Friday, February 24, 2017

The African Svelte

The African Svelte: ingenious misspellings that make surprising sense / Daniel Menaker, 252 pgs.

A collection of unintentional mistakes, some of which make a lot of sense.  As a person with poor spelling and editing skills, some of these are probably mistakes I've made or seemed just fine when I looked at them.  However, there are some very funny examples here too. Lucky I'm able to "eek out a living" without having to be an editor or as "a last-stitch effort" I would be reduced to busking.

The illustrations by Roz Chast are wonderful.  I only with there were more of them.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Difficult Women

Difficult Women / Roxane Gay, 260 pgs.

A collection of short stories by Roxane Gay, author of Bad Feminist, which was a collection of essays.  I have also read one of Gay's fiction books and I will probably read even more of her writing as it becomes available.  Why?  Because Roxane has a lot to say!  The stories in this book focus on women and their relationships to men.  Many are sexual in nature but not all.  They tell a lot of different stories. Some of the women are VERY damaged.  Some are in odd situations or their circumstances have recently changed to something unfamiliar.  Pretty much all of them are thinkers, coping with life "stuff" and trying to survive in a world that is trying to knock them down.  Some of the stories are a bit too depressing for me.  Some are just perfect.  One of my favorites tells of the woman who is fine with her husband wanting an "open marriage." She herself has no interest in engaging with other partners but she thinks he should do so if it will make him happy.  As the story goes, we find out that "he has no game," the wife is unconcerned because she believes he will not be able to follow through and find another woman.  Although the title doesn't describe all of the women in these stories, it does provide insight into most.

I Shot the Buddha

I Shot the Buddha by Colin Cotterill  342 pp.

This is the most recent book in the Dr. Siri Paiboun series. The 79 year old retired state coroner of Laos and his wife Madame Daeng are once again involved in solving mysterious murders, suspect spiritualists, and a missing monk. Dr. Siri is learning more ways to use the power of the resident spirit who inhabits his body while enjoying the process. The trail of the murderer leads Siri and Daeng across the Mekhong River into Thailand to capture the killer. Meanwhile Siri's friend Civilai investigates a phony reincarnation of Buddha and Inspector Phosey takes violent revenge on the man who nearly killed him. This installment in the series has crossed into more magical realism than the rest of the series. Now I have to wait for the author to finish another episode in the life of Dr. Siri Paiboun.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Black Wave

Black Wave / Michelle Tea, 326 pgs.

In the first part of the book, our protagonist spends about all of her time drunk, high, or having sex with someone that isn't her girlfriend.  To say this lifestyle is a mess isn't giving it enough credit.  The second half of the book, everyone is awaiting the end of the world which has been announced to be coming in one year.  Oddly, the ending leaves our subject feeling a bit hopeful.  Like now is the time to make a difference, finish her book and live happily in the book store that was given to her by her former bosses.

I have to say, the juxtaposition of a character living a supremely self destructive life, finally kind of getting it together at the end of the world is a fun read.  There is a lot of humor and many upbeat ideas included in a book that is very dark.

Th1rteen R3asons Why

Th1rteen R3asons Why by Jay Asher  288 pp.

This is another of the Great Stories Club books I will be discussing at the alternative school. Clay Jensen, a high school student is delivered a box of cassette tapes recorded by his classmate and crush, Hannah Baker, just before she committed suicide. The tapes are a chronicle of events in her life and the classmates involved that led to her decision to take her own life. The instructions are to listen to the tapes and then pass them along to the next person featured in the tapes. Clay doesn't want to listen to them but is compelled by what he hears, spending an entire night listening and visiting the locations of the different places Hannah was victimized by her classmates. Beginning with her arrival at a new school, the story is about mistaken perceptions that arise when teens are indifferent, malicious, or just plain cruel to each other. This is heavy stuff and not a pleasant read but you are left hoping the worst of the lot is punished and the others can get on with their lives, forever changed. This book has been turned into a series on Netflix which I'm not sure I want to watch.

It's Kind of a Funny Story

It's Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini  444 pp.

This is one of the books for the Great Stories Club grant I will be discussing with teens at the local alternative school. Vizzini wrote the story of 15 year old Craig after spending time in a mental hospital following a suicidal episode. Craig is a bright teen who has worked hard to get into an elite high school but discovers he is not quite good enough--at least in his way of thinking. He spirals into a depression which makes school work impossible and even affects his eating. After he calls a suicide hotline he checks himself into a local hospital. The second half of the book chronicles his five day stay in the hospital, the different patients he encounters, and the process he goes through while trying to conquer what he calls "tentacles" which seem to be controlling his life. In spite of the subject matter this is an enjoyable book with interesting characters and situations that are very real. Sadly, Vizzini, who was a promising young author, took his own life at age 32. This book was made into a film in 2010.

Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas

Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas by Tom Robbins  386 pp.

I generally like Tom Robbins' books but this one just didn't grab me. I don't know if it was the plot, the characters, or that it was written in the second person or all those things combined that made it a poor representation of his work. A stock market crash puts Gwen, a broker, in fear of losing her job. While the angst about that is going on, her boyfriend Belford's "born again" pet monkey has escaped and is on the loose in Seattle. Belford is worried more about the monkey than Gwen's crisis. Gwen hooks up with a former broker by the name of Larry Diamond who is a confusing mixture of spiritual guru and shady character. Diamand is hoping the frequently inebriated Dr. Yamaguchi's claimed cancer cure can save him and maybe revive the stock market. Gwen's friend and neighbor, the 300 lb. psychic tarot reader Q-Jo Huffington has gone missing. The story is convoluted, as Robbins' novels usually are, but never finds a groove to settle in. Disappointing.

I am Malala

I am Malala by Malala Yousafzai, 327 pages

At the age of 15, Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman, targeted because she and her father had become outspoken proponents of education rights for girls in her home country of Pakistan. I am Malala is her story of growing up in the Swat Valley of Pakistan, of fighting for what she believes in despite the threat of violence, of becoming a world-renowned champion for her cause despite her age and gender.

While the world Malala describes is fraught with violence, fear, and judgement (by different factions of Muslims, as well as by non-Muslims), the overlying message of her memoir is one of peace, of love, of acceptance, and above all, of the importance of education. This is a wonderful, inspiring book, and should be required reading in this day and age.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Barkskins, by Annie Proulx



Two indentured servants from France, Rene Sel and Charles Duquet (later anglicized to “Duke”), arrive in New France, as Canada was known at the end of the seventeenth century.  They and their descendants proceed to quite literally hack their way through the forests primeval of North America, even jumping across the ocean to devastate an area of New Zealand, until the woods are pretty much all gone.  Of course, in 712 pages, much more happens, but an awful lot of it involves axes, then later saws and heavy machinery, as the great trees are removed for masts and other lumber and the lesser trees are simply burned in the remaining stump land to clear it for agriculture.  There always seems to be yet another rich forest to plunder just over the horizon.  The resident Native Americans are collateral damage, but also become part of the Sel and Duke lineages as the centuries go by.  Proulx develops her large cast of characters with great skill and she is, as always, a wonderful storyteller.  However, this is primarily a devastating indictment of the despoliation of the environment and native peoples of the New World.  There’s a tiny light at the end of the book, when the last generation of these intertwined families turn their work towards repairing the damage if it isn’t too late.  Bleak.  712 pp.

The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead



Winner of this year’s National Book Award, this novel imagines the “underground railroad” as an actual subterranean railway, not just a series of safe houses on the way north to freedom.  The author uses this physical train to take his characters, primarily the runaway slave, Cora, from station to station, each illustrating an aspect of white America’s mistreatment of African Americans since they first were brought here as slaves.  There’s life on a cotton plantation.  There’s exploitation as living displays behind glass in dioramas illustrating various savage customs.  There are references to forced sterilization and medical experimentation.  It’s all here and pretty overwhelmingly depressing.  It’s an important book.  I can’t say I “enjoyed” it or found the writing particularly inspired, but it should be read for the message if not the grace of its prose.  320 pp.