, especially in YA.  But I admit that I'm genuinely intrigued by this one.  The thing that impresses me most about Stiefvater's storytelling and writing is that, despite putting some pretty unrealistic balls in the air, she never lets her characters make unrealistic decisions.  Every terrible, heartbreaking thing that happens in this book feels completely natural to who the characters are and what they've experienced in their lives thus far.  Adam Parrish, in particular, is a well-made character, a product of environment and force of personality both.  He feels like a genuine, struggling teenager, and his friendship with Gansey feels organic, if increasingly shaky (which, admittedly, is part of that organic feeling). 

I really loved this book, both in the story itself and in its presentation via audio.  As I mentioned above, Will Patton makes an excellent narrator.  The book takes place in Virginia, and almost all the characters are natives of the state.  Patton does his dialogue in accents based on where the charcters come from, both in physical and socioeconomic place.  Gansey, with his wealth and power, has less of an accent, while trailer-park Adam has a Southern bite that comes out when his defenses are lowered.  And despite this being a book mostly about a teenage girl, Patton's gruff, middle-aged voice never felt out of place, a trait I found especially admirable. 

I think The Raven Boys has turned me into a double convert: I now can say I like audiobooks.  And I'm most definitely a Stiefvater fan now.  I'm not sure how I'm going to make it a whole year until the next volume in this series. 

Note:  I chose this book as the next read for Book Club Revisited, so you will hear more about in another month or two!  And obviously, it's gonna make my Top Ten list at the end of the year. 

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Problem of Taste

Book Reviewed: Let's Talk About Love, by Carl Wilson (vol. 52 of the 33 1/3 series)

So when I decided a couple months ago to start reading the 33 1/3 series, I knew I was going to have to get to this one early.  Carl Wilson's volume on Celine Dion's 1997 album Let's Talk About Love is one of the most famous books in the series, and it has taken on a life on its own because of its broader-scope view.  This book is about a lot more than Celine Dion.  It's about the nature of personal taste.  Wilson is adamently a non-fan of Dion and her music, and he spent years thinking that was one reason that he had better taste in music than most other people.  But as he got older, he realized that taste, while still one of the defining aspects of anyone's personality and individuality, might not be a great value judgment. 

Wilson is a strong writer (better, say, than Rob Trucks, who wrote the last 33 1/3 book I read, about Fleetwood Mac's Tusk).  He spends a lot of the book's first half contextualizing Celine Dion as a uniquely French-Canadian artist and what her national identity means to her fans and her nation.  A fellow Canadian, Wilson lays out this cultural background in a way that is fascinating and informative, shining a different light on everything else in the book.  He never makes fun of Dion and whenever he can, he adds stories that paint her in a positive light (for example, Elliot Smith's vehement defense of Dion because she was nice to him once backstage at the Oscars).  But neither does he give her a free pass.  Her music is often boring, overly loud and histrionic, and very sentimental.  Even then, Wilson still contextualizes this mode of music Dion operates in: sentimental schmaltz.  He traces a brief history of sentimental music in modern Western culture, and these types of historical details really add to the book as a whole.

Unlike Trucks, who went on and on about his own life as a contrived device to talk about Fleetwood Mac, Wilson manages his own presence in the book quite masterfully.  He frames the idea of musical taste with his own experiences, from snobby young journalist to divorced, middle-aged man.  Taste helped define him for years, and he certainly believes that taste makes up a large part of everyone's individuality.  But he wishes the us-versus-them aspect of taste could be lessened, and his experiences with hating Celine Dion show just how hard it is to do just that.  He meets Dion fans and respects them greatly, and he finds that he is more open to sentimental music, music that he knows he spent years cultivating a hatred for that might not have been deserved.  There's some really interesting things happening here about the way we can learn to appreciate emotional responses to art.

I liked this book a lot, although I wish I had been able to read it in just a few sittings instead of over several weeks' time in between homework sessions.  I think it would have connected with me even more than it did had I done that.  That being said, I did have an emotional reaction to this book.  As a kid, I loved Celine Dion, and as I got older, I learned to hate her.  And while I can never go back to liking her music, I can appreciate what it is that people like about her work.  It makes them feel things.  And there is nothing wrong with that.  Just yesterday at lunch, my friend Katie, a fellow writer, said that she's spent the last few years wanting fiction to be innovative and exciting in form.  But now, she said, "I just want it to move me."  She hit the nail on the head.  While I go to my poetry classes and pretend I just want to experiment and applaud all my classmates for being clever, secretly I just want good writing to make me feel something.  It's what got me into this art business, and it might be the only thing worth keeping me in it. 

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Dark Hearts

Book Reviewed: Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn

This summer, Gone Girl was THE book to read.  Every website, newspaper, and book critic threw praise at Flynn's domestic mystery novel, making it impossible to escape.  After hearing a lot of people I trust tell me it was worth the praise, I finally started it in August.  And just finished it yesterday.  I know.  School got in the way, as did work and book club and a million other things.  But the real reason I didn't finish Gone Girl was because I kind of didn't want it to end.  I wanted to just stay inside it for as long as I could while never actually committing to the bizarre plot twist it took halfway through.

It's hard to talk about Gone Girl without giving anything away, so this might be a short review.  It's a great book: dark and mean and incredibly involving.  Flynn hooks you right away with her charming (bordering on lulling at times) writing style and two characters who are full and complex but also feel like people you've known your whole life.  Nick Dunne and his wife, Amy, seem like a couple I might consider friends, but as things in their lives unravel and their true sides show, they become the last people in the world you'd want to actually know.  The book's first half revolves around Amy's disappearance on the Dunnes' fifth anniversary.  Each chapter is told from either Nick's perspective from the day of the disappearance onward or from Amy's perspective through a diary that begins with the day she met Nick seven years earlier.  Then the book takes a dark little turn halfway through and goes to a place I was not expecting at all.  I am not easily fooled by narratives.  I've been reading books and watching TV for far too long not to see endings coming from a mile away.  But I was not expecting anything that happens in the last 200 pages or so of Gone Girl.  Not even a little bit. 

Gone Girl is not a comforting read, although I found Flynn's casual but tight style to be quite wonderful and involving.  I do recommend it, though, if only for the roller coaster ride that is the plot.  I also think Nick Dunne might be my favorite character I've encountered in literature in months.  He is so similar to the actual Midwestern men I've known my entire life that I felt all his strengths and weaknesses (of which there are many) right in my gut.  In fact, this book makes an interesting litmus test for how a reader might feel about the East Coast versus the Midwest.  In the first 200 pages, who do you find more interesting: Amy or Nick?  Answering that question eventually becomes problematic, but at first, I thought Flynn was creating one of the best books about regional perspectives that I've ever read.  There's a lot going on in this book, and the idea of where we come from - place, family, past experiences - is maybe the most important trait of the entire story.

So if you have a chance to read Gone Girl, please do.  And if you can avoid spoilers beforehand, please do.  This story is best told fresh and without any expectations, so that you can't be disappointed.  I can't say I loved this book completely (as I said, the weird twist almost got too weird for me), but I'd go out on a limb and say it's the most fascinating book I've read all year.  There's no way this one's not making my Top Ten list for 2012. 

Monday, October 15, 2012

Lindsey Buckingham, Genius

Book Reviewed: Tusk, by Rob Trucks (vol. 77 of the 33 1/3 series)

I love Fleetwood Mac.  I mean, I really love Fleetwood Mac.  When I was a kid, I remember watching The Dance tour live on TV and wanting to know more about this strange band with its apparent romantic entanglements, the self-mythos they scattered around themselves on stage.  As I got older, I learned to appreciate the music for how pretty but robust it was.  I listened to Rumours and thought I understood Fleetwood Mac as a band interested in melody first and last.  But then I really listened to the song "Tusk" and realized I didn't know this band at all.  Have you listened to "Tusk" lately?  It's an incredibly weird little song.  And it comes from an even weirder album.

When I saw that the 33 1/3 series, a brilliant little series of short books about famous or influential albums written by writers who aren't necessarily music journalists, had a volume on Tusk, I decided I had to read it.  It made a nice antidote to the heavy poetry and theoretical lit stuff I have to read for school.  Instead, it let me bask in the glow that is a mishmashed band making mishmashed music.  Trucks's central premise is that Lindsey Buckingham is the real genius behind Fleetwood Mac and that Tusk is Buckingham's album more than a regular Fleetwood album.  I don't think he's going to meet a lot of criticism on that point, although I might be biased.  Buckingham isn't just my favorite member of Fleetwood Mac, he's one of my favorite rock stars period.  (Note:  If you have never heard the 1997 live version of "Big Love," then you are not a real person.  That specific version of that song has been firmly in my Top 5 Favorite Songs of All Time list for years now).

Trucks admits from the book's first page that a hardcore fan of either Fleetwood Mac or the Tusk album will probably be disappointed by his presentation here.  Trucks uses moments from his own life as a framework for his feelings toward Buckingham, the band, and the album.  I have to admit that while I sometimes enjoyed Trucks's asides, I had a rather difficult time connecting them to the narrative at large (the narrative being that Tusk is secretly a stroke of genius and that the genius is all Buckingham's to own).  Sometimes, things would just start getting interesting and then Trucks would break in and ruin the moment a bit.  For that reason, I tended to most enjoy the "What We Talk About When We Talk About Tusk" chapters, in which other musicians (including a student from the USC marching band that played along on the original recording of the song "Tusk") talk about the album and the band.  It's cool to see how many people the band has influenced over the years, particularly Buckingham.  Wolf Parade's Dan Boeckner in particular said something that made me think about Buckingham in an all-new way:

Lindsey Buckinham has a way of putting together a song that's kind of heartbreaking...I think [his strength] is this unquantifiable way of delivering the melody and the words at the same time, so somehow the delivery and the timbre and the tonality of the voice and the way the notes are shaped and the way they break off, like in 'The Ledge,' you know, it sounds kind of fragile.  And then he kind of pulls it back together.  And these events just happen in microseconds.  That's something that not a lot of performers have.

So while Tusk didn't always deliver the way I wanted it to, mainly due to Trucks's frequent diversions, I admit it made me appreciate Fleetwood Mac and their strangest album in a whole new way.  And it reconfirmed my admiration of Lindsey Buckingham's contributions to one of my favorite bands. 

Note:  I know you're wondering what my 5 favorite Fleetwood Mac songs are.  Here they are, folks: "Big Love," "Tusk," "Rhiannon," "Dreams," "The Ledge."

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Book Club Revisited: September 2012

Book Club Revisited Pick #5: The Age of Miracles, by Karen Thompson Walker

Corey chose this month's book, and he chose well.  Karen Thompson Walker's debut novel, The Age of Miracles, was actually on my to-read list, so it felt nice to kill two birds with one stone (or book, if you will).  All four of us members loved this book; it might be our favorite BCR read so far. 

The Age of Miracles takes place during a time known as "the slowing," when earth's days start getting longer and longer with each passing moment.  Day and night begin to mean very different things.  People sleep when the sun is shining.  "Real time" communes dedicated to following circadian rhythms rather than the more obtuse "clock time" spring up all across the country.  The world is ending; everyone knows it and no one can do anything about it.  But the book isn't worried about the world so much as it concerns itself with an adolescent girl whose normal concerns about friends and boys clash with her worries about death and decay.  Narrator Julia is in middle school, and the title comes from the fact that Julia and her classmates are changing exponentially as human beings.  It just so happens that the world around them is changing as well.

This is one heartbreaking little novel.  Julia is likable, and it's hard to read her story and not remember an age when I too felt so terrified and lonely.  Loneliness, in fact, is one of the major themes of this book.  Being that I've been thinking about loneliness a lot lately, about how it is almost a personality trait more than a condition, Julia and her problems resonated deeply with me.  When Julia strikes up a relationship with the mysterious and lovely Seth Moreno, you want to cheer for her.  But then you remember what is happening around her - "gravity sickness" that might be fatal, the large-scale deaths of birds and whales, the fact that the prolonged sunlight is making people a little crazy.  Nothing can be normal.  Tragedy is waiting around every corner.

Walker's writing is strong, and her characters feel fleshed out without becoming heavy or taking the focus away from Julia.  What amazes me about Walker's work here is the way she treads the line between sentimentality and cruelty.  At every minute, things feel like they could be taken away.  And yet we still feel comfortable enough with these characters and the graceful storytelling to continue to root for Julia, her family, and the disarming Seth.  During our book club chat, all of admitted that we cried at some point.  I actually managed to make it until the very last page of the book before I finally teared up.  It's a quiet little book that tackles big subjects with just the right tone.  I look forward to seeing what Walker does in the future. 

Up next for Book Club Revisited:  Mike picked Salman Rushdie's children's novel, Luka and the Fire of Life.  I know absolutely nothing about this book, so it should be interesting. 

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Book Club Revisited: August 2012

Book Revisited Pick #4: Howl's Moving Castle, by Diana Wynne Jones

Amy chose our Book Club Revisited read for August, and she picked a children's "classic": Diana Wynne Jones's Howl's Moving Castle.  It was an interesting choice, in that all of us seemed to drag our feet a bit when it came to actually picking up the book and reading it (or didn't read it at all, i.e. Corey).  Amy herself said the book wasn't at all what she was expecting, although Mike and I were a bit more enthusiastic about the story. 

Despite the book's genuine weirdness, Jones does some really interesting things with this narrative.  At the beginning, 17-year-old Sophie is cursed to be an old woman by the Witch of the Waste.  Hoping to beat the curse, Sophie journeys away from her family hat shop and encounters the titular moving castle, owned by the simultaneously charming and cold wizard Howl Jenkins.  Howl has struck an agreement with a fire demon named Calcifer, and they live in the castle with Howl's apprentice, the kind-hearted Michael.  A lot of weird and convoluted adventures happen, lives are imperiled, and hearts are won.  I had a little trouble following the plot at times, but the strength of the characters - Sophie and Howl in particular - made up for the structural shortcomings.

Our club found the book a little hard to discuss.  I'm not sure why we had so much trouble finding interesting things to say about Howl's Moving Castle, but alas so it was. (Admittedly, our giddiness - a book club trait that is always getting us into trouble - did not help matters).  We all agreed that there is something kind of fascinating about this material, and we all had trouble believing that this book could actually be considered a children's book rather than a YA novel. 

Personally, I am obsessed with some of the romance novel tropes Jones is playing with here, although I don't think she meant to do such a thing.  Howl is a very typical romance novel hero, just a few years younger.  He's a little cold-hearted but also charms the pants off women.  He loves his family but is also unsure of his place in their lives.  He has a love/hate relationship with the heroine (Sophie).  He is "reformed" (kind of) by the end.  Sophie defies the romance heroine type because of her old-age curse and prickly personality, but by the end, she's fulfilled the dutiful heroine role of reformer-of-man.  To see this all happen in a kid's book kind of blew my mind, to be honest.  I will definitely be giving it more thought throughout the future.

Up next for Book Club Revisited:  It's Corey's turn again, and he chose Karen Thompson Walker's new book, The Age of Miracles.  I'm excited, as I was planning to read it anyway.  We also added an additional goal of discussing the film Melancholia, as it shares some end-of-the-world themes with Walker's book.  Should be a good time.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Could Have Used More Changlings

Book Reviewed: Some Kind of Fairy Tale, by Graham Joyce

When I was a kid, I hated fantasy.  I had absolutely no tolerance for magic or mysticism or anything that wasn't completely tactile.  Sure, I could watch a Disney movie and be perfectly happy.  But when it came to playing or reading, it was reality or nothing.  I realize now just how weird that is.  Most people enjoy fantasy as children and then grow out of it.  Instead, I grew into an appreciation for the fantastical after college.  After discovering a love for urban fantasy and mash-ups (in particular, Neil Gaiman's novels for both adults and children), I began to open up to the genre a bit more. 

That being said, there are some fantasy tropes I will never love.  One of those is the idea of fairies.  They bore me, and the whole concept always creeps up on the border of being cutesy.  So when I read a good review for Graham Joyce's new book, Some Kind of Fairy Tale, I assumed it wouldn't be for me.  After all, this book is deep in the fairy stuff.  But the fact that the book was about the aftermath of a tragic disappearance got to me, and I went ahead and read it in a couple days.  And while I actually did like the book, I had this weird feeling that my worst beliefs in the silliness of fairy-fantasies might just still hold true. 

Here's the problem.  In blending the almost-boring realm of domesticity with the out-there fantasy world of woodland sprites, Joyce is attempting to say all sorts of semi-profound things about humaniy.  But in the long run, I am always going to be more interested in the domestic.  As a kid who used to re-enact the most boring scenes from film and television (the part of Mister Rogers where he changes his sweater, the opening of The Little Mermaid where Sebastian lays out his music score on a rock), I am still more interested in the emotional significance of the day-to-day drama of human life than I am in the strange things we can't actually see.  It's not that I don't like a touch of supernatural in my life (I am all for ghosts and Harry Potter and whatnot), but the fantasy has to be interesting to me.  And again, fairies just aren't interesting in Bethland.

Some Kind of Fairy Tale begins with the return of Tara, who disappeared as a teenager twenty years earlier.  She comes back to her parents and now middle-aged brother, Peter, looking almost exactly the same as she did two decades ago.  She was kidnapped by fairies, she claims.  And now she's back.  The book deals with this dramatic return in a fairly realistic way - Tara's parents are glad she's back and are trying to avoid the drama of knowing where she really was, Peter is concerned about the truth and takes his sister to a psychiatrist.  The relationships between people really count here, especially Tara and Peter's relationship with Richie, a down-and-out musician who once dated Tara and was Peter's best friend before her disappearance.  Richie is the book's most interesting character (although I quite liked Peter as well), although Joyce doesn't flesh him out as much as I would have liked. 

Joyce does do a few interesting things here.  For one, he never tells the reader what to think or believe, which adds genuine tension to the plot.  He also does a good job in using Peter's family life as an entry point for the story.  His son Jack plays an important role as a kind of reader/writer surrogate, and by making Peter a farrier who lives in a cottage, Joyce gets extra mileage in his concept of the modern fairy tale.  Most importantly, he makes a sort of beautiful and unsaid claim at the end about what the passage of time does to the ones we love.  Every body changes, and if you don't see someone for a long period of time, even a lover or child or friend can become a complete stranger.  Strangely enough, I think Joyce could have used the idea of a changling - a creature taking the place of a real person, also related to fairy legend - to a larger degree.  He makes the point quite well, but the book's ending left me feeling a little unsure of what just happened.  I wanted more closure, and I can't decide if Joyce should have given it to us or not. 

This book is so close to being really good and original, but it never quites get there.  Joyce uses too many points-of-view, too many voices to get his story across.  And by making Tara so mysterious, he makes her a bit annoying as a character.  We can't know her because to know her would be to figure her out, and the story won't let that happen.  I think the things Joyce does well - the domestic stuff, the theme of loved ones changing over time, etc - he does really well.  I just wish the book had felt a little more substantial by the end.  I think I've had my fill of fairies for awhile. 

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

This Week in Trashy Reads 2012 #7

Trashy Read 2012 #7: Practice Makes Perfect, by Julie James

I’ve been watching a lot of TV shows about lawyers lately, so it only makes sense that I would choose to read a Julie James book as my next romance.  James was a lawyer before she began writing screenplays and novels, and almost all of her books feature lawyers (and the one book that doesn’t feature a lawyer protagonist, A Lot Like Love, still revolves around a legal case).  James has gotten a lot of love in the contemporary romance world for writing books that feature adults with real jobs and actual common sense.  Also, she’s great at banter.  Her characters always act as if they’ve stepped right off a screen, walking and talking and trading insults and innuendos with one another.

Practice Makes Perfect was James’s second novel, one that I hadn’t previously gotten around to reading.  It features that much-beloved trope of the relationship that begins with hate and ends with true love.  Payton and J.D. both work at a big-deal Chicago law firm, and both of them expect to make partner within the next few weeks.  Despite working together for eight years, they strongly dislike one another, constantly bickering out of ear’s reach of their coworkers.  Then they find out that the firm has decided to only make one of them partner, despite pairing them up together in order to win over a major new client.  Obviously, this means Payton and J.D. become even more competitive, which is inconvenient in light of the fact they are both gaining more respect for each other. 

I liked Practice Makes Perfect quite a bit.  It’s funny and breezy, and the central plot of the partnership is an actual conflict that doesn’t seem designed solely to keep our couple apart for a few more pages.  You can actually imagine that this is the kind of thing that would be detrimental to a burgeoning relationship, one that the characters genuinely care about.  Once again, James has created characters who have a real problem that they try to solve in both a professionally- and emotionally-sound way.  Yes, there is a great deal of reader wish-fulfillment happening here (these characters are smart, attractive, have good jobs, and are absolutely loaded), but the story isn’t designed to be anything more than breezy summer fare anyway.  And that’s exactly what it was for me. 

Monday, August 6, 2012

Poetry Round-Up

Books Reviewed: The Trees The Trees, by Heather Christle; Thin Kimono, by Michael Earl Craig; I [Heart] Your Fate, by Anthony McCann
I read so much poetry these days that I can't possibly blog about each book. So every once in a while, I do these round-ups to let you know what I've been reading lately. Here are three books I've read in the last couple weeks:

The Trees The Trees: After reading and loving Christle's The Difficult Farm a couple weeks ago, I gave another of her books a try.  And of course, I really liked it.  I'm not sure The Trees The Trees is quite as surprising or charming as The Difficult Farm, but the way it teases out an idiosyncratic voice through the pages of prose poems is really cool.  Again, I find Christle to be a warm and available poetic voice, one that I will probably be recommending to those who think contemporary poetry has gotten overly cold in its obsession with being clever.  Poems I particularly liked here: "Anywhere in Particular," "A Handle on It," "Line Up in an Orderly Fashion," "Landscaping," "I Know the Air Should Not Contain Me," and "Trying to Return the Sun."

Thin Kimono: Another book from the pile my friend Drew left for me this summer.  Craig is definitely unlike any other poet out there right now, probably because he lives and works in Montana as a farrier.  He has a very plain, conversant style, one which spins out poems as if they were folk stories.  On the surface, what could look like a prosaic quality is actually quite robust in its ability to do that which makes good poetry - to convey many things, to carry many ideas, in a handful of lines.  Thin Kimono is unlike anything else I've read this summer, which is good.  I need some change in my life.  Poems I particularly liked here: "Bluebirds," "When It's Time," "Bubbles Came from Their Noses," "Games in the Sand," and "City at Night."

I [Heart] Your Fate: Again, another book by an author I read and liked earlier this summer (in this case, the earlier book was McCann's Father of Noise).  I [Heart] Your Fate was particularly hit and miss for me.  I really liked some of the poems, I instantly forgot some of the others; this dynamic is defining my relationship with McCann, I think.  I did gain a new appreciation for McCann's style here, though.  He has a sense of sound, of how a line works with the one before and after it, that is quite masterful.  This is particularly on display in the long poems in the middle of the book, which have a wonderful rhythm to them.  Poems I particularly liked here: "Field Work," "Letters of Claire and Trelawny," "Deseret," "Mammal Island," and "More Dreams of Waking." 

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Poetry Round-Up

Books Reviewed: Duties of an English Foreign Secretary, b Macgregor Card; The Difficult Farm, by Heather Christle; The Cloud Corporation, by Timothy Donnelly; Nick Demske, by Nick Demske

I read so much poetry these days that I can't possibly blog about each book. So every once in a while, I do these round-ups to let you know what I've been reading lately. Here are three books I've read in the last couple weeks:

Duties of an English Foreign Secretary:  I picked this up at AWP based solely on the awesome title.  I liked the book, although I didn't necessarily love it.  Reading the poems aloud actually helped me enjoy them more, as Card has a wonderful sense of sound/music.  The poems manage to be contemporary and old-timey at the same time, as if they were written on a sepia-toned word processor.  I tended to like the poems when they were at their most varied, as I don't have the patience for some of the repetition Card uses here.  Overall, though, a pretty enjoyable read.  Poems I particularly liked here: "I Am the Teacher of Athletes," "To Friend-Tree of Counted Days," "The Libertine's Punishment," "Together We Shall Win the Title of Bluebeard," and "Shipfilm."

The Difficult Farm:  I had never heard of Christle until I picked up The Difficult Farm last week from the pile of books my friend Drew assigned to me over the summer.  I'm glad I read it.  I really liked this book.  The poems are weird and funny and occasionally beautiful.  There's a real warmth in Christle's work that I find lacking in a lot of contemporary poetry.  Poems I particularly liked here: "Variations on an Animal Kingdom," "What an Undertaker Does to His Family at Night," "Cocorico," "Because the Limit Seeks Its Own," and "Wilderness with Two Men."

The Cloud Corporation:  This is a long poetry book, coming in at almost 150 pages.  It's easy to see why it's so long once you encounter Donnelly's verbosity.  Donnelly is clearly a poet who loves words and ideas and teasing out the impossible logic of a thought.  He's a "thinking" poet, whatever I mean by that.  Sometimes, this makes for some delightfully smart reading.  At other times, it made me a little sleepy.  There was a time when I probably would have been more of a Donnelly fan, but my taste in poetry (particularly my recent obsession with brevity and my newfound love of style/tone/mood) has changed a lot the last year.  I would still recommend The Cloud Corporation, especially to die-hard poetry or language lovers, even if I wasn't always impressed by the sheer size and scope of it.  Poems I particularly liked here: "The New Hymns," "Fun for the Shut-In," "His Apologia," "Globus Hystericus," and "Chapter for Not Dying Again."

 Nick Demske:  Okay, of these four books, this one is my least favorite.  I really appreciate this book for existing.  The way Demske uses sonnets (particularly his end-rhymes, which are genius) is kind of amazing.  But I found I forgot a lot of the poems as soon as I finished them.  Outside of a couple poems, it wasn't a book that will probably stick with me, unfortunately.  Poems I particularly liked here: "Common Sense," "Put Your Face in My Tongue," "As a Dog Returneth to Vomit" (one of the better poems I've encountered about poetry-writing lately), "They All Lived," and "Fully Dressed in an Empty Bathtub." 

Thursday, July 19, 2012

What It Means to Survive

Book Reviewed: I'll Be There, by Holly Goldberg Sloan

I love young adult novels.  I enjoy the emotional openness of them, the way they can take me away from my world and put me in a place of empathy towards their characters.  Literary fiction is full of potholes on the road of enjoyment, with an author's desire to be clever often getting in the way.  YA books, on the other hand, are all about feeling, about hitting all the raw nerves that teenagers walk around carrying.  I like that, as I got into reading fiction for the emotional edification, not so I could see how smart a writer was.  I like literary fiction and contemporary poetry.  I like cleverness and intelligence and emotional avoidance sometimes.  But every once in awhile, I just want to read something that was designed to make me feel

Fortunately, one of my good friends is a youth librarian and keeps up on all the best new YA lit.  I take her recommendations very seriously, so when she recommended I check out Holly Goldberg Sloan's I'll Be There, I paid attention.  "It's about brothers," Amy said.  She knows my weakness.  I picked up the new paperback version of the book while out shopping last week, and I started it on a rainy afternoon a few days ago.  As of yesterday, I was halfway through the book, with about 200 pages to go.  I finished those 200 pages in a single sitting, not even getting up to use the bathroom or grab food.  I was addicted. 

Man, did I love I'll Be There.  It hooked me from the first chapter and it just barrelled its way through the intense plot right up until the end.  Sloan writes for television and film (she wrote Angels in the Outfield, which I adored as a kid), so it's not surprising that her first novel would feel so cinematic.  I kept picturing the book as a movie while I was reading it, thinking about how I would go about casting it.  It manages to be epic and personal at the same time.

At the beginning of the book, the Border brothers are struggling to survive, but it's a struggle they're used to.  Their schizophrenic, terrifying father has shuttled them around the continent for the last decade, committing crimes and taking advantage of people.  Older brother Sam is a talented musician who hasn't been to school in ten years and doesn't know much about the external world beyond what he directly experiences.  Younger brother Riddle struggles with asthma and a socialization problem (a mild form of autism, maybe?) and relies on his big brother to keep him out of the hateful eye of his father.  Then Sam and Riddle meet Emily Bell, a very normal girl with a very normal, loving family.  Emily falls for Sam, and then the Bells fall for both the boys, taking them in as honorary family members.  Unfortunately, the boys' father whisks his sons away without warning halfway through the book.  Soon after, an accident occurs that leaves the Border brothers fighting for their lives in the wilds of Utah. 

For the book's middle half, particularly the moments leading up to and directly following the plot-turning accident, I felt like my guts were being wrenched out a little bit more with each page.  Despite knowing deep-down that things would turn out okay, I found so much of the story to be devastating.  You have all these characters trying to do the right thing while hurting so much, missing the people they love.  It's a book about survival - not just for the boys in the woods but also for the Bells, who are unable to do anything for two people they love.  It's a book about feeling hopeless and hopeful all at the same time, and how painful that inbetween place can be.  It's also a book about love and the way we can be saved by the people who care about us.  The situations are extreme, but the emotional stakes are actually pretty familiar.

Sloan is a very simple writer, giving us the facts as we need them and letting every character - even minor ones - have a chance to explain themselves.  The results of this relentlessly omniscient point-of-view are a little mixed.  I actually could have done without seeing so much of Bobby Ellis, Emily's classmate and a minor character who gets a bigger role as the story goes on.  I thought he was a little overused toward the end of the book, at a time when I only cared about what was going on with the Bells and Borders.  And I'm not sure the book's final chapter is entirely earned, in which we get to see happy endings for a variety of characters who were given just a few scant paragraphs throughout the book.  I was so touched by the relationships between Mrs. Bell and Riddle, Emily and Sam, and Sam and Riddle that I didn't want all the distractions of seeing other people's stories.  I think this strange choice for the ending actually kept me from crying at the end of the book, which I spent the previous 100 pages assuming would be a given.  That being said, I did get a little teary-eyed throughout the book, particularly when classically-good mom Mrs. Bell was thinking about her lost boys. 

I highly recommend I'll Be There.  It's a winner of book: fast-paced, deeply felt, entertaining and emotionally engaging all at once.  I could not have been more involved with its characters and their struggles, which is the best thing I can say about any novel.

Note:  This book works as a surprisingly nuanced look at class distinctions among teenagers, too.  Class seems like such a hurdle when you're a teenager (or it did for me anyway; I was an incredibly class-conscious high schooler), but its actual marks are so subtle.  Emily doesn't always understand the way Sam takes part in the world because she doesn't have access to the abject poverty that marks his life.  Meanwhile, Sam seems to understand that there is something embarrassing about his situation in life, despite the fact that he doesn't actually have to face differences in a school setting.  The book takes an extreme situation - the boys fighting for their lives vs. the ordered (though now-upsetting) life Emily faces day-to-day while they are missing - and makes it seem plausible because it's not that far apart from the actual realities of teenagers living in poverty coming into the lives of the comfortably middle-class and vice versa.  I really appreciated the way class plays a part in the story but is completely unremarked upon. 

Book Club Revisited: July 2012

Book Club Revisited Pick #3: Prepare to Die! by Paul Tobin
I got to choose our book club pick this time around, and I chose Paul Tobin's new, pulpy superhero novel, Prepare to Die!   Luckily for me, the book turned out to be incredibly popular among my fellow Book Club Revisitors.  Prepare to Die! is the story of a superhero, Reaver (who is so strong that when he punches someone, it actually ages them a year), who receives an ultimatum from the supervillain Octagon.  When Octagon gives Reaver the requisite "prepare to die" sentence, Reaver asks for an extension.  Octagon agrees to give Reaver two weeks to tie up loose ends, then Reaver must come meet his actual death.  Reaver, still heartsick over the loss of his closest superhero friends as well as still dealing with the teenhood accident that gave him his powers, decides to make amends back in his hometown of Greenway, Oregon.  There, he plans to reclaim an old relationship with Adele, the love of his life, who last saw him when they were teenagers.

Prepare to Die! hits a lot of the things I love in both literary fiction and superhero stories: the doomed protagonist, the allure of lost opportunities, grief over major losses.  Best of all, it's a story about a superbeing who becomes a person again.  After a decade spent fighting crime, he finds there are other parts of himself that are equally important to who he is, or as Tobin puts it when describing Reaver's past as a boyhood camper, "to keep a sense of the self even though the woods are very large and very lurking and he is very small and very unable to see himself or anything at all."  It's a book about keeping one's sense of self, a concept that has led to tragedy for some of Reaver's friends but which might just hold the key to his redemption.

Tobin's book is not perfect.  Adele's an underdeveloped character, and the writing isn't particularly pretty.  But the story is funny, propulsive, and really entertaining.  Occasionally, the book becomes incredibly moving.  There's a revelation involving Reaver's brother that comes toward the end of the book that really startled and gutted all four of us BCR members.  Our conversation about the book was very fruitful.  At one point, we even got existential, trying to decide if people needed godlike figures (particularly represented by Reaver's best friend, the good and tragic Paladin) because facing one's own capacity for kindness or humanity or heroism is too frightening.  Overall, it was another successful chapter in the story of our book club.

Up next for Book Club Revisited:  Amy chose Howl's Moving Castle, a children's classic, for August's discussion.  Should be fun! 

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Adventures in Re-Reading: The Last Tycoon

Book Re-reviewed: The Love of the Last Tycoon, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

It's been at least five years since I've picked up Fitzgerald's unfinished final novel, The Love of the Last Tycoon, despite the fact that I consider it my second-favorite Fitzgerald work.  Considering that I've been having some kind of Fitzgerald love affair re-up this summer (how is it that I have let him lay fallow in my mind for so long), it seemed like as good a time as any to pick it up.  Also, I recently watched The Artist, and its depiction of Old Hollywood made me yearn to read The Last Tycoon again.

The Last Tycoon was never finished, although Fitzgerald made a surprising amount of headway on it in just the last few months before his death in 1940 at the age of 44.  I used to argue that, had it been finished, it would have rivaled The Great Gatsby as Fitzgerald's best book.  It is very similar to Gatsby, of course, in its themes of the self-made man, tragic youthful death, and lost love.  But it also shows the stamp of Fitzgerald's extra 15 years of experience.  It's a mature book, less about the way youth become disillusioned and more about the way one can move past that disillusionment and still end up losing.  It's beautifully written, beautifully told.  And painful because of its lack of resolution.

It's not always easy to be a Fitzgerald fan.  In biographies and anecdotes, he comes off as needy and irresolute.  He drank too much; he wasn't a particularly good husband or father.  His writing can sometimes be overly flowery and heavy in abstraction.  His characters are often unlikeable.  But when he's on, he's on.  Fitzgerald's talent is in his re-writing, in the way he worked a sentence or a scene over and over again.  It's what makes his best work feel so effortless.  He writes some of the clearest, most poignant sentences in American literature, and those sentences are always designed to make you feel something.  And man, do they make you feel.  Books like The Great Gatsby and The Last Tycoon make me feel everything, deeply.  Not everyone has this reaction to Fitzgerald's work, but for some reason, he just manages to hit me right where it hurts.  I'm not sure why.  Maybe it's some kind of Midwestern kinmanship (only a transplanted Midwesterner is capable of writing books about homesickness that runs so deep that it just becomes a vague, amorphous sort of loneliness, unrecognizable as homesickness at all).  Maybe it's just that I like to be told sad stories with a minimal amount of narrative to-do, so that I may feel whatever emotions I want to feel, author intentioned be damned. 

I have a theory that Fitzgerald's best books are the ones in which he sees himself most clearly.  Fitzgerald had a lot of problems, and he never seemed quite able to figure out his own mind or heart.  But in his best work, there's an openness to the weaknesses of men that seems to come from someplace familiar.  In The Great Gatsby, you have the tragedy of the uprooted man, the man who doesn't want to go home again but probably should.  In Tender Is the Night, you've got a man with a ruined marriage leaving his career behind (writing purely for money was Fitzgerald's mainstay at this time, and the time stretch between his novels gets longer and longer).  And here, you have the saddest story of all, made tragic by the fact that Fitzgerald was about to die himself.  In The Last Tycoon, a 35-year-old Hollywood producer finds love for the first time since his wife died, rediscovers his interest in creating a great film, and then dies young (the death is part of every plot outline, but Fitzgerald himself died before he got to that part of the book).  It's a book about a somewhat emotionally-voided man coming close to catharsis, to a personal and professional revolution.  But he doesn't get it.  Fitzgerald came so close to writing a distorted mirror of his own life, and then he actually acted out the end his character could not. 

The Last Tycoon is not a perfect book.  There's the problem of its point-of-view, in which first-person narrator Cecelia Brady describes scenes she did not witness.  This doesn't particularly bother me, as it's easy to see the book as some kind of post-modernish look at who gets to tell the stories of our lives (with Cecelia and the omniscient narrator fighting for the power to tell the story of a man unallowed to tell his own tale).  The love interest, Kathleen Moore, is a bit underwritten.  But overall, it's a fantastic book.  The writing is sumptuous, capable of both humor and tragedy.  The setting feels vibrant and alive.  The book is surprisingly frank about sex and the sexual histories of its characters.  If you compare this to much of Fitzgerald's earlier work, it feels incredibly contemporary.  I love this book, although it's hard for me to separate Stahr from Fitzgerald when I read it.  It's a novel that makes me feel many things within a single paragraph, a feat few books - even the ones I love - can achieve. 

Note:  It's possible that there is an essay in here somewhere about the ways in which I am the Cecelia Brady to Fitzgerald's Stahr: the innocent sideliner forever doomed to look at a man she loves and admires through a haze of self-interest.  She's a girl stuck with the narrative she creates because that's really all she gets of Stahr in the end.  Is that not the only power a fangirl gets and abuses when she doesn't get the object of her affection?  Is that what I'm doing here in this review, in hoping to construct a kind of sad-sack narrative for Fitzgerald through which to view this novel?

Note 2:  There are multiple editions of this book, featuring different outlines and notes about the unfinished parts of the book.  This is the most well-regarded edition, with notes selected and edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli, long considered the premiere Fitzgerald scholar.  Bruccoli also wrote the fine introduction at the beginning of this edition.  I envy the man his talent at framing Fitzgerald's work with such care and accessibility.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

This Week in Trashy Reads 2012 #6

Trashy Read 2012 #6: Scandal Wears Satin, by Loretta Chase

By now you all know that Loretta Chase is my favorite romance writer.  So of course I read her new book, Scandal Wears Satin.  It's the second book in a planned trilogy about the Noirot sisters, who own a dress shop in London.  The first book, Silk Is for Seduction, was wonderful.  It's always a problem when the first book of a trilogy is really, really good.  Because the odds are you won't enjoy the next two nearly as much, what with the high expectations that have been set. 

That's what happened here.  Scandal Wears Satin is certainly enjoyable, as funny and well-plotted as any Chase novel.  But it felt weaker than Silk Is for Seduction, more insubstantial.  The ending was rushed, and the emotional stakes weren't as high as those in the previous book.  The path towards the characters' happy ending felt too easy, which works in contemporaries but not in historicals, where resistance should come from a lot of societal levels.  I can't complain too much, though, as I did get through the book rather quickly and found it to be a perfectly pleasant way to pass the time.  I like the hero a lot.  Lord Longmore (Harry) is entitled, sure, but he's a normal bloke.  Not terribly bright, led around by his desire for fun, but still a decent guy.  You don't see a lot of average guys in historical romance - they are always exceedingly smart or crazy masculine or sometimes overly nice.  It's nice to just see a dude being a dude.  It makes his attraction to Sophy, the scheming brains of the Noirot fashion operation, seem organic.

Speaking of organic, one of my favorite things about Chase is her sense of humor.  Specifically, that she lets that humor come out through her characters rather than through situation (most of the time, anyway).  When her characters say something witty or do something funny, it never feels like a function of the story.  Rather, it comes through the fact that readers get to know the characters and understand that the humor comes from who they are and how they interact with people.  That's a rare gift, particularly in genre writing, and I really appreciate it.  Humor should be organic, not forced (I'm looking at you, 50 Shades of Grey).

So if you're a Chase fan, I recommend Scandal Wears Satin, even if it's not as good as the book that comes before it in the trilogy.  (Note: The next and last book in the series will feature Leonie, the mathematically-inclined youngest sister.  So far, she's been a pretty bland presence, so I hope she fully comes out in the next book.  Strangely enough, there's no signs so far of who she's going to be paired up with, which is rare in this kind of trilogy.)

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Poetry Round-Up

Books Reviewed: Light-Headed, by Matt Hart; Oubliette, by Peter Richards; Maximum Gaga, by Lara Glenum
I read so much poetry these days that I can't possibly blog about each book. So every once in a while, I do these round-ups to let you know what I've been reading lately. Here are three books I've read (if not necessarily enjoyed) this last week:

Light-Headed:  Hart's poetry is a lot of fun, taking liberties with language and form.  While this book wasn't necessarily emotionally satisfying for me, I did enjoy reading it.  I envy Hart's wordplay, the way he can throw two old words together that shouldn't belong but which suddenly look new and exciting next to one another.  He's like a word matchmaker, throwing literal common sense out the window.  Poems I particularly liked here: "Waking Fit," "This Is the Vast in the Middle," "All the Hours We're Asleep," and "Minerva System."

Oubliette:  After reading and loving Richards's Helsinki a couple weeks ago, I decided to check out his earlier work.  Mistake.  There is nothing worse than loving a book and finding out you don't like anything else the author has written (I'm looking at you, Joe Hill).  Oubliette isn't bad; it's just boring.  I couldn't get into it at all.  The poems are too interested in philosophy and religion for my taste, and the language and lines aren't interesting enough to distract me from its problem of subject matter.  Being a big thinker is not a problem for me in poetry (afterall, I love Rilke), but when it doesn't sing right, it just ends up being a snoozer. 

Maximum Gaga:  I get it, but that doesn't mean I necessarily liked it.  I was bored with its "shocking" tone and found the subject matter to be same-old-hat.  Sorry, contemporary poetry world.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

This Week in Trashy Reads 2012 #5

Trashy Read 2012 #5: Fifty Shades of Grey, by E L James

For awhile, I thought I'd avoid reading this one.  I've never been one for popular books (I tend to wait a year or so until the fanfare has died down before reading a bestseller or critically-praised work), and I wasn't particularly interested in what Fifty Shades had to offer the romance genre, as its crossover popularity removes it somewhat from the romance novels I love so much.  But after a half-hearted agreement with other MFAs to give it a shot over the summer, I finally relented and put my name on the library hold list. 

Fifty Shades of Grey is not very good.  It's ridiculous that the trilogy covers 1,500 pages to tell a story that a better writer could tell in 350 without losing any of the emotional beats.  The writing is pretty abysmal, too.  I suppose that a lot of people won't notice James's reliance on her thesaurus or the overdose of adverb usage.  As an adverb hater, I noticed and it bothered me a great deal.  At one point, when the heroine is crying, James actually uses the phrase "watery tears."  What?!  I'm not surprised this book started out as fanfiction, as its writing is on par with your average piece of fanfiction.  (Note: I say that as someone who loves and appreciates good fanfiction.)

However, I don't think Fifty Shades is a particularly bad book, either.  I've certainly read books, including literary fiction, that is less absorbing.  The sex scenes are, as promised by the book's categorization as erotica, definitely the most interesting I've encountered in mainstream publishing.  I even appreciated the way James builds the sexual relationship between the two.  It doesn't start off being crazy BDSM stuff; it works its way there in a (somewhat) more believable manner.  So while the book itself is lacking in a lot of what I like about fiction in general and romance in particular - the characterization, the believability of the building relationships, the emotional stakes - I can see why it has sparked so much attention.

That being said, I'm not sure what makes this book so special, so different from any other erotic romance out there.  I don't read erotica, but I know it exists in major digital markets in the romance community.  So why this one?  Was it because James already had a big following from her days of writing fanfiction?  Is it the fact that the books actually made it into paper copies that made it accessible to a wider audience?  I don't know.  I can't imagine why anyone would care about these lead characters in particular.  Christian Grey is business-as-usual angsty, the kind of alpha male that exists all over the place in what romance reviewer Sarah Wendell would call "old skool romance."  Anastasia Steele (yep, that's her actual name) is the other side of the old-skool couple model, the wide-eyed innocent who doesn't understand why she has all these feelings for a dangerous man.  There's nothing here that is new or interesting.  These are not fascinating people (especially Anastasia, who annoyed the shit out of me through the entire book, a problem since the book is narrated in her first-person voice).  Not to mention how out of date this book feels sometimes.  For example, Anastasia is 21 and graduating from college and DOES NOT OWN A LAPTOP.  The book features some truly kinky sex and a bizarre submissive-dominant contract that is hilarious in its seriousness, but the thing that drove me craziest about the whole thing was Anastasia's absolute stupidity when it came to techonology.  I'm supposed to believe this girl got an internship at a publishing company without knowing how to work a Mac?  You have got to be kidding me.  (Since getting my library tech job and seeing what people my age and younger are capable of automatically picking up in regards to technology, I am angry that James did not have enough respect for her main character to make her as technological proficient as any college student would have to be right now.)

So there you have it.  As someone who appreciates good writing and a high dose of believability, this book didn't really satisfy me the way it has the general reading public.  I don't think it's the kind of trash some critics have labeled it, but I also don't think it gives us real insight into relationships like some readers and TV personalities have claimed.  It's a book with a lot of acrobatic sex scenes and base-line brooding.  It wasn't the worst book I've ever read, but except for its occasional moments of WTF-ery, it isn't going to stick with me long, either.