Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Completed: Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England

Kelly,

I'll give a brief synopsis of the book first. The main character, Sam Pulsifer has just been released from prison at 28. As a teenager, he "accidentally" set fire to Emily Dickinson's home and didn't realize there were people upstairs. They died in the fire and he spends 10 years in prison. Upon his release, he meets a woman and marries her, but doesn't reveal his past (apparently Google doesn't exist in this book?). The novel follows the unraveling of his life as other writers' homes in New England start to burn down.

I actually enjoyed this novel more than I thought I would, but for a strange reason. Allow me to explain. And it's going to take a little bit of backstory, and there are 3 important parts that will eventually lead up to me talking about the actual book.

1. Last week was my first English department meeting of the new school year, and I always enjoy catching up with the other readers in my department. (It's sort of cheap shorthand, but there are more writers than readers in our department. I tend to have more in common with the readers than the writers.) Brandon and I were talking about a book we both loved, Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. One of the things we discussed was audience: who is the author writing the book for? In the case of BtWaM, we agreed that Coates is writing for a black audience. White folks might read the book, but he's not writing it for them or to them. We also talked about how this was the author's intention: he knows who he's writing for. He's not dumbing anything down for a white audience. He's not explaining the basics. It's important to note that the author's intention is congruent with the outcome---he knows what he's doing.

2. I then mentioned Long Division, and how I thought one of the most powerful scenes in the book is also about audience. Remember when City visits the local library and thinks, "But the Bible was better than those other spinach-colored Classic books that spent most of their time flossing with long sentences about pastures and fake sunsets and white dudes named Spencer. I didn’t hate on spinach, fake sunsets, or white dudes named Spencer, but you could just tell that whoever wrote the sentences in those books never imagined they’d be read by Grandma, Uncle Relle, LaVander Peeler, my cousins, or anyone I’d ever met." In this scene, we have a character reflecting on the fact that he has no choice but to read books for which he is not the intended audience. But there are no other options: no one writes books about people like him, and no one writes books for people like him. What's also implied is the intended audience for books about white dudes named Spencer is that they would never have to read books about City, Melahatchie MS, or any of the struggles or triumphs these characters experience. [Hence, the We Need Diverse Books campaign.]

3. Brandon then said something Very Interesting. The kind of Interesting where something starts working differently in your brain. I LOVE it when that happens. 

He talked about Jonathan Franzen--that dickhead has a new book coming out this week--and Brandon said (I'm paraphrasing): I feel that way when I'm reading some white male authors, like Franzen. That world he describes is so foreign to me. But the thing that's interesting is that I don't even think Franzen knows he's describing a white world." This is the unspoken implication of point #2 above: If all you ever read are books about white dudes named Spencer, if all the media you consume is with white men (like most movies), if you are surrounded by only white people...do you even know what you're writing is predominantly about white culture? I think it's pretty safe to say that Franzen absolutely does not. 

But it also helped me understand why I was slightly more forgiving of AGtWHiNE [hilarious acronym], because this question: Does the author know he's writing a WMFUN? This was at least a mildly interesting way to interrogate this book as I was reading it.

Pretty early in the book, before the conversation with Brandon,  I had noted the following passage. Sam was in a bookstore and making fun of memoirs (Ha! I enjoyed that!) and as he's browsing the bookshelves, he said, "I passed through the fiction section. I felt sorry for it immediately: it was so small, so neglected and poorly shelved, and I nearly bought a novel out of pity, but the only thing that caught my eye was something titled The Ordinary White Boy. I plucked it off the shelf. After all, I'd been an ordinary white boy once, before the killing and burning, and maybe I could be one again someday, and maybe this book could help me do it, even it if was a novel and not useful, generically speaking. On the back it said the author was a newspaper reporter from update New York. I opened the novel, which began, 'I was working as a newspaper reporter in upstate New York,' and then I closed the book and put it back on the fiction shelf, which maybe wasn't all that different from the memoir shelf after all, and I decided never again to feel sorry for the fiction section, the way you stopped feeling sorry for Lithuania once it rolled over so easily and started speaking Russian so soon after being annexed" (88).

I remember stopping and thinking that something interesting was going on there. This was a WMFUN that seemed to be admitting what it was right off the bat! How refreshing! It wasn't until my conversation with Brandon that I realized why the passage about struck me as so different. One of the reason I'm so annoyed by most WMFUNs is that they don't even know what they're doing. The author's intention is to write "Literature", but instead they're writing WMFUNs. And because they are men, they get away with it! The literary establishment fawns all over them. But when women write books like this, they are "chick lit." If a woman wrote AGtWHiNE, I bet it would have been classified as YA. 

And, really, it's lucky that I had this conversation while reading this book. Honestly, it really did make the entire thing more bearable. As it was, the book is sort of stupid and messy. The author crafts some nice sentences and is an acute observer of human behavior. There were several passages I marked because they were so true and real. For example, Sam says, "Sometimes when you're sad...you have to sit around and wait for your sadness to turn into something else, which it surely will, sadness in this way being like coal or most sorts of larvae" (164). I thought this was an interesting analogy---how much of our other feelings are fueled by the coal of sadness? Quite a lot, is my guess. 

Or here's another observation that feels really true, at least to me: "I'd never been on vacation myself, not really, and now I know why people did it. People went on vacation not to get a break from their home but to imagine getting a new home, a better home, in which they'd live a better life" (190). This is totally me! We don't go on all that many vacations, but every time we do, I like to imagine my life in that place. I'm always a more exciting and fun person on vacation. 

However, these perfect little sentences were not enough to make this a truly enjoyable book. In the classic way of these WMFUNs, Sam is a self-identified bumbler. He does dumb, inexplicable things and it's not even all that clear what the book is trying to achieve. Ultimately, the real story is about his return to his family of origin. But the relationship with his parents is unsatisfying and unbelievable. The characterization just seemed weak, and I didn't care all that much about any of them. Most annoyingly, it has a SUPER DRAMATIC ending, which it frankly doesn't earn and just feels silly. 

I would say that the book deserves credit for knowing what it is and acknowledging that; but it's not a book I enjoyed reading. 

Jenny


Friday, August 21, 2015

Jenny's 9:15: An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England

Kelly,

The thing that amazes me most about this book is the fact that there's a plural possessive right there in the title! I bet the author *really* had to fight to keep that one. This is like the holy grail in my life as a teacher: kids who know how to make a plural possessive.

Okay, moving along. I borrowed this book from a co-worker over a year ago, right before Janine's wedding. We were talking about how the wedding was going to be at Edith Wharton's home, The Mount.  The co-worker (guilty admission: he has since left my school and works somewhere else. Should I mail the book back to him when I finish it?) said that I should read this book and handed me his copy.

The original intent was to read locally, an activity I do find tremendously enjoyable. However, it was just too busy of a wedding weekend for me to actually read this one. So, here I am, 14 months later, thinking now is the time. I know I'm ahead, but since I start school next week and I'm taking 2 classes this quarter, I would love to get ahead.

I literally know *nothing* about this book! I vaguely remember reading a review of it, but I'm pretty much going into this cold. Whee! Living on the edge!

This post brought to you courtesy of exclamation marks,
Jenny

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Completed: Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Incident, and the Illusion of Safety

Kelly,

Looking up from inside a silo.
I'm going to split my review into 2 parts here, the first about the content and the second about the structure.

The Content

This book is sort of cheerfully terrifying. I don't know how else to explain it---basically, since WW2, the world has been manufacturing nuclear weapons at a truly alarming rate, and we've simultaneously done a pretty terrible job of monitoring them carefully. The phrase command and control refers to the chain of command by which nuclear weapons would, should, or could be deployed; and control refers to their safety at all points along the way. At it's most basic level, I'd say the thesis of this book is something along the lines of: Do you have any idea how fucking lucky we are that one of these weapons hasn't been fired accidentally? Well, pretty fucking lucky is the answer. 

I learned a lot of super interesting stuff about what happened to the nuclear program after the end of the Manhattan project and the dropping of the bombs in Japan. I won't go too much into it, but basically, the whole thing is too fucking bananapants irresponsible to be believed, not to mention the absolutely massive cost of these programs. It's hard not to read this and think, you spent *how much* on these weapons and you can't invest in our fucking schools? The description of the military's infighting for control of nuclear weapons and the dollars that accompanied those weapons is jaw-dropping and craven. Our own plans to blow the Soviet Union to smithereens can best be described as pathological.

A titan II in the silo.
 Charmingly [JK], the military uses the following Native American phrases to describe levels of  nuclear weapon accidents (as opposed to reactors, which get a completely different rating scale). A bent spear is an incident involving nuclear weapons, warheads, or vehicles transporting nuclear materials that are of significant interest. These are usually breaches in protocol or handling. On the other hand, a broken arrow is an accidental event that involves nuclear weapons or warheads, but that doesn't create the threat of nuclear war.

These suckers are BIG.
About a third of the book describes the most recent significant broken arrow event, the explosion of a Titan II missile at a silo in Arkansas. One morning in September of 1980, a mechanic working on the missile dropped a socket wrench (a big one--weighing over 25 pounds) into the silo. The wrench pierced the side of the missile, and eventually a super dangerous and highly flammable chemical called an oxidizer caused the missile to explode out of the silo. It was really only pure luck that the nuclear warhead it was carrying didn't explode in the middle of the Arkansas countryside.

To sum up: pretty fucking amazing we have all these super dangerous weapons laying around *all over the world* and one hasn't gone off yet. Gee, wonder how long our luck will last?

The Structure
I read a lot of non-fiction books, and I realize and accept it lends a richness and complexity to tell more than one story at a time. A good example is the one volume history of the Civil War called Battle Cry of Freedom. The book tells both the military and the political history of the war, and it has a very simple structure: the chapters go back and forth between battlefield and government, moving forward in chronological time.

However, I'm coming to really effing hate a common organizational trope of narrative non-fiction: interweaving or braiding related stories together to form the main narrative. I first identified this trend in my reading way back in 2011  right here on our blog!

Let me tell you a little how it worked out with this book, which runs about 485 pages, split up into 4 sections and 20 chapters. What I'll call the A plot, which is clearly the main "story" the author wants to tell is that of the Damascus Incident. He starts the book with the "Oh, Shit! I dropped the wrench" story, and it's what he keeps coming back to, but in actuality, the retelling of that story is only about 125 pages, maybe a quarter of the book.

It's almost easier to make my point by showing you the Table of Contents:


The chapters with check-marks are the ones that tell the story of the Damascus incident, the explosion of the missile in the silo. It starts out making sense: every other chapter tells the Damascus story, and the other chapters tell the story of our nuclear weapons history. But then, in that middle 200 pages, it all goes south. All of a sudden, there's way more "history" story than "Damascus" story.

I guess it's sort of a chicken and egg problem, because by that point, it's really unclear which plot is serving the other:
A) Is the author using the Damascus story to illustrate the command and control dangers?
B) Or show how command and control problems led to the Damascus incident and potentially leaves the door open for even more terrifying incidents in the future?

By the end, it's pretty clear that his intention was to do B, but the organizational set-up is for A. I think it's a failure of the text, and one that is completely self-inflicted. It has real consequences for the reader. There's a lot of jumping back and forth, a massive cast of characters, and complex military jargon. I had to constantly remind myself of people, events, and timelines from previous chapters. There's a cast of characters and a list of acronyms in the beginning, but it really didn't help my feeling of annoyance. Even the historical chapters fuck around with the timeline, at one point backtracking from Jimmy Carter's administration back to Eisenhower's. It's just sort of maddening. It doesn't actually add anything to the text, and instead creates a sneaking suspicion that the author had a bunch of great research and interviews about the Damascus incident that he just couldn't condense down to a New Yorker article.

This is not just a problem with this book. I had the exact same suspicions in another book I read this year about surfing the Cortes Bank, which really a book about the history of surfing with extra chapters about the Cortes Bank. I guess my instinct is to be sympathetic to the authors, even though I'm expressing frustration. Clearly they have a ton of research and are looking for the way to tie it all together into a compelling book. I'm left wondering when it was that chronological order of historical events fell out of fashion as a way to accomplish this task?

It seems likely that this is a special problem with narrative non-fiction. Obviously, the author wants to TELL A STORY that illustrates the point. But what to do when that story doesn't quite balance out to the history behind the story? Well, I guess you get books like this.

Jenny

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Joint Book #3: The Night Manager

This is not the version I have.
I just like tigers.
Dear Jenny,

We chose this book back in the comments of this post when we decided to do four shared books this year -- this is our third (the others were The Sandman #1-20 and On Beauty). I diverted from our normal numbering scheme because I have not quite finished my #6 (finally fell behind with Roald Dahl) and you're on #8. So I've called it "Joint Book #3," as you can see.

So... why this book? Well, my grandfather was a big reader. Like... stacks of books all over the house, all the time (sound familiar?) I never saw him without a book tucked under his arm or by his side. He read all kinds of books (as you'll recall, Tess was one of his favorites) but he loved the spy/thriller/mystery genre most of all... and John le Carré was at the top of that list. This is not a genre I usually (or ever) read, but since it was on that original Top 100 list, this has gotta be one of the good ones.

It's set in 1991, which means... pre-easy-access-Internet and pre-mobile-phones-everywhere. I look forward to how they perform their spy antics without those forms of communication!

Discussion Schedule

Here's our schedule for reading and discussing the book -- the first three are Skype dates and the final one is in person. (Yay!)
  • July 24: Chapters 1-8
  • July 31: Chapters 9-16
  • Aug 7 (maybe push to Monday, Aug 10? We'll talk.): Chapters 17-24
  • Aug 14: Chapters 25-31  
So we'll chat about the first 8 chapters this Friday. 

Some Random Facts

"John le Carré" is a pen name. Before becoming an author, he worked for British Intelligence and The Night Manager was his first "post-Cold War" novel. He's got a pretty terrific "About" page on his site -- check it out.

The Night Manager going to be made into a miniseries in 2016. It got green lit in January 2015, so I'm pretty sure they saw it on our blog and thought it was a good idea -- why else would they dig up a 22 year old book to make into a new miniseries, right? Heh.

This might explain why you were unable to find a copy of it -- they're probably phasing out old versions and will soon be selling new ones with the actors on the cover (doesn't explain the lack of Kindle version, though...)

Speaking of the cover -- I wish I had the tiger version pictured above. But mine looks like this.

All right! Let's get reading -- are you a regular spy novel reader? I think this is my very first!

love,
kelly




Sunday, June 28, 2015

Jenny's 7.15: Command and Control

Kelly,

I know we have The Night Manager on deck for July, but I ended up feeling a little panicked about the back half of the year. As it turns out, I'm going to have to take 2 classes in the fall quarter, and I thought if I could maybe be ahead of the game, it would be better.

The first week of summer vacation, I read a bunch of books---along with The Shining Girls, I read at least 4 or 5 others. SO SATISFYING. One of the books I read was called Voices from Chernobyl, which is an oral history of those who survived the disaster. Um. Harrowing. But, it also reminded me that I have another nuclear book on this year's list, Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Incident, and the Illusion of Safety by Eric Schlosser. I was also reminded of this book when I read another nuclear-themed article in the New Yorker by the same author.

I had picked this up in March and read the first 30 pages, but then the rest of the school year happened and I just never got back to it.

I've read about 150 pages so far, it's very readable and fascinating. I hope to finish it this week before starting The Night Manager. 

Any ideas about our plan to tackle that one?
Jenny

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Completed: The Shining Girls

Kelly,

What are we to make of the time-travel trope? Obviously, it speaks to very real desires, perhaps the most human desires of all: to know what will happen and to fix what has happened. I can trace my love of the time-traveling genre pretty much straight back to 1985, Marty McFly, and a time-traveling car. Of course, there was also A Wrinkle in Time, but the thing I remember the most about that book was a giant, creepy brain at the end. [You know, we should reread some our favorite childhood books here, saying what we remember from them, and then read them and see if we were right.]

It's funny, though, although I like time-traveling movies, as a general rule, I don't love time-traveling novels. The only real exception is Long Division. (Although I do remember a bunch of hilarious time-traveling romance novels that I read a long time ago. Memorably, in one book, after deciding to stay in the past with some stud muffin, a woman sends back to the future for tampons and Advil. Lol.) I think the time-travel genre works for me when it's "fun" rather than serious. Obviously,  Long Division wasn't a "fun" time travel book, but it was saying something profoundly interesting to me about race and growing up in America. The only other time-traveling book I have a strong memory of is The Time Traveler's Wife, which is a book I never finished. People loved that book! But it was so meh for me.

One thing that's interesting to me about time-traveling books is that I have a lot of patience for mechanicians of the time-travel plot. I mean, a DeLorean fueled by banana peels or 1.21 jigawatts? GREAT! I mean, obviously none of it makes any sense, so I really don't usually worry too much about that---as long as the story doesn't try to hard to explain it, I'll be fine with it, too.

That brings us to The Shining Girls. Honestly, Kelly, it was fine. It's the story of a serial killer, Harper, and his ability to travel through time by aid of a magical house in Chicago.

**Jazz hands** magical time-traveling house **Jazz hands**

The house is filled with Harper's "treasures" that he steals from one victim and then places them on another one later in time. The house calls to him, showing him his present and his past.  I now have given you as much explanation for how the time-traveling works as the author does. As it turns out, it is possible that there can be too little explanation for me. I mean, at least 1.21 jiggawatts is about power! In this book, the house works, catapulting Harper and a few others through time, but there's never real explanation of how it works. Not even the smallest amount of explanation. I guess it's because Harper himself doesn't care that much, but it's not satisfying.

The other protagonist of the story is Kirby, a girl he attacks and stabs, but she manages to survive. Kirby is determined to figure out who tried to kill her, and she is the one who discovers the secret of the house.

I'm not sure what my problem was with this book. It's serviceable, I guess I'd say. Kirby is an interesting character, and I admired her. She's a fighter and she is determined to figure out what has happened and why. I think the problem with the book is Harper. He's a serial killer, but it's unclear why he does what he does. It's also unclear what brings his victims to his attention. The only explanation we get is that they are "shining" that there is something about the way he sees their aura that draws him to them. But honestly, it's pretty thin.  If the killer isn't creepy and well-formed as a character, it's hard to find the book all that scary. The thing that works the best is that Harper both kills the women, but then goes back and sees them as children, and goes back after to read the reports of what happened in the news. But his motives and reasons for acting, the explanation of his methods, why he limps, who his family was...NOTHING!

I mean, as a book, it was *fine* and I enjoyed reading it, but I think it's going to have about zero staying power.

One last thing: I read this on my Kindle, and that was a little frustrating. As Harper went back and forth in time, I found myself wanting to flip back and put the chapters in order. But the Kindle defies that sort of activity. Meh.

Tl;dr version: If you're looking for a quick read, go for it. It's a solid, but not spectacular read.

Jenny


Friday, June 5, 2015

Jenny's Book 6.15: The Shining Girls

Kelly,

Every once in a while, I make the mistake of buying a bunch of Kindle books all at once when there is a sale. This is one of those books. I think it was some sort of special sale, because this is a pretty new-ish book, published in 2013. From what I could tell, it's about a time-traveling killer that's set in Chicago. I think the Chicago thing was probably the hook for me. I like a creepy book, but the last book I read about a time-traveling serial killer, NOS4A2, was so fucking scary, I have never finished it. I keep thinking I should finish it, but then I think about how scary it was... I don't know. Maybe I'll read The Shining Girls as a way of leveling back up to that one!

Here's the reason I say that buying a bunch of Kindle books is a mistake. Unlike pBooks, eBooks don't remind you that you exist. They just...linger there, waiting for you to remember you bought them. I guess I should spend some quality time this summer organizing my Kindle books into folders, but it's such a pain creating and making collections or whatever. However, now that I think about it, maybe that's easier to do now than it used to be. It's been a while since I fooled around with it. I think the easiest way to do it would be *from a computer* rather than the actual Kindle! Maybe I should check it out. Hmmm. Do you keep your Kindle books organized?

All right, it's summer. Time to read. Along with my planned TBR books, my book club book, I also scored a rather intimidating stash from the library. I mean, I obviously won't get through all of the 12 books I checked out, but I like to keep it aspirational!

Jenny