March 30, 2003

Giggling Into the Pillow, by Chris Bridges

Let's start with the admission of bias: partway through reading this book, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I'm in it. Well, sort of. One of the pieces herein -- "A Tall Tale" -- features a fictionalized version of me, and the real version is referred to in the notes preceding and following the piece, albeit using the psuedonym I worked under when I worked for Clean Sheets. It's not the best piece in the book by a long shot, but I still find it gratifying.

(Incidentally, I did write a followup to that story at the time... I might be induced to repost the thing, if asked.)

Anyway, this is that rare case in which the cover really does give you a good idea of what you're in for, perhaps because it was designed by the author. The dominant image is of a nude, reclining woman... wearing Groucho Marx glasses. "Finally, a book about sex that's funny on purpose!" proclaims the blurb just above her. Indeed.

This book is a collection of various pieces Chris has written over the years, mostly for his own site devoted to humor and sexuality, Hoot Island. (Warning: probably not a work-safe link.)

[I never did get around to finishing this entry. I liked the book a lot. There's a blurb page here.]

Posted by Shmuel at 11:43 PM

March 28, 2003

Growing Up Weightless, by John M. Ford

This starts out really good. Ford sets up an intriguing situation, with a protagonist completely enmeshed within Lunar society, who doesn't even know how much he takes for granted every aspect and convention of being a Lunar native... who wants more than anything to leave the moon, or so he believes. The big question is how that's going to be resolved, and, alas, the author punts it. The last 35 pages or so, in which the whole thing is hastily wrapped up, pretty much totally suck.

With that said, Ford gets points on style; he does a nice jobs of seamlessly switching between perspectives (there's not a single chapter or section break in the whole book, and there's only one jarring transition in the bunch), and of making those perspectives noticably different from one another.

It's not a bad book. But it could have been so much better, had the ending lived up to the beginning.

Posted by Shmuel at 2:18 PM

March 27, 2003

The Princess Bride by William Goldman

The book is better than the movie.

Much, much, much better. And you should know that I love the movie. The book just has so much more character to it; there are layers upon layers of author and editorial notes that tell a story of their own. You can't quite distinguish reality from the fiction, and that's one of the points of the book. There's also background and history and context like you wouldn't believe. Ever wondered WHY Fezzik had a holocaust cloak? Read the book.

Just read it. I was lucky enough to read this in high school as an assignment. Part of one of my exams was to write a "reunion scene" for the end of the book - I still think it was one of the best things I ever wrote.

Read it and enjoy.

Posted by Erin at 1:02 PM

March 25, 2003

An Anniversary to Die For by Valerie Wolzien

The continuing mystery adventures of WASPy, rich Susan Henshaw, a housewife in Connecticut. I think Wolzien loves to write this character; Susan seems like a genuinely nice mother, wife, and friend who is involved in her community and just happens to have a LOT of money at her disposal. The money is never a character in the novels -- at least not for Susan. It's an interesting glimpse for me since, while I might be WASPy, I'm not rich, a housewife, or in the Northeast. :-)

That said ... well, it's just another adventure. I had this one figured out pretty early. It says something that I can't even remember the resolution of the novel; it just didn't seem important. It's almost like the murder portion of this mystery novel only had the purpose of serving as framework for the updates in Susan's life. Those updates are one of the aspects I truly enjoy about this series - the characters move through time in a realistic manner. Susan's children were in middle and high school when the series started. Now the youngest is in college and the eldest has graduated and gotten married. I like it when time actually progresses in novels.

Posted by Erin at 1:11 PM

March 17, 2003

Bee Season, by Myla Goldberg

The story of a Jewish guy who gets into mysticism without anything resembling a firm grounding in Jewish tradition or practices, with the predictable result being that he gets everything wrong and his family falls apart.

...well, okay, that's not the way the author intended it to be read, but that is sort of what I got out of it.

There's also this whole bit about spelling bees, and I must say that I'd expect a book about words not to misuse both "enormity" and "momentarily" along the way. (Quite jarringly, in the latter case: "The smile that appears momentarily erases years of report card trauma." What she means is that the smile appears a moment later. What she writes is either that the smile flickers onto his face for a fleeting instant, or that the smile erases her trauma for a fleeting instant. It takes much longer than a fleeting instant to untangle the syntax, figure out what she had in mind, and consider throwing the book across the room.)

Still, it must be granted that the book is generally well-written, although it skips around perspectives and time periods in a sometimes frustrating manner and end in the middle of nowhere.

It ain't bad. But it ain't great either. I can't recommend it.

Posted by Shmuel at 6:12 PM

March 15, 2003

Skipping Christmas, by John Grisham


Posted by Shmuel at 10:54 PM

The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio: How My Mother Raised 10 Kids on 25 Words or Less, by Terry Ryan

Oh, this was good.

The subtitle concisely summarizes the entire book. It's the true story of how the author's mother, during the contest craze of the 1950s and 1960s, entered every contest in sight, winning often enough to keep the family afloat.

I liked this for several reasons. For one thing, I confess I give bonus points to any book chronicling a family whose size is in the ballpark of mine. (Ten is close enough to be in the ballpark, I figure.) This is one reason why I've long been a fan of Cheaper by the Dozen and Belles on their Toes. (Of course, small families can be nice, too: that's one reason why I've liked watching The Brady Bunch over the years.)

Anyway. Aside from that, the story is engaging, and it's pretty well written. I particularly liked the fact that the author didn't fall into the trap of foreshadowing contest entries that were going to win. As the narrative progresses, some contests disappear into the mists after the entries are sent out, never to be heard of again, while others pay off. You have to read on to discover which is which, though.

Finally, the book includes many of the actual contest entries, and while some of them are almost incomprehensible (but right up the alley of the contest judges), others are a delight to read. In one case, I'd actually read it before, in a collection of Burma-Shave signs, just without attribution to the author. (It's a real beaut, having relevance both to the actual product, and to the fact that it's being read from a car speeding along a highway: "Hairpin turn, / Hotrod ditched. / Lost control, / His whiskers / Itched. / Burma-Shave.")

Posted by Shmuel at 10:53 PM

Ella Minnow Pea: A Progressively Lipogrammatic Epistolary Fable, by Mark Dunn

I had high expectations for this one, having heard its praises sung by several people in the past. Perhaps this is the reason why I found it to be somewhat anticlimactic. It's a fun read; don't get me wrong. For plot-based reasons that you can read in any review, including the blurb at a popular online bookseller, in each successive chapter of the novel, one or more letters of the alphabet stops being used. An increasing number of circumlocutions are put into use to achieve this, an effect I'm employing here on the sentence level. While this is cute and amusing, and while it is, on the whole, fun to scan, that's about all there is to it. It's progressively lipogrammatic plus epistolary, yes, but re: the last subtitle term, it's rather thin. It is merely a shaggy canine story with a literary veneer. Anyway, go on, peruse it; however, raise not your hopes for meaning. The novel's purpose is thin. Playing with lexemes is all.

I could go on in that mode, with each sentence using only the letters employed in each successive chapter of the book, but I tire of this. I do have a bit more to say, but only to those who have finished the book, it being as spoilerific as it's possible to get. That'll follow at the end of this entry.

Otherwise, what was the typesetter of the hardcover edition thinking? A jarringly informal italic typeface is used throughout. This may have been an attempt to convey the feel of handwritten letters, but that effect is shattered by the use of a non-italic sans-serif face for italics. They should have either stuck with their original typeface and used underlined words for italics, or abandoned the whole idea and used a more conventional typeface from the start. (No "Note on the Type" is provided, by the way. Perhaps this was an attempt to protect the reputation of the typefaces in question.)

Anyway, those who haven't read the book, this is the point to stop reading.

(Major spoilers follow!)

So, it's like this. As I've said above, Ella Minnow Pea is a shaggy-dog story; the author clearly started with the ending and wrote the rest of the novel around it. This is well and good, but I wish he'd done a better job of it. For while the novel in general is a smooth read, when he tries to nonchalantly slip in the punchline, he bobbles it. I found myself reading the key sentence over several times, when I first encountered it, wondering why it seemed so out of place. I did not, at the time, realize that it was a pangram, but something definitely seemed off, if for no other reason than that the word "liquor" had never been used before with reference to the miniature amphorae (nor, I think, in any other connection), even in the two chapters in which that would have been permitted. Dunn really should have established the usage earlier; he didn't; in a book as concerned with words as this one -- and one in which heavy emphasis is placed on the claim that the sentence was a naturally-occurring accidental one -- that definitely qualifies as a screw-up. And even putting aside the "liquor" matter, the sentence in question could have been used more smoothly than it was. And, yes, okay, I'm nitpicking, but this was the one page above all others that Dunn had to get just right, and he blew it thoroughly enough to throw me out of the novel for a bit.

But again, on the whole, I did like the book.

Posted by Shmuel at 10:42 PM

March 11, 2003

Cuando era puertorrique´┐Ża

An interesting look at how a chica raised in Puerto Rico finds a new cultura mezclada when her family emigrates to the United States. (Actually haven't finished this book yet but I need to edit the post I made as a test while installing Moveable Type.)

Posted by Erin at 9:04 PM

March 7, 2003

Climbing Jacob's Ladder: One Man's Rediscovery of a Jewish Spiritual Tradition, by Alan Morinis

I found this to be fascinating, but not for reasons that would apply to most people. This book, you see, concerns the discovery of Mussar -- which is more or less a Jewish approach to ethical matters -- by an unobservant Jew, who eventually has a series of meetings with a rabbi in New York in which he learns more about it.

The rabbi in question is the head of the high school and seminary where I studied for eight years. Seeing my school through the eyes of an outsider? Utterly fascinating.

Otherwise... not a bad introduction to Mussar. Kinda simplified, and definitely eclectic, but not a bad read, and I suppose it might be a useful starting point, which is all it really tries to be.

Posted by Shmuel at 2:03 AM

March 1, 2003

Fraud, by David Rackoff

The first episode I ever heard of This American Life featured both Sarah Vowell and David Rakoff. I instantly liked both. Over the years, I came to be somewhat jealous of Vowell. And, having just read this, his first book of essays, I'd have to say that I'm somewhat jealous of Rakoff, too. In other words, this book is highly recommended. I have a couple of nitpicks -- he sometimes allows his essays to meander a bit too much, and he doesn't always seem to have a point -- but it's good reading.

Posted by Shmuel at 1:21 AM