Book Five: Portuguese Irregular Verbs

Portuguese Irregular Verbs, Alexander McCall Smith

At 128 pages, this really shouldn't qualify as a book at all. A trifle, perhaps? Either way, just the kind of light and fluffy silliness I needed after that Russian sludge. This is the first Alexander McCall Smith book I've read, and I totally enjoyed it. I swear, there were moments where I actually laughed out loud. And come on, be honest, how many books make you really laugh out loud, even when you're all alone at home reading them? I'm a sucker for a bumbling protagonist put into ridiculous scenarios--especially ones with names like Professor Dr Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld. And really, that's pretty much all this book is. There is no real thread of a plot, just a series of only vaguely connected stories. I'm looking forward to reading the other two books in the series, though I wish they had just all been put together into one normal-sized book (just one thing that would make my reading this book feel a little more legit). I'm also interested in reading his mysteries, since I've never really been into that genre all that much, but I can imagine they would be quite entertaining.

Oh, and who can't resist a book with a hedgehog on the cover? (Look up!)

Book Four: Envy

Envy, Yuri Olesha

Oh great. Another book to make me feel stupid. It started off all well and good and the first third of the novel was great--super funny and absurd. Then something happened and I kept thinking, "Okay, any moment now this is going to make perfect sense." And it never did. The back of the book boasts, "It is a contest of wills in which nothing is sure except the incorrigible human heart." Aside from that sounding like the voice over in a trailer for a foreign movie, I honestly have no idea how that relates to this book. Quick plot summary: Babichev (a fat, self-satisfied guy who plans on revolutionizing sausage production with his restaurant the Two Bits) takes in a bitter, angry Kavalerov from the streets who grows to hate and envy his host. Then a bunch of other characters appear--Ivan (Babichev's brother), Valya (Ivan's estranged daughter), Volodya (a soccer-playing second son to Babichev who used to sleep on the couch that Kavalerov sleeps on and who is now, maybe, going to marry Valya), and Ophelia (a machine? a woman? a symbol?)--and things get so confusing and dreamlike that you have no idea what is going on. And honestly, my own little plot synopsis makes 1000% more sense than the book did.

I don't want to have to make excuses for me or the book, but maybe if I was reading this in a Russian literature class and we read one chapter a week slowly and talked and talked and talked about it, it would have made sense. Granted, that sounds like absolute torture, but I maybe would have "understood" the book. But since I didn't and I don't, I'm just going to have to give this book one big, "Meh."

Book Three: Corks & Forks

Corks & Forks: Thirty Years of Wine and Food, Robert Finigan

I didn't really like this book all that much. For several reasons. The first is that I'm probably not the intended audience for this book. I don't know a lot about wine, and this book seems to assume that you do. Also, I felt deceived by it. There's way more cork than fork going on here. Aside from a handful of profiles of famous chefs, there's really very little food writing in this book. And most of the wine writing is way too pretentious for my tastes. Sometimes the book felt like one giant name drop. Again, perhaps that's the point of the book, but Finigan's self-satisfied air along with his confusing and flowery writing left me irritated with him. Good thing it was only 160 pages. There were a few short anecdotes that were amusing, but not enough to make this a worthwhile read for me. And darn it, I was really looking forward to a good foodie book!

(In contrast, The Accidental Connoisseur, which I read last year, is a terrific and funny and super well-written book about wine. I would recommend that one over this poop pile any day.)

Book Two: Dream Boogie

Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke, Peter Guralnick

I finished this book last night right after watching the premiere of American Idol, which got me thinking about singing styles and the overuse of melisma nowadays. It's so sad to see all those kids come into their auditions and sing in that horrible overdone style, mistaking singing around a note with just plain good singing. It was even funny to see, after five seasons, Randy saying to a contestant, "Dog, I wish you would just cut out all those runs and sing it to me straight." (Paraphrased, of course, and gratuitous "Dog" inserted for good measure.) But the point is that Sam Cooke really knew what melisma was all about. All those "whoa-oa-ohs" sounded great because that was his style, something that he created.

Before picking this book up, I knew next to nothing about Sam Cooke and could probably only attribute "Twistin' the Night Away" to him (thanks to Animal House). I mean, I didn't even know how he died (something that everyone knows, apparently, so it was kind of fun to get to that point and be totally surprised). But what a great story Guralnick tells! This goes back to my comment about the Elvis biography: it doesn't really matter what or who you're writing about if it's simply a good story. Of course, Sam Cooke's story is super interesting, and will make you want to listen to all his music over and over again. There were so many times while sitting on the couch reading this, that I would ask Chris to download such-and-such song for me to listen to, and I spent several baths reading the book and listening to the music he recorded with his gospel group, The Soul Stirrers. So that's why I'm telling you all to listen to this song: "Wonderful". You totally hear the pop-singing Sam Cooke in there, even thought it's clearly a straight-up gospel number. In fact, when Sam turned pop, he rewrote this song as "Lovable"--instead of singing about God, he's suddenly singing about a girl. And it works both ways.

Book Stack


The stack of books I rounded up from the shelves around the house. Most of these are books I've had forever that I just never got around to reading. I am currently in the middle of Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke, checked out from the library, which I hope to have finished by tomorrow in order to stay on track. But it's a big'un.

Book One: Elvis and Gladys

Elvis and Gladys, Elaine Dundy

This was a birthday present from Chris last year, but it took me a while to pick it up and really get into it. It combines two of my favorite people: Elvis and Elaine Dundy, who wrote one of my all time favorite books, The Dud Avocado (which, as an aside, looks like it's finally going to be available in the US in the next few months). Admittedly, I struggled through the first few chapters, which detailed Elvis's maternal family tree, and often read like, "and Clettes begat Fannie Mae, and Fannie Mae begat Jimmie Dale," (names changed because I'm too lazy to look them up) and on and on and on. But it really picked up steam once it got to Gladys's life and the birth and childhood of Elvis. You can tell that Elaine Dundy did an enormous amount of research, as it includes interviews with nearly every person who was at all involved in Elvis's life before he became truly famous, and apparently she corrects a lot of false information about Elvis's early years that probably still continue to perpetuate. I very much enjoyed Peter Guralnick's first book about Elvis, which I think was a little more complete than Elvis and Gladys in terms of details about his recording and movie career, but Dundy's biography does a much better job at telling the human story about Elvis and his relationship with his mother. Interestingly, both of these books stop at the same point--when Gladys dies and when Elvis is inducted into the army--as it marked a major turning point in his life.

Sometimes I think Elaine Dundy pushed it a bit in terms of trying to create thin threads of connections or attempting to establish major themes in Elvis's life or perhaps projecting feelings or emotions onto people long dead without really telling us how she might have known how they felt or what they thought. But I suppose these are the types of things we should forgive biographers for if they can just tell us a good story. Otherwise, interesting if you love Elvis (and Elaine Dundy) and much as I do.