It’s helpful to think of Lolita as a foreign environment and the readers should try to be impartial observers. If the object of Humbert’s desire were...moreIt’s helpful to think of Lolita as a foreign environment and the readers should try to be impartial observers. If the object of Humbert’s desire were not a child, it would still be a tale of obsessive love that leads to a sort of madness, and it would still be the story of a woman who didn’t know what she wanted, other than attention. Nobody is all that sympathetic of a character, but they’re interesting, so I wanted to know what happened to them — the official mark of effective literature.
The Adderall Diaries poses as many questions as it answers. It’s the sort of book that takes a few days to really sink in — I enjoyed it while reading...moreThe Adderall Diaries poses as many questions as it answers. It’s the sort of book that takes a few days to really sink in — I enjoyed it while reading, but it took some time for the weight of it all to hit me. That may not be the case for every reader, but it’s a fascinating book that makes me eager to read his other work. When it comes down to it, that’s why anyone writes, isn’t it? We all want to be heard.
Is it fair to compare one writer to another? Is the comparison ever quite right? Blurbs for Lawnboy compared Paul Lisicky to Michael Cunningham (The H...moreIs it fair to compare one writer to another? Is the comparison ever quite right? Blurbs for Lawnboy compared Paul Lisicky to Michael Cunningham (The Hours, A Home at The End of the World, etc.), and the cover even boasted a blurb from Cunningham himself. While certainly flattering, how does Lawnboy compare?
Non-straight characters? Check. Coming of age/awakening type plot? Check. Complicated romance? Checkity-check-check.
But couldn’t one say this about plenty of other books? Francesca Lia Block also had these things, but Wheetzie Bat and Lawnboy and The Hours are three entirely different books. Then again, it’s been a little while since I’ve read Cunningham’s work. Still, there is one clear way that Lisicky and Cunningham reminded me of each other: It took me the first third of the book to really get into it. That’s not to say I spent the first third uninterested; I just questioned how much I would enjoy the whole thing. Lawnboy is divided into three parts, and by Part 2, I became much more engaged in how things turned out.
I enjoyed Lawnboy well enough that I will keep an eye out for Lisicky’s other work. The lingering, awestruck descriptions of physicality, and the unabashed searches for affection were enough to make me want more. It doesn’t matter whether Paul Lisicky writes anything like Michael Cunningham — Let the man stand on his own.
Detailing portions of his life after Kitchen Confidential (and explaining some of what he said in that previous book), he talks about his transition f...moreDetailing portions of his life after Kitchen Confidential (and explaining some of what he said in that previous book), he talks about his transition from “the bad old days” of drug addiction into the life of a happily married (and happily employed ) man with a small child. “Life does not suck,” he regularly says.
Like a lot of things in my life, there’s no making it prettier just ‘cause time’s passed. It happened. It was bad. There it is.
In some ways he glosses over his personal life because, while it may inform where he is today, what he’d rather talk about is food and the people who make it, review it, and influence how we consume it. With time passed, he goes into more detail about his issues with Food Network and their culture of mediocrity.
And it’s true — six years ago, I would gladly laze about and watch Sara Moulton chop an onion. Two Fat Ladies? Hilarious. That network partially taught me how to cook. But now? There are so many other things I’d rather do than watch Sandra Lee or Guy Fieri massacre another dish. The Neeleys make my skin crawl, as does Paula Deen’s spackled-on make-up (though she seems like a perfectly nice lady). I will admit to catching Iron Chef America and occasional episodes of Ace of Cakes, but that’s about it. In some cases it’s not just mediocre, but downright terrible, disguised in shinier packaging. Somehow, it still sells. Like Mr. Bourdain, I find it puzzling and disappointing.
The book is not all criticism, however. Bourdain offers plenty of praise for the people he sees as heroes in the food world. From big names like Eric Ripert and Mario Batali, who regularly give to charity, to LA Weekly food writer Jonathan Gold, who consistently writes well and with respect. He talks to rising chef David Chang about his various neuroses and aspirations, and finds out just what happens after you lose on Top Chef.
It’s a good book, a funny book, and one that anyone even remotely interested in food should read.
Not in recent memory have I read a book so enthralling, heartbreaking and with such deadpan humor. In what he calls his "9/12" novel, Jess Walter’s Th...moreNot in recent memory have I read a book so enthralling, heartbreaking and with such deadpan humor. In what he calls his "9/12" novel, Jess Walter’s The Zero follows "hero cop" Brian Remy, who is trying to make sense of the world while also suffering from memory lapses. His journey is at once bewildering and mournful, and though I’m not one to go on about perfect first lines, Walter had me at the outset:
They burst into the sky, every bird in creation, angry and agitated, awakened by the same primary thought, erupting in a white feathered cloudburst, anxious and graceful, angling in ever-tightening circles toward the ground, drifting close enough to touch, and then close enough to see that it wasn’t a flock of birds at all — it was paper.
Is it a long first sentence? Yes. Does it matter? Absolutely not.
Part existential crisis, part satire, The Zero also presents some of the ridiculousness of government during this time. There’s talk of “evildoers” and an entire agency dedicated to collecting all those scraps of paper, The Department of Documentation. “Things will be better when all the paper has been cleaned up.” Cops and firefighters are getting agents and their faces on cereal boxes; tourists pose for photos by the wreckage. Even in the event of a national tragedy, capitalism and consumerism worm their way into the larger discussion.
Steve Almond is a Collector and Aging Music Geek, and he is dumbfounded by critics who want to make music an intellectual exercise. “The real problem...moreSteve Almond is a Collector and Aging Music Geek, and he is dumbfounded by critics who want to make music an intellectual exercise. “The real problem here,” he says, “is emotional. The prose, for all its technical fidelity, conveys almost nothing about what music feels like.”
Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life attempts to articulate those feelings, as well as tell the stories of Almond’s fandom along the way. There is list-making, reluctant admissions of enjoying Styx, and considering whether or not dating a woman with incompatible music tastes is worth the time. He admits that there was a time in his life, employed as a music critic no less, that he had barely any idea who Bob Dylan is. No matter the level of Music Geekery, there are always embarrassing gaps in one’s knowledge.
I bought this book after seeing Steve Almond give a reading at Powell’s in Portland. I’d planned on reading it anyway, though maybe seeing if the library had it, until I saw that he’d be there while we were on vacation. During his reading, he punctuated sections of the text with music, and to be honest, reading the same passages at home later wasn’t the same. Though the book is plenty funny, it’s much funnier in person. And any book about music is better with a soundtrack (which is why he provides a “Bitchin’ Soundtrack" on his website). Anyone who has the chance to listen to Almond read should go.
The trouble with The Master Bedroom is that while I found sentence after paragraph after page that made me want to start writing something new, I stil...moreThe trouble with The Master Bedroom is that while I found sentence after paragraph after page that made me want to start writing something new, I still found Kate rather unlikeable. She didn’t grow to any significant degree. She potters around her life, straining to feel like “herself,” though I was never quite sure who that was. Though she’s willing to vaguely complain to her friends, she expects her romantic interests to read her mind. She can’t be bothered to take charge, despite her feelings. It’s an attitude I don’t really understand.
However, Tessa Hadley’s exceptional writing and varied points of view kept me going, still eager to discover how it all worked out in the end.
Dear Persons who may have certain ideas about Montana writers: Not all of us write about fishing, horses or ranching. Some of us write scenes that hap...moreDear Persons who may have certain ideas about Montana writers: Not all of us write about fishing, horses or ranching. Some of us write scenes that happen (gasp!) indoors. And don’t let the University of Montana fool you — it is entirely possible to be an author in the Big Sky State without first having completed their creative writing program.
Take Jamie Ford, for instance. Although he grew up near Seattle’s Chinatown, he now lives in my hometown of Great Falls with his family. He may not be a native, but can we go ahead and claim him? Yeah? Great Falls authors, represent!
Cheerleading aside, I started this book really wanting to enjoy it, despite historical novels being something to which I’m not usually drawn. Ford tells the story of a first generation Chinese-American, Henry Lee, who we first see standing outside of the Panama Hotel, located in what used to be Seattle’s Japantown. The building’s owner has just discovered the abandoned possessions of Japanese families who were forced into internment camps during World War II, and Henry is certain that the belongings of his long lost love are still in the basement.
The story bounces back and forth between 1986 and 1942, starting when Henry is about to turn thirteen years old. His father is a Chinese nationalist, and after Pearl Harbor, he requires Henry to wear a button reading “I am Chinese,” and to “speak his American.” At school, he is tormented for being different, and the Chinese children tease him for going to a white school. His only friend is a jazz street musician, Sheldon. One day, a new girl arrives to work alongside him in the school lunchroom, a Japanese-American student named Keiko Okabe. The two form a fast friendship that evolves into first love, all while the war progresses and life in Seattle becomes far more dangerous for Japanese families.
If the plot sounds terribly Romeo and Juliet, it does not come off that way. Still, I have a few quibbles with the writing itself. Perhaps it’s a matter of my own taste, but I could have done with a lot less simile and metaphor. 1986 Henry seems more prone to it than his younger self, but some of it felt a bit, “Look, I’m writing!”
Within just two pages near the beginning of the book, I wondered if I’d be continually distracted by passages like these:
The more Henry thought about the shabby old knickknacks, the forgotten treasures, the more he wondered if his own broken heart might be found there, hidden among the unclaimed possessions of another time. Boarded up in the basement of a condemned hotel. Lost, but never forgotten.
Regarding his son:
But college also seemed to keep him out of Henry’s life, which had been acceptable when Ethel was alive, but now it made the hole in Henry’s life that much larger — like standing on one side of a canyon, yelling, and always waiting for the echo that never came.
Repeatedly, the themes of loneliness and imperfection are overemphasized. I say this as a person who primarily reads and writes within these themes, but I tend to prefer more straightforward, less flowery prose, especially when it comes to an internal monologue. That’s not to disparage anyone who likes a swell of Wordsworth proportions, but I don’t think I would have issues with the writing style overall if the similes and metaphors had not been so extravagant. However, I understand that trying to describe the grandest feelings is endless, imperfect work.
But here’s the thing — I loved the story, I really did. Five days is all it took for me to read the nearly 300 pages, with most of the reading occurring over two. It’s impossible not to empathize with these kids, and there’s genuine suspense to the narrative. I wanted to see how the past informed the present, and of course, how it all ended. Because of that, Hotel succeeds.
And though I may have had issues with some of the writing, let me assure you that there are gems as well:
Henry was learning that time apart has a way of creating distance — more than the mountains and time zone separating them. Real distance, the kind that makes you ache and stop wondering. Longing so bad that it begins to hurt to care so much.
I’ll be interested to see what Jamie Ford does next. (less)
Half essays on writing, half micro fiction, This Won’t Take But A Minute, Honey can be read entirely in an afternoon, or like the title says, for a mo...moreHalf essays on writing, half micro fiction, This Won’t Take But A Minute, Honey can be read entirely in an afternoon, or like the title says, for a moment here and there. It is designed to fit in a back pocket and does away with dense ruminations on inspiration and style. “Writing is decision making,” Almond says. “Nothing more and nothing less.”
Almond’s stories hover between the beautiful past and the potential of a glowing future, all filtered through melancholy. Love and regret both reach their peaks at one crucial moment, and “These are the minutes he wishes were a thousand years” (“Chibás Speaks”). When else do we learn?
His borrowed edict that every word should receive scrutiny is true, and his descriptions are perfect. Even in stories I did not enjoy as much compared with others, I could pluck out at least one sentence that made me say, Yes.
Everyone has stories, brief anecdotes relating to our history. Our memories are at once humorous and heartbreaking, some retold again and again, some...moreEveryone has stories, brief anecdotes relating to our history. Our memories are at once humorous and heartbreaking, some retold again and again, some kept private forever. In A Common Pornography, Kevin Sampsell gathers his stories and assembles them into an atypical memoir, and the results are both intimate and intriguing.
Sampsell’s descriptions of the people he encounters are perfect in their spareness. He has a way of making a person clear within two sentences that might take other writers two paragraphs. I also appreciate his candor when it comes to more private moments, moments most people would hesitate to share at all, but still had an effect on their lives. From near-wordless encounters with other men to nights spent alone, he details his search for affection in a very real, honest way.
Much like his monologue, and much like his tweets, Craig Ferguson’s memoir is self-deprecating, funny and honest. And unlike the majority of celebrity...moreMuch like his monologue, and much like his tweets, Craig Ferguson’s memoir is self-deprecating, funny and honest. And unlike the majority of celebrity memoirs out there, I fully believe he wrote it himself – I’ve read his novel, Between the Bridge and the River, and it’s fantastic.
Without giving everything away, I can say that some of the best moments come when he talks about the people who influenced his life – from his family, to roommates and longtime friends, and especially the women. He reveres them all, speaks glowingly of their skills and their patience with him, even when he did not deserve it. He gives credit to all the people and places that brought him to where he is today, and it’s a fascinating journey to sobriety and success.
Thanks to Sherman Alexie, I will forever be pilfering the phrase “terminally nostalgic.” When I saw him read back in December, I asked him how he felt...moreThanks to Sherman Alexie, I will forever be pilfering the phrase “terminally nostalgic.” When I saw him read back in December, I asked him how he felt about seeing the places he has written about disappear over time. He said that he was constantly thinking about what was no more, even down to the now-closed doughnut shop where he worked for three weeks, and that as a Spokane Indian, nostalgia will always be a part of who he is.
Because of this, Alexie’s work is forever filled with a sense of longing — longing for the past, longing for what never was, and longing for connection in the midst of our busy world. War Dances is a collection of short stories, poems and other fiction forms that read as semi-autobiographical, made even more enjoyable if you live in the Spokane area. When he talks about driving up Maple to Francis, I know right where that is. When a woman mentions the story about a man and his children being involved in a horrible accident coming into town, I remember reading about it in the newspaper and it makes the comparison to another man’s loneliness all the more effective.
Sherman Alexie has made me nostalgic for a place I haven’t left yet.
If anything, War Dances presents characters looking for meaning in their lives, and in the process, makes you ponder the meaning within your own. Even apart from the geographical familiarity, some passages had me nodding with the sort of recognition that makes me want to shove this book into the hands of everyone I know.
The lipstick on the cover should’ve been my first clue. Or rather, the lipstick, lip gloss and Burt’s Bees-like lip balm because Oh-ho-ho isn’t it fun...moreThe lipstick on the cover should’ve been my first clue. Or rather, the lipstick, lip gloss and Burt’s Bees-like lip balm because Oh-ho-ho isn’t it funny how women’s personalities are wrapped up in their make-up choices? Gee, thanks, cover artist, for being so insightful about my gender!
Let’s not judge the book by its cover – No, let’s judge it on all the other clichés written inside.
Because I was moving, I wanted to know whether or not to put this in the Goodwill box. I’d acquired the novel at a bookstore giveaway, and it’s an advance reading copy, meaning it was technically subject to change before the final version hit shelves sometime in 2008. For that reason, I did not want to judge the writing too harshly, feeling it was important to give the story a fair shake.
I tried, I really did. Then I’d read stuff like this:
I was given to understand from her tone that ‘tension’ was to San Franciscans what sloth was to East Coast types (i.e. anathema).
My, that’s a big literary word you used there. I really needed that parenthetical to make the proper comparison.
Names My Sisters Call Me is essentially three hundred pages of overplayed themes in a story that could’ve been interesting. Courtney Cassel is engaged to her longtime boyfriend Lucas, an announcement that is met by her family with ten minutes of congratulations followed by an hour of drama. Her oldest sister, Norah, is still fuming over the day that middle child, Raine, drunkenly ruined her wedding reception and then ran away to California. Norah and Raine are so different from each other (because of course they are). Norah is a domineering, Type A personality, while Raine is the “free-spirited” hippie artist. No one but their mother has talked to Raine in six years, and Norah wants to know if Courtney will “betray” her and invite Raine to the wedding.
Conveniently, Lucas has business in San Francisco, so Courtney tags along to see her sister. And even more conveniently — because this wouldn’t be a lipstick cover novel without engagement complications — she will also see her semi-secret ex-boyfriend, Matt Cheney. Matt is Raine’s best friend, and he ended his relationship with Courtney the night he ran off to California with her sister. They reunite, and yes, let the fireworks begin.
“Let the fireworks begin,” by the way, is one of the few overused phrases that I don’t think appeared in the book. By page 198, I decided to make note of all the platitudes within a single page:
-“not going to tiptoe around” -“facing the music” -“draw a line and be done with it” -“everyone else is in an alternate dimension” -“let bygones be bygones” -“Raine gets a free pass” -“This is the only family we have.”
One page. The thing is, I would be just fine with a light and fluffy family drama story every so often, if only I wasn’t continually distracted by the way it was presented. Normally while reading a book for review purposes, I’ll write down quotes that I enjoy as I go, thinking I might reference them later. This time, I had quotes paired with comments like “They’re not delightful neuroses — They’re raging insecurities,” and “God, thanks for spelling that out for me!”
The attitudes towards men, while at least a change from “I need a man to be complete!” chick-lit, still feel false. Even when her fiancee is being one of the few reasonable voices, Courtney’s reaction is straight out of a high school script:
“I thought you already doubted she’d forgive you for going to California in the first place," Lucas pointed out. "So if she’s already not going to forgive you, who cares?"
Stupid male logic. I didn’t dignify that with a response.
Jokes with Lucas usually revolve around the security of his manhood, and any sex is very loosely implied, to the point where I wasn’t even sure it had happened. It’s not as though I require my books to get all hot and steamy (though, hey, feel free), but ending a scene with a playful swat and then “no room to think about anything else,” doesn’t really make matters clear.
When it comes to Matt Cheney, Courtney becomes even more insecure, and she never fails to remind us again and again that he makes her feel like she did that night six years ago, or when she was 13 and still had an unrequited crush. Yes, we need this information, but please stop saying it every five pages.
Often the book attempts to be funny and fails, in the same way that bad comedians present jokes with “look how clever I am” smirks:
I was an old pro at worshiping the Porcelain Goddess. [...:] Trust Matt Cheney to bring out the worst in me. Literally.
...even if my legs were pale enough to blind unsuspecting pedestrians.
Writing funny is hard, but even with my rusty skills, I know there are at least five different ways those bits could have been better. Again, I don’t know what all made it into the final manuscript, but I’m surprised that what I read made it into an advance reading copy. Shouldn’t an editor have scribbled all over this? Or are there really women who think these “insights” are original? No wait, I know there are. Just read the cover blurbs.
Another thing — Matt Cheney is almost always referred to by first and last name, as though he is a celebrity. Every character but Raine does it, which is weird, since he’s supposedly known them all since childhood. He is of course the brooding musician, all tattoos and leaning forlorn against doorways — so different from fiancee Lucas, who is so affable and works in internet securities.
Crane also has a habit of writing the same thing twice. She makes an assertion, then says it again, all within the same paragraph. My copy editor fingers started twitching for a pen after reading passages like this:
If I had pointed out how alike they were in this, right down to their matching fake smiles, they would never have believed me. But I saw how obvious it was they were sisters. The same, despite their differences.
Did we need those last two sentences? No.
Though this novel was filled with flaws both major and minor, some moments I understood. Courtney works as a cello player in the second Philadelphia Symphony, and as a former cello player and major music fan in general, I related to her passion. When she talked about how playing made her feel, I wished the whole story could be like that — an honest exploration rather than lame attempts to be witty. Instead, I’m afraid this book had to find a new home.(less)