Thursday, December 25, 2008

Magic Hour by Kristin Hannah

The Magic Hour was a truly engaging, fascinating tale of two sisters with disparate lives who must work together when the police chief sister finds a feral child in a tree in her small town in Washington state. Her psychiatrist sister must try to find the identity of the child and attempt to get her to speak of what happened to turn her into a small, frightened animal, malnourished and covered with scars. Rain Valley, the town that cop sister Ellie runs sounds a great deal like Maple Valley or one of a dozen small burgs 30 or 60 miles out of Seattle; its rainy, green, picturesque and full of characters that seem by turns amusing and bizarre. Dr Julia Cates, her sister, has been living in Los Angeles and, through no fault of her own has been tainted by the actions of a former patient who went on a rampage and killed 6 teenagers before killing herself. With the press hounding her and the families of the murdered teens howling for blood (and money of course), Julia's retreat to her hometown comes at the perfect time...she needs a miracle to salvage her career and her fragile sense of self, and the feral child is so traumatized she can't speak, so she's in need of a miracle as well, to unlock the secret of her identity. The town doctor is a hunk with a secret named Max, who has already cut a swath through the women of the town, and can't seem to commit since the death of his son and divorce from his wife. Inevitably, he's attracted to Julia, but Julia's never been able to commit either, so there is a lot of stuttering starts and stops to their relationship. Many of the peripheral characters, such as Penelope Nutter, called Peanut, and Cal, who has loved Ellie ever since he was a teen, are portrayed as well rounded characters with lives that are realistic and interesting. The feral child, called Alice, is heartbreakingly rendered here, and the reader exults and trembles and falls in love with Alice just as easily as Julia and Ellie do. Alice reminds us of the wonders of being a child because she is free of societal constraints, yet she also reminds us of how fragile the human mind is, and how resilient children are in the face of starvation and abuse. That one tiny little 5 year old girl can survive being treated worse than an animal for at least 3 years is astonishing. That she can learn to speak and to bond with adults after such trials is miraculous.
I had the novel on CD and in hardback form, but I soon discovered that my portable CD player sucks batteries dry after only a few hours, so I switched to the reliable book, and finished the second half of the novel by page. I found it much easier to savor the prose and plot on the page than having the characters interpreted for me by an actress on CD. Speaking of the prose, it was comfortable, sturdy and yet had a nice, almost hypnotic rhythm to it. The characters were fascinating and well drawn, and the plot, though somewhat predictable, was still brisk and tight. The ending was quite satisfying in a traditional HEA way, and I found myself saddened that it was over so soon. I will certainly be seeking other books by Ms Hannah in the future. I'd recommend this book to those who like mysteries and down-to-earth romances with a little "Empire Falls" thrown in for good measure.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

A Brilliant Seattle Author Speaks

Below is an article on todays Shelf Awareness, and I have to post it here because once again I find myself in complete agreement with an authors choices of the best fiction and best plays ever written. I feel EXACTLY the same way about Ironweed by the glorious William Kennedy. It amazed me, filled me with wonder at the power of words and made me weep when I finished it, because such beauty had been wrought from such dire subject matter. Kennedy's "The Flaming Corsage" was also an incredible read. And early John Irving is delicious...its just in later works that he became a jerk and started saying outrageous things in interviews such as the line about prostitution being a perfectly wonderful career for women, one that most women should experience (that's just nasty).
Anyway, I also agree about the power and glory of Shakespeare, though my personal favorite is the Tempest. He created the most wonderful plays with the most exquisite language ever written. He is the once and future master of words.
I am going to have to find a copy of Kallos book and read it next year, because now she's intrigued me by her honesty and good taste in literature!

Book Brahmins: Stephanie Kallos

Stephanie Kallos spent 20 years in the theater as an actress and teacher
before coming out of the closet as a writer. In 1996, she was
commissioned by the Seattle Children's Theatre to adapt Pinocchio; her
published short fiction has received a Raymond Carver Short Story Award
and a Pushcart Prize nomination. Her first novel, Broken For You, won
the Washington State Book Award, the PNBA award and was chosen by Sue
Monk Kidd as a Today Show book club selection in December 2004. Her
second novel, Sing Them Home, will be released this coming January 6 by
Atlantic Monthly Press. Stephanie lives with her family in North Seattle
and pulled herself away from the library that is her nightstand to
answer a few questions:

On your nightstand now:

Mason-Dixon Knitting Outside the Lines by Kay Gardiner and Ann Meador
Shayne; The Fasting Girl by Michelle Stacey; Oh Pure and Radiant Heart
by Lydia Millet; Little Women by Louisa May Alcott; Sacred Contracts by
Caroline Myss; Autism and the God Connection by William Stillman;
Journey of Souls by Michael Newton; Fasting Girls: The History of
Anorexia Nervosa by Joan Jacbos Brumberg; and two books on writing:
Robert Olen Butler's From Where You Dream and Naming the World edited by
Bret Anthony Johnston. I always have many knitting projects on the
needles and many books on my nightstand--both of which drive my husband

Favorite books when you were a child:

Pretty traditional stuff, I'm afraid: A Wrinkle in Time and Little Women
for fiction--although I could never get past Beth's death. I also read a
great deal of nonfiction as a kid--biographies of noble achievers that
left me feeling very inadequate and laid the foundation for my
predisposition for guilt and shame. And there was a series of books by a
man whose name I believe was Frank Edwards. I'm sure they're out of
print now, but I'd love to find them again. They had titles like Strange
But True and recounted supernatural/inexplicable events like spontaneous
human combustion and frog downpours. I loved that stuff. Still do.

Your top five authors:

This is a toughie, because any writer I love and have learned from is a
favorite. So I'm going to treat this like a "If you were stranded on a
desert island" question: J.D. Salinger, Anne Sexton, John Irving,
Shakespeare, Ian McEwan.

Book you've faked reading:

I'm terrible at faking, which is too bad since I'm embarrassingly
ill-read. If I were inclined to fake having read something, it would
surely be something by one of the Russians. I admit to having nodded my
head knowingly when the conversation turns to Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Actually, I could start faking an acquaintance with Melville if I wanted
to, thanks to my kids: the other day at breakfast my sons shocked the
hell out of me by reciting, in chorus, the opening lines of Moby Dick.
"How do you know that?" I asked, incredulous. They informed me that one
of the characters in the Bone books uses Melville as a reliable
soporific. However, since I have very little trouble falling asleep
these days, I'll probably never get to it. And now I'm outed.

Book you're an evangelist for:

We Need to Talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver. It's hard to evangelize
for a book that is so unflinching and dark, but it's an incredible work,
one that faces a hot-button, contemporary issue head-on, in all its
complexities. It's the most relentlessly truthful and thought-provoking
book I've read in years.

Book you've bought for the cover:

Recently Alice Hoffman's The Fourth Angel and a novel called Salvage by
Jane Kotapish.

Books that changed your life:

Ironweed by William Kennedy. I found it astonishing. When I put it down,
I felt that one could learn everything one needed to know about writing
a novel by reading it.

Atonement by Ian McEwan. I still study that book---and all of McEwan's
work--because no one has the ability to dive more completely and
fearlessly into the heads of characters than he does, to explode a
single moment in a person's life in a way that lends it a profound and
enduring significance. Atonement also opened up the potential power of
storytelling to me in a way that no other book has ever done. That book
was an artistic shock to my system; that's the only way I can describe

Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale. The second time I acted in that play, I
played Paulina. The experience was earth-shattering in terms of what it
taught me about Shakespeare's use of language, the physicality of it,
the power of sounds in and of themselves. It was that play--and the
subsequent gift of getting cast in other Shakespearean roles--that
taught me that language is gestural. A physical force. Shakespeare still
exerts the biggest influence on my work as a writer--he just did
everything right.

Favorite line from a book:

"I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice--not because of his
voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even
because he was the instrument of my mother's death, but because he is
the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen
Meany."--John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany.

Books you most want to read again for the first time:

All of Thoreau; The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand; Doris Lessing's The Golden
Notebook . . . Really, any of the books I read in my early 20s, because
for the most part they were books that weren't mandated by curriculums
or given to me by relatives; they were books I found on my own or
through friends. These were the books that helped me begin to define
myself apart from my parents. I'll also add To Kill a Mockingbird, even
though it was required (and controversial) reading at my junior high;
every time I read that book it feels like the first time.

Monday, December 22, 2008

An Incomplete Revenge and Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading

I'm thrilled to have completed the fifth in the sterling Maisie Dobbs mystery series by Jacqueline Winspear, titled "An Incomplete Revenge."
I must admit the previous two novels, Pardonable Lies and Messenger of Truth were slightly dissapointing to me, mainly because Maisie was spiraled into a deep depression and wasn't acting like herself at all, especially in Messenger of Truth. Thankfully, this newest novel is classic Maisie Dobbs, enthralling and full of fascinating characters, including the peripheral characters like Billy that we've come to know and love in the past books. Incomplete Revenge finds Maisie embroiled in a mystery in a village in Kent with a dark secret, and, spoiler alert, we learn of her gypsy heritage, which explains her sensitivity with people and ability to get them to tell her the truth. Maisie's shell-shocked former amour dies, which by now is a relief, and Billy and his family are taking steps to recover from the horrible death of their youngest child. The novel is set in the 1929-31 depression, and the people of England are still feeling the aftershocks of losing so many young men in The Great War (WW1). Maisie has recovered from her malaise, and takes on her challenges with vigor and good humor, as well as her trademark common sense and sensitivity. The case unfolds in due course, and Maisie manages to set things right with the village and mend her bridges with Marcus as well. The prose is elegant and the pace of the plot deliberate but sedate and unhurried, allowing the reader to savor the setting and characters of the England of a simpler era. I highly recommend this book to those who appreciate a brilliant female sleuth who doesn't simper or pout or constantly fuss about the men in or not in her life.
Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading by Maureen Corrigan was a bit of a surprise to me. I was expecting a running commentary on all the books Corrigan has read and delicious snippets of prose that would send me salivating to the nearest bookstore. Alas, such was not the case. Leave Me Alone is riddled with that dry and academic critical analysis of books that tends to leave undergrads snoring on their books in the college library. There are some paragraphs on Corrigans life as an only child in an Irish Catholic family in Queens New York in the 50s and 60s, which is interesting, but readers are only given so much of an insight into Corrigans life before she switches us back to the boring commentary on how this or that genre connects to another and why....yawn. She focuses on the hard boiled mystery genre of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, the "extreme adventure" novels that involve women, including Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters works, and tales of Catholic martyrs and secular saints. Other than the classic literature of Jane Austen and the Brontes, I am not really interested in hard boiled detective stories, nor do martyrs interest me, really, so 2/3 of the book was lost on me. I did enjoy Corrigans all-too-brief discussions of her adoption of a Chinese orphan girl, her unique insights (they're really quite odd, which amazes me as I've read other commentary on Austen and the Brontes and Alcott, and Corrigan manages to find the original thought in a haystack) and her sense of humor about teaching and finding time to read all the millions of books that land on her doorstep (I don't have a lot of pity for her there, as I wish that would happen to me!). For others who are bibliophiles, I imagine more than a few of them would find the book interesting, especially if they're of Irish Catholic heritage from NYC. Those of us who are middle class, middle of the country WASPs, though, might find some chapters a bit tedious. As a commentator on NPR, Corrigan has learned to create clean and brisk prose, which keeps the book from lagging. I give Leave Me Alone a 3 of 5 stars for pimping the classics, if nothing else.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Fascinating Handwriting Book

Below is an article from Shelf Awareness about a book that I'd love to own that recounts the history of handwriting. And I totally agree with the quote about valuing handwriting in this age of keyboarding and emails.

Kitty Burns Florey, author of Script and Scribble: The Rise and Fall of
Handwriting (Melville House, $22.95, 9781933633671/1933633670, January
23, 2009), is a novelist, grammarian (Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog)
and self-proclaimed penmanship nut. "Since I first picked up a pen, I
have been under the spell of handwriting." Decrying the demise of the
Palmer method in favor of "keyboarding," she has written an ode to
penmanship. She covers handwriting history, calligraphy, Spencer and
Palmer, ink, pens and pencil factories. She tells us penmanship is
important: "The aesthetic appeal of good handwriting is something we
should not cease to value . . . even seeing attractive writing on a
dental-appointment reminder card . . . is a nice moment in the day." And
what would be lost if we didn't have writer's manuscripts to study:

"Even more than a personal possession, a writer's script, with its
smears, crossings out, second thoughts, and marginal notes, seems to
take the viewer directly into his or her mind. The poet Philip Larkin
once said, 'All literary manuscripts have two kinds of value: what might
be called the magical value and the meaningful value. The magical value
is the older and more universal: this is the paper he wrote on, these
are the words as he wrote them, emerging for the first time in this
particular miraculous combination. The meaningful value is of much more
recent origin, and is the degree to which a manuscript helps to enlarge
our knowledge and understanding of a writer's life and work.' In the
words of the poet and former NEA chairman Dana Gioia, 'Reading is never
more intimate than with script. The hand of the poet reaches out to
greet the reader.' When you see the manuscript of a work that's
important to you, it's difficult not to be very aware of that hand
holding the pen and forming the letters--and to feel a bit closer to the
mind behind it all.

"Now that most writers no longer labor over holograph manuscripts, there
will come a time when this kind of magic will be gone. Little that's new
will be added to the vast store of manuscripts that have come down to us
over the centuries. The shape of the letterforms, the cross-outs, the
substitutions, the puzzling illegibilities, the changes of mind and
slips of the pen, the color of the ink and the type of paper, the
egotistical capital I's and the randy loops on the g's--gone, all of it.
Someday the job applications and charge-card receipts of the famous may
be all that's preserved in manuscript collections.

"And then there's the rather stunning idea that if you can't write
cursive, you have a lot of trouble reading it, too. Will my mother's
diaries look like Sanskrit to her great-grand-children? Will it be only
a small group of specialists who can make sense of the original
handwritten manuscripts of Jim Harrison and Wendell Berry, the
heartbreaking letters home from soldiers in the American Civil War, or
artifacts like this Christmas note Walt Whitman sent to his publisher in

"Shakespeare reportedly wrote a sequel to Love's Labors Lost, entitled
Love's Labors Won--what if, in 2108, it turns up in a dustbin somewhere
in Warwickshire? Will there be any¬one around who can decipher it?
Who will be the last person to send a handwritten postcard? Who will
read it?

"In an eloquent lament in the Oregonian (January 13, 2008) for the
decline of the handwritten letter, Jim Carmin suggests: 'Perhaps our
many creative writing programs should emphasize that one of the
important facets of being a writer is to express one's thoughts in the
writing of letters, and to remind authors that for history to have a
more complete and accurate understanding of their work, the
millennia-old tradition of letter writing is a good way to do it . . .
Just as there is a "slow food" movement, to counteract fast food and
fast life, perhaps we should begin a slow writing movement, to regain
the appreciation of writing letters as an important meditative and
historically significant activity, especially to literary studies.' "

"My own advice is: if you get a letter in the mail, save it! Posterity
will thank you."--Marilyn Dahl

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Joy of Quotes and other books

I've just gotten a used copy of this thick, small little tome called "1001 Pearls of Wisdom" and I'm in quote heaven as I look through it and read insights into all manner of things, from travel to the soul.
"You don't have a soul, you are a soul. You have a body" says CS Lewis, that marvelous Narnia author.
"Love yourself and be awake today, tomorrow, always. First establish yourself in the way, then teach others, and so defeat sorrow. To straighten the crooked you must first do the harder thing--straighten yourself. You are the only master. Who else? Subdue yourself and discover your master." Buddah, the ever wise.

So while I am gourmandizing on quotes, I am also reading Maureen Corrigans thoughtful "Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading" which is more critical analysis of books than a nice juicy listing of all the great books she's read, (as book critic to NPR, a job I'd love to have) unfortunately. So far I'm about a third of the way through it and I have fallen asleep reading it twice. Nervous and irritating and grumpy and cynical as she is, I still like Ms Corrigan because she's a fellow book lover, and I understand her obsession with reading.
I'm also reading the sublime and ridiculous (and wonderful) PG Wodehouse's "The Girl on the Boat." What a delight it is to read Wodehouse, because his farces are always riddled with subtle asides and scintillating wit.
For next months book group, we're reading the also wonderful Maisie Dobbs, by Jacqueline Winspear, one of the few female sleuths I will bother to read, as most modern mysteries leave me bored.
I've also gotten a lithe tome called "Ten Eternal Questions" that contains some fascinating essays by popular authors, celebrities and general pundits. I try to ration myself to one or two essays a week so I won't finish it too soon.
I am also still struggling through Brisinger, the final novel in the Eragon trilogy by Christopher Paolini. I have found it to be kind of convoluted and dry so far, which is odd considering I enjoyed the first two books tremendously. It seems Mr Paolini got a bit more windy as he matured, unfortunately.
Still, though I have all these books arrayed around me as I cuddle into my snuggly blanket, I find myself yearning for a good SF/Romance hybrid ala Linnea Sinclair, or a space opera via Sharon Lee and Steve Miller. That's why I begged a Baen webscription from the kindly Scott Raun of the Liaden Listserve, so I could download Duainfey, a story by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller that I've not had the chance to read yet. I find it difficult to read on the computer screen, but I also know my ancient printer would gasp and die if I were to try and print it out, so I will just have to don my reading glasses and get to it.
BTW, I plan on giving books as gift whenever possible this year for Christmas. I would love it if I could go to Elliott Bay Bookstore in Seattle to buy my gifts there, but driving to Seattle has become expensive and it takes two hours to get there and get home with traffic, so I doubt I will be able to support my second favorite independent bookstore this year with my wallet. My first favorite indie bookstore is Island Books on Mercer Island, run by the amazing Roger Page, bless him. Never was there a kinder bookseller on the planet than Sir Page, king of the written word and benefactor to many on Mercer Island, myself included. I really miss getting to shop there on my birthday, and for the holidays. But that shouldn't stop those of you who live in closer proximity to Mercer Island from stopping in and selecting a good book from Rogers stacks...if he doesn't have what you want, he can get it within 48 hours and ship it out, usually for free.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Powells Bookstore Newsletter

Powells City of Books in Portland, Oregon, is a haven for bibliophiles like myself, and has been for years. They have a spiffy e-newsletter that has wonderful author interviews and a very funny, well-written segment that is supposedly composed by Fup, the store cat. At any rate, Apple Computer has these wonderful, often hilarious Mac vs PC commercials starring the author interviewed below as the dry and crafty PC.
Though I've not read any of his books, I was especially enamored of his final answer in the interview, (the comment about nostalgia) pasted below for your reading pleasure.

Author Interviews
More John Hodgman Than You Require
Dave Weich,

The PC in the Mac ads, the Daily Show's "resident expert" — him. After a star turn in autumn's State by State film, John Hodgman returns to Powell's with More Information than You Require, his second volume of complete(ly made-up) world knowledge.
"Hodgman is funny, clever, and has the face of a giant baby," says Ricky Gervais, a man who would know. More Information is easily the best almanac of fake facts ever published with a brown and maize, text-laden cover; I'd swear by it. Choosing a favorite passage or line is a fool's game, but for some reason this factoid (one of 365 daily notes in the new book) cracks me up every time.

1967, PITTSBURGH: Mel Torme first markets balloons filled with his own breath. Unopened balloons of "Velvet Fog" today fetch thousands of dollars on eBay, though they are very hard to find. During the '60s, it was believed that inhaling the breath of Mel Torme produced a cheap psychedelic high — this was the source of Donovan's pop song "Foggin'."

Dave: First, what do you say to all the people who read The Areas of My Expertise and have been awaiting the follow-up you promised about Hodgmina, your daughter?
John Hodgman: I forgot to write that book.
I don't know what to say. My life changed very dramatically after the first book. I went on television and became a famous minor television personality and was distracted by all the glitter and glamour of being on television commercials and the Daily Show, and being able to afford more than one pair of shoes.
For a brief while, I forgot I had a family. I thought I might never be forced to do something so pedestrian as write a book again. Then I realized that I had a contract.
More to the point, I was roused from my celebrity stupor by the fierce urgency of now, which I also call "Dick Van Patten's Hobo Chile for Dogs," an actual product that was brought to my attention, so implausibly ridiculous and yet so hideously true, that I realized I had to get back into the game and restock the pond of fact with fiction.
Dave: Hobo chile.
Hodgman: Dick Van Patten, in making this crazy dog food, was getting into my game. He was taking food out of my children's mouths and feeding it to dogs. At that point, the urgency to write a new book of complete world knowledge was quite clear.
I may indeed write about Hodgmina at some point, but as I mention in More Information, now that I have a son, I sort of hope that he will write that book.
Dave: In The Areas of My Expertise, we learned about hobos. Not the homeless, it should be noted, but hobos.
Hodgman: This came up in Seattle two nights ago. A guy said that he'd got into a fight with his boss because he was a fan of the hobo section of the book. The boss said that hobo is a politically incorrect term to describe a contemporary, urban homeless person. The preferred term is transient. That's fair. But once again I had to clarify: The hobos that I refer to in my book are specifically the hobos of the Great Depression, a self-identified subculture of proud, homeless vagrants, who took to the rails out of desperation but quickly built a culture around that.
Dave: Have you run into similar misunderstandings about mole-men?
Hodgman: The mole-men, meaning the advanced civilization living in tunnels and caverns deep beneath the earth, and in great underground cities like Molemansylvania, are hideous, spindly creatures, near-blind, with long tusks, who secrete a luminous mucous and spit drool. They also wear powdered wigs, write declarations of independence, and think beautiful thoughts.
They were in fact designed in opposition to hobos. The hobos in my first book were agents of pure chaos. Like the actual hobos of the Great Depression, they rejected middle class American values, including such things as homes, and wearing different pants occasionally, and not being drunk all the time. They were an unknowable, other culture within America; it was my riff on Tolkien's elves, basically — you think you might understand them, but you have no idea what's going on inside their brains.
The mole-men, in my new book, are agents of reason. They reject chaos. They are savage-looking creatures with the most refined and enlightened ideals — and indeed, from the darkness would develop the commitment to science, reason, and objectivity that we would come to think of as Enlightenment ideals. They influence Voltaire, they influence Jefferson, they influence Rousseau, with these ideas.
I did think, At least no one is going to accuse me of maligning the urban poor this time. No one can confuse a hideous, half-blind creature with a transient. But then people said, "Are you talking about the mole-men that live in the subways beneath New York City? That's what they're called: mole-men."
Dave: Colum McCann wrote a very good novel, This Side of Brightness, in part about them. It describes people building the first subway tunnel between Manhattan and Brooklyn. The novel jumps between its construction and life in the tunnels now.
Hodgman: I guess I had internalized the many different iterations that have emerged in popular culture, all these civilizations under the earth, from the Mole Man and his army of weird creatures in Fantastic Four to Journey to the Center of the Earth to Edgar Rice Burroughs.
Later, I found a book called Hollow Earth that outlined the cultural evolution of this idea, this fantasy that the earth is hollow in one way or another and possibly populated by an intelligent race. The book offers a really interesting exploration of a meme that had currency well into the 20th century. Oftentimes, it has been speculated that this race is much smarter, or more pure, or taller than we are, for some reason; and that we are the wretched remnants of true humanity that crawled out from the earth, withering on its surface ever since.
This is a late 18th century idea, that inside the earth is paradise. It came about at the dawn of the Age of Reason, when to some degree Western culture rejected the idea of god and heaven. Suddenly, the underworld, a place of utter damnation, became a paradise. Once we got rid of heaven up there, we started thinking about it underneath.
It was Edmond Halley who first postulated that inside the earth is another earth. He was trying to rationalize why magnetic north fluctuates. He said that inside the earth was another earth; and inside that earth was another; and on the surface of each of those earths there could possibly be life.
In the 19th century, it was a guy named Symmes, a self-made theorist, or giant crackpot, who postulated that the earth itself was completely hollow and there were giant holes at either Pole. You could go up there, go inside, and find a race of perfect men. His idea gained some currency because it dovetailed with a huge scientific movement to explore the Poles. At the time, they were completely unexplored; they were as remote as the moon. The idea of launching an exploration to the Pole in the 19th century was as tantalizing as launching an expedition to the moon in the 1960s. It was a major feat of national imagination that had to be undertaken.
Unfortunately, unless you believe the conspiracy theories, only the most plausible explanation is true. It's just cold and ice up there.
Dave: So then you do subscribe to these so-called "theories" about an ice-covered Pole?
Hodgman: I do. It marks me as something of a crackpot these days.
I had read about hollow earth theory when I was writing the first book. Even now, people are still attempting to mount expeditions to find the holes at the Poles.
Dave: You've been hanging out with these people?
Hodgman: I read their web sites. In 2004, when I was writing The Areas of My Expertise, a group of people were trying to hire a Russian ice-breaking boat to take them up there and find the hole. When I was writing More Information, I checked back in and discovered that they had rescheduled. They explained that their 2005 expedition hadn't quite come together, but they were still working on it.
Dave: How might America be different if Thomas Jefferson had not discovered the mole-men at Monticello?
Hodgman: Jefferson was quite surprised to find them on his property. Virginia had been the seat of a very brief surface empire that the mole-men attempted to found. A colony, as it were. When they disappeared, they left behind only their mole-man palace at Monticello.
Jefferson, as you know, discovered within the palace a small parlor of mole-men working on a new declaration of independence. He developed a close friendship with them, in particular one mole-man, Genuine Hissfurther, who helped him in writing America's Declaration of Independence.
The mole-men are very fine writers of declarations of independence. They're probably the finest in and on the world at it. It is estimated that between one and two million mole-men live beneath the earth at this moment, and there are probably twice as many independent republics down there because mole-men are constantly declaring independence on one another, they believe so strongly in the rights of man.
Obviously, we would not have an America as we know it today had Jefferson not been taught how to write a declaration of independence.
Dave: Obviously.
Hodgman: Whether you ascribe it to mole-manic influence or not — and I think that's the only rational explanation — the reality is that we don't know why Jefferson went from being a rather prosperous Virginia slave owner and attorney, who had lots invested in the Colonial system, to a radical who would risk the very likely outcome of being branded a traitor and killed. That has not been effectively explained by actual scholarship to date.
Jefferson was moved by his belief in Enlightenment ideals, we know that. Most people believe those ideals came from France. I believe they came from underground. The influence of mole-manic thought upon Jefferson is as plausible as any other non-explanation that is out there. It is a legitimate mystery that invites fiction to burrow within it, as it were.
Dave: Going back to Areas of My Expertise, I was wondering: Do you persist, at this later date, in believing that children are better than monkeys?
Hodgman: There's no question. I believe I pointed out that at least children are not talking in sign language all the time, like the chimps do. That can be very distracting. And children, they're much better at getting termites out of mounds with long sticks than monkeys are.
Dave: Have you ever lived with a monkey, though?
Hodgman: No, but I recently read a post on where somebody was recounting his personal experience buying a monkey out of an ad in the back of a comic book in the '70s. Do you remember those ads — "Buy a monkey, cage included"?
Dave: I don't.
Hodgman: You don't remember? Not sea monkeys, but the selling point was that the monkey was very tiny. It seemed too monstrous to believe, even as a child. According to this first-person narration on Boing-Boing, the man sent his money and got himself a monkey in a box. That was the cage: a cardboard box with a couple of breathing holes in it.
The moment he let the monkey out, it began to bite him furiously up and down his arm until he almost fainted from blood loss. And I would say, now that I am a father, that happens very rarely with children. The biting doesn't happen in earnest until they're teenagers.
Dave: How did you land the Apple gig?
Hodgman: I had gone on the Daily Show to promote the first book. They asked me to come back and do comedy on the show. I thought that would be the strangest thing that ever happened to me.
I started doing comedy on the show in January of '06, and then I got the call in March of '06 asking if I would audition for the commercials. It all happened very quickly. I said yes because I like Apple products and I like their advertising. It sounded fun. I never thought I'd get the job, but it would be a fun experience. I was also curious to find out why they had asked me to audition. They don't let you know these things.
There are a lot of benefits to being what they call "talent" in the film and entertainment world, but one of the weird things is that they do not consider you to be a human being. Things like explanations or other courtesies as to why... no, they have designed the system so you feel like you're in a Kafka story at all times. You don't know why anything is happening to you, you don't know why you need to be anywhere, no one gives you any explanations. It is presumed that you will not care or you're too stupid to understand it or you simply are not human enough to deserve such information.
I showed up to the audition hoping that someone would say, "We liked you on the Daily Show," or something perfectly reasonable like that. But it took place at a casting agency, and when I walked in — almost every person that I'd ever met in New York comedy circles was there: people I hadn't seen for years, people I'd seen the day before, people I had only read about. "Hi. You're here for this thing, too?"
I did my first read. It was the first time I had ever done such a thing. I don't think I did a particularly good job, but the concept was instantly graspable, which carried me to some degree. I was put on videotape. The casting agency had a guy whose job was to press the button; my job was to read the lines. Whoever knows how those jobs were connected was somewhere else because afterward he was like, "Who are you?" So I left, and I thought that would be the end. This will be a fun story to tell Dave at Powell's.
Dave: Did Justin Long exist at that point, or were they still casting for the part of the Mac?
Hodgman: He was human. He did exist. I know he was chosen before me, but I don't know when in the process. And he was at a level already in his career where he wasn't going in to audition. They just talked to him and perhaps some other people, but they picked him.
So I got a second call. They wanted me to come in and read again. I was like, Look, I already got a story out of it. I don't have time to go in and read again. I have a magazine article to work on this afternoon and I'm not going to get this job. I felt like they were wasting my time, and I felt kind of guilty because I thought I was wasting theirs. This would never happen. But I decided to go in.
At that point, the director of the ads, Phil Morrison, and some of the folks from the agency were in the audition. It had got to that level. That level. And Phil sort of explained it to me. I'm a huge admirer of his, and we've become friendly. He was very kind. He gave me the context. He said, "I've seen you on the Daily Show. I know your book. That's why we wanted you to come in." Once I had that context, it made things a lot easier to understand.
I know that I gave a very good audition because when I left I thought, Damn. Now I want that job. And worse, I might even get it and my whole life is going to change dramatically if I do. And I'm going to be very disappointed if I don't. It was just a big mess.
Finally, they called and asked, "Will you come out and do the job?" After I hung up the phone, it was maybe thirty-six hours before I was on the plane to L.A. for a fitting. I met Justin for the first time that day, and the next day we were filming.
Dave: Do the commercials take long to make? The beauty is that they're so simple.
Hodgman: No, they don't. Some of them are technically complex — for example, when they have to miniaturize me to put me in a pizza box — but for the most part it's just Justin and I standing in a great big white room, talking. We'll do several takes, but we can usually do quite a few in a day.
Dave: A while back, you wrote an essay about Battlestar Galactica. Now I hear that you're going to appear on the show.
Hodgman: That is correct. On one of the final ten episodes that will air after the first of the year.
Dave: I'm friends with a number of people who are addicted to the show —
Hodgman: Good.
Dave: — but I've never seen it. So, please, explain to me why it's such a phenomenon. I only know the other, earlier Battlestar Galactica.
Hodgman: Which has its charms.
Dave: Sure, charms. But it's hard to connect the dots to the level of enthusiasm, among people I actually like, for the new one.
Hodgman: I can only speak to my experience and not for any number of friends you claim to have. It's one of the best-written and best-acted shows on t.v.
As somebody who leans toward the geek spectrum anyway, it is very welcome to see a science fiction show set in a kind of reality, a fantasy show that establishes some ground rules about how the world works and then deals with humans in that world. From the very first three-episode miniseries they produced, back before they knew it was going to become a series, that was clear.
I remember hearing about it and saying, "Why would anyone want to do this?" A lot of original series Battlestar Galactica fans were very upset that it wasn't a Galactica: The Next Generation. There was controversy online.
But I was immediately blown away by the new show's commitment to the concept of the original: Humanity is pretty much wiped out in a surprise attack, by an old foe that had gone underground for a while. Now the foe has come back with an almost genocidal attack, on a clear day, with a beautiful blue sky.
That obviously meant something different in 2003, when the miniseries came out, than it did in 1978, when the original was made. There was a new resonance.
In the original series, as co-creator Ron Moore has pointed out, most of humanity has been wiped out, and within the pilot already they're already going to a casino! Do you know what I mean? And it didn't feel weird at the time. You never thought to question it. It was, Here's the premise. Let's get on with the rollicking adventure.
But the beauty of science fiction, when it operates at its height, is when you ask the question, "What if this actually happened?" and you stay true to the concept. What if there were only 50,000 humans left, in spaceships? How would that play out? What conflicts would arise? How would people deal with it emotionally?
Ron Moore had worked on Deep Space Nine and Voyager. He'd become disillusioned with Voyager precisely because in science fiction television shows, and really most episodic t.v. fiction, police procedurals and whatnot, maybe you'd get a little character development now and then, but basically, at the end of the episode, everything reboots, they start over. The ship never takes on any damage. Things don't wear down. Relationships don't fall apart and stay fallen apart.
In that very first miniseries, when you see the human race wiped out, you really see the human race wiped out. It's not gory, but it's written so that you understand. And Mary McDonnell, who plays the president — she is like ninth in line for succession but happens to be in outer space when it happens and therefore becomes president — she's faced with a choice.
They're going to be attacked again. They get all the ships together that survived the destruction of the home world. They're facing imminent attack from the bad guys, the Cylons, the robots. And there's a problem: Half of the ships or so that have survived are able to travel at light speed and half of them can't. They can't get all of the people onto the faster-than-light ships, and the ones that can't go faster than light are going to be toast; they can't escape the Cylons. So she has to decide whether they're going to stand and fight or whether they're going to abandon the men, women, and children on those ships.
She's trying to make that decision and she's talking to a little girl on one of the doomed ships. Every part of you knows on this science fiction program that the little girl is going to survive. There are two impossible situations here, and what happens in science fiction is they find a third way. Nope. Not in this one. She makes the call. This is the last of humanity. I can't sacrifice everybody for this minority.
So this little girl dies. And that's in the first episode.
Just thinking about it now, it was really rough. But that was announcing that they were playing by real rules that speak to a much more interesting strain of science fiction. We might begin with a fantastical premise but we're going to deal with it in a realistic manner.
Dave: Before you became a famous minor television personality, you held what some people would consider real jobs, like writing for magazines.
Hodgman: I became a freelance magazine writer for the same reason I became a professional literary agent: I wanted an excuse to talk to people that I thought were interesting, and to work with them.
When I was a literary agent, it was Darin Strauss or Bruce Campbell, people I thought were incredibly talented. Once I became a freelance magazine writer, it was the same; if something became really interesting to me, I wanted to learn about it, I wanted to meet the people who were doing it. So I would pitch a story.
Dave: And that's how you wound up writing about Battlestar Galactica.
Hodgman: For me, Battlestar was perfect. I was a big fan, but I was also very interested. I got to go to the set; I weaseled my way in. That's my career, to some degree: weaseling my way into things I find interesting. Once I went on t.v., I found new ways to weasel myself into new things, in even more surreal situations.
When I heard that Battlestar was going to end with its fourth season, that's when I called up my new Hollywood agents, and I just said, "I would like to do anything at all in there. Please make it happen." And I weaseled my way in again.
It seemed like a very fun idea at the time. Until I actually showed up in Vancouver on that set. That step from behind the camera as a journalist onto the set as talent, was a farther and more vomitous trip than going into outer space in reality.
Dave: But you're on the Daily Show. What's the difference? Stepping out of your familiar role?
Hodgman: I was also a big fan of the Daily Show. What added to the Battlestar experience was that I had already conned my way onto the set once, as a writer. Going back, as a pretend actor, I felt like a stalker. I suddenly realized, This is very weird, isn't it, what I've just done? It's a little creepy.
I didn't expect the people who worked on the show to remember me, but I certainly remembered interviewing them and talking to them, and I couldn't pretend that I hadn't because what if they did remember me? So I was constantly going around, saying, "You won't remember this but I actually visited the set once before as a journalist..." "Huh? That was you?"
"What are you doing here? What's wrong with you?"
I don't think they really felt that way, but I did. I worried that I was becoming a real distraction for that reason. What I didn't realize is that I was a distraction because there were a lot of people on set who like the Mac ads a lot.
From my point of view, I'm a geek who won a sweepstakes; I'm trying just to keep it together and stay out of everybody's way. Meanwhile people are coming up to me with their laptops, asking, "Can you sign this? It's so great that you're here." And I'm saying, "You have no idea."
It was fun, the nexus of all these different worlds. It was very exciting but also vertiginous, I guess.
Dave: Your public life has changed so dramatically in the last three years. Do you ever get used to the vertiginous feeling?
Hodgman: I write about this transition in More Information. When you're young, you sort of think, I'll be on t.v. I'll be a famous person. That's the narcissism of youth. Of course I'll be an astronaut. And then I'll be the president. Or whatever. But you move on with your life and eventually you realize, No, this is what I am, whatever you are, whether it's the result of carefully planned life choices or whether you've been buffeted along by events. Usually it's some combination of the two, but you know by then that you don't have to be an astronaut. You have your own life.
Then someone knocks on your door and says, "C'mon. You're going into outer space. Go pack." You think, But I don't want to do that anymore. "No, you have to come."
In that piece, which I originally wrote for This American Life, I say that you go up into space, you're floating around, you eat the dehydrated food, but you don't ever feel comfortable. You don't get used to it.
Well, that's a lie. You get used to it right away.
That was written under the extremely careful and inspiring editorial eye of Ira Glass. I don't mind saying that it was something of an Ira Glass contribution. He helped me to humanize myself instead of revealing that I am a monster.
It makes you a monster immediately. You get used to it right away and you don't want to ever go back. It's why people in Hollywood are such monsters. This will be a distant memory fairly soon, I think; the tendency is to hang on as tight as you can.
When I first flew out to do the Mac ads, it was the first time I'd ever flown first class. It was really nice.
Dave: Nice.
Hodgman: Really nice. I went out for a week to shoot the ads, and I kind of understood very quickly how the process worked. Then they were going to fly me back to a different location so I could meet my family for a vacation, which had been planned long before. I got the itinerary a couple days before leaving, and I saw that it was business class. No, no, no, no.
It had been a week! And I'm going up to the person, saying, "I'm really sorry, but my contract is pretty clear about this. It's for first class." And the guy was like, "I really don't know what I can do about it." And I say [whispering], "Could you look into it, please?" Sure enough, the next day, I got the itinerary back and it said first class.
Only later, once I was on the plane, did I realize that the flight only had two classes of service: coach and business class. It's the only plane that flies to this destination. There was no first class to put me on. The person might have even explained that to me at some point, but I refused to accept it, so he eventually just reprinted the itinerary with "first" instead of "business," and I learned a valuable lesson about how monstrous "talent" can be and how they are treated back.
That delicate game. That's a long answer to "Do you get used to it?" Yes, you do. The trouble is that you do.
Dave: When we shot the State by State film, we interviewed you and Heidi Julavits very early in the process. About eight hours later we asked Joshua Ferris what he'd learned that day. What did you learn, or what did you take away from the experience?
Hodgman: First, I learned about the American Legion Post in Harlem, which is an amazing place.
This is going to sound very mundane, but because of the wonderful backdrop of license plates that you guys put up behind the riser, I learned that Tennessee, at least twice in its history, has had a license plate that was shaped like the state of Tennessee.
For some reason, that's just one of the most perfect things to know. Using the drabness of your state as a strength. It looks like a license plate. A trapezoidal shape. Why not? And why aren't all states using this fantastic idea? With the exception of Hawaii and Alaska, maybe.
Dave: Or Michigan. Though you could fill in the lake with blue.
Hodgman: I loved that idea, that there was once creativity along those lines to license plates. It reminded me that there is delightful strangeness out there. We worry about the homogenization of American culture. The reality is that regionalism, individuality, neighborhoods, it all clings, it all hangs on.
Five or six years ago, I was writing about the Mall of America. There had been so many stories written about what the Mall of America means: the death of America. Well, you go in with your jaded magazine-writerly, everything sucks, anti-consumerist eyes, and certainly there's enough at the mall to support that interpretation. But there was also a lot more. It had become a meeting place where friendships had been made across classes and racial boundaries.
I was there to write about the food court. I'd come to know and love the Egyptian brothers who ran a food stand devoted to Minnesota State Fair foods. They were Arabs at a time when the Mall of America was perhaps not the happiest place to be an Arab, but they were very much beloved by the senior citizens who used the mall as a place to walk around and get exercise, and the other folks who would hang out there to escape from the winter.
We all say that malls destroy Main Street, but Main Street finds a place to live when the real Main Streets are dead. That isn't to say that I love malls, or that I love the death of Main Streets and mom and pop shops across the United States, but it is profoundly cynical to imagine that malls caused the death of civility in America. It's really there.
That's what was so profound about this election, and what was so moving when I heard Barack Obama talk at the 2004 convention. There's no red America and blue America; there's the United States of America. We worship an awesome god in the blue states and we don't want people poking around in our libraries in the red states. That might have been construed as an attack on red state chauvinism about blue state liberals, but I took it as much if not more as an attack on blue state chauvinism of red state values. And that's not what America is all about.
Strangeness hangs in there, even when everything seems to become homogenized. I'm sure a lot of people in Portland are very upset that the brewery is gone and that those nice new condos are there [Editor's note: He's referring to the blocks adjacent to Powell's City of Books]. But you don't know what great novelist is going to be raised reading books bought here, who wouldn't have ever come into this bookstore, perhaps; what families are going to be living there and what they're going to be teaching their children.
Nostalgia is the most toxic impulse of all. It's what drives terrorism, on either end of the political spectrum, the idea that there is a beautiful past we can recover if we just force everyone to do what we want, through persuasion or bombs. That has been a fantasy since the good old days that never existed.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Our New President is a Reader!

The excerpt below is from Shelf Awareness, about our new president Barack Obama. I couldn't be more delighted with the outcome of the election.

'The Library Has Always Been a Window to a Larger World'

"More than a building that houses books and data, the library has always
been a window to a larger world--a place where we've always come to
discover big ideas and profound concepts that help move the American
story forward. . . . .

"Libraries remind us that truth isn't about who yells the loudest, but
who has the right information. Because even as we're the most religious
of people, America's innovative genius has always been preserved because
we also have a deep faith in facts.

"And so the moment we persuade a child, any child, to cross that
threshold into a library, we've changed their lives forever, and for the
better. This is an enormous force for good."--President-elect Barack
Obama in a speech

at the American Library Association annual conference in June 2005.


Monday, November 03, 2008

RIP Studs Terkel

This is the kind of journalism I practice, the art of listening to the story of everyman and everywoman. Because I believe that humanity is good at heart,for the most part, and I love people because they fascinate me...they all have something wonderful to say. But Studs Terkel was bringing this kind of journalism to the world long before I was out of diapers. His books were brilliant works of non fiction that gripped the reader from the first paragraph on. I actually met Studs Terkel about 12 years ago at a Seattle Book Expo on a Pier down at the Waterfront. He was charming, witty and wonderful, and I should have been sitting at his feet and basking in his glory all day, but I got caught up with all the other authors available and all the book vendors of the day. That day I also met Brian Herbert, son of Frank Herbert of Dune fame, Lois McMaster Bujold, creator of one of the greatest Science Fiction heroes ever, Miles Vorkosigan, and Ursula LeGuin, another famed SF author.
But now this horrible year has claimed another great soul, and I wanted to post an article from the Washington Post that is one among many tributes to a great man, an icon among writers and a wonderful human being.

An Ear for the Lyrical Voice of Everyman
By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 1, 2008; Page C01

Much of what's important to know about Studs Terkel could be shorthanded in that nickname. Who calls anyone "Studs" anymore? Who even called guys that back when -- the 1930s, '40s, '50s, when Louis "Studs" Terkel honed his craft as a journalist, raconteur, and chronicler and champion of the working class.

As it happened, the nickname came from the character Studs Lonigan, hero of James T. Farrell's novels about a kid from Chicago's South Side, which was the Bronx-born Terkel's adopted home.

But "Studs" suggested much of what Terkel, who died yesterday at 96, was: a man who came up on the real people's side of town, who knew the gangsters and the showgirls, and who never lost his feel for the people at the back of the bus, slumped and slumbering in the dreary light. He was rumpled, and smoked cigars. Of course.

Reporters and priests and psychologists know it takes a certain kind of personality to get a certain kind of person to speak honestly. Terkel's gift -- displayed on his syndicated radio program for decades, as well as in print -- was just this. He perfected a kind of shoe-leather approach to writing the history of America in the last century that coaxed extraordinary tales out of nobodies.

His method was to travel the country, sometimes for years, interviewing hundreds of people about some enormous epoch or theme. Terkel essentially asked everyone a simple question: What was it like (or, what are your thoughts about . . . )? What was it like to live through the Great Depression ("Hard Times," 1970), to simply do your job ("Working," 1974), to live through World War II ("The Good War," 1984)? The result -- a series of oral histories -- was the poetry of ordinary people, shot through with desperation, hatred, love, dreams realized and lost.

"What first comes out of an interview are tons of ore; you have to get that gold dust in your hands," Terkel wrote in his 2007 memoir, "Touch and Go." "Now, how does it become a necklace or a ring or a gold watch? You have to get the form; you have to mold the gold dust."

In "Hard Times," Terkel's got an astounding cross section of people -- tycoons and autoworkers, farmers and stickup artists, even the fan dancer Sally Rand -- to open up not just about bread lines and poverty, but about heartache. The overriding theme of "Hard Times" isn't just deprivation but shame. Shame about losing a job and going "on relief." Shame about not being able to provide for one's family. Shame about the breakdown of families and, almost, the fabric of an entire society. You read it and think that the most terrible thing to happen to a nation is not to lose its economy, but to lose its faith in itself.

If "Hard Times" was about humiliation, "The Good War," Terkel's Pulitzer Prize-winning exploration of World War II, was about fear. The title was, of course, ironic. No wars are good, no matter how just the cause. In contrast to the Depression, America's economy revived with the spark of war production. People had jobs and stuff again (even with severe rationing), but the book illustrates the limitations of comfort and material things.

For what doth it profit a man to gain the whole world (or at least a job again) if he wakes up every morning fearing something far more terrifying than his own death: the loss of his son in distant battle?

An unapologetic and lifelong lefty, Terkel's special affinity was with the waitress and the tool-and-die man. "I never met a picket line or petition I didn't like," Terkel once said. He was an avid New Dealer in the 1930s and was blacklisted in the 1950s, suspected of communist leanings, a suspicion that cost him his national TV show.

Terkel's younger contemporaries were the fading class of bar-stool journalists (Terkel undoubtedly would hate that term), hard-boiled guys like Jimmy Breslin, Jimmy Cannon and a fellow Chicagoan, Mike Royko. Terkel's latter-day musical analogue is Bruce Springsteen, whose anthems and ballads have the same bottom-up view as Terkel's clerks and mechanics.

The perfect Terkel quote: "When the Chinese Wall was built, where did the masons go for lunch?" he said when he received an honorary National Book Award medal in 1997. "When Caesar conquered Gaul, was there not even a cook in the army? And here's the big one: When the Armada sank, you read that King Philip wept. Were there no other tears? And that's what I believe oral history is about. It's about those who shed those other tears, who on rare occasions of triumph laugh that other laugh."

Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Story Of Edgar Sawtelle

First, here's a link to a wonderful site concerning a prize named for one of the best children's authors I've ever read, Roald Dahl.

The Roald Dahl Funny Prize
Website for this competition inaugurated in 2008 that presents prizes for "The Funniest Book for Children Aged Six and Under" and "The Funniest Book for Children Aged Seven to Fourteen." Includes lists of nominated books, an article about the science of humor, and links to site about author Roald Dahl. From Booktrust, a British organization "that encourages people of all ages and cultures to discover and enjoy reading."
LII Item:

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle: A Novel (Oprah Book Club)
by David Wroblewski

I read this book for my KCLS Tuesday night book group which will meet again in November.
Here's the synopsis from, which outlines the book better than I could:

Born mute, speaking only in sign, Edgar Sawtelle leads an idyllic life with his parents on their farm in remote northern Wisconsin. For generations, the Sawtelles have raised and trained a fictional breed of dog whose thoughtful companionship is epitomized by Almondine, Edgar's lifelong friend and ally. But with the unexpected return of Claude, Edgar's paternal uncle, turmoil consumes the Sawtelles' once peaceful home. When Edgar's father dies suddenly, Claude insinuates himself into the life of the farm--and into Edgar's mother's affections.

Grief-stricken and bewildered, Edgar tries to prove Claude played a role in his father's death, but his plan backfires--spectacularly. Forced to flee into the vast wilderness lying beyond the farm, Edgar comes of age in the wild, fighting for his survival and that of the three yearling dogs who follow him. But his need to face his father's murderer and his devotion to the Sawtelle dogs turn Edgar ever homeward.

David Wroblewski is a master storyteller, and his breathtaking scenes--the elemental north woods, the sweep of seasons, an iconic American barn, a fateful vision rendered in the falling rain--create a riveting family saga, a brilliant exploration of the limits of language, and a compulsively readable modern classic.

I have to disagree with some of the above, mainly because, though I realize it's a modern take on Hamlet, I didn't think this book was as glorious as Oprah and all the other tastemakers seem to think it is.
My first problem with the book was Edgar loved his dog Almondine more than he loved his own mother, and when he dies, his spirit is ushered into the spirit realm not by his father, whom he loved, nor his mother, but by this dog who has looked after him so tenderly since he was a child. And therein lies another of my problems with this novel.
Dogs are pack animals, emphasis on the animal. They do not have huge brains that think and reason the way humans do. I know that there are millions of people out there who think that their dog/cat/goldfish is exceptionally smart and understands them when they talk and is anthropomorphized to the hilt. But really, people, a dog is still a dog, not a human, and they just are not that smart. They are creatures of instinct. But the author, I'll call him David because his last name is ridiculous, has cast these Sawtelle bred and trained dogs as some kind of super canine that can see into the human soul and do/think amazing things. That just didn't wash with me.

Nor did the seemingly endless narratives of the intricacies of dog training. I do not hate animals, not by a long shot, but my eyes glazed over and I nearly fell asleep every time David started to go on and on about the various kinds of training, hand signals, postures, whelping of pups, breeding lines, etc. YAWN.

David's prose is, for the most part, quite Steinbeck-like and evocative, so there are plenty of paragraphs that sing off the page and glisten with gorgeous metaphors. And those parts are what kept me reading through the incredibly dull passages about the stupid dogs. Seriously, you really have to be into dogs in a big way to enjoy this book in its entirety. And that's another flaw, the length of this tome. It's massive, and a good editor could have trimmed at least 100 pages off of it without hurting the storyline at all. There were lots of things in this book that we really didn't need to know, that were throw aways and worthless to the advancement of the plot. And speaking of the plot, though its cobbed from Shakespeare, this has to be the slowest, most roundabout way of getting from the beginning to the end that I've ever read. It's almost as if David feels that because the action takes place in the midwest, on a farm, that the plot should also move seasonally, slowly, and just take its own sweet time of getting the story told.
I grew up in Iowa, so I can appreciate the deliberate pace of farming, but I don't think that kind of movement is at all appropriate in a novel. Most people really do not have time to linger over every wispy thought that an author has about the beauty of farmland or the way a barn smells in the summer. I kept wanting to tell the author to get over himself, that it's only showing off to waste the readers time with so much description and narration.
Edgars mother is unlike any Midwestern woman I've ever encountered, as she's a complete idiot who can't seem to see the evil in her husbands brother, though its clear he's up to no good from the moment we meet him. And, sadly, he never gets his comeuppance for being a murdering slimebag. In fact, we never actually know if he dies or not, but of course Edgar gets slaughtered by evil uncle and we're supposed to be okay with that.
There is little to recommend the other characters in the book, from the stupid veterinarian and his ox-like son to the old man who rescues Edgar and his dogs from starvation when they're on the run. Most of the people in this book are weak and ridiculous, if they're not murderous, sly and evil. I would guess that David has a very dim view of humanity in general, which doesn't make for good storytelling, in my opinion. The entire book can be summed up by the phrase, "Life's a bitch (as in female dog) and then you die."
So if you have a month or two to devote to reading a glacially-slow plot in a book about anthropomorphized dogs that don't really exist, and you find mute teenagers interesting, then by all means, pick up The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. Just don't say I didn't warn you if you doze off halfway through.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Five Fall Books Read

I love fall, it's my favorite time of year. The air is crisp, cool and smells of apples and woodsmoke, the skies are sunny without the sun bearing down on you to roast you alive or bake you to a lobster-color, as always happens with me, and kids go back to school, allowing their parents to shop for office supplies (I am a pen collector who could spend at least an hour or three in the pen section of any office supply store). And fall is the gateway to the holidays, starting with every theater-major's favorite fest, Halloween, and moving on to Thanksgiving, my sons birthday, my husbands birthday, my birthday, Christmas and New Years.
Meanwhile, though, this year has been one of health difficulties/death/financial woes and strife for my whole family, and the stress has sent me to my TBR stack to devour one book after another, just to get away from it all.
I've read the following since I last posted:

Murder Can Depress Your Dachshund by Selma Eichler
The Bell At Sealey Head by Patricia McKillip
Wanderlust by Ann Aguirre
Table for Five by Susan Wiggs
The Land of Mango Sunsets by Dorothea Benton Frank

Out of those books only two were really worth reading, while the other three I plan on donating back to the library book cart, and wishing I could get back the time I wasted reading them.

First, the great books.
Ann Aguirre's Wanderlust is the sequel to her flashy debut novel Grimspace, which I reviewed here awhile back. Though I still think that there are way too many swear words in both novels (and I am by no means a prude, I just don't like seeing vehement curses and vile words tossed off on every single page), I can't deny my love of Aguirre's fine characters. Sirantha Jax is one tough cookie, a 'jumper' who navigates FTL ships through 'grimspace' which is sort of like the fluid space that the navigators fold in Frank Herberts Dune series. Jax brought the truth about the Farwan Corp to the world, and as a result has lost her job now that the company's corner on the intergalatic travel and commerce market has ceased to exist. So Jax is tagged by the government to lead a diplomatic mission to Ithiss Tor with her own crew of characters in tow--from the hottie March to Dina the lesbian mechanic, Jael the clone and Vel the insect inside a human sheath, to Doc and the others, its one wild and often painful adventure after another. Aguirre's prose is as edgy as her protagonist, with not a lot wasted on description or narration. Her plots move at light speed and her dialog is, as mentioned previously, spicy and crude, but it rings true for the universe she's created for her characters. I always have trouble putting Aguirres books down once I've picked them up, and such was the case with Wanderlust as well, as I stayed up until 2 am reading it after purchasing a copy on If you like your Science Fiction with a jalapeno kick and a heroine who stays with you, I recommend Grimspace and Wanderlust.

The Bell at Seeley Head was the 18th book of McKillips that I've read and adored, so it was natural for me to beg my husband to purchase the hardback for me as an 11th anniversary gift on October 5.
McKillip is my favorite fantasy author because her books read like a lucid and gorgeous dream; once you're in her world, even things that don't make sense somehow seem totally normal and reasonable. Her prose is luscious and evocative, her characters rare and fascinating, her plots meandering and magical. Each of her books brings a legend or fairy tale from another dimension to life. You know, once you've read one of her perfect paragraphs that you're in the hands of a storytelling master, someone who is so adept with words that beautiful prose comes as easily to her as breathing. When I'm in the presence of something beautiful, like a painting by Vermeer or Renoir, or music by Aaron Copeland, or glass blown and sculpted by hand at the Waterford Crystal works in Waterford Ireland, I tend to get all choked up, emotionally filled with an unspeakable joy that such things exist and were created by the hands of humans. I get the same feeling when I read something wonderful by John Steinbeck and Patricia McKillip and Diane Ackerman. All three share a deftness with words that is brilliant, blinding and joyful. But with the joy of reading perfect prose is the bittersweet feeling of knowing that I will never create something that incandescently lovely myself. My talents as a writer run to the mediocre, at best.
But I digress.
The Bell At Seeley Head is a tale of two dimensions in one home, of the person who vows to undo the evil magic binding some of the characters to nonsensical rituals that have gone on for centuries, and of two characters who fall in love rather accidently over books and mundane tasks. Gwyneth and Judd are both such sensible young people, and yet they inhabit a world that doesn't always make sense. They're constantly dealing with characters who aren't what they seem, and always trying to find ways to explain the tolling of a bell at sunset in a town without a bell anywhere. Seeley Head is a strange and fascinating town, the kind of place where fate and destiny colide. As with all of McKillips books, you have to glide along with the dream and know that it will all make sense in the end, otherwise you might get frustrated at the delicate pace the novel takes. For anyone who loves rich fantasy worlds and intriquing characters that are like no other characters anywhere, I recommend the Bell at Seeley Head.

Now as to the three paperback throwaways I read, I can't say that I hated Table for Five completely, but it was in dire need of a good editor to remove all the fluff stuffing and puffing out every chapter. The characters are somewhat stereotypical, and the plot drags in spots. The prose is okay, if not good, and the dialog rings true for the most part. However, I felt it was all a bit too "Cinderella" for anyone with a brain, and I have a hard time with stupid characters who seem to add no real value to the story. This book is what most people would call a decent beach read, something you pick up, whip through and then toss when you're done. I don't really think I will be yearning to read anything else Wiggs has written anytime soon, however, as her story seems a bit too formulaic.

It was better than "Murder can Depress your Dachshund" and "Land of Mango Sunsets" however.
I've read several of Dorothea Benton Franks works, and I liked a couple of them, but this particular work had such an annoying, b*tchy and shallow woman as the protagonist that I was tempted to quit reading halfway through. Fortunately, Miriam has a change of heart halfway through the book, and becomes tolerable enough that you don't want to strangle her. Miriam is a Manhattan socialite whose husband left her for a bimbo, and who has an apartment building that she rents out to a cast of characters, among them her gay best friend, who provides comic relief and clothing/interior design advice throughout the novel because, of course, that is what all gay men do, right? Miriam is prissy, mean and judgmental, and as a result has estranged grown children and few friends, which is no surprise. The plot drags like a dog with no hind legs for the first 2/3 of the book,and finally gets moving later on. Everyone but the main three characters are cliches, and the prose is rather turgid and tense.
The same can be said of Murder Can Depress..., whose main character is Desiree Shapiro, a loud and obnoxious New Yorker who is also a private investigator.The author spends a lot of time describing every morsel that Shapiro puts into her mouth, as if that is important or germaine to the story (it's not, trust me). The prose is cut rate, cheap sounding and the dialog anything but sparkling. Half the book is spent with Shapiro having no idea what is going on, who dunnit, why, or where she will find more clues. Shapiro whines, her clients whine and cry, her boyfriend is spineless and her friends are even more obnoxious than she is. Ugh. If you're in the mood for a fun and interesting mystery that moves along at a ginger pace, avoid this book. It's not worth the time or effort you'll spend reading it.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Ivan Doig, Doppelganger

As I was reading the daily Shelf Awareness Listserve digest today, I discovered that Ivan Doig and I have the same taste in books, though he grew up reading comic books and I grew up reading fiction and science fiction. He's 21 years older than I am, and obviously an author of fine literature, but I was fascinated by his responses to Book Brahmins queries. It was especially gratifiying to read that he loves William Faulkner and Isak Dinesen as much as I do...obviously a man of taste.

Book Brahmins: Ivan Doig

Ivan Doig was born in Montana in 1939 and grew up along the Rocky
Mountain Front, the dramatic landscape that has inspired much of his
writing. A recipient of a lifetime Distinguished Achievement Award from
the Western Literature Association, he is the author of eight previous
novels, most recently The Whistling Season, and three works of
nonfiction, including This House of Sky. His latest book is The Eleventh
Man, to be published October 18 by Harcourt. He lives in Seattle.

On your nightstand now:

The King's English by Betsy Burton. Adventures in bookselling by Salt
Lake City's La Pasionara of literature.

Favorite book when you were a child:

Comic books. When we would come to town from ranch work on Saturday
night, my dad would empty all the dimes and nickels out of his pocket,
and I would race to the drugstore to buy "funny books." Funny or
outlandish ("Amazing!" usually blood-red on the cover), they lit my
imagination in the total absence of children's classics in our
tumbleweed way of life. And I can still tell when a comic-strip
cartoonist is vamping it and when the drawn lines thrum with blood from
the heart.

Your top five authors:

William Faulkner, for the unvanquished audacity of his language and
characterizations. Isak Dinesan: her delicately sly handling of magic
and romance brings out the fabulous in human fables. Ismail Kadare, who
outlasted the Iron Curtain nightmare that was Albania to give us such
profoundly universal novels as Chronicle in Stone, The Palace of Dreams
and The Three-Arched Bridge. Pablo Neruda, poet of Chile and the world,
for showing us what an infinite prism is metaphor. Linda Bierds, blessed
poet not of self but of selves, with an uncanny ability to rove history
in bell-clear tones.

Book you've always meant to finish reading:

Burger's Daughter by Nadine Gordimer. This epic of political involvement
during the apartheid era in South Africa is intricate at all levels and
at its most intense and Dostoevskian, I tend to put the book down like
something glowing mysteriously and vow to come back to it when it and I
have cooled.

Book you're an evangelist for:

The All of It by Jeannette Haien. It's a pocket miracle, partly an Irish
A River Runs Through It, partly a love story of the most heart-aching
sort, and thoroughly stunning in its command of language.

Book you've bought for the cover:

Wind, Sand and Stars. The Paul Bacon Studio's 1967 paperback artwork for
Antoine de Saint Exupery's meditations on flying, a lone small biplane
in the center of the cover with a swatch of the Andes emerging above,
still seems to be perfect. No way could I have guessed that Paul later
would become part of American consciousness with a very different piece
of art, that ever-rising shark on the cover of Jaws, and that starting
with my first book, This House of Sky, his inimitable inventiveness
would grace five of my covers.

Book that changed your life:

Solitude by Anthony Storr. One of the oddest aspects of being a writer
is having to sit around in your own head all the time, watching things
flit through the twilight of the mind as you try to figure out--was that
a bat that just flew past? Or the whispering ghost of Shakespeare? This
Oxford clinical psychologist's validation of creative aloneness, "a
valuable integrating process which, like meditation or prayer, has
little to do with other people," brought me the relief and understanding
that the lonesome work of writing is itself a legitimate companion.

Favorite line from a book:

So many, so many. I'll stick with the opening line of A Farewell to
Arms, perhaps not even Ernest Hemingway's best, but rhythmically sinuous
enough that I always use it for a microphone check: "In the late summer
of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the
river and the plain towards the mountains."

Book that makes you sit up and ask, "Where did this come from?"

All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren. Grandee of Yale, prize-winning
poet, Southern gentleman of letters, Warren used his witnessing of the
Huey Long political regime in Louisiana to go on a spree of prose that
anticipates Jack Kerouac, a decade ahead of On the Road. As a novel,
King's Men tries to tell too many stories at once--it stops and broods
at the drop of a vote, plotwise it's pretty much a mess--but on almost
any given page, it makes you pop your eyelids and think, whoa, this is
what writing can do?

Book you most want to read again for the first time:

The Commitments by Roddy Doyle. Maximally raunchy as it is, Doyle's tale
of young Dublin layabouts tuning themselves up into a Motown-style band
is a tour de force of dialogue. Beyond that, he brings off the terrific
aural stunt of getting the sounds of the the Commitments and their
female backup singers, the Commitmentettes, onto the page, music by way
of the eye to ear. ("The horns:--DUUH-DU DUHH-DUUH DU DUHH-") Rapid
magic, Brother Doyle.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Book Promotion

Writers Weekly's Richard and Angela Hoy are running a very unique and fun book promotion for one of their BookLocker authors.
I agreed to put a link to his site on my blog, so here it is:
The Hoys own the best and most useful writers listserve/web site out there, so you can't go wrong with any book they might be promoting. They're wonderful people, too, and have helped many a writer out of a jam with deadbeat editors and scam artists.
If you happen to be a writer looking for work, check out Writers Weekly for all the latest jobs and news in the publishing world. Angela also writes a fascinating article called "News From the Home Office" that always keeps me riveted to the screen to find out the latest from the Hoy compound in Maine.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Almost a Goddess is Almost Incomplete

I was attempting to read Judi McCoy's "Almost A Goddess" in MM Paperback (I bought it at the Maple Valley Library Sale) and once I finished page 139, I turned to page 140 and it was BLANK. Yes, you read that right. Totally blank, with no print at all. Then page 141 was followed by another blank page, and so on for every other page!
I tried to continue to read the book, but without the information on the blank pages, it was nonsense.
And there isn't a thing I can do, having bought the book from a library sale for a mere 50 cents.
So I just reserved a copy from the KCLS web site, and I am going to have to wait to read what really happens on page 140.
Meanwhile, though, I am left with the dilemma of what to do with this sham of a book, with all its blank pages.
I can't, in good conscience, donate it back to the library book cart, as then another reader would end up just as frustrated once they hit page 140. I am not crafty or creative enough to recycle the book and make some thing clever from it, like a handbag or a book end.
What I'm left with is the option of tossing the book in the trash, and hoping no one will take pity on it and fish it out to resell it.
It's like a bag full of holes or a box without a just has limited uses, if any at all.
I'm amazed that Avon Romance, the publishers of this novel, would let something like this slip. A book with blank pages? What are the chances? I understand, though, that proofreaders are hard to come by, as are copyeditors, so I always expect to find more than a few typos, especially in mass market paperbacks, which are considered somewhat disposable.
But I don't expect to face blank pages with no text.
There is a blurb on the cover of this novel that reads "Judi McCoy dazzles," Rachel Gibson. I got news for you, Ms Gibson. Judy McCoy is far from dazzling as an author, at least with Almost a Goddess. More like a futile little fizzle than anything.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Great Book Poem/Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

This is a poem from the GoodReads newsletter that I enjoyed almost as much as their interview with the luscious Neil Gaiman.

Used Books by SarahJ

I like them dog-eared and lawnsoft,
and savor the character of winestain
and thumbsmudge,

the tear-warp between pages,
scrawl lolling down margins,

x's, question and check marks
scratched out as anchors.

They kindle affinity with readers
who've leafed through before, house

a kinship of signatures, conjuring towns
and streets in states I'll never visit.

They preach the economy of timber
and purses, while scribbled dates

evoke evenings spent couch-lounging
through past springs and winters.

Though they come off the press crisp
and unsullied, I like them used

for the gust of tinder and sawdust,
the waft of feathers adrift in a hayloft.

I turn the yellow hem of the pages,
a hue half neon, half tubercular,

like the wallpaper of a motel
nicotine-thick with confessions

where with the fray, I find repose
under covers well plumbed
and sepulchral.

Eat, Pray, Love was a New York Times bestseller and an award winning non fiction book published in 2005-2006.
I'd heard more than one woman sing the praises of this book, which is about the authors travels to Italy, India and Indonesia to heal after her divorce and find spiritual happiness and balance. Initially, I can see why so many women were enamored of the book, because Gilbert's prose is exhuberant and rich, full of tasty descriptions and honest emotions, not to mention the odd witticism every few paragraphs.
Yet I felt a vague sense of unease as I was reading this book, that "too much information" feeling you sometimes get when a crazy person sits next to you on a city bus and proceeds to tell you all their problems and troubles, totally ignoring your "GET AWAY FROM ME" body language.
But as early as page 25, I encountered delicious nuggets of prose like this one: "I instead felt my soul rise diaphanous in the wake of that chanting. I walked home that night feeling like the air could move through me, like I was clean linen fluttering on a clothesline, like New York itself had become a city made of rice paper, and I was light enough to run across every rooftop."
And: "Dante writes that God is not merely a blinding vision of glorious light, but that He is, most of all, L'amor che move il sole e l'altre stelle, The love that moves the sun and the other stars."
Gilbert's travels in Italy are full of gorgeous moments like those, moments that drip with breathtaking beauty and revelations that are humble but profound. Then she moves on to India, and things get intricate and tedious, as she whines for page after page about her inability to still her mind and meditate or chant. I feel that a great deal of this section could have been edited, as it was redundant and made Gilbert seem like a petulant, spoiled child unable to sit still or learn to pray. The only interesting part of her time in India was meeting a man she calls Richard from Texas who, upon seeing her at trench, eating, nicknames her "Groceries" and is always just around the corner, ready to provide a bit of homespun wisdom or a bon mot. While that may have seemed a bit too convenient, I gather from my neighbor that Gilbert lied about the last third of the book, in which she claims to meet a Brazilian man, fall in love and get married. In reality, I'm told that she took Richard from Texas with her, that they had an affair and married once she moved back to New York.
This left me with a sour taste in my mouth about the last chapters in which Gilbert lives in Indonesia, Bali, to be exact, and develops relationships with Ketut, a medicine man and Wayan, a medicine woman. She solicits money from her friends in the states, and forces Wayan to buy some property and build a home/shop there so that she might raise her three children in peace. While all this is happening, however, Gilbert rambles on about her fears of dating, having a sexual relationship and falling in love again after the pain of her divorce and the breakup of her post-divorce affair with a guy named David, who comes off sounding like a tremendous wimp (but then, Gilbert sounds like an insanely needy person with emotional issues, so I suppose I don't blame him). She meets several men who would be happy to have a sexual liason with her, but ends up choosing a man 20 years her senior simply because he smells good, is persistant and flatters her.
Now I find myself wondering if this Felipe existed at all, or if he was a cleverly disguised Richard with a Brazillian accent. If so, that's a mean thing to do to your readers, Ms Gilbert, especially when you've gone to such great lengths to become an enlightened soul. Enlightened people don't lie to their readers.
So while most women would give this book a solid B plus, I have to downgrade my rating to a mediocre C and let it stand at that, for cheating her readers out of the real story.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

An Unearthed Reading List

I was hunting through some old file folders on my iMac when I came across a book list that I'd shared with my friend Frank Shiers, master of all local media, about 11 years ago. This was before I'd encountered Linnea Sinclair or Joanne Harris, or Charlaine Harris and Syne Mitchell, all of whom I'd add to the list now, if I were to make another TBR recommendation.
Here's the list as I wrote it back in the year I got married (Frank was the best man at our wedding at the Museum of Flight).

DeAnns Booklist: (In No Particular Order, and excluding favorite authors you have already read, like Bradbury and Irving)

The Warriors Apprentice--Lois McMaster Bujold I chose this of all her titles not because its the best, but because its the first of her novels to introduce Miles Vorkosigan, a fascinating character unlike any in modern Science Fiction. If you like him, I highly recommend that you read “Borders of Infinity”, which places the character, who is small and physically vulnerable, on a prison planet inside a bubble with hundreds of thugs with literally nothing but his wits to save him. GREAT stuff. Bujolds first work was a masterful SF novel called “Falling Free” about genetically-created beings called “Quadies” who have hands for feet. You would love it, I bet!

The Flaming Corsage--William Kennedy If you like this book, its style and its magical ‘Irishness’. then I recommend that you read “Quinns Book”, which has an amazing resurrection scene and lots of Kennedys nearly perfect prose. He won the Pulitzer for “Ironweed”, which is the only book that I have ever fallen in love with that is about the horrible grind of poverty on people, and the toll that it takes. Vile subject matter rendered in such glorious prose that I wept copiously at the beauty of several passages. I had the chance to meet Mr. Kennedy at Elliot Bay Book Company. He is a dear, elderly Irishman who looks rather like a slight-bodied version of Einstein. I told him that his prose reads like beautiful music; he called me a “darlin’ lass” for saying so. I nearly left Jim and eloped with him on the spot....sigh.

Journey--Marta Randall (Marta Randall now teaches writing at some fancy-schmancy university, and has given that as the reason that she doesn’t write more SF novels. I have been praying for years that she gets fired and goes back to writing fiction instead of teaching it. She is a sublime storyteller. If you like this book, the sequel is called “Dangerous Games” and I have a copy you can borrow. Randall, like the late Zenna Henderson, has a knack for drawing people and breathing life into communities on far-away planets. I have a strong hunch that her work is so good because it takes her a long time to write each novel, and she hasn’t written more than 4 of them, that I know of...quality takes time.

To A God Unknown--John Steinbeck This is about as close to perfect as a short novel can get. Steinbeck is my favorite ‘classic’ lit author because there is no bullshit about the man. His prose is clean, elegant, simple and profound. He loved his country, and its people, and yet he knew all about Americas weaknesses and wherein lies our virtue. He is a tower of strength among American writers, and his sly wit endeared him to me from the beginning. He once said that he would only write with Blackhawk Indian-made, round, “Black Warrior” pencils on legal paper, longhand. {Berol owns the “black warrior” pencil company now--they aren’t easy to come by, but I always keep a few on hand in tribute to the master} the idea being that real writers must feel the page beneath their hand and have a direct connection to what they write. He was a brilliant man, and like Carl Sandburg, another literary hero, he died before I was out of infancy. I regret that I will never have the chance to meet either man, except through their work.

Winter Rose--Patricia McKillip The first Patricia McKillip novel that I read is a classic called “The Forgotten Beasts of Eld” that is often made fun of by male hard-core SF readers because it was a gorgeous female fantasy novel, and nearly every female who ever read it fell in love with it, myself included. It made a whole generation of women want to be veterinarians. If every man who laughed at it had actually read it, lots more of them would’ve understood the female heart and soul, and gotten laid. The loathsome Stephen Donaldson notwithstanding, his quote/blurb on all her book-jackets is essentially correct; “There are no better writers than Patricia McKillip”. She writes like butterflies. Her words soar, her colors are breathtaking, her metaphors float on flowers and her sentences laugh with song. I would sell relatives to be able to write like McKillip for even an hour. Like any author, there are those who just don’t “get” her poetic prose, but then, there are people who think butterflies are just insects.

The Electric Forest--Tanith Lee (Tanith Lee is not just notable for her prolific Fantasy/SF--she also wrote a number of SF-TV-series scripts, including “Sand”, the best Blakes 7 episode in existence. She is an odd little British woman with the wisdom of the world in her head, who must have had the most hideous parents known to mankind. Her works all have a character who breaks away from an evil, dominating parent or husband. However, she does so in a subtle and fascinating manner--and in the process, brings up issues of how society treats those who are different. Reading “The Electric Forest” and “The Silver-Metal Lover” was a revelation for me as a teenager. No other author spoke so clearly about being considered ‘ugly’ in a world where ‘beauty’ is so highly valued as to be almost sacred. I KNEW exactly what Magda Cled felt like, alone and reviled...and I knew what Jayne, the chubby girl with the domineering mother felt like in “SilverMetal Lover”. I haven’t seen many authors deal with this subject as elegantly as Tanith Lee, which leads me to wonder if anyone could write so clearly about that kind of pain without actually having felt it.

The Falconer--Elaine McCarthy I give you fair warning--this book will make you cry. Its worth the extra tissues, believe me. I was stunned at how beautiful the story and the prose were, and that I had never heard of the author--talk about hiding your light under a bushel! If I could write first-novels like this, I would never leave the computer. This is the best death I’ve ever read about, and God knows I have seen enough real cancer deaths and read about enough of them to know. This is one of those rare books that can make you cry and uplift you at the same time--after reading this, you’ll want to run outside and frolic with joy at being least I did. If nothing else, its certainly a good antidote to whining about all the stupid crap that provides speedbumps in the road of our lives. It also made me wonder about the virtue of settling for comfort and happiness over “real” love...and I wondered how many people ever feel this kind of earth-shattering amore. (Please feel free to talk amongst yourselves--discuss!)

Short Stories:

Miss Lonelyhearts--Nathaniel West (this is a rich broth of a story--very satisfying)
Jeeves and the Song of Songs--PG Wodehouse (The pinnacle of British humor, in my opinion, lies in this mans Bertie and Jeeves stories. In the words of a college buddy of mine “Hes the only author whose stories can make me guffaw with laughter when I have dysentary.” ‘Nuff said)
Uncle Einar--Ray Bradbury The best short-short story ever written, in my opinion. Ray Bradbury does more with 5 pages of text than most writers do with 40. He is the King, the best SF short story writer ever to set foot on the planet, I believe. I worship his work, and I imagine I’d dissolve into a puddle of goo if I ever met the man.

Featured Alternate!
In case of emergency--in other words, you find that you just cannot stand one or another of the writers/novels listed above, proceed DIRECTLY to the following non-fiction tome and DIG IN!

Glass, Paper, Beans--Leah Hager Cohen This is the best non-fiction title I’ve ever read. Elegant, yet clean and spare prose combined with empathetic, no-nonsense storytelling. A noble and excellent read. It will surprise you, I guarantee. Highly recommended!

Saturday, August 23, 2008

I Feel Bad About My Neck by Nora Ephron

"Reading is one of the main things I do. Reading is everything. Reading makes me feel I've accomplished something, learned something, become a better person. Reading makes me smarter. Reading gives me something to talk about later on. Reading is escape, and the opposite of escape; it's a way to make contact with reality after a day of making things up, and its a way to making contact with someone else's imagination after a day that's all too real. Reading is grist. Reading is bliss." From I Feel Bad About my Neck by Nora Ephron
I totally "grok" that quote, as I feel exactly the same way about reading.
This was one of the best books I've read all year. Ephron, who is known for writing screenplays for some legendary chick flicks like "When Harry Met Sally" is at her best here, witty, brilliant, vulnerable and real. The reader feels as if they're fortunate enough to sit down at a New York cafe with Ephron and spend the afternoon chatting over bagels and tea.
Though she's in her 60s, I could identify with all her comments on the onerous maintenance regimes women are expected to adhere to, or the way that we all find so much fault with our bodies, or the difficulties of raising a child so at the very least they won't be a serial killer or the cell mate of one.
Then there's the moments when Ephron writes about books that make my heart sing, because she puts into words what I feel every time I pick up a new book, hoping for some fine prose and gorgeous storytelling:

"I loved this book. I loved every second of it. I was transported into its world. I was reminded of all sorts of things in my own life. I was in anguish over the fate of its characters, I felt alive, and engaged, and positively brilliant, bursting with ideas, brimming with memories of other books I've loved. I composed a dozen imaginary letters to the author, letters I'll never write, much less send. I wrote letters of praise. I wrote letters relating entirely inappropriate personal information about my own experiences with the authors subject matter. But mostly I wrote letters of gratitude: the state of rapture I experience when I read a wonderful book is one of the main reasons I read, but it doesn't happen every time, or even every other time, and when it does happen, I am truly beside myself." from the chapter "On Rapture" by Nora Ephron

I wanted to shout "YES!" about a million times when I read paragraphs like the above...yes, that's it exactly! She manages to hit the nail on the head of nearly ever experience she writes about. There was even a paragraph when Ephron was talking about losing a good friend, and she says "I want to talk to her. I want to have lunch with her. I want her to give me a book she just read and loved. She is my phantom limb, and I can't believe I'm here without her." Once again, yes! Exactly! This is how I feel nearly every day when I think of my best friend Muff, and her passing this year that was so unexpected and so horrifyingly swift.

Perhaps my experiences are so average that many women experience them as well, or perhaps Nora Ephron just has her lovely manicured fingers on the zietgiest, the pulse of women over the age of 40. Either way, this book is a must read for the baby boom generation woman who is trying to make sense of it all and still keep her sanity. You'll laugh, you'll cry and you will nod in agreement. I highly recommend this book.