Monday, April 20, 2009

Emily Haines - "Help, I'm Alive"

Emily Haines is a new discovery of mine. I love her voice - sweet and edgy - and the poetry of her lyrics. I recently came across this little interview on her escape to Buenos Aires, and thought I'd share:

Monday, April 13, 2009

Do You Ever Crave Books?

I locked myself out of my house for a few hours the other day and randomly picked up a used copy of "The Golden Compass" at the store to pass the time until more responsible people (with keys) happened by. I hadn't read the series in a few years and had forgotten about it until a customer came in looking for them. A little young adult fantasy seemed like just the thing to make an otherwise irritating afternoon go by.

Fastforward to that night. I was back in my house (thankfully) and couldn't seem to put the book down. I mean, it's a good book and all, but there was some...some...force that just compelled me to keep reading. 

The problem, you see, was that I only had the first book in the series.

By the time I finished it around midnight, I was craving the second book so bad I could hardly fall asleep. What's a girl to do? This girl went directly to the library the next morning and checked out the other two books in the series. Which are now being read at an only slightly less frantic pace.

This ever happen to you?

Monday, March 16, 2009

Nibbles: Edgar Sawtelle, Beirut, and more...

I'm catching up on a backlog of reading and music-listening today, so lots of little nibbles for you!

First off a report on Finding Beauty in a Broken World. The report mainly consists of the confession that I have not yet finished it. I got to the section on Rwanda, and then I wrote this post, and then...I just never picked it up again. Sigh...I really hate not finishing books, but my  hand just keeps passing over this one... Have you finished the book? Is it worth finishing? 

Next up, Beirut's new double album, March of the Zapotec and Realpeople Holland. I'm undecided how I feel about this album. I really like their previous few albums, particularly Gulag Orkestar, but this's different. First off, both albums are very short. As in, less than 15 minutes each short. Or at least it feels that way. I'll just be getting into it, starting to groove (in so far as I actually "groove"), and then the album is over. It makes me cranky. 

Secondly, the two albums feel very disjointed. The first is Beirut's take on the music of the Zapotec people and was influenced by Zach Condon's recent trip to Mexico. The songs on this album are a shift away from the Beirut we know from previous albums, but (in my mind) represent an interesting change of pace. The second album...the second album. It's also interesting, but it sounds a bit like music you might expect to find in a hot European night club. It's not bad, just very...unexpected.

I find myself playing these albums again and again at the store. I wouldn't say that I like them, exactly, but there's definitely something that keeps drawing me back. Have you listened to this album(s) yet? What do you think about them?

I just tore through all 575 pages of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski. Given that it contained two of my most un-favorite literary themes, tales of woe from the midwest and epic-ness, I wasn't expecting to get past the first chapter. I like it when a book surprises!

It's hard to sum up what makes this book so special in just a few sentences (I'll hopefully get a full review out sometime soon). With threads of magical realism and scenes that read like poetry, it's not like any other story you've heard elsewhere. If it were told by any less gifted author, I bet the whole premise of the story would sound contrived and insubstantial. As it was, the book was beautiful and engaging, and its climactic ending scene felt utterly inevitable. I want to immediately start reading it again. Definitely recommended.

Let's see...what else?

Hold Time by M Ward came out a few weeks ago and is a great album. It's very in keeping with his previous work - dreamy and lovely. It still manages to sound fresh, though. I like it and play it in the evenings when I want to decompress from a long day.

Neko Case's new album Middle Cyclone is also recently out and it's fantastic. She's such a unique musician and singer as it is, but you can really see her pushing herself in this new album. It's a good one to play while cooking dinner or getting ready to go out.

Oh, and I almost forgot about Santogold! This album came out a while back, but has definitely stayed in my heavy rotation. It has a little bit of everything - from R&B-esque songs to forays into electronic mixing (not to mention an appropriately disturbing album cover). It's a bit dark and edgy - definitely keeps you on your toes. I love it and feel like I hear something new in it every time I play the CD.

Finally, if you're a fan of Dave McKean, I want to point you toward an excellent interview with him that was recently posted over on Seven Impossible Things. (Click on the link to go to the interview. The interview itself starts about halfway down the page.) As if I didn't already have enough respect for this man.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Musing: On the Responsibilities of the Author

I'm almost finished reading Finding Beauty in a Broken World by Terry Tempest Williams, and I thought I'd throw out a topic that has come up for me while reading it:

How much responsibility does the author have for making sure her work is understood and has meaning?

In Finding Beauty, Williams uses a very...journalistic writing style - not in the news-writing sense, but as if she's writing in her diary. The entire book is make up of short snippets that could very well have been transposed directly from her journal. They are descriptions of she's seeing in front of her, momentary impressions, and random thoughts. Open the book to any given page and the writing feels scattered and disjointed, but read it from beginning to end and you see the progression of thoughts.

My problem with this approach is that I'm not always sure what I'm supposed to be getting out of the writing. I'm not sure what Williams intends for me to understand or what her point really is. It's as if she's just laying out her experiences and then stepping back and telling us, "There! Make of that what you will!"

I felt this especially in the middle of the book when Williams really is just transcribing her field notes from the two weeks she spent observing prairie dogs. I understood that by following her exact notes, we were also making a journey as readers where the prairie dogs are transformed from wild creatures into individuals with stories and characters. 

But then I wondered if I really was getting it.  I wondered what I was supposed to do with this information once I had it. Is Williams asking me to take up the cause for prairie dogs? Is this a metaphor for how we should be acting when faced with other cultures and communities that we don't understand? Am I supposed to simply love the inherent beauty of the prairie dog and move on? I don't know. I don't feel like Williams really makes it clear why she's talking about prairie dogs at all, much less what lesson we should be taking away from it.

On the one hand, I like this hands-off approach. It gives the reader the bare facts of a matter and allows them to find their own meaning. It makes the reader work instead of just handing them the answer. I like the indirect approach, and I like looking for meaning within myself.

But on the other hand, I're the writer. It's your job to make me understand what you're trying to say. That's why I'm reading your book in the first place instead of just having a conversation with myself. If I, as a reader, get confused or lost or bored, that's the author's fault for not giving me enough to go on. 

With writing like this, I sometimes wonder if it's the author who is being lazy. If the author doesn't actually know what his or her own writing means, so they leave it "open to interpretation" in hopes that the reader will extrapolate the meaning.

The other problem that I have is the feeling of assumption, that the author is assuming that I'm on the same page as them so they don't need to explain things. I've felt this a lot in Finding Beauty. Throughout the book, Williams presents particular images - a prairie dog saluting the sun or fragments of bone on the floor of a church - as representative of meaning, but without explaining what it is. I think she feels these images have universal meaning, and assumes that we understand what what that is. But...these aren't necessarily universal images. These images can have a lot of different meanings and then more nuances within those meanings. 

One of the big reasons why we read books is to learn how the author has interpreted those images and to understand someone else's perspective. We read books because we think the author has something new to teach us. Without a context or a structure in which to understand them, I tend to feel that the images actually lose meaning. A prairie dog saluting the sun is just a prairie dog standing on its hind legs in the dust and the bones are simply the remainders of a tragic event.

I'm torn. As I always am when I read books like this. I really like Terry Tempest Williams and I want to understand her writing. I also want to give her the benefit of the doubt and so I question my own role as the reader. Am I expecting too much? Or am I right in feeling that authors need to work to be sure their work can be understood by their audience?

What do you think?

(Image: Lawrence of Houston via Flickr Creative Commons) 

Monday, February 16, 2009

Shorty Reviews: Origin, Samaritan, Twilight, and Finding Beauty in a Broken World

I never really settled on a good, solid, can't-get-off-the-couch book, but I have been passing the time quite pleasantly by reading several books at once. A chapter here and there, and suddenly I seem to have finished all of them! I thought I'd share my thoughts on those while they're still fresh in my mind...

Origin by Diana Abu-Jabar (fiction)
This is a CSI-type crime drama, complete with a crime-scene analysis, sexual tension between characters, and a crazy serial killer. I couldn't put it down, and by the end, I was reading it in great gulps just to find out the next piece of the puzzle. I had some initial trouble with the whole "Ape Mother" thread of the story - the narrator reveals very early on that she was raised by apes before being rescued and adopted to a family in New York. This felt out of place and a bit forced (on the part of the author) in the context of the story's unfolding mystery, but it made more sense and started feeling more natural as the story progressed. I definitely recommend this one next time you're in the mood for some good edge-of-your-seat action.

Samaritan by
 Richard Price (fiction)

This ended up being a good follow-up to Origin. It's another mystery-type novel, but this one is much more focused on the characters and their personal psychologies. It's less gripping, maybe, but more thoughtful. Ray, the main character, returns to the New Jersey projects where he grows up and winds up volunteering at his old school. As the story opens, he is in the hospital after a brutal attack but refuses to talk about who attacked him. The rest of the novel is spent figuring out how and why this has happened. The story deals with a lot of race-related issues as well as class issues, showing how fiercely knotted the two can be.  At the end, I felt less of a sense of redemption and more a sense of inevitability. Definitely worth a read.

Twilight by Stephenie Meyer (fiction, young-adult)

I got such a kick out of this book. Sure it's about vampires and teenage love, and at times it feels like a very thinly-veiled rip off of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But's
 just a good, fun read! I felt like the writing was fairly solid - Meyer does a good job of setting the scene and really making the reader hear the hiss of the rain and feel the marble touch of Edward's hand. The plot is pretty obvious, but it engaged me and pulled me along until the end. If you're an adult thinking about reading this book, just remember that this is very much a young adult novel written for a young adult audience - while some of the subject matter might seem childish to us, it's very real and relevant to teenagers.

Finding Beauty in a Broken World by Terry Tempest Williams (non-fiction)

At first, Williams' use of mosaics as metaphor didn't really work for me. Her opening story about learning the art of mosaics while vacationing in Italy felt a bit self-indulgent and not entirely relevant, except in in a vague "ok, I'm with you...I think" kind of way. But give it some time (and another 50 pages) and the disparate pieces start to make some sense. Not unlike (I admit) stepping back from a mosaic to see the whole picture. 

The book takes a vignette approach with short paragraphs of prose strung together like poetry. There are no chapters or sections, but the narrative shifts from learning mosaics in Italy to a discussion about the roll of prairie dogs in North American ecology to the work of rebuilding a Rwandan village in the aftermath of genocide. The three stories feel disjointed and unrelated at the outset, but they share a common thread of violence and beauty living side by side. All in all, an interesting book and worth the read. 

I have about six books waiting for me at the library right now - all my "on-hold" books came at once! I'm looking forward to picking them up tomorrow and sinking into some new stories.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Between Books...

It's nice when the literary stars align so that you finish one book and the next one is right there waving its hand wildly in the air saying, "Pick me! Pick me!" But just as often (probably more often) you finish your book with a satisfied sigh, look up to find the next one, and...nothing. Crickets...crickets... 

It's a listless feeling, this whole drama of being between books. 

The picture above shows the current state of my coffee table. Those piles are the direct result of this Between Books Phenomenon. I've been wandering around my apartment for days, picking up books and then ultimately abandoning them. I imagine the books quietly consoling each other, "'s ok. It's just not your time quite yet. She'll be back."

It would help if I knew what I was looking for, but it's an ineffable feeling, isn't it? The last book I read was Origin by Diana Abu-jaber, which was a fairly action packed thriller that had me biting my nails until the very end. Finishing it was a rush of adrenaline and relief. I have a feeling that I need something a little calmer for my next book, but equally gripping. Plus, life has been stressful lately (as it's been for many of us, I think) and I'd like a book that I can escape into for a few hours.

The search continues. I know the right book will ultimately make its way into my hands and until then I just need to be patient. But this business of being between books is a pickle, for sure.

What's the last book that really grabbed you and swept you away?

Thursday, January 29, 2009

February Book Group: The Animal Girl by John Fulton

Next meeting: Wednesday February 25 at 7pm

In our ongoing effort to support local writers, we have chosen The Animal Girl, a short story collection by J.P. writer John Fulton, as our next book group pick. While we typically discuss novels (and, once in a blue moon, non-fiction), here we give a much-deserved nod to the art of the short story.

I continue to be puzzled by the short story's relative lack of popularity, given how amendable it is to our busy lifestyles.
Consider the challenges faced by the short story writer:
  1. Forget grabbing the reader with the opening chapter; you better grab them with the opening paragraph, or sentence!
  2. The novel affords the writer the luxury of character development, which is why so many readers prefer that form--you get to know a character, often over the course of many years (of their life, not yours!). The short story writer only has time for a snapshot or two.
  3. The short story writer doesn't have the luxury of putting their hero through a gauntlet of varied experiences and reversals of fortune; the plotting must be accomplished with great precision and economy.

Given these challenges, the short story writer must excel at his or her craft in order to pull the reader in, and make the reader care. A well-written short story is like a breath of pure oxygen, in that it distills basic truths with a minimum of words.

From the back cover, here is a brief description of Animal Girl: "Here are people in extremis, struggling mightily, and often failing, to keep it together. These powerful stories approach the often sentimentalized subject of romance with tenderness and insight into the heart-worn perspective of characters who have failed at love in the past. In lucid, revelatory prose, Fulton navigates the complexity of both mid-life courtship and adolescent rage with humor and intelligence."

Sounds to me like perfect Valentine's Day reading.

If you haven't tried (or liked) short stories before, we hope you'll give this collection a try. If you're interested in delving deeper into the world of the short story, we have a number of other stellar collections on hand to recommend, including Why the Long Face? by another local writer, Ron MacLean.

We hope you can join us for the discussion...