Archive for the '2011 Books' Category

“Unwritten v. 3: Dead Man’s Knock” by Mike Carey

Friday, June 10th, 2011

The third graphic-novel collection of DC’s Vertigo series Unwritten v. 3: Dead Man’s Knock by written by Mike Carey and illustrated by Peter Gross, continues the adventures of Tom Taylor, whose father’s books about a Harry Potter-ish boy named “Tommy Taylor” have brought him more trouble than he’d imagined possible. Accused of murder, believed dead, and on the run from a mysterious, story-obsessed cabal, Tom is accompanied by a reporter and a woman named Lizzie Hexam. In this volume we learn more about the cabal, and Tom’s father and mother. One chapter was a (too?) self-consciously clever choose-your-own-adventure tale about Lizzie’s past. This is heady stuff on the magic of stories and their influence. If you’re a fan of stories about stories, like the comic-book series Fables and Sandman, or Jasper Fforde’s novels, I think you’ll like this series. My only complaint is that I have to wait another six months or so for the next collection. I’m hoping all this mystery will eventually pay off, but for now, I’m hooked.

“The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse” by Louise Erdrich

Friday, June 10th, 2011

Louise Erdrich’s Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse centers on Father Damien Modeste, a Catholic priest to an Ojibwe territory, and Sister Leopolda, a nun who may have been a saint. These two characters anchor a story with dozens of supporting characters. I was thankful for the family tree at the beginning of the book, and referred to it many times.

His hand, long and crooked, beautifully worn and supple, oval nails of opaque tortoise, surprised him on the stem of the glass. For a long time he had been old, then he was past old. A living mummy. Of all people to have become so ancient! Himself! He put his hand to his hair, just wisps of thin and brittle stuff parted by the white scrawl of the scar that unwrote so many of his early memories. And the heart in his chest, so touchy, so tremulous. Easy things had become difficult. For instance, children. He had always loved to be around them, but now their exuberance was rattling. Their voices and quick movements dizzied him. He had to sit, allow his heart to settle, and restore his strength. And his hearing had become quite tricky–sometimes he heard everything, the undertones in Chopin’s preludes, which he still played, though with a fumbling energy, the rustle of his own bedsheets, and at other times all sounds were cloaked by the roar of an unseen ocean. (4, 5)

Erdrich starts near the end of Damien’s life, then takes the reader back to his complicated beginnings. Damien’s history is interwoven with letters he has written to the Pope(s) over the decades. When a representative from the Vatican finally arrives, it is to investigate miracles supposedly performed by the late Sister Leopolda, who holds a prominant place in Father Damien’s memory and history.

The interplays between things are what made the book both dizzying and dazzling for me: Damien and Leopolda, good and evil, Ojibwe and Catholic, male and female, real and mythic. The panoply of supporting characters, in contrast to Damien and Leopolda, appeared and disappeared in ways that felt strangely brief to me, given the rich characterizations of the central figures. In looking over descriptions of the prolific Erdrich’s other works, though, LRotMaLNH is situated in the same fictional territory and peopled with many of the same characters as several of her other books. Erdrich has lovely, evocative prose, and thoughtful, provocative characters. I’ve read a few of her books, but feel I might want to go back to the beginning now and read them all.

“The Mouse and His Child” by Russell Hoban

Monday, June 6th, 2011

A few times, I’ve picked a longer, less-illustrated book to read to 5yo Guppy and 7yo Drake at bedtime. Last year, I found a new copy of The Mouse and His Child written by Russell Hoban and illustrated by Caldecott artist David Small in a re-issued edition. I remembered reading it as a girl, and that I liked it, but nothing beyond that.

A wind-up mouse and child are displayed in a toy store at Christmastime.

As the tramp watched, the saleslady opened a box and took out two toy mice, a large one and a small one, who stood upright with outstretched arms and joined hands. They wore blue velveteen trousers and patent leather shoes, and they had glass-bead eyes, white thread whiskers, and black rubber tails. When the saleslady wound the key in the mouse father’s back he danced in a circle, swinging his little son up off the counter and down again while the children laughed and reached out to touch them. Around and around they danced gravely, and more and more slowly as the spring unwound, until the mouse father came to a stop holding the child high in his upraised arms. (2, 3)

They are purchased and taken out into the world, where many strange, wondrous, sad and happy things befall them. This is an often dark book that wanders sometimes in parts that weren’t of interested to me or the boys; visits with a muskrat and a snapping turtle went on too long for us. Yet the story moves along as the two windups are pursued by the villain Manny Rat. Often when I’d stop reading, 5yo Guppy would be able to say what had happened, or what he thought was going to happen. I figured if he was keeping up, I’d keep going. Both he and Drake said they wanted to hear the story, and in spite of its darkness and sad parts, both boys always said they wanted me to continue reading. They were much more engaged on pages with the lovely black and white illustrations.

I was reminded very much of Kate DiCamillo’s The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane. Those who find that book too dark and scary, either for themselves or children, would likely not enjoy this book. Conversely, if you liked the complex, mythical tale of Edward, then I think you’ll appreciate this. This is an especially good tale of a devoted father and created families.

“Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World” by Jack Weatherford

Thursday, May 26th, 2011

I read Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford for one of my book groups. One of the members voiced annoyance after we read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. She’d wanted us to read non-fiction for a long time, but didn’t love the Lacks book, which had jumped the queue ahead of some of her suggestions. So she got the next pick, and chose Genghis Khan over other biographies of Marco Polo, Magellan and Einstein.

For me this is a great book group book. It’s not one I ever would have picked, it’s by a local author (he’s a professor at Macalester College), and it’s world history, which I am sadly deficient in. It was interesting and accessibly written, though not a quick read. It’s based on the translation of a Chinese document detailing the secret history of Genghis Khan, then follows his descendants and their influence over the centuries. Genghis (a title, not a name) was a warrior intent on gathering all tribes together under the “Banner of the Great Blue Sky,” his animistic faith. Interestingly, religious and cultural freedom, like retaining language and customs, were not only allowed, but encouraged as long as the group submitted to Genghis Khan’s rule and contributed goods to the growing empire.

Genghis Khan’s ability to manipulate people and technology represented the experienced knowledge of more than four decades of nearly constant warfare. At no single, crucial moment in his life did he suddenly acquire his genius at warfare, his ability to inspire the loyalty of his followers, or his unprecedented skill for organizing on a global scale. These derived not from epiphanic enlightenment or formal schooling but from a persistent cycle of pragmatic learning, experimental adaptation, and constant revision driven by his uniquely disciplined mind and focused will. (9)

Weatherford’s main point is well documented and taken–that Genghis Khan was not the monster history has portrayed. But reviews, from National Review and H-Net point out some historical inaccuracies and misreadings in the text. But as an incitement to read more history, or learn more about Genghis Khan, this book is an excellent place to begin.

“Dream Country” by Neil Gaiman, et al

Friday, May 13th, 2011

I re-read Dream Country, collection of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series along with Glen and Linda at NPR’s Monkey See blog. I’d never thought that this volume, the series’ third, would be a good entry into Sandman for newbies, but many commenters say it is. And after this most recent re-reading, I can see why. This book contains four short stories: Calliope, A Dream of a Thousand Cats, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Facade, illustrated by three different artists. Each brings his/her different look to the quite different stories, which include an artist’s relationship to his muse, a cat seeking justice, a surreal pastiche of fiction and reality around a play performance, and an obscure character exhumed from DC Comics’ archives who briefly gets her own spotlight.

If you haven’t read Sandman, check out Glen’s primer, and try this volume out. This is especially true if you tried volume 1, Preludes and Nocturnes, and gave up. Gaiman and his crew readily admit the series got off to a wobbly start, and they didn’t find their stride till several issues in. Jumping in on Dream Country gives a good idea of the mix of literature, myth and horror that Gaiman and the artists brewed up. It’s heady stuff, and this is a good way to see if it might be for you.

“Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal” by Christopher Moore

Friday, May 13th, 2011

I’ve been reading a lot of post-apocalyptic and dystopian stuff lately, and decided I wanted something cheerier, so I selected Christopher Moore’s Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal for one of my book groups. I read and enjoyed it before (holy cats, that was over five years ago, before Guppy was born!), but think I’ve grown to love it this time. At first, it seems like a silly romp–a fictional account of the lost years of Jesus told by his buddy. But a second reading reinforced not only a sweetness to the story, but an underlying provocativeness that makes me want to go to the gospels to remind myself of what’s “true” and what’s “fiction.” Moore triesto be obnoxious, and probably succeeds, to many people. But I don’t buy it. There’s an underlying earnestness in Biff, and thus in the book, that makes this more than a Bible-based confection.

I wrote in 2005: “This is a fun, funny, clever book. I didn’t find it life-changing, or overly thought-provoking, though.”

I don’t think that was true. I’m pretty sure it was after reading Lamb and the passage in which Joshua and Biff stay with Gaspar in a Chinese monastery that I became conscious of the pervading multi-tasking that I did, and tried to do one thing at a time.

Right before I had a second child. Nice timing. Didn’t work.

But I _am_ aware of it, still, and think of it nearly every morning, when I have to remind myself not to read, but simply enjoy my cappuccino and cherry-pomegranate toaster pastry. So, this book is not only funny, but it might change your life. How’s that for a recommendation?

“A Visit from the Goon Squad” by Jennifer Egan

Friday, May 13th, 2011

I was happy to re-read Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad when it came up as a Books and Bars pick. After I read a friend’s copy and loved it last year, I got my own copy, and didn’t have to wait long for an excuse to re-read it. I imagined I would slow down and savor this set of interrelated stories on a second read, paying close attention to try to fathom how Egan pulled off such a show. Instead, I blazed through it in about 48 hours. The prior reading made me aware of who was who; this anchoring allowed me to glide effortlessly through these linked stories without any shudder of reorientation at each new narrator and setting. I hadn’t noticed the stories were structured like an album, with an A and B section, which seems so obvious in retrospect. I really loved the characters, and the snapshots of their lives over time and into a near and not-so-pleasant possible future.

“The Red Tent” by Anita Diamant

Tuesday, May 3rd, 2011

I always figured, given my love for religion and literature, that I would have to read The Red Tent. I didn’t, though, because too many people I trusted told me it was a good story, but not well written. After I recently read The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, a friend urged me to read this, saying there were so many similar themes and ideas that it would be worth it. And she wasn’t wrong.

The Red Tent is narrated by Dinah (DEE nah), the youngest child and only daughter of Jacob, brother of Esau, by Leah, one of his four wives. Purportedly speaking out of an oral tradition of her mothers, who told her everything, Dinah relates the history of her family from long before she was born, as well as a story from all their perspectives over time. I wondered more than once at the validity of her all-knowingness in spite of the rich oral tradition she came from; far too often she knew a lot too much.

Diamant, a journalist and scholar of Judaism, has done something here that is normally the province of sages and rabbis. She’s created a midrash, or backstory, to explain gaps in the stories of Genesis, such as why Jacob had nine children by Leah if he felt cheated in marrying her, what happened to Dinah after the tragedy described in Genesis 34, and how Joseph and his coat of many colors might fit into these histories. She richly imagines what might have been, and has crafted a popular story based on aspects of Biblical history that many aren’t familiar with, such as the polygamy and polytheism of the time, as well as the deep divisions between the sexes in societal and functional roles. Best of all, for me, was the portrayal of a women’s culture in which the feminine aspect of God had not yet been so cruelly excised from the practice of the nascent religion that Christianity would later claim as its heritage. (NB, this doesn’t necessarily work the other way. Not all practitioners of Judaism believe that Christianity was the next step in development, i.e. what Judaism would become when it “grew up.” Hence the problematic assumptions made with the widespread use of the term Judeo-Christian, used unquestioningly by Christians, and hardly ever by Jews.)

The many and detailed passages about the feminine face of God were worth the time I spent with this book. Among those named were Isis, Astarte, Asherah, the Queen of Heaven (later a name given to Mary the mother of Jesus), Taweret, Gula, Innanna and more.

What didn’t work for me, in addition to the Point of View problem I described above, is that both the writing and story were too similar to a conventional romance or bodice ripper. Numerous passages detailed a romanticized physical appearance of the characters:

Rachel’s beauty was rare and arresting. Her brown hair shaded to bronze, and her skin was golden, honeyed, perfect. In that amber setting, her eyes were surprisingly dark, not merely dark brown but black as polished obsidian or the depth of a well. Although she was small-boned and, even when she was with child, small-breasted, she had muscular hands and a husky voice that seemed to belong to a much larger woman. (8, 9)

[Leah] was not only tall but shapely and strong. She was blessed with full, high breasts and muscular calves that showed to good advantage in robes that somehow never stayed closed at the hem. She had forearms like a young man’s but her walk with that of a woman with promising hips. (12)

I turned to Judah and realized that my brother’s body had begun to take the shape of a man, his arms well muscled, his legs showing hair. He was the handsomest of all my brothers. This teeth were perfect, white and small (114)

or descriptions of their love making, which I will spare you. So, as I suspected, the book was a mixed bag. I know it’s beloved by many, so my ambivalence about it will not endear me to them, but it did illuminate aspects of the society in Handmaid’s Tale, as well as the history of the feminine aspect of god. For those at least, I’m glad I read it.

“House of Tomorrow” by Peter Bognanni

Friday, April 29th, 2011

I read Peter Bognanni’s new first novel, House of Tomorrow, for the most recent meeting of Books and Bars. Bognanni is a local author, and was able to attend the 2nd half of the discussion, in which he read two very funny short pieces, and graciously answered questions about his book.

House of Tomorrow is a fast, fun read. It’s the bittersweet tale of Sebastian, a teenager who’s been squirreled away in a geodesic dome and homeschooled by his grandmother according to the principles of Buckminster Fuller. (Who, I learned from our discussion, seems to have been known as “Bucky” to his friends.)

I took a deep inhalation of chill air and began pressing and releasing my suction cups, moving over the apex of the dome to tend to the bird stains. At the age of sixteen, I was already the same height my father had been when he passed away, and my lanky frame covered a surprising amount of space on the dome. When I adjusted myself perfectly on the top, every major landmark in town was visible with the naked eye. (3)

When Sebastian’s grandmother collapses during a tour of the house, he meets a family only superficially more normal than his own. He gets to know the Whitcombs, and begins a tentative friendship with Jared, who introduces Sebastian to punk rock. Sebastian had never heard music with lyrics before, so this was a pretty big shock. Each of the characters is dealing (or not, as the case may be) with particular issues, which clash and change over the course of the story. While marketed to an adult audience, this is a charming teen coming-of-age story, and anyone who loves punk should probably check it out, too. It reminded me many times of Frank Portman’s King Dork, which is also a weird-kid-coming-of-age-who-play-in-a-band story. Bognanni (pronounced Bun-YON-ee, not Bog NON ee) says he hasn’t read it, though, so the similarities are coincidental.

Both the story and Sebastian are funny, sweet and sad. While I was bothered that the teen-girl character, Meredith Whitcomb, is overtly sexualized, this worked within the story, but my friend and YA crusader friend Dawn pointed out to me the trope of clueless boys being accosted by sexually intimidating girls, (e.g., King Dork, American Pie) and the same idea is in play here. While it ostensibly gives the woman the power, I think it subversively takes some of it away, too. To Bognanni’s and Meredith’s credit, she is empathic, savvy and intuitive, so a complex character rather than a stereotype.

“Calliope” by Gaiman et al

Thursday, April 28th, 2011

Over at NPR’s Monkey See blog, they’re doing an “I Will If You Will” book club, with a handy primer for skeptics. The most recent selection is Dream Country, a graphic novel collection of short stories in the series Sandman. The first story is “Calliope” written by Neil Gaiman, pencilled by Kelley Jones, inked by Malcolm Jones III, colored by Robbie Busch and lettered by Todd Klein.

I have been telling you people for years and years to go read Sandman. It was my gateway comic over twenty years ago, and I still make Wednesday pilgrimages most every week to my comic shop for new releases. It’s a horror comic, and it took a while to get its legs, so it’s not for everyone and easy to put down in the early issues. But those who persevere for all 75 issues plus this and that special will be rewarded. Richly.

I am not an uncritical slavering Gaiman-phile. (He crushed my fangirl worship early on, which I now think was really a blessing. I’ll tell that story sometime. In fact, I can’t believe I haven’t told it before.) He’s done some good stuff, some terrible stuff, some derivative stuff, and some really good stuff. Overall, I like his work and his storytelling. I enjoy how he combines a classical education with modern speculative fiction. And I think the whole of Sandman exemplifies that.

So, if you haven’t read Sandman yet, go get a copy of Dream Country. Read “Calliope”, then check out the long but well-worthwhile conversation in the comments (Neil even liked it). Then read the next story, “A Dream of a Thousand Cats” and wait with me for Linda and Glen post about it.

Then wiggle in geek-joy anticipation for the next story, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” one of my favorite comic issues, ever.

So, I won’t actually talk about “Calliope” in this entry, but will start off the comments with it so as not to spoil for those who haven’t (ahem, yet) read it. I did manage to squeak in one comment but didn’t get to follow up after I’d read the other 108.

“The Death of Adam” by Marilynne Robinson

Friday, April 22nd, 2011

In the wake of re-reading Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, I wanted to check out her non-fiction essays, like The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought collection from 1998. This is a dense, erudite collection of writings that focus mostly on her defense of Puritanism in general and John Calvin (or Jean Cauvin, as she chooses to sometimes refer to him) more specifically. I read it over the course of a few months, consuming one chapter at a time in between other books. Reading it all at once would have been too much, and would not have allowed me sufficient time to ruminate on Calvin and the other topics she covers. I highly recommend this for those who want to read more of Robinson, and for fans of critical scholarship. Those looking for a quick, fun read should look elsewhere, however.

I have never yet been inspired to do a chapbook-type entry till now, but the essays in this book seem to beg it of me, and should give you an idea if her topics and style would be of interest to you.


I want to overhear passionate arguments about what we are and what we are doing and what we ought to do…I propose that we look at the past again, because it matters, and because it has so often been dealt with badly. (4)

I have encountered an odd sort of social pressure as often as I have mentioned [Calvin.] One does not read Calvin. One does not think of reading him. The prohibition is more absolute than it ever was against Marx, who always had the glamour of the subversive or the forbidden about him. Calvin seems to be neglected on principle. (12)

If history means anything, either as presumed record or as collective act of mind, then it is worth wondering how the exorcism of so potent a spirit might have been accomplished, and how it is that we have conspired in knowing nothing about an influence so profound as his is always said to have been on our institutions, our very lives and souls. (13)


What, precisely, this theory called Darwinism really is, is itself an interesting question. The popular shorthand version of it is “the survival of the fittest.” This is a phrase coined by the so-called Social Darwinist Herbert Spencer, in work published before the appearance of the Origin of Species and adopted–with acknowledgment of Spencer as the source–in later editions of Darwin’s book. There is an apparent tautology in the phrase. Since Darwinian (and, of course, Spencerian) fitness is proved by survival, one could as well call the principle at work “the survival of survivors.” (30)

Darwinism is harsh and crude in its practical consequences, in a degree that sets it apart from all other respectable scientific hypotheses; not conicidentally, it had its origins in polemics against the poor, and against the irksome burden of extending charity to them (47)

Facing Reality

Lately Americans have enjoyed pretending they are powerless, disenfranchised individually and deep in decline as a society, perhaps to grant themselves latitude responsible people do not have or desire. (78)


It seems to me that something has passed out of the culture, changing it invisibly and absolutely. Suddenly it seems there are too few uses for words like humor, pleasure, and charm; courage, dignity and graciousness; learnedness, fair-mindedness, openhandedness; loyalty, respect, and good faith. What bargain did we make? What could have appeared for a moment able to compensate us for the loss of these things? (106)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Bonhoeffer’s life and his thought inform each other deeply. To say this is to be reminded of the strangeness of the fact that this is not ordinarily true. (110)

McGuffey and the Abolitionists

[McGuffey] is believed to have created or codified a common American culture, and in doing so to have instilled a shirtsleeve values of honesty, and hard work in generations fo children. Moral, cheerful, narrow, and harmless–insofar as such traits are consistent with harmlessness–his texts supposedly expressed and propagated the world view of the American middle class…I read a few of these books, and I came away persuaded that something else was going on with them. (133)

Puritans and Prigs

When we say someone is moral, we mean that she is loayl in her life and behavior to an understanding of what is right and good, and will honor it even at considerable cost to herself. (159)

priggishness…is highly predictable because it is nothing else than a consuming loyalty to ideals and beliefs which are in general so widely shared that the spectacle of zealous adherence to them is reassuring. The prig’s formidable leverage comes from the fact that his or her ideas, notions or habits are always fine variations on the commonplace. A prig with original ideas is a contradiction in terms, because he or she is a creature of consensus who can usually appeal to one’s better nature, if only in order to embarrass dissent. (160)

Marguerite de Navarre, parts I and II

To argue that Marguerite de Navarre, sister of the French king Francois I, was a decisive influence on the literary and religious imagination of Jean Cauvin is to do her no service at all until Calvin is recovered and rehabilitated. (175)


Environmentalism poses stark issue of survival, for humankind and for all those other tribes of creatures over which we have exercised our onerous dominion. Even undiscovered species feel the effects of our stewardship. What a thing is man. (245)

The Tyranny of Petty Coercion

courage is rarely expressed except where there is sufficient consensus to support it. (255)

“Riddley Walker” by Russell Hoban

Friday, April 22nd, 2011

I’ve been reading Russell Hoban’s books since I was a girl, especially the Frances the Badger series, Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas. I’m reading The Mouse and His Child aloud to my boys right now. When I read The Road last year and again this year, my friend RL said she agreed with a friend who he liked The Road, but admired Riddley Walker even more. Since I’ve been on something of a post-apocalyptic bender lately with The Road and The Handmaid’s Tale, and with Feed, The Hunger Games trilogy and A Canticle for Leibowitz still lingering in my memory, I decided to give it a go. I’m glad I had not one but two recommendations to spur me on. If I hadn’t, I think the challenging language might have stopped, rather than just slowed, me.

On my naming day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the las wyld pi on the Bundel Downs any how there hadnt ben none for a long time before him nor I aint looking to see none agen. He dint make the groun shake nor nothing like that when he come on to my spear he wernt all that big plus he lookit poorly. He done the reqwyrt he ternt and stood and clattert his teef and made his rush and there we were then. Him on 1 end of the spear kicking his life out and me on the other end watching him dy. I said, ‘Your tern now my tern later.’ The other spears gone in then and he wer dead nd the steam coming up off im in the rain and we all yelt, ‘Offert!’ (p. 1)

Riddley is a boy turned man at 12, living in a post-apocalyptic version of England, called Inland, about 3000 years after a nuclear explosion in Cambridge (”Cambry”) put much of England under water and was followed by the usual post-apocalyptic things. Riddley lives in a community called a “fents” in contrast to “forms” in a mostly illiterate iron age. Those who live in a “fents” hunt and gather, while the more stable agricultural “forms” grow more common. Religion and government are combined in The Ram (formerly Ramsgate) and law is spread by itinerant puppeteers who perform morality plays based on the legend of “Eusa” a mashup of the apocryphal legend of St. Eustace with nuclear-scientific history.

I cud feal it in the guts and barrils of me. You try to make your self 1 with some thing or some body but try as you wil the 2ness of every thing is working agenst you all the way. You try to take holt of the 1ness and it comes in 2 in your hans. (p. 149)

Riddley is a sweet, earnest narrator who struggles to figure out what he’s meant for and to do the right thing. The futuristic argot made me slow down as a reader, and Hoban noted that one purpose of the language was to slow down the readers comprehension to the same speed as Riddley’s.

I highly recommend this book for fans of The Road and A Canticle for Leibowitz. It’s challenging to try and parse the language, but as I read it became much clearer, and research I did after helped a great deal, such as this piece in the Guardian, Lowboy author John Wray at NPR, this extensive site of explanation and annotations at Error Bar, and this summary at Ocelot Factory. I suspect Riddley Walker is one I’ll re-read, and that will bring even richer rewards on subsequent readings.

“What Was She Thinking? [Notes on a Scandal] by Zoe Heller

Monday, April 11th, 2011

What Was She Thinking [Notes on a Scandal] by Zoe Heller has been on my to-read-someday list for a while, but was recommended to me particularly by the Biblioracle at The Morning News based on the last five (non Tournament of Books) books I’d read, which were:

Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Life with Jeeves
The Road Cormac McCarthy
Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold
I Think I Love You by Alison Pearson

And for the third time, The Biblioracle made a good call; he’d previously recommended Gibson’s Pattern Recognition and Rachmann’s The Imperfectionists to me. I liked them both immensely

Since the novel was turned into an Oscar-award nominated film, you may know the basics. An English schoolteacher, Sheba Hart, falls into an affair with her 15-year-old student while a friendship develops with an older colleague, Barbara Covett. Barbara is the book’s sole narrator, and a powerful one she is. She’s been teaching school to middle/lower-class students for decades, and has a stoic resignation about it. Not for her the sunny platitudes about helping students realize their own potential. Barbara is smart, with razor-sharp observations that frequently decimate those around her in this narrative. No one, except perhaps sometimes herself, escapes her judgment.

I am presumptuous enough to believe that I am the person best qualified to write this small history. I would go so far as to hazard that I am the only person. Sheba and I have spent countless hours together over the last eighteen months, exchanging confidences of every kind. Certainly, there is no other friend or relative of Sheba’s who has been so intimately involved in the day-to-day business of her affair with Connolly. In many cases the events I describe here were witnessed by me personally. Elsewhere, I rely upon detailed accounts provided by Sheba herself. I am not so foolhardy as to claim for myself an infallible or complete version of the story. But I do believe that my narrative will go some substantial way to helping the public understand who Sheba Hart really is.

What’s especially fascinating is that Barbara, while an unreliable narrator, is not unsympathetic. By tearing off the gauzy veils of nicety and political correctness, she reveals an exhilarating honesty, vulnerability and sense of humor that no one around her has the least suspicion of. Heller skillfully portrays myriad complex characters through just one person’s point of view. What Barbara writes, and what she leaves out, tell a full and satisfying story. Even as it moves back and forward in time, it’s easy to follow, and tantalizing in how Barbara bestows the details a little at a time. An impressive feat of authorial control, I thought.

“The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood

Friday, April 8th, 2011

This month’s selection for the new book group I’ve started, which reads books with themes of religion and myth, is Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. When I mention this, the almost universal response is, “Wow, I haven’t read that book in years!” That was the case for me, too. I probably read it in the late 80’s, and again in the mid 90’s. I remembered broad strokes, but not particulars. I wondered if it would hold up. Did it, ever.

We slept in what had once been the gymnasium…in the army cots that had been set up in rows, with spaces between so we could not talk. We had flannelette sheets, like children’s, and army-issue blankets, old ones that still said U.S.We folded our clothes neatly and laid them on the stools at the ends of the beds. The lights were turned down but not out. Aunt Sara and Aunt Elizabeth patrolled; they had electric cattle prods slung on thongs from their leather belts.

The narrator, whose real name is never revealed, describes a near-future in which fertility rates have declined, largely due to nuclear fallout after an earthquake. The country is now a repressive theocracy, in which Biblical verses are deployed to justify awful acts. Bit by bit, the narrator mixes details of her past and the history that brought about her present. Atwood is such a skillful writer that I never noticed the jumping around in time and scene. Pieces of the picture are added bit by bit, as in the above paragraph, and the tension grows as the narrator’s present situation becomes more charged.

I found this book difficult to put down, and resented the things–meals, sleep, my husband and children–that required me to do so. Even though I remembered the ending, I didn’t remember the details, and I could barely wait to take in the particulars again. When I finally reached the conclusion, which somehow managed to be both unsettling and satisfying, I felt in awe of the skill and power with which Atwood had created such a rich and terrible future. Frightening and timely, more than 25 years after it was published it still gives me much to ponder.

“The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake” by Aimee Bender

Thursday, March 31st, 2011

(or: blogging quickly because I need to leave for the South America party at preschool.)

Several years ago I read Aimee Bender’s novel, An Invisible Sign of My Own. I really enjoyed it, and especially liked her skill with metaphors about inner life and how difficult it is to get along with others. Those themes are front and center in her latest novel, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, in which 8-year-old Rose suddenly realizes the ability to taste the emotions of others through food they’ve prepared.

I was hoping I’d imagined it–maybe it was a bad lemon? or old sugar?–although I knew, even as I thought it, that what I’d tasted had nothing to do with ingredients…and with each bite, I thought–mmm, so good, the best ever, yum–but in each bite: absence, hunger, spiraling, hollows. (10)

Many reviews point out this idea was used famously in Like Water for Chocolate, but I don’t find it a problem to use a similar idea for a very different book. The number of characters in this book is small, yet each is developed well, so that when surprises occur, I found them both pleasing and not all that surprising. This made for an engaging and enjoyable read of an often sad, most definitely strange book. Rose ages from 8 to her early 20s in the book; this could easily have been sold as a young adult novel. The cover and title make it look and sound like chicklit. Those expecting that will most likely be disappointed, or at least confused, by this odd girl, and her odd family, all of which utterly charmed me to the end.

“Nox” by Anne Carson

Monday, March 28th, 2011

(Photo: Hannah Whitaker/New York Magazine)

(Photo: Hannah Whitaker/New York Magazine)

I had not heard of Nox by Anne Carson when it was chosen for the Morning News Tournament of Books, and it isn’t one I would likely have picked up on my own. My kind friend Amy was good enough to lend it to me, though.

Carson is a professor of Greek, and this “book” is her tribute to her brother, who died after being absent from her life over twenty years. It is not so much a book, but rather a book-shaped object, with a long, folded single sheet of paper inside a cardboard box. The text begins with a poem in Greek, and proceeds to define the words, one at a time, on the left-facing pages, while the right-facing pages contain her memories, photos and letters of her brother. The definitions of the Greek words, or “entries” as Carson at one point emphasizes, seem straightforward at first, but soon it becomes clear that Carson has insinuated herself into them. The sentences used as examples tend to intertwine with the fragments about her brother, and most include a reference to “nox” or “night,” in one meaning. Eventually the poem as a whole is translated, and her memories unfold to include meeting her brother’s widow and attending his funeral.

After finishing, I felt more like I didn’t understand the work than that I didn’t “like” it. I’ve put “like” in quotations, because it’s an unfitting and inadequate word for the response a complicated, ambitious, beautiful work like this deserves. How much richer it must be for Carson to have the scroll this is a copy of as a memoriam to her brother, rather than an urn of ashes. But while I was sometimes moved while I read, or took in, the work, it didn’t stir me deeply as I felt it “should.” This, however, might be a failing in myself, either of understanding, or of empathy. I have not experienced anything near the loss and sorrow described here, and as one reviewer quoted Iris Murdoch as writing, “The bereaved cannot speak to the unbereaved.” I felt similarly distanced during my reading of Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking. Whether it’s a want of feeling in me, or an intellectual distancing by these women, I can’t say.

“Bad Marie” by Marcy Dermansky

Saturday, March 26th, 2011

Bad Marie by Marcy Dermansky is a dark, weird little book. It’s deliberately weird, though, so don’t expect realism. It’s also not a chaste story. There’s drunkenness, promiscuity, and a variety of bad behavior, as the title indicates. Coincidences and bizarre twists of fortune serve to highlight the bad, and sometimes good, behavior of Marie and those around her.

Sometimes, Marie got a little drunk at work.

She took care of Caitlin, the precocious two-and-a-half-year-old daughter of her friend Ellen Kendall. It was a full-time job. Marie got paid in cash and was given a room in the basement.

She never drank in the daytime. Only at night. Marie didn’t see the harm: a little whiskey, a little chocolate. Marie liked to watch bad movies on TV while Caitlin slept. She liked wandering over to the fully stocked refrigerator and hel;ing herself to whatever she wanted to deat. Marie constant marveled over the food: French cheeses, leftover steak, fresh-squeezed orange juice, raspberries imported from Portugal. It had only been three weeks since Marie’s thirtieth birthday, the day that she had gotten out of jail.

The situation would have been humiliating had Marie any ambition in life. Fortunately, Marie was not in any way ambitious.

Stylized and over the top, it reminded me more than a little of Linda Fiorentino’s femme fatale in The Last Seduction. Like that character, Marie is the star of her own story, not merely the accessory to those who are hurt by her. And as the book unfolds, I couldn’t help but wonder: didn’t some of them deserve what happened to them, at least a little? It’s a nervy book that seems to encourage the reader to be unsympathetic with its messed-up main character, while sneakily making it impossible not to root for her. A darkly fun, fast read. It fell in the first round of the year’s Morning News Tournament of Books, but I’m happy I got the chance to enjoy it.

“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot

Saturday, March 26th, 2011

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is non-fiction, but reads like a novel. Science writer Rebecca Skloot has taken years of her life to gather details on a black woman from Baltimore who died of cervical cancer in 1951. Henrietta Lacks was treated by doctors in the “colored” ward of Johns Hopkins. As standard procedure, they took a sample of the cancer on her cervix, which proved to be the first human tissue sample that, given the right conditions, grew and kept growing. Henrietta died soon after, but her cells are alive across the planet today, used in medical research. Her family, though, didn’t know this until a reporter from Rolling Stone talked to them in the 1970s.

Skloot moves back and forth in time and in different people’s lives. She painstakingly recreates what can be known about the life of Henrietta, and the history of her cells. More than Henrietta, though, Skloot tells the story of Deborah, Henrietta’s daughter who has no memory of her mother, and cries out throughout her life for the lack of one. She and “Miss Rebecca” navigate a rocky relationship as they both seek to discover more about Henrietta, and her “immortal” cells. The question Deborah asks, that the reader can’t help but wonder also, is how Henrietta’s cells can be the worldwide basis, for cellular research, yet her descendants can’t afford healthcare? As Deborah said, in one of the passages Skloot quotes:

Truth be told, I can’t get made at science, because it help people live, and I’d be a mess without it. I’m a walking drugstore! [Deborah has many prescription drugs for a variety of difficulties.] I can’t say nuthin bad about science, but I won’t lie, I would like some health insurance so I don’t got to pay all that money every month for drugs my mother cells probably helped make.

I was by turns fascinated and horrified by this book, with its straightforward explanation of cellular science alongside the painful history of the Lacks family and their struggles. There’s much to mull over after reading this book, most of all how racism and profit are alive and thriving in the present, no matter how comfortable it might be to think otherwise.

“Life with Jeeves” omnibus by P.G. Wodehouse

Thursday, March 17th, 2011

My friend Queenie was the one whose fierce love of P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster–both “>the television series and the stories–finally made me take notice. For that, and many other things, I’m very grateful. I started with the series, which stars Hugh Laurie as vapid, funny Bertie Wooster, a role that might surprise people who only know him from House, but is a perfect fit for those of us who saw him in Blackadder. Stephen Fry is pitch perfect–droll and dry–as Jeeves.

This is one of those lovely instances in which the television and book versions are both wonderful, each in a way unique to its medium. When I finally cracked open Life with Jeeves, a good place to start, I discovered perfect gems that were funny, sweet, cheering and charming.

The first of the telegrams arrived shortly after noon, and Jeeves brought it in with the before-luncheon snifter. It was from my Aunt Dahlia, operating from Market Snodsbury, a small town of sorts a mile or two along the main road as you leave her country seat.

It ran as follows:

Come at once. Travers

And when I say it puzzled me like the dickens, I am understating it, if anything. As mysterious a communication, I considered, as was ever flashed over the wires. I studied it in a profound reverie for the best part of two dry Martinis and a dividend. I read it backwards. I read it forwards. As a matter of fact, I have a sort of recollection of even smelling it. But it still baffled me. (386)

The Jeeves and Wooster stories were a perfect balance to some of the darker books I was reading. The short stories especially were easy and quick to consume, though rather like Chinese food: a little while later I can’t remember the specifics, and only know I’m hungry again.

I got tripped up by reading the first two segments in this omnibus, the story collections The Inimitable Jeeves and Very Good, Jeeves. After my recent reading of The Road, and before I embarked on any number of other books clamoring for my attention, I thought I’d indulge in a Jeeves story. Alas, the last segment of the book is the novel, Right Ho, Jeeves, and I didn’t realize it till I was a few chapters in. Knowing what a hard time I have remembering certain specifics from the stories, I knew I shouldn’t abandon it midway. Fortunately, it was a delight and a breeze to finish this particular novel, in which Bertie thinks Jeeves has lost his skill at schemes, and instead tries to help out his Aunt Dahlia and his friends Gussie Fink-Nottle and Tuppy Glossop. Hilarious disaster ensues.

Funny, and especially terrific if you’re in want of something to lift the spirits.

“The Road” by Cormac McCarthy

Wednesday, March 16th, 2011

This was my second read of Cormac McCarthy’s multiple award winner The Road, this month’s pick for the reading group I’ve started, of books with themes of myth and religion. Again, I found The Road a profound, moving, provocative story of the environment and human nature, told with Christian allegory. I flinched at times. At others I couldn’t stop reading until I found out what happened to the unnamed man and his son. And in the end I cried, then dried my tears and read through till the end, which some see as hopeful and others (like my husband, G. Grod) do not.

Yes, it was made into a movie, with Viggo Mortenson. It didn’t get great reviews; I don’t plan to see it. As for the book, though, there are spoilers ahead. If you haven’t yet read the book, I recommend it. Read it and come back to discuss.

A man and his young son are on the road, heading south several years after an unspecified environmental disaster:

An hour later they were on the road. He pushed the cart and both he and the boy carried knapsacks. In the knapsacks were essential things. In case they had to abandon the cart and make a run for it. Clamped to the handle of the cart was a chrome motorcycle mirror that he used to watch the road behind them. He shifted the pack higher on his shoulders and looked out over the wasted country. The road was empty. Below in the little valley the still gray serpentine of a river. Motionless and precise. Along the shore a burden of dead reeds. Are you okay? he said. The boy nodded. Then they set out along the blacktop in the gun metal light, shuffling through the ash, each the other’s world entire. (6)

That last phrase, “each the other’s world entire” continues to awe me with how much power five words can carry. McCarthy subtly creates the near future and its slight off-ness. He doesn’t use apostrophes for the word not: didnt, wouldnt, cant. Yet he does use it for other contractions: we’re, they’re, there’s. He’ll occasionally tweak a word, as when the man uses the binoculars to “glass” the road below, to create a feeling of difference.

The first time I read the novel, I was convinced there had been a nuclear holocaust. This time, noting the references to the distant sun, I suspect a natural disaster, something like the meteor some scientists theorize brought in the Ice Age and the end of the dinosaurs.

The man and his son stumble through a ruined landscape, scavenging for canned food and fuel from the past. This raises the question of hope versus futility. If hope, then is it a good thing, or was there a reason it was what remained in the box Pandora opened? Is hope an evil, like the rest of what escaped, or is it the antidote?

I choose to believe in hope. That’s what I read into the book, though I see how McCarthy skillfully left readers to draw their own conclusions in many instances, especially the end.