Monday, December 31, 2007

The Magician and the Cardsharp

The cover-quote on this wonder of a book by Karl Johnson says that "folk history of magic is irresistible" and I have to agree. But THE MAGICIAN AND THE CARDSHARP is so much more than a biography or a history text.

If you love magic - and I was entranced long before my beloved affiliation with Zovello - you simply must read this book. As Johnson retells the story of Dai Vernon's search for a man who can center-deal (deal flawlessly from the center of the deck), I felt like I was on a railcar travelling back in time. Johnson does a flawless job of research -- so much so that I know feel as though I've been to many of the places he writes about, even though I know I haven't. It's really a double-biography of sorts, but it's also a mystery, as we follow along as Vernon goes in search of the ultimate card man.

There is something beautiful about this story, and I can't yet put my finger on it, but it has made me want to get out a deck and NOT play with it. I just want to stare at the deck for a while and, by not touching the cards, pay homage to the masters who deserve the deal.
RECOMMENDED for those who love biography, who love mystery, and who love magic. What a joy!

Sunday, December 30, 2007

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

Wowee wow wow wow. I've still got four or five books on the pile, but for my money this is the Book of the Year. Sure, I've read Sherman Alexie before; as a teacher in the Pacific Northwest, I've practically been raised on his work. But the cool part about, well being alive, is that sometimes you get to be breathing when a writer - and artist - like Alexie makes a gigantic leap forward in an otherwise brilliant career. And THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN is such a work.
I found myself crying over the main character's poetic outsider-insider status, one that Sherman has explored before, but never with such poingnant detail. A fabulous read from cover to cover, and that includes Ellen Forney's fabulous artwork! RECOMMENDED!

Saturday, December 29, 2007

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

So, I'm not thinking that I'm going to be in the Dominican Republic again. As in: "How many times can I read a book with the words Trujillo in it over the course of my life??"

I never saw it coming, though. I'm reading about a guy named Oscar, who may just be the most pathetic virgin since...well, since virginity...and then I'm in the D.R. again. But let me set the record straight: I love the D.R. and I loved this book. In THE BRIEF WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO, Junot Diaz has created one of the more memorable characters of the year. And DAMN it was funny and poignant and tragic and silly and magical. I was reminded of many different books and authors as I read this work (Butterflies, Lambs, Marquez) and also some amazing geeks I have known over the course of my life (no, I'm not naming anyone).

Over the course of 300-someodd pages, I grew to love Oscar and his family. I was ready for "where the story went" as it went to where "it had to go." I can't give very much away, even if I gave away the novel. But I won't. I'll just thank MK for the recommendation...and then I'll pass it on. RECOMMENDED!

PS: I really need to get to the Dominican Republic one of these days....

Friday, December 28, 2007

The Grandmothers

Two-book day alert! Man, I looooove vacation!
Let's just start by admiring the sunset over the Pacific, shall we? Don't worry, the sun over the Pacific is a particularly admirable image that is deeply connected to the work of the brilliant Doris Lessing, especially here. AH...the sunset!
THE GRANDMOTHERS, a collection of four short pieces of fiction by the Nobel Award-winning Lessing is a masterpiece of fiction. I can't decide which of the four is my favorite, especially since the last story is still fresh in my mouth. I think it's the last, particularly because of the image that Lessing leaves the reader with: a kind of love that is not love at all. I was a little bothered by the title story, but the more time I spent with it, the more I was taken with Lessing's boldness.
The recurring motifs of parents and children notwithstanding, there is something else here that deals with the force of love -- what we give up, what price we pay, what sacrifices we are willing to make. Lessing is a just a wonder. I'm so glad that I got exposed to her writing when I was still young. It means that I don't have to spend a lifetime catching up. Shoutout to Ludgate, Pittis, and MK for all recommending this wonderful text. RECOMMENDED!

In Persuasion Nation

I'm sitting at a pool, laughing my head off, trying to explain this book to just about everyone who comes by and wonders what medication I am on.
George Saunders' IN PERSUASION NATION is both laugh-out-loud funny, remarkably brilliant satire, and a sad and profound warning to all who eat from the beast that is American culture. Saunders is just flat-out hysterical, even when he is dancing the line between absurd and fanciful.
As I read, I kept wondering what he would do to our newfound obsession with celebrity now that he has destroyed American consumerism to the year 2004.

Some may argue that Saunders is just too smart for his own good, but I just don't buy that. I would buy that, of course, if a focus group worked out a good name for it, though. RECOMMENDED with a caveat: Don't plan on going shopping or watching TV for about a week after this read. OK, let's be honest. That isn't happening. But shop with care!

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Tree of Smoke

Denis Johnson's giant tome is, deservedly, on just about everyone's "Best of 2007" list. It's massive and, in all candor, would normally deserve a serious commitment of time. For me, that's a day, but...that's just me.

The Washington Post's review (which was the second one I read) called Johnson's act of writing TREE OF SMOKE "literary bravado," and I have to agree. Since I now teach "THE THINGS THEY CARRY" every year, I've become more familiar with Vietnam, both through a historical and literary lens. SMOKE, however, is operating on a completely different plane. It's ponderous in a completely different way -- leaving you not with the personal weight of the war, but with the insanity of the exercise.
I not only HIGHLY RECOMMEND this important and stunning work, I'm up for a nice long dialogue with friends about the image of a "tree of smoke" because, in all candor, I've been thinking about the title for several hours now, and it's really under my skin. I'm not shaking this book any time soon, I fear, even if I make little piles of index cards....

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Then We Came To The End

No, we haven't come to the end. THEN WE CAME TO THE END is a lovely novel by Joshua Ferris. By my count, I'm not even at the halfway point this year! I really loved this book and, even though I just complained about a self-referential novel, when that element hit, I didn't mind. By that point, I was busy looking over my shoulder to see if Ferris was still writing down the things I was doing. I imagined this moment, of course, because Ferris hits "the office" with such a dead-on shot, that many people are going to wonder if he was writing about them. At times, I was a little bit dizzy, but that was only because I kept trying to make characters connect to the various nutjobs I've worked with over the years (present company excluded, of course). RECOMMENDED (with a post-it, a sharpie, and the serial number to my chair intact).

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

I Can't Tell You!

Three-Book Day Alert! And here's the one I can't tell you about yet. As my faithful non-readers know, I vacation in the same paradise every year and have quite a reputation. More than a few times a day, the folks who are "regulars" here - meaning they have also been coming back year-after-year for more than a decade - come by my cabana and ask, "What's the count?" or "How many so far?" or "Got one to recommend?" Most people know that I'm a teacher, that I love books, and so I always stop and chat for a while (me? social? shocking!)

Today, an old friend walked over with a 5-pound box. Inside, a wonderful secret: her daughter's first novel. Considering that she's only 16, and that I am a teacher, she asked, "Could I read it?"

Folks: She can write. It's wonderful. And I can't tell you any more than that until I send it off to my friend, the book agent in New York! Two years from now, when she's got a bestseller, I'll tell you the name. Until then, it's my "Lauren-loving" secret!

Mister Pip

Two Book Alert! Actually, it's a little more than that today, but I like the firehouse call, so I use it here. Lloyd Jones' novel MISTER PIP was a surprise to me, given that I didn't know the first thing about the author. And while I felt transported by his characters, there was just something missing here for me. Was it the narrator who was - ultimately - composing the tale? Was it that, for the fifth or sixth time in my memory, I was reading a parallel tale across the world of Dickens? I don't know. Jones can certainly create wonderful and strong characters, and I cared about them, but I was left somewhat empty by the last few chapters. It was small -- I ended up going back and recapturing some moments from the novel later in the day -- but it wasn't enough for me.

Gods Behaving Badly

Marie Phillips certainly has a vivid imagination, that's for sure. And it's her imagination that makes GODS BEHAVING BADLY a kind of little engine that could. Does it get knocked off course a bit? Sure. Does it wrap itself up a little too tightly at the end? Yep. Will it end up making a great screenplay and get Phillips a development deal? Abso-freaking-lutely. I loved everything about this darling of a book, which sets the gods of Zeus, Apollo, Aphrodite, etc in a terribly run-down flat in London, watching their powers drain away. It is laugh-out-loud funny (don't even get me started about trees and joggers) and is, therefore, RECOMMENDED.

Monday, December 24, 2007

The Secret of Lost Things

It was a lovely sunny morning, so I reached for a book with a cool cover and moved out to the sun, intent on finishing before lunch. Sheridan Hay did not disappoint me, and neither did THE SECRET OF LOST THINGS. Maybe because it was set in a huge Manhattan bookstore just like the one I used to pass weekends in when I was living in New York. Maybe it was because the main character, Rosemary, arrives in the city as an outsider (an experience I have shared). Or maybe it was because Hay's characters seem to touch the corners of my life. I don't know. I do know that I couldn't put it down. When it was over, I needed more. I wanted to spend more time with Rosemary and Oscar and Lillian and Pearl (especially Pearl). Looking forward to picking up more of Hay's work when I get home. RECOMMENDED.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Not Me

TWO BOOK DAY ALERT: So, Steve Shapiro came by during lunch, threw this book at me, and said, "Give it back in an hour." My reputation for insane reading preceeds me here, and I laughed. I finished Egan's novel soon after, so I picked up Lavigne's novel quickly. I was not disappointed. Michael Lavigne's NOT ME was a wonderful - and quick - read. It poses essential questions about "who we are" in the face of the choices that we make in our lives. A young man, handed his father's journals, discovers that his father is - quite literally - not the man he thought he was. I enjoyed the cultural elements at play (I could see my family dynamic present on many of the pages), but - more importantly - I was struck by how deeply connected I felt to the narrators experience. The novel hit close to home, and is lingering even now, hours later. RECOMMENDED.

The Worst Hard Time

When I start my reading vacation, I'm always fearful that I won't remember the first book. I don't think that's going to be the case this year. Tim Egan's THE WORST HARD TIME is, in the words of Walter Cronkite, "can't-put-it-down history" and I think that he is dead-on because, well, I didn't put it down. Winner of the National Book Award, Egan tells the true story of life on America's high plains during the darkest period of the 20th Century: the dust storms that ravaged our nation during the depression.

In all candor, all I could roust of the dust bowl were Steinbeck-era references, but Egan pulled me right into the lives of the people that the dust storm destroyed. Although I will admit to having a hard time keeping the timeline and geography straight sometimes, I couldn't put the book down. The movie in my mind is frightful. Recommended.

Let the Reading Begin!'s the end of the year, so I'm diving into my endless reading project, which many other people refer to as VACATION. I just finished my first day of reading, so I decided to do a fresh entry (this one) to mark the beginning. I'll bookend it at the end of my vacation with a final entry!

Saturday, December 08, 2007

It's Book Time

Frequent readers of this blog (um, are there really such people?) know that, in December of each year, I go off for the holidays and read for 14 days.

This year will be no exception to the rule entitled:
"David Ignores Those Around Him."

Are you ready for 14-20 book posts? You better be (whoever you are).

If you have any suggestions, please add them to the comments section. If I like you, I will read your book suggestions. Kudos to the person who recommended Wolfram's "A New Kind of Science" in an effort to slow me down a few years back. Yea, that lasted a whole day.