Friday, March 30, 2007

Spring has sprung

We're in full spring mode here in Los Angeles--blossoms everywhere, allergic noses running, blue sky above. Wait, the blue sky is here every season.

Took a picture of my neighbor's tree, which is in full bloom. I don't know anything about this particular tree, except that it supposedly hails from Australia, and the flowers smell really nice.


by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Nothing is so beautiful as Spring—
When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;
The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush
The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush
With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.

What is all this juice and all this joy?
A strain of the earth’s sweet being in the beginning
In Eden garden.—Have, get, before it cloy,

Before it cloud, Christ, lord, and sour with sinning,
Innocent mind and Mayday in girl and boy,
Most, O maid’s child, thy choice and worthy the winning.

I love the line "What is all this juice and all this joy?", don't you?

You Don't Love Me Yet, by Jonathan Lethem--a review

I loved Jonathan Lethem’s earlier novel, The Fortress of Solitude, so I had to pick up his new one, You Don't Love Me Yet: A Novel. The Fortress of Solitude is a complex novel on a grand scale, so I was surprised at the slimness of this volume—and it turns out this is a simpler, quieter book.

It’s the story of the almost rise and fall of an indie band in the artsy Los Angeles neighborhood of Silver Lake. I have to stop right here and admit that I probably liked this book more than I would have if it wasn’t set in L.A. I spent my 20’s in L.A., not in a band, but living almost as marginal a life as these characters, doing similarly stupid jobs. Lethem’s descriptions of this life are spot on.

The novel’s main character is Lucinda, a 29-year-old underemployed, self-taught bassist. The band also includes her newly ex-boyfriend, the gorgeous singer, Matthew, the band’s “genius” songwriter and pathologically shy guitar player Bedwin, and the straight-talking drummer Denise. They practice desultorily but have never played a gig.

Lucinda also works for her artist friend Falmouth, who has put together a theatrical piece where he’s set up a fake complaint hotline, and hired Lucinda and other women to listen to the callers’ complaints.

Lucinda falls in love, or maybe just lust, with one of the complainers, middle-aged Carl, who seduces her by talking about his difficulties in love. The complainer’s clever phrases stick with her, and she passes them along without attribution to Bedwin, the band’s songwriter, when he is stuck for lyrics.

The complainer’s words and Bedwin’s music create what could be the band’s first hit, if the band members didn’t get in their own way.

And when the complainer recognizes his words in the band’s songs, complications, as they say, ensue. At this point, there is an ominous feel to the story, since the complainer, Carl, is a wild card. Is he going to explode in some way? Is the story going to end in bloodshed? I won’t spoil the ending, except to say that Lethem’s light tone never fails.

I probably would have liked this more as a first novel; as a stand-alone piece rather than compared to Lethem’s earlier work. But I did like the book. Lethem’s writing can be lyrical, and he often made me laugh. I liked the goodnatured slackerhood of the characters, though I never felt I knew them deeply. (I find them much more appealing, however, than the characters in Claire Messud’s The Emperor's Children(see my review), who are the same generation, but whiny and frenetic in their ambition instead). I also like the absurdities in the story. When characters with names like Falmouth Strand, Fancher Autumnbreast and Jules Harvey do things like staging art happenings or steal a kangaroo from the zoo, Lethem presents it with such a sly sense of humor that it all works.

Also interesting is the intellectual property aspect of the story, in light of the author’s interest in sharing his work for others to adapt. Through his Promiscuous Materials Project, Lethem is making stories and song lyrics available for other artists to use, to adapt to film or stage, or put to music. It’s a generous and fascinating idea—his website explains it more fully. And read with this in mind, You Don’t Love Me Yet becomes more interesting. Carl the complainer’s complaints provide material for Lucinda and Bedwin’s songs, but while he complained, Carl didn’t know he was creating anything, much less art. Is this appropriation, or is it the way we all create? It’s food for thought…

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Tag-I'm it

What a nice surprise, yesterday I was "tagged" by one of the bloggers I love to read, Robin at A Fondness for Reading. In this game of tag, I name five (non kid-lit) blogs that I enjoy reading. That's easy; narrowing it down is hard.

Confessions of a Pioneer Woman
- I visit for the slice of ranch life, the beautiful photos, the recipes, and her sassy attitude.

Design Sponge - Great if you're into design, which I'm not, really--but it sure is a pretty site.

GottaBook - Kid-lit related, but also about poetry, pop culture, writing, blogging, and other fun stuff.

Mental Multivitamin
- First of all, it's got a great name. Mostly about books, but also art, writing, learning.

Box of Books - Nice mix of books and personal. Also her baby is two, and so is my littlest one. Plus she's reading a lot of the classics I read or want to read.

And I could go on and on...

So I'll tag the other blogs that I could easily have included on my list of 5--that way I can learn more about these interesting folks if they choose to take up the challenge and list their 5 favorites:

bookgirl's nightstand (she rocks!), So Many Books, and Pages Turned.

So--tag, you're it!

Monday, March 26, 2007


I ran across an interesting book swap site called BookMooch recently. It's a "community for exchanging used books". Here's how they say it works:

1. Type in books you want to give away.

2. Receive requests from others for your books.

3. Mail your books and receive points.

4. Ask for books from others with your points.

I've never used it, but it sounds great. And--if you're like me, and have lots of books to give away, but don't really need to be acquiring new books all the time--they have an option to give your points to a long list of charities they work with. Now there's a good idea.

I'm sure there are other services out there like this. Has anyone used this one or any others?


Okay, not strictly about books, but this is a fascinating blog, and there have been three books created out of the material collected by PostSecret.

PostSecret is an ongoing community art project where people mail in their secrets anonymously on one side of a homemade postcard.

Check out other people's secrets, or send one in, here:


From a post on the blog: "Every single person has at least one secret that would break your heart. If we could just remember this, I think there would be a lot more compassion and tolerance in the world."

Saturday, March 24, 2007

The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick--a review

My friend Greg (see Thursday's post, and his blog GottaBook) has done it again. He recommended a very cool book for my son that we both ended up reading. If you have a reluctant reader (ages 9-12) in your house, this might be just the thing.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick, is unusual for several reasons. First of all it weighs in at a hefty 500+ pages, but it shouldn't be intimidating, because it isn't all text. It's a very careful blending of pictures and text, sort of like a graphic novel, but...different. The format is really unique. Selznick uses his beautiful pencil drawings to create action sequences, which he intersperses with the text, and which you view almost like the frames of a film.

Kids might know Selznick's artwork from his illustrations of other books, including the Caldecott-winning The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins, or Walt Whitman: Words for America, or When Marian Sang.

The story, set in Paris in 1931, is about 12-year-old orphan Hugo Cabret, who lives in secret in a train station and takes care of the clocks there. He is a mechanical genius from a family of clockmakers, and he is obsessed with fixing a broken, man-shaped automaton that his father had been trying to fix before he died.

When Hugo runs afoul of the bitter, old toyshop owner he has been stealing mechanical parts from, the story becomes a mystery--and the story unfolds to create a better life for both the old man and the young boy.

The pictures are used very cleverly to advance the story, and so the plot sails smoothly along, which I think is satisfying for young readers. Selznick doesn't do as well with character development, however--I would say the characters are the weak link in this book. Hugo's secrets, the old man Georges' crankiness, his goddaughter Isabelle's secrets--all the characters' motivations are explained by the end of the book, but feel thin in the telling.

One nice by-product of reading this book--my son got interested in the early, silent movies that this book talks about, and shows stills from, which has kicked off a fun film festival here at our house.

Overall, it's a beautiful book, and it will give reluctant readers a great sense of accomplishment when they finish it.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

GottaBook and Book Talk

My friend Greg--poet, writer, children's literature aficionado, blogger extraordinaire--has a great monthly column called Book Talk on At Book Talk, Greg passes along his recommendations for books for kids ages 0 to 12. Check out his column and his blog, GottaBook, which has fabulous poetry and lots of other great stuff. is a great spot to find mothering tips and talk, and also runs a periodic column called Rearing Readers: Everyday Ideas for Encouraging Literacy, which is worth checking out if you're a parent trying to get your kids to read without becoming a complete nagging bore. Okay, I admit it, sometimes I need help in this area.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Reading Like a Writer, by Francine Prose, and other stuff

I was on one of the blogs I like to visit, A Fondness for Reading, and I saw that Robin had a book on her "What I'm Reading Now" list that's on my night table. It's Francine Prose's book, Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them. I'm not that far in, but I love it already. I love all that Prose says about close reading. Her stories about becoming a book lover in childhood are just like my childhood memories of reading. She says:

"Not long ago, a friend told me that her students had complained that reading masterpieces made them feel stupid. But I've always found that the better the book I'm reading, the smarter I feel, or, at least, the more able I am to imagine that I might, someday, become smarter."

I just love her voice.

Also on A Fondness for Reading was a lovely photo of spring flowers, which inspired me to take one in my backyard, of my crazy wisteria. Here it is.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The Inheritance of Loss, by Kiran Desai: a review

The Inheritance of Loss, by Kiran Desai, is up for an Orange Prize in 2007, after winning the Man Booker in 2006. I read the book last fall (along with my book group) and enjoyed it, though maybe not as much as the Booker folks did.

The book tells the story of 16-year-old orphan Sai, who has come to Kalimpong, a hill station in the foothills of the Indian Himalayas, to live with her crusty, old grandfather Jemubhai Patel, a retired judge, who is more attached to his dog than to his granddaughter, or to any other human. In parallel is the story of Biju, son of the judge's cook, who has gone to America to make money, and struggles there in menial jobs.

The book is what I call a time travelogue, transporting me to another time and place, this time northern India on the eve of revolution in the late 1980s. I think the writer has done a beautiful job describing the time and place, and I like Sai, her budding romance with her Nepalese tutor Gyan, and all of the colorful minor characters who populate Sai's small world.

I kept hoping for Sai's relationship with her grandfather to develop, and become redemptive for him. I also wanted Biju's story to intersect with Sai's, and for the climactic moments of revolutionary violence to play out more in the characters' lives. But I thought the writing was strong and lyrical, and I really enjoyed Desai's depiction of Kalimpong.

One of my book groupers sent me a picture of Kalimpong, which was great to have while reading the book. Can't find it, or I'd post it here--it looks like a beautiful place.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Lionel Shriver in the NY Times

Saw the profile in the NY Times of Lionel Shriver, whose new novel The Post-Birthday World seems to be everywhere at the moment. I just ordered it, so it will soon be on the night table. She sounds a little wacky here. For example, she changed her name from Margaret Ann to Lionel, at 15--"having discarded a series of earlier aliases, including Tony, she decided, for no particular reason, she said, that her name would be Lionel." Hmmm...interesting. Looking forward to reading the book.

Blurbanite, part deux

Okay, how's this for the quintessential blurb? It's on the back of Julie & Julia, My Year of Cooking Dangerously, by Julie Powell.

"A really good book."
- Lauren F. Winner, Washington Post Book World

Short and sweet, tells it like it is, no verbal gymnastics. Gotta love it.

Friday, March 16, 2007

New Annotated Versions of Old Favorites

There's a great article by William Grimes in the NY Times Weekend Arts section, about new annotated versions of some classic novels, especially one of Pride and Prejudice, by David M. Shapard. P and P is one of those books I re-read, and I look forward to reading this annotated version. This article talks about all the details of the period that are illuminated by this guide. For true fans, this kind of thing is great, but for most readers, I think unnecessary.

As Grimes says, anyone who reads Shapard's guide will "read Pride and Prejudice as it was read and understood at the time of its publication, with all the period details in place and correctly interpreted."

He goes on to say:

"But the novel, in most respects, remains the same. The reader who does not know a farthing from a guinea, it's safe to say, will nonetheless grasp the great drama of attraction and repulsion that plays out between Darcy and Elizabeth. The cut and thrust of their conversation is timeless. Generations of young women who do not know the first thing about an entailed state or a quadrille will recognize in Austen's heroine a kindred spirit..."

The mores have changed, but the people remain the same. And of course that's why Pride and Prejudice is one of my comfort novels, one of the books I return to, especially when I need to curl up by the fire and escape the modern world.

Here's a link if you want to buy David M. Shapard's Annotated Pride and Prejudice at Amazon:

Thursday, March 15, 2007

The Summer Project

In the summers I like to take on a classic as my reading project--either one I've never read, or one I haven't read in years. Last summer it was Anna Karenina, which I loved getting lost in. I had forgotten how much I had originally liked the other characters (meaning everyone besides Anna and Vronsky), especially the novel's real protagonist, Levin, and Kitty, Dolly and Stiva.

So...this summer. I've read lots of Trollope, so I don't think I'll do that. I was thinking of Dickens' Our Mutual Friend, or maybe Eliot's Middlemarch. So, help me pick a classic for the summer. Read it too. We'll talk.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

The Namesake, by Jhumpa Lahiri, a review--and the film

Okay, I almost never go to the movies any more--and I live in Hollywood--it's expected of me! But with three kids, who has the time? And with the cost of the babysitter, the tickets, and the popcorn, who has the cash?

But I might make the effort and see director Mira Nair's newest, an adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri's first novel The Namesake: A Novel.

The Namesake is a drama about an Indian family in America, focusing on the son, Gogol Ganguli, who is saddled with the neither Indian nor American name of Gogol, after the writer. Lahiri tells the tale of Gogol's growing up straddling American and Bengali culture with wit and sensitivity. The Namesake is a satisfying follow-up after Lahiri's Pulitzer-prize-winning book of stories, Interpreter of Maladies.

And the earlier work of film director Mira Nair, who has tackled The Namesake, is worth checking out on Netflix. I couldn't bring myself to see her version of Thackeray's Vanity Fair (2004), which starred Reese Witherspoon, but I have always loved her earlier movie Mississippi Masala (1991), a romance about the adventures of an Indian family transplanted to the American south, with a hunky, young Denzel Washington in the lead. Also great are her films Salaam Bombay (1988), and Monsoon Wedding (2001).

Finding the Time - a list

For those of you who asked (you know who you are) when I find the time to read, a list:

1. in the bathroom (of course).
2. in the carpool line.
3. in all waiting rooms, but especially the orthodontist.
4. in the delicious moments before sleep.
5. during baby's nap time.
6. while the pasta boils.
7. when the kids have to read for their school reading logs.

Anybody else have any creative ways they find time to read? Let me know.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Everyone's a Critic

I picked up Kate Atkinson's new book One Good Turn last night, and was reading along happily when, gulp, I read...

Wait, let me back up for a sec. Let me just say that I'm a big fan of Kate Atkinson. Really loved her book Behind the Scenes at the Museum, which was a sort of sprawling, family drama with a wicked sense of humor. Then I read and liked Case Histories, which was a sort of literary murder mystery. So I was happy to see this book, and I'm liking it, too.

So I'm on page 11--enjoying her sense of humor--where she's describing her character Martin Canning, a mild-mannered mystery writer, and his work. She's describing his novels, talking about his seventh:

"The seventh was "darker", everyone seemed to agree ("Blake is finally moving toward a more mature noir style," "a reader" had written on Amazon. Everyone's a critic.)"

Ouch. That Amazon critic sounds like me. Ah, well, it's true. Everyone with a laptop and some free blogging software is a critic these days.

But the writer Mary Gordon (in the NY Times) said, “I subscribe to the theory that a good review makes you feel good for seven minutes, and a bad review makes you feel miserable for seven years,” and I have to respect that (see the very interesting article)

So that is part of the reason why I am a gentle reader. I really don't write about things I don't like. What's the point? Why waste the mental energy? However, that isn't to say that I'm always 100% nice...

Hmmm, I wonder what Kate would think...

Monday, March 12, 2007

Julie & Julia, My Year of Cooking Dangerously, by Julie Powell--a review

What would you do if you were approaching 30, unsure of your fertility, and stuck in a dead-end job? Why, take on a crazy project and blog about it, of course.

That's what Julie Powell, author of Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously, did. Bored with secretarial work, she decided to cook every recipe in her favorite old cookbook, Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, in one year.

Not to get personal, but when you write a memoir, people respond personally. At first, I wasn't so sure I liked Julie. Sure, she's an obsessive, sailor-mouthed, vintage-wearing Democrat--I could get behind all that--but she's also kind of whiny. But then somewhere in the middle of the book she sort of relaxes, and all of a sudden I could relate. Ultimately her love of books, the way she deals with her crazy friends, her sweet relationship with her husband, and her willingness to slog through Julia Child's insanely complicated recipes won me over.

When I finished the book, I toasted her with a brioche and jam. I'm looking forward to her next zany project. I also realized I have to read Julia Child's book, My Life in France, so I put it on my night table...

L.A. Festival of Books

Hey all you Angelenos, the L.A. Times-sponsored Festival of Books is coming to the UCLA campus the weekend of April 28th and 29th. No joke, it's billed as "the country's largest celebration of the written word." They're open Saturday from 10 to 6, Sunday from 10 to 5. Normally I don't actually go, having three kids to wrangle and all, but I'm going to try to make it this year. The list of authors includes a whole bunch of people I don't care about, plus some I'm really interested in: Vikram Chandra, T.C. Boyle, Jane Smiley and Gore Vidal. They also advertise two children's areas, so if your kids are more amenable than mine, you could try it.

Sunday, March 11, 2007


Spy magazine used to run a feature called "Logrolling In Our Time", which I always found hilarious. No, it wasn't about the lumberjack contest of surefootedness--Wikipedia defines it as "suspicious or humorous examples of mutually admiring book jacket blurbs by pairs of authors". I haven't found so many blurbs with suspicious mutal praise by authors of each other's work, but I have found some entertaining blurbs, which I will occasionally pass on to you.

Here's one from the back of Patricia Marx's book Him Her Him Again The End of Him:

"If you're like me, you read a blurb and think, Oh, I didn't know they were friends. But I hardly know Patty--we had dinner once (with other people, and all she had was a Diet Coke). So you can believe me when I say: This may be the funniest book I've ever read. The funniest. Ever. And keep in mind I didn't write this blurb as a favor to Patty. I did it for you. So you'd be able to pick out the funniest book in the store and take it home and laugh your head off." --Melissa Bank, author of The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing

And it's true--Patricia Marx's book is pretty damn funny.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Theft, by Peter Carey--a review

In recent years I’ve had to get over my need for appealing main characters in the books I read—an immature need, I admit, but when my heroes were flawed, I needed them to be somehow lovable. Maybe I’ve just started to take more pleasure in reading about venal people, but I enjoyed the characters in Peter Carey’s novel Theft.

Ah, the Australian sensibility. Ah, the maleness of it all. Since I so often read female writers, it can be quite a change of pace to read a really manly male writer.

Theft is the story of Michael “Butcher” Boone, a successful Australian painter who came from the Australian boonies, and is down-and-out after his recent divorce. The novel chronicles Butcher's relationship with beautiful and mysterious Marlene Leibovitz, wife of Olivier Leibovitz, son of very famous painter Jacques Leibovitz. Butcher is also saddled with caring for his “damaged”, 220-lb. brother Hugh, with whom he shares the narration of the story.

Throughout the course of the story, Marlene involves Butcher in a plot to defraud the art world, which Butcher doesn’t mind doing, since he feels he’s been screwed over by that same world. Butcher and Hugh are never quite loveable, but they are mere bumblers compared to Marlene, the mastermind of the art fraud, and a master manipulator. Marlene leads Butcher down the path to feloniousness, but he is not innocent, either, and everyone's guilt and/or complicity is part of what makes this novel interesting.

As a thriller, the novel works but doesn’t dazzle—however, Carey’s use of language always dazzles. The prose is colorful and energetic, and Carey’s sense of humor is rapier sharp. His descriptions of the act of painting, of picking out pigments and mixing them and then creating art with them, are an absolute joy to read.

The Emperor's Children, by Claire Messud--a review

I love a good comedy of manners, which is why I can often be found re-reading Jane Austen when I’m not reading more recent novels. In The Emperor’s Children, Claire Messud has created an entertaining, modern comedy of manners, a sharply observed portrait of vain, young Ivy League New Yorkers who believe themselves to be the cultural elite.

Marina Thwaite, Danielle Minkoff and Julius Clarke met at Brown, and now they struggle to make it in the rarefied world of the media. Danielle is a TV documentarian, and Julius a freelance critic, and Marina, beautiful daughter of celebrated journalist Murray Thwaite, is stymied trying to write a book in the shadow of her famous father. The fun starts when the snake-like Ludovic begins to court Marina with an eye to toppling her father from his pedestal as an icon, and when Murray’s nephew “Bootie”, an unrealistically idealistic autodidact, comes to town to try take the intellectual world by storm.

Particularly good are Messud’s depictions of pompous blowhard Murray Thwaite and his daughter, Marina, who has been paralyzed by his exalted status. I spent the first half of the book really disliking all of the characters, until I just let go and decided to enjoy disliking them--revel in it, in fact.

The action takes place in the months leading up to and just after 9/11. At first I thought the setting was gratuitous--the final plot twist depending on the attacks for its power—but later I decided that Messud was saying something more about our entitled society as a target.

This, of course, made me think about novelists using 9/11 as a setting. Clearly some feel compelled to. Has anybody done it well yet? I don't know, you tell me. The three others I've come up with are Wendy Wasserstein's Elements of Style
, Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and Julia Glass's The Whole World Over, none of which I have read. Anyone want to weigh in?