A few words about a few books

These are all books by authors I’ve previously reviewed and loved and gushed on and on about, so I thought I’d spare us all the embarrassment and just give you a quick blurb, in case you are also a crazy fan person.

Me Talk Pretty One Day is another great read by David Sedaris, who rants about his technoloathing (not technophobia for him, no sir), bemoans his ability to communicate in French (hence the title) and cracks wise about the death of pets and parents.  I’ve waxed poetic about my love for Sedaris before, so I’ll just say he continues to satisfy my every snarky impulse.

Maps & Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands is a collection of essays by Michael Chabon that were originally printed in such places as The Washington Post  Book World, New York Review of Books and Architectural Digest (yes, really). His non-fiction is as precise and entertaining as his fiction writing, and he likes some of the same people I do (Philip Pullman, Neil Gaiman, comic books), so I’ve forgiven him for Sherlock Holmes.  Worth every penny of the $8 I spent at the Powell’s sale rack (and probably more).

Gentleman and Players is another winner by Joanne Harris. The story of an all-boys school in modern-day England, it explores the pain of growing up, the role of teachers in our lives, and the relentless march of time vs. the proud traditions of the past.  Not as powerful as Blackberry Wine or Holy Fools, but a great read.

Animal Vegetable Miracle is the family memoir of a year spent trying to eat local. Barbara Kingsolver, along with her husband and two daughters, commit to a full year of trying to grow as much of their own food as possible, buy food from no farther than an hour from their home (in the southern Appalachians), and try to live a life-less-damaging (to the planet). The book includes recipes as well as essays on some of the statistics behind commercial food production and what-not, but is mostly the journal of a fabulous writer who happens to be trying something difficult and important. I’ve yet to read a book by this woman that didn’t impress me. It makes me happy that there are people like her sharing the planet with me.

I’m blaming the book club

I used to be a member of the SciFi Book club – starting in 1991. Every month – whether I bought a book or not – I got a cool flyer telling me all about the new sci-fi and fantasy books coming out. I found tons of books (e.g. The Wheel of Time) I might never have known about. I only stopped buying through them when I discovered used book stores, because used book stores don’t take book club editions (as a rule).  I’m sure it was in a SciFi Book Club flyer that I first saw Sandman comics/graphic novels and thought they looked cool. But, being a broke child, I never did buy one (because the graphic novels were more expensive than the regular books). But I did buy Neverwhere – partly because I’d wanted Sandman, and partly because it was a recommended book that month. Or maybe it was on sale. Neverwhere was my very first Neil Gaiman experience, and there was no turning back.

Fast-forward… 14 years? Now I’m obsessed with his blog. I can’t stop reading it. So far, I’ve read back to July of 2009, then decided to start at the beginning (of the current blog) in September of 2001 and read forward and I’ve gotten as far as January February March 2002 (and this while having intermittent connectivity issues which are DRIVING ME CRAZY). I joined twitter so I could ‘follow’ him. I’m watching interviews with him on the web, and reading his blog at work when I should be working. I’m practically a stalker (but still staying on the right side of the law-dog). I was bored with the book I was reading (A Disobedient Girl) and decided to re-read Good Omens because he was talking about the audiobook (and I’d already re-read American Gods lately). He likes the same people I do (Pratchett, Chabon, Gibson) and seems strangely connected to other creative people I like as well (de Lint, Miyazaki). It’s like proof that the things I like are cool, and that I’m not crazy for seeing meaning where others see coincidence. Example:

I was reading a journal entry of Neil’s (I call him by his first name because I feel like he’s my personal friend. I know it’s presumptuous. But it makes me feel special) about an artist he likes/finds inspiring/collaborates with, Lisa Snellings Clark. I click the links (which – keep in mind – are 8 years old) so I can see some of her artwork. Not much luck with the links, so I do a Google search for her name and find her blog. Above the ‘about me’ widget there is a link that says ‘Lisa explains it all at Stainless Steel Droppings.’

My eyes must have looked like an anime character at that point.

Stainless Steel Droppings is a blog I’ve read just recently that, among other things, reviews books.  A friend sent me a link a few weeks ago to a review Mr. Droppings had written because he was announcing a new Charles de Lint book and she wanted to make sure I knew about it. To recap, that is Neil Gaiman-Lisa Snellings Clark(2002)-Stainless Steel Droppings (2008)-Me(April 2010), and also Friend of Mine-Charles de Lint-Stainless Steel Droppings-Me(April 2010). I’m not imagining things – the world is conspiring to shower me with blessings.

In case all of that seems like it’s just me wasting time:

Reading about all the different projects (my super-close pal) Neil has going on, and the way he works on half-dozen things at a time (apparently) and enjoys other artists’ work in various mediums… somehow it is encouraging me to put more effort into writing, and deciding what to do about the whole writing thing. I’m not a fiction writer, so what kind of (non-academic) thing do I want to be writing? I know that the first rule of writing is to put pen to paper (metaphorically speaking – my handwriting sucks and I can type a lot closer to fast enough when the muse is on).

Write, even if it’s bad, even if it’s garbage. Write. Because if you do it enough, you will get to the good stuff – assuming you have any.  And the bad stuff will get better. Your writing will not get any better by not writing, that is for sure.

I’ve posted a blog entry 6 days in a row now, and have one in the can, and another one started. So thanks, Neil. For being my electronic friend and inspiration; for filling the empty hours and giving me hope for future hours filled with interesting projects.

Fangirl post: Barbara Kingsolver

I’m not much of a ‘best-seller’ reader anymore.

I used to be – I’ve read every Dean Koontz/Stephen King/John Grisham/Piers Anthony novel up to about 1997 or so.  Then I went back to school and became a book snob. I discovered writers that could blow my mind while entertaining it, and soon those books cranked out by writers once a year started to feel tired and formulaic.  I’ve got absolutely nothing against those books, and some of them are still on my shelf as favorites (The Stand, Lightning, etc).

But not all ‘best-sellers’ are formulaic and predictable.  A super-favorite author of mine – Barbara Kingsolver – also happens to be a big seller (which gives me hope for the world).  I can’t believe that I have barely mentioned her here before now. Maybe that is partly because she hasn’t had a new novel in YEARS, and I’ve re-read her stuff a million times already.

Lucky for all of us, her skills have not diminished in the passing years.  The Lacuna is everything one expects in a Kingsolver novel – fantastic writing, interesting themes, full-bodied characters and a striking moral core. To quote Judy Krueger (fellow Kingsolver fan and bookbrowse.com reviewer) – I love her “because she is a woman of heart and mind who is unafraid of using her mind to reveal her heart.”

I had put The Lacuna on hold at the library before it was even released (I have no desire to own hardbacks, and no way I was waiting for the paperback ). I think there was something like 67 holds on the book before they’d even received their first copy, so it was quite some time before I received that happy little email saying the book was waiting for me. Unfortunately, that email came when I was in the middle of re-reading The Wheel of Time series – 10, 500 pages (thank you, Wikipedia) of kick-ass fantasy adventure.

I picked up the book, but continued with my series.  I would look at Lacuna on my bookcase and think “I should really take that back, I’m not going to get to it before my three weeks is up.” But I didn’t, I just left it there as I burned through more Jordan.  Finally, I received that dreaded email – “the following item is due in three days, please return.” I tried to renew it, but of course there were 100 people behind me waiting for their turn, so I could not.

Suddenly, the thought of returning the book was unbearable. “No! I haven’t read it yet. You can’t have it back.” I think no one but Barbara Kingsolver could have distracted me from The Wheel of Time.  I decided right then that I’d finish it in the three days left to me (lucky for me, it was a weekend). And I’m so glad I did.

Harrison Sheppard is a lonely, virtually parent-less boy who keeps journals to have someone to talk to, even if only himself.  His life is split between Mexico and America, where he runs into famous people (such as Frida Kahlo and Leon Trotsky) and scary circumstances (like food riots and McCarthy-ites), but never feels at home anywhere.  Kingsolver shows us the world through his boyhood imagination, youthful enthusiasm, and adult disillusionment.  Her writing, as always, is lush and her world almost visible between those black dots on the page.

Now, if I’d bothered to write about this book soon after I’d read it, I’d have much more to say about it. But I didn’t – and I’m old, so the details fade. The book is fantastic, go read it. ‘Nuff said.

Fangirl Post: Michael Chabon

First, I should probably apologize for letting almost A MONTH go by with no posts.  I have no excuse for ignoring all (two) of you fine people for that long.  I have, maybe, one-week’s worth of excuse – I wrote my first official book review for Bookbrowse.com two weeks ago!  I will blog about The Children’s Book after that review is published, and put a link up so you all can check it out.  With any luck, my bio on their site will encourage two more people to find me out here in the interwebs.  Won’t I be special then?  Now, to business.

Michael Chabon (pronounced Shay-bon, as I learned this week) is a crazy good writer.  I first saw the name after watching the film, Wonder Boys (starring Michael Douglas, Tobey Maguire, Frances McDormand, and the ever-fabulous Robert Downey, Jr.), which was based on his second (published) novel (which is about the experience of writing his second [unpublished] novel, which sucked hard-core).  I loved the movie and (as usual) went looking for more quality entertainment by the same guy.  His first novel (Mysteries of Pittsburgh) was good, but it was The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay that made me a die-hard fan.  Not only great writing and superb story-telling, but a comic-book-history theme and the obligatory gay sub-plot!  But don’t take my word for it – he won a Pulitzer for that one.  I’ve since read all his novels and a few of his short stories, eagerly awaiting each new gem.

This is a writer who just gets better and better.  Some of his latest stuff (The Final Solution, Gentlemen of the Road) has been short novellas  with great story – but the language is better than great, it is extraordinary.  I just want to dive in and swim around in the words and phrases and sentences forever and ever.  And he’s only two years older than me (and apparently happily married <sigh>).  He should have a few more decades to be cranking this stuff out.

One of the dozens of reasons I moved to Portland was because there was so much cool stuff going on here.  Case in point – a reading by Michael Chabon! Free at Powell’s!  His new book!  Book-geek heaven hosts book-geek-idol extraordinaire! And did I mention it was free?  And less than five miles from my house? At the coolest bookstore on the planet? (sorry Title Wave,  but it’s true).   Of course, I was going.  But, I must admit I was worried. What if he was lame in person? What if he spoke like that guy on the Clear-Eyes commercials?  What if he was stiff and boring and ruined my future reading pleasure with his lameness?  I shudder to think.

Thankfully, he was everything I hoped he would be.  I’d seen photos, so I knew he was reasonably attractive (one worry down, dozens to go).   But he was funny and humble and sexy and teasing and witty, and human while being utterly adorable.  And he really did look a lot like Michael Douglas did in the film.  He read two essays from his new book which were marvelously written and slyly thought-provoking while making us laugh out loud (me and my 200 best book-geek friends).  All in all, a perfect first-run of the author visit circuit at Powell’s, and confirmation that my author-love is not misplaced.

This week – Barbara Ehrenreich comes to town.

Mystery Solved – sadly

The Mystery of Grace by Charles de Lint is the story of a young woman (Grace) who dies unexpectedly but, instead of Heaven or Nirvana or nothingness, what she gets is a rebirth in her apartment – but in a world inhabited only by all those who died in the same small area of town in the last 50 years.  A twist on a familiar theme, it is the story of star-crossed lovers with a serious impediment – one of them is dead.

I have already sung the praises of de Lint once or twice in this blog, so I won’t tell you again how much I love his work and how I feel like some of his books have literally changed my life and my way of thinking.  Someplace To Be Flying and Forests of the Heart are books I will have to bequeath to someone, because they will be in my book collection until the day I die (hmm, maybe I’ll have them cremated with me).  Unfortunately, The Mystery of Grace fell short of the incredibly high bar de Lint has written for himself.

I am most certainly not saying that TMoG is a bad book. It is not.  It is a good book.  Grace is a girl who loves hot rods (as I do) and actually works on them (as I do not), and the guy she falls for is someone I would probably fall for.  But as I read the book, I felt like I’d read it before – not the details, but the general storyline (TMoG is brand new).  At first, I chalked it up to having read and re-read the 50 stories or whatever that de Lint has written in his decades of writing (he has lots of short story collections in addition to a dozen or more novels).  Then I picked up Promises to Keep this week – another de Lint I thought I hadn’t read before. Well, I had read it before – it’s really more of a novella, published as a young adult fiction novel.  It is the story of Jilly (a recurring character in many of de Lint’s Newford books) and how she is offered the perfect life by a friend of hers – a life in a world where some of the dead go after they pass on.  The bones of this world – which Jilly ultimately rejects – are the same as the afterworld in TMoG.  That’s why it all seemed so familiar.

It’s clear that the idea showed up in Promises to Keep, and de Lint developed it much more fully (and more interestingly) in TMoG. but it still bugs me.  It smacks of a lack of ideas – a need to fulfill a contract and recycling stories to do it.   And I expect a lot more from my uber-favorite author – probably unfairly.

And while I’m venting, the gear-head stuff in the book does not ring quite true.  It reads like something very well-researched, but not as believable as almost everything else in his work.  I am a gear-head, I love it, and it felt just a little bit ‘tacked on’ as something cool rather than something real and true to a person.  And in general, the book felt thin – like the world and the characters in general lacked a certain depth.  I’m sure this is partly due to my being spoiled by the Newford stories, where I have dozens of stories worth of history that inform even the short stories.   But this one reads more like something he wrote in the early years – when he wrote short stories.  His writing (like most great writers) has improved over the years, so this one would have been a fabulous short story, but is instead a not-so-fabulous novel.  It pains me to say anything negative about my boy, but I won’t pretend that I loved TMoG. If someone else had written it, I would have said it was a de Lint rip-off that did not quite live up to the master.  That the master himself wrote it does not make it masterful.