Month: May 2014

2014 Book #28: The Financial Lives of the Poets

financiallivesI’m glad it has been long enough since I’ve read Jess Walter’s most recent book, Beautiful Ruins, that I’d forgotten what I said in my review because I probably wouldn’t have read The Financial Lives of the Poets solely based on The Type of Author Jess Walter Appears to Be. Though don’t get me wrong: The Financial Lives of the Poets really isn’t any better than Beautiful Ruins: they’re both just okay novels. Certainly nothing to be excited about. And I have exactly the same thing to say about this one that I did about Beautiful Ruins: It’s not my kind of book.

The Financial Lives of the Poets is about Matthew Prior, who is getting close to 40 and finds himself in financial and marriage trouble. He was a business writer for a (slowly failing) newspaper who came up with the brilliant idea to start a website serving business news in poetic form. Yeah. Smart. Of course, it failed miserably. Meanwhile, his wife is obsessed with money and keeping money and goes on an ebay binge, spending tons of it and stacking up her purchases in the garage to sell later as collectibles. Between Matt’s stupid business plan and his wife’s, they’re about to lose their house, and their kids are about to have to move from their private school to a public school he calls Alcatraz. And the wife is beginning an affair with an old high school crush. Things are going pretty badly for Matt when he goes to 7/11 to pick up milk and meets a couple of young pot dealers, smokes it for the first time in several years, and decides he wants to buy a huge quantity (2 pounds!) to sell to his friends. There seems to be a silver lining when everything goes all to hell again, and Things Continue to Happen.

I didn’t realize this was a pot book (akin to pot movies like Darjeeling Limited) until I was well into it. I would have stopped if it wasn’t, at least, pretty funny. Pot movies and TV shows have been overdone, and I’m pretty sure they were already overdone in 2009 when this book was published. So I didn’t like the premise, but the right kind of funny can make up for a lot. The Financial Lives of the Poets is, after all, pretty well-written, except in an MFA sort of formulaic way, which is generally Not My Thing. The end is also tied up too neatly like that of Beautiful Ruins, and I was turned off by that. It’s a sort of things-suck-now-but-they’ll-eventually-get-better feel-good type of book. I don’t like those.

Which isn’t to say that I didn’t like The Financial Lives of the Poets. I rather enjoyed it, though I’ll probably forget all about it within the next few weeks – but this time, I’m hoping that I remember why I don’t like Jess Walter’s style and will avoid her books in the future. Or maybe I won’t. We’ll see.

And now, for the most interesting part: Puppy Update! If you’ve been following along on Facebook, there might even be one or two photos you haven’t seen!

Zelda is growing! We’ve only had her for two weeks, and look at this huge difference:

It’s amazing! Except she’s gone from sweet little sleeping infant puppy to insane Bitey McBiterson. Her cuteness totally makes up for it, though.

Look at that mushroom on her butt!

2014 Book #27: The Torrents of Spring

torrentsWhat a bizarre little novella! I was expecting a run-of-the-mill (short) Hemingway novel, and I got…birds living in shirts? The Torrents of Spring is so un-Hemingway-like that I stopped several times and just stared at the pages, thinking, What am I reading, exactly? Hemingway, young then, is making fun of the literary establishment in a parody of a rather forgotten novel by Sherwood Anderson called Dark Laughter, which I haven’t read. I spend a good chunk of The Torrents of Spring wondering if I was missing out on some grand inside joke, but by the end, I’m pretty sure it’s just a weird, funny book. Definitely not your run-of-the-mill Hemingway.

It’s about Scripps O’Neill and Yogi Johnson, two young men in rural Minnesota. Scripps is a writer, and Yogi is a World War I veteran, and they work together in a pump factory. Before Scripps gets that job, he lives in a small town and his first wife leaves him, so he wanders into a bean diner (?) in another small town, falls in love with an “elderly” waitress, gets a job at said pump factory, marries the waitress, and kind-of settles down for a while. Oh, and on his way down the railroad tracks, he picks up a bird and keeps it, taking it with him to the diner every day. Yep. Yogi has worked at the pump factory for a longer period of time and is distressed at how mundane his life has become, how he just can’t “want a woman.” He meets some Native Americans, ends up in some trouble, and escapes to the same bean diner at the same time Scripps is there with his elderly wife. For the most part, these men’s stories are parallel, but the diner is an important location, and things…kind of?… happen there, then everyone goes on with their lives…kind of.

Bizarre is definitely the best way to describe this one. At the beginning, I was confused, and I didn’t really like it, but it grew on me, and, in the end, I’m a fan. It’s so interesting to see Hemingway at his earliest, even though The Sun Also Rises (a much better novel) was published in the same year. I won’t recommend The Torrents of Spring to a Hemingway newbie, but if you’re a fan, pick this one up for a huge change of pace. It’s really well written, though strange, and it’s worth the hour or two it’ll take you to read it.

In addition: PUPPY!

Diptic

2014 Book #26: The Penelopiad – and PUPPY!!! and Oyster

PenelopiadI’ve been In the Middle of David Copperfield for a couple of weeks now, so I decided to take a break and read The Penelopiad, which I’ve been meaning to reread for a couple of years now. At some point, I owned a copy, but I guess it made it into a discard pile because I disliked it so much. I gave it two stars on Goodreads, back in the day, and I thought that was rather charitable. Why did I want to reread it, then, you ask? Because I love Margaret Atwood and The Odyssey, and I really thought I should like The Penelopiad. And I did like it a little better this time around. It’s just not Atwood’s best book.

You probably know the story of The Odyssey (or have easy access to a summary on Wikipedia), so I won’t rehash it. The Penelopiad is Penelope’s side of the story. She’s the one who marries Odysseus, then waits around faithfully while he’s off fighting in the Trojan War, then slooooooowly making his way home. If you haven’t read the whole Odyssey, you should probably do that now because it’s fantastic and totally worth it.

Which all means that The Penelopiad is the feminist end of The Odyssey. Margaret Atwood loves these kinds of things. I generally like these kinds of things. It’s just that she’s done better. A lot of this book is really good! It’s just there’s a lot of dumb, too, and it was frustrating. Atwood chose to tell the story from what might be Penelope’s contemporary perspective: she’s been in Hades since she died and has chosen not to have another life, though she’s watched others and has heard news of the living. And that’s all fine, except (spoiler alert? are there spoilers here?) at the end, there’s a really dumb modern-day courtroom scene in which Penelope’s maids, whom Odysseus killed along with the Suitors, prosecute Odysseus, then vow to haunt him for the rest of eternity. The scene itself was silly, I thought, and since it was kind of big and near the end, it tarnished my newly more positive view of the whole thing. That said, I liked it more than I did the first time around. It’s not terrible, but it’s certainly nowhere near Atwood’s best.

I happened to run across The Penelopiad on a relatively new book subscription service called Oyster (That’s an invite link! We both win if you click on it and subscribe!). I’d tried the free month just before I got my iPad Mini and didn’t want to pay the $10/month subscription fee for a few reasons: 1) the full-size iPad is too heavy and awkward to use for reading, 2) Oyster is only available for iPad and iPhone and can’t be read in a browser, and 3) at that point, their book selection was a bit on the skimpy side. Two of the three have been solved: I got an iPad Mini, which is perfect for reading, and Oyster has expanded substantially. What put me over the subscription moneys edge, you ask? They just got Simon & Schuster! Which includes Hemingway, DeLillo, Fitzgerald, and lots of other authors I enjoy. Oyster now has enough of a selection for me to willingly shell out the $10. I’m really excited about it.

Anyway. Back to why I haven’t read David Copperfield. I’m not quite ready to add it to the Fail Pile, though I’m pretty sure that’s where it’s headed, because I’m really enjoying it. It’s just that now is not the time for a looooooong book because I’ve been busy!  Palmer finally broke down and got me a PUPPY (which he oh-so-secretly wanted just about as badly as I did)! SO here is the Puppy Reel! (Okay, this isn’t a Puppy Reel. It was supposed to be a Flickr Slideshow, but Flickr still exists in the dark ages and slideshows won’t work on mobile. So here’s a Puppy Gallery, thanks to Flickr Photostream, an awesome WordPress plugin! And a link to the Flickr Set containing All the Puppy Photos.)

[flickr_set id="72157644803655176"]

She’s the Cutest Thing Ever, though I’m pretty sure getting a puppy is like a sped-up version of parenthood. She has nicknames like Bitey McBiterson because she goes at most things teeth-first. She’s not quite eight weeks old, though, so I’m sure she’ll grow out of it.

The reason I had time to get 40-ish% into David Copperfield was that I had a break. Well, sort of: I went to a badly timed library conference in Columbia, South Carolina, on USC’s campus. I had a really nice time (and some great food!), but the whole time I was there, I was counting the minutes until I could come home to puppy, kittehs, and husband. Here’s a link to the photo set.

[flickr_set id="72157644723832136"]

It’s so good to be home.

2014 Book #25: Not a Drop to Drink

Not a Drop to Drink is an exception to my general rules in a couple of ways: It's YA that I really enjoy (like Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, which I also read recently) and I listened to a huge chunk of the audiobook while I was driving to Dallas and still liked it. I've discussed my audiobook issue before, but suffice it to say that if I listen to a book, odds are I won't like it. Anyway.

This book is dystopian, set after some sort of water shortage has forced most people to move into military-controlled cities with insene water prices. Some, though, still live out in the country, like Lynn, a sixteen-year-old girl who has lived in a house with a pond for her entire life. Her mother has taught her that all who approach are a danger, and her policy was to shoot on sight from a perch on their roof. The only neighbor with whom they associate, Stebbs, lives a short distance away, but they almost never communicate. Not too far in, Lynn's mother is killed by wolves. Lynn can get by on her own, but she comes to trust and appreciate Stebbs. They see smoke near a stream not far away and investigate to find a young girl, her pregnant mother, and her uncle. Lynn and Stebbs agree to help them, and Lynn essentially adopts the girl. There are threats everywhere, and Things Continue to Happen. A really interesting backstory is woven into the plot, but that's best discovered while you read, so I won't talk about that here.

I generally love dystopian novels – I've written about that before, too – so I'm not surprised that I enjoyed this one. It certainly doesn't qualify as disaster porn, as the only talk of disaster involves wars over oil and water in the past. I'd compare it to The Road, but it's nowhere as bleak. It's also the first book in a series, the second of which is due out later this year, I think. I'm really looking forward to it, though I'm not sure I'll like where it's going from here. I'm getting a Walking Dead-minus-the-zombies vibe that worries me. But we'll soon find out, as I'm really eager to read the next one.

I'm writing these posts out of order. I'm not sure why, but I've put off this one for a couple of weeks. I listened to most of it while I drove to Dallas and back, and here I am, now, in the Atlanta airport sans free wifi. But! I went to Dallas, and I must show some photos:

Obviously, we went to the zoo. The Dallas Zoo, this time, though I think we both agree that the Fort Worth Zoo is superior. Dallas's relatively new Africa exhibit is pretty stunning, though.

(Oh. And please excuse any terrible formatting issues. As I wrote the book part, I was in the Atlanta airport with no Wifi. Now, I'm in a hotel, but I only brought my iPad Mini, and the app I'm using, Blogsy, is temperamental at best.)

 

On Not Finishing Books (and sometimes finishing them when I know I shouldn’t). Also: 2014 Book #24: The Shadow of the Wind and Fail Pile #3: Noggin

shadowofthewindI knew what I was getting into when I finally picked up The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, but Goodreads had it lingering on my recommendations page, and I was seeing it everywhere. Tumblr, mostly, which is usually bad news because quotes usually come from books I abhor like The Unbearable Lightness of Being or The Book Thief – you know, sappy and infinitely quotable. Meh. Also against The Shadow of the Wind? It’s a mystery. I don’t like mysteries. I see the word “inspector” anywhere in the first twenty pages, and I generally leave a book alone. I thought this one, though, might be a nice entry into the genre, but I was totally wrong.

(I’ll go ahead and issue a spoiler alert here, though it only applies to this specific book.)

I discovered a likely problem early, when I tweeted this only 68 pages in:

No, I thought, this book can’t be that predictable. It would be entirely ridiculous, and everyone would hate it for the way-too-obvious scam. But no! I discovered on page 420 that said book-burner was, indeed, Carax, and I almost threw the damned book across the room. Except I didn’t, and I kept reading because there were sixty pages left, and I figured that there was still time for something more interesting to happen.

I should have done the throwing and/or the burning because it just got worse from there.

Spoiler alert over. Anyway. The Shadow of the Wind is about a teenager who discovers a book by Julián Carax, then gets into terrible trouble trying to find out about the author. A mystery, and an especially dumb one, at that, because it’s entirely predictable. And I didn’t even go into how dumb and sappy the end is. It’s like the end of the Harry Potter series, when Rowling goes 30 years into the future and explains who married whom and how many kids they had, and the like. But worse. MEH.

I should have stopped reading at 420, when I was still enjoying it, at least a little bit. Finishing it was a terrific waste of time.

nogginAaaand speaking of wasting time, I’ll move onto a book I didn’t finishNoggin, by John Corey Whaley. This isn’t my first experience with Whaley: I read – and generally liked – Where Things Come Back. I picked up Noggin as soon as the library got a copy because several people I knew were reading it, and I figured this one would be as good or better than Where Things Come Back. But no!

My first issue is with the basic premise: It’s about Travis Coates, a kid who was dying of leukemia. Said kid agrees to join an experiment in which his head is separated from his body to be cryogenically frozen until it can be attached to a donor body sometime in the (probably distant) future when that technology becomes available. Except it only takes five years, and he comes home to all kinds of awkwardness and sadness because his best friend and his girlfriend are five years older and have moved on with their lives. More sap, this time geared for teenagers.

I gave up on Noggin about halfway through because it wasn’t getting any better, and I’m tired of wasting my time reading bad books. Here’s the paragraph that finally did me in:

They say the heart is just a muscle. They say it plays absolutely no role in our emotions and that its use as a symbol for love is based on archaic theories of it being the seat of the soul or something ridiculous like that. But as I quietly listened to every word she was saying to me, as each syllable shot a sharp arrow through the phone and into my ear, I swear I felt like my entire chest would collapse in on itself. I knew this feeling. They say a heart can’t really break because there’s nothing to be broken. But see, I once had to leave everyone I loved, and it felt this same way. Maybe Jeremy Pratt’s did too. Before he died, I mean. Maybe his heart was torn to shreds and maybe that’s why it hurt so bad now, like it hadn’t had enough time to heal before receiving its next blow.

Excuse me while I vomit a little.

After forcing my way through that paragraph and the next few pages, I used the lesson I’d just learned from Mr. Zafón and his The Shadow of the Wind (which, incidentally, ends with the title of the novel. Yep, it just gets worse) and put the book down before I’d wasted another minute of my life. It’s not even that I just don’t like Noggin (that’s the case with The Shadow of the Wind, really): Noggin isn’t even a decent book. It’s stupid and written to pull at your heart strings just like The Book Thief does (and like I imagine all of John Green‘s books to do, which is why I stay away from those). I didn’t even like books like this when I was a teenager because they’re dumb, and if I would have made it all the way to the end, I bet I would have found a nice, neat moral lesson. Yuck.

End of rant.

I really need to be better about giving up on a book when I know I won’t like it within the first fifty (or two or three hundred!) pages. If I’m reading for pleasure, shouldn’t I get some pleasure out of it rather than trudging through just to see it complete and returned to the shelf?

2014 Book #23: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

missperegrineMiss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children has been on my tbr list for a while now – for long enough that I put it in my Official 2014 TBR Pile Challenge. I’m not sure of how I heard about it in the first place, but the idea was intriguing. I don’t know why it sat on my list for so long.

Because this is the best YA book I’ve read in quite a while. It doesn’t (quite) follow the usual Harry Potter theme, which is refreshing, and it’s well-written and original, both rare in recent YA. I should note, here, that with obvious exceptions, I tend to stay away from YA because I don’t like most of it. It seems to follow The Usual Pattern, and I often can’t identify with the characters.

One reason why I really liked this novel is that it was not what I expected. It’s about a normal kid, Jacob, who has an interesting grandfather who shows him photos from his childhood of other, peculiar, children. One levitates, one holds a boulder in one hand, and one is invisible, for instance. (And the photos are included!) Jacob doesn’t quite believe his grandfather until he arrives at the latter’s house, only to follow him into the woods. His grandfather has just been killed by some kind of evil creature-man. After Jacob tells various adults what has happened, they tell him he’s crazy, and he sees a psychiatrist, etc. Except at his next birthday, his aunt gives him a book that his grandfather had left for him, and there’s a letter inside from a Miss Peregrine to his grandfather, whose last words had been cryptic, directing him to said book and said letter, along with other vague directions. Jacob tracks her down to an island in Wales, and he convinces his dad, an aspiring ornithologist, to take him there. Once on the island, Jacob discovers that what his grandfather said was true, and Things Happen.

That’s only the beginning of the book, and the book is only the beginning of a series – which I’ll be reading. The second one, Hollow City, is already out, and I have it checked out from Overdrive to read as soon as I finish my current book. I’m really excited about where this one is going – my best guess is that a concentration camp might be involved. (And this is an example of a good book that involves the Holocaust, unlike a certain other one.) I haven’t been this enthusiastic about a YA series in a long time, so we’ll see where it goes!

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