Thursday, March 30, 2006

Spoofs and other humor

USA Today's book review section this morning has Donna Freydkin's take on the new spoof of James Fry's A Million Little Pieces, whose downfall was covered in this blog earlier. In an impressively short time, author James Pinocchio (sic) has turned out: A Million Little Lies. As she says, this would have made a good short piece in the online satirical newspaper, The Onion, but this satire wears out its welcome even at 208 pages.
In other humorous books news, USA Today covers Will Blythe's To Hate Like This is to be Happy Forever. A UNC gaduate, Blythe is referring to his hatred of all things Duke, basketball or otherwise. For more on this college rivalry, read Blue Blood: Duke Carolina: Inside the Most Storied Rivalry in College Hoops by Art Chansky. (Full disclosure: blog author is a UNC parent.)
Another satire reviewed in USA Today is How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life by Harvard student Kaavya Viswanathan. The premise is that Opal's immigrant parents who had a plan for How Opal Will Get Into Harvard (HOWGIH) are told by a Harvard admissions officer that Opal needs to be more "well rounded," so they come up with plan B, How Opal Will Get a Life (HOWGAL.) It sounds like a fun read.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Heart in the Highlands

Highland constable Hamish MacBeth is back in his 21st mystery, Death of a Dreamer. For those of you not yet initiated into the world of Lochdubh, Scotland, a small town in the far north of the highlands, go to this website for a synopsis of some of the previous books in the series. I would recommend any of the earlier books in the series, but this is not one of the best.
M. C. Beaton also writes the Agatha Raisin mystery series, and under the name Marion Chesney she writes Regency romances.
The character of MacBeth and the other eccentric villagers is the real draw in these books, although the mysteries can be quite fun too. I was surprised to read that Beaton, is a Scot herself, born in Glasgow in 1939. The series relies for humor on some pretty broad stereotypes of the "Highland character" according to the author. These are stereotypes which are not even familiar to Americans, but which seem slightly insulting at times. Her Highlanders are quick to anger, reserved to a fault, lazy, unambitious and on and on. In the "politically correct" atmosphere in the United States, this kind of regional stereotyping would never fly. Even Carl Hiassen's corrupt Floridians are not portrayed as being typical, but only as a bad minority which he balances with the more ethical characters in every book.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

44 Scotland Street

I just finished 44 Scotland Street by Alexander McCall Smith, author of the wildly popular No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series. The book was first serialized in The Scotsman, Edinburgh's daily paper, and then released as a book. The renters at 44 Scotland Street are a diverse group of characters, including a hilariously vain young man, Bruce; his flatmate trying to "find herself " on her second "gap year" , Pat MacGregor; their bohemian neighbor and outspoken cultural anthropologist, Domenica; and five year old prodigy Bertie and his pushy mother Irene. The charm of McCall Smith's books is the gentle humor derived from the quirks of the characters. This book gives a nice feeling for contemporary Edinburgh in a satirical, but not mean, way.
For more on the author, go to his U.S. website. For live webcam streaming videos of various places in Scotland, including Edinburgh, visit this site from the Scotsman.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Recently Read Books

There were no posts from early February to early March on this blog, so here are some very brief thoughts on books that were actually "finishable" (not a real word.) Roger Rosenblatt's Lapham's Rising has been favorably reviewed, but the reviews didn't really catch the feel of the book. Eccentric recluse Harry March's peace and quiet in his island home in the Hamptons is ruined by the construction of the Mother of all Mac Mansions, a testament to the tastelss materialism of its super-businessman owner. Most of the dialogue is between Harry and his talking dog Hector, a born-again evangelist with much more conservative views than his owner who reviles the consumerism and conspicuous consumption of the average Hampton dweller. In that sense, the book has some of the themes of Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities, but edited down to a small and manageable size. The title and themes of the book are a reference to William Dean Howell's The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885) in which Silas, a wealthy business man, builds a huge mansion but in the end has turned into an ethical man.
Carl Hiassen's Stormy Weather also features a hermit character, former Florida governor now known as "Skink," who is completely disgusted by the rampant materialism and destruction of the environment in his native Florida. Like Rosenblatt, Hiassen's satire makes a point in a very funny and entertaining style. Take a look at Hiassen's website for a list and descriptions of his other hilarious books and an interview with the author.

Da Vinci Code on Trial

Hot on the heels of the Million Little Pieces controversy, Dan Brown, author of the Da Vinci Code, is being sued for copyright violations in a London court as seen in today's USA Today and every other news outlet. Accompanying the lawsuit article is a piece by Carol Memmott discussing other books that are riding on the success of the Da Vinci Code formula. She refers to it as a "religious/historical thriller genre," a neat description of this kind of book. The other kind of books that came out of the Da Vinci Code phenomenon was a spate of non-fiction books which tried to explain or discount Dan Brown's central ideas such as The Secrets of the Code and many, many others of that ilk.
Again, in publishing, it seems that there is no such thing as bad publicity, because requests for any book in the news always go up.

Friday, March 10, 2006

National Book Critics Circle Awards

The NBCC announced its 2005 winners last week. E. L. Doctorow's The March, an account of Sherman's March, won for fiction. Svetlana Alexievich's Voices from Chernobyl won for non-fiction. The NBCC site also has Useful Book and Criticism Sites, a list linked to book review sites.