Wednesday, June 20, 2007
Tuesday, June 19, 2007
Ask A Mexican! by Gustavo Arellano (www.askamexican.net)
WHAT IS ¡ASK A MEXICAN! ?
Questions and answers about our spiciest Americans. I explore the clichés of lowriders, busboys, and housekeepers; drunks and scoundrels; heroes and celebrities; and most important, millions upon millions of law-abiding, patriotic American citizens and their illegal-immigrant cousins who represent some $600 billion in economic power.
WHY SHOULD I READ ¡ASK A MEXICAN! ?
At 37 million strong (or 13 percent of the U.S. population), Latinos have become America's largest minority -- and beaners make up some two-thirds of that number. I confront the bogeymen of racism, xenophobia, and ignorance prompted by such demographic changes through answering questions put to me by readers of my ¡Ask a Mexican! column in California's OC Weekly. I challenge you to find a more entertaining way to immerse yourself in Mexican culture that doesn't involve a taco-and-enchilada combo.
Cruddy by Lynda Barry
Library Journal: Barry, whose recent graphic novel, The Freddie Stories, took as its subject the dysfunctional family from her newspaper cartoon strip, now takes us into the head of an indomitable 16-year-old. Roberta Rohbeson lives with her mother and half-sister, Julie, in a crumbling neighborhood overlooking a garbage-filled ravine. Roberta's energetic voice carries us along two story-lines. In one, Roberta and a classmate, Vicky, cut school and meet up with a series of low-life young men. Simultaneously, Roberta provides us with a running account of a cross-country crime spree with her father when she was 11. This trip involves three suitcases full of money, lots of alcohol, gore, putrefaction, and some of the most desolate, godforsaken locales in modern fiction. It also contains more violence than this reader can usually tolerate, yet Roberta's wacky, irrepressible outlook makes her story fresh, compelling, and sometimes hilarious. Does Roberta survive? All I can say is, she gets my vote as one of the all-time great unreliable narrators. Recommended for most fiction collections
The Alienist by Caleb Carr
Publishers Weekly: Set in 1896, Carr's novel about a serial killer lose in New York City was a 25-week PW bestseller.
Train by Peter Dexter
Publisher's Weekly: National Book Award winner Dexter's new book is about pain: the men and women who deliver the emotional and physical blows and the limits of those who bend and break beneath them. This is a theme that runs like a dark thread through Dexter's work, from his prize-winning Paris Trout to The Paperboy. In his latest, no one escapes unscathed, and that includes the reader. It's 1953, and Lionel Walk, a black 18-year-old caddy known as Train, works at an exclusive Los Angeles golf course. The members there are cruel and bigoted, the other caddies violent and criminal. Train is badly treated by everyone except enigmatic golfer Miller Packard, who plays a decent game and recognizes that Train has a special talent for the sport. Packard is a police sergeant who comes to the rescue of beautiful Norah Rose when she is viciously attacked and her husband is slaughtered in an attempted boat hijacking. Packard and Norah fall in love, and he moves into her Beverly Hills home. Meanwhile, Train loses his job and eventually finds work as a groundskeeper at the rundown Paradise Developments golf course. He gets the course back into shape, but this hopeful interlude cannot last. A botched tree-removal project ends in tragic farce, and Train is set adrift again. Packard-a rescuer once more-finds Train, turns him into a golf shark and wins thousands on the boy's exceptional talent. In clear, pitch-perfect prose, Dexter moves the relentless story forward, exposing the ironies and dark undercurrents of charitable actions. The calamitous conclusion looms over the novel from the start, and it comes just as the reader knows it must.
Paris Trout by Peter Dexter
Publisher's Weekly: An expertly crafted and bleakly fascinating tale of social conflict and madness in the deep South, this novel centers on the eponymous Paris Trout, owner of a general store and other property in Cotton Point, Ga., during the years just after World War II. A cunning, violent man, with deep roots in the community, Trout has become an economic predator of the town's poor blacks by running a loan service for them out of the safe in his store's back room. The tensions between Trout and the blacks reaches a critical point when Trout, along with a strong-arm goon, murders an 11-year-old black girl and badly injures a black woman while collecting a debt. Into the vortex of this storm are drawn a number of other characters, highlighting the racial and social divisions of Cotton Point: lawyer and gentleman Harry Seagraves, who is repelled by the case; Paris's wife Hannah, brutalized by her husband and in powerful psychological bondage to him; and Carl Bonner, a young, idealistic lawyer who seesaws between his past in the town and his recently acquired sense of being an outsider in its circumscribed society. Trout's murder trial forces Cotton Point to face some dark truths, while setting in motion a chain of events that lead to a crescendo of violence. Dexter (Deadwood, God's Pocket) is a deft and economical storyteller and a cruel but observant chronicler of deep South customs and characters, with something of a Faulknerian feeling for the bullying violence that can lay at the heart of an inbred small town.
Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy
500 Great Books by Women: With honest and compelling prose, Marge Piercy delves into the mind of thirty-seven-year-old Consuelo (Connie) Ramos, a woman who exists on the fringes of life in contemporary New York City. Early in the novel Connie beats up her niece's pimp and is committed - again - to the psychiatric ward in Bellevue Hospital. The novel shifts between the horrible conditions in psychiatric wards and the year 2137, as Connie at first talks to, then time travels with Luciente, a person from that future time. Luciente lives in a non-sexist, communal country where people's survival is ensured based on need, not money. A sense of freedom, choice, and safety are part of Luciente's world; Connie's world is the complete opposite. Though Connie struggles to stand up for herself and others in the treatment centers, she knows that the drugs she is forced to take weaken her in every way. She knows she shouldn't be there, knows how to play the game, and tells herself "You want to stop acting out. Speak up in Tuesday group therapy (but not too much and never about staff or how lousy this place was) and volunteer to clean up after the others." But she knows she is stuck. Connie spends more time "away" with Luciente, trying to develop a way out of her hell. Ultimately Connie makes her plan of action, and the book leaves us with our own questions about Connie's insanity and decisions.
Thursday, June 7, 2007
I don't know why I always think I'll have reading time in the summer. It's so short and we are typically travelling a lot, which means I can't get much reading done -- it's a different story if you are travelling alone or by air, of course.
The only book I read from the top photo was the Time Traveler's Wife. From the second photo, I read everything except the Norton Anthology and the Jane Austen collection (!), but most of these were children's books, quick and easy stuff.
So this year, I am setting no summer reading goals, except to read all the book club picks.
You can see my 2007 reading list HERE. I typically give a very short review, my general opinion of the book. I update about twice a month.
I an enjoying the recommendations so far -- keep them coming!
Wednesday, June 6, 2007
Amazon.com: When Rita Golden Gelman traveled to Mexico during a two-month separation from her husband, she hoped to satisfy an old craving for adventure and, in the process, rejuvenate herself and her marriage. Little did she know it was the beginning of a new life, not just as a divorcée, but as a nomad of the world. Since 1986, Gelman has had no permanent address and no possessions except those she can carry. She travels without a plan, guided by instinct, serendipitous opportunities, and a remarkable ability to connect with people. At first her family and friends accused her of running away, but Gelman knew she had embarked on a journey of self-discovery and a way of life that is inspiring and enviable.
Babs says: "I love reading books you can find in the Travel Essay section of the bookstore. This book is not in the humor sub-genre, a la Bill Bryson, which I dearly love. It is in what I would call the inspirational rebirth/transformation sub-genre. I like to read books like this when I am feeling like I wish I were anywhere else besides my cushy life here in the good old U.S. of A!
The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Man in the World by AJ Jacobs
School Library Journal: When Jacobs, a pop-culture junkie and magazine editor, got a bee in his bonnet to read the entire abridged set of the Encyclopedia Britannica to stave off the decline of his recalled knowledge, his wife, family, and coworkers looked on with disbelief, amusement, and annoyance. They thought he'd give up on his quest, but fortunately he did not, for his recap manages to impart the joys of learning, along with a lot of laughs.
Babs says: "O.k., I admit it! I was totally drawn to this book because I too tried to do this as a kid! Now yes, I did not even come close - much like my attempts to read the dictionary from beginning to end (there are a lot of boring "A" words!! :^)) And AJ Jacobs has a nice writing style (as we would hope a magazine editor would) and he is funny. Who among us can't appreciate self-deprecating humor, eh?"
Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach
Publisher's Weekly: "Uproariously funny" doesn't seem a likely description for a book on cadavers. However, Roach, a Salon and Reader's Digest columnist, has done the nearly impossible and written a book as informative and respectful as it is irreverent and witty. From her opening lines ("The way I see it, being dead is not terribly far off from being on a cruise ship. Most of your time is spent lying on your back"), it is clear that she's taking a unique approach to issues surrounding death. Roach delves into the many productive uses to which cadavers have been put, from medical experimentation to applications in transportation safety research (in a chapter archly called "Dead Man Driving") to work by forensic scientists quantifying rates of decay under a wide array of bizarre circumstances. There are also chapters on cannibalism, including an aside on dumplings allegedly filled with human remains from a Chinese crematorium, methods of disposal (burial, cremation, composting) and "beating-heart" cadavers used in organ transplants. Roach has a fabulous eye and a wonderful voice as she describes such macabre situations as a plastic surgery seminar with doctors practicing face-lifts on decapitated human heads and her trip to China in search of the cannibalistic dumpling makers. Even Roach's digressions and footnotes are captivating, helping to make the book impossible to put down.
Babs says: "A MUST-READ!" C'mon, how often do we get to read entertaining tales about cadavers? All I can really say is - who KNEW?!?!?"
Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith by Anne Lamott
Amazon.com: For most writers, the greatest challenge of spiritual writing is to keep it grounded in concrete language. The temptation is to wander off into the clouds of ethereal epiphanies, only to lose readers with woo-woo thinking and sacred-laced clichés. Thankfully, Anne Lamott (Operating Instructions, Crooked Little Heart) knows better. In this collection of essays, Lamott offers her trademark wit and irreverence in describing her reluctant journey into faith. Every epiphany is framed in plainspoken (and, yes, occasionally crassly spoken) real-life, honest-to-God experiences. . . . Whether she's writing about airplane turbulence, bulimia, her "feta cheese thighs," or consulting God over how to parent her son, Lamott keeps her spirituality firmly planted in solid scenes and believable metaphors. As a result, this is a richly satisfying armchair-travel experience, highlighting the tender mercies of Lamott's life that nudged her into Christian faith.
Babs says: "I was familiar with her book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, and this book looked interesting. This book about faith works in my opinion because Anne Lamott is a real, flawed person."
Getting Stoned With Savages: A Trip Through the Islands of Fiji and Vanuatu by J. Maarten Troost
Publishers Weekly: Troost and his wife, Sylvia, move from busy Washington, D.C., to Vanuatu, a nation made up of 83 islands in the South Pacific. As Sylvia works for a regional nonprofit, Troost immerses himself in the islands' culture, an odd mix of the islanders' thousand-year-old "kastoms" along with imperialist British and French influences. This really means that Troost gets to live in a nice house while he gets drunk on kava; dodges "a long inferno of magma and a cascade of lava bombs" at the "world's most accessible volcano"; and checks out the "calcified" leftovers from one of Vanuatu's not-so-ancient traditions, cannibalism. At the end of the book, the couple move to Fiji so that Sylvia will have state-of-the-art medical care when she gives birth to their first baby. While modern-day Fiji provides little fodder for Troost's comic sensibilities, the birth of his son enables him to share some deeper thoughts and decide it is "time to stop looking for paradise." A funny travelogue with a sentimental heart, Troost's latest work genuinely captures the search for paradise as well as the need for home.
Babs says: "Troost also wrote another book - The Sex Lives of Cannibals, which if I don't recommend further along in this post, it is because I read it before January 2005. :^) But I would recommend reading that first, as chronologically the events in that book pre-date those in this one. I just really, really like the travel essay genre. I think it's because I wish I were these people, traveling all over the world and making money by writing books about my experiences."
War Reporting for Cowards by Chris Ayres
The New Yorker: A twenty-seven-year-old hypochondriac, Ayres managed just nine days as an embed in Iraq before retreating to a luxury hotel in Kuwait, and his book is principally about the serendipitous career path that landed him in the back of a Humvee. With self-deprecating wit, he recollects his days as a newsroom intern and then as a reporter covering the dot-com boom for an English paper. He dates his vocation as a war correspondent to the collapse of the Twin Towers and the receipt of an e-mail from London requesting a "thousand wds please on ‘I saw people fall to death,' etc." When the Iraq invasion began, his editors dismissed embedding as a diversionary ruse by the U.S. Army, and put their veteran correspondents far from the front lines, leaving Ayres with an American artillery unit nicknamed Long Distance Death Dealers. Facing his own death during an ambush by Iraqi tanks, Ayres admits that he feels like a coward not "for being scared of war" but, rather, "for agreeing to go to war" and letting "my journalist's ego get the better of me."
Babs says: "I decided to read this book because I had followed almost nothing concerning the war in Iraq (mainly because it started three or four days after Naomi was born and also because it is frustrating and depressing). And what better way to immerse myself I thought than by reading a book by a Brit who had no idea what the heck he was doing there."
Thunderstruck by Erik Larson
Publishers Weekly: In this splendid, beautifully written followup to his blockbuster thriller, Devil in the White City, Erik Larson again unites the dual stories of two disparate men, one a genius and the other a killer. The genius is Guglielmo Marconi, inventor of wireless communication. The murderer is the notorious Englishman Dr. H.H. Crippen. Scientists had dreamed for centuries of capturing the power of lightning and sending electrical currents through the ether. Yes, the great cable strung across the floor of the Atlantic Ocean could send messages thousands of miles, but the holy grail was a device that could send wireless messages anywhere in the world.
School Library Journal: Larson's page-turner juxtaposes scientific intrigue with a notorious murder in London at the turn of the 20th century. It alternates the story of Marconi's quest for the first wireless transatlantic communication amid scientific jealousies and controversies with the tale of a mild-mannered murderer caught as a result of the invention
Babs says: "I didn't find this book as compelling as The Devil in the White City because the two stories are not happening simultaneously. The connection is that the invention later helps to catch the murderer; unlike Devil in the White City, where everything was happening all at the same time, lending it better pace and excitement in my opinion. It is still a wonderful read though!"
An Ordinary Man: An Autobiography by Paul Rusesabagina
Publishers Weekly: For former hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina, words are the most powerful weapon in the human arsenal. For good and for evil, as was the case in the spring of 1994 in Rwanda. Over 100 days, some 800,000 people were slaughtered, most hacked to death by machete. Rusesabagina, inspiration for the movie Hotel Rwanda used his facility with words and persuasion to save 1,268 of his fellow countrymen, turning the Belgian luxury hotel under his charge into a sanctuary from madness. Through negotiation, favor, flattery and deception, Rusesabagina managed to keep his "guests" alive another day despite the homicidal gangs just beyond the fence and the world's failure to act. . . . This tale of good, evil and moral responsibility winds down with Rusesabagina visiting a church outside Kigali where thousands were massacred and where a multilingual sign-cloth now pledges, "Never Again." He once more stops to consider words, the ones he worries lack true conviction like those at the church as well as the ones with the power to heal. For the listener, the words of Paul Rusesabagina won't soon be forgotten.
Babs says: "A compelling read. A reminder of the horrors that have happened in our lifetimes. It's really unfathomable."
Tuesday, June 5, 2007
Tales of the City (series of 6 books) by Armistead Maupin
Publisher's Weekly: Maupin's alternately playful and sentimental tales depict an all-too-easily satirized population of transients and toffs living in and around San Francisco
Babs says: "These books are set in SF in the late 70s-early 80s - a very interesting time in that city's history in my opinion. The story started off as a newspaper serial and a couple of years later was published as a book and it went on from there. I raced through these books. I may have enjoyed them because I was living in the Bay Area at the time. There is an entertaining cast of characters (gay and straight) surrounding the main character- MaryAnn Singleton. I also rented and enjoyed the PBS series after I read all of the books."
On June 12, Michael Tolliver Lives! will be released in hardback, and I will definitely be reading it.
Remaining books in series: More Tales of the City; Further Tales of the City, Babycakes, Significant Others, Sure of You
Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore
Amazon.com: While the Bible may be the word of God, transcribed by divinely inspired men, it does not provide a full (or even partial) account of the life of Jesus Christ. Lucky for us that Christopher Moore presents a funny, lighthearted satire of the life of Christ--from his childhood days up to his crucifixion--in Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal. This clever novel is surely blasphemy to some, but to others it's a coming-of-age story of the highest order.
Publishers Weekly: A childhood pal of the savior is brought back from the dead to fill in the missing 30-year "gap" in the Gospels in Moore's latest, an over-the-top festival of sophomoric humor that stretches a very thin though entertaining conceit far past the breaking point. The action starts in modern America, specifically in a room at the Hyatt in St. Louis, where the angel who shepherds "Levi who is called Biff" has to put Christ's outrageous sidekick under de facto house arrest to get him to complete his task.
Babs says: "This will go down as one of my FAVORITE books of all time! It is just too, too hilarious, and very interesting, in my opinion. I was raised Protestant. I would say I am "lapsed" now, but I did not find this book at all blasphemous or offensive. I mean it IS fiction. I really appreciated the Buddhist and Hindu sub-plots. I'm always hoping for people to take a wider view of Jesus (one I like to think that he, himself would appreciate) and his place in our world."
Timequake by Kurt Vonnegut
Amazon.com: Timequake's a mongrel; it is half novel, half memoir, the project of a decade's worth of writer's block, a book "that didn't want to be written." The premise is standard-issue Vonnegut: "...a timequake, a sudden glitch in the space-time continuum, made everybody and everything do exactly what they'd done during past decades, for good or ill, a second time..." Simultaneously, the author's favorite tricks are on display--frequent visits with the shopworn science fiction writer Kilgore Trout, a Hitchcockian appearance by the author at the book's end, and frequent authorial opining on love, war, and society.
Babs says: "It was the new Vonnegut, and a good friend recommended it."
Against Gravity by Farnoosh Moshiri
Publishers Weekly: Iranian-born Moshiri's poignant, semiautobiographical third novel (after 2003's The Bathhouse) carefully observes the effects of loss on three people in 1980s Houston. Ric Cardinal is a devoted social worker; his former client, Madison Kirby, is a bitter former philosophy professor stricken by AIDS; Madison's neighbor, Roya, is an Iranian political refugee with a young daughter. Each protagonist narrates a story, and it is Roya's tale, which bears some resemblance to Moshiri's own, that most compels. While the other two fall prey to such utterances as Madison's upon meeting Roya for the first time ("Something stirred in my guts again and I wanted her the way I'd never wanted a female in my life") and are either sinner (Madison) or saint (Ric), Roya simmers with complexity and nuance. As Ric tries to counsel the increasingly difficult Madison and contend with his own schizophrenic teenage son, Roya recounts her days of wandering through the Middle East ("I didn't mention my dark thoughts—despair, dread of the unknown future, and the constant presence of death, real or imagined, in my dreams and wakefulness. Madness at times''). Her unlikely journey to Houston proves just as alienating, and Moshiri deftly conveys Roya's plight—and ultimately her courage—which are the novel's greatest strengths
Babs says: "I like to make a point of reading authors that round out all of the white anglo-saxon male authors I read. As I recall, either Bookmarks magazine or Bookbrowse recommended it."
Seven Types of Ambiguity by Elliott Perlman
Publishers Weekly: By copping the title of William Empson's classic of literary criticism, Australian writer Perlman (Three Dollars) sets a high bar for himself, but he justifies his theft with a relentlessly driven story, told from seven perspectives, about the effects of the brief abduction of six-year-old Sam Geraghty by Simon Heywood, his mother Anna's ex-boyfriend. Charismatic, unemployed Simon is still obsessed with Anna nine years after their breakup—to the dismay of his present lover, Angelique, a prostitute. Anna's stockbroker husband, Joe, is one of Angelique's regulars, which feeds Simon's flame. When Angelique turns Simon in to the cops, he claims he had permission to pick Sam up; his fate hinges on whether Anna will back up his lie. Most of the perspectives are linked to Simon's shrink, Alex Klima, who writes to Anna and counsels Simon, Angelique and Joe's co-worker, Dennis. The most successful voices belong to Joe, who's spent his career on the edge of panic, and Dennis, whose bitter rants provide a corrective to Klima's unctuous psychological omniscience. Perlman, a lawyer, aims for a literary legal novel—think Grisham by way of Franzen—and the ambition is admirable though the product somewhat uneven. Simon's obsessions, his self-righteousness and his psychological blackmail, give him a perhaps unintended creepiness, and the novel, as big and juicy as it is, may not offer sufficient closure.
Babs says: "I read this book in May 2006, but it is starred in my list of books as having enjoyed it. SO, I can't say that its alleged unevenness or its possible insufficient closure dampened it for me. I really enjoyed the structure of the book and I would agree with the statement that it was "big and juicy"!"
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
Amazon.com: From the Booker Prize-winning author of The Remains of the Day comes a devastating new novel of innocence, knowledge, and loss. As children Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy were students at Hailsham, an exclusive boarding school secluded in the English countryside. It was a place of mercurial cliques and mysterious rules where teachers were constantly reminding their charges of how special they were. Now, years later, Kathy is a young woman. Ruth and Tommy have reentered her life. And for the first time she is beginning to look back at their shared past and understand just what it is that makes them special–and how that gift will shape the rest of their time together. Suspenseful, moving, beautifully atmospheric, Never Let Me Go is another classic by the author of The Remains of the Day
Babs says: "If you liked Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, then this book is one for you. It deals with some interesting ethical issues about the value of human life. Ishiguro writes wonderfully!"
The Traveler by John Twelve Hawks
Publishers Weekly: Twelve Hawks's much anticipated novel is powerful, mainstream fiction built on a foundation of cutting-edge technology laced with fantasy and the chilling specter of an all-too-possible social and political reality. The time is roughly the present, and the U.S. is part of the Vast Machine, a society overseen by the Tabula, a secret organization bent on establishing a perfectly controlled populace. Allied against the Tabula are the Travelers and their sword-carrying protectors, the Harlequins. The Travelers, now almost extinct, can project their spirit into other worlds where they receive wisdom to bring back to earth—wisdom that threatens the Tabula's power. Maya, a reluctant Harlequin, finds herself compelled to protect two naïve Travelers, Michael and Gabriel Corrigan. Michael dabbles in shady real estate deals, while Gabriel prefers to live "off the Grid," eschewing any documentation—credit cards, bank accounts—that the Vast Machine could use to track him. Because the Tabula has engineered a way to use the Travelers for its own purposes, Maya must not only keep the brothers alive, but out of the hands of these evil puppet-masters. She succeeds, but she also fails, and therein lies the tale. By the end of this exciting volume, the first in a trilogy, the stage is set for a world-rending clash between good and evil.
Babs says: "This book is not one I would usually read, but I just found the topic appealing - and the author's name intrigued me. And I admit, I patted myself on the back for supporting a Native American author. I have since learned John Twelve Hawks is a pseudonym and his publishers provide no information about him other than he lives "off the grid."
Windflower by Nick Bantock
Booklist: In Griffin and Sabine creator Bantock's latest mix of story and art, Ana, a spirited young woman with a passion for dance, awakens on the morning of her wedding with a sense of dread. She is betrothed to Marco, and the wedding will mean that Ana's people, the Capolan, will abandon their nomadic ways and settle in a lush valley. Both Ana and her grandfather believe doing so would be a mistake, and when a storm breaks out during the wedding, she decides to run away and seek Felix Bulerias, the famed dance instructor her grandfather believes can help her convince the Capolans that the wedding plans are a mistake. Ana journeys to the town of Sedona, where she meets four very different men: the seductive Boreos, the dreamy Zephyr, the wise Mr. Hamattan, and the heroic Sirocco. Ana is drawn to all four for different reasons, but she gradually discovers their motives for befriending her are suspect. With lush, rich writing and beautiful illustrations on each page, Bantock and coauthor Ponti weave a mythological tale.
Babs says: "I bought this book because it is beautiful - physically beautiful. I enjoyed the Griffin and Sabine series for its unusual presentatio as well as its content, so I thought I would give this book a try. Glad I did!"