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

Sunday, August 30, 2009

"The Starter Wife" by Gigi Levangie Grazer

I almost didn't post about this book in my blog. It's one of those I'm embarrassed to admit I've wasted my time on. I guess you could call it a guilty pleasure, with more guilt than pleasure. I'm sure I killed brain cells by reading it.

First I will make excuses for why I picked it up. The kids and I went to the library yesterday, and the book caught my eye. I thought the title sounded familiar to me, and Debra Messing was on the cover, so I figured someone must have liked it enough to make it into a movie, or at least a TV show. (Of course, the same could be said for Lauren Weisberger's Chasing Harry Winston, so I should have known that wasn't proof of a good book). One last-ditch excuse: at least I borrowed it from the library instead of spending money on it.

So, this may have been fun, but definitely not good for me. Kind of like eating a pound of Sour Patch Kids in one sitting. (Don't worry, I've never done THAT). It was a very shallow book, which shouldn't be surprising since it's all about Hollywood, and no thinking was necessary in order to read it. There weren't even any surprises (well, OK, I didn't see Sam's family wealth coming, although it sure made for the happiest of nice, neat, happy endings, and I would never have guessed that the woman Kenny left Gracie for was Britney Spears... how ridiculous can you get?) but I suppose the book didn't ask anything of me and I didn't ask anything of the book.

Side notes: Why could they name Britney Spears but not the punk who was so obviously Kevin Federline but instead went by "Billy" in this book? And it was kind of funny that the main character, Gracie, had a best gay friend, Will... Will and Grace... Debra Messing.... hmmm, no wonder they changed her name to Molly for the TV adaptation of this book. And I seriously expected Lou to show up again, just like he'd told Gracie he planned to, but that never did happen.

I'm not one of those people who usually takes silly literature (and I use the term "literature" lightly in reference to this book--read with emphasis on the "silly") too seriously, but I was annoyed at the inappropriate things Gracie would say to her 4-year-old daughter Jaden. I don't remember a single time that Gracie interacted with Jaden in a manner befitting a mother to a child. I know the author was going for humor (as, I assume, was Gracie) but she should have saved it for her adult friends. Gracie asks Jaden, "Honey? Do you have a cigarette?" and, "Have Daddy and Britney told you what vodka is?" I could find innumerable examples but I really have no desire to spend any more time with this book than necessary.

Lesson learned: Never read a book authored by a woman named Gigi.

Friday, August 28, 2009

"Rhino Ranch" by Larry McMurtry

This book may be among the most poorly-written books I've ever read. It caught my eye at the library mainly because of the author's name. McMurtry's Lonesome Dove is a pretty great book, and I also once read Pretty Boy Floyd, which he co-wrote. I actually picked up Rhino Ranch for Hud but figured I might enjoy it too.

I was wrong. It's absolutely nothing like Lonesome Dove, beyond the fact that it originates here in Texas. I haven't yet quite put my finger on why, mainly because I don't remember enough about it, but this book made me think of that weird mystery by Kinky Friedman, the title of which I don't recall. (Side note: I am so glad Friedman lost the election for governor of Texas. His book seemed awfully autobiographical, and if he is really as much like his protagonist as I suspect, he's too weird to be in politics).

The writing in Lonesome Dove was rich and nuanced, creating a masterfully woven story. Rhino Ranch seems to just be thrown together without much thought. In comparison, the colors clash, the textures gall, and there are loose threads hanging out all over the place. The prose is terse and spare, but it doesn't work the way it did for Ernest Hemingway. It reads like a first draft that was never revised, although it needed revising badly. McMurtry frequently repeats himself unnecessarily (K.K. speaks, draining her brandy, speaks again, and drains her brandy). He contradicts himself (Dal goes back to Thailand to visit her family, although it's just her children and grandchildren, as her parents are dead; six pages later--and definitely not in a flashback--her mother is dying). People and situations pop up out of the blue, only to inexplicably disappear, usually never to be heard of again. Woman after woman lines up to seduce the main character, Duane Moore, with words as ridiculous as the characters behind them (the billionairess, the teenaged porn star, the long-legged cook). Nearly every character ends up dying sooner or later during this book, but not in the cathartic manner of a Greek tragedy; not even so that the reader cares remotely. It's more like everyone is just too old to bother living anymore--kind of like the Journey reunion. (They did it much better the first time around and the rehash is just sad).

I didn't realize until I read the flap inside the front cover that this is the last book of a saga beginning with The Last Picture Show (with which I am not familiar) from 1966. I may have missed out on a lot by not reading the three previous books (maybe in those others the story was actually fleshed out?) but I don't think I was left with any confusion or lingering questions from not reading the back story. Besides, after reading this one, I have absolutely no desire to read the previous books.

I found myself wondering what the point of it all was. Which may have been the point, as the main character finds himself without a purpose in life. This story wandered along as aimlessly as Duane himself. Dare I say that McMurtry didn't try very hard with this book, that his heart wasn't in writing it, perhaps even that he has lost his own purpose in life?

I almost hoped for an elaborate punch line at the end, incorporating all of the bizarre elements that had been thrown into the story all willy-nilly, but alas it was not to be. The end of the book, and really the entire thing to some extent, read like those little postscripts they flash up on the screen before the credits roll in movies that have been based on real life, giving you a brief blurb about how the characters' stories continued (or didn't, as the case may be). Maybe with this book McMurtry was merely trying to tie up loose ends and bring the saga to a close once and for all, but he introduced too many new threads for this to be the case. If this book had been rewritten, edited, and fleshed out A LOT more, it would have been a much longer book, but at least it might have been a passably good read. Too bad it wasn't.

I can think of one nice thing to say about the book. It was fun to come across references to things like "a flea market in Canton, Texas," which any good East Texas resident (even transplants who have only lived here for 14 years) knows refers to the First Monday Trade Days. It was like being privy to an inside joke. But that didn't happen nearly often enough to convince me to like the book. Oh, and one more nice thing: the cover is pretty.

At first I was thinking this book might take me a while to read... I had only made it through 12 pages and wasn't feeling really driven to read more; but it didn't take much longer before I decided to power through it just to get it over with. Hud was reading it at the same time as me, so we kind of had to take turns. Funny thing is, he attacked it with the same attitude that I did.

Final verdict: Ugh. I am so glad I can now move on to something that is worth my time. The next book I read will most likely be greatly enhanced in my opinion merely by comparison with this tripe. This book, for me, can be summed up by a quote on page 83 (it actually refers to the character Bobby Lee, but I've edited it slightly to serve my purposes): I didn't dislike this book. I just got tired of listening to it.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

"The Girl Who Could Fly" by Victoria Forester

I didn't realize this was a children's book until I picked it up and started reading it. Not that this is a problem, because one of my favorite genres is children's fiction (mainly because you don't often find horribly realistic cruelty in the stories, and they generally tend to be polite). But it took a little bit of adjusting to get used to the change in perspective. 

In a good book I often feel like I become the main character, whether the book is narrated in first person or third, but I never did find that I got into Piper's head. At least this didn't keep me from enjoying the story. It was, as the friend who loaned me this book called it, a "cute" book, and I can't think of a much better description. 

I was promised that this story was a cross between Little House on the Prairie and X-Men (this is actually in a blurb by another author on the front cover of the book), which is a decent description, but I would have thrown The Mysterious Benedict Society into the mix, maybe even in place of Little House. Yes, Piper is some sort of hick hillbilly from the country, but because of the Little House reference and the description of backwater Lowland County where Piper was raised, I was expecting the story to be set in the late 1800s, and it wasn't. Oddly enough, there was nothing (that I noticed, anyway) in the first fifty pages to dispel my misconception. It wasn't until the government showed up in black SUVs that I realized the story had a more contemporary setting.

I had a hard time getting a grip on Conrad's character. He started off as a big, mean bully. It seemed to me that his personality did a 180 when it was revealed that he knew about the sinister goings-on of Level Four, and that he had been planning an escape for years. But no, all of the meanness was still there. His intelligence, meanness and reluctant willingness to change his mind gave his character a welcome complexity. An interesting side note: Conrad reminded me distinctly of Artemis Fowl, I think mainly because of his impressive brainpower and rich family.

I was a little bit annoyed that all the kids in Lowland County had hick double names (Junie Jane, Billy Bob, Rory Ray)--every single one of them. Except for Piper, that is. And it was quite obvious foreshadowing of Letita's evil nature when her last name was Hellion. Would a 9- to 12-year-old really not understand the meaning of the word hellion?

I smell a sequel. The situation with J. was left completely unresolved. And what about Bella? She wasn't even mentioned at all in the denouement. It was as if the kids gave up on her without even trying, or maybe even completely forgot about her.

One huge thing which bothered me: the story was done a grave disservice when Conrad's theory of time travel was left out of their escape and revolt plans. Maybe they're saving that for the sequel too. One small thing that bothered me: the science projects that the "mutant" students were working on. If Dr. Hellion was trying to get the kids to relinquish their special powers, why would they be encouraged to work on science projects that used those skills? I understand that these projects used their powers on a much smaller scale than what they were capable of, but why allow them to use their powers at all? 

All in all, this was a fun little book and a fast read, but I don't see it becoming a classic. 

Saturday, August 22, 2009

"Bloodsucking Fiends" by Christopher Moore

Reading this book felt like reading a comic book without any pictures. This is not because there was excessive dialogue (although on the other hand it's certainly not filled with deep thoughts), and it wasn't the unrealistic premise (vampires running amok in San Francisco), because the unrealistic premises of The Time Traveler's Wife and The Amnesiac gave me absolutely no problem. The thing that made me feel like I was reading a two-dimensional book of action and humor is because the book is entirely peopled, not with characters, but with caricatures.

I must admit I might have been more impressed with this book if I hadn't just read The Time Traveler's Wife (a hard act to follow) and if I weren't so eager to dive into The Girl Who Could Fly (which promises to be Little Mutants on the Prairie... how can you beat that?) The silliness level reminds me of Catch-22, although this book is not THAT ridiculous. In this book you find marginally intelligent people being funny, rather than so-dumb-as-to-defy-belief people being humorously stupid.

I was pretty annoyed that Jody spent the entire book trying to figure out (among other things) how exactly she was changed into a vampire. It was so obvious, from the very scene where it occurred, that it was because she drank some of the vampire's blood. She wasn't described as a stupid character, but it certainly seemed dumb of her to overlook that important point for so long. In fact, she never did figure it out on her own--the other vampire had to tell her. I was also surprised that Jody killed off Simon. That seemed like a waste of a promising character.

There is a sequel to this book (looking at the author's list of titles, I'd have to guess it's the one called You Suck) and even though I don't really want to, I feel compelled to read it, if only to find out whether Jody turns Tommy into a vampire, or Steve turns Jody back into a human, and whether Jody and Tommy remain safe from Elijah encased in bronze.

At least this book was fun and funny. My favorite line, at which I actually laughed out loud, was, "Simon looked at Tommy as if he had farted in neon." I'm not sure what that says about me if I laugh out loud about scatological humor (other than the fact that my true age must be 14). It can say what it wants. I don't mind.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

"The Time Traveler's Wife" by Audrey Niffenegger

This book was amazing. I was pretty sure it would be great, just based on the premise I'd gathered in a blurb online, and happily as I read I found it certainly measured up to my expectations, at some points even exceeding them. It didn't take long into the book for me to decide that I thought this was even better than The Amnesiac. 'Nuff said.

The book turned out to be a little bit different than I expected. I guess I didn't expect Henry to have a completely separate life from Clare up until he, that he knows of, first meets her at age 28; and, to be honest, I didn't expect Henry's life before Clare to be so full of vice. But it worked well anyway. Especially with the inexplicable chicken-or-egg cycle presented: Clare grows up to be a better woman than she would have, due to 30- and 40-year-old Henry's positive influence in her childhood, as a tutor of both her intellect and character; and because Clare is a better woman, she is able to take degenerate 20-something Henry and help him change into the better man he needs to be in order to exert that positive influence on Clare as a child. Have I blown your mind yet? Just wait until you read the book!

I was afraid that this was going to be one of those books that I couldn't wait to finish, and then once it was over I would hate that it went by so fast. Well, I got the first part right; I was so eager to read this book, and to get all the pieces put together, but once I finished it I was almost relieved. Not glad it was over, really, but satisfied. Of course that may be in part because I still have a lovely stack of books waiting on me, instead of my usual feeling of waaaaaaaah, what am I going to read now?

It is unusual that I feel ambivalent about seeing the movie which is now in theaters. Most times if I've read a book and I know they've made a movie of it, I am driven with curiosity to see what they've done with it. This time, not so much. This is partly because I am just about certain that it can't be anywhere near as good as the book and I don't want to be disappointed; partly because I worry that with all the scrambled chronology it will either be too confusing or insultingly dumbed-down to keep it simple; partly because somehow I don't feel a need to see the characters as anyone but who I picture in my mind--especially because, judging from the movie poster, Clare's hair is mousy brown. It's not as if Niffenegger barely mentioned Clare's hair. We hear multiple times about her beautiful long red curls; this doesn't seem optional to me. If they didn't even pay enough attention to detail to get that part right, I worry for the remainder of the movie. Not only that, but Hud told me he saw a preview for the movie, and it was just a bunch of guy-picks-up-girl-and-swings-her-around, and the book is NOTHING like that. The book is a beautiful love story but not the least bit corny, and guy-picks-up-girl-and-swings-her-around is nothing if not corny.

I have certainly read books with hokey bits in them before, and although those bits tend to disrupt the story with a little bit of literary indigestion, I can usually choke them down and move on, but I don't recall having to do that once in this book. In fact, the only part I remember that rang a little false was at the very beginning, when Henry is first introduced, and it seemed obvious to me that the author was a woman; it was hard to believe that section was truly being narrated by a man. However, I either got used to it quickly, or the rest of the book was not flawed in that manner, because after that first part I no longer noticed it.

I just finished reading the book moments ago and I want to savor it and think over it a little before I jump into my next book. In fact, I ended up re-reading the first 50 or so pages just in order to pick up on all the little hints dropped there, now that I know what all of those hints are alluding to. But even after looking back and reflecting on the story, I can't discern a single plot hole (although at first the time traveling was mind-boggling to me, until I learned and became more accustomed to all the "rules") and all of the questions raised in my mind throughout the book seem to have been answered. I think that is what has given me such a feeling of satisfaction. Nothing was left open or unanswered, and this was made even more fulfilling because the answers were doled out bit by bit and I had to work a little to earn them, rather than being handed a neatly wrapped package at the conclusion.

This book is definitely a keeper! I won't be donating this one to the library.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

"Thura's Diary: My Life In Wartime Iraq" by Thura al-Windawi

I must admit that I chose this book because, like medicine that is no fun to swallow, I figured it would be "good for me" (plus it was on the bargain book shelf, only $3.97 for a hardcover) but I ended up appreciating it much more than I expected to.

I wish I knew how common Thura's experiences and opinions are to those of the rest of the Iraquis. This is just the voice of one girl. Do most of her countrymen agree? I have no reason to expect that the rest of her people think very differently, but I also have no way of knowing.

I found it interesting, but not surprising, that Thura felt stuck in the middle, between Saddam's regime and the Americans. She neither sided with her own government nor with President Bush. She could see that the Baath party was cruel and should not be in power, but even so she was not happy that they were deposed due to American intervention, and she even thought that Iraq was going to become an American colony. This was a new notion to me. I wonder if she still thinks Iraq is no more than an American colony now? I wonder if other Iraquis think this? I hope not... but I fear so.

I found as I read that I was curious as to the original state of her diary. It was obviously edited (one clear example being that she would have mentioned praying to Allah, not God) but I wonder how deeply the editing struck. Was her diary toned down to keep from offending Americans? I was surprised that I didn't find more negative comments about my country, which makes me wonder if the stronger of such opinions were edited out. There were a few, and they were comparatively mild. One example is Thura's father's statement that "the Americans have created this chaos," followed by Thura's conclusion that "this is part of the plan to destroy our country". That rubbed me the wrong way at first, but if I put myself in her shoes, I see that I probably would have felt exactly the same way. By the same token, but less importantly, I wonder about the translation; how similar are the English phrases to her original wording in Arabic? I found a lot of the writing to be trite, or old-fashioned, or otherwise strange for a teenager's voice; somehow awkward, not ringing true.

I was initially surprised by Thura's perspective on American women as soldiers. She was in disbelief that we would send our women to fight. When viewed from the perspective of a Muslim I suppose this shouldn't be so surprising, but it is just so odd to me when juxtaposed with the fact that this "freedom" is something that American women have struggled to attain. Thura seemed to think the American women were forced to fight, and she couldn't believe they weren't kept home and protected. The idea that this is what those women wanted is foreign to her.

I was also at first surprised that the removal of the Baath party resulted in less freedom for women. The power vacuum allowed for more extremist Muslims to exert power, forcing women to wear headscarves and be more homebound. On further reflection, I should not have been so surprised, because a lot of things got worse, not just in diminished freedom for women. Most of what got worse was due to lawlessness. Anarchy brings out the worst in people.

When Thura made friends with the foreign journalists, she mentions that "they asked me all sorts of... political questions like what the Iraqui people feel about Saddam," and she says she answered their questions, but she does not write down her answers. I wish she had written more about that. She does later mention that her people had a sort of pride and love for Saddam, which was actually born of fear, and in the postscript her dad reminded her "that even though the regime had only ended recently, Saddam had died in the hearts of many Iraquis long ago," but this seems to only scratch the surface and I want to know more.

I like that Thura defines a martyr correctly: "a peaceful person who died while trying to help others." The only thing I would add is that a martyr dies unjustly. This is at odds with the way I would previously have assumed most Arabs define "martyr" (namely, a suicide bomber). I also like the way she sees my country after she emigrates: "America is a place where there are all kinds of possibilities and a real understanding of the concept of freedom." I hope she really feels that way and didn't write it out of a feeling of obligation.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

So excited about my new stack of books!

I hit the book store again today and while I didn't get as good a deal as last time (4 books for $16!!) I got a bigger stack this time! Here is what is coming up:

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon
The Secrets of a Fire King by Kim Edwards (short stories)
Whistling in the Dark by Lesley Kagen
When the Nines Roll Over & Other Stories by David Benioff
The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant
A Widow for One Year by John Irving
The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
And three by Christopher Moore: Coyote Blue, Bloodsucking Fiends and Lamb

This ought to keep me busy for a while. Which is a good thing, because I can't afford to go back any time soon.