Townhouse Books

Monday, October 15, 2007

The Path of Minor Planets: Andrew Sean Greer

The lives and loves and tragedies of a handful of astronomers, their spouses, friends, and children. A window to their lives is open to the reader every 7 years or so whenever the comet, discovered in 1965 by two of the professors, reaches perihelion or aphelion, and you see how the decisions the characters made or actions they did or did not take have played out. The book opens at a gathering of them all on a small South Pacific island to view the comet's passing, and a death changes things for them all.

It's a somewhat sad, almost suspenseful, yet solid novel; I didn't stay up late dying to see how it ended, but found myself quietly drawn to the book each night. I'd read Greer's "The Confessions of Max Tivoli" and, though delighted by that story, I was even more thrilled with the prose. I look forward to his next book.



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Thursday, July 19, 2007

Recently (too many bad)...

The Bad

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Suskind
Interesting enough for the most part though left the reader feeling icky. Silly ending.

Blinding Light by Paul Theroux
Upon finishing this paperback, I tossed it in the recycle bin with bored disgust. No need to try to sell back or share or donate. I should have given up by pg. 60 or so.

Drowning Ruth by Christina Schwarz
Picked it up among a pile of free medical books by Gentry's apt in NY. Fine but, epitomizes the lamer aspects of former "Oprah Book Club" books. Kind of predictable.


The Good

The Road by Cormac McCarthy
It's the future and everything really, really sucks. Still can't get some of the images out of my head. Fantastic. Heart breaking.


Confessions of a Teen Sleuth by Chelsea Cain
This I read a month or two ago. Parody of Nancy Drew books. Short and delightful.




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Saturday, June 30, 2007

After Dark: Haruki Murakami

"After Dark" concerns the late night musings, minglings, and wanderings of a handful of people, radiating out from a starting point of a Denny's in Tokyo. The story of Mari and a boy who knows her sister, the women she meets who work in a "love ho" (love hotel) and hints of their lives, the overlay of every scene with music, especially jazz, the delightful cadence that is distinctly Murakami (or at least Murakami translated, since that is only how we know him) -- these are all wonderful and successful building blocks of a fantastic and fantastical tale.

The additional story of Mari's sister who is trapped in a deep sleep and occasionally transported, still sleeping, into her television by a man with no face, is frustratingly incomplete. The slim novel should have been only short vignettes of Mari and her night adventurers, leaving her sister out entirely, or it should be have been three times the length to actually tell the sister's story.

It's Murakami -- I don't expect a neat, pat ending. But I do expect to get more than an excerpt of a better, more developed, yet nonexistent Murakami novel.

(I suspect I will continue to mull over this book; I already found myself dreaming about it during a nap today. I just finished it about 10 minutes ago though and wanted more -- hence the frustration you're reading in this review now. If you like Murakami, consider reading this. If you've been feeling over Murakami lately however, this isn't the book that will bring you back.)


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Monday, June 18, 2007

Lucky Jim: by Kingsley Amis

My favorite line:

"I just wondered," Beesley said, bringing out the curved nickel-banded pipe round which he was trying to train his personality, like a creeper up a trellis.


round which he was trying to train his personality... So good.

Another good one:

He felt for his cigarettes, but before he could use the offer of one of these as a means of breaking her pose, she switched back to him with a little smile which he recognized, with self-dislike, as consciously brave.


I picked this up after reading two reviews of the new Kingsley Amis biography. I've read a few of his son's books, Martin Amis, but had never read Kingsley.

In Lucky Jim, our protagonist, James Dixon, is a pathetic academic sinking in a field barely of his own choosing. He has a secret face he makes for numerous events, cruelly judges everyone (including himself) and observes life with a brilliant and wry turn of phrase.

Pros: Incredibly keen descriptions, satire that makes you laugh out loud, excellent prose, properly exposes the worst in people

Cons: Irritating main character, unpleasant people abound, and foreignness -- university life in England in the 1950s. Though a slim novel, I took an accidental break of it for about two weeks, actually forgetting if I'd finished it or not.

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Holy Cow: An Indian Adventure: by Sarah Macdonald

I thoroughly enjoyed this travel memoir, by a white Australian woman who moves with her reporter boyfriend to India for two years. Vividly she describes how overwhelmed she is at the beginning, and exactly what it feels like to be surrounded by so many people. Later she adjusts more often than not, becomes cruelly ill with pneumonia, loses all her hair, goes on spiritual journeys, etc. Many parts, especially interactions with her friends, are rather hilarious. I have never been to India but would be very interested in going if someone I knew lived there. The book made me even more interested in going, but also a little fearful. It seems just so exquisite and brutal in so many ways at the same time. Have any of you been? Anybody about to get an expat assignment there?

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Thursday, May 31, 2007

Percy Jackson and the Olympians: series by Rick Riordan

As a summer of Harry Potter excitement approaches with the final book and fifth movie, I realized that I'd only read the Order of the Phoenix once and that I didn't remember much from it except how put off I was by Harry's 15-year-old anger/angst. I think I'd ended up skimming an unfair amount of it. So, not too long ago, I picked up the fifth book again and read it, obsessively. I finished it a few mornings later when I should have been packing for a flight to see my folks for a short weekend trip. I couldn't help but bring the sixth book to read on the plane even though it weighed more than the clothes I brought.

How happy was I then, upon my return, when my husband handed me a book called The Lightning Thief, book 1 of a series called "Percy Jackson and the Olympians."

Percy Jackson is a 12-year-old boy when we first meet him of uncertain parentage -- he never met his father. Strange things happen to Percy too often and he's constantly being kicked out of school. After his math teacher sprouts leathery wings and tries to kill him, Percy is off on an adventure where he find out who is father is, finds out he's not alone in the world, and, of course, is sent on a difficult quest on which balances the fate of humankind.

Seamlessly I read the second one immediately after, The Sea of Monsters, and we are now awaiting the arrival of the third one from Amazon.

If you're in the mood for some young fantasy lit, this is perfect! Enjoy!


Right before HP, I finished "Rabbit at Rest" and the Rabbit series by John Updike. It's over. It was brilliant (though I still disliked that second book).


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Monday, April 30, 2007

Surfacing: by Margaret Atwood

A slim, early work by Atwood, that took some ideas from her much better "Edible Woman" and gave an entire passage to the later "Cats Eye." A woman brings her boyfriend and another couple with her to an isolated island in Canada after her father disappears. They stay for a week and in various ways start to unravel. Though Atwood's exploration of loneliness and desolute wilderness were fascinating and her language as always beautiful, the story itself was distant and a little obvious.


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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Hotel New Hampshire: by John Irving

A delightful absurdist tale of a family and their hotel-owning experiences in New England and Vienna. It's also occasionally tragic (sudden, unexpected deaths), occasionally creepy (sibling love affair, ewww), and bizarre (bears and Austrian terrorists). I sped through the book on an airplane and then the next day, still wrapped up in its spell. Within a few days after finishing, my fond memories started to be affected by logic but all in all, it's an excellent read.

Do not, under any circumstances however, allow yourself to watch the 1984 movie based on the book, even if it has a 6-year-old Seth Green as the youngest son. Awful, awful, awful, to the point of almost retroactively ruining the book.

My only previous Irving experience was A Prayer for Owen Meany 15 years ago. I think I will read another, and suggestions are welcomed of course. But before that, I have the end of an Updike four-book series to finish.



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Thursday, March 29, 2007

Rabbit is Rich: by John Updike


Loved it.

Like real people, Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom has mellowed as he's gotten older. He still thinks about sex constantly, but does it less often. He's actually been faithful to his wife for ten years, since the previous book, and often looks at her lovingly, though sometimes he wishes she were dead. The country is in the middle of an oil crisis and Rabbit's Toyota dealership has taken off. His kid, who drops out of Kent University and who had a pregnant girlfriend, returns home to wreck a lot of cars and make Rabbit feel guilty by his mere presence. But all in all, Harry's living large and living the American dream. He's more than halfway through his life and it's made him reflective. And Updike, brilliant with words as always, and 49 when this book came out, continues to pace his creation.

Oblong cocooned little visitor, the baby shows her profile blindly in the shuddering flashes of color jerking from the Sony, the tiny stitchless seam of closed eyelid aslant, lips bubbled forward beneath the whorled nose as if in delicate disdain, she knows she's good.... a real presence hardly weighing anything but alive. Fortune's hostage, heart's desire, a granddaughter. His. Another nail in his coffin. His.



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Thursday, February 08, 2007

Collapse/Greenlanders and Third Class Superhero

Kismet: Collapse and Greenlanders

I started reading Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond last night and was thrilled to find out that a large portion of the story is dedicated to the collapse of the Eastern and Western Settlements in Greenland about 500 years ago -- the fictionalized version of which I recently read in Greenlanders by Jane Smiley. The two books even cover some of the same characters, such as Thorstein Olafsson and Sigrid Bjornsdotter, who it turns out were real people. While reading the Smiley book I often wondered what historically about the settlement and decline was true. Minor efforts reading on the web didn't help much (oh, Wikipedia) so Collapse has come into my life at just the right time. More to come on that.

Failed: Third Class Superhero: by Charles Yu

I enjoyed the first chapter of Third Class Superhero, about a man whose power, "if you can call it that," is to take moisture from the air and turn it into a stream of water. The second chapter had all new characters, but I continued. The third chapter again took an entirely different turn, and I finally realized it was a book of short stories. Unfortunately, I am not in a short story reading phase and didn't like "chapters" two and three very much anyway, so I put it down.


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Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Ghostwritten: by David Mitchell

I don't have a lot to say about this one. Nine vaguely interlocking stories that spanned the globe. Parts of the book were exquisite, parts fascinating with their descriptiveness and creativity (I really liked the story of the transmigrating spirit in Mongolia). Other parts dragged on such that I ended up skimming the last few pages, just ready to be done. All in all though Ghostwritten is an incredible accomplishment, especially for a first novel, easy to read for its flowing prose, but hard too because of it vein of sadness that made me less inclined to pick it up each time for another sitting.


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Sunday, January 07, 2007

Roundup of Recent Reads

Things My Girlfriend and I Have Argued About: by Mil Millington
Amusing ending, amusing parts, but overall suffered from a weak plot involving a university and the Chinese mafia and weariness resulting from the main characters' constant mean battles. I was all set to love it, but somehow didn't. (I'm still very fond of the other one of his.)

The Accidental: by Ali Smith
*Yawn* Couldn't get past page 25. She can get shortlisted for all the Booker prizes she wants, but I give up.

The Center of Everything: by Laura Moriarty
Sweet novel about a girl growing up in Kansas. Covers big and small themes of love, friendship, religion, evolution, single mothers, limits and disabilities, abandoned kittens, and science fairs.

The Greenlanders: by Jane Smiley
I love Jane Smiley and always will. This book was a job though. A job I enjoyed, mind you, but it was work nonetheless to get through this dense work spanning three generations of Greenlanders at the end of the 14th century. I like the names, and the use of dottir at the end of a woman's surname. (Her father's name plus dottir, like her brother would have son.) A few times I thought of quitting it in the middle somewhere, but found myself drawn back to it every time.

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Monday, December 11, 2006

Love and Other Near-Death Experiences: Mil Millington (2)

Anna's original review here:

I adored this book, despite his flaws. Editorial errors didn't bother me for once, and in fact found some sentences laugh out loud funny. When I had to put the book down to go to work, I couldn't wait to get back to it. What I struggled with to some extent was the plot. Anna summed up well more or less what happens, but there is a big plot point that mid-way through comes completely out of left field and is ... just silly. But I enjoyed the read so much I don't care. I'm looking forward to the "Things My Girlfriend and I Have Argued About."

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Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Coming up for me - three familiar authors

I fell out of reading a bit for the past few weeks, barely finishing New Yorkers and never bothering to follow a jump in the newspaper. But I'm feeling it again now and stopped by the library last night. (And I have 2 plane rides to and from NY coming up, so plenty of reading time).

I started last night Anna's recommmendation Love and Other Near-Death Experiences by Mil Millington. Has anyone read his other books? I'm on pg. 3, but am looking forward to getting back to it.

Then, Ghostwritten by David Mitchell. Jason and I posted reviews of his Cloud Atlas. (Anna, did you read another one of Mitchell's too about a little boy?)

Then, The Accidental by Ali Smith, who wrote Hotel World, which I posted about. I liked and disliked Hotel World, liking some of her ideas and her language and then disliking and skimming when it got too experimental toward the end. This one looks interesting and is about a family whose lives are interrupted when a woman arrives at their door and talks her way in to the house, to dinner, and then to stay. Jonathan Safran Foer called it "thrilling."

I'll keep you posted.

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Sunday, November 26, 2006

Gertrude and Claudius: by John Updike

It's the Hamlet pre-story, told mostly from Hamlet's mother's point of view, of her young marriage to a neglectful warrier, birthing "Amleth," many years later indulging in an affair with her passionate brother-in-law, her second marriage after being widowed, etc., taking the reader right to the point when Shakespeare's "Hamlet" picks up and bringing a whole other dimension to characters we knew previously only as wicked. Eminently readable, familiar at times and then not so, the book successfully expands the Hamlet story without feeling like an immature exercise of a writer's-blocked author. Whatever inspired Updike to play with this idea, he pulled it off well. Who knew the story of murderous adultery would be such a joy to read?

And I just liked this bit below--it's King Horvendile speaking of Ophelia

She is not merely shy; she is fey. Her brain holds a crack any ill circumstance might jar agape.



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Monday, October 23, 2006

Semi-live Book Discussion: Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow

We are discussing this book from the morning of Monday, Oct. 23 through the evening of Tuesday, Oct. 24. Please post your thoughts on the book in the comments section. Check back and post responses frequently over these two days.

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Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Winkie: Clifford Chase

Amanda summed it up quite well, or as best anyone could have, in her previous review. And if you don't trust our recommendation of the book, Stephen Merritt, the genius behind the Magnetic Fields band, was oddly enough a blurb on the book. Satire and serious, this book made me simultaneously ponder Guantanamo Bay while missing my security blanket (name aptly and not racially "Whitey") and beanbag frog, "Froggie."

Oh Winkie. I'm sorry.

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Under the Banner of Heaven: Jon Krakauer

Brilliant, I thought. Two stories, one of a recent murder of an outspoke (mainstream) Mormon woman and her baby daughter, as well as the history of Mormonism and Fundamental Mormonism. Fascinating, bizarre to me, and scary in the end, it got me thinking about religion in general and talking and thinking and doubting whether religious and non-religious people (and ever shade in between) can ever really co-exist. I highly recommend.

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Friday, September 22, 2006

Winterlong: Elizabeth Hand

Someone loaned this to me, and I accepted because many years ago I read another Elizabeth Hand book called Waking the Moon and remember vaguely enjoying it.

I did not enjoy, vaguely or otherwise, this one, but whether it's because I've changed or the author changed, I cannot tell. It had a few Oryx and Crake-y moments that sparked my interest, but Elizabeth Hand is no Margaret Atwood and sometimes-weak plots that one might ignore because Atwood's writing is so awesome becomes glaringly apparent when you're stuck with Hand and her thesaurus.

(Also: Loving descriptions of the "long russet tangle of hair spilling down [his] back," a main character with the name Raphael, and Hand's fondness for the word "whorl." It appeared numerous times throughout the book -- she should have used her thesaurus then -- and in one section twice on one page. (He traced the whorls of her breast, and then half a page later looked at the whorls in the wood of the ceiling. Seriously).

The story is something about twins in a near wasteland future. The girl is an empath who takes people dreams and the boy is a prostitute (caste: Paphians) in a complicated world of whorehouses and old museums tended to by Curators (caste: Curators). There's a madman and a prophecy (sort of) and a talking chimpanzee who is an actress (caste: Player) and poison from the sky.

I liked the first section where the sister and the science-fiction-like world is introduced, but the high school goth elements that later dominated the book I could have done without.

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Hotel World: Ali Smith

I had recommended this book for the book club because it sounded really cool -- five interlocking stories, including one of a dead girl floating around, stream of consciousness in a Virginia Woolf way, spooky and dreamy and shortlisted for the Booker Award.

I mostly take it back. The first story, the one of the dead girl whose vocabulary and ability to see/hear colors and sounds fades the longer she is dead, was thrilling and I recommend reading that section. It had fascinating concepts, eerie description of her death, and quick-moving language. Examples:

At her own funeral, when the things of life had already begun to disappear:

I chose the saddest people and I followed them to see where we'd lived. They seemed vaguely familiar. They sat at the front of the church. I couldn't be sure. I had to guess.

and

From summer to autumn, I did all that I can. I appeared to the father. I appeared to the mother. I appeared to the sister. The father pretended he couldn't see. The more he saw, the more he looked away. A wall crept inches higher from his shoulders round his head; every time I came he added a new layer of bricks to the top of it. By autumn, the wall was way past the top of his head, swaying, badly bricklayed and dangerously unbalanced, nearly up to the ceiling in the living room where it knocked against the lampshade and sent light and shadow spinning every time he crossed the room.


Actually, those were the best parts. You don't have to read any of it now.

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Monday, September 04, 2006

Rabbit Redux: John Updike

OK, this cured me of Updike, at least for a while. Dated and showing the worst of the late '60s and early'70s, misogynistic to such an excess it was boring (c-word literally on almost every page), with painful old-school race issues (Rabbit staring at the palms of the hands of the "Negro" Skeeter and wondering at their whiteness). Set 10 years after the first one, Rabbit's wife moves in with her lover (a Greek man, leaving open space for more derogatory racial remarks), abandoning Rabbit with their 13-year-old son. Rabbit takes up with an 18-year-old hippie/rich kid/hooker/druggie with visions of God who moves in along with a Black Power type of guy on the run from the law, and they all seem to have sex with her, maybe even the kid, I don't know. They spend inordinate amounts of time sitting around the house, listening to the girl play music, debating Vietnam (for pages and pages) and reading aloud from "The Life & Times of Frederick Douglas," passages of which are reprinted in their entirely with Rabbit's musings. Or something like that. I finished it but skimmed much throughout. I'm hating you today, Updike.

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Monday, August 28, 2006

Stalled, but starting up again

I went through an off-reading stage, where nothing clicked and I spent most of my time buying and somewhat reading old Vanity Fairs bought at a used bookstore until The New Yorker found my new address.


The unwanted:

Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants by Robert Sullivan

Awful. I like rats, I was excited about the concept, and have even walked by the alley where the author watched after rats for a year in downtown Manhattan, and yet this guy could not stop talking about himself. I read the intro, first two chapters, a chapter in the middle, and one at the end. He talked about himself to the very end.


Mohawk by Richard Russo

I was hoping for more Straight Man than Empire Falls. Unfortunately, it was more Empire Falls (which I admired and appreciated without liking). I read about the first two chapters, a bit in the middle, and then backwards from the last chapter for a few to figure out the explosive ending.


Angry Housewives Eating Bon Bons by Lorna Landvik

Someone gave to me. Couldn't get past the first 20 on a bike at the gym even. Started to skip to the end but realized I didn't care.



The completed:

Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler

In an act of desperation at the library, picked up a book I vaguely remember seeing as a movie and may have read before. Fantastic bit at the beginning of a man slowly losing it after his wife leaves him -- starts doing things like washing the clothes he wore that day with him in the shower at night and putting a popcorn maker and coffee maker by his bedside to eliminate the need to get up for as long as possible. Sounds like it could be "quirky" and annoying, but it's not. I like Tyler's writing style and pace. Funny, weird, sweet and a little hopeful. I recommend.


Girls in Pants: The Third Summer of the Sisterhood by Ann Brashares

Looking up author's name, I see she has a fourth one coming out. Eh, on this one. Had its moments but the series is losing its charm (unlike HP). Touching storyline though about one of the characters who just graduated high school taking care of another character's bitter and depressed grandmother.


Currently reading:

Rabbit Redux! I didn't think I would, but as before, I'm somewhat haunted by Updike's books. (I'm not quite three chapters in so there's plenty of time for me to quit though).

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Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Cryptonomicon: Neal Stephenson

That was one long book. The WWII storyline was excellent -- interesting and funny (Bobby Shaftoe!) and successfully jetted the characters and readers around the world. Loved it. The present day storyline however, I was not as fond of, though it definitely had its moments. Randy's relationship with the woman was actually almost offensive in places and the ending was laughable and kinda weird. Fun times overall though. Thanks for the multiple recommendations.

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Acts of Faith: Philip Caputo

Beautiful and tragic (the narrator tells you it's going to be in the prologue), Acts of Faith recounts the intertwining stories of relief workers, Arabs, and rebels during the Sudanese civil wars in the 1990s. Caputo impressively delivers loads of information, character development, and plot. For me, it helped me figure out further the situation in the Sudan and how ungodly complicated and daunting and morally ambiguous it can be. Toward the end, the book got a little contrived as one character tries to clear his conscience after the deaths of other characters, but I still recommend this highly.

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The Westing Game: Ellen Raskin

Adorable! Short little teen book that's the equivalent of reading a murder mystery party. It's a funny puzzle with funny characters that's a joy to read. I found it on a shelf while traveling and spent a pleasant afternoon in a park trying to figure out who killed Mr. Westing.

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Rabbit, Run : John Updike

Partly predictable, partly shocking with a wholly unlikeable and emotionally empty protagonist whose story I devoured like watching a train wreck while reading an US Weekly magazine. Updike's writing is at such a high level though, he could write about porridge and it would still be fascinating. I recommend this one if you haven't read it, but I am not sure if I want to know the rest of this Rabbit guy's stories in the subsequent books.

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Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Horse Heaven: Jane Smiley

This was identifiably Jane Smiley. Sprawling story, intertwining characters, an honest look at saddness and tragedy, classy writing, excellent research, and a whole lot of humor and wit. There are almost too many people and horses to keep track of, and though initially put off, I was grateful for the cast of characters (including horses) at the beginning. I found myself getting emotionally involved in the characters, especially the story of one horse. Around the last 3/4 of the book, I actually got so anxious about him that I had to skip ahead and follow his storyline to the end.

Despite getting stepped on by that horse in Micanopy, I am fond of and somewhat fascinated with horses and this look into their heads and thoughts (just a few of them) only added to that. I do think however, that even if you're not already a horse fan, you will still enjoy this book.

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Sunday, April 23, 2006

What We're Reading Now

Jason: See what's on my bookshelf


Anna: Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson. Yup. From the Scientific Revolution to WWII -- two periods in history that I have little to no interest in. And yet I read on -- damn you, Neal Stephenson!

Justin:

Amanda:

Emily: Horse Heaven by Jane Smiley [4-23-06]

Brian: The Languages of Japan by Masayoshi Shibatani - An survey of Japanese and Ainu.

Also, if you need recommendations on what to read and you're not down with Amazon's recommendations, you might try WhatShouldIReadNext.com. Enter an author's name and the name of one of their books and you're golden.

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Seabiscuit: An American Legend: by Laura Hillenbrand

This has been on my shelf for a while and I finally grabbed it for plane reading ... and I loved it. I enjoyed the movie too, but this was better for what you learn about the techniques and history of horse racing. It made me so happy when I was reading it. I highly recommend.

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Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Cloud Atlas: David Mitchell

I have to give this guy credit for pushing the limits of the expected and usual novel form and making it work, more or less. This book consists of six loosely related stories spanning centuries. The book starts with a New Zealand explorer in the 1800s and ends with the world in post-industrial collapse and a narrator whose god is a female clone who had once worked the counter at a McDonald's type place called Papa Song (the futuristic story #5). Two of the stories especially (the clone world and a snarky classical musician in the early 1900s were fantastic. Only one I found patently weak.

Frustration alert: Five of the six stories end abruptly and unresolved in the first half of the book, until they are picked up again in the latter half. And this usually happens at the most critical point when you've just really gotten into the story. If you can stomach that, then I definitely recommend this book.

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Tuesday, March 28, 2006

What We're Reading Now - Updates Anyone?

Jason: See what's on my bookshelf


Anna: Black Swan Green by David Mitchell. All the positive reviews of his earlier stuff, plus a good deal on Amazon...

Justin:

Amanda:

Emily: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. Next I have The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana by Umberto Eco which I think Jason previously read. It's due back at the library soon so not sure if I'm going to get to it. [3-28-06]

Brian: Dialectology by J.K. Chambers - An overview of current trends and ideas in Dialectology.

Also, if you need recommendations on what to read and you're not down with Amazon's recommendations, you might try WhatShouldIReadNext.com. Enter an author's name and the name of one of their books and you're golden.

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Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Toward the End of Time: John Updike

The used bookstore didn't have any of the Rabbit books that I wanted to read on a trip, so I bought this one on a whim. I thought it was extraordinary. And weird. There is a "plot" I could talk about, how the main character's name is Ben Turnbull, a retired lawyer who lives in Massachusetts, and that the book takes place in 2020 when the country is in some chaos after a Sino-American war, his wife, an affair, etc. ... but that's not what the book it about. It's about aging, sadness, death, language, the nature of time, and a whole lot about Ben's penis.


And some of the passages had me repeating a line weeks later or just cracked me up:

[Setting: Winter, he just heard his wife and a hunter outside and believe they may have caught a deer]

Without patience for socks, I stuck my naked feet into the loafers and, moving faster than I had for months, grabbed the old parka, with its seams leaking down, hung on the hook nearest the kitchen door downstairs. The cold outside was misty, and felt like shackles on my bare ankes. The day was still too young to have acquired horizons.


Shackles. Yes, exactly.

And:

Gloria is very beautiful," Beatrice said, but listlessly. "Maybe an aerobics class is what I need. That, or give up alcohol. They say you drop five to ten pounds right away. How do you find it, Ben, not drinking?"

"Like waking up in Kansas every morning. But at least you don't have a headache or a lot of fuzz in your mouth."


Kansas. Hee.

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Thursday, February 16, 2006

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America: by Barbara Ehrenreich

I am really glad I read this book.

I remember listening the news in Rhode Island a few years ago and hearing then say that (something like) 70% of people in the Rhode Island homeless shelters had jobs. This book, where Barbara Ehrenreich goes to different cities and tries to find housing, live on minimum wage jobs, and make ends meet, exposes the "invisible" poor, who have little mobility, few safety nets, and suppressed expectations. For example, one waitress working with Ehrenreich is thrilled when the manager allows her to park her car, which doubles as her house, in the restaurant lot overnight. It's a safer location that other places she parks, but now she can't seek out a better paying job for fear of losing nighttime parking. Another interesting point is that people hired for jobs in Wal-Mart and such are slid through the process so seamlessly from dropping off the application to orientation, etc., that there is no point at which someone says "you're hired," and subsequently no point at which it seems appropriate to negotiate. It's not as though I grew up in a wealthy family or anything, but I haven't experienced this day-to-day struggle either. This book was incredibly eye opening to me. I'll never look at Merry Maids the same way again.

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A Confederacy of Dunces: by John Kennedy Toole

Couldn't get through it. I got about half way and then skipped to the end and read the final few chapters. Time and time again I thought maybe I should be laughing at parts, but they all just felt kind of sad I guess.

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Thursday, January 12, 2006

The Year of Magical Thinking: Joan Didion

Joan Didion's unsparing memoir recounts the sudden death of her husband of 40 years, John Gregory Dunne, and the following year. In addition to that loss, their daughter Quintana was ill throughout the entire year and died shortly after the book was published.

Didion reflects on marriage, grieving, the hole in one's life left by the dead, writing, friends, her reluctance to clean out her husband's closet, because if she threw out his shoes, how could he come back? Numerous times I stopped to mull a sentence, and every few pages I stopped to gaze again at the back cover photo (below). It is an extraordinary book, painful in a way that is both honest and necessary.

I hung on to the book for a week or two after receiving it for Christmas, never sure if today was the day to begin what could be a dark read. A friend recommended reading it when I was in a bad mood and down on my life, saying that this is the kind of book that gives one perspective. He was wrong. What this book did is give me a sense of what is likely and in some ways hopefully to come. Didion didn't tell a story about the horrors of someone else's life, but articulates our own futures.

Life changes fast.
Life changes in the instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.
The question of self-pity.

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Wednesday, November 30, 2005

The Informant: Kurt Eichenwald

One of my favorite This American Life episodes, called "The Fix is In," tells the convoluted true story of how the government in the early 1990s brought down a price-fixing conspiracy at the huge food and ingredient company Archer Daniels Midland, as well as various international companies. The FBI was originally alerted to this, almost by accident, by a top executive at ADM named Mark Whitacre. For years after their initial meeting, Whitacre made secret video and audio tapes of his co-workers and of these price fixing meetings for the FBI. Unfortunately, although Whitacre was telling the truth about the price fixing, he was also a nutjob constantly on the verge of a nervous breakdown who lied constantly and fancied himself a character in a John Grisham novel. Fascinating!

If you haven't already listened to the This American Life episode, you must. It's really great. If you listen to it and dig it, you may want to check out the book too then. The author did an impressive job of presenting a mammoth amount of information in a clear and still suspenseful way.

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Saturday, November 05, 2005

The Alchemist : Paulo Coelho

I don't think this was the book I meant to get. I feel like people have been talking about this book reverently for years, and I finally grabbed it from the library and started it without looking too closely. So, did you know it's a fable? And the real title is The Alchemist: A Fable About Following Your Dream? It had a few amusing and even sweet moments, but overall was silly. I wonder if it was The Alienist by Caleb Carr I am supposed to like.

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Monday, October 31, 2005

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell : Susanna Clarke

It's as though I've been enchanted. I know deep down that the sometimes wavering quality of this book does not warrant my utter obsession over it, but nonetheless obsessed I have been. The plot: Two magicians destined bring magic back to England in the 1800s. Intertwining stories, cruel fairies, folk lore and mythologies galore, random footnotes mostly worth reading, extraordinary magic, a Raven King, shocking turns of events, English manners, humor, darkness and delight all over.

That book near left me giddy.

Except when I left it behind on a trip. I was leaving Minneapolis last Sunday, and on the way to the airport with a wail of despair I suddenly noticed I'd left the book on my friends' couch where I had been reading it before packing. I'd so been looking forward to two and a half hours of uninterrupted reading on the flight. It was too late to turn around, the airport did not have the book, a desperate attempt to find it at Target late that night yielded no results. Luckily I bought it on Monday. If you have not read this and are interested in being part of the book exchange, let me know and I'll send out a copy to you.

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Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Cat's Eye : Margaret Atwood

Although I'd read a handful of Atwood books in the past, I'd always avoided this one because I didn't like the cover. Turns out the cover is a painting by the main character, a 50-something woman named Elaine Risley who returns to her hated hometown of Toronto for a retrospective of her work at a gallery. I still don't like the cover, but I loved this book. Part of the book is told from Elaine's present day, but most of the book centers around her twisted friendships with girls at age 9 and how those weigh on her as she grows and how she does or does not get past them. Atwood is a powerful thinker and writer, and she frequently would throw a random sentence at the end of a paragraph that would just stop me short with wonder, but felt like an idea that was just simple to her and off the top of her head. (I already returned the book to the library so sorry I have no examples.) She's great at imagery and pointed detail of the relationships, clothes, food, styles, marbles from the '40s and '50s such that I recommended it to my mother and my aunt this past weekend after listening to them reminisce about their school uniforms. I highly recommend to all.

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My Year of Meats : Ruth L. Ozeki

I bought the book used last year, thinking it was going to be a slightly higher-level piece of chick lit and had it queued on my shelf since then, saving it for a rainy day. It turned out to be much better than I thought it was going to be, and I learned even more about the foul cattle industry and the DES given to cows and women. Her characters were real and wonderful. The plot meandered too much and felt a little soap-boxy, but I still took a lot away from this book. (Sorry, I drafted a blog post of this but waiting too long to finish. Forgot a lot already).

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Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close : Jonathan Safran Foer

To my unborn child: I haven’t always been silent, I used to talk and talk and talk and talk, I couldn’t keep my mouth shut, the silence overtook me like a cancer, it was one of my first meals in America, I tried to tell the waiter, “The way you just handed me that knife, that reminds me of__” but I couldn’t finish the sentence, her name wouldn’t come, she was locked inside me, how frustrating, how pathetic, I took a pen from my pocket and wrote “Anna” on my napkin. “And” was the next word I lost, probably because it was so close to her name, what a simple word to say, what a profound word to lose, I had to say “ampersand” which sounded ridiculous, but there it is, “I’d like a coffee ampersand something sweet,” nobody would choose to be like that. “Want” was a word I lost early on, which is not to say I stopped wanting things -- I wanted things more -- I just stopped being able to express that want. I lost “come” one afternoon with the dogs in the park, I lost “fine” as the barber turned me toward the mirror, I lost “shame” -- the verb and the noun in the same moment, it was a shame. I went to a tattoo parlor and had YES written onto the palm of my left hand, and NO onto my right palm, what can I say it hasn’t made life wonderful, it’s made it possible. “I” was the last word I was able to speak aloud, which is a terrible thing, but there it is, I would walk around the neighborhood saying, “I I I I.” “You want a cup of coffee, Thomas?” “I.” I know I’m not alone, you hear the old people in the street and some of them are moaning, “Ay ya yay,” but some of them are clinging to their last word, “I,” they’re saying because they’re desperate, it’s not a complaint it’s a prayer, and then I lost “I” and my silence was complete.

I was stubbornly uncharmed by the overall story for almost half of it, but found myself carried along enough by these amazing mini-stories. And then suddenly it all clicked and I couldn't wait to finish.

So basically, if the above paragraph moves you, I highly recommend this book. If not, then you’ll probably want to pass on this one.

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Howl's Moving Castle : Diana Wynne Jones

Delightful! I am glad the movie is bringing it attention. I found the movie frustrating, but I see why they wanted to make a movie out of this lovely story. As bizarre as this moving castle looks onscreen, take up the book instead.

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Monday, August 29, 2005

Black Hole : Charles Burns & Spider-Man: Blue : Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale

The 12 issues of Black Hole are chock-full of sadness, creepiness, and horror but are super, in a gruesome sort of way. The story is about Seattle teenagers afflicted with a sexually transmitted disease that gives them strange mutations -- a second mouth at the base of one kid's neck that can whisper (warning - there's a french kissing scene that made me yelp) or a tail. The mutated kids are harassed by the normals and become outcasts living in the woods. These teens still with love and loss and a few go crazy. Disturbing and fantastic art.

The team who did this Spider-Man: Blue also did a Daredevil: Yellow (and a Hulk: Gray, I think). From what I can tell, these series always focus on relationships and loss. In Blue, a present-day Peter Parker reminisces endlessly about Gwen Stacy, who died on his watch years earlier. Although the Gwen/M.J. parts are interesting, I've had about enough of Spider-Man's whines and lame one-liners, and overall this retelling of a superhero's most tragic moment was unnecessarily dull.

On the horizon: The Three Incestuous Sisters : An Illustrated Novel by Audrey Niffenegger, the author of Time Traveler's Wife.

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Saturday, July 30, 2005

Runaways: Brian K. Vaughan et al

Most kids will say that their parents are evil, but what happens when a group of kids discover that their parents actually are supervillians plotting to end the world? That's the plot of the 18 issues of Runaways. Mutants, aliens, vampires, blood sacrifices, betrayal, secret organizations, first kisses and more. I highly recommend. (Author also did Y: The Last Man, a great series about a plague that kills every male creature on Earth except a human named Yorick Brown and his pet monkey.)

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Tuesday, July 26, 2005

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler: EL Konigsburg

Last night, taking a break after a well-drawn but adolescently written graphic novel called Ultra before diving back into the volcano book Krakatoa, I grabbed The Mixed-Up Files from my shelf. I'm still grinning this morning. If you missed this one when you were a kid, it's worth reading now. Two kids run away to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and get involved in an art mystery. My sister and I used to love this book, as well as another story of two kids who get locked in a library or something.

(And if you listen to the director's commentary for The Royal Tenenbaums, the scene of young Margo and Richie running away to a museum is an intentional tribute to this book.)

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Monday, July 18, 2005

The World Below: Sue Miller

Intertwined stories of a grandmother in the early part of the 20th century and her middle-aged granddaughter moving into her Vermont house in the present day. The writer had an amazing ability to move seamlessly between the two. Although there was nothing terribly extraordinary about their lives, it reminds one that each and every family could have its own very different novel, and the stories would all be fascinating.

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Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Watchmen: Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

Brutally depressing, kinda brilliant and believably groundbreaking for when it was first published in the ‘80s. The thing I like most about the Batman comics, especially the Dark Knight Returns when he’s old and achy, is his utter humanity. The crime fighters in the Watchmen, except for this almost-god Jon, are too just a bunch of humans dressing up in dorky owl suits and such. They live, they age, the get murdered. Throughout the story is a stressful end-of-the-world motif, by way of war in Afghanistan sparking WWIII or a former crime fighter looking to save the world by destroying it. Excellent use of the panels for suspenseful pacing, with a detail from one panel randomly shown pages later. I think if I read this again I’d be able to talk about tons more layers that were in there, but it was such a relief to be finished, to get away from those unhappy people and that horrible planet, that I won't be rereading anytime soon. But someday.

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Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Year of Wonders: Geraldine Brooks

Anna Frith lives in a teeny-tiny village in England in the 1600s with her two young sons, already widowed at 18 when her husband died in a mining accident. A hot tailor moves to town and rents a room at Anna's house. Before anything really happens though, the tailor has delivered a large piece of material from London that sadly is infested with plague-ridden fleas. After the first deaths, the town rector argues that they must isolate themselves to not spread it to other towns, and for a year the town fights, dies, goes mad with superstition, and grieves. Except for the last 30 pages, which seem to come out of nowhere, this a fast and interesting read.

Burn it all! Burn it all! For the love of God, burn it!

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Saturday, July 02, 2005

The Collected Stories : Vernor Vinge

Although I am still waiting for the SF books I requested on your recommendations to arrive at the library, I went there the other day and saw this Vernor Vinge collection on the shelf. Maybe I'm reading the wrong selections, but three stories into it and I'm ready to move on. "Bookwork, Run!" about the talking chimpanzee was fun and had some mild politics to spice it up. "The Accomplice" about a new way of making animated movies was thankfully short and only interesting after reading the author's comments -- good job 1960s Vinge on predicting the state of computer power and animation thirty years into the future.

Then I skipped ahead, looking for something more space-y and settled on "Conquest by Default," which starts with Jupiter and falling gravity and speed-of-light travel. Our hero, Chente, is investigating the disappearance of his predecessor, a clone of him or something. So far so good. But a few pages into it and I caught myself almost snorting. The prose was banal and his comfort with women absent.

The man was dressed in simple black trousers and a short coat. His hat was stiff and wide-brimmed. The woman wore a long black dress that revealed nothing of her from below the neck. Her reddish hair was tied with a black ribbon, and her grim face showed no signs of makeup.

...Her voice trailed off and she sat looking at Chente. For a moment some new emotion flickered across her face, but then she became impassive. ... Martha's hand moved toward him, then retreated. She said softly, "You really are Chente ... alive again."

I did actually like the way that story ended, but I think for a while I'm going to have to stick with stuff written in the last few years. I'll tuck this Vinge book away for now.

Next up: plague fiction.

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Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Mao II: Don Delillo

I finished this a few weeks ago and should have posted then, as now I've forgotten much of this book. Which says something about it too.

Impressions: depressing, sometimes exhausting to read, sad people floating about barely impacting each other's lives. Fascinating description of a Moonies' mass wedding. Some neat though mostly unbelievable characters, Karen "Are you here to deprogram me" being the most interesting.

The plot centers around Bill Gray, an reclusive Thomas Pynchon sort of novelist, and the mental and physical route he takes to eventually try to help a writer being held hostage in Beirut. He is taken care of by his almost stalking assistant and their former-Moonie mutual lover. Bill agrees to meet with a photographer who is creating a collection of pictures of writers, and his consent to the photo indicates that his metamorphosis is already in progress.

The only other Delillo I've read is "White Noise." I was going to read "Libra" next, but I think I'll take a break from him. Although there were images and situations I enjoyed in the book, not a single line of dialog rang true or even possible. Imagine "Gilmore Girls" on speed. In the book, the subjects the characters address are far bigger and smarter than the snarky mother and daughter's, but it's still as annoying.

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Thursday, June 09, 2005

SF - I'm ready to delve again

I almost hesitate to post this here, knowing the response could be enormous, but I know there also is no better place.

After going to a Science Fiction writers and readers reception at this library conference I'm currently attending in Toronto, I am ready to get back into SF. I spent much of my undergrad reading a lot of fantasy and SF, but then moved away from it for whatever reason. After listening to the writers, however, I can't wait to hit the library and check a few out.

So. Science fiction recommendations? Space, not swords please. Thanks. I do, however, intend to reread and finish Wheel of Time someday after he dies. Newer books and classics too. I've missed a lot.

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