Month: June 2014

2014 Book #34: The Cleanest Race – and a couple additions to the Fail Pile

cleanestraceNorth Korea fascinates me. The culture is so vastly different than my own, and it’s so secretive, that I’m intrigued. I saw The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters on Oyster, and it sounded really interesting. I’d just finished Butcher’s Crossing and had no idea where to go next, so I thought a little nonfiction might be in order.

The Cleanest Race is a succinct look into North Korean culture and how it functions. Evidently, what we see from the outside is entirely different from what the North Koreans, themselves, see. Palmer suggested that they’re living in constant fear of being arrested and tortured for what amount to thought-crimes, but, according to B.R. Myers, that’s not the case. North Koreans see themselves as a pure and innocent race that needs protection from the outside because of said innocent nature. Everyone else wants to break in and ruin them, and the Dear Leader’s aim is to protect his people from these dangerous outside influences. North Korea’s domestic policy is entirely different than it pretends to be in the international community: Myers claims, “Where [North Korea] presents itself to the outside world as a misunderstood country seeking integration into the international community, it presents itself to its own citizens…as a rogue state that breaks agreements with impunity, dictates conditions to groveling U.N. officials, and keeps its enemies in constant fear of ballistic retribution.” He says that within the country, residents hear “news” through carefully controlled propaganda that represents a truer version of official views than international versions. One of the most important ideas for keeping North Koreans compliant is the story that South Korea is basically held captive by America and would join the North in a heartbeat if given the chance. What is “most dangerous to the regime,” Myers states, “is the inevitable spread of public awareness that for all their anti-Americanism, the South Koreans are happy with their own republic and do not want to live under Pyongyang’s rule.” Which is all a problem with the constant influx of smuggled South Korean data appearing in the north.

So what that means is that the North Koreans, themselves, are probably more content than we think they are, but that’s because of the careful filtering of information by the government. In the book, Myers gives a very brief (too brief, really) overview of the basics of North Korean history from Japanese colonization until just before Kim Jong Un took over, as it was published in 2009. He follows with an examination of North Korean internal propaganda and explains how that is a better representation of what the North Koreans think of themselves than what international stories have told us.

The Cleanest Race is a reasonably good book about a fascinating subject. I’d recommend it for someone with a decent background in the history part because I spent some time googling as I read. (That Asian history class I took in college didn’t quite cut it.) Myers is a professor in South Korea and teaches students there about their northern neighbors, and what he says makes sense, so I think he knows what he’s talking about. You can’t always trust nonfiction, of course, especially when it’s about super-secretive Eastern countries with entirely different cultures that misrepresent themselves to the rest of the world.

I’ve been having a hard time choosing what to read – I called it a book rut, and I got some great suggestions from Facebook. Before any of that, though, I made an attempt at yet another DeLillo novel, Running Dog, and stopped halfway through even though it’s short. It’s about double-crossing art buyers trying to get their hands on Nazi porn filmed in the bunker where Hitler died. It’s about how non-moving pornographic art isn’t enough anymore, and they must move to the next extreme, video. The Nazi part just makes it even more extreme because DeLillo is all about new extremes in media. It’s the old shtick, just like every other DeLillo novel, and generally not any good. Here’s a representative quote: “It’s the presence alone, the very fact, the superabundance of technology, that makes us feel we’re committing crimes. Just the fact that these things exist at this widespread level. The processing machines, the scanners, the sorters. That’s enough to make us feel like criminals.” In the dialogue. Come on, DeLillo. Running Dog wasn’t worth my time, so onto the Fail Pile it went.

Next up was Still Alice, by Lisa Genova, one of the Facebook recommendations. It started off well enough. Alice is a 50-year-old professor at Harvard, and she has a husband and grown kids, and such. One day, she’s giving a well-practiced lecture and can’t come up with the word “lexicon” to save her life. Then she starts forgetting other things, like basic tasks, moving onto bigger things, like a flight to Chicago for a conference. The farther I got in, the more I got worried that this was just a list of Alzheimer’s symptoms, and Still Alice is just a novel about the slow steps into Alzheimer’s. I hadn’t, of course, read the blurb, though I’d heard good things about it. So I read the blurb, and yes, Still Alice is about a woman with early-onset Alzheimer’s. So I immediately stopped reading and moved on. It’s not that this is even a bad novel. I just hate books like this. They’re always sappy and preachy and sentimental, and I don’t like any of those things. (Note again: This is my personal list of dislikes and not objective.) I also saw that this is a self-published novel by a neurologist who specializes in stuff like that, and I couldn’t help but scoff. Though, again, it’s not written badly, it sounds like something straight out of a creative writing class, formula and all. It bleeds formula. So. That’s the end for Alice. I’ve moved on to The Flamethrowers, which is more my speed.

In Puppy News, Zelda is 3 months old! She’s growing so quickly that I’m beginning to wonder if we have a Clifford on our hands.

Zelda also had an adventure with an identical puppy on the other side of a floor-length closet mirror at Nunpoo’s!

We went for a visit to celebrate Nunpoo’s 88th birthday. Happy birthday, Nunpoo!

2014 Book #33: Butcher’s Crossing

butcherscrossingI’m generally no fan of westerns. I’ve often put westerns in my List of Genres I Don’t Read, which includes the likes of mystery and romance. Well, that was until I started reading Cormac McCarthy and Stephen King‘s Dark Tower series. I softened my position a bit, though I figured those were big exceptions. Maybe they were, but I’m adding Butcher’s Crossing to that list right now because it’s fantastic. One of the best books I’ve read this year, in fact.

But I’ll get to that in a minute. I’ll tell a little story about my hatred for westerns.

My dad loves westerns. It’s his favorite genre, especially the treasure-hunting type. When I was a kid, he was convinced he could find the Lost Dutchman’s Gold Mine, and he still carries around books about it. I’m also pretty sure he’s read every single Louis L’Amour book ever published. He’s pretty hardcore on the westerns. The problem is that he shared his genre love with an entirely uninterested teenager. He’d be reading some book about horses and plains and/or treasure-hunting, get really excited, and read loooooooong passages to my stepmother and me over dinner. Like pages and pages long. My boredom eventually turned into resentment of everything the western novel stands for, so I put them on the List. (Which has nothing to do with why mysteries and romances are also on that list: mysteries generally irritate me, and I’ve yet to find a romance novel that didn’t suck.)

January 2006 286

So I guess my new-found love of the western (the good ones, anyway – Butcher’s Crossing is an NYRB Classic, and I haven’t yet gone wrong with one of those) has something to do with Not Being a Teenager Anymore. Which is fine.

Back to the novel. It’s about Will Andrews, a kid in his early twenties. He’s just spent three years at Harvard and decides he needs to See the Country, so he heads to Butcher’s Crossing, a tiny buffalo-hunting town in western Kansas. You know, when there were still buffalo and almost every single one hadn’t been killed off. Will decides to fund a buffalo hunt led by an old man named Miller who is convinced they’ll find thousands of buffalo up in the Colorado Territory. They take along two other men and head up there on what’s supposed to be a six-week trip. After almost dying of thirst on the plains, they make it to the Rockies, and, lo and behold, they find the buffalo herd Miller spoke of. Thousands. They’re up there for a few weeks, and Miller can’t stop: he’s convinced he can kill every buffalo in the herd and that they’ll make All Kinds of Money doing it. Except then they spend too much time there, and the snows come. They’re stuck up there all winter. Things Continue to Happen.

Ooooh, this is such a good book. I’m not sure why I got it, but I’m glad I did. I ordered it through interlibrary loan and got it in roughly two days. I was reading DeLillo‘s Running Dog, which is the same old shtick, and terribly bored, so I was glad to take a break (even though Running Dog is one of DeLillo’s shorter novels). I enjoyed every minute of Butcher’s Crossing. I felt like I was on the planes and up in the mountains, dealing with the snows along with Will and Miller. It’s a beautifully constructed novel and totally worth a read.

Zelda is 11 weeks old, now, and still ultra-cute.

We got her 15-foot tie-out leash for the back yard so she can hang around outside more than four feet away from us. Closely supervised, of course. She really enjoys it.

She’s still being alternately Very Good and Very Bad.

Sleepytime is the best.

2014 Book #32: Sputnik Sweetheart

sputniksweetheartI’m generally a wee bit reluctant to reread books by Haruki Murakami because I don’t always like them as much the second time around. The problem is that I’ve read all of his novels published in English, so I’m kind of out of new material. After the terror of Bird Box, I wanted to read something more calm (and short because, you know, puppy), and, for whatever reason, I gravitated toward Sputnik Sweetheart. According to Goodreads, I read it in July of 2007, almost 7 years ago. I’d forgotten most of it with the exception of one scene involving a woman getting stuck on a Ferris wheel. It’s funny how one scene can stick in your head while you forget the rest of the novel, no matter how good it is. For a long time, I remembered White Noise ending when they reached the Red Cross shelter, and that’s maybe halfway through the book. I had forgotten so much. (White Noise is another book that deserves a rereading soon, but that’s another post.) Of course, I read Sputnik Sweetheart well before I started this blog, so I don’t have a previous review to look over.

So. Sputnik Sweetheart is a pretty run-of-the-mill Murakami novel. There are multiple worlds/planes of existence/whatever you want to call them, and, of course, cats and wells. Not many of the latter two, but they’re there.

This one is about Sumire, a 22-year-old girl who quit college to write novels, though she hasn’t actually written one yet. She is good friends with the unnamed narrator, who is in love with her. She falls in love with an older woman, Miu, and becomes infatuated. There’s some trace of similar feelings on Miu’s end, but something happened to Miu when she was younger, and she says half of her is gone. Any kind of desire has left, along with her ability to play piano (her first vocation), and her hair turned completely white. Miu, who runs a family company, asks Sumire to work for her, and Sumire jumps at the chance. They eventually end up traveling together to a Greek island, and Sumire disappears. The narrator travels to the island to meet Miu and find out what happened.

Sputnik Sweetheart is one of the relatively rare novels that I liked more the second time around. Part of that is because of the length of time between readings – this time, I felt like I was rediscovering something I’d had but lost. I’d forgotten most of the story line: the Ferris Wheel scene isn’t even very long. Maybe being a little older and more settled helped, too. I can identify with the characters, and I think that I better understand what is going on and why. Which makes me realize how much I’ve changed in seven years – and how much happier I am for it.

So. Is this Murakami’s best novel? Probably not. I think the crown still belongs to The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Others might claim Norwegian Wood because it’s more accessible. Sputnik Sweetheart might be a great Murakami starter novel if you don’t get hung up on the gender of Sumire’s love interest because that part seems irrelevant here. Murakami isn’t especially controversial, and this shouldn’t be, either. It’s about being lonely and wanting love and willingness to cross worlds to get it. It really is a good novel, and now that I understand it better, it’s in my top five Murakamis.

In Puppy News, Zelda is 10 weeks old!

She’s also crazy. Our candy bowl must be evil:

But how could you possibly stay annoyed with this puppy?

Okay, I have an answer for that: these two kittehs, who are united in puppy annoyance.

Who could blame them? Puppy sees kitteh, puppy wants to play. Chase chase chase, bite bite bite. Instead of fighting back, the kittehs run away. If they’re in a tight spot, the worst they’ll do is hiss and bat with their claws in. I’m beginning to think they should be a little more heavy-handed with Zelda.

2014 Book #31: Bird Box

birdboxY’ALL. Bird Box. Read it. It’s the most terrifying book I’ve read in I-can’t-remember-when. “But Lindsay,” you say, “you don’t like scary books! Remember Salem’s Lot?” Yes, that is, indeed, the case. I generally don’t read scary books, and I rarely like them when I do. But Bird Box is different!

And it’s so hard to talk about it without spoilers. Here’s what I’ll do: I’ll add spoiler alerts at the beginning and end of the massive Spoiler Time, you you can just hop down. Because you don’t want this one spoiled.

It’s about Malorie, a young woman who just found out she’s pregnant as news of a “Russian Report” emerges, in which there have been incidents in Russia of people suddenly becoming violent toward others, then killing themselves. Reports spread, eventually, to the United States. No one knows for sure what’s causing it, but they think they’ve figure out that the victims see something before they die. So people start boarding up their windows and stop leaving their houses. The violence spreads, and Malorie and her sister can no longer get in touch with their parents who live in a town with a reported incident. Then Malorie’s sister ends up dead in the bathroom with slit wrists. They had covered the downstairs windows, but not the upstairs ones. Then Society Falls Apart. Flash forward (or, really, backward to the first scene of the book and in other scenes interspersed throughout) to Malorie with two four-year-old children, escaping their house, blindfolded, feeling their way down to the river, where a rowboat sits. They get in the rowboat, still blindfolded, then start down the river. They are entirely reliant upon their hearing, and the kids are especially good at warning of danger because Malorie has trained them to live in this world since birth. They have never even seen anyone or anything outside their house. So here they are, rowing downriver in total blackness, following vague directions Malorie got from a lucky phone call.

Oh. My. Gosh.

Okay, here’s the spoiler alert. I can’t say what I think about this novel without one. We all, by now, know, that I hate violent and gory books. Most scary books are violent and gory. Bird Box, however, isn’t, for the most part. The best part of this novel is that we never find out what these “Creatures” really are – are they aliens? Are they men? Is it just the world going insane? And, strangely, I liked the happyish ending. Most post-apocalypse books have a sad – or at least ambivalent – ending. It’s like they’re supposed to. I really like that Josh Malerman bucked that trend and made things, at least for the time being, turn out okay. It was refreshing. End of spoiler.

What I said in the paragraph above, minus the spoilers, is that this book is different and refreshing. It doesn’t follow the usual horror novel pattern, and it’s very well written. I had a hard time not finishing this novel in one sitting because I just couldn’t stop. I was immediately swept up in the story, and I wanted to see it through to the end. And that journey is totally worth it.

Shortly after I started reading it, I flipped to the back of the book to read the author blurb. Turns out Josh Malerman is the lead singer of some band I’ve never heard of, and this is his first book. He doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry! To him, I say, Good job, sir. Bird Box is excellent, and it’s totally worth a read. Just expect to spend an evening unable to pull yourself away.

Aaaaand here’s a puppy with hiccups:

2014 Book #30: The Giver

giverI had two distinct reactions to finishing The Giver: 1) How have I not read this book before? and 2) DAMN, that’s depressing. I had no idea what I was in for with this one even though almost everyone I know has read it. I took one of those stupid Facebook quizzes a month or two ago about how many Newberry books I’d read, and the result was very, very low. I’m not sure what I was reading when I was a kid, but it sure wasn’t this stuff. I’m pretty sure my first dystopia was 1984, and I was 14 or 15 when I read that one.

Again: DAMN. It’s about a kid named Jonas who lives in a very strict society that values Sameness. For generations, no one has experienced real pain or fear because most emotions have been dulled, and every requirement for human life has been planned and provided. Babies are born to Birthmothers and given to families with approved applications a year later. They go to school, make friends, and live what Jonas thinks are normal lives. Every year, in lieu of birthdays, children are given new responsibilities, up to age 12, when they are told by a group of Elders what they will do with the rest of their lives. Some become doctors, some lawyers, some laborers, etc. Except at Jonas’s twelve-year-old ceremony, the announcer skips over him until the end and names him the new Receiver of Memories, telling him that it’s an honor and will be difficult because he will have to experience pain. He must learn everything about the past from the previous Receiver, who Jonas calls the Giver. Jonas learns about war and famine and loneliness while the rest of his society has no idea that any of those things ever existed. They go on with their lives, have their careers, are assigned families of their own, grow old, and are “released,” which is another matter and is a mystery to Jonas. Then, of course, Things Happen.

Ohhhh, do they happen. The Giver is a short book, and I finished it in a couple of hours. I couldn’t stop reading it. So much for my current lack of attention span. It’s so good. (See? I don’t hate all kids’ books!) It’s also bleak, at least as much so as The Road or 1984. I’m sad I didn’t read this when I was a kid because it might have opened my eyes a bit to what was around me. When I was Jonas’s age, I was fairly sheltered in Minden. I was a good kid, and I had everything I needed and most things I wanted. Or, then again, maybe I wouldn’t have appreciated what this book is really saying.

Anyway, read it. If you have kids, I’d say, ten and up, have them read it. It’s amazing. It even made me cry, which is pretty rare. It’s one of the best books I’ve read this year, and I’ll definitely be looking into more Lois Lowry.

As for the Puppy Update, it’s only been a day, and she’s still growing and still crazy. I’ve been taking her with me everywhere that I can so she gets used to people. We went to the Starbucks on Airline in Bossier, and she met a little boy from Georgia who agreed that she is the Cutest Thing.

And here she is being ridiculous with a stick:

2014 Book #29: Stranger Things Happen

strangerthingshappenReading Things is so hard right now. Every time I sit down with a book, I hear a whine or feel needle-sharp puppy teeth playfully tugging on my jeans or, sometimes, on my skin. I’m having a hard time keeping interest throughout a whole novel because they’re taking me so long to read. I have a short attention span. Which is why I figured that now was a good time to read a collection of short stories, specificaly Kelly Link‘s Stranger Things Happen, to which I’ve been looking forward since I read Pretty Monsters last year. That, and I couldn’t find a cheap digital copy of Stranger Things Happen, and my library doesn’t have it – but my new friend Oyster does! So I jumped at the chance.

The stories in Stranger Things Happen are generally similar to those in Pretty Monsters, though, on the whole, they’re not quite as good. My one criticism of the stories in the latter collection was that they end so abruptly, and that’s not the case in Stranger Things Happen, but I think Kelly Link is better at cutting off stories in interesting places than really ending them.

I think my favorite story in this collection is the last one, “The Girl Detective,” about an inquisitive, mysterious girl, told from the perspective of an inquisitive, mysterious boy. The girl eats people’s dreams and solves mysteries by exploring those dreams. Her mother disappeared when she was little, and she’s trying to find her. The girl detective follows dreams in search of her mother. It’s really an interesting story. “Survivor’s Ball, or, The Donner Party” is another of my favorites. It’s about two young people who meet in a bar in New Zealand while they’re each traveling the world in the opposite direction. They rent a car and take a dangerous wintry road to a hotel in the middle of nowhere, and they meet some very interesting travelers. This one might be the creepiest. “The Specialist’s Hat,” which I like, appears in both collections, which, I guess, can be explained by there being two different publishers. It seems a little cheaty to me. “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose” is about a man who has just died and is at a hotel, forgetting his former life. He tries repeatedly to remember his wife’s name and a lot of events in his life, but he can’t. He’s tied to the hotel and the island, writing letters that he hopes will make it to his wife. I liked “Water off a Black Dog’s Back” least of all. It’s a creative retelling of Leda and the Swan, and the best thing I can say about it is that it’s an interesting twist. There’s also a Cinderella retelling called “Shoe and Marriage” that is just passable. All of the other stories are generally good.

I really like Kelly Link. I read somewhere around the interwebs that she’s just signed a deal for a new collection of stories to be released in 2015, followed by a novel she hasn’t finished yet. I’ll be interested to read that novel, as this shorter form seems to work so well for her. I hope it’s like my favorite (and the longest) story in Pretty Monsters, “The Wizards of Perfil,” though I bet it’ll be more ghosty and less straight fantasy.

And now for Puppy Update Time, as my life revolves around said puppy for the time being.

She learned to fetch!

And she’s trying to make friends with the cats, but they don’t want to play:

She reeeeeally likes to play in long grass.

And she’s getting so big! Here’s a progression of photos marking every week since we got her:

Meanwhile, Palmer is in Nebraska and Iowa, dealing with Tornado Season.

And I am entirely exhausted. I also think I smell poop. See you next time.

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