29 February 2008

Unbookening Month 1: Still too many books.

"For there are, it seems, people who feel stress about owning volumes they haven't read." --Scott McLemee, Inside Higher Ed

The First Month of the Great Unbookening
5 books mooched
13 books checked out of the library*
8 books received for review
Bought 1 book
Got one book from my mom.
= 28 books in.

12 books given away on BookMooch
7 books returned
Gave Mom two books
= 21 books out.

So I took in 7 more books than I got rid of. (Yearly total: 21 books gained.)

Well, that's inauspicious. I haven't said this since I graduated, but geez, I really need to learn to read faster, or start giving away more books I haven't read. (I read eight books in February.) Of course the easiest way to reduce that, uh, surplus if you will, would be to return all my library books (which includes two book-club books and a play I have to read for a different project), and to stop requesting so many. I have five requests in right now, but none of them are close to being filled yet.

You'll notice BEAUTIFUL CHILDREN, my free book, isn't counted up there. I'm not sure how to deal with e-books. I don't count Dailylit books when I have them, so I won't count that one.

Illustration: dullhunk, found in a Flickr search for "too many books."

*in my defense, the last 5 of these I checked out last night, and did I think about putting off my trip till the weekend in order to count those for March? Oh, yes I did.

28 February 2008

Save Ferris (from a bad cover)

Joshua Ferris' first novel THEN WE CAME TO THE END had one of the best covers I saw on books last year. Whimsical, eye-catching and clever, it referenced the book's content -- a tale of coworkers at a failing ad agency -- without drawing it out. Witness:

Unfortunately, someone decided when it came out in paperback this week that it ought to look more like an airport self-help book:
I'm okay with the cartoons even though I'm pretty sure there was no Olive Oyl character, but the red letters scream, and the red and the yellow just don't look good together. If I had a better command of Photoshop, I would try to transform the red letters into black, but for now, just pretend. What's really odd about this is that the website for the hardcover release picked up on the book's cover with a charmingly lo-fi handwritten design; the site has been redesigned, which I think was a smart choice (and I like the cubicle map) but it seems like a lot of trouble.

My sense of injury was compounded when, while seeking for images to illustrate this point, I ran across the British hardcover and paperback covers. The hardcover is a much muted version of the American paperback:

That retro-flyer font is nice. But get a load of this paperback!!

A miniature office layout. I love it! Granted, it wouldn't make me buy the book alone (I got it from the library, and got a copy for Christmas from my dad), but it's just a little more whimsical. I can see someone picking it up to study the drawings, which are smaller, and potentially walking out with the book.

Cover redesign woe: It happened to Alice Munro last year, and I said nothing, because I actually liked the paperback cover, and I didn't think that Munro necessarily needed a somber-toned cover to distinguish her from chick lit. But tell me, when was the last time you saw a book cover and thought, "Not that I'm judging... but what's wrong with it?!"

Images: US hardcover pulled from Slushpile, US paperback from Barnes and Noble; British hardcover from Waterstones, British paperback from Credo.

27 February 2008

Free Book! Charles Bock's BEAUTIFUL CHILDREN

If you read the New York Times Book Review, Publishers Weekly or other "industry" book publications, you've probably heard of Charles Bock's BEAUTIFUL CHILDREN, an encylopedic novel of Las Vegas whose buzz is comparable to THE CORRECTIONS or SPECIAL TOPICS IN CALAMITY PHYSICS. In an unprecedented move, Random House is offering the book as a free download on Charles Bock's Website through Friday, February 29th.

I like free stuff, and I'm currently 305th on the request list for this book at the NY Public Library (out of 374 requests; there are 34 copies) so I went ahead and downloaded this book. I'm looking forward to reading it. Download your copy here.

Seamy goodness.

Sure, I follow celebrity news. Partly because I write about it sometimes for this site, but even if I didn't have that I would probably still read gossip blogs and Page Six. I think I feel about an average level of shame for doing this, and attempt to justify by saying, Well, I'm not as hooked on the stuff as I used to be. I don't subscribe to US Weekly, but I will buy it once in a while.

Kenneth Anger's HOLLYWOOD BABYLON is like OK! or Life & Style from the 1930s in book form. Organized in no particular way, it's a long narrative of someone whispering in your ear, "Hey, have you heard about Charlie Chaplin's second wife? You're going to love this story..." Instead of "Stars! They're Just Like Us!" there are black and white photos from courtrooms, private bedrooms and movie sets. Reading it is like consuming the first 20 pages of Perez Hilton without a break. I'm not sure whether the scandals covered in the book were open secrets at the time it was published (1959) or were not widely known at all, but I didn't know most of these stories, even ones about stars whose names I recognized like Marlene Dietrich and Rudolph Valentino. But don't expect even the occasional uplifting story; it's all suicides, murders, addictions and perversions.

In a sense, HOLLYWOOD BABYLON is a historic document on how much has changed in celebrity news. Not only has the way we consume gossip been altered by the Internet, but the access we expect to be given to our favorite stars (and the access we get in most cases) has greatly increased. It was much easier to conceal an actor's drug problem or philandering back when major news outlets could collude and decide together to avert their eyes from this or that scandal. Now, even if the Associated Press decides it won't cover Britney Spears (which it did briefly -- I believe she's back to More Important Than African Governance status now), other media will gladly pick up the slack. It sold back when HOLLYWOOD BABYLON was published, and it sells now -- especially if we are to believe, as this 2004 interview states, that Anger will be publishing a third BABYLON.

Read an excerpt from HOLLYWOOD BABYLON about Rudy Valentino here.

25 February 2008

Higher and Higher

If you lost your Oscar pool because of me, I am truly sorry. I was floored that Cotillard won the Oscar... and yet, I still really enjoyed her speech. The benefit of an upset is that you get a reaction that's so raw and real -- Tilda Swinton's also cracked me up. I was moved by many of the speeches last night, even from those who had a long time to prepare (and by "those" I mean "Daniel Day-Lewis"). To see people find out they've received an award tantamount to ascending the pinnacle of their profession, live before the world -- well, it's inspiring. Not to mention the amazing sibling duo of the Coen Brothers, who made me want to call my siblings and see if any of them want to be in an Awesome Auteur Association.

Which brings me to today's topic, as suggested by commenter NetFlixer, of inspirational books. I'm not sure if you could properly shelve these in the "Inspirational" section of a bookstore, but here are some titles that, for me personally, have made me want to change my life in some way:

Mark Salzman, LOST IN PLACE: GROWING UP ABSURD IN SUBURBIA. I first read this book when I was 15, and I wish I could go back in time and give it to my 13-year-old self. Salzman's memoir describes his life as a teenage misfit, into kung fu and cello to ridiculous degrees, and never really finding his niche. His always funny and occasionally disastrous adventures motivated me to keep plugging away at what I like even though no one else may know or care about it.

Lauren Winner, GIRL MEETS GOD. This is the only book I think could be recognized as "inspirational," but I drew a rather unconventional lesson from it. Winner writes about her conversion as a young adult to orthodox Judaism, and her subsequent conversion to Christianity which surprised her more than anyone. The way in which she describes this religious journey is so poignant and powerful -- the way she searches and searches for the point she's reached by the end of the story, not satisfied with her answers but continuing to look for deeper enlightenment. I'm not a religious person, but there's something very striking and beautiful about her search that I think crosses denominational lines.

Natalie Goldberg, WRITING DOWN THE BONES. This one goes out to the writers, although the author says her tips could be applied to any occupation. Since I was 13 or 14 and started to think of writing as being "what I do," in some sort of cosmic identification, I have read a lot of books on writing. Some are super; some annoyed me; some I couldn't even finish. But I always go back to this one because of the quality of Goldberg's prose and the soundness of her advice. Her philosophy on writing is based on her practice of Zen Buddhism, but not in such a way that would exclude those of us who don't practice it. I love this book so much, I even have two copies -- a regular-sized one that sits on my shelf and a pocket-sized one for travel. If you like writing, if you ever wanted to be a writer... read it.

Thanks for the comment! Yes, we do take suggestions at Casa de Wormbook, unless the suggestion is "stop reading so much." Coming up this week: the US Weekly of the '30s, my new favorite tech book and a Filmbook entry which will scandalize your relatives.

24 February 2008


When I read JANE EYRE in high school, I had a teacher who stressed over and over that girls love Jane, boys love Holden Caulfield (the hero of another book we read in class that year). I'm not saying it made me doubt my femininity, but I strongly disliked Charlotte Brontë's story of the virtuous, unlucky Jane. Mostly, I hated the ending, or more specifically, Jane's reaction to her fate as described at the end of the book -- really, she's settling for this, and she's happy about it? I can appreciate JANE EYRE as a Bildungsroman for girls, and rare at that time; I just have no desire to read it again.

I knew going in to WIDE SARGASSO SEA that it was a postcolonial response to JANE EYRE, and I was surprised how much I liked the book and found it to be not at all the "Teachable Moment" I was expecting with the phrase "postcolonial response." Instead, Rhys' novel is something of a page-turner, even as we know how it ends. Instead of following plain Jane, we are in the footsteps of Antoinette Cosway, a Creole girl in Jamaica from a family who used to be rich, the woman who in JANE EYRE is known as Bertha, Rochester's mad wife.

Antoinette is something of an afterthought for her mother, who remarries and then sends her away to a nunnery to be educated; later, her stepfather's family will arrange a marriage for her with a visiting Englishman. During their planned honeymoon in Dominica, Antoinette and her new husband see their new union going sour, for reasons which are never completely clear -- is the Jamaican woman taking after her mother in madness? Does he have an ulterior motive for her? Was their marriage a mistake to begin with?

What I enjoyed most about this book, oddly enough, was the unreliability of both narrators. The husband, who is never named, has the seeds of paranoia planted within him via a letter from a man claiming to be Antoinette's stepbrother. He has been paid a large dowry, and he acknowledges his desire to make the best of things, but his suppressed doubts keep creeping back to invest an uncanny darkness in his wife's littlest actions.

At the same time, Antoinette's relationship to her husband is clearly deteriorating, and her attempts to communicate with him only leave him confused and cold. I admired the way Rhys took Brontë's trite Victorian snapshot of Bertha (which in WIDE SARGASSO SEA is a name Antoinette's husband starts to call her, though she resists it), an obstacle to Jane's happiness, and made her a woman I was not only sympathetic to but was rooting for when, ultimately, she goes to England and to her fate. It is a book without easy answers, of which Jane might have disapproved -- but which had me thinking about the novel long after I put it down.

Progress of LN VS ML: 41 read; 59 unread.

20 February 2008

Filmbook: Away From Her (2007)

It is Oscar Week, and regular readers probably know what movie I'm hoping will win Best Picture. Rather than natter on about that, I'm going to recommend a film you might have missed in theatres, whose lead actress, Julie Christie, will hopefully go home with a little golden man on Sunday.

In "Away From Her" Julie Christie plays Fiona, a woman who lives with her retired professor husband Grant (Gordon Pinsent) and comes to the realization that she is losing her memory. Despite her best efforts, she is lucid enough to decide that she, while still relatively young, belongs in a nursing home, and the one she chooses has a policy that newcomers cannot have visitors for the first 30 days. The movie chronicles that move -- the first time Fiona and Grant have been separated at length -- and how it affects their relationship. It's a quiet character-driven film based on a character-driven story by Alice Munro, set against a background of winter white (filmed in Canada, the home of Munro as well as director Sarah Polley); the title comes from a voice-over of Pinsent's at the beginning of the film, in which he describes a scene from their youth. Here's how it plays in the book (and how Grant tells it nearly word-for-word in the film):
He thought maybe she was joking when she proposed to him, on a cold bright day on the beach at Port Stanley. Sand was stinging their faces and the waves delivered crashing loads of gravel at their feet.

“Do you think it would be fun—” Fiona shouted. “Do you think it would be fun if we got married?”

He took her up on it, he shouted yes. He wanted never to be away from her. She had the spark of life.

I missed this movie in theatrical release because, despite its glowing reviews, I was hesitant to see a movie about an elderly couple dealing with Alzheimer's disease. After another 2007 movie which deals with aging and its effects, "The Savages," I left the multiplex thinking about how much I would pay to have my mother never see or hear about this film, so much did it remind me in parts of the loss of my grandfather in 2003. (Laura Linney in "The Savages" is up for a Best Actress Oscar this year as well, as a daughter who along with her brother is facing a similar decision to the one Fiona makes in "Away from Her."

I would not hesitate to recommend "Away from Her," though, because while very sad, it is a beautiful film anchored by a performance by Julie Christie that is the opposite of most showy Oscar roles. If anyone else gave a performance that was so wholly interior, it was Javier Bardem in "No Country For Old Men," as a villain whose origins and rationale are unknowable to all. In contrast, Daniel Day-Lewis's performance in "There Will Be Blood" is the kind they call "a tour de force" -- especially in the latter part of the film, he pops off the screen. Ditto for Christie's primary competitor in the best actress race, Marion Cotillard, for her role in the Piaf biopic "La vie en rose"; I've seen the biopic, and Cotillard is amazing, but in the type of larger-than-life way the Oscars are (in)famous for rewarding. Her Piaf is tortured, but it's all out there since we begin with her as a little girl living in a brothel. Christie's Fiona is much harder to read -- her private struggles inform the performance without any kind of big revelatory moment.

Do the right thing, Academy voters! I'll be carving out time from reading to watch the ceremony.

Verdict: Read the story, then see the movie.

Still from the film: Indiewire

19 February 2008

Harder than it looks.

So how's that Great Unbookening going? Well... okay. Not great. The good news is, I have given away 11 books on BookMooch so far this month. Still, I still have more in for February than I have given away. Also, I slipped and mooched four books -- three of them for my wishlist, and one I had looked up and then, as if in a trance, hit the MOOCH button before I realized what I was doing. Also, I have 12 books out at the library right now. (Five which are being returned this week, but... 12! That is not helping!)

I am happy to report, however, that at least one BookMooch user is forging ahead with the Great Unbookening: My aunt e-mailed me to let me know she has given away (as of today) 21 books using the site. With all those points she can get books that she wants and, I'm guessing, some new books for my rowdy readin' cousins. Hooray for BookMooch! I will continue to feed the beast.

Coming up this week: I answer NetFlixer's question about inspirational books, the latest of my Modern Library conquests and a movie whose lead actress should win Best Picture this Sunday.

08 February 2008

The Book Capital of the West, and other things I've been reading.

Hooray! This Girl Called Automatic Win is going to be writing regular What I've Been Reading posts, starting with this month's. Now if only Nick Hornby, the inspiration for these, would come out with a more complete collection than THE POLYPHONIC SPREE, which I wrote about in 2005. He's already put out two collections of his essays on what he reads (and why), but they're just so short. At least I have Riese to sustain me now.

Heidikins is taking a book acquisition vacation to Phoenix this weekend for a giant book sale. I am so jealous, and not just because the weather there will be reliably warm instead of Good Luck Guessin' like we're getting here in New York.

A blogger says, writing a book is easy! Should we attack him? Nah; the blogger in question (Will Leitch of Deadspin, which I don't read regularly but have read before) simply makes the point that the discipline of blogging, especially high-volume blogging, is similar to the discipline needed to write a book. And he's just finished his third book, so he would know. I see what he's getting at, although I wonder how his new book (written about some of the same obsessions as the blog, and after his success with the blog) will do.

That's all I've got. I'm feeling rather uninspired this week.

06 February 2008

Once more, with pictures!

This week I read something I don't normally read: A comic-book series!

I read this in part because my boyfriend loves comic books (like this one) and when he described the series TERMINAL CITY to me, it sounded like the premise for a cool dystopic novel. Terminal City looks like a modern city with a lot of Art Deco skyscrapers and blimps, but it's all a facade: No building has gone on in five years, vast areas of the city have emptied out and political control rests in the hands of the few and evil. Cosmo Quinn used to wow the masses with his "Human Fly" stunts climbing buildings; now he's a window washer, spying on people in a hotel and wishing his ex-girlfriend hadn't kept his superhero suit. Then one day he sees a mysterious man with a briefcase chained to his wrist being chased by goons, and things start to get really interesting. It's a little bit Tintin and a lot of noirish intrigue.

Because I'm not used to the graphic form, this book forced me to -- slow -- down -- a -- LOT. I'm usually a fast reader, and unlike Alice of Wonderland I have no trouble paying attention to books with no pictures in them, but it wasn't easy for me to absorb the information presented in the pictures as well as in the dialogue and captions. Unlike, say, a Dickens novel with occasional illustration, if you skip panels, even those without words in them, you quickly start missing out on clues and information. In some cases I even had to flip back several pages when characters I didn't recognize re-entered the scene.

Despite my discomfort with the form, I enjoyed TERMINAL CITY and I definitely want to try reading more comics and graphic novels in the future, perhaps Neil Gaiman's Sandman series (one volume of which I have read; they're all related but not exactly sequential) or Alison Bechdel's award-winning graphic novel FUN HOME. If you have read a great graphic novel or set of comic books, please let me know.

02 February 2008

Meme me!

I saw this at A Work in Progress. Some of this was hard! Kudos to you, Danielle.

Which book do you irrationally cringe away from reading, despite seeing only positive reviews? I was going to say Eat, Pray, Love, but hey, already did that. I guess I'll have to agree with Danielle and say THE KITE RUNNER. I don't own a copy, but I just can't imagine having to beat through the hype at this point.

If you could bring three characters to life for a social event (afternoon tea, a night of clubbing, perhaps a world cruise), who would they be and what would the event be? Make it a girl's night out with slight time travel: Casey Han from FREE FOOD FOR MILLIONAIRES, Lily Bart from THE HOUSE OF MIRTH and Clare from THE TIME-TRAVELER'S WIFE. Bonus points if we saw Kitty from ANNA KARENINA across the bar and could make fun of her. This would be followed closely by Memoirists' Pub Crawl, in which Mark Salzman (of LOST IN PLACE), Bill Bryson (of NEITHER HERE NOR THERE), Jen Lancaster and Karyn Bosnak and I would get drunk and tell stories. The pub crawl would actually have to last about 10 years because all of these people have hilarious stories to tell, I'm sure.

(Borrowing shamelessly from the Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde): You are told you can't die until you read the most boring novel on the planet. While this immortality is great for awhile, eventually you realize it's past time to die. What book would you expect to get you a nice grave? I don't know that I've ever read the most boring novel on the planet. I would wager it's one of those 5000-page Robert Jordan books (none of which I have read, so if you think they're not boring, by all means let me know!) They just look huge and daunting and Let's Add 30 New Characters Per Chapter and so on.

Come on, we've all been there. What book have you pretended, or at least hinted, that you've read, when in fact you've been nowhere near it? I'm getting better at not doing this, but I have a few ideas from my student days. I am going to go back and read all those books... I swear...

As an addition to the last question, has there been a book you really thought you had read only to realize when you read a review about it/go to "reread" it that you haven't? Which book? I don't think this has ever happened to me. More likely, I'll see a book in a bookstore, pick it up and read a bit only to realize I already read it before. This is because I am forgetful, and because design departments often do an awesome job of picking new covers for their books.

You're interviewing for the post of Official Book Adviser to some VIP (who's not a big reader). What's the first book you'd recommend and why? (If you feel like you have to know the person, go ahead and personalize the VIP). When I read this question I assumed they meant a political VIP. Since I live in New York City, let's say it's Mayor Bloomberg. I would recommend he read the most memorable book about poverty in New York City I have ever read, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc's RANDOM FAMILY. I think the Mayor, like Dennis Quaid playing the president in that terrible movie "American Dreamz," would become totally engrossed in it and hopefully assign his policy advisors to right the wrongs exposed.

A good fairy comes and grants you one wish: you will have perfect reading comprehension in the foreign language of your choice. Which language do you go with? I feel lucky because I already have pretty good reading comprehension in Spanish, but I wish my comprehension in French was better. It's just such a beautiful language to read aloud.

A mischievous fairy comes and says you must choose one book that you will reread once a year for the rest of your life (you can read other books as well). Which book would you pick? Why is this fairy mischievous? Don't most of us do this already? I would pick ANNA KARENINA, and I don't particularly care if it's pretentious because I've read it three times and it's one of my favorite novels to get completely lost in. And I just realized I have no idea where my copy is, so I'm going to figure that out so I can read it again.

I know the book blogging community, and all its challenges, have pushed my reading borders. What's one "bookish" thing you discovered from book blogging (maybe a new genre, or author, or new appreciation for cover art - anything)? This is going to sound mightily cheesy, but I enjoy the sense that other people hoard & treasure books like I do. Certainly I have friends in real life who do this, but knowing that strangers on the Internet do as well warms my heart a bit.

The good fairy is back for one final visit. Now, she's granting you your dream library! Describe it. Is everything leather bound? Is it full of first edition hardcovers? Pristine trade paperbacks? Perhaps a few favorite authors have inscribed their works? Go ahead - let your imagination run free. It would look like the library in the castle in "Beauty and the Beast." Yes, the Disney one. Only it would have a coffee shop around the corner where everything is free (and where they had occasional pub quizzes). As for the books themselves, I would say a judicious mix of trade paperbacks and mass-market editions of my most favorites (which I would also own in hardcover as well; I love the way hardcovers look but they're hard to manipulate).

01 February 2008

The Great Unbookening Begins

In January I got 13 books to review, mooched 18 books on BookMooch and checked 12 books out of the library. Even though I didn't buy any books and I made a concerted effort to give away the books I didn't want, I ended the month with 13 more books than I had in my possession on January 1st. Thirteen books, that doesn't sound so bad... but over a year, that's a whole new shelf -- and despite my apartment's decor concept of "library away from library," I really don't have room for another bookshelf.

So meet... the Great Unbookening! (Hey, I said it was coming.)

Rules for the Great Unbookening
1. No buying books.
2. One mooch allowed per 8 books given away, after the deficit of 13 is righted.
3. Books needed for reviews and other reasons (other books by writers under review and so on) are exempt from these rules... within reason. (I.e., I'm reviewing a second novel, so I'll try and check out the first.)
4. Yes, I can still ask for books for my birthday. Come on, I'm only human, people.
5. Try to read two Modern Library books a month.

Now, I know I already have 6 BookMooch requests and one library book on their way, so I will have to be proactive about this. The first thing I'm going to do is finish the library books I have out and the two books from the From the Stacks challenge I had started (740 PARK and FREDDY AND FREDERICKA). Then I'll read the three books I mentioned in Tuesday's entry. After that, who knows? But I know I'm going to clear some major shelf space.

I don't anticipate this becoming a major theme on this blog, but I will report at the end of each month how many books I gave away and checked out and so on. And I still will gladly take book recommendations, even if I don't run out and find them right away.