Friday, January 29, 2010

reading report - Jan 2010

I'm only about ten pages into the book I'm reading right now, so it will have to wait till next month. So I might as well go ahead and post this.

My Life In France, Julia Child. I'll admit I never would have read this if I hadn't seen the movie Julie and Julia. The movie was good, but I thought the Meryl Streep bit was way more interesting than the Amy Adams bit. So I decided to read My Life in France, which was the basis for much of the Julia Child thread of the movie. The book is fascinating, and kept me absorbed all the way to the end. It is based in large part on letters that Child wrote while she was living in France. It must have been a hoot to get her letters, she is so infectiously enthusiastic (is infectiously a word?). I was so interested in the proess of writing their famous cookbook that I subsequently ordered it, too (Mastering the Art of French Cooking), but I don't think I'm a dedicated enough cook to use it much. It is interesting reading, though. A-

Wishful Drinking, Carrie Fisher. I've read a couple of Fisher's novels, and while they weren't great lit, they were witty and entertaining. This one, a memoir, is not only not great lit, it is almost never witty and only occasionally entertaining. It reads like a transcript of her talking off-the-cuff into a tape recorder, which is possibly what it is. There is one really funny story for those of us who are Star Wars fanatics (the original trilogy), and if you're a fan of Fisher's anyway (which I am), there's some interesting bits about her life, but otherwise I'd say don't bother. C

The Book Shop, Penelope Fitzgerald. The college where I took classes last semester is offering a seminar this semester on Penelope Fitzgerald. I'd never heard of her before, so I thought I'd try reading one of her books since I can't take the class. The Book Shop is the story of a widow who takes her life's savings and invests it in opening a book shop in a small town in rural England. It is initially successful, but eventually it fails. The story is beautifully written, and it's very British. So if you're an Anglophile, as I am, you will enjoy it. But it has that quality of literary fiction that has almost completely turned me off of reading literary fiction, which is an underlying sense of dark despair. In the world of literary fiction, the best intentions of the brave, intelligent few will always be undermined by the small-minded, petty majority. I knew about two-thirds of the way through that it was going to end in misery, but there was this tiny little part of me that was hoping, hoping, that the characters that you love in this story would not necessarily live happily ever after, but might at least find a comfortable niche for themselves. But it was not to be. Predictably enough, it ends in almost complete ruin for the widow, who is a lovely character, a thoughtful and courageous woman. If you like literary fiction, or if you haven't read enough of it to find it monotonous, you'll love it. A+. But somewhat to my surprise, I find that I am not quite that much of a pessimist. It just seemed like another in a long line of beautifully written, self-pitying literary novels to me. Oh, us poor intelligent, sensitive people are always being railroaded by the ignorant masses. But it still gets a B for the lovely prose and meticulous plotting, and a great cast of characters who deserved a better end.

Tell No One, Harlan Coben (suspense). This one is hard to categorize. It's a one-off, not part of his Myron Bolitar series. Its best characteristic is that you can't put it down. It ends, practically on the very last page, with a bombshell of a plot twist, which is kind of fun. It is perfect for a day of travel when you will be sitting in airports and airplanes with nothing to do. But the more you think about it after you put it down, the less sure you are that it's a good book. There are several improbable happenings, to put it mildly. It stretches credulity to the limits, although it's completely within the bounds of similar books. So if you can read a thriller and not think about it much, I'd give it an A-. But if you, like me, start wondering after you've put it down, "Well, what are they going to do now? how are they going to live, knowing that?" it will sort of leave a bad taste in your mouth. And in that case, it gets a B-.

Since I'm on the subject of Harlan Coben here, I'll say something about Fade Away, which is the third book in his Myron Bolitar series. It was on my list of books worth reading for 2009, and I'll tell you why. The first two books in the series are just fun, especially if you're a bit of a sports fan. Myron is an agent for professional athletes, but since he has some past ties to some investigative agency (the FBI? I can't remember), he sometimes is asked to investigate various unsavory situations involving sports stars. He (Myron) is the king of roll-your-eyes lame jokes, but after you get used to it, they start being pretty funny. (I love books that make me laugh.) And there is the usual cast of interesting sidekicks. It's a typical wise-cracking PI-type series, although better written than many.

So when you start Fade Away, that's all you're expecting. And for the first half of the book, that's all you get. But then about halfway through, the story takes a 90-degree left turn and adds a whole new level of interest. Instead of the usual clues and plot twists that lead quickly to the denouement, you figure out that Coben is dealing with some pretty serious stuff: loss and regret, missed chances, revenge and forgiveness. I kept thinking about it for days after I finished it. I still think about one particular scene, which I can't describe without spoiling it. It's a great example of what genre fiction can be. No one's going to mistake it for literary fiction (and maybe you won't be surprised to hear that I'm grateful for that), but it goes well beyond the expected conventions of a thriller. And that's why it was on the "worth reading" list for last year.


Thursday, January 28, 2010

I'm reading Pema Chodron again. Her thoughts on the idea of renunciation, an important Buddhist concept:

[Renunciation] has to do with letting go of holding back. What one is renouncing is closing down and shutting off from life. ... renunciation is seeing clearly how we hold back, how we pull away, how we shut down, how we close off, and then learning how to open. It's about saying yes to whatever is put on your plate, whatever knocks on your door, whatever calls you up on your telephone. ....The journey of awakening--the classical journey of the mythical hero or heroine--is one of continually coming up against big challenges [the things that make you freeze up] and then learning how to soften and open. In other words, the paralyzed quality seems to be hardening and refusing, and the letting go or the renunciation of that attitude is simply feeling the whole thing in your heart, letting it touch your heart. You soften and feel compassion for your predicament and for the whole human condition.
(from The Wisdom of No Escape, p. 51-53)


Friday, January 22, 2010

Well, I'm posting more, but at the same time having a horrible crisis of confidence about it. I try to avoid posting ad naseum about my neuroses about writing, and about writing publicly, even though those are things I deal with all the time. So enough already. It's a problem, but it's a boring problem.

You might have noticed that I got a little obsessed with Michael Chabon last year (here and here, for example). I spent about a month late last spring reading his stuff and his website (which for someone so verbose is a model of understatement), and his wife's stuff and her blog. Also read some criticism and many reviews. Enough to take the shine off, honestly. One of my least favorite qualities is a penchant for controversy, and the two of them don't seem to feel any need to avoid it, I must say. And I'm even on the same side of the political fence as they are (more or less). I imagine if you were on the other side you would find them unbearable in the extreme.

But I still love his writing. I've already talked about Maps and Legends, and Mysteries of Pittsburgh, which was probably the best book I read last year (wait, what am I saying? with the list of books I read last year, that's not even a compliment). I didn't talk about Wonder Boys, which I also read, which was also wonderful, although it didn't make the list of books worth reading.... well, now that I think of it, maybe it should have. It was definitely worth reading, if only to see how Chabon pulls it off. The protagonist is so awful that the only reason I kept going was to see if he was going to be able to make this total ass into a sympathetic character. And he does. It's a remarkable feat. But it's a difficult book to recommend because it's so unpleasant to read, at least at times.

An aside. There was one thing about the book that fascinated me. But I still haven't had a theory class, so I'm afraid I won't be able to talk about it intelligently, which I hate. (those neuroses, remember? one of them is a complete panic at the thought of sounding stupid.) But I'm trying to learn to throw caution to the wind at least once a day--lighten up--so I'll say this anyway. The thing that fascinated me about Wonder Boys was the tuba. The main character is a washed-up writer named Grady. He's made such a thorough mess of his life that you can hardly stand to read it--he's been working on the same novel for years (and if you know a bit of the history of Chabon's second novel, it's worth the read just for some of the snidely hilarious commentary that goes on there); his answer to most problems is pot; his marriage is a mess; he's having an affair with a woman who gets pregnant and he basically blows her off because he doesn't know what to do. He's a mess. But through an odd combination of events, he ends up with someone else's tuba, and it sort of follows him around--not in an animated way, it just happens that wherever he is, the tuba shows up.

The way the narrative is structured, I think Chabon wants you to think that Grady is saved by the love of a good woman. Literally--she gives him CPR at one point--and figuratively. But it seemed to me that what saves him is the tuba: the tuba as a representative of the absurdity of life, the weird, off-beat strangeness that pervades our existence and that is essentially and exuberantly unpredictable. Grady keeps spiraling down further and further into black despair. But in real life there is always something random going on, and the randomness can just as easily be positive as negative. When the tuba appears in one of the final scenes, you can't help but burst out laughing, and isn't that the way life is? Sometimes the absurdity of it, the flat-out weirdness, is what lets you know you're alive. I want to be able to say something intelligent about what the author intends vs. what the reader experiences, but that's where I'll stop for now. Maybe after I've taken the class I will have more to say.

Well, that was going to be an aside, but it got so long that now my original point will sound like an aside. I was going to say that even though sadly I've gotten past the point of hero worship with Mr. Chabon, I still love his writing. When we went on vacation last summer, I had his 3rd book with me (Kavalier and Clay), and I was utterly spellbound by the first ten pages. Then my husband stole it from me and read it, and by the time he finished it, I had moved on to other things. But now my husband is also a fan, so I got him Chabon's new book of essays for Christmas. I stole it from him this morning, which was only just, and read three essays picked at random. Chabon is still amazing. The one on being his younger brother's hero moved me nearly to tears. And I'm not even a brother. Heck, I'm not even a guy, and the name of the book is Manhood for Amateurs.

So, I'm still a fan. He can be as out-there as he wants in his regular life if he'll just keep on writing. I still haven't read Kavelier and Clay, but it's not very far down on my stack, so maybe soon.


Tuesday, January 19, 2010

One of the best things about being back in class last semester was not necessarily the subject matter (although that was pretty excellent), but the asides: the offhand remarks, the meanders, and the digressions that probably drove some students nuts, but for me were like tossing Godiva chocolates to someone who's been on the Atkins diet. My Bible as Lit professor was particularly good at this. One day he brought in a poem by A. R. Ammons, of whom I was unaware, that was essentially fifteen lines of subordinate clause that eventually turn on the final phrase: "...fear lit by the breadth of such calmly turns to praise." It's a wonderful poem-- "City Limits" -- which you can find by googling if you are so inclined.

Which led me to further reading of Ammons, which led to these lines, which are my new epigraph for this blog:

...well, I learn a lot of useless stuff, meant
to be ignored: like when the sun sinking in the
west glares a plane invisible, I think how much

revelation concealment necessitates: and then I
think of the ocean, multiple to a blinding
oneness and realize that only total expression

expresses hiding: I'll have to say everything
to take on the roundness and withdrawal of the deep dark:
less than total is a bucketful of radiant toys.

from "Cut the Grass" - A. R. Ammons


Monday, January 18, 2010

new year's not-resolution

I don't usually do New Year's resolutions, mostly because I never keep them, which can be depressing. I've tried variations on the theme recommended by friends, but I've never found something that worked. But every year I think about resolutions because everyone else is talking about theirs. This year when I was thinking about what my new year's resolutions would be if I did them, which I don't, an odd thought came to mind, which was: "lighten up." And it keeps coming back. Here it is the 18th of January, and I'm still thinking about all the different ways that phrase resonates for me. So I guess I do have a new year's resolution this year, and that's it. Except it's not really a resolution, so it's my new year's not-resolution.

Years ago a therapist told me something that has had a pretty profound influence on me. It keeps popping up in different contexts and different layers of meaning, although the idea is a simple one. She told me that I tend to take responsibilty for things I'm not responsible for (my children's happiness, world peace) and then not take responsibility for the things I AM responsible for (my own happiness, my own thoughts, my own little realm of chaos).

That little gem has had so many different ways of playing out since I heard it that I think maybe I should have it tattooed on the back of my hand to remind myself. I've been known to worry about what other people think more than making sure I'm comfortable with who I am. Or worrying about the number on the scale more than taking responsibility for eating healthy food. Or thinking about the grade instead of the paper.

"Lighten up" seems to me to be one more layer of this same idea. I think I've been taking myself a little too seriously-- hence, "lighten up." While in other ways, I've not taken myself seriously enough. If that makes any sense. I'm not sure I can explain it any better than that. At first it seemed mainly to apply to a couple of projects I'm taking on (about one of which: more later), but in another way it applies to this blog. When I was really wrestling with my religious upbringing, I needed to write about it. I mean "needed" literally. I seem to work things out by writing about them. I post my writings publicly here for some reason that makes almost no sense to me, but the reason I write it is for me. But now even though I'm not wrestling day-to-day with that stuff anymore, I still have this lingering sense that that's what I should post about. As if posts on other, less serious issues don't belong here. It hasn't always been that way-- I used to have a much wider range of topics. So, who knows what I will post about, but I think I'm going to broaden the field again.

Lighten up, Aunt BeaN.

Here's to a 2010 full of light.


Sunday, January 03, 2010

For the past couple of years I've posted a list of books I read during the previous year that were worth reading. I almost didn't do it this year because, as you probably already know, 2009 was my year of reading genre fiction, and it doesn't do much for my reputation as an intelligent person to post a list of genre books. But what the heck. It's what I read, and some of them really were good reads. I did, of course, read a few literary fiction books and a few non-fiction, but when I went over the list, other than the Michael Chabon books, I couldn't really remember them. So why bother?

I've discovered that with genre fiction it is often pointless to recommend particular books, since people (including me) can be turned off by some little thing that another reader won't even notice (like Charlie All-Night has a weird bit about medical marijuana in it that didn't bother me a bit but thoroughly turned off one of my friends). So I usually just recommend authors. But what is the point of a "books worth reading" list if you're not going to list books? So I've picked books, but in some cases it was really tempting to say "anything by this author."

here 'tis, books I read in 2009 that were worth reading (in no particular order):

The Last Olympian, Rick Riordan (Young Adult)
Fade Away, Harlan Coben (Mystery/Thriller)
The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman (Young Adult)
Miss Wonderful, Loretta Chase (Romance)
Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman (SciFi/Fantasy)
Maps and Legends, Michael Chabon (non-fiction)
Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Chabon (literary fiction)
The Serpent Prince, Elizabeth Hoyt (Historical Romance)
Charlie All-Night, Jennifer Crusie (Romance)
Fast Women, Crusie (Romance)
Unnatural Causes, P.D. James (Mystery)
The Devil Went Down to Austin, Rick Riordan (Mystery)

An even dozen. Honorable mention to Crazy Wild by Tara Janzen, whose "Crazy" series I have decided is the the female equivalent of a guy pouring over the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue-- pure female fantasy.