Friday, May 30, 2008

Girls in Trucks - Katie Crouch

This one falls into the "Don't Judge a Book by its Cover" category - I thought the cover art and title were very promising. Even the subject matter appealed to me - the story of a debutante growing up in South Carolina and her relationships with her fellow society girls and their quest to find suitable husbands. Of course, I expected it to be light, but mostly it was just disappointing. There were glimmers of humor and good writing - but many of the issues were dead-ends. The main character, Sarah, has a brilliant and beautiful older sister who goes off to Yale, only to fall in love with a grad student from Madagascar. Issues of race and abuse are introduced, but never really followed up on. Sarah herself has a string of boyfriends with strange sexual fetishes, while her best friend succumbs to heroin (spelled "heroine" in the book - perhaps on purpose to make a point?). Sarah is an unlikeable protagonist, clueless in relationships and incredibly shallow. I expected her to have an epiphany of sorts, or to grow-up or learn a lesson. But, by the end of the book, she is still just tedious. Such a waste of a beautiful cover.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Unaccustomed Earth - Jhumpa Lahiri

I enjoyed Lahiri's novel The Namesake, and I have her Pulitzer-prize winning collection of stories, Interpreter of Maladies, sitting on my shelves at home. So, when I saw she'd come out with a new collection, I figured I better get in line at the library - I was 104th in line, so I was very happy when my wonderful friend Nisha lent me her copy. All of the stories in Unaccustomed Earth feature Bengali characters living in the United States. Some are immigrants, others are the children of immigrants - all find themselves struggling with their place between two cultures - and many find themselves attracted to people who don't speak their native language, don't understand their customs and values, and certainly don't look like them. I have a fascination with characters who see themselves as "others," so on a basic level, these stories appealed to me. One of the issues I have with the short story form is that the climax often seems to come in the last page or two - it always reminds me of my favorite J.D. Salinger story "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" where the main character stumbles through the story performing mundane everyday tasks, only to come back to his hotel room at the end, put a shot gun in his mouth and pull the trigger. Lahiri, for the most part, adheres to this need to have a shocking end to all her stories and for this reason, as I came to the end of each one, I found my anxiety growing, hoping that a given character wouldn't suddenly be killed off, have their heart-broken, or otherwise be destroyed. The subject matter of the stories is pretty depressing: lost-love, alcoholism, death of a parent, infidelity...but Lahiri's writing is intoxicating, and I found myself wanting to read everything in one sitting, while at the same time trying to savor each story. The final three stories in the book concern the same two main characters. Other than the fact that the subject matter of these three stories is similar to the others in the collection, it seemed that it would have been better to spin them off into their own book. But, despite my small critcisms, I found each story in this book simply amazing. I see many more awards in Lahiri's future.

Monday, May 26, 2008

The Bonfire of the Vanities - Tom Wolfe

I've never read anything by Tom Wolfe before, but if this one is anything like his others, I'm very excited to read more. Bonfire takes place in New York in the 80s and is a story of high-powered egos and arrogance. Wolfe's first main-character is a low-paid District Attorney who seeks respect - from the criminals he prosecutes and from his less intelligent law-school classmates earning ten times his salary. His second main-character is a Park Avenue living, Wall Street investment banker with a socialite mistress on the side. It's clear from the get-go that the wayward life paths of these two men are bound to cross, but not before the extravagant and gluttonous underbelly of the big Apple is revealed in all its diamond-dripping splendor. Wolfe's novel is a satire of the need to succeed and the constant capitalist desire for more. I knew the end of this book would spin out of control into a riot, an orgy, or some type of mob event. And Wolfe did not disappoint - plot-wise, this novel is engaging and the characters, while ridiculous, are intriguing. They are two-dimensional in such a way that you don't need to question what motivates them, or whether they will be stupid enough to get themselves into such obvious trouble - yet the results are not cliched or overdone. I would think attorneys, investment bankers, and Wall Street millionaires (at least those who are able to poke fun at themselves) would love this book - if only they could take time out of their very important lives to enjoy it. Gordon Gecko would definitely approve.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Brave New World - Aldous Huxley

The copy of Brave New World that I read did not have the cover pictured to the left - but this cover was so crazy to me that I couldn't resist uploading it here. Whenever I hear someone talk about this book (which is more often than one might think), I think of the scene in the movie "Garden State" where the three guys are sitting in the cemetary talking about this book, and they can't remember the author's name, and one of the guys says, "I think it's Huxtable" (Bill Cosby's character from the 80's sit-com). Alas, this book is far from humorous. It starts out with a tour of some sort of laboratory where children are being manufactured and trained. It's approximately the year 2500, and women no longer give birth to children naturally. People are created according to a specific class structure - they are bred to perform certain tasks for the benefit of the State and thanks to the wonders of subconscious repetition, are conditioned to accept and appreciate their station in life. In many ways, this reminded me of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. This new and improved society is, for some inexplicable reason, however, quite hyper-sexualized. Promiscuity, rather than monogamy, is the favored behavioral pattern, and people regularly take drugs to repress feelings of unhappiness or dissatisfaction. But, there are still pockets of "Savages" - places where people live natural lives - getting fat and growing old. Two of the main characters from the New World go on a vacation to one of these savage outposts in New Mexico - and the scene is reminiscent of a sterotypical Native American reservation. Once I got to this point in the book, I felt as if I'd either read it before or seen something like this in a movie - so it's possible this was not my first exposure to this story. Of course, there is a clash of culture, with the New World folks wondering how anyone could live such a debased existence. And, thus we discover that in the New World, people have completely given up familial relationships, religion, literature - and most of the things in life that generate passion and love. Conceptually, I like the idea of futuristic utopias - but this book didn't quite work for me. It started out quite promising with a theory of where science must take us - but the price Huxley seems to think society would have pay in order to accomodate scientific advancement seems implausible and unnecessary. This seems like the perfect book for high school kids - to jump-start conversations about technology, the role of the humanities in society, family, eugenics, etc. - this is probably the reason most people read this book in high school - but as a self-contained picture of where our world might be going, there are too many loose-ends and the ending is too absurdist to hold together completely.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Treasure Island - Robert Louis Stevenson

I've been attacking my goal of reading all the books I should have read years ago. I didn't even realize that Treasure Island is a kid's book - though maybe that was obvious - do adults not care about pirate treasure? So, this made for a fast read about the boy Jim Hawkins, who finds himself with a map to buried treasure after a pirate passes away in his family's tavern. Enlisting several local men, he makes an ill-advised pack to sail with Long John Silver to make their millions (who knew Silver didn't just make fried seafood in the Pacific Northwest?) While plans of mutiny abound, they discover a deserted island (populated by one lone marooned seaman), and Jim finds himself unsure of his loyalties in his quest to locate the lost pieces of eight. As expected, this book was full of adventure, and something I would have loved to read as a kid. Afterwards, I am sure I would have buried all my toys in the backyard and drawn several maps (a real one along with a few decoys) to hide in a bottle of rum and throw out to sea.

Rip Van Winkle & The Legend of Sleepy Hollow - Washington Irving

These two short stories have been on my "to-read" list for about 15 years. Finally, I read them yesterday while eating lunch - yes, they are that short. I knew the basic stories from childhood cartoons (that Headless Horseman Scooby-Doo episode was pretty scary!), and in actually reading the stories, I found that there really wasn't much more to them than the basic plot line. Irving's writing is filled with 50-cent words - if I bothered to look up words I didn't know in the dictionary, I probably would have learned a thing or two. Rip Van Winkle tells the story of an affable, but pretty useless guy, married to an absolute tyrant. One day he heads up into the Katskill Mountains and decides to take a nap. He wakes up with a foot-long beard and eventually realizes he's slept for 20 years. I was a little disappointed to find out there wasn't more to this one. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow tells the story of a school teacher named Ichabod Crane, who comes to the town of Sleepy Hollow - a place filled with superstitions and ghosts - the most famous of which is the Headless Horseman who roams around town looking for his missing head. One night, Crane is galloping home in the late hours and finds himself pursued by the Horseman. He disappears and there is much speculation around town over whether he has fled in embarassment after losing a woman to another man - or if indeed he was chased to his death by the spectre. This one had a little of the creepiness factor I was looking for - a good Halloween story - Irving deserves a lot of credit for being an early pioneer of the ghost story. Spooky tales have come a long long way since his time. I'm eager to get back to my Edgar Allan Poe short stories after these two.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Golden Age - Tahmima Anam

Set in Bangladesh, Anam tells the story of Rehana, a widow and mother to Soheil and Maya. She lives to protect her family, focused on her domestic role as caretaker. She is nearly oblivious to the political unrest of her country, until Pakistani tanks arrive and she is forced to confront the implications of her teenage children's participation in the rebellion. Against her better judgment (at times), Rehana is forced to go to great lengths to protect her children and prove her undying love and devotion to them - in the name of her country. In addressing the larger political issues of genocide, systemic rape and torture, and religious prejudice, Aman is able through her various characters to illustrate the effects such atrocities have on families and individuals - and provided me with my first introduction to the history of Bangladesh's fight for independence.

Interview with the Vampire - Anne Rice

I saw this movie years ago, but with my current literary vampire fascination, I thought it made sense to go back and read the book. The entire book is Louis (Brad Pitt in the movie), a disgruntled immortal, telling his story to a young journalist type (Christian Slater). Given the set-up, this means that everything in the book is told from Louis's point-of-view, and it allows Rice to play with memory and assupmtions in a way that would be missing from either a third-person narrative or a present-time first person. Louis begins the story with how he became a vampire on his New Orleans plantation in the 18th century - though he doesn't seem to remember or understand much of the process. What he does know is that it was done by a strong and manipulative vampire named Lestat (Tom Cruise). Lestat controls Louis by withholding knowledge, and attempting to convince him that they are the only two left of their kind in the world. Ultimately, they create Claudia (Kirsten Dunst), a child vampire for Louis to take care of. Eventually, Claudia realizes her unhappy fate of growing older intellectually and sexually, while her body remains that of a 5-year old. Her realization turns into hatred of Lestat and a desire for revenge- which takes her and Louis to Romania and Transylvania to the roots of the vampire legends - and eventually to Paris where they are forced to confront the true nature of who they are, and what they mean to each other. I was thinking that reading this book was like watching Citizen Kane - an instant classic, but when seen so many years after its creation, when people have had decades to build on it, it suddenly seems simplistic and obvious. But, then I have to remember that Stoker's Dracula (written in 1897) is still absolutely fabulous and does not suffer from that same problem. So, perhaps there is still a little something missing. I wouldn't say that this novel was riveting, but when I finished it at 10:00 at night in an empty house, I was definitely a little creeped out and didn't really want to leave the room to turn off any lights. So, I think it served its purpose, and I look forward to reading more in Rice's Vampire Chronicles.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Senator's Wife - Sue Miller

I think the book cover for The Senator's Wife says it all - boring and unimaginative. Miller's latest tells the story about Delia, the wife of a former Washington senator, who hasn't lived with her philandering husband for decades. But, it is also the story of Meri, a newly married 38-year old who is pregnant with her first child. Meri and her husband Nathan move in next door to Delia, and Delia and Meri strike up a seeming friendship. My initial difficulty with the characters is that Meri is written as if she is a naive 22-year old. Miller says she is in love with her husband, but they've known each other for less than a year, he makes the decision to buy a new house without consulting her, and they seem to communicate about nothing from Meri's new job to her true feelings about having a child. She seems childlike in her interactions and reactions to situations. Meri has an unnatural obsession with Delia, whose story is told through flashbacks, but focus only on her reaction to the senator's cheating scandals - and tell nothing at all about how she has truly lived her life in the 20 years since. Eventually, there is a turn of events that brings the senator home, and which reveals Meri as a disgusting self-centered person with no care for how her actions affect others (much like the character of the senator himself). I was eager to read this novel, as I have enjoyed Miller's writing in the past. But, this one just seemed to fall flat - with unlikeable characters all around.

Friday, May 16, 2008

The Monk Downstairs - Tim Farrington

I borrowed this book based on the title alone. Who wouldn't want to read a book about a monk living downstairs? In this case, an ex-monk, who has left his monastery, disenchanted with his life of prayer and inaction. He moves into the in-law unit of single mom, Rebecca, who has decided once and for all that she no longer needs love in her life. Her 6-year old daughter plays with unicorns, adores her good-for-nothing surfer father, and takes an immediate liking to Michael Christopher, the monk. Obviously, we know Rebecca and Michael are headed for romance - and a clash of cultures. The concept for this one was ripe for a fun romantic comedy with a little theology on the side, but sadly even though the book is pretty short, it seemed to drag on and on. Throughout, Michael writes letters to a monk back at his old order, explaining his new life and his decision to leave the monastery - but the letters aren't particularly insightful, and while he hints at a scandal or major blowout with his abbot, it never turns out to be of much interest. A downstairs monk held so much promise, but unfortunately, my faith led me only to disappointment.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Gone With the Wind - Margaret Mitchell

When I was young, I spent all my summers at my grandparents' house. They had a bookshelf with glass sliding doors. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that the doors were made of glass, but I always felt like maybe I wasn't supposed to be reading the books in there, and I'd always be careful to never leave the books lying around and to always put them back in their correct spots. There was a copy of Gone With the Wind on those shelves, but it was bound in a fraying blue cloth cover, and the pages were brittle and yellow with age. I didn't dare read that book, certain that it would crumble in my hands, and I'd never be able to slide it back into place undetected. And so the years passed, and I never saw the movie or went on to another copy of the novel. Until my friend Courtney, an avid reader whose has similar taste in books to me, told me that she was shocked to discover that it was simply fantastic. So, I borrowed it from the library - all 1000+ pages of it. And she was right - within 10 pages, I was sucked into the Southern soap opera featuring the self-absorbed Scarlett O'Hara, her many suitors, and their battle against the Yankee Northerners. But, of course, my favorite character was Rhett Butler - unsavory and cavorting with ladies of the night, he is the only one who truly speaks his mind and doesn't succumb to all the silly Southern traditions. I had been warned that racism is rampant throughout the novel, but this is something I would like to read more about. Obviously, Mitchell was from the South and writing this in the 1920s-1930s when race relations were a complicated manner. But, I still felt like the black charaters in the novel were written as often much more perceptive than the white people around them - and that while the white characters expressed racist positions, as would be common at the time I'm sure, it wasn't completely obvious to me that Mitchell herself bought into them. Twice, for example, when Scarlett's character is chastised for hiring cheap convict labor at her mill and taking advantage of these "poor" men, she reminds her criticizers that they once owned slaves. Of course, Scarlett herself probably saw nothing wrong with either slave labor or convict labor, as long as she turned a profit, but I felt that the interactions between the black and white characters were complex enough to warrant more than simply that Mitchell was a racist writing during racist times. Gone With the Wind is a truly amazing and wonderful novel filled with characters to love and despise - Scarlett did get on my nerves for her inability to understand basic human nature and her general ignorance about life events, but she is an impressive survivor and someone who always finds a way to get what she wants. The novel ends on an uncertain note - Scarlett is only 28 years old, but she has lifetimes of heartache behind her. Apparently, there is a sequel (titled Scarlett, I believe, written by someone other than Mitchell - but authorized by her), which I will read just to see what happens. This is definitely one of those books that while it went on forever, I still never wanted it to end.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Blind Side - Michael Lewis

A couple folks from Jake's work recommended this book to him, so he asked me to borrow it for him from the library. There is nothing I love more than a new book for my husband - especially one that he finds himself immediately drawn into. This means he's reading for hours before bed, and I don't have to compete with the television or chores to get in MY reading time. The Blind Side, written by the author of Moneyball and Liar's Poker, tells two stories. The first is about the evolution of the game of football and the increased importance of the position of the left tackle. The second story is about an enormous African-American kid named Michael Oher who appears seemingly out of nowhere, and is taken in by a wealthy white family on his road to becoming the nation's top college football recruit - and who plays the position of left tackle. While I like football, I don't know anything about the strategy of the game, what different positions other than the quarterback, the running back, and the receivers do, or anything about players of the past. So, my eyes kind of glazed over during the chapters on the history of the game (luckily there aren't too many of these). I instead prefered the story of Oher - but again Lewis disappointed me. While there are endless accounts of Oher adjusting to his new private school and learning to study for the first time, while his new white mom teaches him the difference between fettucine and ravioli, I felt like it was so drawn out. It's not until the last 10-15 pages that we really start to learn a little about where Oher came from - his biological mother and his dozen or so siblings, growing up in extreme poverty and neglect, but somehow surviving. This, to me, is the truly amazing part of Oher's story - not that a scout discovered him, or that a rich family was willing to invite a large black man into their home (though that is clearly a compelling story) - but rather, what is it in Oher's character and the circumstances of his life that prevented him from becoming just another statistic? The frustration I felt with Oher's silence throughout the book is, no doubt, the frustration everyone attempting to help Oher get to college also felt. And, I suppose the book I would want Lewis to write is not one about the game of football and Oher's place in it, but rather one that focuses more prominently on Oher and reflected the sociological aspects of Oher's background and development - and obviously, that is not the book that Lewis set out to write. For people who love football, this is a great book - Lewis is easy to read and has a great way of bringing the people he interviews to life (his depiction of the Ole Miss coach's Cajun accent is fantastic). But, for people like me who love those behind-the-scene vignettes about people's lives and gaining a better understanding for how people come to be where they are, I found the book lacking.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Eclipse - Stephenie Meyer

Alas, I have finished this teenage vampire/werewolf trilogy. I am probably dumber for it, but truth be told, I watch and read a lot of television shows, movies, and books that probably lead to the same result, so I can't be too harsh a critic. As with her prior two books in this series Twilight and New Moon, I was primarily interested in the background of the vampires and werewolves. This book contained some good urban legends and myths about the two cultures and where they came from. But, as with the others, I found the main character, Bella, insufferable. When she is not being an inexplicable klutz (a trait many people seem to find endearing in female characters, but I only find irritating), she is whining about how much she wants to be turned into a vampire, spending inappropriate amounts of time with a werewolf who is in love with her and then expressing profound annoyance at his declarations of love despite her encouragment, and in general setting back the feminist movement about 10,000 years. But, again, I have to admit that good stories and entertainment can still come from stereotypical and offensive characters (Harold and Kumar comes to mind...). In this allegedly final installment, the vampires and werewolves (heretofore mortal enemies) come together to protect the small town of Forks, WA from something sinister that is decimating the Seattle population. Of course, Bella, narcissist that she is, is at the center of the chaos and she must manipulate her bloodsucking boyfriend (Edward) and her canine best friend (Jacob) to put their immortal lives on the line to save hers. I am a sucker (pun intended!) for trilogies - even poorly written ones - and vampires, so Meyer's books satisfied those needs, but I think I am going to turn to Anne Rice next and see if she can also satisfy my need for well-written dialogue and likeable characters.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

I Know This Much Is True - Wally Lamb

Years ago, I read Lamb's first novel, She's Come Undone, and was struck by his ability to write an incredibly believable story from the viewpoint of a woman. Since then, I've been meaning to read this follow-up novel, but honestly, the length of it has always kind of intimidated me (901 pages). Then the other day, I picked it off my shelf and became engrossed right away. The story is told from the perspective of Dominick Birdsey, a middle-aged divorced house-painter whose schizophrenic twin brother, Thomas, just cut off his own hand in public to protest the war. As Thomas is shipped off to a mental institution, Dominick finds himself in the familiar position of trying to protect his brother at the expense of his own career and love life. The story flips back and forth between present day and the past - with Dominik exploring his childhood with an abusive step-father, an unknown father, and a mother who seems to prefer Thomas and is wholly unable to protect herself and her children. At one point, Dominick discovers and begins to read an autobiography written by his maternal grandfather. The autobiography is presented as written (as opposed to simply through Dominik's retelling). While the stories within the autobiography present important issues with respect to mental health within families, and provide Dominick with a lens through which to view his upbringing, I found the chapters of the book itself to be unnecessary and distracting - not to mention LONG. But, despite this, this book is an amazing exploration of the impact mental illness can have on a family. At times, like many books that deal with these difficult issues, there was a little too much going on - in addition to the mental illness and physical abuse, there is child pornography, a hint of incest, racial tension, HIV/AIDS, institutional violence, and numerous other random life tragedies strewn throughout the narrative. But, in the end, Dominick is a likeable character and a wonderful narrator. The ending is a little too Hollywood feel-good, but I'll admit, I really don't mind ending on a happy note. I Know This Much Is True is an ambitious undertaking - for Lamb and for his readers, but certainly one well worth the effort.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

A Piece of Cake - Cupcake Brown

I heard about this book when it first came out last year and have been meaning to read it for awhile. This is a memoir written by a woman practicing law at a big firm in San Francisco. But, before she broke into the corporate world, she had to overcome a horrible childhood. Her mother died when she was 11 and in an unbelievable example of how screwed up our child welfare system is, she ends up in a foster home. With a physically abusive foster mother only interested in checks from the government, Brown is then raped by the foster mother's nephew. Brown runs away repeatedly, turning tricks for money, and delving deeper and deeper into alcohol and drugs to numb herself from the horrible hell that has become her life. Each time she runs back into the law, she is sent back to her foster home, despite obvious evidence of abuse. Assuming all the events chronicles in the book are true (ever since Frey, I am quite skeptical), this is a truly amazing life story. How this woman did not end up in jail, dead or HIV positive is nothing short of a miracle. At times it felt like the bad things were piled on a bit too thick and it was all just too depressing. But, once Brown makes the difficult decision to turn her life around, things start looking up - and while her struggle to the top is painful to read, it is truly incredible.