Saturday, May 30, 2009

Infinite Summer

I know that I'm probably not the only one with Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace on my to-read list. I'm probably also not the only one intimidated by the modern-day behemoth. Well, some folks have started an internet collaboration to read the book over the summer. They're calling it Infinite Summer. It starts on June 21 and breaks the book up into about 75 pages a week until around September 21 or so. Just thought some of you might be interested - their web page is and they have a group going on Facebook too. I haven't decided yet if I'm going to participate, but I'm thinking about it...

How exactly does one scientifically study ghosts? Now I know...

I enjoyed Mary Roach's Spook a great deal more than I did her first book, Stiff. Stiff was pretty good. I did learn some things about what really happens to your body when you donate it to science and various ways you can request disposal of your remains when I thought the only options were a regular burial or cremation. But the book wandered a bit and lost me at times. This was not the case with Spook.

Perhaps it was the subject matter - I am inherently more interested in life after death and ghosts than I am in cadavers. But I also think Roach learned a lot about writing a book the first time that she was able to apply this time. Her writing in Spook is tighter; the flow from chapter to chapter is better. Her sense of humor even seems sharper. She's no stranger to writing - she's been a journalist for a number of years, but writing a book is quite different from writing an article for a newspaper or magazine, and I think she's honed her craft in the second book.

Spook is about, as I have implied, life after death. Specifically, it's about the scientific study of life after death. Who knew that my very own Charlottesville is a hotbed of paranormal research at the University of Virginia? Who knew that a number of historically brilliant scientific minds had projects to try and communicate with the dead? Who knew that electromagnetic fields or strong (but too low to hear) sound waves could be responsible for the creepy-crawlies we get when we think something ghosty could be going on? I thought the book was fascinating, and I liked her conclusion very much. Science has not yet proved any sort of afterlife one way or the other - neither that it exists or that it doesn't. After studying the research and talking to lots of scientists, Roach says that the only conclusion she can come to is: who knows? But, as she points out, it's no fun to go to a graveyard with a non-believer.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Report from the Green Valley Book Fair!

Today, I took a little me time. I left work early and drove 45 minutes out to the Green Valley Book Fair. I wrote about the Book Fair a couple of weeks ago, but this is the first chance I had to get out there. I bought about 15 books, all of which cost me between $2.50 and $5.00, for a grand total of $52.50. If I had bought the same books today on, I would have paid $186.16 for them (I typed the ISBNs into Amazon to make sure I was price-checking the same editions). So - big savings! I'm quite pleased.

First, some observations. The place is in the middle of nowhere, on farm land between Staunton and Harrisonburg. Right after you turn into the driveway, the road you were driving on turns into a gravel road. Even so, it's really only a few minutes off the interstate, so it's not at all complicated to find. They do try to place the books by category, and they succeed in this for the most part, but I found that the fiction section was TOO divided. I ended up looking at pretty much every book in the fiction section because I didn't want to miss something I was looking for and I wasn't sure exactly which subdivision it would be in. I had to laugh because, on the same aisle, two books with "suspicious" titles had been turned around so that the spine faced the back of the shelf and you couldn't see what it was. I had visions of a 50-year-old self-righteous mom deciding they were too risque for the kids to read. I turned them back around so you could see them, of course (for the curious, the titles were Confessions of a Romantic Pornographer and Hideous Kinky).

Book sections I saw while there: science fiction, mystery, popular fiction, gay/lesbian fiction, assorted romance fiction categories (regular, contemporary, erotic, paranormal, etc.), African American fiction, Christian fiction, historical fiction, bestsellers, world literature, classic literature, 20th century literature, literary biographies, literary criticism, poetry, fiction anthologies, drama (including a whole separately labeled section for Shakespeare), manga, game books (like crosswords), reference, business, travel, self-help, personal finance, diet, cooking, crafts, gardening, history, science, a large children's section, and audiobooks. There may have been even more categories; those are just the ones I remember!

Okay, on to what everyone's been waiting for - a list of the books I bought. Some of these were for the Fill-in-the-Gaps project, and some were purely for entertainment.
  • A Company of Three by Varley O'Connor
  • Lottery by Patricia Wood
  • The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo
  • The Shipping News by Annie Proulx
  • Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell (I would have bought Mr. Bridge too, but they didn't have that one)
  • Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
  • The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy
  • The Night Villa by Carol Goodman
  • If Andy Warhol Had a Girlfriend by Alison Pace
  • David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
  • My Ántonia by Willa Cather
  • Time Off for Good Behavior by Lani Diane Rich
  • Diana Lively Is Falling Down by Sheila Curran
  • The Next Big Thing by Johanna Edwards

My advice for those considering going themselves some time? Go early in their open window - they're usually only open for 2-3 weeks at a time, and a friend of mine told me that near the end, everything is really picked over and the good stuff is gone. Next, give yourself plenty of time. I didn't think I'd need more than an hour, and I was there for almost two...and I didn't even see everything. There was a whole downstairs area that I didn't get a chance to go look at because I had to leave to come home. Set a budget, bring a calculator, and make sure you stick to your budget. Also, if you have a wishlist of books you want, bring a list with you so you don't stand there thinking, "Was this book I wanted? I can't remember if it was called The Little Chair or The Little Table."

And that's all I've got. Their dates for the rest of this year are June 27 - July 12, August 22 - September 7, October 10 - 25, and November 27 - December 13. Anybody else been before? Do you want to go now?

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Let's not call it a memoir...

I'm going to throw out there my perfectly honest gut assessment: this book is funny, disturbing, disgusting, and literally unbelievable. I do imagine that Burroughs had a dysfunctional childhood, and that some of the things that happened to and around him probably left deep emotional scars. I don't, however, believe for a second that every word of this book is truth. It rings of over-embellishment - there's just too much crazy to be real. If you're fascinated by crazy the way I am, though, you just might be highly entertained.

I'm a closet psychology student. I seriously considered a double major in English and psychology when I was in college until my advisor pointed out that I was also in the School of Education trying to get my teaching license, and if I did all three I'd probably be there for five or more years. So I dropped psych, but I still loved it. I'm utterly fascinated by mental illness, even my own minor anxieties and obssessions. And this book...well, let's say I got my fill of psychological studies for a while.

The sorta memoir, sorta novel (the author and his publisher have agreed, in response to a lawsuit from the family represented by the Finches in the book, to call it a "book" and not a "memoir" any more), focuses on Augusten Burroughs' life growing up in Massachusetts. His mother is completely insane at times - we're talking takes baths in broken glass crazy - and completely self-obssessed the rest of the time (focusing solely on writing poetry and exploring her sexuality instead of taking any responsibility for her son). His parents divorce early in his life, and his father essentially never talks to him again. His mother sends him off to live with her psychiatrist's family, which is borderline psychotic and unquestionably unhealthy and disgusting. And riotous (and disturbing) adventures ensue.

The book is not for the faint of heart. There are several explicit descriptions of his first sexual experiences with a man 20 years his elder, not to mention the nasty things he describes his adopted family doing (such as drying the patriarch's bowel movements in the sun and studying them as messages from God). Despite the insanity and grossness, the book manages to be bitterly hilarious at the same time. I am really glad that I didn't have to live through anything even approximating this book, and I'm sorry that anyone had a childhood that led them to write like this, but I was definitely held captive by the humor and the crazy.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Not So Spooky, but Good Fun!

When it comes to fantasy and mythology, no one but no one living today can top Neil Gaiman. I have read a lot of his work and enjoyed it all. So I was excited when my book club picked The Graveyard Book. It's a tale of a boy (Nobody, or Bod for short) growing up in a graveyard, simple as that. Except he lives there because his entire family was murdered when he was a child and it's the only place he's safe from the man who killed them. He's being raised by ghosts and a creature that is neither living nor dead. He's been given the run of the graveyard, so he can see the ghosts and learn the ways of ghosts like Fading from notice of other people and Haunting and Passing through Objects.

All of these skills could be useful in hiding himself from the man called Jack who wants to kill him, but as he gets older and is told the reason for his confinement, he knows that he may want to kill Jack more than Jack wants to kill him.

Overall, I really liked this book. It was fun and entertaining and kept me interested the whole time. But I felt like a lot of the mythology that Gaiman created was unrealized in the story. I got a snippet of something cool and then it was dropped and gone. It could have been better if it had been longer and taken its time with many of the ideas he started in the book. The only other of his children's books I've read is Coraline, which I think is the superior. I feel like this book may have won the Newbery because someone felt he should have won it for Coraline and didn't, because I don't think The Graveyard Book is really at the Newbery level. But I still really enjoyed it and I'm a huge Gaiman fan!

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

And Pray Tell Why, but I Do Love to Eat...

I was actually thinking this book would elicit 3-4 stars from me. I confess - I was a little jaded and maybe just a touch snobby, thinking a crazy popular bestseller of a book would not impress me. I read it only because a friend recommended it and I said I'd read it. Color me humbled. I thought it was awesome - 5 of 5 stars.

The memoir covers the period in the author's life after her divorce when she goes on a worldwide quest to rediscover herself and soothe her mind and heart. She divides the trip (and the book) into three parts - four months each in Italy, India and Indonesia. Her aim is to figure out how to enjoy the pleasure in life, and to be very spiritual, and how to balance the two. The book is structured like yogi prayer beads - 108 stories, divided into three sections, 36 stories in each section.

The section about Italy was crazy and awesome and funny and triumphant. She kicks her depression, makes tons of friends, eats an insane amount of food and learns to speak passably good Italian. It made me want to go live in Italy for a few months, not that it would take all that much convincing. The section about India was deeply revealing about her spiritual life and progress in her meditations. I don't know that yoga is the path to a relationship with God for me, but I don't think it was about that - it was about finding your own path, and her showing what her path looked like. The section in Indonesia was honestly the least interesting to me, but it's very important to the story because that's where she finds love and closure. And it's a really interesting look at Balinese culture, making me want to go to Bali someday!

Part travel guide, part memoir, all funny and touching and human and healing. I enjoyed this book a lot and plan to give it to my husband to read next.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Go get yourself some cheap books!

A book club friend reminded me tonight that this weekend starts the next open window of the Green Valley Book Fair! If you are anywhere near Harrisonburg, Virginia or can get near there over the weekend when they're open sometime, you really ought to check it out. They're only open for 2-3 weeks about 5-6 times a year, but you can get amazing deals there. They have all sorts of books available at really steep discounts. A friend of mine went the last time they were open and bought about 20 books for less than $50, which is absolutely insane even compared to used bookstore prices. Seriously, go check it out!

Friday, May 1, 2009

Book Contest over at A Good Blog is Hard to Find!

Mindy Friddle, author of the acclaimed debut novel The Garden Angel, has written her second book, The Secret Keepers, which was released this week. She blogged over at A Good Blog is Hard to Find with a contest imbedded in her post. Go read her post and find the contest and you can enter to win a signed hardback copy of The Secret Keepers. I read her first book and thought it was great; I'm very much looking forward to her new book!