Tag Archives: Books Read in 2006

2006 Books Read – #15

Dark Star Safari by Paul Theroux

Dark Star Safari

I started reading this back in September (or was it August?). At any rate, once school started, that reading usurped this reading (as it so often does) and here we are. I’m on vacay now and I finished it!

The front/back cover quotes give a rather upbeat impression of the book’s contents, but as is so often the case with cover blurbs, they are off the mark. “Rollicking entertainment.”? I think not, Publishers Weekly. Now, it’s true that Paul Theroux cracks me up in a way that he really shouldn’t. I mean, I’m constantly rolling my eyes and groaning at his sexism, but that’s part of the reason he amuses me, I guess (he’s also snarky and observant). Anyhow. So, all throughout this journey, he’s working on this “erotic short story,” the fact of which is hilarious. It’s such a counterpoint to the situations he finds himself in while traveling by bus/train/boat/etc. from Egypt to South Africa. At the same time, it’s the ribbon that ties the whole thing together, because this trip was for him a return to Africa. In the ’60s, he spent two years in the Peace Corps, teaching in Malawi. To understand this book, you really have to read his “novel” My Secret History first. In brief, the main character, Andre Parent (bwahaha), a fledgling writer, joins the Peace Corps as a teacher (sound familiar?) and spends his time in Africa having a lot of sex with local girls.

Well, it was the ’60s. Now it’s the ’00s. So the trip is a reflection on what has changed and what hasn’t and whether it’s better or worse or just is what it is. It gets you thinking about the havoc that colonialism has wrought (and is still wreaking, really), not just in Africa, but all over the world. And it gives you just an inkling of an idea of just how complicated it all is, how many facets there are, how so much depends on who you are and how you’re looking at the situation—and how difficult (if not impossible) it is for outsiders to understand anything. His observations about the effects of foreign aid (both money/other donations and workers/volunteers) are thought-provoking.

Overall, I found it thoughtful rather than rollicking. Often sad, but always affectionate. Not recommended unless you’ve read some of his other work (including MSH). I’d think it would be just an eccentric travelogue without the context.

2006 Books Read – #14

Claire’s Head by Catherine Bush

Claire's Head

I bought this because I really enjoyed Rules of Engagement.

Like RoE, Claire’s Head deals (in part) with the dynamic between sisters. I don’t have a sister, so reading about sister relationships is kind of like exploring a foreign country for me. Which is to say, strange, but at the same time, interesting.

The story is primarily an exploration of pain and how we live with it. Claire and her oldest sister Rachel suffer from migraines. Middle sister Allison does not. (Is it a cliche that the middle kid is the prosaic one? Is it meant to be?) The sisters lost their parents in a freak accident some years earlier, so there is also an element of grief involved.

Essentially the plot is as follows: Rachel disappears. Claire travels the world looking for her. Allison does not join her. Claire’s personal and work relationships suffer the more time she spends away. She also suffers from increasingly devastating migraines.

The descriptions of Claire’s pain can be hard to read and I was relieved to get through the book without triggering any psychosomatic headaches.

I didn’t find CH quite as compelling a story as RoE. The mystery is pretty straightforward. But of course, a twisty plot is not the point here, and as an exploration of what it’s like living with chronic pain, particularly pain in one’s head—which is different from other pain, because you can’t distance yourself from it—it’s superb.

2006 Books Read – #13

Double Vision by Pat Barker

Double Vision

The trouble was, Kate thought, Alec had always thought of himself as a good man. That made him sound smug and horrible, which he wasn’t, but he did tend to assume that in the war of good and evil he’d always be on the right side, whereas Kate couldn’t help thinking real adult life starts when you admit the other possibility. ‘We’re all a bit like that, aren’t we?’

Ah, that’s why I love Pat Barker. Even if this book had nothing else to recommend it, it would be worth reading just for that bit.

Barker’s writing is eloquent and unfussy. She’s really readable. Lovely writing, no distractions.

There are two main characters in this book: a burned-out war journalist who is grappling with the death of his photographer friend, and the photographer’s wife, a sculptor, who is not only dealing with the death of her husband, but also recovering from a bad car accident. Their lives intersect when the journalist returns home to work on a book about his experiences. A romantic relationship does develop, but not between these two characters.

It’s an absorbing story on the surface level. But it also—as is typical for a Barker novel—explores complex questions about war and violence.

This isn’t my favorite Barker book, but it’s the best book I’ve read this year.

2006 Books Read – #12

House of Smoke by JF Freedman

House of Smoke

When we were visiting the parental units earlier this summer, they had a box of books by the door ready to go out. Mom asked if I was interested in anything. I poked through the box and grabbed a Paul Theroux novel. She encouraged me to take this one as well.

This is a okay detective story, but nothing special. I kept getting ahead of the plot, which… I’m not sure why that is. I never used to be much of a plot-guesser. Maybe I’ve just read too many detective novels and I know all the elements.

The lead is a female ex-cop turned PI with Issues (her ex beat her, she’s lost custody of her kids). My main quibble is that it was obvious to me that this was a male writer writing a female character. He kept having her do either a) things guys think all women do (like wear sexy pink panties under her police uniform. WTF?) or b) things guys want women to do (like the requisite f/f “but I’m not a lesbian!” “me neither!” sex scene). Also, she inevitably had to be rescued by a dude. Arggh.

So yeah. Somewhat exasperating, but an acceptable beach read. Totally the kind of thing you’d pick up in the little new/used bookstore just off Main Street in the resort town you’re spending your vacation in to read at the beach. You know what I’m talking about. Which, come to think of it, is probably exactly where it originated 😉

2006 Books Read – #11

Girlbomb: A Halfway Homeless Memoir by Janice Erlbaum

Girlbomb

This came to me as a “just because” gift from Eden. Isn’t she sweet? 😉 Okay, thoughtful. That’s better. Wouldn’t want to ruin her rep!

No expectations this time around; I knew nothing about the book except for what was on the book jacket.

Like Running With Scissors, Girlbomb is a memoir of the author’s teen years. Like Augusten Burroughs, Erlbaum ends up almost-but-not-quite homeless as a result of poor parenting. In her case, she leaves home (and ends up in a shelter) when her mother gets back together with an abusive husband.

Erlbaum, like Burroughs, has a good sense of humor about her experience. Unlike Burroughs, who quit attending school somewhere around the 6th grade, no matter how chaotic her “home” life got, Erlbaum kept going to school and ultimately graduated. I suppose some people will find this incredible, but it made sense to me. I think it goes to what I was saying in my RWS review: of course, high school is inane, but it does provide order / structure, which would be comforting if the rest of your life is in chaos.

Ultimately, I found Girlbomb a more relatable memoir than RWS. Although the events portrayed were more extreme than than anything I personally experienced, they also had the ring of familiarity. I sympathized with the author’s actions and motivations, rather than being frustrated by them. And the people, while not always likable, at least had some redeeming qualities—more “normal” human fallibility, less outright crazy.

2006 Books Read – #10

Running With Scissors by Augusten Burroughs

Running With Scissors

Disclaimer: It’s quite possible that six years of reading submissions has left me fed up with Outrageous Antics as plot devices. Yes, I know, this is a memoir.

This was another book I expected to like more than I did. I mean, I liked it, but I didn’t love it. Maybe there was too much build-up (I read somewhere that this & Dry were Anderson Cooper’s favorite books). I don’t know. It wasn’t as funny as I expected. It was more like, enough already, pull yourselves together, people. I mean, I went through one year (I was 11) when I was kind of messy—I think it was more of an experiment than anything—letting the clothes pile up on the second bed and stuff like that. But it always felt so good to clean it up. I mean, maybe that’s why I’d let things slide a bit, because putting them back in order was so satisfying.

Anyhow, point: I’m pretty sure if I’d been stuck living with this incredibly annoying family (OMG, soooo annoying! Not wacky at all. Just irritating. Trying way too hard to Be Eccentric, IMO. I wanted to give them all a good smack.), I’d have come to the end of my rope with the unhygienic living conditions damn quick and would have been doing dishes, laundry, and home repairs in order to maintain my own sanity. I certainly couldn’t have just rolled with it. I’d have lived in a tent in the backyard if necessary.

So essentially I read this twitching with frustration at the inertia.

Anyhow. Props to Burroughs for not taking the “woe is me” road (which he certainly could have just with his insane mother and ass of a father). His take is matter-of-fact, even lighthearted (probably the reason the book has been called funny, but it’s not really the same thing). Burroughs seems to be saying (to use the cliche du jour): it is what it is. No after-school special syrupy life lessons here. That was refreshing.

2006 Books Read – #9

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

Middlesex

I’d been wanting to read this since I first heard about it. And it was good: a well-written, entertaining story. But at the same time, it wasn’t quite as satisfying as I expected—I think because, although it’s ostensibly a first-person narrative, I felt detached from the narrator.

Partly the detachment stems from the fact that the story is told in flashback, and since a good deal of it the narrator couldn’t realistically know (the history of his parents & grandparents), he has to be making it up based on what he does know. So you have a doubly fictional narrative, if that makes sense.

Also, the narrator is 41 as he’s telling the story, but the story essentially ends when he’s a teenager—aside from a brief “and this is what’s happened since then” bit at the end. So there’s that lack of immediacy too.

I do think that this detachment was intentional, that the story was meant to have a sort of clinical feel to it, and not just in the overtly with the biology “lessons,” but also in the overall treatment. And I do think the tone suited the narrator. Still…

The tone almost seemed at odd with the frothy multi-generational saga and many over-the-top (more farcical than melodramatic) plot developments. Almost like some dude in a lab coat narrating in a monotone while wacky hijinx ensue on the other side of a one-way window. (Which is not all that far off from what actually happens…)

And yet, I can’t say that this clash wasn’t intentional. It’s quite possible that it was. I’m just not sure that it entirely works.

Then again, it could be that I’m just leaning toward more focused stories these days and this is a little too “epic” for my current taste.

2006 Books Read – #7 & #8

East of Eden & Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters by John Steinbeck

East of Eden Journal of a Novel

I’d read EoE before, but it was a long time ago, summer of ’92, I think. I picked up an already cheap Penguin at Book Warehouse for $1 because the back cover had been slashed when they opened the box. Anyhow, it was long enough that, while I remembered the general gist of the story, I was vague on the details. I’d been wanting to re-read it for a while, partly because I had the book playing a role in one of my stories and I wanted to make sure it would fit. And then last summer I found a copy of JoaN at The Book Shop and grabbed it, knowing immediately that reading them together would be the perfect way to re-visit EoE.

Of course, part of EoE is a modern version of Cain & Abel, but I’d forgotten how much of Steinbeck’s own family history was in it—if indeed I actually recognized it as such the first time I read it. There are really two separate story threads—the Trasks & the Hamiltons. And JoaN makes it clear that EoE was written in part as a letter to Steinbeck’s sons. Would a book like this get published today? (Would it have been published then if Steinbeck hadn’t already made a name for himself?) On one hand, the Hamilton part is superfluous—you’d still have a complete story without it (as in the movie). On the other hand, they’re the reason he’s telling the story. So.

I read the two books alternately, so I kept at approximately the same point in both throughout. “Approximately” because there were obviously changes between the first draft of EoE and the published version that meant the two books didn’t line up exactly.

Steinbeck wrote the journal on the left-hand pages of a notebook and the novel on the right-hand pages. The journal, written as a letter to his editor, was his warm-up for the day. One thing I never figured out— he writes throughout of having the pages typed and also sent to NY, to his editor. So was he ripping them out of the notebook at the end of each day? That doesn’t sound right. Maybe he just handed the notebook over to the typist, she typed fast so he could have it back by the next morning, and they sent the typed pages to the editor.

I was surprised by how fast he wrote this, his longest novel. Essentially the first draft was written Feb – Oct 1951. Nine months! So you’d think he was this perfect writer who sat down every day and wrote like a machine, right? Wrong. He was a huge procrastinator. For example, he wrote in pencil (crazy!) and he was completely anal-retentive about his pencils. They had to be a certain kind, he spent time sharpening them at the beginning of the day so he wouldn’t have to stop while writing, gave them to his kids when they got too short, etc.

And his journals were filled with same crap that goes through my head before I start writing. Which, honestly, is really comforting. There is, in fact, a point to the “pointless” blathering we writers do before getting down to “real” writing. The mundanity of life is important and so is explaining to yourself what you want to with your project. Of course, the flip side is that you actually do have to start working on your real project at some point.

As for the Steinbeck’s epic, I suppose I am a true “Cal” in that, not only do I sympathize with the cynical Cal, I can’t even imagine anyone identifying with the angelic Aron. But I suppose someone must.

2006 Books Read – #6

The DaVinci Code by Dan Brown

The DaVinci Code

Confession.

I read The Da Vinci Code.

Here’s how it happened. We were at my parents’ place back in June and they mentioned that they’d seen the movie and asked if I’d read the book. I said no and made my standard joke about probably being the only person on the planet who hadn’t read it.

Then: “We have it,” Dad said. “You can borrow it.”

I was cornered. I couldn’t use the excuse that Dan Brown didn’t need any more money. I was uncomfortably overcome with the feeling that I was being a terrible literary snob by not reading it.

So I read it.

I hear Brown teaches creative writing. I hope he’s a “do as I say, not as I do” type, because he has numerous annoying habits including, but not limited to: overuse of exclamation points, overuse of italics, extremely short chapters, an almost complete reliance on “as you know, Bob” dialogue, and a need to end every chapter with a “cliffhanger.” I wasn’t thrilled with the “Matlock”-style confession from the implausible villain, either.

I do enjoy a good page-turner. But this book… yawn. I was ahead of the characters in figuring out a lot of the clues (zzz), found the shocking revelations not all that shocking (powerful men revised history to suit their own purposes? No!), and thought the ending was incredibly lame: after all his conspiracy-theorizing, he lets the church off the hook, pins the whole thing on rogue academic (WTF?) and goes “haha!” (use best Nelson* voice) at his readers and declines reveal the Big Secret (probably because he couldn’t come up with anything good enough) that his characters had spent the entire book searching for.

But here’s what really bugged the crap out of me: there are precisely two female characters in the entire story, and one of them doesn’t come into play until late in the book. (Oh, wait, there was another bit player who was female. But she was just there long enough for a male character to kill her. Typical.) So mostly one. And that female character is referred to as “Sophie,” (despite the fact she’s an agent of the French police) while the male characters are all referred to by their last names. Arghhh!!! He couldn’t call her by her last name too? That was too great a leap? Really?

And, of course, there are the usual cliches: male lead protects female lead, male/female leads fall in love at the end (but by the next book in the series, he’ll have moved on to someone new and she’ll never be heard from again, natch). Now granted, Brown’s chauvinism is of the ingrained sort epidemic in our society, but given that the major theme of the book was the “sacred feminine,” you’d think that someone (his editor, if not he himself) would have taken pains to work on the more obvious indicators.

*from The Simpsons

2006 Books Read – #5

The Best American Short Stories of the Eighties edited by Shannon Ravenel

The Best American Short Stories of the Eighties

Whew!

This is an uber-anthology consisting of two stories from each of the Best American anthologies from 1980-1989. I picked it up because the author names are mostly well-known ones that you see bandied about a lot, but I hadn’t read any of these stories before.

I actually started reading it last year, got about halfway through and set it aside. This isn’t a knock on the quality of the stories. The problem is that it’s an anthology. I couldn’t finish a story and immediately jump into the next one. I had to give each story time to settle between readings. This made for a much slower read than a novel or even a short story collection. And I get a little antsy when I’m reading the same book for a really long time, hence the break.

Onto the content: There’s no question that these stories are good. But that said, I didn’t like all of the stories equally well. There was one story I couldn’t get through (basically, I found the style annoying). I connected with more of the later stories than the earlier ones (they were arranged chronologically).

Some of the stories (particularly “The Way We Live Now” – Susan Sontag and “The Management of Grief” – Bharati Mukherjee) felt like historic records of moments in time. I found reading “The Management of Grief” (about the aftermath of Air India) especially poignant, given that the trial only took place last year and the defendants were acquitted.

The stories that will stay the longest with me are probably “Helping” by Robert Stone and “The Management of Grief.” I’ll definitely look for other work by Mukherjee.

So what’s in it?

  • From 1980, “The Old Forest” by Peter Taylor & “The Emerald” by Donald Barthelme
  • From 1981, “The Shawl” by Cynthia Ozick & “A Working Day” by Robert Coover
  • From 1982, “Cathedral” by Raymond Carver & “Exchange Value” by Charles Johnson
  • From 1983, “Deaths of Distant Friends” by John Updike & “Sur” by Ursula K. LeGuin
  • From 1984, “Nairobi” by Joyce Carol Oates & “In the Red Room” by Paul Bowles
  • From 1985, “Sarah Cole: A Type of Love Story” by Russell Banks & “Fellow-Creatures” by Wright Morris
  • From 1986, “Gryphon” by Charles Baxter & “Health” by Joy Williams
  • From 1987, “The Way We Live Now” by Susan Sontag & “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien
  • From 1988, “Dede” by Mavis Gallant & “Helping” by Robert Stone
  • From 1989, “The Management of Grief” by Bharati Mukherjee & “Meneseteung” by Alice Munro