Archive for the '2012 Books' Category

“A Matter of Life” by Jeffrey Brown

Friday, July 19th, 2013


A Matter of Life is part of the growing comic-book memoir genre–think Persepolis, Fun Home, and Blankets. I was going to pass this one by when the comic shop guy personally recommended it. Every so often I wonder if he even reads comics any more. But he’d read this and liked it, so I got it.

You may recognize Brown’s art from the wildly popular Darth Vader and Son, which my own sons love, and we’ve shared with many others as gifts. It has a sweet sensibility that combines the love and frustration of parenting with the imagined interactions of Darth Vader and a little Luke Skywalker. There’s now a sequel, Vader’s Little Princess.

But prior to these hits, Brown was known as a comic-book memoirist, and A Matter of Life is in that vein. In short visual stories, we see shots of life, past and present, with Brown’s father and then his son, and all three of them together. As the son of a minister, he declared himself an atheist in his teens and made everyone uncomfortable. Then, when he becomes a father, how does he explain the universe to his son Oscar, without lying, but also without disrespecting the people he loves?

It’s a deceptive book–short, easy to read, often sweet and funny, but with topics as weighted and fraught with mystery and history as the dinosaur skeletons on the cover. The hardcover edition is pleasingly sized with quality paper, typical of publisher Top Shelf’s fare. Being a child, being a parent, struggling to articulate what he believes–Brown’s struggles resonated with me a great deal.

See also: “Exploring a Crisis of Faith with Confessional Comics” at NPR.

In Brief: Books of 2012

Monday, December 31st, 2012

This year, thanks to my summer reading project of Shelf Discovery related books, I read nearly 100 books, and finish the year in the middle of three chunksters.

Since we’re on winter break, and the kids are here, and they are, no joke, running around chanting “nyah, nyah, you can’t hit me,” I’ll keep this short.

Here’s what I liked (and didn’t)

Classic: Middlemarch by George Eliot
New Fiction: The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt
Re-read: Beloved by Toni Morrison
YA re-read: Starring Sally J Freedman as Herself by Judy Blume
New-to-me-YA: The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks by E. Lockhart
Made me laugh: Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson
Didn’t like as much as the critics did: Swamplandia!, Tiger’s Wife, State of Wonder (UGH!), Telegraph Avenue (didn’t finish), Ready Player One
Thumping Good Reads: Lonesome Dove, Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It, After the Apocalypse, Art of Fielding, Wild, Tragedy of Arthur, Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Silver Linings Playbook, Devil in Silver, and Turn of Mind.

“Turn of Mind” by Alice LaPlante

Friday, December 14th, 2012

For one of my book groups, Turn of Mind by Alice LaPlante wasn’t at all what I was expecting. When I heard it was a book about a woman with dementia, I imagined a Lifetime movie. Instead, it’s something else entirely. The main character, Jennifer White, is a retired hand surgeon whose dementia is getting worse. Her best friend was recently murdered, and she’s the prime suspect. Unfortunately, she’s not a reliable narrator, and this book plays skillfully with that, telling us parts of her past and present as she goes, filling in the big picture a little at a time. I was very worried that the end wouldn’t pan out. This is the kind of thriller that depends very much on the strength of its Ta Da moment at the end. I think the author mostly pulled it off. There were some implausibilities that nagged, but it was largely satisfying. It engaged me from beginning to end, and I found the main character fascinating.

“Tiny Beautiful Things” by Cheryl Strayed

Friday, December 14th, 2012

I started Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed, before I read Strayed’s more famous Wild. It’s a collection of the previously anonymously penned advice column at literary site The Rumpus. It is a very different book, but with many similarities and connections. As in Wild, Strayed puts a lot of herself and her troubled past on the page. But she doesn’t tell the exact same stories, in the same ways. Here, she uses them in service of telling people who ask her for help what she thinks. This is not a story, with a beginning middle and end. It worked well for me as a pick it up then put it down book, read in bits in between other things. It might make an excellent book for the bathroom, which seems a weird descriptor, yet an apt one, I bet for those who know what I mean.

I really enjoyed reading the columns, and reading Strayed’s responses. A few weeks ago, I read Savage Love, and didn’t like a response that Dan Savage gave a reader. “Sugar would never have told her to do that!” I thought, outraged. Throughout, Sugar is like someone who listens well, really tries to understand what’s being said (and as often, what’s not) and who exhorts the writers, and all the readers, too, to work to reach their highest, best selves, with acknowledgement of how hard that really is.

One of my favorite passages was about writing:

Don’t lament so much about how your career is going to turn out. You don’t have a career. You have a life. Do the work. Keep the faith. Be true blue. You are a writer because you write. Keep writing and quit your bitching. Your book has a birthday. You don’t know what it is yet. (351)

I got to see Strayed in person recently, where she also offered her writing advice like this: “Write like a mother [cuss]er.” Which is funny, but it’s also true. That’s sorta how I felt about the book. It’s a good companion to Wild if you liked that, but probably not if you didn’t.

“Drama” GN by Raina Telgemeier

Friday, December 14th, 2012

Raina Telgemeier’s Drama is a graphic novel about Callie, a middle-school theater geek. She has a crush on one boy, while another one likes her, and makes friends with some others as they prepare for the school play. There’s kissing, but not much more, so the story feels sweet and young. It has an openness about gay teens that reminded me of the wishful fantasy of Boy Meets Boy. The art is charming, Callie is engaging if sometimes annoying. It’s a likeable book that I found myself wishing I liked more. I just didn’t connect–maybe because I was not a drama person?

“The Devil in Silver” by Victor LaValle

Saturday, December 1st, 2012

I was eagerly looking forward to The Devil in Silver, the follow up (not sequel, as I’d assumed it would be) to Big Machine, which I discovered during the 2010 Morning News Tournament of Books, and really enjoyed.

I noticed over the last year that the date for Devil in Silver’s release was pushed back at least once. LaValle reveals why in his author’s note at the end–his wife gave birth to a son in May 2011 and that resulted in some changes to his writing routine that put it past deadline, but also gave him experiences that he incorporated into this wild novel.

Most of the book is told through the view of Pepper, a big white guy who gets put in a mental institution for a 72 hour observation after tussling with some cops, but ends up staying a little bit longer. He struggles (literally) to get out, but they drag him (literally and figuratively) back in. From the start, he’s aware of something beastly, weird and scary in the psych ward of New Hyde Hospital in New York City.

The snort came for a third time. It was even closer now. Immediately to his right. As if the animal had crept right up to his ear. Even worse, there was a smell. Musky and warm, like old blood. It made his throat close, and he wanted to wretch [sic]. The hospital’s staff members sat around the converence table taking notes, or watching him. Not one of them seemed to notice anything. How could they not smell that stink? (14)

Pepper grudgingly begins to accept his situation, and interact with the staff and patients around him. As in Big Machine, the administration may or may not be evil, and what looks like a monster may not be. A ragtag group of misfits stumbles toward some kind of truth, fragmenting along the way. In addition to Pepper’s point of view, we get many others, including a very strange one toward the end that I won’t spoil but that I enjoyed a lot.

There’s a lot going on in this crazy quilt of a novel: literary horror, social commentary on the treatment of the mentally ill, character sketches from different walks of life, and a character toward the end that I suspect is LaValle’s Gary Stu (a male Mary Sue):

A big man. Not tall but wide. The polite term is heavyset. (The clinical term is hyperobese.) A black guy…Late twenties or early thirties, his hair was kind of a wild puff and his head was down. …interested in his own toes. He had his arms crossed. (402)

The book was scary, but had some laugh-out-loud moments, and some downright sweet ones, along with some terribly sad ones. It engaged me, made me loath to put it down, and pulled me through from start to finish. It’s possible that it’s kind of a mess, and has uneven stuff in it, but if so, I didn’t even notice.

In an interesting bit of synchronicity, I recently read The Silver Linings Playbook, whose main character also spent time in a mental ward, also lost large chunks of time there, also had violent tendencies, and in one scene, shared a tiny box of cereal across the table from another female character. It was a strange mirroring, probably coincidence, but fascinating.

I recall exchanging emails with LaValle after he did an author Skype chat with one of my book groups, Books and Bars, but I can’t find any record of it. (Did I imagine it?) In it, I tried politely to express my worry that he’d pull a Matrix, and follow up a promising first work with a crappy second one. In my opinion, he didn’t. I was sad not to meet up with the two main characters from Big Machine, but glad to meet these new ones, and interested to see what the next book might hold. Well played, Mr. LaValle, well played.

Fairest: Wide Awake GN by Bill Willingham

Thursday, November 29th, 2012

Fairest is the newest spin off from the popular comic-book series Fables, and Wide Awake collects the first seven issues. It tells backstories of some of the female characters, in this case Sleeping Beauty. (Not to be confused with Beauty of Beauty and the Beast–different character in this world. Unlike Prince Charming, who was actually the same guy to all the ladies–Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Cinderella. He got around, that one.)

This story picks up in series continuity just after the Fables defeated the armies of the Emperor. We’ve got Ali Baba, a bottle imp (not a djinn, sorry!), the Snow Queen and Sleeping Beauty. There are fights, there’s romance and things don’t quite have a fairy-tale ending, which I appreciated. In addition, Fairest: Wide Awake is capped by a one-shot story about Beauty and the Beast, with a surprising reveal about their history.

As with the best of the Fables series, Fairest is a fun, fast read, that plays around with storytelling and mythologies in interesting ways.

“The Silver Linings Playbook” by Matthew Quick

Saturday, November 24th, 2012

The Silver Linings Playbook
The Silver Lining Playbook by Matthew Quick has been on my shelf for years, a gift from my Eagles-fanatic stepfather-in-law to my Eagles-fanatic husband when it was released, and pulled off the shelf by me because it’s currently playing on the big screen.

Quick’s novel is eminently readable, an entry in the emotionally-stunted-young-man-stumbles-toward-some-kind-of-understanding genre. In this it strongly reminded me of Jonathan Tropper’s This is Where I Leave You.

Pat is a guy in his 30’s, just released from a mental institution, and he’s pining for his wife Nikki, that everyone else, including the reader knows, is his ex-wife. He’s got an emotionally stunted dad whose moods are dependent on whether the Eagles win or lose. (I’m married to an Eagles fan, so I really appreciated the ethnography of this particular subculture as I recognized many aspects.) Pat thinks life plays out like a movie, where every bad thing always has a silver lining, so much of the book reads like the film it’s been “adapted” into, rife with coincidence, but still has some surprises. Alas, one of the reveals near the end about Tiffany, the emotionally damaged woman Pat has befriends, continues to nag at me. Two aspects of it read like really creepy male-fantasy masquerading as characterization, and this left it ending on a sour note for me.

“August Moon” GN by Diana Thung

Saturday, November 24th, 2012

August Moon by Diana Thung
August Moon by Diana Thung is a children’s graphic novel heavily influenced by Hayao Miyazaki’s films in general and My Neighbor Totoro in particular, though it’s rather like Princess Mononoke crossed with the latter, as there are bad guys with guns. There’s also a little bit of Seuss’ The Lorax.

It’s cute and sweet and has likeable child protagonists in Jaden and Fi, but I found it hard to read visually at times. For example, there would be multiple panels of a character facing different directions when they were only supposed to be moving in one direction–this was disorienting. My difficulty could also be a factor of many small panels per page. My 9yo son Drake read this and really enjoyed it. He has much sharper eyes than I do.

“36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction: by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

Saturday, November 24th, 2012

36 Arguments for the Existence of God by Rebecca Goldstein
Just so we’re clear, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s book 36 Arguments for the Existence of God is a work of fiction. And yet, it’s kinda not. As they say, it’s complicated. Or, as my professor of Judaism in grad school used to say in the type of grad-school lingo often parodied it Goldstein’s book, “it’s not UNcomplicated.” Thus, whether you like it or not (and my book group found it pretty divisive), you probably won’t find it UNinteresting.

Goldstein has a background in philosophy and mathematics, and was raised as an Orthodox Jew. All these aspects and more are woven through the novel. She has written both fiction and non-fiction, and her philosophy colleagues tend to view her fiction forays with suspicion, as she notes in this weird book trailer where her husband, the cognitive psychologist Steve Pinker, talks with her about it, yet never identifies her as his spouse. It also features a lot of stilted shots of Goldstein on a ladder in their impressive library. As I said, weird.

It’s a 400+ page novel with a 60-page appendix that contains the 36 arguments of the title. I found the appendix and the parts of the book that were very philosophically argumentative less interesting, and the morality tale of the characters involving and fascinating.

Some readers in my book group reacted negatively to the esoteric verbiage of the overtly philosophical sections. As one noted jokingly, it made her feel “stoopid.” Others reacted to how lengthy these sections were, and noted they tended to drag, especially as compared to the novel, featuring a religion professor named Cass Seltzer.

In that weird book trailer, Goldstein coyly claims that it’s a misconception that characters are based in reality. And yet, there are a lot of ringers in her books generally. Compare this photo of the author’s ex-husband, mathematician Sheldon (”Shelly”) Goldstein:

Sheldon Goldstein and this description:

handsome, but not in a way to make the squeamish consider indeterminate sexual orientention, Cass has a fundamental niceness written all over him. He’s got a strong jaw, a high ovoid forehead from this his floppy auburn hair is only just slightly receding, and the sweetest more earnest smile this side of Oral Roberts University. (11)

Some reviews have noted likenesses between characters and real people, most especially Jonas Elijah Klapper as Harold Bloom, but there’s also likeness between Sy Auerbach and literary agent John Brockman, and another minor character interested in immortality (can’t remember the link.)

There’s also more than a passing resemblance between Goldstein herself and Cass’ girlfriend, Lucinda Mandelbaum, the “goddess of game theory”: who is described as grey-eyed, beautiful, graceful and more throughout. One of the many things I found interesting in this was that if Goldstein is going to write herself into the novel, why do it as an unlikeable Mary Sue? (I wondered, could this book be like an apology to her first husband, a la Hemingway’s Moveable Feast, where Lucinda is young and mean to the sensitive guy?)

I’ve gone on here, and haven’t even gotten to main parts of the story and other characters. It’s an interesting satire of academia, and of new atheists. It fictionally presents the question whether there’s any point in trying to prove the existence of God.

My advice on reading, if you think this sounds interesting: read the novel, then the appendix, and skim the parts that you find slow, since the narrative wanders and does not have consistent momentum. And yet, I do recommend it. It made me think, and still has me thinking.

“The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet” by David Mitchell

Saturday, November 10th, 2012

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell. Made me laugh. Made me cry. Had me utterly involved over the course of reading it. Didn’t want to leave the world and these characters. A smashing historical novel. Perhaps one of the best books I’ve ever read.

Oh, I’m sorry, did you want a little more than that? All right, all right.

The book opens, not on the main character, but with a midwife attending a complicated birth. Then, in 1799 by the Western calendar, a young Dutch clerk named Jacob de Zoet goes to Dejima, the trade outpost of the Dutch on the coast of Japan. He’s there along with his patron to uncover just how corrupt the former Dutch representatives were. After a chance meeting with a woman over a monkey that’s absconded with a severed human foot, things get really complicated. And that’s just in section one, before things go really crazy in section two. This book has history, trade, Japan, interpreters, romance, evil kidnappers, and dozens of characters, many of whom get to narrate. Deeply satisfying, and highly recommended.

“The Tragedy of Arthur” by Arthur Phillips

Saturday, November 3rd, 2012

Are you sitting down? Because The Tragedy of Arthur by author Arthur Phillips, is a little complicated. It’s a novel, but one that deliberately blurs the line of reality, being narrated by the character of Arthur Phillips, an author of such books as Prague and The Song is You, just like the real life Arthur Phillips.

The novel begins with a preface:

Random House is proud to present this first modern edition of The Tragedy of Arthur by William Shakespeare.

And further suggests

that general readers plunge directly into the play, allowing Shakespeare to speak for himself, at least at first. then, if some background is helpful, look to this very personal Introduction.

Before I began the book, I knew it had to do with a play within a novel and that it was convoluted and intertwined. OK, I thought, after I read the “Preface,” what to do now? Treat it as a novel, and read the “Introduction” of 256 pages, or do what I normally do when approaching a play or classic, read the work first, then backtrack to the introduction to avoid spoilers?

I tried the play first, then a friend told me to have some sense already and just read the novel. Having attempted both, I can attest that reading the “Introduction” first is the way to go.

Arthur Phillips, the narrator and main character (and possibly also the author?) launches into a long family history interspersed with token summaries of the play that follows, purported to be a previously undiscovered work by Shakespeare. As we learn over the course of the tormented, self-aware, memoir-ish “Introduction”, the play–The Tragedy of Arthur, about King Arthur’s short reign–may have been forged by his father, also named Arthur. Got it?

Phillips’ clever novel features many recurring features from Shakespeare: boy/girl twins, a “dark” lady, crossed love, a meddling father, and a remarried mother. Some scenes are laugh-out-loud funny, while others are cringe inducing. The character Arthur tries to negotiate a relationship with his father, Arthur, and their relationship ends up bound with a play about Arthur, as well. The whole can be described by a sentence it contains referring to a project of Arthur’s twin, Dana:

Her complete project was a strange and beautiful hybrid of historical research, literary interpretation, parody, and outright fiction.

And there are numerous points in the fictional play where readers are told they’re being duped:

Gloucester: Deception ‘pon deception preys and fats
Itself, the stronger to deceive anew. (II, vii, 14-15)

The novel The Tragedy of Arthur, about a play called The Tragedy of Arthur, is a good story as well as a well-researched and intricate literary tale. As it’s set in Minneapolis and Minnesota, I recognized many places. But imagine my surprise when I recognized the husband of a former co-worker! It would be hard work, and kind of fun-defeating (and thus perfectly in sync with the novel) to puzzle out how much of Phillips’ novel is all true, how much is pretty-all true, and and how much he made up out of full cloth, as he did (I assume…) with the entire Shakespeare-esque Tragedy of Arthur that follows the “Introduction.”

A few thoughts, out of joint: the character of Arthur’s twin, Dana, reminded me strongly of Cassie from the Tana French novels In the Woods and The Likeness and the twins’ relationship is very like that of Cassie and Rob from In the Woods. I was also reminded strongly of The Family Fang, with its wacky family of four, and brother and sister who try to puzzle out the truth from the lies of their performative parents. It also reminded me of the Thursday Next novels of Jasper Fforde, in the playful/respectful manner in which it worked with the origin material. Yet this novel, with derivation at its heart, and that reminded me of several others, continued to amaze me with its originality and wit.

There will be a video chat with the author at the 11/13 meeting of Books and Bars, which I very much look forward to.

“Bleak House” by Charles Dickens, again

Thursday, November 1st, 2012

Hey, everyone, my friend Amy at New Century Reading is doing a readalong of Bleak House by Dickens, using the same chapters he did when he wrote it, so one serial section a week, which is about 50 pages or so.

I started a readalong earlier this year and didn’t love it though I did love Bleak House, and am excited to give it another go.

Serial 1 is chapters 1 through 4. We meet London:

As much mud in the streets, as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flecks of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes–gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun.

There’s an endless court case, a mysterious orphan, a crazy old lady, a beautiful woman with a past… Oh, I look forward to finding out more!

“Nothing to Be Frightened of” by Julian Barnes

Thursday, November 1st, 2012

A selection for my book group that discussed books about myth or religion, Nothing to Be Frightened of by Julian Barnes was the first non fiction pick of our almost two-year-old group. Several members had requested non-fiction, which those of you who read this blog know isn’t always my cuppa. Push comes to shove, I don’t think any non-fiction books are going into my apocalypse backpack for the end of the world.

Perhaps Apocalypse Backpack will be my band name. Anyhoo.

Since the group focuses of books of myth and religion, I’d been considering some of the new atheists like Dawkins or Hitchens. But they seemed so strident, and so “you’re dumb if you believe” that I wanted something a little more, well, moderate. And while I got that in the Barnes, which is his non-fiction meditation on death and dying from an agnostic or atheist point of view, I ended up wishing for a bit more stridency. But more on that in a bit.

I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him. That’s what I say when the question is put. I asked my brother, who has taught philosophy at Oxford, Geneva, and the Sorbonne, what he thought of such a statement, without revealing that it was my own. He replied with a single word: “Soppy.”

This paragraph is a perfect introduction to the book. It’s dryly funny, self-deprecating, and it introduces Barnes’ older brother Jonathan, a frequent sounding board in the book. Barnes relates details from historical philosophers and writers about death, and quotes friends of his. (Anyone who can identify who his friends Professor S and C are? A Guardian review made it sound as if it were obvious, but even my two most Barnesian friends didn’t know.) He relates stories from his past and from his family’s past to demonstrate the shifting nature of memory and narrative. He cops to being afraid of death and nothing (hence the pun in the title, which I appreciated) and being forgotten.

It’s well written. It’s clever. But it doesn’t tell a narrative–Barnes doesn’t finish the book in a different mind than he started it, at least in my reading. And he spirals in and out of stories and reminiscences, adding bits as he goes, which is skillfully done, yet felt repetitive. Finally, several in our group wished he’d shared more of himself, and been a little less chilly and distant, a little more strident if you will, to use the adjective from above.

And yet, thinking on this later, given the childhood and family Barnes describes in the book, I’d say that this intelligent book is about as honest and disclosing and warm (i.e. not very) as can be expected, perhaps even more.

This book was also interesting to read close in time to his novel Sense of an Ending. There is at least one character in there created from reality, and the themes of memory and death are continuations of what is here.

I found it strange that the hardcover US edition features a grim Barnes staring out at us. It’s not an inviting image. The cartoon-y grave on the trade paperback edition is cheekier, and more engaging I think. But what I wished for was the cover of the English hardover edition, which reproduces a photo discussed in the book, of a woman with her face scratched out. This, I think, is a spooky, unsettling image straight from the book that matches its tone best. (Though the English TPB edition is a close second, I think. Weird, how they obviously could not agree on one image for this book. Were four really needed?)

One final question. His book is dedicated to P, most likely his late wife, Patricia Kavanaugh who died of a brain tumor in October of 2008, while this book was published in March of that year. She is mentioned just once, in passing, in the entire book. Was Barnes aware of her tumor, and her impending death while writing this, a further example of his reluctance to actually inhabit his own exploration?

The Unwrittten GN vol. 6: Tommy Taylor and the War of Words

Tuesday, October 30th, 2012

The Unwritten: Tommy Taylor and the War of Words is the sixth collection of the excellent ongoing Vertigo comic-book series about a man named Tom Taylor who learns he may be the incarnation of his father’s famous fictional creation, a very Harry Potter-esque boy magician named Tommy Taylor.

In this collection, stuff happens. A LOT of stuff happens. We get some answers finally, actually, rather a lot of them. There are laugh-out loud funny lines, and the pleasing sense of many storylines converging, and finishing while a new start is made. Overall, this was a very entertaining segment of this engaging ongoing series about stories, literature, and a grown-up boy magician.

The Manhattan Projects by Jonathan Hickman

Tuesday, October 30th, 2012

The Manhattan Projects (yes, it’s plural) by Jonathan Hickman is a graphic-novel collection of the first issues of the Image comic book series. It’s an alternate history of famous scientists like Einstein, Oppenheimer and Feynman, with sci-fi and horror. The story reminds me of Warren Ellis and Planetary, but it’s a little less gratuitously violent, while Nick Pitarra’s art recalls Frank Quitely’s. If you’re a science nerd who can stomach horror, then you’ll like this.

“Boy Meets Boy” by David Levithan

Tuesday, October 23rd, 2012


I am one of those people who has piles of stuff and papers on most horizontal surfaces in the house. I inherited this tendency from my mother; I do not know which DNA strand it resides on. I used to be one of those people who, when asked for such-and-such random item, could picture it in my mind’s eye, go to the correct pile, and within moments, produce the desired item. Alas, no longer. More and more, I go to find something and simply can’t. I search through multiple piles with no success. This happened today when I went to look for the library copy of Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan, recommended to me as a good teen romance by my friend C. Thus, there is not a quote from this entertaining books to put right here:

It is a good teen romance, one between Paul and new-guy Noah. They meet in a bookstore that’s having a concert and dance, so right away we know we’re in some kind of gay-friendly alternate universe, in a New Jersey suburb of NYC. And the romance follows the usual trajectory: Boy meets boy in a cute manner, then loses boy, then gets boy back. Other people’s romances orbit around them and comic relief frequently intervenes in the person of Infinite Darlene, fka Daryl, who is both the star quarterback and the homecoming queen. But it’s not all sunshine and flowers. Paul’s friend Joni is dating a new guy the old friends don’t like, and Tony’s gay-unfriendly parents are slowly crushing his spirit.

This is a short, lovely book, though I enjoyed it more at the beginning, when it focused on the open nature of the fictional school, than towards the end, when things played out mostly predictably. This book reminded me fondly of Francesca Lia Block’s Weetzie Bat books, in how magical and wonderful and weird yet true it was. Highly recommended.

“Wild” by Cheryl Strayed

Monday, October 22nd, 2012

I got in a grocery checkout-line convo with a guy who said he wanted to move to Portland. I recommended he read Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail, by Cheryl Strayed, that I’d liked it and Oregon played a big part in it. He said he would. The cashier asked him, “Are you really going to read it?” He said, yeah, his girlfriend was reading it and he was going to read it when she was done. The cashier thought this was weird, that I’d recommend a book his girlfriend happened to be reading. We tried to explain why it wasn’t. It’s really popular, said the guy. Harry Potter popular. No, I said, because the cashier looked skeptical again, it’s Eat-Pray-Love popular. She seemed satisfied by this, asked me if I wanted my receipt, and we all moved out into our day.

Wild was beginning to get Eat-Pray-Love popular even before Oprah picked it to jump-start her book club. After getting the big O on the cover, well, bestseller-dom was kind of a done deal.

In the mid-90’s, Cheryl was in the midst of a divorce from a nice guy, dating another guy who’d introduced her to heroin, and still grieving her mother, who’d died a few years before. Standing in line at REI, she saw a travel guide about hiking the Pacific Coast Trail, and then decided that was a good way to start over. She systematically started planning the trip, sold her then-belongings for hiking gear, packed herself boxes of gear and money to meet her along the way, and went to California to hike up to Washington state.

Wild is her memoir of hiking the trail, but also of the messed up things that happened beforehand that drove her to thinking it would be a good idea. She found out quickly it wasn’t. Twenty-something Cheryl is an often exasperating narrator, especially in her flashbacks to life prior to the hike. It’s easy to see why she wanted to run away. But it’s hard not to be engaged by her travelogue, one that includes snakes, bears and torturous boots.

Modern-day Cheryl writes like a very balanced, serene person, intriguing to me since she says she didn’t have traditional experiences with therapy. She even has a gig as an advice columnist at The Rumpus; a collection of those columns, Tiny Beautiful Things, was recently published. For those of you who were exasperated by Eat Pray Love (which I have a theory about*), this is probably not your thing–immature narrator trying to find herself. Unlike that book, though, this doesn’t have a girl meets boy happy ending. It ends with girl confronting self and coming out the wiser for it having endured agony, both in life and on the trail. If that sounds fun, or if, like me, you like to read about adventures without actually going outdoors, then this is a page-turning read.

*My theory about Eat Pray Love is that those who dislike it never went through a gruesome breakup. Non-statistically accurate testing has so far proved this true.

“A Wrinkle in Time” graphic novel

Wednesday, October 17th, 2012

I really, really wanted to love the graphic-novel version of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, adapted and illustrated by Hope Larson. So I was surprised and disappointed to find I didn’t even much like it. And I feel terribly, terribly guilty about this. I love the novel–it was one of my first favorites as a kid. I love Larson’s work. In Gray Horses, Chiggers, Mercury, she’s a great artist and storyteller. But for me, this adaptation didn’t work.

The aspect that gave me the most trouble were the character depictions. I’ve held this book so close, for so long, that I have my own pictures in my head of what the characters look like, even the minor ones, and many of Larson’s clashed with the ones in my head. Obviously, someone coming to the book for the first time via this adaptation wouldn’t have the same issue.

Related to that, though, was the trouble I had with the character of Meg. When I’ve read the book, which I did last summer, I’ve related to gawky, socially inept Meg. When I read this book, I was irritated by her. Seeing her on the page made me less able to identify with her.

I am torn as I write about the book. I wanted to like it. I don’t want others to skip it. But it didn’t work for me. Here’s hoping it works better for you.

“The Dispreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks” by E. Lockhart

Friday, October 12th, 2012

The Dispreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart had been on my to-read list for years and a recent resurgence in my reading of young-adult books bumped it to the top and oh, I’m glad it did.

To: Headmaster Richmond and the Board of Directors, Alabaster Preparatory Academy

I, Frankie Landau-Banks, hereby confess that I was the sole mastermind behind the mal-doings of the Loyal Order of the Basset Hounds. I take full responsibility for the disruptions caused by the Order–including the Library Lady, the Doggies in the Window, the Night of a Thousand Dogs, the Canned Beet Rebellion, and the abduction of the Guppy.

Frankie, who over the summer gained four inches and twenty pounds, all in the right places, is a sophomore at an expensive northeast prep school. She is suddenly surrounded by boys who want her attention, and enjoys it, all the while questioning whether it’s the kind of attention she wants. She makes a gradual but believable shift from nice girl in the dorm to criminal mastermind, and it’s a blast to make it with her. This is a novel that turns the romance on its head, while still taking time to appreciate some of it along the way. But it’s also a story of a girl coming into her own power, making the shift from sweet to bitter to bittersweet, and in that it reminded me of Veronica Mars. This is a fun fast read that yet has some nice heft to it.