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March: Page Plummet, Novel Nosedive

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It’s just what I expected, but I’m still annoyed that I only read six books this month. Work is quite demanding, so I’m starting to wonder about making it to 100 this year. Since it’s now National Poetry Month, I’ll go ahead and ask: What happens to a triple-digit dream deferred?

1. The Cariboo Horses – Al Purdy.
(I spilled the banks of my overwhelming love for Alfred Wellington Purdy earlier this month. )
2. True Grit – Charles Portis.
I reread this again for Bookleaves Book Group. We ate at Tony Roma’s and discussed the book, then we went to see the new movie version (retitled “The Brave” for its release in South Korea) at Cine Cube. Then I found a copy of the movie a few days ago. I’m up to four viewings. My friend Leigh is going back and forth, trying to decide who is the better Rooster Cogburn: John Wayne or Jeff Bridges? I’m going to have to go with Bridges. When I watch the 1969 True Grit, I’m seeing nothing but John Wayne except the other characters in the movie are calling him Rooster. In the 2010 version, there is no Jeff Bridges, just an old reprobate named Rooster Cogburn. Glen Campbell vs. Matt Damon as LaBoeuf is a no-brainer; I’m more and more charmed by Damon’s nicely nuanced performance with each progressive viewing. Kim Darby vs. Hailee Steinfeld: Gotta go with Hailee. Poor kid, she got robbed at the Oscars. Although I prefer the remake, something young and primal within me cries out for the original movie as well. Sometimes I require both movies on the same day. I’ve hardly spoken of the book, but Oh. My. God. Even better than either movie. If you haven’t read True Grit yet, stop wasting time on this blog and go find it.
3. Another Bullshit Night In Suck City – Nick Flynn.
Probably because of its provocative title, I was expecting to be blown away by this memoir of a ne’er-do-well father meeting his estranged son in a homeless shelter in Boston, where the latter is working. It’s an incredible story without an ounce of the sentimentality I was dreading. I was left wondering what has become of Flynn’s father since the book was published in 2004, but I wasn’t really drawn in the way I am with some memoirs — like The Glass Castle, for example. Flynn has a way of keeping readers at a distance, which really makes sense, considering his life, so perhaps I’m being too finicky. A movie is being made starring Robert De Niro and Paul Dano. I have plans to see how the Flynns’ story is translated to the screen.
4. Lucky: Maris, Mantle and My Best Summer Ever – Wes Tooke.
First things first: I hate that title. It smells like it was slapped together by a committee. A committee who hadn’t read the book. This is a juvenile novel (told in third person, so why is that first person pronoun in the title?) about a 12-year-old boy named Louis May who is lousy at baseball, but knows (and knows and knows) baseball statistics. Because of a lucky catch at a Yankees game in the summer of 1961 and his statistical inclinations, he gets a chance to be a batboy for the Yankees. All is not so rosy at home, though. Mom ran off to be a beatnik in Greenwich Village (in one scene, she takes him to The Gaslight where one of the performers is a very young Robert Zimmerman) and Louis is having trouble getting adjusted to life with his new stepmother and stepbrother. Louis’ story and his coming-of-age feels a little workmanlike but it’s all worth it for the great scenes with Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle teaching Louis (nicknamed “Lucky” by Maris) about life and baseball. Tooke really catches fire as Louis follows the exciting race to Babe Ruth’s record. A quick read and a wonderful way to prepare for Opening Day this year.
5. 84, Charing Cross Road – Helene Hanff.
 We don’t have the same taste in books, Helene Hanff and I, but I could totally see myself making friends with a bookstore staff in post-war London and shipping them tasty treats at Christmastime. This memoir is related through twenty years of correspondence with Marks & Co. Booksellers. Reading this from a vantage point of more than 60 years onward, the prices made me smile. Hanff has a taste for the old and rare, and she’s sends them a five dollar bill and ends up with two bucks credited to her account. The best part is her feisty letters to the company and no matter how obnoxious she gets, she always gets a gentlemanly response from the patient manager, Frank Doel. I’m more than ready to treat myself to another viewing of the movie version starring Anne Bancroft as Hanff and Anthony Hopkins as Doel. 
6. Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov.
 I read this one for my Cracked Spinz book group. What a strange book. Because of the events in the novel, I am uncomfortable about admitting that I enjoyed it. There’s that numbingly clinical introduction. Then there’s Humbert Humbert, an unreliable narrator with a dark and twisted sense of humor that you can’t help enjoying, but then there’s his nasty, creepy predilection for “nymphets” and then there’s Russian-born author Nabokov playing around in French and English and making literary allusions, puns and anagrams with the same gleeful abandon of a kid at his mud pies and finally, there’s that rich, sumptuous, decadently beautiful prose. My mixed feelings of unease and admiration in equal parts reminds of my reaction to In Cold Blood — Capote’s precise, almost delicate narration and the horrific subject matter. Regarding Lolita, the air in my very own Bybeeary is already crackling, and book group is still ten days away. We are going to have our greatest discussion ever; there’s no other possibility.

>Real Life vs. Read Life

> Faaarrrrgghhh!

It’s happening again, except this time we’re slated to discuss The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, which is a bookish book about books and booksellers and…O the agony.
I wasn’t sure about the 2 conflicting events on October 9/10 when I was at the BOOKLEAVES meeting last week, but I did have a funny feeling:

Well, I can’t skip book group. As much as I love the Readathon, I’d feel like an ass if I passed up Real Life for Read Life. I’ll participate as best as I can, then one free weekend this fall when I’m coin-foraging-broke before payday, I’ll have a private little readathon with all the nice Newbery titles I’ve got stockpiled.

But still: Damn.

Thanks to Veronica for the photo.

>Missing Out On A Great Read: The Lost Mind of Me


I was out of BOOKLEAVES for most of the summer because of my trip back to the US, summer camp and all that. Before I left, though, Shanna suggested The Lost City of Z as a future read. At some point, it was decided that this would be our book for the August 29th meeting. I made note of the title and the time when I received Veronica’s update.

Perhaps I was distracted by the end of the semester business and busy-ness. Perhaps I was focused on my upcoming trip and didn’t pay attention to Shanna’s description of the book. I must have had my head elsewhere or I would have noticed the book’s subtitle.

However the events transpired, I somehow got the idea that The Lost City of Z was a children’s book or perhaps an SF/Fantasy novel. Long story short, I didn’t make much of an effort to find this book during Bybee’s Book-Buying Binge (BBBB) 2010.
When I got back to Korea and was giving all those bookly props and bookish devotion to What The Book?’s new location and its luscious contents, I still didn’t seek it out. In my mind, I’d already moved on. So what if I didn’t read it? I reasoned. Book group members skip books all the time. Some of the greatest sports heroes in history have warmed the bench a time or two. This would be one of those times for me.

Imagine my surprise and subsequent mortification when I went to the meeting and found out that The Lost City of Z is NOT a children’s book nor is it part of an SF/Fantasy series. I can’t go on; I’ll let Publisher’s Weekly via Amazon take over:

In 1925, renowned British explorer Col. Percy Harrison Fawcett embarked on a much publicized search to find the city of Z, site of an ancient Amazonian civilization that may or may not have existed. Fawcett, along with his grown son Jack, never returned, but that didn’t stop countless others, including actors, college professors and well-funded explorers from venturing into the jungle to find Fawcett or the city. Among the wannabe explorers is Grann, a staff writer for the New Yorker, who has bad eyes and a worse sense of direction. He became interested in Fawcett while researching another story, eventually venturing into the Amazon to satisfy his all-consuming curiosity about the explorer and his fatal mission. Largely about Fawcett, the book examines the stranglehold of passion as Grann’s vigorous research mirrors Fawcett’s obsession with uncovering the mysteries of the jungle. By interweaving the great story of Fawcett with his own investigative escapades in South America and Britain, Grann provides an in-depth, captivating character study that has the relentless energy of a classic adventure tale. (Feb.) Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. –This text refers to the hardcover edition.

The Lost City of Z is nonfiction! I like nonfiction! It’s about an expedition! I like reading about expeditions! The expedition was ill-fated — even better!

.Realization was slow to dawn, but as Veronica, Bernadette, Jill, Sandra and Shanna all discussed the book in-depth, insightfully and intelligently, I began to warp-speed through Kubler-Ross’s famous 5 stages. Swears poured from me like lava. By the time the book was passed to me and I saw the really cool photos and maps and read snippets here and there of David Grann’s intriguing prose, I was past swearing. All I could do was make sounds like “gluhr” and “fuhmyop”, punctuated by whimpering. I was so flummoxed that I wanted to smite my own forehead, but I wasn’t sure I could locate it properly.

.This has been a hell of a month in Bookworm Central. September can only be better.

>Not My Cup Of Whatever They Drink In Sweden

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Nothin’ seems to change/Bad times stay the same/And I can’t run/Sometimes I feel/Sometimes I feel/Like I’ve been tied/To the whipping post/Tied to the whipping post/Tied to the whipping post/Good Lord, I feel like I’m dyin’…

-Allman Brothers-

I’m not getting on well with The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. I’m really bored. I don’t like the writing style. It is taking way too long to get off the ground. I’m 215 pages in, so I think I’ve been patient but I’m not being rewarded for my patience.

If this were any other book, I’d abandon it. I’d break up with it via text message. I’m curious to know what became of Harriet Vanger, but every bookworm has her limits. As it is, I feel duty-bound to finish since I’m the one who suggested it for BOOKLEAVES. How was I to know? I was so sure that reading a Swedish novel would be so cool and so hot.

The movie is getting great reviews. I’m sure I’d enjoy it tremendously because the filmmakers have already cut the sludge and bloat and waded hip-deep to retrieve the good story that I know must be in here SOMEWHERE! Hello? (hearing echoes) Hello!

From reading the blurb on the back cover, I know that Blomkvist and Salander are eventually going to meet up and work on solving the mysterious case of Harriet Vanger. I like Salander better, but so far, she’s only in the book for brief pages at a time. Every time one of her sections ends I let out an obscenity because I know I’m going to have another long and interminable stretch with Blomkvist, who has had a rather interesting life, but it’s detailed so blandly. No, blandly is not the right word. Blandly would feel like red-hot excitement right about now. Is it Larsson’s writing or the translation? I wish I knew.

If I hope to finish this book before 1 pm on Sunday, I’ve got to pull out the big bookworm guns. It’s time to get interactive. Although I really hate doing this, I’ve gotten out my pen and started writing in the margins, having a conversation with the novel. I’m making predictions, educated guesses, rants, rude comments and anything else I can think of to muscle on through and not resort to skimming. Plus, it keeps me awake. This novel has been like a healthy dose of sleeping potion. My poisoned apple. The spindle on the spinning wheel in my attic…well, you get the idea.

Here’s hoping that my struggle and effort pays off. Here’s hoping that things pick up and get really cliffhanger-ish and I end up loving this book so much that I quit Korea and move to Sweden.

I’m bummed that when I’m finished with The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, no one else will ever be able to comfortably read my copy. Unless the next reader feels like I do.

>Talya With Cracked Spinz And Bookleaves: My Book Groups

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>I’m really lucky to be part of 3 book groups. Here’s a report of our recent activities:

1. Talya’s Book Group: Talya has finally realized that Seoul Women’s Book Club is a deadly moniker that hardly matches her vibrant personality, so she’s in search of a new name for the group. Any ideas? Meanwhile, in April, we read The Evolution of Shadows by Jason Quinn Malott, a novel about three people who gather in Sarajevo to get answers about Gray Banick, a journalist they were all close to who disappeared five years before. Malott’s novel capitvated almost everyone in the group. Reading the acknowledgements, I noticed that he studied writing with Steve Heller at Kansas State University. I got to meet Heller almost 20 years ago and read his short story collection The Man Who Drank A Thousand Beers as well as his novel The Automotive History of Lucky Kellerman. It’s funny what a small world it can be with readers and writers. Anyway, for our next meeting, we’re reading Shanghai Girls by Lisa See. A few months ago, I saw this novel everywhere. Now that I’m looking for it, I can’t find it, but the meeting isn’t until very late in May which gives me time to track down a copy.

2. Cracked Spinz – Unlike Bookleaves and Talya’s Book Group, this one, comprised of individuals who share my workplace, is almost all-male, which makes for some interesting selections. We kicked off the new year with Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. James had the most amusing comment — he said that it reminded him of a video game — the characters move into one place and there’s a fight and lots of violence, then they move into another place and there’s a fight, lots of violence and so on throughout the novel. Paul said that the first time he read the book he didn’t get the humor as he did this time around. I was reminded of the first season of Deadwood. For our next read, Alex suggested The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton. I know that the novel deals with anarchy and that the author is famous for creating the detective Father Brown, but little else, so I’m looking forward to expanding my knowledge and seeing what the guys come up with next. Paul suggested Poe’s only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838). Gotta admit, I’m intrigued.

3. Bookleaves is already on its sixth book for the year. The only book so far that I have truly loathed was Wicked, but we switched gears big time with Say You’re One of Them by Uwem Akpan, a gripping book of short stories about children living marginal, often dangerous lives in Africa. After that, we read Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh, which is a feast for the senses. We’re keeping up that international bent by looking to Sweden and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson. I’ve been shying away from this book for my own usual stupid, stubborn awkward reasons: it’s a mystery, it’s a bestseller, but I’ve got to break free of my snobbish and narrow prejudices, or why be in a book club — let alone three of them? The next meeting should be doubly interesting — we’re meeting at COEX on May 16, during which time there will be an International Book Fair that we’ll be attending. I’m excited, but trying not to get my hopes up too much. Finally, Jill has encouraged us as a group to do more book-swapping at our meetings, which has been fun and added to our already rich and varied conversations about books. Not to mention that there’s something so rich-feeling and indulgent when you see piles of books spilling over on a table that’s laden with good food.

Isn’t it funny that all three groups chose books whose titles mentioned people by their gender, and that the girl groups chose books with girl in the title and the almost all-male group chose a title that included the word man? I wonder if something like this could happen again…or has it in the past and I’ve just been lazy about spotting patterns?

What’s your book group been up to lately?

>January: Reading & Reviewing Part 3

>I feel like one of those marathon runners who finally stumble across the finish line a week after all the other participants have gone home. Maybe I should make a rule for myself that I can’t go on to the next book until I’ve written a review for the one just finished.

11. An Angel At My Table (autobiography) – Janet Frame. Wow, Janet. Even her quirks had quirks. I’d had this on my TBR for over a year, but had put off reading it because it was the second of a three-volume autobiography. I’d still like to read the other two, but this one is where the real meat, the drama of her life is. I’ll write more in a separate blog post since I did it as part of the book/movie challenge.

12. The Rough Guide To Classic Novels (nonfiction) – Simon Mason. As far as book-buying is concerned, this is the best-spent money for the month of January, because I’ll be referring to this brilliant little gem over and over again for years. Mason’s book could have been a real snoozer, but he shakes it up with recommendations from all over our big blue marble. He also runs the gamut from old to new. In addition, there’s a thumbnail suggestion about “where to go next”. Mason helpfully mentions the best edition or translation and just when you thought that it couldn’t get any better, he gives you a movie tie-in analysis. This is my introduction to the Rough Guide series; I’m truly impressed.
13. Caucasia (novel) – Danzy Senna. This novel is also known as From Caucasia, With Love. It’s the mid-1970s. Birdie and her sister Cole are the offspring of a biracial marriage. Cole resembles their African-American father while Birdie has her mother’s light skin and Caucasian features. When the parents split, Birdie goes with her mother and Cole goes with her father. Birdie and her mother go underground, living on the run for a couple of years since Birdie’s mother may face jail time for questionable activities. Senna keeps that element of the subplot deliberately murky.
Senna’s style is compulsively readable, but I was distracted by the bad editing of the edition I read. Stupid, minor stuff that could have easily been cleaned up like referring to actress Hattie McDaniel as “Hattie McDowell”, anthropologist Margaret Mead’s last name was spelled “Meade”, awkward grammar and there’s a mild anachronism with the TV show What’s Happening. I’m sure that this nitpicky stuff was cleared up in future editions. Another thing that annoyed me was that Birdie seems to be the only one in her family — immediate and extended — who has any brains or drive. (It must be a sign of age that I’m growing to despise The Tale Of The Plucky Child. Call me Curmudgeon.)

After finishing this novel for Talya’s book group, I thought I was done with Danzy Senna, but I was wrong. As I told Talya in a recent message, I discovered a memoir Senna published last year called Where Did You Sleep Last Night? in which she struggles to untangle the skeins of her father’s confusing history. I can’t help but wondering how Danzy’s story compares with Birdie’s.

>Bookleaves And Talya With Cracked Spinz

>It’s been a while since I’ve written about my book groups. With 3 of them, you’d think they would pop up all over this blog like zits on a middle schooler.

Oops, that wasn’t a nice simile. Let me try again: You’d think they would pop up all over this blog like daisies in a lovely meadow.

Anyway, I’ve been remiss, so let me make it good and give a brief report on each in the order I joined them.

Our last meeting found us — Dana, Rebecca, Shanna and me — in Chinatown in Incheon. The weather was perfect, so we had tea on the rooftop garden of a coffee shop. Gorgeous. We discussed The Cellist Of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway. Although I was initially underwhelmed by the quiet tone of the book, it seems to have grown on me since reading it, and I got even more out of it during our discussion. Shanna has a friend from that area, and has visited Serbia, so I enjoyed hearing about her experiences there. After the meeting, we walked up to a beautiful park that commemorates General Douglas MacArthur’s landing at Incheon and viewed his giant statue. (I didn’t realize that he was 70 years old at the time of the landing. That’s a good set of bowels, and the wattles on his neck were faithfully replicated in bronze for posterity.) After that, we wandered back through Chinatown, browsing and shopping. Up next is The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova on Halloween, which shows brilliant forethought and scheduling. Can’t take credit for that, sorry to say. In November, we’re reading White Tiger by Aravind Adiga, which will be my second go-round since Cracked Spinz chose it for October, but you won’t hear me complaining. In fact, if I could pull off a hat trick and get Talya’s Book Group to read it, I’d be feeling a whole new level of bookworm awesomeness.

This isn’t the actual name of the book group. It’s really called Seoul Women’s Book Club, but I hate the name — sounds too staid and boring for a vibrant group whose book selections really kick ass — so I just refer to it as Talya’s Book Group, after our fearless leader, Talya. A couple of meetings ago, we trooped over to Dr. Fish and munched on bread and jam while discussing The 19th Wife, then let the fish munch on our feet. Everyone seemed to enjoy the book, and there was some spirited discussion about which part of the book was more engrossing: Ann Eliza’s story or Jordan’s efforts to prove his mother innocent of killing his polygamous father. I missed last month’s meeting for Burnt Shadows, but I’m told that some people became tearful while discussing the book. I can see how it would happen — there’s so much beauty and pain mingled in that story. Next is Skin by Dorothy Allison — it’s a book of essays in which the author writes about growing up poor in the South and her feelings about being a lesbian, among other things. I won’t be able to make that meeting either because of the Readathon, but I find Allison’s raw prose compelling.

Cracked Spinz:
In September, we read The Road. For that meeting, Alex, Chris and I met outside The Chicken Shack, which is a scruffy-looking but comfortable establishment nestled in our apartment complex. We shared a couple of baskets of chicken, drank beer and soda, read different passages aloud and wondered about the long-delayed movie version. The concrete background, the twilight hour and the low meeting turnout seemed to go with Cormac McCarthy’s stripped-down prose. In October, we read the brilliant and abovementioned The White Tiger. Chris compared it with Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, which has whetted my desire to attempt that book again after nearly two decades. (I used to DNF like a pig running through the corn. I’d hate to see an actual list of books I’ve abandoned.) Our November book, selected by Becka, is a little gem from 1961*, The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark. Becka’s choice has garnered a good deal of attention, so I’m expecting a healthy turnout for that meeting. I’ve encouraged the other Spinz to view the 1969 movie on Youtube so we can have a book vs. film discussion. We’ll wrap up the year with Alex’s choice, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

Being in 3 groups sometimes leaves me a little breathless, but always in a good way.

*Actually, most things that came out in 1961 have a rather gem-like quality.