Book Review: Leaves of Grass

stiffI first posted this review at my Goodreads account over here.

When I decided to read a poetry book to review, I decided to go for a book that I’ve been meaning to read but was pretty sure that, absent external incentive, I never would never actually get around do: Walt Whitman’s epic* Leaves of Grass. Two friends of mine set one of Whitman’s poems to music years ago, and I’ve picked up little tidbits about him here and there, all of which increased my level of interest in the man. So–onward into the world of epic prose-poetry!

A word about me and the books I like: I’m a pretty impatient person, and when I’m reading a book or watching a movie or a TV show, I definitely tend towards works that are direct and straightforward. I get bored with a piece fairly quickly if I don’t feel like I know where the story is going (this works to my disadvantage: I almost put down Peter Beagle’s The Last Unicorn the first time I read it, though I’m so glad that I didn’t). I don’t like stories that are predictable, but I want the characters’ goals to be clearly defined. As you might guess, I do not read a lot of poetry.

I decided to listen to the audiobook, because it helps if I can listen to something and do stuff at the same time, and because I knew if I tried to read the book on paper it would take me at least a month to get through. I resigned myself to the fact that my attention was going to drift sometimes. Because of that, my ability to assess this work critically is fairly limited (and even if I’d taken in every word, it probably still would be: Leaves of Grass is the sort of thing that English professors spend entire careers breaking down and analyzing). But I enjoyed it. Even when I wasn’t consciously taking in the meaning of all the words, the rhythm of the text (performed by Noah Waterman) was like listening to a lullaby, or sitting next to a river. It was comforting even when it was a more or less meaningless hum in my head.

Leaves of Grass, taken as a whole, is a lot of things. And I can’t think of anything like it in all of English literature. It’s not strictly a collection of poems.** It’s not a single story. It’s part travelogue, part autobiography, part philosophical treatise, part love story (to humanity, to America, to individual people). It’s completely overwhelming and staggering. Walt Whitman, how did you do this. (I mean, I know he did it over the course of forty years, but even so…). If I was going on an around-the-world trip that was going to take me six months and I could only bring one book, this is definitely in the running as one of the books. Because you can read it over and over and never get everything out of it that’s in there.

There are two parts that stood out to me (and neither of them are the sexy poems that always get everyone else’s attention): one part is a sort of tour of America, which takes a perspective that is both broad and global and utterly specific to such small individuals. It’s a mural, really. A painting with words. The other part was his recounting of his days as a volunteer nurse during the Civil War. I know that his poem “O Captain My Captain” is the one we all read in high school, but “Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night,” “The Centenarian’s Story,” about the young men who march off to war and the people they leave behind, and “The Wound-Dresser,”*** told from the point of view of an Army nurse trying to soothe fallen soldiers, are as haunting and as timeless as anything else ever written about war.

The deeper I got into Leaves of Grass, the more I wish I could’ve known Walt Whitman, or just followed him around for a few days. I have no idea what sort of outward person he was like–if he was grouchy and crotchety, if he was friendly, if he was talkative and outgoing or a silent observer. But I don’t think you can spend 40+ years on a work of art and not put yourself in the pages. And Whitman seemed to be, to the end, a man who believed in the fundamental goodness of humanity. A person who was interested in meeting people and telling their stories, and fitting them into this tapestry of America that he’d woven in his head. He reminded me of Mark Twain in some ways, who I’ve always thought of as a cynical optimist (though Whitman is less funny than Twain).

So yeah. Especially if you find yourself ever faced with a long road trip, or you’re the sort that goes on extended backpacking trips through the backcountry. This is most definitely a road trip sort of book. Possibly an existential crisis sort of book. My friend Eleanor, who got lost in the Mexican mountains for two weeks with no food or water, had this book with her. She said it was one of the things that kept her sane. So yes, this book can also save your life.

*Epic here meant in the “WHOOAAAAAA” sense, not in the “epic poetry like Homer’s Odyssey” sense.
**Wikipedia refers to it as a collection, but because the individual poems don’t have titles, and because I listened to it on audiobook, I definitely experienced it as one long work. It doesn’t tell a continuous narrative by any means, but it is cohesive. If something can be cohesive without being continuous.
***I looked these titles up in a book edition after listening to the audio.

Book Review: Fifty Shades of Grey

fiftyshadesI first posted this review on my Goodreads account over here.

I try to be fair with reviews. I really do. If I don’t like something, I tell you why I don’t like it, and/or what I typically DO like, so that you (Gentle Reader) can evaluate my judgments, and decide for yourself if the things that bother me about a book are also likely to bother you. I’m not the arbiter of taste. I understand that.

And it’s not like I have super high standards. I don’t need my books (or any of my entertainment, really) to be High Art. I don’t hold a lot of truck with high falootin’ lit’ry achievements. I’ve given positive reviews to Stephen King. I find Tom Clancy and John Grisham entertaining. I enjoy Jodi Picoult. I watch more CSI and Law and Order than any self-respecting human should. I don’t need my stories to change my world. I don’t need them to be soaring artistic achievements. I just need solid tales, decently told.

All that said: I cannot even with this book. 50 Shades of Grey is bad, Gentle Readers. Infuriatingly bad. I know it’s popular (it’s outsold Harry Potter in the UK), but if ever there was an exemplar for the idea that popularity and quality do not necessarily overlap, this is it. I’m sorry if you like it. Not just sorry that I’m about to spend the next 2000 words offending and angering you (though I am), but also sorry that you apparently haven’t been exposed to more good stories, the better to compare this to. I suggest you branch out and read other things and expand your tastes, because this is bad.

As I read the book, I was so annoyed and frustrated that I started taking notes on the things that annoyed me. To whit:

  • It’s in present tense. Gah.(This actually works in the book’s favor during the sexy scenes, but for the rest of the time, it’s just jarring and annoying. There’s a reason why 98% of novels are written in the past tense).
  • In the opening scene, Ana is preparing to interview some tycoon (Christian Grey, who becomes her sexual partner) for the school paper because her roommate, the newspaper’s editor, can’t make it. I can tell you as a veteran of a school newspaper: This would not happen. First of all, in an interview as important as this one, more than one student reporter would go (and the photographer would go as well, making the whole scene in the other chapter with the photographer moot). If Kate (the roommate) couldn’t go, she’d call another editor on the paper (there are likely several), not rope her roommate into pinch hitting. Second of all, the interview is apparently a three hour drive away. Does this school not have Internet access? Skype is not a thing? Phone calls? The interview has to be in person?
  • Ana describes an elevator as “whisk[ing her] at terminal velocity.” Elevators do not do that, not even super fancy modern ones.You would be dead. The elevator would stop at the top floor and your body would continue to fly upward and would splatter you into pieces against the elevator ceiling.
  • A conference room in the office is described as having “at least 20 chairs.” Seriously? Pick a number. She’s sitting there waiting for her interviewee to become available, it’s entirely plausible for her to count them. Also, it’s a work of fiction, there’s no reason to be vague about the number of chairs.
  • In the interview, Christian Grey says he employs over 40,000 people. That makes his company twice as big as Enron. And he seems to have founded the company, not inherited it (though EL James is not specific on this point). This makes the company maybe five years old at the outside. Enron existed for 15 years before it folded. I’ve heard of fast growing companies and all, but this stretches credulity.
  • During the farcical school newspaper interview, Ana asks Christian if he’s gay. She, at least, is horrified and embarrassed (as she should be), but this comes out of nowhere, with no lead in, and at no time is Ana’s roommate (who came up with the question) challenged on her ridiculous premise that Christian must be gay because he’s never photographed in the society pages with a woman. (He’s spent the last five years building a company that’s become twice as big as Enron. I think a much more logical assumption is he’s never photographed with women because HE’S WORKING.)
  • Christian Grey is the CEO of his company, but he says he doesn’t have a board. Now, apparently, this is not a contradiction: The only companies that must have boards are ones that are publicly traded (something I’m sure Grey, control freak that he is, wouldn’t do). Most companies past a certain size have boards whether they’re publicly traded or not, but they don’t have to. And while a CEO is a common board position, there’s nothing that says that a company can’t have a CEO on his own. But still: It took me like fifteen minutes and asking four people about this before I came to the conclusion that EL James wasn’t actually wrong about this. 15 minutes that I could’ve spent reading the book. Fiction isn’t supposed to send you on fact-checking hunts, especially not this early in the game. I already distrust this author and that’s not a good sign.
  • Ana drives three hours, asks seven questions that were written for her and maybe another seven that she thought up herself in the moment. That is an extremely crappy interview, maybe half an hour long (I would read the conversation out loud to see, but I can’t bear to open the book again). It took 9 months to convince Grey to schedule the interview, and this is supposed to be an in-depth profile, and you ask seven questions? I’ve had interviews over an hour long for a 500 word article. I couldn’t even tell you how many questions I asked–I started out with a list that was maybe a page long, that I used as a guide when the conversation needed steering. Also, Christian Grey asks Ana if she wants to be shown around, and she says no. WHAT ARE YOU DOING. YOU ALWAYS SAY YES TO THAT. Even somebody with no journalistic instincts whatsoever says yes to that. Again with the “Why is Kate sending her roommate on these shenanigans and not calling another editor on the newspaper staff, especially since this is so important, and Ana is so clearly bad at it.”
  • EL James explains characters’ jokes for us after they say them: “Obviously, he’s referring to my earlier less-than-elegant entry into his office.” Yes. Obviously. So obviously you don’t need to tell us that, Ms James. Your readership is not stupid.
  • Ana goes home and offers to make her roommate a sandwich, and her roommate accepts. Even though she just had the flu a few hours ago. If the roommate–driven, tenacious roommate–was too sick to do the interview, she’s too sick to be eating a sandwich now. And yet here she is, eating a sandwich.

And that’s just Chapter One, Gentle Readers. It goes on like this. I tried to stop taking notes, I really did, but I couldn’t because this nonsense is just so frustrating:

  • Everyone mind’s everyone else’s business whether it’s needed or wanted. At a bar, Ana’s roommate Kate is about to leave the bar with a guy she just met. Ana tries to follow her on the grounds that she needs to give Kate “a safe sex lecture.” Kate is 22, and Ana is not her mother. I really hope that Kate’s learned about safe sex by now. Also, Ana is drunk, making her impulse to be the responsible mom figure somewhat laughable. Leave Kate alone, Ana. (This is outweighed by my total annoyance at Kate generally, who keeps going out of her way to make Christian angry/jealous on purpose. Interference of Roommate into Ana’s relationship aside, playing stupid high school games with guys is just….stupid, immature, and high school.)
  • At some point, Christian scolds Ana about her hair being damp. Of course it is. She just got out of the shower, Christian. Which you know because she’s in your hotel room. And you’re the one who told her to take the shower. Shut up.
  • Ana has apparently gotten through four years of college, from 2007-2011, without an email account. I refuse to believe that a middle class American girl born in 1989 did not have an email account before now. (On the other hand, I was so relieved when they started emailing each other, because James included header and signature text from all the emails, which made turning the pages that much faster.)
  • Christian has told her to start her BDSM research on Wikipedia. Sigh.
  • The narrative voice is inconsistent. Ana is the narrator, yet halfway through the book I still don’t feel like I know her. At the beginning of one chapter, she takes a moment to “admire the pretty” that is Christian standing in front of her. Later on, she says,”His gaze is impassive; his eyes cold shards of smoky glass.” It’s jarring to just switch tone and mood this way. Either Ana is Hannah Montana, or she is Jane Eyre. She cannot be both.
  • For someone who says she’s never been drunk before, she drinks a lot of wine, with almost every meal, whether she’s with Christian or not. She also never eats.
  • And this is without even getting into the assumption, which goes completely unchallenged here, that everyone who gets into BDSM is messed up or damaged. Or Ana’s assumption, also completely unchallenged, that Christian just needs to be shown what true love and acceptance are to mend his ways, and thinks that that fixer mission makes it okay to completely disrespect his needs and desires–which he went out of his way to state to her, clearly and honestly.

A few chapters into the book, I started thinking of John Laroquette’s rant from his appearance on the West Wing about hitting people with cricket bats, and couldn’t stop. And I hadn’t even gotten to the sexy tying up parts yet. (I also started sending angry texts to my friend Skippy, who doesn’t want to read this book, and didn’t want to hear about it, and now knows more about it than he ever wanted to. But he didn’t tell me to shut up once. Patient man, is Skippy.)

And yes. Most of these are petty details that I should overlook. I know. People read this book because they want to read the sexy tying up parts. They don’t care about Ana’s graduation ceremony, or the length of the interview with Christian, or the fact that EL James doesn’t seem to know that “army” should be capitalized when you are referring to someone’s employer or profession, ie, “ex-Army.” But you know what? The little details irk me. They pull me out of the story. By the time I get to the sexy tying up parts, I’m angry and frustrated and I don’t care anymore. And frankly, it’s insulting. Because if EL James doesn’t have the barest minimum of respect for me as a reader–if she did, she’d notice that she said “besieged” twice in two sentences, or think for three seconds about whether Ana can see Christian’s feet and tell us about the shoes he’s wearing when there’s a desk between them–she’d care enough to get this stuff right. I can’t tell you how aggravating it is when I just want to fall into a story, but I keep getting knocked out of it by these stupid little details. I respect you enough as an author that I spent a week reading your story. The least you can do is not treat me like I’m stupid.

We deserve better than this, Gentle Readers. We deserve solid tales decently told. Even if all you want is a story that, in the words of James, “makes desire pool in your belly,” you can do better than this (or you can search on the internet for files put together by helpful people who excerpted all the sexy bits of the 50 Shades series and put them in a single document, so you don’t even have to bother with the story). The internet has entire terabytes of bandwidth devoted to better erotic and/or BDSM tales than this. (And if this book has made you curious about BDSM and/or you want to try this with your partner, for the love of god, use something besides this book and ever-loving Wikipedia as sources/inspiration/guides.)

To make matter worse, (though it was, in retrospect, a really useful juxtaposition for reviewing purposes), I read 50 Shades of Grey the same week that I listened to Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass on audiobook, specifically the part where Whitman is recounting his experiences as a nurse in a Union Army hospital, dressing the wounds of injured Civil War soldiers. One is a story about a silly girl whose biggest problem is that there’s a disconnect between what her brain is telling her she should want and what is actually giving her orgasms. The other is about the indomitable human spirit and the sacrifices that men make, about pain and courage and friendship and humanity. I don’t understand half of what Whitman wrote, but I feel like a better person for having read it. 50 Shades just made me want to hit things, and not in a fun sexy way, either.

I think if I was offered a choice between reading this book again, watching The Human Centipede (a movie which is, I’m pretty sure, the absolute nadir of creative human output), or getting punched in the face, I’d have to think about it. And then I’d probably choose getting punched in the face. Immediately after reading this book, I started listening to the audiobook for Stiff by Mary Roach, about human decomposition and what cadavers donated to science are subjected to. It’s gooey and mushy and contains phrases like “intracranial steam,” which is what happens when the inside of your skull gets so hot that your brains literally melt out of your ears (don’t worry, you’re dead by the time this happens)–and it’s so much more entertaining and less disturbing than 50 Shades of Grey.

Approach this book with extreme caution, Gentle Readers. I wouldn’t have given it even one star but the computer didn’t give me the option of negative numbers.

Book Review: When You Are Engulfed in Flames

sedarisI first posted this review on my Goodreads account over here
As I have previously noted (in my review of Bossypants), I have an unfortunate inability to connect with a lot of comedy. I’m not sure why this is, but it’s true of most comedy media, whether books or movies or stand up or sitcoms.

I do, however, like David Sedaris, at least when he has contributed material to This American Life, which I listen to entirely too much. He’s clever and funny, and knows how to exaggerate events in order to capture their true essence. For example, in Sedaris’ classic essay about being a Santa Elf, “The Santaland Diaries,” which was originally recorded and broadcast for NPR’s Morning Edition, I believe, and re-broadcast several times on This American Life, as well as being reprinted in two of Sedaris’ books and various magazines, Sedaris has this interaction with a mother and son:

The woman grabbed my arm and said, ‘You there, elf. Tell Riley here that if he doesn’t start behaving immediately, then Santa is going to change his mind and bring him coal for Christmas.’ I said that Santa changed his policy and no longer traffics in coal. Instead, if you’re bad, he comes to your house and steals things. I told Riley that if he didn’t behave himself, Santa was going to take away his TV and all his electrical appliances and leave him in the dark. “All your appliances, Riley, including the refrigerator. Your food is going to spoil and smell bad. It is going to be so cold and dark where you are. You’re going to wish you never even heard the name Santa.”

The woman got a worried look on her face and said, ‘All right. That’s enough.’ I said, ‘He’s going to take your car and your furniture and all of your towels and blankets and leave you with nothing.’ The mother said, ‘No, that’s enough. Really.’

Now, obviously, I don’t know if Sedaris said all this to a child. It seems a bit much to me. But I would not be at all surprised if he said at least some of it. The rest is exaggeration for effect. But I’ve been a Christmas elf. I worked in retail for a lot of years. And a little part of me just wants that story to be true so badly. Maybe he said it, maybe he didn’t, but you know what? He got it exactly right. At his best, that’s what makes Sedaris so great: he makes these caricatures that are obviously caricatures, but are also exactly right.

When it came to When You Are Engulfed in Flames, though, my reaction was a bit mixed. Flames is a collection of essays, most of which have been pre-published in periodicals, and most of which pertain to Sedaris’ life as an American living in France with his boyfriend Hugh. What I realized, reading this book rather than listening to Sedaris perform it, is that Sedaris’ caricature humor really works best when he’s writing about people other than himself. When he turns his pen in his direction, it sometimes creates this weird self-conscious meta thing where Real David is writing about Caricature David and Real David knows that Caricature David is being ridiculous/isn’t really like that, but is writing it that way anyway. For the writing to be both self-aware and self-oblivious is a distracting, at least to me. When he’s writing about a third party, this works, because he has no access to (and doesn’t have any reason to talk about) how the person in question sees themselves, or their own internal contradictions. But when writing about himself, it’s a little problematic.

The other, much more minor, irksome detail is that he provides very little contextual explanation for even the simplest things. For example, Hugh is only introduced in the beginning as “Hugh,” not “my boyfriend Hugh,” or any other relationship signifier, and if I didn’t know who he was from listening to This American Life I probably would’ve been confused through the first two essays before I finally picked up on the context. And he never, ever, explains why he and Hugh moved to France to begin with, or why they lived in both Paris and Normandy. Did they just feel like it? Did one of them have a job? Is Hugh actually French? Were I reading just a single essay, I wouldn’t necessarily need all the background, but over the course of a book-length collection of essays, I miss it. And it wouldn’t have been that hard, either. Two sentences added in to one of the essays. A short introduction. Something.

On the other hand, Sedaris is enormously successful at bringing me along with him, and having me believe in his actions. Sedaris is a very different person than me–I can tell he expresses emotions differently, he’s looking for different sorts of relationships, he has wildly different interests, and a different temperament. He’s more cynical than me. He keeps pet spiders, for crying out loud. I do not read a lot of books where the narrator and myself are so disparate. I’m even less likely to connect with, believe in, or like such a narrator. But Sedaris pulls me in, even while I’m disagreeing with everything he’s doing, I understand why he’s doing it.

All in all, Sedaris is a talented guy. I have no idea where this book ranks amongst his others, or how it compares. I’m guessing Flames isn’t his best, but I don’t know. If you like him, it’s worth reading. If you like wry, self-deprecating humor based out of insecurity and perceptiveness, Sedaris is worth trying (and if you don’t like it, hey, it’s a collection of essays–you don’t have to read them all). I don’t know if I recommend reading this book, but I do recommend checking out the material he’s released on This American Life.

And the Santaland essay. Listen to the extended version on This American Life. Totally worth it.

Book Review: The Big Sleep

bigsleepI first posted this review on my Goodreads account over here.

“It is not a very fragrant world, but it is the world you live in, and certain writers with tough minds and a cool spirit of detachment can make very interesting and even amusing patterns out of it.” –Raymond Chandler, “The Simple Art of Murder”

Another building block in my recent exploration of gritty, noir-y fiction (I have been reading Elmore Leonard, and wanting to re-read some Dashiell Hammett), Raymond Chandler was recommended to me by a coworker. I chose The Big Sleep because it’s the one that I’d heard of.

Many people know the general plot, The Big Sleep being both a classic book and a classic movie, but for those who don’t: It is the late 1930s in Los Angeles. Phillip Marlowe is a private detective, hired by a local millionaire to take care of a problem he’s having with one of his daughters being blackmailed. He barely starts investigating that when he stumbles on a murder, and the millionaire’s other daughter’s involvement in dangerous and/or scandalous activities. “Extortion, kidnapping, pornography, seduction, and murder are just a few of the complications he gets caught up in,” as the book jacket says. The local police force is also sniffing around the case and complicating matters.

Chandler is one of those authors who–like Elmore Leonard and Dashiell Hammett–doesn’t feel the need to tell you what Marlowe is thinking or feeling, even though the novel is told in the first person. Marlowe tells you what he does, all nice and in order, and reports to you what other characters say to him. He lets you draw all the necessary conclusions as to the facts. The only time that explanations are forthcoming is when they are within dialogue. You can read it and try to stay one step ahead of Marlowe, and figure out what’s going on; or you can read it tagging along at his heels, not needing to anticipate. It’s fun both ways. And it’s a really refreshing way to read a novel written this way, one that’s straightforward and doesn’t expound. (Compare Chandler to something like Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, one half of which is almost exclusively about one character’s state of mind, rather than her actions.)

Marlowe is funny, too. A mostly decent guy, not any more dishonest than he has to be, with a wry sense of humor you can almost miss and way too much alcohol in his system, but smart enough to take care of himself in the trade he’s chosen. He’s a character you enjoy following, a more comfortable companion than Sam Spade, at any rate.

So yes. Classic. And for good reason.

Book Review: The Silence of the Lambs

silencelambsI first posted this review on my Goodreads account over here.

I have hinted at this in other reviews, but I will say it now directly: horror and I do not get along. When I was a kid, if I saw a horror movie by accident, I wouldn’t sleep for weeks. Thankfully, as an adult, my tolerance for horror books seems to have grown (I can read Stephen King without too much trouble), but still, I was decidedly trepidatious about reading the notorious Silence of the Lambs. Why did I read it? To see if I could. Will I be seeing the movie? No. No I will not.

Silence of the Lambs is equal parts gory suspense-thriller and police procedural drama. FBI trainee Clarice Starling has been sent on what is almost certainly a fool’s errand–to visit Dr. Hannibal Lector, imprisoned serial killer and cannibal, and see if he is willing to talk to her. The FBI is trying to build a database of profiles of serial killers, and for obvious reasons they want the database to include Lector. Lector doesn’t fill out the questionnaire. Instead he does something that is, at first, inexplicable: He tells Starling that there is a Valentine’s Day gift for her in the car of one of his victims. And so it begins, this cat-and-mouse between murderer and student, and it’s hard to tell who in the relationship is in control, especially when Starling’s interviews with Lector pull her into an investigation to capture an active murderer. Lector speaks in riddles and hints, so the action, while generally straightforward, is never predictable. And to my fellow horror-phobics: though the action ramps steadily upward, the horror doesn’t really; if you can get through the first ten chapters, you can probably get through all the way to the end.

The most surprising aspect of the book for me was Thomas Harris’ prose, which can be unexpectedly beautiful and affecting in a way that very, very few suspense novelists are. There is a moment, near the beginning, after Clarice Starling has seen the body of a murder victim. Any cop’s first body is bad enough (so I’m told), let alone one that’s been murdered as savagely as this woman has. Harris describes Starling’s reaction thus:

“In her life she had seen some of the hideously offhand ways in which the world breaks things. But she hadn’t really known, and now she knew…The knowledge would lie against her skin forever, and she knew she had to form a callous or it would wear her through.”

The knowledge lies against your skin, and you must form a callous or it’ll wear you through. That’s the most beautiful way to describe a most horrible thing.

Oh, and if you were wondering, the scariest moment in the whole book?

When the lights go out.

Book Review: S.

sI first reviewed this book on my Goodreads page over here.


I’m actually only halfway through. So I don’t have much to tell you. And it’s one of those books where you don’t want to give anything away. But I’m more absorbed in this book than in any book I’ve read for a long time. SO GOOD.


ahem. Okay, I’ve finished the book now.

The reason for the squealing of awesomeness above has to do both with what a different book S. is as well as how good it is (both in terms of its technical construction and it’s plot/likability/that ineffable thing that makes us label books “good”). In case you haven’t heard of it, S. is two stories within one book. The first story is The Ships of Theseus, purportedly written in the 1940s, a symbolic/metaphorical retelling of the labor and Communist movements in Europe (as well as….other things). The physical book itself has been published to look like a library edition of The Ships of Theseus.The other story, which is handwritten in the margins of The Ships of Theseus, is of two college students writing notes, passing the book back and forth between them–notes about the book, the mysterious author V.M. Straka, and their own lives. The book also contains numerous inserts–longer letters and postcards, maps, newspaper articles, decoder wheels–that Eric and Jen (the college students) share with each other (I would be remiss at this moment if I didn’t beg of you, dear library patron, please try very hard to not lose these inserts).

You will almost certainly like one story better than the other, and there will be times when one is more exciting than the other (in the best parts of the book, the two stories trade off between who’s being exciting and who isn’t), and that’s okay. But it’s important to read–and pay attention to–both stories. (The Margin Story, since it’s told out of order, is harder to keep track of, but also simpler.) It would’ve been easy to sacrifice one story in service to the other, but Doug Dorst resists this temptation and gives full service to both.

This is not a book to read in fits and snatches, here and there, on short bus rides or quick waits in the doctor’s office (and not just because a catch-as-catch-can strategy makes you more likely to lose inserts). No, to fully appreciate this book, you need to put on a pair of comfy pajama pants and some wool socks, make some tea (or some coffee, or some hot chocolate with some Bailey’s in it), clear a couple of hours off of your calendar, put your smartphone in the other room, and sit down and just read. When is the last time a book commanded your entire attention? When is the last time a book really challenged you, not Dostoyevsky-challenging, or frustrating-challenging, but one that makes you work, just enough to make it more fun, to make sure you’re getting all the details and aren’t missing anything? Don’t you miss that? Don’t you want that back? I didn’t even realized that that was something I missed until I started reading S., and it demanded that I read it this way.

That said, if you like your stories direct; if you like the line of the plot to be, not predictable, but to at least proceed forward in a straight line; if you like at least knowing what the characters in a book are trying to do; this may not be a book for you. This book is indirect, and it meanders, and it can be hard to tell which details are important to remember and which aren’t (this is especially true of the Margin Story). It doesn’t build to a big final climax or moment of truth (which is not to say that I didn’t find the ending satisfying). If you need your stories to be concise and cohesive, this book might just be a slog to get through, and seem pointless. You need to be okay with narrative ambiguity. (On the other hand, if you asked me as a reader if I like my stories direct, cohesive, and concise with clear narrative goals, I would tell you that yes I do. And I loved this book. So maybe give yourself a chance either way.)

S. is getting huge amounts of publicity, largely because of its format. Time will tell whether the book is just a gimmick or whether it stands up on its own feet after its shiny unusualness wears off a bit. I’ll have to read it again in six months or so and see if I still like it as much in the future as I do now, in some awe of its uniqueness and strangeness. If that happens, I’ll come back and amend the review again. But for now? Loved it. Loved. It.

Book Review: Bossypants

bossypantsI first reviewed this book on my Goodreads account over here.

I have a confession. It’s something that distanced me from my peers in middle school, and interfered with my ability to make friends. It’s not something that I tell a lot of people.

I don’t really like Saturday Night Live. It’s possible that I straight up don’t like it at all. There have been some funny skits here and there, but it’s largely just uninteresting to me. I feel the same way about all of the movies that have been made by and with SNL alum, including anything with Will Ferrell, Chris Farley, or Adam Sandler. I also have no use for South Park, which my friends have all been obsessed with since middle school.

Lest you think I completely hate fun, I assure you that I do watch and love and quote The Simpsons like any self-respecting Millennial.

At some point, though, somebody forced me to sit down and watch 30 Rock and, to my enormous surprise, I liked it. It’s clever and funny and random, but most of all, good-hearted. It’s not a mean show. So, I watch 30 Rock and The Office and maybe one of these days I’ll take a chance on The Mindy Project and then I will have comedy mojo.

None of that is why I picked up Bossypants, though. I picked up Bossypants because put it in a list of “65 Books You Need To Read In Your 20s,” and I’d gotten all the way to age 31 without reading most of them, and was concerned that maybe I had missed something important. Other than cultural literacy, I mean.

I admit I didn’t like Bossypants much at first. I wasn’t opposed, didn’t dislike it, but didn’t respond to it. But it grew on me. I think most of this is just that I’m plain more interested in Tina Fey’s adulthood and current philosophies than I am with anything that she did as a child. But the other part is the we never really hear from Childhood Tina. We hear from Adult Tina, talking in Adult Tina’s voice, about Childhood Tina. And as a result, I didn’t feel like I knew Childhood Tina very well, and didn’t really care much when she got left behind and we transitioned to Adult Tina. In the latter half of the book, we get to hear both from Adult Tina and about Adult Tina, and the whole character of the narrative changes for the better. Also, I’m a sucker for behind-the-scenes looks at TV shows and movies and things (I am the person who always listens to DVD audio commentary and watches the “Making Of” featurette). It also just started being funnier as her voice grew on me–right around the time when, to preserve his anonymity, Fey gives her husband a different alias every time he’s mentioned in the chapter about their honeymoon. (Conversely, she refers to her daughter as “my daughter” through 80% of the book, and then starts suddenly referring to her by name with no qualifying introduction, so keep that in mind and just make the inference you think you should be making.) I also appreciated her advice, specifically: if you are put in charge of hiring creative people and you need to work with those people for 80 hours a week, pick the people who are least likely to go crazy and punch you in the face (related: If you’re hoping to get hired to do something creative for 80 hours a week, don’t come across as the kind of person who will go crazy and start punching people in the face. You may be a genius, but that doesn’t matter once you start hitting).

There is also a word that you should remember: blorft. It means “Completely overwhelmed but proceeding as if everything is fine and reacting to the stress with the torpor of a possum.” Thank you, Tina Fey, for giving a name to that feeling, for that I will be forever grateful.

So. Life changing? Nah. Best book ever? Not really (even if I’d been a huge Tina Fey or SNL fan going in, I don’t think that I would think that). Worth reading? Sure. Funny? Yes.

Book Review: Seraphina

seraphinaI first reviewed this book on my Goodreads account over here.

Here’s the thing about fantasy: It is so dominated by JRR Tolkien (who, in turn, was heavily influenced by European mythology–English, Norse, and Celtic, most notably) that you can sometimes forget that there’s space for anything else. Dwarves and orcs and elves and men. Dragons and unicorns. There may be minor variations (i.e., Robert Jordan and his trollocs), but for the most part, no matter who writes the fantasy, a dragon is a dragon is a dragon.

Unless you’re Rachel Hartman.

When is a dragon not a dragon?

When he folds himself up into the shape of a human, and lives in a human city.

Honestly, that should be enough to make you read the book, I think. Dragons that attempt (and mostly fail, unless they’ve been doing it for a very long time) to pass as humans. But Hartman’s prose is also both beautiful and subtle, descriptive and poetic without being overly flowery. Wanting to figure out Seraphina’s world and how it works will pull you in, but the plot keeps you going until the end. This is such a unique and creative novel, even if you don’t like fantasy (perhaps especially if you don’t like fantasy because it all sounds like JRR Tolkien to you), it’s worth trying this book. The biggest problem with this book is that the sequel (of course there’s a sequel, it’s a fantasy novel, after all) doesn’t come out until 2015.

It got me thinking, too, without ever being didactic about its themes. It makes you think about trust, between individuals and between cultures. About xenopobia. About how we accommodate (or fail to accommodate) people in our society who are different, and about how hard we try (or don’t try at all) to communicate with people that we don’t understand. And about what we lose, as a society, as humanity, when we fall into the traps of distrust and xenophobia and the rejection of difference.

There were times when the plot felt a little too plotted; when characters have revelations or realize things just at exactly the right moment. Hartman throws a lot of balls into the air and doesn’t always do full justice to all of them, and the cast of characters is large and (for me) somewhat confusing (there is a glossary in the back, which I didn’t realize was there until I finished the book, but there you go). But that’s small potatoes. This is Hartman’s debut novel. Which is completely insane to me. I hope she writes more–not just finishes out the story of Seraphina, but takes us to other worlds too. I’d love to see through her eyes more.

Book Review: Valdez is Coming

valdez I first posted this review on my Goodreads account over here.
If you know anything about Elmore Leonard’s style, you’ve probably been told one of two things: His prose is “spare,” and the way he writes dialogue is beyond compare (him and Mark Twain. They can listen to people, and write the way people talk–a deceptively difficult skill to master). Leonard’s dislike of adverbs, of any speech attribution other than “said,” of prologues–of any superfluous words–has been well and truly immortalized in his 10 Rules of Writing that he wrote for the New York Times in 2001. (You know you are indelibly associated with something when The Onion uses it as the basis for your obituary.)

What the ten rules boil down to is this: every single word that Elmore Leonard uses moves the story forward. He wastes nothing. He gives nothing away, either: he may tell you what a character is thinking, but he will never tell you what a character is planning. He may tell you what a character’s doing, in which case he doesn’t feel the need to tell you what the character’s thinking. He doesn’t waste time setting scenes or describing landscapes, unless you need to know what the landscape looks like, in which case he tells you in the fewest possible words. He reminds me of Dashiell Hammett and other mid-century male crime/noir authors–stories where Men Are Men, Actions Are Self-Explanatory, and If You Can’t Follow Along You’re Not Paying Enough Attention. Even if you don’t like Westerns or crime novels, if you like to observe different authors’ styles, you could do much worse than checking out Elmore Leonard.

So. Valdez is Coming. In a small Arizona town, the town constable (Valdez) has killed an innocent man. When he tries to get the town to make amends, he’s beaten and mocked.

And then the town finds out what Valdez–who has lived in their midst for ten years, but who nobody really knows–is capable of.

It’s a deceptively simple tale with a very easy premise. Leonard probably could have told it as a short story, rather than a novel, if he’d had a mind to. But when you read it, with Leonard’s trademark taciturnity, with no words wasted, you know that the story is exactly as long as it needs to be. Ironically, it is because the prose is so spare that the story gets away with being as long as it is (in the hands of a lesser author, like me for example, it would’ve bogged down and gotten completely boring and lagging in the middle, and I would’ve been justifiably critized for putting in too much narrative padding). And it is Leonard’s disinclination to over-explain that keeps the climax of the book a surprise for the reader, even though you suspect all along what the ending will be or must be (this is a Western, after all, there’s only a few ways it could end).

So yes. You should read this book. It’s not just a good story, but it’s a story told by a master, a guy who managed to simultaneously impress book critics and literature professors and ordinary readers. I will be finding more Elmore Leonard to fill my life.

Book Review: Beka Cooper

bekacooperI first posted this review on my Goodreads account over here.

From the book jacket: “Beka Cooper is a rookie with the law-enforcing Provost’s Guard, and she’s been assigned to the Lower City. It’s a tough beat that’s about to get tougher, as Beka’s limited ability to communicate with the dead clues her in to an underworld conspiracy. Someone close to Beka is using dark magic to profit from the Lower City’s criminal enterprises–and the result is a crime wave the likes of which the Provost’s Guard has never seen before.”

As much as I like fantasy, I’d never read any Tamora Pierce before. Just as well, since I understand that this book is a bit of a departure from her usual stories in style and setting (though it takes place in the same universe as some of her other books). I was prepared for this to be somewhat formulaic and ordinary–the book jacket description, after all, doesn’t give credit to Ms. Pierce and what a good writer she can be.

First off, I really like the character of Beka Cooper. She likes to be physically active, and will, someday, make a good cop (“Dog” in the parlance of the book). But she’s shy, painfully shy, and it interferes both with her work and her ability to make friends. And I can’t think of a lot of other literary characters who have that trait (at least, none who don’t overcome their shyness over the course of the story, or who get around their shyness by staying strictly within circles and situations where it doesn’t come into play). For Beka, being shy is a thing that is there with her all of the time. She has to be twice as good a Dog in other areas (she’s a really good fighter, and she’s smart) to make up for her inability to talk to people. Anyone who’s spent a lifetime being shy knows how this is.

It’s Beka’s first week on the job, and she stumbles into evidence of…well, we’ll say “organized crime,” and leave it at that. It might be stretching the bounds of credulity to believe that the most rookie of rookies can pull off an investigation like Beka does, but Pierce does a pretty good job of establishing Beka as a character capable of such a thing (and also of making the investigation a collaborative effort, which also helps to keep the story from breaking the bonds of the credible). There’s characters to meet and murders to solve and fights to fight and criminals to arrest and pigeons to talk to. What more could you want from a fantasy novel?

I listened to the audiobook version, so a moment about that specifically: It’s well read. I mean, really well read, by Susan Denaker. The Lower City, where the story takes place, has its own syntax and slang and way of speaking (and, because it’s written as Beka Cooper’s journal, this language is throughout the whole book, not just the dialogue), and Ms. Denaker gives the voice of the Lower City life and heart. Just as different classes of British citizenry have different accents, so do the classes in the Lower City, and Ms. Denaker is able to shift between them. I got brought into the book in spite of myself. Well-produced and well-performed audio book.

Not-so-great things about the audiobook: Really, the only thing is that, since this is a story that takes place in a whole nother world with other vocabulary, names, and places, it can be hard (especially if you’re a touch hard-of-hearing like me, or if you’re listening to the book in a noisy place like on a bus) to understand proper nouns. There’s a lot to keep track of, and since you’re listening to it, you can’t easily go back and refer to previous passages and check your understanding. The print version of the book has a map, glossary, and a list of characters, all of which would’ve been enormously helpful for me to have to refer to in the audio version. This isn’t really so much of a problem with this audiobook in particular as it is a weak spot of audio books generally, but there you go. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to look at the character list in the print version before you get started, to learn how all the names are spelled.