Books Are Pretty

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Rowdy In Paris.

If Lamb and Dog of the South had a baby, it would be Rowdy in Paris.

The tone of Tim Sandlin's latest novel has the nonchalant, go-where-the-day-takes-you style of Christopher Moore's satirical biography of a teenaged Jesus, but the set-up is pure Portis.

In Dog of the South, the Arkansas-based protagonist takes off to Mexico, looking for the car his ex-wife has taken, and along the way he teams up with a bumbling, ineffectual companion to share his madcap adventures with. In Rowdy In Paris, title character Rowdy, a Wyoming-based almost-was championship bull rider, takes off to Paris, looking for his first and only championship belt buckle two French girls have taken, and along the way he teams up with a bumbling, ineffectual companion to share his madcap adventures with.

Dog of the South's Ray Midge is more grumpy and laconic than Rowdy In Paris' bullriding hero, but perhaps that's because the action is sparked by a slightly implausible menage à trois between Rowdy and the two French girls who absconded with his trophy, which Rowdy had meant to present to his estranged 7-year-old son as a way to begin repairing their relationship.

Knowing only their first names, sweet Odette and sullen Giselle, and their university, the University of Paris, Rowdy impulsively takes off after them, to become a fish out of water at the airport, in Paris, and everywhere he goes that isn't in a bullpen.

Once in Paris, he teams up with Pinto Whiteside, who claims to be an ex-CIA agent now working as a spy for Starbucks to uncover a group of radicals determined to stop the coffee bar franchise from opening any stores in France. Whiteside's mission somehow gets tangled up with Rowdy's mission, and both ends need to be sorted out, all the while battling the culture barrier and, by the way, a delicately blooming romance needs to be handled as well.

Although this seems like a lot of action to be stuffed into 288 pages, Sandlin's concise prose clips away all the extraneous bits, leaving behind a streamlined plot composed of strings of humorous dialog.

Rowdy in Paris is not the masterpiece that Dog of the South is, nor the cult classic Lamb has become, but it's a perfectly enjoyable book that puts the reader in a good mood afterward, and frankly, that's worth quite a bit.

Rowdy In Paris
by Tim Sandlin
January, 2008 by Riverhead Press
Hardcover, 288pp
ISBN: 1594489742

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Thursday, June 19, 2008

Hungry Hill.

Hungry Hill, Carole O'Malley's memoir of growing up in Springfield, Massachusetts, takes its name from her old neighborhood, which either took its name from all the Irish immigrants fleeing the Potato Famine, or from the Irish cops who wanted to make a statement about the lack of restaurants on their beat.

Although neither theory can be proven, the first seems like a testament to Irish suffering and hardship, while the other seems like a testament to Irish humor. Both of these theories are sifted finely together in O'Malley's remembrances of the four years of her life after her mother's painful death from lymphatic cancer in 1959.

Carole's father, a charming alcoholic as careless looking after his kids as he is careful looking after the bottle, places squarely on her shoulders the emotional burden of caring for herself, her father, and her seven brothers.

"You're the tough one," he tells 13-year-old Carole, and then leaves to go have a drink, leaving Carole alone with her dying mother to wait for the neighborhood parish priest to stop by and give Mrs. O'Malley her last rites.

She spends the next four years being the classic child of an alcoholic, carrying the burden of the house and refereeing fights between all the brothers, who seem to have thoroughly absorbed the misogyny of their times at a very early age, taking it completely for granted that she will pack all their suitcases for family vacations and buy all their clothes, then criticizing her for not doing it correctly. All her high achievements - because Carole is, of course, an overachiever - are belittled by the entire family.

When Carole looks to her father for approval when she makes the honor roll, he shrugs and tells her she'll just end up a housewife, and when she is elected Class Treasurer and her brother elected Class President, he is praised and compared to the Kennedys while she is completely ignored. When she protests, she is told Class Treasurer is useless. As a girl in her Catholic high school, she is not allowed to run for either President or Vice President.

And when Carole begins to express her concern that their father is in the last stages of alcoholism and is seriously endangering his life, her brothers berate her for her overly-emotional stupidity right up to the time their father falls into a coma.

When his father marries Mary (an event Carole finds out about from her family doctor, who has been drafted into giving the news by Carole's father), things go from bad to worse.

The family doctor shames Carole, now fifteen, by telling her he drove past her house and saw three-year-old Tommy sleeping in the driveway, that her father must get married because Carole cannot handle things by herself. Carole is wracked with guilt and failure, and at no point does anyone ever think that her burden is grossly unfair. In fact, it's treated as a given that a female child become the wife and mother substitute. It does not even seem to occur to Mary, when she appears on the scene, that this never should have been Carole's lot in life. Instead, she sees her as competition that must be smacked down (often literally) at any cost.

The result of all this is a detached sort of loneliness inherent in the book. Carole is the loneliest child in the world, surrounded by people clamoring for her attention. She clings to as many small memories as she can to surround herself with normalcy, such as the friend who convinced her older brother to teach her how to disconnect the odometer on the family car so their father wouldn't guess she was putting hundreds of miles on it every Friday night.

Both the sorrow and the joy are written with a matter-of-factness that removes the writer so far from the events that the portrait of this disfunctional middle-class American family seems like it is being viewed from very far away, as if it is a tale about someone else's life that she is telling not because she wants to, but because she was asked to.

This, more than anything else, shows the lifetime consequences being the child of an alcoholic can bring.

Hungry Hill
by Carole O'Malley Gaunt
June 2007 by University of Massachusetts Press
Paperback, 284 pp
ISBN: 1-55849-589-4

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Thursday, June 12, 2008

An Incomplete Revenge.

Quick! Close your eyes and tell me the title of this book!

Did you remember it?

If so, you did better than I did at that little test, because I absolutely could not remember the title of this book. At one point, I closed the book to check the title on the cover, opened the book back up, and realized I'd forgotten it already.

I kept calling it An Inconvenient Truth, An Impossible Act, An Indescribable Something, An Unstoppable Force, An Immovable Object, anything but the actual title.

The completely forgettable title is the harshest criticism I have of it, and that's really not that bad, except that if you go to Barnes & Noble to buy it and can only tell the clerk that it's a mystery and there's a woman wearing a hat on the cover, then said clerk has the right to hit you over the head with it when he finds it.*

At the moment, my eight-year-old and I are beginning Book 6 of the Harry Potter series. Obviously, we have just finished my favorite Harry Potter book, book five: Harry Potter and the War on Bureaucracy. I have sometimes wondered how well the book would hold up if I was a space alien and had never heard of the series, and was given book five by Condaleeza Rice when I visited the White House to inform the administration of my imminent takeover. Would I be able to pick up the story and enjoy it for what it is, without any knowledge of the backstory and character relationships that have built up so far? Is it just a good story in and of itself? I think so, but it's really impossible for me to know for sure.

An Insurmountable Obstacle is book five of the Maisie Dobbs mystery series. I've never heard of the books, don't know the backstory, and had to figure out the characters' relationships to each other on my own, and I have to say it held up pretty well. It's obvious where the broken threads are, characters whose previous relationships may have made their interactions more moving to me had I known them better, most notably a death that I assume would have had me all teary-eyed had I known the guy at all, but even without the knowledge of those relationships anchoring me firmly into Maisie's world of post World War I England, I still found it a pleasant, if slightly predictable, read.

Private investigator Maisie Dobbs, former downstairs resident turned almost-upstairs girl, is hired by James Compton, son of her former noble employers, Lord Julian and Lady Rowan Compton, to look into some accidents at a brick factory in rural Heronsdene that Compton's company wants to purchase. Of course, the simple straightforward investigation becomes more complicated, because, you know, it's a book, and Maisie and her assistant Billy find that the accidents, a series of fires that occur every year during hop-picking season as well as the theft of some silver at the manor estate, are impossible to investigate because the entire town seems to be keeping some massive secret and nobody's talking.

The story unfolds at a leisurely pace, and author Jacqueline Winspear pays as much attention to the details of the region and time period as she does to the plot points. This paints a rich backdrop against which Winspear can run the threads of the plot along, starting them at separate points, then slowly weaving them together the way mysteries do.

Maisie Dobbs' style is very much like that of Frances MacDormand's wonderful Marge Gunderson in Fargo. No fancy car chases, no hail of gunfire, just solid police work and a little luck. While An Impossible Dream isn't going to tingle any spines, the pages do start turning more quickly toward the end as all the pieces begin falling into place.

Even though I figured out two of the mysteries, there were still enough questions up in the air to keep it interesting. Mystery fans could do far worse than to settle down with a book in Maisie Dobbs series, if An Incontinentia Buttocks is any indicator.


*That being said, most bookstore clerks are incredibly good at figuring out which book you're looking for when given marginal information. I have had a clerk at Women & Children First find a copy of World War Z when I told her I was looking for a science fiction book that was reviewed in last week's Reader (it was a zombie book, featured in Time Out Chicago) and a Borders clerk who found The World Without Us by my description of "that book on The Daily Show about what would happen to the world if everybody disappeared." He had not seen that episode of The Daily Show, but found the book anyway. Kudos to your hardworking neighborhood bookstore clerk!


An Incomplete Revenge
by Jacqueline Winspear
February, 2008 by Henry Holt & Co
Paperback, 320pp
ISBN: 0805082158

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Sunday, June 01, 2008

Innovation Nation.

On bad days I think the U.S. is hellbent on making Mike Judge's Idiocracy
a reality.

Judge, a master at creating blisteringly accurate portrayals of a side of American life that makes us squirm with uncomfortable recognition, took America's current devotion to anti-intellectualism and thrust it 500 years into the future, where stupidity reigns supreme. The U.S. has become a crumbling has-been, too absorbed in entertainment of the lowest common denominator, and the slow, malevolent thuggishness of the completely closed mind.

Joe, a U.S. Army Private selected to take part in a secret military experiment involving time travel, based on his utterly average intellect and apathetic personality. Joe is rocketed forward 500 years into the belly of a dystopic beast, and realizes the dire consequences America's apathy toward learning and innovation has wraught.

Former Harvard business professor John Kao sees the same (okay, not quite the same) potential for the United States to lose its position as a major player on the world stage, and in his book Innovation Nation lays out a blueprint for how to get America back on track.

It begins, as almost all societal problem-solving does, with education. Today's educational environment, writes Kao, is a disastrous clash of competing interests, with many underqualified and countless underpaid teachers, bogged down in paperwork and red tape, hopelessly out-of-date textbooks purchased by political ideologues on school board (Hello, Texas!), and the relentless glorification of athletics over academics (Texas. We meet again.) This lack of ability to lure in the best talent, coupled with the focus on standardized testing to keep federal funding puts us behind academically strong countries like Singapore and Ireland. As a result we don't have enough well-educated, ambitious youth who can juice up a struggling economy or stimulate a city with culture and creativity.

From this, Kao moves on to corporations and their top-down organizational system and rigidly controlled work places that inhibit innovative thinking, and the government's refusal to put money into research and development, and in fact restricting some areas of study to such a repressive extent (think stem-cell research) that the best scientists are taking their talent to countries were they have the freedom to realize their potential.

This will not happen in a country that elects a president on whether they'd want him as a drinking buddy.

I could watch clips from this movie all day long.

Anyway, Kao suggests, essentially, that the government fund research and development, and then leave the teams mostly alone to encourage the kind of free-thinking that enabled Oppenheimer's team to succeed.

The pervasive problems hampering creativity and innovation can be solved, but we must begin to make changes right away. Kao believes we still have the ability to progress and excel, using Jeff Bezos' Amazon as an excellent example of radical, yet highly profitable, corporate restructuring. Giving employees the autonomy to brainstorm without time constraints and involving the public to capitalize on a free influx of innovative ideas helped Bezos lead the way to the competitive thinking required to compete in the global race for innovative supremacy.

It is essential, Kao writes, that the 2008 presidential nominee begin to implement an intensive restructuring of America's innovative infrastructure before it is too late, and we're left with an Idiocratic government who advises us to water our crops with Gatorade and we're getting our law degrees from Costco.


Innovation Nation
by John Kao
published October, 2007 by Free Press
Hardcover, 267pp
ISBN: 1-4165-3268-4

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