Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Back to Bill Bryson

now finished: I'm a Stranger Here Myself: Notes on Returning to America After Twenty Years Away by Bill Bryson 
next up: returning to the A-to-Z literary blog project top half with my second 'L' 
current audio listen: The Last Gunfight by Jeff Guinn

Bill Bryson is one of those authors that I heard about a lot before I actually read anything he's written. Between being bandied about The Savvy Traveler all the time and the many books of his I shelved at Borders, I spent nearly a decade knowing about him before finally (in 2006) reading A Walk in the Woods, which made me laugh out loud, recommend it to a ton of people, and start planning to hike the Appalachian Trail (in roughly that order). I was sold and had high hopes for my next Bill Bryson, which I just completed.

I picked up I'm a Stranger Here Myself at a used bookstore in Phoenix while I was trading in old books to downsize my possessions before heading to Mexico. I thought it might be good for me right now: the whole traveler/returning to the U.S./being unsure about one's home country/quirky observations about life seemed like what I was in the mood for.  It actually took me a bit to get into it because it's a collection of a few years of columns he wrote after moving from England, where he'd spent basically his entire adulthood, to New Hampshire. I think I really enjoyed the fever pitch to which his hilarity can build in a continuous narrative when I read A Walk in the Woods, so I had to readjust myself to the concept of short dose nuggets that wrap up every few pages.

Once I had adjusted, though, I blew through the book, and even laughed out loud (on the Queretaro city bus!) a bunch of times. I had some particular favorites: "Your Tax Form Explained," "The War on Drugs," "Lost at the Movies" (about how much summer blockbusters suck), and without a doubt "The Cupholder Revolution."  Funny story: the car that we are driving here in Mexico a few days a week right now for our English teaching gig (you know, the stick shift?) is actually about as amenity-free as a car can get (I mean, seriously, no radio? No RADIO?!?!!) and several of us have mentioned more than once that if we could add one feature to the car it would be cupholders.  It's just who we are! We as a species have obviously evolved to the point that we expect, no, we need to have our coffee or juice with us to swig while driving. Bill Bryson's essay backs this up. I particularly loved the part about Volvo having to rethink its formula for success when it discovered that what the U.S. consumer really wants is a cupholder.

In the end, though (literally and figuratively the end), his address to the graduating class of such-and-such high school in New Hampshire might have become my favorite. I really, really like his advice! So much that I am going to share some of it here:
  • "Nearly all the people you encounter in life merit your consideration. Many of them will be there to help you--to deliver your pizza, bag your groceries, clean up the motel room you have made such a lavish mess of. If you are not in the habit of being extremely nice to these people, then get in the habit now." 
  • "There is nothing worse than getting to my age and saying, 'I could have played second base for the Boston Red Sox but my dad wanted me to study law.' Tell your dad to study law. You go and climb Everest." 
  • "Don't make the extremely foolish mistake of thinking that winning is everything. If there is one person that I would really like to smack, it is the person who said, 'Wining is not the main thing. It's the only thing.' That's awful. Taking part is the main thing."
  • "Don't cheat. It's not worth it. Don't cheat on tests, don't cheat on your taxes, don't cheat on your partner, don't cheat at Monopoly, don't cheat at anything."
    -----from "An Address" pp. 283-284 in I'm a Stranger Here Myself  by Bill Bryson, Broadway Books 1999.
 Awesome, right? That stuff, in the penultimate chapter, would have won me over even if I hadn't already warmed to the book.

The only problem is how often he refers to the United States as "America" (including, you will have noted, in the title).  Ugh. Such a pet peeve of mine. He has several wistful moments in this book about "small town America"/Main Street and the like, plus a bunch of times where he contrasts "America" with England. You could argue that those are two of the less invalid ways of applying "America" to the U.S., but still. No. Anyway, that's just the minor flaw I feel compelled to point out. (I'm well aware many of you won't notice/won't care.)

I particularly liked the New Englandness of this book, by the way. I have spent a lot of quality time in New Hampshire, right where his little tales are set. I miss my life in Boston, even though I needed to change some things about it, and I did, and it wasn't a mistake to do so...but still, I had a great life those years in Boston. So, Bill Bryson made me think! And laugh! What more could I ask?
Final grade: B+  (Appropriate, methinks, for Bill Bryson)

Monday, July 09, 2012

In which I eventually get to the point about Alafair Burke

now finished: Angel's Tip by Alafair Burke
now also reading because Angel's Tip was on my Kindle for PC and I need to have a real book with me: I'm a Stranger Here Myself: Notes on Returning to America After Twenty Years Away by Bill Bryson

Here's my recommendation for you: Alafair Burke. Now, please recommend a mystery author to me.

While it has been said that I refuse to read genre fiction, that is not actually true. I avoid genre fiction, which is quite different. However, of the genres, mystery is obviously the one that I'm most likely to read and/or enjoy, and I do so from time to time. My favorites, the ones who have inspired me to go out and devour their entire oeuvre, have been Sandra Scoppettone and Nelson DeMille. I have enjoyed mysteries from several other authors, too, but there are two main problems with reading mysteries:

1. Buying them when they are brand new really is cost-prohibitive for the amount you would want to read. What I mean is, they go by a lot faster than some "literary fiction" or non-fiction, so if you're going to go spend 30% off of $24.95 on a hardcover, really, which book is more worth it? The one that you'll still be reading in a few weeks, obviously, not the one you can finish on the bus ride home from the bookstore. This is why a.)libraries are awesome and b.)so are used bookstores and book swaps and c.)the Genres (mystery, romance, sci-fi, fantasy, horror) do so well in mass market - they're cheaper that way! This is also why I immediately bought Alafair Burke's 99-cent downloads for Kindle for PC when her publisher offered the limited-time sales, because that's an awesome way to buy mysteries.More should be done, I think, to make the suck-you-in-stay-up-reading genres cheaper when they are new, and then there would be more new book sales, at least to me.

2. It can be intimidating to choose a new mystery author, because unlike, say, my A-to-Z- Literary Blog Project, in which I chose a book from 26 different authors I had not previously read, one for each letter of the alphabet, and I did not feel particularly compelled to read their other books first or all at once (or, in the case of 'O,' any other books of hers at all, ever ever ever) but with a mystery you might be browsing in the bookstore and come across some mystery that looks quite good and you're about to go ahead and get it when you notice that it is "Sammy Sleuth #3" or whatever, and then you decide to start with #1, but the bookstore has the whole series in stock except the first one, and so you make mental note to look for the Sammy Sleuth series next time you are in a bookstore or library, but then the other 900 books on your to-read list get in the way, and life happens, and then you find yourself a decade after deciding to read Sue Grafton's A to Z Kinsey Millhone series (being clearly fond of A-to-Z things) still stuck on 'E'...or was it 'F'?...and really meaning to catch up but you couldn't just buy them all in one fell swoop. Or is that just me?  (But you still have big plans to catch up by the time Sue Grafton's Y comes out, and then you can anticipate and await and maybe even buy Z all brand new hardcover like. With a coupon.) (Although, recall that I have a major problem with people who make the letter X "stand for" something it doesn't stand for, like in a kids' book that doesn't want to do xylophone or x-ray again so it tries "X is for eX-treme" or whatever. No. Just, no. If Sue does that, I retract everything I've ever said in support of her A-to-Z series and I'll stop at K, or wherever I am when that happens.)

Oh yeah, and I also read a few more  mysteries when I worked for Borders and had a.)an employee discount b.)check-out privileges for those new hardcovers c.)advanced reader copies galore. That's when I read one each from Harlan Coben, Michael Connelly, James Lee Burke, and a few others...but even then I would feel, like, really really compelled to read, say, all of the Dave Robicheaux novels in a row, although of course I didn't, and then I felt guilty about that. Christ. This is the problem mysteries present to a devoted but kind of weird, obsessed-with-planning-things-out reader.

ANYWAY. Alafair Burke. (And why yes, they are related, but their books are totally different, so don't be all stupidly reviewing her on Goodreads by saying, "Two stars -- she is  nothing like her father" because that is just dumb. Drew Barrymore is not like Lionel Barrymore, but they entertain in different ways. What is wrong with people?)

So Angel's Tip is the fourth Alafair Burke book I have read, which is not bad! for me! -- although this is her New York-set Ellie Hatcher series and I did leave Samantha Kincaid hanging, note to self, must get back to those --but, see, I had this extra motivation of sort of knowing the author. Careful readers will recall that I first read Alafair Burke during law school because she was my Criminal Procedure professor and as usual during the law school semester I missed reading my book-books so terribly much and then I hit upon the idea that I could justify reading an Alafair Burke thriller as studying for her exam. This was not as much a stretch as you might imagine, because she does drop some procedure in there, thank you very much. 

I had no idea what an Angel's Tip is before reading this book. Turns out  it's a drink. A little too sweet and chocolate-y for my tastes, I think. Reading this book made me super-duper nostalgic for living in New York, and although normally when I contemplate moving back to the U.S. and "settling" somewhere I usually dismiss New York as too a.)expensive b.)full of New Yorkers (specifically, those who say New York is the greatest place in the world without having lived in the rest of the world), this week I just was all like, "Oh, Manhattan! I sure did like living in Brooklyn and being in the city all the time and riding the subway and seeing historical things and the actual Macy's on 34th Street and McCarren Park and Chelsea Piers and Central Park and Roosevelt Island and lots of food and bars and sports and art and whatnot..."

One of my favorite things about Alafair Burke's books is when her characters say snarky things. Alafair likes the clever, incisive snark (to wit: she recognizes Entertainment Weekly as the genius magazine that it is) and she's rather good at snark herself, and I like it when her characters bust it out. She also weaves pop culture references throughout her novels. I have this vision of some literary archaeologist a hundred years from now reading her books and commenting on how they decidedly capture turn of the (21st) century New York, but who was this Zac Efron fellow?

One of my favorite things about this Alafair Burke book in particular is that it makes a little fun of the whole cluuub scene, particularly in the meatpacking district, where people are paying $400 for a bottle of liquor so they can get bottle service and feel special or rich or something. I do recall my minimal experiences with bottle service at the dance club (clearly, I was hosted by other peeps) and I don't think I will drop that kind of money on alcohol even when I have it one day. I have never been fond of standing in line to get into a club or bar, and I liked that this book revolved around that scene, which is fun to mock a little bit . I was also exceedingly happy to find in this book a petulant law student, a hideously unethical lawyer, and a philosophical conversation about whether one should go to law school.

I'm not going to say much more about the plot. I half believe that mysteries shouldn't even have anything on the back cover besides blurbs and an author bio. I don't want to know anything about a mystery before I start reading it. (This may be another slight problem in my whole finding-mysteries-to-read thing.)  But I will say that I do recommend Angel's Tip and it totally sucked me in. I was reading it on Kindle for PC, having downloaded it all cheaply, but I don't take my laptop everywhere so I had to go away from it a lot and I would be itching to get back to it and find out what happened next. Oh, and also?! I actually had a suspicion of whodunnit, and this absolutely never ever ever happens for me, so that is weird. Finally, I must tell you that I enjoyed Angel's Tip more than the first book in the Ellie Hatcher series (Dead Connection) but of course I can't recommend that you start with Ellie Hatcher #2, so... yeah. You'll just have to read them both. If you are capable of plunging in with #2 in the series, you are a better different reader than I!

And now that I have recommended Alafair Burke to you, bring it! Who is the mystery/thriller author that I should be reading? Remember, I love Sandra Scoppettone and Nelson DeMille, I enjoyed Tell No One as much as the next bookseller, I really dig the interviews I've read/heard with Sara Paretsky and Karin Slaughter although I've never got around to reading their stuff, and I freakin' hated Men Who Hate Women, or, as you know it, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

Final Grade for Angel's Tip: B

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Thornton, Luis and the Pulitzers
(not the name of my new band)

now finished: The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder
next up: I'm thinking Bill Bryson

Some of the early Pulitzer Prize-winning novels have disappeared into out-of-print obscurity. I mean, really, Lamb in His Bosom? Scarlet Sister Mary? And what can you tell me about the very first winner, Ernest Poole? Oh, but then Upton Sinclair won the Pulitzer in 1943...no, silly, not for The Jungle. For Dragon's Teeth.  Sure, everyone loves Dragon's Teeth.

OK, so while The Late George Apley may not be on your bedside table right this moment, there are some winners from those first two decades of the Pulitzer that are still well known, probably because they had Oscar-nominated films made out of them. Examples: The Good Earth, Gone With the Wind, The Yearling, The Magnificent Ambersons, and -- the subject of today's discussion -- The Bridge of San Luis Rey.

In fact, I do believe that The Bridge of San Luis Rey is more famous as a book than as a book by Thornton Wilder. Yes, that Thornton Wilder, the man who brought us Our Town, for which he also won a Pulitzer, by the way. In fact, he won two in the Drama category. Is he twice as good a playwright as he is a novelist? Maybe.

Let's get one thing clear right away: The Bridge of San Luis Rey is short. Really short. So if you have any inclination to read it, you might as well just go do it and you can probably finish before happy hour. I must say, though, that this book was not at all what I expected. The problem is, I'm not sure what exactly I was expecting. More action? More like The Bridge on the River Kwai?  Or maybe just a plot. Yes, I think I was definitely expecting a plot.

Instead, The Bridge of San Luis Rey is more of a meditation. There's a bridge, it breaks, and five people plunge to their deaths. (This is not a spoiler; it happens in the first sentence.)  The book proceeds to examine a bunch of questions, such as: Who were those five people? Why did they die instead of five other people? Were they connected? What does it all mean? Is God just messing with us? (I paraphrase.)  Some of these questions are answered, but most of them aren't.

So, if the questions aren't answered, then what does happen in The Bridge of San Luis Rey? Well... that's hard to say. There's a marquesa, an actress, and two twins that nobody can tell apart. (I know, it sounds like the start of a joke, but they don't walk into a bar. They're never all in the same place at once.) You get to know the people, sort of. You ponder love. You ponder life. I suppose these aren't bad ways to spend a couple hours. Have I mentioned that the book takes place in Peru?  This was interesting to me because I just finished reading Mario Vargas Llosa's El Paraiso en la otra esquina, which also spends time in Peru, and it's all kind of making me want to go there really quite a lot. But, yeah, Peru. Now, the Pulitzer criteria of course is that the award must go to a "distinguished work of fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life." It never actually says this has to be United Statesian, and careful readers will recall that I dig it when we remember that this whole big ol' land mass of ours is "America." But the Pulitzers are on top of that, because for the History category they do specifically mention "the United States" whereas for fiction, poetry, and biography it's more broadly "American." Which is in itself interesting (and also why The Tiger's Wife didn't win this year).

Obviously, I have never watched the film of The Bridge of San Luis Rey or maybe I wouldn't find it to be as random as I do. It's not just Peru, or the characters who aren't really connected until they are forced to be connected, but more that when I finished this book I just didn't feel satisfied.  Maybe as it sits with me for a few weeks or months I will come to look back on it more fondly. I certainly support lines like this:

"For what human ill does not dawn seem to be an alleviation?" - p. 57

And this:

"He was willing to renounce the dignities of public life, if in secret he might feel that he looked down upon men from a great distance, knowing more about them than they knew themselves..." - p. 75And I definitely relate to lines like this:

"...a rather pinched peasant-girl, dragged from the cafés-chantants and quite incapable of establishing any harmony between the claims of her art, of her appetites, of her dreams, and of her crowded daily routine. Each of these was a world in itself..."  -p. 84

And this:

"He was contemptuous of the great persons who, for all their education and usage, exhibited no care nor astonishment before the miracles of word order in Calderón and Cervantes." - p. 77

But something left me wanting. It's not that the whole wasn't greater than the sum of its parts. On the contrary, I think the sum of these parts is much less than the whole, and I found that frustrating. But I wouldn't say it's not worth it. It's short, remember?  So is life. This book will make you think about that.