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!

I used to be a night person.  Now that I’m no longer a night person or a morning person, it takes a special kind of book to end up on my bedside table.  I drop off to sleep instantaneously; that’s not the issue.  My bedside book has to be something good enough that I can put it down without feeling I’ve devoted the last few minutes of my day to something pointless or cheesy, but not so good I’m tempted to keep the light on because I can’t find a stopping place, while Der Mann (who gets up early to catch a bus) flops in increasing half-asleep irritation. Plus, when I read too long after Der Mann’s sleepy-time my hands and forearms get cold from holding up the book, and sometimes I can’t warm them up again.  Fifteen minutes to a half hour is usually about right.  If I’ve got a book I literally can’t put down I just get up and read in a chair.  Social satire is good, but not too cringey.  Period drama, but not too weighty.

Well, last night I made a terrible terrible mistake when I selected my reading options.  I took one of these.  I don’t even want to write its title, because that could turn into an unintentional advertisement.  From now on I have sworn off Rick Geary.

Geary wrote a non-fiction comics in a series known as A Treasury of Victorian Murder, and now he is writing about early 20th century crimes as well.  About twelve years ago I found The Borden Tragedy in general nonfiction at a public library.  It was probably the first edition; crude printing, small publisher–I assumed it was somebody’s little moneymaking scheme, the kind of thing you might find for sale at a tourist bureau in Fall River.  Back then the only graphic novel I’d seen was Maus.  Epic and serious.  So I barely knew what to make of this.

But I read it, and it stuck with me.  Geary was reporterly–even humane–in his treatment of a gristly crime of passion.  The distance in time from the events, combined with the objectifying effect of comics in general and of Geary’s reductive-yet-detailed drawing style in particular, was compelling.  I avoid horror and true crime books, so this was the closest my reading would get to any kind of real-life-type murderers; coming this far was kind of interesting.  Hopeful, even.  Geary presents his disasters with the accompaniment of a careful diagram, defused of their explosive craziness, so that you can examine them.  He doesn’t obtrude his own personality or emotions on his narratives; both in his pictures and in the tone of his text he steers clear of spatter in favor of the slightly smarmy tone of contemporary newspaper accounts (perhaps directly quoting from them) and traditionally composed panels that owe a lot to old photographs and postcards.  It sounds weird to say so, but I felt like I was learning and being diverted at the same time–the same feeling I get at a really good museum exhibit.

I didn’t know the Borden tragedy was part of a series until just a few weeks ago.  Then I read Famous Players (the 1922 murder of director William Desmond Taylor in Hollywood) and The Fatal Bullet (the assassination of James Garfield).

By the time I realized how much more disturbing last night’s little book was going to be than the other three, it would have been worse NOT to finish it than to find out what happened.

Another thing I’d liked about Geary’s comics was the intentional variety.  Although his drawing style and pacing is very consistent, each comic had a little unique device in the telling, an emphasis, that made you feel like you were entering a separate miniature world from the last.  The emphasis in the one I read last night wasn’t the murderer’s character, because he was a cipher, but the the repetitive, frenetic, a-logical series of events he generated.  His constant scurrying, like an insect.  The fact that, like an insect, he was able to perpetrate so much disgusting awfulness completely disregarded and completely unchecked.

I like to think about times when everything was messier and on a more human scale.  It comforts me to remember how recent they were.  In The Fatal Bullet I enjoyed the atmosphere of late 19th century Washington D.C., with the president strolling out of the White House by himself after dinner and walking a few blocks to visit a friend!  In Famous Players, I was impressed that just 90 years ago a Hollywood director like William Desmond Taylor was living in a normal courtyard bungalow, where an actress in a neighboring unit usually spent her evenings knitting.  The book I read last night offered no little socio-historical compensations for the murderer’s mess.  The events took place in a time modern enough that a clearly screwy fellow couldn’t be kept in line by the watchful eyes of his community–this one had no community, just business associates and incurious suburban neighbors–but not modern enough that there were official structures to take the community’s place as watchdog.

Seeing all the ways he might have been caught if anyone was paying attention gave the whole thing a fatalistic  feeling which only got worse, and worse, and worse.  You know a book’s not doing you good when the only bright spot is an incident of arson.

When I had finished it–and it didn’t take long–I put it down with a feeling that it was physically tainted.  I’m not generally subject to the horrors, or even persistent unwanted thoughts, but last night took me back to early childhood.  My sense of hearing was heightened, and the caterwauling cats, distant coyotes, squirrels working to get into the eaves, and animals going thump as they jumped onto the porch gave me plenty to listen to.  There was also the dread of opening the door on the dark bathroom–the shadowy no man’s land behind the tub.  It occurred to me for the very first time in the year we’ve lived here that Something Bad might easily have happened in a 97-year-old house.  Even in a 97-year-old house with a crappy down-to-the-studs remodel, that wasn’t even built as a house. “The Creamery Murders of 1918” perhaps?  Eh.  Better not go there.

In the process of not going there, I lay perfectly still on my back and my side and my other side like a slow rotisserie.  My shoulder muscle went into spasm.  Every thought went foggily back to something from the book.  It seemed to last all night.  No bad dreams, thankfully, because I never dropped off that far.  I didn’t feel personally threatened, just nauseated that there was such evil in the world.  It seemed that it would have spilled over into everything it came near.

Now I’m angry.  Not at Geary: Geary’s just doing what he always does.  It’s a lot better than what true crime writers are doing.  I suppose I’m angry at the murderer, who used his creative energies for destruction.  The fact that he was caught and punished means nothing because it undid nothing he’d done.  I wanted him never to have existed.

That made me think of eugenics.  The whole notion of eugenics is repellent, but I am wondering if its popularity in the early 20th century may have something to do with that crack between pre-modern and modern social structures–when the moral cockroaches first started venturing out of the woodwork without fear, before we stood around with our cans of Raid, expecting them.  Resigned to them.

The best I can do is not read about them.  I need my sleep.

Is there a book you wish you could unread?