Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Happy Halloween/Hurricane!

The SnowmanThe Snowman by Jo Nesbø
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Imagine if Stieg Larsson undertook a modern version of an Agatha Christie novel, and threw in a dash of Stephen King. You might end up with something like The Snowman.

Apparently The Snowman is #7 in Jo Nesbø's detective series, but this one -- I can't speak for the others -- stands pretty well on its own. There are some references to earlier cases the detective has made, but they're well-explained enough that I was up to speed pretty quickly.

I do hate that the star detective is named Harry Hole.   I'm sure it's my fault that my mind drifts into the gutter, but throughout the whole book I kept thinking it was a name better suited for a second-rate porn star. I even tried imagining that his name was Høle (disclaimer: I have no idea whether that changes the pronunciation or not) so that I could blame it on an unfortunate Norwegian-English cognate.

I thought twice that I had guessed the killer's identity, and I turned out to be wrong both times, so the plot twists were well done.  Unfortunately, the detectives also think they've caught the killer a couple of times, so I got a little tired of the CLIMAX-WE-CAUGHT-THE-KILLER-no-wait-just-kidding-anticlimax roller-coaster.   I used to be a fairly hardcore Agatha Christie fan back in the day, and I don't remember ever thinking the mystery was solved halfway through and wondering what on earth the rest of the book was about.

Still, a snowman murder mystery with a dash of horror made the perfect Halloween/hurricane read.   I recommend it for a chilly night when you can read it through in one sitting -- perhaps when the children next door have built a creepy snowman that seems to be watching you...

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Dewey Decimal Dystopia

The Dewey Decimal SystemThe Dewey Decimal System by Nathan Larson
My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

Our setting: post-apocalyptic New York. "2/14" has overshadowed "9/11," although we don't know exactly what happened or why, just that most of the bridges are destroyed and the City is now a sparsely populated ruin of its former self.

Our protagonist: Dewey Decimal. So named because he plans to spend the rest of his days re-organizing the books in the New York Public Library. He gets his supplies from the DA, a recoil-inducing opportunist who sends Decimal out to get rid of inconvenient characters.  Librarian/hitman hybrids aren't common characters in dystopian fiction, but Decimal is more than just that. He's paranoid like Mel Gibson in Conspiracy Theory, he's a germophobe constantly thinking about using Purell, and he speaks Serbian, Ukrainian, and who knows how many other obscure languages. He also ascribes a mysterious importance to "the System," (thus completing the title's play on words).  The System -- which mandates, for instance, that he make only left-hand turns before noon -- makes Decimal's life pretty difficult, but he believes it keeps him safe.

This book is written like a pulp detective novel, but set in the dystopian future.
That pulp cliché, the oldest of the old, the most tired of all tired phrases comes to me. But I dig the truth at its core. When in doubt, look for the girl. Cherchez la femme.
That dystopian-pulp combination, like the OCD-librarian-hitman, took some getting used to, but it kept me entertained and was unlike anything I've read before. Neither of those is my favorite genre, but if one is yours, I recommend you check this out.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Everything Was Illuminated: Looking Back Twenty Years

The IlluminatiThe Illuminati by Larry Burkett
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This, weirdly, was one of the formative books of my elementary-school years.  No, it's not a young adult book.  I was just a weird kid.

The year was 1992. I was nine years old, and two months into fifth grade.  My parents had just moved us to a new house, which meant a new school, and the kids in my class were about to spend three days taking a standardized test-- the same standardized test I had taken a couple of weeks before at my old school. The new school thought it would be dandy if I would consent to take the test again, but I refused.  So for three days, I sat in the principal's office and read while my classmates clutched No. 2 pencils and stared at row after row of scantron bubbles.
Do kids today even know what this is?
Don't ask why I was not allowed to stay home instead of sitting in the principal's office, because I have no idea.  In those days, I didn't really care where I was sitting, as long as I was allowed to read.  Yes, I say "allowed" to read, because I read so much that my mother would occasionally tear the book out of my hands in exasperation, hoping to jolt me into participating in conversation at the dinner table.  The woman who cut my hair when I was growing up told me later that she was always terrified that my hair would come out noticeably crooked, because I insisted on having my head bent down toward my book during my haircuts.

Back to my story.  I'm sure I looked ridiculous, hanging out in the school administrative offices at age 9 with a book approximately the size of my head.  But this book blew me away. I was riveted. Fascinated. It was, now that I think about it, probably my very first step into a dystopian future.  I remember astonishing levels of detail, twenty years later, down to the year, make, and model of the car that figures into one of the escape scenes.  (A 1993 Chevy Caprice, if you care, which you don't, because it is the epitome of trivial detail.  Still, as a kid I loved the idea of a capricious car, which is probably why I remember it.)
Why did Chevy name this car the Caprice?  In my head it was much cooler.  You know, more capricious.
This is the book that first taught me the word "tsunami," a word that no one else around me learned until 2004.  This is the book that first made me think about how credit and debit cards could be used to track someone's movements.  This is the book that first sent me fumbling in my pocket for a dollar bill, to examine for myself the weird eyeball on top of a pyramid that was pictured there.  Finally, this is the book that probably lies at the root of my tendency to develop mild crushes on computer nerds.

So twenty years later, I tip my hat to Larry Burkett.   Thanks for writing a book that captivated me completely.

Thursday, October 25, 2012


NetherlandNetherland by Joseph O'Neill
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

A very few of you might remember my review of Swamplandia!, in which I lamented that I had to write a fairly negative review despite the sheer and impressive beauty of Karen Russell's prose.

 This review is the stunted offspring of that one.  Joseph O'Neill's prose is undeniably lovely, but where Russell lost me with a slightly too odd-and-fantastical plot, O'Neill simply left me trudging through endless paragraphs wondering where they were going (if anywhere).  If I wanted to place the fault with myself, perhaps I'd blame my lack of experience with -- or interest in -- cricket. A man holding his old cricket bat just does not evoke an emotional response the way, say, a young man with a gold helmet does.
Admit it, you get a little misty-eyed, too.
O'Neill, by contrast, can (and does) wax endlessly eloquent on the subject of cricket:
It's as if baseball were a game about home runs rather than base hits, and its basemen were relocated to spots deep in the outfield. This degenerate version of the sport...inflicts an injury that is aesthetic as much as anything: the American adaptation is devoid of the beauty of cricket played on a lawn of appropriate dimensions, where the white-clad ring of infielders, swanning figures on the vast oval, again and again converge in unison toward the batsman and again and again scatter back to their starting points, a repetition of pulmonary rhythm, as if the field breathed through its luminous visitors.
Beautiful, right?  But I think I'm just too American for cricket, because when a description of a game doesn't contain anything about plays or scores or even winners, I get bored.  We watch and play sports because we want our team to win, not because we want to admire the inherent beauty of the way colored uniforms stand out against the green field.  That beauty may well exist, and I am not saying O'Neill is wrong to draw attention to it, but I do think it's wrong to ignore the point of the sport.  In other words, the problem is not that this is a book largely about a sport.  The problem is that Netherland is not really about a sport at all.

These are some of the sports-based books I've read.  There's a pretty healthy mix of fiction and non-fiction, and it includes books about football, baseball, basketball, gymnastics, and running.  (Admittedly, I have yet to read a book about hockey.  But I did watch Mystery, Alaska -- does that count?)
Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game Jewball Little Girls in Pretty Boxes: The Making and Breaking of Elite Gymnasts and Figure Skaters Eight Men Out: The Black Sox and the 1919 World Series Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen Chalked Up: Inside Elite Gymnastics' Merciless Coaching, Overzealous Parents, Eating Disorders, and Elusive Olympic Dreams The Art of Fielding Rookie Once a Runner    . . .  
What do all these books have in common?  Not much, other than the fact that they acknowledge that the essence of sport is competition.  Even in running, in which there are neither teams nor a point-based scoring system, you're competing against other runners (and your previous selves) for best time.  After reading Netherland, I could honestly believe that the point of cricket is to appreciate all the ways in which terrain can affect the path of the ball.

To be fair, I rather enjoyed the first 25% of the book, and the last 25% of the book wasn't bad.  Unfortunately, it's the middle 50% that really left an impression.  Our Dutch-born hero ruminates sadly but not very productively on the disintegration of his marriage, wanders the streets thinking about cricket, drives around with a guy who wants to start a cricket club, talks about cricket, and [drumroll] decides to get his driver's license.  That last part, of course, leads to all sorts of bureaucratic hijinks -- which, as we all know, are the least exciting hijinks in existence.  The big plot twist here is [dun-dun-DUN] a typo on one of his IDs!  Which he must get fixed -- get this -- before he can get his license!  

Are you on the edge of your seat?  Yeah, I wasn't either.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Rise and Shine Definitely Shines

Rise and ShineRise and Shine by Anna Quindlen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

First, let me get my bias out of the way. I am predisposed to adore any author who writes a book titled How Reading Changed My Life.  Even better, I think Quindlen also shares one of my grammar pet peeves.  When a news anchor says "She will probably have less supporters inside and out," Quindlen's characters shout at the screen. "'Fewer!' yelled Irving and I simultaneously."  I sincerely wish that fewer people would ignore this grammar rule, because then there would be less agita in my life.  [And while we're talking about it, go meet my heroine Grammar Girl.]

Quindlen also really nails her descriptions of New York; you can tell she lives here when she makes the argument that black town cars are "the official icon of New York." "New Yorkers with pretensions but middle-class means take one for airport trips or special occasions," while for young professionals, "the company picks up the tab when they take one home late at night, when a prospectus or a brief has slopped over into the early morning hours." Her language is simple but vivid, like sketches done in black ink that evoke complex objects with just a few lines, and a hint of a flourish at the edges.
It was the summer Meghan was an intern at the network affiliate there, the summer that would become the fat paragraph in every profile, and already she had started to shine like a copper ornament in the garden of everyday.
Quindlen's straightforward style and commonplace verbiage works perfectly for her first person narrator, and even her little lapses into poetry never overreach.  The waitstaff may "drop tiny tasting dishes all over Kate's table like falling leaves," but the rest of the paragraph is perfectly conversational, leaving that jewel of a simile to shine like a stone in a minimalist setting.
size 8 diamond ring minimalist  gold filled slim stacking ring with genuine natural yellow diamond engagment ring israel
Yes, like this.
As you can see, she even inspires me to write similes of my own, which may or may not be made of cubic zirconia.  You know, like the ring in that old "got milk?" commercial.

I went way back for that one; sorry about the poor video quality.  In any case, pick this up if you want an accessible but lovely novel that delicately reflects on the mystery of sisterly love, and the peculiarly intertwined pressures of fame and tragedy.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Diamonds... Er, I Mean, BONES Are Forever

Bones Are Forever (Temperance Brennan, #15)
Bones Are Forever by Kathy Reichs
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

For the first time since my review of The Graduate, I'm going to try to write a review in the style of the book I'm reviewing.

Everyone is familiar with Bones. The TV show character, that is.  TV Temperance is smart but socially awkward.  More than smart, really.  Genius.  And then there's Booth.  Sensitive but cocky.  Irresistible.  The chemistry between those two is undeniable.

But these are the books.  No one calls Book Temperance "Bones." Book Temperance narrates the action.  Mostly it's a running internal monologue.  Over time, her sentences have gotten shorter.  Choppier.  Fewer subjects and even fewer verbs.  Lots of adjectives.

Then there'll be an over-explanation of a scientific concept.  Like a hospital worker waxing poetic about a CT scan of body parts.
While entering instructions, she'd explained how the data produced by the scanner would be manipulated through a process known as windowing to demonstrate various bodily structures based on their ability to block the X-ray beam. She said that although images generated were historically in the axial or transverse plane, orthogonal to the long axis of the body, modern scanners now allowed data to be reformatted in various planes or even as volumetric -- three-dimensional -- representations.
I followed that.  I just didn't particularly enjoy it.  Would a CT operator really lecture the forensic anthropologist about how the scanner works?  Somehow I doubt it.  Plus it's hard not to stumble over the jargon when you've been reading five-word sentences.

This is book fifteen in the series.  After fifteen books, it's hard to avoid some repetition of plots.  So we start with a murder.  Or two.  Or several.  Tempe notices something unusual about the bones.  That gives the cops a clue to work from.  Then purposely or accidentally, she ends up in the field meeting suspects.  Sooner or later she gets a tickle in her brain.  Something she knows but can't put her finger on.  Shaking her head, she goes about her business.  And then something triggers the elusive memory.  Her jaw drops in disbelief.

The chapter ends.

In the next chapter, before Tempe can tell anyone where she is, or what big part of the case she's just figured out, someone hits her on the head.  (For variety's sake, sometimes they shoot her instead, but never fatally.)  Cue the pages of even shorter sentences. In the first person. Like this:

I wake up.
It's dark.
My head hurts.
Where am I?
What happened?
Did I drink too much and pass out?
My left arm is asleep.
Or maybe it's been cut off?
I shift position.
Nope, there it is.
Both arms are intact.
Pins and needles in the left.
Nothing compared to the pain in my head.
I open my eyes.
I close my eyes.
Wait for my stomach to settle.
Then I remember.
Someone hit me over the head!
I have to get out of here.
Wherever here is.
I slowly turn over.
Nothing above me but rock.
It's cold. Still dark. And quiet.
I open my mouth to scream and realize it's taped shut.
Then I hear a noise.
I freeze.
Is it a mouse? Or is someone there? Help!

Surprise, surprise, Tempe gets rescued. The bad guys get caught. Justice is served. But nothing can bring back the murder victims. Because diamonds bones are forever.

Postscript.  At the end of this book, Kathy Reichs takes an opportunity to give us an extended metaphor about her writing process, titled "Hypotheses, Plots, and Vegetable Soup."  Her brain is the pot in which the "narrative broth" simmers.  I'm not joking.

So for my own epilogue, I'd like to point out some of the more entertaining ingredients in this particular bowl of soup.
1.  ... I'd been dragged from a fire and deposited bum-up.  My leopard-skin panties had saluted the world.
leopard roar
My skin is NOT for panties!
I really, really hope that Reichs meant leopard-print panties.  Not only are leopards on the endangered species list, but fur underwear sounds really difficult to keep clean.
2.  "Nickleback is playing tonight.... I guess I'm not communicating very well, Detective.  Nickleback is an Alberta group."
That's funny, because there's a group called Nickelback that also hails from Alberta.  That's either a big coincidence, or Reichs doesn't know how to spell "nickel" and no one copy-edits her stuff anymore.  In fact, all the copy editors probably quit after they got carpal tunnel from writing "Sentence fragment!" in the margins.
According to my memory of a Rolling Stone article I once read in a doctor's office, one of the band members worked at Starbucks.  When he gave customers change, he'd say, "Here's your nickel back."
Presto, instant band name. 
 3.  This should be stuck in your head already, but if not, you are welcome.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Maze Runner is Kind of Klunky

The Maze Runner (Maze Runner, #1)The Maze Runner by James Dashner
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is not Ender's Game. This is not The Hunger Games. But if you're a fan of young-adult science fiction/fantasy and need something to tide you over for awhile, this might do the trick.

Someday I'll design a book-rating system that can account for books that are not well-written, but still make you eager to keep reading.  I would give The Maze Runner's writing and the characterization one star, without any qualms of conscience. [Perhaps "James Dashner" is the YA alias of E.L. James? That would explain some things.]  However, I ended up giving it a three-star rating because -- and this is true -- I will probably read at least one more book in the series. How can I not say "liked it" (Goodreads's definition for three stars) when I did, in fact, like it enough to want to read more?

Unfortunately, this book's strength (its intriguing and somewhat inventive plot) is also the cause of its biggest weakness (the lack of character development). For the uninitiated, The Maze Runner is the story of a group of teenage boys who are dropped into a giant maze, which they spend years trying to solve.  Even more mysteriously, other than their names, they can't remember anything about their lives before the maze.

Do you see the problem? How interesting can a character possibly be when he has no childhood memories, no relationship history, no experiences to shape his values and emotional responses? And worse yet, everyone else around him is the same?

I also found the determined injection of special maze slang into the boys' conversations pretty annoying.
"We live here, this is it.  Better than living in a pile of klunk."  He squinted, maybe anticipating Thomas's question.  "Klunk's another word for poo.  Poo makes a klunk sound when it falls in our pee pots."
Nevermind that "Poo makes a klunk sound when it falls in our pee pots" sounds like something a five-year-old would say.  (Also, ew.)  I'm more disturbed by the fact that Mr. Dashner felt that the explanation was necessary.  Imagine if Battlestar Galactica had used that tactic:  "You see, frak's another word for the f-word, except for some reason we can say one on television but not the other."
Starbuck is not fraking amused.
You just don't explain slang, especially pseudo-swearing.  You use it, and people figure it out from context.

Nevertheless, I kept reading, wanting to see how the maze would be solved.  Maybe it's the same trait that makes it possible for me to play Bejeweled or Snood for hours on end.  Then the ending opened up the possibility of a whole new puzzle, so... I'll let you know how the next book is.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Even Famous, Rich, Skinny Women Have Self-Image Issues

I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a WomanI Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman by Nora Ephron
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a great companion book to Caitlin Moran's How To Be A Woman, which I reviewed here. The similarities are obvious; both books are compendia of humorous essays about what it means to be a woman. The differences, though, are so complementary as to seem practically intentional: Nora Ephron has the perspective of an older generation, Caitlin Moran the younger. Nora is New York City; Caitlin is London. Nora is (sometimes abashedly) dealing with the problems of a quite successful and wealthy woman; Caitlin spends much of her time recounting the poverty of her adolescence.

So between the two, you have reflections on how to be an older/younger, American/British, richer/poorer woman... and yet there is more overlap in their reflections than you might think.

In other words, it is not possible to discuss being a woman without mentioning bikini waxing.

2 B R 0 2 B, That is the Question

2BR02B2BR02B by Kurt Vonnegut
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a very short story, set in a future world that I'll call "dystopian utopia." Vonnegut sets the stage succinctly:
Everything was perfectly swell. There were no prisons, no slums, no insane asylums, no cripples, no poverty, no wars. All diseases were conquered. So was old age. Death, barring accidents, was an adventure for volunteers.
Sounds utopian, right? But there is, of course, a catch. Do yourself a favor and spend twenty minutes reading this story, and think about what makes some lives more valuable than others, and how we make the same kinds of decisions today, just in more subtle ways, on more macroscopic levels.

Thursday, October 11, 2012


The Scent of RainThe Scent of Rain by Kristin Billerbeck
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sometimes reading a book is like eating a thick, juicy steak. The language is meaty and rich, the ideas are complex and require some time to be properly digested, and the only other thing you need for a perfect evening is a comfy chair and a glass of good wine.

In between those books, I sometimes find I need a palate cleanser: light, easy reading that takes very little effort or time to enjoy. This book filled that role admirably.

Daphne Sweeten (the sweetly punny last name was a little unnecessary, in my opinion) is a professional scent developer who gave up her dream job in Paris so that she could move with her new husband to Ohio. He left her at the altar, though, so suddenly she's in a new town, with a new job, and no friends. To make matters worse, the stress and humiliation have caused her to lose her sense of smell.

This is classic chick lit with a refreshing perfume-industry angle and a sliver of Christian goodness built in. My last brushes with the perfume industry were the much-darker Perfume: The Story of a Murderer and the delightful non-fiction tome The Emperor of Scent: A True Story of Perfume and Obsession, both of which I highly recommend.

I'm going to take this opportunity to brag about my blog post title, and to express my disappointment that the word petrichor did not appear anywhere in this book.  If you're not familiar with it, click here.  I'll wait.  Then you can say, "Oh, ha, I see what she did there."

The Scent of Rain does not deal with scents or science in any great detail, but its treatment seemed informed without being overdone, so my mild interest in the subject matter was satisfied.  For 85% of the book, I felt the same way about the religion.  Without the Christianity angle, I might be skeptical that a group of strangers would pitch in to refurbish a dangerously decrepit house for the new girl in town. But it's a church group, being encouraged by the pastor's wife, so it fits the story just fine.  I appreciated that, because overt religion in fiction frequently feels heavy-handed and wholly unnecessary.

Unfortunately, the book went on to prove my point.  The last few pages are forced and do the rest of the book an injustice.  First, there's a hospital scene where the book's Mean Girl gets all weepy and repent-y because good girl Daphne visits her.  I don't disallow that being in a car accident can cause you to rethink your life, but I found her 180-degree turnaround and teary confession to a bitter enemy a little difficult to swallow.  Second, although the love story had a long, slow, fairly believable buildup, the climactic scene where Daphne and the reticent widower realize they have feelings for each other ends with [mild spoiler alert!] the widower proposing marriage and offering to move to Paris with her.  I think a more appropriate question would have been, "Hey, would you like to have dinner with me sometime?"  Not that everyone has to follow conventional dating structure, but proposing to someone you've never dated seemed a little crazy to me.  Especially when, you know, she just got left at the altar by another guy a few months before.  Maybe give her a little time to make sure she's worked through all of that?

Speaking of the ex-fiancé, whom we never meet, I was left with some minor confusion about him. When Daphne moves to Dayton, she tells the widower that her ex is "a brilliant chemist."
She turned in her seat to face Jesse, who looked skeptical. "He really is. But he grew up poor, and he had this deep need to follow the money."
A couple of chapters later, we are reminded of his brilliance by Daphne's best friend.
He may have been a brilliant chemist, but there are laws for a reason. He always thought himself above the rules.
So, I may not know much about the ex-fiancé, but I do know he's a brilliant but unscrupulous chemist. Got it. But then!
Mark was a terrible chemist... He wasn't careful about ratios, not until he understood that ratios and chemistry could make him wealthy.
At first I was confused about whether he was a brilliant chemist or a terrible one.  Then I realized he was a terrible chemist until his greed made him brilliant.
Was his last name Burns?  That would be another suitably punny last name...

Just like I was a terrible writer until I got greedy and wanted people to read my writing. Now that I have a blog, I am brilliant.

Please feel free to agree with me by commenting below.

Disclosure: I received this book free through  I was not required to write a positive review.  The opinions I have expressed are my own.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Amazing Adventures of Jewish Boys Who Draw Comic Books

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & ClayThe Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am far from the first person to have loved this book, and I certainly won't be the last.  If you haven't read it yet, stop reading this review and go check it out from your public library.  It's been around for awhile, so it should be relatively easy to find.

 The concept itself is pretty simple: an American boy and his Czech cousin, an escapee from Nazi annexation, develop a comic-book superhero in the 1940s. But this story has some of the most wide-ranging and well-developed side plots I've ever seen in a novel.  We get to witness Josef's extensive training in magic, à la Houdini, and his eventual escape inside a coffin holding a giant corpse rumored to have been a golem.  We attend a cocktail party featuring Salvador Dali in a scuba-diving suit.  We experience a period of wartime service -- in Antarctica of all places -- complete with frozen corpses and trusty sled dogs, that could probably have stood alone as a separate book.
The Call of the Wild
Wait, am I reading about comic-book heroes or sled dogs?
Mostly, though, I'm impressed by Chabon's style of writing; his words make impressive necklaces as he strings them together. For example, "they arranged him with the care of florists in front of a glass of bourbon and ice..."  Maybe it's the flower-arranging I've been doing on the side lately, but for me, this created an incredibly distinctive picture, especially for such a short phrase devoid of adjectives.  I can see them carefully arranging him on a barstool, adjusting his posture when he leans a little to one side, and the image evokes an impression of tenderness and love between the characters without it being put into words. The next time I have a bad day, I think all I want is for someone to arrange me with the care of florists in front of an alcoholic beverage.
If it's all the same to you, though, I'd prefer an Aviation to a glass of bourbon and ice, thanks.
Chabon's phrasing is impeccable, even when his powers of prediction are not:
Poor Judy Dark! Poor little librarians of the world, those girls, secretly lovely, their looks marred forever by the cruelty of a pair of big black eyeglasses.
Clearly, Michael Chabon did not anticipate hipsters.
My favorite hipster.  Also, meme + font joke = win.
Photo from
Here is one more example of beautiful writing, though you should not need any further encouragement to pick up this book. This is Chabon's description of a child's drawing:
Although the man's parachute was far beyond his reach, the man was smiling, and pouring a cup of tea from an elaborate plummeting tea service, as if oblivious of his predicament, or as if he thought he had all the time in the world before he would hit the ground.
I want to name something Elaborate Plummeting Tea Service.   I really do.  It's probably too unwieldy for my entirely fictitious punk rock band, though.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Geek Love? More Like Grostesque Love.

Geek Love by Katherine Dunn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Awhile ago I stumbled on a book called Wired Love: a Romance of Dots and Dashes, which was a pretty charming story about two telegraph operators finding love via, well, the telegraph.  (Yeah, it's from 1879.  Every once in a while I like to get old-school with my reading.)  So when I saw someone reading a book called Geek Love on the subway, I thought maybe it would make for a fun review to compare telegraph-operator romance with computer-geek romance.

So I open Geek Love, and it begins like this:
"When your mama was the geek, my dreamlets," Papa would say, "she made the nipping off of noggins such a crystal mystery that the hens themselves yearned toward her, waltzing around her, hypnotized with longing.  'Spread your lips, sweet Lil,' they'd cluck, 'and show us your choppers!'"
It turns out that "geek" is also an old term for a circus performer who bites the heads off of live chickens.  [In defense of my assumption, I maintain that the cover looks much more computer-geek-related than carnival-geek-related.  And do not tell me that I shouldn't judge a book by its cover.  Book covers are made for judging.]

From the very beginning, then, I was off balance; this book is basically the antithesis of the sweet or charming romance I'd expected to find.  The narrator, Olympia, is an albino hunchback dwarf: a set of words I find impossible to say out loud without feeling I'm setting up an absurd and probably offensive joke.  But I couldn't stop reading because I was so fascinated by the surreality.  The dwarf's parents (the aforementioned geek, Lil, and Al the carnival barker) experimented with radiation and other toxins during Lil's pregnancies.  Why?  Because:
"What greater gift could you offer your children than an inherent ability to earn a living just by being themselves?"  
Gee, I really hope there's a deformity inside.
In other words, the more physically deformed you can make your children, the better off they'll be, because they'll always be able to get jobs as circus freaks.  I love the deeply disturbing logic to this statement.

The first bit of the book introduces us to a late-middle-aged Olympia, to her elderly and somewhat senile mother Lil, and to Olympia's only other living family: a daughter who was raised by nuns as an orphan, and doesn't know Olympia is her mother.  Then the book flashes back to Olympia's experience as a child in her parents' traveling carnival, growing up with an older brother who has flippers for limbs, sisters who are conjoined twins, and later a little brother who looks normal but has a kind of telekinetic power.  I'll avoid any spoilers here, but suffice it to say that the relationships among the siblings get pretty dark and twisted, until you think it couldn't possibly get any more dark and twisted, and then it does.

Part of me thinks there is a satirical bent to this novel, in its sly suggestions that extreme freakishness is preferable to normalcy.  Consider this:
If all these pretty women could shed the traits that made men want them (their prettiness) then they would no longer depend on their own exploitability but would use their talents and intelligence to become powerful.  Miss Lick has great faith in the truth of this theory.  She herself is an example of what can be accomplished by one unencumbered by natural beauty.  So am I.
Are we meant to believe that women -- or, at least, some women -- would be better off not being pretty?  I am honestly not sure.  Isn't that line of thought similar to the one that leads me to hope my younger sister doesn't get too distracted by boys in high school, so that she can focus on her schoolwork?  In that context, it doesn't sound so bad.  But take it just a step further, and you become Miss Lick, offering women money if they will let her destroy their beauty.  Or a step beyond that, and you become Olympia's flipper-boy brother, Arturo, preaching that happiness can be attained by voluntary self-mutilation.

Two things I know for sure:  (1) I will be thinking about this book for a long time, and (2) I will probably stop referring to myself as a geek.  Wait, does "nerd" have any double meanings I need to know about?

Monday, October 1, 2012

Cupcake Chick Lit is Tasty But the Recipe Needs Work

Finding Infinity by Susan Kiernan-Lewis
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Because I have the Kindle version, I haven't read any of the jacket copy and don't know how it's being marketed.  But after reading, I'd call this half cozy mystery, half traditional chick lit.  If you forgive a couple of gaping holes in the premise, the story itself is very charming.

In brief, Finding Infinity is the story of an empty-nester/widow, Liddy, who decides to move to a small town in Georgia and open a French-themed cupcake shop.  She sinks all her savings into the shop, but the designer cupcake business model is -- shockingly -- less well-suited to a small Southern town than, say, New York City.  (I should note my own personal bias here; as someone who lives in New York, I am pretty sick of designer cupcakes.  The market has been glutted for years.  However, I understand that the cupcake phenomenon may just now be penetrating smaller towns.)  So Liddy's fledgling cupcake shop gets very little business, and becomes the target of vandalism that verges on hate crime.

Unfortunately this book had more than its share of minor logical flaws and bad analogies, especially in the first half.  In chronological order, here are the top ten things that made me stop and say, "What?":
1.  Sighing, she fumbled in her purse for a pack of Benson & Hedges she had bought earlier in the day.  She hadn't had a cigarette for over twenty years.  Somehow, it seemed like an appropriate thing to do.
Wait, wait, wait. The character hasn't smoked in TWO DECADES, but when things get a little tough and she decides to throw away twenty years of not smoking, it just so happens that she had bought a pack of cigarettes "earlier in the day"? Wouldn't the decision to buy her first pack of cigarettes in twenty years be worth mentioning in the narrative, instead of referring to it offhandedly as a fait accompli?
Here's something I last did twenty years ago.  You'll note that I have yet to purchase a jump rope to carry around with me on the off chance that it suddenly "seems like an appropriate thing to do."
2.  When she sees the empty store fated to become her cupcake shop: The inside looked like a bomb had gone off but she imagined it was just the result of neglect and long-time vacancy.
In other words, this is what it looks like when a bomb goes off?
I don't know about you, but my mental picture of a place where a bomb has gone off involves something like a missing wall or two, or possibly a mushroom cloud.  A place that's vacant and neglected, on the other hand, makes me think it's probably pretty dusty, and maybe has some wicked cobwebs.
3.  Somewhere between the ancient mother and her age (does forty-five mean they think I'm really sixty?) she could literally hear e-Harmony registrants signing off en masse.
I think the word you were looking for is "figuratively," unless e-Harmony makes a special chime to notify Liddy when other users log off.  Also, if men add fifteen years to the age on your profile, I'm going to need to make a profile that says I'm fourteen.
4.  [The realtor] said it would probably not be a very good PR move for me to call the cops before I've even opened the shop.  That kind of advertising, I can do without.  And it wasn't technically a break in since I didn't have a lock on the front door.
A basic Google search for the definition of breaking and entering would reveal the fallacy of that last line.   Or, you know, watching a couple of episodes of Law & Order.   And what idiot decides not to report a break-in because of PR concerns?  It's not like you're a security firm and your product has been compromised by the mere fact of a break-in.  "Oh no!  People won't want to eat my cupcakes if they know someone tried to steal cash out of my register!"
5.  "Yeah, sorry about that," Danni-Lynn said looking not at all sorry. "I meant to have Leroy get that lock for you all day yesterday. Well, you got it now."
What kind of [expletive] doesn't look sorry that you got robbed because she couldn't get you a damn lock in a timely fashion?  And what kind of [double-expletive] would say, "Well, you got it now" afterward?
6.  "To break even," Liddy said, her words dragging her down as she spoke them, "I have to be able to produce and sell about two hundred cupcakes a day.  Every day."
I freely admit I know nothing about the cupcake business, but two hundred cupcakes a day sounds like a LOT for a small town.  It's not like coffee, where you can count on regulars drinking a cup pretty much every single day.  No one eats a cupcake every day.  And assuming an eight-hour workday, Liddy would need a pretty constant stream of foot traffic, because that's roughly one cupcake sale every couple of minutes.

We find out later that Infinity is a town of about 2,300 people.  So, roughly ten percent of the population needs to have a cupcake craving.  Every day.  For her to break even.  Sounds like a great investment, right?  Is this one of my 401(k) options?
7.   Tucker had invited one other couple (take that, Mama) and Liddy pretty much hated her from the get-go.
Apparently that couple is female and singular.
8.  It occurred to her that she might be a tad overdressed for a casual dinner in the backwoods of small town Georgia.  Why did she wear her Manolos, for crap's sake?
Someone has watched wayyy too many Sex & the City reruns.  Also, when you go to someone's house for dinner, don't you think about what you're wearing when you're getting dressed, as opposed to right before you pull up to the house?  Imagine the reverse situation:  "It occurred to me that I might be a tad underdressed for the black tie gala.  Why did I wear my sneakers, for crap's sake?"  Hm, guess I should have thought about that while I was getting ready.
Next thing, you'll be telling me I shouldn't wear these to muck out the barn, either!
9.  She had tacked up fliers at her mother's rehabilitation center and at every public facility that would allow her within ten miles of Infinity.
So lots of grocery stores in Alabama and Florida got fliers, because they really didn't care how close she got to the small town of Infinity, Georgia.
10.  Surely, if he had been thinking clearly, it would have realized why she was calling.
I'm pretty sure "it" must be the phone.  It's the newest upgrade for caller ID -- it realizes why someone is calling so you don't have to answer.  But it only works when you're thinking clearly.  New technology always has its strings...

You'll notice, though, that despite all these minor annoyances, I still gave the book 3 stars.  That's because despite Liddy's questionable business sense, I found myself liking her as a character.  I enjoyed the light romance and solving the minor mystery of who was vandalizing Liddy's shop.  I also thought that Liddy's relationships with her ailing mother and her college-age son were touching and believable, and more finely drawn that I typically expect out of a cozy mystery.  So if you need a quick, light, and heartwarming read, grab this.  It's only $3.99 in the Kindle store.  In other words, it costs the same as two of Liddy's cupcakes, but has way fewer calories!

Disclosure: I received this book free from the author, who encouraged me to write a review. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.