Reading 2017

“I like non fiction. There is so much to know about this world. I think you read something somebody just invented, waste of time.”

(from Sideways the film, not the novel)

7 Responses to “Reading 2017”

  1. Mitchell

    The Cartoonist by Betsy Byars (1978)

    Alfie’s family lives in a house that’s tilting to one side. A ball placed on the floor on one end of the house rolls to the other side, and when his mom needs to call his older brother, she goes next door to use the neighbor’s phone. Dinner is sloppy joes almost every evening, and Alfie shares a bedroom with his grandfather. Like this house he has lived in for eight months, his family lists threateningly to one side, perhaps one crisis from tipping.

    Alfie finds his escape in cartoon strips, which he draws at a table in the attic. He’s been made fun of all his life for his inward-turned feet; he draws a cartoon about a boy who’s shunned by people but welcomed by pigeons. In another of his creations, a dog complains about how there are artificial coloring and artificial flavoring in everything. When Alfie shows one of his cartoons to his mother, she looks at it with no understanding. She doesn’t see humor in anything Alfie has ever done, but that time Alfie’s older brother stole some other kid’s car in high school and left it parked in someone else’s driveway? That was funny.

    Everyone’s longing for something that’s not there anymore. Alfie’s mom misses his older brother, who lives in another town. His grandfather misses everything about the good old days. Alfie misses the junkyard his father owned before his recent death. His sister seems to miss the days when she believed things were going to get better some day.

    The Cartoonist is part of a small Betsy Byars run of dreary, dark-ish, almost cynical books for young people I rather enjoyed in intermediate school. As a middle-aged man reading this again decades later, I see even more dysfunction than I recognized as an early teen, something I appreciate. Byars is neither preachy nor a Pollyanna. Her characters seem to pick up and move on, with seemingly little hope that things will get better, but maybe better prepared for the next discouraging event. Yeah, life’s like that sometimes.

  2. Mitchell

    Reading Seth Stephens-Davidowitz’s Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are, which came out in May and has gotten a lot of mainstream press. This is the third book I’ve read on Big Data and so far it’s the most interesting. Some of this predictive stuff is great.

  3. Reid

    What are some of the main takeaways/insights that you got from the book?

  4. Mitchell

    Still working through it, but I will definitely summarize when I’m done. I know I seldom mention books in this space I haven’t completed, but I’m already recommending it based on what I’ve read so far.

  5. Reid

    The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

    Some thoughts:

    1. There were funny moments, but what stands out is Twain stretched these out to the point where they became tiresome for me, specifically, the moments with the King and the Duke and Tom’s rules for breaking someone out of prison. These moments really made the reading a drudgery, and I almost made me quit.

    2. I know some believe this is one of the greatest American novels. My reaction? I’m less enthusiastic about this verdict. The novel doesn’t impress me as much as Moby Dick or The Great Gatsby. I prefer My Antonia as well, and may be The Grapes of Wrath (although it’s been ages since I’ve read it).

    I recall that some have said that Twain’s writing and subject matter were truly American, something distinct from European novelists. Choosing the novel for those reasons make sense, although this argument isn’t so persuasive with me personally.

    Maybe there are interesting insights or other positive features that I didn’t appreciate. That’s a a possibility because, as I alluded to, I got impatient at times, and I just wanted to get through the book.

    3. Re-reading The Great Gatsby made me think of Death of a Salesman and Taxi Driver. Huck Finn made me think of Catcher in the Rye–the way both have two adolescent social critics, speaking in an American vernacular of their day.

    4. I reacted in a rather heavy-hearted way toward the slavery and racism in the book, probably because of the times we’re living in now.

  6. Mitchell

    Everything I Never Told You
    By Celeste Ng (Penguin Press, 2014)

    “Lydia is dead.” These are the first three words in Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You, so I am not spoiling anything by quoting them here. Sixteen-year-old Lydia Lee is an overachieving girl who hopes to be a doctor. She’s won science fair prizes, taken courses at the community college, and hung the periodic table of the elements on her wall. She appears to be the center of her family, a favorite of both parents Marilyn and James, a co-conspirator of sorts with her twelfth-grade brother Nath, and worshipped by ten-year-old sister Hannah.

    We know before Lydia’s parents know that she is dead, and now our task, along with her family, is to figure out why. And there’s a lot of evidence to sift through. She is one of only two Asian students in her 1970s Ohio high school. She’s been hanging around with a senior boy known to spend time with many girls in the back seat of his VW Beetle. Her father, mother, and siblings are each carrying secrets that could explain Lydia’s death, but this is a family that leaves uncomfortable things in the past and never speaks of them again.

    This not speaking to each other is poisonous. Ng writes in the third-person omniscient point of view to get us deep into each character’s tragedies, first picking at scars but then tearing them open and pushing us inside to get a look around. It’s a tough read. James has issues about being a Chinese American in parts of the country where he’s the only one. This means Marilyn, the Caucasian wife he met at Harvard, has issues of her own, some of them reaching back to before she met James. Their children suffer the trickle-down consequences of their parents’ issues, then add their complications, until our hearts break for each separately, then for each relationship in this wonderful but damaged family.

    Ng’s writing is reason enough to read this. Her prose is smart but not overly literary, as novels in this upmarket fiction genre tend to be. She lays the symbolic visuals on a bit heavily, but she’s careful not to broadcast them too loudly, so that as the complexities of each character’s alienation unfold, we feel a kind of horror at the results while caring deeply for the people, perhaps granting some clemency for their bad decisions.

    Who is most to blame for Lydia’s death? It’s not an easy question to answer, but weighing the considerations is one of the novel’s rewarding experiences, not in the way that a good whodunnit is rewarding because we solve the tricky mystery ahead of the protagonist, but in the way a good story is when it gives us characters we like and sympathize with, and enough rationale to enable our judgments. It’s excellent book group fodder for this reason.

    A challenging read because of the content, but satisfying because excellently conceived characters.

    Four stars of five.

  7. Mitchell

    The Exhibition
    by Lisa Ottiger (2014)

    [disclosure: The writer is a coworker of mine. I purchased this book without her knowledge but I wrote this review with her knowledge, mostly because I was too excited about the novel not to let her know how much I was enjoying it.]

    If I begin with a plot summary of Lisa Ottiger’s The Exhibition, you might not stick around to read the rest of my review, so I’m going to say up front that I really enjoyed this self-published novel for its literate prose, interesting characters, and engaging story, even while admitting that based on a description of the plot alone, I might not have read this if I were not acquainted with the author. I’m going to recommend it especially for fans of upmarket fiction and historical fiction, but I don’t read much of either genre and I’m glad I read this, so pick it up if you just appreciate good writing.

    In mid-19th-Century Paris, a Filipino painter named Miguel Rey struggles to establish his reputation in the art world. He has real talent, but his ethnicity and race may be too much to overcome in upper-tier Parisian society. He finds a reluctant patron in a wealthy snob of a woman who agrees to hire him for a portrait of her sickly daughter Inès. He spends part of his time with Inès and her family, working on the portrait, and the rest in his starving-artist’s studio, working on his art. Miguel’s a complex character given to violent outbursts fed partly by a fiery temperament and partly by a chip on his shoulder put there by a lifetime of being underestimated because of his skin color.

    Other important characters are the young doctor Patrice, Inès’s brother and Miguel’s classmate in art school, and Leda, an employee at Patrice’s hospital who may have crossed paths with Miguel in her other job, late at night in Miguel’s seedy neighborhood.

    The characters are well defined, and Ottiger gives us plenty to like and dislike about each at the same time. Some readers may have difficulty enjoying a novel with such flawed (read: despicable) characters, but I was sympathetic with them all even when I didn’t want to be. If it helps, one character does rise above the others in perhaps a typical but very well-developed way; I could feel the writer’s affection for the character growing with every appearance, something that makes me smile even now, months after reading the novel.

    It is the writing that picked me up and carried me through this interesting story. Ottiger has a nice, poetic sense of visual description, as when she flashes to a scene at a cockfight:

    The men wait anxiously, spitting red betel juice on the floor and fingering the anting-anting amulets they wear around their necks, arguing or craning their necks to get a better view of the sandy ring. Mostly shirtless and shoeless, the smell of hard labor and hard luck rises off them, lingering like a miasma in the low-ceiling room.

    Her sense of place brings some new glimpses of even that most-described city in the world, Venice:

    It is the beginning of February and Carnival has washed over Venice, an ecstatic flood of sensuality for forty days and forty nights lasting from Three Kings’ to Ash Wednesday. At night thousands of lamps light every bridge and piazza and the city seems to float on a burning black sea.

    It brings me no pleasure to point out a few flaws, but my relationship with the author pretty much demands it. Like too many self-published novels, this one could really have used some professional editing. I know what it’s like: you are so familiar with your writing by the time you share it that you can’t see technical glitches you’d have picked up in someone else’s work. But the glitches are distracting. There’s also a strange tense-shift early in the story, and I’m not convinced that this is an author’s error. I have gone back to figure out what I might be missing, but it still looks like a tense-shift to me, dramatic enough to remove me from what is otherwise a rather immersive reading experience.

    Unlike a lot of self-published works, I really think this one could have found a home if the right people had read it. I’m no marketer, but I know good writing when I read it, and someone should have found a way to make it work. If only they were all as well-conceived and well-executed as this.

    Four stars out of five: I really liked it.

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