Tuesday, August 23, 2005

A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby

This is a wonderful book. This is the first Nick Hornby book that I’ve read and I really enjoyed it.

I think everyone knows the premise: four people planning to kill themselves on New Year’s Eve run into each other on the same rooftop, talk each other into living for another six weeks and form a bond. The story is thus about this group and how they decide to continue living. It’s four people who would otherwise have absolutely nothing in common and together they provide some very entertaining experiences.

I liked the way Hornby addressed the issues of depression and despair and reaching the point where a person just doesn’t want to continue living. Hornby respects his characters and he doesn’t treat them as crazy or selfish. I felt like he really showed them as people who have simply reached a point where going forward is very, nearly unbearable.

I’m told that there are people in the world who have never contemplated suicide. How nice it must be to be one of those people. That is something I can’t even imagine, much as those people probably can’t imagine what it feels like to want to stop living.

Reading this book provided a sense of validation, an acknowledgment that these feelings are real and other people have them. I know it’s a work of fiction, but the fact that someone was able to write about these things means that probably somewhere, someone has also felt these things. The kind of pain described on these pages, when it’s happening, you’re certain that no one else in the world has ever felt this bad. But reading this, there are so many moments when I was like, “yes, that’s exactly how it feels”.

One thing this book showed is that sometimes all you need is for someone to acknowledge you. You need to know that other people are expecting you. That’s what saves these people, the fact that they have to meet for coffee in a week, or at the pub in another week, another meeting at the end of the three months. When a person reaches the point where no one knows he exists that’s when he realizes it is okay to stop existing. When you realize that nothing in the world will change if you live or die, no one will even notice you're gone, that’s when you know you don’t need to live anymore. I believe the accepted theory is that suicide happens when your pain outweighs your coping resources -- and everyone has different coping resources, which is why it is so difficult for some to understand the act. That night on the rooftop, these four people gained a stronger set of coping resources. Because they ran into each other, suddenly they have a support system that they had not had before.

I also appreciated that there wasn’t a tidy, happy ending. That would have greatly detracted from the story if everyone had lived happily ever after. They aren’t suddenly repaired and well again because of what happened. They are simply living, for now. For another six months at least because that’s when they plan to meet again.

I highly recommend this book. Though, I’m curious as to other’s opinions. How do I put it nicely? I’m curious as how the mentally sane and stable will regard this book. I wonder, if you’ve never been in that position if you can understand what the characters are going through or if you will even find their experiences all that interesting, or will they simply seem absurd and overdramatic?

Read Aug. 22, 2005

Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

This book works on two levels. One being that it tells a story of Afghanistan, what the country was like before war and the effects the different wars have had on the people of that country. The second purpose it serves is that of being a story of two young boys and their fathers, a story that is something of a tale of lies and guilt and betrayal and redemption.

Over the past few years I’ve tried to read all I can about stories of the Middle East. I’m a news junkie and the tidbits they feed us on the news makes me crave more. I want to know as much as possible about this part of the world, this section of the world so mired in turmoil, that has such a strong effect on our country. That being said, I really enjoyed the element of the book that described Afghanistan. You learn about the country through the eyes of the people who live there. The book provides a much more personal understanding than can be provided on CNN. What I always appreciate most when reading stories about other countries is the knowledge that ultimately we all want the same things. As different as we may seem, we are very similar. We still take care of our families, we play games, and we have big parties. Another lesson to be learned from the stories of Afghanistan are the dangers that can happen when you allow a country to be ruled by religion. Religion should be a personal and private thing, not something dictated by government.

The storyline involving Amir and Hassan and their fathers, Baba and Ali is also very interesting. This is a well-written book, very much a page-turner. There are scenes in this book that could be very horrible and gruesome, but I felt the author handled them in a way that maintained the necessary horror without making the reading unbearable.

I very strongly disliked the character of Amir, who is the narrator of the story. He’s so weak and selfish and jealous. He does some terrible things, allows terrible things to happen as a result of his inaction. I found myself becoming so angered by him because he has so many chances to correct the things he’s done wrong, before they get worse. Instead he makes things worse and he stands by like a coward. He claims he knows what he did wrong, but still he’s claiming he did it for his father’s love. When in fact, he never seems to grasp how deeply his actions hurt his father – his father, who gave up so much for him. Even in the end when his actions should seem obvious, he’s hesitant and cowardly. “But I have a wife and career in America” – he’s whining in the end, and you just want someone to say to him, “But you ruined so many other lives.”

Near the end of the book though, when Amir returns to Afghanistan and confronts the Taliban, some of the coincidences began to get a little absurd. This I found somewhat bothersome. I thought the story felt very real up to that point. Then I just sort of though, “yeah, right that would happen…”

This is a very, very sad story. Unlike other sad stories that I’ve complained about though, I do think there is much to be gained from reading this.

Finished reading Aug. 22, 2005

New Rules – Polite Musing from a Timid Observer by Bill Maher

I love Bill Maher*. I mean, I really, really love him. I have no problem at all spending my Friday nights at home watching Real Time instead of out partying or whatever people do on Friday nights. I think he’s so smart, and he’s funny and he says things that people need to hear. He seems to be the kind of guy that girls like me wish we could read the paper with over coffee in the morning and watch the evening news with at night. Being that smart makes a man very, very sexy. And he’s the kind of guy that I have absolutely no hopes of ever meeting in Texas. Honestly, if there were more guys like him in the world, I might actually considering dating. But anyway…. Back to the book…

This book is collection of Maher’s New Rules, which he presents at the end of his show on HBO, Real Time with Bill Maher. If you watch the show on a regular basis, you’ve probably heard most of them, maybe all of them. But they’re still really funny to read. In fact, I spent this past Saturday night reading through the book. (Did I mention that I don’t date?) There are worse ways to spend a Saturday.

I like the idea of having this book because I do always think the things Maher says on the show are so funny and I want to tell my friends about it later. With the book, you can turn to the page and say, “you have to read this.” The thing that worries me though, with this book and any sort of news or story that I think people should be reading or watching – the people that need it will avoid it. Those of us that already agree are the ones paying attention. Very much a case of preaching to the choir.

*I know that he has writers who help him come up with some of the New Rules and all that, I know he's not saying all this on his own, but still... I love him... don't spoil my fantasies...

Read Aug. 20, 2005

Zorro by Isable Allende

When I was a child, I was in love with Zorro. He was so mysterious, so dashing, so very sexy. The kind of hero that could ride in sweep you off your feet and whisk you off to a better life.

When I was a teenager, I read a book by Isabel Allende called The House of the Spirits, and I remember liking the book quite a bit. I don’t remember the details, only that it captivated me, moved me, I remember feeling overwhelmed by the novel.

So keeping those two things in mind, I was really looking forward to reading Zorro. I thought it would be a fun read. Something adventurous and exciting. A perfect summer read. Or so I thought…

During the summer I generally read at least two books a week. Usually it’s one on Saturday, and another during the week.

Two weeks after starting Zorro, I wasn’t a third of the way through the book. I just didn’t care about the characters. Something about the writing made it feel so disconnected. Like someone was telling me a story, but they focused too much on unimportant details and used too many names and kept repeating themselves. It felt a bit like reading a history book, a very badly written history book. I was just dragging myself through it. I started skimming through sections, hoping to get to a more interesting part and it never happened.

As three weeks approached, and I started to feel sick thinking of all the other books I could have been reading during that time, I made one last attempt to get something out of this book and decided to just read the final section. After two days of that, and not reading more than ten or so pages, I gave up. I set the book aside and moved on to something else. I hate quitting on books, especially ones that I’ve spend this much time on, but it was a case of cutting my losses.

This was a big disappointment. I found it to be very, very boring, and it just didn’t read well at all. Snoozer, stay away from it. You want some Zorro, rent a movie. You want Allende, read House of the Spirits. But stay away from this.

Gave up – Aug. 17, 2005

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Roundup for June and July

Of the books I've read during the last two months these are my favorites and least favorites:

Ice Queen by Alice Hoffman - I just loved this book, can't even explain how much I loved it, I loved it that much.

We Thought You Would be Prettier - This book is so funny. I bought a copy at the bookstore today just so that I can pass it around and make everyone I know read it, it's that great.

Wonder Spot and Girl's Guide to Hunting and Fishing - These books by Melissa Bank were wonderful. I liked them very, very much. (I haven't posted reviews for these yet, will get around to that soon. )

Least favorites:
Getting Over Jack Wagner - I wanted to just stop reading this book, but instead rapidly skimmed through it, because I feel an obligation to read finish books I start. Not a good book.

Time Traveler's Wife - I shouldn't have read this. I knew that from the beginning, but I thought I would be brave. You know me, so very adventurous (that's a joke). Didn't enjoy this much at all.

Why the book reviews?

My goal in posting these book reviews:

Here’s the thing. I’m one of those people who needs to be doing a few things at once. I have to be busy at all times. I can’t just sit in down in front of the TV and watch. If I’m in front of the TV, I’m also writing, or drawing or reading a magazine. It’s annoying, but hey, that’s me. I’m actually making a purposeful effort these days to sit down in front of the TV for a few minutes each night and do nothing other than eat my dinner. That’s my “slow down” time. During much of the year, I’m busy with schoolwork and attending basketball games and concerts and such, so trying to figure out how to spend time at home is not really an issue. The summer months though, they’re slow. Dirk isn’t even in the country right now and I miss him so much!!

Here’s the thing though… the only thing that really settles me is reading. (Painting also, but that involves the committment of cleanup and setup and such, but you can't take your paints to bed with you at night, or at least you shouldn't. Some people might, but hey, I'm the first to admit I'm kind of boring.) My love of reading goes back to when I was a kid needing so desperately to escape, finding my only solace in Nancy Drew books and later Christopher Pike books. It’s my way of dealing or maybe not dealing. I slip into another world where I can forget the real world for a bit. And summer is the best time for reading. I spend a huge chunk of my weekend doing nothing other than lounging in the backyard with a book. (Yes, I know the sun is bad for you, and guess what, I don’t really care.) I will remain out there for hours in the sweltering heat, tanning and reading. My idea of heaven.

In the past, I’ve not been very adventurous in my reading choices. I tend to read nothing other than crime novels written by British women – three women in particular – P.D. James, Ruth Rendell (who also writes as Barbara Vine), and Minette Walters. Toss in the occasion Harry Potter, Margaret Atwood and Anne Tyler, a few of the classics, some non-fiction/current event type stuff, and that’s about it. I decided years ago that I didn’t have enough time to read books I wasn’t certain I would love.

But I would read reviews of other books and make lists and search the bargain tables at the used bookstores hoping to find something new. I mean, at this point, I’ve read everything by P.D. James and haven’t liked the last two books by Minette Walters, so I was running out of stuff. And there was this new book coming out about Dracula and there’s nothing I love more than a good vampire novel. But I’m trying to conserve money and one of my rules is “never pay full price for books.”

So I went to the library -- located an entire three blocks from my house – yeah, I’m feeling kind of stupid for not having thought of this sooner. And now I have reading adventures a plenty! But serious, since the books are free and I don’t have to find a home for them after reading them, I’m trying out some books I would have never touched otherwise. (And hope to eventually read the rest of the Ruth Rendell books that I’ve not yet read -- there are quite a few at the library that I do not own yet!)

Now you know about my reading habits, but why the book reviews? Because in a past life, one that ended years ago, I had dreams of being a writer. Well, I’ve come to accept that I don’t really have the ability to write much of anything that anyone else will ever want to read. These book reviews are no exception really, but I thought it was a way to combine my newly strengthened love of reading with my desire to write. It is a start of some sort. I’d read these books and want to talk to someone about them, but, well, you finish a book at 3am on Thursday night morning there’s not anyone around to talk to at the moment, so I’d write about them instead. And what I’ve tried to do is edit up those notes a bit and post them here in this blog. (Besides that, I was beginning to think that I was the only person left in the world without a blog. What else can I blog about? The fungus on the rose bushes, the scratch on my car, very exciting, but I’m saving that for the novel … )

I read a book last summer called Reading Lolita in Tehran. It’s an amazing book. I recommend it to everyone. It’s about a woman who educates women in Tehran using the classic literature. The critique of the literature the professor uses sort of wraps around the stories of these women. By talking about the books and way the women view these books, you gain a unique understanding about the lives of these women living is a world so different from ours. The books create a common ground and a new perspective at the same time. Anyway, I mention that book because I loved the way the author was able to write about these lives while at the same time writing about books.

I guess I sort of hope that at some point, my writing of book reviews will evolve into something more significant and profound than “I liked this” and “didn’t like that.” It’s not there yet, not by any means. Right now, it is very much "this is what I liked and this is what I didn’t like." But I’m just getting started.

Well, that’s all for now… I’m going to get back to reading Zorro…

Saturday, August 06, 2005

No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy

Many years ago, as a teenager in a dusty West Texas town, I picked up a book at the library called All the Pretty Horses. It wasn’t the kind of book I would usually read. Being that I wanted nothing more in the world than to escape where I lived, I generally chose to read books about places far, far away. I preferred the rainy London streets to take me away from the Texas heat. I’m not even sure why I decided to check out the book, I didn’t have a clue as to what it was about. But it looked interesting and I was curious as to what someone had to write about the area that I reluctantly called home.

Immediately I was sucked into the story and swept away by the main character's adventures. I couldn’t put the book down. It wasn’t just the descriptions of the people and the land that captivated me, but rather the tale of an escape, abandoning everything to find yourself. I think of it as the West Texas version of Catcher in the Rye. I’m sure my love of the book also had a lot to do with the fact that I was in such dire need of an escape as well. I was so ready to leave everything simply to find something.

The thing is, living out in West Texas, you feel very isolated. You can’t understand that feeling if you’ve never lived like that. But you can stay there for your entire life and never have a clue as to what is happening anywhere else in the world. A lot of people are just fine living that way. They believe the world ceases to exist outside of their city limits. But sometimes, living out there feels as if you are hidden, lost, disconnected and abandoned. So the fact that someone had written a book, a beautiful book that spoke so eloquently about an area I assumed no one knew existed gave me a sense of connection. Because of this book, people all over the world were reading about this place. Somewhere in a big city that I could only dream of visiting, a person was reading about San Angelo and Eldorado and Iraan. This land was not completely forgotten, in our pathetic, desperate existence, breathing in the oil and the fumes and burning under the dry sun. For a few pages, we were known to the rest of the world. People everywhere were reading the name of the town, Iraan. I despise Iraan, having spent entirely too many years of my life in that town, but I really do love that book.

So I was looking forward to McCarthy’s latest, No Country for Old Men. The book takes place near the border, revisiting the area covered in All the Pretty Horses. A drug deal goes bad, someone finds some money and runs, the book is about his running and those chasing him. There’s an inexplicably evil killer who wants the money and kills for pleasure and there’s a sheriff from Sanderson who wants to protect the people of his county. The sheriff would be the old man, saddened and fearful of the deterioration of the world around him, the new breed of evil that he sees.

I enjoyed the book. I started reading this book when I got home from work around eight one evening and didn’t go to bed until I finished it. I never found a comfortable stopping point. Also, I feel like a person doesn’t get the full benefit of McCarthy’s writing if they do a lot of stop and start reading. You have to be ready to dive in and let the words carry you along.

This story does just that. It’s a rush from city to city, gunfight to the next gunfight. Brisk. Run, run, run. Don’t stop to look behind you or you’re dead. You never get bogged down in the details.

My only issue with the book was the a few seemingly preachy references to Jesus -- as in the world has gone to hell because of the lack of Jesus. However, it is appropriate for the setting, and I wonder if maybe it stands as symbolic of how out of touch that desolate area of Texas is from the rest of the world. They seem to want to blame everything on a lack of Jesus and not their own ignorance. Too often these people who love their Jesus so much show complete disregard for their fellow humans. This is a place plagued by racism and greed. Also, I was a bit offended by the idea that kids with green hair were to blame for evil in the world.

I thought the setting felt real. Again, I felt the twinge of recognition as the characters traveled to and from towns I knew in my childhood. The characters sounded real. However, the sheriff, I questioned. He seemed quite noble and determined to protect the citizens of his county. My own experiences with West Texas law officers, and the abuses I witnessed around me when I was a resident of that area, leads me to regard the sheriff as very much a work of fiction. Noble and protective are not words I would use to describe a small town Texas law officer.

Most accurately I felt the novel showed the evil that can result from greed. From the beginning, the person who tried to run off with money that didn’t belong to him should have known he would end badly. You don’t walk off with 2.4 million for free. That’s my preachy bit -- don’t take things that don’t belong to you, it will make your life much easier.

My recommendation: If you like fast paced action stories, you’ll probably like this. It’s not going to change your world or break your heart or anything that dramatic. But it will provide a few decent hours of entertainment.

Finished reading the book on August 4, 2005

Friday, August 05, 2005

We Thought You Would Be Prettier – True Tales of the Dorkiest Girl Alive by Laurie Notaro

I was wandering around the bookstore the other day when I first saw the title of this book. Dammit, I thought, that was going to be the title of my book. However, my book exists only as fragments in my head, and a few never-to-be read files on the hard drive of my computer. I wish I could write a book like what Notaro has written.

This book is so funny. Laugh out loud funny. I would read this during my lunch break and just sit there in the break room cracking up – giving my co-workers yet another reason to question my sanity.

From ebay to spam to owning too many books to getting locked in your own backyard– she hits the nail on the head. Finally a book written for girls like me. Laurie refers to girls like this as “The Idiot Girl Club.” I am so proud to know there is a club for girls like me.

I like to say that all I ever wanted was to be “Put together.” You know the type, Dallas is full of put-together girls. Makeup always in place, their hair is perfect, their clothing looks like it was tailored specifically for their bodies because they all have perfect thin, model-like bodies. They never have their lunch proudly displayed on the front of their blouses or lipstick on their teeth or a glob of mascara on the side of their nose. Oh, to be one of those girls.

But this is me: I’m the girl with a salsa stain on her brand new tan skirt. I own one good pair of jeans, every other pair being too tight in the ass and too loose in the waist, making me look either fat or saggy or both. However, there is a white spot on the knee of my only good pair of jeans, there as a result of a drop of my acne cream falling onto it one rushed morning. Yeah, acne cream. I’ve reached a point in my life where I’m applying acne cream and wrinkle prevention serum on my face every morning and night. That’s fair, right?

I’ll never understand the whole “fashion” thing. I can’t get it together looks wise. The more I try the more I fail. Any attempt at following a trend or simply looking nice is thwarted by a bra strap showing, the waistband of my panties on display above my jeans.

I’ve never learned to apply makeup properly. By the time I get done trying to cover up the acne and the wrinkles, I’m exhausted.

No matter how much I spend on a piece of clothing, it’s still too tight in spots and too big in others – same piece of clothing mind you. If I dare to fix my hair, a freakish windstorm will kick up and last only from the time it takes to get from the door of my house to my car.

That’s just appearance wise, I won’t even go into the non-appearance issues an idiot girl such as I deals with on a daily basis.

I am very much what Notaro describes as an Idiot Girl. And I love Laurie Notaro’s writing because she embraces our quirky traits and makes it seem so much less awful and in fact, very, very funny to be an idiot girl.

This is the kind of book you want to hand out to all of your friends just so you can all sit around and laugh together.

For some of Notaro’s writing, you should check out http://www.idiotgirls.com/ .

My recommendation: Read this. It’s wonderful and laughing this much makes anyone feel good. Hands down, the funniest book I’ve ever read.
Finished reading during my lunch break on August 4, 2005..