Read: “Spooner”, by Pete Dexter

Spooner, Pete Dexter’s latest novel, is not as consistent as The Paperboy, but that does not make it inferior. Spooner tells the story of a boy, Spooner, and his step-father, Calmer. Spooner is not smart, is not handsome, and is primarily talented at causing trouble for others. Pissing in the shoes of others, rolling cars down the hill, and throwing eggs at cars: these are the things Spooner is good at. Calmer, a former Navy man, is good at just about everything, and is particularly good at being patient and trying to rescue those in need of redemption. Like Spooner’s mother, Lily, who sees the world first as a personal affront to her.

Dexter uses language in a way that lets you feel the words in your mouth and taste the idiom and “flavor”; in his hands, the language of the South (Spooner begins in Georgia; The Paperboy in Florida) does not feel impersonated or propped up, but real and present. Spooner contains exposition that made me almost giddy with pleasure, re-reading paragraphs out loud on the bus, looking like a crazy person, I’m sure. For example,

There was in every sport Spooner ever played, on every team he ever joined, an outcast. Some kid who had been plucked from the safety of home and homeroom and tossed, often at the insistence of his own father, out into the world. Unprotected. Often this kid was the fattest, dopiest kid in school, someone who had been it every day of his life on the playgrounds, shunned or insulted one day, beaten up the next, and was now introduced to the rest of his life, which was more of the same except better organized, with the degree of abuse he suffered depending mostly on the mercies of the adults in charge.

I don’t know if I was exactly that kid on the team, but I could certainly pick him out a mile away, and knew enough to keep my distance.

Spooner is told in the third person, but Dexter manages to convey the mental confusion and uncertainty the characters express in a way that reminded me of Paul Auster. Characters try to look at themselves and figure out what really happened: Did they really see what they think they saw? Where was the moment things went wrong? Could they have found another way through that situation? That ability to convey the introspection, uncertainty, and inner monologue of a character gives the story a depth: coming to the end of a paragraph is like coming up from under water, and you’re not really sure where you’ve wound up.

Spooner is not perfect; one section, in particular, doesn’t feel like it “fits” with the rest. As a whole it’s a great story about two characters who care a great deal for each other, an original, expansive rendering of the father-son relationship.

date:2010-03-06 10:04:46
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tags:2009, fiction, reading, sfpl

Read: “Fordlandia”, by Greg Grandin

Fordlandia chronicles the rise and fall of eponymous rubber plantation established by Henry Ford in Brazil in 1927. I don’t think it’s giving too much away to say that it would be more accurate to say, “attempted to establish”. The book is a chronicle of the money spent, initiatives undertaken, and schemes hatched, all in an effort to wring profit from the Amazon and, at least in some cases, bring better living conditions to its inhabitants.

Fordlandia is really three, interwoven stories. The surface story is about Ford’s efforts to push the limits of his autonomous, vertically integrated manufacturing by establishing a stable source of rubber in the Amazon, along the Tapajós River. Rubber was one of the few raw materials that Ford did not own or control production of, and was concerned that a British-initiated cabal could raise prices in the American market. Grandin gives the reader context in the form of Ford’s previous success with Fordism in the US, which is particularly interesting given the decline of the automobile industry of late.

Below the surface of the main story are two others: the story of the people of the Brazilian Amazon, and their exploitation during Brazil’s rubber boom and bust, and the story of Henry Ford’s personal evolution from industrialist to agriculturalist to paternalistic social engineer. As Fordlândia failed to produce rubber, it increasingly became a social experiment, attempting to export an idealized midwestern social structure to the Amazon. Ford and his managers attempted to impose what they believed to be the optimal structure — both social and corporate — on the workers. The results seem to have been directly, inversely proportional to the amount of control they tried to exert. Ford believed he was saving workers from the exploitative system of indentured servitude pervasive during Brazil’s rubber boom, but failed to understand the social dynamics that would dictate whether his new system was actually a success.

I found Ford’s evolution to be a particularly compelling part of the story. His massively integrated manufacturing system helped move people out of small towns and into urban centers. Despite this and his seeming contempt for the past, he idealized Puritan, small town America in the extreme. This story of trying to re-establish something he was responsible for weakening was one of the more compelling parts of the book.

Grandin concludes with an epilogue, “Still Waiting for Henry Ford.” In it he sounds a cautionary note about ongoing attempts to “modernize” the Amazon. The engaging, insightful chapters preceding this allow it to avoid any hints of panic or exaggeration. The Amazon is still waiting for the promises of Henry Ford to come true.


While Grandin wisely does not attempt sweeping moral interpretation, it does seem that Ford truly believed he was helping the residents of the Brazilian Amazon. Unfortunately a complete disinterest in understanding their social and economic structure led to sub-optimal results.

date:2010-03-05 15:15:41
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tags:2009, nonfiction, reading, sfpl

Read: “The Paperboy”, by Pete Dexter

I picked up The Paperboy after reading about Pete Dexter’s most recent novel, Spooner, on NPR.org. The Paperboy tells the story of two brothers from the (apparently) fictional Moat County, Florida. About ten years apart in age, they’re also quite different people: Jack, the younger, has just been expelled from the University of Florida after being dropped from his swimming scholarship. Ward, the elder, has gone into the family business, and is a reporter with the Miami Times. As the book opens, Jack has moved home and taken a job working for his father at that Moat County paper. Ward, working in Miami, keeps to himself and is primarily concerned with getting the story “right”.

The Paperboy could be described as a newspaper procedural: on the surface it tells the story about getting a story; in this case a story exploring the trial of man convicted of murdering a local, racist sheriff, a trial which was, well, irregular. I suppose it makes sense: Dexter was a newspaper man before he was a novelist and screenwriter. But if The Paperboy were only about the news business, I doubt it would have kept my attention.

Throughout the book there are questions as theme: How well do you know the people you love? How well do you really want to? As the story progresses, Jack sees his brother working for what seems like the first time, he initially wonders what’s going on inside his head, and eventually decides that he really doesn’t need to know. That even if he did know, he probably wouldn’t understand. Ward’s approach to the story and to life stands in contrast: his need to get the story “right” goes beyond accuracy, to a compulsive desire for truth and completeness. These two characters drive the story forward in a way I found believable, engaging, and enjoyable.


Dexter [co-]wrote both Michael and Mulholland Falls; interesting combination.

date:2010-02-28 19:06:06
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Ugly, Pretty, Special

Another example of the power of young adult fiction.

I visited my family in Indiana over Thanksgiving. On my flight back from Chicago, I was upgraded to first class, seated next to a girl who appeared to be about twelve or thirteen, traveling as an unattended minor. As I sat down she was scribbling furiously in a notebook. She looked up and I smiled. “Hi, there.”

“What’s pithy mean?” she responded, pencil poised to record my answer. My mind went nearly blank; this was not the question I was expecting to answer in the middle of a day of traveling.

“Uh, a short, compact phrase; witty?”

I must have telegraphed more confidence in my answer than I felt: “Thanks,” she said curtly, and went back to her notebook. I pulled out the `Specials <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Specials_(novel)>`_, by David Westerfeld; Dan and Monya had given my `Uglies <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uglies>`_ and `Pretties <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pretties>`_ for my birthday just before I left, and after tearing through them, I’d picked up Specials for the trip back. My traveling companion looked up and saw the cover, suddenly becoming animated.

“Oh my god. You’re reading Specials. That’s so awesome.”

“Yeah, I know, it sort of is,” I replied, reverting to a tone more appropriate for gum snapping and borrowing the car than for grown men. “Yeah, like, I read Uglies, and Pretties, and now I’m on Specials; Uglies was great, and Pretties was OK — a bit of a slow down— but Specials is great so far.” Capsule review.

“Totally. I totally agree. Oh my god. So cool.” I seemed to have made a friend, making up for any issues with my vocabulary performance earlier. “Do you have any other authors you recommend?” she asked.

I suggested Octavia Butler, thinking to myself, “kid, this shit is going to blow your mind.” She dutifully wrote it down, checking the spelling as she went.

“I’m writing a story,” she offered. “Sort of science fiction; I mean, it’s set in the future. Well, time has passed from the present; I need the reader to understand that to get the plot.” I continued to nod in solemn agreement and she looked down at her notebook, fingering the pages a moment before snapping her attention back to me.

“Are you a good reader?” How does a thirty-three year old man answer such a question?

“Uh, yeah, I think I’m OK; I like to read,” I answered.

“You know how you can tell a good reader?” She didn’t wait for my reply. “They write down the recommendations from other good readers.” She proceeded to give me some recommendations, which I made sure to write down, not wanting to sully my good reader image.

I finished Specials on the flight home, and it was a fun read. But on my traveling companion’s recommendation, I’ll be checking out the final book in the series, `Extras <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Extras_(novel)>`_, from the library — “it’s totally a let down.” So sayeth the good reader.

date:2010-01-26 10:04:22
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tags:fiction, reading, ya

Read: “When You Reach Me” and “First Light”, by Rebecca Stead

I just finished reading First Light, by Rebecca Stead, after reading When You Reach Me earlier this month. I liked When You Reach Me so much that I gave it to James for his birthday, knowing we share a love of science fiction, with a special fondness for young adult science fiction. James has observed that young adult fiction is a joy to read, as it is driven almost entirely by character and story — no messy philosophy or moralistic exposition to get in the way of enjoying the story[1]. When You Reach Me and First Light are both great stories, imaginative and well executed. You can read either trying to divine the “Lesson” for the reader, but that’s optional: they’re just great stories that you can get lost in and enjoy.

When You Reach Me takes place in 1970’s New York City, and tells the story of Miranda and her changing friendships at school. When her best friend, Sal, stops hanging out and she starts receiving mysterious notes, she’s left to figure out what’s going on. When You Reach Me is written with great details that really make the setting and the place real to me. The characters — especially Miranda and her mother — have wonderful dialogue that makes them seem like real, individual people. Stead weaves A Wrinkle In Time through the story, adding to the mystery (it’s clear early on that there’s some relation between the two stories) as well as giving the reader a clue that Miranda is not just any girl, she’s a girl who likes Madeline L’Engle.

When You Reach Me won the Newberry Medal this year, but I actually enjoyed Stead’s first novel, First Light, even more. First Light has one of my favorite structures: multiple, seemingly independent plot lines. You’re sure they’re related some how, and seeing how the author brings them together — as well as how seamlessly — is part of the fun. In the case of First Light, we have the story of Thea, a girl living under the ice, and Peter, a boy from New York City whose father is studying glacial movement and whose mother is prone to “headaches” which take her away from reality for hours or days on end. Just as with When You Reach Me, Stead manages to create a cast of three dimensional, compelling characters, human and canine alike.


[1]For more on the joys of “young adult” literature, see Nick Hornby’s interview in The Atlantic.
date:2010-01-24 21:31:19
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tags:fiction, reading, young adult

Read: A Single Man, by Christopher Isherwood

I picked up Christopher Isherwood’s 1964 novel, `A Single Man <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Single_Man_(novel)>`_, after Richard and I went and saw the film of the same name, starring Colin Firth and Julianne Moore. The film is beautiful, as you might expect with Tom Ford directing. While the film is largely faithful to the book, the original has its own beauty and nuance that I didn’t see on the screen — not because it’s a poor adaptation, but probably because the book’s nuance, the part I enjoyed the most, is the third person narrator, observing George in the present tense. Isherwood uses the the third person narration to subtly reinforce this feeling of otherness and separation from the world. Telling the story in the present tense, he allows the reader to experience the story as it’s told, unfolding at the pace dictated by the narrator. While I had some idea about the conclusion based on the film, this use of tense and pacing kept me from mentally racing ahead of the narrator.

A Single Man covers one day in the life of George, a gay British man living in southern California in 1962. Not exactly closeted like we understand it today, he’s living a life where he hides in plain site. He goes about his day wearing a mask, measuring his words, paying careful attention to expectations. Jim, his long time partner (although that word is never used, of course), has just died, and people around him either don’t know, or don’t really understand the loss that’s occurred. The book opens with a description of waking up, of the slow return to consciousness, and then the conscious application of the mask to become the George “they” expect. This idea that we have different people, different actors, inside us all is one of the central themes the book explores. It’s a theme I really enjoyed seeing Isherwood play with and explore.

Anyone looking to step into a queer man’s shoes for a day before Stonewall could do far worse than pick up A Single Man.

date:2010-01-06 21:38:40
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tags:gay, reading

Read: The Cactus Eaters, by Dan White

I recently completed a writing class focused on creative non-fiction, specifically autobiography, or memoir (the course title used the former label, but “memoir” seems to be the label most often used for the genre). As part of the course we also read about half a dozen different memoirs with different focuses and styles. So it was a both familiar and a little disorienting to receive The Cactus Eaters, by Dan White, for my birthday. Yes, it’s a memoir. And apparently I placed it on my Amazon wishlist at some point. But I do not remember doing so.

|image0|image1*The Cactus Eaters* tells the story of Dan’s efforts to hike The Pacific Crest Trail with his girlfriend, Allison. The Pacific Crest Trail stretches from Mexico to Canada, covering 2,650, and Dan and Allison are not exactly seasoned hikers when they set out.

Reading The Cactus Eaters, I remembered my own experiences in the Boy Scouts, when we would hike 12 to 15 miles in a day. Remembering the pain and exhaustion I felt about two thirds of the way through a day’s hike, and the sheer euphoria at seeing our campsite at the end of the day — nevermind that I was going to shit in a hole that night — gave me a shallow reference point. The obvious difference is that we were only doing this for a single day, not day after day, covering hundreds of miles.

The Cactus Eaters is an engaging and entertaining description of life on the trail — the travails, the excitement, the strange (interesting?) fellow hikers, and of course, how to eat (or not) a cactus. But it seems to me that at its core, it’s about more than hiking. As Dan describes some of his irrational behavior on the trail, he effectively uses the narrative and reflection to start peeling away the onion layers of custom and convention we take for granted in our everyday lives. Dan and Allison’s time on the trail becomes an experience in deconstructing their (his) “real” life, his identity, and the things that make him “Dan”. The story may start as a description of two people in love, sharing an experience of a lifetime, but in the end it’s about Dan, trying to discover who he is and what he wants. I think it’s interesting that this process of discovery is not one Dan seems to have entered consciously or with consent.

*The Cactus Eaters* is not a perfect memoir. There are times I would have liked to read more reflection on the past, and it wasn’t clear to me until the nearly the end when the story took place. It is, however, an enjoyable read that gave me some insight into the experience of long distance hiking, as well as the evolution of one man’s personal identity.

date:2010-01-03 20:42:59
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tags:books, pacific crest trail, reading

Book Review: Java 5.0 Tiger: A Developer’s Notebook

Java 5.0 Tiger: A Developer’s Notebook (publisher site) Brett McLaughlin David Flanagan

Java 5.0 Tiger: A Developer’s Notebook (J5T) was one of two books I requested from O’Reilly’s User Group support program during my last semester of school. I requested J5T because I was going to be working on an independent study that used Java 5 features in the existing code base. I was comfortable with “basic” Java from previous course work, but since it isn’t part of my day-to-day work, I hoped that a J5T would serve as a nice supplement to my existing knowledge. And for the most part, it did.

J5T does an excellent job of providing an overview of the new features in Java 5. The book is divided into chapters, with each focusing on one particular new feature. Topics covered include generics, autoboxing, annotations and threading, among others. The chapters on generics and Java 5’s enumerated types were particularly helpful, as these are two features that greatly simplify lots of Java 1.4 code. Seriously, who wants to deal with a Collection and have to perform a type-cast every time you get an object out of it? And while static classes with simple public final static members did 80% of the job of enumerations, having true enumeration support brings that final 20% which really makes it, well, work. Correctly.

The chapter on threading is also a welcome utility when I’m working with Java applications. Java’s threading has been a persistent mystery to me and McLaughlin and Flanagan do a good job of covering the basics you need for most use cases.

My complaints about the book are incredibly few and mostly echo my previous complaints about the last Developer Notebook I reviewed. They mostly boil down to this: I hate it when my books get scuffed, let alone have coffee slipped on them, so faux drink circles do not make me feel relaxed, only like I need a wet rag to wipe the book down.

Overall J5T is an excellent utility book for people coming from a Java 1.4 background. This also implies that it’s lifetime is somewhat limited: these features are only going to be new for so long, and more and more developers are going to get their first taste of Java in a Java 5 world. Luckily for authors, there’s always new features being added, currently in the Java 6 (Mustang). And if you don’t want to write about language features, I’m still waiting for Java Version Numbering in a Nutshell. Now that would be useful.

date:2006-06-29 16:06:00
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Book Review: Hibernate: A Developer’s Notebook

Hibernate: A Developer’s Notebook James Elliot

I picked up Hibernate: A Developer’s Notebook (H:ADN) as someone who was famliar with Java, but doesn’t use it for day to day development. I had heard good things about Hibernate, but didn’t really have an immediate application for it. However, after reading the H:ADN, I am convinced that Hibernate could be a useful addition to my toolbox on future projects. For the uninitiated, Hibernate is an Open Source object/relational mapper (ORM) for Java, or more specifically JDBC databases. Like all ORM tools, Hibernate attempts to reduce the inherent pain involved in working with relational databases in an object oriented world. It has been my experience that while relational databases are models of efficiency when it comes to storing and querying information, working with them in applications often leads to a large amount of boilerplate code for loading rows from tables into objects and persisting them back. Past projects have also demonstrated the maintenance load embedded SQL queries can create for future developers. The goal of an ORM is to eliminate much if not all of that boilerplate code by providing transparent (or lightweight) persistence and loading facilities to go between the row and object worlds.

H:ADN is also the first book in O’Reilly’s “Developer Notebook” series I’ve read, so I was curious how the “lab notebook” format would read. Overall I thought H:ADN did a good job of providing me with the necessary background on Hibernate and how I might use Hibernate to ease the pain of database development. The book uses a running example, that of a music database, throughout the chapters to illustrate topics such as loading/persisting objects (rows), finding particular objects, and translating common relational database idioms to the world of objects – one to many joins and the like. Interestingly Elliot chose to use the all-Java HSQLDB as the database of choice for the examples. He does briefly discuss connecting Hibernate to other more common RDBMS, but I suppose using the HSQLDB system allows him to more accurately state what the interactions between Hibernate and the DB will be. In that regard it’s a good thing, as there are moments when he points out something that he initially did incorrectly and had to go back and fix.

Elliot is nothing if not thorough in demonstrating examples and then walking through what they do in particular. This was a mixed blessing for me. I think Elliot expects the reader to input and run the examples while reading through the book so they can see them in action and use that experiential knowledge in conjunction with the text to understand what goes on behind the scenes. Since I was primarily reading H:ADN with the goal of getting some background on Hibernate’s facilities, I typically read it over lunch, trying not to drip Special Sauce on the pages. In this setting, the detailed explanations, in the form of “What Just Happened?â€? grew tiresome. I know what just happened – I can read code, and you told me before what we wanted to happen, so I assume the code did just that. Had I been interactively editing and running code, these details would probably have been more interesting, as I’m sure there are naggling details that are not immediately obvious simply by reading the code.

Overall I found Elliot’s writing to be clear and natural. Perhaps it is a characteristic of the Developer Notebook series, but the tone was far more conversational than many technology books I’ve read in the past. If I have any complaints about the format, it’s that the side notes and faux drink circles only distract from the content.

date:2005-10-08 21:10:43
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slug:book-review-hibernate-a-developers-notebook
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Reading about Writing

I think it was as shocking to me as it was to Garrett when I confessed “I really want to be a writer,” on our second date. It was one of those thoughts that you’re not really aware of until it leaves your mouth. The really suprising part is that after it was out there, and I realized what I’d just said, I did nothing to back pedal. It was just out there, and Garrett accepted it as one of my dreams, one that he’s supported, quietly, ever since.

Shortly after “the confession” I heard Stephen King interviewed on Fresh Air, talking about his book, “On Writing.” I rushed out, picked it up and read it cover to cover, twice. I’d never really considered what being an author entailed and King’s discussion of the process and the pitfalls made it a little more real to me. It also began to disabuse me of the notion that the only way to be a writer was to be an Author, capital “A”, words for the ages. Lately I’ve been thinking more about writing and, as a result, reading about it as well.

First, there’s William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, with it’s subtitle of “the classic guide to writing nonfiction.” I didn’t notice the subtitle when I picked it up on a whim, and it’s probably a good thing. The back compares the book to The Elements of Style, which is a bold assertion. Zinsser lives up to the claim with a practical and readable volume. Zinsser divides the book into four parts, but he ends up talking about two themes: how to write and what to write. While the focus is definitly non-fiction, I think the principles can be applied to all writing. I finished the book feeling like I could tackle any writing assignment, all the while plotting revenge on my middle school english teachers for making grammer and syntax seem so, well, difficult.

While I was still working my way through On Writing Well I heard Chris Baty as a guest on NPR’s Talk of the Nation. Baty, for those unfamiliar, is the founder of National Novel Writing Month, or “NaNoWriMo”. NaNoWriMo participants committ to writing a 50,000 word novel in the space of 30 days. Baty is the first to admit that some of the results are real pieces of shit, but the focus has never been on quality. Baty’s theory goes something like this:

* Lots of people say they want to write a novel. * Far fewer people do it. * People work better under deadline. * If you force 50,000 words out of someone, at least some of them will be interesting. * The point isn’t to be a published author, but to gain the confidence that comes from saying, “I wrote a novel.”

So while in San Francisco earlier this month, I wandered through Borders and picked up No Plot? No Problem!, Baty’s “low stress, high velocity guide to writing a novel in 30 days.” I finished reading NP?NP! by the time I returned to Indiana, and was really inspired by Baty. After reading the book, and thinking about it some more, it seems to me that too often we’re cowed by our fear of failure into believing that we can’t or shouldn’t try something new. I know I am. The local Civic Theatre was in desperate need of actors for a production of “Footloose” last year. I’ve never acted in my life, but the idea really appealed to me. But I didn’t even audition. And I regret that.

I don’t remember how, but shortly after finishing NP!NP? I ran across Believer, an “an amiable yet rigorous forum for writing about books”. And it is. It’s published by McSweeny’s, the same folks who bring you the quarterly short story collections. I can’t even told you why, but I ordered a subscription, probably convinced by the promise of a free copy of Nick Hornby’s new collection of essays, The Polysyllabic Spree. The essays first appears as his monthly column in The Believer, and all center around the books he bought versus the books he read during the month. As someone who can only be described as a hoarder of books, I definitly sympathized with his struggle to read all he bought. I also felt validated by his honesty in admitting that with certain books, he wasn’t going to read them. Not any time soon. Anyway, regardless of your authorly aspirations, TPS is a funny, charming read, and it’s already changed my book buying habits. I’ve taken the time to investiage the local used book store, Hyde Brothers, and predict I’ll be spending lots of time and money there in the future.

So there you have it. What I’ve been reading the last 30 days. The theme has been writing, but it’s got me thinking about creativity and creation more generally. And yes, I’ve started some writing and plan to do National Novel Writing Month this year. It’s November, by the way, although I’m a little more anxious, so I may make an early attempt. I’ll be sure to let you know.

date:2005-01-28 15:55:55
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