Sunday, February 28, 2010

After The Workshop, by John McNally

Fantastic, funny and wonderful novel. Jack Sheahan attended the Iowa Writer's Workshop, had a story published in The New Yorker, anthologized in Best American Short Stories- and then nothing, for years. Now he works as a media escort for author tours, airport-fetching visiting writers (achingly perfect New York hipsters, emotionally unstable trauma-memoir types, etc) and over the course of a few blizzardy days, his life spins out of control and towards redemption. I really loved this book and don't think I'm doing it justice here- I laughed, loudly, alone, I read it in one delicious sitting, I ate it up and can't wait to read more from John McNally.

Some Girls Are, by Courtney Summers

Well done kind of "issue" suburban trauma mean-girl book. Brutally realistic in depicting the social torture of high school freeze-outs, and well written.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

They Never Came Back, by Caroline B. Cooney

Caroline Cooney at her most Face-on-the-Milk-Carton ridiculous best/worst whatever it is. Implausable drama. Cathy enrolls in an intensive summer Latin course, only to have another student confront her, claiming that she is really Murielle (Murielle? Really?) his long lost cousin, the child of a hedge fund managing couple who had to flee the country when their fund collapsed and it was about to come out that they had stolen the money. Murielle was supposed to have been with them when her parents left the country, but her aunt wouldn't take her to the airport, and subsequently lost Murielle to child protective services... it isn't worth it to type this nonsense.
I am going to go read something good to wash my brain.

The Day The Falls Stood Still, by Cathy Marie Buchanan

This was wonderful historical fiction, with a strong voice and a fasciniating, unique setting. Niagara Falls, immediately before and after WWI, was looked at as a potential source of life-changing energy for both Canada and the US, but to locals who knew and loved the Falls, the massive infrastructure that was being planned threatened to change more than just the flow of the river. Told by Bess Cole, the convent educated daughter of one of the former Hydroelectric project managers, the book covered social changes as well as deeply personal ones. Intricate historical details were woven seamlessly into the plot, and the plot itself actually had me crying, which is so rare I'm going to make it a tag of its own.
Beautiful, heartbreaking, and thought provoking.

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Red Tree, by Caitlin Kiernan

Wild, twisty ride of a book. Author Sarah Crowe has retreated to an old farmhouse in rural Rhode Island, ostensibly to finish an overdue book, but becomes distracted by a manuscript left behind by a previous tenant. The previous tenant, a suicide, had been working on a study of local legends centering around a large oak on the property, that had been mentioned since colonial times as having somewhat horrible properties, and having been something of a sacred site to local Narragansetts. As Sarah reads the manuscript, she becomes obsessed with the tree and the myths and legends surrounding it, and then things really take a dark turn. A housemate, painter Constance, who becomes Sarah's lover, moves in, and Sarah and Constance are doomed- unless it is only Sarah who is doomed.
An unreliable narrator, a wonderfully inventive mix of New England folklore and an eerie love story with a very dark ending? I'm sold.

Arcadia Falls, by Carol Goodman

Wonderful, atmospheric, haunting and haunted story. Funny- I seem to have slipped into a trend of reading about haunted trees, which I wasn't expecting, but am enjoying.
Meg Rosenthal is thrilled to be offered a teaching position at exclusive arts-centered boarding school Arcadia, where she and her daughter Sally can recover from the death of her husband. Arcadia has long been a haven for creative women, far north in upstate New York, in forests that have been whispered about since the Dutch feared the White Women slipping through the trees. A tangle of thoughful rivalries and increasingly violent and frightening events come to give the book an almost overwhelming sense of claustrophobia and inevitability, and the well written characters had a unique sensibility.
Wonderfully done gothic horror, with a fabulous sense of history and place, and lots of neatly done slipping back and forth from diaries and manuscripts to the present, as Meg finds out more and more about the history of Arcadia.

Totally Killer, by Greg Olear

Sharp, dark, twisted and funny- a black humor homage to 1991. Just because it's that delicious, I'm going to indulge in a big fat block quote here.
"As my friend Walter Maddox once remarked, 1991 was my generation's 1969. In those twelve fleeting months, everything fell into place: culturally, politically, socially- the whole ball of wax.

You had Operation Desert Storm, the banner headline...

You had Jack Kevorkian. You had Rodney King.
Jeffrey Dahmer was apprehended, Clarence Thomas confiremed, Terry Anderson released.

Oh, and the Soviet Union - the Big Bear, our Orwellian enemy for half a century - broke up. Just broke up, went its separate ways, like it was a fucking rock band. Like it was Motley Crue or Journey. And on Christmas, no less, capitalism's holiest of holy days.

In 1991, my generation - the MTV generation, the slackers, shin jin rui, Generation X - reached a creative zenith, You had the Richard Linkletter film Slacker and the Douglas Coupland novel Generation X, both landmark works, released in July and March, respectively. Bret Easton Ellis published American Psycho. Seinfeld hit its stride. In September, the grunge movement arrived with Nirvana's Nevermind. (Here we are now! Entertain us!)"

Sorry for the lengthy excerpt, but omg, so funny.
A twisted, complicated conspiracy theory, assassins, Jaguars, Dick Cheney (!), Osama Bin Laden, McJobs, a murder and a love story. I loved it.

Tinsel: A Search for America's Christmas Present, by Hank Steuver

Fantastic adult non-fiction. A look at Christmas, as it is celebrated in Frisco, Texas, over the course of what were probably the most interesting 3 years Steuver could have chosen, starting in 2006, before the bubbles burst, and ending in 2009, when the foreclosures are emptying the McMansions that rang with such expensive bells and glowed with such pricey and complicated lights. Steuver profiled several families, who he followed through the years, and while it read as smooth as fine fiction, the fact that these people are real made it haunting. Wonderful.

Whip It

Terrible, formulaic girl-power movie. Bliss finds freedom and strength through roller derby. Yeah.

I'm So Happy For You, by Lucinda Rosenfeld

Pretty funny, well written book about female frienemies. Wendy and Daphne have been friends since college, when they established their roles, with Wendy being together, happy, moderately successful but content, and Daphne being that beautiful trainwreck who experiences it all, but cries on Wendy's shoulder when that newest married TV anchor breaks up with her, when she loses her latest glamourous job for blowing it off to stay in Capri. When Daphne's life suddenly comes together, complete with the baby and real estate that Wendy's wanted for so long, their friendship enters an uncomfortably well-drawn unsustainable stage. This was interesting, good solid chick lit that was more about the chicks than the dicks. Nice job.

Dear Pen Pal, by Heather Vogel Frederick

Another well done entry in the Mother-Daughter Book Club series. This time around, the girls are reading Jean Webster's saccharine and kind of gross Daddy Long Legs, but luckily the plot of the new book didn't mirror the plot of the classic as tightly as previous ones have, and the characters continue to develop. A bit of a suspension of disbelief at the end, but enjoyable nontheless. For my sins, the next book, coming out in August, is, inevitably, based on Pride and Prejudice. Pies and Prejudice, it will be called. Honestly, people, other women than Jane Austen have written books. It's true- they're out there.

Daddy Long Legs, by Jean Webster

Well, I have to say that I have avoided reading this book for just about 25 years, because even at 10, I suspected I wouldn't like it, and I was right. However, the newest in Heather Frederick Vogel's excellent Mother-Daughter Book Club YA series has the mothers/daughters reading it, and I know how well she dealt with Little Women and Anne of Green Gables, so I figured I'd read the 'classic' first, so as to better enjoy the new book.
It was saccharine, and sweet, and a little squicky, and incredibly predictable, but I've read it now, and won't ever even wonder about it again, so that's nice. Isn't it?

The Water's Edge, by Karin Fossum

Surprise! It's disturbing, tense, violent and depressing Scandanavian noir. Decent atmospherics, but the plot was a little thin, and, as I said, disturbing, tense, violent, and depressing, including the lighthearded elements of pedophilia, murder, domestic violence, children killing children, and I'm pretty sure there was a dead seal or something somewhere, but I skimmed that bit. I'm a bit of a wimp, really.

Jumped, by Rita Williams-Garcia

Dreadful, preachy, bizarrely written YA. Clearly aiming for a young urban audience, this was laughably off- not a single voice rang true, all three main characters were cariacatures, and it felt offensive, somehow to read this. Worst thing I've read in a pretty long time.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Mrs. Tim Christie, by D.E. Stevenson

Let me first say that this was delightful. Then let me say that it was terifically upsetting to read, because I think something strange has happened.

I came across this book (last published in 1974, although a reprint is scheduled for 2011) because I was looking for read-alikes for The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, as Guernsey etc. is the Read Across Rhode Island book of the year. I can't remember exactly where I saw it mentioned, but it sounded good enough that I requested it through interlibrary loan, got it, and there my troubles started.

Mrs. Tim Christie is an officer's wife in the years before WWII, and the book is her daily diary. It is funny, witty, effortlessly charming, and told in an incredibly distinct and recognizable voice. There are quirks of the voice (and I'm sure English majors have a word for this) that make it unique- almost. As I read, horror seeped into me, because, I kid you not, Mrs. Tim Christie's voice was not new to me. It was the same voice that was used, to great effect, in Bridget Jones' Diary. I can't say what an odd shock that was.

I also can't imagine (though I suppose I could hope) that this is accidental, or a coincidence.

I can't find any mention of Helen Fielding crediting D.E. Stevenson, anywhere, with inspiring her. Now, Bridget Jones' Diary, as most know, is a kind of take-off of Pride and Prejudice, as are about eleventy-billion other books and movies, and the homage to Austen is made clear throughout the book, with Bridget and her friends watching the Colin Firth movie version of P+P, Mark Darcy obviously being an updated Mr. Darcy, and so on and so on. It is a truth universally acknowledged that Bridget Jones is built upon Jane Austen and P+P. That didn't stop the book from being greeted, joyfully and with great praise, by pretty much the whole world.

Another reader has noted a resemblance in voice between Stevenson and E.M. Delafield's Portrait of a Provincial Lady (another book I adore)- but I really feel that Helen Fielding must have read the Mrs. Tim Books (and almost certainly must have come across both D.E. Stevenson and E.M. Delafield in her own reading.) I just wish she credited them as openly as she has Jane Austen.

Bridget Jones' Diary, by Helen Fielding

One of my all time favorite books, that I have probably read about 80 or so times, enjoying it every time.
The reason I re-read it though, this time, isn't that I needed my Bridget fix (and I have been known to enlist friends' help in finding one of the 3 or so copies that seem to float around the house, saying desperately that I "need Bridget" like other people sometimes "need chocolate" or "need a drink") but that I found something strange, and disturbing, that I will go into in the post about Mrs. Tim Christie, by D.E. Stevenson.
Despite something that I find worrisome and stressful and upsetting, fretting about it doesn't detract from the delight of the artifact, the fun of the book itself, so I want to say how much I adore this book. To not like the book would be like saying that you can't like, say, Hills Like White Elephants because Hemingway was a misogynistic jerk, or that Kobe Bryant's 3-point shots aren't beautiful because he has a complicated personal life, and so on. The "art" is separate from the artist.

I still love Bridget Jones' Diary.

Angus, Thongs, and Perfect Snogging

Nicely done adaptation of the YA book Angus, Thongs, and Full Frontal Snogging by Louise Rennison, and while I don't understand why they changed the title, it doesn't bother me immensely.

What I liked about this:
the actress cast as Georgia actually looks like a real teenager.
it stuck fairly well to the plot of the book.
harrowing moments that reminded me exactly how dreadful it is to be 14.

What I didn't like about this:
no teenage boys look like that.
left out some of the best bits of the book.
ridiculous, American-teen-movie style ending tacked on.

It was fun to watch, but I wouldn't really recommend it though.

No Choirboy, by Susan Kuklin

Disturbing and sad non-fiction YA book about teens on death row. Their stories, as told to the author, generally painted horrific pictures of early life without hope or meaning, and each had an awful sense of inevitability. While the book was good, and well told, I (obvs) found it wildly depressing, as I am sure it should be.

Another thing, a point from the excellent and astute Brandi-Rae, is that Kuklin didn't interview any female teens on death row- and Brandi-Rae says there are some, and that is an omission worth noting. I would like to add that I didn't look to see if there are female teens on death row, but that I believe Brandi when she says something like that, because I know she looked to find out and that I couldn't bear to. Sad, harrowing, bleh.

Yes My Darling Daughter, by Margaret Leroy

What was this? A ghost story, a reincarnation story, a mystery, a thriller? Single mother Grace has a hard time with her 4 year old daughter Sylvie, who is odd, different in many ways, and keeps drawing the same house over and over again, and saying that she misses her sister. Grace's attempts to seek help had a sadly realistic tone, and her struggles financially to raise Sylvie without the help of her father were going somewhere interesting, but then it took a predictable turn. It had chilling moments, but lacked a satisfying and credible resolution.

Jimmy Carter Man From Plains

Wildly uneven documentary. I feel like this could have been fantastic, had it gone one way or another- either cover Jimmy Carter's amazing life, in full, and his incredible legacy, OR cover the unbelievable mess and controversy that surrounded the publication of his 2006 book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.

It seems that Jonathan Demme (usually a FANTASTIC director- my favorite of his is Spalding Grey's Swimming to Cambodia, but Silence of the Lambs is pretty awesome too!) might have set out to do the former- a sweeping bio-pic- and then stumbled into, while filming, the circus that surrounded the book, and couldn't possibly ignore it. And no one could- the insanity resulting from the Nobel Peace laureate using the word "apartheid" while writing about the Palestinian issue inflamed debate international and domestic, and set off near riots.

Interesting movie, but I REALLY wish it had had either more or less- it was tantalizing but unsatisfying.

The Bad Book Affair, by Ian Sansom

Very funny mystery, starring the truly unusual character of Israel Armstrong, an English Jewish vegetarian librarian who, for reasons that baffle even him, is working a mobile library service in Northern Ireland. This is the second of the series that I have read, and I enjoyed this one even more than the first, which I found hilarious. Literate and oddly told, this would go nicely with The Broken Teaglass, for readers who like their mysteries less bloody and more wordy.

Prospect Park West, by Amy Sohn

Yet another New York lives-of-people-in-search-of-in-love-with-looking-for-real-estate book. While this one didn't focus solely on a group of people living in the same building, even the cover is ridiculously reminiscent of Paula Froelich's Mercury in Retrograde- must all New York books look the same?

But here, of course, the difference (and main character) is Brooklyn. Brooklyn, and how special it is. Brooklyn, and how superior the parents are. Lots of pokes at things like Park Slope parent blogs, and Gawker, Maggie Gyllenhaal, etc are namechecked on every page. The main characters are well written, and aside from psycho Karen, pretty believable- it is exactly what it looks like- a smug and competent novel looking in the windows of the chosen, the hardworking, and the lucky.

Ash, by Malinda Lo

Beautiful, haunting fractured fairytale- a feminist, lesbian Cinderella story. Ash (short for Aisling) suffers the usual tragedies of poor old Cinders, mother dying, father remarrying, father dying, stepmother and stepsisters turning her into the scullery girl, and then some, but this Cinderella knows her own mind, and needs no prince to save her. To give more away would spoil the plot, but I can't rave enough about this book. Ash's quasi-medieval world of woods and fairies and hunts and balls and greenwitches was fully realized, the world-building here was excellent, and image after image from this book lingers in my head. Beautiful, just beautiful.

The New Terrarium, by Tovah Martin

Beautiful pictures and gorgeous terrariums, but they seemed oddly like, well, old terrariums to me. I think plants growing in glass containers all have a certain sameness to them. However, this book was gorgeous, and made me want to rush out and buy glass containers and plants to put in them, so it was definitely inspiring in that way- if only I didn't already have too many plants to care for and not enough light. :(

The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, by Douglas Adams

Re-read, bath book.
Miraculous. Adams was so brilliant, so funny, so right. Love it so- perfect.

Russian Ark

I wavered about giving myself credit for watching this, although I did watch it (twice). Astonishingly, the entire movie is shot in one continuous shot- one sweep through the Hermitage museum and hundreds of years of Russian history- and, in parts, was absolutely breathtakingly beautiful. That said, it was (understandibly, being a Russian film) in Russian, with small and hard to read subtitles, and both times I watched it I felt that knowing more about Russian history would have made the whole thing much more comprehensible. That said, I also would like to say that I took 2, count'em, 2 300 level classes in Russian history, and while I know that doesn't count for anything at all, I still felt so absolutely adrift that I felt like a complete idiot watching this movie. It was awkward watching for me, vaguely embarrassing and frustrating, and I couldn't just let it go and like the purty pictures.

Death Without Tenure, by Joanne Dobson

Pretty solid and entertaining academic murder mystery. Two English professors are up for one tenure track position- one is murdered. The unraveling of the murder pokes at the politically correct offerings at universities, and has a pretty funny twist- nice, fast, well plotted read.

(Unfortunately, it strikes a little too close to reality, what with the up-for-tenure professor in Alabama who just killed 3 of her colleagues, and injured 3 more.)

My Dirty Little Book of Stolen Time, by Liz Jensen

Fantastic, surreal, odd sexy little book. Time traveling Dutch prostitute falls in love- ok, there might not be a great way to describe this. It reminded me (not in a plagiaristic way, but in flavor) of Jeanette Winterson and Sarah Waters, which is a pretty fabulous combination, with a kind of sci-fi/magical realism twist. I truly wonder why she isn't a better known writer- at least in America. The Rapture was phenomenal, and this was wonderful, and there goes Sarah Waters nearly winning the Booker with the limp ghost story The Litte Stranger , while Jensen isn't a household name. Odd.

Crochet with Wire, by Nancie Wiseman

Well, while this had lovely pictures and some nice looking projects, it was definitely for someone who already knows how to crochet with string and such, and is moving on to the trickier business of crocheting with wire. I cannot crochet at all, and still can't.

The Merry Wives of Maggody, by Joan Hess

Yay! A new Joan Hess Maggody book is cause for celebration for me. Familiar and funny background characters, a fully realized setting, and some interesting new plot twists made this immensely satisfying, like a cup of tea and some Cadbury chocolate fingers and a cat in the lap. Sheriff Arly Hanks' infinite patience is sorely tested when Mrs. Jim Bob Buchanon decides to hold a charity tournament to provide aid to 'golf widows', despite Maggody not having a course. A prize of a bass boat for winning the hole-in-one contest sets the entire town to golfing frenzy, and all the ususal suspects carry on in all their usual manner. I think Hess did something very clever here, though, as she is managing to subtly move along the timeline of the story without jarring or losing characters, and I can't wait til the next one.

Friday, February 5, 2010

The Likeness, by Tana French

Excellent procedural, following one of the partners from Tana French's knock-out debut In The Woods. In The Likeness, Cassie Ryan returns to undercover work, in circumstances that definitley require suspension of disbelief, but the quality of the writing and intricacy of the characters more than make up for the peculiar premise. So good.

My Kid Could Paint That

Fantastic and thought provoking documentary. Whether Marla Olmstead is the only painter of the paintings is one question, but the more important question of it it matters who painted them is also raised. Lots to think about.

Nine Stories, by J.D. Salinger

"You wrote down that you were a writer by profession. It sounded to me like the loveliest euphemism I had ever heard. When was writing ever your profession? It's never been anything but your religion. Never. I'm a little over-excited now. Since it is your religion, do you know what you will be asked when you die? But let me tell you first what you won't be asked. You won't be asked if you were working on a wonderful, moving piece of writing when you died. You won't be asked if it was long or short, sad or funny, published or unpublished. You won't be asked if you were in good form or bad form while you were working on it. You won't even be asked if it was the one piece of writing you would have been working on if you had known your time would be up when it was finished—I think only poor Sören K. will get asked that. I'm so sure you'll get asked only two questions. Were most of your stars out? Were you busy writing your heart out? If only you knew how easy it would be for you to say yes to both questions."

From Seymour: An Introduction.