Tag Archives: reading

The Second Time Around

Did you miss me? I have not been blogging for a bit. This is because I am hibernating, like a bear — or a chipmunk. It is quite frankly amazing that any of us live through winter here in the upper reaches of the Midwest at all. Whose brilliant idea was it to leave equatorial Africa, anyway? But fascinating things do happen in wintertime. For a good dose of stellar improbability, I recommend reading an old(er) book that I really liked:  Winter World, by Bernd Heinrich.

I snapped this up when it was new (in 2001), but am only now telling you about it. I know, I’m like that. The rest of these delightful literary indulgences are things that I missed when they were new because I was hanging out under my rock. If you missed them too, haste to remedy that.

Jeanette Winterson

Her new memoir is wonderful. But then, all of her things are wonderful, as I discovered when, upon finishing the ARC of Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, I embarked on a program of obsessively reading of all her other stuff.  The Passion is my favorite, set in France & Venice during the Napoleonic wars. It is at once a deeply sensory book (you feel like you can smell the chicken cooking and feel the snow and move with the sway of an imagined gondola) and a deftly philosophical one. Wry lyricism abounds. Wow, that’s a pretentious sentence – but how many times do you get to say, “Wry lyricism abounds”? Twice, apparently.

The Rumpus

It’s an on-line literary magazine! One that I, happily, can sometimes read at work under the pretext of staying up-to-date (which we know is a sham – see rock, above). Anyway, it is witty and fun and has real writers saying real things on a regular basis. Also: comics. I love comics.

We Will Measure Our Loss

Penguin stopped letting libraries lend their eBooks a week or so ago. This is not really news now. But this *is* a compelling portrait of changing technologies and how they affect people at all levels of society.

More Web-based Fun

Lindy West writes a film column for the Seattle Stranger. She is incredibly funny. My favorite article involves that inexplicable cinema-atrocity, Star Wars: The Phantom Menace in 3-D. It made me laugh out loud on a day when even smiling did not seem to be in the cards. I caution you against her drinking game, though (she is right – and no one likes to have their stomach pumped). Sometimes West’s reviews can be a leetle too raunchy for me, but then, I do live under that rock.

From movies to TV

Did you see the BBC series, Black Books? You should. Watch the pilot episode. The later ones are heavy on the slapstick, but that first one… oh, pure comedy gold.

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Skunk Puppy

The dog has been skunked. Strangely, when he came zooming into the house at 4 a.m. after his close encounter with the skunkly kind, he smelled like… onions. Like a lot of onions – like he had been mugged by a roving band of onions gone to the bad; A Clockwork Onion, even.

Which I thought was weird, but was why I let him back into the bed — believing that he had just gotten into a patch of onion grass in the yard and comforting myself with the thought that the next day was laundry day. Despite repeated rounds of scrubbing, my bedroom can still only be described as “musky.” I did try incense, making the house smell like a skunk who wears tie dye.

This all got me thinking about books and smell. No, I will not be covering

Proust; this is not that kind of blog. We’re a little more lowbrow here. You can make your own madeleines if you want.

The Lantern

An homage to Du Maurier’s Rebecca, set in Provence. After a few chapters, I began to think that I could smell the lavender. In addition to being an elegant, creepy mystery with tons of style, The Lantern also gives the reader a smattering of fun-facts about the origins of lavender farming in the region.
The whole novel was so much fun I wish I could pick it up and read it again for the first time. It’s still in hardcover and is not getting nearly the amount of press it deserves. This means that you should just buy five or ten copies now, wrap them in holiday paper and be done in time to laze through both Halloween and Thanksgiving with an imperturbably superior air.
This one is getting a lot of press. It’s a fun romp and very atmospheric. The scents here are caramel apples and bonfires, ashes and falling leaves, exotic perfumes and spun sugar, snow, and the vanilla whiff of old paper. It’s perfect to read on a crisp autumn night and is supposed to be made into a movie. The book is so visually lush that I expect great things from the film. The plot has to do with treachery and magic, artifice and attraction, imagination and romance (But not in a goopey way. And for the guys: it is safe to read this. You’ll like it).
Seanan McGuire’s October Daye series follows a fae P.I. through San Francisco crime scenes. By fae I mean that she’s a fairy, as in “the fair folk,” “the people under the hill,” “those folks who steal babies and sour milk.” There are a lot of paranormal detectives out there in fictionland these days, so I should clarify: If you were thinking, “pink and sparkly?” Not so much. Daye’s world is peopled by just about every living thing in western myth. There are centaurs and pixies and plenty of weirdnesses you’ve probably never heard of unless you had a Welsh grandmother who liked to tell stories and try to scare the crap out of you.
McGuire’s mysteries are always fun and always full of good sensory descriptions. For instance, the magic produced by an individual carries a characteristic scent – so does their blood. There’s a good deal of humor in these books too. Sometimes it’s dark, but sometimes it’s just funny. With this, her 4th mystery in the series, McGuire’s really on top of the game – One Salt Sea is a tight, layered, fast-moving who-done-it that nicely evokes the Northern California landscape. You can start with the first one, Rosemary and Rue, or jump in at the last – but keep in mind that these novels get better and better from book to book. Also, check out this writer’s blog. It is just flat smart. I particularly admire this entry and this one.
Back to de-skunking the dog. It’s a good thing he’s cute, because he sure is smelly.

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Sex and Robots

I have two new books to tell you about. One is Robopocalypse, by Daniel H. Wilson. It comes out in June. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I’m a fan of speculative fiction (A Canticle for Leibowitz, The Left Hand of Darkness, The Difference Engine, The Windup Girl), but usually, things with “-opocalypse” in the title just don’t speak to me.

Robopocalypse is a fast-paced, smart thriller. It’s good fun and very, very hard to put down. Run out and grab a copy this June. And if you’ve got a quirky graduate to buy for: This is it. You will be “The Cool Relative who got me This Awesome Book.” Engineering student? Perfect. Reads the Onion? Wrap this puppy up. But honestly, everyone will be hooked. I’m thinking it will be The Book of the Summer. A guilty pleasure? Yes, in the exact same way that Clancy and Grisham were, at the top of their game.

The jacket promotion on my reader’s copy tells me that Stephen Spielberg is supposed to be making a movie of the novel in 2013. It will probably make a great film. If you’re a fifteen year old boy. It’s not a short book, so I envision it reduced to loud and incessant Transformer-like effects. I will go see it, and (thanks to my old college roommate and her fondness for high-volume hair metal) will probably sleep soundly through the second half.  A girl can dream though…  And since movies, as a rule, need bear no relation to the book they are named for, I wish for this closing scene:

Humphrey Bogart turns to his unlikely automaton companion and watches as the machine tosses a can of Vichy Brand Motor Oil into the wastebasket. “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship,” says Bogie, as they stroll down the runway into the Moroccan night.

Sex with Presidents

Larry Flint and Harvard professor David Eisenbach have recently published One Nation Under Sex, a look at how the sex lives of the powerful have molded American politics and history. Did you know they think Lincoln was gay? Yeah, that’s an old one. And except for the feather it ought to put in the caps of everybody who fights the good fight for gay rights, I really don’t care. Tom & Sally sittin’ in a tree is pretty much yesterday’s news too, but I did not know so much about James Buchanan before.

It’s an interesting book. Because most of the people in it are dead, it was less salacious than I expected, and also more put-down-able. Still, a worthy read. And the last chapter makes it an important one, in a nation which has tended in recent years to think that who somebody sleeps with is more important that who they call airstrikes on.

I’m never sure how I feel about Larry Flint. As a full-on Freedom of Speech geek, I kind of like him. As a girl… meh. I’ve got nothing against the young women who pose for things like Hustler. Good for them; they are making money. And I guess that the fellas who purchase the mag are paying their wage, but really? It just kind of perpetuates this weird disconnect between what guys are led to think goes on inside women’s heads and what really does. What goes on in guys’ heads? No idea. Ask Lincoln.

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Adventures in coffee drinking

This morning in my zeal to get to work uber-early and place our book order, I went and spilled coffee right down my front. Often, this would produce no visible effects (other than grouchiness) since I tend to dress in shades of black and brown (I have worn my breakfast before), but today I was feeling teal. I tried to blot my sweater with a wet cloth once I arrived at the shop, but wound up drenching it. Now it’s draped over the step stool in front of the space heater, drying. I hope. Because my t-shirt (not intended to be seen except for cuffs & collar under the sweater) is just a little too tight. Thank you, Cadbury chocolate eggs.


Drying-out clothes at the office always makes me think of my brief stint at the Fed. One of the economists used to dry his socks on the lovely old radiator behind the desk in his office. I don’t think he ever wore galoshes, or those things they call “rubbers” in England (you know, goofy overshoes for men – Do they even make those anymore?) when it rained. Nope, just draped the socks over the radiator and they dried. It made for a pleasant, homelike atmosphere.


Which brings me to our latest money management -type acquisition. Suze Orman\’s newest is all the rage, but am I the only one who thinks that her cover photo makes her look like she needs a trip to the Betty? She’s always looked sort of scarily over enthusiastic, but now seems to have crossed over into true Speedy the Squirrel mania. Maybe she just needs to cut down on the caffeine. Maybe it’s her photographer. Who knows? In any case, that is all that I know about her book. Which is selling like hotcakes. And which I could probably use. But I would so much rather eat Easter candy and read one of the following:


First Grave on the Right  It’s a mystery. The narrator is the grim reaper. Yes, I know… you’re tired of the paranormal. But really, she’s funny and snarky and noir. You’ll like this one. It’s great for Sookie Stackhouse fans & smart enough for devotees of Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman & Christopher Moore to enjoy.


Rawhide Down  I never was much of a Regan fan, but this

play-by-play of his almost-assassination looks pretty fascinating. The inner workings of the secret service, the fact that he was much closer to being dead than we were ever told, the jolly, brave face he put on the whole thing, lend insight into the man’s character – not to mention lots of drama, and make it seem worth slogging through the exhaustive details.


Furious Love  Normally I can’t be bothered with actor bios, but the photos alone make this a lovely way to remember Elizabeth Taylor.


War Horse  Did you miss this wonderful children’s book when it first came out? Have you heard about the amazing stage production of it in London? Do you know they are making the book into a movie? Even if you don’t give a fig for all the hype, this is a deeply touching story of the mutual affection of a horse and his boy during The Great War. Generations away, we tend to think of WWI… well, not very much at all. But this was a conflict that scarred people in a whole new way – something like the Vietnam of its time. I’d love to take a class on WWI in fiction someday. The Lord of the Rings would be among the obvious choices for something like this, but War Horse gives an interesting window into this terrible time as well.  Besides all that, the horse is really, truly horse-ish. Like all the best fictional animals, he makes us better somehow. And his boy – well, you’ll just have to read it, won’t you? 


Having read thus far, you may be thinking that my take on politics, both present and past, is a bit dicey. I am about to exceed your worst fears.


Theories of International Politics and Zombies  I just ordered this for stock today and I cannot wait until it comes! If you’re looking for a poly sci run-down with a clever dose of satire, I’m thinking this is your book. Possibly for the title alone…


And now my sweater is dry. Whew!

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I have to confess: I am confused about young adult literature. Sure, I remember being a “young adult,” back in the days of gaslight and corsets. But we weren’t marketed-to so much then. Ok, contemporary pop music was aimed pretty squarely at us in the 1980’s (how many adult humans were listening to Wham? I mean sober.). Fiction was not so determinedly focused on the too-young-to-vote crowd, though.

What is a “young adult novel,” anyway? We have a whole section devoted to them at the bookstore, so I will tell you what I have learned.

One hard-and-fast rule: Fiction geared for teens invariably has a teen main character.

The inverse is not true. If it were, no one over 12 would read Huckleberry Finn.  Adults seem able and willing to read about protagonists of any age.

Rule two: Follow the money.

Adolescents today seem to be the only ones with disposable income. They buy books. They also buy music and movie tickets in far greater numbers than their adult counterparts. And it’s much harder for a parent to deny their child the funds to buy a book than to tell them no when it comes to films or music. Books are supposed to be good for you in a way that tunes and cinema aren’t. What that says about those other art forms is a whole ‘nother story…

So, publishers are happy to supply teens with all the books they can read. Bully for them! Sometimes it seems that if a book can be marketed to teens, it is. This isn’t exactly a new phenomenon. When Madeleine L’Engle wrote A Wrinkle in Time, she intended it for an adult audience. Her publisher thought it would be more popular as a children’s book. I loved this book as a kid, and find, having re-read it a couple of years ago – that it retains its appeal. It is truly a classic that both young and old can enjoy.  

The Highest Tide, by Jim Lynch, was first published in 2005 as adult fiction, but was “repackaged” for young adults in 2007 and sold to bookstores as a teen read. I read The Highest Tide when it first came out and loved this coming-of-age story set in the Pacific Northwest. I gave it to teens then. I give it to them now. The “young adult” version is exactly the same text. It’s cheaper, less well made, and has a sort of bland cover. Go figure.

The volume of Young Adult fiction being produced right now is high. It sells, so there’s a lot of it, wonderful and otherwise. The great vampire bandwagon is still being enthusiastically jumped on. You cannot shake a stick without hitting a Gossip Girl spin-off or imitator. And of course, you have the James Patterson sci-fi/fantasy thrillers, as well as whole slew of teenage spies busy saving the world.

But: what separates a “teen novel” from its “regular fiction” counterparts?

Rule three: Safety First?

I regularly hear parents express concern about what is now widely termed “age-appropriate content.” And I get that. Everybody wants to protect their kids – that’s a good thing. Some adults mistakenly see the YA section as a sort of “safe zone.” Is it sex and violence free? Nooooo. Would anybody read the books in it if it were? I really can’t even call it “sex & violence light.”

Here’s the thing: I can give a kid plenty of regular, adult literature, secure in the knowledge that it is technically G-Rated. Agatha Christie is sure not to shock; ditto Dickens. I can’t imagine a mom or dad who wouldn’t be thrilled at their offspring picking up a copy of Anna Karenina, or The Red and the Black, but these are certainly not “safe” books in any sense of the word. They are groundbreaking, challenging novels. They don’t give you a blow-by-blow when it comes to sex or violence – just shattered marriages and corruption.

What’s weird is that often parents are more troubled about sex scenes in the books their children read than about scenes of violence. Shoot-outs are OK; the same goes for serial killers and spies as far as most are concerned. To be fair, there are quite a lot of books out there that treat both the emotional and physical aspects of sex far too lightly – but this is fiction, after all. To be frank, if they’re going to take their cue from books, I’d much rather teens fool around with each other than with, say, guns or international espionage. While underage sex can certainly damage a person, it’s nothing compared to what a semi-automatic can do.

But this is America; we’re kind of a culture of violence. Fine, keep your gun.

Rule Four: The Gettoization of Real Literature

All that ranting brings me (at last) to something nice to say: Some books, classified as Young Adult due to their under-18 narrators, are Real Literature that the rest of us are missing out on.

Before I Die, by Jenny Downham , chronicles the last few months in the life of a teenage leukemia patient and what she is determined to accomplish in them. It is sensitive and real and will make you cry. Downham’s protagonist is no saint – she’s a young person wrestling with and enjoying all the things that make life beautiful and awful.

Madapple, by Christina Meldrum is a nuanced portrait of a family that tells itself lies, and truths and is sometimes eerily silent. There is no reason it should be confined to the underage reader. 

Rule Five: Sometimes, it’s not all there.

Because, as a society, we seem to see teens as sort of glamorous but unfinished adults, some publishers of teen fiction see no need to ensure that their books are finished – that is, done being written – before they are sold.

You start on one and are intrigued by the story. The characters get fleshed out and you begin to care about them. Then you reach a plateau where the main character is fully developed, but the story ceases to resemble events which might take place in the actual world (any actual world, even one with a zombie plague). It’s sort of like Coyote running off the edge of a cliff with his Acme safe. He keeps going for a few strides and then there’s the rueful realization that solid ground is no more & down he falls. In this kind of novel Coyote just keeps running. The consequences are not so dire. The examinations are not so deep. And the book is allowed to remain not-quite-fully-completed. It starts out with a tough issue, but gets to be life-lite – because it’s “for teens.”

One such book is God is in the Pancakes, by Robin Epstein. It tells the story of a misfit teen who makes true friends at her local nursing home. She ultimately has to decide if she can euthanize one who is dying of Parkinson’s. Difficult issue? Much?

This could be a “real,” “adult” novel. The reason it’s not? It’s not finished. If this book were going to be sold to adults, things would not tie up all tidy. The author would have been encouraged by her editor to examine the emotional lives of all her characters in more depth; to allow them to live in a darker world –one less pleasant, but more genuine. That said, I liked this book. Parts of it are very good – the dialogue is snappy and entertaining. The characters are interesting. The issues are compelling, if not fully realized. I wanted to like the end, but to me it seems like there isn’t really one – the oven timer is still ticking.

So what’s the skinny?

What makes a YA novel a YA novel? Are there through-lines? It seems to me that they are the same conventions society applies to teens themselves. We ask (or allow) the younger generation to be very adult when it is convenient, and expect them to retreat into childishness when it makes us more comfortable. The literature aimed at them is much the same – racy or difficult subjects abound, but are fully addressed only by the most skilled, persistent and daring authors and their publishers. It’s a hard school, but those who succeed in it do so spectacularly – in fact, the YA market, flooded though it is with indifferent or flawed work, may be the place to look for the real stand-outs in new fiction.

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You Take the Flotsam, or: Books to Shiver With

Perversely, when it’s very cold, I tend to want to read about places that are even colder. I think this has to do with my extreme unfitness for cold-climate living. I love the way snow looks. I love throwing snowballs for the dog. But I’m a candidate for hypothermia after about 10 minutes of shoveling the driveway. It’s pathetic, really – remember the movie, Titanic? Remember that scene where Leonardo DiCaprio lets Kate Winslet have sole possession of the floating piece of ship’s timber? Right then, I turned to my date in the darkened theatre to whisper fondly, “Honey, if we’re ever in a cold water shipwreck, I’ll be dead the minute I land in the drink. You take the flotsam.”

So, as a result of my morbid fascination with cold-weather adventure: a list of books to chill the blood, in no particular order.

Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George. I have to admit, I read this for the first time as an adult. I loved George’s My Side of the Mountain so much when I was a child that I would have happily run away to go live in a tree in the Catskills. I am glad to have finally read Julie. I think adults ought to read it – even if it is for a second time. The issue of aerial wolf hunts certainly has not gone away, nor have the clash and combination of native and western culture. 

Julie of the Wolves is an enriching read for so many reasons – its detailed descriptions of animal behavior, its treatment of human difficulties in bridging traditions, and for the harrowing adventure of a girl – and her wolves – on the tundra.

The Birthday Boys by Beryl Bainbridge is a touching, raw take on Scott’s final Antarctic expedition. Bainbridge’s vividly imagined view of the inner lives of each of the expedition members makes the reader feel right there with them. It is a shatteringly creepy and deeply human story.

Antarctica 2041 Adventurer/environmentalist Robert Swann sets out to tell us about his quest to save Antarctica from the pillaging he imagines will erupt when the International Antarctic Treaty (which, among other things, says that Antarctica doesn’t belong to anyone in particular and therefore nobody better go mining it or dumping lots of stuff there or committing various other atrocities) comes up for review. What he mostly does, though, is show us why he fell in love with the continent, and what a cruelly beautiful and undeniably important place it is.

Lots of hair-raising adventure is in the mix, as Swann makes it to various polar regions (north and south) before he really knows what he’s doing – boy, does he learn some things along the way… And so will the reader, while gasping at the perils that anybody there at the ends of the world encounters every day.

So there you are – three excellent excuses to get out the hot cocoa, spike it with a good splash of rum, and settle down to be grateful for the wonders of central heat.

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