Monday, February 21, 2011

Curling up with lots of good books

Silver lining of being too sick to move: lots of books read. My pile to return to the library is almost as large as my to-be-read pile. Okay, I exaggerate - it's about half the size. But still!

The Westing GameWhen the 11 year old was off with the flu for a week, I encouraged him to read Ellen Raskin's The Westing Game, but he was too grumpy to get into it. I'd picked it up on a recommendation on a blog about Newbery winners at NPR's Monkey See (which you should really go poke around on if you never have.) And I have to disagree with my son / agree with a total stranger - this is a clever and enchanting book. I enjoyed the puzzle and the mystery but even more the way the characters all grew and changed thanks to the pairings in the will. (My older child saw me with it and raved, so I'm not raising total heathens, by the way.)

Getting to HappyAlso on NPR, I believe, I heard a story about Terry McMillan's Getting to Happy, her follow-up to Waiting to Exhale. Waiting to Exhale is one of those novels I sort of assumed I'd read already, back when it was new, but as it turns out, I hadn't. So I finished both of them this past week. Exhale is almost ferociously caught in its time - I had serious early 90s flashbacks reading it - and it can get pretty polemical, but the women it centers on are, in the end, great friends. Moving immediately on to Happy and seeing what McMillan had thrown in their ways during the intervening 16 years was interesting. Each friend was true to her earlier foundations and deeper thanks to her experiences since then. Curiously, Savannah and Bertie were my favorites in the first novel, but Robin and, especially, Gloria really stole the show in the sequel.

Bound: A Novel
I can't tell you why I picked up Bound, by Antonya Nelson, but I'm glad I did. It's deceptive, and I like that in a novel. Here's what I mean - a woman dies when her car flies off a mountain pass in Colorado, leaving her daughter in the custody of her best friend from high school. The daughter and the friend undertake separate but not dissimilar journeys to find each other, and to adjust to this new reality. That's it, but woven within that simple structure are so many threads from the past and so many versions of self and so many charming canine companions that it all builds into a complex tapestry of identity and desires filled in unexpected ways. It's worth fighting off the Theraflu-induced sleep to finish it in one long cough-ridden day.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Ohhh, I like this book!

Cloud Atlas: A NovelYesterday I finished listening to David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas. I really enjoyed all of it, even the dystopian future stuff, which isn't always my cup of tea. Last year I read Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, which was very good, but I prefer this one. It's funnier, but still smart and energetic. I keep finding myself constructing mental maps of the structure, playing with all the pieces. Some might find that frustrating, but to me, it's delightful. The interlinked stories were each intriguing in their own right, and I always enjoy picking up on the themes that unite each - the Hydras and falls and so forth. Plus, now I'm really worried about corporations taking over our lives.

Hothouse Flower and the Nine Plants of Desire: A NovelI also read Hothouse Flower and the Nine Plants of Desire last week, by Margot Berwin. Talk about escapism for those stuck in winter's icy grip. Not that Berwin's rendering of a New York City summer is where you'd want to be, but when the action moves to the Yucatan, things heat up. The plants are lush, the threats are pulse-raising, and the local lore is mystical. All in all, it's an extremely solid debut with a good sense of whimsy and a strong quest storyline.

Under Her Skin (Lone Star Sisters)And just so you don't think I'm always about tricksy literary stuff with themes and memes and all, I'll tell you about the first in Susan Mallery's Lonestar Sisters series, Under Her Skin. These have been out for a few years, but I've been working my way through Mallery's various novels (trying to get my various libraries and audio libraries to coordinate to give me a full series in order is sometimes a challenge! At least this series is shorter - when I'm dealing with something like Stephanie Laurens's Cynster series, I end up with a spreadsheet to keep track. I grant you that it's a strange way to spend my time, but no stranger than fantasy football or train spotting, right?) Anyway, this is the first novel about the Titan sisters, daughters of a rich powerful Dallas-type dad who is no good at the emotional stuff. The sisters are, of course, all beautiful and unique and have their own personal hang-ups due to their parenting, or lack thereof. I presume that all the heroes will be gorgeous and strong-willed and will present some sort of obstacles to the relationship that will make each side of the couple grow and overcome before finally uniting. Cause that's the way this goes. It's a rough but sex-filled road to Happily Ever After, and Mallery is quite good at portraying it. She's got a great narrative sense and never falls into clunky exposition or stilted dialogue, which is why I've now read a huge chunk of her contemporary romances.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Credit where credit's due post

It seems to be awards season out there in the entertainment world, which means time to thank everyone who helped me get to where I am today. As it were.

I have two excellent public libraries at my disposal, which is a darn good thing given the number of books I consume. Don't get me wrong, it's an addiction, so I'm sure I'd miss credit card payments and send my children to school in holes-ridden clothes if that's what it took to feed my habit, but fortunately I don't have to. (So for those of you wondering - no, the holes-ridden clothes aren't because I can't take care of my boys. It's because they're in charge of their own laundry, and also, the younger one actually chews through his shirts.)

A special shout-out to my county library, by the way - I've had a card there since I was 10 or so. It's on the way from my middle school to my childhood home, and many were the days that I'd call my grandmother from the pay phone in its foyer to ask her to pick me up, since I'd checked out too many books to carry home. (I was the kid who read as she walked from class to class, and during class, and waiting in the lunch line for my daily PB&J and Diet Coke, and on the way home. It will shock you to learn I was also a teacher's pet.)

Anyway, I think it's rare that a magical place from one's youth can be just as vital in middle age, but my library grew with me, and I treasure it. Sometimes when I drop in to pick up my holds, the librarian will tell me I've just missed my husband; the place is a family institution now, too. Plus it has stellar on-line resources for patrons.

This one's my favorite!
But how to keep up with all those library books? Can't dog-ear the pages, that's just rude. Fortunately a friend of mine runs Butterfly Garden Creations, where she makes lovely laminated pressed-flower bookmarks. So many advantages: unique gift item, laminated means when I read in the bath I'm less likely to end up surrounded by dissolving notepaper, and those hardback books from the library? These bookmarks fit perfectly into the space between the inside cover and the plastic-covered book jacket.

If you see someone who looks like me
but who isn't attached to this MP3
player, it's probably my sister or
some other impostor instead.
But it's not all paper and ink with me, nosireebob. It's the digital age, so now when I want books while I walk, work, and wait for lunch, I listen to them on my SanDisk Sansa Clip. It's tiny, it clips onto my shirt collar or bra strap, it holds eight or ten books / tons of podcasts, and it works seamlessly with all of the free digital downloads from my libraries. I also use it to record my son's concerts and the occasional stray idea I have when driving or otherwise not in an optimal note-taking situation.

And where do I come up with so many books to put on hold at the library? The county library monthly e-newsletters for new fiction and audiobooks. The Writer's Block podcast. NPR Books podcast. Audio File's podcast. Online communities full of smart people with good ideas. Browsing at my local bookstores. Recommendations from friends. Recommendations from enemies. (Just kidding. I don't have enemies. At least, none I know about. If I'm wrong - if YOU'RE my enemy! - recommend a book and we'll see how we get on.)

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Reading all over the map this week

Faithful Place: A NovelTana French's Faithful Place is by far my favorite of her novels. I find her so adept at characterization and at steeping her mysteries in a strong voice and sense of place. She also paints a through and intriguing picture of life inside the Dublin police force of her imagination - so much so that I missed seeing our old friends from the Murder Squad in this third novel. The interpersonal office-based relationships (or lack thereof) are strong threads in her work. But I felt with both In The Woods and The Likeness that French had no confidence in her ability to plot, leading to the irritating resolution (and hints of magical realism that serve only to give her an out) in the first and the eye-rolling stretch beyond credulity and into ridiculousness that set-up the second. Faithful Place, however, should prove to French that she's well able to create a strong mystery with twists and intrigues and true emotional charge without resorting to tricksiness. I hope she continues along this line in future works. (The next one, if you're interested, features Scorcher Kennedy. I thought based on this one that it would be young detective Stephen, but I just read an interview in which French says that was her original plan, but she found Scorcher's voice the one she needed.)

Termite ParadeOn an entirely different wavelength, Termite Parade by Joshua Mohr is a little wacky and a little creepy, but also well-voiced and well-paced. (Try reading it in the bath sometime, if your kids will leave you alone.) I heard Mohr read a selection from this on KQED's Writer's Block podcast (subscribe if you haven't - they do pick some great stuff) and was immediately caught up in the "but what happened next?" of it all. Mohr has a sharp observational humor and creates wire-edge tension as he switches the narrative vignettes between three main characters, all looking for very different things from the climactic moment. I'm definitely going to look for more by Mohr. (See what I did there? Funny, right? Right?)

The Heroes of Olympus, Book One: The Lost Hero
If your tastes run to the mythic instead, pick up Rick Riordan's The Lost Hero. (Assuming of course that you've already read all of his Percy Jackson books, which, if you're a kid in your tweens or teens, you probably have. Fun for adults, too!) This brings back Camp Half-Blood but with a new (though sometimes overlapping) cast of characters, and it's nice to see this world again. You've got your demigods, you've got your heroic quests, you've got your monsters of old finding new hangouts in 21st-century America. Our Lost Hero himself, Jason, is a solid character, and his cohorts Leo and Piper are stellar additions to the Riordan Pantheon. I'm looking forward to the next books as they undertake the tasks required by their own personal prophecies.

Just another day on the roller-coaster. AKA, life with a teenager.

Saturday morning. Relaxing in the tub, reading the last twenty pages of a novel.




"Yeah? I'm in the tub!"

"Are you willing to be really cool today?"

"What do you need?" (Note: I already know what he needs. He had me stop at the office supply store on the way home Friday to pick up a tri-fold.)

"Just some coloring." (Note: I admit that I was the one, when he started World Geography this year, who offered to color all of his maps for him. One of the perks of having a high schooler with fair-to-middling artistic skills; I get to play with crayons sometimes.)

"Okay." Add more hot water, settle in to finish the book.

A few minutes later.... "Mom? Mom!"


"Well, I have the scissors and glue and everything ready for you." Hmm. Not a map, then.

"I'm going to finish my book first."

"Okay, but I have two posters due, I really want you to get to work on them."

Two? Two posters, on one weekend? Poor child must be in agony. So smart, so bad at drawing straight lines. Turns out he nearly got his butt sent to detention for muttering, "Oh, great, a poster project," when he got the assignment. His World Geo teacher was not amused. (Did you notice how he ramped up my sympathy for him there, by telling me about the near-miss disciplinary action? Like I said, smart.)


Sigh. Finish book. Release stopper. "Coming!"

Two hours later, I have neatly cut out his typed factoids (he can't cut straight, either. And yes, I do suspect learned helplessness.) I've got glue-stick all over my hands from pasting the factoids to construction paper backgrounds, then pasting those to the posterboard and the tri-fold. I know a little more than I did about Deciduous Forest Biomes and Energy Legislation In The United States. ("Mom, what's cap-and-trade?" "I can't explain it, go look on Wikipedia." "Okay.")

I've been declared amazing and earned the rate 15-year-old spontaneous, "Wow, Mom, I love you!" Everything's coming up roses.

And then he wants me to write "Deciduous Forest Biome" across the top of the poster. But I'm listening to a podcast and can't be bothered to think about how to spell, and I leave off the first "u." (Admit it, it's a stupid word to spell, right?) I squeeze it in, but now it looks "STUPID!" plus, apparently I wrote everything too small anyway. I've RUINED EVERYTHING.

I suggest he chill a little and just print it out and paste it to the poster, whatever size he wants.

More freakout. He suggests I print it out, since I'm the one who RUINED EVERYTHING to start with.

I suggest that it will only take him a moment, his brother will pause his game (two feet away, doesn't even have to leave the room) to give him the computer right now, and as far as I'm concerned, I've written it, so my job is done. Especially since, duh, why would I reward his behavior at this moment?

He suggests that I'm being unfair.

I suggest that he rethink his tone and attitude and consider what I've done for him already today.

He suggests that I am just being mean.

I suggest that he might not get that ride to his friend's house later.

Fortunately whatever beast overtoook him goes into hiding right about then, and he manages to - amazing! - take the one and a half minutes required to type "Deciduous Forest Biome" in big colorful letters, and even cuts it out and pastes it on to the poster himself.

I draw a lovely pyramid at the base of the poster for more factoids. He's impressed with my straight lines. I go back to the Energy Legislation tri-fold. I earn another "Wow, that looks amazing, thanks!" and he earns the ride to the friend's house.

Kids. Fun, am I right?

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

A couple more books to round out January

The first month of 2011 is over and I've averaged a book a day. And you know me, I have the spreadsheet to prove it. Here are a couple more capsules to round out the month.

Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American HistoryI am mostly a fiction person but have enjoyed a few non-fiction titles lately - the latest of the latlies being S C Gwynne's The Empire of the Summer Moon. It starts as a history of Quanah Parker but it so much more in depth and sweeping that that, encompassing not just the rise and demise of the Comanche Nation but all of the Plains Tribes, the influx-turned-invasion of the Europeans in America, horsemanship, scary empty fields, and, of course, syphilis.

Now, I have a history here. Parker's mother, the famous "White Squaw" Cynthia Ann Parker who was taken captive on a raid at Fort Parker when she was nine, is my great-great-great-great-great aunt. (Give or take a great.) (My mom or uncle could well pop in here to tell me this is entirely false, but it's what my child-self thinks she was told.) The tiny amount of Native American blood I have (1/16, IIRC) isn't Comanche, but I've always been interested in Comanche history. Part of my undergrad degree is a major in Native American Studies, so, there you go. I have a pretty high tolerance for a book with a blatant fascination for Quanah Parker and sympathies that don't exactly lie with the cold-hearted breasts of the Texas Rangers. So what I'm saying is, this book may not be for everyone. But I found it fascinating, intriguing, epic. It's definitely a book for me.

Which Brings Me to You: A Novel in ConfessionsAn entirely different read - but also compelling - is Which Brings Me to You by Steve Almond and Julianna Baggott, who team up to write a novel in confessional letters by a pair who chance into each other at a wedding and spend the next several months getting to know each other entirely via the USPS. As they detail the failed relationships of their past and barge into each other's presents - and futures? - I was as charmed by John and Jane as they were by each other. It's a quick read and a worthy one - witty, a little raunchy, thoughtful, fun. The epistolary form is hardly an easy or popular narrative technique, but Almond and Baggott work it well, individually and as a pair. Makes the whole paper and stamps way of communicating feel valid and intriguing.