Monday, April 27, 2009

This is how I read.

I don't ever read the backs of books. At best, it gives me no idea of the author's writing, and at worst it can ruin the plot. What a book is about isn't as important as my emotional response to reading it. You have to trust the author enough to just start reading.

I know, books aren't cheap, and you've got to have some way of narrowing the field. You have little choice but to judge a book by its cover, and more importantly its title, and, let's be honest, probably the author's photo. Once it's passed these tests, open it and read the first sentence, the first paragraph, the first page. Sometime you'll know by the first sentence. If you're interested enough to turn the page, standing in a bookstore, you should probably buy it. 

Which brings us to another point, which is: Ask a bookseller (or a friend, but booksellers need the work). There's hopefully an independent bookstore near your home, with a quirky staff just waiting to flex their intellects in your direction. A friend says she's intimidated to ask booksellers for recommendations, and I can see that; there are those whose puffed up brains get the better of them, but most of us are friendly if slightly socially awkward. And don't buy books online (if you don't have to). Books aren't that expensive, and you're not really that lazy. 

Also important: If you aren't enjoying a book, stop reading it. As long as you haven't spilled coffee on it or ripped off the cover, you can take it back. There are too many great books in the world to keep reading one that doesn't do it for you.

Some examples of books I've chosen based on the cover and/or title:
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell (the galley was two toned black and white with magic symbols)
Sacred Games (also the galley-it had a gold spine and a slipcover with bullet holes. I'm a sucker for a slipcover)
The Raw Shark Texts (every bit as kick ass as the title)
The Girl on the Fridge (very weird, very short stories)
The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters (nowhere near as cheesy as it sounds)

 I refuse to read any book with wife or daughter in the title. And there are so many of them to  reject:
American Wife, The Senator's Wife, The Zookeeper's Wife
The Memory Keeper's Daughter, The Heretic's Daughter, The Abortionist's Daughter
 I cut a sideways deal with The Time Traveler's Wife, which I listened to on CD after many many. It was great, but I still think this is lazy titling.

A short selection of really great beginnings:
"Grandpa Slavko measured my head with Granny's washing line, I got a magic hat, a pointy magic hat made of cardboard, and Grandpa Slavko said: I'm really still too young for this sort of thing, and you're already too old." How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone, by Sasa Stanisic 

"The beet is the most intense of vegetables. The radish, admittedly, is more feverish, but the fire of the radish is a cold fire, the fire of discontent not of passion. Tomatoes are lusty enough, yet there runs through tomatoes an undercurrent of frivolity. Beets are deadly serious." Jitterbug Perfume, by Tom Robbins

"Early in the morning, late in the century, Cricklewood Broadway. At 0627 hours on January 1, 1975, Alfred Archibald Jones was dressed in corduroy and sat in a fume-filled Cavalier Muskateer Estate facedown on the steering wheel, hoping the judgment would not be too heavy on him." White Teeth, by Zadie Smith

"In accordance with the law the death sentence was announced to Cincinnatus C. in a whisper."Invitation to a Beheading, by Vladimir Nabakov

"On July 26, 1971, while legendary photographer Diane Arbus was curled in a bathtub at the Westbeth apartments in New York City, slitting her wrists, Bob Langmuir was travelling out of his body, which was heaped in a roadside ditch in rural Vermont, struggling to maintain its own hold on life." Hubert's Freaks, by Gregory Gibson

This last one I just found today. I can't wait to read it.

Monday, April 6, 2009

New York Baby

I'm still a New York baby. Or maybe I'm a New York toddler now, I'm not really sure about the conversions. At any rate, it was a hard birth, with lots of kicking and screaming. I read this book as I was making plans to move north from DC, which is fitting, as it's about a young woman who moves to New York. I wrote this review a month before I moved, as I was interviewing for a publishing job, which I got, and then hated, and then quit. I didn't quit New York, though, and come summer I was glad I stayed. Here it is, unedited:

Aoibheann Sweeney’s debut novel, Among Other Things, I've Taken Up Smoking, is an enchanting book of changes. After her mother’s death, Miranda lives in near seclusion with her father on a private island off the coast of Maine. A lonely child, Miranda is preoccupied with the myths from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a translation of which makes up her father’s life work. The tangled fates of god and mortals begin to crowd Miranda’s consciousness and these stories take the place of more substantial relationships. She is obsessed by the idea that, like these supernatural figures, she too would become “marvelous like they did in the stories Ovid told, and become something else.”

As Miranda grows into womanhood, she leaves her island for another that is more densely populated but sometimes equally lonely: Manhattan. In New York, however, her relationships become more complex and eventually more sophisticated. Sweeney’s use of myths mirrors Miranda’s developing character as Miranda realizes that “the tales in Metamorphoses rarely ended happily; the process of transformation…was mostly a compromise of some sort, a way to negotiate the chasm between desire and mortality.” As she learns to negotiate her own chasm, Miranda’s greatest transformation is the realization that she can affect her own metamorphosis.

The review reads like fluff to me now (enchanting? negotiate her own chasm? I mean, really); the connection between Miranda's journey and my own desire for transformation seems blatant. I was stepping into a great unknown, without much of a net, and I was thrilled with my bravery but also terrified that I would die of loneliness, that I would never make a friend or feel safe or loved again. I got over it. I've always had a high ratio of alone time, but I've never felt so comfortable being alone as I do in New York. I think the ability to blend in, to be alone among so many was part of what drew me here.

Among Other Things, I've Taken Up Smoking meant a lot to me because it was about a New York baby just like me, all on her own, half dysfunctional but making it work. Aoibheann Sweeney knows how to talk about solitude, with the right mixture of freedom and melancholy. Plus I'm jealous of the title. It's a great, quiet book.