Author Archives: Rocky

J thinks Night Film by Marisha Pessl is cake with icing

J thinks Night Film by Marisha Pessl is cake…with icing.

Unknown-1The Cake: Night Film is a super entertaining story that kept me turning the pages the entire week I spent reading it. It distracted me from all competing little chores like Christmas baking and work.

The plot focuses on an enigmatic filmmaker named Stanislas Cordova. In his films, Cordova explores the realm of human nature: good and bad, dark and light, insane and sinister… and so on. The characters in his movies often live, exist, and act where one human attribute ends and its darker counterpart begins. The filmmaker and his films are controversial, shrouded in rumors and fantastic stories. The film sets are believed to be cursed due to a seemingly inordinate number of serious mishaps that take place during filming. His actors, after appearing in his films, tend to drop out of mainstream society and never discuss their experiences on the sets in public. Cordova himself gives no interviews and lives in seclusion with lawyers and people to protect him and his privacy. In fact, rumors about him include every imaginable conspiracy from the question of his actual existence, to the suggestion that he is a criminal of unimaginable evil. (The parallels between Cordova and actual filmmakers, both current and past, makes great fodder for conversation.) Cordova has a cult following of people who refer to themselves as Cordovites. They host underground nighttime viewings of his movies communicated to other Cordovites and fans with a secret graffiti code marked on doors of abandoned warehouses and other clandestine venues. Cordovites run secret websites devoted to scrutinizing every bit of information available on the man and his work.

Cordova is the center of the plot, however, the principal character in the story is Scott McGrath.  McGrath is a journalist who was known for his fearless and sometimes savage reporting. At his peak, no topic was too taboo for McGrath, no bit of evidence out of reach. That is, until he went after Cordova.  McGrath decided to write an expose’ on the filmmaker following the arrest of a serial child-killer. The murderer had admitted to copying scenes he’d seen in a Cordova movie.  McGrath planned to reveal Cordova as the puppeteer behind all the darkness and mystery associated with his films and his reputation. Cordova and his lawyers fought back with a ferocious defamation suit winning most of McGrath’s wealth and capital, costing him his job, his credibility as an objective journalist, and finally his marriage.

Night Film begins with the apparent suicide of Cordova’s 24-year-old daughter and Cordovite conspiracy theories running wild.  McGrath, a man with nothing to lose finding his adversary in the news again, plunges in. He is determined to get to the bottom of the mystery of Cordova once and for all.

You know I don’t like to give away secrets, Scramblers. So I will just tell you to prepare to twist and turn, swivel, wriggle, contort, and spin.  You’ll encounter truths and illusions, white lies and black magic. You’ll get a little bit of a super-hero flavor from McGrath, but nothing that made me roll my eyes too much. It’s fiction. It’s supposed to suspend the imagination. Throughout the book, Pessl will drop references and likenesses to films and actors both real fiction, giving the reader a pleasant nod of recognition when stumbled upon.

The Icing: There are pictures. There are photographs. There are reports, receipts, notes on scraps of paper, website threads…and so on. This brilliant device just makes the book incredibly fun and engaging. Like Encyclopedia Brown for adults. I read it in book form, but apparently, if you read it in e-form you can download a “Decoder app” to get extra content with images and audio secrets.

I don’t think you should wait for a special occasion to treat yourself to this one, but if your nightstand is overflowing, Night Film would be a great book to have for the long days of winter to come. It’s nice and long. Maybe if you stick your nose in it in mid February, you’ll look up to find some spring sun on the way in March.

Happy reading!

me1

Ah Nebraska…

goodnight nebraska                                                                                    to be sung underwater

If you had to personify the place you live or a place you have visited, how would you fashion it?  What construct would you use?  These two opening questions feel tedious to me as an introduction here but they may turn out to be good fun if posed a few drinks into a Friday afternoon get-together. But hey, try it now and in the spirit of this Halloween post: in your mind’s eye incinerate your locale of choice and sift the cremains into an old butter tub;  when dark comes imagine the location as a now-humanized specter rising out of the butter tub and taking out on a midnight stroll through your house.  If said specter stumbles into your bedroom, tell me the first words out of its mouth. Does it cackle at your fear?  Does it encircle you with fleshy arms and offer a mumbled apology? Or does it lure you into the kitchen with a flirty laugh, the promise of wine, and whispered secrets into the early morning?  (Personified locations all — in my mind’s eye).

I read two of Tom McNeal’s novels, To Be Sung Underwater and Goodnight, Nebraska and I believe Mr. McNeal conducted a similar mental exercise with Nebraska in mind.  In both books McNeal has rendered Nebraska into a mute background character that manages to be present at each and every table, is along for every drive and rides shotgun, decorates characters’ houses and even has a hand in the lay-out of menus at the local cafes.  McNeal uses broad strokes to paint Nebraska onto each page of these two novels.  Secret: sometimes it’s a bit thick. 

Just so you know, Tom McNeal is not a Nebraskan.  He was born and raised in California but as a boy he spent his summers on his grandparent’s ranch in the Nebraska panhandle.  It makes sense that someplace as imperial and bare as the panhandle is able to plant itself in a young boy’s psyche.  In a June ’11 NY Times interview McNeal said this about Nebraska:  “For me, it represents a type of purity that is hard to come by:”

I read McNeal’s books out of order chronologically.    To be Sung Underwater was written in 2011. McNeal wrote a strong female character named Judith Whitman who is one of the two main protagonists and as an adult Judith is layered and imperfect, lovely and lost in her marriage.  Adult Judith lives in California but a good part of the book is about young Judith who we see gracefully grow into adulthood in Nebraska.  

Judith’s first love is Willy Blunt and he is the embodiment of a certain type of Nebraskan.  He is an honorable young man who is witty, driven, and carries with him a vast love of Nebraska’s open spaces — especially when Judith gets naked in those spaces.  Judith is crazy about Willy too until she gets accepted at Stanford and suddenly the love of Judith’s life may not be quite right for Judith’s future California life.   You can see it coming, right?  Judith dumps Willy and marries a more sophisticated fellow, a Californian.  But as these things go, at 44 Judith finds herself with a potentially cheating spouse (California!)  and her broken heart begins to wonder about the honorable and sensual Willy Blunt (Nebraska!) she left behind.  It was a good story right to the end, which was too melodramatic for me and not very Nebraska-like.  Typical Californian, overplaying the hand.  However, I still root for Judith.  She was worth the read.  

Goodnight, Nebraska was McNeal’s first novel and published in 1999. I bit right away, the book has a great blowback start narrating the slippery downward slide of Randall Hunsacker, a boy from a blue-collar family.  Early in the story Randall is set adrift by his father’s unexpected death and his mother’s and sister’s subsequent stupid stupid behaviors.  Randall ends up screwing up (who can blame him) and to avoid being sent to reform school Randall accepts a deal to go live in Goodnight, Nebraska.  Ah ha I thought to myself, this will be a fine story about Randall’s redemption set against the backdrop of the expansive and healing Nebraska plains.  But sadly the guy remains a jackass through the rest of the book and I could not get behind him in any of the pages.  Goodnight, Nebraska descended into chaos after those first enticing chapters.  The book wanted to be many things and so it wandered about and turned to clunky and jarring resolutions that sprang from absolutely nowhere. (Over and over again).

So it was no surprise to me that the wrap up of Goodnight, Nebraska came across like sloppy camp.  This is it: the two protagonists finally wind up together in Nebraska –Randall married the town’s sweetheart and oh boy do they have their ups and downs over the years.   In the very end they are both literally broken and scarred – most of which they have inflicted upon one another.   A white satin eye-patch Marcy?  Really?  This Nebraska is cruel and judging and foolish; it is backwards and unbending and is not fit to wander outside of its own borders.  I didn’t buy it.    Rather I didn’t buy McNeal’s characterization of Nebraska, the Nebraskans he portrayed, and the situations he created for them through the middle and end of the book. 

This is something a real Nebraskan said: There are some things you learn best in calm, and some in storm ( Willa Cather).  Anyway, Mr. McNeal needs more calm, less storm.  That’s the more precise characterization of Nebraska.  

Chadron

<— Chadron Airport and the luggage transport.

J on Reading Lists, and the almost Perfect Story…

Tragedy struck this weekend.

At the South Street library cruising the shelves for a good read, I went to my book list in “notes” on my iPhone to see if I could find something on my list. But my list was gone.

Erased. !!!

I eventually picked a book (The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer, stay tuned). Unknown-4Then I went home to check my computer and email accounts to see if my book list had simply migrated from notes to somewhere else. But it didn’t. The book notes are gone. My music notes are still there. Complete with a measly 4 entries, 3 of which are Malian music from our friend Paul that I can get the names of again.
The name of a plumber recommended by a friend is there. Also a phone-call away, had I lost it.  I’m glad I didn’t lose the recipes I had stored, but it wasn’t like they were the Colonel’s secret or the formula for original Coca-Cola. Nope.  The only category completely missing from my Notes was the list from the last two years of books I’d jotted down to read, or read and liked, or had read and not liked.

I admit using the term “Tragedy” to describe this (most probably) user error is a little dramatic. But the list in notes was how I kept track and managed my reading material and I feel a little lost without it and annoyed at technology for having lost it.

One recent read stands out, though, for which I do not need to refer to notes to remember if I liked it or not.

Unknown-3 I loved Fin and Lady by Cathleen Schine.

Reading it, I frequently caught myself chortling out loud and then minutes later realized I was still smiling dopily at the words on the page.

Fin and Lady is light and serious. Funny and sad. Fictional and historically accurate.  At the beginning, Fin an 11 year-old boy from a farm in Connecticut, is left an orphan after his mother dies. He is delivered to his sister, Lady, whom he hasn’t seen in years and who is 16 years his senior.  They are half-siblings, related through their deceased father. Their separate memories of his angry personality bonds them even though they never agree fully on the reason for, or effects of, their late father’s ire.

Fin and Lady, and Fin’s dog, Gus, settle in Greenwich Village, NY in the 1960s. Fin is a smart and likeable kid, if a bit traumatized by his situation, Gus, steadfastly loyal, and Lady is smart and unconventional in every way. She is irresistible.

And from here, Rocky Scramble Weekly Readers, if I didn’t want you to discover it for yourselves, I’d tell you about the beautifully quirky relationship between Fin and Lady. I’d go into detail about each wonderful character: The Suitors, the group of men in love with Lady; Mabel, the sensible (and wigged) maid who loves and cares for both Fin and Lady in her no-nonsense, grumpy, but mostly agreeable way; Phoebe, Fin’s friend who boils life down to the feminist pop psychology of the day mostly in one-liners (her parents are psychologists). I would tell you about the hippy, un-credentialed, school Lady enrolls Fin in and the books she gives him to supplement his education. I think you’d laugh about the parties Lady has and Fin mixing drinks for the guests in mittens because he makes such deliciously cold martinis. (“I don’t’ drink them, I’m only 11, “ he tells a visitor who raises an eyebrow when Lady tells Fin to bring some drinks.)

The connections between the characters unfold and intermingle and flourish and sometimes, fail during the events of the 60s and within the background of Greenwich Village and places beyond.

It’s truly an enjoyable story.

I also would also tell you, it’s not perfect.

Which is a good thing, because if it were, all future reads and anticipation of them would be forever ruined. Best to have an almost perfect story, like Fin and Lady.

me

Sometimes it’s about the miles and not the scenery.

This thought ran through my brain just a few weeks back as Andy and I hauled ¾ of our worldly goods to Oregon in a 26 foot rental truck with a cab that was saturated in a trifecta of odors: mostly dirty scalp, but there was also a solid suggestion of rotting fruit, and a ton of anxiousness (that part was all me and could not be tossed out like the mushy bag of fruit we found under the driver’s seat).   As you can imagine between KC, MO and Lincoln City, Oregon there are some commanding vistas that reach in all directions.  Real spit-sucker panoramas.  But our trip was about the miles and not the scenery.   We needed to get the 2 thousand miles done in 3 days.  Numbers and miles dominated our days and we were determined to wrestle them down.  We had no time to take in the stunning river gorges, jagged mountain ranges, and the clean high prairies.  Good god it is lovely out there.  You could roll around on it, hike over it, bike through it, aimlessly drift in boats forever and you couldn’t consume it all in one lifetime. 

Snake River Canyon-Twin-Falls

===The Snake River Canyon

            

The Dalles 

< ===Mt Hood, The Dalles, and the Columbia River

Because of the house selling, the packing of our goods, the search for a livable apartment and the acquiescing to people who should not be buying a 100 year old house my life has felt somewhat discombobulated the last 6 weeks.  I’m over-busy, fluttery, disjointed.   My eyes feel sandpapery.   There is tiredness in my shoulders that can’t be drawn out.  I can’t read.  I can’t settle long enough in one place to turn the pages, get to know some characters funny or sad, and walk through a subset of their days with them.  It’s all because my days are saturated with boring tasks, eternal work, and a pile of nit problems Andy and I must pick away at to accomplish this house unloading.   I can tell when the structure of my life has gone all akimbo because I can’t read a book through to the end.   This is why I have not posted in awhile. 

And then, at the end of my Oregon Trail when all our goods were tucked away in the beach house’s basement, out of the blue the young woman who had taken on the chore of unknotting my shoulder muscles brought me a book.  She is a real book worm this one.  When I see her in Lincoln City every few months at the spa we talk books as she scrubs my face, kneads my back, colors my hair. In reality, I talk books and she spews books.   She reads several books a week and the ones she finds intriguing she will listen to the audio version during her daily commute between Seal Rock and Lincoln City to get a better sense why that book grabbed her.   (See Seal Rock beach picture below, it is yet another spit-sucker of a place on our planet and must be rolled around on, hiked over, and touched in this lifetime.)  

sunset_splash__seal_rock__oregon

<=====Ona Beach at Seal Rock, Oregon  — Sunset.

The book she gave me was Divergent by Veronica Roth.  It’s a YA fatty that runs several hundred pages and is the first in a trilogy.   Because this post is supposed to be about a book I’ll give you this: it’s a dystopian world, one in which all people are divided into five factions, and each faction is dedicated to the cultivation of a particular characteristic—Candor (the honest), Abnegation (the selfless), Dauntless (the brave), Amity (the peaceful), and Erudite (the intelligent).  Every year, all sixteen-year-olds must select the faction in which they will live their lives.  Most people choose their own faction because they’ve been wired for it since birth.  However for all those restless souls a choice other than the familial faction results in parental shunning.  But you gotta do what you gotta do, right?  Beatrice, our heroine, certainly must, that is for sure

divergent_veronica_roth_a_p

Ah,  Beatrice she is an interesting one.  The author works hard at trying to convince us Beatrice is broken.  And oh my I love my broken female heroines and I was hoping to find a stellar one here.  But Beatrice’s brokenness seems to me to be more teenage angst and a bit of stupidity then true brokenness.  I guess that remains to be seen in Book 3.  

Insurgent_(book)  I read the 500+ pages in less than two days.  The second book, Insurgent, focuses on the start the Faction war.  In this book Tris (she changed her name when she joined a new Faction) is wrestling with even more grief and guilt and is dying for truth.   (Still sounds like teenage angst).  She has a hot boyfriend now who has a bad dad.  She may singlehandedly save her world but in getting there Tris is screaming a lot or thinking of screaming and aching for her boyfriend’s touch but can’t push him away enough.  (Tobias the Hot should have dumped her on about page 300 in Insurgent). 

allegiant  The third book, Allegiant, is coming out in October.  I’m going to read it but I can tell you now I won’t love it.  Yet I long to know some answers and I guess in the end I’m not quite done walking (or mostly running in Tris’ case) through the days with this heroine.   I hope Tris gets less scream-y.  I hope her boyfriend gets to ‘touch’ her but it appears from the author notes that our author may be one who drives around with a big fish on her car, so I am thinking the touching may be minimal.  (Again, poor Tobias the Hot).

Here was my revelation of the month: as it is with journeys so is it with books.  Sometimes it’s the miles and not the scenery.   Sometimes the state of the world prevents a person from appreciating the scenery.   I was trying to read books with gentle nuances fleshed out by characters that stroll and stumble beautifully rather than those who run blindly shooting and screaming all the day long.  I just didn’t have it in me to take the slow journey.   And I can tell you, I was just fine with the 1000 pages of semi-schlock that I was able to consume instead of taking in a long slow drink of the scenery..  But my o my I cannot wait to find the next Glass family.

In a few weeks I will be ready for the scenery.   Margaret Atwood’s final book in her recent trilogy has been released:  MaddAddam .  The first two books of this fine dystopian trilogy: Oryx and Crake and Year of the Flood  deserve to be enjoyed.   Give them a shot if you are looking for a scenic drive.

Oryx and Crake     mad adamYear of the flood

J‘s Traveling…

UnknownJennifer Egan made Time a character known as “The Goon Squad” in her novel A Visit From the Goon Squad. All of her characters zig and zag throughout the chapters of the book and throughout each others’ lives sometimes as old friends or family and sometimes as strangers. Time, The Goon Squad, pops in frequently, a reminder of choices made, a moment gone by here, an event there…opportunities taken and those passed by (perhaps missed). Among other things, the A Visit From the Goon Squad is about how our young selves influence our older selves and others as well.  The Times we live in influence us, and we influence The Times. The Goon Squad lives. You can count on it to call, whether you are aware of the visit, or not.

I’m on an excursion right now. I’m visiting family. Nothing conjures The Goon Squad like extended time with family. It causes you to ponder your very existence: your similar and dissimilar traits, physical and otherwise. How many events had to occur in precisely the right order for you to become the exact daughter, son, brother, sister, aunt, uncle, artist, accountant, conservative, liberal…etc. that you are today? To end up someone different, would a lot have had to change in the sequence of events that led to you? Or were you predestined despite the zigging and zagging of the people and life events (both choice and chance) that came before?

These questions, and others, are pondered both by Kate Atkinson in Life After Life and Stephen King in 11/22/63.

Unknown-1In Life After Life, Ursula Todd is born on a snowy night near London in 1910 with her umbilical cord wrapped around her neck—and dies. In the next chapter she is born again on the same snowy night—and lives. And so it goes—over and over. At first, she lives for only a few days, but as she gets the hang of it, she begins to live longer. Each time she is born as the same girl into the same family of quirky and mostly loveable characters. (Atkinson will make you care about all of them, even Maurice, the despicable and smug older brother is an interesting character). As Ursula gets better at keeping herself alive and sometimes making her life a happy one, she also begins to learn how save people she loves from unhappy endings. Like a Time traveler, she intervenes to protect her beloved housekeeper from the Spanish flu, her brother’s future wife from a brutal murder as a child, and in some of her lives she even positions herself to thwart the rise of Hitler and consequently the events of WWII and its aftermath.  At first, Ursula is completely unaware of her role as a fate-changer, but as she matures, she becomes aware of signs, a déjà vu, a nagging urge to zig instead of a zag. She realizes she is destined to repeat Life after Life until Life is as it should be.

I was in the middle of Life after Life when I was selecting an audio book for my family visit. With the idea of alternative universes in mind, I chose 11/22/63, a book I had considered reading when it first came out, but had been put off by its length. (Mr. King might consider employing a more aggressive editor) However, long car ride = time to plug in a 30 CD audio book, set cruise control, and let the narrative stylings of Craig Wasson begin.

(A note about audio books: You will always turn on the narrator. Especially if he or she does anything more than just read the story with appropriate and professional inflection. Actually singing, when the character sings, or trying to read in the opposite gender’s voice, are just a couple of reasons you will start hating on your audio book host. And it is right to do so.)

Unknown-211/22/63 is about Jake Epping, a teacher in 2011, Maine, who finds a wormhole to 1958.  Here’s how time travel works in Stephen King’s world.

1. Jake steps into the pantry at Al’s Diner in Lisbon Falls, Maine, walks toward the spices where he feels the floor give just a bit, and falls into 1958.  The downtown is as it looked and thrived 53 years before.

2. No matter how long he stays in the past, when he returns to 2011 only 2 minutes have elapsed.

3. When he returns to the future, any money and clothing and other small items gained on his travel comes back with him. Yet, it still exists in the past.

4. In the past, Jake ages in real time, so he is actually the amount of time that he spent in the past older than he was when he left upon return to the future.

5.  Each time he travels back in time, the sequence of events starts from scratch. Reset—No one remembers him from before. Any cascade of events he began the last time he visited the past have gone back to the beginning.

6. The past is easy to penetrate. Most forms of identification did not contain photographs. Credit cards were new and more a novelty than necessity. People were generally nicer to and not as suspicious of strangers.

7. In King’s world, small differences in past events do not change the future. For example, conversations may vary slightly, but these types of slight mutations in time do not affect future outcomes in a major way.

8.  Big changes—killing someone, for example—do alter the future. Jake tests this by killing a man he knows will commit a mass murder before the man has a chance to commit the crime. He then learns the future of all the individuals involved. It’s unclear if they’re better off, but they lived.

9. In addition to establishing this fact, Jake also confirms that the bigger event he wishes to change by turning back time, the more Time fights back and throws barriers in his way. King refers to “The Obdurate Past” throughout the story.

So with these rules in place, (and a few just plain “can’t explains”) Stephen King commences to satisfy the “what-ifs” of his lifetime. He sends Jake out to change the history of the 20th century by killing Lee Harvey Oswald before he has a chance to kill Kennedy, and altering the course of life forever after.

If you do the math, Jake has five years to bide before he can accomplish his mission. He needs to spend it NOT changing so much that The Obdurate Past detects and derails his plan to stop Oswald. Of course not making a metaphysical footprint is easier said than done.  And so goes the story…

A Visit from the Goon Squad, Life after Life and 11/22/63 are all stories that feature Time and all its mysteries. So much to ponder as I barrel down I-80, past outlet strip malls, giant truck stops, and endless fields of corn…boringly linear in my travels.

You can let your own imagination run wild with the paradox of time travel while you enjoy these well spun, yet tangled, yarns.

me1  Cathy asks:  What does it take for One Book in One Day to happen?

Well let me posit: Reading one book in one day is the result of a convergence of variables that is worthy of the adjective: miraculous.  One Book in One Day means all these things have aligned in your favor: 1) you have the time   2) you have the right book 3) you are working with the concept of relaxation and not obsessing about the next big milestone (do you hear me Jude?)  & 4) you are surrounded by –more or less- the ideal level of quiet.  If you’re extra lucky you will have a 5) readily available cache of appropriate reading snacks.  If you are squashed with fortune, and I mean you are breathing in and out saturated Lucky Day particles all day long, you will have a 6) mighty view where you can lift your eyes, rest them briefly, and consider your characters’ predicaments:   Will Laura Ingalls make it home through the blizzard? Is Mr. Darcy too much of a pompous ass for the swell Elizabeth B.? Is The Misfit really going to be that Hard to Find?  Take a deep breath, admire scenery one more time, and push on!  You’ve got one luxurious day.

Jay McInerney                                        Bright lights

(That’s JMcI above)

I reread Bright Lights, Big City by  Jay McInerney in a single day about a month ago.  The book was written in 1984 and as we all know it was beloved and celebrated in that decade.  I recalled it as a funny book full of marvelous lines (e.g.:  the scary evil boss has “a mind like a steel mousetrap and a heart like a twelve minute egg”;   a late night bar pick-up is “the sexual equivalent of fast food”).  And those lines still pleased and kept me reading for more.  McInerney also writes fine characters in this book; you can’t help but hold your breath in anticipation of the nightly arrival of the bad news buddy Tad Allagash; you hope the best for the ethereal characters swirling around the Coma Baby story; & you keep your fingers crossed that Amanda the Beautiful develops a thyroid condition or at the very least a bad case of acne.

I still love this book in 2013. There is just one thing that changed for me nearly 30 years after the first read:  I realized Bright Lights wasn’t just a deft slice of the 80’s culture couched in clever word-smithing.  Rather Bright Lights, Big City is a wonderfully crafted novel about loss and loneliness and the marvel of redemption being offered from unlikely places/insights.  Yeah, it’s a common theme but McInerney’s language and attitude makes this book snap and crackle, it reads like a jazz riff, it reads all new.   Savvy McInerney closes our window on the outcome of “will he or won’t he” at the end of the story but I am still rooting for the best 30 years later.

I usually don’t go for books that appear to be chick-lit-y or Jodi Picoult-ish but for some reason I picked up He’s Gone by Deb Caletti.  But you know what they say about appearances… I ended up reading this book in one day and I didn’t regret that day at all.  On the surface He’s Gone offers a standard story line with the plot mostly given away in the title.  But the author cunningly draws back the curtain bit by bit from the start of the story straight through to the end and I couldn’t wait to read the next reveal (and there are many).  I hereby nominate Ms. Caletti for Rocky Scramble’s first place in 2013 for Pacing in a work of Fiction.

deb caletti                                                                                he's gone 1

(The clever Ms. Caletti)

Pals: get your perfect book id’ed and wait for the convergence of all things that cradle: One Day One Book.  Jump on in, don’t let it pass you by.

That is all on this July 30, 2013

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Out of Range by C.J. Box

J writes…

I ran into our good reader friend Sue Q at the South Street Library the other day.

As you know, that’s not a library you go to if you’re looking for something specific. It’s more of a haven for readers. A brief escape to spend time among books.  A clean well lighted place, Hemingway might call it (though no grappa is served there).

I run into Sue Q a lot at the library. Not just the one on South Street. We’re both library habitué’s. Even when I bump into her outside of one, which I do on occasion, we trade book titles and recommendations.

This time when we met up we were both empty-handed. “What should I read?” we asked each other. Sue lead me to the B’s and filled my arms full of C.J. Box detective stories. “This guy’s great. It’s about a Game Warden out in Wyoming who solves mysteries.” As we walked on towards the C’s I pulled a Jackie Collins off the shelf…remember Poor Little Bitch Girl? I handed it to Sue Q. “It’ll definitely entertain you for an afternoon,” I told her.

So we traded.

Tit for Tat.

Or, in our case, Tit for Tetons.

UnknownOut of Range by C.J. Box: It’s like comfort food. It’s meatloaf for the brain. You get what you expect. First, you meet Joe Picket, the sleuth. He doesn’t mean to find trouble. The problem is, it seems to always find him. He’s made some enemies in the past. These adversaries, and the brief summaries of the stories that came before Out of Range, are briefly described and woven into the text early on. New opponents are introduced, and the current situation explained. Things are looking up for Joe and family. After –the last book scenario here—, he and his wife and kids are on solid ground, until—the new situation here—and now things are just going to go wrong until Joe can make them right again… or die trying. And he comes close to dying. But then he doesn’t. Along the way, readers are given clues and red herrings as they try to solve the mystery along with Joe.

As far as this type of genre goes, C.J. Box is pretty good. He’s engaging and writes well. His love for the northwest part of Wyoming shows through in beautiful descriptions of the land that pepper each chapter.

I like the formulaic mystery once in a while, though I rarely read two in the same series back to back.  As many variations exist as there are readers. But they all work from a similar blueprint. Diane Mott-Davidson is one of my favorites. Her P.I. is a caterer and she throws in recipes every few chapters. Delicious!

Unknown

The Puzzle Lady Mysteries (Parnell Hall), about a crime solving cross word puzzle editor, provides readers with a cross word every so often. There are Sudoku mysteries too (Kaye Morgan). Today I came across the Tea Shop Mysteries, a series by Laura Childs, wherein each who-dunnit comes with tea recipes and teatime tips.

735092                     kayemorganjuly1                      AgonyLeaves

You can find a crime-solving kitties (Lilian Jackson Braun’s, The Cat Who…), a private dick priest (Ralph McInerny’s Father Dowling), a sleuthing professor (Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon), a nosey couple (The Thin Man series by Dashiell Hammet)…and on and on. For the anal-retentive murder mystery consumer, there’s even a detective who solves crimes in alphabetical order (Sue Grafton’s novels starting with A is for Alibi through W is for Wasted).

Unknown-1         Unknown-2         Unknown-3         Unknown-5        Unknown-8

I was thinking about crime novels. Is there any walk of life that hasn’t already made the scene as a gumshoe? What can you come up with?

How about a Chemist by vocation, budding mystery writer by avocation, each crime committed with deadly compounds only he can determine.

Or an Executive Consultant who travels constantly for work and leisure finding intrigue wherever she goes. This one comes complete with mini travel logs offered every few chapters.

What about a Development Director/bird enthusiast, birdlike in his habits and intelligence, who spies more than just birds through his binoculars.

Comfort food for thought, Scramblers…

killer in the wind

DoodleBuddy_Dan_by_Judy-jpg

The Book:

A Killer in the Wind by Andrew Klavan

Why I stopped reading this book on page 71:

Reason 1. You didn’t have me at Hello.

I often skip over the acknowledgements when they’re at the beginning of the book.
I almost always read them when they’re at the back.
Especially when I like the book.
A little dessert to help you digest what you’ve just read.

This time they were right up front.
The last line caught my eye:

“And thanks beyond words to my wife Ellen Treacy, whose worth is far above rubies.”

At first, I thought this was a nice gesture of gratitude.
Then I started thinking about it.

Is Ellen satisfied that her worth has surpassed that of rubies?
Is she worried at all about where she fits in with the other gemstones?
What is she actually worth?
Would she have gotten an acknowledgement if she was worth less?
Does Andrew really love her as a person?
Surprisingly, these thoughts continued to trouble me as I continued on in my reading.

Reason 2. Get Real.

First some background on the plot:

Our purported hero, Dan Champion, is a former NYPD undercover cop.
He broke the big Emory case, but wound up killing Emory.
In cold blood. Skipped that whole Miranda business.
He doesn’t remember doing this.
He doesn’t remember a lot of things.
He’s kind of a mess.

A few years go by.
He gets it together – to some extent.
Now he’s a small town detective.
But will his troubled past catch up with him?

I don’t know – I didn’t get to that part.

Problematic:

As an NYPD undercover vice cop, this guy is so creeped out by the existence of a child prostitution ring that he can’t sleep. I don’t want to overgeneralize, but the New York City cops that I’ve run into don’t seem like the kinda guys that would lose too much sleep over underage hookers. But this guy? He has to self-medicate. HEAVILY. A couple
glasses of scotch and a sleeping pill? Nope. A little weed? Nope. Booze, weed, Xanax? Nope. He needs a highly dangerous, extremely powerful, illicit street drug to get a little sleep. Nothing else will work! Nothing. This drug leaves him nearly incapacitated during his waking hours.

C’mon?!?

I’m pretty good at suspending disbelief, but my limits were severely tested here.

Strike 3. He’s in love with his own hallucination?

“I thought of Samantha as I lay in the dark with Bethany soft beside me. Bethany’s cheek against my chest. Bethany’s hair against my cheek, Bethany’s skin against my hand. I thought of Samantha. More than three years had gone by since the Emory case. You would think that was time enough to get over a drug-induced hallucination. You would think so.
But I never really had.”

Yes – I would think so. Three years? Maybe three hours. Three or four days, tops.

This guy falls in love with his own subconscious image of the perfect woman and now he can’t get over her. He knows for certain that he can never commit to any other lover?

C’mon, man. Bethany is hot! Bethany is worthy of your love.
Maybe she’s not up there in ruby territory, but she’s got it goin’ on.

But our hero is gonna stick with dream-girl.
I hope they’re both very happy.
I’m moving on.
And not to page 72.

me1Cat on Cat’s…

I have wrestled with how to write about Cat’s Cradle for a long time now.  I wanted to deliver something wonderful and insightful to The Scramble because this book deserves that. So here’s a small spoiler alert for Cat’s Cradle: every few pages the reader finds an immaculately written paragraph or a memorable ha-ha or a bit of imagination that skirts up against reality so closely you have to think twice about whether it could possibly happen or has happened already and was simply re-phrased  by  Vonnegut so neatly that it now reads utterly new.  But when it comes down to it and I am faced with page after page of Vonnegut’s smart and lively voice all I can honestly say in this review is: read it. Read Cat’s Cradle.  It was written in 1963 and it remains a clear-headed portrait of us.  Like all things Vonnegut, the book is a bit funny, a bit sad, and wise from start to finish.  That’s my review.   Below are the options I considered for the review but this book doesn’t need any of the fancy contortions I was considering.

cradle            cats cradle

  1. I was going to suggest literary genetics. I was going to compare Tarrantino’s writing with Vonnegut’s.  I wanted to posit that Vonnegut was really Tarrantino’s father and you could prove it by conducting a side by side comparison of their writing.  But that didn’t work out so well when I found a Tarrantino interview where T. claimed he was inspired by Elmore Leonard and Raymond Carver.  No mention of Vonnegut.
  2. I was going to compare Cat’s Cradle’s sparse and clear writing to another book I had just finished, Dora: A Headcase, which was a horrid meaningless little book that aspired to be the 21st century version of Catcher in the Rye.  Overwritten.  Vonnegut doesn’t  overwrite.  I was going to compare paragraphs from the two books.  And I was going to conclude that simplicity and directness is what distinguishes great writing from mediocre writing.     Dora
  3. I was going to write about Bokononism which is the religion that Vonnegut develops in Cat’s Cradle.  But a person could get bogged down in covering Bokononism. Let me share a tidbit or two about Bokononism: the religious texts are written in the form of calyposos.; Ambrosia wrote “Nice, Nice, Very Nice” inspired by one of the calypsos in the book; and my friend Webb, who I haven’t spoken to in years and with whom I have never discussed Cat’s Cradle,  wrote on his Facebook page “I love my Karass” and I knew exactly what he meant.  Vonnegut keeps us tied together in his secret language.
  4. I was going to write about what may be my favorite passage of fiction of all time and compare it to my friend Foster’s favorite fiction passage.  And then I thought we could have a Scramble challenge and let people post their “favorite/best paragraph” from fiction.  That could be darn fun.   Anyway, I’ll end this review of Cat’s Cradle with a piece from the book, which I think may be one of the most wonderful passages of fiction of all time.

“The trouble with the world was,” she continued hesitatingly, “that people were still superstitious instead of scientific.  He said if everybody would study science more, there wouldn’t be all the trouble there was.”

“He said science was going to discover the basic secret of life someday,” the bartender put in.    He scratched his head and frowned.  “Didn’t I read in the paper the other day where they’d finally found out what that was?”

“I missed that,” I murmured.

“I saw that,” said Sandra.  “About two days ago.”

“That’s right,” said the bartender.

“What is the secret of life?” I asked.

“I forget,” said Sandra.

“Protein,” the bartender declared.  “The found out something about protein.”

“Yeah,’ said Sandra, ‘that’s it.”

Nice, Nice, Very Nice.

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J’s checking books off her reading list

J’s been checking books off her reading list:

Maybe because I’m supposed to be writing a research dissertation right now that I am in the mood to read fiction. Maybe it’s human nature to want to do the opposite of what you’re supposed to do, which for me is to read when I’m supposed to write. In my defense, I have a pretty good introduction completed. The methodology section is mostly wrapped up. Even my Appendix A is in good shape. It’s the literature review. The storyline. The creative part, I’m having trouble with.  In that sense, I’ve always been more of a consumer than a producer. So to make myself feel better and more productive, I thought I’d write a literature review for my Weekly Reader friends.  Nothing special, just books off my list available at the library when I was looking for amusing diversion.

images-1Shanghai Girls– Good historic fiction about two Chinese sisters who are young and pretty models living a life of high fashion, fabulous clubs, and famous friends, in the “Paris of Asia” in the late 1930s, until they find out their father married them off to pay his gambling debts. Life’s cruel to them from that point on as the story follows them from the Japanese bombing of their city, across the sea to their months in internment once reaching the U.S shore, to finally making a home in LA with the strangers that are their husbands. Glimpses into the Chinese culture were fascinating, even if the story itself had one disaster after another too many in my opinion.

images-2The Middlesteins– A family, each member with his or her own neuroses, centered around the mom, Edie’s, obesity.  And of course, Edie’s appetite represents more than a hunger for food. It’s a yearning for love and comfort in all forms. Each character in the story has an obsession, something that could be seen as ugly about them. At the same time all of them are loveable to someone, in some way. Edie, who’s husband leaves her because of her weight and her unwillingness to take care of her health, finds love and romance with a Chinese chef who needed someone to cook for after his wife died. He is delighted with Edie and her appetite and cooks her all the dumplings she will eat. Edie’s daughter, Robin, is an alcoholic. Her daughter-in-law, Rachelle, a control freak. Her son, Ben, a pot-head…and so on. To haul out an oldie, but a goody…the Middlesteins put the fun in family dys-fun-ction.  If you don’t see a tiny bit of yourself or your own family in the characters of this story, then lucky you.

imagesPotboiler– I admit it, I read this one because of the name. What a great name for a mystery. The beginning of this book was fantastic. Two college friends work for the college newspaper. One known as the scholarly one, the writer, and the other is the businessman, the advertising chief. Both of them are in love with the same girl. Writer waits for the relationship to unfold, but in the meantime, Businessman and Girl fall in love and get married. That’s the beginning of the end of the friendship. Writer goes on to publish one novel. It was a minor literary success, but it sold badly. He becomes an adjunct professor at a no-name college on the east coast. There is a waiting list for his class because of his modest fame, but the truth is he has not been able to produce more than a few strained pages of drivel here and there since his first novel. He’s struggling just to pay his bills. Businessman becomes a best-selling crime novelist making millions and lives in LA. Writer’s jealousy killed what was left of the friendship.

Twenty years later, in the present day, Businessman dies in a boating accident and his body is lost at sea. After a month, the search is called off and his widow (remember, Writer was in love with her) calls and asks him to come for the memorial service. While in LA, he sleeps with the widow, steals the last unpublished but mostly finished manuscript of the dead husband, goes back home, rewrites it a little, sells it with a three-book deal, makes millions, and goes on a cross-country book tour. He avoids the widow for as long as he can. He’s sure she’ll put two and two together, or probably already has. When he finally sees her, she doesn’t say a word about the theft except congratulations on his success. Then they shack up.

Now Writer has two problems:  First…he cannot figure out if she really doesn’t know he stole the book, knows and doesn’t care, or knows and is planning on using it against him somehow in the future. Second…he’s got publishers breathing down his neck for his next book and he’s only realizing now, that he’s not a very good writer. He cannot come up with the next story line. He’s desperate. He’s mining students’ old papers for ideas, ready to plagiarize again. If you’re the reader, you’re also thinking he may have a third problem… the husband’s body was never found !

It was at this point I said out loud “This is a GREAT book.” And that’s exactly when it went south too. For me anyway. Read on if you want. But don’t expect more of the same.

So…what have you been reading?

me1Memoirs…

                          … And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;
*

These past days have been filled with remembering and reconfiguring the path forward with and without people we love.   When it comes right down to it, I guess nearly every week is a bit like that.  Some spells are calmer while others administer a surpirse knock-out punch.  Other times we lure the fist forward; sometimes we consciously beckon havoc and then find ourselves wrestling with the consequences until we are shuffled off this mortal so and so .  Fancy that, we call mischief into our lives as  if life wasn’t already an old S&M monster of colossal proportions.

Thank goodness there are some of us who hazard a step off the head-long rush, pause, shake ourselves dog-like and decide:  man, it’s time to write about that go ‘round.  The task must be a rewarding one for the writer, to be able to exorcise long-evolved demons or in some cases unfurl all their riches and fine luck before us to peruse.

Demons or whangdoodles; dark or light.  I don’t care what theme colors a memoir.  From my perspective, the reader’s perspective, a good memoir makes for pure and simple (sometimes toothsome & always voyeuristic) reading.  Memoirs are the Reality TV of the printed word.

Liars'                                      cherry                                       LIT

I read  The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr more than 10 years ago. I re-read it recently and still marveled at her story / her words.  (A favorite line:  “Those are only rumors of suffering.  Real suffering has a face and a smell.  It lasts in the most intense form no matter what you drape over it.  And it knows your name.”   Yes, she is a poet.) .  So I followed that reread with Cherry, Karr’s memoir about her adolescence and then moved straight on to LitLit may be my favorite of Karr’s but that is because ghost David Foster Wallace hovers around the edges of the pages in that one.   And that’s enough for me.

Glass Castle                                                                        her

I read Glass Castle in a big gulp.   It begins with a fantastic contrast of dark and light.  In the opening pages the author is speeding through Manhattan in a hired car heading to some fancy pants get-together and out of the corner of her bright privileged eye she sees her mother dumpster diving.  Whoa Jeannette!  You had me at the dumpster and nothing was going to keep me from walking down memory lane with you and your family.  It is a slim book.  Pack it for a weekend stint at the relatives.

Last weekend I read Her by Christa Parravani.  The cover caught me and I bought my first hardback book in months.  I stretched out on the couch in the best little beach house in Oregon and I read Her cover to cover there in one afternoon all supine and cozy.   I wasn’t buying her premise at first – I mean come on,  just because your identical twin dies doesn’t mean you need to die too!  But by the end of the book, I began to understand.

Memoirs may never fall into the category of  Great Literature but they do build  –book by book– a wider sweep of understanding inside me.  And that is reason enough to read.

                                                                                                        * thanks to Mr. Yeats for the fine intro

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See Now Then by Jamaica Kincaid

Thoughts from J:

“…But what if a surprise awaited him just inside the door, for even a poor unfortunate man as he, for so Mr. Sweet thought of himself, unfortunate to be married to that bitch of a woman born of beast, the surprise being the head of  his wife just lying on the counter, her body never to be found, but her head severed from it, evidence that she could no longer block his progress in the world, for it was her presence in his life that kept him from being who he really was…”

Unknown            That sentence is from See Now Then by Jamaica Kincaid.  My Bookmarks magazine tells me See Now Then, Kincaid’s first novel in ten years, is one of the Most-Reviewed Books in February and March of this year.  So you don’t’ need a review here. There are plenty to choose from.

images     But if I was going to add my two cents, I might say that Allen Shawn, (Ms. Kincaid’s former husband), a composer (like Mr. Sweet in the story), who lived in New England (like Mr. Sweet in the story), with his English professor wife (like Mr. Sweet in the story), with whom he raised two children (like Mr. Sweet in the story), who left her for another woman (like Mr. Sweet in the story), might be happy and thankful that his former wife’s weapon of choice is only words.

She seems kind of upset.

P. S. To be fair…Kincaid says See Now Then is not autobiographical.

P.P.S. Just sayin…

me1recently I’ve been thinking about: What we are saying when we recommend a book

It’s more, isn’t it, than just: hey I liked this one a lot, take a gander.  Yet again, it’s not much more than that.  When we recommend a book we are pulling back the curtain ever so slightly and saying:  hey, take a look at the book, take a look at me. It’s easier sometime than sitting down and discussing the significant milestones in your life with someone over a cuppa. The psychoanalysts might say we subconsciously recommend some books over others to friends and family without even knowing why. They could be right on that one.

The first book my niece has ever recommended to me was: Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse.out of the dust

Out of the Dust is a YA book written entirely in a series of free verse poems.   It is a book my niece says she read over and over as a very young girl.  My niece said: “ I don’t even know if I understood much of it at the time.”  Yet she continued to reread it.

As I read Out of the Dust I thought how strange that a 10 year old would love such a book.  It is relentlessly sad, overwhelmingly tragic. Out of the Dust is about a family of farmers living in Oklahoma during the depths of the Depression and height of the Dust Bowl storms.  The main character is a young girl named Billie Jo.  She introduces herself in the first chapter of the book by saying: “ As summer wheat came ripe, so did I, born at home, on the kitchen floor”.

In the telling of her family’s dust-choked life from 1933-1935 the only hint of metaphorical clarity and sunlight is the joy Billie Jo feels when she plays the piano.  But even then, the author takes that away from her in a tragic accident too sad to write about here.    Here’s one chapter of the book:

Broken Promise

It rained

a little everywhere

but here

March 1935

In the end, Out of the Dust is a story of how only the very strong and the lucky in our most vulnerable class -the very poor- survive in this world; an overpowering and unforgiving world in which they have little control.

out of the dust 2

 

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In Cold Blood Truman Capote

J writes:     Rule Rules

Once in a while I go on a crime spree. I binge on true crime novels.

The best of the best is In Cold Blood.images

It reads like a novel. In fact, when I first read it, I didn’t realize it was nonfiction. Truman Capote spent over 6 years on that book. Some critics complained that he took a little too much “artistic license” with the story. The literary quality of the book, though, is what makes it so good and what made In Cold Blood the first of the genre we now know as True Crime.

If Truman Capote is the father of True Crime, Ann rule is easily its mother. She is best known for The Stranger Beside Me the story of the Ted Bundy serial murders. Incredibly, Rule had actually worked with Bundy on a crisis hotline in Washington in the 1970s, years before his arrest and probably during the time he was killing young college girls across the country.  That chilling story became wildly popular and was made into a mini-series.

Ann Rule went on to write many more true crime stories, my favorite is Bitter Harvest. It takes place in Kansas City and features a brilliant, but absolutely batshit doctor intent on poisoning her ex-husband and who eventually murders two of her three children by setting her house on fire.

Rule’s titles tempt you like a pulp fiction paperback: If You Really Loved Me; Heart Full of Lies; Every Breath You Take; Green River, Running Red…etc. And pictures are included. This is one of the bonuses of true crime. Actual photographs are usually found right there in the middle of the book. Readers get a glimpse of all the story’s players before, during, and after the horrible fate they meet. We know what’s going to happen as we gaze upon smiling newlyweds or a girl on vacation with friends. Rule writes about each of the victims and their families with depth and charity — both the innocent victims and the obvious dipshits alike.

Because we already know the outcome of these stories, there are no spoiler alerts in true crime. We read for the gory details. Readers read true crime not to be told a new story, but to make sense of grizzly stories that have already played out. The task of the true crime writer is to tell how the what happened. At this task, Rule rules.

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White Captives

me1notes:

Long before there was dystopian YA this and that; long before YA tackled subjects like teen pregnancy, broken homes, drug abuse; way before all that there was Evelyn Sibley Lampman and she wrote kick-ass  books for kids, circa 1960.

evelyn

I’m showing her picture here which isn’t fair I suppose because her face will take you away.   Even if you look at the picture for a second you find yourself wanting to hear what she has to say. You will want to touch her re-cut man suit very lightly on the jacket sleeve to draw her attention; you will want to catch her eye out of the corner of your eye in hopes of sharing a half smile; you will want to put aside all the books you have heaped next to your bed and go searching high and low for her books in hope there is the wee-est chance she hovers still in the ether and your search will please her.

I want to tell you some things about Evelyn before I tell you about her book:

Evelyn was a child of Oregon. Her great-great grandparents were Oregon pioneers and she grew up hearing their stories as told to her by father who was a lawyer in Dallas, Oregon. She was a country girl. In 1929 she graduated from Oregon State University, moved to Portland and became a copywriter for radio. She won awards for her work. (Country girl moves into the city professional life with apparent ease).

In 1934, Evelyn married into a writing family.  Her husband was the Oregonian’s Fish & Wildlife editor.  Her father in-law was named Ben Hur Lampman and he ran the Oregonian’s editorial page.  Ben Hur was also Oregon’s first Poet Laureate (his name//his destiny).  So it sounds like this could have been a fine family for this smart talented woman to have married into. But the truth is, the sad part is (for me) after Evelyn got married she quit her job and was forbidden by her husband to even drive a car.

What would have happened if he had lived?  Who knows. But here are the facts: at 35 Evelyn was a widow and had 2 kids to raise.  So she went back to radio work and she had her husband’s suits sized to fit her. Someone on the interwebs said she may have been the first woman to wear trousers to work in Portland.  (That doesn’t sound right to me, but no doubt she was breaking stereotypes and making her own rules all over the place at this point).

Her first novel, Crazy Creek, was published in 1947 (or ’48, the info is varied) and is a YA story about pioneer life in Oregon. By the time her 2nd book was published – Treasure Mountain–  Evelyn was able to mothball those re-cut guy suits and focus on writing.

They say her books (40 or 50 of them depending on the source) are “meticulously-researched historical and science fiction novels for young adults”. Evelyn loved the Pacific Northwest, Pacific Northwest history and was particularly intrigued by Native Americans.  When she wrote about Native Americans she was sympathetic in her portrayal of their characters which was amazing for the time.

She was an author beloved by the teachers in my grade school.  In those first years of school Evelyn’s books were a frequent choice to be read aloud during ‘rest’ period. We couldn’t get enough of those stories, stories about courageous boys and girls who came across on The Trail (no need to preface that with Oregon). Her books encouraged us to be brave and curious like her characters.  She teased our imaginations and made us want to  be the Indians rather than the Cowboys. We began to think of the Other more sympathetically.  We created intricate make-believe Oregon Trail games.  We had clear visions of how we would have made it over the final hairy patch on The Trail, the Blue Mountains.  We envisioned ourselves running down the descent perhaps barefooted, certainly dirty and  hungry and maybe even orphaned.  (Please God, let us be orphaned!)

I found White Captives in the Big Blue Lincoln City book store in February.  I held it in my hands and went all dizzy with nostalgia and glee.  I hadn’t thought of Evelyn or her stories for many years.

white captives

I’m not going to tell you much about the book.  Swing by the Oregon house sometime.  You can read it for yourself.  It is a real life tale about Indians kidnapping two young girls off The Trail after they  murdered the girls’ parents and brothers.  Besides murder and kidnapping it’s a story about slavery, illness, hunger, anger, grinding work and being very alone in an alien culture.

There isn’t a lot of subtle beauty waiting to be exposed in this story.  Boys aren’t sneaking sly glances at the main characters.  No one rises above the horrific circumstances to become a  hero.  This is not the YA dystopic literature of the 21st century.  This is YA dystopia circa Lampman.  Read it and be amazed at the toughness and honesty and the pure adventure of it all.

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Can you judge a book by its cover

J asks: Can you judge a book by its cover?

Last summer I was just coming off the final week of comprehensive exams, the last of three where I read nothing but research and wrote opinions and proposals based on the literature in my field.  At the end, I was craving escape. But when your go-to relaxing activity is reading, and you’ve just spent a week doing nothing but that in a very un-leisurely way, how do you select the perfect story? One that’s not too demanding, doesn’t carry a heavy cognitive load, does not require interpretation of complex literary themes? …etc.

In the movie version of this library scene…I am scanning the “Recent and Readable” shelf for just such a novel.  Zoom in on the book Poor Little Bitch Girl.  The cover catches my eye.  I mean, look at it. Then the title… “Sound’s pretty shallow,” I thought, “Could be just the thing.” And the author: Jackie Collins has written 29 best-sellers. 90,000 + fans can’t be all wrong. So I checked it out, using the self-scanner (lest a scholarly librarian judge me).

images-1

And…? It was perfect. Sex, drugs, rock and roll, and politics all make the scene with beautiful young characters jet-setting from coast to coast. I spent a Saturday and Sunday afternoon under the umbrella on my patio with it. A completely satisfying read.

But before I draw a conclusion based on this one experience—(if my comprehensive exams taught me anything, it’s to weigh the evidence. And one data point is not conclusive evidence)—a few months later my friend lent me Severance Package.  Check out the cover…form an opinion of what the book might be about…(if you think comic book style office action thriller, complete with illustrations each chapter, you’re right)…read…and enjoy.

Thimages-3

So, can you judge a book by its cover? Yeah. Sometimes you absolutely get what you see…in books anyway.

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The Age of Miracles

The Age Of Miracles     DoodleBuddy_Dan_by_Judy-jpg  The Dr. has some questions:

I hope suburban Cali is ready for a dystopian future. Cause it’s coming on fast (or should I say slow) in The Age of Miracles. Our eleven-year-old protagonist and narrator, Julia, just woke up to discover that the days are getting longer. And not in a good way.  The rotation of the Earth has dramatically begun to slow down. One apocalypse, coming right up.

Discussion Questions:

1. Julia’s father Joel is a doctor specializing in high-risk births. When one of his patients dies on his late-night shift, Joel lies to Julia about the woman’s death. Is it okay to lie to someone to protect them from a sad truth? Let’s say, for example, that this person is on vacation and she’s having a really great day? It’s okay under those circumstances, right?

2. Julia prizes the gold-nugget necklace that her Grandfather once gave her. The necklace is lost when she is brutalized by her schoolmate Daryl as he attempts to expose her lack of a training bra. Why does she never recover the necklace? Even towards the end of the book. Not even on the very last page. What do you think happened to the necklace and where is it now?

3. Seth’s mother is dying of cancer. Julia tries to help Seth save a dying sparrow by giving it water. Daryl intervenes and throws the bird over the side of the canyon to its death. Seth returns the favor by throwing Daryl’s backpack over the side of the canyon. What items do you think Daryl’s backpack contained? What’s the deal with Daryl?

4. Seth’s mother has died. As conditions on the planet worsen, Julia tries to help Seth comfort one of the many dying whales that have beached themselves alongside the canyon. They carefully choose what they believe to be the most needy whale. After pouring their meager supply of saltwater over the creature’s brow, they are informed by the man with the white pail that the whale is already dead. Why do you think the pail was white? If the pail had been a different color, how would it have changed the story?

5. Later, Julia is invited to Seth’s house to watch the night sky as the Orion rocket is scheduled to return from space. Seth offers Julia a Coke and some pretzels. Given Seth’s apparent obsession with providing comfort to the doomed and dying, should Julia be a little worried? If you were Julia, would you hang out with Seth?

6. When asked, should an author be expected to answer questions regarding an unresolved issue contained in one of her books? If you were an author and you were contacted by a reader inquiring about a certain missing necklace, how would you respond?

7. Let’s say you, as the hypothetical author, do provide a response, but it’s one of those wishy-washy “up to the interpretation of the reader” kind of answers. Do you think the reader is justified in pursuing a more-definitive clarification?

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BETA Rachel Cohn

Unknown   J says:

Read this one. It’s a really good story about a teenaged android who first realizes she can taste and it escalates to desire not just for food but for freedom and for a soul. She “emerges” on a Utopian island that was created after the “water wars.” The island is surrounded by chemically engineered water and air to make all the rich humans who visit there feel healthy and blissed out. The island is run on clone labor. The clones are soul-less versions of recently deceased humans.

Our teen droid is a ‘beta’ version, meaning her kind is not yet perfected and prone to defects. At least that’s what the chips in her head are programmed to tell her.
There’s lots of cool stuff in this book like the transportation, the explanation of the state of the world after the polar ice caps melted, the way people communicate (basically like texting but on their actual wrists. It’s called “relaying”). Their video games are a lot like the holodecks in Star Trek Next Gen and they play a fun game called Z-Grav.
The plot moves along and you’re not always as smart as you think, once you feel you’ve got it all figured out.  But it’s YA, so sometimes you are that smart.
It seems ripe for a movie. I hope it catches on so someone will make it. I had a fun time trying to cast it.That’s my latest rec. Enjoy!
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A Spot of Bother a Novel of Mark Haddon

Spot of Bother

DoodleBuddy_Dan_by_Judy-jpg sez:

George has noticed a small rash on his hip. If he chooses to ignore it everything will be fine. He will lend support to his daughter as she prepares for her second wedding. He will give a charming speech at the reception. His emotionally distant son Jamie will happily attend. Jamie might even bring his lover Tony to the wedding. Tony will be welcomed with open arms.

If George ignores that spot of bother, he may even remain blissfully unaware of his wife’s ongoing affair with one of his former business colleagues. He does NOT ignore the rash. To say the least. He becomes more than a little obsessed with doing something about it. Things begin to go badly. Then they get worse. For everyone. A comedy of manners ensues. Irony abounds.

For me, this book is about losing perspective. The characters all run into trouble when they choose to focus on the wrong aspects of their lives. The milestones they are encountering in their lives play into this. When they’re enmeshed in their everyday lives things seem to go well. But when they step back and start questioning things, look out.

I didn’t completely buy George’s rapid spiral into near insanity. But the rest of it rang true for me. There are many truly hilarious scenes that unfold throughout the book. Very funny. And a few quite touching moments as well.

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