Booking through Thursday: Resolutions

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Booking Through Thursday

Booking Through Thursday asks: Any reading resolutions for the new year? Reading more? (Reading less?) Reading better books? Bigger books? More series? More relaxing books?

Well I wish I could resolve to read more, but unless someone figures out how to fit more than 24 hours in a day that ain’t gonna happen.

The idea of reading “better” books is interesting though. Wonder how you would define better. Prizewinners? Penguin Classics? Books with footnotes? Presumably “better” books are educational in some way, or expand your horizons, or make you a better person for having read them.

Actually I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that wasn’t educational in some way, or expanded my horizons in some direction. I’ve never read a book that didn’t make me think. Even if what you’re thinking is “gee this was a crappy book, and this is why” — well isn’t that educational?

And another thing: I don’t like deciding in advance what I’m going to read. Although the idea of reading challenges is charming, I don’t think I could ever do it. My favorite way of choosing What To Read is to browse the shelves of my local library and pick books that I’ve never heard of, because they have intriguing titles or pretty covers.

I bought a book yesterday. An impulse buy, which is extremely uncharacteristic of me. But I was at the bookstore with my daughter, buying a birthday present for her friend. When this book caught my eye I Could Not Resist. The Trapeze Artist, by Will Davis — a novel written by an actual trapeze artist!! If reading this doesn’t make me a better person I don’t know what would! <grin>

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Booking through Thursday: Records

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Booking Through Thursday

Booking Through Thursday asks: Do you keep a list of the books you’ve read? How? In a journal? Through one of the online services? If so, WHY? To keep good records for future reference? To make sure you don’t accidentally reread? If not, why not? Too eager to move on to the next book? Too lazy? Never thought to bother?

I have tried to keep lists! I have tried pretty much every possible way. I have set up accounts on goodreads and library thing. I have bought pretty little notebooks with lined pages and “Booklover’s Journal” embossed in script on the cover. I have bought lovely plain moleskine notebooks too. But I’ve never been able to stay with the list for more than a few titles.

The thing is, I frequently don’t finish books. Life is too short to waste on bad books. I have no qualms about this whatsoever. But I never know what to do with Quit Lit. Should I list them? Or not? How far do I have to read before I can list it? If I list it and then quit, should I delete the listing? Ugh. Now this decision (to quit reading) that previously felt quite natural and organic has suddenly become fraught with difficulty.

And another thing, I love rereading. Probably half my reading is books I’ve already read at least twice before. Should I list those books too? Should I list them anew, every time I read them? Do I really want to reveal to the world what a fangirl I am? I don’t think so.

So… no. No lists here. What about you?

Talking Animal Lit

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In the comments on my post about The Art of Racing in the Rain, Bee asked whether part of my problem with that book was because it was narrated by an animal. Very good question! I definitely do have issues with talking animals in books. I realize that an animal narrator is not the same as a talking animal, but this is a pet peeve of mine, so here you go.

Talking animals for the most part means children’s books, and that’s the first obstacle. I know there is a whole world of adult book bloggers who read tons of YA and kids’ books, and write serious reviews. Not I! I can barely bring myself to read along with my own bookworm daughter, even when she begs me to read her latest favorite so we can discuss it. So that automatically cuts out a whole bunch of talking animal books. But even when I was a kid myself, I did not like talking animals. And especially not talking stuffed animals. No Winnie the Pooh for me, thanks. Wind in the Willows, Paddington Bear, Watership Down, I’m running out of examples but you get the idea. Ugh.

However.

If there is a REASON why the animals can talk? If the author ACKNOWLEDGES the fact that animals don’t usually talk? If they interact with humans and it is a THING? Then we are in a completely different ball park. I can think of 3 awesome books that meet this requirement. Two are even kids’ books!

1. The Narnia books. Ok, the reason they talk is that Aslan, aka God, gave them the ability to talk. Not exactly a scientific reason, but that’s ok. It is still an acknowledged reason. The animals talk to humans, and it is unexpected, and it is a thing that they talk. So that is fine with me. Plus there are a million other reasons to love the Narnia books. It’s all good.

2. Mrs. Frisby & the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien. One of my all time favorite kids’ books. Yes they talk. Yes it is a thing. Yes there is an actual scientific explanation. This book is awesome and I have reread it many times, despite what I said about not liking kids’ books.

3. The Land of Laughs by Jonathan Carroll. The talking animals in this case are dogs — two “hilariously slanty-eyed” bull terriers, to be precise. This is the only adult fiction I can think of with talking animals, and they are not main characters. However they are brilliant. The book is brilliant. Weird, but brilliant. And oh man is it a thing that they talk. If anyone else has read this book please let me know. I want to discuss it!

bull terrier

bull terrier

The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein

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This book is perniciously bad.

Full disclosure: I read it for my book group. I certainly would not have bothered with it otherwise. I knew when I started it that it was not “my type” of book, and that I probably wouldn’t like it. I even wrote a short post debating whether or not it would be unfair of me to review it since the fault was mine, not the book’s. However, when I wrote that post, I hadn’t yet finished reading it, and there was much plot yet to come. I had no idea how bad it was going to get. Now it appears that I have a duty to write this review to warn y’all away.

This novel is about the trials & tribulations of a race car driver, Denny. His wife dies; he becomes embroiled in a custody battle with his in-laws; and he is falsely accused of rape. He overcomes these obstacles, learns valuable life lessons and becomes a better, wiser man. And the hook is that the whole story is first-person narrated by his dog Enzo. Whom we know, from page 1, is going to die at the end.

So, here’s a laundry list of criticisms:

1. Some of the “life lessons” are very, very wrong.

Listen to this:

What is the real truth regarding the death of Ayrton Senna, who was only thirty-four years old?

I know the truth, and I will tell you now:

He was admired, loved, cheered, honored, respected. In life as well as in death. A great man, he is. A great man, he was. A great man, he will be.

He died that day because his body had served its purpose. His soul had done what it came to do, learned what it came to learn, and then was free to leave. And I knew, as Denny sped me toward the doctor who would fix me, that if I had already accomplished what I set out to accomplish here on earth, if I had already learned what I was meant to learn, I would have left the curb one second later than I had, and I would have been killed instantly by that car.

But I was not killed. Because I was not finished. I still had work to do.

Well I got news for you. People die ALL THE TIME before they are “finished” and to suggest otherwise is insulting. Yes, it could be the case that God has a grand plan and we mere mortals (by definition) can’t see it. I don’t agree with that — I think much happens that is senseless and random — but I’ll grant you that it’s a possibility. However, in Racing there isn’t any mention of God or grand plans. Just a dog. Is the dog supposed to be god? There is so much wrong with this that all I can do is sputter. Seriously.

2. Other “life lessons” are trite and obvious.

Example:

Hands are the windows to a man’s soul.

Watch in-car videos of race drivers enough, and you’ll see the truth of this statement. The rigid, tense grip of one driver reflects his rigid, tense driving style. The nervous hand-shuffle of another driver proves how uncomfortable he is in the car. A driver’s hands should be relaxed, sensitive, aware. Much information is communicated through the steering wheel of a car; too tight or too nervous a grip will not allow the information to be communicated to the brain.

So are toes. Mine are curling with embarrassment just from having typed that.

3. The intelligent dog has a startling blind spot.

The dog lives in a constant state of frustration because he cannot communicate with humans. He complains about this frequently throughout the book. Wrong shaped vocal chords & mouth plus no opposable thumbs equals total inability to communicate. Come on. He is intelligent enough that he can know God’s grand plan, but he can’t figure out a way to communicate with gestures?

4. Some major plot twists are strangely inexplicable.

People do really shitty things to Denny. The grandparents’ custody battle is looooong and expensive and vicious, and why? The author gives no foreshadowing, no background or life story for the couple. There is no indication that their daughter suffered any ill effects from growing up with such vicious parents. There is no indication that Denny is a bad father, which might also provide some motivation. The in-laws say they are worried about his financial situation, but is that reason enough for this huge battle? I mean, why not set up a trust fund? In short, this major plot twist is just not believable. The false rape accusation, ditto. That’s huge. There is no backstory or motivation for this girl. I guess she just wanted attention? Or did the evil grandparents bribe her to perjure herself in order to bolster their custody case? Again: just not believable.

5. The writing is not engaging.

I admit, this is subjective. But here’s the thing. I have zero background knowledge about car racing. Zero interest in it either. And that means I am ripe for the excitement of learning something new. This book could have sucked me into a hitherto unknown world filled with colorful characters and fascinating insights. It could have turned me into a fan. Like for example Patrick O’Brian turned me into a fan of Age of Sail, which I had zero knowledge of before reading those books. Or Michael Chabon turned me into a fan of comic books, which I hated before reading Kavalier & Clay. Those authors showed me a new way to see something I had previously thought boring, and whoa, I became fangirl. But not this book, alas.

6. The Deus ex machina ending is ridiculous.

Ah yes, all ends must be neatly tied. So why not have a new character sail in at the very end and suddenly offer Denny his dream job? And then the dog dies (because now his work is “finished”), but luckily we don’t have to be sad about that because Denny goes to the race track and meets him again, reincarnated as a little boy also named Enzo who is “a race car driver at heart” and we can all be happy and The End.

Something Missing, by Matthew Dicks

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This book was a hoot!

Something Missing is the story of a professional cat burglar. He has been stealing for years from the same “clients” and never been suspected, let alone caught, thanks to his obsessive attention to detail. However, there is “something missing” from his own life as well: friendship & love. He is extremely shy and socially awkward, and of course he can’t talk about his work. As you might guess, this book is about what happens when unforeseen contingencies arise. One thing leads to another: Martin finds himself intervening in his clients’ lives, confronting his own demons, falling in love, and being a hero.

A big part of the charm of this book is the descriptions of Martin at work, and the rules for success that he has developed over the years. They are so detailed and sensible that you might even come away tempted to try burglary yourself. For example:

Certain items could be taken from a home without anyone ever noticing, particularly if one is familiar enough with the homeowner’s inventory to determine how long an item has been in stock. A bottle of Liquid Plumbr, for example, should never be taken during its first month on the shelf, because the homeowner has likely purchased it for a specific reason. A kitchen sink is slow to drain. The bathtub is filling with water during a shower. In these instances, a missing bottle of Liquid Plumbr, which isn’t cheap, might be noticed. But after thirty days, it’s safe to assume that the homeowner has solved whatever plumbing problem from which he or she might have been suffering, and then the bottle can easily vanish without a trace.

(Honestly, it makes you wonder about the author. Did Matthew Dicks just make this all up? Or is he writing from personal experience?)

Anyway, the burglary stuff is hilarious and fun to read. But the author also does a great job with the other aspects of the book. Martin’s personality is consistent. His growth is gradual and believable. The plot is tightly constructed. The prose is matter-of-fact, clean, and unobtrusive. The romance is sweet but not too sweet. It’s a light read with a happy ending, but it also makes you think.

The grim brothers, aka The Brothers Grimm

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So, Philip Pullman has just come out with a new edition of Grimms’ Fairy Tales. I am intrigued!

I’m sure you already know that the Disney versions of these fairy tales are extremely sanitized. The originals were truly, y’know, grim. If you didn’t already know that, you might want to check out this article from Flavorwire, “The Disturbing Origins of 10 Famous Fairy Tales,” which includes a few of the original endings and illustrations. Possibly the worst thing on there is that the original Sleeping Beauty didn’t just prick her finger. No, she had a sliver go up her fingernail. Ewwwwwwwww!!!!!

I grew up with a grim version of the Brothers Grimm. My father, a native German speaker who was raised on these, gave me The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales when I was still in elementary school. This is the great big book that includes “folkloristic commentary” by Joseph Campbell; unsanitized plots; and the most gruesome illustrations you could imagine. Dutiful child that I am, I read and reread these throughout my childhood, and then passed the book down to my own daughter…

My own volume, much battered

Here is the title page since the dust jacket is long gone. Note the tape repair.

This is from a story called “The Willful Child.” WTF??

Illustration from “The Two Travelers.” This story includes the sentence “Then the shoemaker said to him: ‘I will give you a bit of bread to-day, but in return for it, I will put out your right eye.’ ” I kid you not.

Here is one you can read for yourself. This illustration gave me nightmares when I was a kid.

These disembodied hands come from “The Young Giant.” The (male) giant in the story also happens to lactate.

This picture comes from “The Goose-Girl,” which is one of the more well-known tales. It is a long story with many plot twists. Why they chose THIS scene to illustrate, I do not know.

Order out of chaos

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In yesterday’s post I confessed that I had lain awake for two hours in the middle of the night indulging in the worst sort of revenge fantasies. Today I have another painful confession. For the last several years — years! — my books have been in complete and total disarray. Scattered among various bookshelves on three different floors, in some cases double-shelved, in no order at all. Really sad, considering not only how much I love to read, but how much I love to re-read.

Last weekend I decided enough was enough and launched Operation Take Back My Shelves. Step one, I decided, is to arrange the books on their existing shelves. Fiction, alphabetical by author (for now, although I have ideas for a different classification system which I will save for another post). Nonfiction, in general categories which I am making up as I go along. Step two will be to consolidate the categories.

So I got started on the basement books, which is the largest set of shelves. As soon as I started arranging & alphabetizing the fiction I remembered how fun it is to do this. First off, it is such a pleasure simply to handle my books. All of them have mental associations of one sort or another. Books that bring back my childhood (Little Women, The Robber Hotzenplotz, A Wrinkle in Time). Books that remind me of college (The Brothers Karamazov, Franny & Zooey, The Counterfeiters). Books that rocked my world (Fifth Business, The Chronicles of Amber, the Aubrey-Maturin canon). Books that I swear I will actually read some day (Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, One Hundred Years of Solitude, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court). My husband’s books, that make my heart overflow because they are his (Ringworld, The Birth of the Modern, Collected Poetry of Robert Frost). My kids’ picture books, long outgrown, that I can still recite from memory (Go Dog Go, Play With Me, Baby Animals).

Equally pleasurable is the alphabetizing. This will probably sound really weird, but I love alphabetizing. I’m really good at it, too. Fast and accurate. My very first job, and also my second job actually, were in libraries, back in the day when everything was still on cards and had to be alphabetized by hand. (Do you remember card catalogs? The drawers were gorgeous, smelling of wood and paper and glue, and sliding so smoothly. And the cards themselves: soft and fluffy around the edges. Sigh.) My mother can add columns of figures at lightning speed and with perfect accuracy because she worked as a waitress when she was a teenager. Me, I can alphabetize.

The process of alphabetizing is fun, and the results are sometimes amusing. Although I don’t attribute feelings to most inanimate objects, I definitely do it with books. I can’t resist the thought that books are happy (or unhappy) about their neighbors. For example, Philip K. Dick has ended up next to Charles Dickens. The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is actually touching Bleak House. I love both of those books, don’t get me wrong, but they should not be touching each other. Another one, possibly even worse: C.S. Lewis side by side with H.P. Lovecraft? I’m sorry but that is just WRONG. Keep in mind, the current arrangement is still provisional since I haven’t yet consolidated all the fiction. However it is highly unlikely that anyone will come between Dick and Dickens, those very strange bedfellows.

Stay tuned for further episodes detailing this Operation. Nonfiction will be up next, bwahahahahahahaaaaa!