Friday, November 30, 2007

The Almost Moon - Alice Sebold

In 2003, my brother bought me Alice Sebold's first novel, The Lovely Bones, for Christmas. I remember reading it on the plane home from Seattle. I was into it from the first page, and I couldn't help crying my eyes out on the plane. I finished it in one day. Later, I read her memoir, Lucky. I didn't think it was quite as well done, but it was about a very powerful topic, and it gave me some respect for where Sebold had come from and how much she had overcome. So, I eagerly anticipated getting this one from the long library waiting list. The Almost Moon tackles the difficult subject of family mental illness. Given my work recently, this is an area I am very interested in - how genetics affects behavior and how families attempt to normalize "crazy" behavior. Unfortunately, like mental illness, this book is all over the place. Sebold switches from present time to the main character's childhood to her life with her husband and children - and does so in a way that is haphazard and often confusing. The main character (unlike John Nash in A Beautiful Mind) is completely one-dimensional and thoroughly unlikeable. Her behavior is erratic and nonsensical, but instead of painting a picture of mental illness and its devastating effects, I simply found this book boring and irrelevant. It doesn't seem like Sebold did much research into the area before she wrote this. Rather, it's like she just took pieces of bizarre behavior and threw them together hoping something would resonate. For those who have never read Sebold, please read The Lovely Bones. For those who read The Lovely Bones and loved it as much as I did, DO NOT read this book. It will only serve to taint your image of Sebold's talent.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day - Pearl Cleage

After living life in the Atlanta fast-lane, Ava discovers she is HIV-positive. She packs up her hairdressing salon and heads home to hide-out with her older sister before making her way to San Francisco. Instead of a time-out, she finds herself organizing her sister's church outreach program to assist young mothers, raising an abandoned crack baby, and against her better judgment - falling in love with Eddie - a dreadlocked vegetarian with all the patience in the world. This book is filled with sorrow - from abusive boyfriends to untimely deaths, but instead of sadness and dwelling, it is filled with laughter and hope. Cleage's casual writing style and heavy subject matter reminded me a lot of Terry McMillan (How Stella Got Her Groove Back and Waiting to Exhale), but I found Cleage much more reflective. While it might be a little sappy and sentimental, this is an amazing feel-good book. It brought me both tears and a big fat smile. It's not about a woman simply trying to figure out how to live with HIV, but rather a book about women learning how to live simply. Once again, I find myself quite happy with Oprah's book selection.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Junior - Macaulay Culkin

Looking back, I see I've read some pretty bad books this year. Some were just poorly written. Some had characters that I didn't care about. Some books I just didn't like, but I could maybe acknowledge were well-written. This book, however, is simply terrible. It is the first-person narrative of "Junior" - a twenty-year old who has issues with his father and is trying to find his way in the world after experiencing some success as a child actor. In this respect, the book is apparently autobiographical. Otherwise, it is just a hodge-podge of nonsense. There are exceprts from Junior's diary, letters he wrote to people but never sent, poetry, parts of scripts, but none of it comes together in any remotely cohesive way. While I have wasted many hours and days doing nothing, I am still angry that this is 90 minutes of my life that I will never get back.

Much Ado About Jessie Kaplan - Paula Marantz Cohen

I found this one while browsing in the library and it looked fun. Carla is a housewife struggling with her disenchanted doctor husband, preparing for her daughter's bat mitzvah, and trying to keep her hyperactive son from destroying her home. On top of all this, her mother is having delusions that she was once William Shakespeare's girlfriend, and Carla's high-powered criminal defense attorney sister is too busy to help out. So, Carla seeks out the assistance of a local shrink and her daughter's English teacher -- to learn a little more about her family's various issues, and perhaps a bit more about the old Bard himself. This book is like chick-lit for women over 40. It was a very fast read and had some touching and funny moments. The bat mitzvah planning got a little irritating, but it all came together nicely in the end. Good for a mindless afternoon on the couch.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Historian - Elizabeth Kostova

While wandering around her professorial father's library, a precocious 16-year old stumbles across a strange old book with a peculiar illustration of a dragon inside. When she musters up the courage to ask her father about it, she unleashes a long hiddden story of the quest to locate Count Vlad - better known to the outside world as Dracula. The Historian is told through a series of letters - and histories within histories. The girl's father relates how he became interested in the Dracula legend, and the various scholars he met along the way. Intertwined with the hunt are several interesting love stories that keep the action going. I had no idea what this book was about when I picked it up - and I was quickly excited to learn more about the "real life" Dracula. I enjoyed the mixture of history with the occult and found this book to be very well-written - if only about 200 pages too long.

Hotel Honolulu - Paul Theroux

A struggling writer finds himself on the shores of Waikiki, and becomes the manager of the infamous Hotel Honolulu. Perhaps not the most ritzy location on the boardwalk, the hotel is filled with colorful characters who walk in and out of the narrator's life. In this modern day Cantebury Tales, behind each door is a new story - sometimes interwoven with the story of another guest, but sometimes just standing on its own. This is the first book I've read by Paul Theroux - he has written dozens of novels (including The Mosquito Coast) and is well-known for his travel writing. He currently lives in Hawaii - and I thought he did a fine job of capturing some of the local flavor - not to mention the pidgin dialect. The writing was very easy to get into and I found the stories funny and tragic, even if a bit overly shocking/ridiculous at times. This was a fun introduction to Theroux and I look forward to finding out what the rest of his novels are like.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Party of One: The Loner's Manifesto - Anneli Rufus - This non-fiction book is Rufus's ode to loners - people who choose willingly to live life apart from others. Each chapter is an essay on a different part of our culture and the loners that exist (or are misunderstood to exist) in that realm - including art, literature, crime, and technology. Rufus's collection is in defense of the loner - and often comes across as a little overly superior/defensive in her need to justify her loner existence to the world. As someone who definitely loves being alone - and often prefers it to "shared" experiences - I was drawn to this book. But, my assumption is that Rufus is basically preaching to the choir - and her only readers are other loners! Any non-loner who reads this book will still think loners are weird. And anyone labeled a loner who doesn't really want to be one will not find any solutions in this book about how to become more socially acceptable. The basic message here is if you like being alone, be alone and embrace it - and recognize that a lot of other brilliant and famous individuals are just like you. But, in the end I think most loners don't really care, we just want people to stop bothering us.

The Sea* - John Banville

The Sea is a story of love and loss told from the perspective of an aging art historian who just lost his wife to cancer. He travels to the sea-side town where he spent his holiday as a child. As he looks out onto the sea, he remembers a family he met there and the relationships he built with them. I found this book very difficult to get into. It reminded me of Gilead and Philip Roth's Everyman in terms of the writing - just one long monologue from the main character. The thoughts shifted back and forth from the past to the present without any clear distinction - and while the writing was almost poetic, I just found the story really boring. For a fine piece of literature and enjoying language with no real plot or point, this is a good selection. Or maybe if you just need something to put you to sleep.

(* - winner of The Man Booker Prize; listed in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die)

Sunday, November 11, 2007

The Interloper - Antoine Wilson

Owen Patterson seems like your everyday boring kind of guy. He writes text for computer manuals. He lives in a house. And he is recently married. Only, he married his wife after knowing her for only a couple months, and her brother C.J. just happens to have been murdered during their honeymoon in Mexico. Oh, and when Owen was a teenager, he had an inappropriate love affair with his older cousin who later died of a drug overdose, which may or may not have been a suicide. And Owen is still in love with her. But, of course, it's this whole murder thing that is tearing his marriage apart. Owen begins to obsesses over the murderer who is spending a 20-year stint in prison. He comes up with an ingenious plan - he'll pose as a lonely woman seeking an incarcerated pen-pal. He'll make the guy fall in love with the faux-admirer, and then he'll skip out on the guy, causing him to lose the assumed love of his life - and THAT will get him back for shooting his brother-in-law in cold blood and destroying his wife and her family. Based on this plausible premise, The Interloper proceeds. Okay, clearly, I think the plot is ridiculous - but this is an interesting novel from the perspective of viewing an unstable man spiral entirely out of control and lose his ability to tell fact from fiction. Throughout the book, there is the suggestion that the man in prison did not actually pull the trigger of the gun that killed Owen's brother-in-law - and based on the suggestions, I thought the story would take a turn it never did (but which I might have found a little more interesting). But, this is an entertaining book (I am always fascinated by the concept of women who do actually pursue men who are behind bars), and thankfully, it's a very quick read. At the very least, I give the author credit for coming up with a pretty unique plot (not an easy thing to do these days).

Caucasia - Danzy Senna

This is a Stanford Book Club pick for next spring, but the description sounded so good that I decided to read it now. Caucasia is the story of Birdie Lee, the daughter of a white mother and a black father. Birdie has an older sister, Cole, who looks like how you would expect a child of her racial mix to look - black. Birdie, on the other hand, looks white. The contrast between the two causes constant confusion, and the never-ending assumption that Birdie must be adopted. The story is told from Birdie's perspective. She is quite young when the book begins and while she seems to understand racial politics to some degree (her mother is in some sort of radical Black Panthers like group) she observes, but is unable to interpret so much of the prejudice and assumptions that go on around here. When her parents decide to split-up, Birdie leaves town with her paranoid mother who creates an entirely new (Jewish) identity for Birdie. As Birdie is forced to "pass" - she longs for her sister and the way she believes things used to be. Senna does a marvelous job capturing the mentality of a child who has been thwarted from formulating her own racial identity. Caucasia is one of the few fiction books I have read about race and passing that manages to do what all writers are taught they are supposed to do - show, not tell. Birdie's story is a painful one - and the ending of this book is a little too clean - but Senna's novel puts words to a phenomenon I think is difficult to explain - the pain of looking like you belong, but knowing that you never actually will.

Letters to a Young Teacher - Jonathan Kozol

I read my first Jonathan Kozol book, Savage Inequalities for a sociology book report my senior year in high school. I'd seen Kozol's books on my mom's bookshelves for years, and once I got through the first, I wondered what had taken my so long to check him out (I also recommend Amazing Grace, Death at an Early Age, and Rachel and Her Children). Kozol, a former teacher himself, has become one of the nation's leading critics of the American educational system. Through his books, he consistently lends his voice to the poor, minorities, single mothers, the working class - everyone who is trying hard to get by, but finding themselves jammed up against so many obstacles. Kozol's latest book is a collection of letters he wrote to "Francesca" - a first year second-grade teacher in Boston. His letters are filled with encouragement and support for the frustrated first-timer, as well as funny and touching stories about Kozol's own early teaching years and the children that have shaped his view of our current system. As much as we all know how horribly unequal our public schools are, Kozol manages to capture the sense of urgency in a solution while maintaining, even after all these years, a great deal of hope for the future. Kozol never fails to bring tears to my eyes - he is an amazing writer and a brilliant advocate for children everwhere. Letters to a Young Teacher is merely the tip of the iceberg in terms of the work Kozol has done in education - and I think all his books should be mandatory reading for every single person living in this country.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Everything is Illuminated* - Jonathan Safran Foer (unfinished)

I think all readers feel badly when they just don't want to finish a book. You wonder how much of a chance you should give it - or perhaps that something is wrong with YOU if you just can't get into it (after all, REALLY smart people said it was amazing!). Recently, I read an author who said, given all the books there are to read, you should read (100 - your age) amount of pages before you decide to give up on a book. If you're 100+ years old, then you're allowed to judge a book by its cover. I think this was from Nancy Pearl, but don't quote me. So, that means I have to read 69 pages of a book before putting it aside. I gave Everything is Illuminated that much of a chance. Friends whose reading selections I trust have said both that this is one of the best books they've ever read and that it's the absolute worst. The writing reminded me a lot of Absurdistan, which I also was not a huge fan of - written from the perspective of someone just learning English. I have a feeling that plot-wise Everything is Illuminated could get quite interesting. I just don't have the patience right now to slog through the writing.

In similar news - a book that I LOVED this year (Shadow of the Wind) is the current Stanford Book Club selection - and people seem to not be able to get into it or think that it's just "fluff." Perhaps I need to come to terms with the fact that I just like mindless drivel. It's kind of depressing. But, I still think Shadow of the Wind is much more complex than folks are giving it credit for!

(* - listed in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die)

Playing for Pizza - John Grisham

I am a shameless fan of John Grisham. I find his legal thrillers comforting, even though they follow the same formula everytime. But, his non-legal books have never quite held the same appeal for me (Bleachers and The Painted House, for example). So, I was a little hesitant to pick this one up - but he's always a fast read, so I figured I'd give it a shot. Playing for Pizza is the story of a third-string NFL quarterback. He's spent his career bouncing from team to team, until he absolutely blows the AFC championship in Cleveland and no team wants to touch him. Humiliated, he ships off to Parma, Italy to play for the little known Football Americano league overseas. There, he encounters a team of Italians who with little financial support from the country, play for the love of the game, and of course - for pizza. As the American is introduced to Italian feasts and the beauty of opera, he is forced to rediscovery the true meaning of football. Sounds cheesy - and it is. This book is horrible. But for the occassional swear word and the multiple sexual references, I think this would be about the speed for an 8-year old boy who enjoys reading books about sports (ala Matt Christopher). The soft spot in my heart for Grisham makes me want to find something about this book that was wonderful, so I can recommend it. The food descriptions did make me crave the amazing dinners we had while in Tuscany - but, for that kind of reading, I think Under the Tuscan Sun and Eat, Pray, Love do the job much better.

Something Wicked This Way Comes - Ray Bradbury This is another re-read from my childhood. In the fall, when a gust of wind sends leaves flying down the street, I always think of this book. It is the story of two best friends, Will and Jim, and Will's aging father Charles. A mysterious carnival comes to town, led by Mr. Dark, the Illustrated Man, and the boys are drawn to the carnival's merry-go-round. When they discover its sinister secret, Jim finds himself entranced, and Will horrified. Mr. Dark attempts to lure them into his freak show, as Will struggles to show his father and Jim how to accept themselves as they are, and not the people they think they want to become. Bradbury is a master story-teller - he always manages to make my spine tingle while also making me think. I think this is a wonderful story for 12 and 13 year old boys, but it's also a pretty good one for adults.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

No One Belongs Here More Than You - Miranda July

I feel like the short story form must be making a come-back. After Amy Hempel's collection appeared on the NY Times Best of 2006 list, I have heard a lot of people talking about short story writers, and see many featured in book reviews or in some of my favorite bookstores around town. I can't remember where I first heard about Miranda July, but she is a performance artist whose film "Me and You and Everyone We Know" won a number of awards and accolades at Sundace a few years back. This is her first (I think) collection of short stories, and it was pretty much what I expected. She is kind of a cross between David Sedaris and David Foster Wallace, but with a better feminine perspective. Her stories are short, sometimes shocking, a little weird, but fun and innovative. I often think it must be difficult these days to come up with a unique writing style in which you can still tell a good story. It seems like everything has already been done - I felt that way while reading this collection. It was a little too familiar, like I'd read the stories before, but I think it was worthwhile for a taste of the future of literature.

Friday, November 2, 2007

The Laments - George Hagen - Every other year, Stanford gives out a literary prize named after William Saroyan in both fiction and non-fiction. I have volunteered this year to be a reader/reviewer for the prize. Before I begin to judge, I thought I better read the past winners (as well as some of Saroyan's own works). I started with The Laments. This book tells the story of Howard and Julia Lament, originally from Southern Rhodesia. When their newborn son is stolen from the hospital, they reluctantly take another couple's child (Will) to raise as their own. They then proceed to move. From Africa to England to America - because, after all, that's what Lament's do. As Julia's irritating mother nags her from thousands of miles away, she gives birth to twin terrors and stands up for racial and gender equality. There is no real ultimate purpose to The Laments and some of the things that happen to the characters seem quite outrageous and unnecessary, but ultimately, it is the story of a very endearing family - in particular the character of the adopted son Will. This was a good read from beginning to end - when I make my Best of 2006 list at the end of the year, I think this will most likely be on it.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

The Yellow Wallpaper* - Charlotte Perkins Gilman

I've mentioned Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own as one of the books that had the most influence on me in college in terms of my feminist identity and the idea that all women need their own space (and their own money) in order to create and define their own worlds. The Yellow Wallpaper, for me, was the perfect illustration of what would happen if you failed to heed Woolf's advice. This very short story, which I re-read while eating my lunch yesterday, is the fictional diary of an unnamed married woman. She has been taken by her doctor husband to a country manor of some sort to rest and alleviate the symptoms of her undefined disease (no doubt seen as hysteria, but more accurately an acute depression). As her husband pats her on the head and tells her nothing is wrong, the author fixates on the decaying yellow wallpaper of her makeshift prison. She is a woman who has absolutely nothing to do - it's unclear whether she has children, but she lives in a world where her only job is to be the perfect wife. It seems like it would be so easy and wonderful, but what she really wants to do is write - but her husband and doctors discourage it in favor of the "rest-cure treatment" (lying around and doing absolutely nothing). The Yellow Wallpaper was written at the end of the 19th century, but in the past 30 years it has been studied as a textbook psychological portrayal of a woman suffering from a mental breakdown. Gilman, in real life, suffered from bouts of depression, but struggled mightily on behalf of women everywhere as an advocate of the equal division of household labor between spouses, and of women working outside the home - for reasons greater than financial necessity. When I think of how hard women (and many men) work today for these same ideals, I find it tremendous that she was fighting the good fight over a century ago. The Yellow Wallpaper is brutally depressing, but it is a tremendous argument in favor of the need to find something that you love to do - no matter how small - and claiming it all for yourself.

(* - listed in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die)