Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Twilight - Stephenie Meyer

A week ago, I'd never heard of this book. But, then my friend Raz told me it was all the rage - and suddenly I started seeing mentions of it everywhere. Jake's 15-year old cousin Emily confirmed that it was a good read, so I went and checked it out from the library. I did know going in that this was from the Young Adult section, and that it featured vampires. The main character is 17-year old Bella who has recently moved to dreary Forks, WA to live with her father. She finds herself inexplicably very popular with the boys at her new school - and in particular with an eccentric and beautiful boy named Edward. She falls immediately under his spell, and it isn't long before she discovers that he is a vampire. Not much else happens in this 570 page book. Bella and Edward have inane conversation after inane conversation about their love for each other, constantly frustrate each other, get mad and apologize - basically the typical high school relationship. There is a little action at the end involving another vampire coven, and a few interesting tidbits about the lives of Edward and his vampire family. This is by no means brilliant prose, but it's a fun story - and something I can see teenage girls falling absolutely in love with - after all, what 17-year old wouldn't want to imagine herself in a romantic relationship with a gorgeous vampire? There are two more books in the series, and a movie featuring the kid who played Cedric Diggory in the Harry Potter films on the way. Definitely a fun diversion - I'm already in the queue at the library for the second book in the series.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn - Betty Smith

This book has been on my to-read list for awhile, but then I found out that my friend Linda was the model for the book cover back when she was 8 and growing up in Brooklyn (that's her on the left!) - and it made me even more excited to find out what this book was all about. This is the coming of age story of Francie Nolan - an impoverished Irish-American in Brooklyn pre-WWI. Her father, though doting, is an insufferable alcoholic and her mother is a hardworking janitor who just wants a better life for her children. Coming right off of Angela's Ashes, many of the topics were a bit too similar and I kept getting the characters confused. But, mostly I enjoyed learning about the world Francie creates for herself: how she takes care of her younger brother Neely, how she struggles to get noticed by the world, and how she figures out how to make something of herself. There are some colorful characters in this book - including Francie's father and her brash and scandalous Aunt Sissy. The years pass a little too quickly at the end, but overall this is a marvelous story about growing up - from the very realistic perspective of a young girl.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Angela's Ashes - Frank McCourt

My husband is generally very accomodating of my reading/book buying and borrowing obsessions. He always asks for recommendations and only once in awhile will he politely request that I try to keep all my books confined to the bookshelves instead of scattered all over the bedroom, bathroom, office, and living room. But, I have never seen him so excited about something I was reading than when he noticed I had picked up Angela's Ashes. I believe his exact words were, "You're just reading that NOW? EVEN I read that 10 years ago!!!" He then smiled gleefully and went about his business. I think I put off reading this book for so long because I'd heard it was really depressing - which probably doesn't explain why I read all the other depressing books that I read, but this time I can't pretend that I wasn't warned. This is McCourt's memoir about growing up povery-stricken in Ireland with his alcoholic father, multiple siblings, and depressed yet enduring mother. Now that the memoir genre has taken over the bestseller lists, I did feel like reading Angela's Ashes 10 years after its publication was kind of like watching "Star Wars" in 2008, after so many advances have been made in special effects. Yet, McCourt's story is brilliantly written - I particularly appreciated that he told the stories from the perspective of a child, and didn't feel the need to inject too much of an adult's explanations into his perceptions. But, it didn't hold together in a few places, and I would have liked to better understand by the end how exactly he and his brothers ended up so well educated and successful -- despite the fact that they truly came from nothing with parents who were not able properly to supervise and nurture them. The parts that really stuck with me were McCourt's enduring love and admiration for his father - no matter how many times his dad spent his wages on liquor. And, how he hoarded the small pennies he earned to spend on candy - rather than on necessities for his family. These seem to be the qualities of children that no amount of repeated disappointment or scoldings can change. Overall this is a stark window into the lives of families enduring poverty - and a picture of Irish life during a very difficult time.

Monday, March 17, 2008

East Toward Dawn - Nan Watkins

For the past couple weeks, I've been getting the travel itch again. I've spent a lot of time on-line researching all my faux vacations to Nicaragua, Belize, and Spain. So, I decided that reading travel literature might be a good way to cure my wanderlust. East Toward Dawn chronicles Watkins's 60-day journey around the world to celebrate her 60th birthday. She decides to travel alone, though she has friends and family in many of the locations she visits. Along the way, Watkins struggles to find meaning in her life as a musician, a wife, and most importantly a mother. She is now divorced (though in a new relationship) and still figuring out how to deal with the loss of her young son many years earlier. In general, I love travel literature. Reading a little always makes me want to read more. Watkins was a good reminder that I have many more places to read about and that I do enjoy learning about the world through the eyes of different types of people. Overall, however, Watkins story-telling was a bit disappointing. She seemed to try too hard to view everything through the perspective of her own personal experiences, rather than appreciating the differences in the cultures she was visiting. But, she did inspire me to pick up three more travel memoirs at the bookstore this weekend - one by Nicholas Sparks about his travels around the world with his brother, one by Paul Theroux in the South Pacific, and the last about a Thai-American who travels to Thailand to become a monk. We'll see where those stories take me in the upcoming months.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

The History of Love - Nicole Krauss

I was a bit hesitant to read this book after finding out that its author is married to Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Everything is Illuminated, a book that I just couldn't get through. Not that spouses would necessarily have a similar writing style, but you can never be too sure. I'm glad I took a chance - this book revolves around two main characters - Leo Gursky, an aging Polish immigrant who once wrote a novel, but is now afraid he will vanish from the earth without anyone ever remembering him. And, Alma, a precocious young girl trying to hold together her widowed mother and eccentric brother. Alma's mother is mysteriously asked to translate a book called The History of Love. Alma discovers that she is named after the main character in the book, and becomes convinced that the character is based upon a real person. She sets out in New York to find this woman and eventually her path leads her to Leo Gursky. The plot line can get a little confusing at times, with character's memories of events often at odds with reality, but all in all this is a wonderful mystery. I particularly enjoyed the chapters that focused on Alma - the Scout Finch of her generation.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

The Old Man and the Sea - Ernest Hemmingway

I've previously only read Hemingway for classes in college - The Sun Also Rises a few times and A Farewell to Arms. For the most part, reading these novels solidified my belief that in general, I am not a fan of pre-1950s American writing. But, it's been a few years, so I thought I'd give Hemingway anothre chance - and I chose his last, and arguably most famous, book for my re-introduction. I vowed that even though the book is very short, that I would read it slowly, so that I could afford myself the opportunity to really appreciate and understand Hemingway's words. From this perspective, Hemingway finally came through for me. I did enjoy the cadence of his writing and his descriptions of the fishing village in Cuba. But, alas, his subject matter is too "manly" - and I found the old man's battle with a marlin tedious. Of course, I know it is all a metaphor for something larger - perhaps the old man represents Christ's sacrifice, perhaps the marlin is a symbol of man's desperation and never-ending search for immortality. And so the conundrum: I would have enjoyed discussing this book in college, but back then, I don't think I could have slowed down long enough to appreciate the writing . I think that I will read more Hemingway - he is as popular and enduring as he is for a reason - and his books are all short enough that it doesn't take too much out of my days to keep trying to understand what the hype is all about.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Folded World - Amity Gaige

This is one of those books that seems better to me after I've finished and sat back to think about it than it did while I was reading it. Charlie, a social worker dealing with the mentally ill, and Alice, the young daughter of a librarian, meet and fall in love with the "better" qualities of the other. Once they are married, and the parents of twins, Charlie finds himself all-consumed by his work, and in particular one client named Opal. Alice, on the other hand, finds herself overwhelmed by parenthood and Charlie's absences. She seeks to escape through the books recommended by a local bookseller - who just happens to be one of Charlie's former clients. I found the writing initially difficult to get into - the author changes the character from whom's perspective she is telling the story every couple paragraphs - and given that many of the characters suffer from mental illness, this doesn't lend itself to the easiest to follow story. But, I did think that Gaige presented a very realistic picture of relationships - how people deal with their pasts and issues within the context of their marriages, and how the reasons we come to love someone can often turn out to be the reasons we cannot ultimately make the relationship work. Overall, this book also presents an enlightened view of the mentally ill and how they are and should be cared for in our society.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Body Surfing - Anita Shreve

I consider Anita Shreve to be comfort reading. After exploring different types of literature - with some success, but definitely some failures - it's nice to know there are authors I can go back to that are predictable. Shreve's books, for me, are always enjoyable and usually feature a main female character that I can relate to on some level. Her latest novel, Body Surfing, features Sydney, who at the age of 29 is already once-divorced and once-widowed. Unsure about her future, she decides to spend her summer at a beach house tutoring the 18-year old daughter of a wealthy couple. The house was once owned by the widow in Shreve's earlier novel, The Pilot's Wife. The family's two older sons show up and the competition over Sydney begins (without any apparent explanation). Eventually, Sydney falls for one of them, causing a rift between the brothers. While the book features a couple signature Shreve twists that I looked forward to, it seemed like there was too much going on in terms of the characters' interactions with each other - but without much explanation of backstory. The mother of the children dislikes Sydney, but it's not entirely clear why. The daughter is slow, but suddenly develops artistic talent as well as a romantic relationship, seemingly out of nowhere. Sydney references her prior husbands often, but I didn't feel as if the emotion she claimed to feel had much bearing on her actions or reactions to situations. This is not one of Shreve's better novels, but for those who appreciate her style, it's good relaxing on the porch kind of reading.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Bento Box in the Heartland - Linda Furiya

The most amazing thing about this book is that it is about growing up Japanese in the United States and my mother does not already own it! What a find! Linda Furiya is second generation Japanese-American born and raised in Indiana. As the only daughter in the only Asian family in town, many of Furiya's experiences and heartaches are predictable - the kids at school make fun of her slanted eyes, the people in town mock her parents' accents. But, she finds a different lens through which to view her experiences. In becoming conscious of her own identity, and reconciling her desire to belong with her love for those things that make her different, Furiya tells her story through her family's obsession with food. At the end of each chapter, she includes a recipe for a Japanese comfort dish - and she demonstrates how for Japanese families eating is a way of coming together, enjoying life, and showing your love for one another. In this way, Furiya's book for me was a wonderful remembrance of growing up in my own family - where I often spent the day looking forward to the meals I knew my mother would make for dinner, the special days when we made bento lunches, New Year's mochi, and all the summers with my grandparents savoring teriyaki and manju and hiding from the tsukemono. Furiya's parents had an arranged marriage - her father was a POW during WWII, and both her mother and father lost parents while still very young. In this way, as well as in living so isolated from the rest of her extended family, Furiya's life is nothing like my own. But, her desire to learn more about her culture - including an amazing trip to Japan with her mother - was very comforting to me. Furiya is a good writer - though at times her story is not as linear as I would have liked - though this is necessarily because so much of her memoir is a demonstration of how she reacted as a child (often embarrassed of her parents) in contrast to what she has come to appreciate of her heritage. Mostly this book made me miss my grandparents (but very grateful for all the time I spent cooking with them) and crave sushi with wasabi hot enough to clear out my sinuses.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

The Bobby Gold Stories - Anthony Bourdain

I'm a big fan of Bourdain's non-fiction writing about his career as a chef (Kitchen Confidential), so when I read fantastic reviews about this fiction crime novel, I was eager to check it out. Luckily, it's only about 150 pages. The book features Bobby Gold, just released from 10 years in prison for a drug charge. He finds a job working as some kind of bouncer/enforcer for a ne'er do well, and becomes infactuated with Nikki, a chef as one of his frequented haunts. This book is long on bone-crushing encounters, foul language, and sex - but very short on plot. Admist all his celebrity chef appearances, I'm impressed that Bourdain has time to write anything, but in the future, I hope he sticks to the non-fiction essays that made him famous.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

The Know-it-All - Charles Webb

This is the first book by the author who wrote The Year of Living Biblically, which I read last month. In this one, Jacobs decides to become the smartest person in the world by reading the Encyclopedia Brittanica from beginning to end. Jacobs has a separate chapter for every letter, and within the chapter he divides the sections out by subjects within that letter - highlighting important facts for us, and throwing in stories about how this quest is affecting his personal life - mostly making him an incredibly annoying conversant during dinner parties. This way of arranging the book became tedious to me after about letter C. I found the basic premise interesting, but I would have preferred more of a 30,000 foot perspective. There's a reason I would never read the Encyclopedia Brittanica - there's no way I could retain any of the facts. This book felt the same way - Jacobs was so intent on showing that he had read each encyclopedia entry that he filled his book with too many forgetable facts causing me to lose his overall purpose. Too many trees and not enough forest. I've had the same problem with both of Jacobs's books, but he is certainly clever and I do look forward to seeing what he puts his mind to next.

Home School - Charles Webb

Home School is the sequel to Webb's much celebrated novel, The Graduate. The book takes place 15 years after Ben and Elaine's fateful bus-escape from her almost-wedding to Carl. They are living in New York with their two elementary school aged sons whom they home-schooling. When the local school district threatens to force the children to enroll in public school, Ben and Elaine call out to Mrs. Robinson for help. The majority of the story is told through dialogue - which may be helpful if anyone decides to turn this one into a movie - but unfortunately, it means there is no description of these characters and how they came to be here from their awkward inappropriate beginnings. There is reference, but hardly any acknowledgment, of the affair between Ben and Mrs. Robinson. This past incident - and the characters' inability to address it made many of their current interactions unbelievable. I found all of the characters irritating and self-centered, but often for no explicable reason. In the 40 years between The Graduate and Home School, with characters the American public has been so enamored with, I would have hoped Webb could have written something a little more substantial.