Archive for the '2010 Books' Category

2010: The Book Covers

Sunday, January 2nd, 2011

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2010: My Year in Books

Sunday, January 2nd, 2011

Best book of 2010 that I read in 2010: A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. A tangled web of characters and events. I was engaged and enthralled.

Second best book of 2010 that I read in 2010: The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachmann. Similar to Goon Squad, but not as ambitious. Disclosure: other than comic books, these were the only two books from 2010 that I read in 2010. But both were excellent!

So nice I read them twice in the same year: History of Love by Nicole Krauss and Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon

Thumping good trilogies with strong female heroines with significant things that bugged me: Stieg Larsson’s Millenium and Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogies.

Good stuff: The Road by Cormac McCarthy; Lowboy by John Wray (not perfect, but I liked the Hamlet/Raskolnikov parallels); Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card; City of Thieves by David Benioff; Big Machine by Victor LaValle; The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker; Anne Frank: the Book, the Life, the Afterlife by Francine Prose; Man in the Wooden Hat by Jane Gardam; Zeitoun by Dave Eggers; The Magicians by Lev Grossman; Cakewalk by Kate Moses

Made me laugh: The Catnappers by P. G. Wodehouse; This is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper; Scott Pilgrim v. 1 to 6 by Bryan Lee O’Malley.

Others loved them; I did not: Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann; The Help by Kathryn Stockett; A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore; Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel; Little Bee by Chris Cleave

I got hooked on these classics: Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert, trans. Lydia Davis; Villette by Charlotte Bronte; Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy

I discovered The Suck Fairy had got into: Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonflight.

Related reading: After the Hunger Games trilogy and Tamara Drewe by Posy Simmonds, I read Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd, which the latter two pay homage to. After Madame Bovary, I read Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes and Gemma Bovery by the aforementioned Posy Simmonds. After Francine Prose’s book, I read Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl, Definitive Edition. After Zeitoun I read the graphic memoir A.D. New Orleans: After the Deluge by Josh Neufeld.

Comic books: I read a lot of unremarkable graphic novels in 2010. Fortunately, I read a lot of very good ones, too: Unwritten by Mike Carey; Incognito and Criminal by Ed Brubaker/Sean Phillips; Parker: the Hunter and the Outfit by Darwyn Cooke; Scott Pilgrim volumes 1 to 6 by Bryan Lee O’Malley; Far Arden by Kevin Cannon

And a few remarkable ones: Stitches by David Small; Asterios Polyp by David Mazzuchelli; Tamara Drewe and Gemma Bovery by Posy Simmonds

I read a bunch of books that had been sitting on my shelf for a long time: Little Boy Lost by Marganita Lasky; Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.; Eats Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss; The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier; Desperate Characters and Borrowed Finery by Paula Fox; The Catnappers by P.G. Wodehouse; Quicksilver, The Confusion and The System of the World by Neal Stephenson; Villette by Charlotte Bronte; and Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes.

I did two reading projects: 15 books in 15 days, and Baroque Summer. Only my husband was brave enough to join me for the latter, but I had a great time reading Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver, The Confusion, and System of the World with him.

Just couldn’t bring myself to link each book. Individual links can be found under 2010 books in categories on the right. Happy reading, readers!

Four Graphic Novels

Saturday, January 1st, 2011

I’ll try to briefly wrap up last year’s reading.

Anne Frank: The Anne Frank House Authorized Graphic Biography
by Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon. How could a version of Anne’s story not move me? I was dry eyed at the end of this “graphic biography” with stiff, photo-based art and few new additions to the story, while condensing the rest to a bare personal and historical summary. This might be a good way to introduce a young reader to Anne’s story if they were daunted by her diary, but it is a poor substitute for that great book. I feel like a complete crank for not liking this book, but please seek out Anne’s diary or Francine Prose’s book on it instead.

Richard Stark’s Parker Book Two: The Outfit
by Darwyn Cooke. The shades of black and blue suit the noir tale perfectly. Cooke’s second adapation of Stark’s Parker books is a well-told and illustrated tale. Parker is a definite anti-hero, and though his and the other characters’ attitudes to women are abominably of their time and genre, it’s hard not to root for him. Also, this book is printed on heavy paper, with thick end pages of a mod design. It’s a lovely object.

Ex Machina volumes 9 and 10: Ring out the Old and Term Limits, by Bryan K. Vaughan and Tony Harris. I’ve felt ambivalent about this series for a while, and hoped that the creators could bring it to a satisfying close. They brought it to a close, but one that left me in a bad mood. The series is about Mitchell Hundred, a reluctant superhero who saved many on 9/11, and was subsequently elected mayor. The last two volumes of the series find him deciding not to run again, and attempting to finish out his term while also battling the friends and enemies working against him since the start of the series.

Some questions I had were unanswered, they made a long-suffering character suffer too much, in my opinion, and the meaning of the ending seemed too simple, and not even fitting for the series. Bah. These bridged the end of the year and the new beginning, and I hope 2011 will bring more auspicious reading. If you want a good series that ends with integrity, I highly recommend Neil Gaiman’s Sandman.

“Flaubert’s Parrot” by Julian Barnes

Friday, December 31st, 2010

A friend of mine from my book group of beloved memory (Philly, mid 90’s) said Julian Barnes was one of her favorite authors. So in 1999 I bought copies of Flaubert’s Parrot and A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters; they’ve moved with me twice and I still hadn’t read them. But I dusted off (literally) Flaubert’s Parrot after I read Lydia Davis’ new translation of Madame Bovary this fall.

Books are where things are explained to you; life is where things aren’t. I’m not surprised some people prefer books. Books make sense of life. The only problem is that the lives they make sense of are other people’s lives, never your own. (168)

Barnes’ book is narrated by Geoffrey Braithwaite, a retired physician and amateur but obsessive Flaubert scholar. He discovers a puzzle no one else has: which parrot did Flaubert refer to in one of his books? The book follows his meandering thoughts as he moves in and out of Flaubert’s history and writing, and Braithwaite’s own life. It is an extremely clever book, with multiple meanings and purposes in its pages. The parrot of the title refers not just to a bird, but to Braithwaite, who shares a starting sound and last initial with Julian Barnes, whose entire novel is a parroting of sorts. Like Posy Simmonds’ Gemma Bovery, this is a modern riff on a classic and one that adds much to the reading of both. Good, good stuff. Not sure if it would be as good if I hadn’t just read Mme. B, though.

“Gemma Bovery” by Posy Simmonds

Friday, December 31st, 2010

Impressed earlier this fall by Posy Simmonds Tamara Drewe graphic novel (not the movie adaptation, which I didn’t see), I sought out her earlier riff on the classic Madame Bovary, Gemma Bovery. (TD was a riff on Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd.)

Gemma is a self-involved artistic English woman who marries Charlie Bovery, who refurnishes antique furniture. Frustrated by their circumstances in London, they move to rural France. Their nosy neighbor, a portly white balding man, Joubert, narrates the story. He is a creepy ogler, fascinated by Gemma and her increasingly risky behavior.

If all this sounds familiar to those who’ve read Madame Bovary, it’s meant to. But as with the name and characters and situations, this is a modern take with significant differences as well. It does share with Flaubert, though, a skewering eye for detail that nonetheless makes its characters understandable, if not entirely sympathetic. After reading, I wondered why both Gemma Bovery and Tamara Drewe were narrated by portly, white, balding, intrusive men. Then I noted a similarity between these details and those of Hardy and Flaubert. Simmonds has done fascinating work, updating classics with words and pictures to tell the stories in a fresh, modern, sophisticated way. Highly recommended, but read the original first.

“Cakewalk” by Kate Moses

Thursday, December 30th, 2010

I first heard about Cakewalk, the food memoir by Kate Moses, at Tipsy Baker, who claimed that the recipe for chocolate chip cookies in it might be unbeatable. I mentally scoffed, as the recipe I use, by Pam Anderson*, is a slam-dunk that’s been requested numerous times. But I borrowed Cakewalk from the library and made the cookies. Very good, I thought, but I didn’t like how they turned -wise, since I wasn’t able to refrigerate the dough up to 48 hours as she suggested. Then I had to return the book, and wait a long time to get it again. This time I made the cookies with Moses’ ingredients and Anderson’s method of freezing scoops of dough for 30 minutes then baking in a 400 degree oven till they collapse, then finishing at 350. A bit fussy, yeah, but wow. The Moses recipe with the Anderson method might well be unbeatable.

So if you’re looking for a good chocolate-chip cookie recipe (and if you aren’t, why not?) get this book. But if you’re a fan of messed-up-family memoirs, like those of David Sedaris and Augusten Burroughs, and you like food, then this book’s for you. Also, it’s for those of you who loved Norah Ephron’s book and the movie adaptation of Heartburn. Kate Moses is a strong writer, and tells good stories, even when they’re full of tragedy, like her home life and her middle-school life, and more and more. Good book, good recipes. Highly recommended.

Life does not always reward us with the best cookie in the box, or the happiest family; sometimes you take what you get and make the best of it. In my case, that’s where imagination came in as handily as learning how to bake. For both of those lifesavers, I have my confusing, painful, unforgettable childhood to thank. Which makes me wonder if my cake obsession, really, is not much more than my struggle to find a way to redeem with sweetness those moments that left, however bitter on occasion, such a lasting taste in my mouth.

* Pam Anderson’s recipe is no longer available online, though apparently it’s in her book CookSmart, but here’s her recipe:

Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookies
I use 3/4 cup whole wheat pastry flour and 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

2 1/4 cups bleached all-purpose flour (use a 3/4 cup measure for this and the sugars: 3 x 3/4 = 2 1/4.)
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
2 large eggs
1 tsp. vanilla
3/4 tsp. salt
14 Tbs. butter (2 sticks minus 2 Tbs.), cut into chunks
3/4 cup dark brown sugar
3/4 cup granulated sugar
2 Tbs. flavorless oil, such as vegetable or canola
1 1/2 cups chocolate chips or 8 ounces good-quality bittersweet or semisweet chocolate cut into 1/4-inch chunks, about 1 1/2 cup
1 cup each chocolate chunks or chips and 1 cup toasted nuts (pecans, walnuts, unsalted peanuts or macadamias)

Mix flour, baking powder and baking soda in a medium bowl; set aside. Mix eggs, vanilla and salt in a small bowl; set aside. Microwave butter on high power until just melted but not hot, 30 to 45 seconds; set aside. Mix brown and granulated sugars in a large bowl. Add butter and oil; stir until smooth. Add egg mixture and stir until smooth and creamy. Add dry ingredients and stir until smooth. Stir in chocolate and optional nuts. Using a 1 1/2-ounce (3 Tbs.) ice cream scoop, spoon 16 dough balls onto a pan that will fit in your freezer. (Don’t worry if the dough balls are crowded. They pull apart when frozen.) Freeze until dough is hard, about 30 minutes. (Once dough balls are frozen, they can be stored in freezer bags up to 3 months and baked as desired.)

Meanwhile, adjust oven rack to upper middle position and heat oven to 400 degrees. Working in half batches, place 8 frozen dough balls onto a parchment-lined cookie sheet. Bake until set, but not brown, 8 to 10 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees. Continue to bake until cookies are golden-brown around the edges and lightly brown on the top, about 10 minutes longer. Let cookies cool on cookie sheet. Repeat, preheating oven to 400 degrees again before baking second batch.

Cookies can be stored in an airtight container up to 5 days.

“Await Your Reply” by Dan Chaon

Wednesday, December 15th, 2010

I re-read Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon, ostensibly for Books and Bars. But for those of you who don’t live in MN, we got a monster storm last weekend with 16+ inches followed by bitter sub-zero weather. The streets are plowed out mostly, but parking and the cold are still formidable. I skipped B & B and stayed home, snuggled down on the loveseat with my husband and 2 boys for The Muppet Christmas Carol. 7yo Drake remembered many details from last year. 4yo Guppy covered his eyes at the scary parts. And husband G. Grod didn’t quite stay awake for the whole thing. The Marley brothers, Jacob and “Robert”? Ha! It was a satisfying night.

But, back to Await Your Reply, which I read earlier this year and thought was very good. A re-read not only confirmed, but increased my high opinion of it. This is a smart, fast-paced mystery, with sympathetic and fascinating characters. Ryan is a young man who has recently met his birth father and established a relationship with him. Lucy is a high school senior who runs off with her history teacher from small-town Pompey, Ohio. And Miles Cheshire has been trying to find his missing twin Hayden for over a decade. The chapters alternate among these three tales and six characters. The momentum and connections build until the book becomes hard to, and irritating to have to, put down. I found it well worth re-reading, noticing many more small details that flew by me the first time, and making me wonder at all the things I still might be missing, including allusions Chaon refers to in the author interview at the end of the TPB.

Read this book. And read it again. I do not think you’ll be disappointed. Enthralled, rather.

Wondering: why was this book not included in the 2010 Morning News Tournament of Books? I think it could have handily bested the winner of last year, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel.

Obsessive book-geek good news: The long list for the 2011 tournament was published this morning!

Obsessive book-geek better news: They’re accepting applications for a guest judge! I’m going to apply! I’m all aquiver with geek joy.

“Finding Beauty in a Broken World” by Terry Tempest Williams

Saturday, December 11th, 2010

A selection for my book group, Finding Beauty in a Broken World is hard to categorize. Non-fiction, certainly, but what–art and ethics, perhaps? The book feels like a long meditation, in the true sense of the word, not just the book-blurb sense of the word. It’s split into three main sections, one on mosaic making in Italy, one on prairie dogs communities in the west, and the final on post-genocide Rwanda. Based on her description of Rwanda, I hesitated about whether to put “post” in quotes. The three seemingly and actually disparate topics are tied together because of their broken nature, and the enduring suffering of the endangered and hunted prairie dogs, and the surviving Rwandans. Into the interstices, Williams weaves anecdotes of her family, particularly the death of her brother. This is a profoundly moving book on topics I’d likely not read about on my own, and one in which the author, and by extension the reader, to confront ugly truths about humans and our relation to each other and to earth.

It reminded me of the term Tikkun Olam, a Hebrew phrase that means repairing the world. There are myriad understandings and interpretations, but the most common is that the world is broken, and by performing mitzvot, acts of social justice, we can bring the world closer to unity. One interpretation of the glass-stomping ritual during the Jewish wedding ceremony is that the glass symbolizes the broken world, and the marriage the possibility of union and wholeness in the face of that.

A deceptively quick book to read with a subject that demands pause and reflection, provocative in the best meaning of the word.

“Far from the Madding Crowd” by Thomas Hardy

Saturday, November 27th, 2010

Before I begin, I need to ask: Why, oh why, has no one ever recommended Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd to me? But where lame English teachers and even bookish friends may have failed me, perhaps Calliope, the muse of poetry and literature, brought it to my attention.

I recently finished The Hunger Games trilogy, whose heroine is Katniss Everdeen, and Tamara Drewe, a modern re-telling in comics of Hardy’s classic. While reviewing Tamara Drewe, I looked up Far from the Madding Crowd, whose heroine is Bathsheba Everdene. The shared last name of the characters seemed too striking to be coincidence, confirmed in this interview with Suzanne Collins at Entertainment Weekly. Collins states Katniss and Bathsheba are very different, but after reading Hardy, I find a great number of similarities.* But this review is about the Hardy book, so back to it. The book begins with Gabriel Oak, a sheep farmer who’s achieved some small success.

When Farmer Oak smiled, the corners of his mouth spread till they were within an unimportant distance of his ears, his eyes were reduced to chinks, and diverging wrinkles appeared round them, extending upon his countenance like the rays in a rudimentary sketch of the rising sun.

His Christian name was Gabriel, and on working days he was a young man of sound judgment, easy motions, proper dress, and general good character.

When he sees the attractive Bathsheba Everdene, he is struck by her vanity, but soon smitten and proposes marriage. (Bathsheba is named after the married Biblical figure King David, a former shepherd, like Gabriel Oak, becomes smitten on sight with.) Miss Everdene politely but firmly rebuffs Gabriel. Their lives diverge; when they meet again, their circumstances are much changed, though Gabriel’s feelings for the indifferent Bathsheba are not. Through careless and capricious acts, she becomes involved with two more men who desire her: neighboring farmer Mr. Boldwood and handsome soldier Frank Troy. Thus she is part of a love quadrangle, not a triangle like the Biblical Bathsheba is. (King David sent her husband, Uriah, to war, passively but effectively removing his competition.)

Far from the Madding Crowd is a sort of ethnological portrait of the area of English countryside that would become known as Wessex, largely due to its centrality in Hardy’s novels. It’s a character development novel of Bathsheba, an intelligent and complicated female character. It’s also a plot-driven story, intermixing tragic and humorous passages (many of the latter at the expense of women and the rustics, however) on its way to a satisfying, yet subtly complicated ending.

I found Far from the Madding Crowd an involving, provocative book and am glad for the serendipity that led me to it. Though the story was easy to follow, I sometimes felt the prose was difficult. Hardy’s writing is lyrical, but his sentences are often complex, including many instances of parallel, contrasting description and analogy, such as this early passage on Farmer Oak:

when his friends and critics were in tantrums, he was considered rather a bad man; when they were pleased, he was rather a good man; when they were neither, he was a man whose moral colour was a kind of pepper-and-salt mixture.

By the end of his life, Thomas Hardy was known more for his poetry, and had given up writing novels. He was so beloved by the readers of England that they were unwilling to grant his wish to be buried in Wessex. Instead, a gruesome compromise was reached. His heart was removed and buried in Wessex with his first wife, while the ashes of his body were interred in Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey.

Far from the Madding Crowd was one of his earliest novels, and his first commercial and critical success. Highly recommended, especially for bookish nerds like me who enjoyed The Hunger Games trilogy. Also, if you are already a fan of Hardy or this book, I encourage you to seek out the graphic novel Tamara Drewe. The recent movie has received middling reviews, but Posy Simmonds’ novel is a treat.

*Similarities of Katniss to Bathsheba. (The characters of Gabriel and Peeta are similar as well: strong, moral, uncomplicated men who adore a woman who values friendship over erotic love.) Both characters are strong women capable of not only surviving but being powerful in a male-dominated society. Both are loved by multiple men, for whom the women have complicated and conflicting feelings. Both would prefer to avoid marriage. In this passage, Bathsheba is likened to the Roman goddess of the hunt, Diana, who is also a model for the arrow-toting, marriage-averse, chaste-minded Katniss:

Although she scarcely knew the divinity’s name, Diana was the godddess whom Bathseba instinctively adored. that she had never, by look, word, or sign, encouraged a man to approach her–that she had felt herself sufficient to herself, and had in the independence of her girlish heart fancied there was a certain degradation in renouncing the simplicityof a maiden existance to become the humbler half of an indifferent matrimonial whole

Near the end of Hardy’s book, Bathsheba collapses and gives way to emotions echoed by Katniss near the end of Collins’ Mockingjay, including the capacity of being cool-headed and capable in moments of crisis, as Katniss is:

Once that she had begun to cry for she hardly knew what, she could not leave off for crowding thoughts she knew too well. She would have given anything in the world to be, as those children were, unconcerned at the meaning of their words, because too innocent to feel the necessity for any such expression. All the impassioned scenes of her brief experience seemed to revive with added emotion at that moment, and those scenes which had been without emotion during enactment had emotion then.

The similarities I found went far beyond the last names of the characters, to their natures, to other characters, and even to the plot. This was a fascinating companion read to the Hunger Games trilogy.

The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins

Friday, November 12th, 2010

When I review or recap books and movies, I try to sketch only the broadest strokes, telling little more than what can be determined from the jacket or a movie trailer. I give my reaction, and try to give enough information for the reader to decide for herself whether she’s likely to enjoy it. This approach will be difficult with Suzanne Collins‘ Hunger Games trilogy: The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay. I don’t want to spoil anything for those who haven’t yet read it, yet I want to give enough information to help those on the fence decide whether to read it.

I’ll begin with the first book, The Hunger Games. It’s a young-adult fantasy novel narrated by a 16 year-old girl whose world is both like and unlike our own:

When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.

Collins gradually adds detail to the girl’s life and her world until the Hunger Games of the title is explained. Anything more, and I risk giving away one of the strengths of the book, which is the author’s slow and effective construction of the characters, their universe, and the Hunger Games. The main character is likable, her situation sympathetic, and the story filled with action, romance, mystery and danger. There is darkness, death, and murder, though, so this is not for younger children.

The second and third books are similarly engaging and quick to read; I finished all three in less than a week. Book 2, Catching Fire, and book 3, Mockingjay, continue the tale begun in book 1, giving further detail to the world, as well as moving the story forward in often disturbing, though perhaps inevitable, ways. Each book is progressively darker and more violent than the one before. Not only do terrible things happen, but they happen to children. The 2nd and 3rd books go beyond the death and murder of the first to include references to underage prostitution and grim torture.

I don’t want to scare people off; this trilogy is a thumping good read. But the complicated pleasure of a thrilling story comes at the price of a great deal of fictional violence and pain. Once the first one is devoured, I can’t imagine not reading the 2nd and 3rd in short order. Yet the 2nd and especially the 3rd are way more to handle than the 1st. Enter this series with caution, because once begun, you’ll likely be with it to the end. And parents should definitely read this before OKing it for kids, in my opinion.

Interestingly, in spite of copious violence and a few references to prostitution, I found an almost total lack of sexuality in the book. I found this strange, given its teen protagonists, who I assumed would be bundles of hormones. While I can see this being a good thing for parents worried about the over-sexualization of teens in books like the Twilight and Gossip Girl series, the almost surreal chasteness of the characters rang false to me. Over the course of three books, so did some of the characters themselves. In one book this can be excused by the primacy of the story. Over three books, I felt many characterizations were stretched thin rather than fleshed out.

I knew these books would be difficult to write about. There are many passionate and devoted fans of the series, and I fear I’m doing a disservice to the many things that are good about this series by writing my reservations about it. Yet while I’m glad I read it, I’m fairly certain not everyone would be. Like the Harry Potter series, and perhaps even a little more like Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series, The Hunger Games trilogy has a tough, sympathetic survivor of a main character. Over the books, though, bad things happen to her and those she’s close to. These things happen again and again and again. The series won’t work if you’re in a fragile, blue mood or if you have a hard time reading fictional violence in general or against children. If you’re feeling tough, though, and ready to wrestle with some thorny questions of situational morality around government, violence and young people, then go for it. And we can talk about it when you get to the other side.

“Tamara Drewe” by Posy Simmonds

Saturday, November 6th, 2010

My friend Big Brain pointed out Tamara Drewe, a graphic novel, to me when I was in the comic shop last week.

Tamara Drewe

I’d heard of the film (which has received mostly mediocre reviews) but he said the GN was well reviewed, which is almost understatement when I looked at the blurbs on the back. They are from reputable sources and aren’t stinting in their praise.

Posy Simmonds is a graphic artist who has done children’s books, this and a previous graphic novel, Gemma Bovery, and more. Tamara Drewe the book is a modern retelling of Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd. The setting is the English countryside, at a retreat for writers. I haven’t read the Hardy, but am now interested in it because of this engaging homage.

Simmonds combines the art, prose passages, faux tabloid excerpts and word bubbles to great effect. This is absolutely a whole that is more than the sum of its parts, in other words, a skilled execution of the medium of the graphic novel, made all the more engaging by its involving story and broad cast of characters.

Tamara of the title tempts all the men when she returns to the neighborhood. She begins a rocky relationship, but continues to attract attention from the men and bored teens in the neighborhood. Other’s stories circle around hers. Beth oversees the writers retreat, while her novelist husband Nicholas earns fame and money to make it popular. One of the residents, Glen, is long at work on his academic novel. Local Andy Cobb is trying to start an organic farm, and helps out on the grounds of the retreat. Two local girls, Casey and Jody, goggle at Tamara and her boyfriend and get into a variety of trouble.

Having recently read two 19th century novels, Villette and Madame Bovary, I found this work very much in the same spirit. Many characters, many characters, with crossovers and coincidences tying everything together in complex and interesting ways. Unlike the other two books, though, it didn’t contain any digs at the Jesuits. It’s beautifully illustrated, and is much more than an illustrated novel. Highly recommended, and I’ll be seeking out both Simmonds’ other work and potentially the Hardy because of it.

One piece of minutiae: Glen Larson is an American, yet used two phrases that didn’t ring true to me. He called his sweaters “knits” at one point, and referred to himself a few times as a “pantyhose.” If the latter is indeed English slang (I thought it was pantywaist, not pantyhose) then both are easily explained as Glen picking up English slang while he’s there. But if were speaking American, he would say sweaters and refer to himself as a douchebag.

Another, and this is me being especially nerdy. The main character’s name reminded me of Nancy Drew, one of the fictional characters for whom I took the name of this weblog. Glen’s last name is Larson, the same as Glen A. Larson, the man who produced the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mystery show that was a huge cultural moment of my childhood. A strange coincidence?

A third thing that struck me: the heroine of Hardy’s novel is Bathsheba Everdene. I’m currently reading The Hunger Games, whose main character is Katniss Everdeen. Again, strange coincidence, or just mega-geekery on my part?

“Madame Bovary” by Gustave Flaubert, trans. Lydia Davis

Friday, November 5th, 2010

It seemed like such a good idea at the time. My friend Amy, who blogs at New Century Reading, told me the writer at Nonsuch Books was doing an October reading of the new Lydia Davis translation of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. “I’ve always wanted to read that!” I exclaimed, as if this were justification enough to

1. Run out and buy the hardcover. (But I had a coupon! And I bought it from a local, independent bookstore!) (Hush, you.)
2. Put it at the front of my reading queue ahead of other books I’d committed to read for real-life book groups, like John Jodzio’s If You Lived Here You’d Already Be Home, and Villette, the length and challenge of which I severely underestimated.

But, as my epitaph will one day likely read, “it seemed like a good idea at the time.” Or, “I wasn’t sure it was a good idea, but I did it anyway.” And there were consequences. I didn’t finish Villette, which I enjoyed, in time for the book group, so was unable to discuss the significance of the ending. And I felt compelled to finish Madame Bovary, which I did not enjoy, and didn’t get to discuss online, either.

Don’t misunderstand me. When I say I didn’t enjoy it, I don’t mean it wasn’t great, which it was, or that I’m unhappy I read it, which I’m not. It’s one of the classics that is referred to so often that impressions of it form even without reading the referent. I’m glad to have read it myself, and formed my own opinion.

Before I read, I knew only that Madame Bovary was a wife unfaithful to her husband. I suspected he’d be really dull and I’d sympathize with her attempts to burst the bounds of a stifling marriage. I was surprised and impressed to find something much more complicated. In her introduction, translator Lydia Davis notes that, in writing Madame Bovary, Flaubert

set himself a formidable task–to take…grotesqueness as his subject, to write a novel about shallow, unsympathetic people in a dreary setting, some of whom make bad choices and come to a horrific end. ((xiii)

I found this a dead-on description of the book, though it’s hardly back-cover blurb worthy, is it? Instead, Flaubert wanted to tell a tale from life, with all the mundane details and without moralizing. This scandalized people of the time. He aimed to do it so the style of the book would make it readable and important even if the particulars were unpleasant.

Deep in her soul, however, she was waiting for something to happen. Like a sailor in distress, she would gaze out over the solitude of her life with desperate eyes, seeking some white sail in the mists of the far-off horizon. She did not know what this chance event would be, what wind would drive it to her, what shore it would carry her to, whether it was a longboat or a three-decked vessel, loaded with anguish or filled with happiness up to the portholes. But each morning, when she awoke, she hoped it would arrive that day, and she would listen to every sound, spring to her feet, feel surprised that it did not come; then, at sunset, always more sorrowful, she would wish the next day were already there. (53)

It’s the style that stands out. There are long, lovely passages, interrupted deliberately by short, brutish ones. There are characters who are their own worst enemies. There is even a fair amount of dark humor, though the rest is so tragic and pathetic that its leavening effect is negligible. As in Villette, which I read at the same time, the Jesuits came in for a lot of criticism.

I’ve not read other translations, so I can’t speak to the superiority of this one. I can attest, though, that it was eminently readable, and indeed impressed me with its style and eloquence, even as my spirits were damped by the bad behavior and sad circumstances of its characters. I was glad to be done with this novel, but still satisfied to have read a literary touchstone for myself to better understand references to it the next time (and there WILL be a next time) I come across them.

Looking back, I could have waited to get this from the library, and to read it when other books weren’t clamoring for my attention. So I say, as I’ve said before, no more haring off after online book challenges. I’ll keep to my own reading schedule. And make up my own arbitrary challenges.

Edited to add: I’ve continued to think about Mme. Bovary since I read the book, and am ever more glad for having finally read it. Further, I’ve done some related reading and writing since I wrote this.

Review of Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes
Review of Gemma Bovery by Posy Simmonds
Julian Barnes review of Davis’ translation, “Writer’s Writer and Writer’s Writer’s Writer”
At, “Lost in Translation,” an essay on the the “ooh, shiny, pretty!” aspect of new translations

“Villette” by Charlotte Bronte

Friday, November 5th, 2010

Prior to reading Charlotte Bronte’s Villette, I owned two copies of it. One was an antique-y harcover with black and white photo illustrations. The other was a pretty blue softcover in a slipcover that my husband G. Grod brought home for me one day because he thought I might like it. I certainly did. However, in typical fashion, the possession of both these lovelies did not induce me to immediate reading of said treasures. Like so many do, they languished on the Bronte shelf, gathering dust.

Bronte shelf, left

Bronte shelf, right

Until last month, when I pulled them off to show to my book group, and we decided to read Villette. And, with all good intentions, I ended up accumulating three more copies.


Alas, the blue volume in the slipcover was deceptively slim. Because of small type and thin pages, it, like most other editions, ran nearly 500 pages. Also, it was not an easy read for me, as I had found Jane Eyre. The text is rife with Biblical, mythical, and literary allusions, many of which I did not know. Embarrassing, since I have a degree in religious studies. However my seven years of French stood me well; I could understand most of the many passages in that language. If you do not speak French, be sure to get an edition that translates the phrases, or you will miss much of the dialogue when the scene shifts to Villette, France, a fictionalized, none-too-kind version of Brussels, Belgium.

I struggle with what to write about the book, because there is an ambiguity many have found at the beginning I don’t want to dispel, yet without which it’s hard to describe the book.

In the autumn of the year ____ I was staying at Bretton; my godmother having come in person to claim me of the kinsfolk with whom was at the time fixed my permanent residence. I believe she then plainly saw events coming, whose very shadow I scarce guessed; yet of which the faint suspicion sufficed to impart unsettled sadness, and made me glad to change scene and society. (Ch. 1 Bretton)

Is the narrator telling her own story, or that of another girl? This eventually becomes clear, and we follow a young woman from Bretton to London to “Villette”. She is tossed about on waves both literal and figurative; questions of fate, love, justice and imagination pervade the book. Taking employ at a school for girls, the young woman adjusts to her new surroundings and is a fierce and sharp observer of others. She is not, however, always a sympathetic character, and the narrator is a decidedly untrustworthy one, as the reader learns, right unto the end. Contrasts, in a character, or between characters and situations, are rife. These can be unsettling and feel jarring, yet made sense to me as I reviewed the book once I was done.

It is often noted that Charlotte Bronte criticised the work of Jane Austen for being passionless and mannered. No one could argue that the main character of Villette doesn’t have surging passions:

once breaking off the points of my scissors by involuntarily sticking them somewhat deep in the worm-eaten board of the table before me. But, at last, it made me so burning hot, and my temples and my heart and my wrist throbbed so fast, and my sleep afterwards was so broken with excitement, that I could sit no longer. (Ch. 13 A Sneeze out of Season)

And she barely disguises the sexuality she struggles to keep in check:

Conceive a dell, deep-hollowed in forest secrecy; it lies in dimness and mist: its turf is dank, its herbage pale and humid. A storm or an axe makes a wide gap amongst the oak-trees,; the breeze sweeps in; the sun looks down; the sad, cold dell, becomes a deep cup of lustre; high summer pours her blue glory and her golden light out of that beauteous sky, which till now the starved hollow never saw. (Ch. 23 Vashti)

Yet reading Villette, I was reminded strongly of two characters from Austen’s work. The narrator reminded me of Fanny Price from Mansfield Park, as she is a frequently judgmental observer of the more worldly characters around her. Further, the character of Ginevre Fanshawe, a vain, pretty girl, reminded me of Lydia from Pride and Prejudice.

This is a big, complicated novel that is nonetheless entertaining, though perhaps in a way less obvious than many find Jane Eyre. I loved Jane Eyre, and found many similarities in this book: cross-dressing, attics, and tyrannical religious types among them. (Jesuits fared especially poorly in Bronte’s estimation. They were repeatedly characterized as sneaky and less than truly charitable.) I found Villette more challenging to read than Jane Eyre, but also, in the end, more rewarding. The work I put into reading slowly, getting a good edition with thorough notes, following up on things that weren’t noted, left me with a deep respect and affection for the book. One benefit of having five editions of the book was five different introductions to read afterwards (of five, only the Oxford edition kindly notes: “Readers who are unfamiliar with the plot may prefer to treat the introduction as an afterword.”) Together, these helped reinforce basic biographical information, yet added insights unique to each edition.

For much more Bronte goodness, visit the Bronte Blog.

“Feed” by M.T. Anderson

Friday, October 15th, 2010

I checked Feed by M.T. Anderson out from the library in preparation for seeing him tomorrow at the Twin Cities Book Fest. I read it years ago–perhaps in 2002 when it was published?–and recalled liking it but not being bowled over. This time around, I was extremely impressed.

Titus is a teen in a future, dystopic U.S., where everyone who’s anyone is hooked into the feed. He’s a spoiled boy with spoiled friends, who spend money always searching for the next cool thing:

We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.

They speak in a tech-y argot, and there are many funny/sad turns, like the revelations of what languages have been lost, and what farms are like. Titus and his friends meet a girl named Violet on the moon, and then get into trouble with long-reaching effects. This is a satiric take on things that are all too likely, and while Titus’s behavior is sometimes troubling, especially in his relationship with Violet, it’s believable and even sometimes sympathetic for the teen boy character.

This one’s dark, funny, and thought-provoking. It reminded me of the film Gattaca, Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli and Little Brother by Cory Doctorow. A young adult book that’s good for us old adults, too.

“Sense & Sensibility” adapted for Marvel Comics

Saturday, October 9th, 2010

When Marvel Comics adapted Pride and Prejudice, I liked the cute covers, and howled with pain when my eyes were assaulted by the “art” on the inside. That plus too-free and unnecessary departures from Austen’s own prose made me swiftly toss it. Their recent miniseries adaptation of Austen’s Sense & Sensibility shows that perhaps lessons were learned.

Covers and interiors were done by Sonny Liew (who only did the covers last time) and the prose and dialogue were closer to Austen’s own. Liew’s manga-influenced style was a good fit for the tale of the Dashwood sisters: older, common-sense Elinor, and younger, hyper-sensitive Marianne. In addition to good characterization of the sisters, the other players characteristics are well drawn, both figuratively and literally: Willoughby’s charm, Brandon’s patience, Edward Ferrar’s reticence, Lucy Steele’s obnoxiousness.

As in any adaptation, a few things went missing: the troubling aspect of Marianne’s ending, their mother’s silliness. And one of my favorite bits of the novel, Mr. Palmer’s humorous comments are but touched on. Yet, they are still touched on, which I think shows how this adaptation has a much better feel for its subject matter than did the P & P debacle.

My one major complaint is that the individual monthly issues have ads interspersed through the story. The placement goes beyond distracting to possibly surreal.

(I will try to insert an example photo, except Facebook is not cooperating.)

I would highly recommend waiting for the graphic novel collected edition instead, scheduled for release in November 2010.

“Violet Days” by Chris Monroe

Monday, October 4th, 2010

Our family has become a big fan of cartoonist Chris Monroe after a helpful Barnes and Noble bookseller pointed out Monkey with a Toolbelt in the store one day. I got that and Monkey with a Toolbelt and the Noisy Problem from the library to test drive them. All four of us fell in love:

Here is Chico Bon Bon

Here, indeed. Monroe further endeared herself by signing copies for Guppy’s 4th birthday, even bringing them to our house since she was in the neighborhood. (Have I mentioned? We have a really good ‘hood.) AND she was gracious about G. Grod, who happened to ride up on his bike, drunk, just as she got out of her car. (He’d participated in the Stupor Bowl.)

When her newest book, Sneaky Sheep was released, we trekked to St. Paul for cake and the new book. I was thrilled, then, when I learned a friend of ours had a copy of Ultra Violet, a collection of Monroe’s indie comic “Violet Days” from way back when. She’s an artist from Duluth, MN, and her comics mostly center around the Violet of the title, pesky squirrels and sneaky skeletons. The humor and art, like her children’s books, are weird and endearing. If you, like us, are grownup fans of Monroe’s children’s books, you might want to track a copy down.

Or, better yet, go see her in person (!) when she comes to the Twin Cities Book Fest on Saturday October 16, along with other great authors like M.T. Anderson, William Kunstler, and, (WTF?) Alexander McCall Smith. He’s sold a couple books and a few people like him, I’ve heard.

“A Visit from the Goon Squad” by Jennifer Egan

Tuesday, September 21st, 2010

Poets claim that we recapture for a moment the self that we were long ago when we enter some house or garden in which we used to live in our youth. But these are most hazardous pilgrimages, which end as often in disappointment as in success. It is in ourselves that we should rather seek to find those fixed places, contemporaneous with different years.

Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time

My friend Amy kindly lent me Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, and I continue to mull it over, especially that last sentence of the Proust quote that opens the book: “It is in ourselves that we should rather seek to find those fixed places, contemporaneous with different years.”

Egan’s book, like that sentence, does convoluted things with time, place, memory and even literature. Goon Squad isn’t exactly a novel, nor is it just a collection of stories, as she comments in an interview at Salon. It’s a sprawling, ambitious work that careens among characters, around the world and back and forth over time. Chapters are connected, sometimes just barely, but in a way that makes sense in our hyper-linked culture. Even in a chapter told in Power Point, the wildness makes sense; Egan has that much control over her material.

It opens with Sasha, one of the many engaging characters who come on and off stage throughout the book:

It began the usual way, in the bathroom of the Lassimo Hotel. Sasha was adjusting her yellow eye shadow in the mirror when she noticed a bag on the floor beside the sink that must have belonged to the woman whose peeing she could faintly hear through the vaultlike door of a toilet stall. Inside the rim of the bag, barely visible, was a wallet made of pale green leather.

Like Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists, which I recently enjoyed, Egan is skilled at creating characters you want to meet again. While the structure is similar, with different character-based chapters, Egan’s book is vaster in both its reach and grasp, perhaps like the Proust novel that informed it.

“This is Where I Leave You” by Jonathan Tropper

Wednesday, September 15th, 2010

For this month’s book group and next month’s Books and Bars meeting (where the author will be Skpying in; Skype is a verb, now, right?) I read on of the buzzy books from last year, Jonathan Tropper’s This is Where I Leave You. And I laughed. A lot.

Judd Foxman is a 30-something guy who found out his wife was cheating on him shortly before his father dies. Devastated by the breakup of his marriage, he reunites with his very messed up family.

There is no occasion calling for sincerity that the Foxman family won’t quickly diminish or pervert through our own genetically engineered brand of irony and evasion. We banter, quip, and insult our way through birthdays, holidays, weddings, illnesses. Now Dad is dead and Wendy is cracking wise. It serves him right, since he was something of a pioneer at the forefront of emotional repression.

The book reminded me of movies, not of other books. Like Parenthood and Death at a Funeral (the UK version), a disparate family regroups, then sad and hilarious things happen. Unlike those movies, though, the former too sappy and the latter uneven, the book manages to balance its tragic material with a reliably funny comic tone, and I couldn’t stop reading it. Avoid if you are averse to profanity, or graphic sexuality, but check it out if you like dark humor and are in need of a fast, funny read.

“Blankets” by Craig Thompson

Thursday, September 9th, 2010

In preparation for next week’s meeting of Books and Bars (which I just found out clashes with a Club Book reading by Colson Whitehead at the Roseville library; doh!), I pulled Craig Thompson’s Blankets off the shelf to re-read.

The first time I read it, I was moved by this comic-book memoir of a young boy’s boyhood, first love, and struggle with faith. I’d heard the rumblings over the years since it had been published that decried it as the romantic hand wringing of a sappy emo boy. This made me very aware of this aspect of the book, and made me like the book a little less, since it’s the bulk of this very bulky book.

I’m still moved by his depiction of boyhood with his younger brother, and with his creative ways of showing his struggles with the fundamentalist Christian upbringing he had in rural Wisconsin. But there’s very little humor here to leaven the material, and the book drags sometimes because of this. His visual storytelling is impressive, and the art work is beautiful.

It’s interesting to compare with another comic book I just read, Unwritten: Inside Man, which is more an illustrated story, IMO, than a graphic work, where the art and text combine to tell the story. I still recommend Blankets, though not if you’re feeling particularly jaded or cynical.

“Unwritten v. 2: Inside Man” by Mike Carey

Thursday, September 9th, 2010

I was excited to see the second volume of the comic-book series Unwritten: Inside Man, at the comic shop recently. I enjoyed volume 1, but wondered if it was merely a promising beginning or indeed the foundation for a good story. I am leaning more to the latter interpretation after reading volume 2.

The line between the person, Tom Taylor, and the fictional character his father created, Tommy Taylor, is increasingly blurred. Following the disturbing events at the end of volume 1, Tom’s life becomes a lot more difficult, and the truly strange, literary things that happen don’t make things any easier. This is a dark, at times violent book that’s telling a story while also talking about telling stories. It’s intriguing enough that I’ll read on. If you liked Sandman or like Fables, this is likely in your wheelhouse.