Hilary's book blog experiment

I read too much and too fast. I write too little and too slowly. This might help both problems. Inspired by Sara Nelson's So Many Books, So Little Time: A Year of Passionate Reading and a longstanding desire to track what I read.

April 13, 2010

End of 2006

I used to joke that if I had a blog, each post would start or end with "this might be my last post ever." I think I'd better start doing that!

Balliett, Blue
Chasing Vermeer - 2004. Very good although not as brilliantly wonderful as I'd anticipated. It made me feel old not to have the energy to try solving all the puzzles and ciphers myself. That's what Wikipedia is for... A

Blyton, Enid
Island of Adventure - 1944. I still have a tiny bit of sentimental attachment to some Blyton (particularly the Famous Five, because one of them is a real dog; also the Noddy illustrations, especially his cute little car), but boy is she lousy. Interesting to notice how repetitive and heavy-handed the description is; I guess that's one of the things that makes it easy to read before one is particularly quick to pick up cues. She must have liked animals, because Kiki the cockatoo is the most memorable character ("Wipe your feet! Shut the door"), followed by Dinah with the ungovernable temper and Lucy-Ann the timid goody two-shoes. OK, for cardboard characters they sometimes are refreshingly realistic. Blyton also shows some inner-life-of-adults that explains why they get sick of the rambunctious kids. But wait... I think of Kiki as a cockatoo because she has a crest and that's how she's illustrated, but the text calls her a scarlet and grey parrot. Is there such a parrot, with a crest that it can "work up and down"? I haven't been able to confirm that. C+

Cabot, Meg
All-American Girl - 2002. Recommended by my "little" sister (who's now 15!) Very funny and very absorbing, and even the stereotypical characters (like Sam's sister Lucy) turn out to have hidden depths. A

Christopher, John
The White Mountains - 1967; The City of Gold and Lead - 1967; The Pool of Fire - 1968. A classic trilogy whose images have stayed with me since I first read them, despite being mostly lifted from War of the Worlds crossed with Brave New World. A-

Collins, Wilkie
The Moonstone - 1868. Ground-breaking mystery and very amusing and enthralling, but I'd forgotten how weak the solution is. Believability was never Collins's strength. A-

Daisey, Mike
21 Dog Years: Doing Time @ Amazon.com - 2002. Daisey was experiencing all the worst aspects of Amazon when people still bought that they were Different and a Noble Place to Work. He wittily deconstructs the simple capitalistic greed that led smart people to work crazy hours fulfilling warehouse orders. Very well-written to boot. A

Dickens, Charles
A Christmas Carol: In Prose; Being a Ghost Story of Christmas - 1843. I re-read this frequently anyway, but most recently after finally catching the Cider Mill's version with Bill Gorman and Claus Evans. A+

Francis, Dick
I've been on a Francis kick in the course of which I'm finally giving up on some titles (I used to be a completist but have outgrown him to a certain extent).
Banker - 1982. A leisurely pace for a change. B
Flying Finish - 1966. Better/more plot than some, and one of the few really interesting lead characters, aristocrat-with-a-blue-collar-job Henry Grey. B+

Fredericks, Mariah
Crunch Time - 2006. Good YA about SAT prep; very Breakfast Club but also well-written. B+

Hoban, Russell
The Mouse and His Child - 1967. One of my very favorite books ever. It impressed me strongly as a kid and I still re-read it at least once a year, finding more each time. A perfect novel in so many, many ways. I am lucky to have an original, signed copy given to me by a FOF of Hoban's; the inscription reads "FOR SHIRLEY AND ALFRED./WITH/BEST WISHES/FOR GOOD LUCK/ALL THE WAY/FROM HERE/TO/THE LAST VISIBLE DOG/FROM/Russ & Lil." Am I a lucky duck or what? I think they gave it to me because I was a child and they thought it was a kid's book. But it is so very much more. A+++

Jenkins, Emily
Toys Go Out: Being the Adventures of a Knowledgeable Stingray, A Toughy Little Buffalo, and Someone Called Plastic - 2006. Very cute talking-toy story with more-than-usually-distinctive characters. A-

LeGuin, Ursula
The Dispossessed - 1974. Brilliant, thought-provoking, touching, but now that I'm older Anarres seems excessively rough on families in a way I didn't notice before. A+

Shute, Nevil
Beyond the Black Stump - 1966. Fascinating and devastating view of American society through the eyes of a young Australian girl. B+
The Breaking Wave - 1955. One of the saddest of his novels, though I had forgotten that it still has a hopeful ending. B+
The Chequer Board - 1947. Very advanced in anti-racism for its time; it's depressing that moving to Australia seems to have set Shute back so far. A-
The Far Country - 1952. Shut doesn't normally do very well with characters outside his stolid Anglo-Australian types, but the exiled doctor Carl Zlinter is an exception. Shute's rhapsodies about how healthy it is to eat pounds of meat and dozens of eggs (comparing the Australian diet to England's rationing) are unintentionally amusing, especially because there is quite a bit of medical setting. He also manages to make himself look foolish by taking a swipe at modern art:
The artist had modeled his style upon that of a short-sighted and eccentric old gentleman called C├ęzanne, who had been able to draw once but had got tired of it; this smoothed the path of his disciples a good deal.
Kindling - 1938. For some reason I remember this as a James Hilton novel; I think there's one with a similar plot. I wouldn't have known how autobiographical this was had I not finally read Slide Rule; it's an interesting defense of overstating a company's financial prospects to shareholders, for the sake of the employees' livelihoods. B+
Landfall - 1940. B+
Lonely Road - 1932. B-
Most Secret - 1945. Very grim. B
No Highway - 1948. The closest to Shute's real life, it seems like. A
Pastoral - 1944. B
Pied Piper - 1942. B
The Rainbow and the Rose - 1958. B
Round the Bend - 1951. A+
Slide Rule - 1954. Gets off to an incredibly dull start--Shute seems just as boring as his characters, with the added disadvantage of not being involved in a plot--but picks up in the fascinating story of the rival dirigibles commissioned by the English government, one with the private sector (Shute's company) and one with the public sector. That story is not primarily about Shute, simply told by him, and that's why it's interesting. B
So Disdained - 1928. B-
A Town Like Alice - 1950. A
What Happened to the Corbetts - 1939. Minor. B-

Niven, Larry, and Jerry Pournelle
The Mote in God's Eye - 1974. Niven and Pournelle excelled at combining a huge disaster-movie style cast of stereotypes with intriguing SF, and this is one of their best. A-

Uttley, Alison
The Sam Pig Storybook - 1965/1971. Are these stories so perfect partly because they are colored by familiarity and memory? I feel like I grew up along with the four little pigs, nurtured by Brock the badger. A+
A Traveler in Time - 1939. Psychologically-realistic time travel/historical fiction. A

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince - J. K. Rowling, 2006

This is what I wrote just after finishing HP6:

I love the excitement and anticipation of a new Harry Potter book; I've gone to Barnes & Noble just for the midnight thrill (even though I buy my book through the library) for the last 3 volumes. Cracking a new one is like seeing old friends again. I sank into this one with pleasurable anticipation, which was mostly rewarded...but not entirely. As I've already seen some reviewers saying, Book 6 is so busy setting up for the finale that it's weak on its own. One of Rowling's strengths is normally the richness of the tapestry's details; the minor characters, the specifics of spells the students are studying, the new creatures and methods...

That's all I wrote back then, but I was basically going to say I found #6 too busy with narrative and not as enjoyable as the previous 5. Well, I've re-read it twice since it came out, and I think I was projecting my own headlong rush to gobble it down; it really holds up very well. I don't think I wrote any notes on Deathly Hallows, but I loved it. What a satisfying end to the series. I'll re-read them all in a year or two (unless I get sick enough to stay home for more than a day; the last time that happened, years ago, the pleasurable part was doing nothing but read Harry Potter for an extended period.)

April 12, 2010

A Treasure's Trove: A Fairy Tale About Real Treasure for Parents and Children of All Ages - Michael Stadther, 2004

Low expectations can be good because it's easy to exceed them. This book had so many strikes against it (self-published; gimmicky in the extreme; unclear on audience; badly drawn; full of grammatical mistakes) that I was surprised to find anything redeeming in it, but I did love the character Pook. He's a doth (dog/moth), essentially the author's cute white bulldog (visible in a photo) with blue and orange wings added. I think that's why, although the other characters are wooden, Pook feels alive--Stadther is writing what he knows.

The most famous precursor to A Treasure's Trove is Kit Williams' Masquerade, which wasn't a very good story either but at least had truly impressive illustrations. I like puzzles but this one felt very contrived, like it wasn't following the classic rules. I used to fantasize about finding the Canadian Club whiskey cases that were hidden as part of a marketing campaign in the 70s--I was much too young to drink, but the search fascinated me (especially after seeing one that was hidden in Manhattan--more accessible than volcanoes and glaciers!) That yen for finding the hidden is still alive (hence the popularity of geocaching), but it's got to feel possible. I've just been listening to the audio of Malcolm Gladwell's What the Dog Saw, and his use of the distinction between puzzles and mysteries (originally by Gregory Treverton) comes to mind. Canadian Club was a puzzle; Treasure's Trove was a mystery. Nonetheless all the gimcrack-looking jewels were found.

April 11, 2010

Running With Scissors: A Memoir - Augusten Burroughs, 2002

I loved Dry--I leafed through it at a bookstore and then couldn't put it down--so my hopes were high for this earlier slice of autobiography. Good but not great. Burrough's adolescence was unbelievably bizarre (although a few people involved have disputed his account) but he survived and found humor in it. The main moral I absorbed is that people can adapt to anything.

Understanding the Borderline Mother: Helping her Children Transcend the Intense, Unpredictable, and Volatile Relationship

The title is so long that the author didn't fit: it's Christine Ann Lawson, 2000.

I read this book to better understand a situation in my own life, and although it was somewhat interesting, I didn't find it particularly helpful. Perhaps the most useful bit was an explanation of why the women described can seem like normal parents to the vast majority of observers:
Emotional intensity, impulsivity, unpredictability, and fear of abandonment are symptoms observable primarily by those who have an intimate relationship with the borderline. Casual acquaintances, co-workers, or neighbors are less likely to witness the borderline's sudden shifts in mood, self-destructive behavior, paranoid distortions, and obsessive ruminations.
Lawson categorizes women with borderline personality disorder into four categories: helpless waifs, frightened hermits, bossy queens, and vindictive witches. There's a lot of
heavy-handed parallelism with Alice in Wonderland, and a mix between case histories and biographies (Charlotte Du Pont, Sylvia Plath, Mary Todd Lincoln).

That's the extend of my notes (read in 2004, writing now in 2010)--but now there is a second situation where having more insight would be helpful, so I might try to borrow it again.

April 08, 2010

Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman - Jon Krakauer, 2009

I love Krakauer and I'll read anything he puts out; if this book hadn't been by him I probably would have leafed through it, but not read every word. Although I preferred his other books as great narrative non-fiction, because Where Men Win Glory was easier to put down, I think it will linger longer in my mind (Under the Banner of Heaven does too, but for different reasons).

Of the many interesting people Krakauer has profiled, Pat Tillman is the first real hero. I didn't know much about him before reading this book, and had made some fallacious assumptions based on the thumbnail description I'd read: NFL pro enlists after 9/11, is killed in Afghanistan, and the reason for his death is covered up. Krakauer promises that "the real Pat Tillman was much more remarkable, and considerably more complicated, than the fiction sold to the public," and he delivers on that promise. Tillman was not flawless, but he was both admirable and grounded, traits Krakauer's previous subjects haven't had in combination.

Most people are content to "believe in" values or ideas without examining too closely whether they ought to take actions to live out those values or ideas. That wasn't good enough for Tillman. I disagree with his conclusion that war can be necessary, and that Afghanistan after 9/11 was a place where it needed to be fought, but I respect his decision to act on what he believed--especially because he consistently challenged his own beliefs and those of others. I felt a kinship for Tillman growing as the book progressed; I would have loved to pick apart premises and implications with him, despite the macho side of his personality (his belief in honor reminded me of the Southern culture described in Gladwell's Outliers). A friend of his (who later got him in touch with Noam Chomsky--they never got a chance to meet, alas) reports talking with him when he was deciding to join the army:
"Are you sure about this? Are you ready to serve under a president you don't really support?" But he thought he owed it to the country to really do something after 9/11. I think he felt he could stay above the politics, somehow, and just do his duty as a patriot... With Pat, if his conscience told him he should do something, he did it, no excuses. He just made it happen as well as he possibly could.
Once enlisted, Tillman had serious doubts about the methods and goals of the military, but he felt committed to his decision. For the same reasons he'd abandoned a lucrative NFL contract and a comfortable life, he refused to participate in the propaganda machine. He knew his story would be catnip to the conservative movement, but he was not a part of it and did not want to give them fodder.

Krakauer goes into excruciating (to me, excessive) detail about the events leading to Tillman's tragic death by friendly fire. There doesn't appear to be anything nefarious about his demise--just a classic FUBAR situation of crossed signals, hasty decisions, pressure from supervisors to meet artificial benchmarks, and sheer bad luck. But the original cover-up was motivated by propaganda at the highest level, and as each investigation results in another cover-up, it becomes unbearably disgusting. If it were not for the dogged persistence of Pat's mother, and the light his celebrity could bring to bear, the truth would never have come out.

On the form where soldiers discuss their funeral preferences before deploying, Tillman specifically said "I do not want the military to have any direct involvement with my funeral." Despite the detailed picture Krakauer draws of his personality over hundreds of pages, it was a pleasant shock to discover near the end of the book that Tillman was a nonbeliever:
During his time on earth, he wrote in his journal while serving in Iraq, he wanted to "do good, influence lives, show truth and right." He believed it was important to "have faith in oneself" and to aspire to "a general goodness free of religious pretensions...I think I understand that religious faith with makes the holy brave and strong; my strength is just somewhere else--it's in myself...I do not fear what awaits me, though I'm equally confident that nothing awaits."
Disbelief in an afterlife is so rare in the US that before Krakauer specifically discussed it, it wouldn't have occured to me that Tillman and I shared that as well; an officer charged with one of the investigations, Lt. Colonel Kauzlarich, had the gall to say that the Tillmans would "never be satisfied" with the outcome because they were not Christians. Frequently I feel regret that someone can't see how much people love them as demonstrated after they die (Alex Chilton most recently). But I'm glad Tillman cannot know the tragic way his life ended, and worse, be tormented by the way his convictions and motivations were betrayed by the unworthy institution for which he sacrificed himself. Rest in peace, Pat.

April 03, 2010

Food Rules: An Eater's Manual - Michael Pollan, 2009

I normally frown on short essays published as overpriced books, and $11 is a little steep for what could easily have been a complete New York Times Magazine story (instead of the extract they ran). But the format might really make more people take these rules seriously--and that could improve, even save, countless lives. The 64 rules are mostly common sense, expressed in a sticky way (#19: "If it came from a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant, don't.") I didn't learn anything new, but I enjoyed it, and felt motivated to continue on the path I've been trying to walk for a few years (for example, avoiding anything with HFCs). As with self-help books, reading something I know again, especially if it's expressed in a pithy or novel way, can be tremendously helpful. I especially liked #39, "Eat all the junk food you want as long as you cook it yourself," which is an idea I'd sort of stumbled on. The book is a nice size, attractively designed, and not at all intimidating; may it be a huge success!

April 02, 2010

Grumbles from the Grave - Robert Heinlein (ed. by Virginia Heinlein), 1989.

Heinlein is one of my perennial re-reads, in the "I know some of his writing has huge flaws but I still love his books" category--along with Dornford Yates and Frances Hodgson Burnett. I have everything he wrote and recently went on a Heinlein juvenile kick, but after reading this collection of letters and miscellanea for only the second time, I'm going to get rid of it. There are a few interesting insights, but mostly his letters are dull and Ginny's additions are not well-written (the grammar is fine, but there's no felicity to the sentences, and the sequence and emphasis seem strange). Most revelatory to me was that Heinlein's method of work was to write until he could hear the characters talking, and then he would just let them unfold the tale. This partially explains to me why his later books are so terrible: the characters tend to all sound the same, exactly like him, so of course they have no new places to take him. That's not entirely true--Job: A Comedy of Justice was something of a departure--but it does explain The Number of the Beast, in which what is really a good story is bogged down by the pill-ish, wooden quartet of Bob/Ginny clones, of whose company one quickly becomes heartily sick.

Drunkard: A Hard-Drinking Life, Neil Steinberg - 2009

I picked this up, based the title, from new books coming through processing at the library. I was shocked to see Steinberg's name on the cover. I know him as the author of my favorite humorous essay book of all time, Complete and Utter Failure, and of others I enjoyed: If At All Possible, Involve a Cow and Don't Give Up the Ship. In my inner world, he's a friend and a peer, and discovering his alcoholism gave me a pang. I was misled by one of the blurbs on the back, which says "'Hysterically funny.' - New York Post" (adjectives in the other blurbs include wistful, clear-eyed, and elegant)--that must have been a description of Steinberg's writing as a whole, not this book. It's not funny at all, even though it ends well. Steinberg has recovered, and not only does his marriage to Edie survive, but his struggle with the concept of a higher power in AA resolves when he realizes that she, Edie, is his Higher Power. But the compelling way in which Steinberg shares his compulsion with the reader is deeply sad.

Why am I, like many others, so drawn to memoirs of addiction? Partly because we can tell ourselves "I may feel bad about things I do or leave undone, but it could be much much worse." Partly because it's inspiring to see human beings survive and resurrect themselves from such dark abysses. Partly because the struggles depicted are the common lot of humanity, writ larger. When I surf the web instead of writing, I wonder why I make that choice; does Steinberg's inability to stop drinking once he'd started come from the same source? I think perhaps it does.

When facing the prospect of stopping, Steinberg worried that drinking was part of his smart-alecky, cynical observer personality, and that he'd become less funny and interesting. That personality, which came through strongly in his earlier books, is certainly compatible with drinking, but it's not a causal relationship. Steinberg also built his identity as a hard-drinking writer (led on by his role models at the Chicago Tribune), but believing that fallacy doesn't feel congruent with the ironic distance of his writing persona. In today's world, when I hear about writers who think drinking is an important part of creativity, I'm astonished that they swallowed that particular idea (I feel the same way about intelligent young people who smoke). How could Steinberg mock the received wisdom of his middle-class upbringing, and simultaneously rush to adopt the received wisdom of the Fitzgerald/Hemingway school?

I love the final paragraph:
In the final analysis, I don't drink because I don't want to be compelled to think about drinking all the time. That's no way to live. I persuaded myself that I was tired of it, that it was boring, and the world too varied and rich to remain obsessed with as narrow a thing as alcohol. You can't imagine the delight of having the urge fade--the absence itself is a powerful motivation not to drink. To not have the obsession hit you in the face each morning when you open your eyes. To have other things occupy your mind. A joy. What madman would wake the beast by pouring booze on it again? No me. Not today.

Good for you, Neil, and thanks for the thought-provoking book.

March 29, 2010

French Spirits: A House, a Village, and a Love Affair in Burgundy - Jeffrey Greene, 2002.

I'm trying to catch up on posts I left in draft. This is pretty pathetic because I started this one in September 2004 and it is now March 2010. Needless to say, I remember almost nothing about the book, but I made a number of notes and copied some quotations. My stubborn nature won't let me abandon it. OK: Greene rehabs a presbytery into a house in rural France. Not the South--although one might have thought at some point that every single publisher needed to release a book about expats in Provence--in Rogny, a town in the Puisaye region of Burgundy. I do not need to read the book again to know that it costs more and takes longer than he thought. During the course of the rehab/book, he marries Mary, devoting an excessive 3 chapters to the wedding. They do get the best wedding present ever: a meteorite. We have the requisite colorful neighbors--Madame Savin, Coco, Pere Jo--and at least one pointed observation: "Nothing brightens French spirits more than explaining the right way to do something."

A few jarring details: some of the French is translated, but some is not; we get a bit of sex with enough specifics to feel out of kilter with the rest of the book ("Mary had her bare bottom against the cold, dusty plastic); when Greene's mother comes to visit, we get strong foreshadowing of her death, which luckily doesn't occur; we hear the details of furniture buying, which isn't particularly interesting.

Finally, I copied off this quote:
...they went about their hard-core and undoubtedly hard-earned vacationing, setting lines and tossing balls of meal into the opaque water to attract carp, a Hungarian favorite in soup, with paprika.
I don't remember who "they" are, but I do love the way that sentence falls into a heap at the end--especially the paprika.