Welcome to my February Reads!

For those of you new to the nest, I have a neurotic reading process. Each month I read at least part of a non-fiction book, a book about reading/writing/editing/language, and as many books from my color stacks as I can (my books are organized by spine color and I’m going through each color stack, reading every book I haven’t yet read).

This month was spent reading the books I’ve recently bought that have red or yellow spines. I need to quit buying new books so that I can officially name color stacks done. I’m officially on to the green and blue stacks in March, finally. My book about reading/writing/words for the month was Conversations with Kurt Vonnegut and I sort of cheated with my non-fiction book for the month with a collection of essays by David Sedaris in Me Talk Pretty One Day.

Here’s February’s Reads:

The Girl Who Played with Fire

The Girl Who Played with Fire (2009) by Stieg Larsson

What you need to know: I’m not usually a big sequel lover. With the possible exceptions of Star Wars and Harry Potter, series rarely get better as they go. I didn’t think that I’d be totally in love with this book, as it is 2/3, but I was wrong.

I read the first book in the trilogy, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, in July. I loved it (I called it “the best contemporary mystery novel I’ve yet read”), but the second one was so good that I immediately went out an bought the third book in the trilogy, budget be damned.

The Girl Who Played with Fire picked up immediately where The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo left off and gets deeper into the characters’ history, psychology, and emotions than the first book did. The plot is even more action packed than the original and is much faster paced. I literally couldn’t put it down. Highly highly highly recommended.

Another note on this series: though these books are action mysteries, they actually have a message (rare for the genre). Larsson’s insights into the sex discrimination in democracy is illustrated with stung female characters in traditionally male roles facing societal opposition, violence against women and society’s blind eye to such violence, and unconventional relationships. The message is clear throughout both works; I can see how a person who is not a feminist could be turned at the end of the series; Larson does an amazing job getting the reader to empathize with the characters.

And now for a quote: “She saw him drenched with gasoline. She could actually feel the box of matches in her hand. She shook it. It rattled. She opened the box and selected a match. She heard him say something, but she shut her ears, did not listen to the words. She saw the expression on his face as she moved the match towards the striking surface. She heard the scraping sound of the sulphur. It sounded like a drawn-out thunderclap. She saw the match burst into flame. [author's italics removed]”

Speaking With the Angel

Speaking with the Angel (2000) ed. Nick Hornby

What you need to know: A collection of short stories from some of the best contemporary authors from America and Britain. Bonus: Proceeds benefit schools for children with autism.

I live right by a used book store, and there are a few author’s sections that I can walk directly to in the stacks without even looking. This is because I look to see if the store has books that I haven’t yet hoarded from these authors every time I visit. (It should go without saying that keeping me out of bookstores is one of our new budget moves.)

Nick Hornby is one of the authors I look for every time (see also: Kurt Vonnegut, Bret Easton Ellis, George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, Sherman Alexie, Neil Gamon, Buffy Graphic Novels), so I was really excited to stumble on this collection of short stories that included not only Hornby’s work, but also stories from Dave Eggers (I loved What is the What and Wild Things) and Zadie Smith (White Teeth is a must read). I would have bought the book if it only contained three short stories, one by each of these authors, but it also included other authors I’ve never read, so I didn’t even have to think twice. Short stories are a great way to test out new authors. It’s getting a taste of their style without having to commit to several hundred pages. I think books of short stories are like compilation albums or soundtracks: a great way to see if I want to buy a full length something from the sampled artists.

This book was bad for future Nerd Nest budgeting, because now I want books from every one of the authors. True story. I think that Patrick Marber, who wrote “Peter Shelling” for this book, is going to be the next author I look for. I don’t talk about it much, but I’m working on my first novel manuscript. And I’ll tell you that sex scenes are one of the most difficult things on the planet to write. Yet Marber makes writing not only a sex scene, but an awkward teenage first time sex scene, look easy as pie. Dude’s got skill. Plus there’s a fair amount of punk rock knowledge in the story, and I’m interested to see if that carries into his other works.

And now for a quote: “I don’t like these people saying it’s sick, because it is and it isn’t, and I don’t like the police saying they’re going to charge Martha with obscenity, and I don’t like the idea that they’re going to take it out of the exhibition, because it ways outside the door that you shouldn’t go in if you think you might not link it. So why go it? I want people to see what I saw: something that’s beautiful if you look at it in one way, from a distance, and ugly if you look at it in another, close up.” – Nick Hornby

Conversations with Kurt Vonnegut

Conversations with Kurt Vonnegut (1988) ed. William Rodney Allen

What you need to know: A collection of interviews conducted with Kurt Vonnegut from various sources dating from 1969 to 1999. A very interesting read if you’re a big Vonnegut fan or an aspiring writer.

It’s funny: I’m pretty sure that this book, which weighs in at about 330 pages, is longer than any of the books that Vonnegut actually wrote. I really loved getting to know some of Vonnegut’s biographical history and his thought processes. I also thought it was interesting to see how his interests and goals changed. For a time, Vonnegut thought he would mainly be a playwright. I didn’t know that at all.

The first half of the book is really repetitive, because interviewers kept asking Vonnegut the same questions over and over (the main one was some variation of, “How do you feel about the label black humorist?”). It gets better as it goes, but this read is probably only worth it if you’re a hardcore fan.

I really want to find a Vonnegut biography now!

And now for a quote:Casey: What about your novel Slaughterhouse-Five?

Vonnegut: It was written to treat a disaster. I was present in the greatest massacre in European history, which was the destruction of Dresden by fire-bombing. So I said, ‘Okay, you were there.’
The American and British air forces together killed 135,000 people in two hours. This is a world’s record. It’s never been done faster, not in the battle of Britain or Hiroshima. (In order to qualify as a massacre you have to kill real fast). But I was there, and there was no news about it in the American papers, it was so embarrassing. I was there–so say something about it.”

God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian

God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian (1999) by Kurt Vonnegut

What you need to know: In this book, Vonnegut poses as an interview of the dead, able to make roundtrip visits to the pearly gates with the help of slightly lethal injections from none other than Dr. Kevorkian. Vonnegut interviews regular joes who demonstrate interesting life principles as well as famous people such as Sir Isaac Newton, Hitler, Mary Shelly, and John Brown of local (Kansas/Missouri) fame.

This is a really good book to read if you’re not a good reader; all of the “interviews” are short and sweet, stand-alone, and easy to understand. I read this in lieu of a magazine while waiting in the car to pick up Jake or in the line at the grocery store.

It may not be Vonnegut’s magnum opus, but it does what he does best: demonstrates the very serious principles of humanism while simultaneously entertaining and creating laughter. What more could you ask for from a book, really?

And now for a quote: “During my controlled near-death experiences, I’ve met Sir Isaac Newton, who died back in 1727, as often as I’ve met Saint Peter. They both hang out at the Heaven end of the blue tunnel of the Afterlife. Saint Peter is there because that’s his job. Sir Isaac is there because of his insatiable curiosity about what the blue tunnel is, and how the blue tunnel works.”

Damned

Damned (2011) by Chuck Palahniuk

What you need to know: If you, like me, have been suspecting Chuck Palahniuk is heading in an irreversible downward spiral, this book will not change your mind.

Chuck Palahniuk used to be my favorite author. My high school copy of Fight Club is highlighted and dog eared; I included a quote from the book next to my signature in people’s yearbooks. The book he signed for me during his “Roses and Shit” tour for Haunted is framed in a shadow box. (I know: I’m lame. Let’s move on.) But I won’t even say he’s my favorite author anymore for the same reason I stopped saying Squad Five-0 was my favorite band in 2002–after they’d cranked out several terrible albums and changed their style dramatically. I feel uncomfortable professing my love unless I can love the whole body of work. It’s sort of like a boyfriend that turned into a real jerk towards the end of the relationship: you might be nostalgic for the good times, but you’re not going to walk around professing your love for him. You’re going to break up with him (hopefully).

While I can’t bring myself to break up with Palahniuk (I’m much to curious for that), my loyalty has definitely wavered. I used to buy an advance copy or rush out to purchase his new books as soon as they were published, but now I wait until I can find them at a used book store. I don’t know if I’ve outgrown him (gasp!) or if his writing really is getting worse. I still love the early books (and Rant), so I suspect it’s the latter. Maybe it’s something to do with being pressured by the publisher to crank out a book a year.

After reading Dainty Squid’s Review of Damned, I was cautiously hopeful. And then quickly disappointed.

Damned has most of Palahniuk’s signature elements. The material is imaginative, shocking, and transgressive as always; his vision of hell as a disgusting landscape with landmarks such as “the Dandruff Desert” and “Vally of Disposable Diapers” is inventive and stomach churning. That’s good. As is his idea that every deity to fall from favor in human history becomes a demon (I love it when a little anthropology is thrown into fiction). What’s missing is the classic Palahniuk plot twist (it’s planted to early and is much to callable) and the heart. The thing I’ve always loved most about Palahniuk is his creation of seemingly despicable characters that are so human you can’t help but love them. Those characters have been nowhere to be found in the last few books. Try as I might, I couldn’t bring myself to care about Madison, the protagonist. It’s hard to keep reading a book when you don’t care what happens.

The other books I read this month may have made Damned seem worse that it was, to be fair. Vonnegut’s view of the afterlife in God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian was so much more meaningful. And Dave Eggers’s short story in Speaking with the Angel was narrated convincingly from the perspective of a dog (a dog!), which only shed light on Palahniuk’s inability to write in any voice other than his own (Madison is not convincing as a thirteen-year-old girl for a second). When I go out with a group of super hot girls, I look awful. I think that this might be what was happening here.

I’ll at least give it one more chance in the form of a re-read before I trade it in at a used bookstore.

And now for a quote: “Don’t get me wrong. Hell isn’t so dreadful, not compared to Ecology Camp, and especially not compared to junior high school. Call me jaded, but not much compares to having your legs waxed or getting your navel piercing done at a mall kiosk. Or bulimia. Not that I’m a totally eating-disordered Miss Slutty von Slutski.”

Me Talk Pretty One Day

Me Talk Pretty One Day (2000) by David Sedaris

What you need to know: This collection of witty and strange autobiographical essays had me laughing out loud every few minutes. I read whole pages aloud to Jake. It’s that good.

This isn’t what I expected. For some reason (the title?) I thought that the whole work would focus on Sedaris’s childhood schooling experience. The first essay, Sedaris’s torment with a speech pathologist in elementary school, confirmed my expectations, but the essays take off from there. Though everything in the book is tied with a theme of learning, the stories extend so much further than I thought they would. Covered is a wide range of living: Sedaris describes creating weird instillation performance art to raise money for recreational drugs in young adulthood, for example. He writes about his struggle to communicate in a little French village in his middle age with the knowledge of only one French word (bottleneck). None of you will be surprised that I loved Sedaris’s dependance on his typewriter. He was lectured by airport security for not joining the modern world with a laptop.

Sedaris’s view of the world is so different–he notices the strangeness of everyday occurrences and puts a fresh spin on American culture. My favorite thing, however, is not his wonderful observational powers, but his perfectly paced build up of punch lines. Every story is a rube goldberg of sequenced sentences all pushing the story forward just a bit towards an ultimate result of side splitting laughter. I had difficulty choosing a quote excerpt, because the genius here is the sum of the parts.

See also: My review of Sedaris’s Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim

And now for a quote: “Of all the stumbling blocks inherent in learning this language [French], the greatest for me is the principle that each noun has a corresponding sex that affects both its articles and its adjectives. Because it is a female and lays eggs, a chicken is masculine. Vagina is masculine as well, while the word masculinity is feminine. Forced by the grammar to take a stand one way or the other, hermaphrodite is male and indecisiveness female.”

Have you read any of these? What did you think of them? What have you been reading lately?