Friday, February 6, 2009

New blog - and books!

A whole new space, and all evidence suggests that I still won't be v. good about remembering to come back here regularly. But I'd like to - I still keep a regular blog over on LJ but I feel like that blog is very defined by the boundaries of that community, and I'm feeling like I have less and less to say there. Vox is a disaster - the update interface is a mess and I think the site is mostly dead - and I want to beat Wordpress about the head. Let's try this, then. If I make it back here more than once or twice I'll even give the import tool a go.

We're in Miami today, fresh off the boat from Ships & Dip V (more on that in another entry. short version: All Mountain Goats and Weakerthans, all the time. Also, ice cream cones! And mojitos! And people mistaking Marc for John Darnielle, which will never stop being funny) and we still don't have our land legs under us; my inner ear continues to sway and the room obliges it. Neither of us are looking forward to re-entry to DC, and not just because my parents have been spoiling the children and there will be some difficulty reacquainting them with bedtimes and reasonable dinners. We spent a rather sad amount of our time away talking about how very much I am hating work right now and planning an exit strategy, and the thought of returning to my office (even if it is for just a few more months) is very unpleasant.

But I wanted to make an entry about all the reading I'd done lately. I've always been an active reader, but my split focus on my work and raising the kids has taken up so much of my brainspace over the last several years that it's been a long time since I've had a period of such voracious pleasure reading, and then knitting swept in to keep my hands busy and my creative mind occupied. As much as I've enjoyed playing with fibers and color over the last few years, I feel like I'm waking up to the simple pleasure of reading again, and what a delight.

This is a catalog and quick(ish?) review of everything I've read since the start of the year.

33 1/3 series
Celine Dion's Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste by Carl Wilson - I read this on the recommendation of a friend, and am glad I did; I certainly wouldn't have come to it on my own. A recurring theme in the series is the deconstruction of music criticism, and this book might be the clearest distillation of that thread. I also found it compelling because I'm still on this regional culture kick, and found the articulations of Dion's position within working-class Quebecois culture very interesting. I was reading it at the same time as the Tremblay mentioned below, and so there was that beautiful constructive interference between the two; I don't think I'd have enjoyed either quite as much if I hadn't read them together.
Black Sabbath's Master of Reality by John Darnielle - I read this just yesterday morning, and the great but also potentially weakening thing about having read it in a year when I've seen 5 Mountain Goats shows is that the voice was remarkably clear; there was an awful lot of bleed-through for me between Roger Painter and John Darnielle's stage monologues. It made the prose of Roger's journal very familiar (and although I spend time with undergrads, there's a substantial difference between the kind of semi-academic speech I get from university juniors & seniors and the frustrated complaints of a locked-up 15-year-old, and so better access to the speaker's voice was dead useful), but I sometimes thought that transfer got in the way. It got easier toward the end; the clear shift in the narrator's voice as he aged 10 years helped rebuild those boundaries. The story was compelling for such a quick read, and I've spent a good part of the last few days wondering if Roger sent the letter, if Gary wrote him back, and mostly if I WANTED him to. And by the way, I talked to John about the book briefly last night, and apparently he's working on a second, largely on the strength of this first bit of published longer-form fiction. Well done and yay!

Canada Reads 2009, because I'm bitter that NPR doesn't do something similar, and the debates are coming up quick!
The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill (published under the title Someone Knows My Name in the US) - My favorite of this year's Canada Reads books (this list is ranked, in fact), with a truly compelling main character. Beautifully sketched childhood scenes in Africa followed by one brutal (but not gratuitously described) trial after another. Like most Americans, I knew nothing of the Black Loyalists; in fact, also like most Americans, my history of the Loyalists following the end of the Revolutionary War was sketchy full-stop, so I feel like I learned a lot. I've already loaned this out.
The Outlander by Gil Adamson - I really enjoyed this - the writing is lovely, the character development well-paced, the regional and historical setting exceptionally well-chosen and very alive in the text. That said, it doesn't particularly capture my imagination, and although I think there will be images that will linger, it's not a book that I think will stay with me for a terribly long time.
The Fat Woman Next Door Is Pregnant by Michel Tremblay - To begin with, just an observation that translated novels (unless they're by, like, Milan Kundera or somebody with an amazing publishing history and a contract to match) always have crappy bindings and typesetting and I resent that. I also don't quite understand why French novels always translate into such anti-melodic English prose. I know French syntax well and I've read enough novels in French to think that it's not about French literary style; no idea what that's about. My issues aside, this was a fun, quick glimpse that fleshed out a neighborhood quite fully. It reads like a playwright's first novel, which for me is a good thing; this is a style I'm rather fond of. Very nice piece of urban lit.
Fruit by Brian Francis - Another confession: I broke the binding on this one, too. How is this so hard? This was a very quick read - charming, but I don't think it's something that will stay with me. Young adult fiction inspires something like Chinese Food hunger in me; I enjoy the experience but just never find it very satisfying.
Mercy Among the Children by David Adams Richards - I should admit up front that I haven't finished this. Frankly, I don't know if I can. It's beautifully written and so I wish I could, but it HURTS and my god, it's been such a dreadful year for so many people I love and my guard is up and so I'm having a hard time falling in love with characters who are constantly getting the crap beat out of them; it's all a bit too familiar. I suspect there is a nugget of something valuable, beautiful, resilient on the other side of the abject misery of the first 100 or so pages (god, I hope so) but right now I don't trust the writer enough to take me through it.

Other Stuff
Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell - I have no idea how I came to pick up this book - I must have read about it somewhere. And it was fine - a bit thin on specifics and it could have stood a little less generality - but this was written for a lay rather than scholarly audience and I'm not sure we get to count that as a weakness.
Michael Tolliver Lives by Armistead Maupin - Maupin describes this as not so much another "Tales of the City" book but an independent novel with familiar characters, and I can't quite see why. I mean, what can I say, these are chewy fun books that I've read a million times, and the PBS film adaptations are almost as familiar. I had put off "Michael Tolliver" for a while, but I was in San Francisco for a conference in early January and it seemed an appropriate time to pick it up. Great summer reading.
Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan - See above note re. young adult fiction. I'd just seen the film (pay-per-view - I was nursing blisters and pouting because I couldn't make it to SFMOMA until the next day) and found Michael Cera as adorable as usual and wanted to check out the book. The good news is that I'd read it again; the bad news is that it's so unmemorable that I'd kind of have to.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Burrows - Entertaining bit of romantic fluff which held my attention for the afternoon when I read it. I knew absolutely nothing about the Channel Islands and so had no idea they'd been part of occupied territory during WWII. There are reasonably good descriptions of post-war London in this book, as well. I find that epistolary novels always have a hard time getting their feet under them; it's hard not to be extra conscious of all the different voices that have to be managed, and it takes a deft hand to make them all sound both genuine and distinct, and I think that this is one place where this book really shines.

Current Reading
Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America by David Hackett Fischer - Dense as hell - this is not particularly light reading and right now I'm bogged down in Puritans and wishing that Sarah Vowell would come along and liven the place up a bit. That said, so far I admire his very clear articulation of his thesis and argument; I'm not in a position to evaluate the historical scholarship, but I respect the clarity of his prose and the intellectual honesty with which he writes.
The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America by Jonathan Kozol - I read Savage Inequalities a while ago - not that it was necessary reading, because the way that poor kids get screwed is a subject that was already completely familiar. Good complement to that, at least so far.
The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism by Andrew Bacevich and The Religious Case Against Belief by James Carse - That thing that happens, that thing we ought to have a word for, that thing where all the threads are coming together and all of a sudden everything you hear is about or in reference to or tangential to one topic - that thing right now for me is Reinhold Neibuhr. This is kind of delicious because it's very rare that the writings of theologians become relevant for my life. But he was all over the 2008 presidential election, with both John McCain and Barack Obama claiming him as a beloved writer. He's a major thread in the first book and a point of pivot in the second. The Bacevich is a bit of strong medicine, but so far we're in agreement that Carter was way awesomer than has yet been recognized and Reagan was a disaster; the Carse works against my own childhood religious experiences (I grew up evangelical Christian in the south) and there's a lot of heavy lifting to find my way to his point-of-view. My feelings on liberal Christianity are generally more in line with those expressed in Letter to a Christian Nation, which I also read in January, actually; I have a very rich life of the soul, thanks, and don't quite get why I might want or need to identify myself with a pretty odious religious tradition in order to have that.

You'll note, then, that I'm between novels and the non-fiction on my plate is pretty heavy stuff - I am in desperate need of a novel to sink into. Marc has finally, FINALLY finished Anathem but now I barely remember all of the things he's ready to discuss so I may pick that up again, but I'm trying to stagger my Stephenson reads because the wait between books is so long. If you've a recommendation, though, please do share!

1 comment:

  1. Yeah - New Blog! I could never manage to comment on the LJ blog.

    I have a DON'T read un-recommendation: Ten Days in the Hills by Jane Smiley. I loved her other books, but this one was painful. I finished it last night, only because I thought it had to get brilliant at some point. It didn't.

    I'm reading "Horns and Wrinkles" (Joseph Helgerson) with the kids right now. It is great. I'm reading a lot of kids fiction right now and actually enjoying it.

    I got sucked into the Twilight books. Terrible, terrible, terrible writing and the editing: even worse. But I couldn't put them down.