Sunday, November 13, 2016

In Which Books Make Me Happy...Well, Happier

Last month's posts were a work of cranky art, but I have a good excuse for my snarly behavior: I came down with a urinary tract infection and colitis all at once. Not elegant at all. No wonder I was having trouble reading. Recovery from the colitis has been a bit slow, hence my silence here. I'm still on a restricted diet. You would not believe the boringness, the blandness. The pickiest of 3-year-olds eat better than this. And coffee! I miss you; I mourn you.

Here's something peculiar: I was reading the new Shirley Jackson biography the weekend I fell ill. Late in the book -- in her life -- Shirley was plagued by colitis. I wasn't sure what it was, so I looked it up. Inflammation of the colon.  A couple of days later, my doctor informed me about what my very icky tests revealed. Colitis. The doctor seemed taken aback by my cheerful reaction:  "Oh! I know what that is!"

Anyway, here's what I've been reading since I last checked in here:

A Curious Man: The Strange & Brilliant Life of Robert "Believe It or Not!" Ripley - Neal Thompson. (biography)  Thompson has worked as a sports journalist, and his punchy prose style is a good match for Robert Ripley, who found his unique niche early on. I was expecting Ripley to be a little weirder and a little darker than he was, given his subject matter. I also liked the thumbnail sketches of the people who populated Ripley's world, his travels around the world, and the perspective of the time in history in which the cartoonist lived, and how that contributed to his popularity. Entertaining.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly - Jean-Dominique Bauby. (memoir)  In his early 40s, Bauby, a successful magazine editor, suddenly suffered a massive stroke that left him with "locked-in syndrome". He was aware of everything around him, but completely paralyzed except for being able to communicate by blinking his left eyelid. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly -- his metaphor for his imprisoned body and his brain -- was dictated painstakingly by Bauby, blinking it out to an assistant. It's grim but also humorous at times. This is a book that is going to stay with me. Read it if you haven't yet. I heard the movie is also devastatingly well-done.

Germinal - Emile Zola. (novel)  I read this book about miners on strike back in 2013, when I was on my quest to read all 20 novels in the Rougon-Macquart series. The translation I read then was an older one by Havelock Ellis, and it was good, but the one I just finished by Roger Pearson! Damn! What a difference! The prose leaps off of the page and grabs the reader by the throat with a hairy, callused hand, just as Zola intended. From now on, I'm reading only the freshest translations of Zola. I must add that I had the exact same experience with my two readings of Nana.

Tampa - Alissa Nutting. (novel)  I stumbled onto this book because Goodreads kept reassuring me that I wanted to read it and would like it. Why? The novel is the story of middle school teacher Celeste Price who is a sexual predator hopelessly attracted to a specific type of young teenaged boy. Nutting tells Celeste's story coolly and fearlessly. It's like Lolita, except with a lot more graphic sex. Really not my type of read at all, but to my surprise, Goodreads was correct: I liked Tampa a lot. Celeste was irresistible, even at her very worst. She was smart and cutting, with tart and accurate observations about society and she was coldly unrepentant about her actions. It must have been difficult for Nutting to get into her character's head so completely. There was also a great deal of black comedy. Part of me is ashamed for enjoying the novel and part of me is pleased that I can still be surprised by how I react to a book.

At the present, I've got two books on the go: Hungry Heart, Jennifer Weiner's memoir, which is gorgeously appealing and readable, and Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow. I know Washington was the father of our country, but as far as biographies go, he's no Alexander Hamilton. Still, I hope to finish this book by the end of 2016. Goodreads helpfully reminded me that there are about 48 days to go.  While I try to make sense of the events of the past week, I predict that I'll be reading more to try and recover a sense of equilibrium.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Crankiest Bookworm

I had the worst reading week I've had in a long time.

 After the brilliance of the Shirley Jackson biography by Ruth Franklin, which is chock-full of great writing, fresh insights, thoughtful scholarship and damn fine detective work, I made a hard left turn into several books I didn't care for and struggled to finish or abandoned. And now? I can't read. If the parts of me that read had a gag reflex, it would be working overtime.

Here's how this wretched week went down...or didn't go down. Be glad you're not me.

Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life  by Ruth Franklin. Oh my God. Read it, read it, read it, read it.  I couldn't put it down. Tension like the best of novels. Sleep took second place. Finished at 2 a.m, and I mean finished. I read the notes and index, too. Yes, it's that good.

Literary Life: A Second Memoir by Larry McMurtry.  Ramble, ramble, ramble. Digressions not very interesting. Maddeningly unconnected. The only parts I liked were when McMurtry would mention that he wrote a review of an author's book and it was positive, but they were still pissed at him for the review.  I also liked the bits about Susan Sontag. After the first memoir, Books, which I LOVED, this was a disappointment. I want to weep and make excuses for McMurtry, but he's one of my literary gods and I never want to feel that way about him.

Hollywood: A Third Memoir by Larry McMurtry.  For such a potentially vibrant topic, there is a miasma of disinterest and low energy that was exhausting to cut through. So glad the book was short. I'm going to forget the second and third memoirs and go back to Books.

Closing Time: The True Story of the "Goodbar" Murders by Lacey Fosburgh.  There are quotes in the title around Goodbar, but they should be around True.  This true crime book is highly regarded, but I don't know why. The names have been changed and there is invented dialogue. One could say the same about In Cold Blood, but Truman Capote's seams don't show.  If I wanted to read fiction, I would have gone with Looking for Mr. Goodbar by Judith Rossner, which was published at about the same time.

Villette by Charlotte Bronte.  Uncle! Uncle! I give up. DNF at 39%. I've been at this book, both the audio and print version since April, and I can't go another step with Lucy Snowe. I hate how she raises passivity to an art form, and I hate how the characters lapse into French for pages on end. Yes, I could pick out a word here and there, and yes, I know they are in a French-speaking country, but couldn't Charlotte Bronte just let the reader somehow understand that the conversations were in French? Even Hemingway knew how to give a reader a break. The tipping point was when Lucy/Bronte held something back from the reader and finally admitted that she'd known it all along.  Okay, it was Dr. John's true identity. At this point, I don't care if I spoil anything for future readers.  I'm claustrophobic from being in Lucy's head. I can't breathe, and reading it is like hacking through a thicket of brambles with only an emery board or perhaps my debit card. Although I've still got two Charlotte (this one and The Professor) books  and one Anne (The Tenant of Wildfell Hall) book to go to complete my Bronte Sisters project, only Anne gets my attention from here on out. I will never return to Villette. I'm even going to stop calling it Vee-ette and go back to calling it Vill-ette.

I'm 189 pages into a biography of Robert "Believe it or Not!" Ripley, but I just don't care anymore. Read one page and sighed and put the bookmark back in.

 [ETA: The proper title of this book is: A Curious Man: The Strange & Brilliant Life of Robert "Believe It or Not!" Ripley by Neal Thompson. I mean no disrespect to the book or its author, and plan to finish it sometime this month.]

Started reading Where Eagles Dare by Alstair MacLean.  For a WWII novel full of espionage and adventure, it sure is zzzz. The movie is much better. MacLean wrote that first (as a vehicle for Richard Burton) then wrote the novel. It feels like he ground it out with all the grimness of a man working a shift at a factory.  DNF. I left it at the 20% mark. Life is short.

One chapter of Germinal by Emile Zola, right before I slept. I've been rereading this book since last month. This translation is so much better, but I can't get into the story again. My theory is that The Beast Within was so devastating that I am ruined forever for anything else in the Rougon-Macquart series.

Didn't read. Did not read. All day. I feel monstrous. I feel like that Korean patriot who said that if he didn't read everyday, thorns grew in his mouth.

I'm just going to pretend this week never happened and start the Shirley Jackson biography all over again.

Friday, September 30, 2016

If You Try Sometimes

Not in my teens.
 Not in my 20s.
Not in my 30s.
Not in my 40s.
Not in my 50s.

I'm starting to feel a little like I've got a scarlet B on my chest.

For the (several decaded) life of me, I can't seem to land a job at a bookstore when there's an opening. This stings a bit, because bookstores are my natural habitat. Why don't they want me?

Let me go over the past two forays into getting in touch with my inner bookseller. When I was 42, shortly before I went to Korea, I tried to get on at the local bookstore. It went something like this:

Me: O! I love to read! Booksbooksbooksbooksbooksbooksbooksbooks....

Bookstore Manager: (a bit frostily) Customer service

Me: Booksbooksbooksbooks...Huh? Oh yes, of course...customers are important to me. I want to recommend books I've read and build rapport and...

BM: This is not a sit-down job

Me: Uh, I would my off time....of course...

BM: Do you have bookstore experience?

Me: Well, no, but it's my dream to work in a bookstore.

BM: Go away

In my most recent attempt (July, August) to get on at the local bookstore, there was a third page on the standard application. Favorite authors, an easy matching books and authors. Why do you want to work here?  I was veryvery careful this time to thread in my love for customers and my willingness to bend like Gumby to the randomness that is retail.

But, sigh... I may have let my bookworm freak flag fly too much. I named 3 or 4 authors when one would have done (Who can choose just one???? That's just not right...but did I have to say Zola????!!) I also wrote down this blog's address so that BM (different BM; she's really nice, even if we sort of disagree about the hiring thing) could further explore my reading life at her leisure. I think I restrained myself from mentioning that I wrote a book, but when I look back...well, I was in a fever. I could have said anything.

So much for enthusiasm with a slight nod to careful calibration.

No joy; not even a phone call requesting an interview.

I held out hope for over a month, I carried around my book-shaped earrings for good luck, then I gave up. Actually, that was a lie. I'll never give up hope. Last week, an unfamiliar number popped up on my phone and I had this little frisson of joy that rubbed against my heart like sandpaper and I thought: Maybe it's BM. Please, please. But no. A robot informed me that I could win a vacation to Florida. I guess there are bookstores there.

Maybe it's time to get real: No bookstore job for Bybee. This could be a good thing. I remember something George Orwell wrote about being an avid booklover and going to work as a bookseller. At the end of the day, he was all blarrgh and sick of the sight of books. I wouldn't ever like to feel that way, but I wouldn't mind the chance to find out.

So for now, I'm not in the room where it happens, but the completist in me has her head up and is already scenting the air of the future: I still have my 60s to go! Will victory finally be mine, or will the book finally slam shut on my bookstore dreams forever?

Saturday, September 17, 2016

The Hamilton Affair

The Hamilton Affair - Elizabeth Cobbs. This wonderful historical novel follows the lives of Alexander Hamilton and his wife, Elizabeth Schuyler. Each chapter alternates Alexander's and Eliza's point-of-view, beginning in their wildly different childhoods -- Alexander's in the Caribbean, and Eliza's in New York.

The Hamilton Affair is richly grounded in history and a joy to read. My only nitpick is that one of the characters, Ajax Manly, is fictional and he seemed that so much that it broke my concentration at times. 

Here's what's wonderful: You can read this book and shout out Hamilton lyrics on practically every page. (The cover even looks like one of the Hamilton posters.) 

Here's what makes me want to read more of Elizabeth Cobbs: She's a subtle writer. She really got to me emotionally towards the end of the novel by an almost offhand reference to something at the beginning of the novel. It was so elegant, so understated, so powerful...there I was at 3 a.m. sobbing. "HIS SHOE!"  This example should be taught in creative writing seminars everywhere.

What else to say? Nothing but read it, read it, read it. Or listen, listen, listen. I have a feeling that this is a great audiobook.

Sunday, September 04, 2016

All About August Reading

I finished seven books in August! Clearly, the heat and humidity didn't slow me down at all.

As you can see, my Hamilton obsession hasn't abated one iota.

Here's how the deal went down:

1. Kick: The True Story of JFK's Sister and the Heir to Chatsworth - Paula Byrne. (biography) With every book I read about the Kennedy siblings, I despise Joe and Rose Kennedy even more. Where they were utter monsters in the case of Rosemary, in Kick's (Kathleen's) case, they were simply overbearing, expecting their adult children to toe their line, especially where religion was concerned. Paula Byrne provides a sympathetic look at a vital, independent young woman who lost her life in a plane crash at 28 amidst scandal. Sometimes the book is a little fangirlish and gossipy and repeated phrases or ideas following a similar theme can be grating, but these are nitpicks. For those who are fascinated by the Kennedy mystique, this lacks the pathos and drama of Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter, but it's worth a look at a life lived with blazing intensity.

2. A Family Matter - Will Eisner. (graphic novel) Written and illustrated by the man who coined the term "graphic novel", this is the uncomfortable tale of an elderly patriarch who is dying, and his children who are greedy, angry and damaged in varying degrees. Their complicated lives are sketched minimally but effectively as they gather to make decisions about the old man.

3. Dead Presidents - Brady Carlson. (nonfiction) A fun, informative and educational look at the afterlife of United States presidents. Carlson covers such topics as memorials that are both large and small; how presidents' reputations change over time (Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson and Richard Nixon are prime examples); and all sort s of delectable trivia tidbits about each president. Weirdest thing: the LBJ robot! Something interesting: Eisenhower was the last president to have his body taken back to his home by train. Since he was the president who championed and funded the interstate highway system, it would have been much more fitting if he had gone to his final resting place in that manner, but perhaps that is impractical. Carlson's quirky writing and enthusiastic research made for a quick, entertaining read. Fans of A.J. Jacobs and Bill Bryson will enjoy Dead Presidents.

4. Idiot Brain - Dean Burnett. (nonfiction) Welsh neuroscientist Burnett explores what makes our brains tick. Why do our brains understand the right and proper ways to behave and then we turn around and undermine our own efforts? Short answer: the right/proper section of our brain is fairly new and the older part, "idiot brain" "reptile brain" is going with what has worked for survival for thousands of years, thank you very much. Some of the book seems dense with information, but Burnett keeps it light with jokes and humorous examples. Although I enjoyed Idiot Brain, a book I read late last year, Focus, by Daniel Goleman, covers a lot of the same ground, and is my preferred read on the subject. I don't know if that's the newer or older part of my brain popping off. Sorry!

5. The Emigrants - Johan Bojer. (novel) This 1920s Norwegian novel follows the fortunes of a small group of people from a small village in Norway who are down on their luck and decide in the early 1880s to follow a friend who emigrated several years before, to America. The strongest, starkest part of the novel is their arrival and first years on the bleak Dakota prairie, homesteading in sod houses and pitting themselves against nature and isolation. Also effective is Bojer's depiction of feeling caught between two worlds. I really liked this book and wish that I could read a more modern translation. The copy I read was translated in 1925 by someone who was obviously English and hung out with the likes of Bertie Wooster.

6. Burr - Gore Vidal. (novel) I read Burr back in 2012 when my long-lost, lamented book group, Cracked Spinez, decided one month to feature works by Gore Vidal. As I suspected, I enjoyed Burr even more this time, since I am all a-wash in Hamiltonia.  Burr catches up with its title character in old age, an old scoundrel who has just gone fortune-hunting and married a wealthy widow. Although nearing 80, he still has dreams of his own empire, possibly in Texas. Meanwhile, he dictates his memoirs to a young law student/reporter, Charlie Schuyler, who is intent on digging up dirt about Burr's possible relation to presidential hopeful Martin Van Buren. With mordant wit, Burr seems to reveal all, but remains a charming, maddening enigma. I really love this book, and I miss the hell out of Gore Vidal.

7. My Theodosia - Anya Seton. (novel) More evidence of my Hamilton mania. Blame this one on Goodreads. They saw that I was reading Burr and so kindly and considerately recommended My Theodosia to me. Thanks, guys. Theodosia was the only child of Aaron Burr and Seton's 1941 novel details their devoted and intense relationship.  An excellent blend of "historical" (wonderful, thorough research!) and "novel" (a teenaged flirtation with Washington Irving? A passionate affair of the heart with Merriweather Lewis? Eliza Hamilton referring to Alexander as "Sandy"? Hmm.). There are a couple of Easter eggs in My Theodosia: Hamilton has a thought that could possibly be a clue about what led to their fateful meeting in New Jersey; and Seton makes a glancing reference to the woman Burr would end up marrying late in life for her fortune.  Good stuff; I ate this book up like potato chips. Now the bad: My Theodosia was Seton's first novel, and she had some rookie problems with pacing, characterization and other pesky novel-writing things. At one point, she had a POV switch that nearly gave me whiplash. (No, that's not so bad, yes you're right.) Here's what's really bad: Even though I enjoyed this book, I really can't recommend it because there are some severe problems with racism. Political incorrectness doesn't even begin to cover it. Although I argued to myself that the racist passages in question could be an accurate depiction of how Theodosia, Aaron and other characters talked and thought in the late 18th and early 19th century, Seton went way over the top and there was a lot of gratuitous nastiness that was permissible in the publishing world in 1941. If I could unread some of those passages, I would. Not enough Visine in the world. I ended up not rating the book on Goodreads because of this issue. I lovehate and hatelove My Theodosia, and hesitate to read any of Anya Seton's other work. 

Monday, August 15, 2016

Mid-August Finds Me

I hated the title of this post, then it struck me that it sounds like one of those novels from the 1910s that end up getting reprinted with great acclaim by something like Virago Press. So there it stands.

Mid-August finds me in the middle of several books again:

1. Burr - Gore Vidal. Novel.
This is my main read right now, and I'm enjoying it more than when I read it back in 2012. I can't help but wonder if Lin-Manuel Miranda had a look at Burr as well as the Ron Chernow biography of Hamilton, because I have come upon several passages in which I nearly burst into song. My most recent hum-along is The Room Where It Happens. I'm having a brilliant time!

2. Villette - Charlotte Bronte. Novel.
 I should give up, but I don't. I won't. I can't. I'm 18 chapters in! I predict a mad reading/listening rush to midnight on New Year's Eve. Bronte! Bragging! Rights!

3. Triptych - Joyce Cary. Novel.
Even with the new magnifier, the print in this book is putting me off. I don't know what I'm going to do. Hoping to finish at least the first book in the volume, Herself Surprised, but more and more, I'm just not feeling it.

4. Washington: A Life - Ron Chernow. Biography.
I had to switch to the e-reader edition because I got tired of lugging the physical book around. Also, there were print issues with this one, too. I am so irritated with my eyes for wavering and watering! Stop that, you two! I'll turn this head around, I swear I will!!!

5. The Emigrants - Johan Bojer. Novel.
Written in 1924 and translated into English the following year, this Norwegian novel is about a family leaving Norway and pioneering in North Dakota. Although I haven't gotten beyond the first chapter, this book pleases me on several fronts: It's old. It's about the emigrant experience. It's about pioneers. It's obscure.

6. Heroes of the Frontier - Dave Eggers. Novel.
I was captivated by What is the What, Eggers' novel based on the life of one of the Lost Boys of Sudan. Heroes of the Frontier seems very different so far -- it starts out with a dentist unexpectedly taking/whisking away her two young children on a vacation to Alaska. So far, I'm drawn in and asking the sorts of questions an engaged reader asks.

Mid-August finds me wanting something very much. I can't even say it here. Not now. But I want this particular thing BAD. On alternating days I'm:
1) hopeful
2) resigned
3) despondent
4) actively snarling and looking for rocks to throw at the "thing with feathers"

Some days, I'm all of those things in succession. Today was like that.

Mid-August finds me running out of shelving space in my bedroom. Time to cull the herd.

Monday, August 08, 2016

Bookworm Notes: The Fireman by Joe Hill

During July, I did a The Fireman readalong with Care and the usual suspects who make my online book loving life so agreeable.  I finished the book fairly quickly without doing a review or casting my impressions about on this blog. This is a job that needs to be done before I can move on and talk about other books in my life right now. But my short-term memory...yikes. Before everything about The Fireman fades away, I'm going to make a list:

1. I've only read this and Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill. The Fireman is the one I prefer.

2. I went into this book feeling as if I would be reading a Stephen King book. That impression changed very little. The thing that makes it feel not like a King book is that when Hill's characters curse, it's not as creative or funny; it's the way real people curse, which is not as much fun on the page.

3. I know other readers brought up the title. Why that title? I guess The Nurse wouldn't have worked. Dragonscale would have made the book seem like fantasy. Well, I'm fresh out of ideas.

4. I had to stop reading and go listen to that Dire Straits song John and Harper kept referencing.

5. Back to Dragonscale. What a beautifully imagined disease and lovingly described.  An almost enviable condition. Very J.K. Rowling.

6. The book could have been a little shorter. Some of the scenes dragged.

7. I hated Jakob at first, and roared when Harper/Hill savaged his lame hidden novel, Desolation's Plough. (Nice extra jab...plough instead of plow) I felt as if this send-up was an affectionate shout-out to Uncle Stevie's On Writing. After a while, Jakob became so cartoonishly evil that I couldn't muster up anything but yawns for him.

8. The sheer bounty of references to other books, novels, authors, movies, songs, etc. made me so happy that I damn near glowed with Dragonscale. I am dreaming of the day when The Fireman is annotated. Please, O Publishing Gods, let it be soon! Don't make me wait too long.  I feel the stirrings of certainty that somewhere, this project is already underway.

9. Maybe it's because I'm under the influence of Hamilton, but I am seeing this book as a potential musical.

10. There's going to be a sequel, isn't there?

11. The supporting characters in the compound. I loved them, especially Renee (?) The characters' names are starting to slip away from me. The young girl/woman (name?) reminded me a bit of Katniss Everdeen and also of a character in one of King's recent novels. Doctor Sleep, I think it was. Carol was disturbing. Not over-the-top like Jakob, because the reader could uneasily understand her motivation.

12. Although The Fireman has a bleak setting and the world is in peril, the tone of the book is anything but bleak and flat. No Cormac McCarthy here. Instead, there is hope and humor. It seems odd in a dystopian horror novel, but I like it.