Friday, December 31, 2004

Miscellaneous reading

What with holidays and MLA stuff, I haven't had much time for reading. However I do seem to have read a few books here and there, including some very good ones. First of all, my friend Seth Mnookin's account of the structural and institutional factors at the NY Times that led to the Jayson Blair episode, Hard News, is absolutely wonderful! It's a great read. I have no particular interest in media stuff, but I'm fascinated with the way that institutional and human factors converge to make a place (a company, a school, a university, a church, a government) great or troubled. And Seth comes through in spades. Buy it. Also really excellent (well, we could have predicted that) is Stephen Elliott's Looking Forward to It, an account of his year following the Democratic presidential candidates up to the election. It's hilarious! It's a crime if this guy doesn't write more novels, though--I am eagerly awaiting whatever he publishes next. Miscellaneous others: Stella Duffy's Fresh Flesh (the best of the series so far, I think); Margery Allingham's Traitor's Purse (which I've read a gazillion times before & which holds some strange fascination for me, as do her other novels--I don't think they're good, exactly, but there's something terribly appealing about them in all their strangeness); Augusten Burroughs' Magical Thinking (a good read but slight; there are a few really fantastic pieces in this collection but they're not up to the standard of either of his full-length memoirs, both of which I found extremely rewarding reads, albeit in rather different ways); and In Her Shoes by Jennifer Weiner, whose blog I love. I bought the last at the train station in Philadelphia and it made the ride back to NY pass in a flash. She's a really good writer. I don't think this is as good as her first novel, Good In Bed, but still a very fun read. (My brothers worked on the movie version which was of course filmed in Philadelphia, and were quite as scathing as usual about the story and the production.) Weiner is definitely the best of her kind; in the end, I'm just not that interested in boy-meets-girl stories, or in "pretty on the inside" stories, but I will continue to read her fiction with great enjoyment, and I'm curious to see what she comes out with next. My great reading disappointment of the last few months--and I still haven't finished it, which doesn't speak well--was Jonathan Stroud's sequel to the first novel in the Bartimeus trilogy, The Golem's Eye. I really liked the first one--wonderful writing, really stylish and funny and sort of the anti-Harry Potter because the talented young magician is also selfish, ethically bankrupt, all-round smarmy and horrible in a really wonderful way--but this one just didn't work for me. I think the key difference between YA fiction and adult fantasy, aside from questions of sensibility, concerns style--Susan Cooper really is a genius and the way she did those Dark Is Rising books was amazing. What I'm getting at here in a roundabout way is that the point of the multivolume YA fantasy is that you DON'T write a Dickensian multi-plot novel; instead, you split up characters' stories into different volumes. Philip Pullman does something similar, although he is more ambitious in weaving different stories together. But Stroud gives us way too many different strands in this sequel, and I would much rather have had it split up into (1) vol. 2 for Kitty's story; (2) vol. 3 for Nathaniel's story and (3) vol. 4 for Bartimeus's angle on all this stuff, and then have a resounding fifth volume that wraps up all the strands. However I expect I will finish reading this over the next few days to see what I think of the rest of it.


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