Tuesday, August 21, 2007

I've been busy packing, moving, and going on summer family visits for the past few months and have let the blogging lapse, but here I am again, finally. There are lots of things I want to mention.

I pick up pretty much anything written by the incomparably funny Daniel Pinkwater, and have done so for more than 20 years, even though I'm rather older than the intended audience for most of his books. His latest, The Neddiad: How Neddie Took the Train, Went to Hollywood, and Saved Civilization is no exception; I bought it as soon as I saw it. It's set in the late 1940s, which is mostly obvious from the choice of a train for the rich Wentworthstein family's move across the U.S. and the type of movies discussed, but it's just as wacky as other Pinkwater works, with an Indian shaman named Melvin, a ghost who enjoys sniffing people's meals, and a brief appearance of the fat men from outer space who show up in multiple Pinkwater novels. Schoolboy Ned has been given custody of a sacred stone turtle and is being chased across the country by an incompetent villain who wants to take it; luckily he meets new people who are on his side and their adventures are fun and ridiculous without seeming particularly unreal, like all good Pinkwater.

It was a much greater surprise to find so much fun in a history of 20th-century architecture, Tom Wolfe's 1981 From Bauhaus to Our House. Not only the subject, but the author didn't sound like easy reading to me; I had great difficulty managing to get through Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, even though normally reading about 1960s counterculture greatly interests me. But From Bauhaus to Our House was quite short, so I was willing to give it a try, and it turned to be a hilarious look at the people behind "glass box" architecture. Its point of view is obvious from the first sentence: "O BEAUTIFUL, FOR SPACIOUS SKIES, FOR AMBER WAVES OF grain, has there ever been another place on earth where so many people of wealth and power have paid for and put up with so much architecture they detested as within thy blessed borders today?" I suppose a lot has taken place in architecture in the 26 years since the book came out, so this is no longer completely current, but that doesn't make it any less applicable -- the buildings from the decades described are still looming over us. Wolfe manages to make reading about concrete cubes way more pleasant than looking at them.

Everything Conceivable: How Assisted Reproduction Is Changing Men, Women, and the World by Liza Mundy was very interesting in a completely different way. It doesn't just go through the technology of in vitro fertilization, surrogate motherhood, donor eggs and sperm, and other relatively new ways of making it possible for people to become parents; it goes through the personal issues involved. How can a baptism ceremony acknowledge an egg donor? Should medical personnel be able to choose who they will help with fertility technology (single parents, same-sex couples, people they feel are too old?) Or how much help to give -- balancing the risk of in-vitro fertilized embryos not implanting in the uterus with the risk of too many implanting, which makes it harder for any of them to survive to an age to safely leave the uterus? I never thought of most of these risks, but I'm not planning to have children. Since I seem to be in the minority here, these are definitely issues that should be widely thought over, and Mundy makes it interesting to consider.

Stuff I've only Read BzzAgent Excerpts of:
  • When I read an excerpt from Jen Lancaster's Bitter is the New Black I found her dot.com-era rich self extremely annoying. However, the excerpt of her new book of personal essays, Bright Lights, Big Ass: A Self-Indulgent, Surly, Ex-Sorority Girl's Guide to Why it Often Sucks in the City, or Who are These Idiots and Why Do They All Live Next Door to Me? wasn't nearly so bad, even with the memory of not having liked the author as I saw her in her previous work. Anyone who is as annoyed by Rachel Ray as I am can't be all bad! Lancaster's living a life I have a lot more experience with -- riding the public bus, putting off medical checkups (though it's the dentist, not the gynecologist, who scares me) and so I find her snarky remarks much funnier now.
  • The beginning of Leslie Kagen's Whistling in the Dark is mostly concerned with setting up the situation of ten-year-old Sally: Milwaukee in 1959, jerk of a stepfather, mother entering the hospital for surgery, Sally and younger sister Troo are largely reliant on each other -- and a neighbor girl has recently been found dead. That summary is far too blunt to convey Sally's viewpoint, a realistic 10-year-old who doesn't always understand what adults are telling her and gets just as much of her information from children's gossip. I'm really curious to find out what happens.
  • The excerpt from Patrick Rothfuss' fantasy novel The Name of the Wind I read was actually chapters 13-17, but it's mostly a flashback to when the character Kvothe was twelve and so is a sort of beginning. There's only a few sentences in the setup of the flashback to indicate why we should be interested in Kvothe, although obviously the two characters he's telling the story to are very interested in his past. However, the look at Kvothe's growing up and the tragedy that happened when he was twelve make him seem a sympathetic character, and the rest of his life as told in the whole book and the two upcoming ones could certainly be worth reading.