Archive for the '2012 Books' Category

“An Abundance of Katherines” by John Green

Friday, October 12th, 2012

What better way to follow up a Toni Morrison bender than with a young-adult romance? An Abundance of Katherines was a good sorbet after a lot of tough reading.

The morning after noted child prodigy Colin Singleton graduated from high school and got dumped for the nineteenth time by a girl named Katherine, he too a bath.

Colin worries that he’ll never cross that liminal space between prodigy and genius. Devastated by the latest dumping, he and his friend Hassan (who is an unfortunate trope: the fat, funny one) leave the Chicago area for a road trip to the boonies of Tennessee. There they meet a girl named Lindsay, her odd mother Hollis, and end up with oddly high-paying jobs as documentarians.

Colin is an engaging, if sometimes whiny narrator. I liked his asides and DFW-esque footnotes. The book zips along to an enjoyable, if not all that surprising, conclusion. Fun, but not life changing.

“Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination” by Toni Morrison

Friday, October 12th, 2012

A slim, non-fiction volume based on a series of lectures, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination by Toni Morrison is a dense, thought-provoking read.

From the back cover:

Toni Morrison’s brilliant discussion of the “Africanist” presence in the fiction of Poe, Melville, Cather, and Hemingway leads to a dramatic reappraisal of the essential characteristics of our literary tradition. She shows how much the themes of freedom and individualism, manhood and innocence, depended on the existence of a black population that was manifestly unfree–and that came to serve white authors as embodiments of their own fears and desires.

This was part of the swath of books I read around re-reading Morrison’s Beloved. It’s written in what one of my grad-school professors would have called “high academ-ese” and thus interestingly brings into question the poet Audre Lord’s assertion that one can’t dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools. Morrison is able to wield ivory tower rhetoric like a weapon, and her argument about the necessity of an other to the American myth is a compelling one. Not a fun read, but a rewarding one.

Books on Toni Morrison and “Beloved”

Friday, October 12th, 2012

In preparation for leading a recent discussion on Toni Morrison’s Beloved, I raided my public libary, which had a number of books on Morrison and Beloved. Since I didn’t read them all in their entirety, I’ll put them all on one entry, though my annoyance with Harold Bloom’s guide was such that I thought it deserved its own entry.

Columbia Critical Guides: Toni Morrison “Beloved”, edited by Carl Plasa. Much more intellectually rigorous than Bloom’s guide. Five chapters cover the major aspects of the novel and gather and summarize some of the best scholarly works. Warning: tiny type. I showed a page to my husband who is something of a typesetting geek. He recoiled and cried out in disgust. I kid you not. If you were to read one book on Beloved, this would be the one I’d recommend.

Contemporary World Writers: Toni Morrison by Jill Matus. The chapter on Beloved is smart, well-written and well informed by earlier scholarship.

Circles of Sorrow, Lines of Struggle: The Novels of Toni Morrison by Gurleen Grewal. The chapter on Beloved is very good, tying together many aspects of it without being overwritten. I especially liked Grewal’s take on the ending as a communal working-through.

Modern Critical Views: Toni Morrison, ed. and with an introduction by Harold Bloom, who decries evaluating Morrison’s fiction on political, rather than simply aesthetic, criteria. He also writes that while Morrison has said she wishes to be contextualized in African-American literature, Bloom feels more that she is a potent mixture of Faulkner and Woolf, both of whom were subjects of Morrison’s graduate thesis. I was troubled by the pains he took to identify her with white writers while dismissing some specific other writers of color. But I appreciated that this collection was capped by an essay from Morrison herself, about a conspicuous lack of the Afro-American presence in American literature. In it, she argues so eloquently that the essay itself disproves Bloom’s attempt to diminish her work. As with the other Bloom guide, this one does have good essays in it by other authors than Bloom, including one by Margaret Atwood, and another by Margaret Mobley that is often cited in subsequent scholarship on Beloved.

Bloom’s BioCritiques: Toni Morrison. From his introduction:

Beloved is certainly Morrison’s most problematical work. Some readers whom I esteem set it very high, while other [sic] share my skepticism as to its aesthetic persuasiveness. It is a narrative intended to shock us into an ideological awareness, but its contrivances of plot are tendentious, and the personalities of its protagonists do not always cohere. I regard Beloved as a Period Piece, albeit one written by a woman of genius.

Note that he didn’t just say “genius” but qualifies it as “woman of genius.” Note the typo, one of many I found in the three Bloom books I consulted. I did appreciate the essay by Malmgren on Beloved that highlighted what odd companions the historical novel and the gothic ghost story make.

I am not saying that Bloom isn’t entitled to his opinion on Beloved, though I disagree with it. I _am_ saying he deploys terms that are belittling and condescending. I find this a kind of intellectual bullying, and all the more troubling for how many books on Morrison in general and Beloved in particular that Bloom has put his name on, and therefore made money. Yes, they may not be best sellers, but many are expensive ($35 to $45), and likely to be staples at most public and university libraries. He’s made money off Morrison’s Beloved by less than fair critiques, in my opinion.

Toni Morrison Explained by Ron David. Davis says he sought to write a guide that would be appeal to all levels of readers, from newbies to experts. I think he’s playing more to the groundlings with smart-ass comments that disrupt what might otherwise be a decent, readable guide. He has an interesting take on Morrison’s Paradise.

“Bloom’s Guides: Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved’”

Tuesday, October 9th, 2012

Bloom's Guide Beloved

This book has cemented my low opinion of Harold Bloom, with this sentence from his intro:

Beloved divides many of my acquaintances who possess critical discernment; for some of them it is a masterwork, for others it is supermarket literature. I myself am divided: not character in the novel persuades me, and yet much of the writing has authentic literary force. (emphasis mine)

He goes on, but I will spare you. Bloom’s name is on the book, as it is on two other books I read as I researched Beloved, so he is making money with this book that contains what I see as a low blow. Bloom may not regard Beloved as a masterpiece. But, as he notes, many people of critical discernment do, including those at the New York Times who, in 2006, named it the best book of American fiction of the past 25 years.

To use the term “supermarket literature” (deliberate deployment of damning oxymoron), in the preface to a scholarly collection of essays on that work, even while passively saying that it’s not him but others of his acquaintance, is insulting, not just to Morrison and the authors of the essays, but to me as a reader. Why should I read a book about a book that someone of critical discernment thinks is supermarket literature?

Then, to add further insult, the book is full of typos (could they not hire a competent copyeditor?) and the final essay has several outright factual errors, e.g. the rooster is misidentified as Brother, not Mister and thus Morrison’s careful strategies of naming characters are undermined.

Poorly done, Bloom, poorly done. It’s not enough to condescendingly admit that you think Song of Solomon is a masterpiece. You’ve outed yourself as an intellectual bully. After reading Beloved and the two other books with your name on it about Morrison, I would much rather live in a world that had Morrison’s literature than Bloom’s if I had to choose. But then, perhaps he’d think I don’t have critical discernment, and thus my opinion would not matter.

It’s too bad that Bloom’s churlish, petty comments in the introduction soured me at the start, because there are several very good essays in this book on Beloved that highlight interesting interpretations. If they had been treated to a good copyeditor, and not capped by a less-good essay, they might have been done justice.

“Beloved” by Toni Morrison

Friday, September 28th, 2012


I first read Toni Morrison’s Beloved in 1996. I was in my second year of graduate school, and in a woman’s book group. I was new to the wish to become a better reader of better books. As part of claiming my books, I wrote in them. Alas, in Beloved, I wrote in red pen. While it’s interesting to see what moved me and felt important on my first read, it’s not what I want on my second read, sixteen years later. I am still mulling over getting a new copy. But for an upcoming discussion, because I couldn’t find an unmarked used copy (apparently, unsurprisingly, Beloved is the kind of book that gets marked up), I read my old copy.

I am certain that sixteen years, which included grad school in religion and umpteen books, helped make this a less bewildering read than it must have been back then. Also, knowing two key things about the book, since they will never be forgotten, made it “easier” to read than before. I put easier in quotes, because this is anything but an easy read. The blurbs are full of apt adjectives, like harrowing, stunning, dazzling, glorious, brilliant, shocking, brutal, magical, shattering. Both the history the novel relates–of the Middle Passage crossing and US slavery–as well as the emotions the richly drawn characters evoke, drew me in and forced me to read, think on, and feel things I’d really probably rather not. And yet, the reading of the book also makes it clear why it’s so important to know about these things, to not ignore them. The book bears witness to pain and ugliness, but also to beauty, strength, and hope.

Morrison’s writing is spare at the start, gets mystical in the middle with Faulknerian stream-of-consciousness chapters, and then more elaborate at the end.

124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children. For years each put up with the spite in his own way, but by 1873 Sethe and her daughter Denver were its only victims.

Here’s what we know at the beginning. The house is haunted. Sethe is a former slave who lived with her mother-in-law, Baby Suggs, until the old woman died. One day a man named Paul D finds her. They once were slaves on a Kentucky plantation ironically named Sweet Home. Things proceed, moving back and forth, from there.

What struck me on this reading was that Beloved, with its ghost and grisly past, has all the hallmarks of a gothic horror story, which are blended with historical facts of the slave trade. I think it’s a toss up whether the gothic treatment highlights the horror inherent, or manages to make it able to be read, giving the reader just that small space of breathing room that fiction’s make believe can provide.

“Measure for Measure” by Shakespeare

Friday, September 28th, 2012


I re-read Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure prior to seeing a performance by Ten Thousand Things. Revisiting this play reminded me just how strange it is. I’d remembered it as a romance, but it’s classified as a comedy, though also a “Problem Play” because of its dark, weird mood.

In it, a duke dresses as a friar, gives all his power to a trusted friend Angelo, who then enforces a long-dormant law and sentences poor, nice Claudio to death because he got his girlfriend pregnant without marrying her legally and completely. Claudio’s sister Isabel, a soon-to-be nun, pleads for his case, Angelo falls in lust with her, the duke/friar runs around meddling, and wacky hijinx ensure.

The play ends with two, or is it three?, marriages. The two that are certain are punishments, and the men in them would prefer death. The third, uncertain marriage, can only be answered by the production. The one we attended last night skirted the possibility of the third marriage altogether.

It’s an unsettling text, and an unsettling play, though it does put forth provocative questions of power, equality, and judgment. I wonder if it might have been a satire in its time, whose sting has been lost with the context. I’m glad to have seen it performed.

Some of my favorite lines:

Mistress Overdone: But what’s his offence?
Pompey: Groping for trouts, in a peculiar river. (I, ii, 82-3)

Lucio: Our doubts are traitors,
And makes us lose the good we oft might win
By fearing to attempt. (I, iv, 77-9)

Duke: Her madness hath the oddest frame of sense. (V, i, 64)

which reminds me of

Polonius: Though this be madness, yet there is method in ‘t” (Hamlet II.ii.205-206).

“Keeping the Moon” by Sarah Dessen

Friday, September 21st, 2012

When I did a good long think about the young-adult novel I am attempting to write, I realized something strange. It’s a romance. Which is not what I set out to write. But when I read Fifteen by Beverly Cleary this summer, I realized THAT was the kind of book I was trying to write: a coming-of-age romance with not too much conflict. Who knows if I’ll even finish mine. I’ve been working on it so long because, basically, I wasn’t a good enough writer to tell the story the way I wanted to. I’ve kept writing, and in the hope that someday I’ll be able to pull it off.

But YA romance, by and large, isn’t something I’ve read much of, so I did some spelunking at and at sites like Forever Young Adult. I revisited this YA-fiction flow chart, and it was clear I needed to check out something by Sarah Dessen. Thus, Keeping the Moon.

My name is Nicole Sparks. Welcome to the first day of the worst summer of my life.

Nicole, nicknamed Colie, is shunted by her famous mother to live with her eccentric aunt in a tiny vacation town for the summer. Colie has dyed black hair, a lip ring, and an event in her past that’s made her angry and isolated. Over the summer, she gets a job as a waitress, makes some friends, tries to figure out her aunt, meets cute boys, and, guess what? She does not, in fact, have the worst summer of her life.

This, along with some other plot points, were not surprising. But Colie and the friends, even Colie’s relationship with her mother, all had some nice touches that felt real and true. I enjoyed it, and will seek out some of Dessen’s other books to see how they compare.

“Main Street” by Sinclair Lewis

Tuesday, September 18th, 2012

A pick for one of my book groups, Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street was mostly unknown to me, perhaps because I grew up elsewhere than in Minnesota, the setting for the novel and the origin point for Lewis himself. But now that I do live in Minnesota (and plan to stay) this felt like an enjoyable piece of required reading, one that would probably have been mostly lost on me if I’d read it when younger.

The main character is Carol, a young college graduate who works in Saint Paul, Minnesota before marrying a country doctor and moving to Gopher Prairie, modelled after Sauk Centre, Lewis’ birthplace. Idealistic Carol struggles against the staid pace and less than lovely facade of her new town, but her attempts to modernize thought and behavior mostly fall flat. The novel revolves around Carol’s struggle to accept small-town, middle-American life, while it wonders whether she should.

On a hill by the Mississippi where Chippewas camped two generations ago, a girl stood in relief against the cornflower blue of Northern sky. She saw no Indians now; she saw flour-mills and the blinking windows of skyscrapers in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

In addition to Carol, though, it’s also the story of her husband, Will Kennicott, and their marriage. While the book is mostly viewed as a satire of small-town America, I found it also had some affection for what it mocked, and I appreciated the complicated portrait of marriage that it detailed through Carol and Will over the years.

What struck me again and again, too, was how modern the novel felt. The political and social issues, even the names and details of the Twin Cities, all felt like they were still echoing down the years. I would never have picked this up on my own, and it’s now earned a spot in the permanent library. Not a swift read, but a rewarding one.

“I’d Know You Anywhere” by Laura Lippman

Saturday, September 1st, 2012

A while-ago suggestion for me from The Biblioracle, I finally got around to I’d Know You Anywhere by Laura Lippman. I first read Lippman as part of The Morning News Tournament of books, and really enjoyed her What the Dead Know. She has a long-standing series, but these are both standalone books, and ones that stand out, as well. It’s strongly plotted, solidly written, fast paced, well characterized, and a thumping good read.

Eliza Bennet is living a good life with a husband and two kids in suburban Maryland when she gets a letter from a man she used to know. The twists? Walter is a killer on death row. He kidnapped her when she was fifteen. Unlike the other two girls he’s known to have killed, he left her alive.

It’s told in back and forth focus on Eliza and Walter, with a few other characters thrown in. As the date approached for Walter’s execution, Eliza struggles with remembering the past as well as dealing with mundane things like her teen daughter’s rebellion and her younger son’s nightmares. Lippman ratchets the tension and throws in enough believable detail that I was kept guessing till the end, which was a very satisfying one, I thought.

Four Graphic Novels

Friday, August 31st, 2012

My pile of graphic novels got higher over the past months as I did the Summer of Shelf Discovery Readalong and kept up with my book groups. I’ve finally been able to catch up, and it’s been a good batch of varied stuff.

Cinderella: Fables are Forever by Chris Roberson ill. by Shawn McManus. The second miniseries devoted to Cinderella (I enjoyed the first, From Fabletown with Love), set in the Fables comic-series universe, this is a standalone miniseries that yet fits into the bigger mythology. I was a little disappointed when I finished it, but it’s grown on me since. What I didn’t like were the many flashbacks, and I sometimes was disoriented in time. What worked was introducing a nemesis for Cinderella, an interesting one, and seeing their interactions past and present. There was one twist at the end involving identity that I didn’t quite buy. The book introduced another world and minor characters that also play roles in the larger Fables series, so this is one that works on its own and enhances the larger works. There are also tantalizing hints about Frau Totenkinder, who has always been one of my favorite characters.

Caveats: the Cinderella stories are riffs on James Bond, so they have sex and violence. On the surface Cindy is a strong, liberated woman exercising choice and power. But this is a story by men, and to me the sexism comes through louder than the strong-female aspect.

Fables v. 17 Inherit the Wind. Wahoo! A return to the series strong points, its main characters and the overarching stories. Finally we are back to the aftermath of the fables’ war with Mr. Dark and the rebuilding that happens both by the heroes and villains. I loved the main story about which of Snow White and Bigby Wolf’s cubs/kids would be the heir to the North Wind. I was very disappointed in the last Fables collection, Super Team, which felt thin and not as funny as it was trying to be. This collection was a great example of the things I love about the series, though Snow White as whiny mother is a drag; she was way more kick-ass at the beginning of the series.

Richard Stark’s Parker: The Score by Darwyn Cooke. I have no idea why I like noir, with its sexist tropes and poisonous portrayals of women, though I do think sometimes misANTHROPY is mistaken for misogyny. But for all its troublesome aspects, I like the genre when it’s done well in book, film and comics, and I think Cooke’s new Parker graphic novel is excellent. Parker is the career criminal who’s getting a gang together for a sure-thing heist. He smells a rat but can’t suss it out till everything is well under way. This is a complicated story with ten men involved in the heist, yet Cook does a great job of telling the story visually and keeping to the terse, minimalist style of the source material. There were several pages and spreads that I lingered over, appreciating how they did what they did. In addition to being a great story, this is a lovely book. Heavy covers, quality pages and nicely retro end pages. Highly recommended if you can stomach noir.

The Underwater Welder by Jeff Lemire, the author/illustrator of another of my favorite ongoing comic series, Sweet Tooth. Here, Lemire is telling a story set in present reality. Jack is a young husband and about to be father. He works as a welder for a nearby oil rig off the shore of a tiny town in Nova Scotia. When he dives, he has visions. Are they his imagination, or something more mystic than that, and what are they trying to tell him. A good mystery, sympathetic characters, and nicely told in wash-y black and white.

One thing: I am DONE with descriptions of something as the best episode of the Twilight Zone you’ve never seen. It’s cheap shorthand for a blurbist or introduction author (here, Damon Lindelof, the Lost guy). The Underwater Welder was far more nuanced in story and execution than such a comparison implies.

“Tinkers” by Paul Harding

Thursday, August 30th, 2012

Tinkers by Paul Harding was a selection for one of my book groups. I read it alongside Vestments by John Reimringer and Peace Like a River by Leif Enger to compare and contrast the three novels. There were a lot of similarities, as well as differences, and each had things to well reward the reader.

Tinkers announces its ending at the beginning:

George Washington Crosby began to hallucinate eight days before he died.

Over the eight days of George’s dying, he moves beyond his own consciousness and remembers events from his own life, but also his father Howard’s, and his unnamed grandfather’s. George was a teacher when he was young, and later an antique clock repair person, tinkering with their inner works. Eight days is the time a wound clock will take to run down. Howard was a tinker in that he owned a cart and sold things and did odd jobs around the countryside. His father was a preacher, in awe of nature, and attempting to make connections between nature and God even while his own connections were failing him as he succumbed to dementia.

This is a surprisingly dense book for one so short. The sentences can be mesmerizing, but sometimes I found them too much, and had to drag my attention back to the page. This is not a fast-moving, plot-driven tale. It reminded me more than a little of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, unsurprising as Harding was a student of Robinson’s. Like that book, it’s about fathers and sons, and how we engage with the world and our families. If you liked that book, you’re likely to appreciate this one.

“Peace Like a River” by Leif Enger

Monday, August 27th, 2012


I moderate a group that reads books on spirituality and myth, and Leif Enger’s Peace Like a River has been on the to-read list from the beginning, as it’s by a Minnesota author and parts of it are set in northern Minnesota.

It’s narrated by Reuben, in an adult voice telling the story from the perspective of himself as a child. This can be a tough point of view to pull off. I thought it worked most of the time, but there were a few times early on when I got bounced out of the story. Interestingly, it wasn’t the age of the voice felt wrong, but that Reuben kept making Foreboding Prounouncements, when I would have much preferred to just get on with the story.

what [Dad] said to Swede and me on the worst night of all our lives:

We and the world, my children will always be at war.
Retreat is impossible.
Arm yourselves. (4)


I felt straight off that a piece of our lives had changed, as certainly as our cheerful green door had gone to black (21)


I wonder yet what might’ve happened had Dad and I stayed home that night or had Davy and Swede gone with us to church. Wars escalate in mysterious ways, unforeseen by good men and prophets…

So thoughtlessly we sling on our destinies. (28)

When the FPs tapered off I did get on with the story, and it pulled me through to the end.

At the beginning of the story, Reuben’s brother Davy does something that the law doesn’t agree with. Davy runs away, and soon asthmatic Reuben, his miraculous dad, and his Western-writing younger sister Swede head west after him. Intertwining with their trip is a “putrid fed,” Andreeson, who says it’s his job to find Davy. Everything intersects in the Badlands of North Dakota, where what transpires reflects the singularity of the landscape.

This is a novel that has a lot of sweetness, that at times overbalances its complex bitter parts, which I thought were well done. But it has some gorgeous writing, a ripping plot, great settings, and some thought-provoking questions on whether miracles exist and what they are.

The book wears it’s ties to the Western genre clearly. But the family’s road trip, and Davy’s outlaw status reminded me strongly of The Grapes of Wrath, while a scene near the end reminded me of C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce. I found these an interesting mix of influences.

“My Sweet Audrina” by V.C. Andrews

Friday, August 17th, 2012


I re-read My Sweet Audrina by V.C. Andrews for the last chapter of the Shelf Discovery Readalong, Chapter 10: Panty Lines: I Can’t Believe They Let Us Read This. I found a copy in the Teen section at Half-Price Books, and the edition is published by Simon Pulse, a teen imprint, so between my teenhood and now things have changed. The V.C. Andrews books have been uncovered for what they are: racy reads for pre-teens. And the book even has a picture of a pretty pink peony on the front, so it doesn’t look dirty AT ALL. Not like the peekaboo cover and inside flap of the cover I read back when:



From the back cover:

Audrina Adare wanted to be as good as her sister. But she knew her father could not love her as he loved her sister. Her sister was so special, so perfect…and dead.

Now Audrina with come fact to face with the dangerous, terrifying secret that everyone knows. Everyone except…Audrina.

I am abashed to admit that I had a good time re-reading this gothic potboiler from my youth. Audrina is a pretty seven-year old who lives in a weird house with a weird family. The father and her cousin are particularly creepy. I fully remembered the “secret” and wondered if I guessed the ending when I read this as a girl about thirty (!) years ago. The writing is terrible, the secret hardly dangerous, and given the book’s 400 pages, and its covering of thirteen year, I really think it could’ve been shorter to ramp up the tension. And yet, up till the end, I still enjoyed it, purple prose and all:

On shimmering hot waves of smoldering desire to do it all over again, out here in the storm when the world could end any second and no sin would matter, I drifted back to being me.

The end, though, when the “secret” is finally revealed and consequences sorta happen, was like having a nasty dessert to a tasty junk food meal. Or perhaps like the moment when you’re eating junk food and everything’s fine and then bam, a line is crossed and it can’t be tasty again. Perhaps the ugliness and awkwardness of the ending put a spotlight on the garish over-the-top-ness of the book. The ending made the guilt over time spent overwhelm any fleeting pleasure. Eminently skippable. Unless you start it, then you might not be able to stop.

My friend Amy felt similarly about Flowers in the Attic.

I’m going to read something with some nutritive value, now.

“Let’s Pretend This Never Happened” by Jenny Lawson

Sunday, August 12th, 2012

You know how everyone tells you how great something is, and you’re all, “yeah, yeah, I’ve been meaning to get to it” or, “yeah, I tried it but it was only OK” and then you finally try whatever it is, or re-try it and hit yourself in the head and yell, D’oh!? You know that feeling, right? Well, that’s the feeling I have after reading Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson, a.k.a. The Bloggess. It’s the “Why didn’t I listen so I could have enjoyed this sooner?” feeling. Because both my husband G. Grod and my internet friend Pat who blogs at O Canada Y’all have been singing her praises for years. I read some entries and liked them but never subscribed to the feed for her blog. Maybe I was feeling overwhelmed at the time. (Since I feel this way 85% of my life, that’s my guess). Maybe whatever the post was failed to fully engage me. Maybe I got lost in the labyinthine tangle of entries that is her history with Wil Wheaton and twine. But for whatever reason, I moved along.

I’m not sure why I ordered this book, then. Maybe my husband sent me a link of her begging people to buy it, so I ordered it next time I was at amazon and needed something to up my total to get free shipping (we’ve since broken down and gotten amazon prime so no need for that kind of compulsive behavior anymore). So, I ordered the book. I saw it was being read by everyone on the interwebs and that they liked it. And then it sat gathering dust, as books often do around here. (And by that I mean not just the physical dust from me not cleaning, but the metaphorical dust that settles on a book that I HAVE TO HAVE and then don’t read.)

But then we saw that she was doing another book tour, and coming to our town, and well, then, what were we to do but read the book and go see her? Which we did. But that gets me to where I should describe the reading next, and not her book, and you might not care about the reading, since her tour is now over, and you might still read the book, right, so that’s what you want to know about.

It’s a bizarre memoir/collection of essays with a lot of curse words. It’s hilarious, except when it’s sad and touching, and sometimes it’s a combination of both. But mostly, it’s hilarious. I laughed so hard that people looked at me strangely when I was in public, had my kids asking, “what, what?” when I read it at home, and when I read it alone I laughed so hard at various times that I cried, got a stitch in my side, and started a coughing fit. Lawson is from rural Texas, grew up poor but didn’t know it, and suffers from anxiety, agoraphobia, and some other stuff.

that’s when Victor started shaking a little bit. It worried me, because only one of us was allowed to have a panic attack at a time, and I’d already called dibs. (157)

She is obsessed with zombies, vaginas and serial killers, and curses a lot.

“Don’t get all crazy just ’cause I threw a vampire monkey wrench is your faulty Jesus-zombie logic.”

There are some really sad parts too, but the exuberant joy of weirdness is what will stay with me. (I think. I only finished it like 30 minutes ago but liked it so much I had to review it RIGHT AWAY.)

She was very funny and personable at her reading, which is pretty amazing given her agoraphobia and anxiety disorder. Also, she devotes an entire chapter in the book to how she spent her life being afraid of women as friends, and then has a weekend that is both terrifying and fun when she tries to get over that. I thought it was pretty interesting, given that she packed one of the biggest bookstores in the Twin Cities with 99% women. (Our ticket for signing was so long down the list that we left with book unsigned to go see The Bourne Legacy, which was good, but not as good as the original recipe.) So clearly, a lot of women want to be friends with her.

If you are bothered by cursing, or the word ‘vagina,’ you will likely not enjoy this book. The rest of you should check out this and if you enjoy it, then get the book and remember, reading it in public will be awkward.

“The Wolves of Willoughby Chase” by Joan Aiken

Saturday, August 11th, 2012


I read Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase as part of my Summer of Shelf Discovery Readalong. It’s one of the books from Chapter 9, “Old Fashioned Girls,” of Lizzie Skurnick’s reading memoir Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading.

From Laura Lippmann’s essay in Shelf Discovery:

Wolves has everything. A high-spirited rich girl (Bonnie Green), her virtuous poor relation (Sylvia Green), a tragic shipwreck, an evil governess, loyal retainers, an uncannily clever and gifted goose tender, a horrible boarding school–run by Mrs. Brisket no less, who rewards snitches with little pieces of cheese. And I’m not even going to tell you how the geese foil a dastardly crime. (354)

And Lippman’s list doesn’t even include big bad wolves, a big bad man, a kindly poor relation in a garret and a sympathetic adult. Wolves does indeed have lots crammed into its few pages, and its a rollicking read. I was reminded of Jane Eyre, Turn of the Screw, A Little Princess, and more. I’m sad I didn’t encounter this one as a child, but happy that I’ve read it now. I look forward to passing it on to my boys, 6 and 9 years old.

“Ready Player One” by Ernest Cline

Thursday, August 9th, 2012

A selection for one of my book groups, Ready Player One by Ernest Cline was something both I and my husband wanted to read. It does a clever job of handling how to include 80’s geekiana in a book without making it set in the past or conveniently obsessed with it in the present by setting it in the future. A rich, Asperger-y Bill-Gates-y guy dies in the 2040s, and leaves his fortune to whoever can solve the riddles he leaves behind in the virtual reality he created, The Oasis. Turns out we destroyed the planet and spent more and more time playing with gadgets till people barely went outside and interacted, and The Oasis became exactly that–what people retreated to. Wade, an orphaned teen, manages to solve the first riddle then becomes enmeshed with others–some honest, some evil, none in between–seeking the fortune by solving the riddles.

It’s like Westing Game with a dash of Ender’s Game, but just a dash, because while this is a fun read, especially for those of us who grew up on the same pop culture diet that’s celebrated in the book, it’s not much beyond that. It’s a boy book: young orphan boy goes on quest, makes friends, finds (chaste) love, fights evil empire, is helped by benevolent old man. Fun, but it doesn’t ask any complex questions and the characters never quite got three dimensions, which is perhaps unsurprising in a book about virtual reality.

It’s also the kind of book that prompts nagging questions after its over that leach away at my opinion of it. The expository opening is awkward; its purported audience would know the history of the world till then, though its actual audience doesn’t. In a critical scene in which the main character is threatened, a simple statement of fact would prevent something bad from happening. Then, when that something bad happens, it never feels like its given believable weight. A character is described as Rubenesque, but is 5′7″ and 168 pounds. (Was it in The Pick Up Artist that Robert Downey Jr. tells Molly Ringwald that she has the face of a Chagall and the body of a Rubens? Yet, I don’t think the reference in the book to Rubens is ironic.) A character at the end has long hair, when long hair makes no sense in this future, virtual society.

I really wanted to love this book, and I merely liked it. I tore through it, though, and had fun while I was reading it. In the end, though, it felt like watching one of those “I Love the 80’s” shows. Fun, funny, but with questionable long-term value.

“Vestments” by John Reimringer

Saturday, August 4th, 2012

I lead a book group in the Twin Cities of Minnesota that reads mostly fiction with themes of myth, religion and spirituality. So Vestments, by John Reimringer, was kind of a no-brainer as a selection. It’s about a young Catholic priest in St. Paul, Minnesota struggling with his calling.

Saturday morning in Saint Paul, church bells ringing the hour. I was in the dining room of my mother’s house, celebrating Mass, when we heard my father arrives–the rattle of a rusted exhaust, the backfire of a badly tuned engine. He’d come to drop off his alimony.

James Dressler tells those who ask why he’s taking a break from the Church that he had “trouble with a woman,” and as the novel plays out, we find out what that trouble was. It’s more interesting and complicated that I would have guessed, and Reimringer’s novel overall is the same way. James’ ties to friends, the priesthood, and his blue-collar family are palpable and believably ambivalent, in the true meaning of that word: pulled in multiple directions. James prepares to celebrate his brother’s marriage, even while his parents’ has fallen apart and his beloved grandfather, Otto, is dying.

Vestments tackles the biggest topics–living, dying, loving, belief, family, vocation–but in ways that felt grounded and true as they played out in this particular family. I live not very far from where it’s set, but Reimringer’s depiction of blue-collar Saint Paul was like reading about a foreign country. I found Vestments rich, deep, and satisfying in ways I would not have expected. I look forward to talking about it in a group.

Largehearted Boy has Reimringer’s playlist to accompany the book here.

Reimringer and another author, in a head-tilting pairing, will be reading at Common Good Books (Garrison Keillor’s store) in Saint Paul on September 17, 2012.

“The Ghost Belonged to Me” and “Ghosts I Have Been” by Richard Peck

Saturday, July 21st, 2012


Cover of The Ghost Belonged to Me that I remember reading. (Good)

Modern cover of The Ghost Belonged to Me (Hate it)

This is the cover I wish I’d had:


This summer many of you and I are re-reading books of my youth from the list in Lizzie Skurnick’s reading memoir Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading. Chapter 7 is “She Comes by It Supernaturally: Girls Who Are Gifted and Talented.” Skurnick includes Richard Peck’s Ghosts I Have Been, narrated by Blossom Culp, but I wanted to read the first book in the Blossom Culp group too, The Ghost Belonged to Me, which is narrated by Alexander Armsworth.

Starting in about 3rd grade, I remember becoming obsessed with ghosts and the supernatural, and began to devour books and television shows (In Search of!) about them. They scared me, but I loved them anyway. These two books were part of the canon for me back then, and a good beginning to my supernatural kick as opposed to some of the utter dreck that came later, e.g., The Amityville Horror.

Long before Peck won the Newbery Award for his children’s book A Year Down Yonder (which is very good), he was a prolific writer of teen fiction. Looking back, I think Peck, along with Lois Duncan, may have been the author whose books I read the most. Certainly the ghost stories of both these books were some of my favorites. In The Ghost Belonged to Me, Alexander has to contend with a ghost on his property.

It all happened when I was no longer a child nor yet old enough to be anything else. I was getting long in the leg but was still short on experience. This is always a difficult age to sort out or live through. All I know for sure is that ever after the ghost, I was changed somewhat and possibly wiser.

In Ghosts I Have Been, Blossom comes into her second sight when she hits puberty, and her adventures take her a very long way.

There are girls in this town who pass their time up on their porches doing fancywork on embroidery hoops. You can also see them going about in surreys or on the back seats of autos with their mothers, paying calls in white gloves. They’re all as alike as gingerbread figures in skirts. i was never one of them. My name is Blossom Culp, and I’ve always lived by my wits.

There’s good stuff in both these about poverty and social class. Blossom is a smart, wryly funny narrator, though one who lets her little sorrows show through the chinks in her armor every so often.

Some covers. The current one (meh)


The one I read as a girl from the library and which depicts Blossom as she’s described in the book:

Now I am not vain when it comes to looks. If I was, a trip to the mirror oulc cure me. My eyes are very nearly black, particularly if I am roused to anger or action. My hair needs more attention than I have time to give it. And my legs, being thin, do not show to good advantage, as being fourteen, I am still in short skirts.


And the one I owned, which, while attractive, shows a far-too-pretty Blossom and is by Rowena, who did a bunch of Anne McCaffrey covers, which were also supernatural books I loved as a girl:

Blossom’s story is largely about a ghost who drowned when the Titanic sank. Peck went on to write another story about Titanic passengers, this one a romance purportedly for adults, (there’s a recent re-issue for the anniversary of the Titanic!) though I know I read it at a tender age, even with this tawdry cover:


I read this book so many times the embarrassing cover fell off, at which point I threw it away. I wish I still had it. The guy on the cover, who is NOT in fact the main love interest in the book, has a similar back of the head to my husband.

“Cinderella: From Fabletown with Love” by Chris Roberson

Saturday, July 21st, 2012


An offshoot miniseries of Bill Willingam’s Fables comic-book series, Cinderella: From Fabletown with Love written by Chris Roberson (iZombie) and illustrated by Shawn McManus (Sandman: A Game of You) focuses on one of Fabletown’s favorite heroines.

Cindy, as she’s called by her friends, is an undercover spy enlisted by the sheriff of Fabletown to find out who’s been selling magical artifacts in the real (”mundy”) world. In her travels, she hooks up (in more ways than one) with Ala Al Din, “perhaps better known as Aladdin.” Or Lamp Boy, as Cindy calls him. The subplot, in which a shoe clerk in Cinderella’s shoe store messes up, isn’t funny, but the main story buzzes right along with laughs and a surprise villain at the end. A fun fast read for fans of the Fables series.

“The Witch of Blackbird Pond” by Elizabeth George Speare

Wednesday, July 18th, 2012


This summer, I’m re-reading books of my girlhood, guided by the reading list in Lizzie Skurnick’s Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading. Revisiting some of these as an adult is great fun, but also fascinating to see what I notice now and didn’t notice as a girl.

Chapter 6 of Shelf Discovery is “Girls Gone Wild: Runaways, Left Behinds, and Ladies Living off the Fat of the Land.” In one of the books from this chapter, Elizabeth George Speare’s The Witch of Blackbird Pond, teen girl Kit Tyler sails from Bermuda, where her grandfather and guardian just died. Unannounced, she arrives in Puritan New England, where her only other relatives are immediately embarrassed and inconvenienced by the impulsive and less-than-empathetic Kit, who has come to stay.

The contrast between Kit’s indulged childhood and the Puritan way of life is stark, but as an adult, I can see how both sides are more nuanced than I probably perceived when I was younger. Also, Kit is a selfish, spoiled, immature girl. I’m sure I related to her as a girl, but now can see her through the eyes of her Aunt Rachel. What’s enjoyable about this book is that Kit changes and grows, though doesn’t completely submit to the Puritan way of life.

Overall, I found this an immensely satisfying read with some pretty traditional romance novel tropes and a very traditional court scene. Kit meets the sailor Nat, but they quarrel. Then she meets a Puritan who courts her. He’s rich, and while she doesn’t love him, she likes the idea of what his money can get her, i.e. out of hard work and into pretty dresses. In the meantime she meets odd Hannah Tupper, the titular character and the one I think of every time I hear the Pearl Jam song “Crazy Mary.” Kit also befriends an abused girl, Prudence. In the end, everything, and I do mean pretty much everything, comes out right. Happy endings for all!

I will grudgingly admit that there might be some cliches in this book, but I still enjoyed seeing Kit’s (and a few other characters, too) uppance come, plus learning about Puritan New England.