26 March 2006

I'll Eat My Words!

Go read Blake Eskin's Essay in today's NYT Book Review, Books to chew on, about The International Edible Book Festival, which takes Frances Bacon's words to heart (and digestive tract):

Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.

Here's the link to the festival. Check out the appetizing "books" in the photo gallery. Got to love any festival whose website states in the FAQ: "April fools day is also the perfect day to eat your words and play with them."

Getting hungry; better go try to finish a book before bedtime.

24 March 2006

A Poem Before Dinner

My second favorite tree
stands not far from the creekside,
roots, limbs, bark,
imperfect angles extending in all directions.

My second favorite tree
has seen Midwestern Januarys,
March snow melts lapping at its trunk,
Augusts where the only relief is the moon.

My second favorite tree
has lead others in shedding its bark,
dropping its leaves each October
in ordered command.

My second favorite tree
has provided roost for birds,
harbored wildflowers and mushrooms
within the arc of its drip line.

My second favorite tree
stands his ground, tall and graceful,
good neighbor to the telephone poles
since childhood.

My second favorite tree,
wears its new Orange-Glo badge,
while awaiting clearing time
for a Nature Path.

22 March 2006

Like an iPod: Random 5 from my bookshelf

Yesterday Rarely Likable seized upon New York Magazine's new feature of 5 random books from an author's bookshelf and challenged others to do the same. (I wanted to be first, but Shaken & Stirred beat me). I'm taking up Likable's challenge. Using the nifty gadget from my LibraryThing catalog, I selected five. Wouldn't you know -- I hated 2 of them. Oh well, here goes:

1. Sibley's Guide to Bird Life, David Allen Sibley. A great book if you are a birdwatcher, or a handy occasional reference if you live in the woods like I do and sometimes want the answer to 'what kind of bird is that?". This was a Christmas present a few years ago. It's a beautiful book. If I didn't have this book, I never would have known anything about those birds that looked like they had dipped their wings in paint (Cedar Waxwings) or what they were doing when they looked like they were playing a bird version of Spin the Bottle (communal feeding behavior). A treat for the occasional naturalist!

2. The City of Falling Angels, John Berendt. Another Christmas present -- this one from 2005. I haven't read this yet, but since I'm planning a trip to Venice later this year, I probably will read it soon. I heard a snippet of an interview with the author and was intrigued by his talk of meeting the King of Rat Poison who claimed to know all of the secrets of cuisine around the world as part of his business. Since he had to know what rats like to eat, he tailored his poison to the area's cuisine. A book that would capture such a weird factoid always has a high probability of landing in my TBR pile. If that's not in this book, then I'm terribly confused and can only hope that there some equally offbeat intriguing tidbit that will make the read worthwhile.

3. Following the Equator, Vol I, Mark Twain. I realized when I cataloged my books last fall that I had 2 copies of this. Not surprising in itself, but I noted that they have the same publisher, appear to be similar font, claim to be complete and unabridged, but one is several pages longer than the other. I read excerpts from this when I was in college. I don't remember reading the entire work and I think both copies may belong to my dear partner. Glancing through the TOC, I couldn't resist reading Chapter 13 'What Cecil Rhodes Found in a Shark'. Didn't anyone remember this tale when the whale was caught in the Thames recently? Yes, there is a difference between a whale and a shark, but it must have been a very big shark -- maybe even larger than that whale!

4. As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner. Another book read in college during a summer-session course on Faulkner, Hemingway and Sherwood Anderson. Sherwood Anderson? Yep -- it was the Prof's specialty. He said we'd all be tired of Gatsby by the time we were 40 because we'd have to teach it so often to teens who wouldn't understand it, so there was no reason to read Fitzgerald. I quite teaching high school long before I turned 40 -- but Anderson?. The class discussed Winesburg, Ohio for a full week and devoted the next five weeks to all of Faulkner and Hemingway. I hated this book at the time. I only liked one chapter: "My mother is a fish".

5. Losing Battles, Eudora Welty. I hated this book too. It was a selection for my reading group. I looked forward to reading this book. The only other work of Welty's I had read (shortly after it was published in '84) was One Writer's Beginning, a book borrowed at lunch time from a co-worker and returned, completed, the next day. I couldn't get past the dialog in Losing Battles. I struggled throughout the first 50 pages, never quite finding the voice I needed to 'hear' to understand the rhythm of the dialect. Knew I could never make it through the next 400 pages. If someone out there in the blogosphere can recommend a Welty work that will change my mind, I'll give her another chance.

What are 5 books in your library? Post a link in the comments.

20 March 2006

NippleJesus and Rock Music: A Reading by Nick Hornby

Top 5 Reasons Why Attending A Nick Hornby reading is great: Nah--too easy!

Hornby was at Local Liberal Arts U as part of it's Visiting Writers' Series. I was unfamiliar with Hornby's writing, although I had seen High Fidelity (watched late one night on cable, mainly because I've been crushing on John Cusak since seeing The Sure Thing in the early 80's). I was pleasantly surprised by the reading.

Hornby read the short story NippleJesus. Just like the title, and the art exhibit it refers to, the story makes one titter at the offensive, and smile drolly at the beautiful. It is a story of opposites: the burly but pensive, sensitive bouncer; the religious fanatics who are sacrilegious; the artist who is both kind and cruel; what art is -- and what it isn't. It asks the question: if art is meant to provoke and to evoke everyman -- why the hell can it be so pretentious?

Other readings included two of Hornby's music essays. While I was never much into the punk scene, I certainly understood Hornby's account of privileged youth 'slumming' in the punk culture. And his brief essay about his rock idols in his teenage years -- as he warned the mostly college-aged crowd, a time when it was cool to dig Rod Stewart -- was right on target.

Hornby finished up with excerpts from A Long Way Down, his 2005 novel about four people who meet when each decides to commit suicide. While it sounds like a gruesome tale, you couldn't help but laugh as Hornby read. Along with Speaking with the Angel, the anthology that includes "NippleJesus", this book is now perched atop my TBR pile. As I paid my tab for the books, I noticed another work title The Polysyllabic Spree, a collection of 14 of Hornby's columns about what he was reading -- or buying to read. Now, that sounds like my hobby.....

- Hornby stayed for over 2 hrs signing autographs. He was gracious, congenial and accommodating.
- 2 points to the ingenious Missy: lacking funds for non-school books, she had Hornby sign a DVD with the Hi-Fidelity label.
- A portion of proceeds from the sale of Speaking with the Angel goes to support Autism education in the US & UK.

17 March 2006

My Sister's Keeper

I bought a copy of Jodi Picoult's My Sister's Keeper several months ago, but only read it recently, considering it as a possible selection for my reading group. Immediately, I was sucked into the story and plowed through the 400-plus pages in about a day. Not being a fast reader, this was unusual for me. (And who wants to read quickly anyway? I always want to linger with the books I like.)

There are many things that recommend this book -- an intriguing moral dilemma involving organ donation, the emotional drama of a family torn apart by an illness that maims the siblings more than the cancer-stricken daughter, an accurate portrayal of how society reacts to 'visible' disabilities rather than those less obvious to the onlooker, and a narrative point of view that changes with each chapter, giving insight into more than just the main character.

The book deals well with the emotionally charged issue of extraordinary medical treatments and genetic engineering. The book walks a tight-rope, balancing the interests of the sick child with those of the child 'created' for the sole purpose of being a genetic match designed for saving her sister. One of the benefits of fiction is that it can deal with such issues in ways that scientific discourse and political arguments can not. As humans we thrive on stories and storytelling can be the vehicle for figuring out where one stands on an issue, for understanding that the answers are not simple, straightforward, black-and-white decisions. Picoult does this without delving too far into medical jingo and without being too heavy-handed regarding either side of the debate. Though striving to present multiple points of view, the book still leans towards one side of the argument. In part this is due to a lackluster, one-dimensional portrayal of the mother.

The technique of each character narrating chapters is interesting and works well to move the plot forward. However, some of these chapters are much stronger than the others. Anna, the healthy sister no longer willing to undergo medical procedures to save her dying sister, is clearly the protagonist and the chapters narrated by her are among the best written in the book. Clearly the author is intent on this being Anna's story, while trying to give balance and dimension to the other characters. Early in the book, the chapters narrated by the mother Sara are griping, capturing the emotions of a mother's fear of losing her child. Later in the book, as Sara becomes the enemy of Anna, fighting her teenage daughter in court, her chapters are one sided. They don't seem as true as the earlier chapter, failing to fully give the mother's point of view, painting her as a monster only loving one child, a mother best skilled at nurturing a sick child while being neglectful of her other children. When the mother claims that she cannot make a decision that would benefit both children, and that she realizes it is a Solomon-esque decision, the reader doesn't believe it.

Similarly, other chapters in the book present some relevant ideas regarding the ethical dilemmas involved, serve to move the plot forward and develop the minor characters. However, most of the minor characters are not well developed. The chapters between the child advocate and the lawyer add an unnecessary romance-novel love story to the book, but aren't convincing regarding the emotional motivations of the characters. The chapters about the father portray a man always ready to save others in his professional life, but distant from his own family. While the father talks about having given up on his teenage son, the book doesn't give any indication of his remorse, or realization of how his behavior may have influenced his son. When he stands up for Anna, the reader wonders why he hadn't done so before. The best written minor character is the character who narrates the fewest chapters -- Jesse, the delinquent son. His intelligence, crippled by his anger, is evident; his cries for parental attention while aware that it is unattainable is striking. Picoult's introduction to the book mentions her own experiences as a parent of a sick child. I find it interesting, then, that it is the teenagers, not the parents who are the best portrayed characters in the book.

Picoult's writing kept me reading, and I understand why her books are popular. The emotional tug-of-war is one that could appeal to a female reader who looking for a book that is 'a good cry'. But, as I approached the final pages I felt cheated, manipulated by the author, my emotions and expectations toyed with. In a published interview, Picoult revealed that her own child didn't talk to her for a week after reading the book because of the ending. Yet, she claimed, she couldn't have ended the story in any other way. Perhaps that's because she was looking for a nice, tidy ending that let everyone be happy. Life is not that way. The ending was an easy way out for the author.

The quotes from works by authors such as Shakespeare, Milton, and Edna St. Vincent Milay preceding each section of the book were a nice touch. At first, they might appear out of place, a bit disjointed from the narrative, but in retrospect, they subtly frame the action to come.

I would recommend this book. For a reading group, it certainly provides many topics for discussion.

05 March 2006

On Partial Reading of 'Good' Books, and Spending Time Reading 'Bad' Ones

I'm usually willing to ditch a book after reading about 1/3 if I don't find it intriguing. My method for reading novels: If I'm doubtful that I want to finish the book, I'll commit the scandalous act of reading the last pages. If I find that the ending is predictable, the book is tossed. If, however, I think 'what the ...? How'd that happen?', I'll read further. Sometimes this has rewarded me with the completion of a book I otherwise wouldn't have cared about losing. It took me years to get beyond the second chapter of The Cider House Rules, but I've appreciated Irving ever since. I heard Irving read the first chapter of Til I Find You, and I look forward to reading it, but it may wait in the TBR pile for some time before I pick it up.

With some books, I'm resentful for having wasted my time whether I've read the ending or not; reading Alice Hoffman's Here on Earth comes to mind: 30 pages to go, I feel asleep. The TV was on. I awoke at 2 am to Wuthering Heights only to realize: Oh, crap! This book is such a rip-off of Bronte -- and I didn't notice it. (I hadn't read Heights since I was 12; obviously, it never topped my 'Memorable Books' List.)

Sometimes I will start a book and put it down half way through. Other books enter my reading life, pushing the partial reads into the periphery -- to the bottom of the book pile, under the bed, the back seat of the car. Sometimes it's months before they creep back into sight. Sometimes they demand attention, but I continue to ignore them, choosing other works instead. Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty fits into this category. Started in November on a plane ride, I allowed it to linger in the carry-on until recently. I hadn't forgotten about this book, but I didn't feel like I had the energy to plunge through it to the end. It's a beautifully written book. I was a naive 20-something in the early 80's, even in London briefly, and while I floated in much different circles than the main character Nick, I knew that Hollinghurst's depiction of the socio-political milieu during the Thatcher/Reagan era was on target. However, within the first few chapters I made a mental note to reread Brideshead Revisited; a few chapters later, anything by Henry James. It's been 25+ years since I've read either and I want to confirm and support my reading of Hollinghurst's subtle references to each. Perhaps this is what keeps me from returning immediately to finish reading this book. Look for a discussion of this in a post at a still to be determined date. I will finish The Line of Beauty, but it may take a while before I return to it, longer still before I write about it.

So, why then, with many 'good' works awaiting me, did I waste my precious reading time over the last few weeks reading not one, but two books which certainly rank among the poorest examples of published writing I've ever held in my hands? Perhaps my goal to read so many books this year has inspired some sort of bibliophile's OCD, twisting my psyche to believe that I must finish what I have started. Or, maybe it was a sort of voyeurism, like rubber-necking at a car crash, that propelled me forward: "It can't be any worse, can it? Oh wait, it can. Enter into evidence, chapter #12...."

Book Waste #1: The Good, The Bad, and the Mad: Some Weird People in American History, E. Randall Floyd. I'm not sure why I purchased this book. A book bought on impulse while standing in line at the bookstore, one that jumped out at me from the bargain book bin. At least I didn't spend a lot of dough! It vaguely reminded me of a book with a blue cover I treasured when I was about 8 or 10 years old. Part of a series, the book (title no longer remembered) consisted of several individual biographies of people of note. It was my introduction to biography, to reading non-fiction for pleasure, and the start of an enjoyable life-long collection of trivial facts that carry little value other than enabling me to be good at Jeopardy! (Are you listening Alex & Clues Crew??)

At slightly more than 100 pages, this book looked like fine fodder for filling in brief gaps of wasted time, like standing in line at the post office or while watching the Olympics. Profiling 30 characters -- some known like Jane Addams or Huey Long, others only known perhaps in esoteric circles like Robert Howard -- the book does give the reader some truly oddball characters to consider. But, the writing is dry and uninteresting and often repetitive. A summary of each chapter is presented in the opening paragraphs. This technique in itself is not bad, but the writer doesn't follow up with enough details to make his case. Instead, the reader is left reading the same 'facts' over again, or left dangling, hoping for more than just a comment on some unusual aspect of the individual's behavior. In still other chapters, I wondered just what was so odd about the person. I found myself thinking of the comment all Freshman Writing instructors apply too frequently on student papers: "Show; Don't tell".

Reading this book was spending a couple of hours that I'll never get back, reading that could have been so much more. A compilation of profiles, such as this, should at least be entertaining if it isn't going to spark the reader to learn more about someone beyond the People Magazine-length profile. There must be better reads while standing in line at the PO.

Book #2 House Calls and Hitching Posts, Dorcas Sharp Hoover. This was my reading group's selection of the month and the premise sounded promising: a biography of a doctor who treated the Amish people of Northern Ohio for 40 years. In my reading group, I often take some heat for not finishing books. This year, I decided that, time allowing, I would complete all of the books. It was difficult to not throw this book into the heap after the first two chapters, but because I was determined to finish it, I trod through 30 chapters, nearly 400 pages of plodding prose.

Yet, I felt some twinges of guilt for despising this book so much. The subject after all, is interesting. Dr. Elton Lehman is truly an inspiring human being -- dedicated, selfless, caring, tolerant, faithful to his personal beliefs -- and the book does give some insightful glimpses into the lives of the Amish. But, this book was in desperate need of professional editing. While it didn't suffer the scourge of many self-published books (I tried but couldn't find one typo or glaring grammatical error), the prose varied widely from purplish and overwrought to simplistic as an elementary school composition. In an effort to retell stories accurately or perhaps to convey a folksy, country setting, dialog is used throughout. But, the dialog is poorly written and seems contrived. While fabricating events in a memoir a la Frey is definitely out of bounds, a good writer knows when to trim, understanding that retelling every bit of minutia does not help to convey the full story.

Reading House Calls and Hitching Posts was like being trapped by someone's aging uncle at your second cousin's wedding reception: you want to be polite and listen to the stories, but after some time the stories run together and you'd rather make your escape by dancing the hokey-pokey or drinking more of the too-sweet punch. An experienced editor would have trimmed this book by 200 pages and the end result would have been both an interesting and a captivating read. Can't something be inspirational and well-written? While not a complete waste of my time like Book #1 above, it was a disappointment.

What about you? What are your criteria for continuing to read a book? What treasure have you discovered by continuing past painful introductory chapters? Do you have a recommendation for a work of 'inspirational literature' that is well-written? Can you think of a self-published work that did NOT give you reason to think "No wonder nobody else would publish this?" Please comment.