Friday, July 29, 2011

Go Banana!

now finished: Lizard by Banana Yashimoto
(this blog post backdated to the day I finished the book)
I've had Banana Yashimoto on my radar since I first ever started working at Borders that holiday season long ago. I mean, one doesn't easily forget a (pen) name like "Banana." But, I never got around to buying or checking out anything or even for several years figuring out if the author was male or female. Turns out, female. Someone brought a book of short stories, Lizard, to an Andong book swap this summer, and I took it home mostly out of "Why not?" curiosity. 
File under: not bad. It was a fast read, and some of the stories were better than others. Bonus: the stories got better as the book went along, so stick it out through the first two or three. All of the tales seemed to be about alienated or searching people wandering (and riding trains) through their days, and all were about relationships and self in some way. I would read another Banana. 
It also helps, maybe, that this year I have fallen in love with Japan. I was set to be even more appreciative of people hurtling on a subway through the Tokyo night to their suburban enclaves. I was totally tapped in to the mix of emotion, history, practicality, modernity, efficiency, and beauty that infuses everything there. 

I've read a lot of comments that her novels are even better than her stories, so I will check one out. Someday.


Saturday, July 16, 2011

Who Needs the Help?
A Bestseller Backlash Case Study

now finished: The Help by Kathryn Stockett
(this blog post backdated to the day I finished the book)
The very concept of bestseller backlash was made for books like The Help. I discovered bestseller backlash in early 2000 when I was at the beginning of my approximately six-year Borders career. People flock to certain books in a very "nothing-attracts-a-crowd-like-a-crowd" way (thanks, Soul Asylum). And those books are rarely worth the hype. To be clear, a book does not fall into the category of bestseller backlash just because it is a bestseller. There's a certain intangible quality to these books, a certain skepticism about their place on the bestseller list, a certain lack of need to read them felt by me and other Readers, as opposed to the breathless "you-have-to-read-this" masses. Sometimes the bestseller backlash is a mistake and the book is good or even great (The Life of Pi, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, The Dogs of Babel, Freakonomics) and sometimes the book is terrible (The Memory Keeper's Daughter, Who Moved My Cheese?) but most often the book is incredibly average and, much like Top 40 pop music, the throngs of devoted fans are blind to its mediocrity (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo/Men Who Hate Women, Water for Elephants, etc. etc. etc....and, notably, The Help).

The Help has the added bestseller backlash "advantage" of being not just ridiculously popular but also being thought to be important. Social issues, race, the South, the Civil Rights Era, change we can believe in (oops, wrong decade) you can just feel the self-pronounced importance oozing from the reaction to this book. However, it has actually generated some actual backlash (in the world at large) for telling the African-American stories from a very white, very limited point of view. I myself wrote about feminism in The Help because the feminist issues are there, even when the author seems to be oblivious to them, despite having written this "important" novel. And if there is one thing I hate ("one thing?!" - Clue), it is people/institutions that miss their own point. (See also: most of religion.) I have thoroughly enjoyed this blog, which explains a lot of what is wrong with The Help.

The Help straight up gets some things wrong. For example, when people started becoming long-hair hippies. That was one of the first things to rub me the wrong way, when she had a character in Mississippi in 1963 refer to a long-hair Yankee throwing a peace sign. "No way," I thought. That is way too early! In her afterword, which the abovementioned blog calls her Too Little Too Late section, she casually states, "I took liberty with time, like using Bob Dylan's 'The Times They Are A-Changin' even though it didn't come out until a year or two later." Um - why? You specifically set this novel to swirl around the events of 1962-1963, like Medgar Evers, JFK, MLK, etc. And then you decide to go ahead and switch up history - because - why, again? You're just too good for it? You can't think of a song that was out in 1963? You don't really remember this world you are so haughtily evoking, as you want us all to believe you do?

There were other mistakes/willful errors.  And they weren't the only annoying thing about this book. One annoying thing is the condescension inherent in writing this story the way she chose to do. Another is that no one who lives on the colored side of town seems particularly empowered, ever. They just do good things and get patted on the head by the occasional liberal white person. I think Ms. Stockett was trying to do something awesome here, but it turns out to be another bestseller that ought to be anything but.

As I read, I wanted to know what would happen; I am not going to write a spoiler review because I am more concerned with telling you to PLEASE DON'T BUY this book. Borrow it from a friend or the library or whatever, but please do not throw any more money to this book/author/publisher/entity

I want someone to write this novel better. I am fairly certain the author did not at ALL learn the lessons she is apparently trying to teach the rest of us.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Long Time No Nick

now finished: A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby

Nick! I missed you, Nick!  Nick Hornby is one of those authors whose words I love so much that I actually don't devour all their books immediately, but instead I move slowly through their oeuvre, savoring it, so that I never run out of books by them to read. Who are "those" other authors, you ask?  Well, at the moment I would say Nelson DeMille and Virginia Woolf and Nick are my solid trinity in that category. It is a lot easier for me to do with those boys, who are alive, of course, and still writing, as opposed to my girl V.W. who is sadly not going to provide us with any more of her writing. I'm going to finish her oeuvre someday soon, plain and simple.

I see echoes of Virginia Woolf in Nick Hornby. That's right, I said it. Not in word choice or style, exactly. And no, not because of the suicide theme. (Although...)  It's more of a sensibility that understands and communicates the life of a Londoner so well, complete with all those inner thoughts, while interacting with people in the world, yet being pensive and kind of removed from others, but not brooding in alienation (a la Salinger). There's something connecting those two. I would love to imagine a meeting between Nick Hornby and Virginia Woolf.

Anyway, A Long Way Down. It has been a few years since I Fever Pitched, but there I was at book swap and someone had brought A Long Way Down  to trade and for me the chance at a free copy of a Nick Hornby I haven't read is a no-brainer. Let me just say that I adored it! It might even be my favorite of his. The perfect lines, the way he nails each character personality as they spew out their pithy takes on the world.

The morbid premise is that four strangers meet on top of a tall London building (I think I should know what building it is he alludes to, but didn't) on New Year's Eve because they are all planning to jump but instead, because they are all there, they don't jump, and the book chronicles what happens to the four of them next. It's a sheer joy to read, while also being full of sarcasm, thoughtfulness, and some true life pondering as well as hope. What more could you ask from a novel? I daresay Voltaire would be impressed.

I'm trying to get Brian to read it. One of these days, he is going to read the Nick. He already means to read Fever Pitch, and I am sure he will read High Fidelity because he appreciates the genius of the movie, so soon, soon he will know the brilliance that is Nick Hornby. Virginia Woolf is a harder sell. (But she shouldn't be!)

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Long Gone

now finished: Long Gone by Alafair Burke

I read this book on my computer, using Kindle for PC. I'm in Korea, and I have yet to find any Alafair Burke books in the bookstores here, and I wouldn't have been able to order a copy in time for her online Long Gone-reading club, and she/her publisher had already hooked me and got me to download Kindle for PC in the first place with the $1.99 electronic Angel's Tip (one of her previous books) a few weeks ago, just like (as Alafair says) a drug dealer hooks the kiddies by passing out samples at the playground.

My point - oh yes, a point - is that this book was on my laptop, and my battery doesn't last too long. Which means I pretty much never unplug my laptop and roam around the house with it to, say, the bed or couch. It stays on my desk. Which means the desk office chair, my work space, not curled up all comfy-like. And yet! I sat there for hours, up past my bedtime, reading Long Gone so I could find out what happens. My point, therefore, is that it hooks ya, the Long Gone, and you keep reading.

I like Alafair Burke's writing style but I also like knowing her personality a bit and seeing it come out in her novel. I am still not a big mystery/thriller person and I sometimes feel like I am the wrong person to judge mystery/thrillers, but then I think that's stupid because why can't we all comment on any "type" of book, but then I remember people who have a preconceived bias against girls-with-guitars talking shite about Indigo Girls and I don't want to be those people and...and....oh, me and my genre fiction woes.

Will you like Long Gone? Probably. It's very New Yorky, but not in a way that's been done to death. If anything it's kind of Sandra Scoppettone New Yorky. (See! I read other mysteries! Sometimes. Every five years or so.) It has lots of different characters who start connecting together. It has people using modern technology for nefarious reasons. It's a good beach read, or a sit-at-your-desk-past-midnight read. It has a thirtysomething heroine. It has snark. Alafair Burke is good with the lovable snark.

And I didn't even have to spot any issues this time...

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

In which I am blessed to receive The Giver

now finished: The Giver by Lois Lowry

I am no longer the only person in my social circles/tax bracket who has not read The Giver. See, this is what happens when you are a thirtysomething who has spent an awful lot of time a)with twentysomethings b)working in bookstores. You realize that there is some book that slipped into the young adult repertoire while you were in college leaving behind childish things, a book that became a modern classic while you were diving into Plath, Sartre, and the like.

For me, that book is The Giver. When I hear Lois Lowry, I think "Of course! My girl Anastasia Krupnik!" Alas, Anastasia has apparently been usurped by dystopian Jonas as Lowry's most famous contribution to literature. Goodreads tells me that the book was first published in March 1993. Yup, I was sitting in a freshman dorm room. Even Brian read The Giver in school. He's only a few years younger than me, but clearly during those few years The Giver did its thing. I'm pretty sure I never saw a summer reading list during my Borders career that didn't include either The Giver, The Things They Carried (I haven't read that either), or both of those books. Even my sister read it a few years ago! She basically stopped reading when she started reproducing, but one day at her husband's school, with the kids being babysat somewhere, she had down time in his office while waiting to accompany one of his choirs, and she picked it up and read it in an afternoon. I don't think there has ever been a book that Brian, my sister, and droves of teenage Borders customers from three different U.S. states have all read that I have not read. Seriously.

Therefore, when I happened upon a copy here at our monthly Andong book swap, of course I snatched it up, knowing I could quickly read it, get it checked off the list, and even give it to one of my middle or high school students at Avalon and not have to have it take up shelf/suitcase space. I read it in two days, of course. And now, what you've all been waiting for, surely: what did I think about it?

Well, it was fine. I know, not terribly enthusiastic, am I? I'm not trying to be anti-YA or anti-dystopia, but I'm not quite going to salivate endlessly about this one. However, I did like it. One thing I really like about it is that there is a lot more going on than meets the eye. I can absolutely see what it has become the perennial middle/high school book. I could probably talk about the themes and characters and plot revelations for days just by myself, let alone with a class and a teacher.

I think three main strengths of this book are:
  • A bold, philosophical idea: that society would envision a "perfect" world as one without emotions and choices, and what this says about the necessity of evil.
  • The slow revelation of the full import of this philosophical idea. For example, you kind of enjoy the first family dinner talking about whether anyone had a feeling that day, or when they report their dreams. But then later you realize it's totally creepy why they're doing it.
  • The steady pacing.
Some have criticized the book for being heavy-handed or propaganda-like. I don't see it. I didn't think it was perfect, but I thought it was interesting and it pulls you along smoothly enough, despite some rough patches when you realize what's happening to people who are "released." I for one would have preferred a clearer ending, because I think every author wants to have the "Oooooh, did (s)he or didn't (s)he?" ending, but not every author earns it.

Anastasia! Are you reading this? I want to know what Anastasia Krupnik has to say about Jonas.

Monday, July 04, 2011

Franklin Pierce

now finished:
Franklin Pierce: New Hampshire's Favorite Son by Peter Wallner

Franklin Pierce: Martyr for the Union by Peter Wallner

It's interesting to consider what is meant by "martyr for the union." I mean, I personally think it is awesome to be "New Hampshire's favorite son" too, but I can see where many regular U.S.A. folk don't necessarily get all jolly and fascinated about states as I do, so for this paragraph we'll stick to what it means to be a martyr for the union. I can imagine a chorus of talking heads using those phrases in praise of someone who gave his all for the United States. But you know what it really meant, in 1852, 1853, 1854, 1855, and 1856? It meant continuing to prevent the abolitionists from getting very far in abolishing slavery. I say this not as a particular indictment of Franklin Pierce. He was actually a man of integrity who honored his father, tried to rid the government of corruption and steadfastly refused to do things he didn't think the president had Constitutional power to do.

Also, he was not alone. My boy Millard Fillmore before him was also a man who is much overlooked by history, probably partly because he kept the status quo - i.e., the union. The union of slave states and free states who were sliding farther and farther apart, threatening this amazing thing the founding fathers had recently created. And there were others, many others, who might wring their hands and weep and wail and gnash teeth, but really just let slavery keep on keeping on, as it were.

Why? Well, let me tell you this: these two Peter Wallner volumes about Franklin Pierce make it quite clear how very extreme the abolitionists were. I feel like these days in the U.S. we tell ourselves, subconsciously but also through all our institutions and prevailing narratives of society, that the abolitionists and Abraham Lincoln were the Good Guys and the slaveholders and Jefferson Davis and anyone who wanted to not emancipate slaves were the Bad Guys, and there was a clear dichotomy, and it was simple. And to be honest, that was not the case. Abolitionists were largely reviled and shunned, even though we later call them "right."

Abolitionists were the Michael Moore of their day.

They dared to speak truth to power, and even their churches disliked it. The president had no use for them. The state political parties were infuriated that these believers who wanted such a fundamental transformation would threaten the stability of the union, political harmony, etc. Furthermore, it was not actually easy to be the president and just "do something" about slavery. The president was also president of the southern states. The Kansas-Nebraska act and all that followed in "bleeding Kansas" pretty much destroyed Franklin Pierce's political career. Jefferson Davis was his Secretary of War. (I'm glad we don't have that job title anymore - I wish we also didn't have that job.)

Here I must interject. Jefferson Davis was actually smart and kind of awesome. Sure, sure, a few years later he would preside over the less awesome (and less smart?) Confederacy. But during the 1850s he was successful and he cared about the United States and he did some really cool shit, like import CAMELS! real camels! into Texas and the Southwest, newly acquired U.S. land, for transporting military supplies and the like. He sent some armed forces minions to observe the Prussian War and all that went along with it, and they returned talking about camels in the Middle East, and one thing led to another and - so awesome. I really, really want to find out what happened to the descendants of these camels in Texas when the nasty Civil War interrupted and took everyone's attention away from the Southwest camel program.

But seriously, that interjection is also partly my point. Jefferson Davis was not a monster or devil. He wasn't even a Hitler. He was part of the United States. And there were millions and millions of citizens - churchgoers, politicians, family men, family women, business leaders, frontier renegades, and so forth - all of whom were equally convinced that the southern slave holding states' peculiar institution was not something the Constitutional federal government could do thing one about.

And, most of you today would have been willing to go along with that majority, keeping the peace, not shaking things up too much. I know, because I see the way you react to Michael Moore, and truthout, and Noam Chomsky (who might be one of our smartest living humans), and to those of us who speak out against the evil, awful warmongering of the U.S.

Finally, Franklin Pierce was awesome because he went to college in Maine with Nathaniel Hawthorne and then they were BFFs for life. That job in the customs house? Thanks, pal in the federal government. Ditto for the stint in London. Nathaniel even came to Franklin's house to die instead of setting up his deathbed back home with his wife.

I love my presidential-bios-to-see-where-we-went-wrong project.