Erik and Laura-Marie Magazine

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Zine maker, peace activist, writer, reader, feminist. I like listening to good listeners. Email me at robotmad (gmail).

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

book reviews #42

Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris
This book kept me company while I wasn’t feeling well. It’s essays—non-fiction memoir—many of them about being a kid, family, growing up gay. It’s all refreshingly concrete, fast paced. It has some heart-wrenching, poignant moments. It has some funny moments where I laughed alone. It’s easy, satisfying reading.

Death in Venice by Thomas Mann
I heard this described as a novella, but I thought it was more like a short story. It has many big words in it, and lots of darkness, so I almost set it aside a few times, like when I realized it’s the kind of tale where you’re watching someone’s life spiral out of control. It’s painful to see, but it happens pretty quickly.

Something about Death in Venice is beautiful and moving. All the comments about art are stated with such authority and scream for debate.

I wanted to see what all the high school kids had to read for English class, I was interested because of the homosexuality, and it’s short enough that I could get through it with minimum investment.

On some level I enjoyed it. I couldn’t relate to the main character very much, but it was fascinating sort of like Lolita to watch someone feeling things they shouldn’t and to see how it destroys them.

Gathering Blue by Lois Lowry
Speculative fiction, a kid’s book—Lowry is one of my favorite authors from my youth. I loved her Anastasia series, which is light and happy, as well as Us and Uncle Fraud, which is excellent and very much influenced me.

Gathering Blue is consistently serious and somewhat dark but definitely written for young people. I was hooked and fully inhabiting its world by about page 60.

A disabled girl has a special gift with thread. She’s living in a harsh, post-apocalyptic place. She’s smart and lovable, but not as smart as the reader—the reader figures out all the mysteries before she does, which is fine.

I like it—I recommend it, though it was a bit slow at pulling me in. Now I plan to read The Giver, Lowry’s other speculative fiction book for young adults.

Women in Love by DH Lawrence
I listened to this book on tape. I learned about how people feel and interact: the physicality of feelings, what we want, the ways we torture one another, the conflict of relationship. I never would have explained human behavior in the way DH Lawrence does, and I find it insightful. He’s not afraid to be meaningfully repetitive, and his characters are full of passion. I like the nudity and dreaminess. Also, DH Lawrence makes memorable scenes, and the characters are irritating but complex and lovable.

The Giver by Lois Lowry
“You should read The Giver,” a friend said. “It’s a good book.” Something about her tone of voice, a hint of challenge like a dare, made me feel that The Giver would upset me, and I was right.

Following in the footsteps of Brave New World and 1984, this book causes the reader to think about power in society and to look critically at cultural norms. I can see why it won so many awards. It also causes the reader to feel strong feelings. One of my problems with the book is that it’s sometimes too rough with the reader. I was profoundly disturbed by a particular nightmarish scene, and it feels sensational, keeping its audience interested in the worst way.

Another problem I have with the book is how I didn’t care about the characters until a third of the way through. The first third is all setting and plot. I would have liked it to be much longer. I would have liked to spend a lot more time with Jonas and The Giver once I got to know them.

Anyway, the second half is brilliant, even though the reader is sometimes tossed around like a rag doll. The ending is ambiguous and leaves much for discussion.

I would recommend this book to people who are feeling strong and tough. It’s speculative fiction with original ideas, and it does a good job with its project once it gets through the initial set up.

Hello, Cruel World: 101 Alternatives to Suicide for Teens, Freaks & Other Outlaws by Kate Bornstein
I skimmed the first half, which serves as a long preface. The 101 suggestions themselves are what I requested it from the library for. Also, Kate Bornstein is a famous genderqueer author, and I was curious about how she would address other things. It turns out that her genderqueerness comes up a lot in the first half of the book, which I did enjoy bits and pieces of. Bornstein (who I am myspace friends with, by the way!) is a bit sex-obsessed in this book, which might be its only drawback. Straight-edge kids and younger kids could feel put off. A third reason I was interested is that I’m curious about suicide as a subject, suicide prevention, and teenagers / youth culture. So a few of my interests came together. A fourth reason is that it’s caused a bit of a stir. She mentions some dangerous alternatives to suicide as last resorts, which caused some libraries not to include it in their collections.

As for the 101 suggestions, some are common sense, while some are more provocative. We all might need a little instruction on psychological self-care, and Bornstein is intelligent about it though sometimes facile. I found myself implementing some of her suggestions immediately, and my life was slightly enriched. The way she uses symbols to rate the difficulty and danger level is cute. And I admire the way she takes risks. I would have liked more detail, more true love, and less cross-referencing.

Diary of a Mosquito Abatement Man by John Porcellino
This is a book of black and white comix about John’s time as a mosquito abatement man. Often heart-rending, often beautiful. John makes the zine King Cat and is Zen Buddhist. I met him a few years ago at the San Francisco zine fest.

Hard Love by Ellen Wittlinger
This is a young adult novel that I read because it’s a good friend’s favorite book. It’s a story about a boy who falls in love with the girl, only the girl is a lesbian, so it’s not going to work out. Interestingly enough, the two main characters are zinesters, which is another reason I wanted to read it. There’s a lot about family trouble, but the characters’ pain doesn’t damage the reader. The last third is suspenseful: I went into a reading frenzy like any good novel makes me do.

No One Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July
Brilliant, disturbing short stories. Like story-length prose poems. Often sexually perverted—there’s some borderline incest and sex under duress that really got to me. The story that made me cry a lot featured a young woman who became a sex worker out of desperation for money, and I really cared about her character and didn’t like her to be in that situation. Often funny—I giggled, at times. Always insightful about people and how desperate we feel. It creates a quirky world. It’s dreamy and excellent.

Take the Cannoli by Sarah Vowell
I was charmed by Sarah Vowell in the They Might Be Giants movie Gigantic. She is so likable: articulate, insightful, full of personality. So I got this book of essays written by her, and I’m not disappointed. No, I have never heard her on NPR. I know it’s cliché, but I really feel like I can relate to her. I remember growing up with Reagan and being afraid during the cold war. I read On The Road and got into the Beats when I was a teenager too. I was raised Christian and moved away from it while retaining all the memories too. She and I have so much common ground, but she can talk about it all with ease where I’m still halting and unsteady. I admire her a great deal.

The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith
This book is made of clever and funny spoofs of common fairy tales. The illustrations are gorgeous. I don’t know what age group is the target here: maybe children would like it face value, but someone would have to be very familiar with the fairy tale genre and probably a grown up or precocious kid to get many of the jokes. Favorite tales are “The Princess and the Bowling Ball,” “The Really Ugly Duckling,” and “The Other Frog Prince.”

Adam Bede by George Elliot
There is some solid storytelling here, but I feel unsure about the characters—are they more three dimensional than two dimensional? The portrayal of the only child character is painfully twee—I thought the same thing about Eppie in Silas Marner. But the narrator says sharply insightful things. The dialect is interesting, and I trust the settling, so I’m getting a peek at another time and place. I keep going to see what will happen.

The Fear Book by Cheri Huber
Huber writes self-help books influenced by Zen Buddhism. They include illustrations, and the text is in a handwriting font. Intended to be less heavy than usual self-help books, with less verbiage and more “ah-ha” moments. I find The Fear Book insightful, though I have the problem I always have with self-help books—I feel too unusual for the advice they give, that much of the advice doesn’t apply. But some of it does. I’ve had problems with anxiety throughout my life, so the subject is apt. I like this one.

The James Joyce Murders by Amanda Cross
Okay, so people don’t really talk like this. Erik objects to the dialog. (We read this book out loud together.) I enjoy hearing clever characters be clever. The mystery itself is compelling—we didn’t know who done it and wanted to know. I have a special fondness for Amanda Cross and her main character, literature professor Kate Fransler. I’d read all the other mysteries by Cross—this was my last one.

Fun Places to Go with Children in Northern California by Elizabeth Pomada
Erik and I don’t have children and don’t intend to, but I thought this book would talk about the kind of attractions I’m attracted to. It’s fun to flip through. I found a good handful of places I’m curious about visiting. It’s clear, detailed.

The Golden Ass by Apuleius, translated by Robert Graves
We only made it halfway through this book because it has so many gross-out moments. Graphic violence repulses us. There are good things about it too, like a smart retelling of the Psyche-Cupid myth that lasts three chapters.

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