Friday, July 29, 2011

Time's a goon, right?

I picked up A Visit from the Goon Squad. Finally. I don't know why I put it off for so long. I think the Pulitzer intimidated me. As soon as that got slapped on I, consciously or not, began to back away. What if it's too smart for me? What if I don't get it? What if I look dumb?* Lots of bloggers, ones I love and listen to their recommendations, all had excellent things to say about this book. You know what got me to finally start the book? I wish it was that I got over any of those questions there but that would be too mature. No it was in Greg's (of The New Dork Review) review when he mentions a story about a PR specialist working for a genocidal dictator. Because I've read that story before, in a collection of stories called This Is Not Chick Lit. I loved that story; it was my favorite of the collection. I figured the rest of the book can't be that scary. I'm so glad I read this because it is one of my favorite books I've read all year.

I loved this book, even after more than a week has passed since I finished it. I let the book percolate and I'm still in love with it. I mentioned that other bloggers had good things to say and if you want real, well-thought out reviews, you should check them out. I posted links at the bottom of this post. I can't promise my thoughts are going to be entirely coherent.

The book is a collection of linked short stories. Egan says she considers the work more of a novel instead of short stories but I don't see it that way. I also don't believe that considering this book a novel would have improved it anyway. The themes of time and lost innocence are driven home by the short story format. You're getting brief moments in the characters' lives as they try to understand how they got to the point that their at or questioning where to go next, not in an optimistic I-can-do-anything type of way but in a what-options-are-left way. Arguably you could say Bennie and Sasha are the main characters, but I think that would be misleading. They are the primary connection between everyone but claiming they're the main characters suggests that the various stories are about them instead of about the medley of characters. Part of the joy is that even though the characters are all connected, when you're reading a story about Bennie's then wife, you're not reading about Bennie from someone else's point of view, you're reading about Stephanie, who happens to be married to Bennie. The characters may be questioning how time has passed them, but you're pulled fully into the moment. Egan's writing just grabs you.

As the book started getting more and more popular I kept hearing about the PowerPoint chapter. Have you gotten to the PowerPoint chapter? What'd you think about the PowerPoint chapter? So when I turned to that first page of the PowerPoint chapter I couldn't help but think "Let's see what all the chatter is about". It's a gimmicky style, sure, but the style works. It's a diary of sorts by Sasha's daughter, titled Great Rock and Roll Pauses, the current obsession of her (probably) autistic brother Lincoln. She's not chronicling specific events as a typical journal might. Instead she is trying to understand her family, especially her parents, and uses various charts, bubbles, bursts of test that a PPT format offers. Alison is still young so she's not looking at lost innocence or how time has passed her by, but Egan keeps the theme of time going through the parents and Lincoln's pauses. There's a great quote (yes you can quote a PPT) from Lincoln:
"The pause makes you think the song will end. And then the isn't really over, so you're relieved. But then the song does actually end, because every song ends, obvious, and THAT. TIME. THE. END. IS. FOR. REAL." (281)
If you haven't read this yet, please don't let the Pulitzer win scare you off. It's a wonderful collection of stories and as I said, one of my favorites for the year.

Here are those posts
The Reading Ape - and it's almost a year ago!

*I regularly walk into walls and trip going up stairs, so you'd think by now I'd be used to looking dumb.

Title quote from page 127

Egan, Jennifer. A Visit from the Goon Squad. Anchor Books, 2010.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

This is nineteen-thirty-six. The age of chivalry is past.

Sometime back in May I received a copy of Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie from Birdie's Nest as part of World Book Night, which is a super cool opportunity to share books and see all the places they've ended up. So before even getting to the review, if you want to be the next recipient of this book, let me know in the comments. All you have to do when you get it is go to the World Book Night site, register where the book now is and then read, enjoy and pass it on.

I hadn't heard of this author or this novel until Birdie mentioned Spark in a Tuesday Top Ten. I went into this totally ignorant of the plot and author. Apparently I am capable of doing this, even though I refused to read Never Let Me Go until I already knew the plot, thus making that book far less interesting than if I went in blind. Jean Brodie, by the way, does not at all require you go in not know what's happening so I'm going to go easy on the spoiler warnings.

Jean Brodie is a teacher at a girls' school who takes special interest in a group of students, the Brodie set, taking the girls to tea and museums and staying close with them long after they've left her classroom. The headmistress, Miss Mackay, is constantly trying to come up with ways to get rid of Jean Brodie, suggesting she go teach at a more progressive school. To be honest, Miss Mackay makes a good point because Jean Brodie is a pretty awful teacher. I suppose this is supposed to be a free-spirited teacher in the vein of something like Dead Poet's Society* teaching the students about life, to hell with the books. But she doesn't really do that. She instead focuses her lessons on telling the girls about her love life and her travels. At one point she asks the class who the greatest Italian painter is. One of the girls answers with Da Vinci but Brodie corrects her: "That is incorrect. The answer is Giotto, he is my favorite." (11) There's a lot of talk about how the girls are some of the brightest in the school, and it's all based on the awesomeness that is Jean Brodie in her self-proclaimed prime. I'm not quite sure how they managed that but I'll say kudos to them cos they somehow managed to get an education despite the fact that class lessons were pretending to learn history while Brodie told the girls about her former lover. I guess that counts as history.

Her classroom lessons do not make up the majority of the story. Just some set up to what Jean Brodie is like. The majority of the story is made up by the fact that one of the girls betrays Brodie and gets her fired. It's a not a surprise that it happens or who does it, it comes up constantly but to save those who want to be surprised I won't name names.  There's also a lot about Brodie's love of the married art teacher Mr. Lloyd, her affair with the single music teacher Mr. Lowther, and her weird insistence that Rose, a member of the Brodie set, have an affair with Mr. Lloyd so she can live vicariously through her student. I had a few WTF moments.

Jean Brodie isn't a particularly likable character, but she's fun to watch. A lot of the story is told from Sandy, one of the Brodie set, so you at least aren't constantly subjected to Brodie's thought process. The book was alright, nothing I would have picked up on my own and I'm not too upset to be passing the book on rather than having it my library.**

*I actually have no idea if this is a good reference because I've never seen the movie but the basic plot line tells me I'm on the right path.

**I'm really making you guys want this book, aren't I?

Title quote from page 10.

Spark, Muriel. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Penguin Group, 1961

Monday, July 25, 2011

How long between the reading and the reviewing?

She forgot post-its don't require staples...
Normally when I write a review I have just finished reading the book. I may have recently started the next one, but the first book is still fresh in my mind. Not this time. My computer vacation meant that I had reading time without immediate writing time and thus I'm doing these reviews* after some time has passed. I know a lot of people let some time pass between the reading and the writing to let the book percolate and really gather their thoughts. This sounds very mature and intelligent and a sure way to get well thought-out, well-rounded post. I never do this and I don't think I have the chops to. I am almost comically absent-minded** and out-of-sight-out-of-mind is entirely true for me.

So what do you do? Do you have to get your thoughts down immediately? Do you let some time pass? Maybe you write down your initial thoughts, put it aside and then after some time has passed write a review? What do you do if you end up way behind on your writing?

*This post began with me writing a review of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and ended up being this. Because procrastinating on writing by writing something else is a special level of avoiding the responsibilities I have put on myself.

**Unless the topic is obscure pop culture references. I am all about those because my head is jammed with them instead of actual facts. Means I rock at bar trivia and can't for the life of me remember what I just walked into the kitchen for.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Being dependent on each other to produce the stuff that might become your private treasures - that's bound to do things to your relationship

Awhile back, BCRRC* I won a copy of Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro from Soy Chai Bookshelf, which was awesome. The winning of the book I mean. The book was awesome too but I'll get to that. So calm down. This has been a periphery to-be-read book for years now, essentially since it came out. A friend of mine, a trusted book recommender**, told me I should, nay must, read this book. And I was going to, I really was. But see he gave me the book to read while a group of us were at a beach house for a long weekend of drinking and relaxing. I picked up the book a few times and really tried to get into it, but something would distract me. Such as "Look, we just opened up a bottle of wine." or "Do you think we should make a beer run?" Really important matters. So I didn't read it. I always meant to read it. I always thought of it as a book I wanted to read but I just never got around to it. Some other book would push this one out of the way and I never read it. Apparently all it took was getting a free copy of it that made me read it.

Normally I don't worry too much about about spoilers in a book and put the warnings in as almost an after thought. But this is a book that I think requires the spoiler alert because I think the reading experience is better the less you know about it. I assume anyway, since I already knew a decent amount of the plot before going in and wished I didn't. So...
This book sneaks up on you. It starts so innocent. It's just the story of a boarding school somewhere in the English countryside, narrated from a former student. You think you know what you're about to get, you think it's going to be a simple coming of age story. But then there are hints that something isn't right and you start to question what's going on in the school, why is there so much emphasis on the students artwork, why are the kids buying used good trucked in from somewhere outside, who is this Madame? The thing that really makes it eerie is the fact that the story is told from the point of view of Kathy H., one of the former students, as she remembers her time in Hailsham and the few years after. Her narration feels like you're sitting with Kathy as she tells you her story. You don't necessarily feel like a confidant. It's more like Kathy is sort of weary telling you this story, and she jumps around a bit, bringing up something and telling you she'll explain to you why that was important in a bit.

Slowly you find out what is really going on at the school, or more accurately what's really going on with the students. They're clones with no parents and no ability to become parents themselves who are created and raised to eventually provide organs to the "real people". There's no sadness from the students, from Kathy and her friends Ruth and Tommy. There's no desire to try to avoid their fate to go through their 4 donations and then eventually "complete". I was going to say there's no big reveal moment where this reality comes to light, but I suppose there is. It doesn't feel like a big reveal though because the students don't respond to the news as if it's a big reveal. Kathy remembers how they were often "told but not told" about what their future held, how they were given the information when they were just too young to really understand what it meant, so they always knew what was coming without ever examining the details. You, the reader, get upset and offended and expect the characters to react the same way and then they just...don't. So then you start to question your reaction and you end up with an uneasy feeling as the story never progresses the way you thought it would. It's like a sociological experiment*** and you're the subject.

I suppose this isn't the best review of the book. It's really only looking at the twist that isn't even really a twist because it comes fairly early on. But obviously this is the biggest part of the book and the part I most want to be like omgsomeonetalktomeaboutthis! If you want a well thought out, well-written review, I would like to direct you over to the review Margaret Atwood wrote for Slate.
***Spoilers over***

This book was excellent. I wanted something more but it was mostly because the story is so far from what you're expecting. I certainly recommend it to people and the less you know the better. Though obviously if you haven't read the book and you skipped over the spoilers part, you haven't really learned anything about the book. Trust me, that's the best way to go about this book. Just dive right in.

*That would be "Before China-Rican Reading Challenge"

**He's the friend that lent me Special Topics in Calamity Physics which I really need to get back to him.

***Specifically the one where they put a bunch of people in a room together and had them fill out some form. All of a sudden a smoke alarm starts going off and smoke starts coming in from under a door. Well you'd think everyone would get out of there cos FIRE. But really all but one person is in on the experiment. The one person usually looks around to see what the group wants to do and they decide it's best to just sit in the room until the proctor comes back. Most of the time the subject agrees even though it means (in their mind anyway) they're about to be roasted. The power of peer pressure.

Title quote from page 16.

Ishiguro, Kazuo. Never Let Me Go. Vintage International, 2005.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Aaaand we're back

Actually just I'm back. I don't have multiple people writing these things. It's more of the royal we. Anyway, back!

You know when you go on vacation and then you come back and it's like everything has exploded and you're not quite sure how you're going to catch up with everything? That's what I'm doing right now. My work email had 683 emails for me to work my way through this morning, not counting the emails I have auto-sorting somewhere else. My Google Reader is still at over 400 unread posts. I read 3 books (Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark, A Visit From The Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan) while avoiding the computer, so I also have some reviews I need to write up. So what I'm saying is, it's taking me a lot to not just run away again and I'm afraid I'm going to end up in the shame spiral so accurately depicted in Hyperbole and a Half*.

If you haven't figured it out, this post is an excuse post for why I don't have a real post yet. And to explain some more why I might be leaving comments way after you've posted them. And cos I still feel disconnected and I'm trying to get back into everything and it's taking longer than I thought it would. Granted I didn't consider any re-connection time when I really should have assumed it, but what are you going to do.

*This isn't a paid endorsement or anything. That would rule but no, I just can't help but think about "Internet Forever" while writing this. Plus she's hilarious so yeah, you should probably be reading her stuff anyway.

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Reader's Beach-Going Necessities

1. Books - well obviously. I mean really, the title of the post says Reader's beach-going necessities, did you think books wouldn't be first on the list? If so, you've clearly stumbled here by accident and I'm not sure you'll find what you're looking for. Go ahead, sneak out the back. I won't mind.

2. Sunglasses - you need to be able to see to read the books. This is my current sunglasses collection, most of which are cracked, scratched or lay crooked across my face. I recently spent the big money ($15) on a pair of sunglasses not bought off some guy on the street, so clearly I'm moving on up in the world.

3. Beach chair - I hate laying on my back or stomach while reading. I just get weird cramps that I try to ignore so I can just finish this chapter and dammit, now my shoulder is all stiff.

4. Sunscreen - must remember not to get so engrossed in the book that you forget sunscreen. I have between SPF70-100 because I practically glow in the dark. And yes, I know nothing over 45 blocks out more sun, but the higher the number the longer it takes for the burning to start. Since I burn when I think about the sun for too long, I go high.

Mocking me with melanin 
5. Umbrella - I learned the hard way that sunscreen alone will not keeping me from turning into a lobster and thus, the umbrella was necessary. Boyfriend tends to shun it, along with laughing at me for my sunscreen while he dabs on SPF15.  The sun seems to actually enjoy him. Here's a photo of his skin versus mine for reference.

6. Umbrella anchor - yes, this is important enough to get a separate number. This was another lesson learned the hard way. I thought we had the umbrella and all would be grand. We showed up to the beach, jammed the umbrella into the sand as far as we could and approximately 10 minutes later the thing started to fall. Meanwhile all of these other families around us, who were clearly seasoned pros, brought with them this amazing contraption. They put it in the sand, twisted a couple times and BOOM, the umbrella is secured. Winds that were blowing small children around could not take down their umbrellas.

7. Food & drink - I have this condition where I have to eat every hour or I'll start whining.

Obviously your beach outing may require more accoutrement but at least if you have the above your beach reading will be a success.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Top Ten Sexiest Authors

Brenna over at LitMusings pulled together a list of her Top Ten Sexiest Male Authors. Greg from The New Dork Review followed her lead and has a list of his Top 10 Female Authors (in Terms of Hotness).  As I have no qualms with stealing ideas* here's my list. Since Brenna and Greg each took one gender I figured, to make my list something different; I'd do half and half. Yes, there will be some overlap because, let's face it, they have some great ones on there. I was going to base it just on looks, but a shitty book can make someone less attractive and a kick ass one can do wonders for them. And then of course there's someone like Stephen King where as much as I love the guy's writing he won't be making this list...

So here we go. First up the guys

5. Philip K. Dick
4. Ma Jian
3. Christopher Moore
2. Jonathan Safran Foer
1. Jasper Fforde

And now we have the ladies

5. Marisha Pessl
4. Jennifer Egan
3. Jessica Valenti
2. Dorothy Parker
1. Jhumpa Lahari

Aww, it's like the prom king and queen

Who do you think I missed?

*With appropriate links and the OK from the original creator

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

People respond to incentives

I had been waiting for what felt like forever to start reading SuperFreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. Not just because I wanted to read it but was in the middle of the China Rican reading challenge. I was/am a big fan of their first book Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything and was looking forward to a follow up as soon as I finished this one. But I wanted the book in paperback and I had to wait for it. I would read through a few pages whenever Boyfriend dragged me to the Apple store, so thank you Jobs for making SuperFreakonomics one of the example books in your book store.

SuperFreakonomics is a mix of economics and sociology, albeit a simplified version of both. Levitt's credentials, an economics professor at the University of Chicago, covers the economics details, while Dubner, a former writer and editor for The New York Times, takes on the writing duties. The title quote covers the basic theme to both books, and they elaborate on this further: "People respond to incentives, although not necessarily in ways that are predictable or manifest. Therefore, one of the most powerful laws in the universe is the law of unintended consequences." (xiv) They ask what seem like unusual or even pointless questions: what does a department store Santa and street prostitute have in common? or should a suicide bomber buy life insurance? and then use statistics to tease out an answer.

They examine problems but don't necessarily offer solutions. They're not really trying to persuade anyone that the results they provide mean we have to take any sort of action. Indeed, if there's anything one should take away from this it's the idea that things are related in crazy ways that may not seem obvious at first, second, third look and before dismissing something it's important to look at the problem from lots of different angles. They never claim their results are infallible and encourage people to challenge them on their blog. I've seen complaints about how the conclusions they come to are garbage and they're research methods are incomplete. That could certainly be the case, but you can't actually tell what their research methods are in this book because the book isn't made up of academic papers. If it was, I don't think it would be nearly as interesting because, let's face it, academic research papers aren't usually the most interesting thing to read and an NYT Bestseller they do not make.

If you liked Freakonomics, you'll probably like this one. It's really just more of the same, but that's not a bad thing. There are an unlimited amount of questions to be asked and this book just asks a few that didn't get asked with the first book. To be honest, if they end up writing another book, I'll probably read that one as well.

Title quote from page xiv

Dubner, Stephen and Steven Levitt. SuperFreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance. Harper Perennial, 2009.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Blogging Hiatus

I'm going to be on a blogging hiatus for the next week or so. It's actually a computer break so no email or Twitter either. I have a couple entries scheduled to post while I'm avoiding the computer because I know you'll just shrivel up and die without hearing my words of wisdom. Or rather, that's what my vanity believes. This is also my way of explaining why, when I decide to come back to my computer, you're going to be getting comments from me on a bunch of your old posts.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

So many of the people I know in China have shed their old skins and picked up new lives

The final book I've read for my China Rican reading challenge was Jianying Zha's China Pop: How Soap Operas, Tabloids, and Bestsellers Are Transforming a Culture. I'd mentioned in an early post that Boyfriend had this book from one of his college classes and it looked interesting enough. Learning about Chinese culture through their pop culture? Sounds good to me. Plus after finishing up Beijing Coma, which deals with the massacre at Tiananmen Square, I needed something up-lifting about this topic.

Zha focuses on a small period of time, from Tiananment to when the book is written in '95. She mentions the past only in order to give context to the direction things have gone but focuses on contemporary issues. This is what drew me to book. Well that and the bright colors. I wanted something to tell me that things weren't as pessimistic as I was feeling at the end of Beijing Coma. And I knew nothing of Chinese culture except the basic stereotypes that have filtered through my own pop culture. Even after reading this I can't say I know much, not because Zha does a bad job explaining and exploring the culture but because there is so much to know and obviously one book is not going to make me an expert. But this was an interesting introduction

Here's the thing: I'm not quite sure anyone's really explained to Zha what really constitutes pop culture. The book starts off on this foot, discussing the insanely popular soap opera Yearnings, how it came to be, how it's seen by different groups in China and some effects it's had on the culture. But after this she moves into city planning and architecture, avante guard movie making, literature and the business side of Hong Kong's proliferation in pop music. Not the music itself, but the way the company expanded and ran after internal changes. This was still interesting but not what I was lead to believe I would be reading.

Her chapter Yellow Peril about the author Jia Pingwa's book The Abandoned Capital probably does the best job of bridging the gap between the pop culture she say's she's going to talk about and the high art she actually tackles. The book captured the nation's attention because of the explicit, by China's standards anyway, sex scenes. The book was eventually banned, which of course just made the book that much more popular. She interviews the author about the response to his book as well as several "elite intellectuals" about the book and its affect on the culture. Maybe because this chapter had to do with a book I found it one of the most interesting ones.

Unless you're looking to learn more about China's culture in the years right after Tiananmen, I wouldn't recommend picking this up. It was interesting for what it was but if it hadn't been for this challenge I don't think I would have stuck with this book.

Title quote from page 7

Zha, Jianying. China Pop: How Soap Operas, Tabloids, and Bestsellers Are Transforming a Culture. The New Press, 1995.

Friday, July 1, 2011

June Reading Wrap-Up

June is done, and with that my China Rican reading challenge is complete. And only one measly temper tantrum about the whole thing. Last month all of the authors I read were white and from the US, so this month definitely fixed that. I wish I'd found some Puerto Rican authors that I really enjoyed but that didn't happen. I refuse to believe there are no good Puerto Rican authors out there. They're just doing an awesome job of hiding from me. That said I asked an English professor from Puerto Rico* and he couldn't come up with anything either. So apparently they're hiding from everyone.

Anyway, to the stats!

Number of books read
The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
When I Was Puerto Rican by Esmeralda Santiago
Beijing Coma by Ma Jian
China Pop: How Soap Operas, Tabloids, and Bestsellers Are Transforming a Culture by Jianying Zha

Total pages read

Percentage of fiction reads

Percentage of female authors

Percentage of white authors
25% Hispanic
75% Asian

Percentage of US authors

Percentage of eBooks

Percentage of re-reads

Books written by decade
1980s - 25%
1990s - 50%
2000s - 25%

Take that, all white, all US authors from last month. I'm glad I did the challenge and read some authors I wouldn't have picked up, especially Ma Jian's. Plus I have a whole bunch of other Chinese authors suggested that I want to check out.

And since Q2 has ended, here are my Q2 stats...

Number of books read

Total pages read

Percentage of fiction reads

Percentage of female authors

Percentage of white authors

Percentage of authors from the US

Percentage of eBooks

Percentage of re-reads

I'm surprised by the low amount of US and white authors overall. They're still more than half of my reading, but it's not almost all of my reading. Go me.

*Or rather, I asked my mom's boyfriend, also from Puerto Rico, and he asked his friend the professor but see how much longer that took to explain?