Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Newest acquisitions

I'm planning another entry or 2 on stories from Everything's Eventual.  By planning on I mean I haven't come up with them just yet.  I just finished the stories "Everything's Eventual" and "L.T.'s Theory of Pets" and I'm more than half way through "The Road Virus Heads North".  I'm surprised the book is taking me as long as it is, considering it's not much longer than the other books I've recently read and I've read it before.  You'd think this would go faster.  I had planned on writing an entry today, but I ended up going out for dinner, frozen yogurt and books instead.

I'm excited about my new books.  New books always excite me.  I like re-reading old favorites too, but any of these books could be a new favorite.  There's so much potential. 

Anyway, I picked up I Was Told There'd Be Cake by Sloane Crosley and Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell  by Susanna Clarke.  I skimmed a couple of the essays by Crosley and there's a good chance I'll read this before I actually finish Everything's Eventual.  The little bit I read cracked me up.  I've had a few friends with trusted book tastes read and recommend Strange & Norrell and it was on sale so I decided to pick it up.

I also want to make mention of the awesome local bookstore we have in town, The Brookline Booksmith.  I do shop at the big boxes like Borders and Barnes & Nobel but I try to support the local places and the Booksmith is fantastic.  Great new selection, lots of used books, and fun events like Christopher Moore showing up. It's the type of place I would like to run.  Now if only they would get some of Jasper Fforde's stuff in.  Especially Shades of Grey once it comes out in paperback! 

Friday, June 25, 2010

Mr. Maybe They Will vs. Mr. Even If I Do

I'm slowly making my way through Everything's Eventual.  I've been traveling for work so my normal reading schedule has been thrown, but I'm back now so hopefully things will move a bit quicker.  I also think the fact that this is a book of short stories makes the process longer.  I feel like I can't jump right from one story into the next; I need some time to take in what I just read, some time to reflect.  Especially with a story I liked.  If a story really draws you in you become invested in the characters.  It's hard to finish reading their journey and then just move right into a whole new world.  Do you find yourself needing some reflection time after finishing a story, be it a short story or a grand epic?

So far I've read through the stories "Autopsy Room Four", "The Man in the Black Suit", "All That You Love Will Be Carried Away", "The Death of Jack Hamilton", "In the Deathroom" and "The Little Sisters of Eluria".  My favorite story is near the end of the book, but right now I'll focus on the story "In the Deathroom".

I wouldn't say this is one of my favorites of the book, but other than the one I've already written about it's the one I like the best out of the one's I listed above.  Especially as I just finished "The Little Sisters of Eluria" this afternoon, "the Deathroom" is a realistic horror tale.  At least as real as my extremely skewed-by-pop-culture view of South American dictatorship allows.  Maybe because I've heard/read/watched awful stories about unspeakable crimes happening in dictatorships all over that just the general premise of the story scares me.  Even the more ridiculous parts get this extra oomph of realism, simply because in my mind I could imagine this actually happening.  I even found myself playing along with the main character Fletcher as he considered his options Maybe They Will, such as "maybe they really will let [him] go" (144) and Even If I Do, such as even if he gets away where will he go.  During the "conversation" as Escobar puts it, I found myself thinking what would I do?  Would I lie?  Play dumb?  Try to play it strong?  Break down and tell everything I knew?  I mean, realistically I know what I would do.  I'd get killed.  It's pretty much that simple.  I found myself going the play dumb route and then getting myself killed.  It would be an even shorter story if I was the main character is the bottom line.  The game is certainly difficult to play after I already knew the outcome of the story, but I know the first time I was reading it I disagreed with everything he did but then realized he was right, or at least mostly right, and I was wrong.

King, Stephen.  “In the Deathroom”.  Everything’s Eventual: 14 Dark Tales.  Pocket Books: New York, 2002.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The nine-year-old boy I was had done nothing for which he might legitimately fear the devil either…and yet the Devil came

I like the method King used to choose the order of the stories.  Get a deck of cards, assign the stories a value Ace through King, shuffle and deal.  Whatever order they come out, that's the order they show up in.  I like the randomness of this method and I think it works out nicely, though I always prefer this sort of random order.  My iPod Shuffle gives me a similar experience, jumping around from Flight of the Conchords to Frank Sinatra to Buck-O-Nine to Rx Bandits to David Bowie to Bob Dylan*.  I get bored if there is some sort of thought out order to these things.  Every once in awhile I'll try to make a playlist that doesn't sound like I had a seizure while in the middle of creating it, but I always find myself bored with those mixes.

I was thinking of how to discuss this book.  Should I do brief entries on all of the stories?  Should I pick a couple I like?  Do a quick synopsis of all, but focus on some point I like?  I’ve decided I’ll focus on the stories I love, and perhaps make a quick mention of the other stories I like.  Or maybe I’ll make one entry dedicated to quick synopsis of the stories I like.  Who knows?  I’ll just play it by ear. It lets me be as ADD as I'd like.

“The Man in the Black Suit” is among my favorites of this collection.  It’s not my absolute favorite but I’ll get to that one in a later entry.  In his description at the end of the story King describes this tale as “a rather humdrum folktale told in pedestrian language” (68). I don’t know that it feels exactly like a folktale, with the exception of the time period, nor does the language feel pedestrian; modern sure.  It certainly doesn’t read like a Hawthorne piece, which King used as inspiration for this story and in my mind this is certainly not a criticism of the piece.  I always like the idea of early American Lit, the idea of Hawthorne, but when I actually read it I find myself so distracted by the language I have trouble fully appreciating the story.  Here I can completely focus on the tale without the distraction.  I’m sure this just means I’m not working hard enough at Hawthorne, but I’ve spent plenty of time getting used to Elizabethan English that I don’t feel too much need to work too hard on another dead dialect. 

Back to the story!  Sorry, I easily get off topic.  I think it’s the innocence of the story that I enjoy so much.  It’s early 1900’s and the main character, Gary, who meets the man in the black suit, is only 9 years old at the time of the story though he is telling the story as an old man.  Had Gary been older, even if only by a couple years, the story would have progressed much differently and certainly much more violently.  Who but a child would offer the Devil a freshly caught fish when the Devil tells you he’s hungry?  Perhaps someone older than a child wouldn’t have met a man in black.  He wouldn’t have believed and accepted the Devil would just walk out of the forest and start talking to him.  It’s true that Gary is telling the story as an old man who clearly still believes in the Devil but this is only because as a youngster he was confronted with this reality.  The horror of the story really comes from this belief Gary carries with him through old age.  He writes his story down to try to release himself from these memories but he fears he’ll meet the Devil again when he shuffles off this mortal coil.  There’s a line at the end of the story, the line I used as the title that describes the fear succinctly.  “The nine-year-old boy I was had done nothing for which he might legitimately fear the devil either…and yet the Devil came” (67).  It’s the fact that even living a good and innocent life cannot necessarily save you from the Devil.

King, Stephen.  “The Man in the Black Suit”.  Everything’s Eventual: 14 Dark Tales.  Pocket Books: New York, 2002.

*I actually did an iTunes shuffle for this, so if you're wondering what songs came up here you go!
Flight of the Conchords "Hip Hopopotamus Meets the Rhymenoceros"
Frank Sinatra "Young at Heart"
Buck-O-Nine "Who Are They?"
Rx Bandits "Only for the Night"
David Bowie "China Girl"
Bob Dylan "It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)"

Friday, June 18, 2010

It's nice, sometimes, to know how low you can really go

There's a quote in the Afterward of Kitchen Confidential where Bourdain is looking back on his career and the highs and the lows of where he's been and where he is now that has always stuck out to me.  I'll warn you now that if cursing bothers you, you may want to skip down a bit.  And if you don't like cursing you may want to skip this book altogether.

"Anytime I think 'This is beneath me!' or "This is fucking humiliating!' I have only to think of lying to my Mom to get a few dollars for crack, or selling my books and records on Broadway, or working at that horrifying TV-themed restaurant to remember what real humiliation is.  It's nice, sometimes, to know how low you can really go, what kind of bestial behavior you're capable of in times of extremis.  It makes lunch with some Hollywood fucktard -- or an interview with an over-Botoxed news anchor -- got down a lot easier." (307)

Everyone, at some point or another, reaches some sort of low and these lows give you perspective into the rest of your life.  It follows the idea that to truly be happy to have to experience sadness or you'll end up taking the good times for granted.  Maybe because this is a universal truth but this more than the no-fish-on-Monday, recycled bread, or the general tales of kitchen debauchery stands out as a memorable part.  Don't get me wrong, this isn't the only good quote nor is the Afterward my favorite section of the book -- that would be A Day in the Life as I mentioned in my previous post. It's just an idea that sticks with me long after I've put this book back on my shelf.

Next up on the book queue I'm thinking the set of Stephen King short stories Everything's Eventual.  It's a re-read so if I make it to a bookstore over the weekend these plans could change.  But since I'm using my Dad's mantra of "all plans are soft" when it comes to this blog to give myself the excuse to change my mind at a moment's notice.  And I believe that is as close as I'll make it to a Father's Day themed post, so enjoy that.

Bourdain, Anthony. Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly. Harper Perennial, New York. 2007

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Reading on the subway: how I pretend personal space exists during my commute

One of the ways I know I'm really enjoying a book is if when I'm reading it everything else around fades away.  I do most of my reading during my daily commute and the more I can forget I'm in a tin can sharing 1 square foot with 8 other people the better. My commute takes me right by Fenway Park so I dread any home game I'm not going to because it means twice the amount of people will be on the train, most of whom are oblivious to subway etiquette.  Today was one of those home games and I had to let 2 trains go by before I could finally squeeze myself onto one, so I was ready to forget where I was.  The cruelest part of a crowded train is when it's too crowded, there isn't even enough space for me to pull out a book, so we went a couple stops before enough people shifted around and I made myself over to a pocket of space where I could actually hold a book out in front of me, although the space behind me was still shared with 3 adults, 2 children and a large backpack.  But even the yelling of excited Red Sox fans and the bag hitting my arm at a steady rate I was able to block it all out and focus on the book, because the story pulled me in.

I guess I'm saying a good book is the equivalent of me holding my hands over my ears and going "lalalalala" to the rest of the world.

I suppose this isn't the best judge of a book, but it's certainly something I keep in mind whenever I'm picking out a book from my shelf to re-read.  Today I was lucky enough to be starting the "A Day in the Life" chapter of Kitchen Confidential. This is my favorite chapter and Bourdain's writing is vivid enough that I can picture the crazy restaurant whirlwind when the closest I've come to seeing the inner workings of a restaurant kitchen is reruns of Ramsey's Kitchen Nightmares.  Perhaps it's some measure of schadenfreude (and yes I sang the song from Avenue Q to spell that) that I like reading about the insanity of the kitchen to make my commute feel like a leisurely stroll. And just as I finished the chapter the train pulled into my stop.  Perfect timing.

What are your escape books?

Sunday, June 13, 2010

If you have any doubt which will dent -- the victim's head or your pan -- then throw that pan right in the trash.

I've actually followed the advice in the title quote when buying pans.  It certainly resulted in some odd looks from other shoppers when I made a comment about how a particular pan was no good because I clearly couldn't kill anyone with it. And so I begin re-reading Anthony Bourdain's book Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly.  

I first read this book 4 or so years ago, when a friend of mine kept giving me passages out of the book to read at as he was reading it himself.  I'd hear laughter and then "Come here, you have to read this part!" I borrowed the book from him as soon as he finished reading it and bought my own copy of it about a year later, when I no longer had direct access to his bookshelf.  I never really expected this book to become one of my go-to re-reads and yet this is at least the 4th time I'm reading it.  It's not the most challenging read but it's never failed to entertain me.

At this point in the re-reading I've gone through courses one and two.  I like the style the book is written in, jumping between memoir style chapters and general sections describing what it's like to work on the line.  Just as my friend used to have me read a paragraph here or there, I've found I can just pick up the book and read pieces here and there.  The tone of the book matches his TV show No Reservations especially in the chapter "From Our Kitchen to Your Table" chapter where he describes the food he avoids when he goes out to restaurants.  But as he says

"Do all these horrifying assertions frighten you?  Should you stop eating out? Wipe yourself down with antiseptic towelettes every time you pass a restaurant?  No way.  Like I said before, your body is not a temple, it's an amusement park.  Enjoy the ride." (73)

I've found it difficult to write these blog entries for a memoir type book like Kitchen Confidential is.  Since it's non-fiction, it doesn't make sense to examine the characters or plot points, in my mind anyway.  I suppose in this way the entry I have here can act as a general review of the book (I loved it, you should read it) and subsequent entries will probably focus on a single incident or line, because I've always written my papers off the tiniest scrap of a piece of work and it worked for me when I was at school.  May as well keep that theme going now.

Title quote from page 80

Bourdain, Anthony.  Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly.  Harper Perennial, New York. 2007

Friday, June 11, 2010

"You can't just go around breaking people's legs like some Mafioso fairy godmother"

First of all, apologies for taking so long to get this update out.  After getting back from vacation it took more time than expected to get back into the swing of things.  And a friend won a free happy hour, so there's that.

My copy of Coyote Blue has some questions in the back meant for a reading group to discuss and I figured I would use one of their jumping off points.  A quick note that this will go over events that happen all through the book so there will be spoilers.

Discuss morality in the course of the book.  After the Coyote has disrupted Sam's life, he goes about "making things right" in various ways -- for instance, by getting Sam's home back by breaking Josh Spagnola's legs and helping to blackmail Aaron Aaron.  Is he really doing right to Sam by doing wrong to others? (114)

The basic trickster archetype, as described by Wikipedia where I obviously do most of my last minute research, "plays tricks or otherwise disobeys normal rules and conventional behavior" and the coyote is especially seen as a trickster in Native American culture.  If Coyote had spent more of his time acting more like Cinderella's fairy godmother he wouldn't have been a trickster and honestly the story would have been far less interesting.  Of course breaking the security guard Spagnola's legs to get Sam back into his condo complex isn't moral behavior.  He did it to help Sam, but this is also not a case of naive good intentions.  In this broken leg case, Coyote very deliberately went through Sam's Rolodex to make sure Lonnie got Josh's address and he knew Lonnie would attach Josh in some way.  He operates in an "ends justify the means" way, as long as those means entertain him and this tone permeates the rest of the book.  You end up cheering on Coyote and his bad behavior and, morally reprehensible or not, you want him to help out Sam by stealing his car and selling to get money to play craps.  Alright, so I don't really know how that helped Sam but it was funny.

Coyote Blue wasn't my favorite of the Moore books I've read, but I would absolutely recommend.

Title quote from page 145

Moore, Christopher,  Coyote Blue. Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, New York.  1994.
"Trickster". Wikipedia. 6/11/10 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trickster

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

New entry soon

I don't have a new entry to post just yet, but I will have one soon.  I've been on vacation and I was thinking I could get a post done today.  But apparently taking a red eye flight from Seattle is messing with my ability to form coherent sentences, or focus on things like a book for extended periods of time so I'm going to skip it today and get a second post about Coyote Blue up tomorrow.

Friday, June 4, 2010

For a guy that maintains a low profile, you've built quite a litle snowball of resentment

Sorry for the delay in postings.  I'm out of town so it's a bit harder to get to a computer with enough time to make an update, so this will probably be a quick one.

I just started my next book, Coyote Blue by Christopher Moore.  So far for this blog this is the first book I'm reading for the first time while blogging about it.  All of the others have been re-reads and to be honest, the next few after this will be re-reads as well.

As with all of the other Moore books I've read, this one has pulled me in right away.  I find myself thinking "I'll just read to the end of this chapter and then I'll put it down" for 3 or 4 chapters before I finally listen to myself.  It has Moore's typical wit and humor and I found myself laughing aloud while reading, which was a bit awkward as I was in public.  Luckily my boyfriend was reading another Moore book at the time, Lamb, so he was laughing just as much.  If I'm going to look crazy, at least I have another lunatic with me.

Early in the book Sam, the salesmen without an identity of his own, going through his morning routine and "congratulating himself for single-handedly saving the planet just by getting up in the morning" (67).  His list of morning good deeds includes:

- Washing his hair with shampoo never put in a bunny's eyes & 10% of the profits go to saving the whales
-Lathered with shaving cream free of CFCs
-Ate fertile eggs laid by sexually satisfied chickens
-Ate muffins made with pesticide-free grain, so no eagle-egg shells were weakened
-Cooked in margarine free of tropical oils, thus preserving the rain forest
-Milk comes in a carton made of recycled paper and from a small family farm
-Coffee went to help educate the children of a poor peasant farmer named Juan Valdez

Even with all the earth saving and good deeds he's completed before 10am, he hasn't set foot on unpaved ground in the last 2 years.  (67)

Sam has been hiding his true identity as a Native American from the Crow tribe for the last 20 years and I like this exaggeration of how in touch he still is with the earth and keeping it safe and yet is so far removed from it he doesn't realize he's hardly seen anything natural in his trips from his office to his condo.  He's completely removed from who he was yet he doesn't, at this point, have any remorse for this. Until his spirit guide, Coyote Blue starts showing up.  As the trickster coyote he simultaneously helps Sam and causes trouble at every turn. Moore's humor leads you into a story that is much deeper than you may initially assume, and by the time you realize it, you're hooked. 

I'll probably look at the trickster more in a different entry when I've read a little more of the book and maybe when I have some more time to write. 

Title quote from page 68

Moore, Christopher,  Coyote Blue. Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, New York.  1994.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

My reading habits meme

I found this meme over at the blog Stuck In A Book and decided to fill it out as well.  They remind me of those emails I used to get when I was in high school where you'd fill in a bunch of trivial details about yourself.  This is the same thing, but about books so even nerdier than the old ones.

What is your favorite drink while reading?
I don't have anything specific I drink while reading.  Maybe coffee or water, but that's usually what I'm drinking anyway.

Do you tend to mark your books while you read, or does the idea of writing in books horrify you?
I hate writing in books.  I've done it only in text books and even then rarely.  I keep pieces of torn up Post-Its in the front of whatever book I'm reading so I can mark down pages that interest me.  Of course I have a habit of forgetting what I thought was so interesting on that page.  I should find a new system.

How do you keep your place? Bookmark? Dog-ears? Laying the book open flat?
If I have something on me, I'll try to use a bookmark.  It's usually whatever piece of paper I have on me.  Right now I'm using an iTunes card from a Starbucks.  I hate dog-earring a book, though if I get a book that way I don't mind it.  I just don't like ruining a new, unbroken down book.

Fiction, non-fiction or both?
Both.  I find it easier to start non-fiction books.  You don't have to acclimate yourself to a new world to start them.  But my favorite books are fiction

Do you tend to read to the end of a chapter or can you stop anywhere?
I'll stop wherever.  If I can I try to stop at the end of a chapter but I don't worry about it too much.

Are you the type of person to throw a book across the room or on the floor if the author irritates you?

I'll put the book down and then bitch loudly to whoever is unlucky enough to be near me then.  And now I have this blog to bitch to. 

If you come across an unfamiliar word, do you stop and look it up right away?
Nope.  I try to just use the context to figure out what the word means.  This works the majority of the time.  Or else there are a lot of words I misuse. 

What are you currently reading?
I just finished Everything Bad Is Good For You: How Today's Pop Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter by Steven Johnson and I'll be starting Coyote Blue by Christopher Moore next. 

What is the last book you bought?
Coyote Blue.  Before that it was a few other Christopher Moore books: Fluke, A Dirty Job and Island of the Sequined Love Nun.  I've been on a Moore kick but should probably mix it up a bit.

Do you have a favourite time/place to read?
Whenever I can I suppose.  I do most of my reading on the subway during my commute, though I can't really say that's my favorite place to be.

Do you prefer series books or stand-alones?
Stand-alones.  I don't generally have the attention span for a long series, although I love Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next series and Nursery Crime series

Is there a specific book or author you find yourself recommending over and over?
I recommend Bill Bryson to everyone.  I know plenty of the other books I like aren't for everyone, but I can't think of anyone who won't like at least one of Bill Bryson's books.

How do you organise your books (by genre, title, author's last name, etc.)?
At one point I tried to do them in order by author's last name.  Then I moved and put them on the shelves as they came out of boxes.  I try to group ones by the same author so all the Shakespeare is together and I try to put similar genres near each other so Stephen King and other horror books are on the same shelf.  For the most part though it's wherever a book fits.  I'm currently out of space so there are books stacked all over.

Background noise or silence?
I most always have something else going on in the background.  If I'm on the subway, I have my headphones in and if I'm home the TV is usually on.  I have trouble giving my full attention to a TV show so I usually pick up a book or something while the TV is on.  If I need to finish a book I might turn off everything else.

"Imagine a version of Brave New World where soma and the feelies make you smarter"

In Part 2 of Everything Bad Is Good For You, Johnson sets out to show the proof in his argument that the added complexity of pop culture is actually improving the general population's mind.  He begins by looking at IQ tests over multiple generations and notes that average IQ scores have gone up, especially in "problem-solving and pattern-recognition skills" measured by the Raven Progress Matrices test (148-149).  Johnson does not give evidence that this increase in IQ scores is definitely created by the change in pop culture, but does point out that the increase is measurable across culture and environment.  There is a bit of a leap of faith to believe that there is no other cause that could have created this score increase or that pop culture in conjunction with some other factor caused the score.

Johnson touches on the profit in making TV shows and movies more complicated, citing increased DVD sales which reward repeated viewings.  He argues that before VCR, DVD, DVR and a host of other acronyms you pretty much got one shot at seeing a TV show, so if the show was too complicated and it was easy to miss small details you would lose your audience, which means a loss of profits.  Now that you can watch and rewatch shows and movies there is profitable motivation to make these layered and complex enough to warren multiple viewings.  If the show is too simple, there's no reason to see it multiple times which means there is no reason to buy it on DVD.

Johnson mentions that neuroscience shows "that the brain has dedicated systems that respond to -- and seek out --new challenges and experiences" (181) and says this is why people seek out more complex forms of entertainment.  And while it is true that the amount of reading people do is on the decline, so are all forms of entertainment because there are so many different things for the average person to do now and there are still the same number of hours in a day.

Can you think of any anecdotal evidence of pop culture improving the mind?  Or do you think pop culture is catering to the lowest common denominator? 

Title quote from page 179

Johnson, Steven.  Everything Bad Is Good For You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter.  Riverhead Books, New York.  2006.