Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Abstinence Teacher by Tom Perrotta

I really like Tom Perrotta and have read much of his work. What I can't figure out is why I like his work so much. I wouldn't call him a great 'writer' like you'd say of Fitzgerald or Salinger. He doesn't write sweeping epics like Michael Chabon or even Khaled Hosseini. He's not the polymath type like Updike who can write about anything or like Mailer who becomes consumed by his current subject or like Roth who mines one vein over and over (many would disagree with me here. Get your own damn blog). What Perrotta has been able to do, consistently, is tell a good story about seemingly normal people living their normal, everyday lives. Sadly, with The Abstinence Teacher, he falls far short. The premise is promising--what happens when a local church becomes so vocal as to cause a public high school to radically change their curriculum to forego a sizable lawsuit and the subsequent aftermath to those involved. In this era of political correctness and the prevalent 'I'm a victim' mentality of our times (when will this era end?), it is certainly ripe and has all the makings of an engaging and complex story. However, it just doesn't work.

Why would Ruth, a smart woman and a potentially interesting character, fall for the hapless, born again soccer coach? He's so lame I want to punch him in the face repeatedly with a roll of quarters in my chubby little fist and I'm really not that prone to violence.

What is the point of the gay marriage sub-plot--to show there is only happiness where there is tolerance? Kind of obvious and kind of weak.

Why do Ruth's daughters suddenly and fervently embrace religion? A plot device.

Why does the ending suck so bad? I don't know but I was almost angry when I read the last few pages and saw this would be how it ended.

Sorry, Mr. Perrotta. While I look forward to your next work,
The Abstinence Teacher is not worthy of the considerable abilities you have shown in other novels. No hard feelings.

Dan Rooney: My 75 Years with the Pittsburgh Steelers and the NFL by Dan Rooney

When friends told me Dan Rooney was signing this book at the Joseph-Beth in Pittsburgh, I told them to be prepared for a mob because Dan is the Son in the Holy Trinity of Pittsburgh, his father, being both the Father and Holy Ghost since he's been dead now for a number of years. It's just how influential and beloved the Rooney's are--they are synonymous with both Pittsburgh and the Steelers so, certainly, the appeal of this book is to fans of the mighty Pittsburgh Steelers, the greatest team ever, bar none. What's so great about this book isn't just the memoir but the fact that Dan Rooney is, as he puts it, "the last man standing" of those who worked with the men who founded the National Football League; Halas, Lambeau and all those guys who started the league at a car dealership in Canton, OH in 1922. As the son of "The Chief", Art Rooney, Sr., and his involvement with the family business and the league, there's hardly an aspect of the game of football that Dan Rooney hasn't been witness to or had a hand in creating, negotiating or resolving. Those looking for gossip will be disappointed. He's just not that kind of guy. What Dan Rooney accomplishes is a fond and fair look at the game, the league and the team with some great stories. He also paints an affectionate family portrait and writes a love letter to the city of Pittsburgh.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Shortcomings by Adrian Tomine

Some of you are going to get all scared since this is a graphic novel aka a comic book but I've believed since the mid-80's that there are some graphic novels that are as literate and as sophisticated as any traditional novel. If you haven't already, open your minds some. There's some great stuff being produced in this genre. However, those looking to make their first foray into the graphic novel world might do well to look elsewhere than Shortcomings but it is certainly worth a read.

Tomine has always done stories that are like eavesdropping on someone's private life and usually that private life is in a downward spiral. The main character in Shortcomings is Ben Tanaka, a Japanese-American, whose relationship with his girlfriend, Miko, falls apart before our eyes. Ben is an almost unredeemable character-self-absorbed, self-involved, self-pitying, petty, pretentious--the list goes on. He's lucky to have anyone in his life, let alone a girlfriend. It is almost painful at times to watch as Ben undoes nearly everything he might have going for him but you know he can do nothing else. As ever, Tomine's lines are sharp, his humor black, and his characterizations keen.

Terrific link

Happy post-Thanksgiving. Having that special 'the-long-weekend-went-too-fast-and-now-I'm-back-at-
work-damnit!' feeling? Ah, the holidays.

I got a lot of reading done and I'll be posting on those shortly.

In the meantime, here's a great link of some of the best titles of the year according to the New York Times:

Regular readers of Reed Next's Next Reed (Are there any? Are there many? Would love to hear from you. Feel free to comment) will recognize some of the books as ones reviewed here already. Great minds and all that...

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Skipper, this is Pat. Pat, this is the Skipper

The latest book censorship dust-up is happening in a West Virginia high school. Parents want two of Pat Conroy's books, The Prince of Tides and Beach Music, banned because of "violence, language, sexual content or adult situations". Students in the AP English class say they are prepared to take the matter to court (good for you, you smart kids, you).

I got to meet Conroy many years ago. A really decent guy but what struck me most was his resemblance to Alan Hale, Jr. the Skipper from Gilligan's Island. Perhaps in these photos, it's hard to see but in person--whoo boy!

Here are some photos. A caveat: try as I might, I couldn't find one w/ Conroy and Bob Denver but I'll keep looking.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Leonard Pitts on Dumbledore

I really like reading Leonard Pitts' columns and I thought this one was especially good.
If you have time, take a look.

Monday, October 22, 2007

The Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England by Brock Clarke

It seems as though people really like this book or they really don't. Thems that don't get kind of pissed when they hear the people who really liked it say they really liked it. Odd. Me? I really liked it.

Oh, I wasn't crazy about how things resolved and kind of saw some of it coming but I'll trade that slight dissatisfaction with the number of times I laughed out loud or reread a paragraph because it provided me one of those breathless moments I love when I read, something that hasn't happened in a while (great line on page 157 about fathers and sons, for example). Clarke shines throughout the book with what becomes a strange detective story and a cast of oddball characters in odd situations. And did I mention it's funny? I think it's deserving of the attention and acclaim it has received. Others would disagree but the book evokes a reaction or a feeling one way or the other and that is testament to his skill as a writer. I've read books I liked and others I didn't but 6 months later, I couldn't tell you what they were about. Love or hate Arsonist's, I think it'll stay with you for a long time.

Mr. Sebastian and the Negro Magician by Daniel Wallace

I hail the return of Daniel Wallace who started out strong with the clever and touching Big Fish (read it if you haven't and never watch the movie) way back in 1998 but who I'd lost track of despite reading everything he publishes. The tale is a period piece that makes it's way through the Depression and into the world of the carnies and freaks and the family they create among themselves. It is a wild ride, rich in detail and sentiment though perhaps just a tad too long. However, the ending was satisfying and it's a title I recommend. Fans of both Water for Elephants and Carter the Great will enjoy this one. Welcome back, Daniel. I missed you.

Foreskin's Lament by Shalom Auslander

Not for everyone but for the appropriate audience, I think this really hits the mark. Auslander grew up in an Orthodox Jewish household and he writes of his struggles to "recover" from religion and how it still affects him now, a married man, a father and a writer. There are a lot of opposites at work in this work.

His family life was messy; they all lived in the shadow of the death of a brother, Jeffy, who died at 2 years old yet Shalom and his living sibs don't seem to get the attention from their parents they need. His mother's side boasted a long line of rabbis and certain sense of entitlement and his father was an irascible drunk who could build things (Jews don't build things; they buy things from goyim who build things). Young Shalom feels a tremendous responsibility to try to hold the fragile state of the family together but it's far too big a job for a young teenager and the situations are too long broken for him to fix. From there he swings like a pendulum, first further from his religion and then back to strict observance. Rinse. Repeat.

Some of it is hilarious and some of it just makes you incredibly sad. Auslander could have been profane for the sake of it but I disagree with critics who say so. Sneaking off to the mall in the next town to eat un-Kosher food reminded me of a friend I had growing up who would smuggle me Twinkies during Passover and we were hardly Orthodox. The story of bargaining with G-d about the Stanley Cup or living as a young married couple among other Orthodox Jews that weren't questioning their own faith were all very real examples of what it must be like to not only question how you were brought up but the fundamentalism that goes with such strict observance.

Ahoy, Albus!

All those Englishman--of course one of 'em's gay!
Bravo t
o Rowling for saying it in public.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

Well, there's certainly no sophomore jinx with this guy. He's the real deal and this follow up to the surprise best-selling The Kite Runner is every bit as good. The story has us back in Kabul and centers around two women, Mariam and Laila. I'm not going to go into too much detail because there are a zillion other in-depth reviews of the book that you've probably already read. In fact, you've probably already read the book like a zillion other people on the planet (except for my sister--Sandy, quit fooling around and go buy both of his books and read them. Now.).

I'll say this though: I think he writes women beautifully and that's no small achievement. Smaller in scope than Kite Runner, but equally moving, Hosseini crafts a beautiful work by telling the story of two women who find what they've lost (family) in each other. The ending was a nice surprise, as well. If you're a book snob like me and don't tend to read books that become HUGE bestsellers, get over it. Hosseini is going to be around for a long time.

Man Booker Prize announced

The Booker was announced and it looks like an interesting list and winner but I don't think I've read any of the short listers. More lameness on my part. Go to a bookstore and buy you some books.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

A note on lameness (my own)

If you are one of the eight people that might actually know this blog exists and somehow remember to occasionally check to see if I have actually deigned to write something about what I've read and can still stand it, first off, I thank you.

Second, I owe you some reviews. I believe there are four books I've read and one I'm hoping to finish shortly that I need to add to the blog plus reviews from older annual lists that I plan on adding. The rub is I've either been too busy to post or when I sit down to write, I'm utterly uninspired. Bear with me as I try to find center since I seem to have books coming out the yin-yang.

Now, back to your regular programming.

And now for a book that actually saves a life and has nothing to do with the Kite Runner.

Since that Kite Runner story was bumming me out, I thought I'd post this about a book we publish that helped a person get rescued from an injury.

Read on:

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Kite Runner movie could kill someone

I know that sounds crazy but read this article from today's New York Times:

In a chilling turn of events, the child actors who play the leads in the upcoming Kite Runner film adaptation are reportedly at risk of great harm or even death. The studio fears that rival ethnic groups in Kabul will react violently, especially to a pivotal rape scene, when the film is released. Paramount is delaying the release of the film and government officials are looking to move the boys and their families to another country where they will be safe.

I'm just flabbergasted by this. Kind of makes Hosseini's amazing novel ring that much truer.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

It takes three to Tango, apparently (not that there's anything wrong with that)

I was talking to someone not long ago who asked "Who bans books anymore?" Well, here is the state of things at the moment:

This is just the kind of crap we don't need but that people need to be aware of.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Rock On by Dan Kennedy

After having some success as a music writer and a McSweeney's cool kid, Kennedy tells how he became an unlikely marketing guy at a major record label and how he was always waiting to be exposed as the fraud he thought he was. (Been there--that's how I became a book publicist. Still waiting to get found out myself.) It's not an unlikable story but it seems to lack the punchlines Kennedy thinks he's putting out there. While reading Rock On, I kept waiting for the big laugh that I thought was just around the corner but was only occasionally rewarded with a sort of knowing chuckle. It does show the absurdities of working for a huge international record company but it lacked the fun I thought this book was going to be. Being a McSweeney's cool kid must be enough to get published and get blurbs and get signed to good houses like Algonquin but I still don't get it and I never have. So what does that tell you? Fans of McSweeney's will be rolling in the aisles over this one, and I will be surrendering my lunch money to them. History repeats.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Born Standing Up by Steve Martin

Over the years, Steve Martin has become a really accomplished actor and writer and many people don't remember him as the arrow-through-the-head, banjo-playing, King-Tut-inpersonating, Wild and Crazy Guy whose stand-up career was what made him famous first. However, like the voiceover from an episode of VH1's Behind the Music, at the height of his stand-up success, Martin walked away from it all and, aside from delivering opening monologues on Saturday Night Live over the years, he never did stand-up again. Here Martin looks back on how his career began (at Disneyland, at age 11, selling park maps) and what an unlikely success he became. He was part of a new breed of comics yet was unlike any of his contemporaries and that was part of the reason success eluded him for so long. In the book, Martin says he hadn't really examined this part of his life for many years as he distanced himself from his stand-up roots but this is a loving look back. This won't be out until January 2008 but will do well, esp. among guys my age who were in grade school and listened to his records over and over and over, memorizing his bits, some of which were a little over my head but hilarious nonetheless ("Grandpa bought a rubber!").

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Well of Lost Plots by Jasper Fforde

My limited abilities as a writer can never seem to concisely synopsize the elaborate plots that Fforde so masterfully conjures but I can say this—brilliant again. Thursday Next is a wonderful character that I have grown to love after a few books of merely admiring her immensely. This is the series for book people and is crammed full of literary jokes, clever turns of phrase, smart sub-references and above all, action. Fforde makes James Bond look underbred and illiterate and he seems to get better with each book. I just can't imagine how. Still, I'm always delighted to read his work and heartily recommend them to anyone who'll listen.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J. K. Rowling

What can I say that hasn't already been said? All I can say is thanks to Jo Rowling for this wonderful work and all that has come as a result. I'll miss the stories and the characters we've come to know as we watched them sort of grow up in public. I really doubt we'll ever see kids and adults line up at midnight to get their hands on any book and I doubt bookstores will ever see the excitement that accompanied these books ever again. We have witnessed a phenomenon that changed publishing and that changed history.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Flight by Sherman Alexie

Alexie is kind of a love him or hate him author. At least that's what I've found over the years. I love the guy's writing and can even stand him in person when he can be arrogant and condescending but he is also funny and usually pretty insightful. If you've never read Alexie before, I can't decide if this is a good place to start or not. Flight is his first new novel in several years and it's neither great nor a disappointment—just incredibly okay. The story revolves around a teenager named Zits, an Indian kid whose has been shuffled from broken home to foster home and is in danger of being lost to a broken system. Suddenly, as Zits is about to commit an act that will haunt him for the rest of his life and condemn him to becoming a sad statistic in that broken system, he is transported in time and place to different events in Native American history. While there, he inhabits different host bodies and sees things through another person's eyes but also has the ability to change events. On the plus side, it is very funny in parts and Alexie really nails the "teenage-ness" of Zits. On the down side, it all ties up a little too neatly—sort of a sci-fi ABC Afterschool Special with a happy ending and a few history lessons.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Heat by Bill Buford

Such fun. Buford, long the fiction editor at the New Yorker, had always cooked for friends and thought he was pretty good at it. After striking up a friendship with Chef Mario Batali, he decided to see if he could hold his own working in the kitchen at Batali’s restaurant, Babbo. Thus began his tenure as “kitchen bitch”, then line cook and the chronicle of what it’s like to work in an esteemed kitchen, high on pressure, long on ego and professional jealousies and short on tempers and patience. From there, Buford mimics Batali’s path to super-chefdom by going to Italy to learn to cook food where the food is from. He apprentices with a pasta chef in a tiny Italian hamlet and with an eccentric butcher in Tuscany. Here especially, he has a wonderful way with words and brings the character of these real characters to life. A remarkably insightful and entertaining story that follows both Batali’s rise from pizza cook to superstar and Buford’s own transformation from an accomplished home cook to a seasoned, high-profile restaurant-trained cook. Buford also goes into great detail and history about how dishes came to be that borders on the obsessive while remaining readable to those of us who have trouble boiling water.

Friday, June 08, 2007

I'll Sleep When I'm Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon by Crystal Zevon

Written by his former wife, Crystal, at his own behest, I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead is comprised of interviews with more than 80 of the singers friends, fellow rockers, endless girlfriends, and family. It is a warts-and-all biography, heavy on the warts, many of them genital. Zevon was an unquestionably gifted singer, songwriter and musician, was classically trained (a rarity among rock musicians) and was the distinct oddball coming out of the lame-ass 70's SoCal school of bedwetters like the Eagles, Jackson Browne, et. al. . However, he was plagued with an addictive personality that first showed up in his legendary alcoholism. Once he “beat” drinking, he became a sex addict and a shopaholic. From the very beginning of his career, Zevon was enormously self-absorbed, cutting people in and out of his life for perceived slights, all the while acting like a petulant child. Talk about a guy who believed his own press clippings--once the Internet hit, he would go to chat rooms about his shows and defend his performance, under an assumed identity, of course, being a giant chicken-shit who couldn’t deal with confrontation. The book certainly fills in the blanks and informs the reader on the man though I could've done without the tremendous detail. But apparently, that's what Warren wanted and, narcissist that he was, I'm hardly surprised.

I’ve learned to appreciate a person whose work I admire for their work and not for some bullshit perception that since I like the music (or writing or acting or whatever), the person must be swell and cool and share my views. Not so Zevon and this book leaves me with a really bad taste in my mouth and the desire to take a long, hot shower.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

God is Dead by Ron Currie, Jr.

A very dark but promising debut though bleak stuff, this. Currie imagines a world where God takes human form, that of a Dinka woman in wartorn Darfur. When her mortal body dies, God is trapped and dies, as well. As the world learns what has happened, it sets off a series of events that Currie relates by connecting the stories together. Some very thought provoking pieces here, including an interview with the wild dogs that ate God's body and the changes they go through (speaking ancient Hebrew and Greek among them), and a group of teenage boys who, left to themselves, make a very deadly pact. Other pieces makes light of attitudes and values society has given weight and importance only to find they mean little in the end. Sometimes the literary devices used make it obvious Currie isn't long out of grad school and he's reaching a bit but this is a guy to watch.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

I just don't know how I feel about this

Anyone else read this? Anyone else sickened by it? I get it but I just can't justify his indictment of society by burning books. What about New Orleans libraries and schools that were so devastated by hurricanes? Could they use the books? There have to be other ways than burning them? I'd always heard good things about Prospero's but this guy is maybe just a little apeshit crazy.

Friday, May 18, 2007

The History of Love by Nicole Krauss

When the New Yorker ran what I later learned was an excerpt from this novel, I thought it was the best short story I'd read in years. As a full-blown novel, Krauss makes it work and established herself as something truly special. An old man, Leo Gursky (who has become one of my favorite characters in modern listerature) and a teenage girl, Alma Singer, have stories that intertwine as gracefully and as delicately as you could hope for though it isn't a light read. It can get confusing but the payoff is huge. It's the kind of book that you finish and want to start all over again in case you missed something. (You did.) You will laugh and you will ache and you will be moved. I got to meet Krauss very briefly and we spoke about the book and some of the characters and after just a few minutes, both of us were almost in tears. I doubt she'd remember it but, like the book, it has stayed with me and left a mark. And yet...(from '05 list)

Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold

Just marvelous. Chock full of history, this has everything: Early 20’s America, vaudeville, appearances by the Marx Brothers, Houdini, Warren G. Harding and Philo Farnsworth, corrupt Secret Servicemen, urban myths, revenge, resentment—what a wild ride. Gripping and informative while being entertaining. Read it. (from '05 list)

Luncheonette: A Memoir by Steven Sorrentino

­There was some real charm to this memoir of a young man barely getting his life started in NYC, who is forced to take over the family business in New Jersey after his father falls ill. However, what dragged the book down was the endless self-pity in which Sorrentino wallowed. It got tiring hearing over and over and over again how sad he was, how he never reached out to his father, how sick he was of the same routine and faces and sandwiches. It all ties up rather neatly at the book’s end but by then it was a task to get there. (from '05 list)

Friday, May 04, 2007

The Yiddish Policeman's Union by Michael Chabon

The Yiddish Policeman's Union imagines that after WWII, Sitka, Alaska became the new Jewish homeland instead of Israel. Enter our anti-hero, Meyer Landsman, a man clearly in a downward spiral. He is divorced from the woman he still loves, his boss, Bina Gelbfish. His sister, Naomi, died in a plane crash under questionable circumstances (he still grieves for her) and in two months, the process of Reversion will take place--the U.S. will give back the Federal District of Sitka to the Tlinglit Indians and the Jews, once again, have to find a home. The rumpled detective with Sitka's finest is called to the scene of a murder at the fleabag hotel where he lives and where he tries to drink himself to death nightly. As he investigates what initially looks like the murder of a spent junkie, he learns the victim, Emanuel Lasker, was not only a chess prodigy (chess plays a large role throughout the book) but was also the son of the Verbover rabbi, the leader of a secretive, ultra-orthodox sect that lives well apart from the rest of the Yids of Sitka. Oh, and Emanuel might have been the Messiah. Nu? Chabon has never been sharper. His similes are consistently clever and evocative and the dialogue is very much in keeping with the tough talk of the hard-boiled tradition but peppered with Yiddish. (I often read this with two Yiddish dictionaries at my side--a first. I don't think it will create a problem for non-Yiddish speakers but there will be some things you miss. Sorry.) It is also laugh out loud funny and his wordplay proves over and over that he is a dangerous man with pen in hand. After winning the Pulitzer for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Chabon sold this at auction for big dough and, supposedly, all he had was a page and a half outline. Six years later, it was well worth the wait.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Responsible Men by Edward Schwarzschild

The main character, Max is a mess. He is divorced, estranged from his son and a bit of a scam artist. He returns to Philly for the first time since his divorce for his son's Bar Mitzvah and has a chance to continue the rather questionable life he's been leading or turn things around. Schwarzchild delivers a decent debut novel that captures a certain amount of underlying tension. (from '05 list)

The Dark Stuff: Selected Writings on Rock Music by Nick Kent

Legend has it that Nick Kent is about as big a prick as you'll find among rock journalists and that is a dubious distinction indeed. Still he can write. The rub is that he reminds you constantly how "he was there", that he ended up a junkie for a while and a lot of other rock star poses that he got caught up in over the years (but you're a journalist, dork! Just write.). However, he does get good interviews that often bring out more than you might expect. Covering a range of folks from Brian Wilson to Roy Orbison to Shane McGowan to the Stones, if nothing else, it'll make you want to listen to the music. (from '05 list)

The Kite Runner by Khaleed Hosseini

My friends' Dad (Yo, Big Tom!) said that if you want to learn about Victorian England, you should read Dickens and if you want to begin to understand Afghanistan, you should read this. I couldn't agree more. Like millions of others, I loved this book! It was so many things--a father and son story, a window into a country that we're fundamentally "at war" with, a buddy novel, a coming of age story--and it succeeded as all these and just about everything else it attempted. The writing is beautiful and the characters have great depth. The examination of the changes to the country and people of Afghanistan over 30+ years was astounding and invokes compassion. At the same time, I was absolutely caught up in the story and choked back tears a number of times. (from '05 list)

Novelist Kurt Vonnegut dies at 84

Sorry to see you go. Hi ho.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer

After his brilliant debut novel, Everything Is Illuminated, I was anxious to see what Foer would do next, mindful of the sophomore slump many young novelists go through. Fortunately, that isn't the case here. Once again, Foer comes through with a tale that's equally funny, gripping and heartbreaking and this was among the first post-9/11 books actually dealing with 9/11. Nine year-old Oscar Schell is among the most memorable characters I've come across in years and I'd love to see the author revisit him. You. Must. Read. This. Book. (from '05 list)

How cool is that?

Well, it seems someone is reading this. If you look at the comment on the review of American Shaolin, you'll see it's from, Matthew Polly, the author of the book! How in hell he found my tiny corner of the blogosphere, I've no clue, but it was awfully kind of him to check in and say something nice.

Monday, March 26, 2007

American Shaolin by Matthew Polly

As a kid, I was a fan of the '70's TV show, Kung Fu, in which David Carradine wandered around the late 19th century U.S. trying to clear his name for a crime he didn't commit back in China but actually spent most of the time kicking much ass. Like me, Matthew Polly fell under the Kung Fu spell. However, while I spent my elementary school years half-assedly studying karate and eating my weight in Fudgetown cookies before losing interest, he not only studied kung fu, but Zen and Mandarin, as well. In the early 90's, he left college to journey to the Shaolin Temple in China to study with the monks there though he didn't know how to find it or if the temple still even existed (this was pre-Internet, pre-cell phones and he had been told it was destroyed during World War II). Naturally, everyone thought this tall, skinny Midwestern kid who spoke some Chinese and knew some kung fu was nuts, himself included, at times, but he found the temple and spent two years there, becoming a rather accomplished kickboxer before returning home to finish his undergrad at Princeton. While this could have been a gripping narrative of grit and determination and achieving one's dream, blah, blah, blah, it isn't. He achieves his dream, but it's a fast, funny, fish-out-of-water story that Bill Bryson wishes he could write. Points to Polly for also giving the reader a real sense of Chinese pride, culture, and their fear of the West and for sharing some of the secrets of the iron crotch.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Petropolis by Anya Ulinich

An ambitious first novel, this is an odd but engaging tale told with the black humor typical of Russian literature. Sasha Goldberg, a black, Jewish Russian girl (!) from the town of Asbestos 2(!!) goes in search of the father that abandoned her and her self-possessed mother when she was a small child. The long road takes her from the weird post-Soviet Russia to being a mail-order bride in Arizona to being the pet Soviet refusenik of a wealthy philanthropic couple in Chicago. It is a sprawling piece of work that never loses a certain tension but can also provide a good laugh and a hard look at how people cope.

A Three Dog Life by Abigail Thomas

A beautifully written memoir. Thomas’ husband, Rich, was hit by a car and suffered traumatic brain injury. After surgeries, etc., his condition became such that Thomas couldn’t care for him at home and placed him in a long-term facility. The book is less about Rich’s troubles as it is about Thomas adjusting to a life on her own, an unexpected turn of events for a couple who married late in life. She still visits Rich. She even moves upstate to be near him and the hospital but Rich is not the same and never will be and Thomas has to learn to live her life without him. At times heartbreaking and other times laugh-out-loud funny, this book can be devoured in one sitting. Eat up.

Paula Spencer by Roddy Doyle

It’s been 12 years since Doyle introduced us to Paula as The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, a battered wife and mother struggling with alcoholism. At the time, Doyle said he’d like to revisit her at some point in the future to see how she was doing. Here we are. When we left Paula, she was hiding her gin in the garden shed and tossing the key out in the yard to make it difficult for herself to drink. Unlike his last two books, sweeping novels both, Doyle instead keeps this story small. At this point, Paula is making a life for herself, a life she never thought she could actually live soberly. These small victories—holding down a job, saving money, being a responsible adult, at last—are all new to her and something to help measure her life. She’s also dealing with the guilt of raising her kids while drunk. I’m glad Doyle wanted to write about Paula. I’m so happy to see her again.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

A Spot of Bother by Mark Haddon

Think your family is a train wreck? Get a load of the Halls. George, a distant father, husband and colleague, is newly retired and suddenly consumed by his own mortality when he finds a “lesion” on his hip that he is convinced is cancer (it’s hardly that) and begins to come unglued. His wife, Jean, is carrying on with George’s former co-worker, the smoothie David Symmonds. Daughter Katie has already gone through a bad marriage and is now engaged to Ray, a good guy who loves her and her son, Jacob, but the Halls disapprove because they deem him too ordinary for their smarter, French-speaking daughter. She might be marrying Ray and she might not; either way, she’s a mess. Son Jamie is involved with Tony but is self-involved enough that the relationship is really more an on-going play date than a real relationship. While a very different book from his brilliant debut, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime¸ Haddon maintains a similar light touch as this family careens out of control while learning what it means to really love someone else.

The Boy Detective Fails by Joe Meno

Remember Encyclopedia Brown? Well, let’s take Encyclopedia and bring him to adulthood. Our now-grown boy detective is named Billy Argo. Billy found his calling early in life, after being given a detective set as a birthday gift. Along with kid sister, Caroline as his right hand, and their neighbor, Fenton, along as sidekick, Billy and Co., consistently thwarted the surprisingly considerable criminal element of Gotham City, New Jersey. However, tragedy befalls Caroline and Billy enters a mental institution. And so our story picks up with Billy, released after 15 years in the loony bin, trying to find his way in the world as it is now while still bearing a terrible burden of guilt. He moves to a halfway house only to find his old nemesis, Dr. Von Gollum, is a fellow resident and is still plotting Billy’s demise. (Von Gollum, an aging mad scientist-type, makes lists that say things like “To Do Today: Take bus to the store. Buy poison. Destroy the Boy Detective!”). Billy gets a job at a hilariously bizarre wig factory whose telephone sales team targets the very old and the very ill. He pops Ativan like tic-tacs, befriends a pair of neighbor children, Effie, a brainy, unpopular, remarkably self-aware little girl and her younger brother Gus, the school bully, who has stopped talking and only communicates by writing notes and tries to help them solve a mystery of their own, the only thing Billy really knows how to do. Joe Meno really knocked my socks off with this book. It’s funny, sweet, and sad and comes with a decoder on the back flap that you can use to help Billy.

You Don't Love Me Yet by Jonathan Lethem

More than anything, this book made me angry. Not the righteous indignation of believing in what the author has written about; this made me angry because Lethem is such a better writer than this flimsy little novel. Now I know I can’t expect everything he writes to be Motherless Brooklyn (Lionel Essrog—wherefore art thou, Essrog?) or Fortress of Solitude; that’s too much to ask and it would be unfair. The thing is, if this was a first or second novel by a promising 30 year old Iowa MFA who’d kicked around L.A. in a band for a while and wrote a story based on that, I’d say “Let’s see what this kid has in a couple of years”. My beef is that by the time he was 30, Lethem was already writing promising and highly original work like Gun With Occasional Music and went on to write other really great stuff. I’m completely bummed because I was so looking forward to reading new Lethem. This is more like Lethem-lite and that just won't do.

Babylon's Burning by Clinton Heylin

I’m always a sucker for yet another history of punk rock but at 800+ pages, this is both exhaustive and exhausting. Written in the oral history style that made Legs McNeil’s Please Kill Me so entertaining and effective, Heylin can definitely tell the story in great detail. That’s also the problem--I found myself reading (and reading and reading) about bands he gives far too much credit and about whom I could care less. Once I allowed myself to skip the many, many passages about lesser bands like The Only Ones, The Prefects and Throbbing Gristle (honestly!), I was finally able to finish the damn thing. An ambitious and often informative book but perhaps the story has been told to death at this point.

The Dead Father's Club by Matt Haig

This is a pretty clever re-telling of Hamlet through the eyes of an eleven year-old boy in a small English town. After Philip Noble’s father dies in a car accident, his father’s ghost appears to him to tell him that his uncle had him murdered and that if young Philip can’t avenge him, and he has only a short time to do so, he will suffer the Terrors for eternity. The beauty is putting these demands at the feet of a seemingly normal kid. Who’s going to believe him? Is this really happening? How do you kill an adult? Where do you even start? The book is being marketed to both adults and as a YA novel a la Mark Haddon’s Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime so it’ll be interesting to see how this book does and who it reaches. A good read.