Month: June 2012

2012 Book #18: Sabriel

I’d never thought too much of Goodreads’ recommendations, but I think Sabriel changed my mind. Goodreads categorizes recommendations based on shelves, and it thought I’d like Sabriel based on my Favorites shelf. (I’ve been using Goodreads for years to catalog what I’ve read, and I’m pretty picky with the Favorite’s shelf.) After The Castle of Crossed Destinies, I was kind of lost, and I felt like reading a book about the Desert, so I started Sunset over Chocolate Mountains, which I’d tried to read at least ten years ago but couldn’t finish. This time, I went to Boston in the middle of it, was distracted by Frank O’Hara for a bit, and kind of lost interest. Which is how I ended up browsing through Goodreads’ recommendations.

ANYWAY. Sabriel is a fantasy novel geared toward teenagers. I know. But it’s really not bad! There are no vampires involved: Sabriel is eighteen and has just graduated from a girls’ school in a place called Ancelstierre. She is from what’s called the Old Kingdom, where magic is the norm. Sabriel’s father is the Abhorsen, a necromancer who sends dead things to actual death (they’re kind of like zombies! but not). He disappears, and Sabriel goes on a quest to find him. Okay, I totally did not do this book justice here.

This isn’t a book like The Hunger Games where I say, “Why are teenagers allowed to read this?” It’s pretty kosher, except for a bit of an unnecessary sex scene as heard through a bathroom wall. I really don’t know why that’s in there. Or at least in so much detail.

I really liked this novel. The only problem I had with it is that the characters are a bit flat. There are three main characters: Sabriel, Touchstone (Sabriel finds him trapped in wood on a ship), and Mogget (a spirit trapped in the form of a cat). Sabriel is okay, and so, I guess, is Mogget, but Touchstone is too important a character to be flat, and I was annoyed for a good chunk of the novel because of it.

Otherwise, Sabriel is a good adventure story for when you’re a bit jaded, and you want a fast-paced, easy read. And it’s not too teenager-y since Sabriel doesn’t really have time to be angsty. And it’s the first novel in a series of three. A fourth is apparently coming out sometime next year. I’m not sure if I’m going to read the rest of them, but I have a feeling that I will.

2012 Book #17: Lunch Poems

Yeah, it’s a book of poetry. And it counts.

I picked up a copy of Frank O’Hara‘s Lunch Poems in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts after walking through an Alex Katz exhibition. Alex Katz, by the way, is very cool.

Anyway, I forget what the relation is, but there is one.

So I picked up Lunch Poems because I’d already spent at least five hours in the museum, and it seemed like a nice idea, exhausted as I was, to sit outside and read some poetry. I’d heard of Frank O’Hara, of course, but I don’t think I’d read any of his poetry. I read through the slim book once, then did some research (airplane wifi is the best thing ever) and read it again. I liked it better the second time.

Frank O’Hara wrote mainly in the 1950s and ’60s (he died in his forties in an accident involving a dune buggy). He was in what was called the New York School with poets like Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Kenneth Koch. Ferlinghetti’s publishing house is responsible for Lunch Poems.

O’Hara’s poetry isn’t very personal – it’s a more objective view of what he saw in New York, chronicling the people he knew and the places he went. I don’t get most of the references, but if you’re interested, you can find a list on the internet. Most of the poems are short, some written in a lunch hour. I’ll share a couple of my favorites:

From “Steps”:
oh god it’s wonderful
to get out of bed
and drink too much coffee
and smoke too many cigarettes
and love you so much

“Memoir of Sergei O”
My feet have never been comfortable
since I pulled them out of the Black Sea
and came to your foul country
what fatal day did I dry them off for
travel loathsome travel to a world
even older than the one I grew up in
what fatal day meanwhile back in France
they were stumbling towards the Bastille
and the Princess de Lamballe was
shuddering as shudderingly as I
with a lot less to lose I still hated
to move sedentary as a roach of Tiflis
never again to go swimming in the nude
publicly little did I know how
awfulness could reach such perfection abroad
I even thought I would see a Red Indian
all I saw was lipstick everything
covered with grass or shrouds pretty
shrouds shot with silver and plasma
even the chairs are upholstered to a
smothering perfection of inanity
and there are no chandeliers and there
are no gates to the parks so you don’t
know wheter you’re going in them or
coming out of them that’s not relaxing
and so you can’t really walk all you can
do is sit and drink coffee and brood
over the lost leaves and refreshing scum
of Georgia Georgia of my heritage
and dismay meanwhile back in my old
country they are renaming everything so
I can’t even tell any more which ballet
company I am remembering with so much
pain and the same thing has started
here American Avenue Park Avenue South
Avenue of Chester Conklin Binnie Barnes
Boulevard Avenue of Toby Wing Barbara
Nichols Street where am I what is it
I can’t even find a pond small enough
to drown in without being ostentatious
you are ruining your awful country and me
it is not new to do this it is terribly
democratic and ordinary and tired

The more I read Frank O’Hara, the more I like him. Not as much as Ferlinghetti, whose A Coney Island of the Mind just might be my favorite collection of poetry ever. But it’s really accessible, and if you’re intimidated by poetry, O’Hara’s a good one to read.

2012 Book #16: The Castle of Crossed Destinies

I spotted The Castle of Crossed Destinies at Barnes and Noble on the same trip in which I found So Big. I was randomly browsing the shelves when I came across this one, large for a Calvino book. The margins of almost every page are lined with tarot card engravings. I was intrigued. Not so intrigued, however, that I couldn’t wait for a used copy to come from Amazon. It got here yesterday, just in time: I’d just finished So Big.

I’m a huge fan of Calvino, but I really didn’t like this one. It’s a game of sorts: Calvino challenged himself to arrange a deck of tarot cards, lining them up so he could make stories out of them. It’s sort of like the Decameron or The Canterbury Tales. A weary traveler wanders upon an old castle, goes inside, and discovers that it’s full of other weary travelers. Except no one inside can speak, and nor can he. Each table is supplied with a deck of tarot cards, and each character lays out cards to tell his or her story. The narrator fills in the blanks. After that deck is exhausted, the narrator moves on to a tavern, where another game begins with a similar deck.

Calvino’s idea is a good one. His work seems more like art to me than literature – read Invisible Cities, and you’ll understand what I mean. The cards are the center of this short novel (if you can call it a novel).

It got old really quickly. If this book wasn’t so short, it would have ended up in the Fail Pile. When I don’t like a book but insist on finishing it, I get through it as quickly as possible. I started reading it last night in bed, and I only got about fifteen pages in. After work today, as usual, I went to Starbucks, finished the second chapter of my thesis(!), and stayed for a couple more hours to finish The Castle of Crossed Destinies. That was pretty fast.

I’m not in any way saying that this isn’t a good book. It’s an interesting experiment, and it’s worth reading. If you’re interested in Calvino, though, I’d recommend you start with Invisible Cities or If on a winter’s night a traveler. I liked both of those much more. Also, keep in mind what I said about more art than literature: Calvino isn’t easy, but he’s totally worth it. If you’re into reading something short and dense, give him a try.

2012 Book #15: So Big

I discovered So Big the other day when I was wandering around Barnes & Noble. I had just finished East of Eden, and I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to read next. I was also really tired of reading on a Kindle. These days, I very rarely buy books at full price. For one, I work in a library! If I want a book, I can usually pick it up while I’m there. If it’s not at the main branch, I can wait a couple of days and have a copy sent from the other branches; if none of the branches have it, we have a great interlibrary loan system. But that takes longer than a few days, and I like my books delivered Netflix streaming style. So I wanted instant gratification, and I was willing to put down a bit of cash for it.

I started with the summer reading tables, and I didn’t find anything that interested me, so I started browsing the As. The fiction section at Barnes & Noble is continually shrinking (they obviously don’t care about selling books anymore), so I made it to the Fs pretty quickly. The design of the book’s spine caught my eye (sometimes I do judge books by their covers), and I picked it up and read the back. It sounded interesting, and I saw that it had won the 1924 Pulitzer Prize. A point in its favor. Then I looked it up on Goodreads and saw rave reviews, with comments like “I feel like I’ve been let in on some literary secret!” I’m always into discovering new writers, so I couldn’t help myself. I was intrigued. Book in hand, I confidently walked up to the checkout and paid the full $14 (remember when trade paperbacks were, like, $7?).

And it was so worth it.

I really liked So Big. It made me smile more than most books do. The characters felt alive. I’m pretty sure this is one of those books that I’ll confuse with a movie at some point. I guess a plot rundown is in order.

So Big is the story of Selena DeJong and her son. It begins with Selena’s background: her father was a professional gambler, and they traveled around the country, living well when he did well, and living poorly when he did poorly. Eventually, they settled in Chicago, and no matter what his financial situation, he kept her in a good school. Most of the other students had more money than they did. When Selena was 19, her father died, and she was left with about $500, which was a good deal of money in early twentieth-century Chicago. Her best friend, Julie Hempel, had her family get Selena a job as a schoolteacher in High Prairie, a Dutch farming community not far from Chicago. (I’m going on a bit long with this summary…) She moves in with a Dutch family. The oldest child, Roelf, is brilliant and attaches himself to Selena almost instantly. He wants to learn, but his parents make him work on the farm instead. Soon, Selena meets Purvus DeJong, and they marry and have a child, Dirk. Roelf, only thirteen, runs away to meet his destiny. Selena leads a hard life on the farm and wants something better for Dirk. Life keeps happening. This plot summary is long enough already. Just read the book.

So Big is a beautiful portrait of wealth and poverty in Chicago in the early twentieth century, and it’s totally worth a read. I’ve been trying to figure out why Edna Ferber, despite writing many critically acclaimed books, wasn’t canonized. The best explanation I’ve seen is that the academics don’t like commercial successes.

I’m not sure how I’d never heard of Edna Ferber. She’s best known for writing Show Boat, of movie fame. I’ll definitely be checking out more of her stuff. The library has a pretty good collection.

2012 Book #14: East of Eden

I’m totally not hitting 50 books this year. So it goes.

East of Eden took me about a month to read, but that’s not because it’s bad. It can be a wee bit slow, though. And it’s really long. It’s basically a Cain and Abel story set in California. I’m sure you can imagine what happens.

The novel follows two families, the Trasks and the Hamiltons. Samuel Hamilton moves to the Salinas Valley to farm, but he buys less than ideal land and has little money. He has lots of children, and various things happen to them. Adam Trask had lived with his brother, Charles. Charles had always been jealous, especially about their relationship with their father, and he’d even tried to kill Adam once. Many years later, after Adam joined the army and was gone for several years, their father died, leaving them about a hundred thousand dollars, which was lots of money around the turn of the twentieth century, making them both very rich. They continue to live on the farm, but Adam has dreams of moving out to California. Suddenly, a woman named Cathy turns up, beaten half to death. By this time, we know that she’s entirely heartless and just about pure evil. She killed her parents in a house fire, became a prostitute, and casually broke the heart of a man who loved her. That’s the man who beat her up. Anyway, she stays with Adam and Charles while she recuperates, and then she marries Adam – shortly after she has an affair with Charles because he’s “like her.” Adam moves Cathy across the country to California, and she doesn’t want to go. She eventually bares twins, one light and one dark. She has no interest in him. She decides to leave, and when Adam tries not to let her go, she shoots him in the shoulder, crushing his bones and his heart, then joins a whorehouse in town. And that’s where I stop: the novel follows the Hamiltons and the Trasks through their lives.

I really liked East of Eden, though it’s not my favorite Steinbeck novel. (The Grapes of Wrath is my favorite.) It reminds me of possibly my very favorite novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude, though it doesn’t seem as expansive. I think it wants to be. It’s certainly worth reading. I think I might have liked it more if I hadn’t drawn it out so long. Usually, though, when I take so long to read books, they end up in the Fail Pile, so that’s a point in East of Eden‘s favor. Steinbeck is one of my very favorite authors, and this is one of his best novels. Read it.

2012 Book #13: Suttree

ZOMG it has been a long time since I posted a review. And it certainly took me long enough to read Suttree. I finished it over a month ago, then read East of Eden. I’ve been busy.

Anyway, Suttree is probably the best book I’ve read so far this year, and this post will totally not do it justice because it’s been so long, and I forget quickly.

It’s about Suttree, a guy in his twenties who gives up a comfortable, if not affluent, life to live in a houseboat on the Tennessee River and fish. He becomes involved with a huge cast of characters who live near the river. And that’s enough plot.

Imagine what would happen if John Steinbeck came up with a story in the vein of Cannery Row or Sweet Thursday, and William Faulkner wrote it. That’s Suttree. I enjoyed every minute of it – and there were lots because Suttree is a Very Long Novel and Totally Worth It.

I guess it’s taken me so long to write about it for a few reasons. First, there’s the thesis and the (no longer) sick cat.  I also can’t post this review on my library blog because the first few pages of this novel describe a guy who sodomizes an entire field of watermelons and contain the N-word at every opportunity. Then, of course, it settles down – but I can imagine the complaints when some little old lady decides to give it a try. What’s funny is that my reviews over there are numbered, too, so they’ll be mysteriously missing #13. Which, I guess, is appropriate.

So. Go pick up a copy of Suttree – the library, of course, doesn’t have it – and settle in for a good five hundred pages. It’s so worth it.

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