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May. 11th, 2009


Dry, Augusten Burroughs

Book: 13
Title: Dry
Author: Augusten Burroughs
Genre: Memoir
Summary: Augusten Burroughs' memoir of recovery from alcoholism.
Why did you get this book? I have a long-running interest in addiction-recovery memoirs, and Running with Scissors proved to me that Burroughs has got serious writing chops, so.
Did you enjoy the book? This book was seriously fantastic. No, really. This is the sort of book where I want to shove everyone toward the bookstore with the title and author written on a little slip of paper in their hands, and if they don't go I want to redirect them and then keep poking them in the back until they go and get this book. ::sigh:: I mean, okay. It isn't perfect -- what book is? -- and people who are less into this particular genre than I would doubtless be more prone to pointing out the flaws rather than flailing over the good parts. But Burroughs' writing has a surprising and unique quality of drawing you into the experience and making you feel, not what he feels when he's writing it, but what he felt while he was living through the events he's writing about. The result is a reading experience of extraordinary immediacy. Dude knows how to write.
Was the author new to you and would you read something by this author again? I'm not sure if I'll read his new memoir, Magical Thinking. I hear it's, well, really depressing. Given what I've said before about how immersive the experience of reading a Burroughs memoir is, I'm not all that sure that I'd handle the new one terribly well.
Are you keeping it or passing it on? It's a library book, but I want to buy it.
Anything else? Not really.
Scale of 1 to 10: 9/10

Mrs. Kimble, Jennifer Haigh

Book: 12
Title: Mrs. Kimble
Author: Jennifer Haigh
Genre: Fiction
Summary: Tracks the lives of three women who at some point in their lives have the misfortune to marry the serial monogamist and all-around-schmuck Ken Kimble.
Why did you get this book? I liked Haigh's The Condition and was interested to check out her freshman effort, but the reason I borrowed it so soon after I finished The Condition is that the Central Square Library sucks and I couldn't find anything good there the first time I visited. Thank heaven for Interlibrary Loan.
Did you enjoy the book? I did. It wasn't the most spectacular reading experience in the world, but I liked it. The ending has the same problem as the ending of The Condition, where you get happy endings with pretty bows tied on for all the characters you like, and you're happy about it because you wish them well, but you still can't help noticing the bows are a little too artificially pretty. Also, just in terms of style issues, Haigh is addicted to semicolons in a way that is truly ludicrous. There were times where I could read two whole pages and go through each sentence and *every sentence* would have a semicolon in it. Once I'd noticed it I could barely see anything *but* the semicolons. OMG SEMICOLONS SEMICOLONS SEMICOLONS CUT IT THE FUCK OUT WITH THE SEMICOLONS, LADY. I can't believe that neither she nor her editor noticed it. WTF, guys.
Was the author new to you and would you read something by this author again? Not new to me, no. Whether or not I'll read anything by her again is dependent on what it is. Also on whether I can flip through several pages and find that the ratio of sentences-with-semicolons to sentences-without-semicolons is less than 1:7. Seriously, if it isn't, I will not read another book by her. I AM ENACTING A ZERO-TOLERANCE 1:7 TOLERANCE POLICY WITH REGARD TO YOUR SEMICOLONS, JENNIFER HAIGH. WATCH IT.
Are you keeping it or passing it on? It was a library book, so it's already gone. I'm not displeased with this.
Anything else? OMFG semicolons!
Scale of 1 to 10: 7

Apr. 27th, 2009


As Nature Made Him, John Colapinto

Book: 11
Title: As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised As a Girl
Author: John Colapinto
Genre: Nonfiction, Gender Studies, LGBTQQIA
Summary: The story of David Reimer, who lost his penis in a circumcision accident at eight months old. On the advice of Dr. John Money, an outspoken specialist in the study of gender and sexuality, Reimer was surgically castrated, given rudimentary female genitalia, and raised as a girl without ever being told that he had been born a boy. The results were disastrous.
Why did you get this book? I saw it on a table at the Coop and thought it looked really interesting.
Did you enjoy the book? I... this is one of those cases where "enjoy" is not a good word. I mean, it's a fantastic book. Thoroughly researched, well-written, not given to overt polemicism (although the writing clearly favors one point of view, it seems that this is not Colapinto's but Reimer's own point of view). And the story at the center of it is just heartbreaking. It's a story that makes it clear that you can't just assign someone a sex and then manipulate their gender to match; that gender's not strictly a cultural construct and does have some kind of biological basis. But the most gripping and tragic aspect of the story by far was the portrait of Dr. Money, a crusader for his own particular views on the malleability of gender at birth and -- far more dangerously -- for his own techniques on how gender identity can be shaped and molded throughout childhood. Many of the practices he employs are nothing more than sexual abuse under the guise of science, and regardless of his reasons for doing this stuff, the trauma sustained by the children under his "care" is awful. Basically I hate the motherfucker and he disgusts me and his hubris and lack of regard for scientific process is incredible and the last line of the book hits like a punch to the stomach. ::sigh:: Yes, it's a very good book. But my God, poor David Reimer.
Was the author new to you and would you read something by this author again? I'd never read anything by him before. I think he's written some fiction since. Not sure if I'd read that -- it would depend on the subject.
Are you keeping it or passing it on? Library book, but I'm going to keep it out for awhile now that I've finished -- I may want to reread parts of it.
Anything else? One thing I wondered about was what Colapinto thought of the issue of transgenderism; he confined himself largely to a study of the practice of surgically assigning a sex to intersex children at birth, as well as the practice of changing boys' genitalia into girls' when circumcision accidents result in the loss of a penis. Which makes sense given the topic of the book. To me, though, Reimer's story of feeling completely out of place in his body and of *knowing* he was a boy despite everything sounds very much like the stories of transpeople I know, and at a glance, it's not clear whether Colapinto regards the biological basis of gender as an argument against the existence of transgenderism. Dr. Money, in addition to his wacky crusading for surgical reassignment of intersexual infants and children, also was instrumental in founding the nation's first center for sexual reassignment for transpeople. Which is huge, and hugely important to the transgender movement. Colapinto tends to stay quiet on that subject; he mentions that one of Money's most vocal opponents thinks that transpeople are simply mentally disturbed and should be treated solely by talk therapy in order to feel comfortable in the "right" gender, but Colapinto himself doesn't espouse one viewpoint or the other. I tend to think the answer's somewhere in between, but I don't have all the answers, and they're not in this book. It is surprising and disconcerting, for someone like me who regards gender and sexuality as having at least some essential fluidity (more so for some people than others, but still), to see such a strong case made for biologically-based immutability of gender orientation. It raises for me those questions that are at the bottom of all of these discussions: what does it mean to be "male" or "female"? I know that I'm cisgender, but *how* do I know? What does it mean to me that I am a woman? It's more than playing with dolls or guns, more than wearing dresses or pants, but what is it? David Reimer played with guns and wanted to wear pants; he was a pugnacious little kid who, everyone around him agreed, carried himself "like a boy". But how is that different from being a tomboy? These are big questions to me, and they reminded me that I need to do more reading on the subject.
Scale of 1 to 10: 9

The Condition, Jennifer Haigh

Book: 10
Title: The Condition
Author: Jennifer Haigh
Genre: Fiction
Summary: This is another book that resists easy summary. It's about the Drew family, a family that various reviews have described as "dysfunctional", but that I think is as functional as a lot of "normal" families, and honestly I think that's sort of the point. Paulette, an anxious, uptight WASP, Frank, a brilliant biologist with a bit of an unruly sexual id, find their marriage in jeopardy when they learn that their second child and only daughter, Gwen, is afflicted with Turner's Syndrome -- a condition which prevents girls from going through puberty. Paulette's and Frank's difficulties coping with this, combined with Paulette's mistrust of Frank and his impatience with her, lead to a divorce. In the decades following the split, all the members of the family -- Paulette, Frank, Gwen, and Gwen's two siblings, Billy and Scott -- struggle to define themselves within the context of their family. That is the stupidest, most boring summary ever, but like I said, it's not easy to summarize. Basically, it's a book about these people, and their family, and what it means to be part of a family. I really can't say much beyond that.
Why did you get this book? I'd heard Jennifer Haigh was good, and it was $3 off the bargain cart at Harvard Bookstore.
Did you enjoy the book? I really did, actually. I think by now it's clear that characterization is the all-important element in fiction as far as I'm concerned. Haigh's characters feel very human and natural, and so I liked the book a great deal. And she does a great job with the issue of the unreliable narrator -- filtering the same stories through different characters' perspectives, which throws both the objective incidents they're relating and the characters themselves into new light. There was the not-so-minor problem of the fact that one entire subplot (Frank's) is lifted directly -- and I do mean directly -- from Allegra Goodman's Intuition. I don't really know exactly how to think about that; I mean, *seriously*, Jennifer Haigh, WTF. And the ending wrapped certain plotlines up in a much too fairy-taleish fashion. However, I liked the characters enough that I wanted to see them get a happy ending, so I minded the fairy-tale aspect less. So, yeah. Good book. But if Allegra Goodman sues I won't be surprised.
Was the author new to you and would you read something by this author again? I hadn't read her before, but now I've taken Mrs. Kimble, her first novel, out of the library.
Are you keeping it or passing it on? Keeping.
Anything else? If you read this you should also read Allegra Goodman's Intuition. It's a very good book and Goodman got there first, FFS.
Scale of 1 to 10: 8

Apr. 23rd, 2009


Born Blue, Han Nolan

Book: 9
Title: Born Blue
Author: Han Nolan
Genre: YA fiction
Summary: You know what, I am finding myself at a loss to summarize this, so I'm just going to grab part of the Publishers Weekly summary: "[Born Blue is] the saga of an emotionally disturbed teen, whose life-affirming passion for music constantly conflicts with her self-destructive tendencies. Abandoned by her mother, neglected by her foster parents and later plagued by other variations on the hard-knock life; spoilerCollapse ), Janie finds her only source of happiness when she hears "the ladies" Etta James, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan sing. Janie is white, but she identifies more with the music, culture and rhythms of her African-American foster brother, Harmon. When, at a young age, she discovers her own remarkable singing voice, Janie changes her name to Leshaya, dedicates herself to music, and begins getting the attention she so desperately craves. Her talent proves to be both a blessing and a curse, however, bringing her opportunities and, at the same time, magnetically pulling her into a world where fellow musicians use drugs and sex to heighten their performance."
Why did you get this book? I was looking for a book to exchange When Dad Killed Mom for. This looked better.
Did you enjoy the book? I did. And it's weird, because, you know, if ever a book has had a kitchen-sink problem, it's this. I mean this is like seventeen Lifetime Movies rolled into one, this plot. But it was saved by two things: 1. Nolan's prose hooked me 100% from page one, and 2. the character really worked for me. The situation was melodramatic, but what sold it for me is that the author's take on it wasn't melodramatic. You don't have a sense of some affluent woman, fresh out of a creative writing MFA program, clucking her tongue sadly at those poor, poor people who live like this and all of the terrible things they have to face. Leshaya feels real. And though I'm writing this several weeks after I finished the book, I'm finding that she's still crystal-clear in my mind. That's good writing.
Was the author new to you and would you read something by this author again? Yes, she's new to me. I do plan to read more by her; I'll probably move on next to Dancing on the Edge, for which she won the National Book Award. (Though, as I noted in a previous post, in my own recent reading, YA awards have lately been a *really* poor indicator of quality literature.)
Are you keeping it or passing it on? Keeping.
Anything else? I thought the book's take on racial issues was interesting. Too much to get into here, but interesting.
Scale of 1 to 10: 8 or 9. I'm an indecisive being.

Gifts, Ursula LeGuin

Book: 8
Title: Gifts
Author: Ursula LeGuin
Genre: YA fiction, fantasy
Summary: Orrec, the protagonist, has been born and raised in the Uplands, where members of the ruling class have hereditary psychic abilities; specific abilities are passed down through specific families, and while these powers can each be used for good or for evil, they have long been used to gain the upper hand in the ongoing clashes between rival clans. As Orrec reaches puberty and the gift of his lineage -- that of "unmaking", or destroying, things and creatures with a glance -- he and his family, believing his gift to be uncontrollable, blindfold him to protect those around him. And then a bunch of other spoilery stuff happens and he has to decide what it means to be an adult.
Why did you get this book? I'd never read LeGuin, which was kind of a glaring oversight. It looked good. It was in a bargain bin.
Did you enjoy the book? I did, and yet I was reminded why I hadn't really gotten into LeGuin before (I tried the Earthsea books once or twice when I was young). It was slow to start, and then it really picked up the pace and became very compelling in the middle. And then the ending sort of fell flat for me. I felt like there was a lot of cool rising action, and then instead of climax and denouement, it sort of veered off and got moody and pensive and stayed that way to the end. Not that there's anything wrong with moody and pensive, and the themes explored in the end of the book are interesting and worth thinking about; but the structure seemed off to me.
Was the author new to you and would you read something by this author again? I'll probably try her again. Her prose is *really* solid -- I loved the writing.
Are you keeping it or passing it on? Keeping.
Anything else? There's a knack to making up names in a fantasy universe, and judging by this book, Ursula LeGuin does names better than anybody. I friggin' love the names in this book. (Orrec and Gry, the two main characters, actually have the worst names in the book as far as I'm concerned.)
Scale of 1 to 10: 7 or 8. Why is everything 7 or 8?

The Gift of Therapy, Irvin Yalom

Book: 7
Title: The Gift of Therapy
Author: Irvin Yalom
Genre: Psychology, nonfiction
One-sentence summary: Irvin Yalom is getting into his seventies and is depressed that he is going to die and will not be able to be a therapist anymore, so he wrote a book telling young therapists how to be like him so he will live on in them. Or something. I suppose the less flippant summary would be that he's worried about the future of therapy because he thinks managed care is ruining it (and I wouldn't altogether disagree, btw) so he wrote a book of advice on how to be a good therapist.
Why did you get this book? I like Irvin Yalom. I'm poking a little bit of fun at him up there, sure, but it's kind of a loving, "oh, Irv, you never change, do you?" sort of thing. I've read a lot of his stuff and it tends to repeat a lot of the same themes (for the record, there's little in this book that I didn't already know his opinion on from his novel Lying on the Couch). But I do like his approach to therapy: he's very interested in the interpersonal aspect of it, what he calls the "here-and-now relationship" (man does he like that phrase an awful lot), and in therapist transparency -- the idea that if a therapist and a patient relate to one another as human beings, as opposed to the old-school model where a therapist attempts to be a blank screen onto which patients can project transference, that relationship will serve as a microcosm to illuminate the patient's way of relating to other people. So I like him for that, and I like him for the fact that he's an excellent and very accessible writer.
Do you like the cover? I liked it a lot, actually. I have started taking this question out of my standard list because it bores me, but this was a photograph by Baudrillard that I really liked. Of course when I Googled it I found out that at least one experienced photographer thinks it's "to Baudrillard's credit that he had the wisdom not to quit his day job." Oh boo.
Did you enjoy the book? I did. As noted, there wasn't much that was new to me in it, having read a lot of Yalom before. But there were a few new anecdotes among the old ones, and a few new dreams among the ones he'd recycled from other books, too -- he never makes up dreams for analysis in his books, because he says something about the quality of dreamworld eludes him, so you tend to come across the same dreams multiple times in reading his books because he has to get permission from the patients to use them. But the dreams he writes about, in particular, are really fascinating and compelling. And in general, you know. I like him.
Was the author new to you and would you read something by this author again? Honestly I don't know how much else there is to read. He has something out called Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death, which I may pick up at some point. Among other things he has a strong existential orientation in his therapy, so sometimes reading his books can feel like "YOU'RE GOING TO DIE YOU'RE GOING TO DIE WE'RE ALL GOING TO DIE YOU MUST COME TO TERMS WITH YOUR DEATH DEATH DEATH DEATH DEATH OMG DEATH!!!!" I sort of have to be in the mood for that. But I guess I'll probably read it at some point.
Are you keeping it or passing it on? Keeping.
Anything else? This would be a good introduction to Yalom's work, I think, for someone wanting to become acquainted quickly with the way he works and the basics of the therapeutic process. (If you're interested in his more creative writing, try Love's Executioner or maybe Lying on the Couch, although I've a few caveats on the latter.)
Scale of 1 to 10: 7? 8? I'd give it easily an 8 if I weren't so familiar with all of the material in it.

Apr. 9th, 2009


Mom and Jo, Julie Anne Peters

Book: 6
Title: Mom and Jo
Author: Julie Anne Peters
Genre: YA, queer lit
One-sentence summary: Fourteen-year-old Nicholas sifts through his memories of his parents, a lesbian couple who’ve had a long and stormy relationship, as they begin to unravel and finally split up.
Why did you get this book? Well, for starters it was also in the bargain bin at Borders, but I squeed when I saw it and might well have bought it full-price, so. I’ve read Julie Anne Peters before -- Keeping You a Secret and Luna -- and she’s rapidly becoming my go-to author for LGBTQQIAA YA fiction.
Did you enjoy the book? Yes -- I expected to and wasn’t disappointed. The thing that Peters does that a lot of other people who set out to write, say, “a lesbian novel for teens” don’t manage is that while her books could easily be classed as Issue Literature, she never takes the easy out of making her characters into props in a book-length Ten Things You Should Know About Queer People pamphlet. Which sounds like a harsh description of books that do that. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with Queer 101 books, exactly; they have their role and visibility is always good and blah blah blah. But it isn’t what Julie Anne Peters does. Her characters always resonate strong and true, and though the books are indisputably queer, that never feels limiting, because the characters are fully fleshed-out. I especially like her knack for taking a character who would traditionally be a supporting character in a piece of Issue Lit -- the son of the lesbian couple, for example, or the sister of the transgirl in Luna -- and making that character central. Her plotting is occasionally a little kitchen-sinky and her prose is competent rather than shiny/original, but I’ve always been of the belief that a story should grow out of the characters and that if you can make me believe in them you’ve done most of the hard work of writing a good book. In short, I like her a lot.
Was the author new to you and would you read something by this author again? No, and yes. She has a few more books I still haven’t read. Right now I’m on a YA kick that I may well never get out of -- as I’ve come to identify more and more strongly as a YA writer it seems naturally for that to comprise the bulk of my reading -- and she is one of the best queer YA writers out there.
Are you keeping it or passing it on? Keeping it. It looks nice next to her other two books on my shelf. I like building collections by particular authors.
Anything else? Not really. I am sad that I will probably not find any more of her books for $4 in a bargain bin and will have to pay full price for the rest.
Scale of 1 to 10: 8

Apr. 7th, 2009


When Dad Killed Mom, Julius Lester

Book: 5
Title: When Dad Killed Mom
Author: Julius Lester
Genre: YA
One-sentence summary: There's a shy artsy boy and his sexually-and-intellectually-precocious sister, and their dad killed their mom.
Why did you get this book? It was in a bargain bin for $3, the topic sounded interesting, and the author had won the Newbery Award, though not for this book.
Do you like the cover? Oh, it's well-designed enough, I guess. I'm sort of getting bored with this question.
Did you enjoy the book? No. This book sucked. It wasn't just the middling prose or the not-quite-on characterization, though those didn't help. It was the fact that YET AGAIN I found myself sitting there reading a novel about an abusive family that had clearly been written by an author who has no idea what abusive family dynamics look like at *all*. I cannot convey to you how much I hate that. At the beginning of this book? The kids think their parents are getting divorced. Because they have asked some of their friends who have divorcing parents what things were like just before the divorce, and everything their friends said is something that's going on in their parents' marriage. A DIVORCE AND A SPOUSAL HOMICIDE ARE NOT THE SAME THING, ASSHOLE. At. all. And what's even more annoying is that Lester does have some sense that this ought not to be just a run-of-the-mill couple who fight a lot, so he inserts random little bits of behaviors that would be objectively classified as abusive on the dad's part -- i.e., spoilersCollapse ). But it doesn't *feel* abusive. There's no sense that either one of the things described below the cut is born of a desire to control his family, to enhance his sense of power. This is the thing that so many people who write novels like this miss: physical abuse isn't born of normal anger. Sexual abuse isn't born of sexual desire. It's control and it's power and it affects every interaction you have with a person, even in the good moments -- it's always there, it's part of who they are and who you are with them and the relationship between you. An abusive relationship does not look like a relationship heading towards divorce. If divorce were an easily available option it wouldn't be an abusive relationship in the first place. I seriously just do not even have words for how pissed off I get when books like this reinforce the general perception that abusive relationships can be understood in the same context as non-abusive relationships. No wonder people blame abused women for staying with their abusers. No wonder people ask rape survivors why they didn't just fight back, yell louder, go to the cops immediately, do this, do that. Because people figure in an abusive situation the mind of the victim is functioning exactly like the mind of the person second-guessing it all, safe in their kitchen, sipping their coffee with the newspaper spread out in front of them.
Was the author new to you and would you read something by this author again? Yes. No.
Are you keeping it or passing it on? Returning it. I know, I know, I keep doing this. I think I am instituting a policy that if I find a book offensive enough that I would regard it as polluting my bookshelf, I take it back.
Anything else? 1. Why are all the children's book awards failing me? First the Coretta Scott King Award brought me Forged by Fire, then this dude got a Newbery for something or other -- what gives? 2. Why is it that I am capable of doing a normal book review until the subject of abuse comes up, and then all of a sudden I turn into a deranged rant machine? 3. If you want to read a good book along these lines, read Freaky Green Eyes by Joyce Carol Oates. Seriously. Read it.
Scale of 1 to 10: I don't know, maybe a 3? What did I give Such a Pretty Girl? This was a little better than Such a Pretty Girl.

Apr. 6th, 2009


Wintergirls, Laurie Halse Anderson

Book: 4
Title: Wintergirls
Author: Laurie Halse Anderson
Genre: YA/teen
One-sentence summary: An eighteen-year-old anorexic, Lia has always had a complicated relationship with her bulimic friend Cassie; the two have always understood one another a little too well, and become entangled in a dangerous downward spiral together. Lia is estranged from Cassie the night that Cassie leaves thirty-three messages on Lia's cell phone voice mail -- and turns up dead the next day. In the coming months, Lia's anorexia becomes more and more severe as she finds herself confronted with Cassie's ghost over and over again, blurring the line between life and death and drawing her closer to the brink.
Why did you get this book? I <3 Laurie Halse Anderson.
Do you like the cover? The cover is absolutely beautiful. I don't know who did the cover art for that book but if I ever become a published YA author I will feel myself to have arrived if I can snag this person for my cover art.
Did you enjoy the book? I did, though that seems much too simple a word. My reaction to it was actually incredibly complicated and I want to do a full review on my other LJ. It made me think a lot about what it means to write a good YA novel, and what LHA was trying to do with the book, and what I liked about that and where I thought she could have taken it a step further, and the social context in which she's writing AND... you get the point. Mostly it made me think a lot about what I want to do with my own writing. But it was... I don't even know how to put it. As I was reading it, the word "engulfing" was the only word I could find to describe the feeling I had. It's very, very rare for me to feel so completely that I *am* the protagonist, and rarer still for that to happen when the protag's specific issues are ones I've never dealt with.
Was the author new to you and would you read something by this author again? No, LHA's my girl from way back. And her teen stuff is AMAZING.
Are you keeping it or passing it on? Keeping it, though λ will read it, I'm sure.
Anything else? I'll link back to my full review when I finish it.
Scale of 1 to 10: 9/10

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