April 30, 2005

three cheers for Toni!

Yay for Toni!!!

That is all.

Well, okay, not quite all.

Yippee too!

(And I look forward to reading and thoroughly enjoying all three books.)

So cool when a talented friend gets validation in such a tangible form.

Posted by Tamar at 01:24 PM | TrackBack

May 01, 2004

Bet Me, a review

I finished reading Bet Me last week. Yes, I finally got my Jennifer Crusie fix. It was just as delicious as Iíd hoped and left me wondering why this one worked while the Jasper Fforde novel, arguably the same level of intelligent fluff, fell flat for me, or at least flatter. (I did like some elements of the Fforde quite a bit.) I think the answer may be simple: Character. I like these people. I believe in their problems. I enjoy watching them interact. I realize the characterizations are fairly shallow; these people are real enough but not deeply nuanced, but Crusie finds just the right amount of personality quirks, shadows and light, and they become three dimensional to me as I read. Thatís really all it takes.

Well, that and a satisfying story. This one had its deficits: a one note antagonist, a contrived misunderstanding (the oldest clichť in the romance novel arsenal). But Iím willing to overlook that when you give me clever and fun and slowly simmering, comedic relationship building. And though it was writ large and obvious, I enjoyed the thematic conceit, the exploration of why two people come together. One character posits that couples go through four stages on their way to what she terms mature love: assumption (you look for cues this is the right person), attraction, infatuation, and finally mature, unconditional love. Another says itís about the fairy tale. Some things are meant to be. Sometimes you find your prince, and heís meant for you though he might drive someone else nuts. And a third says itís all chaos theory, electrons madly circling around until they find a strange attractor, which pulls them together and makes everything work. Itís fun to watch the different theories play out as the relationship evolves. Itís also fun for a frothy book like this one to have a relatively abstract concept at its core.

I also liked another message in the book: love doesnít demand a perfect body. The man is drop dead gorgeous but the woman is overweight. Well, curvy. Her mother insists she diet, her ex-boyfriend orders salad for her in restaurants. But Cal, the male lead, loves her curves and teaches her to love her body as it is. I love that Crusie folded this wonderfully affirming and much-needed message into her romance.

Fun stuff. Satisfied my sweet tooth. Now Iím ready for something of a more literary bent.

Posted by Tamar at 09:47 PM

April 25, 2004

thoughts at the Book Fair

The white tents up ahead so bright in the sun. All those booths. Not too many people yet. This is going to be fun.

Tiny Coconut is a great panel-going partner. Extremely compatible.

Boy, there are a lot of people in LA who read. Who knew?

Boy, these people donít look like Hollywood glamour pusses. Whereíd they all come from?

At the short story panel:

Sherman Alexie is charming. I must read his short story collection. Soon.

People really do write from their own experience even when it doesnít seem like it. Seeds of ideas are everywhere. We all steal from bits we see, overhear, read. Itís what we do with it after that that makes it our own.

When we read a writer giving us the flavor of city life in Russia or Japanese suburbs in the forties or life on the reservation, it looks exotic to us and we somehow see that writer as a spokesperson for that world, a travel guide of sorts, but to them, theyíre just writing from the life around them or inside them and it can be annoying when you want to write something more universal but you end up getting tagged as a (insert ethnicity here) writer.

Itís not just me. Short stories are harder than novels for a lot of people.

Conversely, theyíre easier. You only spend a month on one, you can afford to experiment, fall on your face. You havenít made the same kind of investment.

With short stories, you jump right into the meat of the thing. You have less time. You can write from/about a single image.

And by the way, itís extremely annoying when a panelist watches the ceiling the entire time heís talking. Even if he says interesting things.


At the truth in fiction panel:

Why are there all women on this panel? Do only women admit how close their fiction is to real life?

These women are funny.

Ayelet Waldman just hit a home run. Profound. Must read her new book. It sounds like a kick in the teeth but in a good way. When you write from passion, I want to read it.

An awful lot of authors do write from real life, thinly fictionalizing their own experience or their parentsí or their dentistís, but mostly their own.

How do they manage to get enough distance from the subject when they do that? How do they shape the story? Maybe next year a panel will talk about that part.

Apparently if you want to cast a real person as a villain, the best way to do it is to simply describe. Lose the adjectives. Without modifiers that give away your feelings, that person will read the bare description and approve of their portrayal just as they approve of their own actions in life.

Sometimes if you write about people and they read it, they start remembering what you wrote as if it really happened even when that part is made up.


At the creative nonfiction panel:

Why are there all men on this panel? Why are they all going on and on and on about their books? What makes this a discussion? For that matter, what makes these books creative nonfiction? From the descriptions, most of them sound like journalism with perhaps more of the first person POV but not really that much.

Again, why am I sitting here listening to authors sell their books to me? I wanted answers to perplexing questions or at least a bit of self-reflection. Itís the moderatorís fault. He told them to talk. They did. Then again, TC points out that when the women in the Truth in Fiction panel were asked to talk about their books, they did so but also tied what they said into the salient issue of the panel. These men? Not so much.

So what is creative nonfiction anyway? Is it just journalism with more of an I to the writerly eye? I thought it was much more fluid and personal than that.

Feh.

On the other hand, the PR job kind of worked. Iím now interested in Hampton Sidesí book (Americana, full of stories of fascinating people) and Martin J. Smithís (Poplorica, a look at the origin and oddities of popular cultural phenomena like the suburban lawn). But still. Iíd have preferred a real conversation.


At the memoir panel:

Theyíre reading from their work, this is good. This is fun. This is kind of a waste of time because I can just get the books out of the library. On the other hand, it does remind me what exactly a memoir is. So personal, these people sitting up there on the stage revealing glimpses of their childhood pain.

Memoir has apparently become hot lately. I guess this is true, isnít it? Vivian Gornick posits during the panel that the reason is that since World War Two, people have felt a need for testament. Later, someone else calls it testimony. Itís an empowering, a statement that the ordinary life can be important enough to read about.

Memoir is apparently a political statement. Politics keeps coming up. Nuala OíFaolain says the fact that she, a middle aged Irish woman, can write this and have it read and recognized is a kind of political statement. Michael Datcher has a theory that we live in such a segregated society, we read memoirs as a safe way to learn about other cultures. I think this is horseshit, that heís got an racial/social agenda and sees everything through that narrow lens, but whatever. I do agree that the personal is political. Vastly so.

Oh, now theyíre arguing about whether memoir as testimony necessarily means memoir is not literary. No answers there. Is literary defined as good writing, turns of phrase, or does it lie somewhere else?

Nobody talks about how they shape their lives for the page though Vivian Gornick says she conflates events and gives people pseudonyms.


At the science writing panel:

Weíre here because TC is a science writer and also knows some of the guys (yeah, all men) on the panel. Iím fine with this. It could be interesting to hear about. I have no idea how one writes about science for a general audience.

Apparently the way one writes about anything else that fascinates. Something sparks your interest, you have a seed of an idea, you do the research, you talk to people, you get deeply involved in the world, you write.

How is this different from creative nonfiction? I mean, I believe it is in actuality, but from the descriptions on each panel, it isnít. There, the men did research, wrote about something they didnít already know from their own experience. Here, the men end up with an emotional investment in what theyíre writing. Of course they do.

Chandler Burr describes the way the scientists of smell turn away from him while heís doing the research for Emperor of Scent. They canít stand the idea of this altogether different concept of how we smell. Itís interesting the things that divide people so deeply. Not always what youíd expect. Other scientific fields, on the surface more fraught and important, are less divisive than this.

It can be a handicap to come into the field of science writing from a background as a scientist. One of the editors (Philip Hilts, I think) describes a cub science reporter who got scared when it was time to go cover something in biology. He thought it would take years to gain the knowledge heíd need to walk in the door. But reporters are reporters in every field: you dip into the subject, you gather your bits of knowledge, and you run the facts past some experts before you run the piece.

I like this panel. I love learning about things altogether different from my own experience. I can understand the allure of the field.


Outside, in the heat and the crowd:

Wow, itís like Time Square at rush hour. A veritable sea of humanity.

Books for five bucks. Cool. Here's Seabiscuit. Cool. Some good kid books too, half price. Cool. Bag now feels like I'm carrying around a bunch of rocks. Not so cool.

The guy at the Paris Review booth says they accept about sixteen stories a year out of thirty to forty thousand submissions. And I thought it was hard to get into Harvard. He says with those odds, why not submit your story everywhere at once? He has a point.

The woman at the Tin House booth says a story gets three reads Ė three different readers, that is to say Ė before it gets to her. And then if she likes it, she sends it on to New York, where an editorial committee all has to like it. So if that committee consists of five people, a total of nine jaded, tired, overworked and underpaid readers have to love your story for it to get published in that magazine.

On the other hand, they just have to love it, not to see it as a movie with Julia Roberts in the lead. Not so hard. Just write a kickass story. And then write another.

Itís hot out here.

Why did I park so far from the center of the fair? My blisters are getting blisters.

Where did I park the car exactly? TC goes one way in the garage, I go the other. We scout out the elusive vehicle. We sink into the seats. We head home. Ready to write.

Posted by Tamar at 09:32 PM | Comments (5)

April 21, 2004

Lost in a Good Book, a review

Iíve been in a light reading mood lately. So I picked up Jasper Ffordeís sequel to The Eyre Affair at the library and dove in. So to speak. No actual book portal was involved. I merely read Lost In A Good Book, I didnít experience it.

And in a way that was the problem. It was a fun read, just like the first one. And just as shallow. Fforde isnít trying for rich characterization here, nor is he aiming for emotional resonance or even thematic thoughtfulness. Heís just going for clever with a dollop of satire. The corporate mentality he portrays in this parallel earth and the ubiquity of the lowest form of pop culture, itís clearly a barbed description of some of the worst aspects of modern society but it feels heavy handed and makes me squeamish. Aside from that, though, I delight in Ffordeís imagination: the details of his wild world, with a time traveling father on the run from his branch of the government and a pet cloned dodo (model 1.2, very rare) and delightful secondary characters like Spike Stoker whose government job is eradicating mythological creatures like vampires and werewolves and who therefore has a hell of a time getting girlfriends to stick around once he reveals his line of work to them.

All of which of course is just background for the main storyline about Thursday Next, the agent who jumped into Jane Eyre and inadvertently changed the ending. In the sequel, she discovers a whole world of book operatives, most of whom are fictional characters who step outside their own fictional worlds to fix other books. This is a lot of fun just as it was in Ffordeís first novel, glimpsing the characters when theyíre off duty from the story, so to speak. The behind-the-scenes fix-it stuff works well in both the material world and the world of books, and is the most amusing part of the worlds Fforde creates. The problem, though, is that he doesnít really have much of a story. If you donít focus on character or theme, all you have is plot. In which case, that plot better damned well be good. Which this wasnít. There were three or maybe four plot threads, most of which never (or barely) met up, some of which never got resolved (I smell sequelitis), some of which just got resolved through last minute dues ex machina interventions.

Sometimes Iím in the mood for texture and depth. Sometimes, I admit without shame, I prefer something less challenging. Shallow is fine and yes, even silly is good. But I always want to put the book down and feel like I read a coherent piece of fiction someone cared to think through while writing it, that amounted to more than mere sleight of hand. Lost in a Good Book is a cotton candy book. Sweet air. Not terribly satisfying though it does make you smile from time to time. It feels like a near miss. If Fforde had pulled the plot threads together, if heíd worked a little harder at structure and even, yes, theme, he might have had something wonderfully frothy. Heís clearly got the chops; heís bright and witty and can create a unique world. But I donít want cotton candy. If Iím in the mood for dessert, Iíd rather go for chocolate or custard, something more substantial, something I can sink my teeth into.

On to the next book. This oneís already back at the library.

Posted by Tamar at 10:39 PM

April 08, 2004

The Boy Who Loved Windows

I recently finished reading The Boy Who Loved Windows, by Patricia Stacey. The bookís subheader says it well: ďOpening the heart and mind of a child threatened by autism.Ē Iíve been debating whether to post my thoughts on the book here or at Hidden Laughter, which is pretty much wall to wall autism talk, though mostly about Damianís development through and beyond the diagnosis. The separation between the two sites isnít quite as neat and tidy as I thought I began this blog. So Iíll post it here. Itís a book review, after all. And MT is easy to use. And Iím here.

So. The book. I was looking forward to the read: itís currently the only parent-written book looking at Floor Time, the therapy weíve used with Damian. Staceyís son Walker was severely impaired from birth, his sensory system so hypersensitive he was overloaded by a simple walk around the block or even a well-lit room and his body tone so low he couldnít sit up on his own at one year. Through intensive intervention, mostly Floor Time and occupational/physical therapy as well as dietary changes, Walker recovered and is now a happy, interactive child mainstreamed and warmly related.

Itís a hell of a story, and extremely well told. Stacey hits all the emotional beats with an honest, self-aware tone, and gives helpful, accurate descriptions of the various therapies. She was obsessed with her son, with helping him progress. She gave of herself until she was wrung out, sacrificing just about everything else in her life. Itís a miracle her marriage survived; it almost didnít.

As I was reading, I kept thinking, ďI couldnít do that. I couldnít give that much of myself.Ē But then I was telling Tiny Coconut about it, and she laughed and said sheíd often thought exactly that when reading Damian's story as it unfolded in Hidden Laughter. That she couldnít have done what we were doing with him. But she probably could have (which she then said). Just as I may well have been able to do what Patricia Stacey did for Walker if Damian had needed it. You donít know until itís your child. And then you just do it, whatever you have to, to make things better. To make his brain work.

What I didnít find in Staceyís account, which disappointed me, was a sense of familiarity. Because her son was so very different from mine Ė and different from most children on the spectrum, certainly those on the higher end Ė I read her account with fascination but not identification. Much the way someone who hasnít gone through this would read any parentís book on the subject. An unusual experience for me.

When I read Catherine Mauriceís book, Let Me Hear Your Voice, about ďrecoveringĒ her two children, I recognized the emotions she described, just as I did here. There I also recognized the pre-treatment child. Not my own but echoes of my own. What I didnít recognize was the Pavlovian style behavioral intervention, so alien to my own approach. With this book, I had the opposite experience. I found little congruence in Walkerís pre-treatment state but I recognized just about everything in the treatment itself. The particulars were different because Walker had such a different sensory makeup, but Staceyís overall approach mirrored ours, and in that it was incredibly satisfying to read. This stuff works, you know? Damian is living, breathing proof of that. Now I know Walker is too.

Posted by Tamar at 10:39 PM

December 09, 2003

genre novels, specifically Paladin of Souls

Iíve spent most of my adult life reading fantasy, SF, mystery, romance. I used to say I could only read a story with a plot that pulled me along. But as I got more into writing fiction, it stopped working for me. Iíve had this feeling lately that reading a genre novel is like watching a sitcom or eating a Pop Tart. Fun enough but ultimately lacking any real nutritional value. Empty calories, empty hours. Which raises the question: how do you measure value in a novel? How do you measure it in a film or a TV show, for that matter? Why do we watch and read? Is it just to give enjoyment for the hours we spend with the book or in the movie theater? A smile, a tickle, a rollercoaster ride of emotional reactions, an adrenaline response to scary sequences, an endorphin rush when the protagonists triumph? Is it that simple? Sometimes maybe it is, and sometimes thatís enough. But isnít it better when you close the book and feels something more? As a writer, thatís what I would prefer. But what kind of something more? I tend to think itís about universality, about the writer touching me personally. I think this is why Iíve dropped most of my genre reading of late. Plot-heavy stories donít do that, they donít tend to move me as I read.

Wait a second, what am I talking about? When I closed the fantasy novel Finder (by Emma Bull) the tears ran down my cheeks and soaked my shirt. I walked around for days after reading Memory and Dream (by Charles de Lint) thinking about the artist and the artwork, how a creation can come to life and be something separate from the creatorís intention. In that novel, he makes the thought literal, but itís a good metaphor. After reading Elizabeth George, I often find myself contemplating the central murder and the emotions that led to the act, the power of hate or love to make us crazy.

I think the truth is that I canít stand superficial writing (though I somehow finished The Da Vinci Code, pulled along by the puzzle and the questionable but fascinating theology) but that good writing crosses platforms. For instance, thereís my love for Lois McMaster Bujold. I love how her novels start simple and gradually get more complex and tangled, like a classical symphony. I love how her characters are both funny and heartbreaking (human, in other words), I love how she lets those characters have ugly and sordid and difficult thoughts. I love her sense of structure and how within the context of a fast-paced SF novel, she manages to layer serious undertones about big life questions. It helps that she writes cleanly, clearly and often elegantly. She sometimes disappoints Ė of the last three Vorkosigan novels, I thought one was good and the other two were passable. But I just finished her latest fantasy novel, the second of a new series. Paladin of Souls. I loved it.

This novel, like the previous one, takes place in a land with five gods. The gods inhabit a few lucky (or unlucky) souls, who become god-touched and see the world differently. Like Moses on the Mount, theyíre given painfully difficult tasks. Not so great to be touched by the gods, it turns out. In this case, the mother of the Royesse (Queen) of Chalion, a character in the last novel, is suffering the aftermath of being god-touched twenty years ago. She was presumed insane for many years but after the events of Curse of Chalion she has been freed of that onus.

She starts out the book restless and bored, watched too closely by stuffy courtiers. She goes on a pilgrimage. Things happen. Demon bears and abductions and other sundry drama. But at its heart, the novel is about a dilemma, a Gordian knot of a dilemma. If one person lives, another must die. (More or less. Rather, more than that but you have to read it to see.) I was amused and amazed to realize that itís also a retelling of Sleeping Beauty, complete with a kiss to wake the sleeping prince. Yes, prince. Donít you love that? Combine all of this with lovely moments like the main character noting the incongruity of birdsong after the horror of a battle or giving a demon-ridden beast a good talking-to and youíve got me humming with pleasure as I read.

I finished the book two weeks ago. I still remember it with that level of detail. I still have this dreamlike feeling that I could, if I tried hard enough, enter the world between the covers of that book. I'm reluctant to return it to the library. It lingers with me, like Grand Marnier lingers on the tongue and in the back of your throat. A warming feeling. I think that's all I look for in a book. Easy to define, hard to pull off.

Posted by Tamar at 08:31 PM

November 19, 2003

Say When, a review

When I read Open House two years ago, I loved Elizabeth Bergís perfectly observed moments, revealing character and emotion obliquely but acutely. I reveled in so many moments as I read, nodding, saying ďyes,Ē and ďoh,Ē and ďmmm.Ē It was like warming my hands in front of the fire after coming inside from a snowstorm. Lovely. So when I picked up her newest book, Say When, I was anticipating more of the same. Not the same story, of course, but that sense of wonder, the mundane made revelatory. Lovely but simple language. All that.

Sadly, I didnít find much of that at all. Itís not that this is a bad book. Itís not. But itís like eating a solid and unexciting, slightly chemical-tasting Hostess cupcake rather than the freshly made, light as air Angel Food Cake feel of the first book.

Iím not sure if itís the subject matter: a woman says she wants a divorce. We see the entire thing from the husbandís POV. This may be problematic because his story isnít all that interesting. Grief can be, certainly, but this is not a man who thinks deeply, at least not until late in the book. And where his mind goes Ė imagining them together, she and her new paramour, for example Ė itís just not that fresh. And the way his wife explains the lack in their relationship, in him, as well as his own memories of their time together, well, a lot of it reads too generically.

I feel like Berg took the easy way out with a lot of this. The story is more internal than external, which is hard to pull off, because you damned well better make that internal life interesting and textured. And this wasnít, not nearly enough. The best part of the book, to my mind, was a subplot about what itís like to be a mall Santa. That felt original. That had life to it. Some of the rest did too, in spurts, but added up to not enough. The imagery also lacks the spark I expected. One of the best moments in the book is when he tosses his wedding ring into a field, a spur of the moment thing. And then immediately regrets it and goes scrabbling in the dark for it, only to come up empty handed. That I liked for the melodramatic gesture and the real pang that follows, that "oops, didn't mean to do that, can I take it back?" Other things stand out too, particularly secondary characters: a waitress, a restaurant owner, a fellow Santa. But not enough of the main character does. Heís a bit dull, poor fellow. And so the book is too.

Posted by Tamar at 09:43 PM | Comments (2)

October 19, 2003

unpacked

Diane, if it's any consolation, we just unpacked the last of our boxes from the move. We moved in here in June... of 2001.

The last set of boxes were books; I looked at all the volumes, especially genre books, with an eye for what to donate, and ended up with three full boxes. Truth is, I could have sifted out more novels I'll never read again, but the books themselves: the pictures on the jackets, the fonts on the spine, even the weight of them, bring back memories of the stories inside and I couldn't part with them quite yet. Maybe next year.

Sadly, one of the reasons I'll never reread a lot of the paperbacks I once loved? The pages are brittle and yellowing around the edges. I'm sorry, but this is impossible. I remember pulling down paperbacks from my father's shelves when I was a teenager, Asimov novels and books by Heinlein, with the fifties-style futuristic covers. The pages were a creamy yellow and they crackled as I turned them. I read carefully, afraid the books would disintegrate in my hands. I expected that; after all, those books were published before I was born. But now? I bought these books myself. In bookstores. Brand new. How can I possibly be old enough for them to be yellow?

Posted by Tamar at 11:48 PM

October 04, 2003

Three Junes

I recently finished Three Junes, by Julia Glass. I never used to read anything designated as a Good Book (a/k/a National Book Award winners and the like); they were usually too depressing and besides, I preferred something with a story rather than a self-reflecting ponderous trudge through the thesaurus. But either literary novels have changed or I have. Iíve been reading them with more pleasure lately. Iíve even (dare I admit this) (come closer, Iíll whisper it in your ear) started to choose them over the genre novels stacked to the ceiling in my guest room.

So I started Three Junes after hearing glowing things about the book and reading at least one interview with the author that made me fall half in love with her (she lives (lived?) with her partner and their two boys in a tiny apartment in Greenwich Village, she studied art, she sounds funny and wise). I was looking forward to it but worried, too. I mean, I bought the book, I didnít take it out of the library. I made a commitment. What if it was deadly dark and smugly self-congratulatory after all?

Itís split into three sections. The three Junes, you see. I wasnít sure what to think at first. Glassís supple but uncluttered writing kept me involved, as did her real-feeling characterizations, but I wasnít quite hooked. That didnít happen until the second section, the one centering on (and narrated by) Fenno, the gay Scotsman living in New York.

In interviews, Glass has likened her novel to a triptych, with two smaller images flanking a central scene. I completely see this. The first and third sections, each with their own main character, both serve to illuminate the longer middle section. This both works and doesnít work. I loved the way the novel opened up or, rather, became deeper and more emotionally textured once we hit Fennoís story. A blossoming, an unfolding. What you want in a story. But it felt odd to then switch voices and become involved in yet another personís story. And itís a smaller story in its way, though certainly still involving issues of life and death, birth and grief. I started falling out of the book at this point, was finally able to put it down and go do things like take showers and make dinner. An impressive thing to try, though. And it does resolve much of the ďwhat happened to him after that?Ē emotional tangle without hitting you over the head with it.

Donít mistake me, this criticism is minor compared to the overall. This is one of those books that stay with you, that make you feel sad and not-sad, closing it with a smile and an open heart. Fenno and his complex weave of relationships (especially the central one) stay with me now, weeks later. I think this is one of those books that will linger always.

Posted by Tamar at 08:50 PM