Sunday, October 24, 2010

Book #114: Sh*t My Dad Says

Sh*t My Dad SaysTitle: Sh*t My Dad Says
Author: Justin Halpern

I should have gone to Stake Conference this morning. Maren has a raging case of pinkeye and an earache, and the other kids all complained of various (imagined?) maladies, so rather than drag all four of them for what would undoubtedly be two painful hours of struggle in the primary room (Eddie was working), I decided to stay at home in bed and read this book.

If you're squeamish about bad language, this isn't the book for you. It's a hilarious read, but the majority of the humor derives from Halpern's father, Sam, saying completely foul and inappropriate things to his son, in a totally loving way. That probably doesn't sound like it makes a lot of sense or that it could be funny, but trust me, it is.

Book #113: Glimpse

GlimpseTitle: Glimpse
Author: Carol Lynch Williams

Of all the books I read for the Whitney Awards this year, Carol Lynch Williams's The Chosen One was my favorite. I loved the way it was a book intended for young readers, but it dealt with hard issues and didn't talk down to an audience. I loved that Kyra, the protagonist, was strong, sympathetic, and imperfect. I loved the way Williams captured the sense of place in that novel.

Carol Lynch Williams is coming to my Young Adult novel workshop on Tuesday, and since I loved The Chosen One so much, I decided to read Glimpse. All of the elements I appreciated in The Chosen One are also present in Glimpse. This isn't a book for readers who don't want to read about hard things-- the book opens with Hope's sister Liz attempting suicide, and we later learn that she tried to kill herself because the girls' mother, a prostitute, had been selling Liz to the men who came to the house.

Although the book is 496 pages long, I was able to read this book in a single sitting, in the bathtub, all before the water grew cold. The length is deceptive, since each page of the book looks like a poem, with two or three words on a line. I'm not sure why Williams chose this format, but it works well. She chose her words with such care that the story felt rich and fully drawn, despite the spareness of her prose. We've been talking in class about how most authors can cut their word count by 30 or 40%, and it seems like Williams was able to do that to an extreme level. I'm eager to hear her talk about her process of writing it on Tuesday.

Book #112: Leaping: Revelations and Epiphanies

Leaping: Revelations & EpiphaniesTitle: Leaping: Revelations and Epiphanies
Author: Brian Doyle

Essayist Brian Doyle is coming to BYU this week and he'll be visiting my Creative Nonfiction graduate seminar. In preparation for his visit, our class read Leaping: Revelations and Epiphanies, a collection of musings, mainly on faith and fatherhood, but also (strangely enough) about 9/11.

One thing that I admire about Doyle's work (aside from his marvelous prose) is the way that he manages to write about his faith. He's a devout Catholic, and his religion infuses most of what he writes. In that way, he's similar to many of the Mormon writers I've encountered, who feel that they can't write essays about subjects that are close to their hearts without talking about religion. While Leaping was published by Loyola Press (Loyola is a Catholic University) and is now out of print, it doesn't feel that it was written for an exclusively Catholic audience. As a Mormon trying to write, I feel torn between writing for a Mormon audience, talking about things like Fast and Testimony meeting and Youth Conference without needing to explain them, and writing for a wider audience, where many of the small details about my culture will require explanation. I like that Doyle doesn't make excuses for being a man of faith, and seems to feel that his faith adds to his humanism rather than detracting from it.

I wish I could keep myself from harping on this, but the way Doyle doesn't use commas between lists of adjectives drives me crazy. If I were a more generous spirit I'd learn to understand his motivations, or at least appreciate his differences.

Book #111: Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk

Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest BestiaryTitle: Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk
Author: David Sedaris

When I heard that a new collection of David Sedaris essays was scheduled for publication, I preordered it from Amazon immediately. It wasn't until the book arrived and I started reading it that I realized that it was not a series of stories from Sedaris's own life, but a collection of fables about animals. Think Aesop, only dirtier.

I've always had an irrational prejudice against stories where there are talking animals (I blame it on my ninth-grade English teacher, who made us read Watership Down one miserable summer), so I wasn't excited to discover that this was a book about talking animals. Ugh.

But I'd paid for the book, I might as well read it, right? It's a relatively short book beautifully illustrated by Ian Falconer (of Olivia and The New Yorker fame). And it's not terrible. Actually, it's pretty funny, with anthropomorphized animals doing all of the horrible and evil things usually only humans are capable of. But at $22 for 175 small pages with big type and even bigger margins, the book feels pretty pricey for what you actually get. Next time I hear that a book by Sedaris is coming out, I'll check and see if it's about animals-- if it is, I'll reserve it at the library, but I'd still pay full price for a book of his essays.

Book #110: Faithful Place: A Novel

Faithful Place: A NovelTitle: Faithful Place: A Novel
Author: Tana French

I really enjoyed Tana French's two previous Dublin-based mysteries, In the Woods and The Likeness, so I was eager to read Faithful Place once I heard it was being released. In general, I liked the story-- Frank Mackey, the protagonist in this story, was a secondary character in The Likeness (which seems to be a trend for French's novels-- she used the same technique in her second novel), an undercover cop who discovers that he wasn't stood up by his girlfriend twenty years ago on the eve of their escape from the Dublin slum where they both grew up-- she had actually been killed.

One of the hallmark's of French's previous works was the complicated motivations of police officers whose work and personal lives intersect. She does a great job with the characterizations of the various people living on Faithful Place. Since I signed up with Audible several months ago, I've listened to lots of audiobooks, and sometimes the readers ruin the books, other times they're merely serviceable, but this time the reading, by Tim Gerard Reynolds, was fantastic. In fact he won an audiofile earphone award for the reading. He does a great job handling all the different characters (ranging from a young child to an old man) and captures all the intonations of Dublin's various social classes.

While the book was enjoyable to listen to, there were a few places where I felt that French's story fell short. Mackey is flawed and hard-bitten, but when he gets around his daughter, he turns into a perfect parent. Yes, he does break a weekend date with her to work on the case, but in general he's all Whole Foods and homework and bedtimes, which doesn't seem consistent with his character. I think he'd probably be a pretty crappy parent. The girl alternately seems older and younger than nine. I figured out who the killer was about 1/3 of the way into the book, and it seemed so obvious that I kept waiting for a twist, especially after the person confessed to one of the murders but refused to confess to the other. But I can easily overlook those small problems because I felt like French transported me to cold December nights on Faithful Place.

Book #109: Freedom

Freedom: A Novel (Oprah's Book Club)Title: Freedom: A Novel
Author: Jonathan Franzen

I promised a review of Freedom, and although it's a little late (yes, I forgot), I'm back. My word is my bond and all that. Anyway, I really liked the first 300 pages of Freedom. I was captivated by the somewhat unlikely love story of Patty and Walter Berglund and the struggles they were having with their children. But about halfway through the novel, I realized that there wasn't one person in the story I liked: not unhappy, cheating Patty, not sanctimonious, boring Walter, not their cheating and sanctimonious kids, not Walter's potential fling or Patty's longtime man-on-the-side (who happened to be Walter's best friend). In the end, Franzen created a novel of such unlikeable characters that it was hard to finish, or root for anyone in the story. I do like how the story ended, with a note of hope, but my goodness, getting there felt like being trapped at a very dysfunctional family dinner at times.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Book #108: The Best American Essays 2010

The Best American Essays 2010 (The Best American Series (R))Title: The Best American Essays 2010
Editor: Christopher Hitchens

Maybe my perspective on what constitutes an essay has changed since I started my creative nonfiction seminar six week ago, but it felt like there was a whole lot of nonfiction but not very many essays in Best American Essays this year. I wonder if this is because Hitchens is not known as an essayist-- he's written multiple works of nonfiction (and recently published his memoir). I'm not sure if the BAE people considered that the 2010 edition would likely be Hitchen's last opportunity to edit a collection for them, and while I hate the disparage a dying man, I'm not sure that Hitchens was the best editor for a collection of essays. More than half of the works included in the book feel like magazine articles or retrospectives rather than essays or personal narratives. 

Genre considerations aside, there is some great writing in BAE. I loved Jane Churchon's "The Dead Book," and John Gamel's "The Elegant Eyeball." In fact, all of my favorite essays dealt with the intersection of writing and medicine or science. I wonder if that was a particular area of interest for Hitchens, or if I have a particular interest in these intersections because it represents the collisions of my area of interest with Eddie's. While I'd use the term "essay" lightly in the categorization of the works included in this book, I can't quibble with the fact that the writing is good. 

Book #107: U and I

U and I: A True StoryTitle: U and I
Author: Nicholson Baker

(I wrote this review for my Creative Nonfiction seminar).

Just when I start feeling like I have a pretty good grasp on contemporary literature, Nicholson Baker shows me that I’m really not all that well read, after all. I’d never heard of Nicholson Baker, have read nothing by John Updike or Vladimir Nabokov, two of his favorite authors (I have had Lolita on my Kindle for the last six months, but I don’t think that counts), and I’ve read very little of his other main influences—Joyce and Proust. However, I have had literary crushes before, so I feel like I can identify with Baker’s obsession with John Updike, despite not being intimately acquainted with Rabbit Angstrom.

When Baker was in his early thirties and had earned critical praise for the two novels he’d had published, he learned of the death of Donald Barthelme, a writer who had mentored his young colleague. Baker considers writing about Barthelme, but soon realizes that everything he thought about his mentor is now colored by the fact that Barthelme was dead. He says, “The intellectual surface we offer to the dead has undergone a subtle change of texture and chemistry; a thousand particulars of delight and fellow-feeling and forbearance begin reformulating themselves the moment they cross the bar” (9). Instead of writing about Barthelme, Baker decides to write about the living author who has had the greatest effect on his life and career—John Updike. When Baker began his project in 1989 (originally conceived as an article for The Atlantic, but it soon grew too big for magazine publication and was published as a book in 1991), Updike, who died in 2009 at the age of 76, was still at the top of his career as a writer, turning out novels, book reviews, short stories and poetry with an efficiency that made Baker sweat.

Baker decides that he won’t read anything Updike has written while he’s writing about Updike; he won’t even look up passages to verify their accuracy until he’s done writing (he later corrects his misremembered passages, using brackets to show Updike’s actual words—and while the differences are sometimes startling, so is the fact that at other times he remembers, nearly verbatim, long passages from Updike’s novels). He sits down at his typewriter and starts brainstorming every passage he remembers from the bits and pieces of Updike he has read, which probably amounted to about a third of Updike’s body of work up to that point. Then he writes about how Updike (who he’s met only twice, at book readings, until this point) has influenced him as both a man and a writer. While the book is ostensibly about Updike’s writings, it’s more about Baker, who isn’t shy about showing his own self-doubts, pettiness, and ambitions. For example, he talks about stalking Updike outside a reading at the offices of the Harvard Lampoon. He corners the older writer (using a phrase from Updike “life was too short not to” as justification), reminding him about the last time they met, lying about having attended Harvard. He says, “And yet if he hadn’t felt enough fondness for his old school magazine to show up that day, I wouldn’t have had my chance to wait for him near the ham tidbits, steeling myself to be pushy. I knew it was pointless, but I wanted to talk to him…” (160).  After that experience, Baker sees himself as a minor villain in one of Updike’s novels (tall, skinny, bad skin, pushy, just like Baker) but also takes away the idea that Updike may have borrowed an idea from a short story written by Baker. He concludes the book by saying, “For a minute or two, sometime in 1983, the direction of indebtedness was reversed. I have influenced him. And that’s all the imaginary friendship I need” (179).

As someone who had no prior interest in either Baker or Updike, I was skeptical about U and I. It ended up reminding me a lot of Julie Powell’s Julie and Julia. It’s true that U and I was much better written (there’s no way that Powell would have snuck Madonna references all the way through a 20-page chapter—relating them to herself, to Julia Child, to food, and Baker did it in a way that delighted me as a reader). Both Powell and Baker worry about what their living subjects will feel about being scrutinized. Powell is shocked when Julia Child dismisses her project, Baker says, “Updike could react, feel affronted, demolish me, ignore me, litigate” (20). Both authors also use the exploration of another’s work to explore themselves, and both are very forthcoming about their own weaknesses.  But Baker is funnier, and less whiny, and certainly made less money on his project than Powell did. Powell, who started her project as a blogger, also doesn’t experiment with the five- or eight-page paragraph the way that Baker does. I’ve never loved a long paragraph—one of the authors I studied for my first MA thesis was Henry James, and I always knew I’d have a headache after reading him for more than an hour, but Baker does the mega-paragraph better than anyone else I’ve ever read (including Proust, but that may be my limited French speaking). I loved following the twists and turns of his ideas, and how he always managed to bring back in what appeared to be extraneous strands of thought. Yes, he could easily have split up some of those paragraphs, but I loved watching him show off.  Baker also spends a significant amount of time on the process of writing—what he should say, what he shouldn’t say, and why (although he actually does say it all).

Interestingly enough, in the two decades following U and I, Baker’s career has followed a somewhat similar trajectory to Updike’s, in the breadth of his subjects. He’s published approximately 20 books, and upwards of 50 short stories, essays and articles. He received the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2001 for his nonfiction work, Double Fold. U and I is still considered his most important work.

Book #106: The Wednesday Wars

The Wednesday WarsTitle: The Wednesday Wars
Author: Gary D. Schmidt

It's been kind of a Gary Schmidt fest around here. All of the students in our Young Adult class were required to read a Schmidt novel. Then he visited our class last week and we had the chance to ask him questions, and then I had the chance to introduce him at a lecture he gave at BYU, and following the lecture my professor invited me to have lunch with him (which was SO cool, how often do you get to have lunch with a Newbery Award winner?). After that, I was on such a Schmidt kick that I decided to go ahead and read The Wednesday Wars.

The Wednesday Wars is the story of Holling Hoodhood, a seventh-grader living in Long Island who knows that his English teacher hates him. This knowledge is reinforced every Wednesday when half the class goes to CCD at the Catholic church down the street and the other half goes to Hebrew school, leaving Holling alone with Mrs. Baker, who makes him read Shakespeare. Over the course of the year, Holling discovers that Shakespeare doesn't have to be a punishment, that a teacher doesn't have to be an enemy, and that growing up can be complicated.

I loved The Wednesday Wars and think that Bryce would love it too. It has a perfect combination of humor, things to think about and preteen hijinks to keep even a reluctant fifth or eighth grader reading. My only criticism is that Holling's parents seem particularly absent, even though they both exist in the story. While I can see that having them portrayed as unsympathetic allows for more conflict within the story, it doesn't feel like an accurate portrayal of parenthood. Maybe I was just lucky to have really great parents.

Book #105: Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy

Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy (Readers Circle (Laurel-Leaf))Title: Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy
Author: Gary D. Schmidt

I tried hard not to get too depressed while reading Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy. In my Young Adult fiction workshop, we're all writing novels. My novel takes place on an island in New England where a group of people is cut off from the rest of society. Lizzie Bright also takes place on an island in New England where a group of people is cut off from the rest of society. The difference is that my novel, still in its first draft, is basically wordy crap, and Schmidt's novel is both spare and brilliant. 

Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy focuses on the relationship between Lizzie, an African American girl living on a small Maine island, and Turner Buckminster, the new preacher's son, freshly arrived from Boston just after the turn of the 20th century, and finding it hard to fit into life in the coastal Maine town where his father has taken a job. Turner doesn't fit in with the other boys in town, but he does fit in with Lizzie, also an outcast. The men in Turner's town, the very men who hired Turner's father to be their preacher, want to turn the African Americans living on Lizzie's island out, claiming that they don't have property rights to the island despite having lived there for more than a hundred years, because the townspeople feel that having an island full of African Americans will make the town less desirable as a resort destination.

Gradually, Turner begins to see that adults in his life don't always make the right choices, and that he must decide for himself what is right and what is wrong, and what it means to be a man. Schmidt does such a great job with the setting of the book, and with repeating certain lines (looking into the eye of a whale, for instance), and with the maturation of characters over the course of the novel. It's definitely a book that I want Bryce and Annie to read, and one that I'm happy to have read myself.

Book #104: Room: A novel

Room: A NovelTitle: Room: A Novel
Author: Emma Donoghue

I was incredibly confused by the first few chapters of Room. I hadn't heard anything about the novel, and since I listened to it on my iPod I couldn't flip ahead or read the book jacket, and suddenly I was thrust into a world where there was a child narrator (actually read by a child or by someone who convincingly imitated one) living in a place where something was not exactly right.

That something turns out to be the fact that the small boy, Jack, and his mother are kept locked up in a 10'x10' shed in the back yard. When Jack turns five, he and his mother start making a plan to escape from the room, the only home Jack has ever known. The ramifications of their escape plan prove to be far more challenging than either one had anticipated. I can't say more without giving too much away.

Room is a fascinating book, but also annoying in its own way. I loved the way that Donoghue seemed to get into the mind of her five-year-old protagonist, but there were also things that didn't add up-- the fact that Jack was a proficient reader, for example, but had no sense of using articles in spoken language. I'm not used to listening to audiobooks with more than one narrator (with few exceptions) and as far as I could tell, there were at least four voices narrating Room, which proved problematic when the psychopathic lunatic who locked Jack's mother up and regularly raped her was voiced by the same person who read the part of the kindly psychiatrist. The woman who read the part of Jack's mom sounded much older and calmer than I imagine a 26-year-old who had been locked up for seven years would sound and feel. I think the book would have been better if it had been read by a single actor.

I'd definitely recommend Room. It made me cry, and the "ripped from the headlines" (the book seems to roughly parallel the Jaycee Duggard story) approach made it feel timely. But more than that, I appreciated Donoghue's work at tackling the story through the eyes of a five-year-old boy, seeing the world beyond his Room for the very first time.

Book #103: Packing for Mars

Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the VoidTitle: Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void
Author: Mary Roach

If you're like me and your mind naturally gravitates (get it?) to the baser things in life-- poop, pee, food, and sex, then you'll probably love Mary Roach's Packing for Mars. This is the fourth Roach book I've read; she drew me in with Stiff and Bonk, and kept my attention with Spook, and I also loved Packing for Mars. Roach explores zero gravity, space food, and, of course, peeing and pooping and copulating in space and how astronauts deal with those situations. It made me realize that there's a whole lot more that goes into space missions than just shooting some guys up there and hoping they come back alive. Everything, and I do mean everything, undergoes intensive testing before it's sent up on a space mission.

If you've ever wondered about how astronauts live up in space, rest assured that Mary Roach went there and asked. She even wanted to try out a toilet with a built-in backup camera (or the NASA equivalent). If you love space, love Mary Roach, or just love laughing while you learn, read Packing for Mars.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Book #102: Marriage and Other Acts of Charity: A Memoir

Marriage and Other Acts of Charity: A MemoirTitle: Marriage and Other Acts of Charity: A Memoir
Author: Kate Braestrup

I loved Kate Braestrup's first memoir, Here if You Need Me so much that I read it once, then made my book group read it, then sent it on to a friend who I thought should read it. I've missed having it around since it I gave it away, so I was thrilled to see that Braestrup had a new memoir out. Once again, she tackles the themes of love and commitment from her perspective as a Unitarian Universalist minister and chaplain for the Maine Game Warden Service. Once again, she talks a lot about how it's love, more than anything else, that gets us in touch with our humanity. Once, again, she tells stories from her kids' lives and from her relationships with those she loves.

In Here if You Need Me, Braestrup writes about losing her first husband Drew, a Maine State Trooper, when she was in her early thirties and had four young children. In this second book, she talks a lot about her relationship with Drew again. I know that she remarried several years after Drew's death, so hearing so much about Drew in the first half of the book made me worried that her second husband felt some competition with the first husband's memory. But in the second half of the book Braestrup focuses on learning to love again, and how love is different the second time around with Simon.

While I remember Here if You Need Me as a more linear memoir, Marriage and Other Acts of Charity feels more like a series of essays placed in rough chronological order. I enjoyed the more essayistic structure of this collection-- and I particularly liked the essays that dealt with Braestrup's relationship with her parents (the bird lady and the man who took her to Denmark). I continue to enjoy her explorations on the themes of love and marriage, but I wonder if she may have exhausted her audience now that this second book has been published. I look forward to reading what Braestrup has to say about other subjects as well.