Monday, May 31, 2010

American Gods on hold

American Gods
Neil Gaiman
William Morrow; 1st edition (June 19, 2001)

American Gods started with a bang, but after 295 pages I abandoned it.  I'm a One Book, One Twitter Quitter.  Maybe its just my mood, but at this time the book just didn't hold my attention and there are so many other books out there that I really want to read.  I'll hold on to the book and try it again sometime in the future.  After all, it won the Hugo, Nebula, Bram Stoker, SFX, and Locus awards.  I've had it happen before, that I didn't get into a book and for some reason picked it up months or years later and then couldn't put it down.

Why did I give up on it?  I lost interest in the characters, and caring about the characters (or despising them) is one of the main reasons that I read novels.  If I don't care about the characters I at least want to feel like I'm learning something or being challenged in some way.  I've already had enough of "the gods" and their followers using and abusing people so I felt like "what's the point?"  Instead of being excited to get back to the book, it became more of an after-thought: "What book am I reading now? Oh, yeah, this one."

I really do want to like Neil Gaiman.  A few friends who love him say that American Gods wasn't that hot for them either, and to try Neverwhere instead or maybe Anansi Boys.  Anyone else out there give up on American Gods?

Monday, May 24, 2010

Post-Millennium Blues

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest
Stieg Larsson
Quercus Publishing, April 2010; UK paperback
Knopf, May 2010; US hardcover

I was one of those who couldn't and didn't wait for the third book in the Millennium Trilogy to be released in the States and ordered it from Amazon UK.  It was great to read it while I was still psyched from the second novel, but the down side was I had no one to talk with about the last book.  I'll get over that soon since The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest finally comes out in the States tomorrow (5/25).

Elisabeth Salander rocks, Mikael Blomkvist rolls.  The speculation that Larsson's partner of 30 years, Eva Gabrielsson, has 2/3 of a 4th novel hidden away on a laptop tantalizes.  The fight going on between her and Larsson's father and brother, who are the legal heirs to his estate, saddens.  The New York Times posted an article about Larsson and what's going on these days around his legacy and the opportunities people are taking to make money off of his current popularity.  You can read the article here.

The last book of the trilogy is not my favorite of the three.   The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest starts off right where the second book ended and the suspense is built upon anxiety over Salander's fate.  The last part of the novel gracefully ties up some loose ends and left me with a feeling of hope as well as cravings for a good cup of coffee.

But the plot tension in the middle of the book isn't as tight as Larsson's first two novels.  In fact I thought it dragged a bit at times.  I imagine its something like what a real investigation must be like: lots of boring, routine work interspersed with exciting revelations and quick bursts of action.

But, then again, maybe I just dragged a bit knowing that this would be the end . . . at least for a few years, anyway, while legal wranglers figure out what to do with that almost completed 4th novel and the rumor of detailed outlines for six more novels begs the question of whether or not a writer will be hired to carry on the adventures of Salander and Blomkvist.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Millions of American Men Faking It: The Phony Marine

They're faking military service, that is.

Did you know that The Library of Congress's Veterans History Project doesn't verify submissions?  That's according to William McMichael who had a fascinating and most informative article in the March 2010 issue of Military History called, "Thieves Among Honor" (34-39).  You can read the article here.  The Veterans History Project "collects, preserves, and makes accessible the personal accounts of American war veterans so that future generations may hear directly from veterans and better understand the realities of war."  After reading McMichael's article, I was left wondering (sadly) how useful that information really is, since there's a possibility that half of it could be made up.

B.G. Burkett, the author of Stolen Valor after which the 2005 Stolen Valor Act is named, believes that "there are as many American males claiming military service falsely as there are living veterans in America."  Burkett has spent 25 years uncovering fakes and estimates that 23.6 million men falsely claim military service.  According to a 2007 VA estimate there are 23,532,000 living veterans. [To clarify: a veteran is someone who served in the military, not just those with combat experience.  Some people get confused because they're familiar with their local VFW, which is an organization for Veterans of Foreign Wars, but the Veterans Administration, for example, supports veterans in general.  Click here for an interesting article on What is a Veteran?]

McMichael's article caught my eye because I served in the Marines way back in the 1980s and since then have known at least two guys who lied about having served in the military.  And I'm just one person who didn't go looking for impostures.  In one case it was a friend of a friend, a guy who told lots of sea stories about his service, but didn't have much to say to me when we met.  It was odd since I'd heard about his great stories.  I thought maybe he wasn't talkative because I'm a woman and some guys--more so back then--were sometimes freaky about women in the military.  Our mutual friend, who was interested in joining the Army, wanted us to meet because we'd both been in the military.  This failed meeting made a lot of sense to me a few months later when my friend called to tell me that his friend had actually lied and never served in the military.  His reason?  He thought people would like him if he were a veteran.

Some other interesting facts from McMichael's article:
  • In 2007 Operation Stolen Valor caught eight men in the Seattle area who were getting compensation for combat injures although only one of them had served in combat and two never served in the military.  These eight men cost the VA--and tax payers--1.4 million dollars. 
  • The Stolen Valor Act makes it a federal crime to make an alteration on a DD214 and it is now a federal crime to display a medal you did not earn. 
  • Between March 1, 2008 and February 25, 2009 the VA investigated 96 cases of "stolen valor" fraud; 48 arrests were made.

    The main reason men lie about having served when they did not, according to McMichael's findings, is low-self esteem.  Low self-esteem is the same reason why those who did serve spice up their service with little lies that sometimes morph into huge tall tales.  After a lie is told once, the guy is embolden to repeat the lie, add more lies, increase their size; sometimes to the point where the lies become reality for the guy.  Consider two examples of false military claims in the news just this week: the case of Andrew Diabo or the accidental (or intentional) misspeak of Connecticut Attorney General  Richard Blumenthal.  You can read more stories of Stolen Valor here.

    Jim Lehrer's The Phony Marine is the only novel that I'm aware of where the hero of the book is a guy who lies about having served in the military.  He completely makes up not only having served in the Marines, but earning a Silver Star.  I remember picking up the book several times when if first came out in hardcover and then putting it down.  Why would I want to read a book about some loser who pretends to be a Marine?  I kept thinking about the book and eventually took it home.

    Hugo Marder is a fifty-year old divorced sales man who works in one of the D.C. areas most respected men's clothing stores.  He also has an eBay addiction and bids on and wins a Silver Star which he wears to work.  The Silver Star is the third highest medal awarded for valor.  Hugo always wanted to be a Marine when he was a kid.  He also wanted to be a cartoonist, but never pursued either dream.  After he begins wearing the Silver Star, people start treating him with respect.  His self-esteem soars.  He starts working out, gets his hair buzzed, studies Marine Corps history and lore, and starts reaping the rewards of a real-life Marine Hero.

    I didn't expect to have compassion for Hugo, but I did. At times, anyway. What was glaring to me was all the energy Hugo expends on becoming a phony Marine.  If only he'd put that much effort into his real life, maybe he'd have had more self-esteem to create the life he wanted.  But that's the cruel nature of low self-esteem: it keeps so many people from taking even one tentative step toward their dream, a step that would help increase their self-esteem so that they could take a second, more confident step toward making their dream a reality.  Instead they do nothing and blame their parents, their circumstances, their significant other.  I know, I've been there.

    After Hugo transforms himself into a fake former Marine, he runs into his ex-wife, who could easily blow his cover.  Then he unexpectedly becomes a real-life hero and leaves town to avoid scrutiny, but something happens in Dallas that begins the process of Hugo attempting to untangle his lies while keeping his new found sense of self.  What happens to Hugo is that by pretending to be something he is not, he eventually becomes more of who he truly is.

    I wonder if reading a book like The Phony Marine can help some of those 23.6 million American men from feeling the need to lie about military service by motivating them to take honest action in their own lives.

    Tuesday, May 11, 2010

    Japanese Internment - 2 Recent Novels

    Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet
    Jamie Ford
    Ballantine, 2009

    Sandra Dallas
    St. Martin's, 2007

    I've been thinking about Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet and Tallgrass a lot lately due to HBO's mini-series The Pacific.  Years ago I learned about the battles of the Pacific during history classes in Marine Corps boot camp and since then have read many of the first hand accounts and memoirs written by those who fought in the battles.  More recently I read two novels that present a related, but very different experience of some Americans during WWII. 

    Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet and Tallgrass are both novels about the internment of Japanese Americans after the attack on Pearl Harbor.  I first learned about the internment of Japanese Americans in the late 1980s when I was in college and an author visited campus to talk about his new book on the issue.  I don't remember the author's name or the book, but I do remember that I was a bit stunned to learn that the US government relocated and imprisoned its own citizens based on their ethnicity.  This was never mentioned in my high school or Marine Corps classes.  Although I can understand the reasons why this happened, it was still shocking nonetheless.

    Jamie Ford's Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet grabbed my attention when it first came out in hardcover.  It's one of those books that I decided to read because I wanted to learn more about the issue and the impact it had on people.  Its also Ford's first novel and I'd heard some positive buzz about it.

    Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is the story of Henry Lee, a Chinese American boy living in Seattle.  In 1942 Henry was a thirteen year old boy falling for his Japanese American classmate, Keiko Okabe.  In 1986 Henry is mourning the death of his wife from cancer and trying to relate to his college aged son who is dating a white woman.  The chapters alternate between 1942 and 1986. I don't always enjoy novels that bounce around in time, but this one worked for me.  Seeing Henry as a boy and then as an older man made him a more sympathetic character for me.  Perhaps as a result I found myself fully engaged in whichever time period happened to be on the page I was currently reading.

    Henry's and Keiko's families are polar opposites.  Keiko's family is firmly entrenched in American-ness.  They are an American success story and go along with the relocation and internment because they are loyal Americans.  Henry's father, on the other hand, hates the Japanese (due to historical relations between China and Japan) and is much more connected to China than America.  Henry's parents make him wear a button that says "I am Chinese" to protect him from anti-Japanese sentiments in the streets.  Henry and Keiko are obviously innocents torn apart not only by current events, but by parental control.  This novel is about both private and public control and surrender, sacrifice and injustice.

    After reading Hotel, a coworker told me about Tallgrass by Sandra Dallas.  By the time Tallgrass came out in 2007, Dallas already had over a half dozen books to her name.  Tallgrass is told from the perspective of another young teen.  Thirteen year old Rennie Stroud is white and her family's farm in Ellis, Colorado abuts land that is transformed into an internment camp for Japanese Americans.  All of the able-bodied (and able-minded) young men are gone to fight the war and her father gets permission to hire some of the Japanese boys to help with his fields.  Her father's sense of equality and compassion are contrasted with the bigotry and ignorance of some of the local ne'er-do-wells who have it out for "the Japs."  There's even the obligatory scene of good ol' boys racing down a country road in their pickup truck, itching to cause trouble for the vulnerable Japanese.

    Tallgrass involves a murder mystery, family secrets, and Rennie's coming of age.  After reading Hotel, it was interesting to read a novel that explores the internment issue from the perspective of those who initially did not have a direct emotional connection to a particular individual who was interred.  The anger, fear, and confusion of the everyday folk about the war and toward the Japanese seemed palpable at the hands of Dallas's storytelling skills.  When I think of one of these novels, I now always think of the other as well.  They're a pair in my mind.  I can imagine Rennie and Keiko becoming friends or Henry running into Rennie during a visit to meet Keiko.

    Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet seems to be selling very well in paperback and several customers have mentioned that their book group has selected it now that its in paperback. 

    I've noticed that its mainly women who pick up either book, although when Hotel first came out several men that I talked with about it purchased it.  I'm always interested in gender differences when it comes to reading choices and reactions.  I suspect it may be the love story aspect of Hotel that may turn men away.  I'd love to hear from folks out there who've read Hotel and/or Tallgrass.  What was it that made you decide to read this (these) book(s)?

    Wednesday, May 5, 2010

    One Book, One Twitter

    If you haven't participated in a One Book, One _____ [insert your city/town/school name] event yet, you've probably heard of the movement.  Usually its a city or organization that chooses one book that everyone reads.  The idea is to draw people together through a common reading experience.

    In my neck of the woods the Chicago Public Library system runs the program.  They select two books a year, one in the spring and one in the fall, and there's a month-long focus on the book and its subject matter that includes not only discussion groups, but talks by scholars, panels, and sometimes performance pieces or movies.  The discussion groups are hosted at various libraries and bookstores throughout the city limits.

    And now Twitter is getting into the mix.  Twitter users recently voted to read American Gods by Neil Gaiman for Twitter's first One Book, One Twitter event.

    The Guardian posted chapter one of the novel today and you can read it here.

    I've been meaning to read Neil Gaiman for years now.  Some of my friends look at me oddly--as if they're re-evaluating my worthiness as friend material--when I say I haven't read anything by him yet, so I'm taking the One Book, One Twitter event as a sign that its time for me to dive into the world of Neil Gaiman.

    Visit here for more info, which is where I found this reading schedule:

    Week 1 : May 5 - 11
    Caveat, Warning for Travelers
    Discuss chapters 1, 2, 3.
    Week 2 : May 12 - 18
    Discuss chapters 4, 5, 6.
    Week 3 : May 19 - 25
    Discuss chapters 7, 8.
    Week 4 : May 26 - June 1
    Discuss chapters 9, 10, 11.
    Week 5 : June 2 - 8
    Discuss chapters 12, 13.
    Week 6 : June 9 - 15
    Discuss chapters 14, 15, 16.
    Week 7 : June 16 - 22
    Discuss chapters 17, 18, 19.
    Week 8 : June 23 - 30
    Discuss Chapter 20 and Postscript.

    If you'd like to connect with me on Twitter you can find me here.

    Monday, May 3, 2010

    South of Broad by Pat Conroy

    South of Broad
    Pat Conroy
    Nan A. Talese, 2009
    **out in paperback May 4, 2010**

    I love Pat Conroy’s novels.  The Great Santini, The Lords of Discipline, and Beach Music are among my favorite novels.  But I also think Conroy is a bit of an uneven writer.  Or maybe people are uneven and he captures that well.  I can’t decide.  While reading his novels I’m struck by the beauty of some sentences and scenes, and then on the next page I’m repelled by plastic sweetness.  The main character and narrator of South of Broad, Toad, annoyed me to the point of revulsion, yet I kept reading because of the beauty and empathy that is woven throughout Conroy's prose.

    This post contains spoilers.

    In some ways South of Broad seemed too much like Beach Music.  It's about another group of old friends who occasionally fracture and their messed up families, but in the end everyone hangs tight. This tight knit group of friends is always there for each other physically (to eat, drink, shag, or get medical attention), but emotionally they’re stunted. 

    Toad, the narrator, is THE most annoying character that I’ve come across in a long time.  I wonder if it was Conroy’s intention to paint him as a codependent, self-centered, hypocrite or if I'm being too harsh.  The scene that shifted how I feel about Toad is when, not too long after Sheba is murdered, Trevor (her brother) says something about his sister and Toad says he’s not ready to talk about her and won’t be for some time.  This is the brother of the women who was murdered, the twin brother, and maybe he needs to talk now.  Toad, if he weren’t such a self centered fellow, would put aside his feelings and let his friend talk, right?  Or at least offer a more compassionate response that wasn't focused on himself?

    Toad is also a codependent, selfish doormat.  I wanted to yell at him to get a life.  He’s a great example of how black and white rules can create people who live stunted lives.  Or maybe he's an example of religious hypocrisy.  In San Francisco he says to his god that he won’t condemn gays even if that’s what god’s scriptures say.  On the other hand he stays married to a woman who has abandoned him.  When she show up, presumably on psychiatric medication, Toad gives her alcohol.  Its like he’s helping her stay in her personal hell by giving her what she wants as long as he doesn't have to leave his comfort zone. He’ll suffer for her and be treated like a doormat by her, but he won’t give her the divorce she wants because--in this area--he’s obeying his religion.  Maybe if he’d divorced her she would have been able to make healthier choices for herself and maybe he would have had to leave his comfort zone and grow.

    The excessively sugary-sweet nostalgic mode that Toad lives in made me nauseous toward the end.  And maybe because the narrator did so much telling (about how special everyone is and how much he does for everyone and how self sacrificing he is) rather than the author showing these qualities and behaviors, the novel gets bogged down in nostalgia and sentimental loftiness that just grates on my nerves.  "Okay already," I started thinking about the characters, "you’re all special and unique and Charleston is the center of the universe, but do something already, people!"  To be fair, they do act when action is most needed.

    At times the characters seemed like chess pieces being moved around a board.  I liked all of the characters some of the time, but they all had so many quirks and inconsistencies that I couldn't tell if Conroy intended them to come off like they had borderline personality disorders or if they were poorly written.  Would Ike, the police chief, really take Toad to see Sheba butchered up?  And would the police chief and newspaper columnist really hang out in public to cry in each others arms afterwards?  And is it believable that a stoic guy like Niles drops to the ground and howls when he’s told his sister is dead and stays there until other teachers and students come out and start stroking him and Toad actually leaves the scene?  Okay, yeah, Niles is from the mountains and his momma howled in that old way at her husband’s funeral, but Niles has been married to the southern ice-belle Molly for years and living in an upper crust world, so would he really behave like that?  And are we to believe that when the Toad goes into a psych ward because he’s suicidal that Chad comes to visit him every day?  Chad is never around and even leaves when hurricane Hugo comes to town and then when everyone else gets to the mountains he leaves for Charleston/Chicago on business.

    The book seems crazy when you add up all of these things.  Maybe it is similar to one of the stereotypes of the South: on the outside it looks beautiful but scratch the surface and the ugly, putridness of racism, classism, and incest is right there.  Maybe the book reflects Toad’s craziness.  Maybe he is The South. You want to like him, he has potential, but he’s just so messed up.  [Note: These Southern stereotypes are not my opinion, but are themes Conroy has explored.] 

    It probably sounds like I didn’t like this novel, but I did like it . . . it's a sweeping novel of friendships and relationships.  Even if the characters got under my skin, I stuck it out with them just like they stuck it out with each other.  One thing's for sure: I felt like I'd been put through the ringer after I turned the last page.
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