updated 31dec00 | other years: 97 : 98 : 99 | other readers: street librarian : step : sharyn : anirvan
The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed by John McPhee
Another amazing book I'd never heard of by McPhee, this one about an experimental aircraft and the team of weirdos and geniuses that put it together. Since I have no real knowledge of the Aeron project, I didn't even know if historically [this was written in the late seventies] the project really worked out, so every test flight he wrote about was a gripping suspenseful tale. Will it take off? Will their dream be realized? The book I have is missing the front cover which may have gotten in the way of my ability to visualize the thing.
Going to Extremes by Joe McGinniss
Everyone on our boat trip to Alaska was reading this book about Alaska. Joe McGinniss went to Alaska to check the place out and because of some siren call to get to the great outdoors before there was none of it left. He encouters a number of interesting characters and goes to some really cool places. he seems to be distressed by rural Alaskan poverty and ever moreso by the drunkeness in the native population which I really think he beat to death early on in the book. There's a great section where he goes on a several day hiking trip, petrified of bears, and sees not one, not two but five bears in all during his trip. The book itself is split into a lot of tiny sections based on the people he stays with -- bush pilots, teachers, outdoors enthusiasts, oil executives -- which gives you a good rounded view of some of the different kinds of folks who choose Alaska as their home.
Cop Hater and Long Time No See by Ed McBain
On my trip to Alaska, there were many chances to get off at the ferry terminals and swap out your old paperbacks for new ones. For some reason, Ed McBain is popular among the Alaskans, or perhaps I was just following someone who was discarding these as quickly as I could read them. Either way, they are fairly routine cop mysteries which are part of the 87th Precinct series which I think means that they are all about this one cop, but there may be a series of cops. Similar stories: in one cops are getting killed, in another blind people are getting killed. Cops investigate, cops get into hot water, cops solve the crimes. Good ferry reading, I don't think I'll start working my way through the whole series.
Personal Injuries by Scott Turow
I had to read some reviews of this book to remember what it was about, which is always a bad sign. Legal thriller -- judges are corrupt, FBI and IRS are investigating, lawyer is in trouble, has to go undercover, has a wife with ALS and is trying to stay out of prison until she dies. Heartbreaking stuff and a worthwhile read but not really as excellent as Turow's other books, despite the more personal touch of this one.
The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book and by Bill Watterson
I read this and another Calvin and Hobbes book on my trip. I had always thought that C&H was in some ways 'smarter' than many of the other strips I recently have enjoyed, and I was always in favor of Watterson's decision to avoid letting his characters be co-opted by merchandising licenses etc. but I never knew just how much of a battle he was waging with his comics syndicate or how much of a blessing and a headache it can be to get your comic distributed by a major player. In the intro, and in places throughout the book, Watterson discusses the issues he has with the people who distribute his strip, and how they affect him and other comic artists in the way they actually write and present their strips. I found it all really interesting, as well as some of the side comments he makes about someof the strips he decides to include [like "this one is just like what my dad would have done"].
Zodiac by Neal Stephenson
I'm not sure what I thought this book was about -- the Zodiac killer perhaps -- but it exceeded most of my expectations.
"Bartholomew was standing in front of the stove. With the level cross-eyed stare of the involuntarily awake he was watching a heavy metal video on the TV. He was clenching an inflated hefty bag that took up half the kitchen. Once again, my roomate was using nitrous oxide around an open flame; no wonder he didn't have any eyebrows."
Neal Stephenson can make me read his shopping list with writing like that. He's humorous, smart and topically interesting. This book is about eco-terrorists and eco-activists and the often blurry line between them. The lead character is a lovable asshole who knows a lot of chemistry and works for a Greenpeace-style activist group fighting big corporations who poison the environment. The story centers around a PCB poisoning in Boston Harbor and does sort of devolve a bit into a waterbased shootemup which is where the story lost me for a bit. Even so, it was a well written interesting page turner with freaky characters and weird science and poisoned lobsters.
The Life and Death of Saint Kilda by Tom Steel
Found this book while I was hiding from some wine and cheese event in San Francisco. It's an amazing sort of an island 140 miles off the coast of Scotland that had its own community of bird harvesters and wool gatherers who lived there autonomously -- isolated from pretty much every other human habitation except the ocassional visit from the laird -- until their luck ran out in the 1930's and they were evacuated to the Scottish mainland. They sent messages out in sheeps bladders into the sea. They had never seen a tree. While it might be easy to idealize this type of living, Steel goes into the good and the bad parts of life on St. Kilda. The ending is sad; the islanders had many of their children wiped out by illness and were not able to maintain a critical mass of people in order to live sustainably. The book is a great story [if you want it to be] about the evils of modern living and the quest for material goods at the expense of quality of life. It's also a good read.
City of Angels by Jessamyn West
Back when LA wasn't even all Hollywood but was a bunch of frontierspeople settling to plant their oranges, Jessamyn West moved to CA. This novel, while having a schmaltzy romance-novel type cover, follows a small group of people as they settle land that is preapred for them by developers -- the Tract -- in the middle of what was formerly nowhere. They have romances, fights, deal with racism and lack of water, and generally do the best they can with what they've got in true Jessamyn West style. There's a lot of people's hopes and dreams in here and they are dealt with very respectfully and with a certain amount of wonder and mystery as is fitting. I like pretty much everything she writes, and this was no exception.
Genius by James Gleick
I like this guy and I like his domain name. This book is a warts and all approach to Richard Feynman, probably the only physicist most people can name besides Einstein. It discusses a lot of his smart science, his savant mind and his tendencies to sleep with the wives of professors. Gleick makes him acessible and makes you feel smart for being able to understand what he is trying to explain to you. I read the book in one long sitting and was glad I did.
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by JK Rowling
This book was fine, just fine. I'll probably still read the next one. However, I noticed a change in this book, or maybe it's just a change in me, or maybe I'm not as interested in teenagers as I am in younger kids. Either way, this book seemed to have more of a mean spirit than previous Potter books. A kid dies. A teenager from Hogwarts dies, and since it's not one of the main characters, you kind of don't care. This disturbed me, even moreseo because this kid's death allowed Harry Potter to win his latest challenge [is this even considered a spoiler? isn't it a foregone conclusion?] Meanwhile X-files style, we are led about, unsure of who to trust, while Harry and his friends go to their kooky magical school. Don't get me wrong, it was a really good way to spend a few evenings, but this latest installment seems to have replaced a sense of wonder with a sense of competition, and that just doesn't hold my interest as much.
The Sixteen Pleasures by Robert Hellenga
When I first opened this book and noticed that it was about a woman and written by a man, I felt this little twinge. I really should learn to get over that, and this book has helped me. It's a great librarian-wonk book -- a woman decides to take a leave of absence from her library and go help the restoration effort in Florence which has recently been hit by a devastating flood. She goes back to her ancestral homeland, meets a guy, restores some books, finds a secret, develops purpose. There's enough plot to keep standard fiction readers interested, and enough book-wanking for the hardcore librarian. Hellenga's heroine is believable, spunky and interesting to travel around with.
Irons in the Fire by John McPhee
I'm still remembering books that I read on my trip. This is another collection of marvelous stories by John McPhee. I read it in two days of bus riding and immediately gave it away to a friend saying "you have to read this." The title story is about the brand inspector, a guy who spends a lot of his time driving through the midwest and southwest and checks cattle for their brands, looking for hints of rustling and other cattle skullduggery. McPhee once again puts himself somewhere most of us didn't even know existed and makes us feel like we're right at home.
The Knife Thrower and Other Stories by Steven Millhauser
I had read the knife thrower story some time ago. It's a gripping tale of a somewhat small town, and what happens when the knife thrower comes to town. He's not just any knife thrower. He is, shall we say, somewhat extreme. He wounds his targets, he asks for volunteers. The audience gets excited. He's beyond the pale, yet they can't look away. Many of the stories in this book carry a "what if" theme. What if kids growing up could have flying carpets? What if amusement parks could be any way we imagined them? What if we could marry frogs? What if Kaspar Hauser had told us what he really thought about us? These possibilities are injected into otherwise normal situations and people react to them through their normal paradigms. They glimpse the magical through a preponderance of the mundane. Every story carries a tinge of danger or a trace of uneasiness. Millhauser seems to take great joy with the worlds he creates and that joy is passed on to the reader.
Entries from a Hot Pink Notebook by Todd D. Brown
Deep down I must be a gay teenage boy because I eat up these stories of adolescent awkwardness and rage as if they were potato chips. Ben is a kid who knows he's gay, growing up in a small town environment where people still think you can get AIDS from haircuts. This book follows one year of his high school career as he works through a crush on one of his teachers, a relationship with another student, his horrible family problems and his own personal relationship towards being gay and his sense of self-identity. It's written in journal format with a convincing [to me] teenage voice. The human interactions are real and there's no pat happy ending.
Miss Zukas and the Library Murders by Jo Dereske
Miss Zukas is a Lithuanian librarian who fulfills just about every librarian stereotype out there. She's prim, proper, organized, a bit, well, fussy. Then someone gets killed in the library, stabbed through with one of those things that keeps the cards in the card catalog. Miss Zukas continues on as a staid library matron, but her keen attention to detail and knack for the reference interview [I am not making this up] help her get to the bottom of the crime that has invaded her small town. Kind of a pulp mystery, if you like mysteries and librarians, you'll be fine with Miss Zukas.
Where I'm Calling From by Raymond Carver
"Drunk laid and drunk unlaid and drunk laid again, it makes no difference. I return to this story as one who has been away but one who was always destined to return and perhaps that's for the best" - Richard Brautigan
Carver's characters mostly drink a lot, or smoke a lot. They communicate badly with people who mean a lot to them. They act impulsively for reasons they can't explain. They confuse themselves and those around them. There is very little analysis, just a lot of conversation and some impetuous acting out. I used to have trouble reading Carver both because I was dealing with my own drinking issues and because I found his stories repetitive and his characters losers. Upon rereading [as older and wiser perhaps?] I find that his characters have many of the same things wrong with them as all of us, they just all seem to have the same one or two Achilles heels keeping them down. Everyone has their own fatal flaw, and reading about people who have a specific one can help you examine your own from a non-threatening distance. The cover has Carver looking out at you with a piercing stare as if to say "If you think these people are losers, look at yourself too, pal, look at yourself...."
A Quaker Book of Wisdom by Robert Lawrence Smith
Despite having no Quaker kin, I am named after a Quaker and have found their teachings to be really wise-seeming to me. My sister went to a Quaker college and despite my mother being Jewish, she embodies a lot of the Quaker ideals such as simple living, a life dedicated to service, and constant seeking of justice. This book is a short primer on some of the primary tenets of Quaker faith, with a lot of real-life anecdotes to illustrate many of the points. The language is plain, the messages are not preachy, and the ideology is non-dogmatic. The Quakers have a very non-traditional [in relation to the Judeo-Christian tradition] approach to religion in that they believe that all men and women are equal and that anyone may speak to god themselves. I like these ideas.
The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook by Joshua Piven
If you want every complicated thing in life to be reduced to four easy-to-follow steps, then this book is for you. As a manual of practical information, I think it falls kind of flat. It's sort of like the tech support help people who say "first select Undo from the pulldown menu" and you say "if I could select Undo, I wouldn't be calling you, this thing is broken!!" The steps are great if you have enough context to implement them. Otherwise you have the illusion of safety when you are really screwed. Actually, the only people reading this book, I suspect, are people who would never be in these situations in real life -- chased by alligators, for instance -- and so it's nice to leave on the coffee table and enjoy your hypothetical Big Game Hunter life. Nice illustrations and really snappy format on this one.
The Man Who Rode His Ten-Speed Bike to Moon by Bernard Fischman
Found on the free table. This book was written back when books seemed to have a particular seventies flavor to them, in the style of Free to be You and Me. Steve is a guy mildly dissatisfied with his life. It seems mundane, he is not enjoying it, him and his partner do not relate well and his dog dies. He lives in New York City and winds up -- I forget how -- with a ten-speed bicycle that he learns to ride longer and longer distances, while also making the acquaintance of a strange young woman he meets in a museum. His life starts to get a wee bit surreal. The title pretty much explains how it ends. The story is told with respect and poingnancy and it is short and illustrated with beautiful black and white pen and ink drawings. Great for bicycle fans everywhere.
The Death of an Irish Tinker by Bartholomew Gill
A great mystery book to read on an airplane. The main good guy in this book is one of the UK's travellers. An itinerant woman who makes her living drawing images from the Book of Kells on the sidewalk in chalk. Her partner is killed by druglords and she needs to go underground, somewhat, while the cops try to ferret out whodunit. In fact, I don't exactly remember the string of events except that it was very intereresting; the descriptions of the travellers' lifestyle in particular, and the characters seemed real.
Education of a Felon: A Memoir by Edward Bunker
This book seemed to make a big splash. I found it on the new shelf at the library and checked it out. Bunker seems to have been an incorrigible young kid who was always into trouble and get into the penal system at an early age. He always had something of a flair for writing and so eventually -- with the assistance of some mentors and a helpful editor -- after many years, got released from a series of prison terms and is now a sucessful writer. This book is about prison mostly. It is pretty well written. However, it is also written in that semi-flowery style that I usually associate with newer writers. You know "The dawn cracked over the hills in a shimmering display of morning's new hope" kind of thing. Not exactly my style. Additionally -- and this is a theme in a lot of the books I've read lately -- he seems to want to retell his story in a way that seems most flattering to him. So, there is a lot of explanation of fights and crimes comitted that tries to portray them in the most positive light. This seems a bit forced, and Bunker seems like someone who, while very creative and a good story teller, had a hugely violent temper that caused him to behave badly in the absence of other ways to resolve problems. No big deal, not everyone becomes a Buddhist and devotes their life to the noble eightfold path, but I was sort of bummed out to see that he still seemed to glorify a lot of his old lifestyle choices. Does that make me square?
Double Down by Frederick and Steven Barthelme
This is the first book I've read by any other Barthelme than Donald. It was great. Written strangely in the "we"-person, it traces the death of Frederick and Steven Barthelme's parents and their gambling addictions and subsequent arrest for alleged casino cheating. It also draws strong causal links between those two events. If you've ever been addicted to anything, you'll understand and appreciate the descriptions of the brothers' behavior as they make and break their own rules, piss off their wives and girlfriends, and blow the inheritance they get from their parents' death. They don't apologize and they don't rationalize, just tell it like it is, with humor and elegant introspective descriptions.
Tales of a Punk Rock Nothing by Abram Himelstein and Jamie Schweser
This book arrived in my mailbox unbidden with a nice "liked your website" note from one of the authors and a bunch of xeroxed press releases. I read it all the same day. I read it in traffic, I read it in front of the library, I read it in the customs line at the Canadian border. It's a teeny micropress story about a kid who tires of his small town in Ohio and heads north to get involved with the DC punk scene. It's also so much more than that. Our hero Elliot Rosenberg, is thwarting his family's plans for him to go to college and trying to make sense of bring part of a "scene" that is not just the get-a-job-go-to-college scene of his upbringing. Along the way he meets riot grrrls, vegans, sXers, drummers and con artists. He works at a natural food store, works with Food Not Bombs, starts a band, makes a zine [reprinted in the book], lives in a house with a name, and goes to shows. The people he meets are PC, post-PC, eager, lazy, talented, and hacks. All together and all at once. Meanwhile Elliot is still trying to come to terms with being a white guy, being a Jew, wanting to have sex with riot grrls without seeming like an oppressor, and generally figuring out what he's all about. The story is fun and engaging and will ring true to anyone who has ever spent any time debating the ethics of eating honey.
Stolen Moments: Stories of Men Women and Desire edited by Michael Nagler and William Swanson
A mix of semi-smut and smooth introspection, with writers like Milan Kundera and Margaret Atwood, this book is about as good as a book on this topic could be. I have a warm spot in my heart for writers that can artfully and accurately describe the uneasy tensions and sublime pleasures that exist in the soup of desire. To do it badly is schlock. To do it well is to be able to highlight and even somewhat explain that which is tough for people to understand and harder still to relate. Creative Arts Book Company has really gotten together a grand and complementary set of stories, each of which is compelling in their own right as well as co-existing comfortably with the others.
The Barbie Chronicles by Yona Zeldis McDonough
A book of essays about Barbie, some glowing, some harsh. The essays in theis book are mostly readable although there are a few too many citing the exact same statistics about Barbie's 18" waist. What surprised me the most was how many women, especially self-avowed feminists, mantain a soft spot for Barbie going back to sometime before they became politicized. Many of the people who write are now parents and have to grapple with not only their own reactions to the Barbie phenomenon but how they will present her to their daughters. And, of course, my thoughts kept heading back to my very own Barbie that I had when I was very young and how I've never missed her and her wiry hair and pointy feet, not once.
Loading Mercury with a Pitchfork and June 30th, June 30th by Richard Brautigan
Another trip to Burlington and I read two short books of poetry. Weird. I loved one of these and hated the other. Loading Mercury is more standard Brautigan fare, pithy gentle reflections on whatever. Nice. June 30th is all about a trip he took to Tokyo and is reflections on his lonliness and the foreign world around him and seems forced and contrived. Here is a poem I liked, probably mainly because of the title:
The Brethren by John Grisham
Mea culpa. Sometimes when I am stressed out I just want to go for an easy-to-read book that I know won't insult me with its plodding plot twists. This is Grisham's newest and is mostly about mail fraud and buying the presidential election. Grisham seems to have come up with the ending first and then gone about creating a story around it, so some of the plot development seems kind of rushed, and none of the characters really shine. In fact, I can't remember if there are any female characters at all, probably a bad sign. There is almost no courtroom drama and very little of the high-flying lifestyle portraits that I'm used to seeing with Grisham. An okay read for the beach, I wouldn't beat a path to the library.
A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin
I didn't know if I could ever read another Helprin book after learning that he had been a speechwriter for some of the vilest Republicans imagineable. Yet, Winter's Tale basically introduced me to magical realism and it's safe to say my world has not been the same since. This is a war story about one man and yet, unlike My War Gone By, our correspondent is simultaneously a passionate superhero and a regular person with human concerns and feelings. And, of course, this one is fiction. Alessandro is an aesthete who joins the navy to avoid being in the army for WWI. He fails miserably and is jostled from one war horror to another, managing to stay alive despite completely insane odds. Somehow, this odd immortality does not make him cocky, but rather contemplative. Helprin, writing through an aesthete's eyes, is thus allowed to spend even more words on his almost surreal descriptions of the gorgeous minutae in the world around us.
Lafcadio the Lion Who Shot Back by Shel Silverstein
I have loved Shel Silverstein ever since I happened across Uncle Shelby's ABZ book at a friend's house in seventh grade. There was something so damned mischevious about him, and at the same time he had a message that appealed to me. This book, which I had never heard of before, is about a lion in the jungle who is tired of running from hunters and decides to eat the hunter, take the gun, and fight back. He becomes a sharpshooter who attracts the attention of the circus men, and leaves the jungle for a life of a big star in the big city. In the process, he becomes much less a lion and much more a man. Eats a lot of marshmallows, starts to wear pants, eventully winds up in the jungle with his hunting buddies, and guess what? Good story, well illustrated, I miss Shel Silverstein.
Norton I Emperor of the Unitd States by William Drury
If you're a trivia buff like me, you may know about this guy. Self-proclaimed emperor of the US and protector of Mexico, he roamed the streets as San Francisco's own local celebrity before the days of telegraph and transcontinental railroads. Drury, who is a newspaperman in his own right, covers the coverage of Norton in the San Fran papers of the time, as well as speculating himself on some controversial aspects of Norton's, um, reign. Lots of good bits on the beginnings of Bret Harte, Mark Twain and the many other writers who were wrapped up in writing about San Francisco at the time. Drury paints a sympathetic, meticulously well-researched view of Norton and of the San Francisco's gold rush era. This book is really engaging and a real treat to those who like history despite the often dull tomes one has to plow through to get at it.
Indelible Dykes to Watch Out For by Allison Bechdel
I love when artists write about their art. I've never been one of those "Death of the Author" fans where you sit around and speculate endlessly about what the author meant by a particular turn of phrase when you can very well ask them your damned selves. In this volume, there are plenty of good DTWOF comix, other work Bechdel has done, a good timeline of the DTWOF storylines and lots and lots of stories by Bechdel about her comix, her own coming out, her progress as an artist, and her relationship to the queer scene in general. I've always enjoyed flipping through her books, and now I'm glad to be able to enjoy her as more of a rounded out human being. This book is fun.
Murder in the Library of Congress by Margaret Truman
C'mon, it's about murder in a library, I had to read it. The librarians at my local library have taken to suggesting I read War and Peace because I'm in there so frequently. When I grabbed this off the shelf, they rolled their eyes. It was in the mystery section and it's by Harry Truman's daughter, so it has just enough of an inside Washington scoop to be more interesting than most, although also a bit more name-dropping than most. Good if you like that sort of thing. A researcher is killed in the library and they try to figure it out -- missing papers, secret deals, people not who they seem, the whole deal. Fun, didn't leave a lasting impression, lots of good historical detail. She's got a whole series of these books with a Washington insider theme.
My War Gone By, I Miss It So by Anthony Loyd
This book arrived in my mailbox with very little warning and a note from a friend telling me how much he had loved it. Part war documentary and part personal expose it turns self-indulgent masculinity into a spectator sport. And I mean that in a good way, mostly. Loyd is a man who is seeking something, and he hopes to find it by hurling himself at the far ends of the earth, in uniform and not, to figure it out. Along the way, he describes brutal war crimes, his relationship with his father, and his heroin addiction. None of these stories have a tidy resolution and you think Loyd might be fun to drink with in a bar but you wouldn't want to date him. He's a good writer for a soldier, and this is good book, for a war story.
Arsenic Under the Elms by Virginia McConnell
Real true crime from Victorian times. This book explores two murder cases that were most likely arsenic poisonings and goes into great -- and interesting -- detail about how the crimes were investigated and solved. Things we take for granted today, like poison being illegal, and juries being impartial, and police spearheading investigations, were just not true back then. McConnell really goes back into time to explain how things proceeded based on a meticulous reading of the newspapers of the time and the court reports, if any.
Welcome to Hard Times by E. L. Doctorow
A gritty frontier tale of a just-barely-there town that gets ripped apart and nearly burned to the ground by a Bad Man. Those that remain to rebuild it are mostly the outcasts and cowards who didn't defend the town and get killed in the process. It's a motley bunch and the story is written by the self-appointed mayor of the town who provides a lot of the impetus to get things going again. As the town rises slightly and comes to its inevitable downfall, you get a real taste for the personalities involved who are an interesting sampling of the kinds of people who would be drawn to the western wilderness and not always the kinds of people who get along well.
This Place Has No Atmosphere by Paula Danziger
A young adult novel I found in my bookshelf. I remember Danziger from The Cat Ate My Gymsuit, a really poignant tale of being kinda lumpy and unpopular in high school. This book takes an opposite tack. Aurora is popular, so popular that when he parents tell her they are moving to the moon [this is a sci fi novel] she starts freaking out about leaving her clique and her new boyfriend, etc etc. The novel is fun, and a quick read, but a bit heavy handed in terms of the lessons Aurora learns: her parents really do love her, her sister isn't that much of a brat, there are nice boys in space. Maybe this book would resonate better with a youngr female reader, it felt kind of formulaic to me.
Briar Rose by Robert Coover
Postmodern retelling of the sleeping beauty myth. Another book I read earlier in the year and forgot about until I saw it on my bookshelf and thought "I read that" and then shortly thereafter thought "and it was completely inaccessible." If you really dig beautifully written, completely obtuse prose and know enough about sleeping beauty [the older myths as well as the modern made-for Disney version] then you may be able to nod knowingly as you're reading this and say "I see, what a delightful semiotic twist he is evoking here..." If you're looking for a good story, the only thing this book has to recommend it is that it's very very short and feels good in your hand.
Lap Dancing for Mommy by Erika Lopez
I read this book a few months ago and forgot. Erika Lopez is an amazing illustrator and a funny sexy lady to boot. Her stories about sex, the people in her life, and her family make tantalizing reading, made even more enjoyable by her amusing illustrations and funky lettering. If you've never read an Erika Lopez book and you like motorcycle riding Latina chicks, go get this.
The Osterman Weekend by Robert Ludlum
If I'm going to read spy novels any more, I'll only read Robert Ludlum. He won't bog you down with a bunch of tiny bit players with titles like Undersecretary who are as nameless and faceless as everyone else -- the one thing that can truly kill a spy novel is the reader's inability to keep the players straight. This novel is about four families in a lovely NY suburb -- practically a gated community -- who are led to be suspicious of one another and a big mess happens. The big mess is somewhat believable, the good guy survives [in fact, nearly everyone survives, of the major players] and the story is suspenseful without giving you an ulcer.
A Confederate General in Big Sur by Richard Brautigan
Poor old Richard Brautigan wrote and wrote about all sorts of stuff. This one is mostly about hanging out in a series of small funky cabins on Big Sur with his crazy friend with few teeth who believes himself to be descended from a general who fought for the Confederacy. Things happen to them. There is a pond filled with loud frogs. They try all sorts of ways to rid themselves of the frogs and resort to alligators who become minor players in the rest of the book. Like most of Brautigan's work, this book isn't about anything, but it isn't about anything in a beautifully gentle poetic way. If you like words and people's interesting juxtapositions of word you never thought to put together before, you'll dig this.
Thumbsucker by Walter Kirn
The genre of disgruntled teen fiction really interests me. Adults love to read about the triumphs of smart teens against their wicked adult enemies who try to oppress them in every way possible. They get gleeful when the kid burns down the school, or tells his boss to shove it -- these disgruntled teens are always boys. We wish our kids would be so interesting and could use that creative wiseass power for good instead of evil because, of course, we would never be parents like that.... Ha. I think it's sort of like the "when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail" problem. If you are a kid, every adult looks like this: repressive and ridiculous, in denial and worthy of contempt. This book is actually a tame version of the genre -- there is nothing blown up, no major catastrophes, the kid actually winds up kind of happy at the end. In fact, I was hoping for a bit more chaos, but as it stands the book is a worthy read for those who like to peek into the world of disgruntled teens.
The Hawkline Monster: A Gothic Romance by Richard Brautigan
I went to read the Amazon.com reviews for this book, seeing as how it is about thirty years old and completely amusing to me, but in that weird spacey way that I didn't think other people would like. Here's some of their responses:
"What I found was a purposeful use (over-use) of the F--- word, lots of sex, and a run on of weird events."
"I HAVE READ THIS BOOK AT LEAST 4 TIMES AND EACH TIME IT STILL GETS ME GOING. IT GETS A LITTLE OFF KILTER AT TIMES, BUT YOU HAVE TO KEEP GOING, IT DOES ALL MAKE SENSE IN THE END" [original punctuation]
" Here, Brautigan stumbles his two characters through a bizarre mad scientist plot which features a set of sisters who's identities are constantly changing, and who offer never-ending sexual fantasies. "
My addition is that I thought this book was truly great, read it all in one sitting, and was pleased by its departure from Brautigan's usual topics. Very weird but weird in a whole new direction.
To See The Dream by Jessamyn West
Wow! This book is a really neat writer-journal type of autobiography of a short part of JW's life when her novel, The Friendly Persuasion, was picked up by Hollywood and made into a movie. She was asked to help with the screenplay. She recounts taking the train down from Napa to Hollywood, getting set up in a swank Hollywood apartment, and going to a Quaker meeting with Gary Cooper. Along the way, she also reflects on Quaker faith as she is asked to put her characters in decidedly non-Quaker situations to make it play better in Hollywood. There's also a lot of the self-reflection and commentary about human behavior that JW has become known for.
In The Beginning There Was the Command Line by Neal Stephenson
I love this writer more than any other writer alive today. At least this week. This cogent and tight essay on the nature of operating systems and the companies or people that create them is right on the mark. Stephenson does not succumb to easy Microsoft bashing but rather tries to explain how the products we use have developed over time and with different symbioses [like how we have Microsoft to thank for the proliferation of cheap PCs that have made Linux so easy for an average person to use at home]. Along the way, he creates a lot of devlishly clever metaphors to explain a lot of these phenomena to people with any level of computer knowledge.
Maiden Voyage by Tania Aebi
This book really looked interesting. A young woman with no direction in life is offered a free boat [and funding] from her father with the caveat that she must use it to sail around the world alone. Unfortunately, the writing seems to cover mostly catastrophe, partying and some sticky sweet romancing. Tania learns the ropes while she is en route around the world and is frequently bailed out by her father -- who travels to the ends of the earth with new sails, engine parts, etc. -- and her European boyfriend who is obviously a much more capable sailor. The descriptions of the places she visits are interesting, her descriptions of learning to sail are compelling, but ultimately, the book seems to be more about her weird relationships with her parents than any sort of gaining of competence or lesson learning [from her or her father who is trying to make an adult out of her, assumedly]. While Tania seems to have grown through her adventure, the trip itself will only be a fantasy to most readers who will not have endless cash and familial resources at their disposal to replicate a similar trip. Too many exclamation points.
A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper by John Allen Paulos
Paulos sets out to explain how newspapers can use statistics to mean pretty much whatever the heck they want them to mean. He is a mathematician who can actually speak the language of the common people and so he can go into explanations of standard deviation, sampling errors and the like and actually make you feel like you've learned something, not that you are a senseless dolt. My favorite and most memorable example is where he explains the recent furor of cellular phones and their link to brain cancer. Using the same studies as the papers used, he shows how the incidence in brain tumors of cell phone users [a scary number] is actually lower than the incidence of tumors in the general population. So you see, cell phones actually prevent cancer! [another jump in reasoning, mine, not his]. Occasionally he can seem to be waging the anti-PC war a bit too strongly with his choice of topics [quota systems, economics] and, of course, he's the expert so it's hard to disagree with his conclusions, but his style is conversational and his prose is readable.
Third Person Rural by Noel Perrin
How great to read a book about living in Vermont when you are on a bus heading to work in the urban confines of Seattle. Perrin lives in the country and seems to have not a single wish that he would ever live elsewhere. He has become attuned to the migration partterns of the birds, the way the ground locks in Winter and how the neighbors are neighborly in a different sort of way out in the country. He writes about it this book which seems more personal journal than collection of objective essays which makes you want to go move to the country too. Similarly to O'Rourke [below] this book ends with a plea -- a seemingly outdated plea to end nuclear proliferation. After you have seen the beauty of the world the way Perrin sees it, you can see why keeping it in itss current shape would be so important to him.
The Tokyo Montana Express by Richard Brautigan
Lovely & delicious. This is another book of Brautigan's popular very-short stories, most of which either take place on the streets of Japan or in a barn in Montana. Brautigan's self-deprecating self-descriptions along with his gift for telling old stories new ways makes every tidbit in here a little literary escapade worth savoring. Here is a nice example I found elsewhere online.
Eat The Rich by PJ O'Rourke
If you can forgive the paeon to free market capitalism in the last chapter, this book reads a lot like a humorous travelogue. O'Rourke has always been a bit befuddled by economics -- who isn't - so he sets out to teach himself something about the ways of money by reading some textbooks and examining some cultures where different forms of political economies are at work. He goes to Tanzania, Cuba, Albania and Sweden and spends some time in each getting drunk and looking at how people spend their money and how governments spend the peoples' money. Very funny, very interesting. I skipped the advice but enjoyed the rest of it.
He, She and It by Marge Piercy
A friend told me that this book messed with gender roles and I picked it up. I continued reading it avidly because of the more philosophical debates that went on about what makes someone human. two parallel sotireis take place -- one in a not-too-distant future and one in the Prague ghetto in the 1500's. Both involve tales of partially human men and their lives and loves. However, the more recent story is seen through the eyesof a woman in love with one of these men, while the older story traces the thoughts and feelings of a golem created to protect the ghetto from Christian marauders. In both stories, the central characters are female, Jewish and thoughtful which makes for a pleasant departure from standard fiction.
The Postman by David Brim
I would have enjoyed this book much more if dopey old Kevin Costner weren't staring out at me from the cover. I always think the most revealing question you can ask someone is: "How do you think society will reconfigure itself if there were ever a grand scale catastrophe?" In Brim's version, the libertarian types come out and start the Rule of the Mighty [and they all wear gold earrings?] and terrorize nearly everyone else with their superior weaponry and discipline. Then this guy who has been hiding in the woods comes and starts delivering the mail and we learn to love America again. And then the cyborgs fight and everything gets confusing.... I enjoyed this book, jingoistic as it sometimes was, if only for the great descriptions of various communities and their coping strategies and the marked difference in outlook between people who had been born after the disaster and those born before. Close your eyes, skip the cover and dig into this book.
Neverwhere by Neal Gaiman
Four words: Harry Potter for adults. This book was a really interesting story about the places where the aboveworld and the underworld sometimes collide. There is a lot of mucking about in subways stations, a bit of the supernatural, a lot of commonplace magic and oddness and a bit of danger thrown in. A fun novel that involves a quest for justice, several non-human characters -- some in very slinky getups -- and navigating some difficult terrain. Like the Potter books, the storyline exists almost entirely in the range of the the fantastical, and yet all the happenings are taken as more or less matter-of-fact events, allowing the reader to be more and more sucked in to a world completely different than the one they are sitting and reading this book in.
The Victorian Internet by Tom Standage
I would have picked up this book even if it didn't have the word Internet in the title. It's one of a type of books I have been noticing and reading more and more lately -- pop history books. In these books -- never more than about 200 pages -- a topic that you might never have found interesting before is discussed. The author makes the topic fascinating and fills the book with tons of tiny interesting trivial details. The whole story fits into one nice tight package with good guys and bad guys and a beginning and and end. I like these books a lot but do not love them -- they leave me feeling empty inside somehow. This book, like others such as Longitude and The Professor and the Madman, make history what it isn't: a giddy roller coaster ride of fun and excitement. Some history is boring and some is interesting and more often than not there are variable accounts of it -- not that you would know it by reading these books. We should be interested in history because it's useful to know how the world was different, or how it became what it is now, not because once a cat was sent through a pneumatic tube to test it out or that Samuel Morse used to paint replicas of famous artworks... I enjoyed this book and read it in a two day period, but I am suspicious of its genre.
In the Freud Archives by Janet Malcolm
I read about the controversy surrounding this book well before I read the book itself. The true story concerns Masson being placed in charge of and then removed from the legendary Freud Archives. The controversy has to do with whether Malcolm invented quotations placed in Masson's mouth that were inaccurate to the point of being defamatory. I thought that, given this, the book might be spicier than it was. I couldn't remember if Masson and Malcolm had been lovers. I was waiting for a revelation in the pages of the book. Instead, I got pages and pages of recitation of he said/he said arguments about Freud who I have very little interest in, and Masson's own pontificating which was only interesting in a weird car wreck sort of way. For a true Freud scholar or fan, this book would be interesting reading -- I hear it is out of print since the lawsuit -- but for the average reader wanting an interesting tale of betrayal and intrigue, this book falls somewhat flat.
Celestial Navigation by Anne Tyler
While I have no idea how this book got its name, I picked it up because I usually trust Anne Tyler. This novel is loosely about a talented artist who has never left home. Not just never moved away from his mother -- who has died before the book even opens -- but rarely left the rooming house he lives in. Instead of summing up his personality with clinical terms -- paranoid, agoraphobic, xenophobic -- Tyler actually gets you inside his head as he ages, marries and creates more and more artistic works in his upstairs attic that fetch rather nice prices in the larger world that we rarely see. The story is told through the eyes of everyone but the main character. Or, rather, the chapters are all told through the eyes of a different person and Jeremy's chapters are oddly in third person. The summary message seems to be along the lines of "hey, everyone's messed up in some way" which resonates just fine with me.
Looking at Death by Barbara Norfleet
Norfleet explores the topic of how we represent death in our society with this powerful collection of photos of actual corpses and death scenes around the world. While this book is not for the faint of heart, the accompanying narration of the different ways death comes into our lives -- such as death in the family, accidental death, etc -- makes reading this book much more of an intellecual exercise than a purely voyeuristic endeavor.
Murder at the Smithsonian by Margaret Truman First You Have to Row a Little Boat by Richard Bode Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language by Nora Ellen Groce
First You Have to Row a Little Boat by Richard BodeA boy and his boat. A boat and his boy. There is some special thing that links men to fishing and boating and maybe golf that eludes many of the female folk in this world. When I was a kid, it was clear that my father had some sort of link with boating that he could never have with me. And it was also clear that boating not only didn't interest me, but also bugged me somehow. Cause? Effect? Bode does his best here to explain the peculiar boat/boy relationship and spends a lot of time philosophizing on the nature of things while he's at it. He has a gentle tone and a reflective nature and he tells good stories. When you read between the lines and catch the ocassional references to his failed marriage or his distant kids, you can kind of see the pathos in this relationship but that only serves to make it all the more real.
Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language by Nora Ellen GroceMy family has always been interested in deaf culture. No one in our family is deaf and I don't think I know any deaf people, but the interest has always been there. This book is about the deaf population on Martha's Vineyard from the 1700's until the present day. Due to a recessive gene, and a small gene pool, there was a statistically large number of deaf people in what was essentially an isolated community. Instead of being treated as if they were handicapped, deaf people were integrated fully into the community. Everyone -- deaf and hearing alike -- learned sign language and no one paid particular attention to someone's "hearing status" when they evaluated them as a person. Through first person accounts as well as a thorough delving into historical records, Groce traces the evolution and devolution of this unusual community and the individuals in it. Her summary point:
"The most important lesson to be learned from Martha's Vineyard is that disabled people can be full and useful members of a community if the community makes an effort to include them. The society must be willing to change slightly to adapt to all"
Cryptonomicon by Neal StephensonI am very sorry I finally finished this book. I savored every page in its zillion pages. I enjoyed the three separate stories, two during WWII and one in present-day that interwove and involved some of the same characters and their offspring. If you liked Stephenson's book Snowcrash, this is all that and then some. It involes stories of old school crypto and new school crypto and the slow passage from one to the other. Big wars and lots of nasty stuff and crossing and double-crossing. The characters are likable, human and often quite funny. The math is complicated but doesn't make you feel like an idiot. I am not a math geek but I enjoyed the math in this book as a means to understanding some of the more braniac characters. The writing is clever without being precious and the book is hefty and feels good in your hand.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. RowlingI think I've read all the Harry Potter books there are. As Harry gets older, the puzzles he deals with are more confusing and things are less what they seem. This book has a lot of yelling in it, so there are many passages that are a bit tough to read OWEN MEANY STYLE but in general it is another enjoyable romp through wizard school with cats and rats and flying magical creatures and werewolves and good guys and bad guys. A friend told me that what she likes about the Potter books is that it's nice to have a story where the good guys and bad guys are pretty clearly delineated, even if it can cause a bit of two-dimensionality. This Potter book is actually slightly more complex than that -- not everyone is wholly good or wholly bad -- but you can still root for the good guys from the getgo and know you're backing the right horse.
E is for Evidence by Sue GraftonLast time I flew cross-country, I ran out of books to read. This time I wanted to make sure that didn't happen so I loaded up with good airplane reading so I didn't have to risk having nothing to read, or nothing I wanted to read. This book is a fine airplane book. A mystery of some sort about some insurance scam or another. The detective, Kinsey Milhous, is likable in a Paula Poundstone kinda way and is smart enough that joining her as she puzzles out her pridicament isn't completely frustrating. The body count in this book is high. It starts out slow and then towards the end, people are being blown up left and right. The wrap-up is a bit too pat, if you ask me, but all in all it kept me occupied on the plane which was what I was looking for.
Are You Somebody? by Nuala O'Faolain For the Time Being by Annie Dillard Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling
Are You Somebody? by Nuala O'FaolainI was recommended to this book by someone who had heard O' Faolain on the radio talking about spending Christmas alone one year. She is an accomplished commentator on Irish radio and this autobiography of sorts talks about how she made it as far as she did considering that she was raised female, poor, and Irish, which can stifle any creative impulses. The book has a bit of name-dropping and a bit of a quest-for-love feel to it, but it's heartwarming and the best part comes in the Afterword which was written after the book had received a lot of critical acclaim and O'Faolain discusses peoples' highly positive and highly personal reactions to it. She doesn't wind up settled and happy with a man [or woman] at the end of it, which I think is also a strength.
For the Time Being by Annie DillardI hated Dillard's last book but I decided to give her another try because I was swayed by the cover. This is less autobiographical and more on the non-fiction narrative side. It consists of about seven different intermingled essays ruminating on varied topics such as archaeology, Jewish mystics, travels to Israel and the nature of sand. Each have something to do with eachother somehow and each little chapter is usually no more than a few pages and chock full of interesting factoids. Did you know that one of every seven people on the planet is a Chinese peasant? The essays kind of come together at the end, but there is no gigantic revelation, which is a relief. I think I will have to try reading more Dillard to see if I can find more like this.
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. RowlingI am hooked on Harry Potter, I admit it. This book was a bit more interesting than its predecessor because all of the backstory was in place already so there was more emphasis on plot and less on setting everything up. Harry is now a second year and once again has to fight against He Who Cannot Be Named. There are beasts and owls and potions and crossing and double-crossing. It's a real page turner and the characters are fun and believable and fallible at the same time. Good for kids and adults, I swear it.