Saturday, July 30, 2011

A Widow's Story - Joyce Carol Oates

Last week my aunt lost her husband.  I attended the funeral, and as funerals always do, it made me think about my own life, but more importantly about what the lives of those around me mean.  What would I do if I lost my husband?  How would I feel?  How would I move on?  My uncle had been sick for awhile - but does that really matter?  Does having the chance to say good-bye truly mean that the processing and coping with grief will be any easier than if someone is taken away suddenly and without warning?  Joyce Carol Oates explores all these ideas, and more, in her extremely personal memoir, A Widow's Story, in which her 77-year old husband and partner for over 30 years dies unexpectedly from complications stemming from pneumonia.  Though her husband was relatively old, and though she took him to the hospital, Oates is blindsided by his death.  Though a woman with devoted and supportive friends, incredible intelligence, and an outlet through her writing - Oates finds herself completely undone and lost in her new world and new position as a widow.  Oates recalls the events of her husband's death and the years that follow with honesty - while also looking back with some perspective on what she now believes she was going through.  I was particularly taken, and impressed, with her vivid discussion of her thoughts on suicide, and saddened by her constant feelings that she no longer deserved to be alive, and that with her husband gone, she was nothing but garbarge that needed to be taken out and thrown away.  Of course, given Oates's famous writer status, and the subject of the book, there is much to compare to Joan Didion's Year of Magical Thinking, and Oates references the book without name several times.  But, Oates's book stands on its own as a testament to the love she had for her husband and the incredible impact people can make on our lives.  At the end of the book (it might be the last line), she says something like, the best a widow can say on the one-year anniversary of her husband's death is that she is still living - meaning, of course, that dealing with grief is a tough business.  People want us to "get over it" or to preoocupy ourselves with other tasks, and certainly not to show emotion that would make others uncomfortable.  In the end, while we all need support, we also need to continue to live in our own way and on our own terms. I hope writing this book helped Oates understand her loss, and served as a way to keep her incredible memories of her husband alive.  For herself and others.

Lies That Chelsea Handler Told Me - Chelsea Handler & Friends

When I found out that this book wasn't actually written by Chelsea Handler, but by her friends and family, I was a bit disappointed.  I figured it wouldn't be that funny, and would instead be filled with annoying sycophantic anecdotes.  Well, I was right with respect to the anecdotes, but the stories were actually pretty funny (at times).  As with all of Handler-related comedy, it sometimes crosses the line into extremely inappropriate, gross, or quite simply, annoying.  But, this book was a great view into Handler's life - and the incredible generosity she has toward her friends and family, even if it comes with a huge price tag of needing to be constantly on your toes ready for yet another practical joke.  I would think having a friend like this in your life would become tiresome quickly, but it also sounds like she regularly takes her friends on all expense paid trips to Cabo, so I suppose that might be worth putting up with all the shenanigans.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

You'll Never Blue Ball in This Town Again - Heather McDonald

Leave it to Loana to lend me a book with such an inappropriate title. And leave it to me in my sleep-deprived state to think it was a good idea to bring such a book on an airplane. I wanted something quick and funny to read. Written by one of Chelsea Handler's TV-show writers, I figured this would be just the thing. And content-wise, it was. I just had to keep hiding the cover from everyone around me, and hope no one asked what I was reading. The basis premise of this book is that the author waited until she was 27 years old to lose her virginity. So, she spends chapter after chapter talking about her various boyfriends and hook-ups and the effects of telling the guy you're dating that you're still a virgin after all these years. I found the author a bit self-absorbed (though I say that about most people who write memoirs). She described herself a few too many times as "cute" and "attractive" and loved going on and on about her time in her sorority. Of course, she poked fun at herself while making such comments, but it's clear that this woman thinks she is pretty darn special. It wasn't until the end of the book that I read a laugh-out-loud funny line, but I still found the book enjoyable - a good way to pass the time in the Denver airport as I waited for my very delayed flight.

The Salaryman's Wife - Sujata Massey (Rei Shimura Series #1)

After finishing the John Rain series, I was eager to find another murder-mystery series featuring a Japanese-American. Rei Shimura, a 27-year-old female English teacher in Tokyo isn't quite the assasin that John Rain is, but she's doing pretty well for herself. A kind of Miss Marple, Shimura has no training in solving crimes, but while on vacation in the Japanese countryside, she stumbles across a dead body in the snow, and finds herself immediately immersed in the mystery. The book itself is fairly straight-forward and simply written, but for the ride to and from work, it held my attention. I enjoyed the descriptions of Tokyo and life in Japan, including the delicious fods and seemingly odd customs. With 10 books already in the series, I'm excited to have found a new heroine to keep up with.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Cinderella Ate My Daughter - Peggy Orenstein

After reading Orenstein's riveting views on women in the workplace, I wondered after Waiting for Daisy, how she would go about raising her own daughter. This book sort-of answers the question. In Cinderella Ate My Daughter, Orenstein explores the "princess" phenomenon - the concept that no matter how hard a parent may fight against it, their 3-year old child simply must have the latest Disney princess doll - and all the pink costumes it comes with. Orenstein challenges herself to overcome her own sterotypes about what it must mean to allow her daughter to dress in a tutu and play with Barbies. She looks at the marketing, and she explores nature vs. nuture arguments. In the end, she doesn't come up with many answers, just more questions about whether we, as parents, are doing more harm than good when we try to get girls to play with trucks and boys to bottle-feed their stuffed animals. But, since this is a subject area that I am fascinated with, I found the book quite enjoyable, and found myself repeating anecdotes to my husband and mother. Where our gendered identity comes from - and how we learn to feel comfortable in our own skin - is a question that is answered differently for each one of us. My hope is that by reading books like this one, and discussing them with our friends and partners, that we will raise children who feel unconstrained by streotype, and free to express themselves in the way they find best - and in a world that doesn't judge or ridicule them for doing so.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Miserable Mill - Lemony Snicket (Series of Unfortunate Events #4)

I decided to read these out of order when I couldn't find #3 immediately on the shelf at the library...amazingly, I got the gist of what was going on...the Baudelaire children once again found themselves in a dire situation with their evil Uncle Olaf attempting to steal their family fortune. This time, they are sent to live at what at first purports to be a home for children. But, in actuality it's not a place for children at all, but a mill where they are immediately put to work. Shortly after, Klaus experiences some strange behavioral changes, and the girls suspect he has fallen under Olaf's hypnotic spell. While I do like these little kids, they have already become quite predictable, and I don't think I'll pick up another one any time soon. Again, I'm sure this "negative" (as perceived by a 34 year old reader) is because these books are meant for 8-10 year olds (that's my guess at the appropriate age) and knowing what characters will say and do at that age can be a bit comforting. Especially when wrapped in the package of such sinister strangeness.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Sweet Life in Paris - David Lebovitz

Books written by former Chez Panisse chefs are ubiquitous. And while part of me finds this annoying, the other part of me keeps reading them. In my recent quest for new recipes, and my sadness that I haven't lately been able to travel much, David Lebovitz's book seemed exactly what I needed. A pastry chef, Lebovitz (like so many others) traveled to France and fell in love with Paris. But, instead of pining away from afar, he actually packed up all his belongings and moved there. The Sweet Life in Paris is an account of his new life - all the tricks he learns about settling in among the natives, and the favorite recipes that keep him sane while doing so. Levovitz's observations are ones I've often read before in other memoirs about the American life in Paris - most notably (for me) the idea that the French are appearance obsessed and particular about dressing up and looking their best always - even to take out the trash in their own apartment building. This, among other reasons, is why I could never live in France. But, I did appreciate Lebovitz's observations about French women and their love of chocolate, as well as how not to offend the French when you only speak English. He is quite funny and doesn't take himself too seriously - though he clearly places a great deal of importance on fine cooking and dining. Each of his chapters includes several recipes that go with the story he's telling - few of which actually consist of French food. I tried out a couple recipes that turned out really well - and were not at all difficult to make for an amateur cook like myself. I loved the tomato-bread salad and chicken tangine with apricots. I also made a very easy recipe for chocolate yogurt snack cakes, which turned out a bit dry, but were quite tasty with some vanilla ice cream and strawberries. I do like Paris, but what I really love is this encouragement to savor friends, food, and life. I will remember this lesson every time I return to one of Lebovitz's recipes.