catch-up books

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Thursday, March 08, 2007
I am so behind with book things! These three are all from 2006. (edit: I should say I READ them all in 2006. They were published in 2003, 2005, and 2005 respectively.)

The Little Black Book of Stories by A.S. Byatt: I am a big fan of Byatt's short work. Some of my favorites are her fairy tales (particularly "Cold" from her Elementals collection; it's the one about the (literal) ice princess who marries a fire prince. It ends as happily as ever happens in an A.S. Byatt story, but not without difficulty. It's great -- read it if you haven't already.) I had the realization reading this collection that I generally prefer her stories which have some sort of mysterious or fable-like quality. The reason isn't just because she writes so well in that milieu, but because she writes so well and so convincingly about what absolute bastards human beings can be to each other in the so-called real world; it's uncomfortably raw without that fantastical buffer. Not that readers shouldn't be made uncomfortable, but... man. She's really good at it.

In this collection, I loved the first story The Thing in the Forest. Two little girls who have been evacuated to the country from Blitz-era London witness something nasty in the woodshed. Er, woods. Byatt is so adept with descriptive language -- this first example is from before the girls run across the Thing in the Forest: "They sniffed the air, which was full of a warm mushroom smell, and a damp moss smell, and a sap smell, and a distant hint of dead ashes." And here's a later, Thing-related description which seems very Alice in Wonderland to me: "A crunching, a crackling, a crushing, a heavy thumping, combined with threshing and thrashing, and added to that a gulphing, heaving, boiling, bursting steaming sound, full of bubbles and farts, piffs and explosions, swallowings and wallowings." She creates a palpable sense of dread, which turns out to be well-founded. I read this story in the fall, and it is perfectly suited to pre-halloween. (or any time you fancy some keen writing!)

The Stone Woman was creepy but moving; a story of unasked for but spectacular metamorphosis. Raw Material is about a writing class. It was funny to start, (which surprised me as it's not something I expect from Byatt),but it is, of course, so much more. A solid collection -- the other two stories were also good, but honestly they depressed the hell out of me.

The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers -- Vendela Vida, editor: So good -- even when I was completely at sea as to who these writers were (often), or what they wrote (even more often), the interviews are presented in such a way that it did not matter! I know it may sound like the longest drag in dragsville, but reading such a variety of writers talking about how they do what they do, or what they themselves like to read, or what inspires or obsesses them set off little cherry bombs in my brain. It's not only entertaining, but satisfying and edifying. It left me with a long list of things I want to read, and a short list of authors I was already looking at squinty-eyed and now feel free to avoid. This is a very easy book to just sort of dive into and read a little or a lot.

The Disappointment Artist by Jonathan Lethem

This is only the third book by Jonathan Lethem I've read. I know, I know -- not many, but at least they're varied and not all hunkered down at one end of his catalog:

Gun, With Occasional Music: Kangaroo Detective Noir
Motherless Brooklyn: Freaking Brilliant (autistic detective, but with a lot more heart than you get in a Kangaroo Noir novel)
ooh -- I also saw him read at Powell's from Fortress of Solitude, but have yet to read that novel.. (he's taller than I thought, and also more attractive than pictures would indicate. Or maybe he's just the kind of charismatic yet self-deprecating nerd who emits pheromones at my frequency.)

Now I can add The Disappointment Artist to the list. It's a book of personal essays, some of which are more personal than others. What I like about this collection is that he is completely unafraid to report qualities in himself that are unattractive. You know how it is... someone will write that they were picked on by bullies because they liked to read and were misunderstood. Lethem will write similar, but he also includes that he was a neurotic pain in the ass. There's a sort of aggressive honesty in a lot of these essays that I really responded to -- it's not that he's daring the reader to dislike him, he just seems to be interested in rendering the most accurate picture of the time, place, or situation and is willing to do what it takes to get there. Here's a little sample from the essay titled 13, 1977, 21
1. In the summer of 1977 I saw Star Wars--the original, which is all I want to discuss here--twenty-one times. Better to blurt this out at the start so I'm less tempted to retreat from what still seems to me a sort of raw, howling confession, one I've long hidden in shame. Again, to pin myself like a Nabokovian butterfly (no high-lit reference is going to bail me out here, I know) to my page in geek history: I watched Star Wars twenty-one times in the space of four months. I was that kid alone in the ticket line, slipping past the ushers who'd begun to recognize me, muttering in impatience at a urinal before finding my favorite seat. That was me, occult as a porn customer, yes, though I've sometimes denied it. Now, a quarter century later, I'm ready for my close up. Sort of.

It is funny and heartbreaking both, and not the only essay in the collection to be so.
16 comments on "catch-up books"
  1. Oh, Jen, I am putting all three books on my want list. They all sound like worthy reads, for sure. Though I love Byatt's novels, I haven't read any of her collections--thanks for the nudge! I'm surprised that I haven't heard of Jonathan Lethem before and intrigued by the OCD quality of that quote--curious if he reveals what motivated him to return again and again to Star Wars? I must to check that out. (Curiouser and curiouser, as Alice said.) As for the Writer essay collection--can't seem to stay away from those.

  2. OMG. Is my face red. With my usual forgetfulness I misremembered that Lethem is the author of The Ecstasy of Influence. Holy cow. Reading the bits about his books on Wikipedia was like a ride through a scifi fun house. What he gets up to!

  3. I'm glad you found something of interest, Patty! They were all three pretty great in their own way. (although I'd SWEAR that I have talked about the Byatt Elementals collection with you before, but maybe I'm hallucinating (always a possibility). You should check out Motherless Brooklyn, too -- I think you'd like it.

  4. I think I will be requesting the the writer essay collection hoo-ha. I need to read as much as I can in the next few weeks. Things that I choose to read. I mean once school is in session good luck finding time to pleasure read.

  5. Jen, you are so right--you did tell me about Elementals. I dropped the ball. From your description, I have been missing something, for sure.

  6. BBD, I think you'll recognize a certain someone from Wordstock in the Writers Talking To Writers book. heh heh heh.

    Patty, I don't see how you dropped the ball unless people not doing what I say is dropping the ball, in which case you are NOT ALONE and there is a whole universe of ball droppers out there. Just read it. (I think once you get it in your hands you'll go "oh, yeah! I already read this!")

  7. I am super excited to read this book. I was just talking about Wordtock today. I really wish it was next month as it should be, the bastards!

  8. I know! did you ever hear why they moved it? (and now that I think of it, there are TWO people we saw at Wordstock in this book. One good, one... less so.) I took my copy back to the library today, so someone should be getting it soon!

  9. My copy is in transit...maybe it was your copy? How cool would that be? Probably not all that cool but still sort of cool, I guess. I have no idea why they moved Wordstock and as annoying as it is, if the weather report I read today is true, I don't care all that much about Wordstock! I want sunshine!!!!

  10. Ooh -- if it is the copy from the Hollywood library, than it is the very one that I have had on my shelf for MONTHS. I hope you get that one, and I'm sorry I didn't leave you a note!

    I will ignore your Wordstock blasphemy, blashphemer! (I wouldn't mind some sun myself, though.)

  11. Which Wordstock writer should I be on the lookout for besides VV?

  12. I just looked and the book is from the Midland branch...oh well. Someone near Burnside and 122nd also has good taste. Who knew?

  13. BBD, here's a Wordstock writer hint: think tornados and hairshirts.

    I'm sure that the Midland copy has all the same words in it, at least! But it would have been funny if you'd gotten mine (which I had been able to renew five million times because nobody was asking for it, I guess. I had to take it back this time, which was fine because I am trying to get the number of things I have checked out from the library below 35.)

  14. Ugh. But what was that "awesome" womans name...I can not recall. Maybe some sort of self preservation or something? Also, i am unable to locate NPR on my dial. Where might one be able to find it? When is the next Live Wire? You are my connection to all things necessary...

  15. Answers:

    1. you'll recognize the name when you see it.
    2. 91.5 on your FM dial
    3. March 16th! Musical guests Kelly Joe Phelps and The Blow

  16. I don't recognize any of the names from Wordstock, excepting of course VV. At least now I know I "could" listen to NPR if I was so inclined, knowing where to look and all. Live Wire is tonight? That is not good! Maybe next time, and I can even walk to the Alladin, so that is nice...


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