and some few to be chewed and digested: that is, some books are to be read only in parts, others to be read, but not curiously, and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention." -Francis Bacon
I'm on vacation this week, pairing Beautiful Swimmers with Sam Adams Summer Ale. Maybe not as fancy as Gary's suggestions, but fun nonetheless.
Last week, I posted about the success of Julie and Julia and Mastering the Art of French Cooking following the release of the movie. The cookbook was vying with The Time Traveler's Wife for the number one Amazon spot, which, not so coincidentally, was also released as a movie just recently. The success of these books only following their tie-in movies is a bit depressing to book snobs such as myself, but I tried to find the happy note by focusing on the fact that at least people were reading, and books were selling.
Now, with a new edition of Charlotte Bronte's (sorry, don't know how to make the little dots here) Wuthering Heights released as a tie-in to the Twilight books, the question is raised again: does it matter what motivates readers, so long as they are reading?
Read the full Guardian article on this; the author has some good insights.
My personal favorite quote from the post, just for a little added fun, came in response to the challenge that the study did not include "*cleavage*" (asterisks original): "I’m prepared to accept that our survey might not have been perfect. However, if we’d included cleavage we would have had to include bulging male pectorals, and who knows what else. The academic value of our study would have been undermined utterly."
And, just for good measure, a few prime examples:
In her third title, Roach turns her witty, scientific and slightly obsessive attention away from cadavers (Stiff) and the afterlife (Spook) and towards one of mankind's favorite but ever-unmentioned subjects: sex. And she does it almost flawlessly, balancing just enough gruesome detail (like a blow-by-blow account of penile surgery) with perfectly neutral observations (for example, Viagra does nothing for male pandas. Or women, for that matter).
Roach's humor and wit prevent the book from being dry or academic - it is anything but dry, in fact - but this is not to suggest that it is not well-researched. On the contrary. Roach is without-a-doubt 100% dedicated to fully understanding her subject. Anyone who can read a multi-volume book entitled The Heart Rate (which, you guessed it, tracks a human's heart rate during various activities - for hundreds of pages), or watch hours of Kinsey's videos, is clearly dedicated. And she takes this one step farther, volunteering herself for a few sex studies, and even herself and her (heroic and clearly devoted) husband for another.
Bottom line: I struggle to think of anything to compare Roach to, for she is truly one-of-a-kind (really, how many science journalists are just plain funny? Not to stereotype, but probably not too many). Her books are laugh-out-loud, informative, well written and, perhaps best of all, have the most wondrous footnotes in history. I wouldn't hesitate to recommend any of her works, provided you don't have a weak stomach, for she misses no detail, no matter how much you might wish she would.
The White Queen, by Philippa Gregory
Yes, it's a "romance." But technically, it's more than that. Gregory's books are historical fiction, Gregory being a historian before she was a novelist. With The White Queen, she delves into one of the greatest mysteries of medieval England: Elizabeth Woodville, who would become Queen of England, and her two sons, who would be ferried up into the Tower of London never to be seen or heard from (or of) again. To this day, historians have not been able to piece together what happened to these two boys, and on this day, the book is now on sale. Now, we just have to wait to see if it can top the 1.5 million copies of The Other Boleyn Girl sold. But then, that was made into a movie, and as we saw with Julie and Julia, those just generate book sales like no one's business.
From Square One: A Meditation, with Digressions, on Crosswords , by Dean Olsher
Olsher is a self-proclaimed obsessive. The first sentence of the first excerpt of the book on S&S's website reads: "There is no other word for it. I get defensive when people dismiss the crossword as a mere pastime or, worse, a form of escapism. To my mind, they just don't get it." This title promises to take us on a full tour of the crossword puzzle, the mind that loves it, and the obsession it creates. Personally, I can't wait. To read the book, or to dig up my Merl Reagle crossword books.
There are several insightful comments posted on the article, but I found the best rebuttal to be from Ed, in "The Future of Newspapers and Lit Blogs." It's a lengthy response, but worth the time if you're interested in this kind of stuff.
The only thing I would add is that reading blogs with personal pronouns (which I'm clearly fond of doing myself) allows us as blog readers to relate to the blogger, and gain some form of trust in a book recommendation. Sure, there is consistency in the writers of NYT and Boston Globe book reviews, but without personalities, how can you decide whose recommendations to take? A lot of trial and error? With all the books to read, who has time for that?
Now I (look at that dangerously placed personal pronoun), am off to start what I hope is an insightful and helpful review of Mary Roach's Bonk. Not to replace print reviews of the title, but to throw my own voice into the mix and maybe get a few of my friends to read the book.
Rather, Michener's extensive research is highlighted by his continued emphasis on three strains: the importance of human tolerance, the nature of life and death, and, perhaps most importantly, the invaluable role of ecology and the environment in our daily lives.
Furthermore, his understanding of the sea and all of its related activities - boating, fishing, crabbing, etc - reveals the extent to which he came to know and love this magnificent body of water during his study of it. In fact, he cannot hide this love; his writing is passionate albeit removed. But this removal allows him a clearer view of his subject, missing no detail, however small or trivial it may be.
Bottom line: Forget the rest of them. If you appreciate, in any way, human history, American history, boating, or nature, and don't mind what some might call "tedious" (and mind you, even Tolkien can be tedious at times, and no one calls Lord of the Rings boring), this is for you. You'll never find yourself more fascinated by the molting of a crab's hard shell or the migration patterns of a goose, or more captivated by the utterly human tales of trials and hardships, or more struck by the pains of our continued mistreatment of the environment.
Granted, the cookbook is permanently engrained in the American psyche, having sold over a million copies - yes, you read right, one million copies - in its lifetime, but before the release of the Nora Ephron, Meryl Streep, Amy Adams power-trio, no one had heard of the memoir of Julie Powell and poor Julia Childs had never seen her name printed in that yearned-for #1 bestseller spot. Last year, Knopf (the publisher), sold approximately 25,000 copies of the classic cookbook; this year, the book has gone through four printings for the movie, three in the last week alone, adding another 225,000 copies to the book's lifetime sales. (Info from a Knopf release discussed in Friday's Shelf Awareness)
I used to despair that it took a movie to encourage people to read, but the more I think about it, the more I have decided that it doesn't matter what the motivation is. Just read. Anything at all. I haven't read Powell's original memoir yet, but I did pick up the old hardcover version on a bargain rack about a year ago, so once I unpack those books, it will move somewhere to the top of the stack. See? Even I'm influenced in my reading decisions by films and TV.
Post Script: Best Julia quote? "Life itself is the proper binge."
Luckily for students of British literature and Irish history, this did not deter Joyce from writing his short stories; he wrote no less than 15 shorts from 1904 to 1907, and after much deliberation, these were published as Dubliners, now a Joyce classic.
Perhaps this helps to explain why the stories in Dubliners get progressively harder to read (and that is in no way a criticism). The early stories were written for a wider audience, but by the time Joyce was writing the later stories, he had already admitted to his publisher "I cannot write without offending people."
Original story from Writer's Almanac, August 13, 2009
1. A book specialist can help you find just the right book – with no co-pay.
2. You don’t have to pay a deductible at a bookstore, and the value is unbeatable.
3. Bending over, standing up, crouching down to look at the bottom shelf is good exercise. (Repeat as necessary).
4. Carrying a large stack of books to your car is great for cardio and muscle-building.
5. Books provide entertainment, promote a sense of wellbeing, and insure you will have something to read in the waiting room.
The bottom line: Get shopping, get broke, get happy, get healthy.
This excerpt from Coriolanus contains every letter of the alphabet but Z:
O, a kiss
Long as my exile, sweet as my revenge!
Now, by the jealous queen of heaven, that kiss
I carried from thee, dear; and my true lip
Hath virgin'd it e'er since.
This one, from Milton's Paradise Lost (from the Z in grazed to the b in Both), contains all of them:
Likening his Maker to the grazed ox,
Jehovah, who, in one night, when he passed
From Egypt marching, equalled with one stroke
Both her first-born and all her bleating gods.
I recently finished two very different and yet strikingly similar books - Ian McEwan's Atonement, which I was hesitant to open despite all of the praise and suggestions heaped on it, and Libba Bray's Going Bovine, a galley of which I picked up at Random House's booth at BEA. While one is the story of the repercussions of one seemingly small act and the world of World War II Britain, and the other the tale of a struggling teenager with hallucinations and a deadly disease, both address the fundamental question of life and reading: What is real, and what is not, and what does it matter?
Most of you probably know the basic story of Atonement, whether it be from the book or the movie. I'm pretty much the last person in the world to read this one, I think, but I must say, it's not at all what I expected. In Atonement, McEwan turns his graceful prose to one event in one family's history, retelling it carefully from each perspective involved. There are events, there is a lie, there is a coverup, a trial, jail time, a war, a wedding, an apology, an atonement - or is there? That there is a crucial event we are sure of. That there is a lie that follows it we are also sure of. That a soldier goes to war and experiences the horrors of Dunkirk we are also sure of. But then the writer of this novel reveals herself - for it is not written by McEwan at all - and we go back and question everything we have read, for it is nearly impossible to tell where the story begins and the facts end.
McEwan's ability to drive a story forward while simply retelling the same plot points over and over again is uncanny; his ability to set forth the most beautiful descriptions of an English country home and the intricacies of a battlefield is shocking; his ability to make us question everything he has put to the paper is outstanding. This is a sweeping work that goes beyond the interactions of human experience to ask: What is the impact of our perception on reality, and which matters more?
Libba Bray's book is a young-adult title focusing on a teenager adjusting to life in a modern-day Texan high school - and adjusting poorly, to say the least. He is withdrawn, a stoner, a loner, and altogether makes himself miserable. This is only further compounded by the fact that he is diagnosed with a fatal illness, and is only noticed by his peers when it is announced that he has only weeks to live. From here, though, things get weird: a punk angel/possible hallucination shows up in the hospital room and gives him not-so-detailed instructions on the way to simultaneously save the world and find a cure for his disease. With his trusty sidekick, hypochondriac and little person Gonzo, he flees the hospital and travels across the country to New Orleans, the YA! (equivalent of MTV) Spring Break house party, and through time itself. He enlists the help of a cult a one point, is guardian angel at others, a mad scientist here, a jazz musician, and even a talking garden gnome. Or does he? Or rather, does it matter if he does or does not, as long as he thinks he does? What is life, after all, but a series of remembered experiences?
Bray's novel will touch anyone who ever went to high school in a way we'd like to pretend it can't, groping with the difficult questions of popularity, sexuality, drugs, family life and, the be-all end-all of a teen's existence, mere acceptance. Her story will literally have you laughing out loud and then bring tears to your eyes in a matter of pages, but along the way, it will never fail to impress upon its readers that life is what we make of it.
It was book destiny that this galley landed in my collection at BEA, and it couldn't have landed at a better time. I cannot emphasize enough how much I enjoyed it. An absolute must-read.
* The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt
* Summertime by J. M. Coetzee
* The Quickening Maze by Adam Foulds
* How to Paint a Dead Man by Sarah Hall
* The Wilderness by Samantha Harvey
* Me Cheeta by James Lever
* Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
* The Glass Room by Simon Mawer
* Not Untrue & Not Unkind by Ed O'Loughlin
* Heliopolis by James Scudamore
* Brooklyn by Colm Toibin
* Love and Summer by William Trevor
* The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters
Shortlist to be announced September 8th, so best get reading stat.
Oh god, I just sent the link to this blog to my parents...
Full review of Chesapeake and Bonk to follow when finished! Now, it's off to the beach. Yes, that beach pictured. Jealous?
Judging a City's 'Level of Coolness' by its Bookshops
"A good way to judge whether a city has the desired level of 'coolness' is to look at its bookshops. If there is more than one bookshop selling books in foreign languages on an extensive range of topics, from cookery to philosophy, if one can find what one is looking for there and, furthermore, if one is allowed to stroll through the books while having a sip of coffee from the bookshop's café, it is an ultimate plus for the intellectual outlook of the city, enticing for anyone considering moving to that city. Bookshops, with their design, their smell, their location and their staff are among the important visitor's attractions of a city, although not many people think about bookshops as 'places to visit.'"--From Today's Zaman, an English-language newspaper in Turkey.
I don't know about not thinking of bookshops as "places to visit" - I absolutely do - but there's something to be said for local (independent) bookshops as a gauge of a city's "cool factor." If not cool factor, then local character at least. Annapolis stands true to herself with The Annapolis Bookstore, a small used bookstore run by (I recently discovered) one of my neighbors. The town's real gem of a store is Hard Bean, though, with its eclectic mix of military history books (the history section is easily twice the size of the fiction row), bargain books, odd tsotchkes (woven blankets of Naval Academy goats displayed next to a shelf of overpriced hand cream, for example), an ice cream section, café and full-blown sandwich and pastry bar. Oh, and now they serve booze - the ultimate test of an Annapolis establishment.
These are the only two bookstores in walking distance of Ego Alley and true downtown Annapolis, and together, they represent the best of the town: a used, slightly worn but appreciated sense of history and the antique, coupled with a desire to please, sail, boat, fish, crab, host midshipmen, satisfy a sweet tooth, and, you guessed it, get a bit drunk at times. I salute Zaman for a bit of excellent insight and Annapolis for two spaces that will forever be a part of the city.
The trouble: which books to bring? I only have about 100 pages left in Michener's Chesapeake (review to follow; preview = fantastic), and find myself debating which books make it into the suitcase and which stay. The four contenders are:
Mr. Muo's Traveling Couch - Dai Sijie
Bonk - Mary Roach
The Law of Dreams - Peter Behrens
A People's History of the American Revolution - Ray Raphael
I've decided tonight to read the first chapter of each before committing myself to a weekend one-on-one with the new title of my choosing - much like dating, I would not want to find myself stuck on the Jersey shore with little to do but wallow away the hours with a book (or man) I do not enjoy, let alone relish.
Does anyone else test-drive before a vacation? If not, how do you decide which books ultimately make the cut - and do you ever regret your decisions?
It isn't that the book was bad, per se, just that it wasn't nearly as gripping as I thought it could have been. Hornby's story starts off with four suicidal people on the roof of a building, all waiting to jump in privacy. Ultimately, they save each other from death that night and become tied together in ways unexpected and generally inexplicable to their families, friends and the media. Hornby delves into some of the big questions with these four - why are we here? What is selfish and what is selfless? How can we fix those big mistakes we will inevitably make at some point? Where can we draw the line between the personal and the public?
While the book does make you think, which is my ultimate test of a book's quality, it can feel forced at times, with enjoying the present moment, living life to the fullest, learning to forgive yourself, etc. The prose is simple and straightforward, which makes the message easy to appreciate on a fundamental level, but without any one character to relate to or feel any connection to (we are given the choice between a prim old lady with a disabled son, an asshole television star recently out of prison for statutory rape, a somewhat manic teenage daughter of a local politician, and an American ex-pat pizza delivery guy with no ambitions but to get back together with his ex), it is hard to really feel the impact of the answers to these questions.
A pretty quick read, if you'd like to see for yourself. And not altogether a waste of time.
But a few months ago, while still on blog hiatus, Jay Franco (yes, same one that recommended Fables) recommended the George R. R. Martin Song of Ice and Fire Series. First of all, follow that link. Martin looks exactly like you would expect a fantasy writer to look. Exactly.
Now on to the books themselves. I found it refreshing to get back into the world of fantasy (and it gave me some street cred at the gaming shows I've been going to for work recently). Martin has a keen sense of detail, which is sometimes to his detriment - he can get so bogged down in details and character development that the story sometimes seems to hover frustratingly in mid-thought. That being said, the details of this world he has created, and the intense, focused characters that he develops skillfully and fully, become crucial to the story when it does finally launch itself forward, and so most readers are able to forgive what seems like confusion in the first book.
*Mild Spoiler Alert* One of my biggest complaints with Jordan is that he doesn't ever kill his characters. All, inevitably, find themselves in some kind of dangerous, sticky situation, and, not surprisingly, pull through with only mild damages to self or mind. True, after a while these damages can pile up, but as of Book 11, no one has actually died. Martin is quite the opposite, sometimes too much so. While it is refreshing to have an author that keeps his readers on his toes, he has almost killed so many characters that he has started to drive readers away - we have no allegiance to any characters remaining because it is too hard to watch (or read) them die. Alas, I am still searching for the author that can find the perfect balance between these two.
Martin's series has been optioned for a series on HBO for which I have high hopes. You can see casting and developments here.
Interesting afterthought -- on his website, George Martin cites Osprey books as one of his best sources for military research, which he uses to develop his worlds when writing. Go Osprey!
And these are my vices:
impatience, bad temper, wine,
the more than occasional cigarette,
an almost unquenchable thirst to be kissed,
a hunger that isn't hunger
but something like fear, a staunching of dread
and a taste for bitter gossip
of those who've wronged me—for bitterness—
and flirting with strangers and saying sweetheart
to children whose names I don't even know
and driving too fast and not being Buddhist
enough to let insects live in my house
or those cute little toylike mice
whose soft grey bodies in sticky traps
I carry, lifeless, out to the trash
and that I sometimes prefer the company of a book
to a human being, and humming
and living inside my head
and how as a girl I trailed a slow-hipped aunt
at twilight across the lawn
and learned to catch fireflies in my hands,
to smear their sticky, still-pulsing flickering
onto my fingers and earlobes like jewels.
"Fireflies" by Cecilia Woloch, from Carpathia. © BOA Editions, Ltd., 2009. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)