Sunday, February 28, 2010

On Vacation!

This may be the first (and last?) ever official announcement of my absence as opposed to my typical unexpected disappearance. I'm going to be on vacation until next Saturday the 6th, so if you see even less of me than usual, it's because I'm enjoying sunny Florida, and hopefully getting a nice bit of reading done, too.

Have a lovely week, all, and I (unfortunately?) will be back before you know it!

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Weekly Geeks: On Comments

Is it weird that I desperately wanted to continue the "On Comments" with "on Cupid! On Donner and Blitzen"? I resisted doing it because, hey, maybe it's too weird but I can't seem to stop myself mentioning it completely.

Often I happen by the Weekly Geeks page on Saturday to see if there's a topic there that will sufficiently motivate my lazy blogger butt (and it's very lazy and should in no way reflect on the hard work Weekly Geeks folks are doing to come up with good questions every week) to write a post. This week's questions about commenting got my attention. I mean, we're bloggers. We might say that we do this for ourselves, that we don't need comments, but how true is that? Sure, I could keep on writing in a commentless vacuum, but it would be a total bummer. No interesting literary conversation, nobody to relate to in our good or bad feelings about a book, nobody to offer sympathy when we can't help but write about something rotten going on in our lives, nobody to disagree with us and challenge us to think harder about our opinions, and certainly no "surprise" author comments would make for a sad, dismal, and unsustainable blogosphere, methinks. So, if posting is the body and comments are the soul of blogging, then how do we handle our comments? Do we reply personally to each of our commenters? Are we excited or petrified about that ultimately unexpected author comment? How do we deal with trolls and spammers that are poisoning the commenting water? (How many metaphors can I mix in ones post?)

I love comments and the commenters who leave them. Unfortunately, despite my desire to respond to each comment one by one, I don't do it as consistently as I like. I really appreciate it when other bloggers respond to my comments on their blogs. I appreciate the dialogue and the opportunity it gives me to get to know other bloggers better. Feeling that way, I often wish I was more consistent with my responses to others here, but time constraints are such that I find myself having to choose whether to spend my time replying to comments, reading other peoples' blog posts and leaving comments on them, or writing another post of my own, and often one of the other choices wins out. It's not something that pleases me, but it is a fact of life, I suppose.

One thing that would save me a lot of time for worthier activities would be if the spammers would evaporate. I think I was fortunate for a long time that spammers hadn't bothered Leafing for Life. Considering that I've been blogging here since 2007, it's only been relatively recently that spammers have begun to crop up here in droves. For a while even, I could manage it by going back and deleting the few spam comments that appeared. Now, however, more drastic measures are demanded. I've noticed a lot of bloggers mentioning that they've turned on comment moderation for posts older than two weeks, which seemed like a great idea to me, so I've adopted that tactic. I even tried word verification for a while, but my general loathing for it, especially on Blogger blogs where the comments are embedded and don't ever seem to work properly for me, put me off that. I'll probably still use it when I'm on vacation or in some scenario where I don't have a computer readily available, but when I'm around, I'll just delete any spam that happens to slip through. One other thing I'm not a big fan of is having comment moderation for all posts new and old. I always feel bad for that person (or, uh, myself) that thinks they're the first commenter and then isn't actually when the comment is published. That makes me feel awkward, and I hate feeling awkward, and I think I would hate thinking that I made one of my commenters feel awkward because of that.

As for comments from authors? Sometimes I think there can be nothing more awesome or terrifying. I think sometimes it's easy for me to forget that really anybody can read what I write here. Really, I think that's a great thing because honesty is easier when I'm not thinking about what this or that particular person is thinking about what I'm writing. This is not to say that I don't try to write posts and reviews with sensitivity overall, but I'm usually not thinking with any immediacy about the author themselves when I'm writing a review. Because of all this, it always seems to blindside me when an author leaves a comment. I've been fortunate to have all positive experiences with authors commenting here, though I have been a little embarassed when they've commented on my goofy gushy posts instead of the posts where I attempted to thoughtfully review their books. Nonetheless, regardless of the post they comment on, it's a pleasure to see an author comment and realize that what I'm doing here does mean something to them.

Really, that's what's great about comments all around. Often, right or wrong, I look to comments to give meaning to what I do here. In a busy life where it's hard to carve out time even for a hobby that I love, it's good to know that my words are being read and appreciated by others, and I often wish I had more time to show my great appreciation for all of you bloggers out there who are often working thanklessly to produce great blogs that people want to read. So - thanks to all you great commenters who make doing this that much more worthwile. And here's to being that better commenter that I want to be!

Friday, February 26, 2010

A Painter's Life by K.B. Dixon

I really need to get myself back into the habit of reviewing books regularly and relatively soon after I finish them. It seems like lately, I keep finding ways to put reviews off that if I would just do, they would be quick and painless and a good reflection of the good books I'm reading. I do like to give myself a couple of days distance to reflect on the book I've read and see if any new insight develops, but lately those couple of days have been turning to a couple of weeks. I'm not sure why I'm having this problem, but now I've pushed myself to the limit, because I'm going on vacation very very soon, and I simply must get at least two reviewed before another week or two gets away from me! Of course, my review writing reluctance is no reflection on this or any book I've been reading which have all been pretty decent, this one included.

A Painter's Life is a review copy that the author himself sent to me. I was a little skeptical at first because it's not exactly written in a standard fashion, but as it turns out, it's an absorbing, charming little book that makes for a quick read without sacrificing depth and insight.

A Painter's Life is the story of artist Christopher Freeze as told in snippets from his journal, excerpts from his biography as told by an unsympathetic academic, as well as bits of reviews of his work. As it happens, though, it seems Freeze is not so much the focus of the book so much as his friends, his work, and his snappy inner monologue is. Freeze's journals are littered with all sorts of commentary about people and situations that rings totally true and demands to speak for itself.

I hate it when you run into someone and they tell you they think they are coming down with something because when they tell you that you have to stand there, make concerned faces, and talk to them as if nothing was wrong when what you really want to do is jump back a couple of feet and say sorry about that, but whatever it is, don't give it to me.

A Painter's Life is full of keen human insight that is so dead on that you can't help but laugh as you recognize your own more ridiculous characteristics as well as the foibles of the people you know. At the same time, it is a treatise on creativity, the fleeting nature of inspiration, and the difficulty of producing art that is personally meaningful while still being able to make a living. As if that weren't plenty of ground to cover in a book that is a mere 143 pages long, Dixon also manages to craft a bit of a satire that takes on the fine line between coherent critiques and the bizarre flights of fancy of art critics, that, if we're honest with ourselves, carries over into anyone who attempts to sit down and review something in a way that presumes to sound educated but ultimately results in reviewers floating away from any clear meaning on the sea of words they've created.

Just read a review of my new show by Roger Denby. He is a serious, heavy-duty academic writing for The Painting Experience - a man more frequently focused on bigger fish. He is obviously smart, and he cares about art - but like most of these guys, I don't think he could write a simple declarative sentence if his tenure depended on it. He's pretty good about avoiding the usual nonsense, but he is as conventional as a cop when it comes to covering his ass with equivocating qualifiers.

Dixon has an impressive grasp of human nature, a convincing view of the creative process, and a sense of humor about it all. A Painter's Life is well worth reading for anyone who has ever striven to create something of worth as well as anyone who's ever attempted to critique someone else's creation.

I'm always making notes to myself about pictures I want to paint. ... Sometimes when I'm scribbling one of these notes Sarah will interrupt with something she is thinking or reading or something that has come in the mail, and I'll say just a minute, I'm trying to write something down, but it will be too late because by the time I get back to it - one or two milliseconds later - it will be gone. Whatever it was, it will have depended on some sort of specific wording that was just being sensed - and with that specific wording gone, so too will everything else be, which, of course, is aggravating because even though I know it was probably nothing(...), it could have been something because it has been something in the past - not often, but once or twice - and this could have been one of those times, but now I'll never know.

So, now I can help but wonder if that was all coherent, or whether I'm floating away right now..... ;-)

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

A Little Something For Ringo

Sorry, this is an interruption from the usual book related programming.

Our dog, Ringo, left us yesterday. He was 14 years old, so it was a possibility we were at once expecting and ignoring, so when it happened it still came as too much of a shock. He'd been having health problems but none that we thought would be imminently life threatening.

He was a Christmas puppy for me when I was in the seventh grade, and true to form, he loved Christmas. Nothing gave him greater joy than ripping open Christmas presents, so much so that one year when we were wrapping presents, he grabbed a scrap of paper and put it over one of his toys and attempted to "unwrap" it again. When it came to his name, Ringo got it honest. He loved to run rings around us and around the house. He was never as much for fetch as he was for keepaway. Ringo always loved to be chased and loved for everyone to want whatever he had. A lot of people didn't quite get his appeal. He was a one-family kind of dog, but when it came to us, he loved with all his heart.

Through all this, I can't help thinking about taking him for walks when he was a young dog. Despite my best efforts, he'd always manage to slip his collar. I can remember one day when I was chasing him along the road, traffic perilously close, desperate to catch him and avert certain catastrophe. Chasing and yelling and crying wasn't doing the trick. Then I remembered - Ringo loved to chase almost as much as he loved to be chased. Tears streaming down my face, I did the most counterintuitive thing imaginable. I turned around and ran. Soon enough, there he was - chasing me home.

Thanks for all the joy you brought to our lives, Ringo. We'll miss you so much, but one day, we'll be the ones chasing you home.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

"Waiting On" Wednesday: So Much For That

"Waiting On" Wednesday is a weekly event, hosted by Jill at Breaking the Spine, that spotlights upcoming releases that we're eagerly anticipating.

So Much For That by Lionel Shriver
Harper Collins, March 9

From the publisher:

Shep Knacker has long saved for "The Afterlife": an idyllic retreat to the Third World where his nest egg can last forever. Traffic jams on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway will be replaced with "talking, thinking, seeing, and being"—and enough sleep. When he sells his home repair business for a cool million dollars, his dream finally seems within reach. Yet Glynis, his wife of twenty-six years, has concocted endless excuses why it's never the right time to go. Weary of working as a peon for the jerk who bought his company, Shep announces he's leaving for a Tanzanian island, with or without her.

Just returned from a doctor's appointment, Glynis has some news of her own: Shep can't go anywhere because she desperately needs his health insurance. But their policy only partially covers the staggering bills for her treatments, and Shep's nest egg for The Afterlife soon cracks under the strain.

Enriched with three medical subplots that also explore the human costs of American health care, So Much for That follows the profound transformation of a marriage, for which grave illness proves an unexpected opportunity for tenderness, renewed intimacy, and dry humor. In defiance of her dark subject matter, Shriver writes a page-turner that presses the question: How much is one life worth?

What are you "waiting on" this Wednesday?

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Trigger by Susan Vaught

There are a lot of things that Jersey Hatch doesn't know. He doesn't know why exactly his best friend can't stand the sight of him, why his parents are acting so strangely, and he can't figure out just what must have happened that made him shoot himself. Everything he once knew about the year previous was wiped clean on the day that Jersey shot himself in the head with his father's gun. All Jersey knows now is that it's a challenge to walk, to talk, to think. He knows he has scars, that things will never be the same, and that he needs some answers to the questions no one will ask.

We meet Jersey upon his release from his final brain injury hospital. He's headed home to the real world, where life will be much harder. Immediately, we're captured by Jersey's sardonic narration that shows through the pieces of his personality that survived his injury at the same time as it shows how his thought patterns are terribly altered and difficult to focus after the fact. He mocks his mom and his doctor and their favorite repeated phrases, is haunted by the ghost of his former overachieving self, "Jersey Before," and rails against his minder at school, the unfortunately named Ms. Wenchel who he quickly nicknames "the Wench." Despite the brain damage that alters his way of thinking and makes his mind cluttered with all sorts of unrelated words that seem to get stuck in his thoughts and repeat over and over, Jersey's narration is clear-eyed and revealing of himself and of the people around him.

Vaught, a neuropsychologist by trade, has used her experience and expertise to write a terribly convincing story. Jersey is a compelling narrator and a sympathetic one. Despite the people he has hurt by trying to take his own life, Jersey's frustrations in bridging the thought to speech divide, his humiliation at his limitations, as well as his quest for the answers that don't come easily make it impossible for us not to feel his unbearable pain. Jersey's search for answers creates suspense that makes Trigger difficult to put down. Yet even as the plot moves toward its climax, Trigger asks us to consider suicide and its far-reaching repercussions and even forces us to consider, by way of Jersey's interactions, the variety of wrongheaded ways we "normal" people view and interact with the mentally handicapped ranging from fear and awkwardness to laughter to downright cruelty. So vivid and penetrating is this theme that cuts to the heart of our insecurities about our behavior around those that are "different" that even as I read it, I was unsure whether it was "right" or not to giggle at the absurd things that get stuck in Jersey's head that he repeats ceaselessly without meaning to, and whether I should feel bad if I did giggle.

Overall, Trigger is a profound, powerful, fast-moving story that asks all the right questions without ever resorting to preaching at us. Though marketed as YA, this book is well-worth reading for young and old alike.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

"Waiting On" Wednesday: Whiter Than Snow

I always see posts for this meme and enjoy them so much and then wonder why I don't participate. Today seems as good as any to start, and you'll notice, maybe, that snow is on my mind like it seems to be on a lot minds today!

"Waiting On" Wednesday is a weekly event, hosted by Jill at Breaking the Spine, that spotlights upcoming releases that we're eagerly anticipating.

Whiter Than Snow by Sandra Dallas
St. Martin's Press, March 30

From the publisher:

Whiter Than Snow opens in 1920, on a spring afternoon in Swandyke, a small town near Colorado’s Tenmile Range. Just moments after four o’clock, a large split of snow separates from Jubilee Mountain high above the tiny hamlet and hurtles down the rocky slope, enveloping everything in its path including nine young children who are walking home from school. But only four children survive. Whiter Than Snow takes you into the lives of each of these families: There’s Lucy and Dolly Patch—two sisters, long estranged by a shocking betrayal. Joe Cobb, Swandyke’s only black resident, whose love for his daughter Jane forces him to flee Alabama. There’s Grace Foote, who hides secrets and scandal that belies her genteel fa├žade. And Minder Evans, a civil war veteran who considers his cowardice his greatest sin. Finally, there’s Essie Snowball, born Esther Schnable to conservative Jewish parents, but who now works as a prostitute and hides her child’s parentage from all the world.

Ultimately, each story serves as an allegory to the greater theme of the novel by echoing that fate, chance, and perhaps even divine providence, are all woven into the fabric of everyday life. And it’s through each character’s defining moment in his or her past that the reader understands how each child has become its parent’s purpose for living. In the end, it’s a novel of forgiveness, redemption, survival, faith and family.

What are you "waiting on" this Wednesday?

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Home Repair by Liz Rosenberg

People believed bad things came in threes. Eve thought they came in packs, like wolves.

If troubles come in packs, nobody would know better than Eve. When her husband simply drives off during her summer yard sale under the guise of running errands and doesn't return, life becomes very complicated for Eve, and that's only the beginning. Suddenly finding herself a single mom to her two children, teenage Marcus and nine-year-old Noni, Eve is adrift. With Chuck's departure, it seems that everything in Eve's life is coming unglued. Her aging mother, Charlotte Dunrea, moves from the south to Binghamton, ostensibly to help, but actually needing much more help than she's able give. Eve fears for her job when an unhinged co-worker calls her purpose into question. Her one possible romantic interest seems hardly interested in her. She can't even take her dogs to the park and train them on the racquetball courts that have fallen into disuse for the winter without raising the ire of a slightly frightening, if ultimately goodhearted, park worker. All this is not to mention her almost ex-husband who seems to be popping up on the phone and even in person, just when Eve thinks she might be able to move on from the wreckage of their relationship.

Home Repair is a book that calls to mind the sort of books Laura Moriarty (The Center of Everything, The Rest of Her Life) writes. It's the kind of book where nothing especially major seems to happen, but it serves as a slice of the life of memorable and sympathetic characters who remind us of ourselves. It's hard not to feel for Eve as she navigates the everyday trials that are piling up at her front door even as she tries to adjust to tackling problems all on her own. Her two children, Marcus, a politically inclined gifted public speaker who can't seem to get his driver's license, and Noni, who, at nine years, seems preternaturally wise and yet unable to grasp why her father would simply leave one summer day, easily draw our sympathy as well.

Home Repair is a great story of a woman finding herself and discovering just what she is capable of on her own. It's a story about family and how sometimes the best families aren't always made up of people who are actually related. It's even a story of how it's never too late for love to make a difference in our lives.

Sometimes the story is a little too fragmented, and sometimes I thought it might benefit from a good, compelling first person narration that packs more of an emotional punch, as seen in Laura Moriarty's books, but ultimately Home Repair is a story with heart and is a well-worth-reading contribution to that "genre" of books that exposes the lives of all those characters that are just like you and me while at the same time making us think twice about the good things in our lives that are all too easy to take for granted.

(Review copy provided by the author.)