Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist

Sex! Drugs! Rock and roll!

A quick read for the punk-loving bookworm, this dual-authored book tells the story of one night in the lives of two bridge-and-tunnel punk fans, who meet cute (in a hardcore way) and go on to kiss, talk, fight, question, talk, kiss, and talk some more.

Nick is the musician: he was dumped by the gorgeous but evil Tris "three weeks, two days, and twenty-three hours ago" and is still, of course, fixated on her. He plays very loud bass in a queercore band, though he's straight himself.

Norah is the (mostly) responsible daughter of a pop record executive, who knows all the clubs, the whole scene, and Tris, and is trying to get over her mind-f**king boyfriend Tal, for whom she unnecessarily threw over her chance to go to Brown.

I probably would have connected more to the novel if I were a music snob, or at least someone who listens to bootleg CDs more than NPR. But the emotions and voice capture a kind of teenage angst (cliche! cliche!) that's both brutally honest and just a smidge adorable. (In the same way that I always want to give Holden Caulfield a big fat noogie.)

Quibble? Despite the copious swearing and frequent sexual/quasi-sexual encounters, these two are really just good, clean kids. Everyone around them is tripped out on something - but our heroes don't drink or do drugs, thanks. They kiss and grope and touch and play - but just when something "real" is about to happen, they're interrupted by an old couple looking for the ice machine. Layered realism, or convenient passes in case of challenges from the Uptight Citizens Brigade?

Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan. Knopf, 2006, 183 pages. Cybils 2006 YA Fiction Winner.

To Hell with All That

I like Caitlin Flanagan. I don't agree with her on everything, but she's one of the most visible writers I can think of who writes about hot-button cultural issues without wielding an inescapable Ax to Grind.

This book surprised me, though. I had seen Flanagan plug it on The Colbert Report - which, admittedly, lends its own spin to the topic - and thought I was in for more of a right-leaning discussion than she presents.

Honestly, it's a pretty toothless book. Flanagan lays out the various slings and arrows facing modern mothers and wives: to work or not to work, what counts as a clean house, who's raising the children, and don't we all really want wives? But she doesn't commit strongly to either side of any question; she just presents her understanding of reality, and leaves it at that.

At times she creates her own contradictions: Proudly stating that she stayed home with her twin boys for the first several years of their lives, she conveniently ignores the fact that she had a full-time nanny at the time - a nanny whom she spends an entire chapter discussing and praising, not 100 pages prior. I don't begrudge Flanagan any of her choices, but to me (and here's my own bias: part-time SAHM, part-time WOHM, couldn't do either full-time without going nuts), if you've got more than an occasional babysitter for the odd movie night or evening meeting, you're not a full-time SAHM.

The end of the book is a suckerpunch - as it must've felt for Flanagan, too - when the author has a cancer scare. Suddenly the choices and questions and worries of the previous 200 pages seem pretty stupid, and the only question worth asking is, "How do I stick around for my kids?" It's a poignant ending to a breezier read than I expected.

To Hell with All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife by Caitlin Flanagan. Little, Brown, 2006, 239 pages.

Fun Home

Book Two in my accidental grouping of Stories of Rageaholic Fathers. Though Dad here isn't really angry: just depressed, hyperintellectual, and occasionally criminally sexual toward adolescent boys.

The intellectual musings and references left me feeling a trifle stupid: no, I've never read Proust, and though I did read my share of high-falutin' high thinkers in my day, I've never had the experience of a H.F.H.T. influencing the way I live my life in any profound way.

What surprised me about this book (beyond my priggish shock at cartoon renderings of lesbian cunnilingus - hello, Google searchers!) was its generally positive tone. The subject matter is largely bleak: depression, suicide, lost opportunities, sexual struggle. And yet Bechdel keeps despair mostly at bay. Is it simply the format that made me feel this way? Perhaps. But the subtitle promises "A Family Tragicomic," and both sides of that oxymoron came through.

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel. HMCo, 2006, 232 pages.

The Man of My Dreams

Dear Curtis Sittenfeld,

Why oh why do you persist in creating pathologically unlikable characters? Whiny, self-absorbed, wrapped in their own little balls of woe-is-me negativity . . . bleah. And then, to tack on Princess Sighs-a-Lot's great epiphany at the very end, in a lame-o letter to her former therapist? Two hundred forty-four pages of annoying claptrap, and the only - oh, I don't know, let's call it Character Growth - comes second-hand in the last 20 pages? Gaak. That's what that whole "narrative arc" thing is supposed to be for.

A Concerned Reader

The Man of My Dreams by Curtis Sittenfeld. Random House, 2006, 272 pages.


Twelve Sharp

Typo on page 16! Gaak.

Stephanie Plum is back, in all her brassy, blowsy glory. You won't read this for the plot, so I won't bother rehashing it. The sex is sparse, in comparison to other Plum tales, but the loonies (Grandma Mazur, Lula, Joyce Barnhardt) are still loony and Steph's still got a heart.

Take it for an afternoon at the beach.

Twelve Sharp by Janet Evanovich (St. Martin's, 2006, 310 pages).


Dairy Queen

At last! A book everybody else likes that I like, too (unlike, say, King Dork).

I will spare the plot summary and focus simply on what I liked: namely, DJ herself. Forthright, smart (in her own way), and funny (in her own way), she could write her grocery list for 200 pages and I'd still want to read it. I'm shocked that the author doesn't seem to have any firsthand experience in the upper Midwest, because the setting rang very true to me. (Granted, I did not grow up in farm country per se, but the whole concept of long-standing/suffocating families and ambitions of limited scope, for good or ill, were familiar and nicely presented.)

Murdock touches on heavy topics -- anger, repression, sexuality -- without losing sight of DJ or ever taking us out of her purview. On the last topic, I was impressed with the way Amber's sexuality was handled: perhaps not as full-on positively as some might like, but quite realistically, I thought, and with no malice on DJ's part.

A great girl, great story, great book. Would like to see this on the Printz list.

Dairy Queen by Catherine Gilbert Murdock (HMCo, 2006, 275 pages).


Quickies part deux

I have discovered that if I don't post right after I finish a book, I don't remember what I wanted to say. Bad puppy! Whack whack puppy!

Nothing But the Truth (and a Few White Lies) by Justina Chen Headley (Little Brown, 2006, 224 pages).
Patty Ho -- half-Chinese, half-white, all-confused -- is an insecure underachiever. Her mother is a force of nature, her father is nowhere to be found, and her brother, having secured admission to Harvard, can seemingly do no wrong. Against her own wishes and better judgment, Patty enrolls in math camp at Stanford for the summer (SUMaC, for the uninitiated), and there starts to figure out who she is and what's important to her.

Nothing But the Truth is your basic bildungsroman, but Patty's status as a hapa (a word she's never heard until her wild-child SUMaC roommate explains it to her) gives the novel a little extra resonance. That said, I found some of the racism Patty encounters in her small-town Pacific Northwest high school a little hard to swallow. Perhaps I am simply naive, but do people really walk around randomly calling out "chink" anymore? The blissful ignorance Patty's hometown friends display ("is that some weird Chinese-y thing?") rang truer for me.

Patty is worth rooting for, and though her internal monologue sometimes goes in circles, her journey is a fun one to take. Give this to the smart girls.

Physical by James McManus (FSG, 2006, 272 pages).
An adult nonfiction title about the state of American healthcare and the state of one middle-aged man's personal health.

Jim McManus is given a plum assignment: go to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, get one of their $8000 "executive physicals" (paid for by his employer), and write about it. And that's what he does -- for about the first third of the book. He gives the reader background on the Mayo, on each test he is given, on his own health (or lack thereof), and on the state of the US healthcare system in general.

But once the physical is done, McManus veers off into political territory, pontificating on the future of stem-cell research and the short-sighted idiocy of the current administration with regard to SCNT (somatic cell nuclear transfer, or embryonic cloning). Whether I agree with McManus's views or not (and I happen to agree with him), the sudden shift from straightforward, sometimes breezy tales from the exam room to a heavy-handed dissertation on bioethics was jarring, to say the least. Later on McManus intimates that the stem cell chapters were originally separate pieces for a magazine (Esquire, I think), so it seems he just decided to throw them into this book to fill a few more pages.

Overall, a decent read, but not something I'd recommend too heartily.

Fly on the Wall by E. Lockhart (Delacorte, 2006, 192 pages).
Gretchen Yee is a loner, an outcast at a school for outcasts. She has one close friend and one ex-boyfriend, but aside from that, she spends her days at her Manhattan high school for artsy types sitting alone, sketching Spiderman comics. After wishing one afternoon that she could be a fly on the wall in the boys' locker room, just to figure out what the heck is up with the boys, Gretchen wakes up just that: a fly on the wall in the boys' locker room.

As a fly, Gretchen is privy to the boys' conversations, conflicts, primping, and of course, naked bodies. Her sudden awakening to lustful thoughts was handled well -- nothing shameful, and nothing too far, but simply a normal response (that, since Gretchen was a "lower" form of life at the time, seemed less controversial than it might've been were she still a girl). She comes to understand the fears and motivations of her fellow Art Rats, especially those of Titus, with whom she is deeply in like.

The body-part slang (gherkins and biscuits, etc.) was a little tiresome, but I probably wouldn't have enjoyed reading "penis penis penis" over and over again, either. Though the story's logic strained a bit at times (it just took a wish? then why didn't Gretchen wish herself back right away?) and some moments felt a bit message-heavy (Titus's "it's okay to be gay" speech, for example), overall it was a fun, if forgettable read.



In the interest of time and space (read: because I am wicked lazy), here are four short reviews of recently-read books.

Stay With Me by Garrett Freymann-Weyr (HMCo, 2006, 300+ pages).
I like Freymann-Weyr's other stuff, and had high hopes for this one. It didn't grab me, though, and I found myself preparing to abandon it several times along the way. I did finish it, ultimately, and the book has some wise and thought-provoking things to say about suicide, family, and love. Still, my issues:

1) There's a meta-structural thing going on regarding dyslexia: Leila, the main character, is dyslexic, which manifests itself not only in the usual way, but also in her constant quest to find and/or establish order in every corner of her life. On the large scale, she seeks answers -- a pattern, a reason -- for her sister Rebecca's suicide; on the small scale, the first-person narrative goes round and round in circles, with no clear forward push or urgency. This structural free-for-all drove me nuts and kept me from connecting with Leila.

2) Hey, Leila's boyfriend? You're a nice guy and all, and you seem to have pretty honorable intentions. And yet? YOU'RE 31 AND YOU'RE SHTUPPING A 17-YEAR-OLD. *I'm* 31. Color me thoroughly creeped out.

The Dead Beat by Marilyn Johnson (Harper, 2006, 256 pages)
A readable, usually funny but sometimes poignant look at the wacky world of obituaries and obituary writers. Johnson is herself a journalist and sometime obit scribe, and her exploration of the world of dead people is overall a great read. There's an extended section on the New York Times's coverage of the 9/11 dead, "Portraits," and profiles of several of the great obituary writers of the past half-century. My interest did start to flag about two-thirds of the way through, but that may be my fault and not the book's. Pair this with Mary Roach's Stiff for a comparison of the afterlife in body and soul?

A True and Faithful Narrative by Katherine Sturtevant (FSG, 2006, 256 pages).
A sequel to Sturtevant's 2000 At the Sign of the Star, this book continues the story of Meg Moore, daughter and onetime heir to a bookseller in Restoration London. Meg is now 16, and no longer her father's only child: his new wife, Susannah, has born him three more children, which cuts into Meg's position and dowry. Meg has no interest in marrying, not yet, and still hopes to take her place as a bookseller and writer of her own account, despite social prohibitions of the time that would stop her. But she's nonetheless torn between two suitors: her best friend's brother, Edward, whose affections she scorns before he sets sail abroad and is taken captive by pirates; and her father's apprentice, Will, who enjoys matching wits with Meg but whose views on women and wives give her pause.

This is a pretty good read, and girls who like historical fiction would probably enjoy it. Meg is forward-thinking without too much anachronism: she lies and deceives many of the men in her life to get her way, but all the while she knows that her future depends on making a good marriage match. Alas, though: I just didn't like her all that much. She's smart and well-read (hooray), but her interior emotional life left me all confused and annoyed. Meg makes some bad decisions -- thoughtless comments to one suitor, outright lies to another -- and though I can certainly think of examples of great books with unlikable heroines (the Emma archetype), I couldn't muster a lot of sympathy for Meg and her man troubles.

Here Lies the Librarian by Richard Peck (Dial, 2006, 208 pages).
Peck once again plumbs the world of turn-of-the-century Midwestern country folk, in his bid to out-Twain Twain. Peewee McGrath, amateur auto mechanic and good-hearted tomboy, knows she's at the age where people will start to talk if she doesn't wear a dress now and then. She and her brother Jake, orphans living on the edge of town and running a makeshift garage, are as flabbergasted as anyone when four learned ladies from the Library School of Butler University come to town with plans to reopen the town's library. Jake is smitten with Grace, daughter of one of the early auto magnates, and Peewee (real name: Eleanor) is taken with Irene, the ringleader. The story culminates in one of the first Indiana auto races, with a twist that may not surprise, but will certainly entertain.

My only quibble? The title doesn't really have much to do with the story: it just makes for a nice little joke and will surely catch the eyes and hearts of librarians across the country.