Sunday, July 31, 2005

Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

I’m going to start this review by explaining that I probably should have never read this book to begin with. This book is considered to be a love story involving time travel -- and I don’t especially like love stories, and I despise the idea of time travel. But on my frequent visits to the library, I’m trying to branch out some and read some different types of book. It’s on all the displays at the bookstores and keeps recommending the book to me. You’d think Amazon knows me by now. You’d think…

So first I’ll explain my dislike of time travel, which may have severely tempered my opinion of this book. In general, I’m okay with science fiction and fantasy, in small doses. But the concept of time travel is absurd to me. Absolutely and completely impossible. So why bother writing about it or thinking about it? I spend at least 50% of my life thinking about what I would do differently if could do it over. Time travel. That’s the ultimate dream for me. To be eighteen again, so many different choices I would have made, all the times I would have yes instead of no or maybe later. All the chances I would have taken, the things I would do differently. So to read or think about time travel is simply torture for me. A big tease, something so impossible that it can never happen, so why think of it?

This book presents time travel as a type of medical condition. Chronological displacement. A genetic defect that Henry is trying to cure.

The story is quite strange, though the writer begins each section with a date and the ages of the characters, so there isn’t much risk of confusion. But if you stop to think about the story, it sounds a little too bizarre and a bit lacking on the love element. An adult, married Henry travels back in time, meets his wife, Clare, as a six year old. He visits her on several occasions during her childhood, informing her that someday they’ll meet and be married. So as a college student, Clare runs into him, tells him they’re going to be married and they end up together. Call, me silly but I assume a love story should involve a little more choice.

I never felt that any great love existed between the two. I didn’t like the main characters very much at all. They both seemed so completely absorbed with their own small little world. I don’t like people like that and I don’t like reading about people like that. Maybe that’s why I prefer crime stories that involve people trying to make the world a better place. Clare was selfish and immature, her only goal in life was to get pregnant. Henry just wanted to get laid as much as possible.

I think that might have been the biggest turn-off with regard to this book. The sex is blatant, crude and a bit too much. This might be something that other readers enjoy or equate with romantic. To me, it just sounded gross. If a book must include sex, I prefer it be a bit more subtle and leave more to the imagination.

I didn’t like this book. I didn’t find it to be especially intriguing or romantic or enjoyable. The ending was more interesting than the beginning but mired in sadness. I’m beginning to think that branching out with regard to books may not have been one of my better ideas. The next time I consider reading a book because it has so many glowing reviews and so many people seem to love it, I need to remind myself that a large number of people also think George W. is a fine president. The majority doesn’t always know what is best.

My recommendation: A lot of people like this book, so I feel wrong in steering anyone away from it. I didn’t like it and I wish I hadn’t wasted time reading it. But then again, I don’t like romances or time travel.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Something Might Happen by Julie Myerson

Something Might Happen by Julie Myerson is a book about an event, a horrible tragic event that leads to a chain reaction of events. It’s very much about the way a person can fall apart and lose sight of what is important in the face of extreme events.

I like the way this book is written, unencumbered by excess punctuation. English majors are gasping in horror at the thought, but it makes the story flow exceptionally well. I couldn’t stop reading. The style of writing seems to place you directly in the story. You aren’t so much observing from the outside as you are living out the events. Problem is, these aren’t events you want to live through.

This book is unbelievably sad. I don’t think I’m giving anything away by saying that it is about a woman who’s best friend is murdered. Everyone makes an attempt to move forward with their lives, but something this awful results in the complete upheaval of their world.

I felt the ending was disappointing. I felt like I spent all this time, went through all this tragedy and didn’t have a satisfying resolution. The events in this book sort of went from very bad and horrible to even worse. Because this was so well-written, I ached reading this. But in the end, I didn’t feel like I was given anything in return for my pain. I spent several hours baking in the sun, unable to stop reading. I lost track of time and nearly experienced a heat stroke when I finally got up and went inside. Not a pleasant experience. When I finished the book I was angry. I didn’t feel like I gained anything from reading this book. I’m certainly not opposed to a sad story, but there needs to a point to it. I never saw the point in this story. It just happened and as a reader, you went along for the ride and ended up furious with the driver.

My recommendation: Too sad, without any sort of redeeming value. There are enough sad real events in the world without burdening yourself with some fictional ones.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Take Big Bites by Linda Ellerbee

Linda Ellerbee’s book, Take Big Bites, is about traveling and eating. Mostly, I think it’s about taking chances. Taking a trip alone, rafting the Colorado River, filming in Kabul, being adventurous.

I enjoyed this book, despite the fact that I don’t like food very much. Not much at all actually. I don’t like to prepare food and I don’t especially like to eat food. I would be perfectly content to just take a little pill each day to fulfill all my food needs. Don’t think I haven’t tried that. I was the queen of the diet pills during my younger days. But eventually, you have to eat food.

I don’t know much of anything about high quality food. I eat Lean Cuisine, and it tastes just fine, but the high sodium intake is affecting my blood pressure. Not to mention that after two or so weeks of nothing but Lean Cuisine I develop heartburn just thinking of the little frozen pizza waiting for me in the freezer. The only fast food establishments I’ll visit are Taco Bell and Whataburger. Scoff if you will, but if your life is as dull as mine, you take a certain pleasure in the different taste sensations that accompany the fire sauce and sour cream and cheese-like stuff offered by Taco Bell -- and I only go maybe once every two weeks, when I’m having an especially bad day and don’t care about my calorie intake.

I hate grocery stores and I don’t cook, not at all. Never.

I point all this out to prove what a great book Ellerbee has written. Taking into account that someone like me, who abhors food so much, actually enjoyed reading about food. In fact, reading sections of this book made me crave the food she was describing. Not that I’ll ever try any of it. Despite the fact that Dallas claims to have more restaurants than New York City, I will probably never set foot in most of them because visiting restaurants tends to involve having other people with you willing to go to restaurants. And I don’t have those other people required. Oh sure, I could go alone, and feel like a bigger loser than I am, sitting there by myself surrounded by lovely, happy people with their friends and family, being glared at by the staff because I’m taking up a table that could be used for two or more people who would leave a bigger tip. Visiting restaurants alone is really not even open for discussion for me. To others willing to do that, more power to you, but I’m not that brave. Yeah, I know, I can get on a plane to London all by myself, and stay there all by my lonesome for a week or so, but I can’t walk into Ciudad or CafĂ© Madrid alone. Go figure, I’m a dork. I’ve never in my life claimed to make sense.

So there, I like the idea of food. I just don’t like the actual product that is food. Like most things in life, food seems to promise so much, and deliver so little, except for more inches around my thighs. Food for me, again, like most things in life, works better in pictures and print, not reality.

Besides food though, this book is very much about traveling. Ellerbee writes about many different types of travel. Traveling alone, traveling with family, traveling for work. Traveling, I enjoy immensely. I like talking to strangers and I like seeing new places. I like seeing places that I’ve read about, seeing locations where history was created. I like checking into hotel rooms and being far away from home. I like being in a place where no one knows me or anything about me. I like not having a history. It never matters how long I’m away from home, I tend to never want to come back. This probably runs much deeper than a love of travel.

Ellerbee’s enthusiasm for travel made me admire her all the more.

Once the advisor at the my college newspaper walked into the newsroom and found me typing up an email to my boyfriend. She said, "You know Linda Ellerbee got fired for accidentally sending a letter to her boyfriend over the AP wire." I responded with, "Yeah, and look how that ruined her career."

When I was an aspiring young journalism major, I wanted to be Linda Ellerbee. She always seemed so smart and direct and put together. Put together, that’s all I ever wanted to be. From reading her stories, you are even more convinced of her put-togetherness. She’s really an impressive woman. She’s got friends, close family, and a career. I did well in wanting to be her. Unfortunately, I’ve failed somewhat miserably in my aspirations. But at least I can follow along in her book.

As a plus for people who do actually know something about preparing food – a recipe is included at the end of almost every chapter. For a brief moment I considered making the Pho that was described so well reading about it made my mouth water, but then I realized purchasing the ingredients would involve a trip to a grocery store and a visit down aisles other than the frozen food department, so the moment passed quickly.

My recommendation: Read this if you like food or travel and especially if you like both. Very well written, interesting stories.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Ice Queen by Alice Hoffman

Alice Hoffman’s Ice Queen may be the most beautiful book I’ve ever read. With this book, words are worth a thousand pictures. Hoffman doesn’t so much tell a story as she paints images of moments and feelings and creates an intensity that overwhelms the reader.

In the simplest of descriptions, this is the story of a woman made of ice who falls desperately in love with a man made of fire. And the result of that love or more accurately, that obsession is steam, lots and lots of steam.

But this story is about so much more than the melting of the Ice Queen. It’s about family and it’s about memories. This book is about the way we shape the world around us, the world that doesn’t necessarily exist, but rather the world that we perceive, and the way that perception becomes our reality. The events of the story unfold so gradually and so startlingly. You realize, as does the main character how different the world is from what you once thought it was. On the surface, this is about a woman who survives the real world by turning it into a fairy tale, because the woman in the background, the woman who accidentally created this story, couldn’t go on anymore. I found the passage about the ice on the road and being lucky for the first time to be especially moving. I'm purposely being vague because I don't want to give too much away.

If I wrote novels, I would want to write like Hoffman writes. She has the ability to string together words that make me feel things that I didn’t think I was capable of feeling.

Perhaps the effect this book had on me had more to do with the place in which I happen to be at this point in my life – that point being confused and broken-hearted, disappointed, old and scared and tired, very, very tired, in a way that sleep can never cure – but whatever it was, reading this felt like opening up my soul. It felt like my chest was suddenly cracked open and the pain that had been building up for so long just drifted away. Then I knew that I would be okay, if only for a moment, it was a moment more than I’d had before. That sounds hokey and absurd, but I can’t think of a better way to describe the way this book made me feel.

There is one line in the book especially that made me stop reading, just so I could absorb the words, capture the moment and hold it. “Happily ever after doesn’t mean forever.” So simple and yet, reading it like that made everything better. It made me realize that just because something ended doesn’t mean that it never happened. Nothing takes away your memories, your moments. Just because you lose someone doesn’t mean that you’ve lost what you once had with that someone.

So my recommendation: Read this. I can’t imagine anyone not liking it.
Finished reading this on July 15, 2005

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Getting Over Jack Wagner by Elisa Juska

I really wanted to like this book. I thought it sounded funny and cute and like something to which I could relate. Girl falls for rock stars, over and over again. Been there, done that. I spent the bulk of my teenage years waiting for Jon Bon Jovi to ride up on his motorcycle and take me away. (Funny, how I write that in a way that makes it sound like I’m not waiting for Jon Bon Jovi anymore ;)

I had thought this would be a book about people like those I know who fall for boys in bands. But the difference is, the girls I know fall for those guys in bands because they know that they aren’t at all what they appear to be on stage. They love the way they turn into hot sexy rockers on stage and then step off the stage and become the nice, sweet guys they’ve always known them to be. I think of my friends who spend their days working in offices and then head out to Deep Ellum later to watch their boyfriend – who also probably spends his days working in an office -- play guitar. That’s the what differentiates girls who actually dates rock stars from the groupies.

But once I started reading this book I realized that Eliza wasn’t so much in love with rock stars as she was in love with herself and some absurd image that she had of what a rock star was supposed to be like. Eliza, though she tried to deny it, was nothing more than a groupie.

Turns out this book isn’t really about a girl loving rock stars. Rather, it is a book about a child trapped in her past, longing for her father. The book implies that the only thing she remembered about the father that walked out on her was that he liked jazz music and I guess she made the connection that he was some sort of rock star. I say “implies’ because, well, it pretty much spells it out that she was wanting the rock star to be her father. The direct explanation was necessary because the connection never made much sense.

This book dwells on Eliza’s past, music boy after boy after boy. I found myself just skimming through theses sections because they were boring and tedious. It was the same story over and over again. She meets a talented guy, thinks he’s great, hooks up, changes her life for him, and then once she realizes he’s normal – stupid things like, he has a caring mother, he has a neat apartment, etc. – she runs and then acts like he’s committed some sort of atrocious crime by being normal.

The main character seemed so childish and silly. Which was maybe the point, mentally she never moved past being a ten-year-old who’s father walked out on her. She was in her late twenties and still trying to dress like a “rock chic.”

If this character really wanted to overcome her problems, maybe, rather than wasting all her energy pursuing and fucking musicians, she should have started searching for the man who abandoned her as a child. It may not have been an overall great experience, but maybe she would have at least arrived at some sort of closure in her life.

I didn’t find this book to be especially funny or clever. I really wasn’t even amused by all the 80s references. Rather than seem humorous, it just seemed very sad and pathetic. It was just another example of being unable to move forward in life.

My recommendation: Stay away from this book. It’s a waste of time. It’s boring and only barely makes sense.

Read: July 3, 2005

Saturday, July 02, 2005

What Was She Thinking: Notes from a Scandal by Zoe Heller

On the surface, this book is about a 40 something year old art teacher having a sexual affair with a fifteen-year-old student.

More accurately though, I found this to a study in the effects of loneliness. True, horrible, deep loneliness and the effect it can have on a person. Loneliness is worse than depression. Depression, they can give you a drug to make you think things are better for a little while. But I’ve yet to hear of the doctor that can prescribe you with friends who you can trust and won’t abandon you as soon as the something better comes along.

The story is told through the eyes of another teacher who observes with careful detail the bizarreness taking place around her. The narrator is the one alone. Sheba, the art teacher who commits the crime, has a loving husband and two children and a beautiful home.

But the narrator of the story has only a cat to keep her company and on the holidays she visits her sister and her sister’s family. Her fascination with the details of the story seems unhealthy. I’ve read reviews of the book that regard her harshly. But as someone who can relate all too well to the state of complete and total loneliness, I viewed her fascination not so much as a sign of a mental illness, but rather a lack of anything better to focus on. Most “normal” people live their lives wrapped up in their own private universe, their family and their children and maybe a friend or two and not much else matters unless it directly affects that world. But for those of us without family or close friends, you have to focus on something. Our library books and TV and pets can only occupy so much of our minds. (Though I know people who do spend an unhealthy amount of their energy focusing on their pets, but this only proves my point.) When you don’t have anything else, you dwell on meaningless things. Your heart breaks more than it should when your friends don’t call and you try like hell to convince yourself that you’ll be fine when all along you know that you won’t be.

No one understands lonely unless they’ve felt it. There aren’t words to explain it. You either know it or you don’t. This book really reached out to me, because the writer seems to understand the state of lonely so clearly. I’ve never read a better or more accurate description of being alone than the following two paragraphs that I copied from pages 197-198 of the book.

Being alone is not the most awful thing in the world. You visit your museums and cultivate your interests and remind yourself how lucky you are not to be one of those spindly Sudanese children with flies beading their mouths. You make out to-do lists -- reorganize linen cupboard, learn two sonnets. You dole out little treats to yourself -- slices of ice cream cake, concerts at Wigmore Hall. And then, every once in a while , you wake up and gaze out of the window at another bloody daybreak, and think, I cannot do this anymore. I cannot pull myself together again and spend the next fifteen hours of wakefulness fending off the fact of my own misery.

People like Sheba think that they know what it’s like to be lonely. They cast their minds back to the time they broke up with a boyfriend in 1975 and endured a whole month before meeting someone new. Of the week they spent in a Bavarian steel town when they were fifteen years old, visiting their greasy-haired German pen pal and discovering that her handwriting was the best thing about her. But about the drip, drip of long-haul, no-end-in-sight solitude, they know nothing. They don’t know what it is to construct an entire weekend around a visit to the launderette. Or to sit in the darkened flat on Halloween night, because you can’t bear to expose your bleak evening to a crowd of jeering trick-or-treaters. Or to have the librarian smile pityingly and say, “Goodness, you’re a quick reader!” When you bring back seven books, read from cover to cover, a week after taking them out. They don’t know what it is to be chronically untouched that the accidental brush of a bus conductor’s hand on your shoulder sends a jolt of longing straight to your groin. I have sat on park benches and trains and school room chairs, feeling the great store of unused, objectless love sitting in my belly like a stone until I was sure I would cry out and fall flailing to the ground. About all this, Sheba and her like have no clue.

I enjoyed this book. I thought the story was interesting. While the subject matter seems salacious, the details of the affair are not graphic. There is nothing in it too offensive or gross.

My recommendation: I'm not even sure what category this books fits into. Not a romance, not a mystery. Just sort of a slice of life story about how someone’s irresponsible actions can turn his or her world upside down. It's quite interesting and well-written, so I'd recommend it.