Tuesday, October 30, 2012

More Baths Less Talking

by Nick Hornby
San Francisco, CA : Believer Books, [2012].

In this collection of "Stuff I'm Reading" columns that Nick Hornby writes for the Believer magazine, he is back after a hiatus of, well, not writing such columns, that he finished in Shakespeare Wrote for Money. The essays in More Baths Less Talking cover about a year and a half (May 2010 to November/December 2011) of reflections on what he's read. Each column starts out with two lists - books bought and book read - followed by an essay filled with humor, his life, and most of all books.

I love these columns. There are now four books in the series that can be read in any order, but it is fun to pick up a new book and remember past columns to which he occasionally refers. While Hornby's taste is generally quite different from mine, I nevertheless always add a book or two to the ever-growing to be read list while dipping into these collections. Mostly, though, I just enjoy getting into the head of another reader, someone who loves books as much as I do and who can write about it in a cogent, interesting, and funny way. Reading these books always leaves me wishing I could write my own column like that, but I know I could never do it as well. I shall have to settle for reading (and rereading) Nick Hornby's columns, and wishing that the columns and his books were longer.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Game Day

Game day : sports writings, 1970-1990
by Thomas Boswell
New York : Doubleday, 1990.

Thomas Boswell is a veteran writer for the Washington Post whom I never would have heard of if it hadn't been for a friend of mine. Despite the fact that he will only read an actual book if it's not available on the Kindle, he happens to be one of the only people I know in person who reads anywhere close to what I read in a year (and he claims it's only one fifth of what I read). So, every now and then I'll ask him what he's reading, and a month and a half ago, this was it. At least, I'm about 80% sure I got the author right. But regardless of whether or not I actually picked up the same book or author, the fact remains that I would not have chosen to read this book if it had not been for my friend's recommendation.

Boswell covers football, basketball, boxing, golf, the Olympics, tennis, and baseball. I watch the first and the last three, so of course found those the most interesting, while the middle dragged a little for me. But my friend described this as a book about various sports that had the most words he'd ever have to look up in the dictionary. I admit that was the selling point for me; I am a sucker for learning new words. Though I spent the first 100 or so pages wondering what he was talking about, in the remaining pages I wrote down a dozen or so to look up, from words I'd never read before, such as ectomorph (an individual with a slender, lean body, a slight build), to words I didn't know specific to a sport, such as a dogleg in golf (crooked or bent like a dog's hind leg as in "a sharp dogleg bend in the fairway"). What my friend didn't tell me was the Boswell has a bit of a philosophical bent, too, from ruminating on the way in which talking about sports has become the American way of talking about deep thoughts of morals and politics when it just appears to be about "only a game," to his sounding off on our tendency to demonize athletes when they make a mistake. He references classical mythology, John Updike, Moby-Dick, and Emily Dickinson (actually, he didn't just reference her, he had two of her poems in one article).

I had a mixed reaction overall. When I was reading about the sports I didn't really care about, I found myself characterizing the book as something that my friend was interested in professionally (he's a local sportswriter himself), and not something that I could see appealing to the general public. I almost put the book down multiple times - I like sports, but 300+ pages of sports columns is quite a commitment. But about two thirds of the way into the book, I started 1. finding more new words and 2. settled into a rhythm where I found myself enjoying the smart references and vivid descriptions. And, the truth is, once I got to the Olympics, I was back in sports I was interested in. Would I recommend it? Not for the casual fan. But if you follow a variety of sports, know your 1970s to 90s sports history, or are interested in sports journalism in general, then yes, this was an engaging, smart collection that you may find thought-provoking.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Binocular Vision

by Edith Pearlman
Wilmington : Lookout Books/University of North Carolina Wilmington, c2011.

In this collection of thirty-four stories, Edith Pearlman brings into sharp focus the everyday and extraordinary lives of people. Many of them are set just outside of Boston, and many of them have Jewish characters. While many modern short story writers seem to take a depressing tone, Pearlman's are never that simple. Some are sad; many are hopeful. Most were, at the very least, thought-provoking.

But it would be hard to take such a variegated collection and begin to make generalizations without losing the beauty of each individual one. Pearlman has a real gift for language that made reading each of these short stories a pleasure. I found myself wanting to both rush and slow down at the same time. I would hold out the treat of reading a story as a gift to myself: if you finish getting ready for work, you can read one more.

One of my favorite stories was "Jan Term," told in the form of a composition a Josie, a student composed telling about what she did over the last school break, but illuminating so much more about her life. "Elder Jinks" tells the story of two older people who married, but it left me thinking about both the compromises and discoveries you make through marriage. Then there was a series of stories set during and after World War 2 that had some recurring characters, but in different situations. These were just a few of the stories I could happily revisit, and I feel sure that whether a story left me happy, sad, or unsettled, I could reread it and know I gained a richer understanding.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Caleb's Crossing

by Geraldine Brooks
New York : Viking, 2011.

Bethia Mayfield is the daughter of the preacher on Martha's Vineyard, a man who sees it as his life's work to preach the gospel to the Indians. On one of Bethia's rambles in the wilderness of this land, she encounters a young Wampanoag, whom she renames Caleb, a young man whose friendship she treasures, but would never be sanctioned in the 1660s.

I have read other novels by Geraldine Brooks, but never have I been so enthralled with them as I was with Caleb's Crossing. Bethia, our narrator, is a young woman with a keen mind and thirst for knowledge but also devout and not unbelievably modern in her thinking. Caleb was based on a real person, one of the first Wampanoag men to matriculate at Harvard. As in the best historical fiction, time and place - in both Martha's Vineyard and Cambridge - are evocative and realistic with historical details naturally adding to the narrative, showing Brooks' research with a light touch. I now want to follow up with some of the sources mentioned in the afterword to learn more about the time period. In addition to this, Brooks delicately touches on the themes of religion and prejudice without sounding preachy or anachronistic. Truly superb historical fiction.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Among Others

by Jo Walton
New York : Tor, 2011.

Morwenna Phelps Markova ran away from her crazy mother after her sister's death and her own injury, and is now living with the father she never met. Her aunts send her to boarding school, and her diary is filled with what she does at school, what she ran from in the past, and how she deals with her world by reading tons of fantasy and SF in 1979 and 1980.

Though most of the book reads like a standard coming-of-age novel, there are two major differences. One, there are fairies. Two, Morwenna reads a lot of fantasy and SF - I counted around 100 books mentioned - and if you're at all interested in the genre, you will enjoy her discussion of books. The fairies are a bit harder to describe, but I thought it was done with a light touch making this a sort-of fantasy because of the presence of magic. A diary format can be hard to pull off, but this read really naturally as Morwenna's thoughts and recounting of the day to day, and lent itself to only marginally explaining what had happened in the past. In a way, her diary more about the aftermath than the actual happening. I enjoyed the story on a first read, but I think I would have to reread it to better articulate exactly what I thought about it.