Saturday, December 31, 2011

Anyone but You by Jennifer Cruise

I was interested in this book because of the basset hound on the cover.  I get dog fever around this time of the year.  Something about the holidays make me think of puppies.  I always assumed I'd grow up and have a dog.  I never wanted a husband, I never wanted kids, but I always wanted a dog.  But I grew up, sort of, and realized that I'm entirely too irresponsible to have a dog.  I'm never home, I'm tight with my money (as in I'd pass out and die if I had to fork over some major, unexpected pet-related medical expenses) and I lack the ability to show affection toward living things.  So yeah, no dog for me.

But back in the day when I wanted a dog, I wanted a basset hound because I think they are adorable, and so even now, long after I've realized I can't have a dog, I am still drawn to basset hounds.  

I read the description of the book and thought it sounded cute.  Not the sort of book I would usually read.  But not every book I read has to be dark and deep and serious, right?  I later realized this is even part of a Harlequin romance series.  I've not read a Harlequin romance since I was in high school and used to take them from my mother.

Day before the end of the year, I had read 34 books and wanted to get that up to 35.  So I took this book to bed with me and I read the entire thing in one sitting.  Finished it early this morning.

As far as romances go, this was pretty good.  A 40 year old, newly-divorced woman moves from her mansion to a small apartment and she decides to get a dog.  She wants a perky puppy, but while at the pound, she instead is drawn to a sad, depressed basset hound who only has a day left before he's put down.  She takes Fred instead of a puppy.  And it's Fred, who Nina trains to use the fire escape to go out, who accidentally walks into her downstairs neighbor's apartment.  The downstairs neighbor is Alex, a 30-year-old ER doctor.

Nina is beginning a new life on her own.  She married her first boyfriend and for sixteen years, she stood by him as he built up his career as a successful and wealthy attorney.  Alex is just getting started with his career, as his family of doctors tries to pressure him into choosing a more distinguished speciality than ER.  Though they are both hesitant to admit it, they seem to be exactly what each other needs.

I actually really liked this story.  I liked the characters, they seemed real and they seemed like nice people.  The story didn't make me cringe like most "romances" tend to do.  I liked that it wasn't the typical broken-hearted, lonely woman seeking a big, successful man to sweep off her feet.  Nina could take care of herself and she was okay with Alex being a little immature and goofy.  She liked the company of a nice guy, she didn't need someone to take care of her.

Maybe it's because I'm closer to 40 than I am 30 and I like the idea that a nice, attractive younger man would find a 40 year old woman attractive.  In real life it seems the only men who notice a woman my age now are the creepy old guys who don't have enough money to attract the 20 year olds.  Let's just say I'm glad I'm no longer involved in the whole dating scene because it's not pleasant for women my age.  It's settle or be single.  So even though this book may not have been realistic, it still made me happy to read this story because it's nice to think the possibility is there.

Alex isn't just a nice guy, he's also not one of those guys needing a wife to "settle down" and cook and clean and have babies.  That seemed to be the only option out there when I was younger.  Never met any guys who wanted to do fun things like travel and watch old movies or attend concerts and sporting events.  No, the nice guys just wanted to get married, buy a house and have a couple of kids - boring!  And the other guys, well they just wanted, you know...

Okay, so the book is a fantasy, but not the typical romantic fantasy.  It's more of a fantasy for women like me.  I guess that was what I found surprising about the story.  These types of stories rarely appeal to me.

I had a few minor issues with the story - one being that I thought it took way too long for Nina and Alex to get together.  He's in her apartment every night watching TV, she's lying on the couch behind him while he's sitting on the floor, they both want each other, and no one makes a move?  This goes on for weeks!  Then once they got together, there was a bit of weirdness, Alex became something of a jerk for a while.  But maybe that's normal?  Not all that experienced with relationships.  But all of that was brief and resolved rather quickly.

Overall I liked the book.  Kind of nice to read something that isn't as heavy as what I usually read.   I'd recommend this book to anyone who enjoys romance novels and wants a quick, light read.

Friday, December 30, 2011

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

I was curious about this book and then a friend of mine went on and on about how it's the best book ever, so I decided to read it.

I like books about magic, stories that can integrate the magic into the story in such a way that it feels natural and normal.  This book was full of magic.

Two competitive magicians set up a challenge between their students.  Once the students are older they end up involved in a circus.  A circus that only performs at night and lasts until dawn.  Everything in the circus is black and white, and there are many tents, each with some beautiful, magical treasures inside. 

I loved the way the words created images in my mind.  The story is so well written that I could easily immerse myself in this circus as I read the story.  I used the word "atmospheric" to describe this book. It felt dreamy and misty and each time I picked up the book I felt as if I was drifting into this special world again.

One element of the story that I especially liked were the people who followed the circus, the Revers.  They loved the circus so much they would travel around the country, sometimes across the ocean to visit the circus.  They made friends with other followers of the circus and they traveled together.  "We lead strange lives, chasing our dreams from place to place," one of these Revers explains.  I could relate too well with these people.  For years, I've followed my favorite bands around the country and to Europe.  Some of my best friends are people I've met along these travels, other people who understand what it's like to chase dreams.  This gave me a stronger understanding of these people and their love for this beautiful circus. 

What I didn't like about the story though was I never fully understood "the challenge."  I don't think I was supposed to understand because even the people involved said several times that they didn't understand the rules or the parameters.  As a reader, this became frustrating to me as the book reached an end.  I assumed as I was reading this that it would eventually be explained.  I felt the ending was unsatisfying.  I'm not going to give away from happened but the resolution felt too vague to me.  I had no idea as to expect, but I certainly didn't expect what did happen.

This is one of those books I may need to read again, just to get a better understanding as to what happened. 

But I did enjoy the book.  Very well written, very interesting story.  And as I said at the beginning, full of magic, always a good thing.

finished reading: Dec. 30, 2011

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Girl in the Flammable Skirt by Aimee Bender

The description of this collection of short stories sounded so interesting.  But the stories were more weird than interesting.  And I usually like weird, but this wasn't a cool weird but rather a, "WTF, that doesn't make any sense," sort of weird.  There was rarely any sort of explanation or background given to provide any substance for the bizarreness of the stories.

The stories were like, "One day my boyfriend started to go through a reverse evolution.  He became an ape, then a fish, then a tadpole, so put him in the ocean."  The end.  Really?  The stories are for the most part delivered with that much emotion and detail. 

I never felt any sort of connection or concern for the characters involved in these stories.

And yet, I kept reading them, so I must not have thought they were completely terrible.  I suspect I was in some way drawn to the bizarreness.  At one point, about a third of the way through the book, I decided I wasn't going to finish reading it, I had too many other books to read to waste my time on this nonsense.  But I couldn't stop reading the stories.  Maybe I was just hoping that something more would happen.  Maybe my curiosity got the better of me.  A few of the longer stories had potential, but they felt more like introductions or outlines for what could have been better stories.

The more I read short stories the more I realize I don't like them much.  I need to know more about the characters.  If I'm going to invest my time in reading about these people, I need to get a better feeling as to who they are.  Short stories don't provide the kind of connection I need with what I read.

I really didn't like this book very much.  Part of me gets annoyed when I read stuff like this because I don't quite understand why something like this gets published.  Maybe I'm not smart enough to get it.  But the weirdness too often tipped into the "silly" category.  I kind of wish I'd never picked this book up.

finished reading: Dec. 17, 2011

Friday, December 02, 2011

Blue Nights by Joan Didion

This book is so very sad.  Blue Nights is Joan Didion's collection of thoughts on the loss of her daughter.  She doesn't write specifically about her daughter's death, but rather about her daughter's absence from her life now. 

A few years ago, Didion wrote The Year of Magical Thinking about the loss of her husband, and the year that followed his loss.  I seem to recall that book being more structured.  Blue Nights isn't about a certain time period.  It's more about what Didion is going through as a parent who has lost her child, as a parent who assumed that her child would outlive her and be around now.

What broke my heart the most was when she talked about how we hold onto things in hopes of saving memories of important moments, only to look back on those items, cards and photographs and wish that we'd worked harder at enjoying that moment. 

Didion has lost so many people in her life, and she's struggling with the idea of getting older and having to do this without the people who were most important to her.

She also reflects quite a bit on parenthood, and worries about things she may have done wrong.  She's fixated on certain events.  She thinks maybe her daughter was adversely affected by being adopted and that maybe her parenting skills were off.  But as a reader, an outsider looking in, and someone who has never been a parent, but has spent plenty of time around children, I can't help but think that it's normal for parents to question their own parenting skills.  I think any parent who assumes they did everything right is probably very much in denial.  I didn't get the impression that she was a bad parent or that her daughter suffered much.  I think that Didion is probably just spending a lot of time thinking and re-thinking and over analyzing the events in her life.  She's a writer, that's what writers do.  She's seeking an answer, wondering what she could have done differently.

I very much enjoy Didion's writing and this was no exception.  But reading this broke my heart over and over again.  This book made me think of people I've lost, of moments I tried to hold onto, of things I've done wrong and things I wished I'd done differently and the horror that I can't change the past to remedy my mistakes.  It also made me realize that I'm going to grow old alone and it made me a little bit glad that I won't have people to lose and that my own alone-ness will be fully expected, unlike Didion, who thought her daughter would be there with her as she grew older.

I'd recommend this book to anyone.  It's just one of those books I think people should read.

finished reading: Dec. 2, 2011

Sunday, November 27, 2011

A Vintage Affair, by Isable Wolff

I saw this book at the store a while back, and wanted to buy it for my friend who owns a vintage shop because I thought it sounded interesting.  Also, I've read two other books by Isabel Wolff and really liked both of them.  Then as holiday travel approached, I needed a book to keep me entertained while waiting in airports and on planes.  I saw this available at the library and snapped it up.  Very glad I did.

What I like most about Wolff's books are that her main characters are strong women, who don't need a man to validate their existence.  Wolff's stories are never about women seeking men or losing men or trying to navigate life with a man.  Instead, her characters are trying to figure out who they are and what they need to "live their best life" - yes, I stole that phrase from Oprah, but it fit.  In this book Phoebe has suffered a tragic loss and is trying to reaccess her life - get her act together and move on. 

She's ended her engagement, a situation which was tainted with bad energy already - and has left a stressful, but successful career to start her own business.  This is the story of how that works out for her.

There are several different storylines - Phoebe dealing with her past, trying to navigate her future, her mother's attempts at moving forward after suffering her own loss, Phoebe's relationships with an elderly women whose life is ending, the storylines of the characters who shop at Phoebe's vintage shop, as well as the stories of the dresses.  It never felt like too many things happening, but rather a very realistic snapshot of the life surrounding Phoebe and her store.

There were parts of the book that were very sad, others that felt hopeful.  This book is about friendships and guilt and grief and forgiveness and the way all of those things mingle together and affect everyday life.  There isn't a nice, happy ending because that wouldn't be possible considering the circumstances.  But there is hope at the end. 

I'd recommend this to anyone who wants a quick, interesting read.  Not too romantic or sappy, but emotionally powerful.  Also, the stories about the dresses are interesting.  I know nothing about fashion, but this did spark my interest in vintage clothing.  A big plus that the story took place in London, in areas that I remember from my time spent there, and there's even a trip to France included (an area I've not visited, but would like to someday.)

Monday, November 14, 2011

It Looked Different on the Model by Laurie Notaro

I spent two weeks trying to make my way through a non-fiction book about Berlin under the early days of Hitler.  Not exactly a light or enjoyable read.  I finally gave up on the book and I wanted something fun. 

Was so pleased to see this book by Laurie Notaro.  I love her writing, she's so funny. 

This book was so very funny, one night as I sat here reading it, I was laughing so hard I was crying and my whole body was sore.  I couldn't stop laughing.  This is one of those books that I've told everyone they need to read and I'll probably buy a few copies to give as Christmas gifts.

Of course, as I found out last time I insisted on everyone reading one of her books, not everyone gets her sense of humor.  But then again, I tend to not be amused by things that most people find funny.

Notaro writes about simple, every day situations, that become hilarious.  Such as trying on a shirt that's a size too small and then getting trapped in it, or being banned from the satellite post office for wanting to purchase too many two cent stamps.  I could especially relate to having lost an iPhone - which I did this summer and felt the same raging hatred for the person who now I had my phone and all my photos and notes.  The funniest story was about her husband thinking she was eating candy in bed.  I won't tell you what happened, but highly recommend you find a copy and read it. 

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

I pretty much loved this book.  I finished reading it yesterday morning, and spent the rest of the day and today missing the characters, that's how much I liked this book.

Diana was born a witch, but doesn't really use her magic much.  She's also a historian who happens to be working at Oxford, doing research on alchemy.  One day, while in the Bodleian Library she notices a tall, beautiful man who happens to be a vampire.  Oh. My. God.  Do you know me at all?  Maybe not, but the author of this book seems to have tapped into all my fantasies at once - witches, vampires, books, research, Oxford and love at first sight in a library?  Oh, and not to spoil anything, but the vampire also has a castle in France.  Dear god I love this book.

And it's so well written.  I realize my description of the book may sound ridiculous:  a witch meets a vampire in a library and they fall in love.  But it's written in such a way that it doesn't feel at all ridiculous.  It was one of those books I was able to dive into and push away all the blandness of the real world.  It's so atmospheric, Oxford, then France.  I felt as if I was there, in the old building, walking through the castle, sharing the perfect glass of wine with a sexy vampire.

I'm hesitant to say this, but it's almost like a Twilight for grown-ups. As much as I love this book, and feel that it blows Twilight away in just about every aspect imaginable, I'd be lying if I said the similarities aren't there. 

I have to admit I did not love the second half of the book as much as I loved the first half.  When it was just Diana and Matthew, it was perfect.  But then we meet Matthew's family, and then we meet Diana's family.  Then we have something called the Congregation that wants to kill Diana because vampires and witches aren't supposed to be together.  (Do you see the Twilight comparison now?  In Twilight it was a group of vampires in Italy who didn't want vampires and humans together.)

There's also Matthew's hesitation about consumating the relationship, his old fashioned views about women, his extreme protectiveness -- all quite similar to a vampire we all know as Edward.  Diana is a much stronger character than Bella, but like Bella, she is more than willing to give up life as she knows it for the vampire she loves, despite the fact that she's never been crazy about the idea of getting married and having children.

And like Twilight, we have the vampire family, the parents and the children.  The part that bothered me most is that suddenly Diana, who has only been in love with this vampire for a few weeks, is now referring to his "son" as her son.  That was weird and a little icky as far as I was concerned.  That detracted some from my love of the book because I noticed myself groaning every time she referred to her "son."  He's not your son, you just met him. Technically, he's not Matthew's "son" either, but oh well.

But what's really going to piss me off about this book is if they get all wrapped up in the idea of vampire/witch offspring.  That's what killed the Twilight series for me - the weird vampire/human spawn storyline.  As soon as they mentioned "conception" in this book, I felt a surge of anger.  Don't ruin this story for me!

Why can't two people - witch/vampire - whatever - spend some time being in love with each other, getting to know each other - before they start reproducing?  Nothing kills a romance for me like babies do. 

Luckily, the subject was mentioned and then they moved on.  I think that however the subject is approached, it will be okay.

Despite my complaints just mentioned, I loved the story of Diana and Matthew.  This felt truly romantic, not crude or silly or graphic and awkward.  I rarely enjoy anything considered "romantic" and usually simply tolerate those scenes or rush through them as quickly as possible.  This book though, I savored those scenes, because this couple got to know each other, spent time together, and actually seemed to fall in love rather than fall into bed. 

I'm looking forward to the next book, even though I'm not usually a fan of time travel (the end of this book involved Matthew and Diana timewalking).  I'm bothered that the sequel won't be out until the summer, but oh well, another reason to look forward to the summer.

I very much recommend this book to anyone who likes vampire stories or witch stories or well written romance stories.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Before I Go to Sleep by C.J. Watson

So this was the other book about a woman losing her memory.  Unlike, What Alice Forgot, this one is not at all light-hearted or fun.  This is incredibly creepy and disturbing.

Every morning Christine wakes up not knowing where she is, or who she's with.  Her husband tapes pictures around the room with explanations.  He says they've been married for years, they're very much in love.  He writes notes a white board in the kitchen, suggestions of how she can spend her day.  She then goes to bed and forgets everything during her sleep, and wakes the next morning and goes through it all over again.

One day though, she gets a call from a doctor who says he's been helping her for a while.  She has a journal in which she writes down everything.  The doctor calls her every morning and tells her about the journal.  He says they're making progress.

Every once in a while she remembers an event, or a person, but she has no context with which to place these memories. 

I read this book very quickly.  It was due at the library and I didn't want to have to put my name back on the waiting list.

This book reminded me of the Mary Higgins Clark books I used to read. I loved those books when I was younger, as in high school days. But then I grew tired of them. I could guess the ending within the first few chapters. Same with this book. Mid-way through, I already suspected what was happening, but read it too quickly to really dwell on it.

But in the end, I was disappointed. Also, the story was too far-fetched for me. The daily vanishing memory was a little too hard to accept. A doctor so concerned and involved that he called her every day but didn't even suspect what was actually happening?   The friends and family who simply disappeared from her life?  Most of all though, I didn't like the overt moralizing of the story, as if Christine somehow deserved what had happened to her.  It's obvious this book was written by a man, and if I'd known that in advance I probably wouldn't have read it.  (I'm very particular about books written by men.  It has to be an author with which I'm familiar or has a lot of great reviews from people I respect.)  The more I thought about it, the angrier I got.  This felt very much like what I imagine to be the perverted sexual fantasies of a deranged man. 

It held my interest, I couldn't stop reading it once I started because I was anxious to find out what happened next. It's very suspenseful and it certainly left an impression.  The night after I finished that book, I had some horrible nightmares relating to this story.  In hindsight, I wish I'd not read this book.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta

Last year, I remember people being all frantic about the end of the world.  I say people, but I mean my silly students.  Teenagers believe just about anything they read online or have sent to them via text message, but absolutely nothing told to them by a semi-intelligent adult in a position of pseudo-authority.  I found myself trying to explain this idea of the so-called Rapture on a few occasions.

A little background on me - I don't believe in any of this stuff.  I think the Bible is a sometimes interesting book and nothing more.  I think most religions were created to keep women "in their place."  So as I try to explain all this to teenagers, I try to be cautious with my choice of words so as not to offend them.  Unlike other teachers who think it's fine to push their political-religious views on others, I try to remain neutral in the eyes of my students.  Not always easy.

I was quite amused though when I said at one point, "The Rapture is the idea that God is going to take his followers up to heaven with him and leave behind those who don't believe in Jesus."  And one of my students says, "Good, those people are annoying."  Oh yeah, these are my kids.

Anyway, this book, The Leftovers, is about a situation in which a Rapture type event happens.  Thousands of people just disappear one night.  The story takes place three years later, as people are still trying to cope with what has happened.  People are furious because they can't understand the random way in which people were selected.  They call it the "Sudden Departure" because it doesn't fit their definition of the Rapture.  People who viewed themselves as devout Christians were left behind while atheists and Muslims and Buddhists were taken.  Families were destroyed as spouses and children vanished. 

But eventually, the people have to go on with whatever is left of their lives.  There's a mother who lost her husband and two small children, teenagers traumatized by having seen their friends vanish in front of them.  There's an angry minister who devotes his life to showing that the people taken didn't deserve to go by publishing a newsletter exposing the sins of those who were taken.  Then there are all the strange cults and organizations that form as a reaction to this event.  The creepy religious group, the Guilty Remnant, that walk around silently, dressed in white, stalking people who are trying to live a normal life.  There's the self-proclaimed prophet who thinks he can absorb pain and has a slew of teenage brides he's trying to impregnate to create the next savior.  There are the barefoot people who simply live for fun. 

Most of all this is about how people cope with extreme tragedy and figure out a way to move on when all they really want to do is give up. 

I liked the book quite a bit.  I found it to be such an interesting concept, and handled in a way that isn't ridiculous or too far fetched.  The characters seem real and, for the most part, likable.  It's a frightening statement about how some people cope with tragedy, there are some horrifying events in here, but also, a statement about how most people pick up the pieces and move on, doing the best they can given the circumstances.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

We the Animals by Justin Torres

I didn't like this book at all.  I've grown tired of stories about "Latino" families in which abuse is considered normal and a sign of passion or love.  I don't like the way this seems to be presented as part of our culture.  Something we tolerate as a result of all of our "intense" feelings.  When I read things like this, I get angry thinking that there are white people reading this book and assuming that we all act this way.  Not fair, I know, but still.  Someday, I'd like to read a story about a Latino family that didn't involve domestic abuse.

This is intended to be some kind of coming of age story, about a rather dysfunctional family.  The parents were too young when their three sons were born.  The children seem to have no discipline at all, I guess because the parents work all the time.  The author writes proudly of the way the boys destroy everything.  The mother is helpless to do anything, she never seems to know what's going on because the night shift she works has her confused all the time.  And she gets beaten by her husband fairly often, and sometimes she thinks of leaving, but never goes through with it.  When they're not fighting, they're fucking, and sometimes right in front of the children.  Also, she seems to be having a lesbian affair with a co-worker, which seems random, until you get to the very end of the book.

The book is written like a lot of popular modern fiction these days, a series of short stories, just a few pages describing some big, tragic incident, just enough information to shock and horrify.  Then the author moves on to another story.  It's a little too much like poetry for me to enjoy.  When I read a book, I want to sink into it, and that doesn't happen with this book.  It's very sparse, vague, almost, never really letting the reader know what's happening.  The ending is intended to be especially shocking and unexpected.  Unfortunately, I'd read a few reviews that had hinted at what was to happen, so I wasn't as shocked as I might have been had I not read the reviews.  It didn't seem to fit with the rest of the story, but then again, nothing in the story really flowed or fit all that well.

This just wasn't my sort of book.  On the plus side, it's very short, so I didn't feel like I wasted all that much time reading it.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty

Seemed like I read about a few books that women losing their memories.  And every once in a while, when I read about several new books, I go to my public library's website and put my name on the hold lists for these books.  So I wasn't even sure which of the "women losing their memories" books I picked up when I checked this out.

This book is fairly light-hearted.  Kind of cute and funny in spots, a lot about family and friends and community.  The other book about a woman losing her memory is quite different.

In this book, Alice falls at the gym and loses consciousness.  When she wakes, she seems to have lost the last ten years of her life.  She thinks she's nearly married and pregnant with her first child.  She's startled to realize that she's going through a divorce and a nasty custody battle for her three children.  In her mind, she's still very much in love with her husband, and has big hopes for their future together, but in reality their future together is over.  She doesn't remember the birth of her first child, or the existence of her other two children.  She doesn't understand why her sister, with whom she'd once been close, is now so distant and bitter. 

This book really made me think about how our past selves would view our future self.  I read this right around the tenth anniversary of 9/11, so it was easy for me to remember exactly where I was in my life ten years ago.  Twenty-five years old, just started grad school, living in a little (but rather expensive) apartment in a fancy suburb.  I was at a job I didn't like much - which is why I was going back to school.  I had big plans to get my masters in women's studies, move to New York City and seriously pursue my writing career, focusing on women's issues.  Back then, I never would have imagined that I'd end up a high school art teacher (sometimes, even now, I'm still not quite sure how all that happened.) 

It's interesting to see how the main character handles this situation.  She's determined to save her marriage, wants to repair the broken relationships that seem to have happened over the past decade.  But as her memory returns, she realizes she's holding on to things that no longer existed, relationships that fell apart over time, for valid reasons.

I liked the book.  As I said, it feels like a light read, but it's deceptively deep.  As Alice's memories rush back to her, the reader almost understands why she would allow herself to forget.  She suffered a horrible loss that anyone would want to forget.  As I said, it really made me think about my own life and the way things can change, or in some cases, remain completely the same, over a decade.  Sometimes maybe we need to stop and re-evaluate our lives because sometimes we end up going a direction we never meant to go. 

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Darkness Visible by William Styron

I happened to be trapped under an especially dark storm cloud on the day when I saw this offered for a dollar or two on Amazon Kindle's Daily Deals.  At first, I scoffed and thought the last thing I needed was another self help book, and then an hour or so later I thought, maybe it's a sign that this book showed up in my facebook newsfeed at that moment, so I went ahead and downloaded it to my Kindle.

It's not a self help book, but rather the story of one man's struggle with depression. It felt somewhat comforting to read this at the time I read it.  It doesn't really provide any answers or solutions for how to get through depression.  What it does provide though is the sense that someone else knows how it feels not just to be struggling with darkness, but also to be in a situation that no one else seems to understand. 

This is a very short read.  When I downloaded it, I thought it would be longer.  But I'd recommend it to anyone who has dealt or is dealing with depression.  I'm tempted to suggest that anyone with loved ones affected by depression also read this, but I don't know that it would help.  I can't help but think that people who have never experienced true depression can ever have any sort of awareness or understanding about just how debilitating it can be. 
Overall, I felt this was well worth a read.

Monday, September 05, 2011

Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her

All I ever wanted was to be Nancy Drew.  Anything else that I ever claimed I wanted, it always led back to Nancy Drew.  She was smart and confident and always did what was right.  Even when others doubted her, she never doubted herself.  She drove a cool car and she had a couple of fun girlfriends and a really nice boyfriend who respected her. 

Most of all, she never hesitated when following her instinct.  When she wanted something, she went after it, she didn't sit around and worry about all that might go wrong.  The fear of failure didn't exist in Nancy Drew.  Nancy Drew never failed.  If she did, in any way, mess up, she was able to fix it, again, without hesitation.  She never spent hours in front of the mirror, only to decide later that it was better to just stay home.  She never took the easy or the safe route.  She never worried so much about rejection that she eventually decided life would be simpler if she just didn't try.

Nancy was everything I wanted to be.  As a child, I devoured those books, one after another.  My friend, Mollie, and I, kept a list of the ones we'd read.  Couldn't get enough of those books.  I had a set at home that my aunt had given me, they were the Grossett & Dunlop version, with greyish mauve covers, and each book had two stories.  I loved those books so much.  Then I started reading the Case Files and kept reading them until I got to college. 

I've had this book in the stack of books by my bed for a long time, a few years, maybe.  But I was waiting for the right mood before I picked it up.  When I want to sink into a book, I usually want fiction.  But with this book, I'd read a bit, set it aside, read something else, and then return to it for a while.  That's the thing with nonfiction, there isn't the same need to find out what happens because usually, you already know.

I knew all about Nancy having multiple authors.  Nerd that I was, I remember having my mom order the research material about Carolyn Keene from Encyclopedia Britannica. 

What I loved about this book is the way it explained Nancy's creation and evolution alongside the women's rights movement.  This book isn't just the history of Nancy Drew, but also a very thorough explanation of the history of the women's movement toward independence.  Women want to be strong and independent and when it felt like the whole world was telling them it was wrong to want that, they had Nancy Drew to serve as an example.  They read these books as a child, only to become adults who are told they need to be submissive to their husbands and stay at home and take care of babies.  They weren't satisfied with this.  Was Nancy solely responsible for this?  Of course not, but she did play an important role.  I think the problem is that most of us leave Nancy behind as we get older. 

I will admit to feeling more than a little bit of sadness at reading this.  I kept thinking of the child I was so many years ago, reading those Nancy Drew books, and I thought of how disappointed she would be with the person I've become.  That same child who, when not reading, was sitting at a typewriter or a sketching out pictures.  I was going to change the world with my words and my drawings.  But I didn't grow up to be Nancy Drew.  I don't solve mysteries or make great discoveries.  No one is in the least affected by my words or my paintings.  Nancy would not be pleased.       

As I finished reading the book, I found myself thinking of all things I could do, or should do and yet, I know that inspiration will fade soon after I've returned the book to the shelf, and I'll just go back to wishing I could be Nancy Drew.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Family Fang by Kevin Wilson

The reviews of this book led me to believe that it had a supernatural element.  When something is described as being like the Addams Family, I assume there's some magic or potions involved.  That was not the case, and because of that, I was a little disappointed.

This is still a fairly interesting read, just not what I was expecting or hoping for.

I've spent the weekend sick in bed, and the only reason I got out of bed on Saturday was to run to the library and pick this up.  I thought it would be perfect for getting my mind off the fact that I couldn't breathe.

It did hold my interest, and I read the entire book in one day.  I did stop a few times to sleep because all the allergy and sinus medicine was wearing me down.

This is the story of two parents completely devoted to what they call "art."  They go into random places and create chaos, film it, and consider the reaction to be "art."  As an art teacher and something of a wanna-be artist, I despise people who call nonsense like that "art."  I know this is fiction, but there are lots of people like that out there - and this is why so many other people hate "art."

In this case, the family has become famous for this, they get grants- enough money that they live rather well -- and have exhibits at museums. People study their work and write about them.  But in their devotion to their so-called art, they've used their children as props for years.

This story focuses quite a bit on the effect this has had on the children.  They, understandably, have some issues, and have had a difficult time becoming adults, independent of their parents.  Because of a series of problems they both suffer around the same time, they end up back at home and fear they have yet again been forced into their parents' "art."  Now, as adults, they need to figure out how to deal with this manipulation.

The only thing I didn't like about this book was the ending.  It seemed to be building up to something big, and it didn't happen.  The end was too simple and didn't produce the result it should have.  I was ready for something big and horrible.  That's probably why I read the entire book in almost one sitting, I was waiting for the big end that didn't really happen.

It's a pretty good book though, but as I said in the beginning, not at all what I expected.  I liked it, didn't love it, probably wouldn't have read it if I'd had a clearer idea as to what it was about.

Read:  Sept. 4, 2011

Saturday, August 27, 2011

One Day by David Nicholls

I'm not a big fan of romances, so I probably had no business reading this book.  However, I thought the previews for this movie seemed somewhat interesting, and my cousin mentioned wanting to see the movie, so I decided to read the book first.  Really wish I hadn't, and more than that, I'm angry that I spent ten dollars to put this on my Kindle.  At least if I'd waited for the library, it would have been free.  But there was a long waiting list, and I wanted to read it before the movie came out.

I didn't like this book at all. 

The first half of the book, I could sort of relate to Emma.  She seemed like someone struggling to figure out what she wanted to do with her life, she wanted to be a writer, and decided to be a teacher.  She felt like she was doing well as a teacher.  But then, almost exactly halfway through the book, at the beginning of chapter 10, I lost all interest in this character.  She's described as being on the floor, putting her clothes back on after having sex with the married headmaster of her school.  I'm so tired of reading about all these pathetic single women who are so desperate that they must have sex with married men, and in this case, he was her boss.  Had I not paid for this book, I would have stopped reading at this point.

The format of book is that one day in each year in Emma & Dexter's lives is described. The reader is supposed to see how their friendship evolves over the years. But I didn't see anything special happening between them. I saw two people stumbling through life, messing up more often than getting it right, who eventually ended up together because they'd burned all their bridges and no one else would have them.

Dexter was an arrogant jerk and Emma was a bit of loser. After a failed marriage and career, and a battle with drug and alcohol addiction, Dexter turns to Emma because no one else wants anything to do with him.

Stop reading this now if you plan to read the book yourself because I'm about to give away the end, which I found to be something of a shocker. (Haven't seen the movie, but I suspect it ends in a similar way.)

After Emma and Dexter finally end up together, and have been together for a few years, their relationship is described as something I felt was very bland and stagnant. I think it's supposed to sound comfortable and cozy. But I read it thinking, that's horrible, I'd rather be single than have that. If I'm going to spend my life with someone, I want to be crazy about that person. And that might mean I'll be single forever, but that's a chance I'm willing to take. But a few paragraphs later, Emma gets hit while riding her bicycle and dies. I think I was supposed to cry or at least be upset, but instead I thought, she's much better off than being stuck in that dull relationship with Dexter.

I didn't like this book at all, I didn't find it romantic or at all passionate. It's what happens when two people decide to give up on life and settle for whatever is available.

Read: August 27, 2011

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

A Small Fortune by Audrey Braun

I saw this book advertised on Amazon Kindle's facebook page.  A thriller, described as a great beach read, for only 2.99.

It is exactly as described, a great beach read, and well worth the $2.99.

A woman goes to Mexico on vacation with her husband and son and ends up getting kidnapped.   She soons discovers that nothing is as it seems.  Very fast paced story, lots of adventure, some violence, a bit of romance. 

And to keep it from being just the usual trashy romance/thriller, there's a nice bit of feminism tossed in there.  The main character had spent most of her life dependent on others, and then she begins to learn aobut the women in her family, and how strong they were and what they had to fight against and she realizes that she has the strength to do the same.  A little sappy, maybe, but I liked it.  Sometimes it takes a horrible experience to make a woman realize that she doesn't need a man to take care of her.

It's not great literature, isn't going to change the world, but it kept me entertained while I was outside working on my tan.  I liked it.

Read August 16, 2011

Friday, August 12, 2011

Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven

I first read about this book on Oprah's website, something about travel books.  I thought this sounded like something I would enjoy because I love to travel, and am always searching for travel books to learn about other people's experiences with travel.  This is the story of two young women, just out of college who decide to visit China in the mid-80s, when people are just being allowed to visit. 

The story intrigued me because when I was younger, my plan had been to travel the world as soon as I finished college.  That didn't happen.  I instead got a job right after college and was 28 the first time I left the country, much too old to  have any desire to do the backpacking/hostels, student budget sort of traveling.  I'm a grown-up, I only stay in nice hotels.  But I've always been curious about what I missed by not traveling when I was younger.  This book provides a glimpse into one of those adventures on which I missed out.

I couldn't put this book down.  The story is so interesting and very well written.

I admire the courage these two women had, even if they were terribly naive and had no idea as to what to expect when they arrived in China.  They were determined to discover the "real" China.  No Holiday Inns or Hiltons.  This was before the internet and the ever so valuable TripAdvisor.  They had only a Lonely Planet guide to provide recommendations.  Based on the descriptions of some of their lodging choices, it sounds absolutely miserable, and I was glad I was reading about it, and not experiencing it.  Gave me a whole new appreciation for my own travel choices - my style being, the more modern the better.  I enjoy learning about the history and seeing the locations and such, but when I'm in my hotel room, I want to be very much in the present.

As if navigating through a foreign land, with no real plan or understanding of the language wasn't difficult enough, the real problem, the author eventually discovered, was her companion's mental health.  They didn't know each other very well before they took this trip.  They were college friends -- you know how that works, you hang out together, you think you have lots in common because, well, you're at the same school, you take the same classes, you have the same brave, bold ideas about conquering the world, but once you enter the "real world" - set off the college campus, things change.  Claire begins to show the classic signs of schizophrenia, but Susie (the author) is in denial, thinking it's just mood swings, the discomforts of foreign travel and homesickness.  Then she can't deny it anymore.

What I liked most about this is the way the author presents her surroundings and the people she meets along the way.  For me, as someone who travels alone quite a bit, the kindness of strangers is what rang most true in this story.  My philosophy is that if you take the initiative to actually step out of your comfort zone and attempt to discover the world, the Universe will help you out along the way when you get in trouble.  (Of course, news stories will confirm this is not always true, sometimes awful things happen and there isn't anyone there to help you.)  But in my experience, I find that anytime I've been lost or confused, someone takes the time to point me in the right direction, and anytime I've been lonely or feeling abandoned, someone seems to appear and next thing I know I'm spending the evening with a new friend.  Someday I hope to write my own collection of travel stories, but until then, I will happily read stories like this.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

This has been on my "to read" list for years, like, most of my life.  I've always felt like something of a poser among my friends for not having read it because it's the sort of book that they've all read, that one would think I would have read, but for some reason, hadn't.  I have a big, fancy, copy of the book, the Essential Hitchhiker's Guide, that include this book and all the sequels, and I keep waiting for the right time to read it.

A while back, I found a paperback copy of the book for $1.50.  I thought that would be easier to take with me when I traveled.  So this summer, when I went to Europe, I packed my paperback copy of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy so that I would have something to read when I didn't have my Kindle with me.

I loved the book.  It's silly and funny and interesting and yet, still very relevant.  For example, while I was on my trip, I was waiting for a concert to begin at a stadium.  It's the sort of event for which you arrive early to get a good spot and then sit around and wait and wait and wait for hours be allowed into the venue and then wait and wait and wait some more before the show starts.  Because it had been raining off and on during the trip, I didn't want to take my Kindle, so I had my Hitchhiker's Guide.  I happened to be reading the part about towels.  A towel is essential, you must have a towel with you - according to the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.  I put down my book and looked around me, and what I noticed were towels.  The smart people had towels.  They were sitting on towels, using towels to wipe the sweat from their faces, using towels to clean their hands (because everyone seemed to bring enough food to last for weeks during these events).  Towels everywhere.  The people who didn't have a towel were asking to borrow other people's towels or wishing they had a towel. 

As those familiar with the book know, the answer to everything is 42.  Here's a little story about me, when I was a teenager, I only had one real crush on an actual boy (as opposed to a celebrity), and my one big, huge, ridiculous, unrequited crush was on a boy who wore the number 42 on his football jersey.  I always think of that when I think about the number 42.  Was it the answer to everything?  Not really, but it certainly seemed like it for a few years of my young life.   

My only issue with the book is that my $1.50 paperback completely fell apart when I was reading it outside.  At one point, there were pages flying all over the backyard. Glad I bought it on clearance -- and it was brand new, not something I bought at a used bookstore -- but not exactly high quality.  This version of the book did have quit a bit at the end about the making of the movie, which was somewhat interesting, as I'm a big fan of the movie.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

The Hand that First Held Mine by Maggie O'Farrell

I picked this up on a trip to the library during which I had no idea what I wanted.  Sort of like entering a grocery store hungry, without a list.  I just wanted a book, something fiction, not too heavy, but still interesting.

I went straight to the new release section, looked through a few books, checked out about three of them.  This was the one I decided to read first because I thought, based on the book's blurb, that this was a story about independent women succeeding in a difficult world and all that.  I like stories about strong women, especially when those women are involved in art and/or writing, which these women were.

There are two story lines happening - one is a young family, with an infant, trying to figure out parenthood, this is happening in the present, the other story takes place in the past and is about a young woman named Lexie who leaves homes and goes to London to make it on her own.

I'm not big on the whole motherhood thing.  I believe women are capable of doing much more than just being mothers and because I have that belief, it was very difficult for me to like this book because it focuses so much on the idea of motherhood and how there is nothing more important in the world than caring for a baby.

I found the descriptions of the new parents to be rather horrifying, so much detail about spit-up and diaper changing.  Yuck.  And these were parents who sort of accidentally got pregnant, and that annoys me also.  I have no patience for people who think it's okay to haphazardly bring children into the world.

But what bothered me much more was the story of Lexie.  I get the impression that I'm supposed to think of her as vibrant and strong and willful.  But to me, she seemed like nothing more than a woman who gained almost all of her success by sleeping with important men.  I find women like that to be an insult to women who actually get ahead based on their hard work.  Lexie didn't know anything, didn't have any skills when she moved to London, so she hooked up with a married man who ran a magazine.  He hired her and trained her and it's supposed to be a great love story, but I don't think there's anything more pathetic than women who have affairs with married men.  Doesn't matter that his wife was evil and the daughter wasn't really his.  He was simply weak for remaining in the situation and Lexie was an idiot for going along with it.

Then he dies, and Lexie is on her own for a while, until she begins an affair with a successful newsman.  But she wants nothing more to do with him after she gets pregnant.  Again, I get the impression I'm supposed to view her behavior as being independent, but she just seems a bit childish and selfish.  I will never understand why women get involved with men and then have children fathered by men that they think are such jerks.  That makes the women seem as foolish as the men with which they are involved.  But we're led to believe that Lexie is an amazing mother, always dragging her child to work assignments with her - because, you know, that's good for children?

Point being, I didn't like this character, and being that she was the main character and eventually both story lines led directly to her and her greatness, I didn't like the book very much.

I thought the characters behaved unreasonably.  The young father in the current day storyline seemed like a bit of an idiot, when he finally finds out the truth about his past, I don't think he and his father acted fairly toward the woman who raised him.  I don't want to give away what happens, in case you want to read the book.  It's something of a surprise, though most readers probably figured it out before it's all revealed.

I didn't like this book much, I didn't like any of the characters in this book and sort of wished I hadn't bothered to read this book.  

Thursday, August 04, 2011

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

I read this because I kept seeing ads for the movie, and I always want to read the book before I watch the movie. 

I liked the book.  I thought it was a very interesting story and it had interesting characters.

However, a lot of people that I respect have had issues with the story.  Big, huge issues, claiming the story is horrible because it's told from the perspective of a white woman.  While I can see their point, I also think they may be getting a bit angrier than necessary.

Yes, the story is told from the perspective of a white woman, and that's made clear.  Also, at several points in the story, the women point out their discomfort at having a white woman "helping" them, they feel like it's their story, not hers.  More importantly though, I felt like the white woman telling the story goes through the process of acknowledging her privilege, and realizing that things are wrong and needed to change.  Skeeter knows that she's putting herself and these women telling their stories in danger.  While one can say a white woman shouldn't have been the one to tell the story, wouldn't it have been almost impossible during that time for a black woman to get a story published?  Maybe I'm wrong in assuming that.  Skeeter had the resources and the time to write the stories.  I don't think she ever acted as if she believed she was doing these women a favor because it was benefiting her as much as them.

I thought this was a nice story about a woman who, after attending college, returns home and realizes that things are not right in her community or her own home, for that matter. She has the choice of becoming just another Southern housewife, or becoming the person she needs to be, someone who wants to make a difference in the world. This is also about forming friendships between women of different ages and backgrounds and races. But mostly, this is the story about "The Help" - the women who cleaned the houses and raised the children of the white families. Most of them were in some pretty bad situations, and yet, they didn't have many other options with regard to finding work.

I liked that this story made people aware of a situation that a lot of people probably didn't know much about.  I find it difficult to complain about anything that makes people more aware of injustices and the need for civil rights.  At the same time, this was an entertaining story.  It doesn't set itself up to be a documentary, and certainly there may be some inaccuracies, but I didn't see anything harmful about the book or the movie, for that matter.

I'm the first to admit that my knowledge about the deep south is fairly limited so I did find this somewhat eye-opening.  I enjoyed the book and the movie, which I watched the week after I finished reading the book. I didn't love it, but I liked it quite a bit.

Friday, July 08, 2011

High Fidelity

I finished reading The Hunger Games trilogy over the weekend.  Devoured the last two books and then was faced with that horrible, horrible feeling of knowing that whatever I read next is going to be disappointing.  I spent all day just looking through the books in my shelves - disappointed with everything I picked up.  (And yes, that's what I did all day, it's one of the advantages of not having any real responsibilities.)  I seem to buy mostly non-fiction books, but at the moment I was craving fiction, wanting entertainment and escape, not education.  I couldn't even go to the library to look because they were closed for July 4th. 

I have a stack of books on the floor by my bed. (I sort of have books all over my house.)  Initially, that stack was supposed to be the books I wanted to read right away.  But it doesn't always work out like that.  In fact, a few of the books are a little dusty.  I get distracted with new books and library books. 

But then I noticed a copy of High Fidelity in that stack of books. 
I saw the movie High Fidelity years ago,the weekend it opened (I remember I went with my friend Caroline and I'd just returned from a trip to Chicago).  Because I liked the movie, I picked up a copy of the book at Half Price Books.  But then I never got around to reading it.  Since then, I've read a few other books by Nick Hornby and I've enjoyed all of them.  Fast reads, interesting characters.

This is about Rob, a single guy who owns a record store.  He's just broken up with his girlfriend and he's trying to figure out what to do next.  I liked this book for the same reason I've enjoyed other books by this author.  I understand these characters.  They're the kind of people I hang out with.  All the crazy things going through Rob's head as he's trying to decide what he wants or who he wants and why he wants what he wants make sense to me.  Maybe my friends and I are just weirdos, but the conversations that take place in the book are not that different from some of the late night conversations my friends and I have had.

I like how Hornby finds the humor in real life situations.  He recognizes that life is funny a lot of the time.  Not stupid funny, but absurd, "I can't believe this is really happening" funny.  But it's also serious and sad in parts.  It's about growing up and figuring out what you want to do with your life.  Maybe I can relate a little too well.  But I enjoyed the book quite a bit.  Can't believe it took me so long to read it.  Now I'm telling all my friends they need to read it -- like it's a brand new book when in fact, it's been out for years.

Planning to watch the movie on Friday, but as I was thinking of a London theme for the movie watching get together, I was reminded that the movie takes place in Chicago, not London, like in the book.  It's been so long since I've watched the movie, I remember only that I liked it.  I don't remember it well enough to compare it to the book, which is why I'm watching it again tomorrow. 

I consider this a must read, especially for single people in their mid-thirties, and people who love things like music and books and movies as much as they love other people.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

As soon as I finished reading Catching Fire, I had to download Mockingjay.  I pity the people who read these when they first came out and had to wait for the third book.  That would have driven me crazy.

At this point in the story, the Districts are rebelling against the Capital.  The rebel forces, led by District 13, want Katniss to be their Mockingjay, a symbol of the revolution.  Their revolution is going to be televised. 

Her home is gone, the entire District 12 bombed and burned to the ground.  While she agrees to be their leader - at least in appearances - she's growing tired of being used, lied to and manipulated.  She bristles against the strict lifestyle of District 13, doesn't get along with their president and Peeta is being held hostage by the Capital. 

I couldn't put this book down.  I read all day.  I didn't even stop to eat.  I couldn't stop reading. 

Near the end, I got a little confused as they were traveling through tunnels trying to reach the President's mansion.  I was having trouble visualizing some of what was happening, but not so much trouble that I didn't still enjoy the story. 

I loved these characters so much.  Not just the main characters of Katniss and Peeta, but also Finnick and Johanna and Boggs. 

Several of my students told me they cried at the end of the book.  This had me worried, I was imagining something absolutely horrible.  The end is very sad, but it wasn't what I imagined and for that I was a little relieved.

This book is very violent -- they are fighting a revolution -- and it deals with some very heavy subject matter.  But it makes it clear why the uprising was necessary.  These people had to be taken out of power.

While this story is a fantasy about a futuristic world, it can also serve as something of a cautionary tale.  Our obsession with reality TV and contests that involve people being humiliated.  Even the parts about how the victors had to develop a talent -- it made me think of how the people on reality shows such as "Real Housewives" do things like write cook books and design handbags.  Also, something that struck me is the disparity between the wealthy and the working class people.  It's the direction in which this country is moving as the middle class disappears.  How far will it go?  Kind of scary to think about. 

Now that I've read the entire series, I'm at a loss at trying to figure out what to read next.  Whatever follows is bound to be a disappointment, and I can't think of anything similar that I might enjoy. I'm quite concerned about this at the moment. I know, what a difficult life I lead.  

Friday, July 01, 2011

Catching Fire

When I discussed reading this series with my students, several of the boys said I should just skip the second book and go straight to the third book. Well, I didn't listen to them because that would be silly. When I asked them why, they couldn't give me a clear answer, the best I got out of them was, "It's just not that good."

I liked this book, I actually liked this book a lot more than Hunger Games. I started this book a while back, and then set it aside and read a few other books. (Mostly because I had this on my Kindle and tend to read the Kindle when I'm away from home. When I'm home I read actual books, and I had several I needed to finish now that I'm home for summer vacation.)

When I went back to reading this though, I couldn't put it down. I was probably on chapter two or three when I started back on this book Friday and I read until I finished it. This book has more of the romance I'd hoped for in the first book, but in noticing that, I could understand why the boys might have skipped this. My students are fourteen and fifteen year old boys and I can just imagine the looks on their faces when they read that Peeta climbs into Katniss' bed to comfort her after while she's having nightmares. I'm kind of surprised the boys even kept reading the book after that scene. Books 1 & 3 (which I read as soon as I finished this book) focus more on fighting and war, so of course these boys enjoyed that more.

But I liked this book. Katniss and Peeta are forced back into the Hunger Games, this time with other past victors -- to show that even the strongest cannot escape the power of the Capital. But this isn't enough to stop the uprisings in the Districts, influenced by Katniss' defiance of the Gamemakers at the end of the first book.

Lots of action, the story keeps you guessing, likable characters, and enough romance to make me happy, not so much to ick me out.

I'm going to recommending these books to everyone.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

A while back, during a drive to and from Austin, I listened to the audio book, The Paris Wife, about Hemingway's wife in Paris.  That sparked my interest in Hemingway.  After I finished The Paris Wife, I went to Half Price Books and bought a copy of A Moveable Feast, with the intention of reading it right away.  But I got distracted and the book remained on the floor next to the couch for the next two months.

Then I recently started hearing about the new Woody Allen movie, Midnight in Paris, and I kept hearing about how bits of the dialogue were taken from Hemingway's Moveable Feast.  I figured before I watched the movie, maybe I should read the book (though I've been told the movie is completely enjoyable without having read Moveable Feast.) 

Today, I wanted to spend some time out in the sun reading, so I decided to pick up this book off the floor where it has sat since I went out that night and bought it -- so much for having to have it right then.

I've only read one other book by Hemingway, that being A Farewell to Arms.  I love that book, but a lot of people I know do not enjoy Hemingway's work.  But I have to say, I like Moveable Feast quite a bit.

The writing is very sparse, very to the point, which I know is what some of the complaints are with regard to Hemingway's writing.  But it works so well with these stories.

These are his memories of his days in Paris, as a young writer, before he became well known or successful.  (Same time period covered in the book The Paris Wife which is why I initially had wanted to read it.)  In the preface he explains that the stories could very well be fiction.  (They're being written about 40 years after the events happened.)  During the time period this story covers, he was very young and ambitious and very poor.  He was newly married, with a baby.  He spent his days in cafes, working on his writing.  He spent his evenings drinking with other famous writers and artists - the Lost Generation.

Most of all though, it's the story of Paris.  His writing details the streets he walks, the restaurants and parks he visits.  Having been to Paris a few times and being very much in love with the city, I enjoyed remembering these locations and visualizing them as the stories unfolded.  This was after the war, when Paris was rebuilding and people could live there, and live well, for very little money.  He emphasizes that he didn't make much money on his writing as a reporter, but they still had a place to live, money for bread and good wine and time for fun.  They could afford to travel and gamble.  They hiked and skied and they enjoyed their life despite being rather poor financially.

In the end, it was success and the money that came with it that destroyed the happy world of Paris in which he and his wife lived.  "I wish I had died before I ever loved anyone but her," he writes of his first wife, forty something years after he fell in love with someone else. 

There are so many beautiful lines in this book.  Had I not been lying outside in the sun reading, I would have been obnoxiously underlining passages.  From his descriptions of his own writing process, I get the impression he did a lot of self editing, which is probably the result of what is considered his stark prose.  But it's beautiful in this context.

I would recommend this book to anyone interested in writing, because he writes quite a bit about what it took to become a writer, or anyone interested in Paris and especially to anyone interested in the so-called Lost Generation of Paris in the 20s.  This book is full of mentions of people such as Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound, Sherwood Anderson and Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald.

And on the subject of Fitzgerald, the story about him and Hemingway taking a trip to a from Lyon would make a hilarious movie.  Why hasn't that been done yet?  Hemingway gets on the train, thinking Fitzgerald is on it, only to have the train leave without Fitzgerald.  They finally meet up in Lyon, and go to retrieve the Fitzgerald's car, which has had the top removed because, "Zelda doesn't like tops on cars."  They have to keep stopping because it keeps raining on them, and then Fitzgerald decides he's dying of a fever and expects Ernest to take care of him.  Then he's upset because he's never spent a night away from his wife (except, as Ernest can't help noticing, he wasn't with her the night before because the two of them were in Lyon together.)  Very funny.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Private Patient by P.D. James

I consider P.D. James to be one of my favorite writers.  I started reading her books back when I was in high school and since then I've always known I could depend on her for a quality story.

I bought this as soon as it was released and then set it aside, waiting until I had time to read it.  These are the sort of books to which you want to devote solid, consecutive hours.  There are lots of characters and lots of details. 

Well, I started this book, and then set it aside because I wanted to read something that became available at the library, and then I was reading a book on my Kindle because I took a trip, and point being, it felt like it took me forever to get through this book.  It's easy to put down because it seems to move fairly slow.  Problem was, I found myself at times confused by all the characters and their connections to each other.

This wasn't one of my favorite books by James.  I'm used to her writing and I like her writing style, so all the details and character background didn't bother me, but I wouldn't recommend this to someone who hasn't previously read her work.  I tend to like the way she develops such a complex world for her characters.  But this time, it felt like a little too much. Maybe because I was never able to devote large blocks of time to the book, it didn't flow all that well for me.

Some of the coincidences seemed a little ridiculous.  There were too many side storylines.  Just as I'd get interested in the case and it's progression, the next page would be a different place entirely, another character's dilemna.  I started to find that bothersome.  And as a long time admirer of Adam Dalgliesh, I suppose I should be happy for him now that he's in a relationship.  But the more I learned about the relationship in this book, the more annoyed I became.  It began to sound like he was marrying a naive little girl and that kind of creeped me out. 

Also, the book tries to tie up all the loose ends for everyone in the story.  By the end of the book, I was just thinking, "End already." 

Overall though, I enjoyed the book, but I think it could have benefited from some heavy editing.

Finished reading June 18, 2011, 1 a.m.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

I teach at a high school, and before I downloaded the book, I asked my students if any of them had read it.  The response was very positive.  And it might help to know that my kids are not big readers.  Several kids told me it was the first book they'd ever read for fun. 

I was trying to decide on a book to download to my Kindle on a trip that was going to involve several hours in an airport and on a plane.  It was only $5, and I wanted something quick and interesting that would keep me distracted from the drudgery that is air travel.  This worked quite well.

I knew this was a popular book, and that it was the first of a series and that they are now making a movie about it, but I had no idea what the book was about.
In the beginning, I was startled by how harsh this story was.  I read the first chapter or two and wasn't sure I wanted to continue.  A reality show in which people fight to the death?  And the contestants are forced into it against their will by a tyrannical government?  Oh my.  Wasn't expecting this. 

And then I paused and thought about the things I read when I was a teenager -- books by Christopher Pike - filled with sex and drugs and demons and vampires and zombies and murder, always a murder of some sort - and Joan Lowry Nixon's stories that seemed to always involve someone being stalked or kidnapped and any other book I could find that involved a criminal or supernatural element or preferably both.

So really, I shouldn't be surprised to find that a book for teens is a bit harsh.  Teens need this to stay interested, and they're at a point in their lives where they are just beginning to grasp the concept of "big adult" ideas like death and violence.  Maybe.

I will say this book completely held my interest.  I loved the characters.  As an adult, I found myself sort of wishing for a bit more romance -- but my students told me in advance that I'd find none of that here - nothing more than a few hints.  That was okay though. 

The story is intense.  The main character, Katniss, is such an admirable character.  She's loyal and smart and skilled and she is literally fighting for her life. I don't want to give away too much in describing the book.  Lots of twists and turns in the storyline.  It's nonstop action and I enjoyed it very much.

I didn't finish the book on my trip, and carried my Kindle around in my purse for quite a while and would take it out and read it every chance I got -- between acts at concerts, during halftime at basketball games, my lunch break at school.  I finished the book while I was sick in bed, and immediately downloaded the second book of the series, I liked it that much. (And nothing to do with the book, but I love my Kindle and being able to get a new book without ever leaving my bed or even having to turn on the bedside light.) 

However, I should warn reader, I had some fairly awful nightmares after finishing this book -- trapped at the end of the world and desperate for water - granted I was sick and running a fever and taking all kinds of cold and allergy medicine to try to get through the last week of school, but still, they were some frightening dreams. But it takes a well written story to leave that kind of impression, right?

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

I kept seeing this book mentioned in places.  Then it won the Pulitzer and I decided to see if it was available at the library.  It was and I decided to grab it before there was a long waiting list for it, as I knew there would be once there was more press about the Pulitzer.

The book doesn't read like a novel, but rather a bunch of short stories about some of the same people.  There lives intersect at different points.  And the stories are not in chronological order.  The stories are interesting and I enjoyed reading them.  However, I felt like I was reading the introduction to a story and the actual story never happened.  We meet all these people, we learn a little bit about them, but nothing much happens to them.

What I wanted to do, after I'd finished reading the book, is go back through the story and map out who was in what story and where their lives crossed.  Then maybe it would have made more sense - but the book was due at the library, and by then there was a long waiting list.  I don't mind paying late fees, but I don't want to be the jerk holding onto the book everyone is waiting to read.

Most of the stories take place in New York, and involve people in the music or entertainment industry.  I found this of interest because that's a field with which I'm familiar and I've spent a lot of time in the East Village.  I thought the past stories were much stronger than the future stories.  I found the stories that took place well into the future to be a little silly.  She was trying to make a statement about social media and smart phones and our dependency on technology and maybe she's accurate, but right now, it seems too out there.

There were a few moments in which the characters reflected on growing older -- "being visited by the goon squad" -- hence the title -- which I found to be especially poignant.  These people wanted so much out of their lives and often it didn't quite work out. 

I was also bothered by the whole, bad girl makes good bit.  Runaway teenage prostitute, kleptomaniac who turns into the perfect mom in the perfect marriage.  Stories like that just make me roll my eyes.  This story took up so much of the end of the book and it caused me like the story less than I might have otherwise.  I thought there were more interesting characters on which to focus.

But I like that it was different, and it made me think and it made me want to revisit the book at some point.  And it's a book that I wanted to talk about and really wish some of my friends would read it, but that seldom happens.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Composed: A Memoir by Rosanne Cash

A teacher at school noticed me reading this book during a break and said, "Oh, I love Johnny Cash.  Is that book any good?"

"It's very good, " I said.  That's all I said, because I needed to get back to my classroom and didn't feel like explaining that this was a book by Rosanne Cash, about Rosanne Cash.  If she wanted a story about Johnny Cash, there are probably plenty out there, but this isn't one of them.  And besides all that, it wasn't like I was going to let her borrow this book, she's had my copy of Girl with the Dragon Tattoo since October, so I'm certainly not letting her have any more of my books.

If someone is wanting a book full of dark family secrets and confessions, this is probably not the book for you.  I'm sure that Rosanne Cash could have written something like that, if she'd chosen.  I'm going to guess she has plenty of stories she could tell, and it would be within her right, because those stories are a part of her life.  But instead she remains on a higher ground, showing respect for her family and choosing to keep their worst moments private.

While she hints at the pain caused by divorce and the addictions that haunted members of her family, she leaves out the details.  Instead of a sordid celebrity tell-all, this book is instead a series of essays about her reflections on the events of her life.  She writes less about the actual events and more about the way these events have affected her thoughts and her actions.  She writes about how she's approached life's milestones - living on her own for the first time, establishing her career as a musician and a writer, falling in love, becoming a wife and a mother, falling in love again, becoming a mother to a son, losing parents and other loved ones, and learning to forgive.  She writes beautifully about these events and the way that she turned to art and music and examined her own ideas and beliefs and paid attention to her dreams. 

After reading about how she listened to Miles Davis while painting, I started playing Kind of Blue for my students while they worked. 

I've always been a fan of her music, which is why my sister gave me a copy of this book for Christmas.  But after reading this book, I've gained a new respect for her.  Shortly after reading this book -- I was able to see her perform in Fort Worth at the Main Street Arts Festival.  (And if you don't already follow her on twitter, I very much recommend you do, she's funny and smart.)

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Portobello by Ruth Rendell

I'm a huge Ruth Rendell fan and will read anything she writes.   This book was recommended on a travel site when someone said they were looking for a book about London.  London is one of my favorite cities, so I was anxious to read this.  But I didn't find it to paint that clear of a picture of the city.  I've read other books by Rendell that I thought did a better job. 

I would not list this as one of my favorite Rendell books.  It took me forever to read this, I kept setting it aside and reading something else.  The characters were so strange, almost a bit too strange.  The novel has several different characters, only casually connected to each other.  The focus is on their different addictions, habits and obsessions.

One of the main characters seems to be obsessed with a particular kind of sugar free candy.  And he makes such a big deal about this.  He's worried others will be aware of his so-called addiction and fears that he has so break the habit before he gets married.  I couldn't quite grasp what the big deal was.  It was candy.  Who isn't a bit addicted to candy?   I guess the point wasn't that it was candy, but that he felt he couldn't live without it. 

There wasn't much action to the story, which is probably why I had no issue with setting the book aside for weeks at a time.  The characters are fairly well-developed, this is one of Rendell's strong points.  But I didn't like most of the characters, and wasn't especially concerned when bad things happened to some of them.

I did find the ending to be very nice though and was glad I stuck with the book.  Seems like the last few Rendell books, I found myself horrified by the endings and wishing I'd not spent so much time with the book, this was just the opposite.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender

It was the cover and the title that drew me to this book.  I noticed it while wandering around a bookstore one day.  It sounded interesting.  Rose takes a bite of lemon cake one day and can feel the emotions of the person who baked the cake.  Luckily, I didn't buy the book and instead waited until it was available at the library. 

As much as I was looking forward to reading this, I was quite let down by the actual experience of reading it.

The story had potential.  Rose has a rather bizarre ability.  But it felt like three fourths of the book just described this curse and how she coped.  It was described in such a way that it began to not make any sense at all.  I can understand a feeling of sadness or anger.  But the author goes on and on about how she can tell the exact location of where the cheese was made, where the cows were born, if the factory workers had a fight with their spouse.  It got ridiculous.  Maybe I'm just having a bit of trouble suspending belief, but if this sense, curse, or whatever it was, really affected the way something tasted, after a while wouldn't a person simply become accustomed to it? 

Another thing that bothered me about the book is that Rose is almost nine years old when she discovers this, but she understands it at the same level as an adult would.  I tend to not like books about young children who are presented as adults.  I spend much of my life with teenagers and while I do view them as fairly intelligent and knowledgeable about many things, I can't imagine them examining feelings in such a way, so I certainly can't imagine a nine year old doing so.  Nothing else in the book indicated that she was especially intelligent.

Her brother though is described as a genius, and yet, he can't get into any of the schools he wants to attend.  Her brother seems to suffer from some rather severe anti-social issues.  And yet, he has a mother who adores him, and a father that always tries to do what is best for his family.  The brother's issue is never fully explained, and in the end it's all just very, very confusing.

I'm generally a fan of magical realism.  But in this case, it didn't quite work for me.  Everything else was so simple and normal, and throwing in these bits of surrealism felt awkward.  I wasn't able to suspend my belief enough to accept this story.  I kept thinking maybe the supernatural abilities mentioned were a metaphor of some sort, but if that was the case I never quite figured it out.  I kept reading, waiting for the big reveal, the deep, dark secret that must be triggered all these bizarre experiences, but again, never happened.

There wasn't much action in the story.  The characters, despite their odd abilities, lived very dull lives.  I kept waiting for the story to begin, for the action to happen.  It never did.  And in the end I was very disappointed because none of it made sense.

The characters are sad and confused, but they do nothing to try and improve their situation.  They remain very childlike in the lack of knowledge that life gets better as a person gets older, that a person doesn't have to remain crushed by the weight of their parents' experiences, that the opportunity to move on a create a life of one's own is available.  That rant there comes from the ending of the book, when Rose tries to justify her brother's behavior.  Life had become too much.  But why?  There's never an explanation.

I found the story frustrating.  I needed more of an explanation as to why things happened.  I think this story could have been interesting, but wasn't.

I really don't recommend this book.  Despite the pretty cover, with the delicious looking piece of cake, the story was rather bland and lacking flavor.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Paris Wife by Paula McClain

Put Paris in the title, and I'm automatically interested.  Set the story during the twenties, the Jazz Age/Lost Generation, and feature characters such as Scott and Zelda, Gertrude and Alice and Ernest Hemingway and yeah, it's being added to the "to be read" list.  I'm fascinated by that time period.

This story cut to the top of my "to be read" list when I needed an audiobook for my drive to Austin.  So many hours in the car, have to try to be productive with my time.  So I checked out a few audiobooks that have been on my ever growing "to be read" list.  I was so happy to see this available, as the book is fairly new and there is usually a long waiting list for new books. 

I really enjoyed this story.  Easily passed the time during the drive, and I barely noticed as I sat in a huge traffic snare on the way home.  (I believe it took about an hour and a half to move less than ten miles.) 

I admit I don't know a lot about Hemingway.  Of his work, I've only read a few short stories and A Farewell to Arms - which I consider one of my favorite books.  But most people are familiar with the idea of Hemingway, "a man's man", a fighter and hunter, served in the war and traveled around the world.  This is the story of his early twenties, while living in Paris, as told through the eyes of his wife.
Hadley is the "Paris wife," the first of four wives he would eventually have.  She was the one who was with him before he became known as one of the greatest writers of his generation.  She was with him when all he had was his dreams and ideas, when they lived in a small apartment above a dance hall in Paris because it was all they could afford. 

Hadley's 29 when she meets the handsome 21 year old Ernest Hemingway.  Already he's a character, well known among his group of friends as being something of a ladies man.  Hadley's friends try to warn her away from him, but she falls hard for this man.  Even at 21, he possessed the qualities that turned him into the myth that the world would eventually know.  He was passionate and strong.  Hadley had lived a sheltered life, she'd been devastated by the suicide of her father and the death of her sister.  Her attempt at attending college had been short-lived.  She lived with her mother and cared for her until she died.  Hemingway represented everything that was missing from Hadley's life.  Despite being younger than her, he'd already seen much of the world, having served in the war and been wounded.  He'd already been in love and had his heart broken.  He was ready to take on the world, while Hadley was still hesitate to enter a world outside of her home.

Newly married, they have plans to move to Rome, but then Hemingway is told Paris is the place to be - that's where all the writers and the artists are living now.  So they move to Paris and become friends with Ezra Pound and his wife, and Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas.  In the beginning though, this is simply the story of a couple in the early stages of marriage, still learning about each other and getting used to their living arrangements, as Ernest is trying to establish himself as a writer.  Unlike Ernest, Hadley doesn't have any grand ambitions.  She wants a simple life, she wants a happy home and to please her husband.  As depicted in this book, she is a sharp contrast to the other women in their social circle.  This was a time in which the women in Paris were seeking their independence, trying to become equal partners with the men in their lives, selecting their own careers and interests.  Also this was a time in which couples were openly and boldly redefining long-held ideas about relationships.  Hadley's own desires seemed old-fashioned and out of place and as some of her friends commented, "Very American."

As someone who can't relate to the yearning to have a simple life and family, I had trouble relating to Hadley.  She seemed much too dependent on her husband, and weak.  She allowed him to make all the decisions about their life together.  I couldn't help but cringe when she describes him keeping track of her menstrual cycle in a notebook.  She's a 31 year old woman at the time, allowing her 22 year old husband to tell her when and how to use birth control.  She seems content to hand over all of her autonomy, without question, and does so because she loves her husband so much.

As Hemingway becomes more successful and more involved in their circle of friends, he begins to feel entitled to live as the others do.  Suddenly his wife isn't enough for him.  Why can't he do like his friends and have a girl on the side?  Everyone else is doing it.  And so he begins an affair with one of Hadley's friends.  An affair which Hadley tolerates, even allowing this woman into their home and into their bed in one especially horrible instance.  She seems to do this because she feels she has no other choice, she loves her husband so much and after years of doing as he wants, doesn't seem to know how to do otherwise.

Considering that Hemingway's future relationships didn't work out too well, I have to wonder if maybe a better way of loving him might have been to exert some force, to take back some control and issue a few demands.  Maybe Hadley could have saved her marriage as well as her husband.  But that wasn't the kind of person she was.  So instead, she agreed to a divorce so he could marry his mistress.

I don't know how accurate the story is.  I don't know that it matters.  Some reviews I've read of the book say it's too romantic and sentimental.  But isn't that sort of fitting with the story of Hemingway?  Shouldn't a story about him and those who loved him be a bit extreme?  I wasn't looking for a dry, textbook version of their story.  With this book, I got exactly what I was hoping for, a romantic story about two people very much in love with each other who did their best to make things work, but ultimately failed.  But more than that, this novel painted a picture of a time period that I revisit as often as possible through literature and film, a Paris filled with artists and intellectuals, people trying to change the world or create their own brand new world, using their words and art.  The story is written in such a way that readers become easily immersed in the Roaring Twenties of Paris, the words recreating the energy that much have existed within that atmosphere, ideas drifting in and out of cafes and salons. 

And now I'm off to find a copy of Moveable Feast to read about Ernest's version of this time period.

Finished: March 18, 2011