Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Ghost Story by Jim Butcher

Hey! This here's Barrie Summy's monthly book review club.

For next month my book club is reading One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez. And that was my choice. But there's another reader inside me, too. And that reader likes to read fun books that are quick and consumable and exciting and pulpy and fun. Also, did I mention, fun?

That reader discovered Harry Dresden a few years ago. What's not to love? In Jim Butcher's contemporary urban fantasy series, Chicago looks much as it does today. Except that, in the Yellow Pages, there's a single listing for a "Professional Wizard." That's Harry Dresden, and he's an old-school private investigator who solves problems with little help from modern technology (electronics don't do so well around magic).

The novels might start like classic noir detective stories but soon the missing artifact or other de rigueur case turns out to have an occult twist. To sum up the awesomeness here, so far we have:
1) Funny series novels set in Chicago
2) Classic mystery set-up
3) Magic.

What's not to love? That's harder to put my finger on. But I found that I don't want to read two Dresden novels back-to-back. Butcher's voice grates on me after that and little . . . flaws? stylistic choices? character idiosyncrasies? . . . in the writing begin to call attention to themselves and draw me out of the story.

So I read the books one-at-a-time, with space between, because I really like to enjoy each one. These stories have it all: wizards, magical politics, faeries, goblins, trolls, zombies, vampires, werewolves, angels, priests, fighting, battles, war, romance, you name it and it's probably somewhere in this world. As an added bonus, the main characters are geeks.

Another benefit to the slow-read approach is that I didn't catch up to the author for a long time.

But when I finished Ghost Story (Book 13, naturally) last week, I was stuck. The next novel isn't due until next summer! And only one per year after that! Alas.

If the above description captures your interest, let me underscore that/reassure you in two ways: Butcher's writing improves as the series progresses, and the novels are better than the short-lived Sci Fi Channel series loosely based on the books.

If you've tried just one or two of the novels but haven't gotten hooked, I'd recommend perseverance. I was shocked - shocked! - at what happened in Changes (Book 12). It sent me scrambling for Side Jobs, an anthology of short stories and a novelette set between various novels in the series, as well as a novella set immediately after Changes. Then I rushed right into Ghost Story, which left me hanging deliciously.

I'm looking forward to book 14 - and it's worth noting that the author does have a planned story arc for the entire series, including an ending - but I think the first 11 novels, fun as they were, were worth reading as prelude alone for all the changes in books 12 and 13.

Recommended light holiday reading.

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Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Simple Gifts

I used to have this idea about writing a novel called Simple Gifts about a child with special needs. I can't imagine writing that book, now or ever. Because the more I learn, the more it becomes apparent to me that there's nothing at all "simple" about a child with special needs.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell

Every time I hear or see Sarah Vowell - as a contributor on NPR's This American Life or as a guest on The Daily Show - I want to read one of her books. But picking up a nonfiction book about American history is not my first inclination when I'm looking for a fun read.

This month I took the plunge into Vowell's Assassination Vacation. What better book for the beginning of vacation season? The book follows Vowell's road trips to sites associated with the assassinations of Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley.

Despite my reluctance to read history, I fully expected to love this book.

And I did enjoy it quite a bit.

The two reasons I didn't love the book as much as I expected to: in the prologue Vowell (quoting a friend) used the word "retarded" twice as a pejorative having nothing to do with people with intellectual disabilities. Yes, I'm hypersensitive about this issue. But it jarred me out of the (otherwise hilarious) narrative and got us off on the wrong foot.

A deeper "problem" with the book is Vowell's disjointed, stream-of-consciousness style. I love it and my brain often works the same way. But I found the plot (such as it is) hard to follow sometimes. Tangent split off from tangent and I dutifully followed Vowell's breadcrumb trail but in my sleep deprived state - I have a newborn baby! - I had a hard time finding my way back to the main narrative. (Are you picturing the birds of sleeplessness devouring bread crumbs? Because I am.)

Not being intimately familiar with all the characters (the assassins, their families, people near the Presidents at the time of the attacks, etc.) I occasionally had to stop and reorient myself. Wait. Who are we talking about again? And how does this relate?

But I am so so glad I read the book. I learned a ton - painlessly - and I took away something even more valuable. As an ignorant American (alas) I have little sense of historical time. I know that our nation's history is relatively short but thinking, "The Civil War was 150 years ago," didn't really mean much to me. That is, until I saw it this way:

Robert Todd Lincoln - the President's son - was an adult with an established career when his father was murdered. He was still practicing law when my grandparents were born. In fact he didn't die until they were adults. Wow, these are all current events when I think about it that way. And I didn't realize how recently we held public hangings in this country.

To sum up: Sarah Vowell is hilarious and it's worth the time to read or listen to her work whereever you find it. This is a good, interesting, and educational read. Vowell is passionate about American History - she considers it her religion - and she shares her excitement in a way that's quite infectious.

One additional caveat. Vowell wrote this book during the Iraq War and President G.W. Bush's second term. Assassination Vacation is very much a product of its own place in history; Vowell ties in current events and politics with the historical narratives, and she is very much a liberal.

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Thursday, April 28, 2011

Not Writing, Still Busy

Writing every day is important to me and it's not something I'm doing at present. The urge is still there. I abandon my bed, driven from potential (and much-needed!) sleep by the need to write. Ideas buzz around in my head, eager to be let out.

Then I sit at my computer and hear: the baby waking, an older child requesting assistance (or attention), the pug needing to go outside, my email inbox pinging and pinging and pinging, or just my carpets crying for merciful attention from the vacuum cleaner.

I jot down my thoughts in outline form, hoping to get back to "flesh them out" later. This process satisfies the urge to write but rarely (never) produces anything worth sharing.

Indeed, this is less than half the post it was intended to be. But Ada needs water for her paintbrush and lunch isn't putting itself on the table.

Looking back over our Picasa site for the last month, it appears that I haven't just been on a "babymoon." I did have a baby a month ago and he's rather the center of everything right now. (And rightly so!)

But I've also written a bunch of thank you notes, read several books, gone to book club twice, toured a local Frank Lloyd Wright house, assisted in homework-related projects, hosted lots of company, gone to church and related meetings (several), attended a reunion event, put together a Seder and Easter, taken the dog and child to the vet and pediatrician, respectively, and coordinated the first annual Paul invitational marathon and supported my husband's running in general. Not too shabby.

From Ellie's nonfiction writing project "How To Make Cornbread for Chili:"

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Permission to Change (Seasons)

My apologies for the erratic weather we've had so far this year. I recently realized that it's all my fault.

See, in December a friend gave me a novel called Snow by Turkish author Orhan Pamuk. As I read it in fits and starts, it took me a really really long time to finish. But I'm finally done! And so now the snow can stop and spring can commence in earnest.

You're welcome.

As for why it took me so long to finish this book, well, that's all me I suppose. I kept flipping back to the front cover to verify that the seal on the front proclaiming, "Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature!" was still there and not just something I dreamed.

Later, I'd turn the book over and peruse the blurbs again. "One of the best books of the year" according to just about everyone from The New York Times Book Review to The Economist. Rave reviews from truly impressive people.

Repeatedly I read the jacket copy. "Slyly comic." Also, "humor," "wicked grin," etc.

I was excited to read this fabulous book, which came so highly recommended and is set in Turkey. (My in-laws lived in Turkey for years and my husband was actually born there; they returned to the states when his sister was ready for elementary school.)

But I just didn't get it. I didn't engage with the story, I didn't connect with the characters, and I felt frustrated by the pace. (The first day seemed to me like it must have been at least 48 hours long. Is Ka really in his late 30's as it appears? If so, how come the 17+ year age difference between close sisters Ipek and Kadife is never discussed?) I utterly missed the humor.

Obviously, this is all on me since apparently everyone else who's read Snow loved it. But I spent the first 200 pages trying to figure out why the author gave most of the unrelated main characters the same last name (Bey). Then I figured it must be a subtle comment on the provincial nature of Turkish society (the cerebral humor I'd been missing?). By page 300 I'd realized that "Bey" must be a sort of honorific (and it is). Some of my confusion might indeed have been cultural. I certainly feel like an uncultured ignoramus for my utter failure to appreciate this highly acclaimed novel.

But I finished it, and now it's spring!

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Rope 'Em! by Stacy Nyikos

I love participating in Barrie Summy's Book Review Club, and I get especially excited when she asks for a volunteer to review a children's picture book. The last one I reviewed was An Apple Pie for Dinner, which is still a favorite of both my girls. So when Barrie asked if anyone was interested in reviewing a picture book by another member of the Book Review Club, Stacy Nyikos, I jumped at the chance. And I am very, very glad the author sent me a copy!

At first I was concerned. suggests the book for 9-12 year-olds, which seemed a bit old for a picture book. Would my 7- and 4-year olds enjoy the story or would it be too much for them?

As I started reading, I remained concerned. A lot of the book - which is hilarious, incidentally - is an extended pun I doubt my 4-year-old understood. It's a Western. Set underwater. At the "OK Coral." On every page I felt like there were at least two jokes I needed to explain in order for my children to "get" the story.

But I held off and just read the story, instead. And then I read it again. And again. And, later, again. When my Ada's preschool class started a unit on the ocean I allowed her to take the book with her to school to share with her friends. (Ada has a thing for the ocean and another current favorite picture book of both of my girls is a western: Susan Middleton Elya's Cowboy Jose.)

I'm probably underestimating my kids. I bet they do get the humor in a bull shark chasing cowfish. And what's not to love about a sea horse who's a champion herder?

I'm still not sure exactly what my girls like about this book. They can't quite articulate why it's so great, but they certainly ask for it at bedtime again and again. They love to hate the shark. They sympathize with the heros. And my preschooler is a big fan of the TEAMWORK message that ends the story and dovetails nicely with a concept emphasized at her school.

The writing is clever, and with all the puns there's plenty for 9-12 year-olds (and adults) to enjoy. But the story also works on a simpler level for younger children. There's not too much text on the page, and Bret Conover's illustrations are worth the journey through the book all by themselves.

I can tell you what I like about the book, but for a children's picture book I think the highest praise is when a child requests the book over and over. And that's certainly happening at our house. Cowboy José had to go back to the library yesterday, but we still have Rope 'Em and I know we'll read it again tomorrow!

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Saturday, March 26, 2011

Anouncing. . .

Theodore James
Born 3/25/11
Weight: 7 pounds, 13 ounces
Length: 22 inches

Mom and baby are doing great.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Where I Work

I have a corner office, but this isn't as glamorous as it sounds. For one thing, it's in a corner of my living room. For another, it's a bit drafty there near all the windows. And, possibly related to the draftiness, when it pours rain occasionally my to-be-filed pile gets completely soaked.

But the view and the light are lovely. Plus, I get to work in my pajamas and the commute can't be beat.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

This month for Barrie Summy's Book Review Club I'm discussing The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. My sister gave this novel to my husband a few years ago, insisting that he had to read it. He didn't. Eventually, I did. Now he has, too, and my book club was supposed to discuss it tonight. We didn't. In fact, we didn't even meet because of the thick sheet of ice dusted with new-fallen snow blanketing our corner of the Midwest.

So rather than discussing The Sparrow with friends over food and wine at my house (visual enjoyment only, in my case with the wine) instead I'm sitting in my pajamas - which I've been in for 24 hours straight - on my couch in my warm, clean house, writing about the book.

Some of the women in my book club don't read a lot of science fiction, so I tried to sell them on the idea of this book. "I'd like to suggest something speculative, if you're up for a bit of a journey. The genre for this one I'd call literary sci fi, though it's fairly near future and not too far out there." If we amend "literary sci fi" to "literary Jesuit sci fi," does that pique your interest?

The idea is this: when new lands and people are discovered, one of the first groups to get there, every time, have been the Jesuits. Why should space be any different?

I also linked to a reading group guide and this review:
"In clean, effortless prose and with captivating flashes of wit, Russell creates memorable characters who navigate a world of exciting ideas and disturbing moral issues without ever losing their humanity or humor. Both heartbreaking and triumphant, and rich in literary pleasures great and small, The Sparrow is a powerful and haunting book. It is a magical novel, as literate as The Name of the Rose, as farsighted as The Handmaid's Tale and as readable as The Thorn Birds."
to prove that the book is absolutely appropriate for a serious book club read.

Not that we only take on serious reads. After all, this group has read Twilight and Just Do It: How One Couple Turned Off the TV and Turned On Their Sex Lives for 101 Days (No Excuses!). But mostly we do read upmarket fiction, the kinds of new novels that come with discussion questions printed on the last pages and require long waits at the library.

Back to The Sparrow. It's a smart book, meaning that it's a book about smart people who don't try to pretend not to be smart. I like that. The characters aren't pretentious, they're just interested in learning stuff. And it's a book that pulls off that amazing storytelling trick of describing something horrific and then making it understandable and a lot harder to judge than you'd assume.

I'm generally not a fan of books that jump around in time, but this book is told in alternating chapters from the "present" (near future) and the future (slightly further near future). This structure works well for the novel because both time lines proceed chronologically and eventually meet. Needing to know how we could possibly get there from here drives the story.

I don't want to give too much away, especially since I went on to read the sequel (Children of God) which picks up where The Sparrow leaves off and almost feels like Part II of the same book. So I will close with this: The characters from Russell's novel felt real to me, and I wish that I knew some of them. The situations felt perfectly plausible - no mean feat in speculative fiction. The moral questions felt absolutely current and relevant and important. I love talking about this book with people (which is why I twisted arms to get my husband and one of my book clubs to read it).

Have you read it? What did you think?

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Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Mom Jeans

I'm thinking of a new book idea along the lines of "You Might Be a Redneck." Mine would be You Might Be a Mom and would have sections like, "You Know You're an At-Home Mom When..." "You Know You're a Work-at-Home Mom When..." and "You Know You're a Mom of Multiples When..."

Today's entry:

You know you're a stay-at-home mom when you save getting "dressed up" in blue jeans for special occasions like going out for coffee with girlfriends.

The leggings I wore all day today (before shimmying into sexy maternity jeans) are very comfortable and would have been just fine . . . if they weren't simultaneously too baggy everywhere and yet too short to meet up with my socks. Alas. None of those features (the fact that they're leggings and I no longer have "long" shirts, the fact that they're too big, the fact that they're too short) disqualifies them from being part of my regular pants rotation.

In fact, I put them right back on when I returned home from book club.

Monday, January 10, 2011


Since television has been on hiatus since before Thanksgiving, and since I'm dealing with a case of post-holiday malaise (or at least ennui) I've been watching movies.

In the first three nights of 2011 Paul and I watched:
  1. Spellbound (documentary about the National Spelling Bee)
  2. Outsourced (indie comedy about a guy sent to India to train his replacement)
  3. Twilight (yes, that Twilight).

Here's how I sold it to Paul. 

Look, there were some things about the book that weren't so great.  But I bet they don't plague the movie nearly as much.  Here's the premise: it's set on the Olympic peninsula (which we love) in and near towns we've visited.  There are lots of scenes hiking in the woods, up the mountains, and on the beach.  (I've already piqued his interest.) 

There's a "family" of vampires living there, and since they choose to hunt animals rather than people they can stick around in one place for longer without attracting uncomfortable notice.  The "father" is a doctor and the five "kids" are in high school.  When it becomes obvious that they're not aging normally, they'll move somewhere else where it's cloudy most of the year and start over as high school students again.

There's also an Indian reservation nearby and according to tribal legend they're descended from wolves and are ancient enemies with the vampires so there's some territorialism going on in addition to the rest of the vampires trying to pass as humans stuff.  (It turns out that it wasn't the details here that caught Paul's attention, but rather the simple fact that there is any back story at all, something other than a flaky teen love story about romanticized vampires.)

Three big criticisms of the book are: vampires, teens, and bad writing/flat characters.  The first two aren't really problems for us.  (Hello, Buffy!) and the third was probably addressed by the screenwriter.  Simply by virtue of having faces, the characters will be more real than in the book.  We'll know what Edward looks like, not just that he's "perfect."  Bella will most likely have some personality and actually interact with the world around her.  And, best of all, there will be far less repetition than in the novel.

(He was actually interested in watching the movie at this point and voluntarily sat down on the couch without his laptop.)

Paul's comments: it wasn't bad.  There was a lot of teen angst, not very much happened, and it needed a lot more editing.  Some of the scenes really dragged and I didn't like the decision to have a narrator.  But the premise was pretty good and interesting. If it hadn't been All About Bella, it could have been a good fantasy series.

My thoughts: Yeah, that pretty much sums it up.  Also, the movie was structured better than the book.  Almost from the very beginning we're aware of a foreign threat in town, killing people.  In the novel, we meet the main antagonists, what, 2/3 or 3/4 of the way through?  They fixed that plotting problem for the movie.  The book was much more stream of consciousness/flow of the school year/life experienced along with the main character.  The movie had a narrative arc and seemed, well, plotted.

As a writer it was fun to look at the differences between the book (to which I listened on iPod during a road trip) and the movie, to try to pick out what worked, what didn't, and why.

I can't say that I'm now a Twilight fan.  For a good teen love story, show me Juno any time!  But I did add New Moon and Eclipse to my Netflix queue.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Muriel Barbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog

My parents have been married for over 40 years and they're still very happy together.  But my mother once confessed to me that she fears she married my father under false pretenses.  It started like this.  When she was a sophomore in college my mother took a train to visit her older brother at seminary in Chicago.  Her brother didn't have a car, so he asked his buddy to take him to go pick up his sister at Union Station.

From there my parents' relationship progressed mainly through letters.  My father, a graduate student in his mid-twenties, enjoyed chess and philosophical debates.  My mother, still at that time a teenager, wanted to impress him.  So she worked hard on her letters and studied up on her philosophy.  But considering the nature of things - Do universals exist, or only singular things? - is not a true interest of my mother's.

Fast forward, then, to last year when a woman in my book club began reading Muriel Barbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog.  She enjoyed the novel very much and felt inspired to tackle several classics she'd missed along the way, including Anna Karenina.  This caught my interest, because I was - and still am - reading Jack Murnighan's Beowulf at the Beach: What to love and What to Skip in Literature's 50 Greatest Hits.  I too have been inspired to go back and pick up a few classics for fun.

But I needed a bit more motivation before launching into Tolstoy, to I eagerly borrowed The Elegance of the Hedgehog.  (Some of the characters in the novel are big fans of 19th century Russian literature.)  Unfortunately, I got to Murnighan's chapter on Flaubert's Madame Bovary at the same time I was beginning Hedgehog.  I've read Madame Bovary at least twice, and I detest it.  I'd rather shove toothpicks under my fingernails than read it again; the sensation is much the same.  And this is how Murnighan starts his chapter on Flaubert:

"If you were to read them in quick succession, paying attention mostly to the plot (and nodding off now and then mid-sentence), you might not be able to tell Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina apart."

Enthusiasm for tackling Tolstoy: dashed.

But the premise of The Elegance of the Hedgehog grabbed me from the beginning so I persisted.  A middle-aged French concierge pretends to be much less intelligent and cultured than she is to avoid notice from the tenants in her building.  One of those tenants, an extremely bright and precocious 12-year-old girl, has decided that she doesn't ever want to be like the stupid grown-ups around her and is considering suicide.  The story progresses through their journal entries.  And I can't tell you how it ends, because I still have 50 pages left to read.  (No spoilers, please!) 

This is a very good novel, and an enjoyable read.  Especially if you enjoy philosophy.  I'm hesitant to talk too much about the language and writing, because I'm reading an English translation (the original is in French).  And, frankly, I'm more like my mother in this way than I am like my father: lengthy philosophical debates are not my thing.  I realize I've been sort of skimming for a few paragraphs, waiting for the plot to pick up again.  Then I force myself to go back, reread slowly, and pay attention.

"Oh, you're reading The Elegance of the Hedgehog," my mother observed.  "I did not enjoy that book. Too much philosophical pondering for me." 

"I enjoyed it," my father replied mildly.  "For pretty much the exact reasons your mother did not." 

Barbery does not talk down to children, and she really gets that kids can understand a lot more than we give them credit for.  I found 12-year-old Paloma pretty believable.  In Beowulf at the Beach, on the other hand, Murnighan repeatedly insists that we ruin literature for people by forcing it onto high school kids who can't possibly understand it. Au contraire. In high school I read a lot of philosophy (and classical novels, too: Dickens, Austen, the Brontes, and so forth) and I loved it all, even when I hated it.  I did understand Kant and Machiavelli and Marx and Descartes and Plato.  In fact, I read and understood and pondered and cared so much more then than I do now, when my mind is full of more pressing concerns like remembering to change the ceiling fans from their summer to winter settings.  I'm no longer willing to work so hard to pull meaning from the text.

So.  Can't talk about the ending, can't talk about the writing, can't talk about the philosophy, and yet I've written a terribly long review anyway.  I'll conclude with this:

The Elegance of the Hedgehog is a novel about people who like discussing literature and philosophy.  But even if you haven't read Tolstoy and don't enjoy pondering the existence of universality, it's still a good story.  And it's a book about smart people hiding their intelligence to avoid notice but eventually recognizing each other and making connections despite the barriers imposed by class, station, age, and race.  And that is the story I loved to read.

This review is part of the January meeting of Barrie Summy's Book Review Club.  More reviews here:

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