Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Capsule Reviews: A Bit of Light Reading

Recent circumstances have propelled me into a spate of light reading and I’ve come across a few good books along the way.

Him Her Him Again The End of Him by Patricia Marx is a black comedy about one woman's romantic obsession with a man altogether wrong for her. The book is not as funny as I'd been led to expect, but it was an entertaining read all the same. The first third of the book, which incisively evokes the absurdity of the graduate school experience, is the strongest. In that context, I could understand the narrator's interest in pompous philosophy student (and utter cad) Eugene Obello. Her continued attachment to him thereafter was more difficult to get my head around. Indeed, her interest in him post-graduate school does wane somewhat. But while this makes sense emotionally, it's a bit of a disaster structurally. Since Eugene is the focus of the book, when the narrator is not focused on him, the book loses its intensity and drifts. Nevertheless, there were enough funny lines threaded through the remainder of the book to keep me reading to the end. Ultimately this one gets a qualified recommendation from me.

Though I have long been a keen crossword puzzler, it never occurred to me to wonder about the construction of crosswords until I spotted this slim volume on the new books shelf at the library: Cruciverbalism: A Crossword Fanatic's Guide to Life in the Grid. The author, Stanley Newman, is the crossword editor for Newsday, and the book is part memoir, part compendium of crossword arcana, and part how-to guide. The best bit is the memoir portion in which Newman recounts his transition in the 1980s from a career on Wall Street to one in crosswords. I found the tale of the campaign he and other "new wave" crossworders waged against Eugene Maleska, then reigning crossword editor at the New York Times, particularly interesting (more than a little reminiscent of Ed Champion's contemporary campaign against Sam Tanenhaus of the NYT Book Review). The bit devoted to the history and lore of crosswords is slight, but sufficiently intriguing to prompt me to search out other books on the topic. The how-to section was least compelling to me, as I simply don't care enough about my crossword prowess to work to improve my game. Even so, there are revelations in it that caught my interest. Lots of food for thought for readers with varying degrees of commitment to crosswords.

The Spellman Files by Lisa Lutz is the story of Isabel ("Izzy") Spellman who, at age 28, is trying to break away from the family business. Alas, that business is a Private Investigations Agency and her dysfunctional family is not going to let her go easily. First, her parents insist she must solve an apparently unsolvable cold case, and, in the meantime, they put her under the surveillance of her 14-year-old sister in order to learn more about her new boyfriend and her desire for a career change. In a back cover blurb, Curtis Sittenfeld dubs it "Harriet the Spy for grown-ups." I swear, without having read that blurb, that's exactly the phrase that was running through my head as I read, at least until I got sufficiently caught up in the Spellman family's hijinks to forget to make comparisons. The Spellman Files is a marvellous romp, smart, funny, and often moving, from beginning to end. I was very pleased to learn that it is intended to be only the first in a series of books about Spellman Investigations. I wouldn't want to live or work with the Spellmans, but I certainly want to read more about them.

1 comment:

Julie said...

Thanks twice: first, for suggesting a great gift for my mom (the crossword puzzle book) and second, for suggesting a great beach read for me (Harriet the Spy for grownups, what could be better?).