Thursday, October 23, 2014

A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong by K J Parker

I finished 'A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong' by KJ Parker last week.  It's a short story from the collection Academic Exercises.  It felt very much in line with Purple and Black and Blue and Gold, which is a good thing.

There's two main characters, and Parker chooses to follow the less interesting of the two; not sure if this is a twist or not but it certainly makes for some 'uphill' reading.  One is a brilliant but apathetic, musician, turned murder; the other his teacher.  As the student goes into hiding, never publishing again, for fear of immediate recognition and capture, the teacher passes off his students work as his own and watches his status soar.

It's a good story but in every way, to me at least, feels a bit like an early work newly published.  Particularly the end feels off when our bad guy--who has proven to be genius in more areas than just musical composition--just gives up and things come to a very abrupt end.

Music was my primary point of contention.  I've covered this ground with other fiction that I've reviewed, but there was horribly off commentary that made me give up on believability.  There are some topics that a writer can't casually research and then write about in any convincing way.  The story happens in a secondary world that in many ways feels like western Europe.  Since it's all made up, I guess I'm supposed to forgive everything.  But every reader brings certain knowledge to the table and I couldn't turn my mind off.  Reference to a certain page count of manuscript for a symphony made me laugh out loud, as did passages of how music was copied in this time before modern publishing.  A composer referencing their own, 'slow movement' as opposed to saying, 'the Andante, or Largo' (what any musically inclined person would have said) made me roll my eyes.

Yeah, it was a good piece of writing and a story that felt like ground work for Blue and Gold, but as I always seem to say when music and literature come together: assume you don't know what you're talking about unless you actually do…

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Month in Review

I did a lot of reading this much; most of which wasn't to completion.  I started and put down two books by John Green (one of which felt familiar and I may have tried to read in the past), one by Sara Zarr (which I never thought I'd do) and a book of poetry which was a bit too much 'whatever' for this neophyte.  

In addition to starting and discarding lots of fiction, I also did the same with about five non-fiction books.  I'm still trying to wrap my head and hands around bookbinding.  I perused about six books from the library.  Most all that I came across were written as text books for the aspiring professional; as such they were completely un-helpful to me.  I'm not there yet, I'm a beginner trying to get my feet wet and gauge my interest.  I did glean one great passage from one of the books, to paraphrase ' a text is needed to explain all the details and issues that a master craftsman may take for granted in explaining what he/she is doing.'  I've been involved in music long enough to hear the truth in those words.  It's why we ask questions during a lesson.  

Of the books I got my hands on the two that I'm keeping--that appealed most to me and my immediate curiosity--are Bookbinding Basics by Paola Rosati, and Simplified Bookbinding by Henry Gross.  If you're interested I'd say start with the former then the latter.  Neither have expectations of you spending thousands of dollars or having access to professional equipment nor do they try to get you working with leather and silver filagree on page ten.  And as a note to future craftsman who may think of making an instructional manual on bookbinding: The pictures really, really help.  

Moving on to things I read and finished the list is unsurprisingly short.  Openly Straight was fun.  And I kinda loved County O by Robert Hedin and will be tracking down more of his poetry soon.    

Regrets of the month: I didn't go to any event at the Decatur Book Festival, and I haven't read Lev Grossman's new book yet.  

I'm pretty sure that's it.  Like I said, I read a lot; I didn't finish a lot.  

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Openly Straight by Bill Konigsberg

It will be easiest if I come out at the start and say that I love just about everything about this book.  Because I learned while reading, coming out and saying it at the end cheapens a bit of the commentary that precedes.

Rafe doesn't like labels.  He is openly gay and after two years of high school he only wants to be a boy; not a gay boy.  He feels there is more to him as a person than to be forever identified by his sexual preference.  He doesn't want to go back in the closet; just hide out in the threshold for a while.

I'm not sure if this idea qualifies for high concept but it is both socially aware and very very, fresh.  Rafe enrolls in an all boy boarding school on the other side of the country essentially to carry out an experiment: what exactly does being gay mean to him and can he be gay without being defined by the word.

No one knows Rafe is gay at his new school.  He's not denying that he is; he's just not telling anyone.  He finds himself playing football and soccer and hanging out with guys that he would deem jocks, and having the time of his life.  He becomes a jock.  And then he starts to question the labels and labeling that he ran away from to being with.  Gay; Straight; Jock; Nerd; Winner; Loser; weirdo; etc…

There are lot of really good ideas being expressing in this book.  Rafe's situation, where he's lying to himself and everyone else by omission.  Bryce, the school's token black kid, and his depression.  And my favorite discussion at the end where much was said about marching in parades and why some people choose to do so and others don't.  The book is more than merely a great title.

However, I didn't think any of the conflict was fully indulged.  I couldn't tell if the author wanted to suggest thoughts to the reader and let the reader go from there or if he felt his points were made and so he'd move on to the next one.  (That is certainly not how I felt.)

The story focus on Rafe falling in love with Ben.  There are extremely close and Ben is starting to wonder how close 'close' can be.  Rafe knows what he wants but he's stuck between telling the truth and pissing Ben off, or keeping his secret and dealing with the anxiety of knowingly lying to someone he truly cares for.  The relationship aspect is really well done.

My primary complaint is Rafe's sheer intelligence and the fact that he never saw himself as aggressively vapid and shallow as he views everyone else.  He labels absolutely everyone--right down to all the stereotypes of being named Kaitlin, Brittany, or Ashley--and is happy to do so as long as no one labels him gay.  He definitely carries a bit of 'high and mighty' greater-than-thou attitude on his shoulders and does so with no regard for how much a jerk he may come off to anyone else.  In essence he 'struts.'  My dislike for his character should not suggest that he was poorly drawn, but I certainly didn't love him as much as his eccentric hippie parents do.

"A lot of the kids, Steve included, seemed to be writing that down, and I almost laughed.  It was like, 'This isn't going to be on a test,' dummies.  Listen.  Stop worrying about memorizing things you don't even understand.  I turned my eyes to Scarborough, and I watch as he saw the same thing I did.  I could see that the class's silence was even more disappointing to him."  Page 142  Scarborough was the teacher twenty something years Rafe's senior.  

He even gets worse than that…  I kept thinking that in addition to realizing that he couldn't suppress such a large part of his identity that Rafe would realize something to the affect of "Hey!  I'm a shallow sixteen-year old prick too!"  Because I felt that would have had more emotional impact on his growing up process than suppressing his sexual preference.  

There's a second narrative in the book, one that Rafe writes for his English teacher, Scarborough, who is the only person on campus that knows he's gay.  It deals with Rafe looking back to how he got here and draws so much attention to itself that it was almost as if the author wanted to explain--and even worse, justify--his writing style to reader while the reader was reading the book.  Happily, these sections were short.  

My final gripe is dialogue and what I always say about well-written 'chatty' books and why I stay away from them.  The dialogue is perfect.  P-E-R-F-E-C-T.  Which is as far away from real human speech as one could possibly be.  No one in this book--not a soul--ever reflects and says, "ya know what I should've said/done/acted thusly…"  They have the perfect, witty reply, snarky remark, clever comment queued up to go at any given time and it's wholly unrealistic.  Konigsberg's characters are very well drawn but about as believably sixteen as Cassandra Claire's.  

So I've done some complaining, cause that's my style, which means I liked it.  I checked this book out from the library, but since I believe in supporting the authors I really like I've since bought my own copy.  

Oh, and Rafe, at your age--or any age--if you ever find yourself in a novel again, you only get to say 'non sequitur' out loud once.  Or preferably never…  SINCE NO ONE TALKS LIKE THAT!  

It's only August but this is probably my book of the year.  

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Tie-Over Poetry

To keep you entertained until I post my comments on Openly Straight (hopefully tomorrow) some poems by Robert Hedin from his collection "County O."

     --for William Pitt Root

Owls glide off the thin
Wrists of the night,
And using snow for their feathers
Drift down on either side
Of the wind.

I spot them
As I camp along the ridge,
Glistening over the streambeds
Their eyes small rooms
Lit by stone lamps.

Last Poet

This man is a lover
Of canyon walls.
The first to read by moon alone.

During the day
He lives away from the sun,
Prone in the cool dirt
Under ledges,
Revising that one long last narrative line
On sheets of mica.

Now is the time
He chooses his closest friends:
A piece of jagged rock,
A cricket who's run out of songs.

Near evening
He makes his way to a precipice
And scours
The stones for scratches
Other than his own.

And as the moon curls over the rim
He recites his work
From memory,
Then listens as the canyon reads back
Again and again.
And then he claps
And the whole canyon applauds.


At the end of the open road we come to ourselves
                                            --Louis Simpson

All right, Louis
                         we're here
We're here at the end of the open road,
At the end of our ellipsis.

A wind and slight drizzle hide
Any other footprints.
They curl the road
Around our feet,
Sweeping it back into itself.

Louis, in the darkness we think
We see trees, giant sequoias
That break around an open marsh,
And are compelled to give them green,
To give them sway,
A hard mossy bark,
Rain dripping from their leaves.

Listen.  A bullfrog's call.
Smell the wet calm in the air.

We wait for the moon,
For the song of the white bird

Any backdrop
                        of light.


At this speed our origins are groundless.
We are nearing the eve of a great festival,
The festival of wind.
Already you can see this road weakening.
Soon it will breathe
And lift away to dry its feathers in the air.
On both sides the fields of rapeseed and sunflowers
Are revolting against their rows.
Soon they will scatter wildly like pheasants.
Now is the time, my friend, to test our souls.
We must let them forage for themselves,
But first--unbuckle your skin.
Out here, in the darkness
Between two shimmering cities,
We have, perhaps for the last time, chance
Neither to be shut nor open, but to let
Our souls speak and carry our bodies like capes.

That last one reminds me a Khalil Gibran for some reason.  I think Owls is simply amazing and the type of thing most people wish they could write with they say they want to start writing poetry.  There is some heavy word repetition and imagery as well but for the most part I've really enjoyed this collection.  

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Month in Review

July has been full of books; that said, I've only read two.  It's usually my wont in an effort to get myself out of a funk to buy or check out a ton or stuff, looking for inspiration and to get out of my reading rut.

I only bought one book, and honestly I forgot I purchased it.  Academic Exercises by KJ Parker was one I pre-ordered a while ago and when it arrived it was a very pleasant surprise.  Her novels haven't really worked for me, but I love her short stories so I'm hoping for the best.

Love Minus Eighty by Will McIntosh was a birthday gift.  This is without doubt the coolest looking book I own.  To the point where I feel bad for those with e-readers as they never got to see it.  Cool as it is, I admit to having to take this dust jacket off when I actually sit down to read it, but damn, it's cool.  It's also sci-fi, which I probably never would have picked up of my own volition but I know the giver of this gift knows my taste so I wouldn't be surprised if I love it.

I checked out five young adult novels from the library, each of which could feasibly be read in a day or two, all of which I'm excited about.  Lastly I got three poetry books from the library ranging from 'thick' 'medium' to 'thin.'  I read slowly.  I read poetry very slowly, so I've no plans to get through this small stack quickly, but hopefully I'll find some good stuff.

As to what I've actually read in July, there isn't much to report.  I knocked out a few more stories from Better living Through Plastic Explosives and I'm about halfway through Love in a Time of Cholera--which is the huge and dense and dense and huge.   My most odd bit of reading this month was A Street of Clocks by Thomas Lux, a poet who I really like and has been my 'go-to' since discovering I liked poetry, except I didn't care for anything in this collection.  It's a collection like this that really makes me wish I could express myself better about poetry so I could say what didn't work for me, despite all the books critical acclaim.  Oh well…

Much as I'm excited to skip to the new stuff, I really want to clean up loose ends and finish Better Living Through Plastic Explosives and Love in the Time of Cholera, that said, August--usually my best reading month of the year--has potential.    

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

I'm Talking about Keeping You a Secret by Julie Anne Peters

In which people saunter, seethe, and swagger way too much… 

I read this book in a day; which felt great as I've had problems reading anything--let alone to completion--in a a long time.  I finished the book, which means I liked it; I spent most of the day wishing I liked it more.  

It's the story of a girl, Holland, coming out.  And out and out and out and out…  (No seriously, she comes out on every page to the point where I started wishing she'd do something else.)  It hasn't aged terrible well; nor does it feel super dated.  I have an older sister who is gay, out and proud so a lot of the conflict felt luke warm to me, but I'm trying to keep personal experience out of my mind.  I really wish this book started on page seventy-nine instead of page one.  But yeah… I finished it; I liked it.  

Peters' must have had a sketch pad on which she jotted down the fifty most tense, nerve wracking plot scenarios she could come up with; this entire list she came up with was awesome.  Then she pared the list down and managed to cram as much as she could into the book by dialing back on all that made each scenario awesome to begin with.  

'Should have started on page seventy-nine," aside, I don't know how this book didn't have more momentum and power.  A teenager coming to terms with sexual identity while in a healthy and positive sexual relationship with the opposite sex, and being the most popular, image-conscious kid in the school.  It reminded me of Michael Chabon's short story Son of the Wolfman that I felt fell flat even though it was working with such strong material.  

I erased about twenty paragraphs in writing this next phrase: I never bought into Holland being gay.  At the snap of a finger, she sees a girl.  Learns this girl is gay.  That's all it takes. Now, Holland is gay.  Her character wasn't that shallow, but it wasn't much more substantial either…   All the problems--inherent to the story's framework--that could have been exploited but weren't: Seth, Holly's boyfriend, their eventual fallout and all the other subsequent boys she has to fight off; her family stepsister, stepfather; the student body president bit did nothing for the story even though she can identity a hate crime and bullying when she sees it; why use any of that material?  

At the end of the day Holly didn't strike me as a three dimensional character, thus made for a very week protagonist.  

There is a great story in here somewhere (starting on page seventy-nine) but I didn't feel it was ever uncovered.  

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Month in Review

I can't skip this post for June since I actually, ya know…, read some stuff.  Not a lot but some and considering my recent reading dry spell we'll take 'some' over nothing.

I read Torn Away at the start of the month and finished it so quickly that if feels like a year since I read it!  I also loved the book--which I kinda knew I would before I started reading.  With only a month  since I finished, I can already say that it hasn't stuck with me the way Perfect Escape has.  And while I think it would be foolish to say Jennifer Brown has already written her best book, I would tell anyone who wanted to get into Brown to do so, but save Perfect Escape for last or last--ish.

Today, I finished The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon.  If you've read my blog before, you know I love Chabon.  So how did his first novel go over with me?  To quote the much more literarily expressive than I Marion Deeds, I finished reading and said, "Huh?"

I got both the book and what he was trying to express or communicate, but if I read the book and didn't know it was Chabon I never would have ever guessed that he wrote it.  It's good, and not because it's dated but I'm sure it was even better when it first came out twenty years ago.  There were a few beautiful passages and descriptions that are shades of who he would later become, but none of the characters felt grounded.  I didn't mind all the characters being a caricature of themselves (or at least that's how they came off to me) or super pretentious and knowing I'd never hang out with these people in real life, but what killed me is they weren't real.  None of them felt like flesh and blood beings.  They were great vessels for ideas and living embodiment of concepts and ideals but that was all.

I love Michael Chabon and I'll read anything he writes (no, seriously; I will.) but all I'll say about this book is, "A writer and change/develop/grow a lot in twenty years."

I'm still about halfway through Better Living Through Plastic Explosives it's great but not really what I'm feeling right now.  I may read the remaining stories at a later point in time to appreciate them more than my current stupor will allow.

Since I'm blogging again, I wish the google sidebar thing where I post my 'most recent commentaries' links worked like it used to… Oh well.  Also, I've been giving a lot of though to re-reading stuff.  I've been doing so, as so many of the new-to-me-books I've picked up as of late have been misses that I'm thinking, 'Why not revisit the good stuff?'

I think I'll make a list, not merely of books I liked but ones that I really feel would benefit from a second (or third) visit and then after doing so I'll see if the idea of reading what's on the list still seems appealing or if I need to keep forging ahead.

Nonetheless, I'm reading again which feels good.  Scouring my shelves for more quick and dirty; fast and easy stuff for right now i.e. not Garcia-Marquez, Krauss, or Fowles which is the kinda stuff I own that is staring at me.  I think it's helped me that I'm not setting reading goals a month in advance like I usually do.  When I'm on a roll, doing so is a motivator and helps me read even more, but when I'm not, the opposite is also true.

Lev Grossman's new book is out in August…