Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Some books I read...

Yeah, I know. Sigh. Not so much with the NaBloPoMo on this blog. I find that trying to keep up with three blogs takes away from my reading time and that's something I've never been willing to sacrifice, so that's just how that has to be. But anyway, I read some books.

Julia Glass's I See You Everywhere fascinated me because I'm an only child and this story revolves around the complicated relationship between two very different sister. One conscientious and relatively grounded, the other free spirited and rebellious, they are paradoxically miss-matched and intertwined at the same time (as the cover image of the book suggests by the shared woven braid).

The book spans 25 years and the one thing that really detracted from the story for me was the way in which the narrative jumped. I love a novel that spans decades and is told through multiple narrators, but for some reason it made this book difficult to fully sink into.

I found that I didn't truly love either Louisa or Clem as individuals, but I did love them together. Perhaps that is part of Glass's overall goal, to illustrated the interconnectedness and the interdependency the sisters had to comprise their full character. Indeed two starkly opposite sides of a whole, they together create one well-rounded entity. Alone, they are each "too much" of what they are.

While I don't think I loved it as much as I did Glass's first novel, Three Junes, which to me was resonating down to my very core. But I See You Everywhere is definitely a worth-while read and a beautiful, painful, sometimes funny, ultimately tragic exploration of the sibling relationship.

Those Who Save Us, by Jenna Blum will never leave me. The story of the Schlemmer women (mother Anna and daughter Trudy) is a richly told and agonizingly raw account of how people both survive unthinkable cruelty and inhumanity, and how those who come after try to make peace with the knowledge that they come from a people who perpetrated such atrocities as the Holocaust on their fellow human beings.

Anna Schlemmer, the daughter of an ambitious German with his sights set on impressing the leaders of the Nazi party, disgraces her father by trying to hide a Jew in the crawl space of their home. Upon being found out, she flees, pregnant with the Jew's child, to become an apprentice in a small bakery. There she gives birth to her child and covertly works with the bakery owner, Matilde, to smuggle bread to the prisoners at Buchenwald, smuggling messages from the prisoners out to the resistance.

During a turn of events that claims the life of the baker owner, Anna is visited by the Obersturmfuhrer of Buchenwald, who she believes will kill her and Trudy. Instead he takes a sick fascination in her and Anna, her sense of self unraveled to its very barest, knows what she must do to ensure her own survival and that of her daughter.

Now an old woman, Anna, has never spoken of the Obersturmfuhrer or of her life in Germany. Her daughter, Trudy, is now a middle-aged, divorced, college-professor. In her desire to further understand her mother's experience of the Holocaust (she has no information from Anna, save an old picture she found of herself, Anna and the Nazi officer), Trudy undertakes a series of oral history interviews with Germans willing to talk about their experiences in WWII. Through her interviews she encounters a variety of individuals with very different recollections of what they did and didn't know at the time of the Holocaust--some interviews renew Trudy's hope in humanity's goodness; others dash it to pieces.

As Trudy gains a deeper insight to what her mother endured, and what she accomplished, during the Holocaust, the story, and Anna's legacy come full-circle in a way that, if the books were not so beautifully and brilliantly written, *might* seem a bit hokey. But Blum's ability to weave characters with such coherence and integrity gives the story unquestionable believability.

I haven't read a book in a long time that touched me as deeply as this one.

The New Yorkers by Cathleen Schine is an entertaining look at a neighborhood of characters, all linked in one way or another by their affection for, or loathing of, dogs. Very sort of Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin, but in New York instead of San Francisco, and with more dogs.

The characters represent a plethora of personalities and mindsets: the middle-aged divorced man, the hopeless romantic "spinster" teacher, the aimless gen-Xer and the heart-broken perfectionist, to name a few. Each is lost in some way and is found through their connection to a canine companion and in some cases, each other.

Although it was not soul-touching in the same way as Those Who Save Us was for me, The New Yorkers was an entertaining and sweet look at the lives of ordinary people, going about their days in the busiest city in the world, trying not to get, or stay, lost in the shuffle, and finding a sense of self, purpose and joy in the dogs who love them unconditionally. Perhaps it is that, the sense of unconditional love, that Schine is commenting on in this novel. As humans, we rarely receive that kind of unwavering devotion from those other humans around us--maybe it is why so many of us feel so lost so much of the time.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Speaking of blogs....

Not that we were, but since you're here reading mine, I'm guessing you probably know of a few other good book blogs (erm, a few good book blogs. saying "other" implies mine is good. Ha!)

I'm still reading I See You Everywhere and it's growing on me. I'm actually off to bed now because I'm too tired to even stare at the TV screen. Perhaps I'll squeeze in a few pages before my brain checks out completely and find myself more invested.

It's always disheartening when a book doesn't suck you in immediately, but how much of that is the writer's issue versus your own overblown sense of expectation. I feel that way about John Irving; since reading Prayer for Owen Meany, I have just not felt any of his work resonate in the same way. Not his fault. I just fell so deeply in love with that Owen Meany's story that nothing else Irving has created since has struck as much of a chord with me.

So, good book blogs? thanks!

Friday, November 6, 2009

I'm Just Not That Into You...

I love Julia Glass. Her debut novel, Three Junes, was one of the best books I've ever read. I KNOW I will love this book. I'm sure of it. But I cannot get into it.

I started it three nights ago. I got to page 14 before I fell asleep. Last night when I picked up on page 14, I had no idea what I was reading, so I went back to the first page and started over. As I get ready to go to bed and read now, I am trying to remember what I read last night. Something about an old aunt dying, a trip home and tension between two sister, whose personalities and lives are completely opposite of one another's. That's all I've got.

I am always so disappointed when I don't feel connected to a book immediately; especially if it is by an author I adore. I heard Julia Glass speaking on an NPR show recently and just fell in love. So I feel like I'm letting her down by not immediately engaging with her work the way I did with Three Junes. Which really is weird--I mean, do I, as a reader, have any obligation whatsoever to the author? Probably not.

But I hope when I write tomorrow I can report that somewhere on page 15 or 25, I hit my stride and find myself immersed in the world Glass is creating on the page.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

In Praise of Bookstores

I hate to admit it, but I am a flat out sucker for a Borders or Barnes and Noble. I want to be all "down with the big book chains!!" in a righteous Meg Ryan "You've Got Mail" kind of way. I wish I was in love with "The Book Shop on the Corner," but give me a "Fox's Books" type of store, please. Yes, I'm hanging my head in shame.

This morning, as I wandered through Borders with my grande chai (for the first time this season, in a holiday cup!!! Yay!!), I decided to call one of my best friends, Tress. She picked up her end, and as I meandered through the newly configured holiday-sized stacks, we chatted about our lives. What was up in them, and down in them.

As the conversation got more in depth (you know how girlfriends are, right? Well, if not, read Wednesday Sisters), I found myself sitting in the self-help section--IRONY--in a well-worn, utterly comfortable leather chair. Tress and I batted ideas back and forth, exchanged some deep thoughts (ha!) and had some laughs. I may as well have been in my own living room, for how comfortable I felt sipping my tea and having an intensely personal conversation with one of my closest (yet farthest) friends.

On Tuesdays, I head to Barnes and Noble after my WW meeting. I sit in their cafe, reading blogs, writing in my blogs, drinking my tea and enjoying my place in the world. It is another home away from home.

No worries, I do more than chat on the phone and hog free wi-fi; I give these stores oodles of business. But it's not that I can run in to the store, find a book and buy it that makes these places so special to me. It's the sense of hominess I feel there, and that I can go into any Borders or Barnes and Noble, pretty much anywhere in the country (world?) and feel "oh, this is familiar. This makes me feel safe."

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

NABLOPOMO FAIL. But a kick ass book

Yeah, I know. Three days into NABLOPOMO and I blew it on this blog. Well, in my defense, I was rocking a big fat sinus infection and was hopped up on Robitussin with codeine; so chances are I wouldn't have had much of any coherence or interest last night.

I am *this* close to being finished Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen. I have so enjoyed Janzen's voice, humor and brutal honesty as she examines her roots, her rebellion against those roots and the eventual appreciation and respect (at a distance, of course) she finds for the belief system that in so many ways shaped her life.

Throughout the hilarious style of her writing--the endearing, adoring way she pokes fun of her mother, the sarcastic and self-deprecating multiple-choice quiz boxes, and her development of her very own 12-step program--she interlaces insightful and deeply philosophical snippets of the person she truly is, beyond the self-effacing "I'm such a goofball! How could I be anything else with this life?! Ha Ha!" image that so much of her book portrays. Take this passage, for example,

"But I have come to believe that virtue isn't a condition of character. It's an elected action. It's a choice we keep making, over and over, hoping that someday we'll create a habit so strong it will carry us through our bouts of pettiness and meanness. Until recently I dismissed Niccolo Machiavelli's brutish philosophy that the ends justify the means, but lately I've begun to question that. If in the service of choosing virtuous behavior we need to practice some odd belief, where's the harm? Don't we all have our weird little rehearsals and rituals? Sure, from a ratiocinative point of view, the intervention of angels on the wall seems an unlikely way to achieve virtue in praxis. Or take the case of the nuns. Insisting that you are the bride of Christ is pretty wacky, in my opinion. So is the bizarre corollary, giving up sex on purpose. Yet these choices, odd as they are, harm nobody. It seems to me that there are many paths to virtue, many ways of creating the patterns of behavior that result in habitual resistance to human badnness....

At this stage of my life, I am willing to accept not only that there are many paths to virtue, but that our experiences on these varied paths might be real. We can't measure the existence of supernatural beings any more than we can control our partners. And anyhow, I don't want to measure supernatural beings or control my partner. What I want to measure, what I can control, is my own response to life's challenges," 175-176)

But when she's not waxing philosophical? Freaking hilarious. I have about 10 pages left to read and I'm bummed. I wish this book were 500 pages long.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Comfort Read

For one of the two book clubs I've joined, I read Ruth Reichl's Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table. In keeping with the reading public's recent love affair with all things cooking (thank you, Julie Powell and Julia Child), this memoir is about how Reichl's life was shaped by food.

One part cookbook, one part travel guide, one part family drama, the book is entertaining on many fronts. Reichl's search for connection and community resonates with this reader, having found myself moving at a pretty steady clip for the past few years.

Reichl's love affair with food began not with an adoration over the one perfect dish, but from the concern for the well-being of anyone who came in contact with her mother's cooking. Apt to throw all things into the stew pot at once for dinner (including meat past it's safe-to-eat-by date), Reichl's mother is the foil against which Reichl's journey is set. Just as some children of Republicans rebel by becoming liberal Democrats, or children of sheltering teetotalers rebel by sneaking out of the house and binge drinking, Reichl rebelled against her mother's disastrous kitchen creations by developing a love affair with good food, food created with love and with history, not just tossed together from half-rotten ingredients as a backdrop for her manic-depression.

Good book. Entertaining, super fast read. I'm not sure it's one that will stick with me forever, but I'm finding more and more that memoir fascinates me; how someone picks the theme of their life and the moments that illustrate those themes is thrilling to me.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

I'm Still Reading.

I'm not sure what has kept me away from this blog for THREE months. I've been reading. And reading some fantastic books. But for some reason, I've ignored this blog. I'm sure there's some deeply rooted psychological reason, but eh. I'm not going to sweat it. I'm just going to jump right back in.

I won't bother going back through everything I've read in the past few months right now. But as I have committed to participating in NaBloPoMo with all three of my blogs, I might revisit books I've read since July at some point.

Since I last wrote, I moved to a new location: from Los Angeles to Northern California. Which means making new friends. Again. This time I've decided to attempt to make new friends through literature. I've joined two reading groups that I will meet with for the first time this month. Hopefully one will resonate with me and I'll find a little place for myself. If not, I might attempt to start my own book club. Because seriously. A girl has GOT to talk about books.

I expect that this month, in addition to talking about what I've read in the past few months, I will write more about each book I'm reading, rather than waiting to complete a book and talk about it in its entirety. Maybe I'll write about a character, or a passage, or something that stuck out in my mind from the night before's reading. I'm not sure. Of all three blogs, this will be the most challenging one to keep up with.

Right now I'm reading Mennonite In a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home by Rhoda Janzen. It is truly hilarious and poignant and wonderful so far. Janzen is in one breath hilariously self-deprecating as she talks about the end of her marriage (her husband leaves her for a man he met on Gay.com) and in the next breath waxing philosophical on the concept of G-d. I'm loving it, and I'm sure I'll be talking a lot more about it. It's for one of the two reading groups meeting in the next couple of weeks.

Thanks for checking back in!

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

A Woman's Worth

The 19th Wife, by David Ebershoff, is two stories intertwined to illustrate the history of polygamy in the Mormon church. Seen through the eyes of Brigham Young's rebellious 19th wife, Anne Eliza, in the late 1800's, and also in the present, through the eyes of a young man who's mother is the 19th wife of a prominent Firsts member (the branch of Mormon that maintained polygamy after the church officially banned it), the novel reveals the struggle and despair of life in the church and it's practice of plural marriage.

Written to be part historical research and part murder mystery, the novel has pretty much every element a reader could want. Anne Eliza's story reveals both the anguish of being a plural wife--not only sharing a husband's affection, but his resources and, at times, his basic good will, and also the strength and power of the feminine spirit. Jordan Scott, excommunicated as a young man from the fundmentalist sect of the Firsts, digs through the society's secrets to clear his mother of a murder charge.

What I loved about this book, aside from the characters (in particular Anne Eliza) was the questions it raised about a person's beliefs and to what length one would go to uphold those beliefs. And how do we come to embrace our belief systems in the first place? Sitting on the outside of this community, we shake our heads and say, "I could never, ever believe that being one of 50+ wives is what's going to ensure my happiness in the afterlife". It's absurd to even contemplate. But the book makes note, over and over again, that this is the only message young women in the society in question ever heard. To think beyond that was just, well, unthinkable.

What infuriated me about this book was the idea that, while a man married to many wives was considered more of a man, the wives were disposable. When a husband grew tired of a wife, he simply "stopped visiting" her. She remained married to him, bound to him as property, but no longer required or received any of his attention or resources.

The book made me think about the polygamist ranch in Texas that was in the news last year. And how all those children were taken from their parents. And then returned. But to what? We've heard nothing of them since, have we? I shudder to think at what their lives are today. I shudder to think this still goes on in parts of our country today.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

First Love, Family Conflict and Neuroses...

Meh. I am one of those people who gushed about Weiner's first book, Good in Bed, raved about In Her Shoes and fell all over myself to run out and get Little Earthquakes the second it hit the shelves. But I have to say, much as it pains me, the last few books I've read by Weiner have been less than inspired. Which sucks, because when I start to feel attached to an author, like I "get" her and like she can do no wrong (hello, Barbara Kingsolver---write a new novel for me so I can bask in your Barbara Kingsovler-y goodness, pretty please), I am fairly distraught when I read something by them that is unimpresses. I hate to think or speak badly of a favorite writer because truth be told, they're doing a hell of a lot better than I could, so who am I to complain?

But this book just fell a bit flat for me. I loved the premise--the return of Cannie Shapiro, the protagonist of Good in Bed, and her relationship with the child she gives birth to at the end of that novel, Joy, who is now 13 and preparing for her Bat-Mitzvah. The plot focuses around Joy's utter mortification at finding Cannie's published novel, both because of the main character's (based on her own mother) promiscuity and because of the way in which the main character deals emotionally with the news that she is pregnant (with Joy). If teenager doesn't have enough to feel insecure and angst-ridden about normally, reading about how your mom thought her life was over when she found out she was pregnant with you will certainly give you something to talk about in therapy. The subplot is one between Cannie and her husband and their thoughts on expanding their family, a topic complicated by Cannie's lack of a uterus (which she lost upon giving birth to Joy). Sounds like it's going to be an awesome and complex look at family dynamic and the developing sense of self of a teenage girl.

Somewhere along the way, though, the story just got boring to me. I don't know if it was because Cannie, as a character, seemed a million miles away from who she was in the first book and I just didn't care about her as much. Or if it's because I really didn't like Joy (I'm generally not that fond of 13 year olds to begin with---no offense to any 13 year olds out there. It was a tough age for me and I project....). For whatever reason, I felt as though I was trudging through it and it was a big fat bummer to feel that way about a Jennifer Weiner book (although I really wanted to gouge my eyes out while I was reading Goodnight Nobody, so I guess I should just realize now that it's going to be hit or miss for me).

Patricia Marx's Him Her Him Again The End of Him was freaking hilarious. I had no idea it even existed until one of my best friends (who is on a bit of a book-buying jag & I love her for it) sent it to me. It is the story of a wayward graduate student, who isn't even quite sure what her thesis is on, falling in love with the most neurotic, self-obsessed cad this side of...well, anywhere. Marx is a former SNL-writer (which makes it utterly hilarious when her heroine--if you can call her that--takes a job as a writer for a show called Taped, but Proud), and her sense of humor and style of writing reminded me both of Steve Martin (who I adore in a very daddy-complex kind of way) and Woody Allen.

Totally off the wall and bizarre in parts, the story doesn't really invite you into the true hearts of the characters the way most fiction does. But it puts such a spotlight on the neuroses of this wacky people that you can't help but love them (or love to hate them, as is the case with the love interest, Eugene, who is an expert in Ego Studies and teaches a seminar called "Towards a Philosophy of the Number Two".

The utter inaneness (is that a word?) of these peoples' lives, even through career turmoil, lascivious affairs and what may or may not be murder, is what makes this story so hilarious.

Jaime Ford's debut novel will stick with me for a very long time. Set alternately in the mid-1980's and the early 1940's, it is the story of Henry Lee, an aging Chinese man in Seattle, looking back on his first real friendship and love, with a young girl, Keiko, who happened to be Japanese and living in Seattle after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

There is so much in this story--the bitter and heartbreaking conflict between 12 year old Henry and his father, who harbors a passionate hatred against all Japanese. The struggle of his mother to pacify both men in her life, seeming to have no will or beliefs of her own. The friendship, which grows to love, between two outcasts, Henry and Keiko, both sent to an Caucasian school by their parents to enforce the idea of their American identity, while at the same time their cultural backgrounds force them down paths away from each other that seem irreversible.

I often find that it's hardest for me to write about books that I really loved reading and found beautiful and touching. I fear I cannot possibly do it justice with my own meager ramblings. I feel that way about this book. There is such powerful emotion and sacrifice and generosity of spirit and bravery in the main characters of this book that trying to describe fully seems impossible.

The other truly difficult part of this book is, of course, as it is set in the early 1940's and one of it's main characters is Japanese, it deals with the Japanese interment camps set up after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Ford does an amazing job describing the way in which families were rounded up and robbed of their dignity as they are sent to live, first in oversized horse stalls, and then to the permanent camps that they built with their own toil and sweat. This is a part of American history that gets tucked away and ignored by so many educators. When we think about America's crimes against it's own people, we tend to think about the decimation of the Native Americans or the scourge of slavery prior to the Civil War (and even those we don't learn enough about). I don't think I ever heard one word about the Japanese interment when I learned about WWII in the 1980's. I'm glad to see that our country's literature is catching up to it's history and providing that education where our formal education system has fallen short.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Saving Fish From Drowning, Amy Tan

A pious man explained to his followers: "It is evil to take lives and noble to save them. Each day I pledge to save a hundred lives. I drop my net in the lake and scoop out a hundred fishes. I place the fishes on the bank, where they flop and twirl. 'Don't be scared,' I tell those fishes. 'I am saving you from drowning.' Soon enough, the fishes grow calm and lie still. Yet, sad to say, I am always too late. The fishes expire. And because it is evil to waste anything, I take those dead fishes to market and I sell them for a good price. With the money I receive, I buy more nets so I can save more fishes." - Anonymous

Thus starts Amy Tan's novel, Saving Fish From Drowning. Narrated by Bibi Chen (via a medium), who has recently been found dead, of mysterious causes, the story follows a tour group of her friends from the Himalayan mountains to the jungle of Burma. It is a trip she had intended to lead, sharing with her friends her vast knowledge of Chinese and Burmese history, culture and art.

The group decides to go on without her (primarily because they'd lose their deposits if they didn't), and fate twists and turns in all manner of barely believable ways to lead them to a quiet lake in Burma, on which they disappear, taken hostage by a paranoid, but kind-hearted and actually pretty funny, splinter group, hiding from the Burmese officials, the SLORC. Tan creates characters as she always does---sympathetic but so very flawed, and it is impossible to dislike any of them, even as they are grating on each other's (and your) nerves.

Most impressive is that Amy Tan weaves the theme of the introductory quote, the best of intentions leading to the worst of outcomes, into so many levels of her story, that even days after having finished it, I am finding myself saying, "ooooooh. wow."

It wasn't my favorite Tan book; that distinction, I think, will always go to The Joy Luck Club. Part of my the drawback of this book was the unfortunate timing of reading it while I was sick with a cold; so between cold medicine and general ickiness, I am fuzzy on a lot of the details (and some major events) in the book. But it was good and I'm glad I read it, but I'm sure I would have gotten more out of it had I read it when I wasn't hacking up a lung or nodding off between every paragraph.

I'm taking a little bit of a break from substantive reading---I'm going to indulge my Chick Lit craving for the next few weeks or a month, starting with Jennifer Weiner's Certain Girls.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

So Noone Told You Life Was Going to be This Way...

It seems like the last few books I've read have centered around the power for friendship as opposed to that of romantic love. Certainly, The Space Between Us, A Thousand Splendid Suns, and Snowflower and the Secret Fan, have all focused on the relationships between women as they navigate their way through fairly hostile male-dominated societies. Even These Granite Islands and Love Walked In are far more about the dynamics between the female characters than they are about the love affairs out the outskirts of the plot lines.

So I guess I'm not surprised that I was drawn to both Belong To Me, by Marisa de los Santos and Wednesday Sisters, by Meg Waite Clayton. Each follows the lives and interactions of a main character and those closest to her---while each main character is married and has a homelife with it's own challenges, the writers in each case seem more drawn to the relationships her main character forges with the women around her.

Belong To Me is the continuation of Santos' Love Walked In. This time, Cornelia Brown has left the big city to make a home in the suburbs with her husband. I could truly relate to Cornelia's reluctance to leave the energy and diversity of her urban Philadelphia for the quiet, seemingly fondant-icing perfection of the 'burbs. I've always struggled with those separate parts of my pscyhe---the thrill and the feeling of being a part of something huge and vital that comes from living in a bustling urban environment versus the security, comfort and sense of community that comes from living in a suburb where neighbors stop to chat on the sidewalks and you can let your kids play in the backyard because...well, you actually have a backyard.

Cornelia is faced with restocking her supply of friends once she makes her way into the new neighborhood and finds that what lies behind the perfectly manicured lawns of her neighbors is not quite as sweet and charming as she had initially thought.

Piper, Elizabeth and Lake are the women of Cornelia's neighborhood--one, a total uptight snoot of a woman (think Bree Van de Camp from Desperate Housewives, but with a bit more spit and vinegar), one dying of cancer and the other an enigma who has a secret that, while Cornelia doesn't know it, threatens her happiness.

I really enjoyed this book. Cornelia is so likeable as a main character and Santos is marvelous at weaving separate story lines together to make a cohesive experience that her books tend to play like a movie in my mind, much more so than many of the other books I've read.

I did think the twist in this book was actually pretty superfluous, given that it turned the focus away from Cornelia and the women back to the relationship between her and her husband. I found that I wasn't all that interested in him. I wanted to read more about the friends---in particular Piper who, ironically enough, initially made my skin crawl.

Similarly, The Wednesday Sisters are all married woman with families of some form of their own. But I really didn't care so much about the families any farther than that sometimes their actions impacted the relationships of the women who comprised the writing group. It was the closeness and emotional intimacy between the women, and not what their kids are like or what their husband do (although this is all they really think to talk about initially), that made this book so powerful to me.

Meeting by chance at a local park in the late 1960's, these young mothers find a common connection through their writing. They establish a Wednesday morning "meeting" at the park while their kids play, to write and share their writing with one another. It is through their writing (sometimes stories, drafts of novels, just journal entries) that these five women come to know each other's greatest dreams, heartbreaks and fears.

Set against the backdrop of both the women's liberation movement and the civil rights movement, the main character, Frankie, shows us how the paradigm shift of our country's consciousness impacted the lives of these women and challenged their own, sometimes shameful, beliefs.

I love that Clayton connected her characters to great literary works of the past--each one of them bringing a favorite author, character or classic piece of literature to the table with them as an inspiration.

I found the book touching and inspiring, reminding me of my own love of writing and the one or two friends who've shared that love with me for decades.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Oh, look! A blog...

Yes, I'm still here. And, I've been reading! Let's see if I can remember everything I've read since I last posted (in no particular order)....

First, I discovered Chris Bohjalian. Not sure how I managed to miss him before, but I picked up my first book by him, Midwives, in March, and now my goal is to not overdose on him a la Jodi Picoult. He's written so many books that I've never read that I'm afraid I'll over-saturate my brain with Bohjalian and end up feeling "meh" about is writing.

Midwives chronicles the story of Sybil Danforth, a midwife who, after years of assisting with successful home births, is present at a birth where the mother dies. She is accused of involuntary manslaughter and sent to trial. Narrated years later by her daughter who was 14 years old at the time of the trial (and who, in her adult life, is an obstetrician), the novel weaves an incredible mix of suspense, character development, and ethical dilemma (there's a constant sense, to me, of "what would YOU have done?" in the narrative) into a captivating story.

Over a year ago, I read The Birth House, and was disappointed because it didn't go deeply enough into the challenges of midwifery and the community that centers around childbirth in the home, surrounded by the proverbial village as opposed to the masked, gloved OB/surgeon. Bohjalian's book finally gave me the story I had been wanting to read way back then in The Birth House.

Before You Know Kindness was equally as captivating. Spencer McCullough, a public relations executive for FERAL, a PETA-esque animal rights group, is shot in the shoulder, by his daughter, using his brother-in-law's gun. It's an accident. Right?

The family is pushed to its limits as one branch of the family is pitted against the other by FERAL, which uses McCullough's shooting as an excuse to sue the gun company involved. Through the characters, the ideal of animal activist vegan faces off with the idea of sport hunter. In the same way that Tom Perrotta's The Abstinance Teacher illustrated how the flaws of extremist belief, Before You Know Kindness follows a family on a journey to reconcile their philosophical differences while loyalties and egos are stretched to the limit.

Another writer I'd not found before. Marisa De Los Santos tells the story of Cornelia, a quirky, tiny urbanite, obsessed with old movies and finding love. This character is impossible not to fall in love with. Looking for her own Jimmy Stewart (unless she can find Carey Grant), she is woo'd by Martin Grace, who walks into her little Philadelphia cafe one day and sweeps her off her feet. At least for a time...

This is also the story of Clare Hobbes, an 11-year old girl, whose mother is smack-dab in the middle of one hell of a nervous breakdown, leaving Clare to fend for herself. For months, Clare tries to hold things together so people don't her mother is falling apart at the seams. The one person she tries to enlist help from, her estranged father, essentially pats Clare on the head and tells her to run along. So when her mother leaves her on the side of the road, Clare is forced to find a way to make sense of her life.

The way in which these two characters' lives intertwine is just great writing. Both characters are fleshed out so thoroughly, I could almost touch them. I loved the way the book made me consider my connections to other people and how we are essentially a giant network of lives, ready to collide at any time, and change the course of our world's forever.

I am currently reading the second book in this series, Belong To Me. When I picked it up, I didn't realize it was a continuation of Cornelia's life. And? Loving it so far.

Oh, I was so bummed when I finished this book. Quite literally, I was sobbing at the end. Told in flashback, by a dying mother to her already elderly son, These Granite Islands chronicles the life, and specifically one summer of Isobel. A somewhat ambivalent wife and mother, Isobel stays behind in town one summer while her husband takes her sons out to an island camp.

It is during this summer that Isobel meets Cathryn, a mysterious, moody, married urban woman, who is carrying on an affair with Jack, a forest ranger. Scandalized by the affair, but drawn in by Cathryn's warmth and candor, Isobel becomes Cathryn's closest friend and accomplice in hiding the affair from Cathryn's husband.

When the lovers disappear, as if into thin air, Isobel is left contemplating not only the woman she considered to be her best friend, but also her own life and the choices she's made in her life.

Like the History of Love, this is the type of book I need to read again. The first read was just me plowing through it, in love with Isobel and the characters around her.

I finished the book one night after having lied down with my 3 year old son to help him fall back to sleep. As I listened to Ethan breathing next to me, I thought of this woman, 60 years after this fateful summer, at the end of her life, telling her story to the only of her children to survive her, and I was just overcome with emotion. Our lives are so brief, and pass so quickly. All of our relationships, from those that come and go to those that bind through blood, make us who we are. Who knows what we will see when we get to the end of our own lives and look back. What will we remember? Who will be there next to us? What stories from our lives will be important enough to share when we get to that point? Yeah, I didn't sleep a whole lot that night. But it was worth it.

After having seen "Slumdog Millionaire", I became one of eleventy billion people to be horrified by the slums of Mumbai and went in search of a novel that might help me understand the social make-up of a society that allows so many of it's people to live in such horrendous poverty and squalor. What I found was a story of two women, separated by class, pride and the weight of societal expectation.

Bhima is Sera's servant. They are as close to "friends" as they could possibly be, given that Bhima inhabits the slums and Sera is a rich widow. Sera cannot help but flinch if Bhima touches her, but she feels badly for it.

The novel takes us back through both Bhima's and Sera's lives, their disappointments with love, their search for meaning in their lives--in both cases, the lives of their children. The parallels between two women in such different positions in life was staggering, but so was, as the title suggests, the space between them.

As a bleeding heart fan of the underdog, I found it much easier to feel for Bhima, even though Sera's story was also compelling. What I loved about this novel was it's developing theme that privilege and money does not equal inner strength.

I'm looking forward to reading more of this author's books as well.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Frustrated English Teacher FAIL: Three books I could NOT get through...

I really tried. But like The Book Thief, The History of Love left me feeling adrift in a world of lesser quality literature. I have tried, since posting last, to read three books and each one left me feeling, for lack of a better descriptor, "meh". I wanted to like them, but was, for one reason or another, unimpressed, underwhelmed or outright annoyed at them. And so, down they went. Sadly, two of them were purchased with my own money, as opposed to a gift card or a library find. So that will teach me.

Dinner with Anna Karenina, is, in my opinion a big fat rip-off of the Jane Austen book club, but with Tolstoy. The first thing that put me off? The print is MASSIVE, and all I could think of was my former students who opted to print their essays out in 16-point font in order to fill space because they really had nothing of importance to say. I read about 35 pages, got a big pain in my ass from the soap-opera quality of it and I couldn't continue. The fear of what was going to happen to my love of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina made me slam on the breaks pretty fast. I have no idea if it would have unfolded into one of the best stories I've ever read, but I couldn't take the chance that it would turn into treacle in my hands and ruin the literary classic for me forever.

I gave the second book, Firefly Lane, 125 pages worth of effort. I liked the premise of the story: two childhood friends struggling through adolescent angst and trying to maintain a friendship in the face of their own individual identity crises. The problem? I liked it better the first time I read it, when it was called Beaches. I read Beaches with my best friend when we were teenagers and she was Cee Cee Bloom and I was Hillary Essex. We wept when the movie came out and Bette Midler sang, "The Wind Beneath My Wings". It was the ultimate "BFF" book and movie, and, corny as it may be, it's etched in my heart as such. I don't need to replace it with another book with the same premise.

Also? The 80's references made my head hurt. The author tried so hard to call to mind so many fads, clothing and otherwise, from that decade that I felt like the story got lost in the kitcsh of the time period. Yes, yes, you have a very good grasp of the fact that shoulder pads and double-wrap belts were stylish in the 80's. Bravo.

The last book I tried to read was Suite Francaise. It was good. But I couldn't finish it. The story of a collection of Parisians who flee Paris during it's occupation during WWII, I could not care about any of the characters. They all, with very few exceptions, seemed so self-centered and obnoxious to me that I couldn't make myself care one iota about how their lives turned out. So when the book came due at the library, even though I only had 100 more pages to go, I decided not to renew it. Meh.

I need some suggestions. I need a good book. Frustrated English teacher, indeed.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The History of Love, Nicole Krauss

This book is proof that I need to stop reading before I fall asleep. Because I loved it, but I'm not entirely sure I know exactly what it was about. I can only imagine how I'd feel about it if I'd been 100% alert while reading it and able to keep track of the zig-zagging through characters and history.

This is the story of Leo Gursky, and old man approaching death, who is so alone that he goes to Starbucks, orders lattes and then spills them just so that people will turn their heads and give him a moment or two of their attention. His loneliness, his story, what he's lost in this life, is so tragic that my heart just ached for him as I read.

It is also the story of Alma, a young girl mourning the death of her father, trying to find a new life's meaning for her mother, and searching for the story behind her name, which comes from a book her father gave her mother while they were dating.

I fell in love with the book in the very first pages and I'm afraid I read it too quickly and hungrily to take it all in. I'm thinking I'll be reading it again some time soon and putting among my list of favorite books.

Monday, March 9, 2009

The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry, Kathleen Flinn

I happened upon this book a few days ago, on a "Buy One, Get One 1/2 Off" table at Borders. I am a complete sucker for those types of "I didn't really need any books to begin with, but think of the money I'll save if I get two books for the price of one and a half!!!....wait. what?!" deals, so voila. Here it is.

A quick and completely enjoyable read, this is a memoir of a woman unceremoniously sacked from her corporate career and who, with the encouragement of her too-good-to-be-true-but-really-is-true boyfriend, pursues her lifelong dream of studying cooking at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. Each chapter regales us with anecdotes of her experiences, in class as well as in life, and provides us, if we dare, with a recipe taken from her class work at the culinary institute (and in some cases, from her mom).

I read one review of the book that called it "light reading", and while it's not War & Peace (erm, thank god, considering what I went through with that book earlier this year---no, thank you!) and while I did manage to get through it in two days (although, let it be noted that I was up until 1am this morning reading it), I hesitate to call it "light". Despite the fact that it carries with it no major tragedies or heartbreaks, it is still a recounting of someone's life, and dreams, and of the courage it takes to dive into the glorious unknown and embrace the experience, be it a soaring success or an utter failure. Maybe in literature, that's considered "light", but in life, it's just about the heaviest thing there is.

I loved the book--it is fabulous to every once in awhile read a book that leaves you feeling hopeful and lifted up at the end; and leaves you wondering, if you had that opportunity--what would your Le Cordon Bleu be?

Sunday, March 8, 2009

The Other, David Guterson

Every once in awhile I'm relieved to read a book that I'm not madly in love with, just to be sure that I've not gone completely mushy in the brain and decided all writing is OMG, THE BEST BOOK EVER!

So I feel okay saying I just kind of liked Guterson's The Other. It's actually one of those books that I am appreciating more as I get farther away from it, realizing and "a-ha"'ing at the themes and the character developments that aren't necessarily subtle, but were lost on me as I tried to plow through the sometimes snoozer of a plot.

The Other the story of the narrator, Neil Countryman, and his life-long friendship with John William Barry. The two meet as runners in high school, competing against each other, and bond over their sense of adventure and love of the outdoors. When the time comes to pick a life's path, Countryman follows the more conventional, college, career, marriage and family path, while Barry veers off the beaten path, in an attempt to shed the trappings of materialism, as he has been obsessively reading about Gnosticism. He leaves college one day, walks into the woods, and lives, as the newspapers later describe, as a "hermit" for the remainder of his life.

Countryman periodically visits Barry, catching glimpses of the life Barry has created for himself in the wilderness, and the book essentially follows Countryman in his attempt to understand why his best friend has chosen this life for himself, and to support him and stay connected to him in whatever ways he can.

It is not until late in the the story that we begin to understand exactly why John William Barry is the way he is and why he has made this choice for himself. Somewhere around page 200, I started to find myself saying, "ahhhh, of course," and developing a big giant soft spot for John William. His life is a classic case of how our earliest experiences form our personalities and the way in which we are able to perceive and interact with the world around us.

In a very "Prayer for Owen Meany" kind of way, John William Barry touches the life of his best friend Neil, by setting an example of purity of purpose and dedication to his sense of self that goes above and beyond what one normally expects from a mere mortal. But John William's life goes beyond setting an example for Neil--in a very practical way, it allows Neil to fulfill his own life's sense of purpose and brings full circle the passion of two young men, joined in a race to the finish line.

While reading the book, I felt very "ho-hum"-ish, not loving it, not hating it. Just checking periodically to see how many more pages I had to read before I could go on to the next book. But after sitting back and thinking about it, I see that Guterson wove such an intricate tale of how we become who we become, who we influence, and how the choices we make for our own lives reverberate outside of ourselves like a stone on the water. Not a fabulous in-the-moment type of read for me, but an awesome sit-and-think-about-it-afterwards book.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

A Conversation with Death: The Book Thief, Markus Zusak

"I could introduce myself properly, but it's not really necessary. You will know me well enough and soon enough, depending on a diverse range of variables. It suffices to say that at some point in time, I will be standing over you, as genially as possible. Your soul will be in my arms. A color will be perched on my shoulder. I will carry you gently away."

With this, the narrator of The Book Thief introduces himself. He is Death.

Rarely have I found myself so at once repelled and intrigued by a book. I started it over a year ago and was unable to get more than two or three pages in, because the prospect of reading 500-odd pages in Death's voice was more than a little bit disturbing to me. I'm the girl who wakes up in the middle of the night, struck with a throat-gripping realization that I'm going to die some day. And that my parents are going to die someday. And that my husband is going to die some day. And I really can't go any further down the line than that before I'm hyperventilating in the dark and trying to talk myself down off of my morbid little mental window ledge.

So clearly the idea of having to listen to Death talk to me about Nazi Germany didn't really appeal. But at the same time, I could not stop looking at the book. Wondering what story Death had to tell me about the book thief. And one of my best friends recommended it--she couldn't be steering me wrong, herself having dealt with so much death in the past few years. If she could tolerate Death's voice and come out the other side of the book feeling so strongly about it, I had to be able to give it a try.

And I have to say, I fell just a tiny bit in love with Death, as he is presented through the mind of Zusak.

Death tells the story of Liesel Meminger, a girl mercifully abandoned by her mother into the arms of a safe German family, shortly after she witnesses the death of her brother. This death haunts Liesel through most of the book. Even though she is unable to read, she steals the copy of The Gravedigger's Manual, which is left behind after her brother's burial.

Her foster father, Hans Hubermann, teaches her to read the book at night, when she is awakened from her slumber by the nightmare of her brother's death. As she learns to read, she becomes aware of the power of words and under a variety of circumstances throughout the book, finds herself stealing other books--either stumbling upon them and rescuing them from destruction (this is Nazi Germany, after all), or willfully breaking and entering the homes of others to obtain a new book for her collection.

Not long after being taken in as a foster child by the Hubermann's (the both of whom are depicted in such richness and compassion that I fell absolutely in love with them, even when Rosa is bellowing and threatening in her cranky mean-mama bravado), the family is joined by Max Vandenburg, a Jew hiding from the Nazis. He takes refuge in their basement and forges a friendship with Liesel that reaches into the outer stratosphere of poignancy. It is one of those connections that is achingly beautiful and timeless---a Boo Radley to Scout Finch type of powerful. The image of Liesel, a reluctant member of the Hitler Youth movement, and Max, a middle-aged, weak and terrified Jew, seeing each other as allies and friends, defying the mandate of the times, speaks to the power of the individual over tyranny.

Aside from becoming so attached to the characters and loving the irony of Death's compassionate and utterly human voice, I was struck by the theme of the power of words. A young, illiterate girl discovers and falls in love with the beauty of words at the same time a hate-filled, murderous dictator comes to power through the exploitation of words. The night of her town's book burning illustrates this---as Hitler demands the destruction of all pre-Nazi literature in her town, Liesel is compelled to rescue a book she finds left at the end of the burning--unable to part with the treasures that might lie inside the covers of the book, regardless of the crime it might be read it.

And what of Death himself? How is it possible that a reader can come to the end of this book and feel both sorry for, and comforted by, this grim reaper?! It is simply through his use of words---he chooses to share, through his words, the parts of himself and his experience that make us feel for him. He tells us how he is overworked and exhausted by Nazi Germany--how he himself is just a messenger, not a force to despise, but to pity,

"There were certainly some rounds to be made that year, from Poland to Russia to Africa and back again. You might argue that I make the rounds no matter what the year is, but sometimes the human race likes to crank things up a little. They increase the production of bodies and their escaping souls. A few bombs usually do the trick. Or some gas chambers, or the chitchat of far away guns. If none of that finishes proceedings, it it least strips people of their living arrangements, and I witness the homeless everywhere. They often come after me as I wander through the streets of molested cities. They beg me to take them with me, not realizing I am busy at it is. 'Your time will come,' I convince them, and I try not to look back. At times, I wish I could say something like, "Don't you see I've already got enough on my plate?!' but I never do. I complain internally as I go about my work, and some years, the souls and bodies don't add up; they multiply."

It isn't Death who makes these choices, at least in times of war. It is us. Death wants us to reassure us that he is, in fact, watching out for us, taking care of us in the best way he can, as he recounts in this description of visiting upon a gas chamber in an unnamed concentration camp in Poland,

"The first person I took was close to the door, his mind racing, then reduced to pacing, slowing down, slowing down... Please believe me when I tell you that I picked up each soul that day as if it were newly born. I even kissed a few weary, poisoned cheeks. I listened to their last, gasping cries. Their vanishing words. I watched their love visions and freed them from their fears."

It is impossible not to love this book. The characters, the narration, and the depth of heart poured into every word by Zusak make it one of the most powerful and beautiful books I've ever read.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Tuesday Teaser: The Book Thief

"Many jocular comment followed, as did another onslaught of "heil Hitlering." You know, it actually makes me wonder if anyone ever lost and eye or injured a hand or wrist with all of that. You'd only need to be facing the wrong way at the wrong time or stand marginally too close to another person. Perhaps people did get injured. Personally, I can only tell you that no one died from it, or at least, not physically. There was, of course, the matter of the forty million people I picked up by the time the whole thing was finished, but that's getting all metaphoric. Allow me to return us to the fire."

I started reading this book yesterday and I have to say, I am addicted to it. It's hard to tear yourself away from a book about Nazi Germany where the narrator is Death. Seriously, Death. Never did I think that Death would have such a wry sense of humor, although I guess you'd have to, to be able to deal with that kind of work (which is how he describes it).

I figured out why I like the Tuesday Teaser so much; when I was a teacher, passages from texts were a huge part of my curriculum. As individuals and groups, my students often had to pull passages from the text and explain their significance. I spent years of my life looking for passages that contributed to thematic, symbolic or character development. I miss that. This challenge is a little tough for me, because I know I'm supposed to choose a random passage from a random page, but I admit that as I'm reading, I tend to get a passage in my mind and spend a few minutes trying to find it before I write this post. Oh well. Sue me. :-)

Sunday, February 15, 2009

2009 Challenge: What's In a Name?

Okay, so last year, I got all pseudo-uber-intellectual and decided I'd take on the Booker prize challenge. That got me through exactly three of the eight books I was going to read for that challenge before my brain turned to mush at the hands of Margaret Atwood.

Then, early in 2009 (well, earlier in 2009), I attempted to take on Tolstoy's War and Peace, to no avail. I maintain that I had a lousy translation of the book, but the fact of the matter could be that gone are the days when I could absorb the great literary canon with little to no effort, picking up symbolism and thematic development the same way a mathematician figures out nothing more complex than long division. Sigh. I guess when it comes down to it, moving from AP English to freshmen English, to middle school English, to Good Night Moon and the occasional crossword puzzle, I's gotten dumber, dagnubit.

So, rather than fishing for the loftiest reading challenge I can get my flailing braincells on, I though I'd focus on one that was a more random and entertaining, with no real intellectual merit, just a fun way to figure out my reading list for the next couple of months. This challenge simply asks me to pick books that have certain words or ideas in the titles. Here it is:

What's In a Name?

*Dates: January 1, 2009 through December 31, 2009

*The Challenge: Choose one book from each of the following categories.

1. A book with a "profession" in its title. Examples might include: The Book Thief, The Island of Dr. Moreau, The Historian

2. A book with a "time of day" in its title. Examples might include: Twilight, Four Past Midnight, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

3. A book with a "relative" in its title. Examples might include: Eight Cousins, My Father's Dragon, The Daughter of Time

4. A book with a "body part" in its title. Examples might include: The Bluest Eye, Bag of Bones, The Heart of Darkness

5. A book with a "building" in its title. Examples might include: Uncle Tom's Cabin, Little House on the Prairie, The Looming Tower

6. A book with a "medical condition" in its title. Examples might include: Insomnia, Coma, The Plague

*You may overlap books with other challenges, but please don't use the same book for more than one category.

So there's my challenge. I am going to start with The Book Thief, as it has been recommended to me at least a half dozen times. If anyone's got any other titles that fit any of these criteria, please feel free to suggest them; I really have no other books in mind at this point!

I spent the last few nights trying to get into a couple different books I got out of the library, but to no avail. This generally happens after hitting on a book that really moves me, like Moloka'i. So, since I already have the Book Thief, I will start that tonight...happy reading!!!

Friday, February 13, 2009

Moloka'i, Alan Brennert

You know when you were in 7th grade biology class, and you got to the chapter on things like bacteria and other creepy crawlies that could get in your food or into your body? And remember how, every time you read about a new gross disease your body could contract, you were absolutely 100% certain you had symptoms of that disease and you were totally freaked out and sure your life was over? Was it just me? Tiny little neurotic 7th grade Sarah? Maybe.

Well, that's kind of what reading Moloka'i, by Alan Brennert, the story of a girl condemned to life on Hawaii's leper colony at the turn of the 20th century, was like. At least at first. I couldn't get a zit without poking at it and feeling relief that it was, indeed, painful to the touch and therefore was not some leperous lesion.

I knew very little about leprosy going into the book and learned quite about it about how it is contracted (it's not nearly as contagious as people thing and the hysteria around it reminded me much of how people initially responded to the idea of the HIV/AIDS epidemic) and who tends to get it (children between 5 and 15 years of age) and how it progresses (depends on the kind of leprosy you've got) and the history of it's treatment in the modern age (everything from witch-doctor brewed tea to western antibiotics), as well as the history of the disease in Hawaii. I remembered from reading James Michener's Hawaii that a leper colony existed at the turn of the 20th century (and did up until at least the 1980's) on the small island of Moloka'i, and was both horrified and fascinated, so when I saw Brennert's book, I jumped on the chance to read an entire book devoted to the subject.

Moloka'i is the story of Rachel Kalama, a young girl living in Oahu, the youngest daughter of a seaman and his wife. Rachel's spirit longs to join her father on his 8-9 month journeys out to sea and to mysterious and exotic foreign countries. Her family is close-knit and loving; husband and wife show affection and joke with each other and their children. Siblings love each other, but also rival each other for parents' attentions. Your typical, happy, family. Until one day, Rachel blossoms little red sores that are numb to the touch.

It isn't long before, at 7 years old, Rachel is whisked away from the clutches of her family (at the angry, jealous accusation of her older sister) and sent on the steamer Moloka'i, to the island of Moloka'i and the leper colony that has been established there.

The book follows her life on Moloka'i, with its heart-breaking losses, enduring hope and moments of small loving mercies. At times it feels like Brennert set out to fashion a new vision of Job, in the leprous body of a young Hawaiian girl in the 20th century. Rachel truly endures more heart-ache and loss than most characters I've encountered. I found myself becoming fiercely protective of her and angry at those who would do her harm or treat her as less of a human because of her disease. Brennert created such a compelling and sympathetic character in Rachel that I often found myself putting the book down, either out of sorrow or anger, until I could collect myself and move on with the story. Rachel's capacity for love and hope in the face of so many tragedies and such society-induced shame was inspiring.

The book is rich with characters who experience Moloka'i from a wide range of perspectives. Both the diseased and the "clean" live in the pages of this book and on the island of Moloka'i and through them, we get such a well-rounded view of what life was like for these people, it is hard not to become entirely wrapped up in the book.

Along with the lives of these individuals, the history of the time is chronicled as well; everything from the United States' take over of the islands, to Pearl Harbor, to the Japanese interment camps find their way into Rachel's story. That is my favorite thing about historical novels; having the drama of an individual's life placed against the backdrop of historical events, just as our unique life experiences unfold amongst the collective reality of our times.

The book is incredible and I was sad to see it end. It's a story that will stay with me for a long time.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Booking Through Thursday 1

Do you read any author’s blogs? If so, are you looking for information on their next project? On the author personally? Something else?

I read a few authors' blogs--Stephanie Taylor Wilder's "Baby on Bored", who wrote Sippy Cups are Not Far Chardonnay and Naptime is the New Happy Hour. I started reading Stephanie's blog actually before her books--I was on 14 long weeks of bedrest during my pregnancy w/ Ethan and I found Stephanie's blog through someone else's. I had no idea she was a published author, but she made me laugh so hard I almost peed (admittedly not difficult in the middle of the 2nd trimester). She has a wry, sarcastic, sometimes painfully honest perspective on parenting and her voice is so familiar and comfortable, the blog is one of my favorites.

I also read Jennifer Lancaster's (Bitter is the New Black, Such a Pretty Fat, Bright Lights Big Ass) blog, "Jennsylvania". She's ridiculously hilarious.

I've also read, but don't religiously follow, the blogs of both Stephanie Klein (Straight Up and Dirty, Moose: A Memoir of Fat Camp), and Jess Riley (Driving Sideways).

I rarely look for information on their latest books; I'm far more interested in their stories and just hearing their voices (I'm in it for the comedy, mostly).

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Tuesday Teaser: Moloka'i

The explanation for Tuesday Teaser can be found by clicking on the "Tuesday Teaser" icon on the left side of my blog.

I'm currently reading Moloka'i, by Alan Brennert

Anger and doubt erupted again like lava, emotions entirely inappropriate for this place, this act. She sprang to her feet and bolted from the chapel, startling a sister about to enter, and retreated to the safety of her room. There she fell again to her knees, knitting her hands together in a tortured mimicry of prayer. Whenever she felt the anger bubbling up she would stop, take a few minutes to compose herself, then start again; but though the anger slowly cooled she found that oozing up between the words of contrition and adoration was a troubling fear. Fear of herself and what she was capable of, what she had done to that little girl; and fear that perhaps Sister victor was right, that contagion was all around them.

Just have to add, I am LOVING this book. Loving. More later.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

The Reader, Bernhard Schlink

I had hoped to love this book more than I did. I could never quite fall into step with the narrator's voice or feel much for either Michael or Hanna. There was such a stoicism in how Michael told the story of their affair and of Hanna's trial later on, it was almost impossible to rouse any emotion or empathy for them. Am I the only one?

I did find Hanna's conflict interesting--that she'd choose to take the blame for such egregious crimes over admitting to the degree to which she lacks education. It seemed like such a counter-intuitive thing to do; I'm still not entirely sure I understand why she makes the choice she does---is it pride or guilt? Does she feel that she deserves the harshest punishment even though she is not the one who masterminded the crime? Is the austerity with which she lives her life and pushes people from her done out of a sense of penance or arrogance?

I'd like to believe she lives her life and makes the choices she does as a form of atonement, but it's never entirely clear--she is so devoid of emotion for so much of the story, and given her crime, it's hard to give her the benefit of the doubt. There's only so much sympathy one can drum up for a Nazi, you know?

Monday, February 2, 2009

Away, Amy Bloom

Well, maybe not "lighter", but at least this story goes a long way in restoring my faith in the strength of the human spirit.

Lillian Leyb comes to America after her family is viciously murdered in pogrom in Russia, a scene which plays out over and over in her mind in vivid and frightening detail throughout the book. She flees to a life in New York's Yiddish theater district, becoming mistress to both a theater owner and his son, while trying to put the memories of the past behind her. Until.

She learned that possibly, possibly, her daughter survived the pogrom and is currently living in Siberia with a family who rescued her. Without hesitation, Lillian leaves New York City and sets out across the country, from New York to Seattle to Alaska and to the Bering Strait. The intensity with which she strives towards this goal is heart-rending. Any parent wants to believe they'd do the same; under-take any obstacle or trial of strength and perseverance. But to travel in a railroad car broom closet, psyche out pimps and prostitutes, walk from Alaska to Russia (yes, I know Sarah Palin can see Russia from her house, but still), with only the faintest hope of making the trip in one piece and with no set information about where to find your child? In Siberia?

The book falls short of being epic only because it's just too short. I wanted the book to be 500+ pages; I wanted there to be detail, more character development, more everything. I wanted more of Lillian's history, more scenes going across the country, more interactions with other characters.

My favorite part of the book, aside from Lillian herself and her fierce determination, was the way Bloom provides an epilogue for each character Lillian encounters, after she leaves them. As though their lives, after being touched by her, are set on a certain path and Bloom must let you know what comes of them, even though Lillian never will. It was brilliant and it made each character seem so much more real than they would have if they'd simply ceased to exist in the book's world once Lillian moved on.

So not really the "light" book I said I was going to read (I started Jon Stewart's Naked Pictures of Famous People, but wasn't really feeling it), but it was well worth the emotional energy I spent on it.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Revolutionary Road, Richard Yates

Oh. My. God. I knew from the movie previews to expect suburban malaise. However. This book is suburbian malaise and existential angst hooked up to a car battery and high on crack.

Frank and Alice Wheeler are a couple of married suburbanites, stuck in the stereotypical, Leave-It-To-Beaver 1950's; or rather, right on the outside of it, as their home is adjacent to, but not actually IN the new Revolutionary Estates development with it it's homes and cars looking "like candy and ice cream". Each fancies themselves to be more interesting and passionate than the rest of those suburbanite couples, tucked in their perfect little homes with their perfect little lives. They scoff at those content with the mediocrity of life in the suburbs and compliment themselves on being oh, so much more interesting.

It was interesting to me that the first major action of the book is that of a play being put on by a small local theater group. As the play goes, in terms of it's success, so, in a way, does the story of Frank and Alice go. They are, in fact, living a lie, a sort of play within a play that they seem desperate to break out of. There are moments of shining hope and so-close-you-can-taste-it triumphs over their lives. And there are also crashing failures and upsets, until they reach, as individuals, and a couple, their ultimate breaking points.

As we learn about each character's childhood (the author seems fascinated with the idea of psycho-analysis; there is even mention of Freud's theory of penis-envy), we begin to understand what motivates them and why they are driven to be the superbly flawed and, at times, all but unlikeable characters that they are.

The beauty of this book is the characters around Frank and Alice. The meddling, nervous real estate broker and her half-deaf (and grateful for it) husband, Helen and Howard Givings--who Frank and Alice will be if they don't bust out of this rut and strive for the greatness they feel they are capable of. Their neighbors, the Campbells, who have settled into their malaise rather than struggling against it. And perhaps most interesting, the institutionalized son of the Givingses', John, who is the only character who seems to "get" Frank and Alice.

The book starts with a quote from John Keats that is as follows: "Alas! When passion is both meek and mild." Alice and Frank are each both of these things, in turns. They're strengths and weaknesses yo-yo throughout the story, but never find a middle ground, never find one another.

I expected pages of bitter disagreement and domestic strife in the book; I've seen the advertisements for the movie in recent weeks. What I didn't expect was to see the absolute and utter dissolution of the American Dream unfold before my eyes over the past two days. I could not sleep after turning the last page. While I cannot relate in any really authentic way to either Frank or Alice, in experience or sentiment, I could not help but be shaken all the way down to a very deep place in myself when I realized that there are people out there who can, and do, relate. Much in the same way as I did after seeing the film "American Beauty" years ago, I walked around today, watching couples and looking at houses in my neighborhood and wondering, "Who are they really, and what is the true substance of their lives and their relationship?"

Next, I'll be reading something a bit more light-hearted. My brain and heart need a break after this one.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Lisa See

So fine; I gave up on War and Peace for the time being. There are too many books out there begging to be read for me to give up precious time slaving over a horrible translation of what I'm sure is a spectacular book, but which at this point, has no chance in hell of being remotely appreciated by me. So I will go back to it. Sometime. Maybe.

Instead, I spent part of my Barnes and Noble gift card (which I sadly burned through like it was a stick of butter set on top of a blazing oven) on Lisa See's Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. What a beautiful book. It is the story of Lily, who at the age of 80, an age few women in 19th-century China would have lived to see, looks back on her life and tells us of her greatest love and of her greatest sin.

The book's focus, a friendship between two women, was riveting and heart-rending. Paired as "laotongs", or, "Old Sames" (essentially soul mates) as children, Lily and Snow Flower forge a bond from their foot-binding days of girlhood until their last breaths. The contract of the laotongs transcends all other contracts and is unbreakable. Set against the backdrop of strict social customs, changing fortunes, arranged marriages, and the trials and triumphs of motherhood in a time and place where only boy babies counted, Lily and Snow Flower are each other's sources of strength and comfort. When separated, they communicate through "nu shu", or "women's writing", carefully inscribed on a silk fan.

The intricacies of social custom, and the stoicism with which women were expected to bear the inevitable circumstances of their lives made the book all the more heart-breaking. The process of foot-binding andmatch-making, and rituals of singing laments and well-wishes to the bride before she leaves her "natal" home for that of her husband's--all of these elements of the life of a Hunan woman at this time were described in such lyrical detail that the modern reader is both horrified and awed.

It isn't all beauty and loving commitment between Lily and Snow Flower, however. Their contract is threatened through the misunderstanding of a message written onto the secret fan. The irony that in a story based around the written communication between these two women, that it should be their "nu shu" messages that lead their friendship into peril was fascinating.

I've always found the dynamics of the friendships of women to be at least as interesting, if not more, than that of the relationships between men and women. Raised to be companions and competition, the potential for fiercely devoted love and bitter rivalry and jealousy is so much stronger than that between members of the opposite sex. Also, having always believed that a woman is far more likely to find her soul's true mate in a female friend rather than a boyfriend or husband, this book spoke to me of the immense power of friendship and the need to always keep your girlfriends close to your heart and mind, regardless of life's circumstances.

Next up: Revolutionary Road. I can't bring myself to spend a date night with Husband watching Leo and Kate tear it up as a miserable married couple, so I'm going to read the book instead.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

I Must Confess...

I am hating War & Peace.

It is so convoluted and the whole thing feels more like an endeavor in keeping track of names and making sense of the awkward language of what I have to assume is a lousy translation.

I'm only 200 pages in, more than two weeks after starting it; it's frustrating for me to not be able to get through a book faster, especially when reading it feels like such a chore. I'm not sure I can commit myself to reading the rest of the book, at least not without breaking up the arduousness of it with other, less brain-paining texts.

Not that I'm planning on filling my reading schedule with Danielle Steele or anything, but there are so many worthy books out there than I really want to indulge in it seems a shame to spend all my time trudging through something I'm not enjoying, or even retaining from one reading to the next. This has always been my struggle, though; not finishing a book I've started feels like failing and I don't "do" failing.

Anyone read War & Peace and want to tell me that it gets RIVETING by page 201?