Fiction

Still reading kids' books.

The Dollhouse Murders
by Betty Ren Wright
Powells.com

Thanks to the Reader's Advisor Online blog (which I co-edit), I noticed last week that the author Betty Ren Wright had died.

That name stood out because Wright was a Wisconsin author (Kenosha) and also because she wrote a book I really enjoyed when I was a kid: The Dollhouse Murders.

So just for old time's sake I checked the book out from the library last week and re-read it one night. It's the story of a twelve-year-old girl named Amy, who, after showing some frustration that she is always expected to babysit her younger and disabled sister Louann, is allowed to go stay with her Aunt Claire at the family's ancestral home (where, unbeknownst to her, her father's and Claire's grandparents, who raised them, met their untimely ends) for the summer. When she finds a beautiful dollhouse (and one that is modeled on the house in which she is staying, complete with dolls made to represent the family) in the attic, she's excited to play with it...until she starts to notice that the dolls in the house sometimes move themselves. And, more disturbingly, they move themselves into the positions in which they were found, murdered.

DollhouseI put that in italics because it creeped the hell out of me as a kid, and it still creeps the hell out of me.* Can Amy solve the mystery of the dollhouse, and the mystery of her great-grandparents' deaths as well? You bet she can. Let's hear it for Wisconsin girls; they can do anything.

*Dolls have always creeped me out and always will, full stop. I love my mother-in-law, but she collects dolls, and although I like visiting her, I do not like the way all her dolls watch me with their beady little eyes.

**Also: the image at the top of this post is a newer reissue of the book; the image at the bottom is the cover on the book when I first read it. And is, I think, the scarier cover. Do you agree?


Younger reading: Gorgeous.

Gorgeous
by Paul Rudnick

Powells.com

Either I'm just way more tired than usual, or I wanted to feel like I was flying through books again, but lately I have been reading (and re-reading) YA and kids' books. For the most part the huge boom in YA publishing has left me behind--I only have so much time for reading these days and it mostly still goes to nonfiction--but I have enjoyed big bestsellers like The Hunger Games trilogy and stand-alone titles like Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist. So when I saw that Paul Rudnick had a new novel out, I didn't let the fact that it was being marketed as a YA title stop me.

Rudnick is perhaps best known for writing the screenplay for the Kevin Kline movie In & Out (and as a playwright). However, he is also the author of one of my favorite novels of all time, titled I'll Take It. It's a crazy hilarious book, about a young-ish New York City guy who agrees to drive his mother and his two aunts (he's a good Jewish boy, after all, who can't say no to his mother) on their tour through New England to watch the leaves change. What they get up to along the way will, I think, surprise you. At least it did me, in the best possible way.*

This new title, Gorgeous, is a modern-day take on the Cinderella story. Becky Randle has grown up in a Missouri trailer park with her monstrously obese mother, but when her mother dies, Becky finds a cell phone and a phone number for "Tom Kelly." The same Tom Kelly, it turns out, who is a world-famous fashion (and lifestyle, and fragrance, and etc.) designer. When she calls the number, the person on the other end offers to fly her, first class, to New York City, where she meets Kelly and he makes her a once-in-a-lifetime deal: let him make her three dresses, and those dresses will make her the most beautiful woman in the world.

Becky, who is a really great character, actually stops and thinks about whether or not that's something she'd even want. That is, until her best friend (another great character, named Rocher, yes, after the candy) tells her not to be an idiot and TAKE THE DEAL. She does, and watching Becky's life proceed after she becomes Rebecca Randle, Gorgeous Woman, is fascinating. It's a thoroughly strange and enjoyable little story, and it eventually includes British royalty (another reason for me to love it), but the real pleasure in this book is the characterization and dialogue. That said, I don't know if it's dialogue I would have appreciated as a true YA. Consider this conversation between Becky and Rocher:

"'So you mean if I want to marry the prince I should do what, play hard to get?'

'No, I'm not saying you need to be an A-plus, number one, slap-her-silly cocktease like Shanice Morain [a girl they went to high school with]. Even though that is how she got Cal Malstrup to ask her to prom, she just kept giving him these hand jobs in the equipment shed next to the football field and she kept telling him that sh'ed love to do more but that she was a good Christian girl and that it says in the Bible that good Christians can only have joyful intercourse in the back of a white stretch limo.'" (p. 134.)

Now, I think that is hilarious. But in high school? Or even younger? I just don't know.

Actually, I rather agree with the reviewer who wondered if this was really an adult book being sold as YA**, because it has young characters and because YA is what sells lately. But all of that aside: it certainly wasn't a dull read.

*Just thinking about this book again makes me want to go find it on my shelves and re-read it again, right now.

**Although I actually think this review does a better job of describing the inexplicable appeal of this book.


You know? I just enjoy Helen Fielding.

When I heard that Helen Fielding had a new Bridget Jones novel coming out, I'll admit it, I got a little excited. I have always really enjoyed Helen Fielding, and I loved Bridget Jones's Diary in both novel and film form.*

If you're not aware of the story (and where have you been, if not?) it all started in 1996 with Bridget Jones's Diary (follow the link for the plot summary), featuring the British thirty-something "singleton" character of Bridget Jones, presented through her own diary. Jones was a lovable female scamp, always battling her weight and cigarette and alcohol dependencies, and she couldn't help loving the hilarious, dashing asshole (played perfectly by Hugh Grant in the movies), although eventually she fell for the much more staid but surprisingly much more romantic Mark Darcy. A sequel, Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, followed, and now, more than a decade later, Fielding has written another installment in the story titled Bridget Jones: Mad about the Boy.

Now, I could do a huge spoiler here, but I'm not going to. Suffice it to say that the book opens with a ballsy character development choice on the part of Fielding. Many readers were not happy about it, but I had to give her credit for trying the unexpected, and for the most part, I think she pulled it off. But the point of these novels is not the story. Much like fellow Brit Sue Townsend's Adrian Mole diaries (also hilarious), the appeal here is the character. I just love Bridget Jones. In this book, she has a couple of kids, and it gives her new perspective. One of my favorite passages in the book is when she sees a neighbor struggling with her own kids (and she can relate):

"Suddenly the upstairs window in the house opposite shot open and a pair of Xbox remotes hurtled out, landing with a smash next to the dustbins.

Seconds later, the front door was flung open and the bohemian neighbor appeared, dressed in fluffly pink mules, a Victorian nightdress and a small bowler hat, carrying an armful of laptops, iPads and iPods. She teetered down the front steps and shoved the electronics in the dustbin, with her son and two of his friends following her, wailing, 'Nooooo! I haven't finished my leveeeeel!'

'Good!' she yelled. 'When I signed up for having children, I did NOT sign up to be ruled by a collection of inanimate thin black objects and a gaggle of TECHNO-CRACKHEADS refusing to do anything but stare with jabbing thumbs, while demanding that I SERVICE them like a computer tech crossed with a five-star hotel concierge. When I didn't have you, everyone spent their whole time saying I'd change my mind. And guess what? I've had you. I've brought you up. And I've CHANGED MY MIND!'

I stared at her, thinking, 'I have to be friends with that woman.'" (p. 89.)

I don't care what anyone says. That is funny. And good writing. And I'm not ashamed to say I consumed the entire book as fast as I could, like a box of good chocolates, and I enjoyed every single moment. Even when I read it at 3 a.m., after feeding my own new baby, who will most likely grow up to be a spoiled techno-crackhead himself.

*Which reminds me, it's about time to watch this movie again; I often re-watch it around the holidays. I think because the movie begins and ends around Christmas time, it always strikes me as a Christmasy movie. And who doesn't love a movie that offers Hugh Grant in perhaps the most perfectly cast role he's ever played? (The casting of Colin Firth as Mark Darcy, in a brilliant twist on his role of Mr. Darcy on the BBC's Pride and Prejudice adpatation, was also a stroke of genius, and seems to indicate Colin Firth has a sense of humor.)


A book I can't recommend...

...for reading or gift-purchase purposes: Sebastian Faulks's Jeeves and the Wedding Bells.*

It announces on the cover that this is a "new Jeeves and Wooster novel," as well as an "homage to P.G. Wodehouse." Now, I know there is really no replacing Wodehouse, but I do love the Jeeves books so I thought I'd be open-minded and give this one a try.

It's not working.

Faulks gave it a good old college try, I'll admit. The novel actually is a serviceable example of a Jeeves book, but there is something just not right about it. I keep reading ten pages here or there and then putting it back down, and not really enjoying what I've read. I can't actually put my finger on what is wrong with this "homage"--the only nonsensical phrase that keeps going through my head is, he got the tone right, but the tone's not quite right. Which makes no sense. I think what I'm trying to say is that this is an okay substitute, but when it comes to Wodehouse, you really should accept no substitutes:

"I was woken in the middle of the night by what sounded like a dozen metal dustbins being chucked down a flight of stone steps. After a moment of floundering in the darkness I put my hand on the source of the infernal noise: the twin copper bells on top of a large alarm clock. There followed a brief no-holds-barred wrestling bout before I was able to shove the wretched thing beneath the mattress."

That's the opening paragraph, and I wish I could report it got more compelling from there. But I think your best course of action here would be to skip this one and just go re-read some P.G. himself.

*And this really hurts to say, because I was totally looking forward to this one.


Max Barry's Lexicon.

Lexicon
by Max Barry
Powells.com

After my disappointments this summer with Max Brooks's World War Z and Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, I was very, very glad to chance across Max Barry's spectacular novel Lexicon.*

The novel tells two concurrent stories: that of Wil Parke, who in the very first chapter is abducted by two men out of an airplane bathroom because he's something called the "outlier," and Emily Ruff, a runaway who is scouted by an exclusive school that trains "poets," or people who can peg your specific personality type and use that knowledge and language to control you through words and sounds.

It sounds like a lot to take in, but Barry's writing is crisp and the narrative is easy enough to follow (I'm not a fiction reader who enjoys or understands real convoluted plots, so if I can follow the story, I know it's pretty "follow-able"). The one thing that does get tricky is that the book's timeline jumps around a bit, and sometimes I found that hard to figure out, but as noted, when I read fast (which is how I read fiction, mostly) I don't pay as much attention to detail as I should.

The book was a good read, but it was even better as food for thought about language and privacy rights (with "newsy" interludes sprinkled throughout, like Internet quizzes and items about cover-ups). Trust me, after reading this book, you'll feel slightly differently about taking quizzes in Facebook and that pop up in every browser window (most often pegged to your Google subject searches). 

I also enjoyed this book because it gave Mr. CR and I a lot to chat over. Libraries may not own enough copies of this one to make it feasible, but I think it would make a fantastic book club read.

No text snippets from this one, I just want you to read it. But I did enjoy this bit, from the acknowledgments: "And, hey. You. Thanks for being the kind of person who likes to pick up a book. That's a genuinely great thing. I met a librarian recently who said she doesn't read because books are her job and when she goes home, she just wants to switch off. I think we can agree that's as creepy as hell."

*And I owe Mr. CR for the favor: he's the one who requested the book from the library.


Two for two on Drew Magary.

The Postmortal
by Drew Magary
Powells.com

I recently read Drew Magary's parenting memoir Someone Could Get Hurt: A Memoir of Twenty-First-Century Parenthood, and really enjoyed it. He was a new author to me, but I noticed he was also the author of a novel titled The Postmortal. Well, why not, I thought.

It was a great read. I even read it while waiting around in a doctor's office for a routine check-up, and it kept me totally occupied. Any book that can take my mind off being in a doctor's waiting room, well, even if it's not a perfect book, I call that a good book.

The concept is simple. Sometime in the near future, a "cure" for aging is stumbled upon, and, although it at first it is only available to a lucky few, eventually it ends up being used by everyone. So, when you've got a population of people who aren't aging and aren't dying, what does that do to them? Their relationships? The earth and its resources?

The book is written in the format of one man's diary of the experience*, and although it starts out almost lighthearted, it gets steadily more unsettling. For instance, when the narrator (John Farrell) visits his sister, he asks whether she or her husband will be getting the cure:

"'So you're never going to get it? And you'll never let Mark get it?'

She let out a low groan. 'I have no idea. I really don't. I'm guessing there will be a point when it's legal and everyone has it and I feel obligated to get it too. I was like that with cell phones. I was easily the last of my friends to get one. Everyone else had one. And there I was, outside school at some disgusting pay phone that didn't even work. Now, of course, I have one and I'll never go back. That's how I am. I usually have to be dragged into things. I know it's probably inevitable that I'll get the cure and that we'll all get it. It's just gonna be something you do. But it opens up all sorts of odd questions that I don't want to deal with right now. I mean, what happens to Mark and me?'" (p. 58.)

I really enjoy Drew Magary's writing, fiction and non. He's got some interesting ideas (in this book, his narrator is a lawyer, and comes up with the idea of "cycle marriages," that last for forty years or so, because nobody wants to be married for all time) and although his books aren't perfect, they move right along.


Always a treat.

I just love Carol Shields.

Shields was a Canadian author* who won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel The Stone Diaries (an excellent novel) and who wrote a number of other fantastic novels as well.** I tend to think of her as the Canadian Anne Tyler (another author I really enjoy), in that she doesn't tell huge grand stories, but her characters are always thoughtful, interesting people, and her prose is beautifully easy to read. I suppose you could call her books "women's fiction," but I would prefer it if you didn't. I tend to think of "women's fiction" as synonymous with "Jodi Picoult," which of course makes me wary of "women's fiction."***

Even though I love her, I have not yet read all of her novels. I dole them out to myself like little treats, and the one I treated myself to this summer was Small Ceremonies. It was good, and short, and frankly, I'm not even going to give you the plot summary, because the plot really isn't the point.

The point IS that Carol Shields was a super-talent. Get out there and pick out any one of her novels (although The Stone Diaries and Unless are two particularly strong choices, in my opinion) and treat yourself this fall.

*Sadly, she died in 2003.

**In addition to raising five kids, which to me is just unbelievable, and a bit sick-making, actually.

***Give me chick lit instead, any day.


Another disappointing bestseller (to me, anyway).

For whatever reasons, this summer I have been taking a look at a few bestselling novels, just to see if I've been missing anything.

Turns out, I haven't been.

So after I was underwhelmed by World War Z, I turned to the Thriller genre and Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, which has been on the New York Times bestseller list for 65 weeks now.

And yes, I should really have known better. Thrillers and I are just not a good mix.

So the premise of the book is deceptively simple: Amy Dunne disappears on her fifth wedding anniversary. Has there been foul play? Is her husband Nick the source of that foul play? The story is told in the alternating voices of Amy and Nick, both before and after the disappearance. I won't tell you any more; I don't want to give away any spoilers, and if you're interested, you can read an actual review here.

But I will be up front with you about how I screwed this book up for myself: I read about 150 pages, and then I read the last few pages just to see how it ended, because I didn't have time to read the whole book in one sitting, and I didn't really want to read it anymore. (Although I did go back over the next few days and read the intervening pages, just for actual closure.)

I know. Mr. CR was appalled.* I told him that I already had heard enough about the book that I kind of knew what happened anyway, so it wasn't that big a deal.

But knowing the ending didn't really change what I thought were some of the weak points of the book: namely, Amy was portrayed as an almost alarmingly smart person, and yet she did several quite stupid things over the course of the narrative. Also: I didn't find Amy or Nick particularly likable or interesting characters. Was that on purpose, I wonder? And last but not least: plot holes.

So there you have it. This girl is gone too, back to nonfiction.

*Mr. CR liked the book better than I did, but wasn't all that crazy about it either.


A tale of two chick lits.

For whatever reason, I've always really enjoyed "chick lit."

For those of you not familiar with these publishing and librarian-ish subgenres, chick lit is a type of romance that typically focuses on female protagonists in their twenties and thirties, typically features a romance story plot of some kind, but also showcases a character's work, friendships, and surroundings (which, in a disproportionate amount of these books, is New York City*). This is my definition, and it's not a perfect one, but I'm using it because I think the Wikipedia page on chick lit is pretty weak. Two books widely cited as premiere examples of this genre are Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones's Diary and Melissa Bank's The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing, and those two also happen to be two of my all-time favorite novels.

So every now and then I get a real jones to read some good chick lit, which is surprisingly hard to find.** I know most of the tools librarians use to help readers find books by genre and type, but for the most part I am too lazy to use them. As a general rule I just seek out authors who I know from past experience are "known" as chick lit authors, or, if I'm in a really scientific mood, I go scan my library shelves for books that "look" chick-litty. So when I brought home two chick-lit novels last month, I found one using the former method, and one using the latter.

The first one I read was Jane Green's Jemima J, which I picked out because I'd always heard a lot about Jane Green (in a good way) and I thought I should give one of hers a try. The story is: Jemima Jones is (way) overweight and helplessly in love with a man with whom she works. Eventually, thanks to the wonders of the Internet (which is new in her workplace--the novel was published in 2001), she meets a man online who lives in L.A., and who invites her to come stay. But this is after she has sent him a retouched photo of herself as a thin woman, so she resolves to lose the weight--and does. She goes to L.A., and, well...things do not turn out quite as she planned.

This novel was okay, but for the most part I really, really dislike novels and romances where the main character loses weight and all of a sudden they are completely gorgeous. Now, losing weight if you need to is always very nice, but how many people actually go from obese to stunners? Not as many as the chick lit and romance genres would sometimes have you believe. Also: it was nearly 400 pages long. Too long.

The other novel, Aurelie Sheehan's The Anxiety of Everyday Objects***, was much slimmer and stranger. It focuses on Winona Bartlett, a legal secretary with dreams of someday becoming an independent filmmaker. In this one the romance really took a backseat to the work drama at the law office where Winona works; she gets a new boss in the form of attorney Sandy Spires, who is a real go-getter (and who also happens to be blind) but who ultimately turns out not to be a good role model for Winona. I liked this one, but it was a rather strange read: it took a long time to get going, and then all of a sudden it was over with everything resolved rather too neatly, including the almost completely absent love story. There was nothing wrong with the writing, though:

"All good secretaries will eventually find truth in the hearts of men.

Winona Bartlett, Win to her friends, might not have been the world's best secretary, but her nature was such that serving, subservience, and coffee service came easily, and, in fact, she felt there was an inherent good in doing things well, and this determination more than equaled her actual interest in the long-term prospects at Grecko Mauster Crill. She practiced her secretarial role as a Zen meditation; what role she was more suited to remained a mystery, though she was now nearly thirty." (p. 3.)

It's good writing, but sometimes I couldn't tell if the book was literary fiction, or chick lit, or what. It was just a little puzzling. For the record, Mr. CR read this one too (don't ask me why; all summer he's been reading things I never would have thought he'd read) and had much the same reaction.

So there you have it. I've satisfied my chick lit need for a while; back to nonfiction now.

*This is not a problem, and is actually a large part of the draw, if you love New York City, which I do.

**Can anyone suggest a good blog or other resource that lists books of these type?

***Speaking of covers, I'll admit I was intrigued that this one had a blurb from Richard Russo on it.


World War ZZZZzzzzz...

Holy crap, was I bored by the horror (?) novel World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War.

I've been hearing about this book for years now, and what a great read it was, so when the movie came out, I thought, well, okay, I should really read this book.

Written in the form of an oral history, with an unnamed narrator conducting interviews with survivors of the worldwide "zombie war," you'd think this would have been a fast, if not creepy, read. But almost from the first pages I was bored:*

[In an interview with the former White House chief of staff, about when they were first warned of the global threat]: "Drop everything, focus all our efforts, typical alarmist crap. We got dozens of these reports a week, every administration did, all of them claiming that their particular boogeyman was the 'greatest threat to human existence.' C'mon! Can you imagine what America would have been like if the federal government slammed on the brakes every time some paranoid crackpot cried 'wolf' or 'global warming' or 'living dead'? Please. What we did, what every president since Washington has done, was provide a measured, appropriate response, in direct relation to a realistic threat assessment." (p. 59.)

Snooze. I did get the whole thing read, but I won't way that I didn't skip a lot, particularly in the narratives that really bored me. Mr. CR read it too, and although he liked it better than I did, he didn't seem particularly taken with it either. He thought perhaps the "oral history" nature of it, and the fact that very few of the characters telling their stories appear more than once, made it tough to care about any of them or the story. I don't know that that was it...I've read similar books (Robopocalypse, by Daniel Wilson, for one) that held my interest far longer.

On the other hand, maybe that means I will like the movie; I've heard this movie and book are quite different from one another. (And I never complain about seeing a movie with Brad Pitt in it.)

*Well, I take it back. The first few chapters, particularly the one where the Chinese doctor explained his first encounters with someone infected with the zombie "virus," were pretty creepy. But by the time the book got around to explaining zombie battles and global techniques for dealing with the pandemic, I was bored, bored, bored.


Always gotta love a book on books.

I am a real sucker (as are most readers, I would guess) for books about books and reading. Every now and then I trip across a new one that I hadn't heard of before, and it's always a fun experience.

One for the Books
by Joe Queenan
Powells.com

This month's "book on books" discovery was Joe Queenan's recent One for the Books. Queenan is best known as a columnist and humorist (evidently he's written or writes for the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, the New York Times, and many more...thanks, author bio!) and also the writer of a very critically lauded memoir, titled Closing Time: A Memoir, about his hardscrabble youth in Philadelphia. If I sound uninformed, it's because I am--I'd always recognized Queenan's name, but I'd never read anything of his before (although I've always meant to read that memoir, since it showed up on a lot of "best of the year" lists).

In this book, Queenan not only describes his favorite books and seminal reading moments, he also muses on the print vs. digital book divide, booksellers, book culture, and the writing life. If you like a totally straightforward read, this book may not be for you: it tends to hop around a bit from topic to topic. That didn't bother me, though. I tend to read these types of books in small increments (both to savor them and to make them last longer), so a bit more disjointed organization didn't throw me. And, hilariously enough, I would imagine that if Joe and I met to talk books, we wouldn't have any books in common that we had both read or both liked. A person more unlike me in book taste it would be hard to find (unless we're looking at you, Lesbrarian): he favors modern fiction faves like Denis Johnson, Ha Jin, Italo Calvino, and a whole bunch of international writers of whom I've never heard (embarrassing, that, really). But yet? I really, really enjoyed this book. I think I enjoyed it because of the sheer number of titles Queenan lists and discusses--it's breathtaking, really. I didn't add many (any) of them to my TBR list, but it was a pleasure to read someone who is himself so well- and widely read.

And every now and then his narrative made me laugh, which I always enjoy. Take this anecdote, in which he explains how he spent a year of his life trying to read a book a day, meaning he could only read very short books. Off he took himself to the library, without his reading glasses, and just picked the littlest books off the shelf, without worrying himself too much about the content. He did enforce some standards when he got home, though:

"If I got home and discovered that I had checked out a bittersweet, life-affirming novel about a recently divorced woman who had moved to a small town in Maine or the Massif Central or the Mull of Kintyre and, after initially being shocked by the ham-fisted demeanor of the rough-hewn locals, was seduced by their canny charm, I took it right back." (p. 78.) Tee hee.

He also demonstrates, nicely, the "deal breakers" by which many readers abide (but which they don't often talk about):

"My refusal to read books about the Yankees or their slimy fans also extends to books written by supporters of the team. Thus, when I learned that Salman Rushdie had taken a shine to the Yankees, it eliminated any chance that I would ever read The Satanic Verses, no matter how good it is." (p. 123.) This makes me laugh because I am the same way, only about the subject of World War II (in fiction or non), and also because I am a slimy Yankees fan.

And of course, if you're a lover of physical books, you have to love paragraphs like this:

"Certain things are perfect the way they are and need no improvement. The sky, the Pacific Ocean, procreation, and the Goldberg Variations all fit this bill, and so do books. Books are sublime, but books are also visceral. They are physically appealing, emotionally evocative objects that constitute a perfect delivery system. Electronic books are ideal for people who value the information contained in them, or who have vision problems, or who like to read on the subway, or who do not want other people to see how they are amusing themselves, or who have storage and clutter issues, but they are useless for people who are engaged in an intense, lifelong love affair with books. Books that we can touch; books that we can smell; books that we can depend on." (p. 27.)

It's good stuff. And it will even be good whether you read it in print or digital form. Read it.


Not destined to love George Saunders's stories.

Tenth of December: Stories
by George Saunders
Powells.com

Let's get one thing straight: I love George Saunders.

I love his essays. I love the most recent piece of nonfiction of his that I read, and posted about here. I was glad that his latest book of stories, Tenth of December: Stories, has gotten great reviews and word-of-mouth. I want nothing but the best for George Saunders.

But reading his fiction? It is never going to be for me.

I have now tried to describe, to two of my nearest and dearest, how reading Tenth of December made me feel, and I have failed horribly both times. Let's see if I can do any better here: Reading these stories made me all itchy.

Well, "itchy" is not quite right. But I often tried these stories before going to bed, and that didn't work at all. Perhaps "uneasy" is a better descriptor. For some reason, even though Saunders is a skilled writer and there are even flashes of humor in this book, reading it gave me a strong urge to cry. I think it's because 1. even when his stories don't necessarily end unhappily, they sometimes contain unnerving or scary elements, and 2. because I know George Saunders is very intelligent and has a good grasp of human nature and society, I worry that any stories he dreams up could come true.

In the last decade or so it has become increasingly true of my reading habits that I do not like fiction that is violent or creeps me out in any way (a big reason why I am not much of a thriller or crime or mystery reader, although I still read some horror). This seems a bit strange, especially in light of the fact that I can read true crime and any other types of super-depressing nonfiction titles all day long. As near as I can figure out, it's because the events in nonfiction tend to be finite: they've already happened, and now a writer has just come along and is trying to relate what happened or make some sense of it. I am often reminded of what family members said about David Foster Wallace's writing: he tended to take some liberties in his nonfiction, but it was his fiction you really had to watch for truth. Somehow fiction makes truth too real for me.

Make any sense? Yeah, no, I know. I tried. In the meantime, do read another review* of the Saunders book so you can get a better idea of what the stories are actually about. And have a great weekend!

*Aha! The NPR reviewer sums up perfectly why this book made me itchy: "It would be tempting to believe that Saunders' fiction portrays society the way a fun-house mirror does, reflecting images that look familiar but are, finally, exaggerated and unreal. Tenth of December suggests that's not the case — that what we assumed was a nightmare is, in fact, our new reality."


Fiction Interlude: Charlotte Street

Charlotte Street
by Danny Wallace
Powells.com

I only read Danny Wallace's novel Charlotte Street a couple of weeks ago, and already I've pretty much forgotten everything about it. (Although I have this problem with fiction fairly often.)

Which might lead you to think I didn't like it, and that is not the case. I enjoyed it. I pretty much always like anything Danny Wallace writes, because I just enjoy Danny Wallace. And how can you not like a romance-ish novel, by a guy, with a subtitle like "a heartwarming everyday tale of boy stalks girl"? Very British, that.

So: let's get the plot details out of the way. 30-ish Brit Jason Priestley (who has to explain to people, often, that no, he is not the Jason Priestley of Beverly Hills 90210/Brandon Walsh fame), a former teacher, is trying to start over with a new career and a new life, while still sometimes writing unkind things about his ex-girlfriend's new boyfriend on her social media page. Then one day he helps a stranger pick up the packages she dropped while getting into a cab, and finds, after she's gone, that he's in possession of a disposable camera that is hers. Should he develop the pictures? Or is that just weird?

And so on and so forth. If you can term a novel by a guy about a guy "chick lit," that's what I'd call this one. In parts it's a bit darker than most chick lit romances, but that's pretty par for the course for British writing (I think; but I might just have that idea because I watch a lot of British TV series and man, those people are not afraid to kill off their main characters). And if you're an Anglophile, you'll love the descriptions of London. My one quibble with the novel (and Mr. CR thought this too; he must have read parts of the book also) is that it's just too long. It's a good story, but it wasn't sufficiently complex to need 400 pages.* I'll let the main character introduce himself:

"I'm the thirty-two-year-old Jason Priestley who lives on the Caledonian Road, above a videogame shop between a Polish newsagents and that place that everyone thought was a brothel, but wasn't. The Jason Priestey who gave up his job as a deputy head of department in a bad North London school to chase a dream of being a journalist after his girlfriend left him but who's ended up single and going to cheap restaurants and awful films so's he can write about them in that free newspaper they give you on the tube that you take but don't read." (p. 5.)

*I always think this about Judd Apatow movies too. They're funny, but they all need to be about 15-25 minutes shorter.


A favorite eclectic recommender.

One of my favorite blogs to check for a wide variety of reading suggestions is Rick Roche's RickLibrarian. Rick's real subject specialty is biographies: he's the author of Real Lives Revealed: A Guide to Reading Interests in Biography (Real Stories) and Read On...Biography: Reading Lists for Every Taste (Read On Series) (both published by ABC-CLIO--I know they're not cheap, but if you're a librarian, please do consider buying and using them in your collection, particularly if you're looking to beef up your nonfiction readers' advisory services*).

A book I found ages ago through Rick's site was A.A. Milne's The Red House Mystery. Yes, THAT A.A. Milne--the author of Winnie-the-Pooh. And perhaps I am going about this backwards, because I haven't yet read Winnie (although we have read an Easy Reader copy of Winnie the Pooh's Easter Egg Hunt so many times that CRjr has it memorized: "'Surprise,' mumbled Eeyore, 'I found an Easter egg!'"), but a while back I was looking for any kind of pleasant, easy reading that I could just wander through for twenty minutes or so at each bedtime.

This mystery novel hit the spot for that admirably. It's pleasingly British**, for an Anglophile like me, and the mystery's not real gory or complicated (for a synopsis see Rick's review), so it made perfect escapism reading. I rather feel it's more a book to be read in a cozy warm house while it's winter outside, but it's set in the summer and it might also make for good beach reading.

My thanks, and kudos, once again go to Rick.

*I'm not remunerated in any way when Rick's books sell, but they are so awesome and helpful that I can't help putting in a plug for them here or there.

**Here's how the sleuth, Antony Gillingham, is introduced: "When at the age of twenty-one he [Antony] came into his mother's money, 400 pounds a year, old Gillingham [his father] looked up from the 'Stockbreeders' Gazette' to ask him what he was going to do.

'See the world,' said Antony.

'Well, send me a line from America, or wherever you get to.'

'Right,' said Antony.

Old Gillingham returned to his paper. Antony was a younger son, and, on the whole, not so interesting to his father as the cadets of certain other families; Champion Birket's, for instance. But, then, Champion Birket was the best Hereford bull he had ever bred.

Antony, however, had no intention of going further away than London. His idea of seeing the world was to see, not countries, but people; and to see them from as many angles as possible. There are all sorts in London if you know how to look at them. So Antony looked at them--from various strange corners; from the view-point of the valet, the newspaper reporter, the waiter, the shop-assistant. With the independence of 400 pounds a year behind him, he enjoyed it immensely." (p. 25.)

Ah, England! Inattentive parents who are more interested in animals than you but are also your source of independent income! Amateur sleuths who are simply interested in the world! What a great country.


Back in the reading saddle.

I realized the other day that I have a different book going in every room of the house (and one in my backpack), and it feels really, really...good. It feels like I am getting back to myself again, reading-wise.

So what's going on where? Details to follow, but in the bathroom I have a novel by a British author I've always enjoyed, in the bedroom is a book on how Generation Y is getting royally screwed, economically speaking (nice light bedtime reading, dontcha know), in my bag is a memoir that I'm not quite sure about but am going to stick with anyway, in the living room is a somewhat depressing book (book info toward the bottom of that post) that I've had to take a small pause from, and in the kitchen waits a book I started a few weeks back and really must get back to, because it is fascinating. Oh, and how could I forget a book about books, which, interestingly enough, has a chapter about being in the middle of too many books (and which roves around as I carry it from room to room and outside)? Add to that some books on gardening (every year in spring I read about gardening, rather than actually gardening) and some on toilet training (although, sadly, neither CRjr nor I are too interested), and you have a full reading slate.

It's lovely.


Fiction Interlude: Crocodile on the Sandbank

Crocodile on the Sandbank
by Elizabeth Peters

Powells.com

It seemed only fitting, after posting about mystery author extraordinaire Agatha Christie, that I talk about another mystery that I just read (during my period of floundering to find good nonfiction).

If I'm going to read fiction, largely, I prefer it to be of the mainstream-y, Anne Tyler-ish variety. Not quite literary fiction, but not quite women's fiction a la Jodi Picoult, either. But every now and then I will make forays further afield, into genre, and if I do, that genre tends to be mystery. Although I do not currently work in a library, it's always in the back of my mind that I should develop better knowledge of some genres and their authors, so when I read mysteries, at least I can feel that I am somehow "keeping up with my profession." If that makes any sense.

One author I'd always wanted to try was Elizabeth Peters, best known for her Amelia Peabody mysteries. I read the first one in the series, Crocodile on the Sandbank, which was published in 1975 (while the nineteenth book in the series, Tomb of the Golden Bird, was published in 2006). One lovely thing about any kind of historical fiction is that the publication date doesn't seem to matter as much. Set in the late Victorian period, the book features the feisty heroine Amelia Peabody, who, at 32, is considered to be an old maid--but she doesn't let that stop her, once she inherits her father's fortune, from going off to see the world. She ends up in Egypt, traveling with a new friend, and embroiled in an archaeological mystery (which just happens to include a stubborn bachelor archaeologist--gee, what happens?). I suppose I could describe the plot further, but I don't think the plot is the point, really. If you like feisty heroines, and have any interest whatsoever in Egyptology, then you might enjoy this:

"I was left, then, to be the prop of my father's declining years. As I have said, the life suited me. It allowed me to develop my talents for scholarship. But let not the Gentle Reader suppose that I was ill equipped for the practical necessities of life...

It came as no surprise to anyone to discover that he [the father] had left his property to me, the aforesaid prop, and the only one of his children who had not an income of its own. My brothers accepted this tolerantly, as they had accepted my devoted service to Papa. They did not explode until they learned that the property was not a paltry sum, but a forture of half a million pounds. They had made a common mistake in assuming that an absentminded scholar is necessarily a fool..." (p. 3.)

So yeah, I liked old Amelia. And I enjoyed the book. I don't know that I need to read eighteen more of them, and I don't think she's up to the caliber of Agatha Christie, but you could do a lot worse if you're looking for a historical mystery with an exotic setting and just a dash of romance.


The Great Gatsby: Not suitable for high school?

I am really, really hoping to get the chance to see Baz Luhrmann's new movie adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, when it comes out in May:

I am a sucker for all things Baz Luhrmann. I loved Strictly Ballroom, I saw Romeo + Juliet about seven times in the theater (ah, college, when you still have time and think someday you'll make enough money to make up for such frivolous spending), and Moulin Rouge is the only movie I ever went to by myself because I loved it and frankly, I just wanted to adore Ewan McGregor in solitude. But while casting about for something to read the other night, I saw the novel on Mr. CR's bookshelf and thought, "hey, I haven't read this book since high school. It was okay--maybe I should read it again before I see the movie."

I did, over the course of two nights, and adored it, although perhaps "adored" is the wrong word for a novel that I found just overwhelmingly sad this time around. I can summarize the story pretty briefly: Boy loves girl; girl is married to someone else; boy thinks love can conquer all; love turns out to be more complex than boy realizes. Add the backdrop of 1920s New York and a dollop of class warfare, and there you go (for more detail: Wikipedia --in case you haven't read it, spoilers abound there).

I was thoroughly engaged by this book this time around, in a way that I know I wasn't in high school. In fact, upon finishing it, I said to Mr. CR, "Why are they giving this book to high schoolers?" I know it's a classic. It's beautifully written. But it is also deceptively simple, I think. I know the money/class aspect alone would just have been way beyond me in high school, and I already knew then what a joke it was to try and keep up with the popular crowd by buying the right clothes and owning the right things (there was no way, at least not for me, to keep up, was the joke). But in high school and even college, youth is a great equalizer. You're all young and gutsy and beautiful, even when you don't think you are. To me it only seems like after school that you start to realize, insidiously, that getting ahead (or even just staying afloat, lately) seems to largely be about knowing the right people and simply being in the right place while knowing those people. Only after school, I feel, do you start to realize the genius of the heartbreak when Gatsby starts to realize Daisy is slipping away from him...

"'Her voice is full of money,' he said suddenly.

That was it. I'd never understood before. It was full of money--that was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the cymbals' song of it...High in a white palace the king's daughter, the golden girl..." (p. 127).

Or this, from the narrator, later still:

"They were careless people, Tom and Daisy--they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together..." (p. 188).

I just don't think you can appreciate the bleakness, and the truth, of that, in high school. Do you?


Finishing up Fahrenheit 451.

I finished my re-read of Fahrenheit 451 this week, and I must say I found it just as interesting as I did when I first read it in junior high school. I hope to be able to read it again in a couple of decades or so and see how it hits me then.

In the meantime, I was blown away (no pun intended) by the following paragraph, in which Bradbury describes the (nuclear? maybe) bombing of a city:

"The concussion knocked the air across and down the river, turning the men over like dominos in a line, blew the water in lifting sprays, and blew the dust and made the trees above them mourn with a great wind passing away south. Montag crushed himself down, squeezing himself small, eyes tight. He blinked once. And in that instant, saw the city, instead of the bombs, in the air. They had displaced each other. For another of those impossible instants, the city stood, rebuilt and unrecognizable, taller than it had ever hoped or strived to be, taller than man had built it, erected at last in grouts of shattered concrete and sparkles of torn metal into a mural hung like a reversed avalanche, a million colors, a million oddities, a door where a window should be, a top for a bottom, a side for a back, and then the city rolled over and fell down dead." (p. 160.)

Can't you just SEE that? For my money Bradbury's the most vivid descriptive writer out there. I also enjoyed the interview questions with Bradbury that were included in the 50th anniversary edition paperback that I read--made me want to revisit Listen to the Echoes: The Ray Bradbury Interviews. For a guy who seemed to write a lot about the dark sides of human nature he sure did love life. It makes you think.


A disturbing juxtaposition.

This may be a bit heavy for a Monday, but if you're looking for some disturbing reading to put together (and therefore make it even more disturbing), you might try Ray Bradbury's classic novel Fahrenheit 451 and this latest article from Matt Taibbi.*

For whatever reason I decided last week it was time to re-read Fahrenheit 451, as I think I first (and last) read it in seventh or eighth grade. I'm not all the way through, but it's been interesting. I wish I'd kept a journal way back when, recording what I thought about this book, because I always remembered liking it and being struck by it, but I can't for the life of me remember WHY. And I suspect it has been a very different reading experience this time around, reading it as an adult.

This was one of the many parts that struck me, from the book:

"The bombers crossed the sky and crossed the sky over the house, gasping, murmuring, whistling like an immense, invisible fan, circling in emptiness. 'Jesus God,' said Montag, 'Every hour so many damn things in the sky! How in hell did those bombers get up there every single second of our lives! Why doesn't someone want to talk about it?'"

And from the article:

"The idea that we have to beg and plead and pull Capra-esque stunts in the Senate just to find out whether or not our government has "asserted the legal authority" (this preposterous phrase is beginning to leak into news coverage with alarming regularity) to kill U.S. citizens on U.S. soil [using drones] without trial would be laughable, were it not for the obvious fact that such lines are in danger of really being crossed, if they haven't been crossed already."

In both: the theme of "not wanting to know" is a disturbing one. And yet, I know why we don't want to look and don't want to know. We're tired and we've got to go to work and get the kids fed and I think the brakes are going on the car and Christ, how am I going to pay that $5000 medical bill that wasn't covered? I get it. But I salute both Bradbury and Taibbi for asking: what will it take to make us LOOK?

*Stick with the article. It's long but worth it.


A try at fiction.

A friend recently suggested to me that I shake up my reading habits a bit by changing genres, so I thought I'd try a novel over the weekend.

I found Rachel Joyce's The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry in my local library's "Serendipity Collection"--a collection of popular books that exists outside of the library's regular holdings, and books in which can be checked out for two weeks. This is a way to circumvent the waiting list for a number of popular books, to reward patrons on a "first come, first serve" basis. It's not a bad idea, but normally I never have to go near it, because I don't usually have any problems finding anything to read. However, in the last few weeks, I never seem to be in the mood for any of the books I have coming in on my hold list. So there I was, looking at my Serendipity options. And this novel is the one I came home with.

It's the story of one Harold Fry, husband of Maureen, former brewery accountant, and now retired and largely going-through-the-motions gentleman. Then a letter arrives from a long-ago friend, Queenie Hennessy: in which she informs him she is dying of cancer. He can't think of much else to do, so he pens a very proper British condolence note, and sets off to mail it.

Somewhere along the way to the mailbox he decides, instead, that if he walks nearly the length of England (he's in the south of England; Queenie is in the north), Queenie will just have to keep living until he gets there. So he just keeps walking.

Of course there's a lot of foreshadowing and revelations along the way: what has been going wrong in Harold's marriage; he and his wife's relationship with their son; the favor Queenie did for Harold and for which he was never able to thank her.

I enjoyed it (and of course I enjoyed the British setting), but I warn you: it's a weeper. Towards the end I went through a few tissues--but that might also just be the mood I'm in.* I don't know that I loved it, but I did want to keep reading it until I was done, and that's saying something these days.

*Or the mood we're all in, in the never-ending winter wonderland that is Wisconsin. I'm feeling simultaneously edgy and weepy these days; must be the lack of sunlight or above-freezing temperatures.