No Bad Deed

“The first thing you need to know about Hell is this – it’s not as bad as they say. I mean sure, it’s hot, but it’s not raging-inferno, searing-the-flesh-from-your-bones hot. It’s more like Miami, if Miami were detroit.” (No Bad Deed by M. Ryan Sever

No Bad Deed CoverSometimes you look at your bookshelves, or your piles of library materials, and you realize: something is not right. You’re not in the mood for mid-century classics, nineteenth century classics, or, in fact, classics of any kind. You want something light, something funny, something atmospheric, or perhaps moody. What you want is to step out of your normal preferred genres and delve into something new and unexpected. This is a perfect time for M. Ryan Seaver.

Seaver delivers a mystery full of well-written prose, unexpected plot twists, and atmosphere thick enough to completely envelope you. The reading experience is quite cinematic: short enough to get through in the span of a few hours, with the pace to keep you glued to its pages. I delighted in how the setting, the City of Brimstone (i.e. Hell), mirrored John Arsenal’s personality – it’s tough and conflicted, but fascinating and perhaps redeemable.

Ultimately, it was a refreshing and new reading experience, but I look forward to seeing how Seaver irons out the rules of Brimstone in the future. So far, the one rule – that no one remembers their past life – has been broken too many times to be left unexamined.

Play It Again

“I’m conscious that Michael is gazing intently at my feet, which is very off-putting. I know what’s coming, ‘Alan, we have a problem with the pedalling,’ he sighs at the end. ‘It used to be the fingering. Now it’s the pedals.’ He’s right. I have been sinning with the pedals. Time to slow down. Again. And work something out from scratch. Again.” (Play it Again by Alan Rusbridger)

Play it again coverCookbooks, fishing books, pet breeding books, sewing books, amateur piano books, books about other books – these all belong to that wonderful genre of hobby books. Ostensibly, you read them to get more information about how to practice your beloved hobby, but in reality you read them because the next best thing to practicing your hobby is reading about it. Can’t practice welding at work? Grab a book. Can’t cook on a flight? Drool over a cookbook. By the same logic, if you can’t practice piano at work, you could still take this pretentious, overly wordy, yet still somehow interesting, book to read.  

If you were to pick Play it Again up as a non-musical adult, you would come away with no clue whatsoever why any adult would ever practice music. For Alan Rusbridger, each act of memorization is impossible and worth three pages of complaining. Each criticism by each teacher almost causes a breakdown. If playing piano were that hard, and gave that little enjoyment, no one would ever do it. He does, however, manage to get the old enthusiasm up for every other aspect of piano playing – interviewing famous pianists, looking at old pianos, sight reading other piano pieces – which is what makes the book compelling for anyone deprived of the instrument itself. I only wish I could find a book like Play it Again, except where the author enjoys music, practicing, and piano. Any suggestions?

Recommended Action: BuyBorrowTBRAvoid
Incidental Learning: Chopin, modern piano performers, piano as an instrument
Further Reading: Other hobby books. My favorite are cookbooks, and of those, my favorite is An Everlasting Meal.

To Kill a Mockingbird

“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do. Mrs. Dubose won, all ninety-eight pounds of her. According to her views, she died beholden to nothing and nobody. She was the bravest person I ever knew.” (To Kill a Mockingbird By Harper Lee)

TKMB coverIt’s funny what almost twenty years can do to your memory of a book. I only foggily remembered Boo Radley, completely forgot Tom Robinson’s trial, and was entirely surprised the whole Ewell situation. What I did remember turned out to be a small sub-plot, barely a chapter’s worth of material: Jem’s reading to Mrs. Dubose. I didn’t even quite remember who was reading to whom, but I did remember that someone left the world “beholden to nothing and nobody” because of reading. The idea that reading can help a person through anything, even addiction to morphine, never left me. More than the racial tensions, the familial interactions, the lessons on bravery, Lee’s description of the power of reading was what stuck with me through the years.

I think that my selected  memory says more about To Kill and Mockingbird than it does about my psychology.  The characters and plot are so varied and uninterpreted that this book must mean something different to each reader, each time it’s read. For a book that was supposedly intended to be the story of a brother’s broken arm, just think of all the subjects and plots that Lee touched on. I bet you couldn’t enumerate them all, even if you finished the book just now. It’s perhaps possible to claim that Lee’s ‘point’ was to highlight racial prejudice, but she did it by letting her characters act naturally, meandering through their full thoughts and lives, touching on everything that touched them, instead of focusing on just one moral, just one point.

Recommended Action: Buy - BorrowTBRAvoid
Ending: Wrapped-up, natural, satisfying
Incidental Learning: 1930’s southern America
Further Reading: In Cold Blood. Just like her dear friend, Truman Capote, Lee doesn’t get between the book and the reader. She lets her characters speak for themselves. Though their topics and plots couldn’t be more diverse, the two books are linked in my mind. I read them one after another, and that seemed to go well for me.

 

Gone with the Wind

“Oh, you’re smart enough about dollars and cents. That’s a man’s way of being smart. But you aren’t smart at all like a woman. You aren’t a speck smart about folks.” (Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell)

Gone with the wind coverI assumed I’d enjoy Gone with the Wind for its writing, its atmosphere, for all of the good things that people talk about when they mention this mid-century classic. I did not expect to like Scarlett. I certainly did not expect to be able to relate to her in a way I seldom am able to relate to female protagonists. Though she doesn’t stop much to analyze her own feelings, in one passage Scarlett admits to herself that she’s lonely. I can’t get that admission out of my head. When has a strong female protagonist ever admitted that she’s lonely? Almost always, strong female characters are either incredibly popular with other women (and small animals), or too strong to ever admit a weakness as fundamental as loneliness. I, being a strong female protagonist in my own life, am also lonely. And also, perhaps, not so good with folks.

Everyone who caught me reading Gone with the Wind seemed somehow impressed by its length. But, any reader knows that if you are always in the middle of a book, if you have a rock solid habit of reading in your life, reading a large book is no different than reading two, or maybe three, books right in a row. Just as librarians complain about a lack of diversity in literature (especially children’s literature), I think that there’s a lack of diversity in book lengths these days. Publishers believe that customers only read a standard American 300 page novel, and so that’s what they publish. Nice, lovely, long reads get put out of print, or never make it into print in the first place. So, I’m encouraging you to not be impressed when you next see someone reading a large book. Don’t even be impressed with yourself when you finish one. Simply delve into long books whenever the mood overtakes you, and enjoy the different quality of writing that length brings.

Recommended Action: Buy - BorrowTBRAvoid
Ending: Frustrating if you’re interested in the romance, perfect if you’re interested in the development of Scarlett’s character
Incidental Learning: Civil war, southern life, Atlanta in 1860’s
Further Reading: Somehow, this book has always been associated in my mind with Lonesome Dove. Another long, atmospheric book I intend to read pretty soon.

Rabbit Redux

“Your life has no reflective content; it’s all instinct, and when your instincts let you down, you have nothing to trust. That’s what makes you cynical. Cynicism, I’ve seen it said somewhere, is tired pragmatism.” (Rabbit Redux by John Updike)

Rabbit Redux CoverAs expected: ten years of practice does make a better writer. Here, in Rabbit’s second incarnation, Updike is better able to flesh out his world and secondary characters. The paragraphs themselves reflect the experience, being fuller, fatter items taken as a whole, not the weak, skittering paragraphs of the first book. Superficially, Updike spends his time tracking Rabbit’s mind-set as his carefully unloved life falls apart. Rabbit reveals himself as an unsavory character, unable to consider the consequences his actions might have both on himself and those he loves.

But, in a very large sense, you do not read this book for Rabbit. You read this book because Updike is not scared of anything. He is does not shy away of describing, in minute detail, any part of the human body. He does not shirk his duty in lying bare the basest thoughts of his beloved characters. He does not worry that you may not like his language, his politics, his racial prejudices, or his heroes. He is not vague, or sappy, or particularly careful with your emotions. He is truthful and, for those who do not look away, endlessly fascinating.

For all that, Updike disappointingly relies far too heavily on the ‘sacrificial lamb’ plot. It seems that he knows no other. Hopefully the next book in the Angstrom series show as much development in plot crafting as the last one did in writing.

Recommended Action: BuyBorrowTBRAvoid

Length: 448

Ending: open

Incidental Learning: 1960’s america

Further Reading: More Updike – perhaps even the next book in the series, “Rabbit is Rich”.

In Cold Blood

“Nobody ever comes to see him except you,’ he said, nodding at the journalist, who was equally well acquainted with Smith as he was with Hickock.” (In Cold Blood by Truman Capote)

In Cold Blood CoverThese days, there is almost a pathological need to insert ourselves, as authors, into narrative non-fiction. We were there. We read it. We did it. We interviewed whomever, we saw whatever. So we should be in the story, right? Capote, despite his true emotional involvement in the Clutter case, refers to himself only once as ‘the journalist’ (see above). Nothing, absolutely nothing, comes between the reader and the content. There is no ego, no author, no imposed emotions. Just those involved in the case speaking for themselves, in their own words.

Capote doesn’t even take liberty with the paragraphs he must himself compose. The writing is clear; precisely configured not to distract the reader from the content. It is a story laid bare and stark before the reader, and it is all the more haunting and poignant for what it lacks. I can’t help but feel, after reading this pristine example, that all of the ‘work’ authors have done improving the narrative non-fiction genre in the past 50 years has been for naught. Instead of adding things, adding ourselves, adding emotions, maybe we should try taking them away again.

 

Recommended Action: Buy – Borrow TBRAvoid

Length: 343

Ending: appropriately unhopeful

Incidental Learning: The Clutter Case, Mid-century Kansas, psychology of the criminal mind

Further Reading: Other Capote. Modern narrative non-fiction (such of the much-lauded ‘Immortal Life of Henriette Lacks”) will only disappoint for its lack of cleanliness and restraint.

Rabbit, Run

“Everybody who tells you how to act has whisky on their breath. ” (Rabbit, Run by John Updike

Rabbit, Run was Updike’s  first novel; he originally intended for it to be a novella and, at the time of writing it, didn’t even consider himself to be a novelist. (paraphrased from introduction to Rabbit Angstrom)

Rabbit, Run coverEven if you neglected to read this informative statement before starting in on the book itself, my guess is: you’d be able to tell. This book has ‘first attempt’ written all over it. You can foresee Updike’s greatness in his insight into characters, but the novel is so sparsely flushed out that it barely even suggests an environment – it hardly has the outline of a real plot. Yet there is something about Rabbit that compels the reader on, on and on, through the four books of Rabbit’s life. Perhaps it’s all the sex scenes… but more likely it’s Rabbit’s ability to act impulsively and without reason, just to see what will happen to himself next.

Ah, the Sex scenes. If you haven’t read Updike before, you probably won’t have associated such a great mid-century name with sex. But there it is. Rabbit, Run must have been quite scandalous in its time. Updike’s subject material is composed almost entirely of the sex lives, affairs, and impure thoughts of normal people. Yet, despite being absolutely riddled with explicit scenes, Updike is primarily a moral author. He simply makes his claims about the best way to live in the most subtle, least Victorian-novel way, possible.

Recommended Action: BuyBorrowTBRAvoid
Length: 336
Ending: open, ambiguous
Incidental Learning: How to Recognize a First Novel, mid-west culture in 1960’s, religion
Further Reading: You will not be able to stop yourself from picking up the next Rabbit book, which starts precisely 10 years after the ending of the first book. You probably don’t want to start reading this series at all if you don’t have time for the 1,519 pages that make up the whole tetralogy.

 

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