Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Telegraph Avenue Read Along: Part Five and Wrap Up

This is the final post in the Telegraph Avenue pre-release read along hosted by Emily at As the Crow Flies (and Reads).  In case you missed them, make sure to peruse my reviews of part onepart two, and parts three and four.  If the book seems super-awesome, be sure to pre-order a copy!

First things first.  I'm going to talk about the novel's ending first (beware extra-spoiling spoilers) and then give some final thoughts on the process of doing read alongs and reviewing ARCs.  Onwards.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Meatless Mondays and the Department of Agriculture

Meatless Monday is a movement to get Americans to eat less meat and more veggies through the simple expedient of not eating any animal products one day a week.  It's a great way to segue into vegetarianism or even veganism, or just make a small but real difference in your health and the environment.  To that end, on Meatless Mondays here at Soy Chai Bookshelf I will talk about anything related to food and vegetarianism, from cookbook reviews to to recipes I've created (don't hold your breath) to bragging about the delicious vegetarian feast I just whipped up to discussing in a (hopefully) not-too-judgemental way why vegetarianism is a great choice.  I would also love to host guest posters on the topic, so if you're interested in being featured, send me an e-mail at jlmarck at gmail dot com.

You may have noticed that Meatless Monday has been in the news the past few days.  In the past week, the Department of Agriculture published a newsletter recommending that Americans go meatless on Mondays as means of reducing the environmental impact of meat consumption:
The production of meat, especially beef (and dairy as well), has a large environmental impact. According to the UN, animal agriculture is a major source of greenhouse gases and climate change. It also wastes resources. It takes 7000 kg of grain to make 1000 kg of beef.  (Read more

Sunday, July 29, 2012

PSA: Snakes are Scary

I mentioned something about a rattlesnake and a park ranger in my last post, so here it is: the full story.  Just a note: I'm not usually nearly as pathetic as this story implies.

Last week, my whole family went on vacation together to the Great Smokey Mountains.  Being a nature-lover with no nature-loving friends, I was, of course, excited.  I would have people to hike with (the Texas part of the family loves hiking) and finally have a reason that my husband, who had never hiked before, couldn't avoid to drag him into the woods and make him like it, gosh darn it.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Telegraph Avenue Read Along ~ Parts Three & Four

This is the third post in the Telegraph Avenue pre-release read along hosted by Emily at As the Crow Flies (and Reads).  In case you missed them, make sure to peruse my reviews of part one and part two.  If the book seems super-awesome, be sure to pre-order a copy!

Okay, so I know this post is a day late and that I promised that I would be better after my tardy first post, but I'm on vacation and have an excellent excuse involving a rattlesnake and a park ranger - but that's a post for another day.  Today is about Telegraph Avenue.

So, if you'll remember, I thought that part one was really great and was totally engaged, but then thought that part two lost a little something.  Happily, part three, "A Bird of Wide Experience," was fantastic.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Telegraph Avenue Read Along ~ Part Two

This is the third post in the Telegraph Avenue pre-release read along hosted by Emily at As the Crow Flies (and Reads).  To see my review of part one, click here.  To pre-order a copy of the book, click here.

PSA: It is advisable that you read my review of part one before you read this, especially if you've never read my reviews before, because it is much more coherent and may actually say something, which this post, I assure you, does not.

Oi.  So, part two, "The Church of Vinyl" is upon us, and I'll just say it: I didn't love it.  Not that it's bad - it's not.  But it didn't seem to really go anywhere.  Most of the plot points, of which there weren't many, were rather unsurprising - Gwen finds out about Titus and predictably leaves Archy (I mean, of course she does - he's denied the existence of his first child for fourteen years, which is not really a glowing recommendation when she's about to give birth to his second); Gibson Goode offers Archy a job (um, duh, people will follow him and he's clearly got the smarts); and, um, Nat makes fried chicken (okay, I didn't see that coming, and OH MY GAWD IF MY HUSBAND EVER MADE THAT KIND OF MESS AND LEFT IT I - okay I don't know what I would do because it's unprecedented, but trust me, it would not spell good things for him).  Oh, and Cochise Jones dies, which I forgot until I just checked and I think that Chabon did a very inadequate job of portraying his skill and fame because when people started paying all those tributes, I was all wha?  Who is this guy?  I thought he was just some dude who did decent covers and had a bird on his shoulder.  So that was a bit of a misstep.

Okay, I guess more must have happened than I though because I just remembered Barack Obama's SO RANDOM cameo.  Seriously, where did he come from?  No lie though, it was kind of cool, especially when he was talking about the music being "pretty funky," which I have to admit is a word that I've never really understood except in the "ew, your feet are pretty funky" way.  BUT NOW I DO.  I hope Obama gets a free copy of the book when it comes out, though it will probably just make people yell about how he never reads books by women.  Which he really should.

So yeah.  While I continued to love Chabon's hilarious and surprising writing style (see quotes below), I felt like the pace of this section was a little off.  We had a lot of character introductions and development in "Dream of Cream," and "The Church of Vinyl" did very little to develop that.  The characters seem no more complex and the storyline seems to be stagnating.  It was a little tough to get through (which was made tougher by a couple of continuity errors).  I hope for better from the next section.  In the meantime, I'll leave you with a couple of quotes, because Chabon sure is fun to read.

In which we get some excellent parenting advice:
You have to make them do things they don't want to do, even when you don't really care if they do them or not. (pg.213)
In which the narrator (this isn't free indirect discourse people) makes a fun metaphor about Oakland:
Like a hoard of family diamonds sewn into the hems and hidden pockets of an exile's cloak, Oakland was salted secretly with wonders, even here, at its fetid, half-rotted raggedy-ass end. (pg.219)

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Telegraph Avenue Read Along ~ Part One

This is the second post in the Telegraph Avenue pre-release read along hosted by Emily at As the Crow Flies and Reads.  To see my introductory post, click here.  To pre-order a copy of the book for yourself, click here.

Part one of Telegraph Avenue is called "Dream of Cream," a subtitle that probably would cause you to wonder and is duly explained.  All I have to say about that is OM NOM NOM.  Also, this first part was initially rather confusing and frustrating, but once I became oriented it became a much easier read.

"Dream of Cream" takes place in 2004, while straying into the 1970's every so often.  A whole lot of characters are introduced, notably old friends Archy and Nat, who own a record store together; midwifery partners Gwen and Aviva, who are married to Archy and Nat; Luther, Archy's deadbeat, absentee dad; Julius, son of Nat and Aviva, who is portrayed as an old man in a teenage body (though to me,he just seems like a kid marching to his own beat...literally); and Julius's mysterious new friend, Titus, who just arrived from Texas.  Several more characters are introduced, though this is the core cast of characters.  Most of the story takes place in Oakland, CA, occasionally spilling into Berkeley.  Seemingly at the center of this story is Brokeland Records, the store that Archy and Nat own.  Brokeland is threatened by the imminent arrival of a new Dogpile Thang, a media megastore who will likely undercut Brokeland and put them out of business.  Mirroring that is the struggle facing Gwen and Aviva as they fight for respect at the local hospital.

What's really interesting about these two story lines is how Chabon weaves issues of race into them.  For example, wouldn't most people say that the small, local, indie record store is preferable (though maybe not price-wise)?  But it is suggested that Dogpile Thang is actually better for the black community of Oakland because it is 100% black-owned, unlike Brokeland.  It's an interesting dichotomy.  Likewise, in their struggles at the hospital, Gwen acknowledges how she feels her behavior towards the establishment must be different from Aviva's because of their difference in race.  Beyond the actual differences in how the two women approach the hospital staff, it's really interesting and revealing to see how Gwen thinks about it:
Her relations toward authority, toward its wielders and tools, were - had to be - more complicated than her partner's.  She could not as blithely subordinate her pride and self-respect...  To the extent that Gwen had been hassled in her life by representatives of the white establishment, she had been trained to get the better of the situation without compromising herself... (pg. 59)
One thing that is a little bit frustrating in the novel is how vague Chabon is about the race of the characters.  If we were to actually see these people, we'd most likely recognize their race immediately.  However, the vagueness interferes with that implicit understanding of the racial politics at play.  Though, even while being frustrated by this, I think I see Chabon's intention too.  By not explicitly saying "Archy, a black man..." he prevents the reader from making race-based assumptions until he's said a little more about who the character is.  I'd imagine that this could force people to confront their own beliefs and values, which is a tremendous thing for a writer to do.

And race isn't the only controversial topic that Chabon takes on.  Julius and Titus, the teen friends, while not necessarily identifying as gay, experiment with a gay relationship.  Despite the sexual relationship, however, there still exists the tension of cultural expectations, which Julius in particular seems to struggle with emotionally during a time of distress for Titus:
Julie thought about squeezing in next to Titus, between him and the wall of the stairwell.  Put his arm around the boy, lay his head against his shoulder, hold his hand.  If he were Titus's girlfriend, it would be the easiest thing in the world."I wish I were you girlfriend," he said. (pg. 106)
I'm interested to see what Chabon does with the unusual relationship the boys have, though I think his handling of race in the book thus far indicates that he will handle it carefully and thoughtfully.

Overall, this has been a great start to the book.  Chabon's narration is great - a little mocking, a little ironic, with great observations that get their humor from how he states the obvious.  In the beginning, I had some issues following the story, but that smoothed itself out quickly, once I became accustomed to the jumping around and occasional time switches.  The only complaint I have (and it's not so much a complaint as a criticism) is that the various story lines tie together a bit too neatly.  That is, of course, the way of many novels and it serves its purpose here as well.  By intersecting the story lines so much, we get to see the characters from many different angles, which allows us to understand both the viewed and the viewers more deeply.  I can nit-pick all I want but the truth is, it's a great novel so far and Chabon seems to be a master.  I can't wait to continue.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Atonement ~ Ian McEwan

There's something about Ian McEwan - maybe it's all of the 100 books to read before you die lists he's on, or maybe the summaries of his novels - that always makes me think I would like him.  I tried twice, with The Cement Garden and Atonement, and was disappointed both times.  With both novels, even while reading I felt like I should be enjoying them, but just didn't for some reason.  That was a few years ago, and I'd given up on McEwan, when I stumbled across the audiobook of Atonement at the library, and thought I'd give him another shot.  This is how I choose most of my audiobooks - whatever seems the most appealing/least unappealing choice at the library that day - and usually it works out, so I gave it a shot.

Before I get into the book, I need to relate how odd it was to read (listen to).  Odd, because I don't remember the last forty or so pages.  At all.  Most of the rest of it was familiar, but that last bit was a complete surprise.  I'm pretty sure I finished the book, partially because my bookmark (the receipt) for my physical copy is behind the cover and partially because who gives up on a book forty pages from the end, no matter how much they dislike it?  I had this experience once before, when rereading The Bell Jar which I really liked, and discovered that I had no memory of the whole of the second half.  And how strange that I should forget the end, rather than the beginning?

But, the book.  It starts on an unbearably hot day in the summer of 1935, when the Tallis family is expecting their only son and his friend home for a visit.  Also there are three cousins, the Quincy children, who are staying there during their parents' messy divorce.  The elder Tallis girl is languishing at home after completing college, while deciding what to do next, and avoiding the part-time landscaper, whom she resents and her father is about to put through medical school.  The mother is in bed with a migraine as usual, and the father is absent due to work, also as usual.  The younger daughter, Briony, is planning a production of a play she wrote in which her cousins will perform.  Though it seems an average day in the lives of this upper-class British family, it becomes the day on which childhood will end and the frailty of conviction will come crashing down, a day which will redefine the rest of all their lives.

McEwan tells his story from multiple points of view - the first section follows, in turns, Briony, her sister Cecilia, their mother, Emily, the landscaper, Robbie, and the Quincy children briefly.  The second section visits Robbie in France during World War II, and the third joins Briony in a war hospital shortly thereafter.  McEwan does a really nice job of showing how misunderstanding and misinterpretation arise, and how disastrous they can be, by describing the events from different perspectives.  As the novel progresses and we see the paths that each characters' choices lead them on, McEwan builds on this framework.

But the real heart of the story is Briony's reflections on writing and truth and experience.  She is the main catalyst for much of the story's conflict, because of how badly she misinterprets what she observes.  She muses on the act of writing and what kind of knowledge it requires of her, getting much of it wrong at the time when it means the most, though it is all very interesting.  She gets quite in-depth with her thoughts and as they unfold, you see them unfolding in the text of the novel itself.  Sometimes it's hard to see where Briony leaves off and McEwan picks up, or the other way around, as the novel creates and recreates itself from her thoughts.

I think I understand now why I have so much trouble with McEwan.  He gets really deep into his characters' heads, uncovering thought patters and progressions that feel quite natural.  Good, right?  Except that he also devotes a huge number of words to describing the physical scene, which results in a bit of a stand-still.  I don't require fast-paced novels by any means, but when 175 pages is devoted to one day, it gets a bit excessive.  The amount of time devoted to describing an action or thought is far longer than the amount of time required for the action or thought to unfold.  It almost feels more like a painting than novel - we get a moment in all it's detail, but hardly a story to go with it.  I enjoyed the novel more this time around, but especially on audiobook it got a bit tedious - the descriptions sometimes seem unending and leave little to the imagination.

My biggest complaint about this novel is that it is one line too long.  After Briony reflects on what to do with lovers in a novel, whether to subject them to grim realism or the hoped-for happy ending, the novel suddenly reverts to a what I read as a gimmicky line about Briony, who I feel should, at that point, remain the novelist and not the point of the novel.  Without that one line, which by my reading (though mine is certainly not the only reading) adds an unnecessary sense of melodrama to the end of the novel, the novel would have ended perfectly, in my opinion.  Though perhaps, because at that point the novel is in the first person, the point is that Briony has not grown as much as she and the reader think, and still is a child at the heart of her own performance.  But since her narrative voice is so caught up with McEwan's own, it's heard to untangle this strain from the intent of the noel.  It's an interesting conundrum, though that doesn't make me like that last line anymore.

A quick note on the audiobook: It's performed by Jill Tanner, who also read The Constant Princess (why is it that nearly all of the audiobooks I listen to are of British novels, read by British speakers?? - it is not intentional by any means).  To an uninformed American ear, Tanner's accent seems slightly high-falutin', but that actually fits the story perfectly, as every main character seems to have a heightened sense of his or her own worth and are clearly inhabit the upper crust of British society.  Tanner does a really good, faithful job with her performance, with subtle but distinct changes for different voices, and even a slight change to accommodate aging.  Though the flowery writing can be tough to follow on audio, Tanner's performance certainly helps matters.

I would probably recommend this to somebody who doesn't mind a quiet novel and likes to really think about the creation of writing.  It'll give you food for thought, even if it's slow going.  I think that I will even give McEwan another shot after this experience, with a whole new book and everything, though I'll probably stick to a print version, the better to get lost in his thoughts.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Telegraph Avenue Readalong: Inaugural Post

Guys, I am the worst blogger ever.  Emily over at As the Crow Flies and Reads invited me to join the lovely pre-release read-along of Telegraph Avenue that she's hosting and I managed to miss the first post.  Not cool.  It's not that I wasn't thinking about it - I just failed to pay attention to the calendar and may have gotten completely distracted by the other book that I'm currently reading and will now abandon for a month.

So, the book!  Telegraph Avenue is the newest novel by Michael Chabon, which, if I'm not mistaken, is due for release on September 11 (preorder it, if'n you want!).  I've never read Chabon before, though he's been on my list of authors to get to, so when I heard of this read along, I knew I wanted to try it.  Partially to check someone off of my TBR list and partially to read a book before it's available to most people because, let's face it, that makes me feel super-cool.  And it's one of those kinds of books that I really like (at least according to the summary) - layered, with a seemingly large cast of characters, multiple converging storylines, and unafraid to tackle tough topics, like race in the United States.  The summary describes it as an epic, which should be exciting.

In short, I'm super excited to be participating in this read along (and read alongs in general, because it's fun to read with other and be able to have a conversation).  I'll be posting every Tuesday through the end of the month and can't wait to compare notes with my fellow readers.  Now excuse me while I go set a reminder on my phone for next week's post.

Happy Independence Day!

Monday, July 2, 2012


[Now imagine that Indiana
Jones wrote this book.  Or
starred in it.  Or was mercilessly
mocked by it.  I'm not sure which
[Imagine that this is a video clip
of Indiana Jones righteously
claiming that things he wants
belong in a museum in a cheap
attempt to get Western viewers
who were bottle-fed on museums
to sympathize with his cause.]
So I have this Indiana Jones thing.  I'm sure I'm not the only one.  But when he loudly declares that "It belongs in a museum," I can't help but wince and take onto my shoulders the guilt of centuries of white people being assholes.  And then I create some personal guilt for having ever been in a museum.  And then I angrily tell whoever is sitting next to me that Indiana Jones is a terrible person and that now we can't go to the movies or museums anymore.  And this is why nobody ever wants to go places with me.

So, if you've never read Possession, I'm sure you're wondering what exactly the connection is.  Well, there's this guy in Possession who is American and white and likes to take away people's treasures and keep them for his very own and also give them better conditions than most human beings have.  Like temperature control and gentle breezes on command and remote-control curtains.  And he is all indignant that people should wish for their own possessions to moulder away in obscurity and let the past be in the past and let sleeping dogs lie and several other idiomatic expressions, when he could be having the things.  And it's pretty much like Indiana Jones is running rampant through the streets of 1987 England trying to steal people's stuff.  And it makes me so angry because why do old things belong in a museum rather than in the place that they were made and/or will be destroyed?  And yes, there are a lot of people in the book who are all like "British people should study British things because that's the nice way to be" and even then I'm all like, dude.  These people were skeletons before you were even born, who cares who attended some skeleton's breakfast party?  Because they care far too much.

So I've been debating this with myself for a couple of days because it kind of sounds like I'm saying that we shouldn't study old literature and that is not at all what I am saying.  Because I like old literature.  But the thing is, I'm starting to kind of feel like studying old literature and the old people who wrote it beyond what you do in a college or maybe a master's-level classroom might just be a waste of everyone's time. Maybe Possession isn't a very accurate portrayal of these kinds of advanced studies, but I really just don't see what anybody is getting out of it.  The associated drama is just ridiculous and the contribution to human knowledge is completely unapparent.  So what if these two skeletons diddled when they still had skin?  Why is money being spent to refrigerate old manuscripts whose pages are too delicate to be turned when it could be spent to refrigerate meals for homeless children?  Okay, I'm kind of going a different way with this now, but do you see my point?

Don't get me wrong, I think I got some valuable skills out of being an English major.  It definitely honed my writing and analytical skills, and gave me some less tangible but perhaps even more valuable skills in understanding real people.  These are transferable.  And yes, some advanced study is needed to teach students about this literature and help them develop these same skills and show people where we came from, but devoting your life to analyzing every last word of some skeleton's journal just because her husband wrote some famous poems speaks of some sort of disorder to me.  Not all knowledge is helpful.  Some things - most, even - belong exactly where they are and have been; it's not our business to resurrect them and take them from their homes.

Am I being completely ridiculous?  Or do you see what I mean?  I am actually enjoying the book, I just don't get it!