Sunday, January 31, 2010

Self-Made Man

I bought a couple more copies of Norah Vincent's book, Self-Made Man yesterday. Yes, they were really cheap on a clearance sale table, AND I think it is an insightful and, dare I say it? important book.

Norah Vincent, a woman, decides to experience the world as a man and record her experiences. She describes how she changed her physical appearance, as well as how she changed her behavior to genuinely be perceived as male.

As her alter ego Ned, Norah Vincent explores the world of maleness in America. She becomes friends with a couple of men. She joins a bowling team as a man. She dates as a man. She applies for a job as a man. She goes to strip clubs as a man. She visits a monastery as a man. She participates in a men's therapy group (a la Robert Bly's Iron John).

Not only does she record what she observes as others' different perceptions of her as a male, she also tries as much as she can to change her perspective and see the world as a male might.

I found this book fascinating. She was able to see the world of being male with new eyes, so while she'd confirm some of the things she observed with her male friends (who weren't participating in the experience directly), to see if what she'd perceived was a pretty typical male experience (and pretty much they were), she experienced things with fresh eyes and fresh emotion, and seemed to be able to see/feel/experience some patterns and actions as shocking, or startling, merely because she was seeing them for the first time.

Books that describe someone else's experience, either where they learn something new about themselves or about the world or maybe their place in it are some of my favorite books to read. I think I love these books because they help validate MY experience. Even if I don't have the exact same experience as the author, if someone else has struggled with their place in the world, then maybe it's okay that I've struggled along the way too.

Another book that did that really well is Leaving the Saints. In it, Martha Beck describes her sometimes agonizing spiritual journey out of the Mormon church. Her experience mirrored mine more closely than Self-Made Man, and I know I liked Beck's book because I, too, struggled for many years about my place in organized religion. And yes, there is a story there.

Thursday, January 28, 2010


I went to see Elizabeth Kostova at Powell's last night. I went, primarily, to decide whether or not I want to read her new novel, The Swan Thieves.

The Historian was her first novel, a book about Dracula that jumped centuries and used many different forms - journals, letters, first person, etc. I think the century jumping and the various forms made the book that much creepier, perhaps more adding more mystery and intrigue. I did enjoy it.

The new one, The Swan Thieves, is set in the US and in France, and is about art and artists. Doesn't quite grab me from the description the way The Historian did, even though I haven't been a Dracula (or vampire) afficianado.

A friend of mine at work and I talked about The Swan Thieves and whether or not we were planning on reading it soon. It wasn't grabbing her either, but she wanted to wait and hear about it from other people before she decided. So maybe I went to the reading/signing for both of us.

At the event, Elizabeth Kostova came out and read a chapter (chapter 67) and the prologue. There was a lovely evocative description in the prologue of an artist seeing a woman as a subject in his painting and how she would be placed on the canvas, and also realizing that she is a real woman. The juxtaposition of the woman as subject of a painting and the woman as a real person was stunning. Though after she read I still wasn't persuaded either way, to read or not to read.

And then came the Q & A. One person asked her which authors have been her inspiration. She right off said 19th century authors - Dickens, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Tolstoy... She loved that novels written then tend to have much more literary style and merit (as opposed to Dan Brown style writing, which elicited applause).

And then I realized - The Historian feels like it was written by a 19th century author, long and complex, which can be delicious. I also realized that I don't want to read a 19th century novel right now.

So there. Decided. Not never, just not now.

At work I picked up Joseph Monninger's Eternal on the Water. Not familiar with the author (who evidently is an award-winning author, though the promotional literature doesn't say what he won an award FOR, nor what award he won), it looked intriguing. Described as "Chris Bohjalian meets Nicholas Sparks by way of Walden Pond"...I have to say that the Nicholas Sparks part put me off a bit, but I figured that I could start the book and if I don't like it, can always quit.

So far I'm enjoying it, even though the two main characters have met and fallen in love, the kind of love one searches for their whole lives, in less than 24 hours. Oh well, I'm just going with it. It's written in first person, which I like, and so far I'm liking the writing and the story.

There was one interchange that made me laugh...

"If the sun blew up and you had ten minutes to live, what would you do?"
"I would do push-ups, because time passes really slow when you do push-ups."


Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Cowboy, Wills and Kostova

I just finished reading Cowboy and Wills, about the autistic boy and the dog who helped him. Of course it was inspiring, especially around the gifts pets/animals bring to our lives, how we can love them and the amazing love and countless other things they give back, which for Wills was a huge leap of independence.

I wanted to keep reading and find out how Cowboy helped Wills, how Wills started to learn better how to navigate his world, and was not disappointed. It was a quick read, and satisfying.

Yes, I still want a dog.

Planning on going to see Elizabeth Kostova tonight who wrote The Historian which came out several years ago. Another take on Dracula and vampires, it was dark and mysterious and so creepy that sometimes I had to put it down for a few days because I was too creeped out to keep reading. I really enjoyed it.

She has a new book out, called The Swan Theives. It's big, close to 600 pages (I think), I haven't decided if I want to read it or not. It seems so different than The Historian...and while I really enjoyed The Historian and the Dracula vampire thing, the story itself was kind of convoluted, jumping from time to time in a not perfectly logical pattern (at least to me). I think I have to be ready to immerse myself in another one like that, and I'm not sure I am at the moment. Maybe seeing her at the reading will sway me one way or the other.

I still have Zadie Smith's essays on my nightstand...

Tuesday, January 26, 2010


I'm reading Cowboy and Wills by Monica Holloway. It's a memoir about her son (Wills) and the dog she and her husband get (Cowboy) to help him navigate life. The promotional literature says "you don't have to own a dog or be a parent to enjoy this heartwarming tale".

I wanted to read it because I DO love dogs (don't own one yet, but hope that will change soon), and I don't know much about autism, despite being a parent (the kids are grown), teaching school, and working with young children in social services. I've been exposed to it more at the bookstore. I have parents come in with their kids, or without, and they are requesting very specific books, these kids seem to have very specific interests and knowledge. One mom came in with her son, about 11, and they wanted any and all books about skylines. Specifically Seattle and Portland skylines. They would like lots of pictures of Seattle and Portland skylines, as this child has memorized each of the buildings and likes to see them over and over. Well, we had ONE book on skylines (!) and it wasn't just Portland and Seattle, but it was a start. They spent quite a while spread out on the floor looking at the book.

Back to the book...the mom kind of freaks out when she gets the autism diagnosis for her son, and one of her ways of coping is to go get some pets. They start with fish. They spend hundreds of dollars setting up a lovely aquarium, and Wills does love the fish. Whenever there's another particularly hard time, mom goes out and gets more pets. They move onto hermit crabs. Then hamsters. Then a bunny. And finally (I assume), the dog, a beautiful golden retriever (there are pictures) that Wills names Cowboy. I'm just at the point in the story where Cowboy comes to their house.

I like how she honestly chronicles her fear and panic, wondering if she'll know how to deal with her son's autism, as well as how she copes (she also cleans obsessively), and she describes well her love for Wills and her desire to do what's absolutely best for him.

I don't KNOW, because I'm not there yet in the book, but I predict, that the dog will help Wills (and probably the mom and dad) negotiate his world and provide lots of love.

Thursday, January 21, 2010


Gotta love the man today, a guy in his late 20's, or early 30's, bought two books - the Encyclopedia of Immaturity, and 101 Nights of Grrreat Sex.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Away from grim

I just finished reading Even the Dogs by Jon McGregor. Grim. Hard to read. Fragmented. And well done. I really liked that the arc of the story was the discovery of one man's death, including the following police and coroner investigation and inquest. Interspersed with that were the voices of his friends and family, such as they were, mostly in drug induced states of panic, fear and loneliness.

This was a bit darker (okay, a LOT darker) than I usually read. Before that I read The Bell Jar, so now it's time for something lighter.

I have Zadie Smith's new one, a collection of her essays called Changing My Mind. The first few essays were a little dense and scholarly, we'll see how it goes on. I read On Beauty and loved it, she is a brilliant writer.

There are some people who write both fiction and non-fiction. Sometimes, maybe even often, I find that I prefer one or the other with a particular author. For example, Anne Lamott. I love her non-fiction (Traveling Mercies, Operating Instructions, Bird by Bird), and haven't loved her fiction so much.

Not sure if that will be true with Zadie Smith. If this one feels too dense, I will look for something lighter.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010


On Sunday, a woman at work told me she saw the movie Up in the Air and she really did not like it. It was depressing, she said, and she came away feeling empty and low. Her suggestion was that I not go see it.

My co-worker's comments gave me pause...I had been wanting to see this movie, it's been getting Oscar buzz, and while I didn't know much about the story, I was intrigued by what I heard. From her comments, I realized that it could be depressing and I don't generally like heavy, depressing movies (or books), so maybe I should reconsider rushing out and seeing this movie.

Later that very same day I got a voicemail saying that our out-of-town guest really wanted to see Up in the Air, and maybe I should go see it with him Monday. Up in the Air. The same movie my co-worker had just told me she hated.

What the hell, I thought. I'll go see it and if it's depressing, I'll just chalk it up to experience.

We went to see the movie and I really enjoyed it. I thought it was clever and funny and insightful and touching...

Does this mean you should go right out and see Up in the Air? Or should you read any of the books mentioned in these pages?

Not necessarily.

I think it's about having a trusted voice to recommend, knowing about where your tastes are in relation to the other. Not even necessarily that you like exactly the same things, but it's about knowing what the other likes and how you compare.

This co-worker is not a trusted voice for me. At least not yet. We clearly don't share similar taste in movies, at least not this one. And about books? She highly recommended The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which has been a book I have wanted to read. Will it be a good book for me? I don't know yet. That remains to be seen.

Hopefully you have trusted voices you can depend on to recommend things you will like. Perhaps this blog can be one of those voices. It's probably too soon to tell.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Reading so far in 2010

This year I've been reading...

The Murderer's Daughters by Randy Susan Meyers
The Last Chinese Chef by Nicole Mones
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

The Murderer's Daughters is her first book. Well written, well drawn characters, compelling story. Good read!

I picked up The Last Chinese Chef at work after a customer requested it (yes, I work in a bookstore). I'd read A Cup of Light by Nicole Mones several years ago and loved it. It was luminous. This was very different, really got into Chinese cuisine - and know that here in the US, those two words might seem like an oxymoron, as we are so used to 'Chinese food', which hardly seems gourmet. This book introduced a whole new world of food in China (to me), PLUS a good story (if a teensy bit predictable).

And then The Bell Jar. I'd heard it was really depressing, and I didn't find it so. I found some lovely prose, and yes, not exactly cheerful, but well done and and I quite enjoyed it. Set in the early 1960's, it was interesting to read something really OF that time. And depression in women in the 60's? No surprises there...

Right now I'm reading Even the Dogs by Jon McGregor. It will be out in February. The back of the book uses the words 'fractured narratives', and indeed it is. Telling their own stories, of finding one of their friends dead, their drug use...the style incredibly evokes the gritty and yes, fragmented world of drug use. Not easy to read, intense. Well done.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Just the beginning

Here are books I read in 2009:
Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman
Good Omens Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett
Jesus Land by Julia Scheeres
Voluntary Madness by Norah Vincent
The Complete Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
The Magician's Assistant by Ann Patchett
Sing Them Home by Stephanie Kallos
Affinity by Sarah Waters
Fool by Christopher Moore
It Sucked and then I Cried by Heather Armstrong
Shakespeare by Bill Bryson
American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld
Coyote Blue by Christopher Moore
The Last Time I Was Me by Cathy Lamb
Beautiful Boy by David Sheff
Emotional Geology by Linda Gillard

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
The Sweet Potato Queens' Guide to Raising Children for Fun and Profit by Jill Conner Browne
The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters
The Angel's Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Testimony by Anita Shreve
Now You See Him by Eli Gottlieb
Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett
Vigil by Cecilia Samartin
How Do I Tell the Dog? by Miles Kington
Godmother: The Secret Cinderella Story by Carolyn Turgeon
The Late, Lamented Molly Marx by Sally Koslow
The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted by Elizabeth Berg
The Physick of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe
The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein
The Embers by Hyatt Bass
The Strain by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan
American Shaolin by Matthew Polly
Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips
Hokkaido Highway Blues by Will Ferguson
Half Broke Horses by Jeannette Walls
This is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper
Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear
Boomsday by Christopher Buckley
Run by Ann Patchett
The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown
The Cry of the Sloth by Sam Savage
The Help by Kathryn Stockett
Inside of a Dog by Alexandra Horowitz
Eating the Dinosaur by Chuck Klosterman
Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger
Gentlemen and Players by Joanne Harris
Straight Man by Richard Russo
Caribbean by James Michener
Garnethill by Denise Mina
The Box by Richard Matheson
What the Dog Saw by Malcolm Gladwell
When She Flew, by Jennie Shortridge
The Lost Art of Gratitude by Alexander McCall Smith
Pretty in Plaid by Jen Lancaster
A Mountain of Crumbs by Elena Gorokhova
The Stupidest Angel by Christopher Moore
Wishin' and Hopin' by Wally Lamb
What Wendell Wants by Jenny Lee
How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read by Pierre Bayard

It’s pretty satisfying, seeing the list of books for 2009. I’ve never kept track of what I read (and in what order, not that that matters, but if you’re interested, the books I read starting in January 2009 are at the top…).

Some of them will stick with me more than others…The Help was one I really enjoyed. There is a reason it is still on bestseller lists. Told from the point of view of three women in the South in the 1960’s, it really captured (it seemed to me) what was going on in the 60's with civil rights, etc. It told a larger story on a personal level. At first the first narrator’s ‘voice’ didn’t feel/seem authentic to me, but I went with it and ended up loving it.

There are several on that list by Christopher Moore…one of my ATF’s (All Time Favorites. I just made that up). Sometimes his stuff can be really wacky, too wacky for me, though I really liked Coyote Blue and The Stupidest Angel. My favorite of his is Lamb…these were good too. I’d been part of a bookring by mail for Coyote Blue and I had to buy a copy for myself after I sent it on.

The Art of Racing in the Rain…really really enjoyed that one, told from the point of view of Enzo, the dog, the story was engaging, funny, touching, sad…a wonderful read.

A Mountain of Crumbs…I was lucky enough to get an advance reader copy of this, it's just been released. In it, Elena tells the story of her childhood in Russia…great to get a glimpse into a childhood that was so different than mine. Somewhere (in some of the promotional literature maybe?), it described it at a Russian Angela’s Ashes…um, maybe, though I enjoyed this one more than Angela’s Ashes.

A couple of them made me laugh, really laugh, which is just the best. Heather Armstrong’s It Sucked and then I Cried was one, this is her book version (from her blog) of getting pregnant and having a baby. I’m sure part of my enjoyment was the distance I have from being pregnant and having babies, which is just fine with me. Also Jill Connor Browne’s Sweet Potato Queen’s Guide to Raising Children for Fun and Profit was very funny. I first heard about the Sweet Potato Queens when I (almost randomly) chose her first book on audio at the public library for a road trip I was taking. I had no idea what to expect, figured if I didn’t like it, I could stop listening to it. She is the reader on the audio version and there were times I was laughing so hard I was crying. I read this one all by myowneself, though she is great on audio.

Oh, by the way, WELCOME TO THE BLOG. Obviously, this is not the New York Times Book Review, this is written by a person (or maybe 2) who loves books, buys them, sells them, reads them and maybe even writes them.