Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Stitches - David Small

In general I am not a fan of graphic novels. Like comic books, I think they are in a genre all their own, separate and apart from novels and literature. This is not to say that they are better or worse, just that I don't understand them enough to enjoy them. I first heard of a graphic novel my first year in college when half my dorm was assigned Maus. I, however, was not. Years later, I read Persepolis and its sequel. While I enjoyed them, I couldn't help thinking they would have been even better as memoirs written in prose rather than in pictures. But, when I received this book as part of my Powell's book club, I thought I'd give this graphic novel thing another try. Stitches is the memoir of David Small, a sickly little boy growing up in a household of turmoil. Following a particularly traumatic surgery, David is left without his voice. And so he tells his story through pictures. While the drawings in this book are haunting, and tell a compelling story of a frightened child in a world with no explanations, I still wished I could have read a fuller more complete book about his life. There were little things here and there that Small touched upon - like the possibility that his father, a radiologist, may have caused David's illness, and the fact that his mother was a lesbian - but which he does not explore in any depth. There are themes galore, but they don't get much attention which left me with a million unanswered questions about Small's life (which is maybe how he himself felt going through it all). I suppose a picture is woth a thousand words, but I needed a different presentation. I've read many reviews of Stitches in which people laud Small for raising the bar and expanding the depths of the graphic novel. All I can safely say is that I just don't get it. This was a great story - and I liked the pictures - but ultimately, I wanted to read a book with more words.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Mudbound - Hillary Jordan

Set in 1946, Mudbound is the story of two families - one black and one white. Henry McAllen marries late in life to Laura. Along with their two children, and Henry's racist and abrasive father, Pappy, they move into a farmhouse on the Mississippi Delta. At home working the land, Henry is oblivious to Laura's misery. Jamie, his much younger brother, returns home from the war, reaching for the bottle in an attempt to dull the painful memories of his time overseas. Jamie befriends a fellow soldier named Ronsel, the eldest son of black sharecroppers working on Henry's land. Ronsel's demand for respect from the town's old white men, and his developing friendship with Jamie, fuels the fires of hatred. The chapters in this story are told from the alternating perspectives of the various characters. This storytelling method seems to have become so popular lately, that I find I no longer enjoy it. Instead of being clever, it just lends itself to a disjointed narrative. In general, this book was just too depressing, and the racism so distasteful (but realistic), that I had a hard time getting through it. Jordan's character development was impressive - each character with a flaw (some bigger than others), but each also with a backstory that explained (but did not forgive) the ugliness. In terms of themes, I don't feel this one added much to the dialogue about race relations or reconstruction - though Ronsel's differing experiences in Europe vis-a-vis- Mississippi was interesting. But, for realism and tragedy, this one certainly comes through.

Catching Fire - Suzanne Collins (Hunger Games Series #2)

Ever since reading The Hunger Games, I've been eagerly awaiting this sequel. I couldn't wait for the library to get its copies in, so I went straight to one of my favorite independent bookstores in Oakland ( and picked it up. Fresh off a win at the Hunger Games, Katniss and Peeta find themselves back in District 12. But, instead of enjoying the fruits of their victory, Katniss is warned by the Capitol that if she cannot keep up the facade of her romance with Peeta and quell the rumblings of rebellion throughout the other district that all her loved ones will be killed. Katniss struggles with her hatred for the Capitol, and her desire to go back to the old way of life. Old friends from the first book return - Haymitch still drinking to overcome his trauma, Cinna with more stylistic genius up his sleeve, and of course Gale, Katniss's childhood playmate and first love. I'm thankful that Harry Potter has given adults license to enjoy young adult fiction without embarrassment (at least I think it has) - and while the ideal reader for this series is probably 12-14, I have been quite taken in by it all. The interaction among the characters, not to mention the action, would be perfect for a television series or movie (I just read on Wikipedia that the movie rights to the first book have been purchased by Lionsgate). About half-way through, the story took an unexpected (to me) turn, and I found my heart racing. I couldn't flip the pages fast enough to find out what was going to happen. The only bad part about this book was that it had to end. Luckily, the next installment has an anticipated 2010 release date.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Curse of the Singles Table - Suzanne Schlosberg

Suzanne Schlosberg's memoir is premised on the fact that for 1000+ days in her early 30s she went without having sex. In her 20s, Schlosberg, a freelance writer for a fitness magazine who is herself obsessed with working out, dated regularly. She then found herself in a long-term relationship with a cop who never wanted to get married. Tired of settling for "good enough," Schlosberg breaks free in search of herself, and of the perfect match. As the years tick by, the pressure from Schlosberg's family to get married increases. And when her younger sister gets engaged, things really start heating up. But, it isn't until half-way through the book that the 1,000 days actually begins - and it isn't until a good deal into the streak that Schlosberg even realizes that the streak is happening. For this reason, I felt like focusing the book on the 1,000 days was just an unnecessary attempt to shock the reader. Yes, the 1,000 days are a part of Schlosberg's story - but really her story is about being a single woman in a world that expects so much. Schlosberg excels in her career, she is passionate about sports and open to trying new things, she has an incredible stint with volunteer work, she moves to new cities where she knows no one - all while trying to conform to the expectations of being the kind of girl who settles down as a wife with kids regardless of whether the guy she's with is a true partner. I felt like there was just so much more to Schlosberg's experiences, and because her writing is humorous and insightful, I think this book could have been so much more of a manifesto for the life of a professional single woman, who also wants some of that traditional fairy tale. I thought it debased her experiences to focus so much on her sex life. But, perhaps at the end of the day, that's what sells books. I just wish she had been interested in selling something a little more substantial.

The Lost Symbol - Dan Brown

Poor Dan Brown. The reviews for his latest novel starring Robert Langdon have not been so favorable. People call his writing formulaic and predictable, and his plot twists too unbelievable to enjoy. Yet in its first week out, The Lost Symbol sold over a million copies in the US, and half a million in the UK. Once it's turned into a summer blockbuster, Mr. Brown will be laughing all the way to the bank. I guess I don't understand the criticism. Surely we've all read The DaVinci Code and Angels & Demons. Aren't over the top explosions and never-ending cliches what we know and love from Brown? Of course, he's no literary genius, but I contend that he is a master of the cliff-hanger at the end of each chapter - which is impressive seeing as this book has over 130 chapters. This time around Langdon, professor of symbology at Harvard (yes, we know, this is a made up department and Langdon should perhaps be part of the semiotics department), is summoned to Washington, D.C. under false pretenses. Once there, he finds himself caught up in the legends of the Freemasons, and he must unlock the secret of the Lost Word to save the life of his old friend Peter. Silas the albino self-flagellating villain from The DaVinci Code has been replaced by a hairless Illustrated Man in this installment. While Langdon's female companions in the prior books helped him flee across Europe, this time, his partner in crime is the sister of the victim, and a noetic scientist (a branch of philosophy concerned with the study of the mind, intuition, and collective consciousness). Langdon gets himself in the predictable mess, confiding in those he shouldn't and trusting others who intend to cause harm - how he manages to keep himself alive in this one is far beyond even my ability to suspend disbelief. That being said, I was immediately engaged in the story, and stayed up late into the night because I (in my own cliche) just couldn't put it down. The layers upon layers of symbols for Langdon to interpret become tedious after awhile, but just as The DaVinci Code caused people to take a closer look at the Vatican and to reexamine The Last Supper, I think this one is going to bring a lot more tourists to D.C. and introduce them to the German painter, Albrecht Durer and the beauty of magical squares. Sure Brown's stories are fanciful, and whether there is any truth to his legends, I have no idea. But, to the extent he gets people reading, interested in art and history, and questioning otherwise commonly-held beliefs, Dan Brown gets a thumbs up in my book.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Jericho's Fall - Stephen L. Carter

I had the same reaction to all three of Stephen L. Carter's previous three novels: great suspense, a little long, a tad bit pretentious on the 50-cent words, intriguing discussion of race relations. Jericho's Fall is none of these things. I was suprised that Carter came out with a novel so soon after Palace Council, but after reading Jericho's Fall, I think I understand why. Unlike his previous three novels, Jericho's Fall simply isn't that intelligent. The writing is unsophisticated and the suspense utterly lacking. The basic premise is that former head of the CIA, Jericho Ainsley is on his death bed. Isolated up in the Colorado Rockies (where we are told over and over again that there is NO CELL PHONE RECEPTION), he summons Beck DeForde, a woman with whom he once had a career and marriage-ending affair. They have not seen each other in years, and DeForde is irritated having to leave her young daughter to respond to the whims of this selfish and egotistical man (but of course she does it anyway). Then for the next 150 pages or so - nothing happens. Jericho speaks to her in code, or possible derangement. His daughters, still angry at the homewrecker after all these years, are rude to her. And of course, there's just something weird going on with DeForde's cell phone - it rings, and strange messages are played back, it turns on and off - but every time it does so we are reminded that cell phones don't even work in the house! By the time some mystery was injected into the story, beyond Jericho's paranoid delusions, I just wanted it to end. DeForde strikes up a flirtation with a married cop in town - despite the fact that they appear to have no chemistry, and it's clear it's going to end badly. There's also a new librarian in town - the only black woman around we learn (for no reason in particular), who is clearly out of her element. DeForde takes it upon herself to figure out what exactly Jericho has got himself involved in - but she has no investigation skills, no common sense, and no intuition. The foreshadowing is so obvious, if only DeForde could have read the book along with us, she would have known to get out and save herself much sooner. With intelligence operations, foreign governments, and financial scandal involved, perhaps people more jazzed by espionage stories would have found something exciting in this one. But, after Carter's past novels, I've come to expect so much more from him, and I was truly disappointed.

Commencement - J. Courtney Sullivan

This book opens in 2006 - four years after four best friends graduated from Smith and are reuniting for a wedding. Celia, April, Sally, and Bree all have very distinct personalities and backgrounds, but when they find themselves first year hallmates, they form fast friendships. The chapters switch among the four women, telling stories of their pasts, their lives at Smith, and their lives after Smith. April is a hard-core feminist activist, putting herself in harm's way to make documentaries about human trafficking, female genital mutilation, and all things misogynistic in our society. Sally, who lost her mother just months before beginning at Smith, struggles to find love - falling for a Smith professor, before settling down to get married at 24. Bree, a Southern belle, discovers her love for another woman, becomes a corporate attorney in San Francisco, and finds herself torn between following her heart and gaining the acceptance of her family. Celia is the most lost of all - trying to hold on to her college friendships, unsure of the lessons she was supposed to learn from an all women's school, and learning to be okay with her independence. While a lot happens in the book - and the end is a little unnecessarily dramatic - I mostly just enjoyed learning about the lives of these different women. Even though they came together somewhat out of the convenience of their dorm assignments, the friendships they developed were real. The passage of time brought them all to different places in their lives - they made different choices, but nothing changed their need to be together. This is really a powerful story about the strength of female friendships. The writing reminded me of Prep, and while the subject matter seems of the chick-lit variety (in the pejorative sense), the issues are much more complex and satisfying.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Madness: A Bipolar Life - Marya Hornbacher

At the age of 24, Marya Hornbacher was diagnosed with Type I bipolar disorder. This realization of why she thinks and behaves the way she does did not come at the outset of her disease. Rather, it came after years and years of cycling through incessant mania and debilitating depression. Hornbacher recalls moments from her childhood, such as her terrible insomnia and inability to stop jabbering flying from topic to topic with no coherent train of thought. She tried to poke fun at herself as all the other children in her class labeled her crazy, but it was clear that while Hornbacher knew she was different, she could never quite figure out what it was that made her so. Hornbacher also had an interesting home life - with parents who were violently fighting one minute, and lovingly playing Scrabble with her the next. It is unclear from Hornbacher's stories what her parents were able to recognize in their daughter as unusual and what they engdendered as a result of their own erratic behavior. As she grows older, Hornbacher's episodes become more severe. She begins starving herself at a young age and develops anorexia/bulimia (the subject of her memoir, Wasted). To alleviate her internal suffering, Hornbacher turns to cutting - one time getting so out of control that she nearly kills herself and is rushed to the hospital. Once there, the doctors seem intent on labeling her as depressed - a common diagnosis for girls with eating disorders. But, the medications only seem to make Hornbacher more crazy. In response, the doctors increase her levels of medication. Hornbacher turns to her own brand of medicine, and within years she becomes a full-blown alcoholic. Her condition prevents any medication which may have worked, from having any noticeable effect. Finally, Hornbacher receives her proper diagnosis, but it is years before the realization of her illness sets in, and before she curtails her destructive and suicidal behavior. Madness is an interesting memoir. Repeatedly I found myself thinking, "Ugh! This woman is SO ANNOYING! She's self-absorbed and self-destructive. She is ruining the lives of those who are trying to help her and never listens to her doctors (even the ones who are intelligent enough to get the diagnosis and the med levels correct." But, then I had to remind myself that these behaviors are the direct result of her mental illness. In this way, I found Hornbacher's memoir amazingly honest. She did not pepper her stories with much self-reflection, and while frightening, it was refreshing to read this type of book from the perspective of someone who isn't deluded into thinking that she now has all the answers, or that she will lead a stress-free wholly positive life now that she has her diagnosis in hand. The issues raised by this book are numerous, but in particular I found interesting Hornbacher's memories of her childhood. People are quick to belive that children are "resilient," that they don't experience trauma like adults do, that they don't remember or internalize, that they simply can't suffer from depression, bipolar, or schizophrenia. Hornbacher's memories suggest otherwise. They suggest, at the very least, that there are indicators that the disease that may manifest at quite an early age. The question being whether treatment on children is safe or effective, and if anything can be done to prevent the progression of the disesase. Hornbacher's experience also emphasizes the relation between eating disorders, cutting, suicidal ideation, alcoholism, and other destructive behviors and mental illness - they feed on each other in ways that often make it difficult to detemine the origins of a given problem. Madness is written as a memoir - it is Hornbacher's story - it is not a clinical examination of bipolar disorder - and it does not answer many questions that I had about the history of bipolar treatment and the state of bipolar disorder in our country today- in terms of the research that is being done, the medication available to people, and how therapy can be used, if at all, to deal with the symptoms. But, what this book does do is open a window into an often misunderstood disease and ignite a dialogue that will hopefully lead to answers and more efficient diagnoses.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - Steig Larsson (Millenium Series #1)

This is another of those books I felt compelled to read because I have been seeing it everywhere - along with its sequel, The Girl who Played with Fire. Larsson, an author from Sweden, died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 2004. He left three unpublished manuscripts, meant to be a part of a 10 book series. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the first. After the first 5 pages, I was not sure if I was going to be able to get into this one - but I stuck with it so I would have a chance at understanding the popularity. My friend Liz asked me this morning "when does it get good?" having reached page 5 and finding the writing hard to get into. While I was at a loss for words to explain what the book is about, suffice it to say, it gets good fast. The book circles around a number of different stories - Henrik Vanger, an aged wealthy investor lost his niece over 40 years ago. He is haunted by her disappearance and obsessed with discovering her murderer before he himself expires. Journalist Mikael Blomkvist, fresh off a conviction for libel against a wealthy and powerful businessman, is eager to disappear from society himself, and is hired by the eccentric Vanger to investigate the mystery. And finally Lisbeth Salanger, a ward of the court and a world-class hacker with a gothic exterior and the ability to find out the most personal information about the most private people, is hired to do her own investigation of Blomkvist. Set in Sweden, against the backdrop of a darkly misogynistic landscape, Larsson highlights the violence in society against women, sometimes in stark and gratuitous ways. The numerous characters in the novel were often difficult to keep track of - not just for the reader - but for Blomkvist in his investigation as well. But, there is love and intrigue, and a mystery filled with twists and turns. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo held my attention to say the least. My only disappointment is that Larsson did not live long enough to enjoy the success, or to write the remaining 7 installments.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide - Kay Redfield Jamison

After several teen suicides and attempted suicides in my hometown this past year, I started to feel incredibly helpless. Despite the obvious sadness of young lives lost, I felt overwhelming frustration. It is often easy for people to dismiss teen suicide as the result of immaturity or a lack of perspective - heartbreak over unrequited love or a rejection letter from Harvard. What people ignore is the reality - that the majority of suicides, those of teenagers and adults - are the result of chonic and untreated mental illness. Jamison's thorough and exhausting book attempts to get to the bottom of the frightening epidemic around the world - of men and women, from all walks of life. Jamison explores all aspects of suicide - from analyzing the data to detemine which age groups are killing themselves, to their purported reasons for doing so. She looks at the methods that people use and the notes they leave behind. She includes stories of famous people in history, as well as tragic examples from today. Jamison's book is haunting, but I think so important. It is with all this back story that Jamison then turns to the most important question: how do we prevent suicide? While there are obviously no easy answers, Jamison explores suggestions for how to talk about mental illness as a predictor for suicide, how to recognize and assess the warning signs, and how to cope after a devastating loss. This book was a very difficult read for me. I would read a chapter here and there and then put it aside because I simply found it too sad. But, I am glad I read it. I hope that more people will - I hope it will help us to better understand suicide, to dispel the shame our society attaches to it, to encourage people to ask for help when they feel alone, and to help all of us to be better equipped to give the assistance so many people desperately need.

Friday, September 11, 2009

The Last Assassin - Barry Eisler (John Rain Series #5)

At the end of the last John Rain book, Killing Rain, our half-Japanese hero discovered that an affair with the daughter of one of his victims resulted in a baby boy. At the beginning of installment #5, Rain learns that his son is living with his mother Midori in New York City, oblivious to the fact that Rain's yakuza enemies from Japan have her under constant surveillance. Rain, himself, has fallen in love (or as close to love as an emotionally detached trained killer can be) with a fellow assassin, the beautiful Israeli, Delilah. Torn between escaping his life of murder, and establishing a relationship with his son, Rain sets out to destroy the yakuza boss and regain his freedom. To do so, Rain must return to Japan to his dying mentor, and solicit the help of the irreverant and sometims obnoxious, but always loyal sniper, Dox. As with all the books in the Rain series, this one is filled with fight scenes, brutal murders, and tricky surveillance gadgets. But more so than the others, Rain really develops in this one as a human being - determined to remain dispassionate, but tormented by his conscience. The quote on the back of this one got it right - it truly is "the best one yet!"

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Waiting for Daisy - Peggy Orenstein

Roughly 10 years ago, at the end of law school, my friend Emily gave me Peggy Orenstein's book Flux. Flux is about the difficulties of being a profesisonal women in today's society - with all the expectations of success in the public realm equal to those of men, but still the expectations of success in the private realm, without the corresponding shift in the expectations of our male counterparts. I found the book both inspirational in all that women nowadays are able to accomplish, but also daunting in the effort it would take to accomplish it all. Years later, approaching 40, Orenstein is married and suddenly decides that she wants to have a child. Overwhelmingly successful in everything else she has set her mind to, she has no doubt in her mind that she will achieve motherhood and obtain all that entails. Instead, Orenstein runs smack up against infertility. She suffers through miscarriages and assisted reproductive technologies. She considers adoption and surrogacy, and questions her own decision to wait so long to try and have a family. She experiences wide-ranging emotions from sadness to guilt to frustration to anger. As her desire for a child becomes an all consuming obsession, she finds that it has distanced herself from her partner. Repeatedly Orenstein questions the assumptions she made in her earlier works - that women can, and should, have it all. I found it frustrating myself to read her questioning her decision to wait - to assume that she is somehow to blame for her inability to have a child, or that she would give up all the work she had done in the world and the good her books have brought thousands of people, to go back and have a child instead. Within this book about Orenstein's journey to parenthood, she goes to Japan to write a story about survivors of the Hiroshima bombings during WWII. While there is a parenting connection to her story - many women were disfigured as a result of the bombings and rendered infertile or because of their appearances unable to find partners. There were also many people left without parents and families, and their treatment was often inhumane and incomprehensible. Orenstein's reporting on this underground population in Japan was quite interesting, separate and apart from the personal issues Orenstein was dealing with while conducting her investigation. Given the title of the book, I assumed Orenstein ended up with her daughter, Daisy, in the end. But, I had no idea how she would get there - and after heartbreak after heartbreak, and what seemed to be a lack of support and understanding by her husband, I am amazed that Orenstein found the strength to keep trying. While her success is inspiring on one level, it also saddens me that a person of such intelligence and accomplishments would feel that her life were unfulfilled or lacking meaning simply because of her inability to carry a biological child to term. I question what this understandable reaction says about our society, but appreciate the struggle Orenstein endured and her willingness to share her story.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Ex Libris - Anne Fadiman

I sometimes fear that my obsession with books is abnormal. Obviously, I love to read. But, sometimes, it's not actually the reading - or the thought that I will never read everything on my to-read list - that causes me anxiety. It is the knowledge that I will never even know what all the books are that are even out there (in the categories of books that I even read, which are of course, just a small percentage of the actual books in this universe). Despite the fact that I have over 120 unread books on my shelves at home, I borrow books from the library by the dozen, and I allow myself the occassional trip to a bookstore to actually purchase books, as well as hiding my compulsive Amazon and purchases from my husband. I troll magazines and websites for new books, and I hate nothing more than when someone mentions a book to me that I have not read - or even worse, one that I have not even heard of (at the same time I also love when this happens because it means there is even more out there for me to discover - so please keep the recommendations coming!). I have found that one way to ease my obsessive anxiety about books is to read books about books - these are books by other compusive readers. Sometimes they contain lists of recommended books. Other times, like with this book by Anne Fadiman (author of the amazing book, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down), they are people writing about why they love books so darn much. Ex Libris is a collection of Fadiman's essays - all related somehow to her love of words and reading. In the opening essay, Fadiman discusses the merging of her library with that of her author husband's. While he stacks his books haphazardly this way and that, Fadmian prefers to alphabetize hers or arrange them chronologically, depending on the genre. I particularly enjoyed one essay about different types of readers. There are those who devour their books - scribbling notes in the margins, ripping out pages, writing irrelevant grocery lists on the blank fly pages- because, after all, it is the words that matter, not the book itself. Then there are those who treat their books with prisine care, always using a bookmark (never dog-earring pages). This description reminded me of my brother who used to barely open the pages of his really thick Stephen King novels for fear of cracking the spine. I think I fall somewhere in between. I hate when my books get wet or dirty, and while I love to highlight and keep track of important things, this was a taboo I had to work hard to overcome in college. I love booksmarks of all kinds, but there have been times when I'm at a loss and leave the book splayed open on my nightstand. Fadiman has essays about her outrageously large vocabulary and her love for words. Despite my life-long love of reading, I admit that I have a very small vocabulary. I always tell myself that I'm going to write down the words I come across that I don't know and look them up, but I never do - Fadiman's essays would have given me a very long list to start with! A couple of the essays were a bit too literary or esoteric for my tastes, but the majority were ones in which I recognized myself (though perhaps I am not quite as refined). Fadiman's essays were a reminder that my literary compulsions are not completely abnormal, and that more importantly, they make me happy and I look forward to many more years of reading, new discoveries, and of course, books about books.

Dry - Augusten Burroughs

After reading two of Augusten Burroughs's memoirs (Running with Scissors and A Wolf at the Table), as well as his brother's memoir (Look Me in the Eye), I feel as if I have come to know him. So, I was eager to read this one about Burroughs's struggles with alcohol addiction. The book starts out with Burroughs living the high life as an advertising executive. His creative juices are flowing, powered by a liter of Dewars per night. He sees his drinking as part of the advertising culture - a world where people have bars in their offices, and happy hour is a daily occurence. While this memoir was written years before "Mad Men" premiered on television, of course, I couldn't help but picture Don Draper and the rest of Sterling Cooper lighting up their cigarettes and pouring shots before 10 a.m. Eventually, Burroughs's drinking catches up with him. He sleeps through meetings and arrives at the office reeking of the previous night's bender. His co-workers stage an intervention and he is shipped off to rehab. The rest of the memoir chronicles Burroughs's time in rehab, and his relationships following his return home. He struggles to attend the AA meetings he can't quite get himself into, while inappropriately falling in love with a fellow addict. He can't cut off the friendships with other alcoholics that he had before rehab, and he hides from a close friend living with HIV because he is so afraid of losing him. I found Burroughs's ascerbic wit more biting and laugh-out-loud funny in this one than in his prior memoirs. But, as with those, the fact that the stories he is telling are from his actual life, filled me will heartache and frustration. Dry is not an uplifting book, but I think it is an honest depiction of the life of an alcoholic, the selfishness of addiction, and the loneliness of recovery.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Joy Luck Club - Amy Tan

I've seen the movie "The Joy Luck Club" at least a dozen times. It reminds me of my family, always makes me cry, and I absolutely love it. I've put off reading the book for so many years because I worried it wouldn't live up to the movie (the opposite of my usual problem). But, this past weekend, I took the plunge. The Joy Luck Club is about two generations of Chinese-American women. The first four women are first-generation Americans who have made the difficult trek from China, escaping bad marriages, abandoning children, or otherwise leaving with only their secrets. The second four women are the daughters of these women - American-born Chinese - with the weight of their mothers' high expectations and best intentions on their shoulders. Each chapter of the book is a vignette from a different woman's life. There is so much about culture and obligation, as well as mother-daughter relationships, relationships with men, and how to find yourself and maintain your voice in a world that is constantly trying to silence you. I cried and laughed in the book at the same parts I cry and laugh at during the movie. It was hard for me to figure out if I would have loved this book as much if I had read it without the voices of the actors in my head - particularly Waverley's mom and the scene where the white boyfriend pours soy sauce all over the mom's prized Chinese dish - but it doesn't really matter. It was a great read that brought back fond memories of my own grandmother. This is actually the first Amy Tan book I've ever read - and I have The Kitchen God's Wife next to me as I write this update. I am very happy to discover a new (for me) author who writes about the kinds of families and themes I truly love.

Julie & Julia - Julie Powell

Given the recent release of the movie "Julie & Julia", this book seems to be everywhere. I tend to enjoy books about food, and I don't know anything about Julia Child, so I decided to check it out before watching the movie. The book is a year in the life of Julie Powell - a temp living in New York, married to her high school sweetheart. Confused about what to do with her life, and feeling as if she has accomplished nothing, Powell decides to cook all of the recipes in Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. She keeps track of her successes and failures through her blog which slowly gains a loyal following. Between chapters, Powell includes short vignettes of Child's imagined life. These interludes, however, did not add much to the book as far as I was concerned. And while the premise of the book seems fun and interesting, mostly I found Powell herself self-absorbed and whiny. She repeatedly gushes about how she has the best husband in the world and she does not understand how she got so lucky. After reading the book, I have no idea either. As for the recipes themselves, she appeared to make them with no rhyme or reason. Once in awhile she would throw a dinner party, but other times she just seemed to be slogging through them - and because the vast majority of the recipes hardly sounded appetizing, the whole thing just seemed to be a convoluted plan for having something to do, just to have something to do. If it weren't for the fact that this book has become a bestseller and the basis for a major motion picture, I doubt that I would have read past about page 50. I have heard that the movie, which is also based on the book My Life with Julia, focuses more interestingly on Julia Child herself. Often after I'm done reading a book, I go back and read the quotes on the back cover to see if I agree. This one proclaimed that it was "laugh out loud funny." I found it more nails on chalkboard cringe-worthy. And the second quote, I believe from the Washington Post, noted that it was a "pretty good read." With all the authors and publications out there providing quotes for books, the fact that the one featured on the cover can only muster a "pretty good" kind of sums up my feeling about the whole thing. I think I'll wait for the movie to come out on DVD.