Tuesday, March 31, 2009


Anna K. is a crowd-stoppingly beautiful woman just "the wrong side of 35" who has spent her life hopping from relationship to relationship, just wanting to be some great writer's muse. Now, she has finally decided to settle down on the Upper East Side with a kindly and extremely wealthy Russian man her entire Russian family approves of and whose money will allow her to continue her designer lifestyle. A train ride away in Brooklyn, her cousin Katya, a good, observant, Bukharian Jewish girl, finally finds a boyfriend after years of ostracism by her community because of a malicious rumor that was spread about her in high school. But Anna sees in her cousin's man the possible love of her life, the struggling writer who might make her immortal. In this modern retelling of Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, Irina Reyn puts a fresh (and short!! 288 pages!) spin on the classic novel by placing it in New York's affluent Russian immigrant community.

It cannot be denied that Irina Reyn is a talented and sharp-eyed writer. I look forward to seeing what else she will publish in the future. And this is certainly an effective modern retelling; she has created a very real world and translated all the malaise of the original (which, I confess, I haven't read, just know about from pop culture) into a very believable modern plot.

I also have to admit that I spent the whole book waiting for a train to come along--how could I not have? But Reyn succeeds in not making the attraction of the book hinge on any kind of surprise. We all know how Anna will meet her untimely end; Reyn's accomplishment is the rendering of the mythology and the creation of a believable modern character who chooses to make the same false steps as Tolstoy's Anna.

Alas I didn't love the act of reading this book; I think perhaps because it was too much of a "project" book, and I don't have any romantic attachment to the original. Anna is such a supremely unlikable character, with only an academic understanding of human morality and no personal engagement with it, and seeing a bunch of rich Manhattanites trotting around their label bags and expensive lunches gets very dull very quickly to me. Watching Katya's story unfold was more interesting to me--at least I sympathized with Katya--and was the reason I kept reading. But regardless of my dislike for the topic, I think this is a very interesting book by a promising author; I would certainly recommend it to any who have read and/or loved the original.

Daphne DuMaurier/REBECCA

In the 1930s, a nameless 21-year-old orphaned English girl is living as a paid companion with her employer, a detestable American woman, in Monaco on an extended holiday when circumstances force her into the company of an incredibly wealthy widower, Mr. Maximilian de Winter, the owner of the famously majestic estate Manderley. Mr. de Winter's very beautiful and beloved wife, Rebecca, drowned tragically a year earlier, and Maxim has been unwell ever since. When our young protagonist finds herself suddenly the new Mrs. de Winter, she has surprise after unpleasant surprise about the size of the shoes she has to fill. From the formidable housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, to Maxim's aging grandmother, to the common folk who live on the Manderley estate, everyone can only talk about the beloved Rebecca, of unsurpassable beauty, kindness, generosity, class, good taste, and breeding. Will the new Mrs. de Winter survive her own crisis of confidence, or any of the darker secrets Manderley hides?

I chose this as my first book for Project Fill-in-the-Gaps because it was a birthday gift to me long ago and a classic I'd never once been able to make myself get past page 5 of. The first five pages are just so goshdarn overwrought and boring--purple description of a dream estate that no modern editor would have let happen--and I resolved to get past them. Phew.

In the end, it only took until page 6 for the whole book to come together. Aside from the unfortunate opening, the book is quite literally a page turner. When the awful opening dream sequence has ended, you are transported suddenly to Monaco, an insufferable guardian, a whirlwind romance, and then to the history-laden Manderley. For the next third of the novel you can't stop turning pages, watching the train wreck of the new Mrs. de Winter's unrecoverable social blunders--most painfully, when she answers the house telephone, which is for Mrs. de Winter, by saying, "Mrs. de Winter has been dead a year." Then there is the ill-fated ball, which we, the readers, know is going to go wrong, and almost see how, and then, the final third, is the twist you never expect. I read the second half of the novel in a single 4-hour sitting; I absolutely needed to finish it before I went to bed last night.

The book is not without its flaws. It was written in 1938, but DuMaurier doesn't suffer any of the terseness affecting trendy American prose of that era. At just under 400 fairly dense pages, the novel felt like a little bit of a heavy project at first. The plot is simultaneously slow-developing and overblown in a way very well suited to Hitchcock--who ended up being her career-long partner in crime, since he adapted several of her novels--and in some ways the potboiler elements might put off less credulous modern readers. There is the fact that the plot is less than feminist, and there are also the rather flimsy ultimate motives of the characters, and some very interesting moral questions that are left utterly hanging at the end--those of you who have read it will probably know what I mean; for the others I won't spoil it for you, although I'd love to discuss in greater detail in the comments if you have thoughts.

Ultimately, I'm very happy to have started my Great Read with Rebecca. She leaves me with so many things to talk about! Not to mention a great sense of satisfaction, and one greater than just a "one down" kind of satisfaction. I feel like I've absorbed a rather rewarding cornerstone of 20th century pop culture.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

This book made me really mad. Let me explain. I bought The Hunger Games when it first came out and put it on my TBR pile (which is admittedly huge). I picked it up to take a peek before going to bed at 12:30. First mistake. I am a fast reader but it wasn't until 4AM that I finished the book. There were sections that were so intense I had to reread it right then and there. Second mistake, I drank a huge glass of water before starting. Even though I had to pee really badly, I could not put the freaking book down and go to the bathroom. I can't believe I risked a bladder infection for this book. But then again, I can't believe how awesome this book is.

The Hunger Games

And that goes to the crux of why I am so raving mad that I read this book right now. Cause when I got to the end of the book, it said "End of Book One" and I had no Book Two to immediately begin reading. And that is absolutely killing me. It is exquisite agony that keeps me thinking over and over about pertinent parts of the book. I am amazed at the skill and tortured by the wait. I desperately wish I had not read it until the whole series was written so I could read them back to back. But I also wish Ms. Collins would hurry up and write as fast as possible so as not to hold me hostage by her world much longer. My most desperate wish is one I think all writers have when they read a book they love. I wish I had written this book myself. I wish I had created this world so I can control the outcome of these characters.

For those of you who may not know about this book, I'll give you a short synopsis. Ms. Collins has created a dystopian Utopia where twenty-four teenage contestants representing their districts are forced to compete in the ultimate Survivor show. You must kill the other contestants to win. The rules? There seems to be only one rule - make it entertaining. It reminds me of that great scene in The Gladiator where Russell Crowe comes out and kills ten men in a matter of seconds and the crowd is stunned silent. He turns to them and shouts "Are you not entertained?!" Oh yeah! The producers of the show don't like it when contestants aren't killed daily so they do dangerous things to add to the suspense and keep their audience entertained. The hero of the book is Katniss, a poor girl with mad hunting skills, from the poorest district, whose little twelve year old sister's name is pulled from the lottery. Katniss knows her sister cannot survive and volunteers to go in her stead. And from that moment on, the book takes you on a roller coaster ride that you physically can't get off until it rolls to a satisfying end. Except it isn't satisfying to see that there are more books to read but they are not yet published.

I have heard this book compared to Battle Royale by Koushun Takami and have heard people complain about the similarities. I can't comment because I haven't read Battle yet, but I know that because of the Hunger Games I look forward to reading it. And I don't think it will change my mind about my review of Ms. Collins book. It is simply an awesome read.

Sunday, March 29, 2009


When Arthur Bechstein graduates from his Pittsburgh college, he doesn't have much--no job, no ambition, no specific interests, no family (his mother died when he was very young and his father is a distant and psychologically abusive white-collar gangster), and no romantic history to speak of, having spent the last several years in unrequited love with a girl who just wanted to be roommates. With nothing specific in front of him and a wallet full of his father's ill-begotten money, Arthur decided to fall in with a set of charming dilettantes: a beautiful gay preppy boy, also named Arthur; his best friend from childhood, an alcoholic petty-crimer named Cleveland; Cleveland's girlfriend, Jane; and Phlox, the hypnotic recovering punk Arthur first met in the library.

I liked this book. It was a quick and compelling read. Arthur is a candid narrator, and his earnest and unashamed sexual identity development feels both realistic and (nearly) romantic. I didn't love it, though, to be honest. Perhaps because I've read Michael Chabon in reverse chronological order, it was overly interesting to me to think about how his writing has grown and developed and which seeds have been there all along. In the end, it was a little bit self-celebratory and plotless, and left a lot of ends loose or unexplored. Since his prose styling is so competent, it is an enjoyable read despite.

I bumped this up on my reading list to make sure I'd finished it before the movie came out this summer. I'm really curious to see what they'll do with it.

"Beginner's Greek" - James Collins

Peter is a romantic, always dreaming of sitting next to a woman on a plane: she will be "the one." Then, he meets Holly on a plane bound for L.A. Sparks fly, he gets the number, he loses the number.

Years later, they meet again, though Holly is now the wife of his best friend. And, so it goes.

This book has been heralded as chick lit from a guy's perspective or cruelly accurate mockery of New York elitists. Whatever. I guess you could pigeon-hole it into romance, but Peter would turn on only a small percentage of women who needed their gaydar reactivated.

With wildly inane character descriptions (really? we really need to know ten pages about the woman who cooks for someone?), Collins was applauded for this overwritten piece of meth.

In other words, I despised it.

.25 out of 5.0 Fucked-Up Shits.

The Lord of the Rings - J. R. R. Tolkien

The Lord of the Rings is one of the greatest books I have ever read.  It is, in fact, so awesome that I cannot, by any effort, write a review of it that is shorter than 150 pages; left to my own devices, I would be reduced to waving my hands and shouting at you to go read it right now.

Because of this, I have shamelessly stolen a review from Amazon.

If you are one of the poor souls who have not read this mighty epic because you think all that talk of dwarves, elves and trolls is a bit sad, do yourself a favour - ignore the genre tag, ignore the thousands of third rate imitations that fill the bookshelves of the nation's book shops, and read this and be overwhelmed.

What does great literature need? A plot helps. Great characters. Tension - something to make you turn the page. Excitement, dismay, joy. And at the end, your should be sorry that it is over - and be tempted to start again from the beginning.

Not every great book has all of these virtues. But The Lord of the Rings does - and more.

It would be impossible to improve on the plot, the narrative flow, the brilliant pacing and masterly movement from scene to scene - many of which happen concurrently. And all this from a simple, single premise - destroy that ring!

The characters (of which there are legion) are immediately involving, fully drawn - but the simple old fashioned hooks are there as well. Good guys are likeable, bold, brave, honourable. The bad guys get what they deserve. Some of the Hobbits in particular grow enormously in depth as the book goes on, growing up before your eyes, their personalities re-drawn by the great trials they go through.

Tension, excitement, dismay, joy - you bet. Many parts of all three books are utterly rivetting, veering from edge of the seat, last ditch combat, through great chase scenes, to tense and draining treks through darkness and horror.

And the ending - greatly extended compared to the average work of fiction, and correctly so - is at once uplifting, joyous, beautiful and achingly sad. The sense of greatness and beauty lost, even in victory, is truly remarkable.

And most of all, Tolkien's use of the language he plainly loved is sublime. There are passages that hit extraordinary heights, sometimes lyrical, sometimes moving, horrifying, serene.

I've just re-read this again - perhaps the fourth time now - and it was just as exciting and rewarding as the first time. Put down your prejudices, be bold - it's not "fantasy", it's not "science fiction", it's not for childen - it is one of the very greatest works of English fiction, of any age.

If you have not read this book, turn off your computer and go read it.  If you have, go read it again.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Lan Samantha Chang/INHERITANCE

In the 1930s in southern China, a very refined young women finds herself in an unexpected marriage because of her father's gambling debts. Her surprise husband is a soldier in what will become Chiang Kai-Shek's Nationalist Army. But what surprises Jinan the most is how desperately in love she falls with this distant man, and that he will be the only thing that can come between Jinan and the person who loves her most in the world: her younger sister. The "Inheritance" in the title is the legacy of botched and missing love the two sisters have been passed from their mother, who committed suicide for lack of love when Jinan and Yunan were young. The story of four generations of women and the ways they handle and mishandle love arcs from post-dynastic China over the Japanese occupation, World War II, the rise of the Communists, the Nationalist exodus to Taiwan, and the subsequent flight to America.

I picked up this book on a whim and then put off reading it, quite ready to be bored and disappointed by another Amy Tan knock-off about the horrors of the War. Although in all honesty it did start on some very familiar territory, the book turned out to be much richer. More than anything, it was about the relationship between two sisters, and about the distance people arbitrarily create between themselves and the people they love: for the sake of pride, or fear, or hurt. The story is both a loose summary of twentieth century Chinese history and a reminder to try to tear down walls while we still can.

Thursday, March 26, 2009


The story of a fat Dominican sci-fi geek (Oscar) who finally discovers love in the worst possible place. Junot Diaz tells Oscar's story via the stories of his cursed family: his tragic/crazy mother, his sacrificing grandmother, his loving and irresistible punk sister, and his erstwhile college roommate, Yunior (a means of building the author into the story? I suspect so). The narrative is freckled with expository footnotes about Trujillo, his raping pedophile ways, his murderous goons, and the scars of his legacy on the Dominican Republic and its people, both in the DR and abroad.

In terms of fast rewarding reads, this one scores pretty high. I'll admit I didn't care as much about Oscar, his fatness, his suicidal tendencies, or his obsession with Tolkien as I did about the backstory of his family and the author's brightly colored and painful notes about Dominican history. It was only through his (not at all alienating) narrative that I realized how little I knew about the DR (and how much there was to learn, and how much I wanted to learn it).

I'd recommend this to everybody. Like I said, it's so quick and rewarding that I think most people will feel satisfied having read it.

Nell Freudenberger/THE DISSIDENT

This is one of the best written novels I've read in a while, and, despite its length (just over 400 pages in the edition I have, and the tiniest font I've ever seen), it makes for a very easy and very amusing read. It follows the experiences of a young Chinese artist who comes to spend a year in California, and is welcomed as a houseguest by the wealthy Cece and Gordon Travers in Beverley Hills. It's full of engaging characters and witty observations, and yet I found it rather less than wholly satisfying. I felt there was a lack of resolution about it - with certain characters or plot-strands not being fully developed, or being set up and then abandoned (Cece's bratty teenage children and her novelist sister-in-law remain peripheral characters; an accusation of sexual misconduct by a teacher at a private girls' school, which might seem to be a key element of the story, actually becomes something of an irrelevance). For me, perhaps, the novel is insufficiently plot-driven (one of the key characters doesn't appear until the half-way point!). I found it rather like becoming engrossed in a soap opera; I was so interested in the characters that I constantly wanted to know what would happen next - but nothing very much did.

Readers hoping for comedy or observation on the theme of culture clash may be disappointed too. This is nothing like Lost In Translation (although one of the blurbs on the cover drew this analogy). The Chinese protagonist speaks such fluent English that nothing much fazes him. And the story is only partly told from his point of view, anyway.

Structurally, too, many readers will find the book flawed. It is essentially a comedy of manners dissecting the dysfunctionalities of a well-to-do Los Angeles family, and it is most successful and engaging when detailing the home life of the Travers. The 'main plot' about the visiting Chinese artist feels rather grafted on, to create a more distinctive and saleable concept. This theme provides the more serious levels of the book, giving an opportunity for some interesting - if not particularly deep - philosophizing on the nature of art and the attribution of art (and some of the 'performance art' pieces described are pretty damned funny; although with this kind of thing it's hard to know if satire is intended). And, as an incorrigible China-enthusiast (I live here, for heaven's sake!), I was fascinated by the flashbacks to life in the "East Village", a celebrated though short-lived 'artists' colony' which sprang up on the outskirts of Beijing in the early '90s. However, it's probably a bit indulgent, a bit undisciplined to devote nearly a third of the book to the back-story of the main character; it makes the novel rather too long, and somewhat unbalanced. The Dissident is essentially two novels blended together; and, for me, that blending doesn't quite work.

And there's a related structural difficulty, of course, in the different narrative personas: most of the story is told in a detached, third-person narration (though usually focusing on the perspective of Cece, or her charming but feckless brother-in-law, Phil), but parts of it are presented as the autobiographical writing of the Chinese artist. I'm always a bit impatient of such shifts of narrative perspective, and while it does here provide some moments of humour, on the whole I found it tended to underline rather too heavily the separateness of the two strands of the story. Moreover, the 'voice' of the artist just isn't convincing: his English is far too sophisticated and idiomatic for a non-native speaker, certainly for one who's never previously been outside of his home country.

However, you can readily forgive such imperfections in a first novel, particularly when the quality of the writing itself is so outstanding. This book keeps you consistently entertained, and it fizzes with good lines on almost every page. I leave you with just one example:
In some unhappy marriages I've heard the child is ignored, but in my case, it was the reverse. Both of my parents watched me with the intensity of a pair of gamblers, waiting with clenched hands to see whether I might find the satisfactions that had eluded them.

Disclosure: Nell Freudenberger is a friend (gosh, I hope she doesn't read this review!), and tried to send me - not once but twice, I think - an advance copy of this book. Evidently it must have been confiscated by the Chinese authorities - only to be expected with a title like that! I'd met her when she was in Beijing on a reading tour to promote her debut book, the short story collection Lucky Girls. We kept in touch by e-mail thereafter, and hung out a few times when she visited China again a year or so later. On that second trip, she was investigating Beijing's modern art scene for a magazine article (I think she'd already formed the notion of using this as background to a novel, and had cannily pitched the magazine article idea to obtain some funding for a research trip). I introduced her to a couple of friends of mine with connections in that scene, and they in turn helped with the translation and the introductions to artists that made both the article and the book possible. I therefore feel a close personal connection to this work, and might perhaps be inclined to overpraise it - although in fact, I fear, I may have overcompensated for that tendency and instead been rather too acerbic in my quibbles. Setting aside any personal feeling, I really do have the highest admiration for Nell's abilities as a writer.

Afraid- Jack Kilborn

Afraid Afraid by Jack Kilborn

My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars
I'll preface this review by saying that I don't read horror. I also don't read thrillers, but I loved the Jack Daniels books, by JA Konrath. And since JA and Jack Kilborn are the same person, I was excited to read his latest novel. Afraid is all out horror, and is designed to play on any fear you might have.

In the town of Safe Haven, something terrible has landed. A team of Red Ops has "accidentally" landed in this small town with one mission, kill everyone. An aging sheriff, lone firefighter and single mother are fighting for their lives. I don't want to say too much more, as it is a twisting and exciting plot. You really just have to read it.

I really liked this book. I'd heard that some thought it was too gory, and over the top, but honestly, Kilborn leaves a lot to the imagination, which just makes it that much scarier. I finished this book in one day, and while freaked out, didn't immediately think it was that scary. I was able to remove myself from the scenes in the novel. Or so I thought. It wasn't until a couple of days ago that I realized the reason I'd been having a hard time sleeping was because of scenes from the book. It definitely lingers... and scares far beyond the pages. Read it with the lights on.

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Tuesday, March 24, 2009


In this lively and readable overview, LeFaye tackles Jane Austen's life, times, and background for each of her six books (she even discusses the unfinished seventh). As a Jane Austen fan, I was pretty riveted; the only "boring" portions were the plot summaries, a small component of the book, but I found myself even enjoying those because the author jammed them full of trivia about where Jane got her ideas, etc.

I was particularly interested in the book as a publishing professional because of the components describing Jane's writing and publication processes (I collapsed some, but not all, of the interesting points into this blog post awhile back). But there are so many very interesting topics to cover--for example, in a world so focused on propriety and manners, what would one do if one happened to be at a neighbor's house when one had to do a poo? How did these super-proper people keep themselves clean when there was no hot water in the winter? I was fascinated to read about how dangerous carriage rides could actually be, or how truly daunting travel was and why.

Best is that there is nothing dry about the telling of all this, despite the author's scholarly background and (obvious) copious research. Anyone who is a Jane Austen fan or a history buff will not be able to put it down.

Monday, March 23, 2009


In the waning weeks of 1975, a would-be teenage poet named Jose Garcia Madero falls in with Mexico City's oft-discussed and -reviled countercultural poetry movement, who call themselves the visceral realists. The movement's spearheads are Arturo Belano--a Colombian expat who is, perhaps, a very thinly veiled fictionalization of the author, Roberto Bolano--and his cohort, the large and quiet Mexican Ulises Lima. The poets take Jose on a joyride through Mexico City's dive bars, greasy spoons, and cheap motels on a quest for love, sex, booze, and the perfect visceral realist poem. But on New Year's Day, 1976, in the small hours of the morning, everything goes rather awry, launching a madcap exodus across four different continents.

There are some pros and cons about this book, to the point that I can't give it a rating. I saw a girl on the subway reading it and sat down next to her to chat, and found that she felt much the way I did--7 out of 10, how frustrating--so I'll try to discuss these pros and cons in order.

First, I was very much caught up in the first 100+ pages, Jose Garcia Madero's diary. Although it consists of pure, undirected narrative, I couldn't stop reading about the latest crazy characters he came across or his adolescent desperation to get laid, at whatever cost to himself and his friends. All rather brisk and entertaining.

The trouble for me came at page 130 or so, when Jose's diary ends, as does the semblance of any structure or narrative (may I take this opportunity to point out that the book is 672 pages long). The rest of the book is a series of short passages--varying in length from a paragraph to 20 pages or so--told by "witnesses" of Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima's exploits abroad. While some of the narrators repeat once or twice, many never repeat at all, and--frustratingly--Jose, the one character I'd gotten to know, disappears entirely.

All this becomes difficult to sum up. Bolano is indeed a skilled writer and an observer of perspective; each of the short narratives is very entertaining in and of itself. But when it became clear to me that none of the mini-chapters was driving the plot forward--that indeed there was no plot--I admit I got frustrated with the mammoth heavy book and began to skim a little. When I realized there was nothing but whimsical stand-alone appeal to each of the sections, my attention drifted.

All this was a real shame, because at the end when it did all come together again--at the very, very, very end--I was sad to see I'd missed some details I was vaguely curious about. Sad enough to go back and reread? No way. I don't have the stamina.

This book was recommended to me by a colleague, who said it is literally the best thing he has read in his adult life. I imagine for a type of reader it really scratches an itch, and like I said, his perspective-building is really extraordinary and largely amusing. For me, it wasn't a perfect enough reading experience for me to be willing to embark on his (even longer) second book, 2666. Perhaps if I'd gone in knowing what kind of mental project the book would be, I would have taken more time to read it. Alas. I didn't.

I would recommend at least sampling, though. If you like the feel at the beginning and aren't deterred by the length, it could be a really valuable read. I do think it's a wonderful departure from "Latin American Literature" as we've been defining it for the last four decades or so, and all aficionados should partake (probably already have).

Charlotte Roche/WETLANDS

Helen is an 18-year-old "ass patient," as she puts it. She is stuck in the hospital recovering from an operation that involved some tissue removal and requires some special healing. During the boredom that she survives over her several days as an invalid, Helen recounts her various attempts to shock the nursing staff, her efforts to force her divorced parents to interact with each other, and her many ruminations on personal hygiene and sex, all of which are put forth in more graphic terms than you have probably ever seen in your life. The gore and bravado, it turns out, might be a front for something a little darker, a reality Helen has worked her life to cover up.

I heard about this buzz from an editor friend who'd picked a copy up at Frankfurt. She mentioned that there was so much buzz about this book--it has been an international bestseller (originally in German), and the English translation is (Grove is hoping) going to make a big splash. "There is one scene, though," she told me, "that made me... pause. I wonder, if I had the ability to unread that scene, if maybe I would take it."

My reaction, having read the whole thing, is to wonder which scene she could have meant. Not that there aren't any gross scenes. Just that there is such a constant sustained level of grossness that no particular moment stuck out as unusually take back-able.

Just so you are forewarned, in case you decide to pick it up. Do not try to read it over your lunch hour.

But back to the book review. Is the book worth the...titillation? I think that Roche actually had a good mission, a point to make and the beginnings of a delicately constructed and mind-blowing psychological study of family dynamics and the teenage mind. Unfortunately, the ball dropped. About two-thirds of the way through, when I started seeing through the slime and pornography, I got my hopes up that there was something wonderful emerging, and was disappointed when Roche didn't force herself to get there. The second half of the novel was rushed and uneven, and the resolution was a thin cop-out. Which, unfortunately, makes the rest of the book into unnecessary disgustingness.

I wouldn't un-read the book, as my friend suggested she felt about portions of it. I have a fairly strong stomach. But I also don't feel like it made my life any better.

I read this book way in advance (although I'm posting this review in March, I finished the book in December). I'm wondering how mainstream media is going to take it--say it's awesome? Say it's gross? Ignore it entirely? I guess I'll see.

Seven Steps on the Writer's Path- Nancy Pickard and Lynn Lott

Seven Steps on the Writer's Path: The Journey from Frustration to Fulfillment Seven Steps on the Writer's Path: The Journey from Frustration to Fulfillment by Nancy Pickard

My review

rating: 3 of 5 stars
Books on the craft of writing are a tricky bunch. I've found that I either think they are amazing and want to live by them, or that they're sort of useless. For once a writing book fell in between.

Seven Steps on the Writer's Path describes the journey that each writer (supposedly) takes from Unhappiness to Fulfillment. When I first started this book, and just glanced through the steps, I thought that I would be somewhere in Wavering or possibly Letting Go. As I read however, each step felt like exactly where I am in this moment. While it was nice that the steps were all very relatable, it also made it hard to really understand where I was and how I could apply the authors' suggestions to my writing life.

I really liked their examples of a writer's feelings and actions at each step and appreciated the interviews and comments from established authors. I wanted more concrete exercises to help work through each step. Some writing exercises would have been nice as well. Overall, it was okay, but it didn't motivate me at all and didn't give me a better understanding of myself as a writer. It might be a nice book to own, simply so I could read it at a more leisurely pace and only focus on the step that I think I'm currently in. It felt a little weird to read the whole thing straight through. A decent book to check out, but not a must read.

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Saturday, March 21, 2009

Summerland- Michael Chabon

Summerland Summerland by Michael Chabon

My review

rating: 5 of 5 stars
Apparently I was one of the last three people on Earth who hadn't already fallen in love with Michael Chabon. I'd heard him touted on various blogs, and a friend had bought me The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, and Wonder Boys is one of my favorite movies, but I'd never put all of those things together. It wasn't until I was subbing recently that I saw Summerland and picked it up. Having not read any of Chabon's other novels, I didn't have any expectations for this book, but I thought it was wonderful.

Summerland is an amazing fantasy, along the lines of The Lord of the Rings. Summerland is the story of a young boy, Ethan Feld, and his best friend, Jennifer T. Rideout, as they venture across different lands on a quest to prevent Coyote from destroying the entire world. Along the way, they pick up an unlikely band of friends, from a mini giant to a sasquatch. With their new friends they cross the four branches of the great tree: The Middling (our world now), Summerland (where fairies and other creatures live in eternal summer), Winterland (lots of strange creatures, but always winter) and The Gleaming (no one knows what lies here). They meet a variety of creatures from Indian legends and American Tall Tales. They play a number of games of baseball along the way (it's the only sport common to all of the lands) to earn their freedom to continue on their quest.

I really loved this book. I'm not a huge fantasy reader, but I loved Chabon's treatment of the classic quest plot. I really liked that it had such strong American roots, and almost would have wanted just a little bit more, such as when he describes American Tall Tales by their appearance. I would have preferred names, mostly because I wasn't familiar with all of the tales he spoke of. I liked the characters, and loved the relationship between all of them. I also like how each member of their party had a different reason for going on this quest. It felt quite authentic. Overall, this is a great book for young and old alike. It's an easy ready, though long, and is easy to connect to. I would love to see more fantasies tied to truly American elements, celebrating the heritage we have.

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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

East of Eden- John Steinbeck

East of Eden (Centennial Edition) East of Eden by John Steinbeck

My review

rating: 5 of 5 stars
So, whenever people asked me to pick a favorite book, a common question as both an English teacher and an author, I usually dodged it as best I could. Asking me to pick a favorite book is like asking me to pick a favorite pair of shoes. I just can't; I love them all too much. However, when pressed I would usually say East of Eden, even though I hadn't read it since high school, which has been, we'll just say a while. So, I decided to re-read this classic novel to see if it still held such a special place in my heart. I have to say, it does. Maybe not number one any more, but at least tied or possibly number two.

East of Eden can really only be described as sweeping. The novel follows Adam Trask most closely, from his childhood to old age, though all of the people who have an affect on his life: his brother, wife, neighbor and sons, are all developed fully as characters. Trask, after growing up angry and afraid of both his father and brother, is forced to join the Army and upon release takes his inherited fortune and moves to the Salinas Valley. With the support of his servant, Lee, and his prophetic neighbor Sam Hamilton, Trask survives being left by his wife (who sets up a whorehouse in a nearby town) and raises his twin boys.

This isn't a plot driven book. So, if you are looking for a thrilling page turner, keep on moving. However, East of Eden is like sitting down to a grand eight course dinner. The descriptions are fantastically detailed and the pacing slow. This is a book to be savored and enjoyed. The writing is both literary, lyrical and accessible and the plot and theme well carried out. There's a reason this book is a classic that has stood the test of time- it's beautiful. If you haven't read this book... do it now, and savor it like you would a really fine cut of steak- or tofu or whatever.

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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Slaughterhouse Five- Kurt Vonnegut

Slaughterhouse-Five Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars
I somehow managed to avoid reading any Vonnegut until now, and I had heard that you either love him, or hate him. I definitely fall into the former category. Now, I will admit that I was potentially swayed by the fact that my writing group said my own writing was like a nice, sweet Vonnegut, but that's beside the point.

Slaughterhouse Five is the portrait of Billy Pilgrim, an optometrist who has witnessed the firebombing of Dresden in WWII and been taken as a zoo subject by the alien planet Tralfmador. In the book Billy has become "unstuck in time" and bounces from one point in his life to another. We follow him from being captured in Germany, to his mental breakdown senior year of optometrist school, to his wedding anniversary and off to Tralfmador where he is on display at the zoo.

The novel is an interesting portrayal of war, life, and time. I was intrigued by the Tralfmadorians view of time. All moments are in existence at once. They see the whole span of time all at once. This is what enabled Billy to move between these moments with ease. Quite interesting. Billy was also a unique character. He isn't quite the lovable hero that you want him to be. He's sort of bumbling, definitely a coward and not entirely likable. However, he is interesting, and probably more real than most characters.

Overall, I really liked this book, almost more for the structure than anything else. It was really unique, gave an interesting perspective and (I thought) a fair treatment of WWII. Vonnegut makes you look at some of life's simple things with a different eye. It also didn't feel super hardcore sci-fi, which was nice. I found it to be a quick read and it was definitely worth it. It's a classic for a reason.

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Ever wonder how depression affects your brain? Or how to alter your brain chemistry to dampen anxiety? This book provides an overview of, and methods for dealing with, several different types of common problems in the brain, including ADD, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and rage.

Henslin writes in an accessible style that sometimes borders on being condescending, with plenty of cheesy humor thrown in. But his explanations of how different areas of the brain function are easy to understand and remember. For example, he calls the Basal Ganglia (the area of the brain that alerts us to danger) the "Basement of Great Fears," and discusses how trauma can cause old fears to get "stuck" in the brain.

Most of this book serves as a sort of self-help guide. It even includes a questionnaire to help the reader discover which kind of problem she might suffer from. Henslin discusses several available treatments in the form of medication, nutrition, vitamin supplements, exercise, bible verses, and more. For example, a person suffering from excessive anxiety might be soothed by complex carbohydrates as well as meditation on gratitude.

This book doesn't go very far in depth on matters of brain anatomy, and it doesn't discuss religious matters as much as you might expect it to considering it's published by a Christian house. But it's a good overview of the brain's role in common emotional problems.

Monday, March 9, 2009

THE ME I USED TO BE/Jennifer Archer

After the original Woodstock, sixteen-year-old Allyson Cole found herself pregnant and alone when her boyfriend Sonny runs away without a word, and her parents forced her to give the baby up for adoption.

Thirty years later, Allyson is stunned to find an eighteen-year-old boy on her doorstep: Nicholas, the son of the daughter she gave up for adoption. Before Allyson's daughter died of cancer, she found where Allyson lived and told Nicholas to go to her "because she owes me". Allyson and Nicholas go on a search for Sonny to find out if they can be a family.

I like the twist on "baby given up for adoption comes back", and I really liked Jennifer Archer's writing. So rare for me these days, I didn't find myself pulled out of the story once for strange sentence structure or weird choices of words. Thinking back on it now, I can see an inconsistency in the story line but it didn't bother me at the time and I don't think it's a big deal even now.

I haven't read anything else by Jennifer Archer but I will now.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

"The Lightning Thief" - Rick Riordan

After watching my son devour this series of novels by Rick Riordan, I asked for his cast-offs. "You're going to love it, Mom," my son said. "Did you get to the part about his father? About blah blah blah?" I had to screech at him, "Don't *tell* me, I don't want to ruin it, etc."

Because this book is like Harry Potter with ADHD.

Actually, Percy Jackson, pre-teen hero of the novel, has ADHD and dyslexia. But the best part is he's the son of an Olympic god. Which one? Through stories about mythology, Riordan teaches as he writes. Percy is sent on a quest with his friends, Grover and Annabeth, with crazy bus rides, restaurant visits, and water park pools adding excitement for the early-YA crowd.

The dialogue is fantastic in its pitch-perfect tune of a 12-year-old. Riordan throws a few bones to the parents, too, which made me laugh out loud. Overall, it's a delightful book, and I've promised my son to "say it's sick writing." Whatever that means. I'm on the bandwagon.

4.25 out of 5.0 Monkey Businesses.

Friday, March 6, 2009

ME VS. ME/Sarah Mlynowski

If you're looking for a deep read, this is not it. However, this chick lit book has more going on than meets the eye.

Gabby has been offered her dream job in New York, but the night before she leaves Arizona her boyfriend Cam proposes. He has already made it clear he won't leave Arizona, so Gabby has a choice: her dream job or Cam. She wishes on a shooting star that she won't have to choose, and that's what happens.

She ends up living a day in New York, then waking up the next morning and living the same day in Arizona. Back and forth, she lives her two lives, dealing with career and roommate issues in New York as a newly single woman and with the mother-in-law-to-be from hell in Arizona.

This sort of book often makes me angry at the doormat nature of the main character, but while Gabby was undoubtedly a doormat in Arizona, she quickly (but not unrealistically so) developed a spine in New York, which made her far more interesting to me.

Another interesting choice by the author: Gabby knew about her two lives. This meant that she could try things to see if she could influence one world by her actions in another, which added to the plot.

I was pretty sure I knew how it would end but there was a nice twist I wasn't expecting, which I appreciated.

Overall, a fun light read and good for "how would I handle this?" speculation.

Thursday, March 5, 2009


I picked this up for free at www.fictionwise.com (it's still there as of this writing, and I suspect it'll be there until the paperback edition is released April 28/09) with no idea what I was getting.

The book is a collection of essays describing various aspects of Laurie Notaro's life. From learning a rapist is moving into her neighborhood to a white-water rafting trip to dealing with a flooded basement, the stories are clearly intended to be wildly hilarious.

Unfortunately, it wore thin for me about a third of the way in. The dialogue was so forced, with everyone dropping multiple puns or over-the-top similes in each statement, and I found myself losing interest. I adore this sort of thing (the Mimi Smartypants blog leaves me laughing every time, and I found her book on sale and reread it regularly) but in this book it just didn't end up working for me. Some parts, in fact, seemed utterly impossible, and I found myself pulled out of the book to think, "Could you really do that?"

The best story by far was the depiction of the death of her much-loved dog. She dropped the unrealistic language and situations and made it clear just how strongly she felt about the dog, and I felt it as I read.

I know that writing humor like this is far more difficult than it looks. Unfortunately, with this book I could see the effort and it took away from my enjoyment.

Monday, March 2, 2009

"The Women" - T.C. Boyle

Longtime readers of the Books for Breakfast blog know of my obsession with three authors: John Irving (whose work I have memorized and could write a dissertation on the symbolic nature of snails), Steven Pressfield (because he writes a battle scene like no other), and T.C. Boyle. Why Boyle? Because he has rarely written something that doesn't evoke strong emotions.

In THE WOMEN (now that I'm dealing with more manuscripts, I'm finding it necessary to change my writing - so, sorry for the new all-cap feature of the blog... have a cocktail on me), his writing continues the trend, though I felt angry through most of the book. Angry at these women of Frank Lloyd Wright's (yes, the architect), angry at Wright, angry at the glorification of Wright. But that was Boyle's purpose, I believe. As he stated while writing this book, this was another one of his historical series of egomaniacs.

Traveling backward through the women, we learn of the mistresses and wives who support the "genius" of Frank. However, what kind of woman throws away her husband, her children, her life for this obsessed man? I believe that is the question Boyle asked himself as he wrote this, using many biographical (and Wright's autobiography) books to supplement his own ideas.

However, Boyle is biased. He lives in the first Wright house built in California. He appreciates the mastery of the craft. Still, this bias is rarely shown - to my surprise - except when proclaiming its 100th anniversary in 2009.

I like books that make me ponder, returning to my mind as I wash dishes or shovel wood into the stove. While I may have appreciated the book (note no "liked" or "loved" or "adored"), I don't think it's for everyone. What does this book say about women in our time, as well as the finger-pointers who thrive on righteousness? Based on this novel, not much has changed.

3.75 out of 5.0 Fish House Punches.