Book: Others

A sort of after-Halloween RIP book, I just finished James Herbert’s Others. I’ve liked his books in the past, particularly The Magic Cottage and Haunted. A little creepy, relatively well-written, not-too-gory light horror. The jacket on Others wants to call him “a literary Stephen King” but I wouldn’t go that far. Literary? Not really. Wordy? Yes. Decent plots and fairly-well-rounded characters? Yes.

Anyway, enough of my nitpicking. The book was pretty good. Instead of straight-up supernatural horror, this was sort of a noir detective story, with some supernatural (and hyper-natural) elements. Nick Dismas — private investigator, hunchback — goes about his mostly-lonely life dealing with his deformities as best he can. Sometimes it gets to be too much for him (cue: “Why God? Why?!?”) but he does pretty well. Until one day… when an overwrought client brings The Big Mystery unto him. Suddenly he’s Mr. Psychic and seeing wings and creatures and coded messages everywhere. What does it all MEAN?!

Ostensibly a search for a missing baby, it turns into a deeper mystery about Perfect Rest (is that a creepy name or what?), a nursing home at the end of a secluded lane. What’s behind those locked doors? Why does Constance, the beautiful-yet-crippled (spinal bifida) care supervisor, act so strange when her boss is mentioned? And could they ever have a future together?

I think this book was overly long, especially certain scenes of tense escape. It felt padded. However, I loved the Nick-Constance mini-romance, and the secret of Perfect Rest was pretty awful and really nastily satisfying. Those of you who are easily turned off by over-the-top freakishness should probably not read this. However, if you’ve ever been fascinated by, say, The Human Centipede…. you’d do fine with this book. (and no, that wasn’t a spoiler!)

It was entertaining and moved along, and I liked reading a mystery. I’ve been reading parts of The Art of Happiness with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, but frankly (call me jaded) it’s a bit boring. So… back to the good stuff! I’m currently working on Henry and June by Anais Nin. It is quite excellent; I’ve never read Nin (except for a few passages here and there) and she’s amazing. The book is fascinating. More about that soon.

 

Book: Season of the Witch

My sweetie handed this to me and said, “Read this!” So I did. I’m compliant like that.

Actually, I couldn’t wait to read it. It’s a history of San Francisco from when it was sighing its last as a conservative Irish-Italian small city (1950s), all the way through the AIDS epidemic and the first anti-viral cocktails for HIV (late ’80s). Written by David Talbot, founder of Salon.com, it was fast-moving, relatively light reading, but endlessly fascinating.

I learned a ton from reading this, including why the big game of the 49ers vs. the Cowboys in 1982 was such a big deal, and why Bill Walsh was a miracle-worker (for the record, I know close to nothing about sports, and this book made football seem interesting). The tragedies of the Moscone/Milk shooting made me cry, as did the Jim Jones massacre. The freewheeling 60s and the “culture of free” was incredibly informative, as I walk down Haight Street these days and wonder what the big deal was (it was a Big Deal!). And it brought home the devastation of AIDS and the shocking and inhumane way the federal government refused to deal with it or even acknowledge it, while it obliterated a significant portion of the gay community.

Completely and utterly fascinating.

I had a few itty bitty bones to pick about the writing — sometimes it was a little too lighthearted, and sometimes summed up situations with pithy conclusions, which was a little irritating. But overall, considering the range of years and the incredible amount of change and landmark events that happened in the city during that time, it was fast, interesting reading and I really enjoyed it.

If you love San Francisco at all, this book will fascinate you. There is nothing boring about it, and it’s incredibly informative about some really important recent American history.

Godey’s Lady’s Book

We spent last week in Florida, helping to manage my sweetie’s mom’s transition to assisted living, after she suffered a terrible stroke in February. The new place is very nice, but it was a pretty emotional week. She is/was an antiques dealer, specializing in early American housegoods, so her house was filled with wonderful things. We had to go through and choose what she should keep, what we wanted, and what was to be sold through an estate sale.

Mostly K. went through and chose the items that had significance for him, but I tried to help by choosing things that seemed useful, beautiful, and would be a joy to see and use (and keep his mom in our thoughts and hearts). I’ve known his mom for a long time and she apparently had something special in mind for me, which was a complete surprise and such a treasure: an 1870 copy of Godey’s Lady’s Book.

Now, if you are a Little House On The Prairie fan like I am, you will know immediately what this is. For those who may not have read those books as obsessively as I did, Godey’s Lady’s Book was the women’s magazine that Ma looked forward to looking at (through friends and relatives) to keep herself and her daughters up to fashion. It contained fashion illustrations, patterns, hairstyles, serial novels, recipes, household hints, craft projects, and every manner of print entertainment of the day. The book I have is a collection of the year’s editions (I don’t know how they were distributed monthly, or what) – so it is a real treasure. I told her that I was thrilled to finally see and have my own copy of Godey’s Lady’s book — and, as an extra bonus, the 1870s is around the time (perhaps a few years later) when Ma would have been looking through it.

We took home quite a few wonderful old books. Here’s a few stacked up next to the very sweet Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls my mom made for me, and my very favorite stuffed Mrs. Tittlemouse doll that I could not bear to part with:

IMG_1372A closer look at the titles (the bottom book is a very old edition of Good Housekeeping, which I haven’t explored yet):

IMG_1373A few of the dress styles of 1870:

IMG_1374And some hairstyles and other bits of fashion:

IMG_1375Some “work” (sewing crafts) for in the evening:

IMG_1376And some near-incoherent-to-modern-cooks recipes (my favorite: “A Nice Tart”):

IMG_1377How hot is “a hot oven”?

I could look through this book for hours. It’s completely fascinating. A really, really special gift from a pretty neat lady.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Book: Shogun

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1152 pages. Yep. That there is a big ol’ book.

But so worth it. I never thought I would have loved this big huge grandpa-style (James Michener-esque) book, but I did. It was recommended on a UC Berkeley summer reading list for lit students, so I figured I would give it a try. I really loved it, although it took a chapter or two to really hook me. No matter, there were like a million chapters, so what’s one or two?

I had no idea what this was about when I started it. I mean, I knew it was about medieval Japan, but that was about it. I wouldn’t have really been interested if I’d known, frankly. Set in the late 16th century, it tells of a Dutch ship, captained by an English “pilot”, swept off course and marooned in Japan. The captain and crew are captured by the local samurai, and there is a battle of wills as West meets East. It’s fairly gruesome at first. Lots of heads being chopped off and some interesting torture and plenty of mind games.

Eventually, the captain (Blackthorne, also known as the Anjin-san) becomes a political prize, and soon a friend. The political intrigue of the samurai leaders was not my favorite part… I skimmed some of the deep political intrigue (which also brings in the Catholic church and the silk trade from China).

What was fascinating was the Anjin-san’s education in ancient Japanese culture, and his sharing of his own culture. This part was absolutely fascinating. I really loved all of the cultural exchange lessons. There was also a bit of forbidden romance; always a pleasure.

It was an investment of time, but let me say that it completely beat “The Night Circus” which I was also supposed to be reading for my book club. I couldn’t put down Shogun. I skimmed The Night Circus so I could (sort of) keep up with the conversation, but all I wanted to read for the past six weeks or so was this massive tome.

If you have any inclination toward learning about Japanese culture in the days of samurai, read this. It was superb. Granted, the writing was a little stiff, but I attribute that to what I call “man-book” syndrome — it was not flowery at all. It got the job done. However, completely forgiveable as the story was amazing and kept me interested for over 1000 pages. That says something.

Now I have a LOT of catching up to do, reading-wise. Next up: Animal Factory, for book club — we’ve branched off into prison lit! Woohoo!

 

Book: Made By Hand

made by hand

I got this last summer during one of my few lapses into book-buying… after going 2-3 years without any serious book-buying urges, I’ve started collecting again. Mostly used books, as I come across them (my kryponite — I am powerless in the face of cheap used books!), but I had a gift certificate to Powells.com and this one called to me. I thought it was going to be something other than it was. It was pretty good, but I had a few problems with it.

I don’t read BoingBoing.net, but this is written by Mark Frauenfelder, who is the founder of BoingBoing, and has a long history of being an editor of influential tech-y magazines such as Wired. He is currently editor at Make Magazine, which I do enjoy (although I don’t buy it). I was kind of surprised to learn that the editor of Make Magazine did not start out as a DIY-type. Instead, he started learning about it late in the game and has only started doing DIY projects since the mid-to-late-2000s. But before he started making his own kombucha and building chicken coops, he and his wife ditched their Los Angeles life and moved, with their small children, to the remote tropical island of Rarotonga in the South Pacific, to start life again free from the constraints and wired-ness of modern life. And there begins my problem with this book (and with many of these current memoir-esque books so popular right now).

He and his wife are both writers and editors and can do their jobs long-distance, which is great. So they can, theoretically, move anywhere they like. However, it just grates that they decided that moving to a tropical island was the best way to unplug. It’s called pulling a geographical. I get it — I do! I’d love to do that — in theory. But it just feels like more of the same: privileged white people who have too much money deciding that this fancy world they’ve helped create is just not for them anymore, so they decide to go native. And, of course, are defeated by the realities of “going native” — disease, hardship, and, ironically, the lack of technology. So they move back to the states after six months, to try and make the best of — sigh, the hardship of it — homesteading on their half-acre of land (plus a modern house) in Los Angeles. Gosh, do you think it’s possible to have a more meaningful life right where you are?

I’m giving this book a hard time, and I did enjoy most of it, although it rubbed me the wrong way in places. The author details his explorations in the world of DIY: beekeeping, chicken-husbandry, tutoring his own kid, making stuff from scratch, fermentation, etc. It’s all very trendy and nice and some of it was informative and inspiring. And, expensive. For every project, he heads right to Home Depot and buys all the stuff he needs. He buys kits. He buys books. He travels to visit experts. He does not NEED to DIY. He chooses to. He could Hire An Expert (HAP). But he wants to learn and have fun doing it himself — which is admirable. I guess what kind of got on my nerves was the fact that he does not balk at multiple trips to Home Depot or the cost of kits, etc. It’s fun for him — it’s not a necessity. He does do quite a bit of foraging and re-use — okay. I’ll give him that. It’s just… well, I think you know what I mean. Although I think it’s great, it’s a little annoying that he clearly has a choice (as opposed to most of the people he interviews — they make do, make it themselves, and salvage objects out of necessity — which I don’t know why this feels more authentic to me, but it does — and who cares about authenticity when it comes to DIY?  — but still my uncomfortableness remains).

Clearly I have conflicting feelings about the whole modern DIY movement anyway. On the one hand — yay! I think it’s great that people are learning to do things themselves. I think it’s awesome that people are keeping bees and chickens, and that there is a market for items which are fixable — not just replaceable. On the other hand, the trendiness of it, the highly-paid white folks who can afford to make plenty of mistakes and (ironically) buy all the equipment they need — this grates.

Some of this comes from my own righteous sense of “I was here first” — I am not the most DIY person out there, but I do many things by myself from scratch and salvage without even thinking about it, because that is how I was raised. My dad is brilliant at fixing everything and I try to learn everything I can from him — wiring, gardening, fixing stuff of all kinds. My mom is very creative and taught me to cook, sew, preserve, fix household items and clothing, and taught me how to love thrifting. So it kind of comes naturally to me (and, I assume, lots of kids brought up in small towns with parents who didn’t have much money) — the privilege of being able to choose was not an option. So instead, I suppose, I have the privilege choosing of doing it myself — because I have the knowledge.

This is all kind of confusing.

I could also have been influenced by the most recent issue of Sunset magazine, which I found to be incredibly pretentious. Sunset has been shifting more and more away from DIY and How-To, to Lifestyle and Home Trends for the past 5-10 years, and the usefulness of the magazine has declined greatly. This month took the cake. There was a big 3-page article on a family (rich, of course, living in a big house in San Francisco) who decided to radically unplug. No modern conveniences for them! Oh, well, except for nice things like toilets and bathtubs and nice countertops. They do not own a coffeemaker — they have stovetop espresso maker instead! (what is the big difference? really.) No web, so they have to read — gasp! Paper newspapers and real books! No digital readouts on appliances! A manual orange juicer! they make bread — wait for it — by hand! From their own home-ground flour! In their bright naturally-lit large-windowed kitchen with modern appliances (as long as they don’t have those ugly LED lights!) and marble countertops. Sigh. You can read all about it here and here.

The next article was a first-person of going vegan for three days. CAN SHE DO IT!? Apparently not. She was foiled by cheese and wine. She made it two and a half days, but wouldn’t you know it? She felt so much healthier and lighter! So virtuous! And hungry! Did I mention hungry? Light-headed almost! People. Eating vegan is not that difficult. I’m not a vegan, but plenty of days I inadvertently eat vegan. It’s not that hard.

I’m not sure why the juxtaposition of these two articles grated so hard — something about the supposed austere superiority of the one (no gauche red LED lights! grind your own flour!) against the supposed difficulty of an “austere” diet like veganism… it’s a luxury to choose any of these things. Period.

I’m not articulating this well. But you can see that perhaps I was primed to be annoyed by the tossing around of dollars in the supposed DIY handbook.

Anyway, back to the book. After all my grumping, I agree with the author of Made By Hand — so much of the time, it’s way more fun, more engaging, more meaningful to make it or do it yourself. I don’t really want to keep bees, but I’m glad lots of other people do. I would love to have chickens, but I’ve decided that we have too many predators (there is a chapter about chicken-keeping in the book that helped cement this decision for me). But I do love making stuff — all kinds of stuff — on my own. I love building things from salvage. I like preserving stuff from the garden. I cook from scratch almost daily. It’s fun, it keeps my brain working, and I feel more attached to my things, to my home.

Was it a good book? It was okay. However, if you’re new to DIY, I suppose it would be inspiring. It was a fun, fast read, although I ended up with my (chicken?) feathers ruffled.

———————-

As a side note, I found a nice resource for some reading suggestion lists: UC Berkeley has some good suggestions on their Summer Reading Lists page. Next up for me is my book club book, The Elephant Keeper’s Children by Peter Hoeg, and then I think I have two or three others I should get out of the way, but then I’m sort of tempted by a big huge read like Shogun or maybe I should start Anna K. Hmm… so many choices. I am excited to start reading in earnest again.

Book: Carter Beats The Devil

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Yay — I finished a book! I was reading The Gormenghast Trilogy but that is going to be an ongoing project (thanks for the book, Mom! Now I can work on it all year…). So it’s back to more manageable book-sizes for me.

Loved, loved, loved this. Loved the magician character, loved the Bay Area setting, loved the historical references, loved the romance (since, as is my preference, it’s sort of a sideline of the story, not the main event). Loved it completely and was so sad when it ended, although it was a happy ending.

Charles Carter, turn-of-the-century magician, favored son of San Francisco, puts on a show in 1923, during which is present President Harding. Mr. President participates in the show… and a few hours afterwards, dies suddenly in his hotel room under mysterious circumstances. Is Carter The Great to blame? What happened to the President? Why is Carter so amiable about the investigation? How many tricks does he have up his sleeve, anyway? And what’s in that cigar tube?

Such fun. Carter is an entirely sympathetic character, which is exactly what I wanted right now. He is prone to sentimentality, a kind man, with no head for business but a driving passion for magic. He works hard and becomes very successful… but not without tragedy along the way. As he travels the world, having adventures and meeting famous folk, we learn delightful bits of trivia about the various historical characters and more notably, about the Bay Area at this time in history. I was so happy to read about Neptune’s Beach in Alameda, and to hear more about the various parks and attractions that used to pepper Oakland, and the descriptions of North Beach when it really was just the Italian family part of town. I loved it all.

A few times I was on the edge of my seat, so to speak, hoping against hope that Carter would, indeed, beat the devil. And he does. Not without sacrifice, of course, but he is a smart, kind, talented man and the author clearly has affection for this character — so he is allowed to have a good life. I was so glad. I needed a happy ending.

Would highly recommend this to anyone, especially those familiar with the Bay Area!

Book: Battle Royale

Hmm.

I read this because a few of my fellow book-clubbers were reading it (following reading The Hunger Games), and I was curious if it were somehow richer or more “authentic” (whatever that means) than The Hunger Games — operating, of course, under the impression that The Hunger Games must have been based in part on Battle Royale.

I’m not so sure about that, now that I’ve read it.

In some ways, the plot was much simpler than The Hunger Games: for unknown reasons, a fictional Japan-like Asian country (sometime in the near future) holds Programs. The point of the Program is for all the kids in a selected junior high school class (presumably most of whom have grown up together) are left on a deserted island and instructed to kill one another until there is one survivor. The rest of this fictional world is left unexplained, the reasons for this Program are only hinted at, and the personalities of the kids are not as deeply explored as in The Hunger Games (well, those of the main protagonists, that is).

It was certainly bloody and ruthless and bleak. In that sense, it was more “mature” than The Hunger Games. But I definitely enjoyed The Hunger Games more. Battle Royale was like watching a video game — how many more until they’re all dead? Will the various plots for escape happen? (no, of course not). In what manner will they die? The kids were supplied with various weapons of unequal worth. Some were given toy darts; others were given machine guns. The island was just an island. The element of fantasy was missing, and I guess that made The Hunger Games both more interesting and more palatable for me.

Battle Royale was good, but I lost track of many of the kids (they were not all that different from one another), and I didn’t find the plots for escape all that compelling. The ending was good, but I wasn’t really emotionally affected by it.

I know it’s a movie as well, and I bet the movie is violent and horrible and perhaps more compelling than the book. Is that awful of me? Oh well.

Book Update

I’ve been negligent on both my reading and my book-reporting, but I’ve got two to talk about here for a bit.

The first is Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children. I was completely split on this book. While I really liked the idea, and I loved looking at the photos, I felt like the book just didn’t go far enough, nor was it… deep enough. Also I really didn’t like the ending. The story itself was fairly interesting, with just enough quirk and spook to keep me happy for most of it. I liked the characters although I felt like they were far too shallow; I didn’t get enough backstory for any of them. And as much as I loved the weird photographs, I felt like they were totally randomly stuck into the story. It felt like the story would be going along just fine, but then the author would realize that it was time for a photo to be inserted, so there would be this odd little detail or side-story which didn’t go anywhere. It was obvious and distracting (which is really too bad because I did enjoy the photos a lot). And the ending I felt was just a cop-out. I suppose it’s supposed to be some kind of cliffhanger, but it just felt… undone. Not complete. It’s disappointing because I loved the premise of this book, and the photographs are fascinating. Ultimately, it didn’t really work for me, which is too bad.

The second book is M.R. James’ Collected Ghost Stories. I didn’t read every story in the book, but the ones that I did read were quite good, and very satisfying in a classic ghost-story sense. More interesting to me was the introduction, which went into depth about James himself, and the history and “classical structure” of the ghost story. I really enjoyed that, and it really enriched my experience of reading the stories. The stories were genuinely creepy and atmospheric, short enough to read one or two before bed, and effective enough to make me need to read a chapter of something else before turning out the light!

Up next is Battle Royale, which I think still qualifies as RIP since it’s pretty horrific. Think Hunger Games, only the rated-R (for violence) version, set in Japan. Brutal. So far, I’m very much enjoying it.

Book: Gone Girl

Another bad girl from Gillian Flynn. I swear, this woman is fast becoming one of my very favorite authors. I get so tired of sweet, good-at-heart heroines with no other strong woman characters to balance this out. I love, love, love her nasty, mean, evil women characters. Even her not-so-mean ones are pretty flawed. It’s so refreshing.

Along those lines, I have to say that for the first half of this book, I was worried. I mean, the husband was looking like a royal, class-A dick, but the wife… well, I mean, she wasn’t perfect, but…

Oh, but then. THEN! Then it happens. And then you KNOW. And then it’s FANTASTIC. I actually cheered out loud.

Such a great page-turner. You think you know, but then you don’t. And some of it is unbelievable, but it’s such a fun ride that you don’t care. At least, I didn’t care. It was fascinating and dark and twisted and perfect.

That said… I think this is my third favorite of her books. I loved her first two so much, and as much as it’s pleasurable to see someone get what’s coming to them (in many ways), I really loved her first two main characters. They were so flawed and brutal, yet almost sympathetic. They had earned their wounds, their darkness. They had stories. In this book, you aren’t quite sure why the characters are the way they are. Some of it is upbringing, circumstances… but is the rest… simply because one of them is a sociopath? This is not called out per se but I think there’s a pretty strong case for this.

It doesn’t matter — I give this a 4.5 stars. The other two were solid 5s, I think.

I was on a really long wait list at the library and it finally arrived, but was only a 7-day loan so I had to race through it. I still had it two days too long, but it was worth the .20 cents.

R.I.P. Reading Extravaganza!

I’m not sure how many years I’ve participated in Carl’s RIP Challenge… maybe this is year four? Maybe five? Anyway, it’s my favorite time of year, reading my favorite kind of books, so I’m always up for this!

As usual, I follow this challenge loosely — my own personal guidelines are that I read exclusively RIP books (gothic, horror, thriller, etc.) for September and October. I will have to make an exception this month to read my book club book (The Sense of an Ending), but other than that, it’s all RIP, all the time.

I’ve already started. I just finished Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl (loved!). Here’s what else I plan to read in the next two months:

  • Carrion Comfort, by Dan Simmons. Wanted to read this for awhile.
  • Hell Train: have heard good things about this, if I can find it…
  • Ghost Stories by M.R. James
  • The October Country, Ray Bradbury. Love him.
  • Miss Peregrin’s School for Peculiar Children

That’s enough to start; I’m sure I’ll find some more at the library and pick up hints as others read and post. I’m also hoping to watch a bunch of scary movies.

Lots of stuff happening here lately; I might be slow in posting. All good stuff, but distracting. However, there’s always time to read, right?!