Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

An Excellent Epistle: Jonathan Miles’ Dear American Airlines

January 5, 2009

dearamericanairlinesThe year is off to a good start!  I just finished reading my first novel of 2009, and loved every word of it. Jonathan MilesDear American Airlines is a terrific read. I confess, even though the novel showed up on a number of Best of 2008 lists, I was leery about whether a true novel could be contained within the comic conceit of an angry rant letter to American Airlines. Trust me, it can.

[Random association tangent: I tend to read most of my books via that most underutilized of places, the library. I put a number of the books called the Best of 2008 on the reserve list, and about FIVE of them have shown up for me at the exact same time. Has that happened to anyone else? Thus, expect a number of book posts for the next couple weeks as I read as fast as my fingers can turn the pages.]

The premise of the book is simple: Bennie Ford is stuck in Chicago’s O’Hare airport, about to miss the wedding of his heretofore-estranged daughter, and full of pent-up fury, begins to write the powers that be at American Airlines a letter. He asks:

So talk to me. Did banal old greed induce you to overschedule your flights, a la bank robbers unable to stop stuffing their bags despite the wails of nearing sirens? . . . Or do you plan so tightly and rigidly that the delay of one plane in, say, Dallas can cause a monumental backup akin to a stalled tractor-trailer on the George Washington Bridge at 8:30 am? Or, similarly, are airlines like yourself susceptible to something like the Butterfly Effect, so that a delay caused by a pickled passenger trying to board an early-morning flight in Ibiza can provoke a chain reaction, with delay piling upon delay, and then cancellation upon cancellation, until poor Chicago O’Hare – the sacrificial goat of air travel – is shut down completely?

But the genius of the book is that Miles manages to combine Ford’s extremely funny perspective with a tragic history of his own making; and then layers the story with yet another story within a story of the Polish novel Ford is translating, reinforcing the tragicomic air of the downtrodden hero. The language is lush and dense, and even the cameo characters are rendered fascinating from Ford’s eyes. It is a fantastic book and a perfect way to start out the year. If you experienced lengthy waits in airports over the holiday season, however, you might want to hold off reading it for a month or two.

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Best of 2008! The Readers Weigh In

January 2, 2009

ribbonWell, the quantity of responses was a little disappointing, I admit. BUT the quality of the responses was anything but.  Each response I got for the “Best of” categories listed warranted either an immediate “Oh, yeah” or an “Ooh, I have to check that out” from me. So kudos to the respondents who were nice enough to participate.

And now, the list:

Best Fiction:

Bestseller by Keith Latch: A horror novel in e-book form, this was an area of unplumbed depths for me. Thanks for eBookguru for the recommendation.

The A Song of Ice and Fire series, by George R.R. Martin: This recommendation for this epic fantasy series also comes from eBookguru.

Best Non-Fiction:

Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin: Although technically published in 2006, reader Jill read it in 2008 and loved it. I also read it in 2008 and was utterly blown away by the story, uncomplicatedly told, of Greg Mortenson’s journey from mountain climber to advocate for promoting girls’ education and literacy through his Central Asia Institute organization.

Best Music:

Everything That Happens Will Happen Today – David Byrne and Brian Eno. Reader Pam sums it up when she calls it “some yummy, brainy, infectious popaliciousness!”

Best Movies:

WALL-E (story by Andrew Stanton and Pete Docter, screenplay by Andrew Stanton and Jim Reardon): eBookguru thought this was one of the best films of 2008, and I have to agree. How does a film with so few words qualify as great writing? From the story, which transcended time and genre to transport kids and grown-ups alike.

Rachel Getting Married (screenplay by Jenny Lumet): Reader Jill voted for this film as one of the year’s best, because “I loved the characters who play against type.”

Now, for all you readers who perhaps partook of a little too much eggnog or were busy having family time, and didn’t get the chance to put your two cents worth in, I will still accept your recommendations! It is never too late (unless of course you’re writing about something from 2009, in which case it will have to wait).

WordHappy Reader “Best of 2008” List: Thinking Caps On

December 24, 2008

j0396070Now, you know and I know that these next few days are going to be a haze of wrapping paper and too much food. And no matter what holiday you celebrate, the fact remains that almost everything will be closed – and if you’re getting hammered with snow like much of the country – you don’t want to go out anyway.

So reflect – ponder, if you will – on your top-of-the-line choices for the best of 2008. What movies did you see that knocked your socks off? What music did you listen to and actually notice the words? What books did you read that made you stay up way past your bedtime? These are the things I want to hear about.

I will be taking your choices in the areas of:

  • Fiction
  • Nonfiction
  • Television
  • Movies
  • Music
  • Other

The “Other” category is for anything else that gave you goosebumps that somehow isn’t included in the above. Please post a comment with your recommendations below. I’d love it if you’d forward this post to your friends as well, so we can get even more participation.

I’ll take comments up until December 31st. Then I’ll compile a list of everyone’s choices and make it the first WordHappy post of 2009!

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwanzaa, and  Best wishes to you all!

All I Want for Christmas: Nifty Gift Ideas 2008

December 11, 2008

elkaAll I want for Christmas is world peace, an end to homelessness, some cute ankle boots that will fit over my high instep, and a really good 2009 television season.

But if you’re not shopping for me, and you need some tried-and-true gifts for people who know the power of words, I can help you out. Even better: most of these gifts fall in the $25 and under range. Disclaimer: I carry no affiliation with any shopping powerhouse like Amazon or Target or anyone, so I’m not going to include links to these places. You will have to do a little of that work yourself. Sorry.

BODACIOUSLY BRILLIANT BOOKS

The Likeness by Tana French: For mystery lovers, this is the jackpot. This is the book that makes you call in sick to work so you can read more of it. Cassie Maddox, a former undercover cop, gets thrown into the investigation of a woman’s death – a woman who bears the name of her old undercover identity and who could be her own twin. French is an outrageously good writer, and I could not find a false step in the intricate plotting of this novel.

State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America, edited by Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey: This book is for the armchair traveler with a taste for fabulous writing. The editors assigned writers of reputation with varied styles, such as Ann Patchett, Tony Bourdain, and Sarah Vowell to contribute essays on every state in the union. The result is a smorgasbord of delicious writing that gives a real sense to the place (not all of it complimentary, incidentally). I’m only a third through my copy; it must be read in small doses, like eating flourless chocolate cake. Are you hungry yet?

Run, by Ann Patchett: In a season that revolved around politics, this quiet novel managed to combine politics, family, and race in an enormously moving and engaging way. It may not be as showy as Patchett’s Bel Canto, but it may be her best work yet.

DIVINE DVDs

For the discerning couch potato in your life, you can’t go wrong with these picks:

Mad Men, Season One: Time travel back to the early 60s when advertising was king, and people smoked and patted women on the behind and never had a second thought about it.  It’s a mad trip, almost Shakespearean in its psychology, with Don Draper as its tortured Hamlet. Great writing with an obsession with detail makes this a must-see.

State of Play: This BBC miniseries aired in 2003, but the DVD was just released in 2008, so technically, it counts. And a darn fine thing, too, since this was great drama. The series follows journalists of The Herald as they try to uncover the story behind the death of a young political researcher who may have been involved with a high profile Labour MP. The plot crackles, and the acting by terrific performers like James McAvoy, Bill Nighy, John Simm, and Kelly Macdonald, makes this a drama that doesn’t leave your consciousness easily.

The Wire, The Complete Fifth Season: Since no one apparently watched this other than me and about 10 other people (yes, still bitter about that), what better way to catch up on the best series in the history of television – SERIOUSLY – than by picking up this DVD. Season Four was probably its best, but its fifth and last season still packs a powerful punch. Actually, DVD may be the ideal way to watch this series and really appreciate its attention to story and detail.

SINFULLY STUPENDOUS CDs

Finally, a few picks for the music lover:

Break Up the Concrete, The Pretenders: This CD is filled with songs you would swear that Chrissie Hynde wrote and recorded years ago, they have such a timeless classic feel. Add a driving beat and it’s a keeper.

Rattlin’ Bones, Kasey Chambers and Shane Nicholson: Australian Kasey Chambers has been one of the most distinctive voices to emerge on the folk scene in many years. This latest CD, collaborated on with her husband Shane Nicholson, is an addicting listen.

Happy Holidays, everyone!

Quietly Powerful: Mira Nair’s THE NAMESAKE

October 23, 2008

One of the things about being the parent of young children is that you get to be terribly discriminating about the movies you tape and then watch. Notice I did not talk about actually seeing a movie on the big screen – that’s just crazy talk. But when we saw Mira Nair‘s movie The Namesake appear on the HBO schedule, the film met our strict criteria – a director with a background of movies that we’ve enjoyed, and good reviews for the film itself.

The Namesake did not disappoint. Adapted from the novel by Pulitzer Prize winner Jhumpa Lahiri, with a screenplay by Sooni Taraporevala, the film follows the lives of Indian couple Ashima (Tabu) and Ashoke (Irrfan Khan) as they marry in an arranged marriage, move to New York, have children, and raise their family. Ostensibly, the film is about their son Gogol (Kal Penn), who is the namesake of Russian writer Nicolai Gogol, who was very influential in the life of Ashoke.  But as I watched the movie, it became obvious that the story had more to say about discovering your sense of self in the world – either as a foreigner trying to merge one’s culture in a new environment, or a young man coming of age, or a mother suddenly widowed, whose remaining roles no longer fulfill her soul.

As a parent, I was deeply moved by the relationship between Ashoke and Ashima. We watch their relationship grow from shy strangers to a couple who care very deeply for one another in the quietest of ways. They are loving parents, perhaps smothering in their love, but they also remain absolutely attached to one another. At one point in the film, Ashoke asks Ashima a question:

Ashoke: There is something I always wanted to ask you, but never had the courage. All those years ago, why did you say yes to me?
Ashima: You were the best of the lot.
Ashoke: Huh?
Ashima: Better than the widower with four children or the cartoonist with one arm. I also liked your shoes.
Ashoke: Oh. Oh, okay.
Ashima: Hmm, you want me to say “I love you,” like the Americans.

What is clear is that her love is so strong it needs no words.

Having seen the film, I can’t wait to read the book.

The Eyre Up There: Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair

October 16, 2008

I mentioned last week feeling like I was in kind of a slump as far as ferreting out the good writing recently. Between that funk, the uplifting news about the economy, and the extraordinarily civilized state of the presidential campaign, times have called for some serious silliness. So I’m here to oblige.

Jasper Fforde‘s The Eyre Affair (2001) is a very silly book. It is a book made for former English majors and fans of Monty Python or Douglas AdamsThe Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Now, trying to come up with a succinct, comprehensible synopsis is nigh impossible. Suffice it to say, Fforde’s heroine Thursday Next works in the Literary Detective Division of the Special Operations Network based in London. Nefarious goings-on within literary works themselves prompt Thursday to enter the novels themselves to sort everything out.

The Eyre Affair is the first, and arguably the best, in a series of Thursday Next novels by Fforde. Half the fun of these books is in the details. Fforde peppers his characters with names like Filbert Snood, Jack Schitt, and a vampire hunter named Spike. Clearly, being deep and serious is not on the agenda in these books. And while it certainly helps to have read Dickens or Bronte at some point in your life, it is by no means a requirement to get maximum enjoyment out of the book. Where the genius of the book resides is the level of detail Fforde provides about both of Thursday’s worlds; regardless of whether Thursday is pondering when her father is (and yes, I said “when,” not “where”), or conversing with Jane Eyre’s love Edward Rochester, we don’t question it for a moment.

So if you need a break from the serious, give Fforde a try and lose yourself in Swindon.

Slump Days

October 7, 2008

My dear readers, I do apologize for the silence. I have been racking my brain for great writing recently and sadly, coming up empty. The new TV season, while diverting, hasn’t given me anything to shout from the rooftops about. My bedside reading has been a little ho-hum. What’s a maven of good taste to do?

Here’s what. Throw it out to you guys. Someone, somewhere, must be excited about television, film, music, or books. If so, give it up in the Comments section. We need you. I need you.

Carefully Written: Elizabeth George’s Careless in Red

September 4, 2008

Why Elizabeth George isn’t a mega-famous writer I will never know.  Maybe I’m wrong; maybe she is. All I know is that if I were at a party and mentioned Stephen King or Nora Roberts, everyone would know who I was talking about; if I mentioned Elizabeth George, I bet I’d be met with many more blank looks. Which is a shame, because she’s one of the finest writers I’ve ever ever ever read.

Even if you are a mystery lover, you may not have read Elizabeth George. This is because, while she is an American writer, she writes mysteries in the English style.  American crime fiction tends to be fast-paced, bodies being thrown out a window or otherwise dispatched every other chapter or so. British crime fiction, conversely, tends to have a slower pace, giving much more emphasis on character. You question such a gross generalization, you say? No less a writer than P.D. James has said:

The American crime novel seems to be very much in the hard-boiled tradition that emerged in the aftermath of the First World War – the end of puritanism, the Depression, Prohibition, gangsterism and so on. Your heroes tend to be tough and sensational, reacting very instinctively to danger and absorbing more punishment. Your stories are also generally set in a more violent society. While on the whole the British detective story is gentler, more pastoral. Because it is firmly rooted in the soil of British literary tradition, it shares assumptions that are strong in our literature; for example, the assumption that we live in an intelligible and benevolent universe; the assumption that law and order, peace and tranquillity are the norm; that crime and violence are the aberration; and that the proper preoccupation of man is to bring order out of chaos.

So there.

But back to Elizabeth George. Her latest novel, Careless in Red, is a continuation of the series of detective novels focusing on Sir Thomas Lynley, formerly of Scotland Yard. This is actually a magnificent book to read as a stand-alone way to enter the series, if you’ve never read the previous novels and don’t want to start at the beginning with A Great Deliverance. That’s because Lynley is essentially starting anew in this novel. Having recently lost his wife and unborn son to a horrific random murder, he’s resigned from Scotland Yard and run away from the violence of his world. Unfortunately, violence continues to follow him and he happens upon a death in the cliffside surfing town of Casvelyn.

Where George excels is her characters. There are no bit players in her novels. Every character having any relevance to the story has a full history and is utterly three-dimensional. Offhand, I can think of at least 12 major characters in this book, all of whom have sections devoted to their points of view. And yet the reader is never for an instant lost or left to wonder whose character is talking or did what to whom. She also describes her setting to the extent that it seems as real as the next room, and describes it in ways that give insight to the characters as well. For instance, when Lynley is first seen walking along the cliffsides, she writes:

A site marked the edge of the high pasture he’d been following and he climbed it and paused, waiting for the landscape to stop swimming in front of him long enough for him to find the descent to what would be yet another cove. He’d lost count of the inlets he’d come upon in his walk along the undulating coast. He had no idea what this one was called, any more than he’d been able to name the others.

This passage not only describes the landscape, but also Lynley’s grief-induced exhaustion and apathy.

Elizabeth George deserves to be read. She’s one of the very best there is.

By the way, if you want to debate the fine differences between American and British crime fiction, or if you disagree that there are any differences, fire away in the comments. I’ll take on all comers.

Digging Anne Tyler’s Digging To America

September 1, 2008

Does this ever happen to you? You reserve a whole big honkin’ list of books at the library, knowing it will be eons before the list rolls around you, and BAM! three or four of them arrive at the same time. It happens to me all the time.

The plus side to this situation is that I have gotten to read some fabulous books, albeit quickly. But the novels were so good that I would’ve read them quickly anyway because I was so invested in the story. Does this mean I let my children watch movies and play video games rather than spend quality time with them because I was immersed in a book? Pretty much. So I suppose it’s fortunate that I don’t read that many books that I fall in love with.

The first book I’ll discuss today is Anne Tyler‘s Digging to America. The book begins with two families waiting for an arriving flight – a flight that holds their infant adopted daughters who are arriving from Korea. One family is Iranian, the other American.  While fate has initially thrown these families together, their common bond sets the foundation of a genuine, if sometimes strained, friendship that lasts years. In an entirely organic and natural way, these characters question and explore the ideas of what it means to be “American;” how our cultures shape and limit us; and what friendship and love mean within these cultural overlaps.

In one scene, Maryam Yazdan speaks of how her granddaughter Susan told her that she wished they could celebrate Christmas the way other people do, and how it had broken Maryum’s heart. Dave, the grandfather of Jin-Ho, probes a little and finds that they’d had a tree, presents, caroling – the works:

He started laughing.

“Oh, for goodness’ sake,” he said. “You’re talking about every child in this country!”

She braked for a light and looked at him.

He said, “You don’t think that’s what all of them say? They say, ‘Other families celebrate better; on TV it seems much better; in my mind it was going to be better.’ That’s just Christmas! That’s how it works! They have these idealized expectations.”

She did seem to get his point, he saw. Something seemed to clear in her forehead.

“The kid’s one hundred percent American,” he said.

What I love about Anne Tyler’s books is how quiet and gentle they are. One article I read about her had her saying ‘there aren’t enough quiet, gentle, basically good people in a novel.’ Today’s publishing world fights against the quiet novel. I’ve known more than one writer with a fistful of novel rejections because “quiet novels” are allegedly too hard to market. Of course, in all likelihood, none of these writers writes as well as Anne Tyler. But it’s nice to see her succeed, and it was a real pleasure to live with these characters in Digging to America.

I’ll post next on the other wonderful book I just finished reading: Elizabeth George’s Careless in Red. Keep an eye out for it.

Great “Bad” Writing: The 2008 Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest Winners

August 7, 2008

Anyone who ever read a Peanuts comic strip knows that Snoopy frequently sat at his typewriter and plunked out “It was a dark and stormy night. . .” While the line may be famous, the writer and originator of the line is less so: Edward Bulwer-Lytton, a Victorian novelist apparently fond of long, rambling, odd sentences. The “dark and stormy” sentence reads, in its entirety:

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

The English Department at San Jose State University has sponsored the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest since 1982, seeking the very best in the worst of opening sentences in novels. And I am so pleased to see that the winners of the 2008 contest have been announced. This year’s grand prize winner, Garrison Spik, hails from Washington, D.C.:

Theirs was a New York love, a checkered taxi ride burning rubber, and like the city their passion was open 24/7, steam rising from their bodies like slick streets exhaling warm, moist, white breath through manhole covers stamped “Forged by DeLaney Bros., Piscataway, N.J.”

I urge everyone to go the the winners’ website and read the offerings, for there are many, many offerings that will bring a smile, chuckle, or inappropriate snort to one’s being. Some of my favorites are the following:

For the Philip Marlowe meets Martha Stewart genre:

The hardened detective glanced at his rookie partner and mused that who ever had coined the term “white as a sheet” had never envisioned a bed accessorized with a set of Hazelnut, 500-count Egyptian cotton linens from Ralph Lauren complimented by matching shams and a duvet cover nor the dismembered body of its current occupant.

Russ Winter
Janesville, MN

In The Woman-Done-Wrong category:

Bill swore the affair had ended, but Louise knew he was lying, after discovering Tupperware containers under the seat of his car, which were not the off-brand containers that she bought to save money, but authentic, burpable, lidded Tupperware; and she knew he would see that woman again, because unlike the flimsy, fake containers that should always be recycled responsibly, real Tupperware must be returned to its rightful owner.

Jeanne Villa
Novato, CA

Worst Pun EVER:

Vowing revenge on his English teacher for making him memorize Wordsworth’s “Intimations of Immortality,” Warren decided to pour sugar in her gas tank, but he inadvertently grabbed a sugar substitute so it was actually Splenda in the gas.

Becky Mushko
Penhook, VA

And my Favorite Homage to a Victorian Dark and Story Writer Author:

It was a dark and stormy night, except when the lightning flashed, because then it wasn’t dark; it sort of turned the windows into a giant disco ball for a moment, but eventually the thunder and lightning stopped and it settled down to a steady light rain, so then it really was dark, but it would probably be a stretch to call it stormy.

Laura Loomis
Pittsburg, CA

These writers totally just made my day.