Give me books, fruit, french wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors. --John Keats

Saturday, August 16, 2014

The WYSINAWYG Edition

Or, You Can't Judge a Book By Your Preconceived Notions About It.

We all know you can't judge a book by its cover (though, if my own propensity is any indication, we all tend to do so occasionally). But, covers aside, there have certainly been times when I've read a book and found it was nothing like I expected it to be. I'll tell you about five such books from my past three years of reading.

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. Any book with the word "castle" in the title sounds good to me! There seems to be something so magical about castles. Not those that are sanitized and soulless like Neuschwanstein, but real, lived-in ones like Hohenschwangau, where you can almost feel the spirits of those who formerly resided there.

I came across I Capture the Castle when I was searching for this book, and I didn't know much about it beyond the title and the fact that readers spoke highly of it. My mistaken expectation stemmed from my interpretation of the word "capture". I imagined some sort of war would be involved, or at least a minor siege, so I was actually quite pleased to find out that the main character is "capturing" the castle in the sense that she is writing about it and capturing its ambiance and daily life on paper.

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood. This book and I did not get off to a good start. Have you ever been reading during an ordeal in your life and found yourself kind of hating an otherwise perfectly good book? That was the beginning of The Handmaid's Tale for me. I had to set it down for about a week, until I stopped hating it. But once I convinced myself that it wasn't the book's fault, I found it quite an intriguing read. I definitely plan to read more Atwood at some point. I've heard I ought to.

Ever since I was very young, I have soothed myself with the notion that most huge changes happen slowly. By the time an event that I feared has come to be, I'll have had time to adjust. That's not necessarily a good thing (as the Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto may have been able to tell you on their way to Treblinka). But it was chilling to read Atwood's account of what it might be like if things changed virtually overnight. (It does happen in real life, though generally not on so large a scale. I just try to ignore that fact until it happens.)

Rebel Without a Cause by Robert M. Lindner. I was very mistaken in my assumption that this was the book form of the famous James Dean movie. The subtitle should have made that clear (The Hypnoanalysis of a Criminal Psychopath). Disclaimer: in the next paragraph, please keep in mind that I have no idea what I'm talking about, so if you are a trained psychiatrist/psychologist and this book is your bible, my apologies in advance.

I was very skeptical of this book. First, I've never seen any evidence to suggest that hypnosis isn't a load of crap, and Lindner's descriptions of his patient's statements and antics while under hypnosis made me very suspicious. I felt certain that Harold was telling Lindner what he wanted to hear, and Lindner fell for all of it. Second, I'm quite doubtful of the possibility that Harold's psychopathic tendencies could have stemmed from having seen his parents having sex when he was a toddler. I neither believed that this was a true memory, nor did I believe that the situation could have been as traumatic as Lindner suggested.

Seventeenth Summer by Maureen Daly. Daly was seventeen when she began writing this book (which always impresses me. Seventeen was more than half my life ago, and I still haven't written a book). It's about a teenage girl and her first love, and I kind of expected it to be a bit naughty--but it is not, at all. It's very chaste and sweet. Which I guess isn't too surprising, considering the fact that it was published in 1942.

Then there was Postmortem by Patricia Cornwell, which I have thrown into this blog post merely to show that sometimes WYSIWYG. Sigh. I had absolutely no interest in reading this book--it looked like a poorly-written, run-of-the-mill thriller--but I did it because I loved my book club. And unfortunately my expectations were met: it was a chore to read. I didn't like Kay Scarpetta (the main character). The writing was mediocre (it was the type where I was constantly distracted by thoughts of better ways to word each passage). I guess it wasn't a boring story, but I certainly didn't turn the last page thinking, Hey, that was worth my time!

I won't be reading anything else by Patricia Cornwell. I mean, if hers were the last books remaining on earth, I might read them for lack of anything else, but there are SO MANY books I'd rather read (many of them languishing unread on my very own shelves) that Cornwell won't be an author I seek out any time in the near future. Except for maybe her book about Jack the Ripper?

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

"The Luminaries" by Eleanor Catton

I finally got around to reading the second of the two books Sam gave to me for my birthday last November. I think I put it off for so long because it's quite monstrous in size, but I shouldn't have--once I actually began reading, its length was forgotten. As a well-deserving winner of the 2013 Man Booker prize, the writing is excellent and the story is absorbing and, had it been even longer, I wouldn't have minded a bit (except that it was already slightly ungainly for reading in comfortable positions).

I'm not sure I can describe the plot in a handful of sentences in a way that could do the book justice. There are 20 major characters, which seems like a lot to keep up with (especially considering the fact that you hear the story from the perspective of at least half of them at one point or another) but isn't, really. The story takes place during the New Zealand gold rushes of the 1860s, which probably wouldn't have made my list of Top Ten Most Interesting Settings, not least because I'm not sure I even knew there had been goldfields there--when I hear New Zealand, I think sheep. But--though it is integral to the plot--gold is not the focus of the story (thank goodness, because that would have been boring). The Luminaries is kind of an unconventional mystery, with thirteen amateur "detectives" trying to solve a death that may or may not be murder, the disappearance of a man who may or may not be dead, and the theft of a fortune in gold which--you guessed it!--may or may not have been stolen.

For me, the book started slightly slowly. Not that it was dull reading, but Catton zoomed in so closely on a room of thirteen men that time seemed to slow down. But it wasn't long before I was very intrigued. Mysteries and secrets kept stacking up. For every link that was exposed, two new questions arose. I found myself wanting to draw a diagram to keep track of all of the information as it was revealed, but I simultaneously feared it would be as elaborate and confusing as that of the obsessed, half-insane film detective who tacks photos and evidence all over his wall with strands of red yarn spiderwebbing all of the links.

I don't know why the entire book couldn't have been that exciting, but in the second half (I use the term "half" loosely--I didn't really notice exactly when the change occurred) Catton takes us back in time one year, and from there the story is told in a much more straightforward manner, explaining most (but not all!) of the mysteries by laying down the sequence of events that led up to the death, the disappearance, and the theft. It felt like a very long denouement, and it was a bit disappointing--kind of like a magician's secrets revealed--though I feel certain that it suffered more due to comparison with the excellent first half. I certainly did not lose interest, but it seemed less cleverly put together than I had come to expect.

Even so, I truly enjoyed the reading experience and came out of it with a very high opinion of the book and its author. You must read this book!

Saturday, August 9, 2014

And now for something completely different

I think I may have mentioned my awesome husband a time or two previously. He has just finished reading a new novel that is slated to be on bookstore shelves one month from today, and I was really pleased when he accepted my invitation to write a guest post about it for The Literary Amnesiac. In fact, he had an even better suggestion. This will be more than just a guest post. Take note of this historical moment, as it marks the beginning of a new chapter for us: we are now co-bloggers! Without further ado, here is my husband Sam:

I binge-read James Ellroy one summer a few years back. I began with The Black Dahlia and kept on going until the end of Blood’s A Rover, an epic journey of violence, betrayal and conspiracy spanning 26 years and several radically different prose styles. It was fantastic. I loved the brutality and horror of Ellroy’s America, the spring-loaded compression of his sentences, the way he puts you inside the heads of even the most depraved and amoral characters. Like many readers, though, I felt his novels became slightly less compelling when they moved away from postwar Los Angeles and into the rather colorless and repetitive milieu of 60s and 70s espionage.

So I was thrilled, as an Ellroy fan, to be given a copy of Perfidia a couple of months before its publication date, and doubly thrilled when I discovered that it was set in LA in December 1941, with a cast of characters whom I already knew from the previous seven books. Even more excitingly, Perfidia is the first installment of a new LA Quartet, focusing on events leading up to those described in The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, LA Confidential and White Jazz.

And I wasn’t disappointed. Perfidia is a huge, sleazy, rocket-fuelled behemoth of a book. I would have no trouble hailing it as a return to the heights of LA Confidential – perhaps even surpassing them – were it not for one small problem: like Kathy, I am a literary amnesiac, and the years have dimmed my sureness about just how good each of those books in the first LA Quartet really was. I mean, I remember loving them at the time (less so The Black Dahlia, which was too much of a conventional serial-killer tale for my tastes), but I can’t recall exactly when and how Ellroy’s prose style began to mutate from classic modern noir to Hemingway-haikus-on-heroin.

So I now feel eager to reread those books, not only to compare them with Perfidia, but to see how the characters and backstories mesh. Because the four main characters of Perfidia have all appeared in previous novels: Kay Lake was in The Black Dahlia; William H. Parker was in LA Confidential and White Jazz; Hideo Ashida was apparently ‘referenced’ in The Black Dahlia, though I must admit I don’t remember that; and Dudley Smith, of course, was an important and unforgettable presence in The Big Nowhere, LA Confidential and White Jazz. And, remarkably, all four are compelling, fascinating, deeply odd yet strangely sympathetic people. (Well, all right, describing Dudley Smith as ‘sympathetic’ is perhaps pushing it, but he does have a kind of evil charisma.)

They’re not the only familiar names here either, as Perfidia features a grand total of 40 characters from previous Ellroy novels. And no, I didn’t count them myself: satisfyingly, the author provides a list of dramatis personae at the back of the book, a list that is also useful for distinguishing between invented characters and those based on real-life figures.

On that subject, there is something slightly disturbing about Ellroy’s use of ‘actual persons’ in his fiction. Obviously, the likes of Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and William H. Parker are long dead and unlikely to sue, but I don’t know how their families would feel about the way they’re depicted here (getting droolingly drunk, beating the crap out of people, screwing murderers, etc – no spoilers there, because you don’t know who’s doing what to whom). Moral considerations aside, however, it is an amazing achievement on Ellroy’s part to meld the actual and the fictional in this way, so that we can be inside their heads, inside their beds, and both types of character feel equally ‘real’ to us.

As for the plot… well, it begins with the apparent ritual suicide of a Japanese family on the day before the Pearl Harbor bombing and spirals into a three-week tsunami of lies, frame-ups, racial tension and sociopathic killing, where the lines between good and evil are not so much blurred as smeared with blood and machine-gunned.

And that description makes me suddenly aware that this may not be everyone’s cup of tea. In fact, maybe it’s just a Boy Thing? I should ask Kathy, I suppose, but she claims she has read only one James Ellroy book: The Black Dahlia. I’m pretty sure she read The Big Nowhere too, because I remember her being underwhelmed by a scene that I absolutely loved, but she denied this. Then, the other day, she picked the book up and read the first few pages and said, ‘Hmm, this seems very familiar… maybe I did read it before?’ Anyway, my guess is she wouldn’t love Perfidia the way I do.

Oh, that’s another thing: if you’ve never read any Ellroy before, this is perhaps not the best place to start. Despite its high quality and the fact that it predates the other seven novels chronologically, it would probably just seem too weird to a first-timer. Ellroy has honed and boiled down his style over the years, to the point where it can appear offputtingly fragmented and staccato. Once you’re used to it, however, it’s actually hard to read other writers because they seem to waste so many words. But my point is that Ellroy breaks most of the so-called rules of good writing: he often tells, rather than showing, and he makes little attempt at verisimilitude in his descriptions of actions or portrayals of character. He doesn’t try to convince you that these people are real or that these things are really happening – because he doesn’t need to: he knows they are real. And his conviction is contagious.

It’s even more impressive when you consider that the likes of Lee Blanchard (The Black Dahlia), Scotty Bennett (Blood’s A Rover) and Pierce Patchett (LA Confidential) must have been fully conceived with their backstories in mind when Ellroy first wrote about them.

So, yes, I now desperately want to reread the first LA Quartet. The only annoying thing is that I’ll probably have to do it all over again (with Perfidia added on) when the next one in the series comes out. Because Ellroy took five years to write this novel and my memory is not good for more than about five weeks…

Sam

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Cause and Effect

Cause: Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier was assigned reading during my freshman year of high school and it was awesome.

Effect: I read My Cousin Rachel, also by du Maurier. It was only slightly less awesome than Rebecca. (Not because there's anything wrong with it, but because Rebecca is that good.) MCR is the story of a woman (Rachel, obvs) told from the perspective of her cousin Philip, who falls in love with her. Is Rachel straightforward and honest, or is she only trying to get Philip's money? P.S.: I re-read Rebecca more recently and it was just as good as I remembered. The Hitchcock movie is great, too.

Cause: I read The Best American Short Stories of 2003 for book club way back when.

Effect: I read the 2001 and 2013 editions (the latter given to me by my wonderful husband for Christmas last year because he knew how much I enjoyed the other two and he's just awesome like that). I like short stories--they often have a memorable impact, and it's so easy to squeeze another story in at odd moments throughout the day--but I frequently find that short story collections (especially those all penned by one author) are a bit uneven. You'll find one or two great stories, a bunch of mediocre ones, and several that just suck. But the Best American series manages to avoid that pitfall. Out of these two collections, the one that still stands out in my mind is The Mourning Door by Elizabeth Graver, about a woman dealing with infertility. It really resonated with me even though it's something I've never experienced myself. (Hello, four kids . . . ) It's so mysterious and strange and bittersweet and I want you to read it.

Cause: I read Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn for my more recently deceased book club.

Effect: I read Flynn's other two books, Dark Places (a woman pieces together what really happened the night she was the only member of her family to survive) and Sharp Objects (a reporter is sent back to her hometown to investigate the murder of a local girl and the disappearance of another). Both are just as well-written, tightly plotted and startlingly intriguing as GG, and both are somewhat more disturbing. Neither is at all disappointing, though GG is my favorite of the three. The publication of each of these books was separated by three years . . . number four should be due in 2015, and I'm looking forward to it!

Cause: I read Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (as all good readers should, at some point in their lives).

Effect: I read The Long Dark Teatime of the Soul, also by Adams. It's a tongue-in-cheek (what else would you expect?) detective story involving Norse gods. It was a lot of fun, but I can see why it's not as famous as Hitchhiker's Guide. Incidentally, Teatime is the sequel to a book I have not read.

Bam! That's five more books off my "Have Read, Must Blog" list. I'll be caught up before you know it!

Saturday, July 26, 2014

The "Just Watch The Movie" Edition

Here's another great whack at the remaining books on my "Have Read, Must Blog" list. These are linked by virtue of my having watched the movie version prior to reading the source material, usually with years separating the two. And, really, though it pains me to say so as a book lover, the movies did each book justice, and I don't recall that reading them added immensely to the experience. (You should take this with a grain of salt, however, keeping in mind that the things I don't recall are many and varied.)

City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau. Ember was founded as a refuge countless years ago, but it is beginning to crumble, and Lina and Doon hope that they can discover a way to make it feel safe again. I ostensibly bought this for Bookworm Child, but I must confess I had my own curiosity about it--enough that I still wanted to read it even after seeing the movie. However, the main thing I remember about the book is that there is something about their city that Lina and Doon spend almost the entire book trying to figure out . . . when it seems so glaringly obvious to the reader from the beginning. I suppose I'll never know whether this was because I already knew the secret from watching the movie (in fact, I think I knew it from watching the preview), or whether it would have seemed just as obvious to me if I had read the book first.

Somewhere in Time by Richard Matheson. Yes, I know I have frequently claimed that romance makes me gag, but this story is different. It is so sad and sweet and mysterious, and no one's bodice gets ripped. It's the story of a 20th-century man who is so powerfully drawn to the photo of a young actress from the late 1800s that he actually wills himself back in time so that he can be with her. I was first introduced to the movie when I was in college, and it lodged itself in my psyche; the book did not affect me the same way.

Rum Punch by Elmore Leonard. What's that you say? You've never heard of a movie entitled Rum Punch? That's because Quentin Tarantino changed its name to Jackie Brown, the story of a down-at-the-heels flight attendant who sees an opportunity to come out on top and is smart enough to make it happen. The movie is stylish and clever and fun, and I think it improves on the book.

Single White Female by John Lutz. Allie advertises for a roommate and ends up with plain and harmless Hedra . . . until Hedra begins to form an unhealthy obsession. It's been twenty years since I saw this movie, and quite possibly more than two years since I read the book. I remember the movie as a creepy thriller and the book as a pulpy potboiler. I probably wouldn't mind watching the movie one more time; I don't think I'll read the book again.

The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory focuses on the lesser-known Mary Boleyn, sister to Anne and mistress to Henry VIII before her sister succeeded her. I don't know what Gregory does to historical fiction, but somehow she makes it into an accessible, fun, and guilty read. Reading history shouldn't make me feel guilty! It should make me feel worthy and accomplished and intelligent! Watching the movie version, however, is welcome to feel like an escape.

So, there you have it. An inveterate reader votes for the movie version in all five cases (though I recommend some of these movies more highly than the others). Or maybe these examples just help make the case for reading the book first?

Thursday, July 17, 2014

"This Thing of Darkness" by Harry Thompson

This Thing of Darkness was given to me by my sweet mother-in-law over a year ago, but (probably more due to its sheer bulk than anything else) I kept pushing it aside in favor of other books. (Seriously. This one is SUPER long. It's almost thicker than it is wide. So maybe I'm exaggerating for effect . . . but just a bit.)

I'm glad I finally hefted it and dove in, though. It is what one surely could describe as a cracking good read. I took it slowly--savored it, if you will--and it was kind of a relief to relax my usual breakneck reading pace and focus on one book over the course of several weeks.

It's historical fiction (emphasis on the former), telling the story of Charles Darwin's voyages on the Beagle, though it focuses more on the lesser-known personage of the ship's captain, Robert FitzRoy. It is full of swash and buckle, adventure and misadventure, advancement of science and resistance to that advancement, noble sacrifice and its attempts to overcome ignoble greed in its various guises.

FitzRoy (at least as portrayed in this book) was quite an admirable man; as for Darwin, however, I just can't forget the ridiculous fact that one of the things his mule train carried into the Andes for him was a full bed, so that he wouldn't have to sleep on the ground. Come on, man! Grow some balls! Your monkey ancestors didn't need beds! (To be fair, though--beds in the wilderness aside--Darwin was not generally portrayed in a negative light.)

This was Thompson's only novel of note (his only other published works include a few biographies and one semi-autobiographical book) and there won't be another one, as he passed away at the young age of 45--the same year this book was published. But he should be proud of this swan song, because it's a really great book. And--judging by the author's note at the end--an amazing amount of research went into it, which was very evident to me as I read--the story has an indelible aura of authenticity.

This book would make a great TV miniseries. (BBC, are you listening?)




Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Book Club Report, Part III

Only 30 books to go until I'm all caught up on blogging (I think)! As I was looking at this list and trying to figure out how I can knock out several posts in one go, I realized I'd missed blogging about three Old Book Club selections in my previous two Book Club Reports. So, Book Club Report Part III it is! And because posting about three books isn't enough to make a satisfying dent in my backlog, I will add a special surprise at the end. Just you wait!

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon. My first book by this author, and it won't be my last. Anyone who can get me interested in the birth of the comic book superhero has got to be good. Lucky for me, though comic books were definitely the main theme of the book, there's so much more to it. The writing is excellent, the characters are vivid, the plot flows swiftly, and it's a memorable and believable portrayal of 1940s New York City. I'm looking forward to reading Chabon's The Wonder Boys one of these days. 

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. This is the story of a small gang of young thugs who wreak havoc to their hearts' content until the authorities decide to do something about it. I'd seen the movie years ago, but only vaguely remembered the general idea (as well as a few indelible moments that I wouldn't have minded forgetting). What stands out most in my memory from reading the book is Nadsat, the slang vocabulary spoken by the main characters. I'd been forewarned about it, and (maybe largely because I was prepared?) I found it relatively painless to grow accustomed to. The version I read had a weirdly didactic final chapter. I think the book would be better without it.

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. Surely it's not a spoiler to tell you that this book is about two teenagers who fall in love . . . after they meet at their cancer survivor's support group. (After all, the huge movie adaptation just came out two weeks ago, and even I've seen ads for it everywhere I've looked. If you don't already know the premise, it's your own problem.) I never, ever would have chosen to read this book if not under duress from Book Club. Love? And cancer?? I smell horrifying tearjerker. Not My Thing. But, you know, John Green can do things I never would put up with from the likes of Nicholas Sparks (I'm looking at YOU, A Walk to Remember). And--not that I'm calling him Shakespeare or anything--I have a bit more respect for teenage lovers dealing with cancer than those who end up killing themselves over a big, stupid misunderstanding. 

So, as far as I can remember, that's it for books read with my sad old defunct book club. Your special surprise? Two books that were rejected by said book club--but I read them anyway.

A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel. This is an incredibly detailed account of the French Revolution and its three major leaders (Danton, Robespierre and Desmoulins). It's an extraordinary work, more history than fiction, about a fascinating time and place. I wish I could have retained more of what I learned from it. 

Despite the fact that this one is definitely worth reading, I think Old Book Club was right to turn it down. I imagine they would have hated it. 

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters. It's Victorian, it's gothic, it's naughty, it's full of mysteries and secrets, and deception is heaped upon deception. It's the story of a pickpocket (hence the title) who agrees to trick an heiress out of her inheritance. If Book Club could have overlooked the naughty bits, I think they would have had just as much fun with this one as anything by Kate Morton. 

Five down, 25 to go!

Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Book Club Report, Part II

Here's the wrap-up of Old Book Club books that I promised you a few weeks ago. It's kind of sad--in looking over these seven books, I don't see a single one that I loved. Most of them were at least worth reading, though. Except maybe . . .

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer. This is one of those stories told from multiple points of view. The main character is a deep-thinking young boy who seems out of place--Oskar doesn't fit in with any kids his age, but adults can't see him as a peer. His father died in the 9/11 attacks, and Oskar is obsessively searching for the lock that will be opened by a key that belonged to his father. I vaguely remember this book was somewhat disappointing, and I didn't care at all about some of the narrators. I also feel like it was sold to me under false pretenses--the idea of the mysterious key seemed much more intriguing than the reality of it. This book was more about Oskar's grief and the ways he dealt with it than it was about the mystery of the key.

Before I Go To Sleep by SJ Watson. This book was probably my favorite of those I'm posting about today, but I still didn't love it. It's the story of a woman who suffers from amnesia. Every morning when she wakes up she has no idea who she is, where she is, or why she is in bed with a man. The man, of course, is her husband, and every day he has the task of reminding her of their history. She has begun keeping a journal (probably either in hopes of recovering some of her memory, or as a way to cope with its loss--I can't remember for sure . . . ha ha) and is starting to realize Something is Not Right. Here are the vague perceptions I recall about the book: it seemed like a really clever premise, but I was slightly disappointed; reading it was oddly like walking through a dense fog; and it had elements of the movie Groundhog Day (which seriously annoyed me with its repetitiveness). But I think it was also somewhat suspenseful and intriguing.

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. This is the story of a tribal leader in Africa whose life (as you might guess from the title) takes a bad turn. I must admit I was not looking forward to reading this book (not least because of its awful cover art-- not the same as the cover shown here, but I couldn't find a photo of the copy I read, and I was kind of glad about that) and I actually ended up pleasantly surprised. Not because this is a particularly pleasant read--it's actually a bit depressing and frustrating--but it is a strong story and it definitely held my attention. And I know as I read I had some interesting thoughts about the effect of missionaries on native cultures and their ingrained belief systems and traditions, but unfortunately I can't share those interesting thoughts with you, because I can't remember them.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. Here's a curious tidbit: this novel had its beginnings as a short story. And that may be the best thing I can come up with to say about this book because it's been too long since I read it. My hazy memory tells me it's a sort of character study of a fat Dominican teenager and his assorted friends and family members, all of which is overshadowed by a faint sense of impending doom.

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. This is a medieval monastic murder mystery, which sounds pretty good until you apply the adjectives "dense" and "glacial". I remember appreciating it more than my other book club members, and it was worth reading once, but I doubt I would wade through it again.

Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card. A futuristic novel about a society that selects children for military training at a young age. Also started as a short story. Good sci-fi, though I have no interest in continuing with the series. My strongest memory of this one isn't even about the book itself--it's how disappointing the movie was.

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs. This book is peppered with a double handful of weird old photos which are worked into a story about an orphanage for kids with strange powers. I loved the creepy photos, but the ones I was most curious about were merely glossed over, and some of the ones described in great detail seemed to be unnecessarily stretched to fit the story. I enjoyed the read but it didn't meet my expectations.

And now I am seven books closer to being caught up!

Friday, June 6, 2014

"Matched" by Ally Condie

I bought this for Bookworm Child a while back. I think I chose it mostly because I liked the cover, and I'd heard about the story from one of my two main YA-reading friends--the concept sounded interesting when she described it to me. Bookworm Child has read all but the last two and a half chapters (I can't imagine getting that close to the end and not following through!!) and I was curious enough to pick it up myself.

Matched is the story of a rigidly controlled society, ostensibly restrained by the government for the good of all, rendering free will extremely limited. The government controls the populace by dividing it into a handful of factions based on their members' predominant character traits . . . no, wait, that's Divergent. Let's see, in this one the people of the society have underlying doubts and questions about their government, but everyone is afraid to express those thoughts publicly, especially because they fear official retribution. Most of those fears stem from the fact that every year, two children from each district are chosen to fight . . . oops, no, that's The Hunger Games. So, in Matched, everyone has everything decided for them. The government chooses each person's career path, their food and clothes, even their spouse. And some people don't like this.

Just in case I haven't beaten you over the head with it enough, my point is that Matched doesn't seem especially unique. It has its own take on the supposed-utopia-that's-actually-more-dystopian, but it doesn't feel new. (Thought I suppose it might have if I'd read it before reading Divergent and The Hunger Games.) But it was still a fun read, and I'm going to see if I can get Bookworm Child to finish it.

Friday, May 30, 2014

"Tony and Susan" by Austin Wright

Here's our newest Book Club of Two selection. My husband was frustrated because I started this book just a little bit before he did, and I kept sneaking in a few more pages whenever possible. He was sure he would never catch up. But I couldn't help it! Not only was it well written, full of tension and suspense. Not only did I not want to put it down. It seemed to go even further than that--it was more as if the book wouldn't let me go.

The story is a clever work of metafiction. The main character, Susan, is reading a manuscript (written by her ex-husband) in which the main character is Tony. Tony's story is the more compelling of the two, but Susan's reading of it doesn't dilute the tension of Tony's story. Rather than making us feel removed from Tony's story, Susan's reading of it adds another dimension to it. Susan's reactions, as well as her pauses to ruminate on her reading, intensify the dread of what is coming in Tony's story. 

At first I wanted to call this a mystery, but it's really not. There are no real twists and turns, no need to figure out whodunit, no red herrings (although I kept looking for them, and even thought I'd found a few . . . but I hadn't). It's just a dark trail toward the inevitable, beset with dread. I guess the genre would be considered horror, but Wright seems to dig deeper than King or Koontz usually would. 

This book is a gem, even if the ending left things feeling unresolved. I don't know why I'd never heard of it before. It was well worth the read, though I do have to wonder if it would stand up to a re-read; surely it couldn't have the same effect the second time around. But maybe for a literary amnesiac it would . . .

Monday, May 26, 2014

"The Visible Man" by Chuck Klosterman

This is the story of an Austin, Texas therapist and her treatment of one specific patient: a man who can make himself become invisible. Not a man who thinks he can make himself invisible, or who has delusions of invisibility, but a former scientist who had been part of a now-scrapped government project, and who secretly and unofficially completed the work after the project was discontinued.

Chuck Klosterman comes up with great what-if questions. (Seriously. You should check this out--we've had a lot of fun with it.) So, what would you do if you could become invisible? Would you use your powers for good or evil? The "visible man" strongly believes that no human can honestly and purely behave according to their true personality unless completely alone, and he feels compelled to study people being themselves... by quietly breaking into their houses and observing them in their (supposed) solitude. Somehow he believes this is a good use of his power, but not everyone would be able to see his point of view.

The story intertwines the evolution of an odd patient/therapist relationship with the stories the man tells of situations he has witnessed during his surreptitious "research". He was privy to some unusual scenarios, which seemed only too limited--certainly not in scope, but in number. I wished there had been more! I wouldn't mind reading more Klosterman books, if I can assume his others measure up.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

"This is How: Help for the Self" by Augusten Burroughs

My no-fail book selection method has failed me.

When I'm browsing for books (not looking for a specific title or author, but just wandering the bookshop aisles rapturously), first it's up to the cover to catch my eye. It may be the colors, or the artwork, or the words, or all of it together. Next I look at the price. I'm a sucker for a cheap book, and it's pretty unusual for me to pay full price. Then I read the back cover (or the inside flap--wherever the blurb is to be found).

If the book has passed all of these tests to my satisfaction, the last challenge is the Random Text Selection. I open the book to a page decided by fate (though I assiduously avoid the ending--even endings of chapters--in hopes of dodging spoilers) and sample the prose style.  This is mainly to ensure that the writing doesn't suck. I've ruled out book purchases thanks to this sucky-writing-avoidance technique, and in the best cases I am then even more eager to read the book so I can put what I've just read into context. 

Once I've made my choice to buy a book, I feel like I generally have a pretty good idea about what sort of book it is, even if I don't know much about the story or what direction it will go.

I applied all of my usual methods to This is How. And somehow I came away from Books-A-Million with this book and the idea that it was comedy. I thought it was a parody of a self-help book. I thought it mocked the dire situations people can find themselves in.

was wrong. 

This is really and truly a self-help book. I'm sure the cover should have revealed that fact to me--it's pretty plain there--but I thought it was a sarcastic representation. 

It's not. 

So, expectations aside, what did I think of this book? I tend not to appreciate self-help books. I may have an unnecessarily negative view of them, but it seems to me that the majority are very repetitive (to the point that they could easily be distilled into a motivational poster) with an annoyingly and cloyingly perky attitude. Not to mention that they often seem to be full of crap.

This is How is neither easily distilled nor perky. What it has to say is varied and unique. It actually seems to contain some fairly good advice. AND it is humorous in bits, in that dry sarcastic sense that I remember from Running With Scissors. Only problem is that I'm not in any of the horrible situations described in it, and by the time that I am, I won't be able to remember the advice. 

I don't necessarily regret reading this book; it was interesting, and it went by quickly. But, had I recognized it for what it was, I probably never would have bought it, despite its low price and old-West-snake-oil-salesman title font. I should have listened to my husband, who frowned and said, "That's for people who aren't happy." Maybe I would have listened to him if the edition I held had this cover, which looks much more faithful to its contents, if you ask me: