Book talk; Or, Reader, read thyself

This post was inspired by a recent episode of The Readers, in which the hosts responded to a question about how to talk about books. As is usual when I listen to book-related podcasts, I want to drop my own two cents. 

“I liked it. What more do you want?”

Unless you’re an English major, you haven’t been trained to talk about books. Thus, book group conversations often end once everyone has said either, “I liked it,” or “I didn’t like it.” I bug my book-happy niece all the time because I keep asking her “Why?” until she breaks down or tries to weasel out of it by saying she forgot what it was about.

English majors, however, are taught a handful of critical lens to apply to texts. We’re lucky that someone helps us pull aside the curtain to take a look backstage. We learn to deconstruct and psychoanalyze. We can read as feminists or Marxists. We can read closely or look at the historical context. I think the most useful lens of the amateur reader (like me and you, probably) is to examine the book as a Reader, through readers’ response. More than anything else, a book’s meaning is dependent on what the reader makes of it. Any response is valid, so long as it can be backed up by the text.

The trick to reader’s response is to know yourself as a reader. As much as you’re psychoanalyzing the text, you’re psychoanalyzing yourself. (This can be a disturbing thought if you like zombie and pandemic novels, as I do.) You have to question your response to a book’s content or characters. Why do I hate this character? Why do I like the way the plot turns at this point? These questions can lead to great discussions. And I think this is a less daunting approach to how to talk about books than trying to cram a bachelor’s degree worth of critical theory into your head before the next book group meeting.

If this doesn’t work, you can always harass your book buddy by asking “Why?” until they break down.


The Stone Boy, by Sophie Loubière

I received a free copy of this ebook to review from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher.

What do you do when you witness a crime but no one will believe you? Hopefully, you wouldn’t do what Madame Préau does in Sophie Loubière’s The Stone Boy.

17333861The novel opens with a fast montage of the life of Elsa Préau. She’s a determined girl, later a determined woman. But I was left with the distinct impression that there was something off about her. She doesn’t have the same emotional responses as you’d expect. She sends her husband away when their son was young, apparently because he couldn’t devote as much time to her as she wanted. When M. Préau leaves for Canada, Elsa pushes ahead with her career and forging a relationship with her son, Martin. Time jumps forward again, to a disturbing incident in which Elsa and her grandson, Bastien, eat some cake and lie down to sleep, drugged.

Loubière picks up Elsa’s story some ten years after the unsettling picnic. She’s returned to her old home after ten years in a hospital, though we’re not told exactly why until much later. Elsa tries to settle in. She takes her medicine. She meets with her psychiatrist. She has awkward lunches with her son once a week. She’s eccentric, but understandably eccentric. Elsa learns more about her changed neighborhood and writes letters to the mayor and others about the pollution, traffic, and noise. She seems like a well-meaning busy-body. One day, she sees three children playing in her neighbors’ yard. Two are loud and boisterous. The third is wan and easily bullied. No one else seems to notice the child except Elsa. When she tries to tell the local child protective services about the third child, they can’t find any record of his birth.

As Elsa tries to find out who the child is, because she fiercely believes in his existence, as a reader you start to wonder if the woman is losing her mind. She takes all kinds of herbal remedies and sleeping pills. She hears things and grows paranoid about all the technology around her. Are the pills having an effect on her sanity? Are the herbs causing a bad reaction? It’s so easy to disbelieve Elsa.

The narrative picks up as Elsa speeds toward a confrontation with her neighbors, the Desmoulins. I wasn’t expecting such a dramatic encounter, but it changed the book from a psychological thriller to a crime novel. Poor Martin Préau is left to pick up the pieces, again it seems. The revelations come fast and furious at this point, changing everything I thought I knew about the story and about the Préaus. The Stone Boy, though brief, is an amazing read.

Site Update

I added a few more of the book sites I enjoy to the blogroll over in the left column. These sites are full of book reviews and articles that help me think more deeply about reading and the book world. I hope you enjoy a few of them, too.

The Age of Ice, by J.M. Sidorova

I received a free copy of this ebook by Netgalley, to review on behalf of the publisher. This book will be released July 23, 2013.

It’s fitting that J.M. Sidorova’s The Age of Ice isn’t coming out until July. It will be a fantastic book to cool off with.

16130312The book begins in 1742, with the Empress Anna of Russia and her cruel games. The main characters parents are tormented and their twins are born a little strange. Alexander Velitzyn is impervious to cold and when his emotions are aroused, he actually gets colder. The only one who can touch him without risking frostbite is his brother. Oh, and then there’s the other thing. For some reason, Alexander just doesn’t die–even after being frozen solid in ice for two months while in Siberia.

Alexander’s story, for a large part of his life, follows the history of Russia. He takes part in Pugachev’s rebellion, a search for a Northeast Passage, fights at Austerlitz, and fights his way across Europe with the Russian Army during the end of the Napoleonic Wars. But when his personal life falls apart, Alexander is cut adrift. His curious abilities keep him from forming attachments to people. He is not only looking for someone who can love him, but also for answers about what he is. He ends up drifting to Afghanistan and India, outliving his old life by decades.

Sidorova doesn’t tell the story as a straightforward biography. Instead, it’s almost like having Alexander talking about the highlights of his life. Or rather, it’s a bit like seeing Alexander talk about his proverbial nine lives. He constantly reinvents himself. People come in and out of his life, then their descendants crop up. Russia changes. Europe changes. The Age of Ice is an incredible journey, in all senses of the word.

Moving back…

So after five years over at WordPress, I’m moving back to blogger in an attempt to shrink my efootprint. (I have far too many accounts.) I’ll be in the process of moving content for a long time. All new content will be published here, instead of over at my old blog, Textual Frigate. (Also, that name? What the hell was I thinking?

Why I Gave Up on Drood

Earlier this week, I finally got around to starting Drood, by Dan Simmons. I’d read some very interesting reviews this past Spring that made me really want to read it. I’ve enjoyed Simmons before, because I love the way his books play with literature, and I’m not afraid of five pound books. But I only made it about a hundred pages in before I gave it up.

Drood has a great premise. It proposes that Drood was a character that was haunting Charles Dickins, and inspired the writer to draft The Mystery of Edwin Drood, a novel the author died before finishing. From that premise, apparently, Simmons spins out a disturbing meta-mystery. The novel is narrated by Wilkie Collins, another writer who actually was a friend of Dickins. Collins was a laudanum addict and, as such, becomes one of my favorite types of storytellers: an unreliable narrator.

What made me give the book up was Simmons choice to include flashbacks to events that I couldn’t see the relevance of and didn’t have the patience to wait and have it revealed to me. These flashbacks distracted and detracted from the part of the book I found really interesting, the Drood plot. Every time things started to move forward on that front, Collins would stop talking about it and go back to talking about his collaboration with Dickins on a play, hiking up mountains with Dickins, etc. etc. Frankly, I didn’t care. I just wanted to yell at Collins to focus on the matter at hand. I have to trust Simmons that there was a purpose, but it was just boring.

I’ve read other reviews of Drood that said similar things, so I have to wonder if this narrative style continues through the whole book. So, I gave up and have moved on to another book. I don’t often give up on books, but I don’t want to spend my free time reading books I don’t like. Not when there are so many other wonderful books out there waiting for me to get my hands on them.

Sundance 2009

There won’t be a book review this Sunday as usual, because I wasn’t able to actually finish a book this week. One of the reasons is the fact that I spent 18 hours at the Sundance Film Festival on Friday. It was an absolutely fantastic day, even if I did have to get up at 6:00 AM and didn’t get home until after 1:00 in the morning. I went with the Media Librarian at the university I work at, and I’m sure my Sundance trip would not have been as fun without her.

So, here’s what I did on Friday:

Got up very early in the morning to get to Park City around 8:00, when the main box office opened. We already had tickets to three movies that day, but we were hoping to see more. (Who wouldn’t?) The line was absolutely huge, and we decided that we’d just go see the movies we had tickets for rather than queue for a very long time in the hopes that the shows we wanted to see weren’t sold out. We hopped on one of the city buses—there were buses all over the place—and rode out to our first show: Mary and Max.

Mary and Max is an Australian claymation feature, created by an Academy Award winning animator. (He won for an animated short. So now I can say that I’ve been in the same room as an Oscar winner. Granted it was a 1500 seat auditorium, but that’s not the point.) A lot of people, myself included, often think that animated films are for kids. This one is not. It’s about psychology, coping with Asbergers and anxiety, self-esteem, suicide, life, and alcoholism. Mary is an Australian girl who, out of curiosity, writes to an American at random to ask where babies come from in America. (She’s been told that, in Australia, babies are found at the bottom of beer glasses.) Max is a New Yorker who has Asbergers. Since the film is set in the mid-1970s, his condition is not yet recognized. As the story progresses, Mary and Max learn from each other. It’s a story that you can’t predict. I love those, because so often when I watch a movie, I know where it’s going to go. There aren’t many (if any) surprises. Very enjoyable movie. I think it’ll come up at Oscar time.

After Mary and Max, we had a lot of time to kill. So we spent the time wandering around Park City. We had a good lunch at Spencer’s Grill. (Burger good, fries kind of crappy). We looked at the hilariously overpriced objets d’artes in the many, many galleries. We visited a combination bookstore and chocolate shop that had a friendly store cat.At mid-afternoon, we headed over to watch our second movie of the day: Toe to Toe.

Toe to Toe wasn’t on my list of movies that I wanted to see. I saw lacrosse in the film description and thought, eh. But I’m glad I got to go. Lacrosse was incidental to the story. Toe to Toe is, according to the writer/director Emily Abt, a race film. A black student who is working very, very hard to get a scholarship to Princeton attends an, I assume, private school in a rich area in or around Baltimore. (The movie is a little fuzzy on the details.) During lacrosse tryouts, Tosha meets a white girl named Jessie, who decides that Tosha will be her new friend. When she goes home, Tosha rides the bus into a bad neighborhood in Baltimore, where she is frequently harassed by a group of black teens. We get to see her family—a mother who works the graveyard shift and is kind of absent from her daughter’s life, a brother who has a young daughter and no job, and a grandmother who is always pushing Tosha towards Princeton.

Jessie, the other main character, is, at first glance, your average spoiled little rich girl who lives in a lovely, huge, empty home. Her mother is frequently criss-crossing the globe to attend humanitarian and economic conferences. The maid, Fadima, proves Jessie with meals and affection. Jessie treats her like a combination of friend and substitute mother. As I watched this movie, I could clearly see the racial themes that Abt wanted to discuss, but this really struck me as a gender film and I was much more interested in what Abt was saying about the roles that the females in the movie were portraying. Jessie is revealed to be the class wild child and slut. Tosha is a virginal over-achiever. Tosha’s grandmother is the proud black woman who, in the end, wants to reclaim the word bitch the way some people want to reclaim the n word. We’re also given three different visions of what it can mean to be mother. (The third is the mother of Tosha’s niece.) The men in the movie are not very well fleshed out except for Rashid, an aspiring dj who is attracted to Tosha but who sleeps with Jessie. He claims to be a good Muslim boy, but when he’s away from his family, he conveniently forgets that Islam prohibits drinking alcohol and sleeping with a girl who isn’t your wife.

After the movie, Abt and the major actors went up on stage for a Q and A. I got to ask a question about the prominence of the gender issues in the movie, and Abt answered that she was more interested in race than gender when she wrote it. There are a lot of things that I liked about this movie. The dialog was superb—nothing felt forced, the lines rang true. The story was absolutely believable. Abt neatly avoided a lot of stereotypes with subtlety. It’s a bold, wonderful movie, and I hope it finds a distributor.

After Toe to Toe, we had some time to kill, so we headed back to Main Street and scouted out a good place for dinner. We went to the Wasatch Brew Pub, where they make Polygamy Porter. I tried out a raspberry wheat beer (tasty) and a brat with sauerkraut and strong Polygamy Porter brown mustard (a spicy sinus clearer). Good food. If I go back to Park City, I will definitely go to that pub again. We had a nice long dinner, and headed back out to Main again. We visited the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory to pick up some truffles and things. Since we were going to meet some people up at the movie, we headed back towards one of the many bus stops. I had a lot of fun crowd watching, trying to guess who was really somebody and who just though they were. There were a bunch of odd type there, too. For some reason, there were some guys outside a store who had hawks and falcons they actually used to hunt things.  Petting one of the falcons (I think it was a prairie falcon) was a highlight of the day.

The last movie we saw was Rudo y Cursi, which starred Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna, and was written and directed by Carlos Cuaron. This was the high point of the day because Bernal, Carlos and Alfonso Cuaron, and Guillermo del Toro were there to introduce the “bittersweet comedy,” which was making its international debut. All day we sat in the front left corner of the theater, which meant that we had really good views of the people up on stage. It also meant that we were in front of the reserved section, where the famous people and special pass holders sat. I swear I saw Anna Wintour sitting back there. If it wasn’t her, Wintour has a doppelganger.

Rudo (Tough/Rude) y Cursi (Corny/Sweet) is about two brothers, played by Luna and Bernal, respectively, who are spotted by a talent scout while playing soccer. It’s a story about sibling rivalry, really, so there actually isn’t much soccer in it. Rudo is the older brother, with a wife and children and a serious gambling addiction. He plays goalie. Cursi is younger and unmarried, and really, really wants to be a singer in spite of the fact that he’s not very good. The talent scout can only take on one of the brothers, so Rudo suggests a penalty kick. If he blocks it, he goes. If Cursi gets past him, Cursi goes. Rudo tells Cursi to aim to the right, so that he can block it and go with the scout. Cursi kicks right, and Rudo dodges right. Unfortunately, Cursi was kicking to his right and Rudo was dodging to his right and totally misses.

The rest of this fantastic story is about the brothers’ rise to fame as soccer players and how they lose it all. One of the best parts of the movie is watching Cursi trying to launch a singing career. He gets to record a Spanish version of “I want you to want me” and a hilarious music video of the same. During the Q and A, I got to ask why Carlos picked that song and if that really was Bernal singing. So, in a sense, I got to talk to Gael Garcia Bernal. And I didn’t stutter or anything. I could feel my coolness quotient rise.

The Cuarons, Bernal, and del Toro were hilarious during the introduction and the Q & A. While Bernal was speaking about working with Luna and making apologies for his absence, del Toro interrupted him. This is the conversation, as well as I remember it:

Del Toro: He’s here, he’s passed out in back.

Bernal: [turns to face the wings] Diego!

[General laughter]

During the Q & A, an audience member asked if the female lead, Jessica Mas, was present. Here’s the conversation, to the best of my recollection:

Bernal: Don’t you think she’d be out here, too? You can see her from a thousand miles.

One of the Cuarons: We brought Guillermo, instead.

[Laughter. Laughter gets louder when del Toro opens his coat a bit to show off his T-shirt and jeans and does a little dance step.]

Del Toro: You can see me from a thousand miles, too. Someone asks you where the hotel is and you point and say, see that fat fucker? It’s behind him.

Bloody, fantastic day.

The librarian I went with had the camera, so I’ll post pictures as soon as I get copies from her.

Stephen Fry on Language

BoingBoing pointed me in the direction of this wonderful podcast by Stephen Fry, in which he talks about the glories of the English language and why pedantic grammar types should stop whining when people commit linguistic errors. Apart from the fact that I agree with him, I just love listening to Fry’s speech. No one I’ve ever heard uses English the way he does. It’s as if he’s trying to to use the largest number of unique adjectives in every paragraph.

Anathem, by Neal Stephenson, Part II

I meant to share this quote in my review of Anathem, by Neal Stephenson, just to show that the book is not as dry as you might think.

“Our opponent is an alien starship packed with atomic bombs,” I said. “We have a protractor.” “Okay, I’ll go home and see if I can scrounge up a ruler and a piece of string.” “That’d be great.” (320)

I passed!

Normally, I don’t do personal announcements but this is too big. I got my grades back for my last semester of graduate school. I have a 4.0 and am, officially, a Master of Library Science. In a week and a half, I will get hooded in our belated graduation ceremony.