Sunday, August 2, 2009

Ms. Manitoba: Books Read January to July 2009

Dear Readers,

PolCat and I have been doing this for 3 years now ... keeping a list of books we've read and then sometime in July we post our half-year list with short opinions about them. Here's my list of books that I've read since January. I'm including more excerpts this time. Not sure why ... maybe I want you to have more of a taste of the books that I'm recommending.

Anyway, enjoy ... and enjoy your summer of reading ... that is ... for those of you in the Northern Hemisphere.

The Film Club - David Gilmour (not the musician)
There is nothing like becoming a parent to humble you. Especially if you’re the type of person who’s got an opinion on everything--like I do, for example. Very humbling. This is a nonfiction story about Gilmour’s attempts to stay connected with his son. His son HATES school. He’s around 15 when the book starts. Gilmour and his ex-wife, the son’s mother, agree to let his son drop out of school and not have to get a job, with certain conditions: no drugs and he has to watch three movies a week with his father. His father chooses the movies. Not all the movies are what critics would describe as “great movies.” But Gilmour picks the movies because they’re special to him in some way (and he describes why they’re special for our benefit) and he hopes they will stimulate conversation with his son. It sounds like a desperate attempt to connect ... but if you care about your kids, you often do desperate-sounding things to reach out. I don’t begrudge Gilmour that. In fact, it worked. It was brilliant.
One troubling ... and distracting thing for me was Gilmour’s drinking. And it bothered me that he was so unaware of it. I kept thinking “What kind of an example is that?” We often don’t like it that we are examples for our children to imitate. But there it is. We are.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society - Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
I know that this book needs no help from me ... people are buying it and reading it -- and enjoying it. It's a good good book. I loved it. It had everything I wanted at the time. I had been watching serious things on DVD and wanted to read something that lifted my spirits but wasn't fluffy. Plus, I wanted a story set in a place very different than my own. Boy, did I get that in spades! So the setting was wonderful for me -- lots of outdoors AND it's an island ... I love oceans, rivers, lakes, creeks ... even puddles. So there you go. Yes, and I loved the characters. The story is told in a series of letters. The main character is a writer. The story moves along quickly. There are no wasted words. And the characters made me laugh out loud. What more could you ask from a book? Well ... yes, substance. There's that too. I highly recommend it.

Riding Toward Everywhere - William T. Vollman
There’s a realness to Vollman's writing and adventures that I admire. He is very prolific--good golly, you should see all the books he’s written! This one is about trainhopping. Like the hobos do. I have always wanted to do that. Hop a freight train. I must admit now that I’ve read this book I realize what a romantic notion I had. I no longer want to do it. And, of course, it would be ridiculous for someone like me--who has just had knee replacement--to try it. His stories made me realize how many more people do it than I thought. It’s like the subterranean world of people who live in the subway tunnels under New York City. (And, yes, I do have a book about that on my list to read for 2009: Mole People: Life in the Tunnels Beneath New York City - Jennifer Toth)

Folks, there are so many groups of people who are mistreated in this country! Vollman talks about poor and homeless people -- a subset of all the people who hop trains. How these people are hated, passionately hated, by townsfolk.

Part of why I no longer dream of “catching out” is accidents and danger. Vollman talks plenty of both. But his stories are also laced with the best nature and travel writing. Traveling ... real traveling. Not all that crap about shopping and meals etc.

Vollman explains:
That was the great thing about this sort of ride: breathing the air of reality. In the Gilroy country the evening smelled of garlic; later on, near Santa Barbara, the dawn would smell of anise. Freight train rides are parables. Why have we chosen to live behind walls and windows?
... Reality caresses and stings! For a fact, reality kills; so does reality denied; at least when reality lays hands on me I feel it. I never want not to feel it.

And more:
Much later, near midnight, I went out again. The moon was long gone, but the entire tree was blossoming with stars.
Last excerpt:
... And beside me there came more and ever more stars, brighter and whiter and clearer than I had seen in a long time. Indeed, I had forgotten the stars, as I so often will on those other nights of my life. No matter what I have accomplished and whom I have loved, how much I have lost by missing the stars for so many of my nights! And now I am grey, and who knows when I will die, and never see the stars again? Who would I have been if I could have been alongside these stars always?

In the Skin of a Lion - Michael Ondaatje
Ondaatje is very good. I recommend this book because his writing is so very good, the characters are interesting, the story unpredictable. And you don’t feel like you wasted your time reading this book. I often feel this way about books lately. I’ve dropped several books after about 40 pages this year. Let’s face it, there are a lot of books that really do not deserve our attention. And I’m including the ones that are almost good books. They’re still not good enough. That’s why writing is a cold mistress. You have to work hard to woo readers. Ondaatje’s writing is the best kind of wooing. You’re not aware of it. You’re there in the character’s lives ... kind of like a ghost ... watching. Watching. Holding your breath. Rooting for certain characters. There’s a lot of the story that is about people working and what they do at their jobs. I appreciate this and it’s not boring to boot -- writers don’t write too many stories about our working lives.

Plus, past readers of this biannual exercise in documenting my reading life know that I am prejudiced -- YES I AM -- and proud of it. I am partial to books where the action is set in Canada. Our gentle neighbor to the North. (Have you ever wondered what it would be like if our Northern neighbor wasn’t so gentle?)

The story is primarily set in Toronto during the early part of the twentieth century. The characters include: a dynamiter who works for a lumber company and then in a feldspar mine, an actress, bridge builders (the Prince Edward Viaduct to be exact), a nun who falls off the bridge as it’s being built and is caught by one of the builders -- from the Balkans -- who is hanging below, “a bare-knuckle capitalist” making money from Toronto’s spurt of growth, a searcher hired by a company to find the missing capitalist, a public works commissioner, another actress -- a puppeteer -- her young daughter, and tannery workers. Here’s an excerpt:
Dye work took place in the courtyards next to the warehouse. Circular pools had been cut into the stone -- into which the men leapt waist-deep within the reds and ochres and greens, leapt in embracing the skins of recently slaughtered animals. In the round wells four-foot in diameter they heaved and stomped, ensuring the dye went solidly into the pores of the skin that had been part of a live animal the previous day. And the men stepped out in colours up to their necks, pulling wet hides out after them so it appeared they had removed the skin from their own bodies. They had leapt into different colours as if into different countries.

Hit Parade - Lawrence Block
Good per usual. It’s weird to have a hit man be the main character that we empathize with ... but Block is talented so we do. This book is a collection of short stories about the hit man and his “agent” who gets him the jobs.

Fun Home - Alison Bechdel
This was very good. It’s a graphic novel that weaves several stories together. One of the main two stories is about Bechdel’s father who was a very interesting man -- accomplished renovator and decorator of old houses, director of the family’s funeral home, teacher, lover of younger men. Yet, he presented himself to the world as straight straight straight. The second thread is about Bechdel growing up and how she felt around her father ... and coming out as a lesbian. How the stories loop in and out--expertly done. Highly recommended.

The Gathering - Anne Enright [didn’t finish]
This book really made me feel like a Philistine because I kept thinking “It won the fucking Booker award I should be really liking this.” Oh, there were many reasons why I should like it. My mother was Irish, I should like this book. The writing is good, I should like this book. I read three quarters of the bloody book for Christ’s sake!! And then I stopped. I thought “I’m not really liking this book.” And I put it down.

Songbook - Nick Hornby
I started this book years ago. Would read a little then put it down when some other book nagged at me. So other books have interfered with this particular one. This book is based on a great concept: Hornby takes a favorite song of his and tells you why it’s his favorite. It’s a mix of music criticism and memoir because sometimes he concedes that a song may not be the best one of its genre--but it’s his favorite because it’s associated with something special that happened to him--and he tells you about that special thing. Hornby is a good writer and makes it all work. Now, in the hardback version you also got a cd that included every one of the songs he talks about. But I have the paperback. You may be able to buy the cd separately. Not sure. The book is recommended. Oh, another comment: it’s not as funny as The Polysyllabic Spree or Dirt vs. Housekeeping, or Shakespeare Wrote for Money -- his book reviews. He cut his teeth on Songbook. In those last books mentioned, he let his humor blossom gloriously.

Shakespeare Wrote for Money - Nick Hornby
I LOVE HORNBY. He’s so interesting and funny. And a damn good writer too. This trilogy: The Polysyllabic Spree, Dirt vs. Housekeeping, and now Shakespeare Wrote for Money -- they’re brilliant and I’m so sad he’s not writing these reviews anymore ... I hope it’s just temporary.
... a novel I had just abandoned by a senior, highly regarded literary figure ... It wasn’t just the opacity of the prose that led me to abandon the novel, however; I didn’t like the characters who populated it much, either. They were all languidly middle class, and they drank good wine and talked about Sartre, and I didn’t want to know anything about them. This is entirely unreasonable of me, I accept that. But prejudice has to be an important part of our decision-making process when it comes to reading; otherwise, we would become overwhelmed. For months I have been refusing to read a novel that a couple of friends have been urging upon me, a novel that received wonderful reviews and got nominated for prestigious prizes. I’m sure it’s great, but I know it’s not for me: the author is posh -- posh English, which is somehow worse than posh American, even -- and he writes about posh people, and I have taken the view that life is too short to spend any time worrying about the travails of the English upper classes. If you had spent the last half century listening to the strangled vows and the unexamined, usually dim assumptions that frequently emerge from the mouths of a certain kind of Englishman, you’d feel entitled to a little bit of inverted snobbery.
And yet another Excerpt:
I recently discovered that when my friend Mary has finished a book, she won’t start another for a couple of days--she wants to give her most recent reading experience a little more time to breathe, before it’s suffocated by the next. This makes sense, and it’s an entirely laudable policy, I think. Those of us who read neurotically, however--to ward off boredom, and the fear of our own ignorance, and our impending deaths--can’t afford the time.
Brilliant! Describes me to a tee.

X Films: True Confessions of a Radical Filmmaker - Alex Cox
Boring. Didn’t finish. He directed Repo Man and Sid & Nancy among others. He tells how he got each one made. I thought it would be interesting but it wasn’t.

The Graveyard Book (Young Adult) - Neil Gaiman
Oooooo, this was good. A novel with lots of pictures ... but not really a graphical one. I thoroughly enjoyed this one. It’s about this young boy who grows up in a graveyard and only he can see the spirits of the people who were buried there. He’s adopted by a couple who are spirits. Very interesting. He must stay in the graveyard because there is somone who will kill him (he killed the rest of the boy’s family) if he leaves the boundaries of the graveyard.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie (Young Adult)
Graphical novel. Very very good. Alexie is so good at writing about pain and ... amazingly makes it funny sometimes. He’s a good writer and I recommend this book.

The following books by Anne Perry (in the Charlotte and Thomas Pitt series):
Paragon Walk
Resurrection Row
Bluegate Fields
Rutland Place
Death in the Devil’s Acre
Cardington Crescent
Still loving the series. Started last year.

Vive la Paris - Esme Raji Codell (Young Adult)
Interesting characters at first. Then several of them got on our nerves (my youngest daughter and myself ... I do not talk in the royal “we”.) However, I do want to recommend a book that she wrote that I read several years ago: Educating Esme: Diary of a Teacher's First Year.

After Tupac and D Foster (Newbery Honor Book, Young Adult) - Jacqueline Woodson
I loved this book! I really really wanted to be friends with the three main characters. It’s fresh! (I can see why “fresh” was such a hip word at one time.) The book is serious AND funny. Here’s my first excerpt:
The loudest sound in the world is the soft click of prison gates locking behind you.
Maybe it’s how final it is--the loud slam of the gate, then the quick, gentle click. Then the scary feeling of it all being forever.
So many gates slamming shut. So many locks clicking. One after the other until you’re all the way inside.
And the only way out is at the hands of a prison guard, who has to press a button. And turn a key. Then press another button, and turn another key. All the while staring at each of you. And you know what he’s thinking:
Remember this place good, y’all. We got a spot waiting for you.

Writing doesn’t get any better than that.

Here’s an excerpt, hopefully it’ll give you a real taste of the liveliness of the book:
Neeka took a last sip of hot chocolate, set her cup on my dresser, then lay back on my bed, her head wrapped in one of Mama’s scarves to keep it from getting messy while she slept.
“I get it now,” she said.
I nodded.
“D’s cool. She’s like from another planet. The Planet of the Free.” Neeka sat up on one elbow and looked at me. “I’m gonna g to that planet one day.”
I shook my head and laughed. “We did, girl! We went tonight!”
Neeka held out her hand and I slapped it. And we laughed like we were losing our minds.
Double Identity - Margaret Peterson Maddox (Young Adult)
Very good for its age group. Page turner. Recommended. My 11-yr old recommended it to me (she doing that more and more) and I really liked it ... couldn’t put it down. And we loved talking about it afterwards. Premise of the book: What if you were approaching your 13th birthday and just found out that you had an older sister who had died ... and that you were a clone of that older sister?

a mercy - Toni Morrison
Ahhhhh ... she’s so good. Her writing produces envy in me. Her use of language takes you back in time. You’re there, you’re really there in the 1680s. To read is to enter another world--when the author is successful. An excerpt:
One chance, I thought. There is no protection but there is a difference. You stood there in those shoes and the tall man laughed and said he would take me to close the debt. I knew Senhor would not allow it. I said you. Take you, my daughter. Because I saw the tall man see you as a human child, not pieces of eight. I knelt before him. Hoping for a miracle. He said yes.
It was not a miracle. Bestowed by God. It was a mercy. Offered by a human. I stayed on my knees. In the dust where my heart will remain each night and every day until you understand what I know and long to tell you: to be given dominion over another is a hard thing; to wrest dominion over another is a wrong thing; to give dominion of yourself to another is a wicked thing.

A Field of Blood - Denise Mina
This is a mystery with a very original character -- Paddy Meehan -- set in 1981. She’s working-class, Irish Catholic living in Glasgow, Scotland. She works as a “copyboy” at the Daily News. She wants desperately to be a journalist at the paper. Opportunity comes knockin’. A wee lad is kidnapped by two other young boys and is murdered. Paddy’s fiancĂ© is related to one of the alleged killers -- an 11-year old boy brought up in an extremely neglectful family. Paddy figures things out and scoops a story. I was very interested in the depiction of the working-class Irish Catholic community that Paddy was from. I didn’t know this but massive numbers of Irish immigrated to Glasgow which contributed to the explosive growth of Roman Catholicism in the city. The story moved along very well and the characters were interesting and believable. One thing that was irritating to me -- but believable -- was Paddy’s ongoing self-criticism about eating too much and gaining weight. I have always found this boring and hard to listen to. Recommended.

The Dead Hour - Denise Mina
Another page turner by Denise Mina. Paddy is now on the night shift ... kinda like an ambulance chaser for her newspaper. She and her driver listen to the police radio and go to where the action is. Paddy writes up the stories. The story starts out with what Paddy thinks is a domestic quarrel. Like in Field of Blood, ethics and the violation of ethics is a common subject. Again, you get an inside view of working-class Irish Catholics in a particular community just outside of Glasgow. Hard times are even harder -- it’s set in 1984. There’s an extremely bad recession going on. One in three adults are on disability. Paddy has become the only adult in her family -- they all still live together -- that has a job. Recommended

Undiscovered - Debra Winger
It’s a memoir and I liked it. I read it in one day. That’s unusual for me. It’s not a long book. I’d suggest getting it out of the library, like I did. I’ve always respected Debra Winger. She’s a good writer and I loved her drawings. She’s six years younger than I am so some of the things she writes about -- the passing of her parents, being a parent herself -- I can really relate to. Plus, she lives out in the country which is something I’ve always fantasized about and a lot of the book is about living there. Some excerpts:

The idea of fashioning myself to please men was a constant battle. Part of me loved that juicy feeling of being desired, but the attraction I felt to authenticity was far too fierce to leave me n that other place for long -- and so began a very ambivalent relationship with acting in Hollywood.

Authenticity is not a goal for the faint-hearted. I have started on this journey, and I want to continue with grace.

Ted [Kooser, the poet] once told of coming home from a radiation treatment, and as he neared his home, lined up on the fence was a sight he had never witnessed before: vultures, hunkered down, wing to wing, the length of his yard. He stopped the car, got out, and addressed them.
“Not this time, fellas.”
Betrayal can live inside of you like a poison that feeds on disappointment. It is completely useless for life in the now. It must be mined and wept about and turned into a story with a beginning and an end.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.