Monday, December 31, 2007

Friends, Lovers, Chocolate - Alexander McCall Smith (Isabel Dalhousie Series - Book 2)

This is the second installment in Smith's Isabel Dalhousie series about a meddling philosopher in Scotland. Isabel edits a philosophy journal, moonlights at her beautiful niece's deli, maintains friendships with a budding musician 15 years her junior, and interjects her opinions with reckless abandon wherever she pleases. In this one, Isabel meets a gentleman by the name of Ian, a recent recipient of a heart transplant. Ian has been experiencing strange visions and memories, and considers the possibility that they belong to the young man whose heart he now carries. Isabel investigates the possibility, encountering various moral conundrums along the way. My favorite parts are Isabel's conversations with her housekeeper Grace - who may not be as educated or clever as Isabel, but has a wealth of practicality and advice to pass along nonetheless. This series is much better written than Smith's #1 Ladies Detective Series, but the characters are not quite as charming or clever.

On Chesil Beach - Ian McEwan - Ian McEwan is a brilliant writer. He won the Man Booker prize in 1998 for Amsterdam, was long-listed for Saturday in 2005, and was most recently short-listed in 2007 for this one. Yet, despite McEwan's mastery of language, I've yet to read a book of his that I actually enjoyed. On Chesil Beach is a study of the relationship between newlyweds Florence and Edward. Florence, who comes from a upper-class background is an artist who loves her husband, but suffers from incurable frigidity. Edward, on the other hand, comes from a more humble background and is prone to bouts of violence. The narrative switches between the couple's wedding night and flashbacks to the beginnings of their relationship. I found myself irritated by Edward and Florence and how they played their gender roles so stereotypically. The end of this book, however, was a bit unexpected. For a study in fine writing, this book is worthwhile, but I don't think I could legitimately say that I liked it.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

2007: The Year in Review and My 2008 Resolutions

2007 was a good reading year for me. I finished roughly 150 books. Of course, the number of books I read is a reflection of the fact that for 4 months this year I was either working part-time or between jobs. I also took some wonderful trips that allowed me to read: Japan with Jake, Ashland with Raz, Kauai with my mom, Mexico with Jake's family, and most recently, out to Michigan to see my brother.

I re-discovered the library this year -- trading in my hundreds of dollars in credit card bills at Walden Pond Books and Amazon for the Lakeshore Public Library. The library has been wonderful -- I love being able to check out books that look good, and not feeling guilty if I end up not wanting to read them. Of course, my need to over-consume has led to excessive check-outs and now I fear I will never get to read the books that are sitting on my shelves at home!

I also found new places for book recommendations: I bought a copy of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die which introduced me to J.M. Coetzee, my favorite new find for the year. I began reading the NY Times book reviews on-line and receiving daily e-mail reviews from (my favorite huge bookstore in Portland). And, I joined, an on-line forum that allows me to keep track of all my books - and see what my bibliophile friends are also reading. I've gotten some great recommendations from friends and family this year, so please keep them coming!

I have missed browsing in bookstores. I try to stay away since it's still hard for me to go in and just look. But, in 2008, I think I may budget myself a little money and time for one of my favorite pasttimes. And, now that I'm back working full-time, I miss just lounging in a cafe with my latte and reading for an hour or so while the world passes me by. In 2008, I think I might let myself skip the gym one day a week and spend that hour just reading. I might even let myself have a scone.

Sometimes I get anxious or stressed thinking about all the books I HAVE to read and knowing that I'll never have enough time. But, in 2008, I am going to try and relax, and just let myself BE with my books and enjoy everything I love about reading.

Thanks to all my friends and family for reading my blog now and again and for encouraging me to keep reading and writing. This has been one of my favorite activities this year, and I look forward to keeping it going in the new year. Happy 2008 and happy reading to all!!

Saturday, December 29, 2007

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down - Anne Fadiman - Every once in awhile I start reading a book and I just want to rush out and tell everyone about it. This is one of those books. This is the story of Lia Lee, a newborn Hmong girl living in Merced, California with her parents and seven siblings. Her parents speak no English, and when Lia begins suffering from epilleptic seizures, they reluctantly take her to the nearby hospital. From there, this book chronicles the vast cultural differences between mainstream Americans and the Hmong, and how language and cultural barriers affected Lia's treatment. Throughout the book, Fadiman meets with the Lee's and an interpreter, and provides historical background of the Hmong people who come from Laos and the Northern Hills of Thailand. This is an amazing portrait of how cultural norms can be misunderstood (or interpreted as crazy or the result of stupidity) when taken out of context, and the difficulty doctors face treating people from various backgrounds.

I am America (and So Can You!) - Stephen Colbert - Three years ago Jon Stewart came out with him mock textbook America (the Book): A Citizen's Guide to Democratic Inaction. While I sometimes find Stewart irritating, the book was pretty funny, and hit on all the highlights of a civics textbook - but with his liberal humor, of course. Now Colbert (who lately I have actually found funnier than Stewart) has come out with his own textbook of sorts. I am America is a collection of Colbert's thoughts and rants on basic American life from Race to Sports to Old People. There are lines that are laugh out loud funny, but mostly it gets a little old - and without the timely political headlines and figures to mock, the jokes are kind of stale, and a little too heavy on the homophobia for my taste. I was glad that I borrowed this one from the library - enjoyable for a few evenings, but not something I'd want to spend actual money on.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

84, Charing Cross Road - Helene Hanff - Many years ago, my Aunty Marji introduced me to this book. I remember just loving it. It is a collection of letters from the late 50s through the 70s between the author, Helene - a writer in New York, and Frank Dole - an antiquarian bookseller. Helene begins in search of rare titles, which Dole doggedly tracks down for her. As their correspondence continues, an interesting friendship develops. Helene sends packages to the bookstore, to be shared by the other workers there. And eventually, she begins to correspond, not only with Frank, but with his co-workers and even his wife. This book is quite short -- I read it in one session on the elliptical machine. It's so strange, because my recollection is that it was so much longer -- I'm not sure if it's because I read more slowly when I was younger, or if it's because I loved it so much that I imagined it lasted forever. Helene can be a bit infuriating, but her letters are funny and charming and contain discussions of the most obscure books. The idea that people could come to life through letters and develop a relationship without ever meeting each other is so wonderful to me. Now with the internet, I guess this is a much more common phenomenon than it used to be, but thinking about these letters traveling by post overseas is almost magical. The book has since been turned into a BBC broadcast, developed for the stage, and become a movie staring Anthony Hopkins and Anne Bancroft.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

All He Ever Wanted - Anita Shreve

Set at the end of the 19th century, All He Ever Wanted is the story of Professor Nicholas Van Tassel and his all consuming obsession with Etna Bliss. He meets Etna one night when the hotel he's staying at catches fire. He's immediately taken with her, though she doesn't seem to express anything more than mild politeness in his presence. In response to his marriage proposal, Etna informs Nicholas that she does not love him. Yet, he's willing to go forward with the wedding in the hopes that some day she might come to at least tolerate him. As the years go by, nothing much seems to change, and slowly the truth of Etna's past, what she is hiding from and why she will never love Nicholas, is revealed. In general, I am a big fan of Anita Shreve - her stories are usually about the nature of love with a twist and written simply, but beautifully. My favorites are The Pilot's Wife and The Weight of Water. Nothing different here, yet, I found the character of Nicholas so self-centered and controlling, that it was difficult for me to enjoy the book. Etna herself is quite unlikeable, but at least she is honest. This is an interesting look at marriage, particularly at the turn of the century -- the decisions that women feel forced to make, the compromises men and women are willing to make, and I think ultimately, the importance of love.

The Secret Lives of the Sushi Club - Christy Yorke

As book clubs become more and more popular, it's only natural that more books about book clubs should emerge (I really enjoyed The Jane Austen Book Club). My mom lent me this one, which she described as a "fast, entertaining" read, which in our book review code means, "basically mindless." The Sushi Club consists of four middle-aged women: a writer (Alice), a former soap-opera star (Irene), a single mom who lost the love of her life in a river rafting accident (Jina), and a female 40-year old virgin (Mary). When Alice uses the secrets revealed in the book club as the basis for the only bestseller of her life, the others feel betrayed and are forced to reexamine their lives. Jina's son convinces them all to go back to the river that claimed his father - to face their demons and find the strength to forgive. This book is chick-lit for middle-aged women, but it was a fast read, and it was decently entertaining. Yorke tries to do a little too much with some of her characters, to make profound political statements where none really exist, but a couple of the side stories are entertaining, and it was a good mindless distraction.

Friday, December 21, 2007

The Glass Castle - Jeannette Walls

It seems like this has been the year of the memoir and everywhere I turned someone was reading a copy of The Glass Castle. And now I see why. This is Jeannette Walls's story of growing up with her parents and three siblings all over the country. Severely impoverished, her father is a brilliant, but depressed alcoholic, and her mother a struggling artist who seems to feel no responsibility whatsoever toward her children. Jeannette and her siblings protect each other from the sexual advances of relatives, incredible hunger, and bullies at school who beat them up for wearing clothing that haven't been washed in months. Through the horrific neglect, Walls manages to paint a somewhat sympathetic portrait of her parents as liberal dreamers who refuse to conform to societal norms. Reading this memoir was like learning about one of my clients - it is a social history filled with mental illness and abuse, masquerading as eccentricity. But, it is also a testament to the importance of the support that siblings can give to one another, and the importance of having that network during a traumatic childhood. While this book is incredibly depressing, I think it presents a realistic view of so many children growing up in this country, and shows a side of poverty and survival that few people who haven't gone through it themselves could ever believe. I hope we won't find out in another year that Walls made half of this stuff up (like the author of A Million Little Pieces). I worry sometimes when these memoirs have such shocking examples of poverty and abuse, yet are presented in "humorous" ways (Augusten Burroughs is a perfect example). Walls, among many others out there, has the power to bring recognition to very important issues in our society -- but not if readers are able to downplay these stories as merely "touching" or "heart-warming."

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Name and Address Withheld - Jane Sigaloff

Lizzie is an "agony-aunt" (like a Dear Abby, but in London). She falls head over heels for Matt, who just happens to be maried (though he doesn't tell her this at first). At about the same time, she starts receiving long letters from Rachel, a high-powered self-absorbed ad exec. who seems to be having a little marital trouble. Well, it doesn't take a genius to figure out how this is all going to work itself out. Badly. Almost as badly as the way this story is written and told in general. Lizzie starts out likeable -- a no-nonsense woman with a career and some perspective. But, once she meets this guy she becomes wholly divorced from reality (no pun intended) and behaves like the stereo-typical wallowing pathetic loser of a co-dependent. I keep wanting to like these chick-lit books - they start light and fun and involve girlfriends and lots of chocolate (who wouldn't like that?), but in the end, I just end up depressed -- and truly hoping with everything in me that the women portrayed on the pages are really just figments of some writer's imagination, and not a true reflection of my entire female generation.

Trans-Sister Radio - Chris Bohjalian

I've been a big fan of Chris Bohjalian ever since I read Midwives back in college. I've also enjoyed The Law of Similars and most recently The Buffalo Soldiers. He tends to write stories about choices - and how the choices people make and the principles they choose to live their lives by, affect not only them, but the people around them. Trans-sister Radio is a story about Allison, a straight divorced single-mother who teaches sixth grade. Her daughter Carly is about to leave for college, and her ex-husband, Will, runs the local public radio station and is experiecing a little marital trouble. Allison meets and falls in love with Dana, a male professor in town. The "problem" is that Dana is a woman merely stuck in a man's body, and when she falls in love with Allison, she is only months away from her transsexual operation to become the person on the outside that she has always been on the inside. As Allison struggles with whether she can love Dana once the operation is complete, the town parents pressure her to resign from the job she loves. The story is told in chapters from the perspective of the different characters: Allison, Dana, Carly, and Will. From the afterword, it sounds as if Bohjalian did research for this book and spoke to numerous transsexuals. Obviously, not all of their experiences are the same, but I remain curious about how true to reality in general the book was. As can be imagined, there is significant portrayal of the prejudices encountered by both Allison and Dana, and I found those parts of the book infuriating and very difficult to read (though nothing compared to how difficult it would be in real life to endure). The ending was implausible and a little disappointing given how seemingly realistic the book had been up to that point. But, overall, I thought this was a beautiful book about how we fall in love and how important it is, even through very long journeys, to find our way to our true identities.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Abstinence Teacher - Tom Perrotta - Tom Perrotta's writing is very straight-forward and perfect during a hot bath or in bed after a long day. He tells a good story, often in school settings or about school-aged children and their neurotic morally-challenged parents. Prior to The Abstinence Teacher, I really enjoyed Joe College and Election (made into a movie with Reece Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick) , and to a lesser extent, Little Children (also a movie with Kate Winslet). The Abstinence Teacher is the story of Ruth, a high school sex ed. teacher and Tim, her daughter's soccer coach and a born again Christian. Ruth struggles to provide her students with the information she knows they need, within a curriculum that advocates abstinence as the only solution, while also trying as a single parent to take care of daughters who suddenly pronounce their interest in attending church. Tim, on the other hand, wants to give himself over completely to his church, knowing his tendencies to stray from a righteous path, but he finds the Church's moral absolutes difficult to swallow. In many ways this book was very frustrating -- knowing that there are people controlling certain curriculum in public schools who are simply blind about reality is incredibly scary. At the same time, I just don't want to believe that the religious segment portrayed in this book is really as ignorant, close-minded, and bullying as Perrotta portrays them. But, perhaps it's easy to think that living in a part of the country where that population simply doesn't seem to have a presence, or at least not a presence with any power. I did think Perrotta did a good job portraying the character of Tim and the twists and turns of his faith. Ruth, however, was a bit more one-dimensional - while facing somewhat of a communication crisis with her two children, she doesn't seem to do much to try and connect with them. She wallows in a little too much self-pity and while she has strong beliefs about education, she never seems able to articulate those positions to anyone who matters. I found her inability to stand up for herself and for the students she is in a position to protect very disappointing. Overall, however, Perrotta's novel raises very important issues about the nature of public school education, the separation (or lack thereof) of church and state, and how we pass along "proper" morals to our children.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Rumspringa: To Be or Not To Be Amish - Tom Schachtman

Like many people, I find the Amish quite fascinating. The idea that people would want to live without modern conveniences seems quaint, and I was interested to learn how they could retain young members. "Rumspringa" is the time in an Amish teenagers' life when s/he is permitted to go out and experience the outside world. The hope is that after reveling in temptation for a short while, they will realize the need to return to their communities and devote themselves to the Amish way of life. But, these kids don't just go out and get jobs and spend time with "English" youth. They go all out - they smoke, drink excessively, use hard-core drugs (often becoming addicted to meth and heroin), and engage in pre-marital sex (which leads to the fairly common phenomenon of many Amish first children being born 8 months after the wedding). While this book is, on its face, a study of Amish youth and their frustrations with the rigors of their religion, it is underneath a study of all children - how parents raise and teach children, and hope that when they are out on their own, they will know how to make the right choices and take care of themselves. The Amish parents in the book struggle between being too strict and driving away their children (but teaching them good values), and being too lenient, risking the wrath of their community, but hopefully showing their children mercy and acceptance. In many ways, it seems as if the Amish set their children up for disaster in the outside world - they rarely attend school after the 8th grade and so aren't in a position to obtain sustainable employment. What they can earn is spent readily on "normal" clothing and other means of just fitting in to regular life. Often times, the examples in the book seemed to come back to the Amish communities after they'd hit rock bottom, or were too afraid of the shunning they'd face if they didn't. As would be expected, the Amish life seems particularly difficult for women who are expected to have many many children and to submit to the directives of their husbands. On the other hand, as far as organized religions go, the Amish do have much to commend. Rumspringa is a fascinating glimpse in to growing up Amish, but also in to how we all come to make our own decisions and choose which life we want to lead.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Run - Ann Patchett

I often wonder if I could write or get all my thoughts down on paper who I would most want to sound like. I think the answer is Ann Patchett. Her previous books, Bel Canto, Truth and Beauty, The Patron Saint of Liars, and to a lesser extent, Taft have all completely captured me. They are straight-forward, but beautiful, with characters that you feel like you've known your whole life. Run is no different. This is the story of African-American brothers Tip and Teddy who were adopted as young children by Boston's Irish-Catholic mayor and his saintly wife, Bernadette. When Bernadette succumbs to cancer early on, the boys are left without their mother -- and a whole lot of sadness and loss. Years later, unable to fulfill his father's wish for him to go into politics, Tip is unexpectedly in an accident. Suddenly, the mayor's biological son is back, and ghosts from the past return to haunt Tip and Teddy. I felt like this book was just the first chapter in a very long story - Patchett could have written an entire novel on each of the characters. As a result, sometimes it feels like there is a bit too much going on, or places where I thought she would go or further explain are simply left unexplored. Race is certainly at the center of this novel and the relationship between this father and his sons - but while it is alluded to frequently, with numerous sterotypes introduced and ignored, in the end, the reader is left with so many questions about the character and motivations of these people. Yet, I did not feel cheated or dissatisfied when I finished the book. Perhaps because, again, it was like meeting people in real life - catching a quick glimpse of who they are, but left to wonder why and how they came to be. This would make a wonderful gift for all the readers on your Christmas list.