Booking Through Thursday: The Plot Thickens and Twists

Here is this week’s Booking Through Thursday:

The question is in two parts.

1. Do YOU like books with complicated plots and unexpected endings?

Yes, I do like complicated plots and unexpected endings. Some of the best novels I’ve recently read — The Time Traveler’s Wife, for instance — have complicated plots and unexpected endings. Henry DeTamble and Claire Abshire’s life is complicated by Henry’s genetic disorder — time travel — ; the novel’s plot centers on that disorder and how the couple’s love affair evolves because of  it.

At the same time there are some books such as Jim Harrison’s The English Major that are loosely plotted but wonderful reads; its plot is the journey of dumped 60-something farmer Cliff who takes a journey across America. You get absorbed in the journey, in the language, in the character, in the humor. The journey with the character is Zen-like: there is no goal but the path.

2. What book with a surprise ending is your favorite? Or your least favorite?

I haven’t read Russell Banks’s The Sweet Hereafter in a long time, but its surprise ending is a favorite. I love how Banks handles this novel about a lawyer who tries to get grieving parents to sue for damages after their children are killed in a school bus accident. The plot is complicated, told from multiple points of view. But again, the characters and language are as interesting as the complex plot.


Booking Through Thursday: A Shout Out to the Great Unknown

Here is this week’s Booking Through Thursday:

Who’s your favorite author that other people are NOT reading? The one you want to evangelize for, the one you would run popularity campaigns for? The author that, so far as you’re concerned, everyone should be reading–but that nobody seems to have heard of. You know, not JK Rowling, not Jane Austen, not Hemingway–everybody’s heard of them. The author that you think should be that famous and can’t understand why they’re not…

This is a tough question to answer. I haven’t read any new or emerging authors this year (Yes, Yes, I know! We’re only 21 days into this fresh new year, but still . . .). I suppose I could promote my own work , but that seems a little narcissistic, doesn’t it? Besides, I have yet to complete that novel I’ve supposedly been working on for the past five years so there is no book to brag about. I haven’t published a short story since 2004. And I haven’t published any freelance work since late 2008.So self promotion doesn’t seem to be in order.

On the other hand, I did read some new fiction early last year, emerging writers Joe O’Connell and Karen Harrington, and they are certainly worth championing. New writers need all the promotion they can get these days. And I’ve read a lot of nonfiction that I’ve enjoyed by William Bradley.

Another writer traversing the nonfiction map whose work is worth looking into is Dinty W. Moore . Start with his witty Google Maps essay , though you’ve probably read it already. (If you haven’t, do.)

Plenty of writers out there deserve more attention. One of my favorites is New Yorker writer Susan Orlean. Her features, besides being great magazine profiles, delve into the quirkier side of life, like her recent Smithsonian magazine piece on donkeys in Morocco. And The Orchid Thief is a masterwork of literary journalism. Who knew orchids could be so intriguing?

Stephen Harrigan, essayist and novelist, deserves some love, too. Harrigan’s Gates of the Alamo does what a historical novel should: it takes you to a different time and place — revolutionary Texas — and gives you a feel for that time and place, and at the same time, gives you a cast of characters caught up in that time without being stick figures presliced for TV movies.

The Sunday Salon: How German is It?

Two years ago, a burst appendix sent me to the hospital. It was the first time I was ever hospitalized for a serious illness, and the first time in years I had needed health insurance. It also was the first time I understood how lucky I was to have insurance.

I thought about this yesterday while catching up on my magazine reading. The Dec. 7 New Yorker has a “Talk of the Town” piece on the never-ending saga of health care in the U.S. The saga’s history is long, extending back at least to 1916. “Health care has been on the docket longer than most Americans can expect to live, with or without it,” the article says.

Universal health care in the U.S. also has a long history of being demonized, as the article notes. In 1883 Germany was the first nation to extend health coverage to the masses. When the U.S. plated the idea in 1916, that plate quickly froze after the U.S. declared war on Germany in 1917.

Health care became an idea of the enemy. “Critics,” the article says, “said that [universal health care] was ‘made in Germany’ and likely to result in the ‘Prussianization of America’.”

As much as history is a progression of events and ideas, it also tends to repeat itself like a bad burrito. Or in the U.S. it becomes a case of recycling, opponents spinning out new (old?) devils to label a perceived evil.

“How German is it” in 2010 translates oddly to cries of Bolshevism, Fascism, Nazism or Communism. At some point the opposition should perhaps propose the Devil is behind health care reform, taking a prompt from that great agent of recycling his garbage, Pat Robertson. Or perhaps this time history will make some progress.

Booking Through Thursday: What’s the Flap over Book Flaps?

Here is this week’s Booking Through Thursday:

Do you read the inside flaps that describe a book before or while reading it?

Sometimes it’s best to judge a book by its cover. I’ve read flap material, or back cover material in the case of paperbacks, before buying/checking out the book. Although I usually also read a bit into the book as well before making any decisions to read. Sometimes I wish I had read the cover material and not wasted the money.

And Now for Something Completely Different: Poetry

Doing a decade-in-review sort of thing with my journals and thought I’d share this tidbit of poetry I wrote a few years ago:


This is the thing we ride,
a snarling black panther,
tongue ready to lash, maw dripping spittle,
gnawing the head off dolls.
We collar it,
spiked leather digging into flesh.
Still it snarls,
craving to be unleashed
to dive out the window into the light.

Don’t Panic

It’s a quiet Christmas Eve at my grandmother’s house sometime more than a quarter of a century ago, and I’m in the den surrounded by gold shag carpet, an enormous flocked artificial Christmas tree towering above me. I’m flopped over a brown chair, and for the first time I’m reading a wholly remarkable book about a wholly remarkable book, “a book called The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy — not an Earth book, never published on Earth, and until the terrible  catastrophe occurred, never seen or even heard of by an Earthman.”

It was also a funny book, an irreverent book, a science fiction novel full of spaceships and aliens — what’s more reprehensible than a Vogon? — and superintelligent computers and Kill-O Zap ray guns that was a satire of science fiction, the space opera sort that was popular at that time because of that little movie known as Star Wars.

It was also an absurd book with strange narrative blips like the story of Veet Voojagig, the philology student, who after a night of drinking Pan Galactic Gargle Blasters with Zaphod Beeblebrox, President of the Imperial Galactic Government,  “became increasingly obsessed with the problem of what had happened to all the ballpoints he’d bought over the past few years.” The ballpoints, apparently sentient life forms, theory has it, when left unattended,return to their planet of origin “where they knew they could enjoy a uniquely ballpoint-oid life-style, responding to highly ballpoint-oriented stimuli, and generally leading the ballpoint equivalent to the good life.” 

That theory, of course, was no more absurd than the theory that my family and I would find diamonds in a plowed field in Arkansas. Which we tried to do — unsuccessfully — one year on summer vacation, when, sitting in the back seat of our Ford LTD, I also read the four-part Hitchhiker’s trilogy (another absurdity) as we drove through the splendors of Arkansas. Hunting for diamonds in a plowed field in Arkansas was about as absurd as the idea my father had that Arkansas was a great place to go on summer vacation. (Although we did pass through Texarkana, Texas, which, as it turns out, is where my wife is from, though it’s highly improbable she knew she would marry a geeky kid reading a highly remarkable science fiction novel while passing through her hometown on the way to hunt diamonds.)

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