Saturday, May 29, 2010

Book #69: The Parisians

Parisians: An Adventure History of ParisTitle: The Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris
Author: Graham Robb

After 10 years of French lessons, a year spent teaching French, a summer working in a French bakery (in Belgium), and a trip to Paris, I think it would be fair to say that I like French stuff. I'm in no way an expert or a true Francophile, but I thought I'd be up to speed enough to keep up with The Parisians. The premise of the book is interesting: Robb explores the history of Paris through the lives of 20+ Parisians or visitors to Paris. Each chapter is a self-contained story, highlighting Hitler or Madame Zola or Marcel Proust, and giving social commentary on the Paris of that time period through the protagonist's life. When I was able to clear my mind and listen closely, The Parisians was fantastic. I listened to the chapters on Madame Zola one day while slogging up the hill behind my house for an hour, and it was the only thing that kept me from turning around, running home, and getting back in bed. The Proust chapter kept me ironing until I'd gotten to the bottom of the pile. But I think that if you plan to listen to the audio version of the book (beautifully read by Simon Vance) it's only going to be rewarding if you can focus on the story. There were many, many times when I was driving in the car or walking around the house, and my mind would start to wander while listening, and I'd find myself hopelessly lost. When I read a book and get lost, it's not too hard to turn back and find where I stopped paying attention and pick it up again, but with the long, dense chapters, it was harder for me to do that in this format. Usually I just pressed through, hoping that I'd eventually get with the program, although I'll confess that two or three times the gist of the story entirely passed me by as I sped down the freeway and my mind wandered. Maybe I'll listen again when it's been less than 15 years since my most recent trip to the City of Lights.

Book #68: The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag

The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag: A Flavia de Luce Mystery (Flavia De Luce Mysteries)Title: The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag: A Flavia de Luce Mystery
Author: Alan Bradley

Last year's The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie was a book I thoroughly enjoyed. I thought that ten-year-old Flavia de Luce was wise beyond her years in an unrealistic way (I have a ten-year-old, after all), but I loved the community that Bradley created in the small English village where Flavia and her family live in the "big house." I also really liked that both Flavia's obsession (poisons) and her father's obsession (stamp collecting) played such a big role in the mystery she solved.

This time around, Flavia takes it upon herself to figure out who killed a traveling puppeteer. Bradley seems to be doing a little bit of resting on his laurels in Hangman's Bag. Many of the characters he introduced so charmingly in Sweetness (Dogger, the vicar, the postmistress, the librarian), reappear in this novel, but he doesn't really develop them to any degree. The mystery doesn't have anything to do with Flavia's unique talents (other than her deductive skills), and there's not a breathtaking cliffhanger in this novel either. If you absolutely loved Flavia's character in Sweetness, you may want to read Hangman's Bag, but if you're not already a fan, I doubt that this is the book for you.

Book #67: The Lonely Polygamist

The Lonely Polygamist: A NovelTitle: The Lonely Polygamist
Author: Brady Udall

There are people (like my little sister) who looked forward to the release of the Harry Potter books with impatient enthusiasm. More than once, she went to a midnight release party, then spent the rest of the night reading. I've heard of Harry Potter-ites who said that book release day was more exciting for them than Christmas. That's how I felt on the day when I got the email from the library saying that my reserved copy of The Lonely Polygamist had arrived. I dropped everything and hopped in the car, then rushed home and tried to finish the other book I was reading as quickly as possible. This was going to be it-- possibly the very first truly "Great American Novel" written by a Mormon. I couldn't wait to get started.

When I start out with such high hopes I often end up disappointed, but The Lonely Polygamist didn't let me down. Is it the best book I've ever read? Probably not, but it may be the best book I've read so far this year. Did I cry at the end? If I hadn't read ahead and known what was going to happen, I would have been a great big blubbering mess. My advice? Resist the urge to skip ahead. Just let the story unfold. And what a story it is. Golden Richards arrives in Southern Utah as a barely literate 20-year-old, to live with a father who he hasn't seen in ten years. Over that decade, his father earned millions of dollars and joined a group of fundamentalist Mormon polygamists. Over the next twenty years, Golden finds himself with four wives, twenty-eight children, three houses, and the remains of his father's building empire, which he's managed to the brink of bankruptcy. Golden's a decent guy who wants to do right by people and he finds the scale of his life unmanageable. He copes by taking on a project to build a brothel in Nevada (not a senior citizen center like he tells his wife) and starts to look forward to the time he spends on the job site because it allows him to escape the clamor of his life at home.

Udall nails the characters in the novel. In many family dramas, the author can explore the inner lives all of the members of a family, but Udall wisely chooses to focus on just a few: Golden, his son Rusty (a kid suffering from serious "middle child" syndrome), and the youngest of the four wives. The other kids and wives flit in and out, but really only as they relate to these three main characters. None of the three is happy, all are both overwhelmed by their lives and lonely in the midst of thirty-some other family members, and Udall does a great job showing how this combination of feelings leads all three to self-destructive behaviors (and, ultimately, to some form of redemption, depending on how you look at these kinds of things).

One interesting thing about Udall's novel is the focus on Golden. I know that the title of the book is The Lonely Polygamist, which seems to indicate a male protagonist, but many of the books I've read about polygamy tend to focus on the female experience (The Giant Joshua and this year's fantastic The Chosen One, to name a few), and while Udall does probe the character of Trish, the youngest wife, it's always Golden at the center of the story. In some ways it feels like a very male-centric novel. Between Rusty's "friggin a-holes" and the exploration of his budding sexuality, and Golden's confusion over his desires and his duties, it's a book for and about guys. That's not to say that a girl wouldn't enjoy it, but it's not a girly book. In fact, with the strong, interesting, conflicted male characters of Jens Thorsen (in Todd Petersen's Rift) and Paul Flitkin (in Jonathan Langford's No Going Back) this seems to be a banner year for exploring the psyche of the Mormon male in literature.

One difference between The Lonely Polygamist and Rift and No Going Back (other than the obvious fact that although Golden Richards may call himself a Mormon, we in mainstream Mormonism probably would not) is that The Lonely Polygamist feels edgier. Yeah, Jens is crusty and Paul is pushing the boundaries of his culture, but Udall doesn't write for a Mormon audience. In fact, I think that many Mormons might be turned off by the image of Golden sitting in a room filled with sex toys, or by some of the language and themes of the book. Ultimately, The Lonely Polygamist seems to show characters who try to make the best of a life that they think will bring them happiness in the eternities, but tends to make life on earth a living hell.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Book #66: Shiver

ShiverTitle: Shiver
Author: Maggie Stiefvater

When I read books intended for adults, I like to think I'm fairly non-judgmental. If the characters swear or have sex or rob banks, I'm not likely to put the book down or worry about what reading the book is going to do to my soul. In fact, I tend to get highly annoyed by people who jump right in on all of the bad language and sex in literature and become a morality police. But I realized while reading Shiver that I don't have the same air of neutrality when reading young adult books. I'm not quite sure if it's the mom in me, or if I just think that books written for young adults should set some kind of an example, but I definitely have different expectations for young adult literature.

Shiver makes me feel like a member of the morality police. There was a lot to like about the book. I think the characters were well-drawn, the story interesting, the point of view shifts worked, and I absolutely loved the way she wove the Rilke poetry throughout the novel. I think the love story between Grace, who was attacked by werewolves as a child but somehow managed not to turn into one herself, and Sam, the werewolf who saved her and has watched out for her ever since, was sweet. And the ending was as tender as it was somewhat predictable. Despite all that, something about the novel didn't do it for me, and I'm not sure why I didn't look forward to reading Shiver like I did Beautiful Creatures (a paranormal teen romance in firmly the same camp). And then eighteen-year-old Sam and seventeen-year-old Grace had sex, and it sort of ruined the book for me. If it had been a book written for adults, I wouldn't have even thought twice about consenting adults in love getting it on (I would have expected it even) but here it just felt wrong. I know that many, even most teenagers that age do have sex, so tell me, why does Shiver turn me into a prude?

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Book #65: The Graveyard Book

The Graveyard BookTitle: The Graveyard Book
Author: Neil Gaiman

I'm taking a young adult fiction writing class in fall semester, and The Graveyard Book is one of the books my professor suggested might be helpful as I prepare to work on my own novel. I picked it up eagerly, since I'd heard great things about Gaiman as an author, but never taken the chance to read one of his novels. He narrates the audiobook, and his voice is one of the best things about the recording. The Graveyard Book tells the story of Nobody (Bod) Owens, who toddled out of his house in the middle of the night when a murderer was killing the rest of the family. The baby wandered into the graveyard up the hill, where the members of the graveyard (mostly ghosts, with a witch, a hellhound and a vampire thrown in for good measure) took on the task of raising him to adulthood while protecting him from the murderer, who needed to finish the job.

As I listened to the book, I was struck by the way that Gaiman employed Chekov's idea of "the gun on the wall" in which parts of the story that seem extraneous should eventually work toward advancing the plot or else be cut. For five or six chapters, seemingly random things happen to Bod as he grows up in the graveyard, and I was impressed with the way that Gaiman worked together the disparate events in the concluding chapters. It was a really interesting read. It's funny though, the book is marketed for 9-12 year olds, and I have two kids who read in that age group, and I think that The Graveyard Book would scare the pants off them. It scared me. Maybe the audio recording is more dramatic and scarier than reading the text, but I'm not sure that I'd recommend it for my kids right now, not unless I want them sleeping in my bed with me for the next few months.

Book #64: Beatrice and Virgil

Beatrice and Virgil: A NovelTitle: Beatrice and Virgil
Author: Yann Martel

I'm not a person who enjoys philosophical or abstract conversations very much. Right now I'm taking a literary criticism class, and the professor has us reading primary sources-- works of philosophy from the people (like Plato, Aristotle and Kant) whose work has inspired entire movements of literary theory. It's interesting and challenging, but it's also all about philosophy and ideas, and very little about story. After reading Beatrice and Virgil, I realized that the books I read "for fun" while I'm enrolled in the class should be books that aren't philosophical in nature, because reading them just feels like more homework.

Beatrice and Virgil is one of those books. If you read Yann Martel's Life of Pi a few years ago, you probably remember that the deceptively simple story of a boy and a tiger who survived a shipwreck was just the first layer of meaning, and underneath that were all sorts of symbols. It was a popular book for book clubs, because invariably some of the people in the group would love it and others would hate it and people could feel smart figuring out the symbols together, over cake, before they went back to talking about their husbands and children and sex (isn't that how your book club works?). Anyway, Beatrice and Virgil is also a story about people and animals, in this case a washed-up author and a taxidermist (the people) and a donkey and a howler monkey, who are stuffed in the taxidermist's shop. The taxidermist has written a play where the donkey and the monkey talk and act sad, and even though the conversations compel the author to come back again and again to talk to the taxidermist, he doesn't understand why the play has been written. And then finally, he comes to realize what the second layer of meaning in the story is.

Maybe if I read this book with my book club, I could come as one of the people who hated it, and the other people in the group could feel smart explaining the symbols and telling me why they loved it, and I would be converted. But right now, I'm not feeling it. Beatrice and Virgil hurt my head and left me feeling kind of dumb.

Book #63: Eating Animals

Eating AnimalsTitle: Eating Animals
Author: Jonathan Safran Foer

As far as my personal history with meat goes, I'm an omnivore. Other than a few years as a teenager when I gave up beef (Why beef? I think because Upton Sinclair wrote about beef, if he'd written about chickens, I may have been a burgers-only teenager), I've always been an omnivore. But the thing is, I don't really like meat all that much (except for bacon, and the occasional really good burger). On Thanksgiving, I'd much rather eat the stuffing and the sweet potatoes and the pie than the bird. I hate handling raw meat, and really don't eat that much of it (we'll eat meat for dinner about three nights a week). But I've never been convinced to make the jump from a meat eater to a vegetarian, even though I know it would be better for my carbon footprint, for my heart health, yes, for the animals I'm eating.

I've read quite a few food politics books over the last few years (anything recent by Michael Pollan, Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation, to name a few), and the focus has always been on responsible meat eating. Pollan follows his steer, and we read about Kingsolver harvesting her chickens, and while they advocate for thoughtful, conscious consumption of animals, they don't suggest that their readers give up meat entirely. Foer does. He, like me, and many young adults of my age and educational background, flirted with vegetarianism as a teenager and college student, but always came back to eating meat. When his wife got pregnant with their older child a few years ago, he decided (as thoughtful young parents often do, although I wasn't one of them) to analyze why he ate meat to see if raising his son as an omnivore was the most responsible thing for him to do.

The first two-thirds of the book isn't that different from what's out there already. He talks about his associations with meat-- what family dinners mean to him, how his relationship with his grandma is all tied up in her chicken and carrots dinners. He also writes about going to see animals slaughtered, and about conversations he's had with farmers and ranchers who try to raise and harvest animals in the kindest, most sustainable way possible (if the 99% is the horror of the factory farm, these guys are the 1%). Then Foer changes his tune. Up to this point, he's been a journalist of sorts (in a very artsy, Jonathan Safran Foer kind of way), but in the last portion of the book he writes about how and why he's chosen to be a vegetarian, and spends the final parts of the book spreading the gospel of vegetarianism. He's actually pretty darn convincing. If it were just me, in my own little bubble, I think he could almost persuade me to give up meat. However, would that mean my kids would have to give up chicken nuggets and happy meals? Have you ever tried to order a vegetarian meal at McDonalds or Chick Fil-A? It's pretty tough. Over the last week, as I've contemplated giving up meat, at least during the years when I'm traveling back and forth to Provo so frequently (as a carbon-footprint offset) I've realized how many changes I'd have to make to my convenient little lifestyle in order to do it. Am I just too lazy to be a vegetarian? Foer would condemn me, the one who knows better and still chooses to live irresponsibly, over those who remain in ignorance. Where much is given, much is expected, I guess.

Book #62: This Book is Overdue

This Book Is Overdue!: How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us AllTitle: This Books is Overdue: How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All
Author: Marilyn Johnson

It should come as no surprise that I've flirted with the idea of becoming a librarian. It makes sense, right? I'd even told myself that if I didn't get into the MFA program this year, I'd enroll in an online MLS degree program instead. I could easily see myself making book recommendations to readers and cataloging books and leading story times and shushing people. According to Marilyn Johnson, while recommending and ordering and reading and shelving and shushing are things we associate with librarians, those graduating with MLS degrees today are much more likely to know their way around a database than a card catalog, and much more likely to dabble in Second Life than in, I don't know, crocheting or some other sedate pastime people might stereotypically associate librarians with. In fact, Johnson made librarians look risque, edgy, and even sometimes downright wild. While Johnson focuses a lot on the surprising lives of individual librarians who she meets during her research, her main focus is on the way that librarians are using technology to help their patrons get the information they need.

If her goal is to show how librarians use technology, and dispel the myth that most librarians tend toward being spinsters who like cats, she succeeds. However, the book is marketed in a way that makes it fall short of expectations. The back cover of the book includes quotes from Mary Roach, the master of smart and somewhat horrifying nonfiction (of Bonk and Stiff fame). I went into the book expecting it to be funny and snappy and a little disgusting, but it wasn't. So on the one hand, the association with Roach made me expect too much of the book. On the other hand, the title doesn't seem to fit, especially since the book dealt very little with physical books and not at all (to my recollection, it's been a few weeks) about the library as police-- tracking down and punishing overdue offenders. In fact, it seems like the book is trying to dispel the idea that that's what librarians are about. If the marketing of the book, the title and the jacket quotes, were more appropriate, I think I would have enjoyed the book more because my expectations would have been different. For an aspiring would-be (maybe) librarian, the book just made me think that I need to love computers at least as much as I like books to succeed in the profession.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

To run or not to run?

If you know me, you know that my answer is almost always, "to run." But what about this weekend? I've been training for the Ogden Marathon since January. I've done my speed work consistently, run all of my long runs, been out there pounding the pavement to the tune of about fifty miles a week. Then, on Saturday night, I came down with a scratchy throat. By Sunday it was a full-blown sore throat. Yesterday and today my face and head and nose have been so clogged I can hardly breathe.  I went for a run yesterday and felt terrible, and shivered through most of the day. So what's a girl to do?

I could run. I've run sick before (my first marathon, when I wanted to DIE during the entire second half). I'm pretty confident that even with a raging head cold, I could finish. But is it really about finishing anymore? I've finished seven marathons. The last two have been disappointing, because I haven't done as well as I thought I could. If I run sick, this one is also likely to be an underwhelming finish. Is it worth it to wake up at 3:30am to run 26 miles when I'm sick? I'm not sure. I hate being a quitter. It's not in my nature. If I were giving someone else advice for the race, I'd probably tell them not to run, to bag it, rest, and focus on St. George instead. Why is it so hard for me to give myself the same advice?

Monday, May 10, 2010

People probably thought the printing press was just a fad too...

Ever since the first generation of the Kindle came out, Eddie has been jonesing to buy me one. "You'd be the perfect person to have one!," he always said. I do read a lot, but I've always been satisfied with my library books. I like going to the library, like sifting through books I might want to read, like holding books in my hands, and even like the anticipatory pleasure of waiting for my reserve of a popular new title to arrive. Even though I could never be categorized as a "thrifty" person, I've never seen much sense in paying for books that I can borrow for free from the library.

So every time Eddie mentioned the Kindle or dropped hints about it, I shut him down. "I don't want one." "I like REAL books.""Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?"

Then I started grad school and started thinking about lugging big bags of books up the steps by the BYU Richards Building. When I was an undergrad (and woefully out of shape for a twenty-year-old) I lived in fear of those steps, knowing I'd always be out of breath by the time I got to the top. A month or so ago I said to Eddie, "You know, when fall semester comes around I may look into getting a kindle instead of buying regular copies of the books I'll be reading for school." Passing remark. End of discussion.

Then he left town on Wednesday for a conference, and on Thursday, an early Mother's Day present showed up at the house. It was, of course, a Kindle. I booted it up skeptically. I almost felt like I didn't want to like it. But, you know what? I love it. It's so light and easy to read. It really feels like I'm reading a book, not reading an iPhone or a computer. I can put it in my purse. I could never fit eight or eighty "real" books in my purse. I read all of Beautiful Creatures on it, and whipped through that book just as quickly as anything I read on paper. I haven't taken the time to explore it thoroughly. It has bells and whistles I'll probably never explore. I wish it told me what page I was on or I could cheat and flip inconspicuously to the end to find out what happens (which feels a lot more like a conscious decision and less like a slip of the hand on the Kindle), but those are small prices to pay for the convenience. The $5-15/book isn't, however. I'm reading Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals right now (a library copy) and felt mightily tempted last night to download it on the Kindle. But for $13, I'll just keep reading it the old-fashioned way.

My friend Kaimi even clued me in to how I can indulge in the Kindle in my favorite place to read books-- the bathtub. I now have a gallon-size ziploc bag in my bathtub vanity. When I want to read and soak, the Kindle just goes in the baggie. Voila. Problem solved.

Book #61: Beautiful Creatures

Beautiful CreaturesTitle: Beautiful Creatures
Author: Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl

If you read Twilight and loved the story but wished it were better written, try Beautiful Creatures. Like Twilight, it's a romance novel for teens, with star-crossed lovers who can never be together because one of them, well, isn't exactly human. In this case it's Lena, the new witch in town, who has come to live with her reclusive uncle, Macon Ravenwood, in a tiny backwater in South Carolina. Ethan's been dreaming about her all summer, and when he runs into her at school, they both realize that their futures are intertwined. They have a series of experiences throughout their sophomore year of high school that helps them realize that the inhabitants of the little town of Gatlin often aren't what they appear, and that ingenuity, hard work, and a lot of desire can help someone change their destiny, or at least delay it a little while.

I'm always impressed when fiction writers collaborate successfully. Garcia and Stohl do it here. I'm not sure I really understand why Lena and Ethan are able to escape their fate, or how the continuing saga will play out in the next book (Beautiful Darkness, due out in October), but I know that I want to keep reading, not just for the power of the story, but also for the haunting quality of the writing.

Book #60: Major Pettigrew's Last Stand

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand: A NovelTitle: Major Pettigrew's Last Stand
Author: Helen Simonsen

As a reader, I'm often swayed by trendy writing. If someone makes up words, doodles on the pages, switches dizzyingly from speaker to speaker, writes about 9/11, writes about food, or tackles any of the current trends of the day, I tend to give them props just for style or subject or for being edgy.

There is nothing edgy about Major Pettigrew's Last Stand. It's the story of Ernest Pettigrew, a retired widower living near the cliffs of Dover in Southern England. Pettigrew seems unlikeable at first-- quick to pass judgments, eager to prevent his former sister-in-law from cashing in on the sale of a gun he believes rightfully to be his, disapproving of his only son. He lunches at the golf club and falls under the careful watch of the women of the village. Then he meets Mrs. Ali, a widow who runs the only grocery store in town. He's actually spoken to Mrs. Ali many times over the years, but only gets to know her due to a chance meeting, which spawns a friendship, and love, and causes Pettigrew to question all of the truths he has held so dear for his whole life.

The story is small and quaint and cozy, with enough action to keep things moving along. It's a love story, one that catches both Pettigrew and Ali by surprise. It's also absolutely worth reading. I listened to it while driving back and forth from school and was completely hooked, walking around the house in that way Eddie hates, with a faraway look in my eye and my headphones plugged into my ears. If you like mysteries or love stories or stories about England or stories about ethnicity and culture, it's worth reading, but honestly, I think any reader would enjoy Major Pettigrew's story.

Book #59: The Partly Cloudy Patriot

The Partly Cloudy Patriot
Title: The Partly Cloudy Patriot
Author: Sarah Vowell

Sarah Vowell's The Partly Cloudy Patriot was my third foray into listening to audiobooks. So far, I've chosen to listen to books that are essays or memoirs, read by the author. After reading Partly Cloudy, I think I'm going to take a break from these kinds of books for a while and delve into fiction. I like the act of listening to audiobooks a lot more than I thought I would. My mom has been a big audiobook listener for years, and I've always had a snotty attitude about them, that "listening" to a book wasn't the same thing as "reading" a book and that anyone who could read a book should read instead of listening, just as a matter of principle. As with many things, I'll grant to my mom that she's right, at least where audiobooks are concerned, and now that I have an Audible account, I'm pretty sure that I'll keep on listening. It makes folding laundry and driving to and from school and running on the days of the week after I've blown through my podcasts much more enjoyable. I don't even hate ironing anymore (I can now see the correlation between my mom's love of ironing and her love of audibooks). If I could just figure out how to download books from the library (my library does limited-time audiobook downloads, but I haven't invested the time in figuring them out yet), I would be a very happy girl. Oh, and if I could find something to carry around my iPhone while I run or walk around the house (I always seem to be without pockets) that would make me even happier. The only downside is that the concha of my ears have been sore lately from my headphones getting caught on door handles and ripped forcefully from my ears.

Anyway, enough of that. I probably would have liked The Partly Cloudy Patriot a lot if I'd read it in 2003 when it came out. Even in 2005, it may have seemed relevant. When I ordered The Partly Cloudy Patriot, I thought I was ordering Vowell's new book, The Wordy Shipmates. But I messed up. Partly Cloudy is a bunch of essays related to Vowell's self-identification as a Patriot, and what patriotism means to her. There are amusing essays about Bill Clinton and Al Gore and a road trip to North Dakota and traveling to cry hot, silent tears of rage at the first inauguration of George W. Bush. The stories were interesting and well-told, but they seemed really out of date. It's funny, because the book was published only seven years ago, but the world moves fast these days, and it felt like a story from a generation ago. I'd recommend it more as a piece of history than as a piece of current events.