Thursday, April 29, 2010

The God of Small Things

Do you remember when you were 7 years old and felt the tall blade of grass sift between your 2nd and 3rd toes on your right foot as you strolled through a park, thinking of the droplets of cookie dough ice cream running through your fingers on that one sweltering summer day in mid-July? Well, me neither. But Arundhati Roy might.

Roy pieces together a beautiful yet sad story of two twins growing up in revolution-era India from all the tiny details and mini-stories remembered by the twins as they reunite 20 or so years after they last saw one another. But instead of the twins retelling their stories, it is more Roy taking a microscope to their lives and inspecting what little events lead up to where they are now. And in the process we get to learn a little bit about India, too. If only one of the characters could have been a contestant on Who Wants to be a Millionaire?

I really liked this book. If not for the story or Roy's unique writing style, than at least for the reminder that all the tiny, seemingly insignificant details of life maybe shouldn't be overlooked as often as they are. Everything builds on something. Right now it is 1:23 am and I am sitting on a couch writing about a book. I don't know why this is important. But for some reason, I can't shake the feeling that it is.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Umbrella Man and Other Stories by Roald Dahl

Or "I'd Say 'Roald Dahl For Adults,' But Even His Kids' Books Aren't Really All That Kid Friendly...."

No one captures the vague grotesqueness of daily life like Roald Dahl. Whether it's the more true-to-life (like an old, drunk umbrella thief or a cold, domineering husband), or a bit more exaggerated (like a beekeeper father who tends to his newborn daughter as if she were one of his bees, or a new-fangled machine that writes novels the way a calculator solves mathematical equations), our old buddy Roald is just as we remember him from our younger days. Even his strangest stories play out with a sort of drawing room politeness that makes it all seem so real. And he's so good at that! Take Matilda for example: In the context of that world, does it even seem a little bit strange or fantastical that she can move things with her mind? Matilda herself does not have much to do with these particular stories, but it's the same sort of thing. Roald Dahl creates such a mundane sort of magic, that it's only in retrospect that the reader truly grasps the wide scope of the fantasy.

This delightful little short story collection is a bit like eating at a tapas restaurant. There's a little bit of everything, from the achingly beautiful to the dark and scary to the whimsical, and all of it is quite tasty. Some dishes are, of course, better than others, but all are at least worth a taste - and only a couple of them are complete duds. And then, like tapas, you leave the table a little bit hungry and, as delicious as it all was, not entirely satisfied.

The Boy Who Would Be A Helicopter by Vivian Gussin Paley

Or "Sorry I'm Late In Posting This Review, But My Helicopter Blades Were Broken And I Had To Tend To Them..."

Vivian Paley is a recipient of the MacArthur Genius Grant. She's a kindergarten teacher. A kindergarten teacher who won the MacArthur Genius Grant. I mean, that's some really cool shit. I also should note that this book is of particular interest to me because I am certain that someday - not soon, but someday - I will be will probably end up being a preschool or kindergarten teacher. It just seems sort of inevitable. So I love things like this.

Paley tells the story of one of her students, Jason, to illustrate the importance of fantasy and storytelling in young children's development - particularly as they are learning to socialize with one another. Jason is slow to adjust. He does not associate with other children, interrupts their play, and only pays attention to his toy helicopter. Through Paley's structured storytime in class, Jason slowly comes out of his shell and makes friends with the other children. It is lovely.

Also, the book is largely written from transcripts of the classroom, which means dialogue from four year olds. It is precious and adorable. And informative, of course, but who are we kidding? Tiny children are adorable.

It's definitely a book worth reading if you are interested in the importance of fantasy and story in our development, or if you are interested in education. I wish that the book gave a little more insight into the day-to-day structure of Paley's classroom, just because she sounds like an amazing educator and I would love to steal her strategies. But that isn't the point of this book, so it doesn't quite seem fair for me to criticize that particular aspect. Nonetheless, it's more an extended essay or musing on a particular topic without a lot of help in how to adopt these practices for yourself. Perhaps I shall investigate some more of her writings... She's a very cool woman.

To get a feel for this book without all the hassle of, you know, reading, check out this episode of This American Life. Vivian Paley reads excerpts from The Boy Who Would Be A Helicopter in a streamlined, essentialization of the story. The whole episode is really good, actually, so if you have an hour you should definitely check it out.

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

Or "Bliss and Perfection."

I didn't think it could get any better than The Hunger Games. But boy did Suzanne Collins ever prove me wrong! Catching Fire picks up right where The Hunger Games leaves off: Katniss dealing with the aftermath of being a Hunger Games champion, murmurs of rebellion in the other districts, evil plots by the President - everything you could ask for in a young-adult-dystopic-future-fiction novel. Plus since we already know and love all the characters, the adventure is ratcheted up a notch right from the get-go.

Although similar in tone and structure to The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins is still full of surprises. It really is an edge-of-your-seat kind of romp, but not at the expense of heart and substance. You know, like the Twilight series (which, admittedly, I've never read so I can't say for myself) where everyone says "Oh, they're terrible and they're terribly written, but they're just so addictive." These books are addictive like nothing else, but they're also good. I was constantly guessing as to what will happen next, or who to trust, and I was genuinely emotionally invested in the characters and the story.

I laughed. I cried. I yelled at the book. I gasped aloud in panic. I missed my el stop. Twice. I cannot overstate my love for this series. I just can't. The third one comes out in August and I'm just not sure how I'm gonna make it until then.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

In which...

We launch into new territory, not just for kids. Book 4 is the turning point in the series.

I got suckered into rereading HP/Goblet of Fire when my friend Emily posted a facebook status saying she'd read the first chapter and thought it the best opening of a Harry Potter book yet.

And it is!

It's called "The Riddle House," and it is scary and serious and wonderfully absent of the recap exposition - of the "...for Harry Potter was no ordinary boy..." variety - the reader endures at the beginnings of the earlier Potter books. (The recaps do come, in the next chapter, but starting with this book they get more and more subtle until they disappear entirely in Book 7, at which point it's on.)

The book is structured differently, with the three tasks of the Triwizard Tournament forming the skeleton and taking focus from the standard school year frame. So no Quidditch, no final exams (at least for Harry), no House Cup. In the context of the entire series, this change up makes sense; for the two years following Year 4 at Hogwarts, the calendar goes back to normal, but nothing is really the same as before. Again, Book 7 breaks the form completely by not taking place at Hogwarts at all (until it does, of course).

Has anyone not read these books? I don't know how to write about them.

The standard run down:

In HP/Goblet of Fire, Harry finds himself the unprecedented fourth champion in the famous Triwizard Tournament. No one knows how Harry's name was selected by the Goblet of Fire - his young age should, by all things decent and magical, have rendered this impossible. He is unqualified for the highly advanced and dangerous tasks ahead of him, but is now bound by magical contract to compete. So who put Harry's name in the goblet...and why?

Maybe that's a little too Dan Brown. But you get the idea. The tournament tasks happen three times over the course of Harry's fourth year, and he gets through by the skin of his teeth and with some help from some friends...or are they?

Okay, sorry again. No more ellipses or italics.

  • The Quidditch World Cup
  • Introduction of The Unforgivable Curses
  • Teenage angst/blatant advancement of the Ron + Hermione plotline
  • Professor McGonagall (you will laugh)
  • Viktor Krum
  • Use of an Unforgivable Curse on a known character. Out of the blue. Really. Shocking.
  • Priori Incantatem (you will cry)
  • "The Parting of Ways" and "The Beginning": final two chapters, introduction of shades of Bush/Blair-era questions and conflicts (who cares what Rowling says - I read what I read) that continue to crop up till the end of the series.
The thing I remember most from this book:

Now anything can happen, and will. The chapters in the graveyard near the end of the book are way way beyond anything we've read before. The offhanded, perfunctory killing of Blankitty Blank (again: who has not read these?!) is so shocking that the series changes from that moment on. The events that follow - the revelation of the Death Eaters, the rebirth of Voldemort, the escape of Harry, the reaction of Hogwarts and the Ministry - seem like real, traumatic, momentous life.

South of the Border, West of the Sun

I feel compelled to explain my lapse in posts over the past few months. I was in a show, then I started a new job, and I was catching up on New Yorkers. All of this resulted in a) less active reading of books, and b) much less active posting.

Then, reading in my most recent New Yorker an article on Kindle vs iPad and the current state of the publishing business (really, I can't get enough of this topic - it fascinates me), I read a quote from Steve Jobs that made me gasp and yell out loud and consequently get made fun of by my boyfriend: "Forty per cent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year." WHAT?! Okay, well this explains pretty much everything.

Anyway, it brought the fire back into my reading life.

And so I'm playing catch up with posts, and still reading Harry Potter as I adjust to waiting tables (Harry Potter is great for, among other things, getting through stressful/preoccupying times).

So, hopefully you'll forgive me. And stop pretending you don't want to read about the latter half of the Harry Potter series.

Now for the Murakami. I tend to like Murakami's short fiction better than his novels. That rule held up with South of the Border, West of the Sun. This novel held my heart more than The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle did - I cared more about the fate of the protagonist. It also had some of the classic Murakami weirdness and sadness and beautiful prose. As always, I wishes I could read his work in the original Japanese...if I'd known about Murakami in high school, I totally would have continued my Japanese study into college. As it is, though, the only knowledge I brought from my old studies was appreciating a reference to the use of katakana vs Kanji.

This is a story about bends in the road, second thoughts, haunting regrets, quiet appreciation. Like many of Murakami's stories, this one includes lots of small, private moments where earth shattering realizations and turmoils take place within as the action comes in fits and starts. You know it's always possible that something crazy will happen (enter giant frog man), but the whole thing is grounded in very recognizable human experience.

Not my favorite Murakami, but I enjoyed it. Great title, too.

Saturday, April 24, 2010


I picked this book up because Briggs borrowed it from Brad, and after they'd both moved out the book was left on the kitchen counter. I was expecting a Perf Studs type of vibe, and that's what I got. I haven't read much in the way of detective literature, and I'm not sure it's for me. But I'm not writing it off quite yet. Chandler is the master in this genre, and this is his last book about his most famous character: private eye Philip Marlowe.

What I loved: the language is specific, both in dialogue and description. Chandler hits the nail on the head with character with shockingly efficient descriptors, like, "She was an outdoorsy type with shiny make-up and a horse tail of medium blond hair sticking out at the back of her noodle." Also, hilarious but ultimately defining declarations such as, "When a woman is a really good driver she is just about perfect." Marlowe as a character is revealed through observations like these. He's rather priceless.

What I didn't love: the book as a whole. I just never got very invested in the story. I did, however, find myself wanting to adapt the book for the stage, keeping the narrative voice.

I will probably read another Chandler book to see whether my overall lukewarm reaction is to Playback specifically or the genre in general.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Corrections by Jonathon Franzen

Disclaimer: I know everyone has loved this book so far. I really disliked it (a bit with a burning passion-much like my friend Nora's for The Road) so know that I mean no offense to the fans out there! I respect all of your book opinions, mine is just very different this time.

At first I was enjoying this novel. Sure I hated the characters, but in an interesting way. I was excited to see their character arcs and their cathartic transformations. I loved the satirical way Frranzen wrote and enjoyed his biting commentary on society. I waited anxiously for the story to move forward and the characters to start evolving. I waited and I waited and i waited.... I think it was around 400 pages when I knew it was over. This was not the novel for me.

First of all, boy did I hate the people in this book. I'm all for showing characters in a realistic light and accurately portraying the faults that they (like many of us) carry. But not every character has to be the absolute scum of the earth. Every time there was a choice between doing good and doing something selfish and disgusting, guess what every single person seemed to choose? Sure, sometimes, in real life, we choose the latter option and by all means show us that, but unless you are writing "Satan: Prince of Darkness, A biography", noone ALWAYS goes down the worst path.

And the SATIRE dear god...Im concerned that when writing this novel Franzen sat down with a list of every possible thing in society that he could satire/draw attention to its wrongness and then went "Well, there's my outline right there!" I felt that the sheer volume of things he was trying to point out to me made me stop caring about any of them. At first it was like, yes we ARE over medicated, yes it IS ridiculous the way we look at sexuality, or yes the patriarchal family structure is stifling, and yes I guess politics in scandanavia are messed up? and so on and so on, I couldn't keep up.

The characters were pretty much the same from the start of the story to the end, and may I just comment that the end was so despicable to me that it made me sort of nauseous. What I find interesting about books with "bad" people in them is that, if they are done right, I can relate to them (if only in a small way) and it makes me question my own choices and what selfishness and potential evil lives within myself, but with this novel the characters became so absurd that I stopped relating completely. One scene in particular jumps out where Denise and Chip are emailing eachother. Denise asks Chip to come home for Christmas and Chip replys that he shot a man in the stomach twice and watched him die. Denise's response is something like (im clearly summarizing based on my own bias here) Oh you knucklehead, stop making excuses! Just totally unrealistic human responses by everyone in this novel.

Ok, I am done ranting. This book got amazing reviews from most important literary people under the sun and everyone on this blog so I welcome your comments/discussion/fierce angry arguments!

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

I'd like to begin this post by pasting a quote from an review:

"I disliked this book so much that after I finished it, I threw it in the trash."-Nora Westcott

Oh Nora, such hilariously strong feelings! As I begin this review I would like to say that I absolutely disagree with Nora, I inhaled the road and couldnt put it down for 2 days. I thought it was wonderful though I understand why poor Nora was so unhappy afterwards (also i wish her quote ended with "...and then i set it on fire and buried the ashes"-if you are going to commit to your anger and distaste, COMMIT.)

The Road is set after an apocolyptic event. The sun has virtually disappeared and with it all plant and animal life have become extinct. The few remaining human survivors wander the lawless land foraging for canned food and (in some cases) resort to cannibalism. The story follows a man and his young son (who are never named) as they walk and try to make it south in hopes of a warmer climate.

The novel is extremely bleak (The man carries a gun with 2 bullets and hopes he will have enough courage to kill his son and then himself if they are found by one of the cannibalistic gangs, that rape, and eat their victims), but I found there to also be great hope. While the characters have very little hope for anything but a painless death, as the reader, I found the love that the father had for his son very hopeful. Everyone is starving and desperate in this world and it makes many animals. Seeing the father's devotion burning so brightly gives a small flicker of hope for humanity in this novel.

It is not an easy book to read, the images are graphic and the father must make horrible choices to keep his child alive, but I found myself not feeling absolute despair when it was over. It gave me the feeling that in every horror there is goodness and love. I have to hope that those will prevail in the end. Definitely 2 thumbs up for this beautiful read!

Friday, April 16, 2010

Lots of chuckles.

Are You There, Vodka? It's Me, Chelsea by Chelsea Handler

She's a funny girl, that Chelsea. (That would be Chelsea Not PC Handler). Some lighter fare to tickle your funny bone which, while listening to this, I found myself pounding the pavement in my running shoes and laughing out loud for all the traffic to notice! Not that I need to rush out to read/listen to her other books immediately but I'll keep her in mind when I need a break from some of the heavier reading on my nightstand. ("White Noise"....Andrew, I'm trying!) Entertaining and fun!

The Spellmans Strike Again by Lisa Lutz

Not going to say much about this one (I reviewed one of this series earlier in the year) but again was thrilled to be pulled into the Spellman family saga. Like the other books in this series I had a very hard time putting this novel down to do real people stuff (ie go to work, shower, socialize with non-fictional humans). It's just fluff fun!

Chelsea Chelsea Bang Bang by Chelsea Handler

I love Chelsea Handler and loved both of her previous "autobiographies". I use the term autobiography loosely because Chelsea Handler self-admittedly exaggerates and lies whenever she can get away with it. Her musings on her own choices, her unapologetic sex, drugs, and drinking, and her often almost mean-spirited making fun of her family and friends will have you laughing out loud.

While I did really enjoy her third book, of the three i would say it is my least favorite. While the other books focus more on her childhood and poor, crazy 20's, this book is more about her life post fame and wealth. It's still funny, but significantly less relateable (she tells stories of being able to afford to use helicopters instead of taxis and trying to buy a dolphin as a house pet).

All in all I think Chelsea Handler is an extremely funny writer (I am incredibly jealous of her skill to make the most mundane things gut-bustingly hilarious) and I very much enjoyed this new read!

The Girl With Glass Feet by Ali Shaw

And no this is not a sequel to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series!

The Girl with Glass Feet is a lovely modern fairytale about 2 people in their twenties, Ida and Midas, that meet and begin to fall in love. Their biggest obstacle? Ida Sinclaire is slowly turning into glass.

The plot of Ali Shaw's heartbreaking novel is simple. It follows Midas and Ida's journey to find Ida a cure. Ida has come to the isolated island where Midas lives because she vacationed there a few years before. She remembers an eccentric older man who mentioned glass bodies hidden in the bog. Now, as her body begins to fail her, she wants to find answers from this hermit about her impossible disease. As she searches for him, she meets Midas, an extremely lonely and angry young man. The two are drawn to eachother, and Midas joins Ida on her quest for answers. Along the way we learn more of the Island's secrets and meet flawed characters connected both to Ida and Midas' past and to Ida's mysterious and incredibly painful affliction.

Ali Shaw weaves his tale of loneliness, redemption, and human connection with patience and beauty. Though magic is weaved into the island and its people, this is not a story about magic. It is a story about human beings, human beings who are selfish, lonely, obsessive, and ultimately trying their best. In Shaw's world, magic is just another form of isolation. Those touched by it live lives of pain and loneliness. It is not Ida's magical disease that causes rifts between Midas and Ida but their normal relatable hangups and fears of opening up.

This was a simple and moving novel that left me satisfied!

Monday, April 12, 2010

Free-Range Chickens

The only e-mails I could receive that would justify the frequency with which I check my email.

Hey Simon,
It's Danielle, the quiet girl you said "hi" to once at Academic Camp the summer after junior year of high school. I'd explain how I tracked you down and got your e-mail address, but there just isn't enough time: in three minutes, I'm leaving on a jet plane for the Bahamas. (I know - I should have e-mailed earlier!) Anyway, I've been secretly in love with you for the past six years and I want you to come live with me in paradise. If you write back in the next three minutes, I can get the pilot to wait for you. If you don't respond by then, I'll have no choice but to assume that our feelings are not reciprocal.

Dear Mr. Rich,
This is the IRS. We have a feeling that you may have accidentally exaggerated some of your business expenses this year, but we don't want to trouble you with something as unpleasant as a tax audit. Can you do us a favor and just send over a quick e-mail confirming that you told the truth on all of your forms? You don't have to explain your specific expenses - you can just put "It's all true" in the subject heading, or something to that effect. If you write us back before the tax deadline, which is in three minutes, then we'll consider this matter closed. Otherwise, we'll have no choice but to take your silence as an admission of guilt and send you to prison.

Hey Simon,
How's it going? It's Craig from high school. I just wanted to say hey and see what you were up to. I just started working for a company called Skylar Labs and it's been really exciting. In fact, I'm actually on my way to a press conference right now. In three minutes we're unveiling a really cool new product to the public. It's hard to explain, but basically it stops the spread of cancer cells while simultaneously giving patients the ability to fly. I wonder if the announcement will have any effect on our company's stock prices? Anyway, hope everything's cool with you and I'll talk to you later.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Or "This Book Gave Me Some Ideas About How We Should Structure Next Year's Fifty Books Club..."

Reading The Hunger Games, I was blissfully back to my ten-year-old self, my head under the covers, flashlight in hand, reading late into the night long after I was supposed to go to bed. It was engaging to the point of being addictive, and stirred up a genuine, passionate love of reading that I haven't felt in ages. My eyes couldn't read fast enough to satisfy my curiosity for what came next. You know that feeling? Being in third or fourth grade and being so engrossed in a story that you couldn't stop thinking about it, and couldn't wait until the next moment when you could grab hold of your book again? It happens so rarely to me these days. The Hunger Games was such a wonderful reminder.

The story takes place in Panem, a post-apocalyptic America, where our heroine sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen is left to fend for her family after her father is killed in a coal mining accident. This task is none to easy with the overwhelming restrictions the Capitol has put on District 12; even food is strictly regulated, and most of the residents are starving to death. We learn that, years ago, there was rebellion against the Capitol, in which the then-thirteen Districts fought back against their oppressive government. As you might have guessed, the Capitol won this rebellion, destroyed District 13 as a symbol of its power, and devised a horrible punishment to remind its subjects never to rebel again. Every year, two children from each district are chosen to compete in the Hunger Games, a televised Battle Royale in which the twenty four teens fight are forced to each other to the death. When Katniss's younger sister Prim is selected for the Games, Katniss volunteers to go in her place. And I'm going to leave it at that, because this book is genuinely such fun to read I would hate to spoil it.

Here's the thing. I didn't just love The Hunger Games. I also appreciated it. Collins does not shy away from the difficult subjects, even though this book is intended for younger readers. The language is sophisticated, the plot is emotionally challenging and thought-provoking, the characters are people you genuinely care about from start to finish. Collins examines the effects of war and violence on young people coming of age, our culture's sick obsession with watching others destroy themselves, the dangers of oppression - heavy themes handled with grace and a respect for the maturity and thoughtfulness of its young readers.

Oh, and it's really funny, too. I realize nothing about the plot or characters I've described seems like this would even remotely be the case, but it's true. It is full of warmth, tenderness and humor.

All I can say is THANK THE HEAVENS this is the first book in a trilogy, because I am certainly not ready to be done with the world of The Hunger Games.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Cloud At Last

This is a beautiful book. Incredibly structured. Not one but six impeccably detailed universes that nestle inside one another, like matryoshka dolls, connecting and intertwining, all written in a completely different vernacular and genre. You start in one world, it's interrupted, you're transported to the next, which loosely ties into the first, and then it happens again, and again, until you find yourself floating across time like a soul with unfinished business, a soul looking for its true purpose.

One character, who's working on his magnum opus of a music composition, aptly titled Cloud Atlas Sextet, has this to say: "Spent the fortnight gone in the music room, reworking my year's fragments into a 'sextet for overlapping soloists': piano, clarinet, cello, flute, oboe, and violin, each in its own language of key, scale, and color. In the first set, each solo is interrupted by its successor: in the second, each interruption is recontinued, in order. Revolutionary or gimmicky? Shan't know until it's finished, and by then it'll be too late."

This is what he creates. To say more about the plot(s) would be to ruin the fun of blind exploration. But if you're a David Mitchell fan, or a lover of books with fantastic covers, consider picking this up. Maybe not quite as good as Black Swan Green (I was really excited for this to trump BSG, so I could prove Josh Lesser wrong once and for all, but sadly, Lesser wins the day), but truly a lovely novel to get lost in for a nice long while.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser

Or "No I Would NOT Like Fries With That. Not Ever Ever Ever."

Everything about this book was surprising. The fact that Americans eat 68 pounds of beef a year each. The near-criminal working conditions in the meat packing industry. The vast and profound impact that the fast food industry has on virtually every aspect of our lives. But the most surprising thing of all was actually Schlosser's approach to the topic.

I have to give the man some serious kudos. He obviously has some strong opinions and a pretty clear agenda. But even with all that, Fast Food Nation never feels like it resorts to scare tactics or gross-out attempts as a way to get everyone in the world to stop eating fast food forever. I mean, after reading this book, I'm pretty sure that everyone in the world should stop eating fast food forever, but it feels like I arrived at that conclusion myself instead of being bullied into it. Because that's my major problem with these kinds of agenda-driven books and movies. It's so clear what they want you to think, that it can almost feel like a guilt trip.

Fast Food Nation doesn't creep into that territory at all. Though obviously strongly biased on the anti-fast food side of things, it's thoroughly researched, presented in a really straightforward way, and avoids impassioned, bleeding-heart rants about, well, anything. Truth be told, I was pretty shocked by how little of the book was devoted to "And here's the disgusting stuff that happens with the food!" compared to the politics, history, health implications, sleazy marketing tactics, etc. And for that, Mr. Schlosser, I applaud you.

I'm sure you are not surprised to hear me say that I think that Fast Food Nation should be mandatory reading. I'm not saying that I think you need to renounce fast food forever - I'm just saying that there's a lot of information to consider when making that decision, and Schlosser's thorough and utterly readable inquiry into the industry is a fantastic place to start.

I have to confess, though, that the first 100 pages or so just really made me want a hamburger...

Benjy by Edwin O'Connor

Or "A Kids' Book For People Who Hate Kids."

Little Benjamin Thurlow Ballou is the perfect little boy. He has a Mummy (a college graduate who wears her cap and gown when she walks her son to school), a Daddy (who is NOT a college graduate, as Mummy likes to point out), and an airedale named Sid (who politely reminds us that he has feelings, even if he can't talk). For being such a good little boy, Benjy is granted a wish and - as you might imagine - some backfiring ensues. Which all of us are grateful for, because Benjy is a velvet-suit-wearing, brown-nosing douche bag of a kid.

The actual secondary title of Edwin O'Connor's bitingly sarcastic not-quite-children's novel is "A Ferocious Fairy Tale." And ferocious it is. O'Connor is ruthless in his underhanded attacks of Mama's boys and the overly-loving Mamas who make them. I can't remember the last time I laughed out loud so much reading a book. Sadly, this 1957 gem is no longer in print, but used copies aren't too hard to find online if you're interested.

I don't have a copy of the book with me at the moment, but it's one that deserves excerpting. So at the next opportunity, I will leave a little sampling for you here.

To be continued...

CONTINUED! AS PROMISED! An excerpt, for your reading pleasure:

One night, almost a year ofter Benjamin Thurlow Ballou was born, Mummy put down one of the big heavy books she was always reading (she called them "texts") and said, "Daddy! I've been thinking about my little Benjamin Thurlow Ballou. His name is lovely but it's too hard."

"Too hard, dear?" said Daddy.

"Not for me," said Mummy, looking fondly at her diploma, which was beautifully framed and hanging on the wall. "But there are others around here who haven't had my advantages. I have to think of them."

"Yes dear," said Daddy. He had no diploma to look at, so all he could do was to look at the television set and hope that Sid the Airedale would not sneak over and grab the rest of his tongue and Swiss cheese sandwich.

"Besides," said Mummy, "in a few years now he'll be going to school and the little boys and girls he'll have to play with may very well have trouble with his full name. They may not be very bright. That's why I think we'd better give him some nice little nickname that no one will have any trouble with. I don't suppose you'd have any ideas about a nice nickname, would you"

As those last few words were said in Mummy's very special voice, Daddy thought for a few minutes. Then he said "How about George?"

"George," said Mummy. "I knew you'd say something like that. If some stranger on the street had come up to me and asked me what you'd say, I'd say that you'd say something like George!" She looked at her beautiful diploma again and gave a great big sigh. "Well," she said," at least one of us has an idea now and then. I know what we'll call him. We'll call him Benjy."

"Benjy," said Daddy. "That's nice, dear. That's very nice. Benjy."

The Clean House and Other Plays by Sarah Ruhl

Or "Curiouser and Curiouser..."

I shall begin with a rationalization. Normally I don't like to count plays unless (a) they are Shakespeare and therefore sufficiently challenging and time consuming or (b) I am desperate. But in this case I am counting this as one of my books because it is a four-play volume, so I feel okay about the 4 Plays = 1 Book conversion factor.

As a playwright, Sarah Ruhl has her lovers and her haters. I had only ever read Eurydice (which I love), but after reading this volume I definitely see her polarizing effect. Her sense of whimsy can teeter on the edge of self-conscious, effortful, or overly clever, and not always to a satisfying end. I found The Clean House particularly challenging in that respect. In many ways the play is, although highly stylized in its form, pretty realistic and straightforward in its dialogue and characters. But then extraordinary, bizarre things happen, like a man carrying a tree that he has chopped down from Alaska (I think?) to his dying lover that disrupts the real(ish)ism in a not-entirely-seamless kind of way. Melancholy Play and Eurydice were more effective in terms of making Ruhl's surreality and lyricism an integrated part of the world, instead of a too-dominant style problem.

I do appreciate, though, how much Ruhl leaves up to the director, actor, and designers. Her stage directions and design suggestions are specific but not at all, giving the creators of each individual production quite a lot of freedom. As a director myself, I can definitely rally behind that level of trust - trust in her fellow artists as well as trust in her own material. The down side of that ambiguity (and I don't mean to be a Sour Kangaroo here) is that her material doesn't necessarily stand on its own, and in the hands of a bad director or sub-par actors, it could make for a pretty miserable evening of theater.

At the end of the day, this one woman jury is still out on whether I'm in the Sarah Ruhl Fan Camp or not. I'm interested to see how her style continues to evolve in the coming years.

Friday, April 2, 2010


I need to take a breath! I couldn't put this one down! My family's been neglected, the fridge is empty, my dogs are holding their legs together, the bananas have turned brown, my hair's coming in grey, it's suddenly spring outside. You get the picture and I don't need to add a thing to whatever everyone else who's read this book has said about it. It's THAT good! The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo......go read it.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace

Or "Even The Footnotes Have Footnotes!"

Oh my goodness I am behind on posting! I don't even know if I remember all the things I've read! Well, I remember this one. So I guess I'll start here.

Consider the Lobster. Wow. How 'bout that. This review is quite a difficult one to write, because how do I possibly craft my insufficient prose to describe a writer who uses language with such eloquence and precision? Because, yeah. That guy knows his language. And I'm not even just talking about his review of A Dictionary of Modern American Usage (which, let's be honest, was hands down no contest without a doubt my number one nerdfavorite essay in the whole book). As I read, I was in constant awe of his command over the text - his ability to be detailed and eloquent and extremely dense in his subject matter, but without ever being convoluted.

Favorite essays included the Usage essay, as well as Up Simba. How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart had me snorting on the train I was laughing so hard. Just gonna say it... the last essay in the collection, Host, was a bit much for me. Maybe it was that the subject matter wasn't really up my particular alley, but that compounded with the sidenotes within sidenotes within sidenotes made for a difficult slog.

But, Host aside, my first run-in with ol' Dee Eff Dubs was more than positive, and I am oh so looking forward to devouring more.