Book Review: WHITE TEETH, by Zadie Smith

This is a novel of "grand proportions," I think. Certainly, WHITE TEETH is "astonishing," "dazzling," a real "tour-de-force"--one could even conceivably call this "the first great novel of the new century." All those phrases that have turned up on the dusk jackets of less deserving books, the phrases rendered meaningless by overuse (my dad and I recently looked up tour de force: "A feat requiring great virtuosity or strength, often deliberately undertaken for its difficulty: 'In an extraordinary structural tour de force the novel maintains a dual focus'"--you may note that the example cited is literary), apply to WHITE TEETH in the very best sort of way: what all those other "beguiling" novels attempt, WHITE TEETH succeeds at beautifully.

Somehow, Zadie Smith manages to get her hands good and dirty telling the tale of three London families, with their diverse backgrounds (Bengalese, Jamaican, "more English than the English")--there's scientific progress in there, religious fundamentalism, immigration, and several other bigger-than-big issues. In fact, I'm flustered just trying to sum up WHITE TEETH. How about: you'll love the characters. You'll get really into them, and anything they do or say or suffer will be fascinating because they, the characters, are so great.


New laptop!

Yesss... At last.


Heave a sigh of relief and stomp your feet

You know what? I've complained heaps and tons about Bellingham, about how I've been here forever, about how I'm going to die here, and about how all these crazy yuppie developers are taking over my town and turning it into yuppie/retiree city. Yes. These complaints are not particularly related, I know. But still. Sometimes I get feisty, and when I do, I don't necessarily check my facts.

Lately, though, I notice I've been developing a certain fondness for Bellingham-as-she-is--not Bellingham, "my hometown," or Bellingham, "that place I've lived since the beginning of time"--and I'm learning not to take this lovely town, sandwiched elegantly between the water and the mountains, for granted.

Mostly, the spectacular music scene has brought this to my attention, and the fact that, for every venue/store that closes (Smash Your Guitar, Viva La Vinyl, the 3B, The Factory), another good one opens (Acoustic Tavern, Chiribin's, the Nightlight)--and by the other fact that, for all my bitching about Cellophane morphing into Everyday Music, I was just humbled by the discovery that Everyday Music has this fantastic Local Music section, chock full of bands you know and love and have seen at the Wild Buffalo, or have never heard of and can't possibly imagine being interested in (who knew Bellingham had its very own white rapper?).

There are Mondays at Boundary Bay with the Gallus Brothers. Perpetual Open Mic at the Acoustic Tavern. Pretty big-name bands at the Nightlight, and little local nobodies at Fantasia, where they lend floorspace to artists just starting out. I am presently taken with The Tanglers (how does one describe their music? Accordian, banjo, bass--that's the best I can do. Haunting) and Pirates R Us ("songs of modern piracy").

Even the development doesn't seem quite so bad. Fairhaven looks different, sure but reduced view of the bay and all, I have to admit that it looks gorgeous. Even the new Starbucks on Railroad lends an interesting element to the downtown atmosphere. There's no excuse, still, for the monstrosity they're turning the Bellingham Inn into (an improvment, perhaps, but an ugly one), but the Farmer's Market, even with the coming structure running behind schedule, looks great this year. Big. Organized. Big. Overwhelming, for all five senses.

Mitch has also brought it to my attention recently that I'd probably die of loneliness if we moved somewhere where I didn't know the name of one third of the people I encounter on a daily basis--the kind folks who pour my coffee, refill my wine, recommend books for me--and where I didn't stand the chance of running into somebody I know every time I leave the house.

This used to terrify me--the small talk that so often ensues whenever somebody taps my shoulder at the Newsstand and says my name in that distinct tone of surprise--but I've met so many stellar people in the past year or so that more often than not, I'm happy to stop and chat. Undoubtedly, somebody will say something interesting and the conversation will evolve into an exchange worth pursuing, rather than follow the "haven't seen you in years" formula:

Person 1: So...what've you been up to?
Person 2: Oh, you know, um--not much. Working [or school]. You?
Person 1: The same.

and so on.

Painful. Really.

All this I was realizing yesterday, as I wandered aimlessly around downtown on foot, drinking far too much coffee in far too many coffeeshops, and I admit that the sunlight probably had an awful lot to do with my gracious mood. But really, I do love it here, and I think I'm learning that Bellingham will be what it will be. It's a town, after all, and it cannot cater solely to me.


Book Review: SATURDAY, by Ian McEwan

I really wanted this book to knock my socks off. I did. But the only thing worse than admitting that it didn't is realizing that it might have, had I been in a slightly different frame of mind when I read SATURDAY.

To sum up my dissatisfaction, the first two-thirds of the book is slow. Bear in mind that the entire book takes place on one Saturday in February, so I should have been warned. Also, I've read tons of McEwan's novels, so I should have been prepared for his thoughtful pacing (the first half of Atonement only takes a single evening, after all)--but I don't think I was in the mood for a book that chugs along at low speed. Example (paraphrased): Henry turns away from the window and ponders, for roughly five pages, several interesting events that occurred in the past week. He turns toward the window once more and spends approximately two pages contemplating how old he's beginning to feel. He then brushes the curtain pensively and grows anxious over the state of the world; he reflects, for the rest of the chapter, on the coming war.

That sort of thing. Which, usually, is fine. But I just wasn't into Henry Perowne enough for this to float my particular boat. Briony Tallis I loved (from Atonement). I could spend five-hundred more pages inside her head, writing plays and swatting at nettles, but Perowne, no matter how fascinating the neurosurgery bits were (really, really fascinating--I loved those), I just couldn't slog along at thought-speed with him.

So the first two-thirds dragged. But once it got going, it really got going, and I loved seeing the whole Perowne family together, in any circumstances, and I adored Perowne's interactions with both Daisy and Theo, but especially with Daisy. I loved that there was a blues-guitarist kid named Theo in the book, because I am naturally drawn toward characters whose names, however vaguely, resemble mine, and I am also drawn toward blues guitarists. I loved all the complicated choices McEwan draws Perowne into making, and how real and clear all his little details are, as always, and I also love McEwan for his knack of picking fascinating professions for his characters and then planting all kinds of interesting and related information in the story to accompany, and thicken, the plot.

Ultimately, I wish I'd saved SATURDAY for a weekend when I was craving McEwan and perfectly in the mood for a slow build to a huge finish, rather than rushing into it when I was more in the mood for snappy plot twists and witty dialogue. His books deserve to be dwelled on and never rushed through. I feel a bit like I wrecked this for myself.

Ah, well.



Book Review: THE OLD PATAGONIAN EXPRESS, by Paul Theroux

In 197_, Paul Theroux hopped on a train in Medford, Massachusettes, with an itch to see how far south the train would take him. A few months of tough train travel later, he found himself in Esquel, Patagonia--though obviously, he switched trains often, since no train runs top to bottom on both American continents. The idea was to travel all that distance without ever leaving the ground, since he states several times (and I have to say I agree) that air travel reduces a trip to its destination, rather than allowing it to be a coherent and vivid journey of scenery and experience. Nobody writes about the journey, Theroux protests.

THE OLD PATAGONIAN EXPRESS is solely travel--what it took to get from Medford to Esquel by train--and Theroux is the perfect narrator to tell the story. At first I was put off by his blunt, opinionated attitude and the way he manages to offend or ridicule or stoutly disagree with nearly everyone he encounters, but over time it became endearing. He's the sort of guy a like to read about, but am glad I don't know personally.

I haven't the stamina to go into his sassiness now, though. I'm sorry, but the review is being cut short by sleepiness and the new Ian McEwan novel (in paperback!) that is draped alluringly over the arm of my couch. It beckons to me. I must go.

But I will say first that I really enjoyed PATAGONIAN, even if it seemed to drag on at times (scenery, scenery, scenery, brief dialogue, scenery, commentary on poverty/tourism/your issue here), and I very much enjoyed Theroux's criticism of the books he read while travelling. My reading list has pathetically lengethened after reading this book, as I must now add Pudd'nhead Wilson (Twain), The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (Poe), some Thomas Hardy poems, and the short stories of Kipling.

I will also add that it was an odd experience to be reading about the South America of thirty years ago, as Theroux's biting prose has undoubtedly marked the way I view certain cities and countries, even though they might be politcally, economically and geographically very, very different now.

(This wasn't short at all.)



Book Review: EXTREMELY LOUD & INCREDIBLY CLOSE, by Jonathan Safran Foer

If you've talked to me for more than five minutes, we've probably talked about books. And if you've talked to me about books for more than five minutes, we've probably talked about Everything is Illuminated. That is Jonathan Safran Foer's first novel, and it is amazing, and I tell absolutely everybody, regardless of personality, regular genre preference or reading level, to read it.

Everything is Illuminated. Jonathan Safran Foer. Here is a link to Amazon.com, where you can buy a copy right now.

Everything is Illuminated more or less chronicles the journey of a young Jewish man (interestingly named Jonathan Safran Foer--but this is a novel, mind you) as he returns to the Ukraine to find the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis. That is only one facet of the plot. Also, there is Alex, his interpreter, whose broken English does many brilliant things for the English language. Here are the first few sentences of the book (from the first chapter, titled "An Overture to the Commencement of a Very Rigid Journey"), which immediately won me over:
My legal name is Alexander Perchov. But all of my many friends dub me Alex, because that is a more flaccid-to-utter version of my name. Mother dubs me Alexi-stop-spleening-me!, because I am always spleening her. If you want to know why I am always spleening her, it is because I am always elsewhere with friends, and dissemating so much currency, and performing so many things that can spleen a mother.
It only gets better from there. But also, there is the story of the village of Trachimbrod--all of these weave in and out, and create a complex plot that is beautiful and terrible at the same time. Never has a book made me giggle so madly out loud, and also cry--not sniffle, but cry, snot and sobbing and all--in under three hundred pages.

Hoo doggie.

That said, you can imagine my sheer, uncontainable joy when I heard that he had a second novel out--the only thing that kept me from rushing out right then to buy it was my incurable frugality and my dislike of hardback books. I waited. And waited.

And went to Village Books last weekend to find that, after a whole year (dumb publishers), EXTREMELY LOUD & INCREDIBLY CLOSE was at last released in paperback.

I literally did a dance in the bookstore. A little shuffle, as a matter of fact, that vaguely resembled soft-shoe, but with some ecstatic little hops and kicks.

However, I've said nothing about the book so far. I will now:

Here is a link where you can buy EXTREMELY LOUD & INCREDIBLE CLOSE (in paperback). I suggest you do it now.

Nine-year-old Oskar Schell finds a mysterious key that belonged to his father, who was killed in the World Trade Center on 9/11. He sets out to find the lock it belongs to. He searches all over New York with only one clue (the word "Black") to guide him.

That, more or less, is the story. But also, there is a family history, a missing grandfather, a grieving mother, the flickering memory of Oskar's father, and his grandmother. There is the bombing of Dresden. There are the people Oskar meets all over New York--his neighbor, who is 103-years-old; the woman who lives on the observation deck of the Empire State Building; the woman who is the 467th richest person in the world.

But it's no good summarizing this novel--too much happens, it is too layered and complex. I loved it, absolutely, and what I loved about it most was Foer's manner in looking directly at tragedy, terrible, terrible tragedy, with some small shred of hope. But of course I loved Oskar, who looks to Stephen Hawking as a role model, who knows about conjugating French verbs but doesn't know about Winston Churchill, and who can calculate in seconds exactly how many locks there are in New York city--how many per person, how many created each second.

Where he experimented with language in Illuminated, Foer now adds visuals to his text--photographs, color, blank pages showing a single, well-said sentence. At first I was not sure that this worked, but now I am sure, and it did not take long to convince me. I think they are brilliant, those images.

Foer is only twenty-sevenish, by the way.

And his second novel did not dissappoint. I suppose, when the third novel comes around, I'll pass out in the bookstore from sheer joy, but until then, I'll go around recommending Everything is Illuminated and EXTREMELY LOUD & INCREDIBLY CLOSE to everybody I know.


Heck yes

I don't think I've mentioned, here on the bloggiest of blogs, that I'm getting a new guitar. Yes! It's true. A friend of mine, who was once my high school chemistry teacher, is building a guitar for me and I am so excited that I occasionally burst out in spontaneous dance. He just sent photos. Here they are:

The Pacific Northwest strikes again

My Beck CD went missing. It occurred to me yesterday to check under the front passenger seat of the car.

Now, since we bought our trusty Subaru, there's been a mysterious water leak on the floor directly behind the front seat that we assumed was coming from the back door somehow. When we were commuting every day for work and/or school, this didn't matter much, because we were at least somewhat diligent about airing out the floor mats and letting the carpet dry.

In this winter of buses and biking and foot travel, I'm not sure we've even looked under the front seat since August.

I looked under the front seat yesterday.

There were honest-to-goodness mushrooms growing in the floor of our car.


Tomorrow night, at Fantasia...

...I'll be having a show. Starts at 7pm, Thursday Apr. 13, at Fantasia Espresso & Tea on Cornwall Ave. It'll be a good ole time, I promise--I've been practicing my stage patter. Got some really good knock knock jokes lined up, and a bitchin' fake mustache for "flair" (really? No, sorry. Just kidding about the knock knock jokes).


Book Review: THE LAST TRUE STORY I'LL EVER TELL, by John Crawford

Although I'm not terribly fond of the word "potential," I think it must be used here. As in, "Wow, this book had such potential." See, it's subtitled An Accidental Soldier's Account of the War in Iraq, which pretty much sums up the intense and difficult material that Mr. Crawford is dealing with, and ordinarily I would be impressed that he confronted it so boldly and wrote about the things he saw and did and suffered in Iraq, accepting the possibility that plenty of people just won't understand.

How can you understand if you haven't been there,?

So, cool. He wrote the book. What gets me all fussy is the reviews, the glowing, raving reviews (on the back of the book, and in People magazine--obviously this isn't a fair sampling, but it was enough to get my hopes up) that placed Crawford up in the war-story realm of Trumbo and Heller, and proclaimed his book "a heartbreaking and perversely beautiful book that should join Catch-22 and The Things They Carried as this generation's defining literary expression of men at war" (James Frey).

The hopes were sky high, I was rubbing my hands together gleefully, ready to be sad and sick and sticky with desert sand, when I encountered, on page 8, the sentence "Ringlets of her hair cascaded off her pillow in a bright crimson waterfall."

I make no bones about being a total snob. I know I am. And this was where the English degree kicked in, and I cringed, my right eye twitched a bit, as it always does when in the presence of a bad cliche. But I stuck it out, reading the book in pieces over the course of a few months, because too much at once made me despair--the stories he had to tell were horrible and chilling and so very relevant, but so weighted down by cliche and stock description that most of the punch, to me, was lost. Once or twice, I raised my eyebrows or flinched, but mostly I shook my fist at the open book and protested, "That could have been so good! I might have cried, I might have gone all cold and sweaty if you'd drawn it out a bit, made me feel it!"

Not until the very last chapter does Crawford begin to toy with structure and timing, and it works pretty well--probably in that last story he makes more of a coherent point than he does in the whole rest of the book, but I suspect that someone will object, "War doesn't have a point, so why should a book about war have a point?" To which I will shrug, and say, "I like points. They make me feel less like I'm wasting my time."

Perhaps this true story would have done better as a novel. Fiction provides a bit of distance, allows the truth a little more room to maneuver--notice that Catch-22, Johnny Got His Gun and Slaughterhouse-5 are all novels, if rather autobiographical ones (well, okay, not Johnny, but still), and that the distance between reader and character is almost merciful. When a fictional character does something in the bounds of war that makes us squeamish, we're not tempted to flip to the back of the dustjacket and study their photo and squint and wonder, How...?

It's not that we're desensitized to the characters, but that they are not telling the story--the author is--and so we are not left with the uneasy sense that we, the readers, cannot trust them to tell the story. Crawford made me uneasy, because he was too involved. Of course he was too involved, it is his story, but I somehow couldn't trust him, as a narrator, to tell it right.



Book Review: THE STEPFORD WIVES, by Ira Levin

I bet you didn't even know this was a book, huh?

I didn't. Not 'til I found it for $.99 at Goodwill. And guess what? I've never seen the movie.

Which made reading the book extra fun. Really it's more a short story, and it's wholly engrossing--I couldn't stop reading STEPFORD, not even when I was at work. I'd sneak back to the break room to read a page or two at a slow moment because it was so stinking good.

Levin is sneaky with his story, he builds the suspense without letting on that there's stuff to worry about. I had this slightly uneasy feeling as I read--not a "What's wrong with those creepy wives?" feeling, nothing that clear--but a little prickly sense that something was off, much as Joanna herself must have felt, because who would jump to a conclusion so sick and wrong right off? Who would really think that something so bad was happening? Sometimes the reader has the distance to see more outlandish possibilities in a story than the characters can, but Levin is masterful at holding the reader right in with the characters.

You all know the plot, so I won't summarize, but I will mention that I think the men get a bad wrap in this story. Yes, there's all that Women's Lib stuff and the women are the ones victimized, but what happens to the men in that creepy building that makes them want this? Is Levin hinting that deep down men want wives like this, but most never act on it, or what? This matter intrigued me, though I can't make heads or tails of it.

Either way, good story. Very good.




I had a long weekend this weekend, and so I was hungry for something trashy and absorbing.


Now, this is one of those books that has been nearly eclipsed by the movie it inspired (nearly, but not so much as Fight Club, or worse still, The Stepford Wives), and as I began reading it I remembered vaguely that I had in fact seen the movie long ago, and that many scenes struck me as eerie and familiar. I kept picturing Tom Cruise as...somebody, though I couldn't remember who he played. Occasionally he showed up as Lestat, occasionally as Louis. Antonio Banderas was always Armand.

But this is beside the point, really. What I didn't remember from the movie was all the good vs. evil debates, Satan vs. God, the rather interesting theology that appears in nearly every sentence Louis utters. I found this quite intriguing for the better part of the book, but I tell you, by about two-thirds of the way through (roughly the point at which they reach Paris), I was bored out of my mind by Louis' sensual brooding, and by all the "dusky shadows" and moist, pouting lips and the beckoning and the "salty perfume" of victims' flesh and so on. The book picked up again once Louis and Armand stopped staring at each other longingly and characters started dying and the ending, depressing as it was, was somehow gratifying because it was unexpected and because I never really liked Louis much anyway (I'm not spoiling anything for you, don't worry, and besides, you've probably seen the movie already). An interesting point or two was made about mortal life in Rice's explorations of the immortal life, but by the time The Point was reiterated on each of, oh, the 346 pages, it was significantly less interesting.

A good long weekend read, yes. I enjoyed it, yes. Mostly I'm just complaining, and probably I'm not being fair because I bought the new Jonathan Foer (in paperback!) when I had 100 pages of vampires to go and so I was getting antsy to read that one but Rice kept going on and on about evil and killing. But still, I'd be willing to bet that some of Rice's later stuff is better, more to the point, because the potential in INTERVIEW is enormous--just weighted down by a lot of words.



Book Review: THE MASTER & MARGUERITA, by Mikhail Bulgakov

The devil comes to Moscow. Chaos ensues. There's a bit of a love story, but mostly a long cast of characters (who are hard to keep straight because they're all Russian and so have five or six nicknames) meets an assortment of bad ends at the hands of the devil's wiley cohorts. It's a rowdy book, written during Stalin's Soviet regime (here are some biographical notes on Bulgakov), and suppressed until 1966, thirty years after Bulgakov's death, when his wife released it for publication.

Each character is trapped by his own vice (by greed, lust, etc.), and none of the characters come off looking particularly well, though I certainly liked some of them better than others--specifcally Koroviev and Behemoth. There's also a very interesting bit of reworking the gospel that occurs as Pontius Pilate makes an occasional appearance. Tampering with the gospel nearly always wins points with me, so long as it's done in a "tampering to examine the possibilities" sort of way, as opposed to "tampering to fit an agenda" (my favorite example of the first sort of tampering is Nikos Kazantzakis' The Last Temptation of Christ).

A fun book, chock full of devious behavior, social criticism and the brilliant line "Manuscripts don't burn." Reminded me a bit of Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett's Good Omens, but better, because it's Russian.

(Here is an interesting and related link.)



It's been a long time (but not that long)

So. As you may have gathered from reading my previous posts, I've spent more time recently playing guitar and writing songs than I have blogging, but I thought I'd do you the decency of a catch-up post. I am cyclical with my hobbies--for months straight, I will make more jewelry than the entire town of Bellingham could wear in a year, and then I will drop that in favor of novel-writing and blogging, which will hold my interest for, say, six months, before losing me to music.

I am now lost to music.

As well as playing a few shows and open mics around town, I have been teaching myself to play the harmonica, which was a hobby picked up last summer and then dropped until last month. For this, I'm sure my neighbors hate me. In case they can tolerate the harmonica, I've also picked up the spoons.

That's right. The spoons.

Yesterday Morgan came over and we made breakfast and then we sat around for something like forty-five minutes, teaching ourselves to play the spoons. It was glorious.

Speaking of breakfast, Mitch and I saw V for Vendetta on Friday, and I am now all about making "eggy in the basket." Formerly, my favorite weekend breakfast has been two eggs fried over medium (I've gotten quite good at this: the yolks should be just barely runny, and slightly salt- and peppered) with a cup of black coffee.

Now I love "eggy in the basket."

And I do really think you should see V for Vendetta. Very good, I thought, though you never could accuse the Wachowski brothers of understatement. If you're expecting lots of action, you'll wait until the last, oh, ten minutes of the movie but then--goodness. You'll get it.

Since we're on movies, I finally (finally--this is shameful) saw the extended versions of both The Two Towers and The Return of the King. We had an honest-to-nerdliness LOTR marathon with some friends last weekend, and even though we skipped The Fellowship and started with Towers, we still logged something like eight hours in front of the TV, drinking and eating too much fancy cheese. It was great.

And at last, it's here. My birthday month. I've been making jokes all weekend about kicking off the "thirty days of Thea" celebration, but nobody seems to be buying the idea that we ought to start celebrating now. My mom, whose birthday is two days after mine, actually told me the other day that I was getting old. Twenty-three. She said that's almost twenty-five, which is almost thirty. I'm not scared of thirty.

I did point out, though, how old she'll be.

In closing, I give you a photo of the kitties, who are precious as ever, and big. And, apparently, alarmed.


Book Review: SAFEKEEPING, by Abigial Thomas

Yup, it's a pretty little memoir, subtitled "Some True Stories From a Life", which I personally think is a terribly vague subtitle, but of course that's just me. It's not my book.

The book is a collection of lovely scenes about a woman growing up, getting married several times, raising children, grandchildren, baking cakes and so on. It's nice. I'm not suited to review this book, though, because I read so many memoirs in college (I know, I use this excuse often) that I find myself sometimes hating them. And I'm not really a "hater", if you know what I mean.

I'm not sure, honestly, why I bought this book. I think I hoped it would redeem memoirs for me. I don't think it did. But! If you like memoirs, and aren't as embittered toward the form as I am, then by all means, this is a good one. Little nuggets of truth harvested from "a life." I'll even give you my copy.