Monday, March 31, 2014

Old Mr. Flood

Old Mr. FloodOld Mr. Flood by Joseph Mitchell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Old Mr. Flood is determined to live to 115 on his steady diet of whiskey, oysters, and good stories in these wonderful New Yorker pieces.

This book makes me so sad that the only "oysters" near me are the Rocky Mountain kind (and yes, I've tried them - deep-fried). When I lived in Seattle, a few friends and I made a day trip to Quilcene to go oyster hunting. I had never eaten an oyster before, and was unsure I would enjoy the taste or the texture. Raw shellfish? What? But being a fan of sushi (shout-out to Baek Chun Sushi, the most amazing sushi I've ever had, believe it or not), I decided to give oysters a chance.

My friends and I went out in our boots in the oily tidal flat mud, gathered up a number of thick knobby shells in a bucket, and went back to the beach to pry them open. All we had - and all we needed - was Sriracha and lemon juice. We cracked the oysters open in the cool winter sunshine and slurped them out of their brine, discarding the empty shells on the beach. The oysters, as it happened, were sublime. I have dreams about those oysters.

I'm with the Walrus.

But I won't eat seafood in a state with no ocean view; no oysters for me in Colorado.

So when I read about Old Mr. Flood in one of my favorite book blogs, I immediately bought it on my Nook. It's made up of three short New Yorker pieces from 1948, basically character studies of a vigorous old man named - you guessed it - Mr. Flood. Obsessed with living to 115 on his diet of seafood and whiskey, he tells stories to the narrator and is pretty much great at being an old man, living the good life.

Coming straight from An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine, I was ready for another lovely character study, despite the fact that I'm normally only hooked by a fast-paced story. But these pieces made me willing to also check out more of Joseph Mitchell's collected short stories about the denizens of New York City: Up in the Old Hotel.

I lift my glass of 12-year Scotch to you, Mr. Flood, and to you, Mr. Mitchell. Sláinte.


"Ask the man for half a lemon, poke it a time or two to free the juice, and squeeze it over the oysters. And the first one he knifes, pick it up and smell it, the way you'd smell a rose, or a shot of brandy. That briny, seaweedy fragrance will clear your head; it'll make your blood run faster. And don't just eat six; take your time and eat a dozen, eat two dozen, eat three dozen, eat four dozen." - 14

"'Well,' he said, 'there are days when I hate everybody in the world, fat, lean, and in between, and this started out to be one of those days, but I had a drop to drink, and now I love everybody.'" - 30

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Dark Places

Dark PlacesDark Places by Gillian Flynn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When she was a child, Libby Day's family was brutally murdered by her brother; now, at the prompting of amateur murder enthusiasts, she begins to question her own memories.

Libby Day isn't a nice person. Now in her twenties, she's been living off the money given her as a child when her family's murders garnered national attention. Nearly out of funds, she agrees - for a price - to help a group called the Kill Club reopen the brutal murders that have never stopped haunting her.

Libby is full of venom and 'dark places'. From the opening line, she makes herself unrepentantly unlikable: she's a kleptomaniac stunted by childhood trauma, determined to profit off her dark past. Trauma might be too slight a word for what she suffered as the only witness to the gruesome murders of her mother and her two older sisters, but she has refused to mature as a result. Only running out of money can force her to revisit that dark place - an investigation that naturally has dangerous consequences.

If you've read the bestselling Gone Girl, you know a little of Flynn's twisted anti-heroines. I confess that try as I might, I didn't guess the ending of Dark Places; an even bleaker story than Gone Girl, it includes murder, Satanism, and underage sex and drug use. (It's also set in Kansas, which naturally means it evokes Truman Capote's legendary creative nonfiction work, In Cold Blood.)

Dark Places is a novel with an oppressive tone - the violence, guilt, and despair may wear on you if you read it too long in one sitting. Of course, I couldn't resist reading it straight through in one day, hooked from page one. It's a better-written book than Gone Girl, and Libby Day is an anti-heroine to savor. You'll love her or you'll hate her - there's no in-between for this character.

As a next read, I immediately think of the marvelously dark In the Woods by Tana French, a book I highly recommend to literary and mystery lovers alike.

P.S. Naturally, Gone Girl is being made into a movie, with Dark Places and Sharp Objects soon to follow.


"I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ. Slit me at my belly and it might slide out, meaty and dark, drop on the floor so you could stomp on it. It's the Day blood. Something's wrong with it. I was never a good little girl, and I got worse after the murders." - 1

Monday, March 24, 2014

Black Sheep

Black SheepBlack Sheep by Georgette Heyer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Abigail Wendover is determined to save her niece from a fortune-hunter; but the wise young aunt finds herself falling for another black sheep, the cynical and charming Miles Calverleigh.

It's Heyer having fun with romance, showing Abby's slow seduction through friendship. Miles, who is hardly the perfect man, pushes her buttons and makes her laugh at the same time. Abby considers herself 'on the shelf' (what a devastating term for an old maid!), but it's plain that a few of the men around her don't see it the same way; yet Miles is the only one capable of attracting her attention.

The aunt is mostly worried over her niece's ill-advised engagement to Stacy Calverleigh, a man Abby recognizes as a cold-hearted fortune-hunter. My only quibble - the characters are all horribly condescending toward young Fanny; while clearly inexperienced (only 17!), she is hardly the halfwit they all seem to take her for. Still, it's a fun story with a happy ending that will make you smile - what more can you ask for?

Georgette Heyer is known for doing her homework on Regency England, and she turns up some great old-fashioned expressions in this novel. They are clear by context, but I just had to look some up to try and figure out their precise meaning (there is this awesome website, too):

havey-cavey - suspicious

throw her cap over the windmill - to act recklessly (as in Don Quixote)

return by Weeping Cross - to return as a penitent, as to a roadside shrine

to shoot the crow - Scottish expression: to leave hurriedly, esp. without paying one's bill

a trifle above oar - a little drunk

shabrag - scruffy, shabby, dilapidated

If you love Georgette Heyer's Jane Austen-like charm and wit, you're in luck: the woman wrote way more books than Austen did! Definitely check them out.


"He had nothing to recommend him but his smile, and she was surely too old, and had too much commonsense, to be beguiled by a smile, however attractive it might be. But just as she reached this decision he spoke, and she glanced up at him, and realized that she had overestimated both her age and her commonsense." - 66

"Half a loaf is better than no bread: he didn't know who had been responsible for that silly proverb, only that he must have a cod's head. It wasn't better; when the lovely, darling girl you would have given your soul to possess invited you to be her brother it was infinitely worse." - 132

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Martian

The MartianThe Martian by Andy Weir
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When astronaut Mark Watney is left for dead on Mars, he has to rely on his wits to survive.

I was immediately attracted to the Robinson Crusoe on Mars concept - okay, so it's not a wholly original concept, but it's all in the execution after all. Weir makes Mark Watney's plight funny, smart, and scientifically credible. It's an old-fashioned adventure with a hard science edge, like the best of Arthur C. Clarke.

Watney tells most of the story through his diary, and manages to explain his plans in a way that even someone as science-challenged as me can enjoy and read through quickly (it's barely 300 pages in the e-version). It's fun to see him MacGyver food and equipment using his twin skills of botany and engineering. Plus, his down time entertainment hilariously consists solely of terrible TV shows from the 1970s, disco, and Agatha Christie novels.

How credible are Watney's attempts to make water, grow food, and figure out a way to communicate with NASA? In an interview, the author points out that "Each problem he has is caused by the solution to his previous problem" (Science Friday). Weir writes about real NASA technology (though his versions are slightly more efficient, suiting the near-future setting). The Martian was first published online chapter by chapter, nitpicked by obsessed geeks (and a few real astronauts) who helped work out the details of math, physics, and chemistry.

Caveat: there aren't many sweeping descriptions of Martian landscape in The Martian - Watney is focused on survival, not scenery. For beautiful prose, you'll have to read The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury. Another lone survivor in space story I plan to check out is The Explorer by James Smythe. If you enjoyed the movies Gravity (scientifically flawed and undeniably thrilling) or bit your nails off watching Apollo 13, you should read this book.


"Things are finally going my way. In fact, they're going great! I have a chance to live after all!
I am fucked, and I'm gonna die!" - 38

"I need some encouragement. I need to ask myself 'What would an Apollo astronaut do?'
He'd drink three whisky sours, drive his Corvette to the launchpad, then fly to the moon in a command module smaller than my Rover. Man those guys were cool." - 225

Monday, March 17, 2014

Read for Your Life

Read for Your Life: 11 Ways to Better Yourself Through BooksRead for Your Life: 11 Ways to Better Yourself Through Books by Pat Williams
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Motivational speaker and NBA sports executive Pat Williams focuses on the many great reasons to incorporate reading into your life.

I'm gonna stoop to snobbery in this review - be warned. I think this book could have been half as long and much better-written. It's basically a collection of quotations strung together by a web of exhortations. Williams often quotes literacy research from hard-hitting sources such as PARADE Magazine and Oprah Winfrey.

This book was definitely cobbled together by an energetic lifestyle guru, with many self-mentions and more than a few name-checks of famous people. But hey, if he convinces anyone to read more, we all win, right? If you're a sucker for John Maxwell books you'll see a pattern here: both writers love to hammer home points that really can't be argued against, all the while quoting smarter and more original people. (Which, okay, so do I.)

I fully agree with the premise that education and literacy are essential to living the good life (I work in a prison library, and see first-hand the link between a lack of education and incarceration), but I am skeptical at those who regard mere reading as an innately virtuous activity. After all, people read dreck like Fifty Shades of Grey and The Illuminati Formula Used to Create an Undetectable Mind Controlled Slave as well as Great Expectations and Moby-Dick. James Patterson (whose copious output a coworker of mine believes is assembled by a thousand monkeys in a warehouse, pounding away at typewriters) is immensely popular in prison. I doubt, however, that even his most attentive reader will come away much improved, aside from being diverted for a few hours.

Literary snobbery aside, reading is great. Read more. Read always. Read everything! (Even read - no, I can never in good conscience recommend James Patterson. Read the cereal box instead.)

Between quotations, Williams offers a few practical suggestions: advising everyone to carry a book wherever you go is smart. Sadly, the eleven ways get buried beneath the repetition. I'll skip a rigorous literary analysis in favor of stealing a few good words from the text.

So Quotable:

"What we become depends on what we read after all of the professors have finished with us. The greatest university of all is a collection of books." - Thomas Carlyle

"Language is the soul of intellect, and reading is the essential process by which that intellect is cultivated beyond the commonplace experiences of everyday life...Reading is a means of thinking with another person's mind; it forces you to stretch your own." - Charles Scribner, Jr.

"People don't realize how a man's whole life can be changed by one book." - Malcolm X

"It is not true that we have only one life to live; if we can read, we can live as many more lives and as many kinds of lives as we wish." - S. I. Hayakawa

"In my contact with people I find that, as a rule, it is only the little narrow people who live for themselves, who never read good books, who do not travel, who never open up their souls in a way to permit them to come into contact with other souls - with the great outside world." - Booker T. Washington

Friday, March 14, 2014

The Arrival

The ArrivalThe Arrival by Shaun Tan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sepia-toned illustrations depict an immigrant's challenging journey into a strange new world.

Leaving behind a dragon-haunted city to start a new life for himself and his family, a young father encounters a world unlike the one he left behind. Nothing is familiar - the language, the buildings, or the food.

The expressive, wordless images manage to convey the emotions of being thrown into a new environment without a guide. The newcomer encounters other immigrants who have their own stories of dislocation to share; they also generously offer aid to the newcomer in their chosen country.

It amazes me how the play of images can convey deep emotions without soundtrack or words. The best silent films manage the trick: One Week by Buster Keaton is a twenty-minute movie that is hilarious and heartwarming as a hilariously inept young couple attempts to put together their first home. (City Lights starring Charlie Chaplin is a feature-length silent film that is famous for tugging the heartstrings.) Best yet, because One Week is out of copyright, you can watch the entire thing for free!

The Arrival is a lovely book, and a good introduction for any unfamiliar with graphic novels. It will appeal to adults and teens alike. For more wordless picture books for all ages, check out this Goodreads list.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Best Writing on Writing

The Best Writing on Writing (v. 1)The Best Writing on Writing by Jack Heffron
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This collection of essays from 1993 by poets, writers, and academics offers a rich variety of criticism and meditations on the art of writing.

I confess to skipping a few of the essays in the book (mostly the drier academic ones like Adrienne Rich's "Someone is Writing a Poem" or Carolyn G. Heilbrun's "Women and Biography"). The most accessible essays were from literary magazines and newspapers: Donald Hall's "The Books Not Read, the Lines Not Written: A Poet Confronts His Mortality" for the New York Times Book Review, or the funny "The Screenwriter's Lexicon" by David Freeman from The New Yorker. Another I especially enjoyed was "Mistakes People Make About Poetry" by James Fenton.

There's a fair amount of pretentious fluff, but you may find a few gems here about the slippery, hard-to-describe craft of writing. There are many, many wonderful essay collections out there for fans of the genre. Two of my favorites are A Passion for Books edited by Harold Rabinowitz, and the The Best American Essays of the Century, edited by Joyce Carol Oates

So Quotable:

"Depressed over my probable brevity, I find my reading mocked by my own acquisitiveness. Part of my pleasure in reading has always been pride in accumulation. I read to use what I read, for understanding and for writing; take away that future use and my reading mocks me: if I am not to live more than a wretched year or two, what am I reading for? I should be able to read for the joy of a book's beauty but  I cannot." - Donald Hall, "The Books Not Read, the Lines Not Written: A Poet Confronts His Mortality"

"The impulse, at least for someone of the writerly persuasion, is not to bemoan this condition but to remark it in detail. Initially, one's motives for translating happenstance into acts of language may be quite private. Catastrophe tends to be composed not of a monolithic event but of a welter of little incidents, many of which bear no apparent relationship to one another, and language, in ordering these into recognizable patterns, counteracts disorientation and disintegration. This process of making sense of a flood of random data also produces the impression - generally quite groundless - of control, which may save one's sanity even though it can't save one's own or anyone else's life." - Nancy Mairs, "The Literature of Personal Disaster"

"Womjep: A woman in jeopardy; sometimes called femjep. It's a hardy perennial among movie plots, from 'The Perils of Pauline' to 'Slumber Party Massacre.' The fems in jep were once beautiful and helpless and had torn clothes. They're still beautiful, but now they're often surgeonsor architects in torn clothes." - David Freeman, "The Screenwriter's Lexicon"

"The bottom line on character invention: people in fiction must have intelligible, supportable reasons for what they do and say, which is possible only if their behavior is motivated by factors a reader can understand and verify from evidence in the story. Unlike flesh-and-blood humans, story personae, however weird, must behave in ways that make some kind of sense; if they don't, their 'mystery' stays unsolved, unsolvable, pointless." - Ben Nyberg, "Why Stories Fail"

Monday, March 10, 2014

Point Your Face at This

Point Your Face at This: DrawingsPoint Your Face at This: Drawings by Demetri Martin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A stand-up comic's compilation of his simple and pun-filled sketches, part xkcd, part The Far Side.

Demetri Martin had a short-lived show on Comedy Central, and I remember his drawings being the best part. It's full of visual punning and absurdity (there's even a desert island drawing for those Far Side fans). The jokes are sometimes buried, but many of them made me laugh out loud after the moment of realization. There are a few duds, too, but they pass so briefly. This book could likely be read in a half an hour.

If you like your humor weird and nerdy (charts, graphs, and Venn diagrams abound), this is definitely the book for you.

Friday, March 7, 2014


HousekeepingHousekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

In this lyrical novel, two orphaned girls are raised by a procession of eccentric female relatives in a remote town in the Inland Northwest.

Ruthie and Lucille first end up with their grandmother, then two eccentric maiden great-aunts who prove unequal to the task of raising two young children. They call upon the long-lost Sylvie, the girls' transient aunt; she agrees to raise Ruthie and Lucille in spite of her inclination to wander. Other than a train wreck and a suicide, that's about all that happens in this book. (You think that sounds exciting? It's not.)

Okay, confession: I'm no great fan of a plotless narrative like Housekeeping. I think that Robinson's Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead is a much stronger book. There, the endless philosophizing descriptions feel more natural (and believable) coming from an older pastor. They make less sense coming from the undereducated Ruthie; plus, the characters in Gilead have a stake in each other's lives, and experience real attachment and love. Gilead feels purposeful; Housekeeping admires the scenery.

The town of Fingerbone seems virtually unpeopled in this story because of Ruthie's utter friendlessness. Aside from her older sister, Lucille, she has no one. Her aunt Sylvie is so often lost in her own thoughts that she could be on another planet. And Lucille, resolute about achieving an ordinary life for herself, soon abandons Ruthie and Sylvie to their weirdness. There is a lot of beauty here, but it feels chilly.

All that said, Robinson's prose deserves to be called 'lapidary' without an ounce of sarcasm, so if you read books primarily to soak in language, this is for you. Each paragraph is a prose poem, only rarely overwritten. (Though a perpetual series of prose poems can get tedious for the rest of us who prefer plot and character interactions.) The descriptions of the Inland Northwest are spot-on, cold lakes and trains figuring most prominently. Fingerbone is modeled on Robinson's hometown of Sandpoint, Idaho.

This book is part of the NEA's Big Read, and I checked it out from the Colorado prison library I work in. We received ten free copies from a program called Words Beyond Bars. For the prison's purposes, I think that Gilead would have been a better choice (how attractive do you think Housekeeping is to an all-male audience that ordinarily enjoys a diet of fast-paced urban fiction and Star Wars books?) I'll be interested to see the reactions of the offenders when we do our book group! Maybe they will surprise me.


"That is to say that she conceived of life as a road down which one traveled, an easy enough road through a broad country, and that one's destination was there from the very beginning, a measured distance away, standing in ordinary light like some plain house where one went in and was greeted by respectable people and was shown to a room where everything one had ever lost or put aside was gathered together, waiting." - 9-10

"It was a source of both terror and comfort to me then that I often seemed invisible - incompletely and minimally existent, in fact. It seemed to me that I made no impact on the world, and that in exchange I was privileged to watch it unawares." - 106

"I simply let the darkness in the sky become coexistent with the darkness in my skull and bowels and bones. Everything that falls upon the eye is an apparition, a sheet dropped over the world's true workings. The nerves and the brain are tricked, and one is left with dreams that these specters loose their hands from ours and walk away, the curve of the back and the swing of the coat so familiar as to imply that they should be permanent fixtures of the world, when in fact nothing is more perishable." - 116

"Fingerbone was moved to solemn pity. There was not a soul there but knew how shallow-rooted the whole town was. It flooded yearly, and had burned once." - 177

Monday, March 3, 2014

Books Read in February

Big Girl Panties by Stephanie Evanovich - When Holly Brennan meets physical trainer Logan Montgomery on a plane trip, the overweight widow sees a change to regain her life - and result of their workouts will be not only sweat but steam.

Top of the Morning by Brian Stelter - Chronicling a tumultuous year in the history of morning television, a journalist goes behind the scenes to tell the real story behind Ann Curry's firing and the ratings wars.

The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith - When a supermodel dies of an apparent suicide, one-legged Afghan veteran Cormoran Strike is hired to uncover the truth.

Point Your Face at This by Demetri Martin - A stand-up comic's compilation of his simple and pun-filled sketches, part xkcd, part The Far Side.

The Best Writing on Writing (1993) ed. Jack Heffron - This collection of essays from 1993 by poets, writers, and academics offers a rich variety of criticism and meditations on the art of writing.

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson - In this lyrical novel, two orphaned girls are raised by a procession of eccentric female relatives in a remote town in the Inland Northwest.

The Arrival by Shaun Tan - Sepia-toned illustrations depict an immigrant's challenging journey into a strange new world.