Thursday, December 29, 2011

Good American mystery writing????

A Cold Day for Murder (Kate Shugak, #1)A Cold Day for Murder by Dana Stabenow

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Having started my mystery/detective reading with the Scandanavians has (I'm afraid) set me up for disappointment as I now attempt some Americans. I didn't hate this book but, to give a sense of my overall engagement, I actually couldn't remember if I had finished it.

Overall I do like the Kate Shugak character--strong female, enigmatic, non-conforming--but at times the novel felt more like a trite romance novel than a mystery. While it had a few nods to the deeper issues of discrimination of the Aleut tribe, none are satisfyingly explored.

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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Just Good-E-nough: The tie the BINDS

The Tie That BindsThe Tie That Binds by Kent Haruf

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Not my favorite Haruf novel (see Plainsong and Eventide) but often compelling although also quite depressing. I don't mind depressing yet struggle when the depressing stuff happens even before I can care about the characters and then just continues throughout. Still an interesting narrative structure with a first-person account from one of the main characters, Sanders Roscoe; also, innovative while also frustratingly the mystery introduced at the beginning of the novel is not fully explained until the very end (though it's fairly easy to guess). I suppose that's Haruf's point that you can't fully understand a person's life, in this case Edith Goodnough, until you experience all the details. As the narrator says about trying to understand Edith's actions and lack of action, "well, that was their business, because when you know people all your life you try to understand how it is for them. What you can't understand you just accept."

When all is said and done the theme and title of the book, "The tie that binds," slams you like a sledge hammer--bind indeed. The reader is left to decide if Edith was quite GoodEnough in the end.

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Finally: A Room with a View (the book)

A Room With a ViewA Room With a View by E.M. Forster

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I loved this book, even more than I thought I would. I've seen the film a half dozen times over the years; it was actually the first film Alison and I watched together. I think she had borrowed it from her father so I could see it. I can still see the kitchen/living room area in the on-campus BYU housing: Heritage Halls. Her building, Bowen Hall, was actually torn down this last year--many good memories at Bowen. And it was significant that Alison wanted me to see this film, a story about Lucy Honeychurch, a woman engaged to marry a man who did not know her, who saw her as a painting to adore. Yet a tall order to live up to George, the young man who continues to pursue Lucy even when she is engaged, proclaiming his belief in love and beauty.

So I already knew that I would enjoy the story, but didn't realize how much philosophical depth the book would convey. I should have known having read Forster's "A Passage to India" some years ago. The center of this depth is George's father, the aptly named Mr. Emerson.

When Freddy (Lucy's brother) and Mr. Beebe (the reverend) go to meet the Emerson's, Freddy impetuously asks them to have a "bathe" (i.e. swim in the pond) which leads to Mr. Beebe giving a dig to Mr. Emerson who has declared that the sexes are equal. To which Mr. Emerson replies, "I tell you that they shall be...I tell you they shall be comrades." Then Beebe asks if we are to raise them (women) to our level and Mr. Emerson continues his defense but raises it to a philosophical argument larger than gender: "The Garden of Eden which you place in the past, is really yet to come. We shall enter it when we no longer despise our bodies." In one fell swoop he undermines literal religious ideology, gender stereotypes and the western Cartesian dualism of mind and body.

Of course this exchange and others sets up George's critique of Lucy's engagement to Cecil Vyse as he declares that Cecil does not see her as a woman, in fact is incapable of knowing a woman. And then these words Lucy repurposes later in order to get out of the engagement. Near the end Mr. Emerson is the "saint" who understands Lucy's troubles and helps her follow truth (I can hear some of today's feminists disparaging how the Truth is brought to Lucy through the Emerson men--it was the turn of the century though) and finally admit to her love for George.

With a focus on Mr. Emerson the book is as much a love story as a philosophical declaration of the goodness of the body, of the fraud of the western duality of mind and body. As Mr. Emerson declares to Lucy in both the film and book, "You love the boy body and soul."

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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Cities: An almost satisfying end to the Border Trilogy

Cities of the PlainCities of the Plain by Cormac McCarthy

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I found myself at home again in the life of a young romantic cowboy (John Grady Cole) after having read both "All the pretty horses" and "The Crossing" some years ago. While I do not think this ending-trilogy-novel is as good as the first two, it still did not disappoint...well, until the last 20 pages. Three key scenes will stick with me: John insisting on stopping to help a truckload of Mexicans with their blown out tire; a vicious tracking and roping (yes, roping, where one dog is split in half) of wild dogs that are killing the cattle, ultimately leading to John returning to the scene to recover the puppies left without a mother; John's stylized and ritualized (think Tarantino) knife fight with the pimp (though I won't want to remember this last one).

But I also, surely to the chagrin of many high-brow reviewers, fell for John and his young epileptic Mexican whore (a word I do not use lightly, but is necessary), Magdalena. That's right I did; I read for plot, wanting badly for John to be able to bring her back to the cabin he had fixed up all the while knowing that there was no way in hell that either character, in the hands of McCarthy, were going to make it through alive.

I think the novel unravels at the end because it's supposed to be, ultimately, about Billy Parham, the young boy of "The Crossing" who beautifully and paradoxically harnesses a she-wolf (one of the only dynamic female characters in the trilogy according to one critic) in order to take her back across the border to the mountains of Mexico. Billy's life, who is now older in "Cities...", is supposed to make us to reflect over the entire trilogy and this novel ends with a homeless Billy and 20 pages of ontological philosophy spewed by a fellow homeless Mexican. But McCarthy let's this larger trilogy-ending-move escape him as the reader cares much more about John and his romantic refusal to let the violence (also witnessed in "All the Pretty horses") the old world Mexico derail his pursuit of what *should* be. Because of this I tend to agree with Ruth Gray in her Yale Review of books:

"Other than an esoteric recounting of a dream-within-a-dream at the end of the novel, McCarthy seems to have abandoned the story-telling project altogether...But after providing so much for us to ponder on our previous journeys through his literary world, McCarthy leaves us with little more than an entertaining story."

I might not take it quite this far, it's still more than a merely entertaining story; yet somewhere the wheels come off near the end. It is a shame that the book and the trilogy do not end with John dying in Billy's arms; instead McCarthy preserves the relic of the cowboy seeing Billy to old life and hitting us upside the head with a philosophical treatise.

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Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, SpyTinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carré

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It's been on my bookshelves for almost 20yrs. Guess it's time to read it--serendipitously it looks like a new movie based on book is about to come out.

I could never quite get full-on into this book. Some sections really engaged me and I thought it was going to work for me, but it was tenuous and I'd lose it for 20 or so pages. Too cerebral? Too at a distance? Too much assumed knowledge about the British spy world? I don't know for sure.

Still, as with the other le Carre I've read you get much more than a mere spy novel. Take this reflection, near the end of the novel, as Smiley considers on the conspiracy he has helped to uncover:

"Like an actor, he had a sense of the approaching anti-climax before the curtain went up, a sense of great things dwindling to a small, mean end; as death itself seemed small and mean to him after the struggles of his life. He had no sense of conquest that he knew of. His thoughts, as often when he was afraid, concerned people. He had no theories or judgments in particular. He simply wondered how everyone would be affected; and he felt responsible...he wondered if there was any love between human beings that did not rest upon some sort of self-delusion...It worried him that he felt so bankrupt; that whatever intellectual or philosophical precepts he clung to broke down entirely now that he was faced with the human situation" (327).

It kind of reminds me of Eastwood's "Unforgiven" where as we root for the main character to win over his adversaries, the narrative itself pulls the rug out from us, forcing us to see that there are no conquests really, only people. Of course "Unforgiven" is much darker.

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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Ubiquity: from sand piles to history

Ubiquity: The Science of History . . . or Why the World Is Simpler Than We ThinkUbiquity: The Science of History . . . or Why the World Is Simpler Than We Think by Mark Buchanan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Physics all around--also watching the three part Nova series with youngest son about the fabric of the cosmos.

I'm most intrigued by Buchanan's discussion of instability, that many systems build up pressure of some sort and exist on what he calls the knife of instability. This critical state lends itself to occasional upheavals (an earthquake, massive extinctions, a war) with one small shift in the system. That is big events do not have big causes--how marvelously counterintuitive. His overriding metaphor is a sand pile which, surprisingly, physicists have spent much time playing in. And even more surprisingly, they have found that there is no "typical" size of an avalanche in a sand pile--sometimes only a few grains of sand, sometimes hundreds, sometimes thousands. The avalanches appear to be completely random.

Yet if this is the case then it is nearly impossible, then, to predict these upheavals. Of course this is akin to chaos theory but he moves beyond early chaos theory to describe power laws which describe the "patterns" of upheavability. These power laws do not allow us to predict one particular event; instead they demonstrate that across many systems both geological and biological there is a correlation between the number of small events (e.g. small earthquakes) and the number of large upheavals (e.g. massive earthquakes).

So while these power laws do not have much practical value at this point, they do, as physics often does, point to an underlying system which is not random yet is also not predictable. Finally he uses these theories to (which will undoubtedly disturb some) history where he argues against the great person or genius theories of history. Of course, as he admits, many historians have already questioned this analysis of history. What Buchanan adds is that nonequalibrium physics is the proper field to describe what will happen--not just in sand piles and earthquakes but in the most complex of human systems.

And why should we care about all this? Two reasons I think. One, because it points to the wonders of the universe--complex non-Newtonian patterns which do not rely on god. It gives us the in-between chaos and structure. Two, because these "patterns" still do not allow us to predict upheavability. And hence catastrophe, geological, historical, and personal, is not worth worrying about; it's no one's fault, no one CAUSE. Instead it is simply the working and pressure of a complex system much vaster and grander than we can currently imagine or keep track of.

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Monday, November 28, 2011

Self-destruction: Amsterdam by Ian McEwan

AmsterdamAmsterdam by Ian McEwan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'm not sure how I feel about this novel. It's a book about two friends, Vernon, a editor of a newspaper, and Clive, a semi-famous composer. The novel explores their friendship in the aftermath of the death of Molly, a woman who had, at some point, been a lover to each of them.

I was quite engaged with several of the themes--what binds us to others? and the ruminations on death and randomness where Clive, in a moment of despair, calls the questions the integrity of the wilderness by calling it a "gigantic brown gymnasium."

Throughout the novel, I was hoping to like both or at least one of the friends, but by the end I didn't care for either--surely McEwan's point. In fact I didn't like them at all. And to end the novel on that note made me feel let down. In a sense the novel deconstructed itself until in the last few pages the characters were remote, estranged, even silly, the novel itself withering with the last page into nothingness.

Pre-read note:

Needed something to read during LDS stake conference, so picked this up since I just finished Saturday by the same author and because I knew I couldn't follow the other novel I'm reading with the background of LDS doctrine and testimony, Le Carre's "Tinker, tailor, soldier, spy", because the plot is too convoluted.

A descent read so far.

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Friday, November 25, 2011


SaturdaySaturday by Ian McEwan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Has sucked me right in--read 100 pages already without really even trying.

And it kept clipping away with a startling climax. A compelling concept to focus on one day, not just any day, but a Saturday, the day when we take a break from routine, when we allow ourselves small luxuries. The novel takes us through various incidences which are discrete and yet, as we move along, interconnected.

Most of all the relationships, built through short incidences and remembrances, stuck with me: a close relationship with his dropout, musician son; a confident and solid relationship with his wife, whom we rarely see in the present-tense; a difficult relationship with his poet father-in-law; and as a sort of center: the relationship with his poet, liberal, strong, and more sympathetic to war protests daughter. All of this is pulled off with the backdrop of the pending Iraqi war.

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Saturday, June 11, 2011

A good read in two sittings or less

When You Reach MeWhen You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An engagingly plotted book, a mystery of sorts which I don't see a lot on children's lit for younger readers, at least not done well. After the first few chapters I raced to the end, finishing it in basically two sittings. While Rebecca Stead does rely on tried and true plot devices used in adult fiction (ones I won't give away here), she gives them a fresh twist. And Stead's book keeps giving as half way through you realize it is, in part, an homage to A wrinkle in time; also, the understated issues of race and difference are expertly handled. A great read--the Newberry committee, if they are listening :), did a fine job picking this one.

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Wednesday, May 18, 2011

A surprisingly good book

RulesRules by Cynthia Lord

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of the few books I've ever read about dealing with disability--daring, hopeful, humanizing. And there are many interesting themes like borrowing another's words or speaking for the other. This theme plays out in many ways, most compellingly as the main character, Catherine, creates communication cards for a boy she meets when taking her autistic brother to therapy.

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In time of cholera: a sorry review

Love in the Time of CholeraLove in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I almost read it but soured on it one hundred pages in. It's my second go at Gabriel Garcia Marquez and it simply fizzled as did 100 years--I can already hear the disbelief. I feel guilt about this (everyone loves this book, he did win the Nobel Prize etc etc) but in the end I'm not a fan. It felt overwrought and overdone. In a few pages I tired of Florentino's passionate love for Fermina. And maybe that's the point Marquez is making--to have a us tire of him and to question the simplicity of romantic love. If so I only needed a page or two instead of an entire novel.

I'm very sorry to any/all who love this book.

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A review of Disgrace: "No country, this, for old men"

Another tour de force by Coetzee. As in Slowman, Coetzee takes a man and strips him of all pretense while asking bare-boned, honest questions about our existence. A man who loses his job after an ill-fated affair with a student because he refuses to engage the religiously constructed language of his tribunal. Language makes no sense when his full acceptance of guilt is construed as obfuscation. This theme continues, shaped by the post-colonial South Africa, as he attempts to help his daughter living next to and among Africans with new rights. The gap runs parallel between the old and young, the Africans and whites: "It's not a country, this [playing off Yeat's poem] for old men." And Coetzee means it, does not shirk from the difficult task of facing the truth, as his narrator later explains (and could stand as a summation of the book): "By the time the big words come back reconstructed, purified, fit to be trusted once more, he will be long dead."

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Review: Into the Forest by Jean Hegland

A powerhouse of a read, something I didn't expect from a book I'd never heard of with tulips on the front cover; a deeply daring feminist, in contrast to so much politicking and wannabes, novel.

The story of two sisters living at the edge of the woods as the world disintegrates. Through flashback we learn of about their lives and parents, a stark contrasts to their current increasingly difficult lives.

While I felt on familiar ground at times, the ground of post-apocalyptic fear and gut-wrenching decisions, I was happily surprised time and again. I found myself realizing how much of SF, in general, and post-apocalyptic, specifically, fiction is told through the male gaze and experience; refreshing to imagine other ways to deal with pain, death and hunger.

Unfortunately, and this was confirmed while reading comments about the book in Goodreads, I won't be recommending this book to many people, nor will I choose it for my book club--it's too daring, too outside the box and I personally couldn't emotionally handle those who would judge it as weird.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

370 and counting

I'm not sure how it happened but I'm currently addicted to entering books on Goodreads. I've had an account for several years never thinking much of it even though I do have a long (as in decades) held desire to know how many books I've read in a year and to be able to keep track of which books I've read overall. Maybe I'd finally had enough of it, enough not knowing. Or maybe I'm reaching out for some sort of meaning, to construct something which says, "I've lived" or "I'm here!" or "My life counts--see how many books I've read." Whatever the deeper fucked up psychological reason, it doesn't really matter much why. I enjoy inputing the books, sometimes scanning a book I haven't touched in years, seeing my notes at the beginning (e.g. "1998 Thanksgiving Rexburg," "Book club 11/2008"), remembering my motivations for reading.

And I'm noticing patterns. There is a small spike in more serious nonfiction titles in 1999, which didn't make sense to me at first. But then, duh, I realized I finished my master's degree in 98 and then all of sudden had all this intellectual curiosity and also some time. That curiosity led me to many books (Kozol's Amazing Grace, Cahill's How the Irish Saved Civilization, Rodriguez's Hunger of Memor) and eventually led me out of teaching high school and to SLCC where I'm at now.

My actual reviews (if I enter one at all) are quite short but are less review, more reading autobiography. I've less interested in evaluated the books than of marking what the book meant to me at the time of reading. For example Kozol's Amazing Grace made me aware of poverty in a way I'd never been aware of before, made me feel in in my bones. Under my review for The Roadless Traveled, a book I'm unsure (maybe even afraid) how I would respond to now, I clearly situate the book in my life history:

"For a long time this was my personal Bible, my bulwark against Mormonism and religion. The section on love had a profound effect on me and continues to come to mind as an adult: real love is always based on the concern for another person's spiritual growth. e

My mom gave me this book, an amazing insightful move."

Having entered hundreds of books over the last few weeks, the supposed big events (graduations, LDS mission, girlfriends, jobs, houses) of my life grayscale into the background, allowing defined book covers into the foreground, which knit together my emotional and intellectual shifts and development.

It's an episodic, much less linear, representation of my life. For the moment it is a representation I intend to indulge in, savor, squeezing out the supposed milestones. I rather like seeing my life as stitched together passages about love and spiritual growth from the Road Less Traveled (read in 1986) with Kabat-Zinn's (read in 2009)ideas on mindfulness and accepting where one is. On one hand the two readers of these books, separated by 23 years seem impossibly distinct and distant; on the other hand both readers--the 17 year old unsure about his desires and the 40 year old unsure about anyone defining his desires--clearly come from the same self, the same self who has now for years found such pleasure and discovery through reading.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Pesthouse: A post-apocalyptic reshaping of the American Dream

The second paragraph of the prologue made me pause, gave me hope in that I was about to experience something BIG:

"But there are always some awake in the small times of the morning--teh lovemakers, for instance, the night workers, the ones with stone-hard beds or aching backs, the ones with nagging consciences or bladders, the sick. And animals of course."

What a lovely, spot on passage, BIG passage. And overall this post-apocalyptic tale did not disappoint as we watch the unlikely pairing of Franklin and Red Margaret, Franklin tenderly pulling the sickness out of Margaret as she suffers abandoned in the pesthouse.

Yet the journey is devastating, in several ways more violent and less hopeful than McCarthy's harrowing The Road. Here too they travel on a road towards the ocean and hope. But this is a world fraught with illness, fear, and calculating marauders who slaughter and laugh. America has been brought down to its knees; there is no liberty or freedom or American Dream.

Crace courageously tries to at once deconstruct the American Dream through fire and pain...and I wanted embrace his new dream built out of the ashes but, ultimately, stood back--book at arm's length--and watched, unable to completely embrace it.

Still, the impossible romance--the tenderness, the humanity amongst hopelessness, the understated understanding--between Franklin and Margaret will remain with me.

Monday, March 14, 2011

A sprinkle of grading

Spring break is wonderful even with a sprinkle of grading to finish up the day:

  • first bike ride of the year with Ali yesterday (she did take crash but recovered and got back on the horse)
  • reach 200 books on my Goodreads account though I cheated by adding 30 Three investigator books from my youth--but hey I loved these books and they had to go on the list
  • Read a good sized chunk of The Pesthouse by Jim Crace, a post-apocalyptic journey novel. Kind of similar to The Road in content though not style.
  • finished Waltz with Bashir, an intriguing/disturbing animated film about a Jewish soldier who has lost his memories of serving in Lebanon
I will leave you with one of the most compelling/haunting images from Waltz...