26 August 2009

So Far

The Historian, Elizabeth Kostova

Can I just say that I am loving this so far? Milking every page to savor it as long as possible.. extremely well-written. More gushing later.

10 August 2009

A Walk in the Woods

A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson.
Acquired: June 2009, on loan from aunt Irene.

Man hikes Appalachian trail; trail wins; man wins.

Bill Bryson is quite a funny man. Or at the very least, he is quite a funny writer. He's got a good quip and turn to his writing, and does a good job right away of dispelling any myths that he's a phenomenal hiker or even a sane man. There's a temptation to glorify the trail and the endeavor of hiking all 2000+ mountainous miles of it, but there are also plentiful risks, including snake bites, bear attack, murderers, and one's own stupidity. Beware!

Rather than write a travel diary, Bryson has picked apart the story of his own hike and stuffed bits of natural history every few pages. Some of these historical lessons drone on.. and on.. and yes, then they drone on a bit longer before picking up the thread of the story. Most of these tangents are fascinating, like the town of Centralia, CT which is sitting over a subterranean coal-fire with the potential to burn for 1,000 years. Other times, the tangents are too frequent or too long, until Bryson himself notes, after a fascinating but painfully long account of the death of the American Chestnut and the indiscriminate killer, acid rain:

"But let's stop there. I think we've both had enough science for one chapter. But hold that thought, please, and bear it in mind when I tell you that there wasn't a day in the Appalachian woods when I didn't give passing thanks for what there was."

Yes, we have both had enough for now. In all, I really enjoyed this read. But I enjoyed it a little more with a 3-day pause in the middle, in which time I took a science break by reading the lighthearted I'm Down by Mishna Wolff. Was I glad when it was over? Yes. Reading this book felt a bit like a long, arduous hike: some parts of it are easier than others, some parts are unbelievably hard, and a few are even breathtakingly beatiful. When you get through to the other side you can look back fondly and thankfully upon the journey, possibly never wanting to do it again.


Up next:

The Historian
, Elizabeth Kostova

20 July 2009

I'm Down

I'm Down, Mishna Wolff.
Acquired: in a guilty haze, July 2009. Read in 3 days.

I wasn't supposed to buy this book yet. I was supposed to wait until I'd finished at least a few more of my own unread dust-catchers. I definitely wasn't supposed to pick it up, with guilty fingers, at the Barnes & Noble where I was looking for LSAT study materials. Of all places! Tsk, tsk, self-control.

This book came on my radar via Diesel Bookstore's newsletter. Peep what they said:

It's a rare book that can deal with race in America in a way that's as outrageously funny as it is heartbreaking. But I'm Down does just that. Born a self-described honky into south Seattle's all-black Rainier Valley, Mishna Wolff must not only contend with the neighborhood kids for respect but with the expectations of her father - a white man who, having grown up in the valley, identifies as black. Wolfy, as his buddies call him, quickly impresses on his young daughter the importance of "being loyal to the neighborhood", a.k.a. not being too white. Thus begins Mishna's journey in being "down," with mixed and often hilarious results. Then, just as she's beginning to find her way, she's sent to an all-white school where her new found social skills produce only bafflement and alienation, and force Mishna to decide for herself what it means to be white, what it means to be black, and what it means to be Mishna. -- Colin Waters

I liked this book. Maybe not "a lot," but earnestly and honestly. The writing is generally quick and witty, her family and friends endearing and hilarious. What really struck me about her story is the poignant sting of not fitting in, especially when you want to so bad. In retrospect, I didn't fit in as a kid very much either, and I can still identify really strongly with that feeling as an adult. I feel a kinship with misfits.

I really felt that race, although important especially in her early life, is not the real grit of this story, but rather it's the economic disparity between her very poor neighborhood and very rich classmates, her home life and her school life. She develops two visions of her possible life: either as a Stanford graduated anesthesiologist or jobless on a mattress with mysterious water stains, in a shack. The meat of her story is about coping with being poor, and often hungry, and trying to fit in with a richer crowd and their expensive ambitions while also trying to meet the expectations of her home life. Neither is easy for her.

Towards the end I was wondering where her story would wind up. The author is young by most standards, a little too young for her life to already have the climax and resolution of a good book. It didn't quite build up the momentum needed for a really exciting ending, but I was surprised at a theme that popped out: her relationship with her father. This is a guy she adored, who women adored, his friends respected, he seemed like a powerful, influential man. As she grows older, it becomes evident that he's really manipulated most of the people in his life to supporting him and not making it necessary for him to be responsible for himself and his own family. It gets so bad that Mishna's stepmother is convinced that she, at 14, should go get a job to help the family -- not the 35-year-old husband. Mishna ends up living with her mom, realizes her rich white teenage friends get "depressed" for reasons she doesn't understand, comes to an understanding of sorts with her dad, and then they swim across a lake together -- the end. More or less just like that. It felt like the tip of an interesting iceberg that the author either didn't want to share or didn't realize was interesting.

Fun and thought-provoking.


Up next: A Walk in the Woods

12 July 2009

This is getting hard.

I'm finding it very hard to be monogamous with my own books. In all truth, the one I'm reading now (A Walk in the Woods) is a loaner from my aunt Irene ... not technically breaking my self-contract but also avoiding the point of it, which is to make more progress in my own unread inventories. And aside from lent books, I find myself reading about new books that are out (like this one or this one) which promise to be funny and charming with a new perspective on something I want to know more about. Maybe the real problem is that I'm on a memoir bender and am running out? I doubt it.

I spent the last couple weeks in New York and Vermont dreaming about dairy and life in a place that experiences 4 seasons instead of 1.5. There are obvious benefits to both systems, and I wonder if it's not time to see what the other one is like. Isn't 4 seasons a little decadent? That's 2.5 more than I'm used to and I've gotten by just fine with the 1.5 I've had for the last 28 years. Is a climate with 1.5 seasons being miserly or overly indulgent? I've been at a crossroads that's lasted about a year, and I think this fall is when it all comes to a head and one path becomes the clear(er) choice. Which path? TBD. Like so many things right now.

It's hard to subdue my book-shopping impulses when there's so much on my mind. But I'm trying! I just have to remember not to hate myself if I submit.

My Antonia

My Antonia, Willa Cather.
Procured: 2004 or 2005 for a Literature class that I ended up dropping before the quarter began, but after I had already ordered all the books online. They were all early American canon, so I kept them for later enrichment. 4-5 years later and I have read exactly one of them. I finally picked it up and finished it on my recent trip to the cheese and dairy havens of NYC and VT.

Before starting this book, I was won over by the heft and feel of this particular edition. It's a paperback that has cleraly made its way from shelf to shelf, but still carries a substantial weight that feels full of promise. The paper is smooth and heavy, but not so heavy that it feels wasteful or needlessly thick. The binding is tight and secure, but the pages also open invitingly with little encouragement. With new, tightly bound books it can feel like prying open a clam just to read a few pages, which spoils some of the reward that I get from reading. This one was my perfect dimension, size, weight and feel. 10 points for aesthetics.

Is it a love story? Yes. But it wasn't the story I expected. It was as much about a love affair with the early pre-settled west as with anything else, and I found it peaceful to read about the whims of the land and the weather as if it were a woman, with the same good fortune and tragedies that any woman has.

The protagonist is a likeable guy. He has the good sense to see that the "proper" girls in town aren't nearly as interesting as the hired 1st or 2nd generation immigrant girls who work in their homes, and explains how decades later they were the ones who managed to make better lives for themselves with their dedicated industry. Without spoiling the ending of this book: I was frustrated at some of his choices.. particularly when he chose action vs. inaction; these moments had me cursing at the pretty, smooth pages. "Don't be a tool!" "Why would/wouldn't you do that!?" Etc.

The pace is slow compared to more contemporary fiction. I found this refreshing, but it could just as easily be a pain in the ass, depending on what you're looking for from a book at a particular time. I really liked the experience of reading it, so I want to recommend it to others, like the three people who read this blog. You three: I can only recommend this to you if you feel like sitting on a warm front porch for a few hours sipping iced tea. Or maybe if you feel like a nice hike would be good right about now. Or maybe, just maybe, if an industrious afternoon in the garden, followed by a hot bath to soak your aching muscles sounds particularly rewarding today.


Up next: A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson.

16 June 2009


So, I broke rule 1. But it was sort of by accident. There is a book signing at my work this weekend for this amazing Basque small plates foodie book:

Pintxos, Gerald Hirigoyen.

Visually, it is stunning. You could flip through this and feel like you'd just eaten a delicious, fresh, savory meal ... then again you could also flip through this and be left craving everything in it. My point: spectacular food photography. The recipes also sound outrageously good, and the small plate is one of my favorite ways to eat. That image on the cover by the way: calf's liver and caramelized shallot brochettes. Yes, there is an entire section on innards (or Organos). A short section, but a section no less.

I can't gush as much as I would like to because I haven't cooked anything out of this book yet. Because it's a book about food and cooking, I didn't realize that it technically violates my rules until I thought about this blog later in the day ... and I still feel that it's in a different class. My ruling: not to chastise myself too much, and rather to eat some delicious small plates dripping with lemon juice and richness. In all likelihood, entries to follow on my other blog.

15 June 2009

Fantastic Mr. Fox

Fantastic Mr. Fox, Roald Dahl
Acquired: late 2008, Pendragon Books.

I opted for some lighter fare after finishing Alice Munro's Runaway. To be truthful, I had started another book, a Steampunk thriller that came highly recommended: Perdido Street Station by China Miéville. I read the three-page intro and wanted to vomit (sorry). I intend to come back to it but perhaps it was too much of an adjustment from the quietly moving Munro stories. I did a quick scan of the bookshelf, and intead Mr. Fox jumped out at me.

This is a short book of 90 large-print pages, with illustrations. You could read it on a lunch break. I might be one of Roald Dahl's biggest fans, then again that's a statement which I have really no way of ever quantifying so maybe I shouldn't make that claim ... but there it is. He has the rare talent of being a sucessful writer for both young and adult audiences, with a snarky creativity that pokes fun at the world in a jovial way. I really love reading his works.

Superficially, Mr. Fox the age-old story of farmer vs. chicken-eating natural "pest", a struggle which I imagine has been around as long as hunter-gatherers. More importantly though, it's a story of the wealthy minority (the 3 greedy farmers) oppressing and trying to deny the poor and hungry masses (foxes, badgers, voles, rabbits, weasels, etc). It reminds me of the Marxist struggle between proletariat and the bourgeoisie, although I suppose the foxes aren't actually in any proper employ of the farmers. Consider this passage from Chapter 14, Badger Has Doubts:

Suddenly Badger said, 'doesn't this worry you just a tiny bit, Foxy?'

'Worry me?' said Mr Fox. 'What?'

'All this ... this stealing.'

Mr Fox stopped digging and stared at Badger as though he had gone completely dotty. 'My dear old furry frump,' he said, 'do you know anyone in the whole world who wouldn't swipe a few chickens if his children were starving to death?'


'But we're not going to stoop to their level. We don't want to kill them.'


This fox raises an important issue: is theft justified to save a life? What about an entire community? In this case, the entire hillside of woodland critters faces starvation because of the farmers' greed and selfishness. The moral high ground is obvious here, but it certainly got me thinking about poverty in our own country and the choke-hold that authority uses to protect the already-wealthy from the starving masses.

Added bonus: Foxes like to burp. So do I! How did they know?

Exciting discovery: The book is being adapted into a film Wes Anderson for release in 2009, using stop-motion animation! It's 2009 now! It's supposed to come out in November! Holy holy!


Next up: My Ántonia, Willa Cather.

08 June 2009


Runaway, Alice Munro.
Acquired: used, probably late 2007 or early 2008, Bookshop Santa Cruz.*

*One of my favorite book stores, along with Diesel and Pegasus/Pendragon.

I was drawn to Alice Munro for a few reasons. She has the respect of a good friend and literophile (a word which many other people seem to have made up, like me, and which probably has a "real" word counterpart that this friend knows), whose opinion I take with all seriousness. I had also read one of her stories in a collection edited by David Sedaris: Half a Grapefruit was published in Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules. It's a really nice collection of stories, and it includes many other very talented authors: Flannery O'Connor, Joyce Carol Oates, Jhumpa Lahiri, Sarah Vowell, others. Now that I think about it, and now that I'm thumbing through that book, I don't know if I ever finished it. I may have to add it to this project. One of the curses of short story collections is that they're easier to set aside than a book whose resolution hasn't come yet; collections have resolutions roughly every 50 pages.

Back to Runaway. I really, truly loved reading these stories. Munro brings forth all of my favorite qualities in a short story, over and over. She includes details that might be mundane, but which ground you in the character's perspective that much better. Her characters have flaws, not big Hollywood flaws but real flaws that real people have. I could see how a superficial reader, or someone looking for the next Da Vinci Code, would complain that nothing happens in her stories. And that is true, on some level. On another level, everything happens. So much happens that she can't put words to it all, there aren't words to describe it. There's a feeling that I can only describe as "life happening," which I've encountered in certain books or films, and more often in daily life when something painfully, awkwardly beautiful happens. That's the feeling I find in her stories. Something rich, magnetic, profound and rumbling deep beneath the actual words on the page -- she manages to evoke that. It gives me shivers just thinking about it.

I didn't realize before picking up this book that she's Canadian, too. The setting in her stories ranges from the 50's/60's to very contemporary. The way she writes about Canada is so similar, yet faintly different, from the US... and compound that with times that are so similar, yet just a little different, to our own time -- I feel like I'm watching a slightly ethereal parallel universe, or maybe watching scenes in our own dimension through a silk screen that's a little foggy, and which makes herringbone patterns sometimes appear where there are none.

Several of her stories are about the same woman, Juliet, and her life from striking out on her own, to starting her own family in the way that's right for her, to ending up estranged from many of the people and places that once defined her. This one woman reminds me of so many women that I've known - my mother, myself, my friends - and even where she succeeds she is also struck by loss and failure. I could read volumes about her.

I'm so excited about this book, I feel like I could write a novel about it. But I'm going to stop myself, for now. No promises that I won't come back later and add on some more thoughts...


Next up: undecided! Crap!

27 May 2009

Dexter by Design

Acquired: May 2009, via Amazon.co.uk. Fourth in the series.

So I found out about this series by accident, after watching the first two seasons of the TV show Dexter. (For those not in the know: Serial killer/forensics geek tries to be "normal" in Miami, awkward hilarity ensues) They really did a nice job with the series I think -- the humor is dark, wry, morbid and feels entirely natural. Who's-his-face that plays Dexter, I like that guy. Good choice. Etc etc.

The books are good too, for the most part. Wait, maybe I don't mean that. Books 1 and 2 are fun. #3 was more than a little pointless. I just finished book 4:

... and I felt sort of like I just read book 1. Not as in, it was so exciting it was like starting the series anew all over again, but rather as in it is more or less the same damn plot as book 1. Has Jeff Lindsay been taking notes from Dan Brown? Dexter 1 is to Dexter 4 as the Da Vinci Code is to Angels and Demons. Replace one hostaged female with another, replace one homicidal asshole with another, and replace the suspicious cop who lost his tongue with one who can still speak. Boom, you've got it. Don't bother with this one, unless (like me) you don't believe something is really that bad until you try it for yourself.

Still a fun read, but WTF.

Up Next: Runaway (stories) by Alice Munro.

23 May 2009

The fiscal diet and problems wherein.

Call it Murphy's law, call it what you want. But isn't it the nature of diets that when you cut back, you see delicious, tempting things everywhere? You stop eating meat to save money and lose weight, and someone brings you a free pound of the most delicious prosciutto you've ever had. Why?

This is also true of fiscal diets. No sooner did I vow to stop buying new books than did these irresistable opportunities present themselves:

1. A book club. Not a stuffy one, a fusty one, a foofy one, but one full of hip young ladies and their drive to read new things, old things, weird things, whatever, things. And these ladies! What ladies. You can see the problem that a book club presents to my commitment, right? I might be able to find what they want to read in the library, but what if it's newer or not available? And while the library is not strictly ruled out, since reading books there is free, it doesn't really help me make a dent in the massive percentage of unread books at home. Counter-productive.

2. I went to a play tonight, and without thinking I stopped in Half Price Books around the corner from the theater. Once inside I realized how futile my visit was, and then I saw this sign:

WHAT IS THIS ALL ABOUT?? Who planted this shining donut in front of my fasting face? $2 used Literature? $5 for 5?! That is just MEAN.

I'm anxious to get this project rolling, to get into the swing of it and start making some progress. And also to revisit the intentions that led me to pick up my many books in the first place. Why did I think it was a good idea to buy a used copy of the Satanic Verses?

Next up: Dexter by Design. A european import because I was too impatient to track down the elusive US release. The last purchase before my self-induced book-buying fast.

Love and epilogues,

18 May 2009

Money, she don't like me.

As someone with poor impulse control and a love for pretty things, I have accumulated a lot of books. Books are pretty, smell good, bring the promise of self-enrichment and personal growth *and* they are easy to share with loved ones. Even easier to share than cookies (I mean, how many times can you share 3 cookies? Not as many times as you can share one book).

My books are heavy and dusty. They are stacked haphazardly and tightly in teetering piles. They occupy various satellite locations throughout the house where they are trying to farm and propagate their own bookshelves. Many of them have good intentions, like trying to teach me more about natural foods, home gardening, canning/preserving fruits and vegetables, learning more about the classics, understanding better what my mom likes to read. There is a good intention in every book on the shelf that I haven't read. Oh, which brings me to my point: I haven't read them.

I've read most of them. Lots of them. A fair and substantial percentage. More than half. But, there are a great number of good intentions that I've neglected when I came across a shiny new book somewhere else. Have I mentioned that books are pretty?

My bookshelf and my bank account have both reached critical mass. Neither one can bear any more frivolous literary expenditures. I can't physically accomodate any new books until some are removed, given away, sold, donated to the library. And I'm not against selling books - I've heard of people who felt otherwise, but maybe they are also the kind of person who's read all the books on their shelf. But how to decide whether or not to sell the books I haven't read? Doing so would curse me to pick up a different edition of the same story on a sale table within two years, guaranteed.

The obvious solution: read them.

No new books. No new bills. Read more, save money, someday make room on the bookshelf for something new. And pretty.