Barrel Fever - David Sedaris

March 13th, 2006

Barrel Fever by David SedarisIn David Sedaris's world, no one is safe and no cow is sacred. A manic cross between Mark Leyner, Fran Lebowitz, and the National Enquirer, Sedaris's collection of essays is a rollicking tour through the national Zeitgeist: a do-it-yourself suburban dad saves money by performing home surgery; a man who is loved too much flees the heavyweight champion of the world; a teenage suicide tries to incite a lynch mob at her funeral; a bitter Santa abuses the elves.

David Sedaris made his debut on NPR's Morning Edition with "SantaLand Diaries," recounting his strange-but-true experiences as an elf at Macy's, and soon became one of the show's most popular commentators. With a perfect eye and a voice infused with as much empathy as wit, Sedaris writes stories and essays that target the soulful ridiculousness of our behavior. Barrel Fever is like a blind date with modern life, and anything can happen.

I am told David Sedaris has amassed quite a devoted following. Many readers have found his work to be incredibly funny. A while back, in my first conversation about Sedaris, Barrel Fever was suggested as the book I should read first as my introduction to the author. Before I read Barrel Fever my sister-in-law-to-be told me it was the worst book to start with, but I had already acquired a copy.

The book is a mere 200 pages, so thankfully it did not take long to read. The breakdown of short stories to essays was a 3:1 ratio. The first 150 pages were short stories and the remaining 50 were various essays.

The second worst thing I could do right now would be actually telling Kristen she was right. The single worst thing I could do is read Barrel Fever a second time...with a small exception. Or rather 50 pages of small exceptions.

I normally do not like short stories. I have a hard time differentiating characters, especially when they are so similar like they were in The Elephant Vanishes by Haruki Murakami.

The characters created by Sedaris were not so similar that I had difficulty remembering who was who, but the stories were not good. I did not like a single one of the short stories. I did laugh a few times, but it was at single situations, not the premise of any of the stories. They were not funny, though they had funny parts...if that makes any sense to you. The plots were dark and almost everyone included an interjected comment about a character's secret homosexual affair with another character. None had any relevance its respective story. The tone of the short stories was very similar to that of Chuck Palahniuk's Invisible Monsters; a book that I did not enjoy from an author I do enjoy.

For the essays it was almost as if they had been penned by an entirely different person. They were very enjoyable. Had the ratio of short stories to essays favored the essays I would surely have listed Barrel Fever as "Read" instead.

If you tell me to give author David Sedaris a second chance, you had better suggest a book that is more like his essays and less like the short stories in Barrel Fever.

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March 5th, 2006
Gene Wolfe - The Knight (page 290)It's one of the things fear does to you, it makes you want to kill things that haven't ever hurt you, just because they might.

The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini

February 28th, 2006

The Kite Runner by Khaled HosseiniThis powerful first novel...tells a story of fierce cruelty and fierce yet redeeming love. Both transform the life of Amir, Khaled Hosseini's privileged young narrator who comes of age during the last peaceful days of the monarchy, just before his country's revolution and its invasion by Russian forces. But political events, even as dramatic as the ones that are presented in The Kite Runner, are only a part of this story. In The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini gives us a vivid and engaging story that reminds us how long his people have been struggling to triumph over the forces of violence -- forces that continue to threaten them even today.

The Kite Runner is a book that I debated reading for a far longer time than it took me to actually read it. The book was so wildly popular, especially among book clubs and other clusters of bibliophiles, that I had little choice but to give it attention. Many times as I would peruse the shelves at the bookstore I would see The Kite Runner. Each time this happened I would pick up a copy and hold it in my hands. I would read the back of the book, which displays a synopsis provided from a review rather than from the publisher, and really try the book on. What I found each time was that it did not fit, if I may continue the metaphor.

It was at the advice of two readers I know that I finally bought a copy of The Kite Runner. They both, on separate occassions, heard what I detailed above about how the book and I seemed to have creative differences; "it does not sound like a book I would enjoy," I told them both. "Read it. I did for my book club and really enjoyed it," was what they both said in reply. And so I did.

I found the synopsis, which talks so much of the power struggle between Russia and Afghanistan and then the portrait of the current state of affairs in Afghanistan to be irrelevant through the first half of the book. I had been worried about the synopsis because I have not met a book that talks of political conflict that I have enjoyed. I read to be entertained by something a little...lighter than the subject of politics. You may think me odd for that, or you may agree, at least in part. That which had me concerned was presented in a manner secondary to the story. The conflict was the setting of the book, not the subject. The subject is and always was Amir, a boy with whom we see the years pass after he makes his way to America. He struggles to leave his past behind while other immigrants around him pay particular attention so as to not lose theirs. It may not be as easy as he had hoped to start over in America.

Much in the same way the two who had recommended the book to me had created a situation in which they felt somewhat obligated to read the book (their respective book clubs), I manufactured a similar reason for myself.

Having now read The Kite Runner I feel comfortable suggesting it to others, though you need not make up an excuse to read it. read it because you are in search of a story that will, among other things, grip your heart and soul, squeezing a little at times, while you read. Read it because it educates in the ways of another culture, deserving as they all do, to be recognized. Read it because you want to know what past Amir wants to leave behind when he comes to America and if he is finally able to do just that.

I cannot say that The Kite Runner is to be raved about, but it is a beautiful story that made for a good read. I was pleasantly surprised by The Kite Runner. Despite the popularity of the book, I still consider it a diamond in the rough, when the rough is endless shelves at the bookstore. The Kite Runner is a relatively short book and a quick read. I hope you enjoy it. I think you will.

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February 27th, 2006
Tom Robbins - Fierce Invalids Home From Hot Climates - p. 7That's the way the mind works: the human brain is genetically disposed toward organization, yet if not tightly controlled, will link one imagerial fragment to another on the flimsiest of pretense and in the most freewheeling manner, as if it takes a kind of organic pleasure in creative association, without regard for logic or chronological sequence.

Book of the Month - March, 2006

February 20th, 2006

Barrel Fever by David Sedaris

Barrel Fever by David SedarisIn David Sedaris's world, no one is safe and no cow is sacred. A manic cross between Mark Leyner, Fran Lebowitz, and the National Enquirer, Sedaris's collection of essays is a rollicking tour through the national Zeitgeist: a do-it-yourself suburban dad saves money by performing home surgery; a man who is loved too much flees the heavyweight champion of the world; a teenage suicide tries to incite a lynch mob at her funeral; a bitter Santa abuses the elves.

David Sedaris made his debut on NPR's Morning Edition with "SantaLand Diaries," recounting his strange-but-true experiences as an elf at Macy's, and soon became one of the show's most popular commentators. With a perfect eye and a voice infused with as much empathy as wit, Sedaris writes stories and essays that target the soulful ridiculousness of our behavior. Barrel Fever is like a blind date with modern life, and anything can happen.

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Borders Bookstore Ann Arbor, MI.

February 3rd, 2006

Do not order books from the Borders in Ann Arbor, MI.

On November 11, 2005 author George R. R. Martin was appearing at the Borders in Ann Arbor. I could not make the event as I had a prior engagement in Chicago that weekend. So as to secure myself at least one signed copy of A Feast for Crows I called the store on November 10, 2005.

What I asked for was 3 signed books to be shipped to me since not only could I not make the event, but I could not make it to the store to pick up my books in the few days they would reserve them for me. That and it would cost me as much in time and gas in my car to drive to the store as it would for shipping and handling. I told the person from the store over the phone that I was willing to pay the S&H that would obviously be associated with the purchase. On that day in November, I was charged in excess of $60 (according to my credit card statement).

I began calling the store in early to mid December to find out where my books were since I had not received them. I was told that there was one person specifically at the store who I needed to speak with regarding anything about an author appearance. I will not put his name or title here, but there is enough information to know who he is and/or to find out. I was given his cell phone number. He never called me back but with my call backs I finally caught him at the end of December. (It turns out he had a healthy holiday season rich with vacation.)

He said that he was not surprised that my books had not arrived. There were large orders of signed books, and two small ones: an order of 1 book and an order of 3 books. The gentleman who ordered the 1 book had called trying to find his book so it made sense that my books had not shown up either. He speculated that maybe in the pre-holiday rush some mix up had occurred in the mailing room. As a remedy he offered 3 replacement books. He horded 10 extra copies for "any problems that arose" and would send me 3 of those right away. If the original 3 books popped up in my mailbox, they were mine to keep. I could hope for 6 books, but I was just glad that I would now, in theory, get 3 books.

In mid January I call him yet again. I still did not have my books. He did not answer, but I left him a voicemail. Shockingly I get a return call the next day. He tells me that he found my books. They were behind the counter waiting for me to pick them up this whole time; they were never shipped. The problem was that I was never charged for shipping and handling, so no one packaged the books. He was personally going to walk my books to the mailroom so they were shipped. He took my e-mail address so he could send me the tracking number for the package. He was even going to pay the shipping and handling as a gesture of good faith at the end of this long ordeal.

Whatever happened to the 3 books you sent me out of your secret stash? Oh, you made that up? Guess so.

So then I call him again at the END of January. Still do not have my books. I stopped leaving voicemail because he is not good about calling back. I just call more frequently.

Unrelated to this issue I checked my credit card statement online and see a $5.83 line item from January 29, merchant listed as Borders Ann Arbor. I am now furious. And this time I left a voicemail. I felt I should at least thank the man for charging me for the S&H he would not charge me for to send me the books that he should have sent almost 3 months earlier.

November 10, 2005: Order and pay for books.
November 11, 2005: Author signs books.
January 29, 2006: Charged for S&H.
February 2, 2006: I receive my shipment of 3 signed books.

I now have a call into him. I did leave a message and told him that I have received my books, but would like to speak with him. Here's hoping he calls back.

I am a 25 year old avid reader and book collector. I have relatively decent earning potential already at 25. My biggest vice is books. And here I thought I am a bookseller's best friend. Shame I am not important to Borders. Yes, the argument is that his views do not express those of the company, right? Wrong. You had better believe he is a representative of his company and his actions reflect the views of the company whether Borders wants to admit that or not. He made a lot of mistakes in handling my transaction and that means so did the company.

Do not order books from the Borders in Ann Arbor, MI.

The Knight - Gene Wolfe

January 31st, 2006

The Knight by Gene WolfeA novel in two volumes, THE WIZARD KNIGHT is in the rare company of those works which move past the surface of fantasy and drink from the wellspring of myth. Magic swords, dragons, giants, quests, love, honor, nobility -- all the familiar features of fantasy come to fresh life in this masterful work.

The story begins in THE KNIGHT, when a young man in his teens is transported from our world to a magical realm which contains seven levels of reality. Very quickly transformed by magic into a grown man of heroic proportions, he takes the name Sir Able of the High Heart and sets out on a quest to find the sword that has been promised to him, a sword he will get from a dragon, the one very special blade that will help him fulfill his life ambition to become a true knight and a true hero.

A book-dealer friend picked up an extra copy of this book for me at the World Fantasy Convention. As it was not given directly to me, but rather given to my dad to give to me, I never found out whether or not it came with a recommendation. I decided to read it regardless.

The young boy, somehow transplanted into this strange world sets out to find meaning in the words of an old lady. He meets characters, significant and otherwise, along the way to chase his dream of becoming a true knight. Or was it that dream chased him? In either event, the book grabbed my attention and would not let go. The beginning pulled me in so quickly, I hardly realized it had happened.

There was a plot twist that shook me back to my senses. When the boy is transformed into a man, the book goes in a new direction; one I did not necessarily like. And unfortunately this happened a mere 60 pages in. The young boy did little more than thirst for each and every modicum of education of how to become a true night. As a man, he simply began to tell people that he was a knight and that they need tend to his every whim. It was as if all character he had as a boy was traded for age. If that were the case, he got a raw deal.

The book was light and fast moving, so I kept at it. It ventured down a few paths that I may not have thought the best, but I never stopped reading. The end of the book was very weird and hardly fit at all with what had led up to it, yet on I went. Try though I might, to figure out what happened at the end, I cannot. All I know is that with each time the Sir Able came to a door I had to find out what was on the other side.

I did not love The Knight, but I could not put it down. Until the book was done, I did not realize it, but I had to know what happened next. No matter how weird the ending of The Knight was, I knew that I had to buy The Wizard and see how Sir Able fairs. I bought book 2, stay tuned...

I know this is not the most glowing praise for a book, but kudos to Gene Wolfe for inciting this strange reaction in me. If nothing else, Mr. Wolfe, you sold one more book.

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Book of the Month - February, 2006

January 20th, 2006

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

The Kite Runner by Khaled HosseiniThis powerful first novel...tells a story of fierce cruelty and fierce yet redeeming love. Both transform the life of Amir, Khaled Hosseini's privileged young narrator who comes of age during the last peaceful days of the monarchy, just before his country's revolution and its invasion by Russian forces. But political events, even as dramatic as the ones that are presented in The Kite Runner, are only a part of this story. In The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini gives us a vivid and engaging story that reminds us how long his people have been struggling to triumph over the forces of violence -- forces that continue to threaten them even today.

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One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest - Ken Kesey

January 12th, 2006

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken KeseyIn this classic novel of the 1960's, Ken Kesey's hero is Randle Patrick McMurphy, a boisterous, brawling, fun-loving rebel who swaggers into the world of a mental hospital and takes over. A lusty, life-affirming fighter, McMurphy rallies the other patients around him by challenging the dictatorship of Big Nurse. He promotes gambling in the ward, smuggles in wine and women, and openly defies the rules at every turn. But this defiance, which starts as a sport, soon develops into a grim struggle, an all-out war between two relentless opponents: Big Nurse, backed by the full power of authority...McMurphy, who has only his own indomitable will. What happens when Big Nurse uses her ultimate weapon against McMurphy provides the story's shocking climax.

Another book that so many people read in high school that I somehow never had to read; I was hesitant, yet excited to read it all at the same time. I am glad I did.

The story is told by Chief, the Big Indian. Through his eyes we see the ins and outs of life in the mental ward. The author uses the Chief's own inadequacy to set the tone for the other patients in the hospital; each goes through life with the pace of a crawl. The processes and procedures are in place to help them acclimate themselves to life outside the ward in hopes that some day they may rejoin society. Or that is what the staff tells them anyway.

We are introduced to a few figures with relative authority over the goings-on within the hospital walls, though their power is usurped by one woman. The head nurse. Over years she has manipulated the people around her, scaring off doctors and ward staff that she did not feel she would be able to control. As we join the story, her pieces are in place. She has a doctor overseeing the ward that is too timid to deny her control and three hospital attendants that are as immoral as she.

She has her way with the patients' minds. In group therapy sessions she asks the men to point out the shortcomings of others thus reinforcing their insecurities. These same insecurities are the reasons that for many of the men are in the mental hospital in the first place.

She keeps them weak and afraid, exerting her control until one new patient comes along and begins to question authority. R.P. McMurphy has bucked the system in every environment he has entered. As a result he had seen every form of punishment except one: the mental hospital. He was, maybe for lack of a better excuse, labeled a psychopath and duly committed. Now he has a new set of rules to break.

McMurphy may be euphemized as out-going, though others may prefer to call him obnoxious, pushy and loud. He is, in all respects, both the complete opposite of every other patient on the ward and the exact thing the nurse has worked so hard to avoid. With relative ease she has broken the spirits of every man before McMurphy and they both get creative as their rivalry grows.

She has control over the men's daily routine and has guided their thoughts as well for so long. McMurphy obtains control over their sense of freedom, but will that be enough?

The mental hospital was a great microcosm for society at large. The patients are everyday people. The nurse, more abstractly, is societal expectations and normal, "acceptable" behavior. The Chief could be you or me. He, more than the other patients, has acted in a way that is in line with what others have assumed about him and not how he wants to act. He conforms to what people tell him he is. McMurphy represents the small portion of the population that thinks outside the box. He is the free thinker who teaches us that it is ok, and should even be encouraged, for us to question authority.

Too often we do things because that is...just what you are supposed to do. We get out of bed, get dressed, go to work, go home, have dinner, kiss our spouse and go do bed. We are "grown ups" now and that is what grown ups DO. But why? Why not shake things up? We have the ability to carry ourselves with the integrity of adults though we live freely from others' expectations of us.

McMurphy champions the mentality (to keep with the setting of the book) that we need to maintain some sense of autonomy. You can control where I live and you can control what I do during the day, but I will not let you control how I think and feel. And most importantly the lesson he focuses on is that no matter how tough the going gets, never forget out to laugh. This is an incredibly powerful tool we can use to avoid being swept under the control of societal pressure and expectation. With our laughter we show others that we are still in control, but you have to mean it.

This may be completely off base with what Kesey had hoped to portray in his book, and it may mean something else entirely to you. But that is, after all, the beauty of it. I am not head nurse. I am not here to tell you how to think and feel about this book. But I do recommend you read it and find out for yourself. As I got into the book it was good, but not great. By the end I was pleasantly surprised by how much I really enjoyed One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

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Blink - Malcolm Gladwell

January 6th, 2006

Blink by Malcolm GladwellIn his landmark bestseller The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell redefined how we understand the world around us. Now, in Blink, he revolutionizes the way we understand the world within. Blink is a book about how we think without thinking, about choices that seem to be made in an instant -- in the blink of an eye -- that actually aren't as simple as they seem. Why are some people brilliant decision makers, while other are consistently inept? Why do some people follow their instincts to win, while other end up stumbling into error? How do our brains really work -- in the office, in the classroom, in the kitchen, and in the bedroom? And why are the best decisions often those that are impossible to explain to others?

In Blink we meet the psychologist who has learned to predict whether a marriage will last, based on a few minutes of observing a couple; the tennis coach who knows when a player will double-fault before the racket even makes contact with the ball; the antiquities experts who recognize a fake at a glance. Here, too, are great failures of "blink": the election of Warren Harding; New Coke; and the shooting of Amadou Diallo by police. Blink reveals that great decision makers aren't those who process the most information or spend the most time deliberating, but those who have perfected the art of "thin-slicing" -- filtering the very few factors that matter from an overwhelming number of variables.

Drawing on cutting-edge neuroscience and psychology and displaying all of the brilliance that made The Tipping Point a classic, Blink changes the way you understand every decision you make. Never again will you think about thinking the same way.

This book has become widely popular, even to the point where stores were selling out of copies before the holidays. People have been flocking to this title with anxious anticipation. My pre-read mentality was slightly different because of what I thought about Gladwell's other book, The Tipping Point, but I will go into more depth on that later.

I cannot explain why my expectations were what they were, but whatever the reason(s) behind them, they were not met. I happened to believe that this book, as different from the author's other, might actually be about skills and techniques to practice in an effort to better one's self in the art of making snap decisions. That is the premise of the book; ideas around making educated decisions quickly rather than after exhaustive research efforts.

As I began the book I became increasingly afraid it would simply be a collection of anecdotes about people who are able to make smart decisions in the blink of an eye. You have to figure that no one would buy a book that was just stories about people who are better at what they do than you are at what you do, right? ...Right? Or maybe such a book would fly off the shelves. Weird.

Where I looked to find examples of what other people have done in their lives to better prepare themselves to make decisions I found story after story about experts in respective fields. These people have not trained in some strange Zen custom to be able to focus their mind on the correct decision; they have simply spent countless hours at their craft. The only reason these people can make snap decisions and eliminate the time otherwise spent on researching the situation is because they devoted the earlier portion of their lives to that research.

The idea of the book, from how I interpreted it may be summed up as this: If you want to be able to decrease the amount of time it takes you to make a decision, whether it be in your business life, your personal life, or your spiritual life, all you need to do is know your product. Take time with each and every aspect. With time you will by default become so experienced with most situations that making decisions will be relatively routine.

The subjects of Gladwell's examples are the tops in their industries because they have become experts in what they do...over time. And there is the key point. You, too, can make snap decisions if you become knowledgeable on the topic. But that takes time.

The issue from The Tipping Point that I found had reincarnated itself in Blink was depth. Malcolm Gladwell writes, in both books, about what I consider to be good ideas. He has my attention. I desire to read what he has to say on the subjects. The level of his research is never questioned. I can tell that he is very thorough as he gathers the information for his books. He falls short, however, in analysis. The ideas are great, and the information is there, but at the end of both books I felt wanting for more expansion. Maybe it was a flaw in my reading that I felt some topics could have used more elaboration, but then again maybe you will agree.

I sound as if I am down on the book, and for how it contrasted with my expectations of it, I am. I am not, however, completely dissatisfied with it in its entirety. I found the details of how people have carved out their particular niche very fascinating. The research done by the author was impressive. The variety of examples he brought together under the umbrella of decision making was what interested me most. If only knowing the many different categories that food experts use to rate mayonnaise could help me in my life's pursuit...

As a short book that can be read rather quickly, even by slow readers such as myself, I still think Blink is worth reading if only from the perspective of the curious. I believe the book has more to offer than that, but it is a good starting point in your motivation to read.

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