What happens when two thirtysomething siblings relive the summer reading programs of their youth in an all-out battle of the books? The race is on as they read by the rules and keep tally on their logs to see who will be the ultimate reader by Labor Day 2010.

September 6, 2010

Confession of a Summer Reading Program Participant

I’m having a difficult time writing my summer reading confession, mainly because I’m not writing about my own memories but rather what Kerry is telling me my memories are. But since what she told me is pretty much in line with something I would do, I’m not disputing it or implying that she is up to something as nefarious as implanting memories. However, her interpretation of my motives differ slightly from my own, so it is there where we’ll have to disagree.

The summer I was in the second grade, the reading logs for summer reading participants were on display for all to see in the children’s library. I think this was more for ease of access rather than a way of checking out the competition. But since I have problems respecting other’s privacy, I apparently spent a good deal of time perusing the booklets of some of my classmates. Here is where Kerry’s and my version of the truth splits. She claims I made disparaging comments about the reading level of some of the books my friends were reading, outraged at their number-inflating methods. Apparently my sense of injustice was piqued by a future Titan of Wall Street reading Dr. Seuss instead of pursuing the literary peaks I was climbing in the Happy Hollister series.

I see it differently. For me, I was a seven year-old who was merely looking for reading recommendations in a pre-Internet age. I didn’t have blogs or websites to tell me what to read next. There was no “Amazon recommends” steering me in the right direction. So instead I relied on the informal network of peers provided by the unopened reading logs. And like someone who stumbles upon the reading list of my sister looking for a good book to read (“The Duxbury Book?” Seriously?), I was disappointed in the results.

Which leads me to my next confession. To the surprise of no one, I will not finish “The Lonely Polygamist” or “Bitter is the New Black” within the next sixteen hours. I read the first couple of pages of BITNB and couldn’t gear myself up for it. I paid top dollar/pound for TLP at the one bookstore in Edinburgh that was selling it and then spent the next two weeks frightened by its doorstop ways. But in other news, I am 195 pages into my favorite book of 2010, “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet,” and 250 pages into “The Resurrection Men." Neither will be finished by midnight, so my sister’s gargantuan lead remains safe. But I promise I will read them and the other required books before the year’s end, if only to satisfy the rules of the game. My sense of summer reading justice, apparently, remains intact.

My dog, Josie, amidst the books I had the best of intentions of reading this summer. It should be noted that the taking of the photograph instigated a large drop of drool to fall on Brady Udall's opus. I think it will be fine.

Travels With the Gilded Fly

I don't want to say I agonized over what my creative project for my book should be, but I did give it some serious thought. An early contender was making Minnie's infamous pie (minus the surprise ingredient) from "The Help." But that seemed too complicated and particularly unappealing given the July heat. I debated about getting in a bar fight to honor "Lonesome Dove" but given my dislike of pain and poor hand-eye coordination, that seemed a bad fit as well. But during a fit of photomania in Scotland (seriously, after the fifteenth picture of an old building I had to ask myself what was wrong), I thought that I could honor the transportive nature of books and make my photos semi-interesting by including the library book I had brought along, "The Curse of the Gilded Fly."

Admittedly, this is a cheap aping of the "Flat Stanley" project every first-grade class does, but I liked the idea of giving a seldom checked out library book a whirlwind vacation. Who knows, maybe "Toy Story 3" affected me more than I realized. In any case, here is "The Curse of the Gilded Fly" in all her renewed-online glory, visiting some of Edinburgh's famous landmarks, literary and otherwise (apologies to Kenneth Grahame’s birthplace, Arthur Conan Doyle’s tutor’s home, and the Sir Walter Scott Tower. I couldn’t do everything).

COTGF with Edinburgh's mascot of unswerving devotion, Greyfriar's Bobby. Just think how quickly the fourteen years would have passed if the little dog had had a book by his side.

I’m no expert in clinical depression, but maybe Robert Fergusson wouldn't have led such a sad life if he had read more lighthearted mysteries.

COTGF paying respects to Clarinda, the love of Robert Burns' life.

Taking in the views on top of Arthur's Seat

Stopping by the Elephant House, the coffee shop where J.K. Rowling wrote some of the first chapters of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's/Philosopher's Stone." There is another coffee shop a few blocks over that weakly contends they, too, were a location for Rowling's writing. I like to imagine area coffee shops are now in a war to woo aspiring fantasy young adult novelists in the hopes of reaping future tourism benefits.

What's COTGF doing here? Oh, just being read by David Mitchell, that's all. I'm not saying Mitchell's life was changed by this moment, but don't be surprised if his follow-up to "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet" is a return to the Golden Age of Mystery. (Sidenote: If you go hear David Mitchell do a reading and then get your book signed, he is a surprisingly good sport about taking a picture with a library book).

Boomerang's More Than a Forgettable Eddie Murphy Movie

Kerry made fun of me earlier for my childhood love of Agatha Christie, and I am unapologetic about that phase of my life.* Without Christie, how else would I have learned such valuable life lessons like the dangers of kissing a pregnant woman when you have German Measles? Now when I see a pregnant lady, the first thing I think is, "Do I have German Measles?" and if the answer is "no" then I go up to greet her. If the answer is "yes," I run away as fast as possible because I know the alternative is to be killed by a deranged movie star twenty years later.

That being said, I've reread some of the Christie books I remembered loving in my youth over the past few years and I have to say, you can't go home again. Confessions that I remembered as being on par with Greek Tragedy struck me as mundane twenty years later. The nanny's breakdown in "Murder on the Orient Express" crushed me in the fifth grade but I read right past it three years ago. "A Murder is Announced" probably has one of my favorite twists of all time (and the Joan Hickson BBC version ranks up there with "Citizen Kane" in my humble opinion) but it seemed preposterous when I read it as an adult. Plus, after the third time a slim young woman emits a murderous cry and pulls out a pearl-handled pistol in the final chapter, the effect is somewhat lessened.

But I found a used copy of "The Boomerang Clue" (aka "Why Didn't They Ask Evans") at Myopic Books when I was trying to load up on reading material for the plane ride to Scotland. And for old time's sake (and $2.95), I bought it. "The Boomerang Clue" isn't one of the Tommy and Tuppence mysteries, but it might as well be. Goofy guy and clever heiress stumble upon a mystery, they resist their growing attraction, they go undercover, a forged letter puts them in danger, and the mystery's conclusion reveals they've been in love the entire time. It was charming and breezy and I couldn't remember how it ended, which is pretty much what I wanted. And as dismissive of Agatha as I am, I still couldn't pinpoint who the murderer was until it was too late. So I'll continue my abusive relationship with Christie, and even though she pummels me with two-dimensional characters and out-of-left-field revelations, I'll keep coming back, because sometimes I have no reading-self-respect.

*Also, I took the high road, and didn't out her embarrassing reading liaisons, such as how 13 year-old Kerry holed up in a hotel room for three days during our family's trip to Montreal so she could finish "Gone With the Wind."

September 3, 2010

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, Stieg Larsson

Brendan called me a few nights ago, hours after arriving home to Chicago from his month in Scotland. It had already been a long day for him, although it was hardly dinnertime, and jet lag was beginning to set in. It was nice of him to call and great to catch up with him, but let's just acknowledge that he was a tiny bit cranky.

I tried. I really, really tried not to mention reading or books or literature or reading logs, but I couldn't help but crack a joke about what he read while on the plane. I really don't recommend making bad jokes at the expense of an improvisational actor, particularly one who has performed for 30 days straight and is exhausted. Here's the PG version of what went down. I didn't take notes, so you'll just have to trust me on this one:

Kerry: So, did you read anything good on the plane?
Brendan: Gee whiz, Kerry. Are we really going to talk about that?
K: (laughter)
B: Gosh darn it, Kerry. I carried all my books back stateside. I didn't read "Bitter is the New Black" or "The Lonely Polygamist". Stop laughing.
K: (laughter)
B: Golly gee wilikers. You're reading the Swedish John Grisham and I'm tackling literary masterpieces like...like...like...(gentle snoring. Fade to abrupt cut off, courtesy of Verizon Wireless).

I'm not celebrating yet, because Brendan has a full 48 hours to load up his log with slim volumes of poetry, plays and manga before the official end of our reading challenge. That is, if he's woken up yet.


I did it! I know what happens to Lisbeth! Posthumous kudos to Stieg Larsson for naming every_ single_little_character_in_the_whole_entire_series. I had to grab some paper and pencil for the final book to keep everyone's allegiances straight. There were times when my mind wandered while reading the third and final book in the Millennium Trilogy, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, but I liked how the ending played out. Despite his slanderous comments, I'm sure Brendan will be borrowing/bringing back to Chicago, never to return the series when he is next back in Boston.

Winter's Bone

In yet another pathetic attempt to remain current (see: skinny jeans* and listening to Cee-Lo), I joined Twitter a few months ago. I did it mainly to follow various pop-culture and news blogs, and Roger Ebert's feed was one of the first to which I subscribed. I love him because of his cranky-old-man-tell-it-like-it-is style, but I can't stand him because of his ceaseless retweets of people who I have no desire to hear from, namely Bluegrass Poet. Not to be melodramatic, but her spare and folksy 140-character ramblings make me want to drink bleach. I can't take anyone seriously who talks about the "obstreperous dawn chatter" of the birds in her yard.

This is a roundabout way of saying that I loved Daniel Woodrell's "Winter's Bone." Employing a similarly spare style as Ms. Bluegrass (to far greater success), Woodrell's sentences are gorgeously constructed and totally fit into the time and place of his Ozark-set story. The lushness of his writing counterbalances the bleak existence of his characters, luring you into reading this often grim tale. Like Gillian Flynn in "Dark Places," he captures the visceral dread of poverty, and if I could have written a check for the characters after the first twenty pages, I would have.

The book itself is set up as a detective story, with sixteen year-old Ree Dolly having to track down her missing father,who also happens to be one of the ares most skilled meth makers. He has put up their house in his jail bond, and if he doesn't shows up to his upcoming court date Ree and her two young brothers will be homeless. As she interviews the various terrifying people who make up her town and family, she introduces the reader to an alomost forgotten part of America, where resources and opportunites are scarce. By the end of the novel, she has come into her own (not to spoil anything but I thought you would want to know such a desperate story has a somewhat happy ending). After finishing it, I was grateful to have been exposed to such a world, yet well aware that I would last all of .8 seconds in the company of Meth Dealers (coincidentally .2 seconds I would have lasted in the word of "Lonesome Dove").

*Just a joke. I would never wear something that uncomfortable. Besides, I am over thirty.

August 31, 2010

The Girl Who Played with Fire, Stieg Larsson

Oh Lisbeth. As my grandmother would say, you poor, poor thing. I know you really can't make better-- or even different-- choices, but I keep holding out some hope.

I'm glad that Lisbeth Salander is more human in "The Girl Who Played with Fire", the second of the Millennium Trilogy. She feels empathy and guilt, as opposed to operating solely on animal instinct and base survival skills. We discover that her behavior can't be simply labeled as Asperger's, it's deeper, more evil, more sinister. While I admired her independence and spirit in the face of adversity in the first book, now I just want to heal her and make her better. Be dull, but be well.

Blomkvist, on the other hand... I was cheering him on in the first book, but he's an annoying know-it-all in the second. I missed Berger and wished she had a greater role instead of checking out. And I can't keep track of all the detectives and officers and consultants. Character list, please?

I don't own the third book (in a moment of thriftiness, I only bought the first two books thinking that, if I didn't like the series, I'd put off buying the pricier hardcovered third). Whichever bookstore opens the earliest today might have me as a customer.

August 30, 2010

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Stieg Larsson

I had resisted reading "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" because of the subject matter (rape, incest, brutality, murder, etc.). I'm well aware of the horrors of those subjects and just don't find any entertainment in watching or reading those kinds of fictionalized tales. However, I also hate preaching from a soap box without being more fully informed. (Well, to be perfectly honest, I'm ok with it, but there are simply too many smart people in my life who like to question such opinions.) Enough people have praised Stieg Larsson's writing and complex plots, so I decided it was time to give him a shot.

They are all correct. After about 20 pages, I was gripped by the plot. I would write more about "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo", but that would take me away from reading the second book in the Millennium Trilogy. I'm pretty fixated on finding out what happens (and have somehow managed to avoid all discussions and reviews of the final outcome). But, now halfway through the whole trilogy, I have to agree with Tom Matlack and others who question whether Larsson's books get people talking about violence against women or are simply entertainment. But I still have another 800 pages or so to go...