Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Hey, Boo.

This is my favorite book of all time. I read it once a year probably and every time I get something new.

Recently I submitted a test piece for a film blog called A Bright Wall in a Dark Room, and was accepted as a contributor. I'll be writing essays/reviews of all types of movies - new, old, etc. I'm really excited about it.

The reason it's relevant here is that I wrote my test piece on To Kill a Mockingbird. It's a great movie and a great adaptation of the novel. Go here to check out the blog. My Mockingbird piece will be up soon, after we edit it.

It was hard to write about the movie without writing about the book. Suffice it to say that writing that piece sent me right back to the novel for a 2010 read. It's so so good. It ends with one of my favorite all-time sentences:

He would be there all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning.

James and Giant Peach

James and the Giant Peach (Roald Dahl) is probably my favorite book of all time. I recommend reading it out loud.

The Demolished Man

The Demolished Man (Alfred Bester) was both interesting and enjoyable.

First, it’s a sci-fi novel that was written in 1953. So, the future it imagines has both telepathy and pneumatic tubes. Second, it’s a detective novel, and like many detective novels, it’s about solving a murder. Third, it’s a detective novel, but it’s in a world that has telepathy, so they can read everyone’s mind. Right? Exactly.

Bester does a good job of living up to the challenge of this premise. The story ends up being really structurally interesting, for a detective novel. The chapters are really cinematic. I didn’t so much read the book, as watch what Bester was writing about. Some of the visual sequences he conjures are stunning.

For critiques: the female characters are weak, and some of the final justifications for what happened seemed a little hurried. All things considered, the book was a really fun read. 3.4 out of 5.

P.S. If you do read it like you’re watching a movie, call me and tell me who you cast as the main hero and main villain. I know who I’d pick, but I don’t want to influence anyone’s reading of the story.

Pattern Recognition

Pattern Recognition (William Gibson) is a pretty good read, but I only recommend it for airplanes. It’s a post-nine-eleven-what-is-the-meaning-of-art-in-the-digital-age kind of novel. While this is a cool thing to think about, I kind of wish someone had just told me the plot of the novel, and then explained what was cool about it. The reading of it was rather laborious.

The novel is basically an artistic detective novel. I like learning about the finer points of art, and I enjoy detective novels. Unfortunately, it’s hampered on both fronts by the main character.

The main character, Cayce, has an INTENSE FEAR of brand names, so INTENSE that she spends the entire novel undergoing WAVES OF NAUSEA every time she sees words like Prada or the Michelin Man.

She’s also basically inert. To go along with her “contemporary culture makes her nauseas” affliction, she also seems to have a mentality that her personal pain is so precious that she can’t bear to risk it doing anything except pining for the one truly beautiful thing in the world. This is fine, and I get that she’s stuck in her grieving process, but it does hamper her detective abilities in a way that makes the book annoying to read. Luckily for Cayce, despite her peculiarities, she’s surrounded by people who are all incredibly wealthy/talented, and so, despite her general unwillingness toward life, everything turns out okay.

This is my first Gibson novel, and I’m told he’s better at creating human symbols than he is at building characters. It’s possible to read this ineffectual person, obsessed with their own personal 9/11-based tragedy, and near-drowning in a swamp of corporate advertising, as a nice allegory for an “American Consumer.” And, if you look at it that way, the books has some interesting observations. But like I say, I wish someone had just told me about it. 2 out of 5.

Un Autre Introduction


My name's Chris, and I've been following this blog for several months now. I know some of you already, maybe all of you. I've written reviews of the books that I've read since the previous deadline, and I'd like to contribute them. One or two of the books has already appeared on the blog, so I'm looking forward to good company.

Oh, and I want to give a shout out to the books I read just before the deadline, which were: The Hollow Earth by Rudy Rucker and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (actually the first three books of that series). Those books were great.

Well, here goes.

-Chris Hejl

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Wanderer by Sharon Creech

Or "The Young Adult Fiction Book, Not the Early '90s U2/Johnny Cash Collaboration."

Sharon Creech was my favorite author in middle school, when I read Walk Two Moons, which even in my adult life has held up as an extraordinary book and one that I love more and more every time I read it. She is quite prolific, and always satisfying - an author I can always count on when I need something solid to sink my teeth into.

The Wanderer was no exception. It's classic Creech - primarily narrated in the first person by thirteen year old Sophie (occasionally her cousins chime in with a chapter or two, but mostly it's her story), linking a physical journey with an emotional journey of self-discovery, acceptance of loss, and Creech's characteristic folksy writing style. It's a celebration of family, storytelling, and adventure, rolled into one charming, tender package.

If you've never read Sharon Creech, I'm going to recommend Walk Two Moons as the one to beat. But The Wanderer was a delight, and sang to my sixth grade soul the way WTM did lo those many years ago. If you're already a Creech fan, definitely check this one out.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Water Evacuation by Our Very Own Andrew J. Lampl

Or "The Meta-Post: A Blog Post Written By A 50 Books Blogger About A Play Written By ANOTHER 50 Books Blogger And Posted on This Blog."

Ladies and Gentlemen of the Blog, we are fortunate to have such a delightful contributer, playwright, and person in our midst in the form of a fellow named Andy Lampl. He sent me a play he wrote, and I agreed to read it on the condition that it would count as of one of my 50 books. And, you know, even he had said that no, that it wouldn't count, I still would have loved it. But he said it would count and so double win for me.

Suicidal cows, smoothies made of broken glass, milk salesmen, birds flying willy-nilly into windows... These are just some of the treats in store for you in Water Evacuation. It is both hilarious and sad, in that sort of Wes Anderson way, wholly original, and unpredictable at every turn.

I am excited to read this play again. And then probably again after that. As with all early drafts, I'm sure it will continue to grow and change, but hats off to you, Lampl - this one's a gem. Let's perhaps sit at a table over a pastry or a couple bowls of ice cream, because (a) I haven't seen you in ages and (b) I'd love to talk with you about your play in greater detail.

Yaaaaaay Andy!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010


The Irresistible Henry House by Lisa Grunwald

I LOVED this book!!!! From the first sentence on, I couldn't put it down. Think of Forrest Gump, Cider House Rules, World According To Garp, and you get the idea of what treats await you while reading about Henry House. Henry is a "practice baby", you see. What's a practice baby, you ask? Henry was an orphaned infant who was one of many such orphans used in Home Economics programs at universities around the country back in the 1920's through the 60's. (I had never heard of such a thing but apparently, these programs really existed.) In this novel, Henry House is one such infant, born in 1946, and raised for the first two years of his life by 7 'practice mothers' and Martha Gaines, the strict director of the program, until it's time to replace him with the next practice baby. A borrowed baby. But the ever-needy, suffocating Martha decides to keep Henry as her own son and sets into motion the kind of life where trust and love are almost beyond reach to a child and then a man who has not had consistency in his life. (Enter Dr. Spock.) Henry's lack of connection to his many, many women is not surprising and the instant any of his women becomes too needy, Henry is on his way. Fascinating peek into the life of a womanizer. We're also treated to a look into the early days of Walt Disney's world, the art and cartooning, the 60's and hippies, drugs, free love......This book was a treat all around. Read it!!!!!!!!

On a side note, Lisa Grunwald found an old photo of an adorable infant boy on a Cornell Univ. website when she was doing research on the history of home economics classes. Clicking on the photo, she discovered that "Bobby Domecon" (last name short for Domestic Economics) was a practice baby supplied by a local orphanage to be used in the university's 'practice house' where students learned homemaking skills and took turns mothering a real live baby!

Murder, Train Wreck, Kidnapping....Oh My!

When Will There Be Good News by Kate Atkinson

This book starts out with a bang and never lets up! This is the 3rd in a series of British crime novels by Kate Atkinson. I read the first, "Case Histories", somehow missed the 2nd, "One Good Turn", but realized it didn't matter at all while reading the 3rd one. The book starts out with a mother and two of her three children being murdered in a field. The lone survivor of the slaughter is 6 year old Joanna. Fast forward 30 years and we enter the life of Joanna, now a doctor, a mother and a wife and how her world intertwines with that of her 16 year old nanny, Reggie Chase, an ex-cop named Jackson Brodie, and a savvy female private investigator, Louise Monroe. Everything is tangled together in this story and in someone else's hands, it might have turned out a tangled mess but Atkinson knows what she's doing and she held my interest throughout the whole book. I'd go so far as to call this a page-turner and a nail-biter! I'll probably go backwards and read the 2nd in the series now......see if I missed anything. Highly recommended if you're in the mood for a fast-paced, exciting read.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

POP COes the Weasel

Popco is an evil toy company. Alice Butler designs products for them. Alice's grandfather is the only person ever to have deciphered the Stevenson-Heath transcripts, an ancient coded treasure map whose coded key Alice carries around on a necklace her grandfather gave to her when she was 11. At a Popco employee retreat in the British countryside several years after her grandparents' death, Alice begins receiving mysterious coded messages slipped anonymously into her room. Could they be innocuous messages from a coworker, familiar with Alice's code-breaking prowess? Could they be from greedy treasure-seekers who have discovered the existence of Alice's necklace? Sounds intriguing, right?

This book is much fun to read for maybe the first 370 pages or so. We learn about codes, I get nostalgic about my freshman year cryptology class, intriguing characters of the Popco regime reveal the company's immoral methods of success, etc. The story builds and builds, even generating excitement. AND THEN! It falls flat on its face. Goodbye remaining 130 pages.

This book had so much promise. But the ending is about as boring as conceivably possible for a book about secret coded messages and treasure hunts and toy companies and how they all intersect through one person. Unless, of course, the last 130 pages are a code for the reader to crack that reveals a much more exciting and satisfying result.

Black Water

If this book is meant to instill in you a fear of drowning, it succeeded. If it is meant to give you a haunting inner-dialogue of what it is like to live moments away from death, it succeeded. And if it is meant to make you very wary of ever getting into a car with a drunken senator on a warm and not-so-innocent Martha's Vineyard night in the late 60s, it succeeded in that, too. What can be taken away from this story? Stupid, terrible, scary things happen.

I first met Perkus Tooth in an office.

Chase Insteadman, actor, lives in Manhattan. He used to be recognized for his stint as a child star on the hit show Martyr & Pesty. Nowadays, he's better known as the estranged, landlocked fiancee of Janice Trumbell, astronaut, the American woman trapped on a Russian space station marooned in a field of Chinese mines.

One day, while doing some voice-over recording work for the Criterion Collection, Chase meets Perkus Tooth, and is immediately seduced into a world of greasy hamburgers and fine grade marijuana that comes in sleek lucite cases labeled with names like ICE, TIGER, and CHRONIC.

Through the lens of Perkus Tooth, Chase Insteadman starts to see the world a bit differently. He starts to make connections, between gnuppets and Marlon Brando, the billionaire mayor and the ongoing "escaped tiger" crisis, which may or may not be a secret underground tunneling machine that is wreaking havoc on the bowels of New York City, Laird Noteless' cavernous vaginal art installations, flight patterns of birds, pixelated parallel universes on a computer screen, the ever-elusive eBay treasure known as the Chaldron, an apartment complex for dogs, foot cancer in space, and a ghost writer named Oona, with whom Chase is desperately in love.

Chronic City slides easily into my top 2 list of the 2009-2010 season. It reminded me of Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice, only set in this weird delightful version of 2004 instead of 1969, and in the pixelated realm of Manhattan instead of the smoggy haze of Los Angeles. Maybe Jonathan Lethem read Inherent Vice and thought, I can probably do that, as both books feature colorful casts of characters wading through these (semi)dream landscapes of paranoia, friendship, coincidence, delicious food, pop culture references, mystery, sex, and potent THC.

But at the same time, Chronic City was entirely its own beast. New York City has a different set of secrets than the city of Los Angeles, and Lethem obviously has an incredible time sifting through the possibilities of what they could be. This book is a beautiful exercise of the mind: an author giving himself the freedom to create a universe in which anything goes, where anything can be true, where everything can be doubted, and where tigers really can stand as tall as traffic lights and roam around in the snow of summertime.
How do we feel about a new design? I was playing around with this one, and I think I might have permanently erased the old one... Anyone want to make this design better?

Friday, June 11, 2010

Me Talk Pretty One Day

“Seven beers followed by two Scotches and a thimble of marijuana and it's funny how sleep comes all on it's own.”

Since probably everyone but me has read this before I thought we could go through a little imagination exercise.

Close your eyes. You are in a very peaceful meadow with a warm breeze floating through the trees. Birds are singing, the sun is shining, and one lazy puffy white cloud is drifting across a perfect blue sky.

Now, I want you to picture the thoughts and feelings you had while reading Me Talk Pretty One Day. Really put them to words. Imagine the words taking form on a computer screen. Read your review as it materializes in your own mind.

Finished? Good.

Whoa! THAT'S WHAT I THOUGHT ABOUT ME TALK PRETTY ONE DAY TOO!!!! we have so much in common.

The Bedwetter- Sarah Silveman

Sarah Silverman's new autobiography is a great read filled with brutally honest descriptions about her life and the entertainment industry and I would absolutely recommend it.

However, before you run out to buy/read it I must warn you. If you are expecting a light hearted romp filled with jokes about the holocaust and september 11, peppered with a little racism, be prepared, this is not that hilarious read.

Sarah Silverman's childhood was actually pretty upsetting (she wet the bed til 16, she was prescribed 16 xanax A DAY for her severe deppression at 13 years old etc etc) and while she tries to make light of things it comes off pretty painful. It took me a bit to adjust from my expectations of silliness to the seriousness of her life, but after I did, it was a really worthwhile read.

I especially recommend it to my fellow entertainment pursuers. She talks about the industry in pretty naked terms (from censors and controversy to getting fired from Saturday Night Live) that I found fascinating and helpful.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Swimming Pool by Holly LeCraw

There's trouble in paradise. The Lampl Family now owns an............drumroll please.........iPad. Yes, yet another technological device to pull our attentions away from, well, everything! If it were not for this devil wrapped up in a sleek, pretty, colorful design which makes its home on our kitchen counter, I'd be on book # 24 by now and not resigned to reading such soap-opera fare as "The Swimming Pool" which was all my cluttered App-filled brain could muster in the past 2 weeks since receiving the...............iPad. I tried getting into Joyce Carol Oates collection of short stories called "Dear Husband", I'm ready to start "The Girl Who Played With Fire", but that damn iPad, waiting for the next Scrabble move in a game with a sister, calling my name every damn minute of the day, wrecking my chances of getting into piles of worthy novels. The Devil, I tell you! Steer clear!!

Friday, June 4, 2010

Twelve Bar Blues

“‘The ancestors teach us that destiny is both the solace of the strong and the refuge of the weak.’

Tongo tutted. ‘I know that!’

‘But they also teach us,’ Musa continued, improvising desperately, ‘that destiny is sometimes no more than your penis in disguise.’”

And so it is with Twelve Bar Blues, which interweaves a multi-generational story of family, fate, and jass. The book is structured in two parts, polyphony and dissonance, each containing twelve bars (chapters) in the simplest blues form: I-I-I-I-IV-IV-I-I-V-V-I-I. The story is bookended with a prelude, because some stories are forgotten, and a coda, because some stories are never told.

So there’s Lick Holden, (I) perhaps the finest horn player that ever lived. Lick’s story is of Cooltown, Louisiana in the time just after emancipation, of Toothless Bessie’s tonk, of jamming with and influencing young Louis “Dipper” Armstrong, and of using his horn to find his long lost beauty of a sister, Sylvie (who wasn’t of no blood relation).

So there’s Chief Tongo and his village’s zakulu Musa (IV), smoking gar in their Zimbawian village in 1998, being intruded upon by Bunmi Dorowoju (aka Coretta Pink), Professor of Ethnoarcheology at Northwestern University, who has found an ancient headdress worn by the love of Zike - who had the voice of an angel – just before Zike was taken by the magic of Musa’s jealous zakulu ancestor to be a slave in America. Near Cooltown, Louisiana, where he had children.

So there’s Jim and Sylvia (V), named so for her grandmother, meeting on an airplane from London to New York, but ultimately trying to find out of Sylvia’s family history. Jim a lost soul and Sylvia a prostitute (retired) and a singer (part-time). But where did Sylvia’s blackness come from?

And through a tale so controlled by the twists of destiny and fate, all characters come to be connected. And through Neate’s lyrical and soulful writing style, you start to feel connected to all of the characters, too.

I’d say that reading this book reinvigorated my interest in playing the blues. I’d also say that reading this book reinvigorated my feelings about the sweetness of human spirit. Even though Neate is British writing about a distinctly American subject matter, even though some stories that are forgotten and some stories that are never told are those with the worst endings, and even though Lick Holden hasn’t yet figured out how to play the cornet with all four parts of his body when he first takes the stage at Toothless Bessie’s and rings out one note for 8 whole bars as loud and as crisp as any cornet player ever could and brings the somber and quiet crowd jubilantly to their feet, well, you just want to get up and whoop, too. For sho’.