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March 2012

Thursday Article: Take that, State of Wonder.

If you haven't seen it yet this year, you should know that The Morning News is once again running their annual Tournament of Books.

I enjoy the Tournament, and salute TMN for running it, but usually I just check in briefly to see which books are advancing (and who the big winner is). I rarely read all the reviews and commentary, just because they're usually reviewing literary fiction novels about which I've heard but which I also have very few intentions of reading.

That all changed today when I read Wil Wheaton's* judging of Ann Patchett's novel State of Wonder vs. Patrick DeWitt's The Sisters Brothers.

I gotta tell you: Wil Wheaton is my new crush. Not only did he NOT advance Patchett's novel (of which I was not a fan, you'll remember), this is just an excerpt of what he had to say about one of the main characters:

"Wow, the doctor we’ve been waiting all this time to meet is a giant asshole. That’s good, because what this story needs is less interesting plot and more unlikable characters."

HA! Awesome. Thumbs up to Wheaton for making the ballsy choice of dumping the critically acclaimed Patchett novel in favor of DeWitt's, and thumbs up for a hilarious review explaining, at great length, the rationale for the ballsy choice.

*Here's Wheaton's bio from the site: "Wil Wheaton is an actor (Eureka, Leverage, The Big Bang Theory), author (Just a Geek, The Happiest Days of our Lives), and blogger (Wil Wheaton dot Net: In Exile). He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Anne." Please note many people also know him for his acting role on Star Trek: The Next Generation.

A disappointing thriller.

FaceI do not read a lot of thrillers or a lot of fiction, but if I see new books out by an author I've previously enjoyed, I'll almost always give it a try. This was the case with Eli Gottlieb's new suspense novel, The Face Thief.

Earlier I had read and enjoyed, although I can't remember a thing about its plot, Gottlieb's novel Now You See Him. Like, really enjoyed. Not only on a thriller level but also on a literary level. In this new book, Gottlieb is similarly ambitious with the plotlines and style. The book is about a young woman named Margot, who develops her skills of reading and manipulating people. Ostensibly she does this primarily to men, primarily to wreck their lives (she runs a scam to bilk one man out of his retirement nest egg, and ruins another's marriage), but I don't feel the author ever really gave a compelling reason for why she was doing so, outside of the usual "rocky childhood" issues (the words used on the book jacket, not mine).

The style of the book is ambitious, with several storylines coming together in the end--an internal monologue of Margot's, as she recovers from a serious head injury, and two others told from the points of view of two of her victims. And it did keep me reading. But I did not find the ending particularly satisfying and throughout I never felt like Margot was developed as anything other than a blank evil slate. The book is short--248 pages--and reads quickly (I'm actually surprised it was that long, I had the idea it was much shorter), so I wouldn't have minded another fifty pages or so if the author could have wrapped things up a bit more satisfactorily. I'd say pass on this one--read Now You See Him instead.

*And I found one of the victims to be a complete dick. I was rather cheering for Margot to best him, myself.

Below stairs.

I blew through Margaret Powell's completely enjoyable 1968 memoir Below Stairs* in two nights.

BelowSupposedly one of the inspirations for the popular Masterpiece Theatre series Downton Abbey (as well as the earlier popular series Upstairs, Downstairs), Powell tells the story of her years spent working "in service" for the upper class in pre-WWII Great Britain, first as a kitchen maid and then as a cook. The second oldest of seven children (she's philosophical about her mother's large family--"You see that was the only pleasure poor people could afford. It cost nothing--at least at the time when you were actually making the children. You could have babies forevermore. Nobody bothered about doctors. You had a midwife who came for almost next to nothing"), she was sent out to work when she was fourteen, first in a few random jobs and then at a laundry, until she started as a kitchen maid at age fifteen.

I enjoyed the hell out of every minute of reading this book. I'm not sorry, though, that it wasn't longer--it was just the perfect, 176-page, mindblowing, hilarious little account. I liked everything about it, especially the earthy bits. And to call this book earthy would be to vastly understate the term "earthy." Consider this tale, from one of the more untraditional households in which she worked:

"It this somewhat bizarre household I used to have to go and get my orders while Mrs. Bishop was in the bath. I was horrified at first because I'd never seen a nude figure, not even a woman, before. It was amazing, after a couple of weeks I got quite used to it, and I'd sit on the edge of the bath, while she used to tell me what she wanted.

One morning at ten o'clock I went to the bathroom. I'd got so used to going there I just used to knock and walk in without waiting for an answer. One this particular morning, to my horror, instead of seeing a very flat, nude, white body laying there, there was a huge, black, hairy one, standing up in the bath. It was an Italian. Well, it was the first time I'd ever seen a full-scale appendage in my life. And after having had a look at it I could quite see why Adam rushed to get a fig leaf! I would have too if I'd discovered I had an object like that! The Shock! It took me about a week to get over this thing." (p. 142.)

Now if that doesn't make you laugh out loud I give up. But rest assured Margaret's no prude--later on she's annoyed with a beau who won't take her into the pub because beers make her a bit amorous. The descriptions of work are also unbelievable.** It's one of those rare nonfiction books that truly transports you--check it out.

*Please note: this is another book Rick reviewed at RickLibrarian.

**And here I've been complaining because I don't have a dishwasher! I'm so spoiled.

George Harrison and a blog recommendation.

HarrisonTo make up for my earlier months of not finding much good nonfiction to read, I have been having a spectacular month so far on nonfiction books. And a lot of that luck is not luck at all--it comes from checking RickLibrarian's blog on a regular basis. Rick Roche is a librarian and the author of a fabulous reading guide about biographies, and just an all-around great guy who I was lucky enough to meet at several library conferences and at his home library. Recently he posted about a biography in photographs--Olivia Harrison's George Harrison: Living in the Material World, and his review made me decide I had to see the book.

I'm so glad I did. Although I have always enjoyed the Beatles, I don't know much about them individually. In this collection, quotes from George Harrison and others who knew him are interspersed with a variety of gorgeous photographs illustrating his life, from showing buildings in his native Liverpool bombed during WWII (he was born in 1943), pages out of his school notebooks, photos from the Beatles' early playing days and travels, and photos from his later travels to India and throughout the world in search of spiritual peace and new experiences. It seems, on balance, that he was a totally fascinating guy. I can't quote from the book for you as I couldn't wait to pass it on to my brother, but it was inspiring to read how much he loved guitars and music from an early age. And just think--being a Beatle at age 17. CRAZY stuff. A wonderful story, great quotes, gorgeous photographs (many taken by George himself), I can't recommend this book highly enough. And I would never have found it without Rick's great blog!

On Looking for Alaska.

AlaskaI have always held fond memories of reading John Green's first YA novel, Looking for Alaska. I must speak of it fondly more than I know, because recently my sister checked the book out and read it too. So because she was reading it, and because I've wanted to for a long time, I went ahead and re-read it.

A lot of the time I am a huge proponent of re-reading books. I think you always find something new in them or, more likely, you bring something new or changed in yourself to a familiar story. But sometimes, rarely, a re-read bites you in the ass.

It did this time. I still really liked the book--but I did not love it as much as I remembered. I don't know what has changed. I still think it is a very well-written and thoughtful book, so I think whatever has changed has changed in me. Perhaps as I age ever farther away from the YA demographic I am less able to even remember that time in my life and relate. That thought is as depressing as hell, but I'm not sure what else it could be.

I won't say much else about it, except to say that I think I'd still recommend it if you're in the mood for a good coming-of-age YA novel. And why would I say that? Because it contains lines like the following, written by the main character, when he is trying to figure out tragedy, suffering, and his own belief system:

"But that part of us greater than the sum of our parts cannot begin and cannot end, and so it cannot fail." (p. 221.)

It feels like I've been failing at almost everything lately, so it was nice to read that. It's a heartening thought, no matter how far away from the YA demographic you are. In retrospect? I'm still glad I re-read it.

The whys and wherefores of re-reading.

For the past year I have been more in the mood to re-read books I have already read than to pick up new ones.

This is a wee bit of a problem, particularly when one writes a blog purporting to offer opinions on new and different nonfiction books. Let's face it: most of my pithy thoughts on titles I'm reading for the first time aren't really all that pithy, so I really don't want to bore you with second and third posts on books I'm re-reading.

But I will today anyway.

When I look back on books I'm re-reading--Norman Maclean's A River Runs Through It (the movie was on TV last night and of course I got sucked in--particularly since it starred Brad Pitt in pre-Angelina Jolie times and I could still enjoy him then), Agatha Christies of all sorts, Anne of Green Gables, John Green's Looking for Alaska*, it strikes me that when I re-read I am mainly seeking comfort. Books I have known and loved and that spoke to me particularly for one reason or another. When re-reading (and watching) A River Runs through It, for instance, I cannot NOT break down when Norman and his father talk about Norman's brother Paul (I can't give you the full context because I don't want to give the spoiler) and realize the age-old truth: "But you can love completely without complete understanding."

Christ. It still gets me every time.

Anyway. It strikes me that I re-read almost exclusively for comfort. Is there any other reason to re-read? Are there any other reasons why you re-read books, or certain times when you do?

*More on this one later.

Not the most bookmarkable book on bookmarks.

BookmarksI enjoyed the collection Forgotten Bookmarks: A Bookseller's Collection of Odd Things Lost Between the Pages by Michael Popek, but I didn't enjoy it quite as much as I had hoped to. The book is a collection of ad hoc "bookmarks" that Popek, a longtime bookseller (it was his family biz) found in used books his family was reselling. The book is organized into five different sections: Photographs; Letters, Cards, and Correspondence; Notes, Poems, Lists, and Other Written Ephemera; Receipts, Invoices, Advertising, and Other Official Documents; The Old Curiosity Shop: and From Four-Leaf Clovers to Razor Blades. Each page shows a bookmark, the book it came out of, and the bib info for the book.

Some of the bookmarks were interesting--old postcards and torn pages out of personal journals were my favorites--but many of the bookmarks (and the books) just weren't all that fascinating. They literally were just old forgotten items, including some very dull indeed receipts and other "ephemera."

Now, perhaps I am a bit jaded. I was looking for something a bit more exciting. But then, I worked at a public library. My most interesting finds in returned books were (in no particular order): kleenexes (used and unused), bandaids (ditto), cat urine, vomit (and the note explaining what it was so I could be quite sure it was vomit), and yes, once, a $50 bill.* But none of those things would photograph well for a collection like this, I suppose.

*Which I still think we should have got to keep and divide, like booty. I say anyone who has that casual a relationship with $50 bills deserves to lose one once in a while.