21 December 2007

My kingdom for reading mittens.

I'm off tomorrow morning from the greater New York area to the mighty Midwest. There's no place like home for the holidays... especially when it looks like we have a good chance for a white Christmas.

Who cares about being holed up in the house when there are good books to read? Here's what I'll be bringing with me for fun:

Cormac McCarthy, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (library). It's finally here! I may even finish this on the plane because I'm so excited.

Tom Perrotta, THE ABSTINENCE TEACHER (library). Also excited about this one, although slightly less so because the plot didn't sound very original. I'm still interested to see where Perrotta goes next in his suburban explorations.

Amy Goldwasser (ed.), RED: THE NEXT GENERATION OF AMERICAN WRITERS ON WHAT FIRES UP THEIR LIVES TODAY. I've been hearing such good things about this collection of essays by teenage girls that when I found it on a book giveaway pile, I was thrilled to pick it up. Having been a teenage girl relatively recently, I hope I can relate.

For my From the Stacks challenge: SAFFRON SKIES and BEST FRIENDS.

Happy reading, whether you're at home or (alas) at work. Merry Christmas to those who celebrate it; I will be back next week.

20 December 2007

Santa Special: Books I'm giving for Christmas.

Are you done with your holiday shopping yet? I hope so. (Especially if you're buying Hanukkah presents... that ship, I fear, has sailed. Sorry, friends of mine who celebrate Hanukkah and haven't gotten their cards yet!) In case you need a few last-minute ideas, here are some books I'm giving this year. If you are related to me, TURN BACK NOW. Here be spoilers.

For Grandma: Francine du Plessix Gray, THEM: A MEMOIR OF PARENTS. My maternal grandmother loves it when we recommend books to her, so while she's visiting us this December I hope she'll enjoy this memoir of Russian expatriates in Paris and New York which I so loved earlier this year. The author's mother had an affair with the man who would be her stepfather in wartime Paris, and later they moved to New York City and joined the cultural elite through his job at the Condé Nast Corporation. What I loved about this book was the way the author both described these lives, so full of boldface names and fancy parties, and her own experiences on the margins of all that excitement, never fully understanding her mother and stepfather until she started working on the book.

For my traveling aunt: I drew Aunt Mel in this year's family gift swap and my other aunt clued me in that she was going to Vancouver this year, so I picked her out two books about Vancouver: Douglas Coupland's CITY OF GLASS, a series of short nonfiction sketches about his home city, and M. Wylie Blanchet's THE CURVE OF TIME, about a single mom raising her kids on an island outside Vancouver. I hope in '08 they inspire her to have a great trip (even if they're not proper guidebooks).

For my mom, who has everything: Mom's kind of infamous for buying things we had been planning to get her during the holidays, but I'm pretty sure she hasn't had time to get into THE MITFORDS: LETTERS BETWEEN SIX SISTERS, edited by Charlotte Mosley. She went through a Mitfords phase a few years ago (and recommended me a few books from it which I haven't gotten around to... sorry, Mom!) and this ought to occupy her nightstand for at least a few nights.

What books are you giving for the holidays, if any?

19 December 2007

Filmbook: Bee Season (2005)

Instead of fighting my urge to write about movies more than once in a great while, I'm going to expend one post a week writing about a literary adaptation. Which is better, the book or the movie? Do you need to have read the book? Should Hollywood have kept its hands to itself? Find out with "Filmbook."

It's not surprising that Myla Goldberg's BEE SEASON became a best-seller. The story of a girl who discovers a special talent, and the effect it has on her family when she does is occasionally bizarre but not off-putting, and the character of Eliza, the daughter of a cantor and a lawyer, very compelling. It's not one of my favorite books, but I definitely enjoyed reading it and was puzzled when a movie adaptation starring Richard Gere and Juliette Binoche tanked at the box office.

Having seen the movie, I understand why people who saw the book and then the movie recommended against it. In a novel where the main characters, Eliza and her family, are very much interior people who conceal so much from each other, that becomes very hard to characterize on film. Eliza's Spelling Bee training is depicted from her point of view with some very pretty and odd special effects, but other tricks the filmmaker uses to get inside characters' heads are very heavy-handed and, without the time to properly develop them, come off as rushed. Eliza's parents especially, who are given a lot of ink in the book, seem in the movie like two very pretty people in a very pretty house who occasionally stare off into the deep distance. (At least Juliette Binoche looks authentically tortured when she does this; Richard Gere looks like he's always holding back a beatific, irritating smile.) Also, the filmmakers make some major changes to the ending of the book -- not Hollywood changes, but ones that don't really make sense in context.

Filmbook verdict: Read the book, don't see the movie.

14 December 2007

Consumer Week: Reader, I Didn't Buy It

Since Judith Levine's NOT BUYING IT is written in diary form, here's my favorite diary entry of hers. It's short, but it speaks volumes:
September 21
I clean out the third and last jar of hoisin sauce. If we had a bigger refrigerator we could have stocked up and made it through the year.
Here's a luxury according to the rules in Levine's game, but one she finds so crucial to her happiness that she had previously stocked up on enough jars to last 9 months. And what does she think when she finishes the jar? Not "How delicious!" but "I need a bigger fridge." I'm sure Levine sees the irony of her situation, but the entry epitomizes our attitudes of shopping, from my fellow city dwellers pining after suburban Costcos to the desire to pick up just a little extra of what you need. (My own family is certainly not immune to this; if you opened our freezer -- yes, we have a stand-alone freezer in addition to the fridge -- you would probably find a huge cache of last year's Girl Scout cookies, waiting to be eaten. Are Thin Mints a necessity?)

It also epitomizes both what frustrated me and what I liked about the book. Of course, giving up buying everything is an extreme experiment, something that the best of us may aspire to but realistically could not (or would not) be able to carry out. At the same time, Levine presents not only herself as a fallible consumer, but even ropes good ol' Thoreau in with her. (Apparently, Thoreau's WALDEN proclamations were backed up by a potentially irritating habit for visiting others' houses around dinner time. I'm sure were he alive, he would be happy to leave a comment defending this habit.)

Levine says at the end of the book that she plans to be more mindful in how she buys since completing the experiment, and it would be interesting to find out if she actually does that. It definitely made me want to try harder, if not to stop buying everything, to make the purchases I do make more meaningful. Since as I mentioned in the first part the book was written in an election year, Levine struggles with the idea of political participant as consumer (as she donates to political nonprofits ahead of the 2004 election). But she also regrets that her friend's store, which sells objets purchased directly from African craftsmen, would suffer in the absence of her buying power. She gives in and buys a new outfit on vacation, but she also visits several stores to find the V-neck shirts she wants to pack for her dad as he heads to a nursing home. The act of buying doesn't have to be an empty gesture, as long as we recognize that it's a gesture. And I recommend this book even if you recognize that already.

Check back this weekend for my review of AFFLUENZA, the third and final book in my consumer series.

13 December 2007

Consumer Week will continue tomorrow.

Due to a combination of factors, none of which are particularly interesting, my full review of Judith Levine's NOT BUYING IT will be posted tomorrow. In the mean time, we have had freezing rain and snow in New York City, so make sure to carry all your books in waterproof bags.

12 December 2007

Consumer Week: The Luxe-less

I haven't finished Judith Levine's NOT BUYING IT: MY YEAR WITHOUT SHOPPING yet, but already I'm finding it more thought-provoking than yesterday's book. Like other "I did this, then wrote about it" books (THE KNOW-IT-ALL and A YEAR AT THE MOVIES are two of my favorites), Levine decided not to buy anything in the year 2004 that was not a necessity. Her reasons are similar to those anyone might use to make a budget or cut back on spending: With holiday bills, credit-card debt and aspirations towards a simple life taken into account, Levine believes she could benefit from giving up shopping without having to change her life completely.

Of course, not shopping does change her life, but not in the ways she expects. It's not the big stuff that Levine misses first, the flat-screen TVs or trips to the Caribbean; rather, it's the pair of SmartWool socks that keep her warm in winter or a bounty of cheap purses in Chinatown. When a friend gives her tickets to a dance concert, she's reminded of all the shows she's missed because she wouldn't buy tickets to them. At the same time, she's tempted to perhaps redefine "luxury" for the terms of the experiment -- her partner, Paul, who joins in with the year without shopping, considers wine a necessity, and after everyone else she knows has seen "Fahrenheit 9/11," Levine considers whether documentaries would really count as a luxury. (One non-luxury item: Reruns of "Law & Order" she rushes home to watch.)

This book isn't outwardly service-y (thanks, Anna) but Levine does a great job of explaining how her day-to-day life is affected by this edict which, while extreme, mirrors advice commonly given to people trying to save money. Of course, as this funny-send up points out, how much you have to cut out depends on how much you're spending in the first place. In other words, it's fine if your budget already "laces in the fat" as my mother used to say, but how about when all the fat is gone?

The tone of the book is more kvetch-y than New Agey so far. Levine feels her own small moments of triumph, but she doesn't declare how much easier her life has gotten since she stopped shopping -- although she pays off almost $8,000 in credit-card debt by the summer, which is impressive especially given that Levine and her partner live in New York City half the year. In fact, the decision comes with a raft of practical and ethical problems, such as: Shouldn't a writer continue to buy books as a means of contributing to her industry? (She compromises on buying just the ones she needs for research and can't find at the library.) All of this makes her very relatable as a narrator.

So readers, Paul has wine; what's your last, dearest-held luxury item? Mine would be coffee (not take-out lattes, but ground coffee and the fixings). I could give it up, and it would probably be healthier to do so, but coffee makes the world go 'round! And unlike books, you cannot borrow coffee and then give it back.

Tomorrow: a full review of Judith Levine's NOT BUYING IT.

11 December 2007

Consumer Week: The perils of wanting.

As I mentioned, it's Consumerism Week on Wormbook, a time when I will be reviewing a few books about buying, spending and materialism. I'm not doing this for you, I'm doing it for me, but I would love to hear your comments (as always). Let's kick it off with psychology professor Tim Kasser and his brief book THE HIGH PRICE OF MATERIALISM.

Kasser's book puts forth and supports two theories: First, materialism makes our lives harder because it's always driving us towards more stuff, instead of things we need like human relationships. And second, materialism feeds and nourishes our own insecurities in such a way that it will never make us feel better. Instead, the more you value "keeping up with the Joneses," the more you perceive a discrepancy between what you value and what you actually have.

And a lot of this psychological work is done unconsciously, as Kasser shows in analyzing his own studies (where, for example, he had people rank certain values in their own lives) and many others from other labs. Because of these studies, literally hundreds of which are mentioned, I found this book extremely informative but also somewhat dry. It's not until the last chapter that he offers tips like "Get off the materialistic treadmill" and even recommends therapy if you have an extreme case of what the Berenstain Bears would call "the gimmes." He also makes some social suggestions which are reasonable (regulating marketing to kids, the most vulnerable to materialistic messages) and some which are a little fanciful (banning ads on public roads and public transit, asking to trade your next raise for a week of vacation). If you're interested in the sociology of buying or in scientific studies on consumerism, you'll like this book; otherwise, it's a better reference than a read.

Tomorrow: Judith Levine's NOT BUYING IT.

09 December 2007

Dearest Cecilia, the story can resume.

I'll be shocked if "Atonement" doesn't get nominated for best picture. The movie completely exceeded my expectations (which were pretty high to begin with) and, nine hours later, I'm still thinking about some of its arresting images and the mechanics of the plot.

Without giving anything away for those of you who haven't read the book, the movie begins in summer 1935 on a country estate in England. Thirteen-year-old Briony (played by newcomer Saoirse Ronan, who is incredible here) and her sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley, who surprised me and impressed me a lot) are trying to stay cool in the long afternoon before their older brother comes home for a visit. In the course of that afternoon, Briony, to steal a line used in the film, "sees something that she doesn't understand, but she thinks she does," the consequences of which will change her life, Cecilia's life, and the life of the family groundskeeper Robbie (James McAvoy), who once studied at Cambridge with Cecilia.

I thought this movie did a great job of adapting the book but went above and beyond the (impeccable) source material with arresting visuals (Briony in a white dress, creeping through a dark house), intricate camera work and the symphonic but never heavy-handed score by Dario Marianelli. My greatest fear going in was that this movie would hew very closely to the conventions of costume drama, and I'm happy to report that this was not the case. The costumes were beautiful, but they worked in service to the story. I've seen a few two-hour movies in the past year, but this is the first one for which I can say, there is not a shot, not a moment here that is wasted. I have to give credit for that to director Joe Wright, whose adaptation of "Pride and Prejudice" I liked but is working on a whole new level here.

I already can't wait to see "Atonement" again. If you've seen the movie, I'm leaving a few spoiler-ish notes in the comments, because there is so much about this movie I am burning to talk about. Hopefully it will expand to wide-release soon, so you all can see it.

Photo: NY Post movie blog

08 December 2007

Erasing last weekend's gains.

Hey, remember on Monday when I posted about the effect of getting rid of books? I've slipped back into my old ways:

Sorry about the graininess, I used Microsoft Paint for the labels (BAD IDEA) and then when I converted it from .tif to .gif it got all noir-y. Also, check out my desk chair and curtain. If you stare deeply enough at that curtain, you can see God. Just kidding.

07 December 2007

This Weekend In Books

Who's going to see "Atonement" this weekend? I've been looking forward to this movie since this summer, when its trailer was attached to practically every movie I've seen in theatres. (Good job, marketing, you won -- although I don't know how good of a match this was with "Dan in Real Life.") I'm feeling considerably more hype for the movie than I did for the book, which I read by chance in 2003 when the graduate student I was subletting from had a copy in her bookshelves. It didn't make a huge impression on me, to be honest, but I thought it was good and it will be interesting to see how it is adapted, given the book's "twist." (Is it really a twist? Well, kind of, but one I'm not going to spoil here.)

I'm planning to go Saturday night, so if you're lucky (har!) you might see a review of it here on Sunday. I have some review books to catch up on as well, but I'm also picking up a few books I requested at the library on shopping and materialism -- just in time for the holidays. 'Tis the season for picking out presents, and I enjoy doing that, but I thought it might be nice to get a little seasonal perspective. I'll be posting about those next week -- if you have a favorite anti-consumerist (or savvy-consumer) book, I'd certainly like to hear about it. And I'm finally going to start BEST FRIENDS for the From The Stacks challenge, especially if I get snowbound. Well, here's hoping!

Photo: Variety.com

06 December 2007

Polonius was wrong.

I got a rather thought-provoking mass e-mail yesterday from my friend Anna, and with her permission I'm sharing it with the class. Anna had a problem that you've probably had before:
Hi all,

I recently was tearing my shelves apart in a search for LIFE OF PI and vaguely remembered lending it to someone a while back. Then I recalled that I had lent quite a few books out over the last few years and hadn't kept track at all, nor did I have any recollection of which books I had lent or to whom I had lent them. Smart.

Anyway, I'm sending this to everyone I could think of with a remote a chance of having borrowed a book from me in recent years. This isn't a demand to give them back; but please just let me know if you have something so I can get a list going.

But if you have LIFE OF PI - give it back! (Please!)
Who among us has not found a book misplaced in our hour of need? Luckily for Anna, this story has a semi-happy ending -- her mom put the book in storage, so it has been located even if it isn't immediately accessible. But friends, what system do you use to keep track of books lent? Like Anna, I have no system. (And it wouldn't have occurred to me to write a mass e-mail -- I'd most likely just stew about it in private.) One of those clever little notebooks? Bookplates? A crazy spreadsheet? A program like LibraryThing or GoodReads? And do you lend more, or borrow more?

05 December 2007

Book Of My Youth: The Robber Bride

I'm rereading Margaret Atwood's THE ROBBER BRIDE, a book I believe I discovered around 1997 or 1998 and have since re-read several times. How many times wasn't completely clear to me until I started over this time, after a few years, and found how many scenes I either remembered or could practically repeat verbatim.

I read several of Atwood's books while I was in that gulf between what used to constitute YA (mostly heavy-handed "issue" books) and roving free through the adult fiction section. I believe the first one I read was CAT'S EYE, about a girl's unhappy childhood in postwar Canada and how it influenced her when she grew up. Virtually all of Atwood's books feature female protagonists, often those who are compelled for some reason to sift through their pasts. In LADY ORACLE, for example, a woman who has just faked her own death and run away to Italy addresses the reasons she left and her life up to the point where she "died."

THE ROBBER BRIDE features the narratives of three women who are doing the same examination compelled by the strange reappearance of a women they all thought was dead. Tony, Charis and Roz don't have much in common, but all were once close with a woman named Zenia who later betrayed them in some way. Years later, they reconnected at Zenia's funeral and have been meeting up ever since, and it's at one of those meetings where they see the (supposedly) dead woman, alive and well. This prompts them to recollect the era of their lives when they met Zenia, and everything that's happened since.

I'm falling in love with THE ROBBER BRIDE all over again, but there's one thing that bothers me and didn't last time. A lot of Zenia's treachery has to deal with men, and the men in this book do not come off well at all. The three main male characters in the book are a surly American draft dodger, a habitually unfaithful executive and an absent-minded geek, and while the geek looks the best, none of them are particularly great or well-suited. I don't think I believed this to be realistic at 13 or 14, but I find it much less so now. Sure, Tony, Charis, and Roz's attachments to these men (and the way Zenia acts towards them) provides a commentary on the battle of the sexes and the precise nature of the eventual vilification of Zenia, but at times I'm finding them to be a little unrealistically bad. Still, I'm enjoying this book (again) and if you haven't read it, I heartily recommend it.

04 December 2007

The writing's on the wall (of the classroom).

Writers make conscious choices.
--my eighth-grade English teacher

John doesn't like his job that much -- his underlings are restless and the meetings are a nightmare. But his beautiful coworker seems to be interested in him for now, and he's about to get a promotion which should make his parents slightly happier. As long as he can play along with the small acts of skulduggery that keep the corporation going, he'll be fine. But when John is forced to arbitrate between two of his underlings in a routine review, a small act of rebellion turns into a witch hunt in which bribery and back-stabbing are the best ways to get ahead.

You could set the novel about which I have just written in pretty much any corporate environment and create a believable thriller. In the case of author Andrew Trees, though, his subject is an exclusive New York City private school, John's job that of high school English teacher and his underlings restless, amoral seniors in his Jane Austen seminar. ACADEMY X, the novel Mr. Trees wrote about private school, was the impetus for his real-life forced termination from his job as a history teacher at real-life New York City private school Horace Mann. (Trees is now suing the school for breach of contract and defamation, and apparently the head of school confirmed the book was the reason for his firing.)

So, was it worth it? After all, the typical pattern is, quit bookworthy job, write tell-all. (See PRADA, THE DEVIL WEARS.) When I heard Trees was fired, I felt that perhaps the punishment was unjust, but the key to his firing is right there in the text: In the elite world of Academy X, basically the school in the GOSSIP GIRL series as told by John Grisham, money is the answer to everything and students are treated like customers to be pleased. Donors' and trustees' kids get breaks, and the college counseling office -- changed from "admissions" after angry parents of a safety-school kid sued the school -- can basically tell teachers what to do. The book gives many examples of parents prevailing over teachers, but if you were a parent and found out your child's teacher wrote a novel that portrayed a similar (but fictional) high school in a negative light, what would you do? What if you were as rich and powerful as your fictional counterparts? I didn't find anything in the novel offensive, but there's a lot of evil going on and some very cringe-inducing moments.

John gradually wakes to this system with the help of a brainy senior named Gunter, who calls the innocent teacher Candide -- just one of many, many literary allusions in this novel. Still, ACADEMY X is familiar enough to both the corporate thriller and the job-from-hell genre to not be a great book. It shows some promise, but it still left me wondering about Trees' thought process in deciding to find a publisher while he was still employed by people who would find the book unflattering, and in keeping with the nefarious dealings of the fictional school, seek to quiet the naysayer. I can only refer to the mantra of one of my old teachers.

This entry was composed in longhand on the C train. Thanks to my fellow riders for not looking at me funny.

03 December 2007

Free your mind (and your shelves)

I gave away eight books this weekend. It felt great!

Usually one of the highlights of my weekend is discovering a history of the Oscars on the clearance shelf at Barnes & Noble or a hunting expedition at the Strand. But I just re-read Peter Walsh's IT'S ALL TOO MUCH and I decided a little sorting was in order.

If you don't know the name Peter Walsh, maybe you need some TLC in your life. I mean the channel; he's a professional organizer on "Clean Sweep," a show where people's horrifically messy rooms are redecorated while they sort through their clutter. I've been a messy person all my life -- it used to drive my sister crazy when we shared a room -- so Walsh's philosophy, that we hold on to clutter as some kind of representation of our inner desires, really hit home with me. I want to read all the time, therefore my apartment is filled with books... but do I really need to keep all of them?

These weren't books I had just gathered up because they were free; I made the decision at some point that I had to have them, read some of them and just ignored the others. That point didn't seem so valid any more. After moving three times a year as a college student (home, school, wherever I was for the summer) I have two shelves of books I consider my core library, the ones I want to have with me all the time. I just need to keep in mind that most of the books I read aren't going to belong to that core library, and if I need them in the future, I can always check them out from the library. I also gave away two of them to a friend who stopped by, who I thought would enjoy them more than I would.

All that said, I did mooch a book and buy another this weekend, so don't applaud me just yet. The mooch was the classic Los Angeles tell-all HOLLYWOOD BABYLON, and the book was A.J. Jacobs' THE YEAR OF LIVING BIBLICALLY, because I have a book club meeting this week and that's what we're discussing. (Procrastinate, moi? Nahhh.) Plus, my transactions netted me a cool 10 points on BookMooch, so when I do want to add to my collection again, I'll be able to do that. (You can mooch a book from someone in your own country for one point, or from another country for two.)

How do you manage your library?

30 November 2007

I made it! (Kind of.)

This post brought to you by my Google Image Search for "book champion" this morning.

Pardon me while I applaud for myself.

It's the last day of NaBloPoMo and I only have one thing to say: Ha!

I finished! I missed four days, but I was glorious in the attempt. Or at least, not shameful in the attempt. I even found myself reaching for books more often so I would have something to blog about. While it occasionally was a burden to post every day...

...I'm glad I didn't quit the first time I missed a day. (Or any of the other times.) Congrats to the bloggers who actually finished without skipping a day. You people deserve backrubs, or at least trophies:

So I'm probably going to take the weekend off. I wouldn't say this blog has been sucking away my entire day, but heck, I need to read a little more to have something to write about next week.


29 November 2007

Ayun's long resume (and bonus rant)

Before I launch into today's book review, I have to get a generalized Internet pet peeve off my chest, and I hope you'll forgive me: I HATE Flash! Okay, I don't actually hate the application responsible for wonderful things like YouTube and gorgeous galleries to shop from -- that would just be silly. But since when does every page have to be larded up with Flash bits here, there and everywhere? Like garlic, it should be used in moderation. I know my ancient laptop is part of the problem, but I shouldn't have to wait 30 seconds for a roll-over ad that will tell me how to refinance my mortgage in widescreen (I'm looking at you, NYTimes.com). I have Flashblock installed on my home computer, but I can still tell the whole page is covered with overlapping animations I have to click on and endure to get to the content I want. If you have more than two Flash objects on your page, you're obviously trying too hard.

Okay, enough of that. Last night I finished a book of essays called JOB HOPPER by Ayun Halliday, a zine writer, blogger and (according to the book) former aspiring actress. Each essay describes one past job Halliday had, mostly in the years when she was living in Chicago and trying to make it as an actress. She waitressed and temped, but she also modeled for an eccentric art teacher and his belligerent class, sold hippie clothing at a suburban boutique and conjured up cheap party spreads for an art gallery.

Each essay contains basically the same elements -- descriptions of her coworkers and boss, how she got the job, and typically one primary illustrative anecdote or turn that leads to her departure -- but there's nothing cookie-cutter about her approach. For one thing, Halliday was clearly paying attention to the idiosyncrasies of each workplace, from a secretary's sick fondness for Garfield to the hated number-one salesman at a telemarketing job. You may not have gotten to say "I told you so" after the boss's favorite passed out next to the empty cash register, or accidentally put Art Spiegelman on hold, but the situations Halliday encounters are universal, and she goes out of her way to point out that she was not the perfect employee for these irregular jobs.

If you're feeling bad about your career, read this book; if you've ever had a job you hated, read this book; if you liked Nickel and Dimed, you will like this book even though there's no real moral or overt socio-political drive to it. (Halliday eventually started a zine and became a full-time writer, aided, as she acknowledges in the opening, by the success of her husband's little musical called "Urinetown.") If you're not sold, read this chapter about Halliday's turn as a department-store Bert. (Hey, there's no Flash on that page... go figure.)

ETA: Coincidentally, there's an article in the Times today about a man who is doing one job a week for a year and recording his impressions on a blog. Of course the difference between Sean Aiken and Ms. Halliday is that the former set out to take lots of different jobs on purpose, instead of doing the jobs in the course of his life and later writing about them. Interesting project, though.

28 November 2007

Me, Mr. Darcy and a lot of silliness.

Over Thanksgiving I finished the first book in the From the Stacks challenge, Alexandra Potter's ME AND MR. DARCY. Unfortunately, I have to say I do not recommend this book.

Our heroine, Emily, opts to join an Austen-themed bus trip through England over Christmas instead of joining her single friend for a Spring Break-style boozefest. Once she arrives in England, though, the bed and breakfasts are unbearable, each site the same as the last, and the other members of the tour are all old ladies except for an annoying laddie journalist who misses his model girlfriend. Emily's just starting to enjoy herself when, lagging behind on a tour, she is visited by a man who claims to be Mr. Darcy. Yes, the fictional one.

Pretty much any book that references Jane Austen has the opportunity to tap into the themes and common narratives of her work, and her characters, inclined as they are towards marriage, could potentially be read as chick-lit heroines in the making. Unfortunately, this book went out of its way to brand Emily as a nerdy shut-in, and then has her do a series of very stupid things. As the plot threads of her life begin to resemble PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, she seems to be the last one to know it. (I must interject here -- I am an Austen fan, but not a fanatic, and you don't have to be a completist to pick up these references.) And the semi-supernatural elements of the book (I'm wording this carefully so as not to spoil anything) seem to add up to a lesson that is dissonant with the rest of the story. Certainly it doesn't really explain the ending.

There's better chick lit out there than this book. And hey, if you haven't read PRIDE AND PREJUDICE yet... it's not too late.

Next up: Martha Moody's BEST FRIENDS.

27 November 2007


Instead of updating "On the Nightstand" in the sidebar twice a week, I've replaced it with a Goodreads widget that shows basically the same thing. Let me know if you have trouble seeing it -- it looks fine on my browser, but one never knows. That way I won't have to tinker with the template every time I finish or start something.

No Country Musings

I shouldn't be buying or borrowing any more books right now, but my latest sought-after title is Cormac McCarthy's NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. As I'm a bit of a film buff (which you might have guessed from my recent post about book-to-film adaptations) I can't help but notice the rave reviews that the movie "No Country for Old Men," directed by the Coen brothers (of "Fargo" and "Big Lebowski" fame), has been getting. I don't think I've read a single negative review of it yet, and (though I don't usually check these things) it currently has a 95% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes. That is Very Good. Like Kubrick good.

But I want to read the book before I see it, which will come as no surprise to you, my loyal 2.7 readers, but shocked a friend of mine who said he never reads the book before watching the movie. He says he doesn't want the book to shade his impressions of the film, and I respect that... but mostly I want to read it because I hear the film is extremely violent. If I know what's coming (even if it means I'll be spoiled a little bit) perhaps I can be somewhat prepared. I've never read any Cormac McCarthy either, so this seems to be a good enough opportunity to do so.

For now, a few reference points: You can read all about Cormac McCarthy at RandomHouse.com or watch the trailer for "No Country For Old Men" here, if (like me) you never saw it in theatres. Roger Ebert's review gave the movie four stars. If you want to know more about the making of the movie, I suggest listening to this podcast interview of costar Josh Brolin. When I do finish the book and see the movie, I'll be checking out this comparison of them by Tasha Robinson, my editor at The Onion A.V. Club.

26 November 2007

Will the Kindle render our books into kindling?

Ever since the release of the Amazon Kindle, the new e-book reader to rule us all, I've been looking at the pictures and trying to decide how I feel about it. I don't think it'll change the course of reading as we know it, but whether you're all wired-up or a card-carrying Luddite, it's hard for a reader not to see the appeal of the thing. It holds over 200 books! You can also read blogs on it (perversely, for a fee per blog per month, but I guess someone is willing to pay that)! It's super handy!

Still, because of my twin concerns of cost and version, I won't be writing to Santa and asking for a Kindle for Christmas. The price of the device sounds about right for what it does, but as with the iPhone -- another much anticipated gadget of the year -- you have to consider the hidden costs of using it, which in the Kindle's case means buying books from Amazon if you want to read from it. I shop at Amazon regularly, and to my knowledge have never had a negative experience doing so (even the time they sent me Introductory Welding instead of Inside the PSAT, they were gracious). But I don't buy a lot of new books now, particularly new hardcovers, so being forced to buy everything I read in digital form is prohibitive. If you could use the Kindle to check out e-books -- either from the public library or from Amazon -- for a small fee, I might reconsider, but it doesn't suit my habits.

By version I mean, I'm not a classic early adopter. Certainly the first run of the Kindle is bound to have some problems that later devices might not have, apart from the dangers with any device that it might malfunction when you're out and about. (How scary would it be if your Kindle stopped working on the first day of a two-week beach vacation? And you hadn't brought any other books with you?) Amazon to my knowledge has never released its own device before, and while I'm sure they stand behind it, I want to see what its quirks are before I plunk down $400.

Still, it's fun to speculate on what the Kindle might do should it become a runaway success. Author Meghan Daum wrote in the L.A. Times this week about how the Kindle will make it impossible to tell on sight what one is reading (using the example of passengers on a plane):
Kindle will look like Kindle. You can't glance at it and see the telltale orange spine that denotes a Penguin paperback, or the foil-embossed dead-giveaway of a romance novel. And if you can't read title and author, you can't evaluate your seatmate...As Kindle could be to books, iPods and digital music files are to CDs and records: The intensity, nature and quality of our relationship to music is increasingly hidden from view.
Would you buy a Kindle? What killer feature would convince you to buy one (realistic or not)?

25 November 2007

New Year's Eve for the New York Times

So I did a little better on the New York Times Notable Books of 2007 list than I did on PW's year-end foray, but I still wish someone more prominent than I -- perhaps a book critic for NPR -- would come out and say, "Look, nobody has read all these books, so stop feeling like a slacker." Anyway, here are the books on their list I've read:
Thomas Mallon, FELLOW TRAVELERS -- I reviewed this book, recently re-read it and loved it.
J.K. Rowling, HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS (well, of course)
Ian McEwan, ON CHESIL BEACH -- Ah, love, let us be true/ To one another! Oh wait, wrong beach. This book is very short (also quite good), so if you happen to be reading the list and feeling guilty that you haven't read ANY of the most notable books of the year, according to some guys in a smoke-filled room, well--here's your chance. Also fits well in most Christmas stockings.
Tom McCarthy, REMAINDER -- so far, the only overlap I've found from the PW list.
Michael Chabon, THE YIDDISH POLICEMAN'S UNION (hooray!)

Also of note, if you are still feeling guilty: One of the books on the list was Pierre Bayard's HOW TO TALK ABOUT BOOKS YOU HAVEN'T READ. Is that editor Sam Tanenhaus winking at us?

22 November 2007

Because it goes well with turkey.

"I don't hate blogs any more. I still think they're a waste of my time, but I don't hate them." --my brother (17), as I was writing this post.

Happy Thanksgiving! I hope you partook in some delicious victuals and have since slept it off, if you're not doing so already. I'm at my parents' house for the weekend, and it's been delightfully surreal, but I haven't been online much since the wireless network is a little tetchy and anyways I'd rather be chasing my cousin around and kibitzing with the clan.

I'm thankful for a lot of things, but since this is a book-related space, here's five appropriate ones:

1. I'm thankful for the amazing public libraries I have used over the years, from the one-story brick building where I got my first card at the age of 6 to my current condo-topped branch. The fines, when they accrued, were worth it.
2. I'm thankful my parents let me read almost anything I wanted and make my own decisions about what I liked and disliked from an early age. The only book I can remember being taken away from me was THE FIRST WIVES' CLUB, and I have no idea why -- anyone read it and know what was so objectionable?
3. I'm thankful for the teachers I had who taught me to love reading, and those who tolerated my desire to have my nose in a book constantly even when it wasn't appropriate.
4. And for those teachers who confiscated my books and punished me for reading? I'm thankful I don't have you any more. (Luckily they were few and far between.)
5. I'm thankful for those authors I read over and over, like Tolstoy and Mark Salzman and Jane Hamilton and Margaret Atwood, who take me to places I love to visit again and again.

And now, back to reading on the couch, and thereafter, in bed.

21 November 2007

Early Thankfulness

Books I took home with me for my five-day holiday weekend:
- Louis Begley, MATTERS OF HONOR
- Marcia Preston, TRUDY'S PROMISE (for review)
- Rich Merritt, CODE OF CONDUCT (for review)
- Alexandra Potter, ME AND MR. DARCY (From the Stacks)
- Mark Helprin, FREDDY AND FREDERICKA (From the Stacks)
- Michelle Sawyer, THE IMMACULATE CONNECTION (for review)
- Martha Moody, BEST FRIENDS (From the Stacks)
- Jeffrey Frank, TRUDY HOPEDALE

And that's all the blog post I have in me today, because it's cold in the house and I'm going to scare up some blankets and read some more.

20 November 2007

Clear eyes, full hearts--can't lose.

I've been making my way through the first season of "Friday Night Lights" on DVD lately and, as forecast, I've really been enjoying it. I expected to, having loved the Buzz Bissinger book and Peter Berg movie of the same name, but I was still skeptical enough to miss it on original broadcast. Although the series is a fictional adaptation of the nonfiction book, watching the Dillon Panthers as they go through their season makes me want to go back and revisit the Permian Panthers of the journalistic work.

Here are a few of my favorite book-to-movie adaptations:

"Le Divorce" (2003)--There are plenty of adaptations better than this one, but the movie accomplishes the flirty-chick-lit-meets-serious-themes transfer even better than the book by Diane Johnson does. Whether it's the seductive Merchant-Ivory production values, the small but memorable roles of French actors like Leslie Caron and Romain Duris or stars Kate Hudson and Naomi Watts as expat sisters, this movie is incredibly rewatchable.

"About a Boy" (2002)--Hugh Grant at his most unlikeable, but also at his most compelling as a toxic bachelor who becomes attached (in a non-cloying way, promise) to a much-picked-on kid who shows up at his apartment one day. Fun fact: The young actress in this movie who plays Hugh's new friend's school buddy has another role in a book-to-movie adaptation--she played Nymphadora Tonks in last summer's "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire."

"Wonder Boys" (2000)--Okay, so it disappeared from theatres, made almost no money and has kind of been lost to the ages. But again, strong performances from Michael Douglas as a drugged-up professor, Tobey Maguire as a weird maybe-prodigy in his classes, Frances McDormand as the school dean and Douglas' lover and so on really bring the Michael Chabon book to life, and make me eager for the forthcoming adaptation of THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER AND CLAY.

So what's your favorite book turned movie?

Photos: allocine.fr, themoviespoiler.com, greencine.com.

19 November 2007

What will drive them to a book?

If you keep up with entertainment news at all, you're probably aware of the Writers' Guild of America strike which began two weeks ago. Ironically I was on the verge of starting a television blog with my friend D. when the writers started striking, but make no mistake, I'm not mad at them. I think they're completely justified, but I won't bore you with my (warmed-over and third-hand) analysis. Suffice to say, both parties are headed back to the negotiating room next week to talk about things like new-media residuals, and I think that's a good thing.

Since the mainstream media is hardly covering the strike at all, I get most of my news from blogs like Deadline Hollywood Daily (run by L.A. Weekly columnist Nikki Finke) and United Hollywood (pro-strike site). The other day, someone posted an item that in an earlier version of myself would have made me very happy: A TV fan going cold-turkey on iTunes downloads and streaming Internet video suggested forming an online classic-book club for fans who, due to the impending end of new episodes in the 2007-2008 season, suddenly have a lot of time on their hands. (And considering that according to NPR the average American watches 29 hours of TV a week, that amount of time may also constitute "a crapload.")

Now, I love anything that gets people reading, and I don't have to go on my soapbox to explain why. (After all, the 3.7 of you who read this are already readers anyway.) But I can't delight in the strike simply because it might force some former viewers to seek out alternate forms of entertainment, because I am not anti-television like I once was. I love "The Office," eagerly await "Ugly Betty" and am delighted by "The Daily Show" on a weekly basis. And I don't think the strike will mean most people watch less television; they'll either watch what's still on (don't forget, media juggernaut "American Idol" starts in January when the midseason replacements are supposed to be starting) or they'll turn to Netflix or Blockbuster to get their scripted-show fix. Still, it's nice to imagine a world where a country-wide turn toward books would at least get the Writers' Guild and the producers' union back to the table--where books could constitute such a threat to the status quo.

If you need some TV-related writing to tide you over during the strike, I recommend Sally Koslow's LITTLE PINK SLIPS, a dark comedy in which a network star wreaks havoc on the plans and dreams of a magazine editor; Marshall McLuhan's UNDERSTANDING MEDIA, a classic analytic work which discusses the way people respond to various forms of content delivery; and Tova Mirvis' THE LADIES' AUXILIARY, about a community of Orthodox Jews in the South who don't watch TV. (I guess I cheated with that last one, but hey, if you want to be truly scared out of your habits, reread BRAVE NEW WORLD or A CLOCKWORK ORANGE.)

18 November 2007


I lost NaBloPoMo. I could have kept it up, and I didn't. Is it worse if I feel bad about it, or if I don't? Anyway, I was rather sorry about it, but I'm not any more. Take that, Internet! I can still post until you explode!

Anyway, I had my reasons, but they are super boring and not worth a post. I will say that I went to my second favorite book source after BookMooch* this weekend, the Strand Bookstore here in New York. For you non-New Yorkers, it's a giant musty shop of dreams that looks like the bookstores in books. It can be a little intimidating on first visit, but last time I was there I confused R. Crumb and Art Spiegelman and no one even bothered to kill me. (Ask Sarah, she was there.)

The Strand periodically puts out carts of $1 books in which one can find many treasures, and also dusty stacks of the sad unloved tomes of our age (Rudy Giuliani's LEADERSHIP, anyone?) Within minutes I had immediately pulled two near-pristine hardcovers, Norris Church Mailer's CHEAP DIAMONDS and Galt Niederhoffer's A TAXONOMY OF BARNACLES. (I had actually read the first chapter of the latter in a library somewhere, but always meant to get back to it.) After a pass through the indoor selection, including the half-off review copies in the basement, I approached the counter with my two books. The checkout woman scanned the Mailer (yes, that's Norman Mailer's wife's novel) -- $1 -- and then the Niederhoffer -- $12.47. Apparently, even though I found it on the dollar cart, it was a review copy and therefore officially too good to be true. Normally I would have fought it -- it was on the dollar rack, so it should be a dollar, too bad! Then I remembered I had a non-New Yorker guest in town, so I meekly took my remaining $1 book and carried on to the East Village. Those dollar carts... they're more dangerous than I thought.

I also picked up three library books this weekend, Cheryl Mendelson's ANYTHING FOR JANE, Andrew Trees' ACADEMY X and Ayun Halliday's JOB HOPPER. Thanksgiving is coming, so it is time to return to the burrow from whence I came (or it will be on Wednesday). Hopefully I will get a lot of reading done when I'm not watching the "Godfather" trilogy with my sister. Don't laugh, we have actually planned to do this.

*for the record, my bronze-metal favorite source for books is Amazon Marketplace, especially if you're looking for a popular book which may be listed for $0.01. That's about $4 with shipping, but even so! But I have found this less useful as I save my list of books I want to read on Goodreads, and not on my Amazon wishlist.

15 November 2007

The Stacks Strike Back

Early this morning (before I went to bed last night) I had my first instance of NaBloPoMo panic. I couldn't remember if I'd posted at all on Wednesday, and I thought, "Oh no, I failed! I couldn't post every day!" I guess that last entry was sort of a sleeper. (Har.)

At any rate, I've made it halfway through November, and even though the hardest is yet to come (Thanksgiving, when I'll probably be separated from my laptop) I will continue to forge ahead. Everyone is writing about the National Book Awards today, but I don't have a lot to add about that. Instead, I'm signing up for the From the Stacks Challenge for the second year.

Longtime readers might remember I didn't do so well on the challenge last year. I finished three out of my five self-assigned books, but I haven't ever gone back and read those other two. The good news is that I enjoyed the books I did read and enjoyed two of them so much that they have joined my permanent library. So I'm hoping that this year I will actually read all my books and discover some new favorites as well. That said, I'm cheating a little; the first three books on my list are books I started and have been sitting on my nightstand for at least three months. Will I have to start them over? It's possible, but they do give me a wee leg up, so there you go.

Here's my list:

1. Michael Gross, 740 PARK
3. Alexandra Potter, ME AND MR. DARCY Read all about it!
5. Martha Moody, BEST FRIENDS
6. Lesley Lokko, SAFFRON SKIES

I almost put Vikram Seth's SACRED GAMES on the list, because it looks amazing and the person who lent it to me loved it, but then I remembered it was a thousand-page hardcover. So we'll see on that one.

Actually, this could not come at a more inconvenient time as I was planning to go book shopping at the Strand this weekend with a very special weekend guest, but maybe I can pick out early Christmas presents instead of splurging on myself. On the other hand, BookMooch is down for a few days as the wizard behind the curtain tinkers with it, so I can focus on reading the books I have instead of mooching new ones.

14 November 2007

Newspapers for blankets?

Reading in Bed
Originally uploaded by e mil y
I haven't been sleeping much lately. I'm going through one of those phases where it takes so long to fall asleep, there doesn't seem to be a point in going to bed early, because when I do I inevitably end up lying there with my eyes locked open... but when I go to bed late, it takes me just as long plus I'm too tired to do anything else.

When I get extra-crispy desperate and tired I read "expert advice" on sleeping, and two rules always stick out: Limit your caffeine consumption, and limit your non-sleeping time in bed. Coffee maybe I can cut slightly back on, but bed is hands-down my favorite place to read and has been since I was a little kid. (This may also have something to do with the fact that I don't have a couch. My dish chair is nice, but not the same.) As far as sheer hours, though, I probably read more on the subway these days.

Where are your favorite places to read? (Extra credit if you recognize where my title comes from.)

13 November 2007

Terrible, But Guessable

On the advice of my sister, to whom I mentioned I was reading THE TURN OF THE SCREW, I rented "The Innocents," a 1961 adaptation of Henry James' novella, from Netflix over the weekend.

I recognize in it a lot of horror-movie clichés of today -- the strategic placement of creepily lifelike figures, for example, and the scary little kids who know everything and seem complicit with what's going on. And while I didn't find the movie all that scary (probably because I already knew the plot), there are a few very disturbing images from it which will stay with me. I thought the ending in particular was incredibly well shot, but there's an inherent power to shooting a horror movie in black and white which I believe you really can't get in color, even with a severely restricted pallet.

I was a little disappointed, though, that they didn't include more of James' lines from the book. I know I only notice this because it's so fresh in my memory, but I was listening for some that never came. Still, if you like creepy movies, it may be worth a rental.

Poster: britposters.com

12 November 2007

PW's New Year's Eve

Pinky's Paperhaus pointed me towards Publisher's Weekly's Best Books of 2007 list, which officially came out a week ago. It sure seems early to do a year-end summary, but I would guess the book-trade weekly has probably had almost all its galleys for 2007 for at least a month now. (I'm basing that on my own experience as a PW reviewer, although it must be mentioned I had no input on this list and none of the books I reviewed made it.) They could have held it, but there's a certain cachet in being the first to put out a best-of list, even if it has a similar effect to seeing Christmas decorations before Halloween.

That said, I have read almost none of the books on this list. The further I read, the more I felt just glad to have heard of some of the books. I guess this means I have to turn in my book-blogger card, because clearly the Right Books are slipping through my grasp. (Just kidding. If I had pledged only to read books published in 2007 this year, I probably would have gotten through more, but that seems like an incredibly myopic way to read.) Now that you've all quit reading in disgust, there is one that I'm pretty sure will appear on my best-of list though: Tom McCarthy's REMAINDER, which is an incredible, surreal work of fiction I fear I will spoil for you if I write any more about it.

Make sure to scroll down to the bottom of the list and check out the special-consideration categories, too. If only there were more works in contention for the Best Book By Stephen Colbert category.

Image: Paul Harris Online

11 November 2007

CSI: Tacoma

I finished THE KING OF METHLEHEM yesterday on the subway, and I have to admit I was disappointed. I was totally sucked in by the premise -- a Tacoma, Washington police detective named Wyatt becomes obsessed with a local meth manufacturer and would-be kingpin whose latest alias is Howard Schultz (as in the Starbucks chairman). Wyatt has a lot of cases but he's convinced Howard is a major player and pursues him at the expense of friendships and his stripper/barista girlfriend. Meanwhile, Howard, high on his own supply, is devising a plan to create a permanent meth lab which will revolutionize his business while eluding capture and jail time.

I learned a lot from this book about the mechanics of the meth trade, its idiosyncrasies within the legal system and its association with other crimes committed by "tweekers," chiefly (and non-spoilery) identity theft. But the further the book delved into the cat-and-mouse games of Howard trying to avoid Wyatt and the other long arms of the law, the less I believed their actions. In the book's climax, the drugged-up Howard was probably the most believable character, and I believe I still may have uttered an exasperated "Oh, come on!" in his pivotal scene.

I liked the topical Northwest references (Nordstrom, Puyallup, Death Cab for Cutie) and I thought the book did a great job of establishing the setting, but if you're looking for a thriller, this doesn't quite do the trick. I compare it to "CSI" because of the episodes I've watched, the ones I enjoy the least are those which focus on the personal lives of the detectives or rely on some suspect's emotional breakdown to solve the crime. I don't care who Gil Grissom is in love with, even if it does affect his job; it's okay if people behave irrationally, so long as it's believable. This book doesn't have a deus ex tearduct ending, but it's similarly hard to accept.

10 November 2007

Norman Mailer, 1923-2007

Whenever a famous writer whose work I have never read passes, I feel a little more guilty and frustrated, that I am never reading quite what I should. Since Mailer is among those writers, and I have nothing to say about his death, please enjoy this video of Mr. Mailer and Rip Torn fighting on a movie set. Warning, there is an instance of salty language near the end.

09 November 2007

Four For Friday: Vegas Plans To Sue

bookshelf spectrum, revisited
Originally uploaded by chotda
I have now survived more than a week of NaBloPoMo, and it's been both easier and harder than I expected. Easier, because I approach the world in a particular way knowing I need something to write about; harder, because I'm out of the habit of posting here at all, much less every single day. So here are some shorter bits I've been saving, along with an adorable pug-and-bookshelves photo I found on Flickr.

San Francisco correspondent Emily of now, tastes more like REAL life shares her last 5 books.

Kimbooktu finds a bookstore in Las Vegas. And now that she mentions it, I realize I didn't set foot in a bookstore the entire time I was there. What if you needed a book about poker? On the other hand, if you go shopping in Vegas you miss what for me was the best part--wandering through the various casinos, people-watching and seeing the ridiculous sights which have been placed there to draw traffic. We took the monorail, saw clearly plastic replicas of Egyptian artifacts at the Luxor and tried not to point at the Excalibur's sorry-looking cocktail waitresses. This was way more fun than gambling.

The Guardian lit blog suggests authors of bad books (and critics who recommend the bad books) be sued. Of course, as a critic, I disagree, because it's tantamount to suing someone for having a different opinion. Vogue might say metallics are in, but that doesn't give you the right to sue if you wrap yourself in aluminum foil and your crush starts calling you Chipotle... to take an extreme example which has nothing to do with the issue at hand.

In the war of social networking for book lovers, apparently there is one common enemy: Shelfari. Despite its eye-catching logo, the site is being criticized for spamming all your contacts without your consent when you join the site, something of which LibraryThing (which I have used in the past) and GoodReads (which I use now) both disapprove. I disapprove of it too, although I seem to remember a networking site which did the same thing and the level of outrage being similarly high. Still, if you want Amazon, your former landlady and a one-night stand to know what you're reading, you have nothing to worry about.

My weekend reads: Mark Lindquist's THE KING OF METHLEHEM and hopefully Yannick Murphy's SIGNED, MATA HARI.

08 November 2007

A Confession, I Guess

I was talking to a friend of mine today who told me she didn't judge people based on the books they owned or were reading.

I was kind of shocked when she said this, because I just want to get one thing straight: I am quietly judging you based on your books. If I go to your house, I will look at your bookshelf and draw conclusions about you as a person. These may be erroneous conclusions, and maybe you just put those books there so I would draw a particular conclusion, but I still like to look. Of course, I'll judge you far harsher if you don't have any books at all. (But if you don't, why are you reading this site? Also, do you want me to send you a few?) Maybe you don't judge like this; if that's the case, you are a far better person than I.

In retrospect, it's kind of ironic that I had this conversation with this particular friend, because one of the reasons we became friends is that I borrowed a book from her. After my first week at summer camp (in which I was incredibly homesick), I had finished all the books I brought with me. Since we weren't allowed to get library cards for the university where the camp was held, I began asking around... which is how I ended up reading Bernhard Schlink's THE READER, and Michael Paterniti's EINSTEIN'S BRAIN, and (incidentally) making friends and having an amazing summer. But that's neither here nor there.

It's okay if you judge me based on my books. I kind of expect it, which is why if you come to my apartment, there are a few books I deliberately do not have on my shelves. They're tucked away under...something. I'm not ashamed of having them, it's just... well... there are always those few you might not want to cop to having.

So feel free to judge that today I gave away my copy of Jennifer Weiner's THE GUY NOT TAKEN and got THE NATURAL, which I have never read, on Bookmooch. I returned FOURTH COMINGS and THE TURN OF THE SCREW to the library and picked up Yannick Murphy's HERE THEY COME and Dawn Powell's A TIME TO BE BORN. What does this say about me? You decide.

(I don't own that very funny Gawker T-shirt, but you can buy it here.)

07 November 2007

Be careful what you Google.

Since I wrote a few days ago that I had recently read RHETT BUTLER'S PEOPLE, I've been getting a handful of search results for "Rhett Butler's People spoilers." The second authorized sequel to GONE WITH THE WIND just came out yesterday, and people are already itching to know what the book's "Rosebud" might be. One might argue that there really aren't any spoilers in a book based on a classic, but there are some things about the book which one might conceivably ruin. Well, here we are, in case you're curious. I don't see what the big deal is, the spoilers are all on the cover:

06 November 2007

Diminishing Returns

Whoosh! Did you hear that? That's the sound of my home Internet connection actually doing what it's supposed to. After a few frustrating days, I finally got hold of a tech at Verizon and my browser no longer freezes every 15 seconds. Life is good!

Anyway, last night I finished the fourth book in Megan McCafferty's Jessica Darling series, FOURTH COMINGS. The series follows Jessica from high school, in the first and second books, through college at Columbia University in the third and in this book through life as a recent graduate in New York City. I expected to love and identify with this, being in similar shoes... but I didn't. I didn't even want to read it in one sitting like I did with CHARMED THIRDS.

I think that for me, my enjoyment of the books is related to where I am with regards to Jessica Darling. I read the first two books in 2003 as a freshman in college, and if I didn't look back on high school incredibly fondly, I had the nostalgia factor at least. But I didn't identify with Jessica as a fellow (if fictional) recent graduate at all. There's a scene in FOURTH COMINGS where Jessica goes to a job interview and, just when she thinks it's going well, completely sabotages herself. I saw myself in that scene, I sympathized, I thought it was done well--but there wasn't enough of that for me in this book. (Part of that has to do with the romantic storyline, which seemed believable except for the way Jessica acted in it.)

Of course, I'm not the target audience for FOURTH COMINGS, and I can definitely see how a middle- or even high-school reader would read about her life in New York and find a lot of meaning or inspiration in it. I swear I'm not just jealous of her incredibly cheap rent in the book. But I wouldn't recommend this to someone going through a similar chapter in her or his life--the humor is done extremely well, but this book just didn't speak to me in the way I was hoping it would.

So tell me, dear readers, what books do you most identify with right now?

Book cover image: Books-A-Million

05 November 2007

Unlikely inspiration at work

Here's a book I came across today that takes the writing dictum "write what you know" to a whole new level. A substitute teacher collects hundreds and hundreds of notes students in her classes are passing, which according to policy she has to confiscate. Having collected them all, she sends them to artists to create art inspired by the notes. That's the premise of DEAR NEW GIRL OR WHATEVER YOUR NAME IS, a short collection that came out a few years ago from the House that Eggers Built, McSweeney's. I found out about it from a blog called Writers Read which asks published authors (including Trinie Dalton, the substitute teacher and co-editor of the book) what they are enjoying.

While DEAR NEW GIRL... technically isn't a narrative, from what I understand, it made me think of the interesting ways narrative can be used in books. I think the first book that made me aware of form properly was the YA "documentary novel" NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH by Avi, which includes phone conversations and scripted-out scenes to tell its story of a high school student in trouble. Novelists in the 19th century used lots of letters; nowadays, we could get a novel of instant messages (and I have a feeling one might exist, and it might not be bad!) Jeremy Blachman's book ANONYMOUS LAWYER lets its eponymous protagonist unburden himself through his blog, which eventually gains its own agency in the plot. One of my favorite short stories, Rick Moody's "Wilkie Ridgeway Fahnstock: The Box Set," is structured as a series of liner notes to a collection which functions as the biography of a quasi-failure through the music he liked.

But the novel I'd really like to see? One in which the entire narrative takes place through company e-mails--the treachery of the CC function, the banality of the company-wide missive, the accidental addressee. Someday in the future, when we're automatically inputting our wishes to each others' brains, we will forget how funny corporatespeak is. All you have to do is give your protagonist an e-mail account, for starters.

04 November 2007

Things Terrible and Unguessable

"I became aware that on the other side of the Sea of Azof we had an interested spectator."

Last night I went to see a theatrical adaptatation of THE TURN OF THE SCREW, Henry James' suspenseful novella. Since I had never read it, and I was reviewing it, I hunkered down yesterday afternoon to hopefully enjoy this ghostly tale.

Now before I tell you about how ridiculously scared I was when I finished it, let me make this clear: I am not a person who enjoys scary things. I've read a little Hitchcock and a bunch of Agatha Christie novels, plus a random assortment of Stephen King left behind in my YMCA camp library*, but I get scared enough reading Harry Potter. This holds for other genres too -- not a huge fan of haunted houses, have only seen one "Friday the 13th" movie (and I don't remember which one)... oh wait, I absolutely love "Werewolves of London." There's the exception that proves the rule. So I shouldn't have been surprised that I was easily scared by what, in Jamesian style, is a pretty ambiguous story whose implications are more frightening than what is explicitly stated.

Essentially, the book begins with a man boasting that he can top another person's ghost story (which we don't hear), because his has not one but two children who see ghosts. The story he tells is from his sister's governess, who once took a job caring for two children in a big, scary mansion in the countryside. The children's guardian, their uncle, asks only that the governess never contact him about anything. Once she gets there, the governess starts seeing two different apparitions and comes to believe that the children are seeing them too, but won't admit it to her:

It was as if, at moments, we were perpetually coming into sight of subjects before which we must stop short, turning suddenly out of alleys that we perceived to be blind, closing with a little bang that made us look at each other--for, like all bangs, it was something louder than we intended--the doors we had indiscreetly opened.
Add a creepy housekeeper and a conveniently placed body of water, and yikes, let me go turn all the lights on my apartment.

I won't spoil the ending here, but THE TURN OF THE SCREW is really a work about perception. The young naive governess can't wait to move to the country to start her new position, but gradually she sees the house as a vise whose grip tightens on her every day. When she first meets the children, they are perfectly behaved little cherubs, but the governess gradually comes to distrust them and believe they are hiding something from her. In that sense it echoed James works like DAISY MILLER or WASHINGTON SQUARE, in which the opinions of "society" determine what people see in you--only here, the case for that perception being correct is much more muddied.

I may have been freaked out, but I was able to get over it eventually and enjoyed this quick read. It's a good thing I read the story, too, because the play took certain departures from the source material that I was able to pick up. I haven't finished the review yet, but I will link to it when I'm finished.

Picture: alibris

* Didn't your camp have a library? Ours was a dusty nook off the dining hall, someone's donated collection supplemented by the paperbacks others had left behind in their cabins. And that's how I read THE DEAD ZONE, THE TALISMAN and other King books. Oddly enough, they didn't scare me at all.

03 November 2007

Old Stuff

On the third day of NaBloPoMo, the mailman brought to me a BookMooch delivery -- a collection of essays on movies by Pauline Kael called KISS KISS BANG BANG. I've been making an effort recently to seek out collections of criticism since I would like to become a better critic myself. Two I enjoyed this summer were both by New Yorker writers, Joan Acocella's 28 ARTISTS AND TWO SAINTS (mostly profiles) and Anthony Lane's NOBODY'S PERFECT (mostly movie reviews from the past 15 years). Kael's complete collection has pride of place at home, but I've only read a few of her pieces.

Anyway, the previous owner of the book described its condition as "in pretty good shape for being 40 years old," so I wasn't surprised when I received a yellowing, cracked-spine Bantam Dell paperback which originally retailed for $1.25. I could not be more excited about this. As fun as it is to open a brand-new book, there's a particular charm to a well-worn copy, especially one like this which reminds me of my parents' library. The beat-up paperbacks of ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD and ATLAS SHRUGGED and George Orwell's diaries had traveled with my parents from dorm to crappy apartment to my childhood home (where they still live), clues to who they are as people before I was at an age to be able to read them. (Okay, I still haven't read ATLAS SHRUGGED, but maybe next time I go home...)

Thus my love affair with BookMooch continues! I also picked up a library request today, Kate Christensen's JEREMY THRANE, after reading an interview with the author on MaudNewton.com. Ms. Newton said she read all of Christensen's novels in one weekend, a tantalizing endorsement to be sure.

02 November 2007

My "Last 5"

Today's post is going to take a page from one of my favorite podcasts, Cinebanter. The film critics responsible for the podcast have a feature called "The Last 5" where they talk about the last five movies they saw in theatres or on television. (Hey Tassoula and MichaelVox, I know you say it's a copy-written feature, so please know this is an homage. Listen to Cinebanter! It's hilarious and interesting.) Since I haven't been posting in a while (ahem... bad blogger), it might be useful to take stock of the last five books I read for fun. But first, here are the last five books I read to review:

V. Valerie Stivers, BLOOD IS THE NEW BLACK
IV. Abigail Jones and Marissa Miley, RESTLESS VIRGINS
I. Henrik Vejlgaard, ANATOMY OF A TREND

And now, my last five-for-fun (all, as it turns out, from the library):

5. Diana Peterfreund, SECRET SOCIETY GIRL. After finishing the GOSSIP GIRL series I wanted to try out some other inappropriate-for-my-age YA literature, so when I heard on IvyGate that a first-time author was writing a series about a fictional secret society, I thought that was worth a shot.
You know how I like secret societies! (And yes, the author went to Yale, though the book's set at a made-up school.) It was a fun, fast read, and I'm looking forward to the second and third books.

4. Seth Margolis, CLOSING COSTS. Three families interact with the same New York realtor in their quest for the perfect place: A retired couple decides to sell and move into something a little smaller; a dot-com mogul, his wife and their twins face a hideous renovation when they find a big-enough place with "great bones"; and an Upper East Side society wife is forced to move back in with her parents after a reversal of fortune. This book was fairly suspenseful while I was reading it, but all in all wasn't too memorable -- I enjoyed the New York landmarks and setting, though.

3. Mary Childers, WELFARE BRAT. I picked this book up on the recommendation of the blogger behind Sex Ed In Higher Ed, and I had a reaction very similar to hers (which you can read here). It reminded me of THE GLASS CASTLE in its lack of sentimentality, and in the way it contained moments where I had to put the book down, I was so frustrated with the writer's surroundings and the obstacles she faced.

2. Fiona Neill, SLUMMY MUMMY. A favorite book of the year by Vogue editor Anna Wintour, this is a contemporary novel along the lines of I DON'T KNOW HOW SHE DOES IT, chronicling the foibles of a mother of three in London over the course of the school year. Unlike I DON'T KNOW..., though, this mom's mishaps are hilarious, not guilt-inducing and shameful, and the ways the mom describes her fellow preschool parents (including the Alpha Mum and the dreamy stay-at-home father) are incisive.

1. Sara Voorhees, THE LUMIERE AFFAIR. This was an impulse pick-up at the library's New Fiction shelf, which I chose because of its subtitle, "A Novel of Cannes." The book follows an entertainment journalist from L.A. named Natalie, a first-timer at the Cannes Film Festival and who (as it turns out) has a tragic history associated with France and rooted in her childhood. As we find out in the opening chapters, Natalie's mother left her father while she was pregnant and moved to Paris, where she fell in love with an art dealer. On a jaunt to the country, Natalie, the mother and her lover are caught in a freak storm and struck by lightning; subsequently, Natalie is sent to live with her father in Arizona, and is only now returning to France. I was a little nervous after reading the first few chapters that it might turn into a conventional chick-lit type of book, but instead the plot thickens considerably and was quite suspenseful.

Phew. Leave your "last 5" in the comments! Have a good weekend.

01 November 2007


For the first time since I started this whole crazy Modern Library list, I have hit a book I'm really not sure I can finish. Last week I returned THE GINGER MAN (#99) back to the library without finishing it, the second time I have done so this year so far. I got a little further into it this time. I guess that's a success?

So far, the book is about an American expat and student who lives in Dublin with his wife and kid. Ostensibly he's making progress towards his degree at Trinity, but really he just likes to drink and carouse and stare at other women. I don't object to all of this, nor is the stream-of-consciousness narration entirely unfamiliar to me from reading modernists like James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. But I could only read a few pages of this book until my mind started crashing like my perpetually overloaded browser.

This is even more painful because the blurb on the front of the book? Is from DOROTHY PARKER. Yes, the Dorothy Parker who wrote "In April" and sat at the Algonquin Round Table and was best friends with Robert Benchley. If nothing else, I should do it for Dorothy.

Maybe it's time to hunt down a used version and give myself reading assignments, take a more regimented approach. Or maybe I should just track down the pub in that picture, order myself 12 hours' worth of Guinness and get cracking.

NaBloPoMo -- it's on!

Oh, you poor, neglected blog. Ever since I got a freelance job writing for a group blog, I fear I have forgotten you entirely. Maybe this will help:

For the first time ever, I signed up for National Blog Posting Month, a conglomerate of people who agree to post every day in the month of November. NaBloPoMo is inspired by National Novel Writing Month, which I have done before and which is amazingly fun -- but I don't have time for it this year. (I know, the whole point is not to put off your novelizing dreams any more, but I surely will do it again -- maybe in my own designated month next year. Also, I fear giving myself carpal tunnel.) Instead, I will attempt this slightly lesser feat and entertain you for the whole month.

If you're interested you can sign up for NaBloPoMo here. Look for today's real post later this afternoon.

10 September 2007

Help! I've been memed!

Kimbooktu tagged me for a Book Cover meme! The instructions are as follows:
1. Enter your first name into Amazon;
2. Choose the first book you see that is "interesting or amusing."

Well, I had to scroll down a bit since I do share a first name with the much published comedienne/ entertainer, but here are a few that tickled my funny bone (no offense to the real Ellens to whom these belong):

Apparently, this series is about wine growers, not wine drinkers, but still: That first glass, it's dangerous!

My first thought: "Why does he have armor on his butt?!" It should be pointed out that I also have long blonde hair, although I do not wear it in braids when I am holding the shoulder of my bekilted warrior. The same author is responsible for this work of egregious punnery:

There are no words...

This cat probably thinks of murder all day.

If only it were a how-to.

I'm not going to tag anyone, but if you read this and decide to do the meme, let me know, and I'll link to it. (And yes, I'm surprised that Beverly Cleary's Ellen Tebbits didn't come up. I guess it's not that popular any more, alas.)

06 September 2007

A helpful hint for writers!

Are you a published author? Are you thinking about killing somebody? Maybe you shouldn't write about your plan and publish it after the fact, as one Polish author did. When he suspected his estranged wife and a friend were having an affair, Krystian Bala killed the man and threw his body in a river; three years later, his novel Amok described a similar murder, except the victim was a woman. A tip on the similarities between the unsolved case and the book led police to discover more evidence (including a phone card Bala used to call his victim and his girlfriend the day of the victim's disappearance), and now, to a sentence of 25 years in prison.

Amok is described in the news story as "a work of pulp fiction set in Paris and Mexico, narrated by a young translator who moves from one sexual conquest to another, killing one of his lovers." Check out its creepy cover, at right.

This all reminds me that I've never seen the classic Hitchcock film "Rope," which I hear is really good.

23 July 2007

Harry Potter and the End of an Era

Why yes, I was one of the 1.5 zillion (estimated) people who spent part of this weekend reading the adventures of A Certain Wizard. My mom surprised me with a pre-order, my first time getting one -- I didn't get around to ...ORDER OF THE PHOENIX until right before ...HALF BLOOD PRINCE came out, and borrowed that book from a friend after she did the midnight run and speed read. (In other words, I will take credit for the fact that ...DEATHLY HALLOWS is selling twice as fast as any of the other books.)

Even though I didn't buy a copy, I still went to a Potter party at the Shops at Columbus Circle, where I ate free grape-flavored cotton candy and tried to avoid the creepy adults dressed as Lucius Malfoy. Obviously, I should have gone where this blogger went:
At one point I asked Dolores Umbridge where the bathroom was (we were in the newly renovated library for the first part of the party) and she handed me an educational decree saying that I was prohibited from speaking.
Awesome. And here's a good disapproving Umbridge.

I was so worried UPS would leave me a package slip and dash that I left a note by my front buzzer. The poor delivery guy who showed up was carrying a stack of eight books -- guess there are other Potter lovers in my building! And then, partly because of my Deathly Fear of Spoilers, I sat down and read the whole thing in my apartment.