Sunday, July 22, 2012

Book Report

People like all sorts of different things about books, which is wonderful because it means all sorts of very different books will be enjoyed by someone. But it makes it almost impossible to recommend a book to a friend who is looking for something good to read. It's like telling someone else what they should have for dinner. Too subjective. I'll just tell you about what I've been reading, and I'll highlight author and book names so you can skim ahead to any that might interest you.

First, I'll confess to the books I've abandoned: The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx, I'm looking at you.  Certainly the folks who gave it a Pulitzer think it is a wonderfully written book, and it may be. But to me it screams LOOK AT ME, I'M WRITING! ISN'T IT AMAZING? AREN'T YOU AMAZED AT MY WRITING? There may be a story and some characters somewhere in there, but the florid language left me too distracted and distanced and then downright weary to discern them.

I also jumped ship halfway through Chang-rae Lee's Aloft. The narrator protagonist was not particularly believable, likeable, or interesting to me. It was an ordinary everyday-life sort of book, and the half I read was never any more compelling than my own life or the life of my friends, either in the things that happened or the way it was told.

The recent death of Southern writer Doris Betts brought her work to my attention, and the short story collection Beasts of the Southern Wild and Other Stories knocked me out. Her terse, pitch-perfect dialogue reminds me of Cormac McCarthy's. I read each story with a wince, waiting for a blow. I'm not sure how much I enjoyed reading them, but I admired them, and I plan to return to her stories and try to learn a thing or two. I also read Betts's novel Souls Raised From the Dead, which was one of the worst books I've ever read all the way through. Weird.

I had never read Neil Gaiman before, but I felt I should, so I read several of his adult novels. I liked Neverwhere, his first solo novel, the most. The villians in it were so outrageously cinematic that I wasn't at all surprised to learn that the novel had been developed simultaneously with a BBC television version. Stardust was a fairy-tale-ish fantasy that was considerably lighter (both in style and theme) than his other books, and consequently the book is more lightweight than his others. I read American Gods and Anansi Boys and didn't feel like I'd wasted my time, necessarily, but they won't be favorites. I enjoyed that the story played out in a world which overlapped ours with that of the pagan gods, but if a writer is going to introduce fantastic elements to our otherwise real world, I enjoy it more if the relationship between the two is more consistent and coherent. It got a little dreamy for me. The book Good Omens, which Gaiman co-wrote with Terry Pratchett, was (as I find most Pratchett books) amusing without being laugh-out-loud funny. Finally, I read two collections of Gaiman's short fiction: Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders, and Smoke and Mirrors: Short Fictions and Illusions. I was reminded of how much I used to love reading science fiction and fantasy anthologies when I was a kid, and Ray Bradbury's stories in particular. Only Gaiman doesn't stay in PG territory the way most of my childhood favorites did.

David Mitchell is a writer I love, even though his books can be imperfect in big ways. He's one of those writers you just have to read for yourself and see if he annoys you or not. His first novel, Ghostwritten, is really more a collection of intertwined short stories. The way he weaves them together is ingenious, but I still ultimately find that less satisfying than the more traditional novel format. It is also hard to tell what is "real" and what is not...intentionally so, but not my favorite thing. Still, it's a remarkable book. Mitchell's second book, number9dream, is my least favorite. This book is set in Japan, and, as I have read very few novels set outside the west, I liked that aspect of it. There is some over-the-top violence in the book, and it again blurs the line between the dream life and waking. Cloud Atlas I've written about before. It is a series of stories in different genres which are nested inside one another to form one complete book. That sounds weird, and it is. But his writing is to my taste, and I like it in  the way I like steak, and Johnny Cash, and Aviation cocktails: I just do. Black Swan Green is Mitchell's most conventional novel, and the place I recommend you start if you want to see if you like him. It's a coming-of-age story, and I admit that part of its charm for me lies in the author's age being close to my own, so I got all the cultural references for a change. I do think anyone could enjoy it, though. While his other books are sweeping, this one stays with one small story, which gives it more heart. It is his only novel which confines itself entirely to our "real" world. Mitchell's most recent book is The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. This is a historical novel set in the waning days of the Dutch East Indies Company. Once again, the action occurs in Japan, but on the island outpost of Dejima, which was the headquarters for the trading company. This book could have been more powerful with a tighter focus (and perhaps if it hadn't veered into supernatural territory well into the story), but it took me on a journey I never would have been on otherwise, and I was sad to finally finish it. I think one reason I don't mind that Mitchell's books aren't seamless is that the man is just overflowing with story. He crams stories in everywhere, whether the book needs them or not. An abundance of ideas is one of those things I admire in others because its a quality I don't possess myself.

Finally, I came across a volume of Shirley Jackson's previously unpublished short stories that I hadn't read yet, Just an Ordinary Day: The Uncollected Stories of Shirley Jackson. It is a strong contender for the ugliest book cover of any book I have ever read, but don't hold that against it. I have praised Jackson in other posts; her writing is concise, yet evocative, and she is a master of eliciting dread and building suspense. She wrote at a time when, even in stories classified as "literature," things happened. I like that. Yes, her outlook is bleak, but she sure knows her way around a short story.

The boys have been reading, too. Nels is reading the Little House series. After skipping Farmer Boy "because Mary and Laura aren't in it," he is now onto On The Banks of Plum Creek. And Willem has just finished his longest chapter book ever, Ramona the Brave. It was a fitting book choice, since in the book Ramona is six years old and goes from Kindergarten to first grade, just as Willem will be doing in the fall. The book struck a chord with him. He was practically rubbing his hands together in anticipation when he reached the chapter titled "Ramona Says a Bad Word." It is a great sadness in Willem's life that he does not know any truly bad words.

Wow, that was a lot. And yet very general, so not very useful. I will try to be good and review books on my Goodreads account from here on out. And if you like to read and don't have an account there, get one. And then be my friend. And then I won't subject you to posts like this. Although I should warn you that I still plan to cover Flannery O'Connor's Mystery and Manners one of these days. That one deserves a post of its own.

Monday, July 9, 2012


Me (in the car): Shoot! I forgot to put on my rings.

Nels: I hope you don't get any boyfriends. Because they don't know you're married.

Me: I don't usually have that problem.

Willem (way under his breath): I don't think you're pretty enough.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Don't Ever Change

"Can you get the big dictionary down for me?" asks Willem.

"What are you going to do with it?"

"Mmm...I might read a little." The dictionary is 2,078 pages long. He might read a little.

"OK," I say.

Willem skips down the hall, waving his arms, singing a dictionary song:

It's a big one, 
it's a huge one, 
it's a giant one!

I take the dictionary from the shelf and hand it to him.

I am trying not to look too gleeful that Willem wants to read the dictionary for fun, something I've always loved to do. He mistakes my expression for concern that the massive book is too much for him.

"I know how to find what I'm looking for in it," he assures me. "It has those black tabs."