Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Project for holiday downtime: maybe move this blog to WordPress?

Since I started a (very very small) publishing company a few months ago, published my book of poetry, and have been working on writing novels (two in progress, zero finished so far), and have been learning more about self-publishing, I really need to reinvigorate this blog. I cleaned up a few things a couple months ago, but there's still a lot to do, and I'm thinking it's about time I switched from Blogger to WordPress. The guys who do The Self-Publishing Podcast (which I discovered when I found their book, Write. Publish. Repeat, at the library) have talked a bit about "digital sharecropping," I think they called it, and the importance of having your own space on the internet. As long as I'm on Blogger, I'm basically at the mercy of Google. Like millions of other people, I love many things about Google, but the idea of controlling my own space is very appealing. My business, and my writing career, is still in its fledgling state, and will be for some months to come (but not years -- please, Lord, let it be months and not years!), but I want it to grow and succeed. Getting a "real" web host, making the blog a bit more "professional," and posting more often -- even if it's only short updates like this one -- are reasonable steps I can take, and should take, toward gradually growing my business.

All that said, if you try to visit this blog again in the next few weeks and it's messed up or temporarily missing, I'm probably trying to move it to a new host and a new template and running into technical difficulties ... because that's usually what I do. Wish me luck.

Friday, May 22, 2015

My review of The Happiest People in the World by Brock Clarke

For the record: I received this book (an actual hardcover book!) for review from Algonquin Books, through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program. This does not affect the content of my review, but since I truly did love the book, I’m incredibly thankful to have a “real” copy and not just an ARC.

I’ve delayed this review so long, I hardly know where to begin. So, I will begin at the beginning. The novel contains eight parts, with a total of 67 chapters. The lengths of the parts are wildly uneven: Part one contains chapter 1, which is only four pages long. It doesn’t quite function as a prologue, exactly, but sort of as a smoky glimpse of things to come. I use the word “smoky” to mean the scene is literally smoky. The first page of the book contains the sentence, “The smoke was so thick the moose head was barely able to see the people it was intended to spy on.” From the book’s jacket, the reader learns that the novel will include a cartoonist from Denmark -- home of “the happiest people in the world” (except for that guy Hamlet, who I seem to recall was super unhappy) -- and some CIA agents, and a high school principal in a small town in upstate New York, plus the principal’s wife. We know there are CIA agents, so the mention of spying right on the first page isn’t wholly unexpected.

Part two begins with chapter 2, in which we meet the aforementioned Danish cartoonist. The timing of my reading of this book was very strange. I got the book in October, but didn’t actually read it until early January. Only a few days after the attacks on the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris, I found myself reading about a similar kind of situation in a fictitious newspaper in Denmark. I had waited too long to start reading the book, but ended up reading it almost simultaneously with current real-world events. In the novel, the reason the cartoonist draws a controversial cartoon depicting the prophet Muhammad is quite mundane: his boss tells him to draw one. The reason the boss tells him to draw the cartoon is really a slap in the face for anyone who believes in freedom of expression: the editor hates his job, but the newspaper had been “owned and run by his family for almost two centuries. Quitting the paper would be like quitting his family” (p. 14). He realizes that if the paper prints a controversial cartoon, the backlash will require him to close up shop, and he’ll no longer be stuck in this job that he hates. (Selfish bastard.)

The newspaper offices are attacked, and the cartoonist’s house is burned down. The cartoonist is declared dead, but in reality, he’s alive and being protected by the CIA. After a couple few years of being shuttled here and there, the Danish cartoonist is given a new identity, Henry Larsen of Sweden. His CIA handler, a woman nicknamed Locs, travels with him to the US, then puts him on a bus to a little town in upstate New York called Broomeville. We learn that Locs used to live in Broomeville, and had an affair with the junior-senior high school principal, Matty. Although he had loved Locs, he’d broken it off with her and remained with his wife, Ellen, and their son, Kurt. Before bringing Henry to America, Locs got in contact with Matty, told him that she’d joined the CIA after their affair ended, and asked him if he had a job available for the man under her protection. Matty agrees to hire Henry Larsen as the school’s guidance counselor.

The novel’s plot is fairly complicated, and there are a number of quirky characters, but I felt most of the central characters were fleshed out and interesting. Although the details of the plot were far-fetched and improbable, the characters’ actions and emotions rang true. Locs still misses Matty, still loves him, although their affair ended seven years before. Ellen is still hurt by Matty’s betrayal, and when she hears someone else refer to him as “Matthew,” the name only Locs called him, she’s instantly suspicious. Their son Kurt, now a teenager, is intrigued by Henry, and curious about his sudden appearance in Broomeville, but also tells him impulsively when they first meet, “‘I’m definitely going to be needing your guidance counseling’” (p.77).

I found Brock Clarke’s writing to be propulsive. The book I read right before this one was a novella -- I think it was less than 100 pages -- and it took me about ten days to finish it. Then I started The Happiest People in the World, and I tore through it in three days. I thought the premise was interesting, and the first couple of chapters pulled me in quickly. In chapter 5, when Locs calls Matty to tell him she’s with the CIA and ask if he can give Henry a job, this paragraph appears:

“Fair enough,” Matty said, and immediately he wished he hadn’t. She had once accused him of saying that -- “fair enough” -- way too often and in response to things that weren’t fair enough at all, and then they’d gotten into a fight about it, his gist being, did she have to be such a bitch, and her gist being, she wouldn’t have to be such a bitch if he didn’t say “fair enough” all the time. (pp. 26-27)

I read that, laughed out loud, then walked to the other room and read the paragraph to my husband. From that point, I was all in on this novel. I liked the main characters, the secondary characters were pretty entertaining, the plot kept me guessing, but the thing I enjoyed most about the book was that tone, that voice, which could be funny, or serious, or sometimes both at the same time. The all-over-the-place feeling reminded me of my response to the novel A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz, which I read in 2011 and love love loved; this is the first time another novel reminded me of Toltz's book. (That title links to my post about the book, in case wacky happenings are your thing.)

Here’s an extreme example, in which Ellen is driving Henry to the school in the snow, a ride that takes approximately one minute. If you like this, then you should definitely give this book a try.

In this way, Henry learned several things.That once Americans were out of the cold and in their trucks, they did not like to get back out into the cold, even if it meant making the inside of their trucks as cold as the outside; that American weathermen liked to refer to snow as “the white stuff”; that American sports talk radio announcers liked to say about something, “There’s no doubt about it,” before then expressing their many doubts about it; that American political commentators liked to preface their comments by saying, “No offense,” before then saying something offensive (the political commentator on the radio had said to whomever he was talking to, “No offense, but you have to be the stupidest human being on the planet”); that Americans were very impatient people with very short attention spans; that Americans believed as long as they were inside their trucks they were invisible, and that as long as they smoked cigarettes inside their trucks they would not then smell like cigarettes once they exited their trucks, and that in general Americans thought their trucks were magic; that while Europeans tended to think of Americans as people who liked to drive incredibly long distances in their pickup trucks, in fact Americans liked to drive incredibly short distances in their pickup trucks as well. These were the lessons Henry learned about Americans during his first minute in Ellen’s truck, and not once was he forced to reconsider them during all his days in Broomeville. (p. 92)

These are over-generalizations, of course, but there’s some amount of truth to them, in that everything in the paragraph sounds familiar to me. I’ve never driven a pickup truck, but I really do like my car, and most Americans seem to be quite fond of their motor vehicles. Meteorologists really do use the term “the white stuff” in areas of the country that get snowfall. Talk radio … well, no offense, but I think Clarke’s got the gist of it. If you can’t stand this paragraph, the book is probably not for you, although as I said, this is one of the more extreme examples. But, if you read it and thought, “Yes, I want more!” then you’ve come to the right place.

I loved taking the crazy journeys Clarke maps out in this novel. I was interested in his previous novel because of its unusual title, An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England, but hadn’t actually read it. Now that I’ve read The Happiest People twice, I decided to purchase that earlier book for my ereader. I don’t think I’ll be disappointed.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

My favorite books of 2014

This was a slightly disappointing reading year, in that I only read about 35 books. Part of this is because I participated in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) in November and didn't read much of anything as I tried to focus on writing. I also didn't listen to as many audiobooks this year as I usually do, choosing more often to listen to podcasts. Still, I did read some very good stuff, and wanted to do a top ten list to make sure those books I enjoyed but didn't review would get a little end-of-year attention.

1. Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?
This memoir by Roz Chast is the first graphic memoir/novel/anything that I've ever read. I bought the brand-new hardcover after hearing about it on the Slate Audio Book Club podcast. Listening to Dan Kois and Hanna Rosin reading a section in the voices of Roz's parents, I was overcome with laughter, and also, having grown up in my own hoarders-like situation, I knew there would be parts I could relate to. This book is hysterically funny, at times heartbreaking, completely honest, and full of awesome. Everyone should read it.

2. Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky
In a year when I didn't blog as much as I would have liked, and didn't review as many books as I'd hoped to (in both cases, I realize that's the same story as EVERY year, but I digress), I did post a review of this amazing debut novel by David Connerley Nahm. I skimmed through several best-of-the-year roundups online, and didn't see this novel on any of them. WHY DO I HAVE TO SAY THIS AGAIN?? GO FIND THIS BOOK AND READ IT!!

3. Station Eleven
This is the fourth book by Emily St. John Mandel, and her breakout. I was lucky to be one of the first to get it from my local library, and I read the whole thing in one day, during the October Read-a-thon. It's post-apocalyptic and literary, with both smarts and heart, and unlike the Nahm book, it actually DID make many best-of-the-year lists, deservedly so. Count me on the bandwagon.

4. Can't and Won't
Lydia Davis has become a favorite of mine, and this one, her latest collection of stories (some short, and some short-short), was a solid effort. A handful of the pieces didn't do it for me, but overall, this book was a joy. Like Ancient Oceans, this is one I initially got from the library, and then bought my own copy because I liked it so much. I now have most of Davis's books, and really I should just plan to buy the new ones as they come out because I can't imagine not liking them.

5. The Days of Abandonment
This was the first book I read by elusive Italian author Elena Ferrante. I bought it at the library book sale a few years ago, and finally read it because of the World Cup of Literature event hosted by Three Percent. It was blisteringly angry, and also maybe a little crazy. I bought into it, and I loved it. I bought another Ferrante book soon after finishing this one, so definitely plan to read more of her.

6. Bluets
Like the Ferrante novel, this book by Maggie Nelson sat on my bedside table for a LOOONG TIIIIME, while I hoped to write a review or at least post some of the passages I liked best. (As usual, I didn't get to it.) It's hard to say whether this book is prose, or prose poetry, or something else I don't have a name for. It consists of over 100 passages and short paragraphs, all numbered, all growing from thoughts about the color blue -- thus the title. This book isn't for everyone: there are F-bombs in it, and sexually graphic moments, and you might wonder if Nelson has them in there merely to shock the reader or to make some point that's not entirely clear. But good heavens, a lot of the sections in the book are SO BEAUTIFUL, so finely-crafted and moving, I don't even care about the comparatively small number that mention screwing and sodomy and what-have-you. I'd really like to read more by Nelson, and look forward to hearing what she'll do next.

7. My Life in Middlemarch
This book by Rebecca Mead is part memoir, part biography of George Eliot, and part literary criticism/appreciation of Eliot's novel Middlemarch. As a huge fan of Middlemarch, I was eager to read this book, and it didn't disappoint. It brought me to tears several times. My only problem with it is that it's the kind of book I would have wanted to write, and Mead has already written it, dammit. Since she's British, and read Middlemarch far earlier in life than I did, she clearly had an advantage over me anyway, so I forgive her, and truly appreciate her work. Moreover, she brought attention to Middlemarch, and that makes me very happy.

8. Let's Pretend This Never Happened
Confession: I listened to Jenny Lawson's "mostly true memoir" on audio, very early in 2014, and haven't revisited it. But when I looked at the list of books I read during the year, and saw this title, all I could think of was how incredibly funny it was -- I mean laughed-till-I-cried, might-need-my-inhaler, almost-wetting-my-pants, loud-guffaws-in-public kind of funny. Anything that makes me laugh that hard is always worth my time. If you like funny books and you don't mind one that includes at least 85 occurrences of the word "vagina," give this one a shot.

9. Home Leave
I got an ARC of Brittani Sonnenberg's debut novel from LibraryThing, so I've already written a review of it, and don't need to say much more. I really admired all the different perspectives, and the variety of styles, that Sonnenberg used to tell this story. That willingness to experiment helps her to stand out from the crowd.

10. Bury Me in My Jersey
This one is a memoir by Tom McAllister, a writer who also co-hosts my favorite podcast, Book Fight! Because I love the podcast, I was probably predisposed to enjoy the book. Moreover, since it's a memoir, and I know Tom's voice from the podcast, I could "hear" him narrating as I read it. A big part of the book is about Tom's adolescence and young adulthood in and around Philadelphia, and specifically his family's devotion to the Philadelphia Eagles football team. Tom's experiences in Eagles fandom, and the loss of his father to cancer when Tom was only 20, are woven together into a mosaic of love for both family and a wider community (in this case, both fellow Eagles fans and Philly itself), and of grief at losing his dad when he still badly needed his dad's guidance and encouragement. I've learned a decent amount about basketball and baseball from my husband and sons, but I still know almost nothing about football, and I'm happy to remain in ignorance. And yet, I enjoyed this book very much. It doesn't matter if you have an interest in football, or in any kind of "fandom," or if you've lost a loved one too soon, or like to read about father-son relationships, or you've considered writing as your vocation but don't see how you could ever actually do it -- there is something in McAllister's book for all of these readers. And if you're like me, and you've listened to enough episodes of the Book Fight! podcast that you can tell which voice is Tom's and which is Mike's, then you should definitely read Tom's book. Like, stop reading this now and go find a copy!

Cheers to discovering some excellent books in 2014, and let's hope 2015 is full of fantastic reading!