100 Books

My thoughts on the books I'm currently reading

Monday, June 12, 2006


This blog is moving to a new home. You can now find it at: themaryanne.info . I'm squooshing all my blogs together there; I like the format better, and hopefully you will too. All the old posts are there, as well as neato sorting and searching functions. Your comments all moved too! I'm still doing some tinkering, and it's not completely constructed yet, but close, so please update any links or bookmarks, and join me over there!

Monday, June 05, 2006

I really should just get in the habit of posting right after I finish a book. I don't yet have that habit, so here are the last bunch of books I've read. Flapper by Joshua Zeitz: This is a fantastic new book about the history and cultural context of the flapper trend in the early 1900s. Extrememly well written, very insightful, and very informative. I may need to buy a copy of this one. If Life Were Easy, It Wouldn't Be Hard by Sheri Dew: Inspirational essays about the benefits of trials in our growth and development. Very good. My Life at Rose Red by "Ellen Rimbauer": A comfort reread, this is the book that "inspired" Stephen King's Rose Red mini-series. Totally fake, but convincingly done, and based in part on the Winchester Mystery House. The Algonquin Wits edited by Robert E. Drennan: Another reread. Those folks who gathered round the table at the Algonquin Hotel were funny people. Spook by Mary Roach: I put off buying this when it came out in hardcover, although I'd been waiting anxiously for it, and I'm glad I did. It's good, but not as good as her previous book, Stiff. I think that's because she's covering a topic that has no solid conclusions- the possibility of life after death, and what happens to the soul once the body has died. Stiff was concerned with what happens to the body after death, and that's very quantifiable. Not so much for the soul. So this book just felt less substantial, whereas Stiff felt jampacked with information. Despite that, it was very enjoyable, her sense of humor is fantastic, and her random footnotes crack me up. Portuguese Irregular Verbs by Alexander McCall Smith: Some of you who read this blog consistently might ask yourself, why does she keep giving this author a chance when she keeps being disappointed by his work? I could ask the same question, but in this case, I'm glad that I tried this little book. Unlike Smith's other two series, I really enjoyed this comedic, sarcastic look at a professor who wants more than anything to be acknowledged for his work in a tiny field. The short chapters in the book capture his comedic, naive, and sometimes embarassing experiences, and perhaps that's why I enjoyed it more than the other books- the main character is likeable and fallible, rather than all knowing or condescending. Regardless, I'll be looking into his other books in this series. (I think it's a series, who knows.) Reader's Block by David Markson: I really don't know what to say about this book. I enjoyed it, but I think I missed something huge, but then again maybe I didn't. The book isn't anywhere near a linear narrative, instead it's made up of the thoughts of a writer (who refers to himself as Reader) as he attempts to construct a novel about a writer. Some of the thoughts are about the characters in the novel or where or how they live; most are random facts about long dead writers, many of them focusing on those who committed suicide, died early, or were anti-Semites. It's unclear how many of these "facts" are true (especially the anti-Semite statements), and difficult to determine exactly where Reader's thoughts are leading him. Is he considering suicide? Are the copious mentions of famous anti-Semites a reflection of his own feeling of persecution, or is he convincing himself that his prejudices are acceptable? (We never know if he himself is Jewish.) Likewise, we only get a framework of the story of the novel. It's a puzzle to put together, an exercize in reading that I'm not at all certain that I performed properly. Taking a break from the brain gymnastics, I'm reading Murder in Mesopotamia by Agatha Christie. Once I finish, I'll go back to A Return to Modesty by Wendy Shalit, which I'm halfway through and which is incredibly good, but which again is making me think quite a lot, and my brain protests that these days. Current total: 48 Just Finished: Reader's Block by David Markson Currently Reading: Murder in Mesopotamia by Agatha Christie

Sunday, May 07, 2006

It's time to play catch up again. The Rachel Papers by Martin Amis: I really liked this odd little story about a young man trying to get into Oxford and bed Rachel, the girl of his dreams. It's a coming of age story-- not a lot happens, but plenty happens, if you know what I mean. The book is made up of Charles' notes on his conquest of Rachel (hence the name, The Rachel Papers), and as such we get to peer into Charles' thought process and sometimes strange ideas. Charles is a little bit Max Fischer from Rushmore, a little Lance Scott from The Everlasting, a little someone one else all together. He's a smart kid (he's almost twenty, but still seems like a kid) who thinks too hard about some things and not enough about others, whose knowledge of his own intelligence stifles his use of it. What happens with Charles and Rachel, and what he learns from it, effects all aspects of his life, and it's an iteresting change to watch. Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture by Ariel Levy: I've wanted to read this since it came out, and only just got around to getting it from the library. Now I'm going to have to go buy a copy. I want to give it to all the young women that I know, it's that thought provoking. Levy looks at the popular culture of raunch-- the culture that tells women that choosing to wear skimpy clothing, or be strippers, or be absolutely uninhibited around men is to be liberated. She looks at the dichotomy that's been created that says that either you flaunt your sexuality or you must be embarrased by it- that there's no middle ground for modesty. She interviews top women at Playboy, Girls Gone Wild, and other organizations who have taken over from the men in encouraging women to take their clothes off so men can ogle them, all the while calling it progression and choice and liberation. And she examines the history of feminism to put this movement into context, to show how we went from trying to be free from oppression to just oppressing ourselves. And it's excellent. I need to read it again to fully absorb everything, and I need my own copy so I can write all over it. An Ideal Husband by Oscar Wilde: I wasn't feeling good the other night, so decided to read one of my favorite plays. It's witty, funny, poignant, and I love it. Lord Goring is one of my favorite characters of all time, and there's some great, thought provoking themes running throughout. Diary by Chuck Palahniuk: Another reread, this is my favorite of Palahniuk's books. Dealing with tradition, and the legacies we pass on to our children, it was especially powerful this reading. The themes of art and sacrifice and what we demand of artists are still there, but what stood out more this time was the theme of what we teach our children, and what that subsequently can cause them to suffer. The story reminds me of Shirley Jackson's short story The Lottery; where a society has decided on a cruel plan to save themselves, and everyone is just fine with the violence as long as it doesn't directly impact them. They call their actions loving and rational, when really they're just cowardly and slothful. Diary is a fantastic book, although, like all of Palahniuk's books, somewhat hard to read, but well worth it. Current total: 41 Just finished: Diary by Chuck Palahniuk Next up: I'm not sure

Sunday, April 30, 2006

I started reading Where the Truth Lies by Rupert Holmes, then put it down when my Amazon shipment came containing the much anticipated Cocaine Blues by Kerry Greenwood, and then, miracle of miracles, I did not move on to another book, but picked up Where the Truth Lies and finished it. Not that it suprised me all that much, actually, the book is pretty dang compelling and I wanted to know how it ended. It's the story of a young reporter in the 70s who is looking into a dark day in the life of a comedy team veeeeery similar to Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. They'd just finished a polio telethon in Miami (told ya they were like Dean and Jerry), and flown straight to New Jersey for a casino opening. When they got to the hotel (in New Jersey) there was a dead girl in their hotel room bathtub. The problem? She was a room service girl from their hotel in Miami. They both knew her, but both had alibis for the time she'd been murdered-- they'd been on TV or on a plane. So what happened? Our journalist makes it her purpose to find out as she sets out to write a book about that night with Vince Collins (the Dean character). Lanny (the Jerry character), who hasn't spoken to Vince since after that night, is trying to dissuade her from pursuing the issue, and things get complicated when she meets him and pretends to be someone else. As she investigates further she realizes that things aren't always what they seem (are they ever in these things?) and ultimately comes to the truth of what happened. The end is a suprise in the "how could we have known that" vein, but that's ok. The eye-rolling part is in the final conclusion, which was just too pat and somewhat cheesy for me. But the writing on the whole is very evocative of time and place, the Lanny and Vince characters made me want to read more about Jerry and Dean, and it was a good read. Some gratuitous sex, but what can you do. (The actual scenes were there for a reason, but the descriptions were a little over the top.) Cocaine Blues was just as excellent as I'd hoped. Poison Pen Press is reprinting Australian Kerry Greenwood's series, and I'm so happy. I love these books. (I've only read those that have been reprinted, but I'm addicted to them now.) They're not printing them in order, however, which is a little weird, but whatever. Cocaine Blues is actually the first in the series, (from what I can tell), and it sets up nicely the reason why Phryne Fisher becomes a detective as well as introduces some reoccuring characters. It's interesting to see how they all first met, and I look forward to rereading them in order. The mystery is a good one, and even though I kind of figured out what was going on part way through, I still didn't have all the pieces put together correctly. Phryne is sent to investigate a young woman on behest of her parents, who believe her husband is poisoning her. As Phryne gets closer to her, she also gets drawn into two side investigations dealing with a brutal abortionist and a cocaine ring. All the plots wind together as the mystery continues, and of course, Phryne sorts out all the strings and comes away with order and justice for all. Or at least some. Now I'm reading The Rachel Papers by Martin Amis, because I saw his books at the library and realised I'd never read anything of his, and that seemed wrong somehow. The book is good so far, it will be interesting to see where it goes. Current total: 37 Just finished: Where the Truth Lies by Rupert Holmes Currently reading: The Rachel Papers by Martin Amis

Thursday, April 27, 2006

How is it that I always seem to have to catch up? I've read a bunch of books in the last couple days, so here goes. Adverbs by Daniel Handler: Oh how I love Daniel Handler. He rarely goes wrong, but I was concerned after his last grown-up novel that I'd just be a fan of his kids work from then on out. But Adverbs is magnificent. It's a series of connected short stories about love, each titled with an adverb that captures the feel of the love described within. The characters in the different stories have the same names, so you're free to choose if the Lila whose co-worker at the theater loves her while she loves Keith is the same Lila who is later loved by Alison, who is later married to Adrian but considers an affair with Keith, who may or may not be the same Keith as at the beginning. There's about seven other people to keep track of as well, but it all works together to form an over-arching story that is beautifully done. It reminded me somewhat of Kundra's The Unbearable Lightness of Being, but I haven't analyzed that similarity too much yet. My favorite story out of the bunch is "soundly", the story of Alison and Lila, friends since childhood, as they sit in a diner while Lila dies. They've left the hospital where Lila has been staying, victim of an unusual and incurable intestinal problem. They meet a woman with the seeming ability to make wishes come true, and the wish is uttered that miraculously someone will be found with an intact intestinal area that can be transplanted into Lila, giving her a little bit more time on Earth. The pager beeps, Alison and Lila rush to get back to the hospital, and I won't say what happens next. But the heartbreaking love that's expressed in this story took my breath away. More than the love expressed in the other stories, which all have an element of spontaneity and rashness in the love, this is the story of a love that has been cultivated over years and experiences, the kind of love that only grows stronger for the pain and the joy it causes. I give you a few of the last paragraphs: "Then we'll stay up all night," I said, "You'll stay up all night with me. We've done it before, lots of times. I love you so soundly, and I will do anything to drag you forward. You're mine Lila. You're my star quarterback." "I f*cking hate football," Lila sobbed. "Blow up the game for me when I'm gone." "I won't do a thing," I said. "Without you I'm not moving." Through the front window was another cliche, rain raging in while the women inside wept like girls. The traffic screamed its emergency all around us, but we could do this thing on our own. She was all the world's money, and I would spend it with her, my sharpest friend who changed the tide, my only comfort from the brutal gamble of the world and the wicked ways of men. I grabbed her hands and clasped them together over her scar into a position of strength, like a prayer we wouldn't be caught dead saying, Gather around us, heroic women of Haddam. Gather around us and put us under your silken wings. We are here, we are here, we are here, won't someone take us across the sound together. Groucho Marx, Secret Agent by Ron Goulart: This one was better than the last, more coherent, and quite enjoyable. The story centers on a director who passes out after being spoken to by someone in a Grim Reaper costume at a Halloween party, and then dies later that night. The police, movie studio and FBI all say it's suicide, but the man's wife believes otherwise, so Groucho and Frank take on the case. There are spies and espionage and secret messages; overall very entertaining. I was disappointed in the lack of the word avuncular (see previous posts on Goulart's other books), and aggravated by the copious overuse of the word plump yet again, but overall I liked it. The Vesuvius Club by Mark Gatiss: There are some books that just glow when you look at them, and there's no choice, you have to take them home. Such was the case with this book, which sat waiting on one of the new arrivals shelves at the library the last time I went in. It was on the last shelf I looked at, after I'd already decided not to take anymore books, but the font of the title on the spine drew me in, and I'm so glad. The main character's name is Lucifer Box, and he's a hedonistic, debaucherous (is that even a word?) spy and sometimes assassin, working for the Queen at the turn of the century. The adventure begins when a couple of scientists go missing, followed by the disappearance of one of the Queen's spies. Everything seems to lead to Italy, so off Lucifer goes in pursuit. It's a fun, intelligently witty book; the author has written for TV's League of Gentlemen and the new Dr. Who series. There's a sequel coming out later this year, and I can't wait. On Michael Jackson by Margo Jefferson: I've wanted to read this since it came out, and only now got around to it. It's a series of essays about different facets of Jackson, from how his troubled youth set him up psychologically to become who he has, to how his plastic surgery transcends gender-crossing into something altogether different. The essays are well written and insightful, honestly considering Jackson in the culture he was formed by and then went on to influence. Jefferson never stoops to gossip, sticking to a sociological approach to the King of Pop. Now I'm reading Where the Truth Lies by Rupert Holmes, a somewhat mystery with characters transparently based on Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin. It's good so far. One random trend I've noted in the last books I've read is that the previous readers of each took it upon themselves to correct typos in the books. That just struck me as odd- that each of the last 3 books I've read all had written in corrections. Anyway. Current total: 35 Just finished: On Michael Jackson by Margo Jefferson Currently reading: Where the Truth Lies by Rupert Holmes

Friday, April 21, 2006

I just posted, but I figured these books deserved their own post. I finished two more of Ron Goulart's Groucho Marx mysteries, and while I recommend them, I also recommend spacing them out. Goulart has a tendency to fall into a formula, but I don't know that it would be so apparent if the books weren't read in such a short period of time. They're still amusing, don't get me wrong; they just feel slightly repetitive. This is only enforced by Goulart's love of the word avuncular. I mentioned in a previous post that I was interested to see if he used the word in each book, and while I can't say for certain (I'm not sure it's in one of the books, and now that it's returned to the library I can't check), I do know that he used it in 4 of the 5 books of his I've read thus far, and that he used it twice in one of them, so that should cover the one I'm not sure about. Why am I so obsessed with this, you so rightfully ask? I'm not entirely sure. I think it's a great word, which is what drew my attention to it originally, and then I just found it amusing that he kept using it, I think. But whereas he limits his use of this great word to once or twice a book, I can't say the same for the word plump. Man, he uses that word a lot. This is especially noticible in Groucho Marx and the Broadway Murders, wherein every woman who stops Marx to ask for an autograph and gets wittily teased is described as plump. Even the guys are plump. Everyone is plump. In fact, I would say that Groucho Marx and the Broadway Murders is the weakest of the Groucho Marx bunch. In all of the others, asking questions and tracking down leads is what brings the intrepid detectives to their solution. In the Broadway Murders there's the addition of a "clue" that reveals who the bad guy is and leads the detectives in the right direction. Except that you don't find out what the clue is until after the bad guys have confessed, and honestly, the clue is so subtle that I had to go back and comb through the book to find it. It's only mentioned in one measly little sentence, and the thing that makes them realize that the clue is important isn't mentioned at all, as far as I could tell. I realize that's vague. Basically, the clue is a piece of clothing. Someone mentions that someone is wearing it, but it's something that the person is only wearing at a certain time. The fact that the person saw them in it proves that they're the murderer. The only problem is that the only part of that scenario that is actually in the book is the person mentioning it. We never read about the person wearing the piece of clothing, or read about them specifically wearing something else. So there's no way for the reader to know that the comment is in any way important, or come to any kind of realization themselves. (At least I think this is true, I could have just been incredibly lazy as I was reading and somehow completely missed those points as I was reading. But I don't think so.) Other than that, and the copious use of the word plump, the book was quite entertaining. The other book, Elementary, My Dear Groucho, was really quite well done. The director of a new Sherlock Holmes film is killed, and the man playing Holmes challenges Groucho to solve the mystery before he does. It's great publicity for the studio, as the Holmes actor used to work for Scotland Yard. What follows is a mix of Nazis, studio politics, and adultery, and it flows together really well. The time period in which these books are set is just-pre-World War II, and Goulart does a good job of making Groucho not just funny, but keenly aware of his Jewish-ness and what is going on in the rest of the world. That grounds the book even as the levity of the wit lightens it. It works particularly well in this book, dealing as it does with the Anti-Fascist movements in Hollywood, and the various sentiments of the different factions of the town. Next up is Daniel Handler's Adverbs, and I can't wait. I hope it's as good as I'm expecting it to be. Then I'll go back to the last of the Marx mysteries, and see if a break from them softens the formula feel. Current total: 31 Just Finished: Groucho Marx and the Broadway Murders by Ron Goulart Next Up: Adverbs by Daniel Handler
I really don't know that I can describe to you just how much I love the library. When I go to a bookstore I walk around slowly, waiting for a title to jump out at me, loving that I'm around so many books, but anxious because I'm going to have to choose. I can't take home all the books; that would be neither financially nor spatially plausible. So I have to decide just which one will fit my mood, which one is worth the money, which one I will want to keep. It's a pleasure, but one with an edge. The library, on the other hand, is heaven. I can walk in and pick up any book that strikes me as even slightly interesting, without thought to money, space, or if I'll even read it. Books light up at the library, drawing my attention and calling for me to bring them home. I don't think it's possible for me to walk out with just one. And I don't have to. I just scan my library card, swipe my books, and walk out. It's like a food kitchen-- have some nourishment and go, nothing asked in return. I love it. I went to the library today to pick up a book I'd reserved; Daniel Handler's newest novel Adverbs. The line at the pick up desk was long, so I decided to walk around a little and browse. By the time I made it to the desk, I'd accumulated 4 other books. Seeing as I'd just returned 5, that brings my total of library books at home waiting to be read to 11. Will I read them all? Probably not. Will the books I got today unfairly skip ahead in line before the books I got last time? In all likelyhood. But that's the way it goes. Would you like to know what's on the pile? Picked up today: Adverbs by Daniel Handler The Vesuvius Club by Mark Gatiss On Michael Jackson by Margo Jefferson Flapper by Joshua Zeitz A Return to Modesty by Wendy Shalit From last time: The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror Cinderella's Sisters: A Revisionist History of Footbinding by Dorothy Ko Groucho Marx, Secret Agent by Ron Goulart The Triumph of Numbers: How Counting Shaped Modern Life by I.B. Cohen The City of Falling Angels by John Berendt Where the Truth Lies by Rupert Holmes The People of Paper by Salvador Plascencia Quite the eclectic mix, don't you think? I'm kind of amazed how many non-fiction books there are there (a full half of the list), I must be in a mood.

Monday, April 17, 2006

The mystery phase continues. I went by the library and checked out the entire Groucho Marx mystery series by Ron Goulart, and they're entertaining me. A while ago I wrote about the 2 categories of mysteries- those that the reader has a chance of solving, and those that you just have to wait until the end. These fall solidly into the second category- the reader is just along for the ride as the mystery gets solved. There's no way to predict the ending, as the characters that are important to the crime don't even get introduced until a ways through the book. Despite the fact that I prefer the other kind of mystery, these have been fun and entertaining. I've finished the first two, Groucho Marx, Master Detective, and Groucho Marx, Private Eye. The books touch tangentally on a couple issues I'd wondered about previously- going briefly into the effect that Groucho's personality had on his marriages and also looking at his relationships with his brothers. But those take second string to the murders at the center of the books, as they should. The series is firmly grounded in Hollywood of the late 1930s, so the murders are of actors or others somehow connected to the movies, meaning that the investigations lead the detectives through a maze of agents, producers,corrupt police officers and the mafia. There are fun cameos by actors and writers of the day, which adds to the entertainment value, and the wittiness of Groucho is always amusing. I'm looking forward to reading the rest of them, to see how the main characters develop, but also to see if Goulart uses the word avuncular in each book, as he's used it in each of the 3 I've already read. Current total: 29 Just Finished: Groucho Marx, Private Eye by Ron Goulart Next Up: Elementary, My Dear Groucho by Ron Goulart

Monday, April 10, 2006

I'm behind again. Luckily the books I've been reading lately haven't been too deep. To catch up: Swing by Rupert Holmes was very enjoyable. It's set at the San Francisco Golden Gate International Exposition in 1939, where a jazz musician stumbles upon a mysterious death. One night he's propositioned by a young French woman who is looking to marry for citizenship; the next morning he's present as she jumps to her death off of the Tower of the Sun. The question of why she died is at the center of this mystery which he finds himself drawn into even as he works feverishly on an orchestration for a young musican's composition. His attraction to the musician, and the strangeness of her familiy add to the drama as things get more and more complex. The characters are three dimensional and compelling, as is the setting. I'm interested in learning more about the Exposition; like many of the World's Fairs it was built to be gorgeous and then come down, something I find fascinating, and it was built on a man constructed island that was supposed to become the site of the airport. (I don't know if it did, I need to find that out.) I went on a further mystery binge and read Dead in the Water, A Mourning Wedding, and The Winter Garden Mystery by Carola Dunn. I enjoy her books; they're decently complicated mysteries in a milleu I appreciate. She does have a tendency to repeat phrases over the course of her series, but I suppose that's to be expected, and I deal with it. (The one that gets to me every time, however, is that people open up to Daisy, the detective, because of her guileless blue eyes. That's actually one of the things that inspired me to write my own mystery with a detective who wasn't really the kind of person people confided in.) Each of these three was solid, with the culprit coming as a suprise. I was the closest in my deduction of who did it in Dead in the Water, which was the closest to actually having clues you could put together. The other two fell into the "can't solve it until you know the piece of information that you don't get until the end" style, and I still enjoyed them. I don't know what I'm going to read next. I checked out about eight books from the library that all look fantastic, but I'm having a hard time concentrating. I had to put down both The Beast that Shouted Love at the Heart of the World by Ellison and The Sound and the Fury by Faulkner because I just couldn't focus on them. And I have the feeling that The Sound and the Fury takes more focus than normal. So, I put them off until a later time when my mind isn't wandering away every couple minutes. I think I'll try either The City of Falling Angels by John Berendt (the guy who wrote Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil), or Cinderella's Sisters: A Revisionist History of Footbinding by Dorothy Ko. Current total: 27 Just Finished: The Winter Garden Mystery by Carola Dunn Next Up: who can say?

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

A ways back, about a week or so ago, I finished reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera. It was a birthday gift, and a much appreciated one. I haven't written about it yet because I'd really like to read it again before I do. It's translated from Czech, and perhaps for the first time in my life, I wish I read Czech, because the translation is so gorgeous that I'd love to read it in the source language. Honestly, every word of this book is perfectly placed and specific, it's difficult at times to believe that it isn't the orginal. It's the story of four people whose lives intersect at varying points, and how they affect and are changed by each other. It's also a mediation on love and connection, the concepts of weight and lightness, and how relationships weigh us down or make us lighter, and which of those is a positive. Historically set as it is in Prague during a Russian threat, it covers a time period and area that I don't really know at all, and as such, much of my reading experience was like reading a science fiction novel set in an unknown but slightly familiar world. This wasn't really a drawback, as the characters and their relationships are so strong and solidly written, and their environment is well described and clear. I didn't feel lost while reading it, just when trying to pinpoint the time period after the fact, but I will completely admit that this is my failing and not the book's. One thing that struck me was a sentiment of one of the characters that reminded me of something Gerald Murphy was quoted as saying to F. Scott Fitzgerald in the biography of the Murphys I just finished. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Franz is described as the following: "Franz felt his book life to be unreal. He yearned for real life, for the touch of people walking side by side with thim, for their shouts. It never occurred to him that what he considered unreal(the work he did in the solitude of the office or library) was in fact his real life, whereas the parades he imagined to be reality were nothing but theater, dance, carnival-- in other words, a dream." Gerald said, "For me only the invented part of life is satisfying, the unrealistic part. Things happen to you-- sickness, birth, Zelda in Lausanne, Patrick in the sanatorium, Father Wiborg's death-- these things were realistic, and you couldn't do anything about them. Do you mean you don't accept these things? Scott asked. I replied that of course [I] accepted them, but I didn't feel they were the important things really... the invented part, for me, is what has meaning." I don't know what to make of that at the moment, but I found the connection interesting. I'll write more about this one once I've reread it. After the deepness of Unbearable Lightness, I went to the library and picked up a stack of books. The one I read on the way home was Groucho Marx, King of the Jungle, by Ron Goulart, a marvelously entertaining murder mystery featuring Groucho Marx and his friend as the detectives. Groucho Marx is his wise cracking self throughout the novel, and while all the wit is very well done, it made me wonder if this was lazy writing on the part of Mr. Goulart, or if Groucho was the character of Groucho in real life. (Or conversly, if he just played himself in the movies.) I fully admit to not knowing a ton about the Marx brothers. I know who they are, obviously, and I've seen at least a couple of their films, but I don't really know a lot about them personally, so I turned to my encyclopedic friend Gary Sassaman to find out what he knew. Gary informed me that Groucho was always "on", and in fact couldn't really turn himself off, and that this was possibly the cause of his 3 marriages falling apart. I can see how that would be hard to live with. This piece of information was very illuminating to the novel at hand, so thanks Gary! (You should all check out his blog at http://innocentbystander.typepad.com/innocent_bystander/, he's one of the best writers I know.) The mystery itself was clever and the characters entertaining. The book I read is apparently the most recent in a series, so I'll have to go back and catch up. Oh the torture. :) I'm currently reading Swing by Rupert Holmes, which I'm quite enjoying. I have to read it before anything else because I bought it, and I have a bad habit of buying books that then never get read, but it's really very entertaining. It's a murder mystery set at the time of the West Coast World's Fair, and I'm really liking it. And I just found out from Gary's blog that apparently there's a website with a soundtrack for the book, so I'll have to check that out. See, Gary really does know everything! Next I will be reading The Beast that Shouted Love at the Heart of the World by Harlan Ellison, and I'm very much looking forward to it. Current total: 23 Just finished: Groucho Marx, King of the Jungle by Ron Goulart Currently Reading: Swing by Rupert Holmes

Monday, March 13, 2006

I finished both the books I was reading, and they were both great. Deathbird Stories continued to stun me, spinning a world that I didn't want to leave. I mean, I wouldn't want to live there, but the stories were awesome. Only one, Bleeding Stones, was too graphic for me to read, I ended skimming over it as the violence was just too much for me. What's somewhat suprising is that the first story, The Whimper of Whipped Dogs, is also quite violent, but I absolutely loved it, and thought that it worked perfectly as an entry to the visceral world that Ellison created. The story that follows it, Along the Scenic Route, has a Bradbury feel to it that made me very comfortable. My other favorites were O Ye of Little Faith, The Face of Helene Bournouw, and Ernest and the Machine God, but I realize as I try to pick which are my favorites that I really like them all for different reasons. They hit so many different tones that I appreciate them each differently. (And I use the word different a lot. Here, I'll use it some more.) I get the feeling that when I read it again my favorites will be completely different, as different things jump out as important. I also finished Everybody was So Young, and the experience of reading it was like finding a missing puzzle piece in my contextual understanding. As I mentioned before, it's the biography of Gerald and Sara Murphy, a marvelous couple who were part of the "Lost Generation" in 1920s expatriate France. They were wonderful people, and friends with many of the important creative people who came out of that time and place. They inspired the characters of the Divers in Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night, were the 'rich people' Hemingway wrote of bitterly (and completely unfairly) in A Moveable Feast, and were the family that Dorothy Parker went to Switzerland with instead of finishing her book. They were friends with Cole and Linda Porter, helped Serge Diaghilev with his ballets, were drawn by Picasso, and were the inspiration for Archie MacLeish's Pulitzer Prize winning play JB. I'd read about them in passing as I read the biographies or works of these other people, but reading about them and their lives, and how these other people fit into it was fascinating. As I said, the Murphys were marvelous people. They were stylish and charming, but more importantly, genuinely kind and compassionate people. They threw themselves into supporting their friends, emotionally and monetarily. Even at the detriment of their own financial stability, if someone asked them for money they didn't hesitate to hand it over. They routinely sent Hemingway and his wife money, saying that they had no use for it; when Fitzgerald spent a year drunk instead of working and didn't have sufficient money to pay his daughter's tuition, they wired him the money even though they were struggling to pay for their own home. They had beautiful children who they doted over, two of whom died tragically of illness far before their time, but all the same they never became bitter, reaching out instead to their friends. Even when those friends seemingly turned against them, they forgave (sometimes after a while- they were only human after all), and continued to support them. Fitzgerald's novel was hurtful because it had the character based on her leaving her husband for a someone very similar to Ernest Hemingway who in real life was in love with her, and had the character based on Gerald falling into failure and despair (not because of the addition of Zelda's madness to Sara's character as I previously thought). Hemingway's mocking portrayal of their support in A Moveable Feast (There is Never Any End to Paris) was really unfair. He relied heavily on their support throughout his career, and his attempt to rewrite his past was painful to them. MacLeish's modern telling of the Biblical story of Job drew heavily from their experiences, he even named Job's wife Sarah, and the disintegration of the marriage that he ends the play with was hard for them. I can only guess that the reason these friends decided to turn against the couple who had so unconditionally supported them was that they seemed to be blessed, and above it all. They masked their pain and suffering, and really seemed to be a golden couple, having everything and suffering nothing. Maybe they felt the need to take them down a peg or two- I don't know. It was a pleasure to read about these fantastic people. I wish I had known them, and am grateful that they were such a support to the writers that I appreciate so much. Now I want to go back and read all the references to them that I can find! Current total: 21 Just Finished: Everybody was So Young by Amanda Vaill Next Up: I have no idea!

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

More catching up to do. The Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh was delightful. There were some interesting insights into the writing process, some great historical context realizations for me, and over all I highly enjoyed it. The Everlasting by Jamie S. Rich. I reviewed this last year when I read an advanced copy, and I read it again recently in an editing capacity. With each book Rich gets stronger and stronger in his storytelling, and his books manage to do what good literature does- make you feel. Happy, furious, so so sad, this book has a bit of it all. It will be released in August, with a truly gorgeous cover by Chynna Clugston, and you can bet I'll be reading it again then. (I'll write more about it then too.) Writing down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. I started reading this at the beginning of the year, then left it at my sister's and only just got it back. Goldberg uses writing as a Zen practice, and this book is her instruction on how to do so. As a result she ends up giving insights on both Zen and writing, and as short and simple as the chapters are, I felt like I missed a lot, because there's just so much in there to get. I'll be reading this one again too. I'm currently doing something I rarely do- reading 2 books at once. I'm reading both Everybody was So Young by Amanda Vaill, a biography of Gerald and Sara Murphy, the couple on which Fitzgerald's Dick and Nicole Diver in Tender is the Night were based. They're a fascinating couple in a fascinating time and place, and Gerald reminds me somewhat of Max Fischer, the main character in Rushmore. I'm also reading Harlan Ellison's Deathbird Stories, which is stunning. Similar in concept to Neil Gaiman's American Gods, Ellison's stories are darker and deeper, haunting you long after you've put the book down. The over riding concept is that many gods exist, as long as someone believes in them. Once the last believer is gone, so is the god. New gods are created as people worship new things, and these stories concentrate on those new gods- speed, gambling, violence and terror, etc. The stories are harsh but penetrating, shocking but purposefully so, as they electrify your brain into thinking about things differently. Jamie gifted me with this book, (it's out of print), and I'm extremely grateful. Current total: 19 Currently reading: Everybody was So Young by Amanda Vaill and Deathbird Stories by Harlan Ellison

Friday, February 24, 2006

I knew that Evelyn Waugh and Nancy Mitford were close friends, and I'd heard their work cited as similar, but I'd never really noticed it for myself. That is, until I read Put Out More Flags by Waugh. I was struck by the similarity in feel it had to Christmas Pudding and Pigeon Pie by Mitford, which is interesting as they were her earlier books and she was less pleased with them as time went on. Luckily, I loved them, and loved Put Out More Flags as well. It's the story of Basil Seal, a lounge-about who has gotten away with living his own brand of life for quite a while. When WW2 begins, the women in his life decide that it's high time he join the army and do something substantial. Of course he wants nothing to do with that, and his pursuits into other arenas are predictably amusing. (Not to say that they're predictable, just that it's safe to assume that the contortions Waugh puts him through will be entertaining.) Waugh has a nipping sense of humor (not quite biting), and captures character clearly and quickly. I feel like his characters exist, and enjoy visiting them. I think it's time to try Brideshead Revisited again, now that I have a feel for him. I reread Bonjour Tristesse and loved it again. In some ways it's obvious that it was written by an 18 year old- the emotion and turbulence of that age are so fresh, so purely captured. In other ways I can't believe that someone so young wrote so gorgeously, there's not a wrong phrase in the whole thing. Now I'm reading The Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh, and loving it, epic monstrosity that it is. These two are so witty and so funny, and their affection for each other is so evident, that the letters are a joy to read. Seeing the progress of their books as they council with each other about them is fascinating, as is seeing the progress of the world as they mention it in passing. Current total: 16 Just finished: Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan Currently reading: The Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh

Friday, February 17, 2006

I'm behind in my posting again, but not by too far this time. I've solved the riddle of the ages. (Maybe.) Gwyneth Paltrow is just a big Truman Capote fan, and that's why she named her baby Apple- after the sister in Capote's novel Summer Crossing. Actually, I would have solved the riddle of the ages had the book been released before Gwyneth's baby was born, but it wasn't, so it's back to the drawing board on that one. Anyway, Summer Crossing is a wonderful book. It was Capote's first novel, and in it you can see the raw talent he possessed, and signs of what was to come. It's the story of Grady, a young woman in 1945, who is left on her own for the summer in New York. Her parents are in Europe, and she is in love. Of course she's not in love with the person she should be, the boy who is her best friend, but with the far more romantic and completely unsuitable Clyde. It's a story of the first love that sweeps you off your feet and pushes you to make incredibly stupid decisions, and what happens when that goes unchecked. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and would put it in a nice bundle with I Capture the Castle and Bonjour Tristesse. It's no secret that I love Nancy Mitford, but until recently I'd only read her fiction. I was excited to try her non-fiction, and The Water Beetle fit the bill precisely. Unlike her other non-fiction, which is mostly biographies, The Water Beetle is a collection of essays on topics as diverse as the race to get to the South Pole to the history of the salon in France. No matter the topic, her tone is delightfully readable, even when she writes about topics I care little about. Her interest in her subjects is contagious, and as I finished I realized that I now had a number of topics I want to research farther. And it inspired me to finally look up the word parvenu. Now I'm reading Put Out More Flags by Evelyn Waugh, and loving it. I love his subtle, crazy style. Current total: 14 Just finished: The Water Beetle by Nancy Mitford Currently Reading: Put Out More Flags by Evelyn Waugh

Friday, February 10, 2006

I've been in a weird non-reading mood lately, where I want to read but don't, at the same time. (Don't want to and just plain don't read.) So reading has been happening, it's just taking a while. I'd read two books that I hadn't posted about, and then went to the library yesterday and got through another two, so I should catch up. I've already posted my thoughts about The Royal Tenenbaums, so I'll just say that I reread it. It was good. I picked The Castle of Otronto by Horace Walpole of my bookshelf because I hadn't read it in years and couldn't decide whether to keep it or throw it on the ever growing pile of books that will be donated to the library. I read it originally for a Gothic Literature class in college, which was fitting as it was the first Gothic novel to be written. It's good and creepy, with all the requisite dark corridors, unexplained manifestations, young noble ladies in peril, and protective monks. The only frustrating thing is how its formatted- there are no paragraphs or quotation marks, which makes for somewhat of a headache of a read. But nevertheless, it's enjoyable and holds up even after more than 240 years. The House of Paper by Carlos Maria Dominguez was a library pick up, and it was short enough to read on the bus ride home. For such a little book, it sure packed a ton of ideas. The story begins with a professor who is hit by a car as she crosses the street while reading a book of poems by Emily Dickenson. Her successor recieves a package for her shortly thereafter, which contains a volume of Conrad, encrusted in cement and inscribed by the dead professor. He decides to investigate, and discovers that the sender was a bibliophile that the professor met at a conference. He also learns that he (the bibliophile) may have gone crazy in his pursuit of the prefect collection of books, and that when tragedy struck (in the form of a fire that wiped out the vast index by which he catalogued his thousands of books), he may have taken some drastic and unbelievable actions. The story is straightforward enough, but it brings up some great questions about reading and collecting books. Why do people keep books they know they'll never read again? What is it that makes it so hard to get rid of books? What purpose do they serve, literally and symbolically? It really is a thought provoking book, and one that will be sticking in my mind for a long time to come. I mentioned a short story by Aimee Bender not too many posts ago, and when I saw her latest short story collection, Willful Creatures, at the library, I had to get it. Bender's stories are surreal and odd, but delightful and evocative. From a story about a man who buys a little man (size of a lizard, little) as a pet to a family of pumkinheads who have an iron headed baby, the stories definitly wander into Twillight Zone territory, but never in a way that is gimmicky. Instead they function as a kind of fairy tale set in the real world; never do you get the sense that you've left reality, just that strange things are afoot, and could be happening just around the corner. I think this collection is stronger than her last, and can't wait to see what she comes up with in the future. Current total: 12 Just Finished: Willful Creatures by Aimee Bender Next Up: Summer Crossing by Truman Capote