Wednesday, December 26, 2007

An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England

My first inclination in describing this book would be to say it was a funny mystery. But really, this is a sad book about a tragic life led by a complete bumbler. But it's funny. And quirky and full of random, hilarious tangents. "An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England" by Brock Clarke is about a man named Sam Pulsifer who accidentally burned down the Emily Dickenson house when he was 18 years old. He spent the next ten years in prison for it, moved back home, his parents kicked him out and he went to college. Sam is not a criminal person. He is not even prone to temper tantrums. But he is the type of person to bumble (his word) everything he touches or attempts. He finds a career path that he's good at and loves, he meets a beautiful woman who loves him back and he has two wonderful children. He has also neglected to inform them of the ten years of prison and why he was there.

The more hilarious parts of the books are the descriptions of his fellow inmates at the minimum security prison he resides at: bond analysts who are obsessed with writing their memoires and whose conversation is littered with "dude". Clarke's painfully accurate description of suburban life had me in stitches. The people who wrote him letters begging him to burn down other writers' homes are absolute gems. Sam's parents are a sad mess and even in their somberness, there's humor there too. Thank goodness, or else it would all be too depressing to read.

When you think things are going to start falling apart, it does. Someone starts burning down writers' homes in New England. Sam starts his own investigation, but as you might guess, he bumbles it. Really, Sam is quite hopeless. He's like a socially awkward person at a fancy dinner party. You watch his antics with horrified fascination. He always realizes what he's done after the fact, but you so hope he'll kick his brain into gear and not say everything he thinks out loud. Then again, that makes him more of a real character instead of a fictional one, since how many of us actually say the exact right thing at the exact right moment anyway?

The mystery part of the book was really well done, with the reader figuring out the answer along with the main character, as opposed to many chapters before, which doesn't count as a mystery in my mind. That makes this book so far a tragic comedic mystery. That's a lot of genres packed into one book, if you ask me. Well worth reading, however. Watch out for a smattering of profanity, but no graphic descriptions of anything. And be prepared to have a curious desire to visit some writers' homes in New England.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Deceptively Delicious

Every time I say this title out loud, I want to sing it like from the old Lucky Charms commercial. "It's deceptively delicious!" Then I jump up in the air and click my heels together. This book was the most delightfully covert thing I've read lately. You'll have to go read the wikipedia link I put there. It's tickles me to no end to apply that to feeding my children. I have a secret passion for spies and subversive activities. I read "Harriet the Spy" too many times as a child. Anyway, back to the book. "Deceptively Delicious" by Jessica Seinfeld is good stuff. Yes, Seinfeld, as in Jerry. And no, it's not particularly funny. But it does have some good ideas. Now, before I go on, if your children have no trouble eating their veggies, then don't bother reading this post. My children aren't so angelic and well-rounded as yours, so I needed some fresh ideas. Basically, the author purees veggies and adds them to kid-friendly meals and treats. Spinach brownies, people. Yes, I wrote spinach. I can endorse the zucchini, cauliflower and carrots purees because in the last week, I've sneaked them into several standard dishes at our house. And no one noticed! Not even my husband! HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA! Wow, evil laughter overload. Sorry. Something that Mrs. Jerry stresses in the book is that you don't stop making vegetables a part of what you serve at the meal, you are just guaranteeing that they are getting them anyway. She also had the wonderful idea of putting out crudités before dinner to fight off the starving whiners and get some veggies in them that way. It so far has worked well with all but my pickiest eater who wouldn't eat a raw carrot if it was the only edible food to be found on the planet Earth. She'd gnaw on tree bark first. Or starve with the wounded look on her face that she has perfected.
Back to the book. It's great. Fun ideas, yummy-sounding food, and I'm going to try the spinach brownies next. I love spinach, so it sounds good to me. My kids think it's poison, so we'll see what happens when it's chocolate-coated.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Sequels and Such

Most of my reading lately has been sequels or further. I've found myself pondering the merits of these kind of books. Was it that the author had more to say? Was there other stories that needed to be told, but were independent of each other? Was the author out to recreate the magic of the first book? Did the author need to continue eating on a daily basis and figured he/she could just regurgitate the same ideas and make some money off of unknowing saps? I've deduced some ideas of good and bad sequels. Maybe here would be a good place for a clarification. Fantasy novels are practically guaranteed to come in series. My guess is that it's because it takes a whole book just to introduce the fictional world/language/species/culture that fantasy novels typically come with. Then you've got to have some sort of journey, gurus to pursue knowledge from, treasures and/or people to hunt down and battles all along the way. I'm going to eliminate that entire genre from my discussion. I'm talking about books that either seem to be finished and yet the author writes another, or books that beg for more. My sequels lately have been "Eclipse" by Stephenie Meyer, which I won't go into great discussion about here for fear of losing sight of what I originally intended to write about. Ms. Meyer hasn't managed to wrap up this story yet, so I can understand why she keeps going. I've also read "Tears of the Giraffe" by Alexandar McCall Smith, the continued story of my dear friend, Precious Ramotswe. This is a prime example of books that beg for more. You finish one of these books and are ready to pick up the next one. The last sequel, or book in a series, is "Honey for a Teen's Heart" by Gladys Hunt and Barbara Hampton. I blogged about the other two books a few months ago and this is another great installment of ideas. Those books aren't fiction, yet I count them as sequels because the first book was such a success, that I feel like she kept going in an effort to cover more genres. That's fine. I'm okay with that, as long as it's a good read.

What I can't stand is books that have multiple volumes because the author thinks we're so enamored with the character that we want more, when in fact, we don't. This is really typical of detective novels. The first book will introduce a conflicted, cynical, sometimes bumbling sleuth and then their problems and issues are dragged out for another 20 or 30 novels. People in real life usually figure some stuff out or change to some degree, but that rule doesn't apply to fictional detectives, I suppose. One of my favorite of these characters is Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone. She's not quite as stereotypical and the author doesn't lay out all her baggage in the first novel. Kinsey has many layers and you get to find out more as you read further. I'm excited to read the latest, "T is for Trespass" which recently came out and has a wait list a mile long at the library. Ms. Grafton goes with the alphabet, so if you'd like to give them a try, I'd start with "A is for Alibi" and get to know Kinsey yourself. They have their more violent moments, but in general, highly enjoyable.

One of the worst examples, in my view, of sequel abuse if "The Lost World" by Michael Crichton. I thought this was a blatant grasp for cash on his part to write another Jurassic Park novel. So what if the first was fabulously popular? Does that justify another book? Mr. Crichton writes compelling, suspenseful novels that sell pretty much because his name is on it. Was a sequel necessary? Did "The Lost World" say anything that "Jurassic Park" didn't? I wish I could ask him. The book was dull compared to "Jurassic Park" which I remember everybody I knew was reading at the time, copies of the book being passed around at school (at least among the nerdy set I hung out with) and discussions abounding. "The Lost World" made no such reaction. Well, we were teenagers after all and you can't expect too much. But still, it irritates me.

What I'd like to hear is what sequels or series are worth the effort and which to avoid. Like I wrote earlier, fantasy novels are a given, but I'm open to hear about those too. Feed me information! Rant like a crazed blogger! Gush with enthusiasm! Just don't get any on the computer while you're at it.