Rapid Fire

April 23, 2010

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrow
Dial of Random House, 2008
Finished: Late March 2010
Source: Various blogs
Genre: historical fiction
On the Scales: lightweight

How much I loved it: 68%.  I didn’t know it was written by an American till the end, when the co-author credited some Brits for helping tidy the Americanisms out of the manuscript, then in retrospect I noticed some they’d missed.  So good-hearted, its twee-ness was easy to forgive.  Reminded me of mid-20th-century light British novels, the kind my great grandmother loved to read, then found out that my Granny read this recently and liked it.  So, good gift for a granny-aged person who remembers the war.  Made me understand a little better why some people who lived through that time were never able to get over hating Germans.

King of Shadows by Susan Cooper
Margaret K. MeElderry of Simon and Schuster, 1999
Finished: Late March, 2010
Source: Jenny’s Books
Genre: children’s historical fiction with time-travel device
On the Scales: lightweight.

How much I loved it: 50%, or as much as a warm bath and a fuzzy towel when you have the chicken pox in fourth grade, which, sadly, would have been the best time to read it.  I wouldn’t have liked it quite as much if I’d read it when I was a little older than that, even though I was a Shakespearean theater nerd, because it was too short, and I would have compared it to my then-favorite children’s historical novel Lark by Sally Watson, in which the 17th century political intrigue is more life-threatening, and the adventures rompier.

The Unlikely Disciple: a sinner’s semester at America’s holiest university by Kevin Roose
Grand Central Publishing, 2009
Finished: ?
Source: Jenny’s Books
Genre: Stunt journalism?  Anthropology?
On the Scales: middleweight

How much I wanted to squeeze this book’s earnest chipmunk cheeks and tell it to fight the good fight: 100%.  An undergrad wrote this amazingly balanced account of his year undercover at at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, delighting me with such expressions as “well-worn scientific canards” and “coltish paternalism.”  Liberal Christians should read The Unlikely Disciple if they want to know what “those kinds of Christians” are thinking.  Secular individuals who wonder how a certain branch of mainstream Christian culture (the most vocal and widely disturbing) sees itself should read it but they should not think it gives them a peek into Christian college life anywhere but Liberty University, or into Christian theology, because frankly Southern Baptists scare the crap out of everyone but Southern Baptists and maybe Pentacostals, who are way less scary, even when they are being slain in the spirit, though their music is worse.  Committed Atheists should read it if they can stand it.  But first you should all read Jenny’s fine review with its stimulating comments, because, as the graduate of a Christian college which did not in any way resemble Liberty University except for a few creepy sociological phenomena (the expression “ring by spring” was not unfamiliar to me) and which I nevertheless hated with a passion, I am quite unequal to the task of writing one.  I should probably just write my own book about Christian college, but then my family, who paid for a large part of my schooling, would have to disown me and there would be no-one to call me on my birthday, which come to think of it I actually loathe.  (Query: I’m no less scared of Southern Baptists after reading this book–is that because I’m a yankee?)

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
also heard part of audio CD version, narrated by Juanita McMahon
Riverhead of Penguin Puntnam, 2002
Finished: April 2, 2010
Source: Various blogs recommending Waters
Genre: historical fiction in Victorian style
On the Scales: welterweight

How much I loved it: 10%.  I had to skip a lot because of the combination of confinement, watertight conspiracy, and psychological abuse (presumably physical abuse as well, but those were the parts I skipped).  I abandoned the audio version because the reader’s dramatization was too perfect, it was flaying my nerves.  I thought could take it in print.  Nope.  I had to skip the whole asylum section in the second half of the book.  I didn’t see the mid-story plot twist coming at all.  Sarah Waters should write movies, and M. Night Shyamalan should direct them, and Ismail Merchant should produce them.  Oh shoot, he’s dead.  I’ll try her other books.

Empress of the World by Sara Ryan
Viking, 2001
Finished: April 4, 2010
Source: Bookgazing
Genre: YA same-sex hothouse romance and coming of age
On the Scales: featherweight

How much I loved it: not much, except for the fact that the protagonist was sincere and wanted to be an archeologist.  It read as though a self-satisfied teenager had written it, which one might argue is a realistic touch in a YA novel, but I think was just a matter of the author still being one, at heart: the kind of teenager, who, had I been at the same smart-kid summer camp, would surely have looked down on me because I used big words and wore two long braids and home-sewn clothing, assuming I was a sheltered homophobe and prude, giggled at me over lunch with her friends, and said “What are you looking at?” when I glanced at her girlfriend’s shaved head to admire it.

Rude Mechanicals by Kage Baker, festooned with barfy photoshop collages by J.K. Potter
Subterranean Press, 2007
Finished: April 5, 2010
Source: I’ll read anything by the author
Genre: time travel science fiction novella
On the Scales: lightweight

I read this book with an overwhelming sense of sadness and nostalgia because I’d just heard Kage Baker had died, and the story was a tribute to Hollywood as-was, where she grew up when it still had bungalows and touching trumped-up glitz and aging silent film stars, when famous German directors might be paid to stage monumental, doomed outdoor productions of Midsummer Nights Dream featuring clueless big-name actors, and when a hardworking cyborg could still get a drink in this town.

Queen Lucia by E.F. Benson
first published UK 1920, This edition Moyer Bell, 1998
Finished: April 6, 2010
Source: book blogs
Genre: social satire novel
On the Scales: middleweight

How much I loved it: 80% but I don’t know why, because LUCIA IS THE DEVIL AND RISEHOLME IS MY HELL–Riseholme, where the gossips trip across the Elizabethan green and local poets self-publish attractively bound books of verse at the village printer’s, while Lucia the one-woman cultural improvement committee sees to it that an antique set of stocks is purchased from a neighboring village to authenticate the ducking pond.  No mere “duck” pond for Riseholme.  (Riseholme = risible?)   Poor Georgie, I’d pegged him for a buffoon and then Benson turned him into a tragic, sweet capering Harlequin and got all incisive in the last half of the book, and the other characters became something more than just tortuously English stereotypes.  I’ve never been so puzzled and stimulated and repulsed by a piece of light fiction, all at the same time.  And nothing even happens, except Olga, the reality-foil, throwing them into disarray.

Tonoharu Part One, by Lars Martinson
Pliant Press, 2008
Finished: April 8, 2010
Source: husband’s library browsing
Genre: autobiographical graphic novel, first of multivolume set
On the Scales: ?
How much I loved it: 95%

Serially-released graphic novel about a dreamy procession of imported young American English-tutors in a provincial Japanese high school, culture shock, inertia, loneliness, and the weirdness of expatriate culture.  Spare and static.  Literally painful not to be able to go on immediately to the next volume!

Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers
read by Ian Carmichael
Originally published 1930, Chivers 1989, distributed BBC AudiobooksFinished April 10 or so, 2010
Source: Jenny’s Books, Nymeth’s and other blogs
Genre: mystery
On the Scales: middleweight

How much I loved it: 99%.  I’m a convert.  I have nothing to add to the great recent reviews, except that we saw the BBC television version from 1989 just a little before we listened to the book.  The BBC version was a pretty faithful word-for-word, scene by scene adaptation, so we knew everything that was going to happen, and Der Mann and I were still laughing aloud and completely enthralled by the audio.

La Perdida by Jessica Abel
Pantheon, 2006
Finished: April 18, 2010
Source: Nymeth’s blog
Genre: graphic novel
On the Scales: welterweight
How much I loved the visual storytelling: 90%
How much I loved the characters and setting: 0%
Overall love: 45%

I think this calls for a little doggerel, don’t you?

In Mexico City
The living is shitty
For an innocent expat.
Commie friends are a rat-trap.
Chicos and booze,
Her ideals confuse,
And she rips up her Frieda
Just when she needs her!

16 Responses to “Rapid Fire”

  1. Aarti said

    I like these short reviews! I think I am going to use a similar format to review some cookbooks I have. I am surprised by your reaction to Fingersmith, but I can understand it. I’m glad you found the Potato Peel Society sweet- I feel like that is on that “hype curve” (that I made up myself and is completely unscientific) where it is coming down from the completely gushy reviews to ones where people feel a tiny bit of “meh.”

    • trapunto said

      I’m interested in your hype curve, pseudoscience is my favorite! Do you think it’s completely organic, and the equation is just time plus Weltgeist or something. . . or is it in the way interact in blogs. Such as: my blogger-friend loved this, I read it, so by gum, it’s pretty lovable?

      I don’t read a huge number of book blogs, and haven’t been reading them (except for three) long enough to have caught the beginning of the curve on this book, but I did have a vague consciousness of someone intelligent having liked it–I know I read one review, and maybe followed the link to another.

      My description is probably more “meh” than I meant it to be. Time does that. While I was reading it I think I actually teared up in one place. After the disappointingly truncated ending and a month or so, there’s nothing for me to hold onto when I try to grasp it’s good and bad points.

  2. Jenny said

    Oo. Sorry King of Shadows wasn’t better for you! I read it fairly young which as you say undoubtedly makes a difference. But yay for Dorothy Sayers! She is so wonderful, and the Peter/Harriet books only get better. They crack me up in Have His Carcase.

    • trapunto said

      Yes, I’m looking forward to that. I’m so disappointed our library doesn’t have it in audio like Strong Poison, because he really was a first-class reader for the characters.

  3. In the vein of recent ‘this is a little too close to me please back up a bit I don’t like this closeness’ kind of books being reviewed back and forth, here, I really found your review of Fingersmith interesting. I had almost the POLAR OPPOSITE reaction, in that (really terrible admission inserted here) I found the worst parts of it kind of comforting. Which I know is completely, and utterly wrong, and which, after initially finishing it and gushing over it, really has kind of haunted me ever since. I don’t mean to say I just felt great about hearing about *insert nastiness of choice here* by any means. But… I don’t know. I don’t know why, I guess that’s why it bothers me. Maybe it’s because it’s nice to feel like two people who were royally screwed up by the people around them could, despite continuing to be screwed right through the narrative, eventually construct their own unscrewedness. Maybe it’s because it felt good to see the evil banalized, made human and approachable and not evil-god-like. The villains in the book, after all, are really just garden variety nasty, not Adolf hitler soulless machines of wickedness, and it makes you realize that the little wrongs that come up aren’t these insurmountable walls of of distant, divine hatred, kind of feeling. Maybe it’s just voyeuristic, I Guess that’s what worries me.

    • trapunto said

      I must read your gush. I understand how those parts could be comforting. My granny keeps an ancient copy of Foxes Book of Martyrs on hand to cheer her up when she’s depressed. (Which, if you knew her, would strike you as hilariously as it does me.)

      As for Fingersmith, an integrated experience, you could say I didn’t really read the book at all. I don’t even know what’s in the terrible parts because of the skipping, so maybe the would have actually made the whole book more bearable?

      If I’d started it in print rather than in audio, I might have had stronger nerves. I *met* all the characters in McMahon’s interpretation of them, and she is a phenomenal voice actor. Really, the difference was as great as the difference between seeing Hamlet on stage and reading him on paper. Or, the whole CAST plus PRODUCTION of hamlet on stage vs paper.

      I will say its a peculiarity of mine that human, approachable evil (when its realistically portrayed) scares me more than the soulless machines of wickedness.

  4. Jeanne said

    Love the image of you wanting to squeeze a book’s “earnest chipmunk cheeks”! I’m interested in that one, but not sure of my tolerance for reading it anytime soon.

    I’m going to read some more Waters, but I think I won’t start with Fingersmith.

    • trapunto said

      Ah, but that was the beauty of the The Unlikely Disciple. I started it out saying, AGGH! AGGH! I can’t stand this! And then I realized I was standing it just fine. And THEN I realized I couldn’t put it down. I tells you the worst, but somehow humanizes it without softening or trivializing it. I think I was saying to Jenny that nobody but a precocious college student could have written such a book; he had just the right kind of open mind and agendaless innocence to turn what was an essentially devious enterprise into a boundary-breaking one. I loved it when he had his gay friend from Brown to visit for the weekend.

  5. Jodie said

    Oh no I’m sorry you didn’t like ‘Empress of the World’. I hate when I recommend something and it doesn’t work out for people, but it can’t always be love between girl and book.

    I read a review of a similar book to Kevin Roose’s and they both sound fascinating, but like Jeanne I’m not sure my patience would hold out (I suspect I would end up shouting at the book and no one really needs any more evidence for how crazy I am).

    • trapunto said

      I have a secret: I like reading books I don’t like. Otherwise I wouldn’t finish them!

      Also, I like seeing new variations in gay teen fiction, much as you pointed out in your review.

  6. zibilee said

    Love the short review format as well! You have such a way with words! I do have a copy of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, but have not yet read it. It seems that pretty much everyone loves it though, so I will have to give it a go soon. I also have a whole set of the Lucia books, and just love them. I am glad you enjoyed the first book. I really want to read Strong Poison, and your comments on it have pushed me into wanting a copy as soon as possible. Also, Tonoharu sounds like something I would really like as well.

    • trapunto said

      The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is just right when you want to be compelled to read a book in a single sitting, and think dreamily about history, and eat snacks.

      There’s definitely more Lucia and Tonoharu in my future.

  7. Jenny said

    Oh, and I forgot to say this other thing also! About Southern Baptists, whether they scare you because you are a Yankee: Yes and no. I said on my blog that unscripted church services freak me out, which is true; and it’s also true that I am freaked out by the monolith of Southern Baptists. But on an individual, church-to-church basis, Southern Baptists can be some of absolutely the loveliest, kindest, most generous people.

    Example: In my senior year of college, I lived with a devoutly Muslim French exchange student and a devoutly Christian girl who attended a church that was not Southern Baptist but was definitely of the same ilk (tongues, slain in the Spirit, etc.). The French girl, Marie, was curious about black churches in the South, so the Christian girl, Crystal, took her to her church one week, and told the minister (pastor?) that her Muslim French friend was with her that week. And everyone was incredibly welcoming to Marie, just really pleased to have her. They all wanted to know how she liked America, how she liked Louisiana, was she traveling, didn’t she miss her family, did she want to come to their crawfish boil later on in the year – and like that. Nobody tried to convert her at all. I disagreed with a lot of what Crystal believed, but I know that if Marie had come to my church, she wouldn’t have had anything like that kind of a welcome.

    Also? Southern Baptist churches frequently set up outside and sell jambalaya in the summer, and I am mad about jambalaya. So that’s another point in their favor that is lost on you Yankees. 😛

    (Oh God I am craving jambalaya so bad right now.)

    • trapunto said

      I heard about the jambalaya thing from Der Mann, who had heard about it on NPR, but then I forgot about it. It just sounded too good to be true!

      I suppose Northern equivalent is Lion’s Club or Shriner’s Saturday community pancake breakfasts, which are just tragic by comparison, and I suppose they will die out with the Lion’s Club and the Shriners.

      I will be sad when there are no more Shriners, but I will not miss their pancakes.

      I think some kinds of religion confer a particular self-assuredness that results in shining kindness and generosity. We have Southern Baptists up here, but not so many, and no yummy food unless you go their potlucks. Sometimes they come evangelizing door to door. I say I am an Episcopalian even though it is not strictly true. So useful, as a universal shorthand for a hopeless case. I tell LDS boys I am a born-again Christian.

  8. Vasilly said

    Since you and Nymeth seem to like Dorothy Sayers so much, I know I need to pick up one of her books to read.

  9. villanegativa.wordpress.com’s done it once more. Great article.

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