Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Crowning Glory of Calla Lily Ponder - Rebecca Wells

I am a huge fan of Wells' three books about the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, so I was quite happy when I stumbled across her latest on the library hot picks shelf. This time around Wells is still in the South (Louisiana), but with a whole new set of characters. Calla Lily Ponder is the only daughter of a loving father and a beautician mother who works her magic not just on her customers' hair, but also on their hearts. Calla Lily grows up in her small town surrounded by wonderful girlfriends and a sweetheart of her own. Wells does in this one what she does best - which is create a whole world filled with characters. There is racial tension in the town - which opens up young Calla Lily's eyes. There are friends whose parents don't quite know how to care for their children as much as Calla Lily's parents do. And Calla Lily herself suffers a heartbreaking loss that shapes her future and the entire way she views the world. She graduates from college and moves on to the big city of New Orleans to pursue her dreams, but she finds herself constantly drawn back to her small town and the people she loves. A few of the plot "twists" were annoyingly predictable, and there were times when Calla Lily's naivete seemed beyond reality. But, for the most part, I enjoyed Wells' standard down home humor. Perfect for a lazy afternoon read.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Half Broke Horses - Jeannette Walls

Jeannette Walls bills her most recent book as fiction - most likely in an effort to avoid the accusations made against others such as James Frey in their not-quite-all-true memoirs. But, Half Broke Horses is Walls' best attempt at a biography of her own grandmother, Lily Casey Smith. Smith, a feminist before her time, grew up on a ranch in New Mexico where she was taught that a woman had no need for formal education, and should focus her energies on finding a husband. But, Smith had different plans. She struck out on her own to become a teacher, riding her horse out to Arizona. Smith's independent streak caused her to thumb her nose repeatedly at the establishment - which resulted in her frequent firings and her need to move on to new towns. She managed to find and lose love, to take care of her family without allowing herself to be tied down to them, and to make every reader wonder what she could have accomplished if given even half the opportunity of the men and boys around her. Walls is also the author of the memoir The Glass Castle in which she presents her own childhood as the chaotic result of free-thinking (and likely mentally unstable) parents. Knowing that end made reading this story of her grandmother's life all the more interesting. It also made me wonder how much truth lay in the perceptions of others, and how honest Walls could be in telling the story of a revered and much loved family member. All this of course makes for an incredible story, and makes her decision, in the end, to call the book "fiction" an honest one.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Love is a Mix Tape - Rob Sheffield

To me, a mix tape is one of the most special gifts you can receive from another person. They can take a long time to make, and they are filled with inside jokes, moments shared, secret messages - or maybe just a lot of great music the other person likes and cares enough about you to want to share. With iTunes and CD burners, making mix CDs is a much easier task these days than when we had to the radio all day just hoping to catch that one song. But, I still find them incredibly fun. And, since I'm not in high school anymore, I don't often receive mixes from other people, but when I do, I most certainly treasure them. For these reasons, Love is a Mix Tape was a book I just had to read. Rob Sheffield is a music writer for Rolling Stone - so he knows what he's talking about. Each chapter starts out with the playlist from one of his mix-tapes - and each chapter then goes on to explain that period in his life - why he made the mix or why someone made it for him, what the songs meant, why he loved them so much. But, these aren't just random stories from Sheffield's life. They are stories strung together by his relationship with his wife Renee - the one person it seems understood him - in the same way the lyrics to specific songs just seem to get it. To me, this book was an amazing love story - not because it's very well written (it's not) or that the stories themselves were all that captivating (they aren't). But, rather that Sheffield used a medium that clearly means so much to him (music) to express his feelings where words often failed. Other than being interested in the mix tape idea of this book, I didn't really know anything else about it when I started reading. So, be forewarned - this is sad. It has all the good stuff about falling in love - the excitement and the comfort, but it also has the most raw parts of loss. All with the message that while there are some things you most certainly will never get over, there is always music to help you get through.

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test - Tom Wolfe

Despite often hearing references to this book, I didn't realize what and who it was about until it came in for me at the library. Tom Wolfe, who I think of as "that guy who wrote that book about jerky attorneys," (Bonfire of the Vanieties) lived the life of a journalist before he became a novelist. In the nebulous realm between the Beats and the hippies, Wolfe wrote this book of literary journalism about Ken Kesey (author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) and his devoted band of Merry Pranksters. Wolfe traveled with the group across the country in a painted schoolbus documenting their LSD-inspired revelations. At times, the story is coherent - chronicling Kesey's life as a writer, and as a volunteer patient in a Menlo Park project studying the effect of psychoactive drugs. At other times, the story delves into the incoherent - clearly a depiction of the drug-induced state of minds of Kesey and his followers. Among the many characters in the book are Neal Cassady (the inspiration behind Kerouac's On the Road), Kerouac himself, Allen Ginsberg and Timothy Leary. As Kesey dodges legal trouble stemming from his arrests for possession of marijuana, his Merry Pranksters seek to live the artistic life, each day seemingly stepping further and further away from reality. While the book reads like a novel, I did find it a very interesting window into this period in American history - which I've certainly heard a great deal about. While I would be interested in reading more critiques of the book, I thought Wolfe managed to report without at all glamorizing the hedonistic world these people lived in. A wonderfully fascinating book that makes me want to read even more of the Beats, and more of Wolfe's own fiction.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Committed - Elizabeth Gilbert

In Gilbert's memoir Eat, Pray, Love, she falls in love with a Brazilian named Felipe. In her latest, Gilbert tells the story of how she and Felipe came to be married, despite their adamant belief that after their painful divorces, they would never enter into the instution of marriage ever again. I was skeptical when I picked this one up. I thought it might be preachy - or an annoying attempt to justify why Gilbert's marriage was worthwhile, when so many others aren't. I thought it would be just another self-indulgent memoir. But, I was pleasantly surprised to say the least. While this is certainly a memoir, and Gilbert goes deep into her own personal relationships and feelings about marriage, this book is also a study of marriage - what it means in different cultures and religions, why people ever invented the institution of marriage, what it meant to women 100 (or even 20) years ago, and what it can mean for women today. Gilbert has done a lot of research - and sure she picks and chooses the histories that are relevant to her own life, but this one really resonated with me. As someone who never wanted to get married, but after 30 years came to terms with my own wedding, I really appreciated Gilbert's honesty and curiosity about her fears, her expectations in relationships, and her resentment toward a society that often defines marriage in a way that enforces and imposes gender stereotypes. As someone who has chosen not to have children, Gilbert also has intriguing viewpoints on how remaining childless impacts a life-long union (in bad and good ways). This is a great book for sparking discussion about the meaning of marriage - a hot topic certainly in California right now with the passage of Prop 8. And, I thought, a valuable tool for assessing one's own partnership - in terms of how it has lived up to one's expectations, or far exceeded it. I think I (and Gilbert) will always have some ambivalence about the institution of marriage, but learning more about where it came from and how others view it, certainly empowered me to feel like I can remain a feminist while still appreciating the wonder that comes from sharing my life with another person (in a state-sanctioned way). I can see how Glibert's tone might offend, or more likely, annoy many readers, but probably because I share many of Gilbert's inital notions about marriage, I appreciated this exploration of it.

The Little Giant of Aberdeen County - Tiffany Baker

This book is the relatively familiar tale of a misfit facing adversity in a small town. She has a beautiful perfect sister, a father who resents her, and a mother who died in childbirth. Truly Plaice, like most outcasts is just a little different - she is physically enormous. And she continues to grow and grow for no apparent reason as the years go by. Truly's self-worth rubbed down to the bone, she finds herself caring for her runaway sister's only child - and taking care of the child's father - a respected doctor, with nothing but degrading words for Truly. Slowly, however, Truly finds her calling and uncovers secrets that allow her to find her true self. Judging from the reader reviews I've seen of this book, it seems to fall in the 5-star or 1-star category. I can't quite figure out why, but I happen to be a 1-star reviewer. Plot and character-wise, this is exactly the type of book I usually like. But, to me, Truly's excessive girth seemed unnecessary. I felt the author did it as a gimmick - to make the book somehow stand-out from a more run of the mill story. But, Truly's size, other than setting her apart from the norm, wasn't integral to the story - it only ditracted from my enjoyment as a reader. While I felt like I got to know Aberdeen County from Baker's writing, the conversations and the people just didn't interest me in any way that made me want to keep reading. All in all, this was a decent story - a bit reminiscent of Tom Robbins - but nothing to write home about.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Help - Kathryn Stockett

Whenever I hear only wonderfully amazing things about a book, I'm a little hesitant to pick it up. I worry that I won't love it as much as my friends, that I won't understand it, or perhaps even that I will love it - and realize I'm not so different from the masses. Recently, I feel like The Help has been everywhere - so for my own cultural literacy, I figured I better read it. The Help is told from the perspective of three women living and working in Mississippi in the 1960s. Aibileen, an African-American maid who has lost her only son, is raising her 17th white child - for a mother who could not care less about her own daughter. Minny, also an African-American maid, refuses to let social norms dictate her interactions - getting her in trouble in the most frustrating of circumstances. And finally, Skeeter, a white college graduate from a fine family whose mother wants nothing more than to see her in a wedding dress. With Skeeter's naive encouragement, the three women embark on a project that puts all their livelihoods - and their lives - at risk, and exposes the complicated truth behind the relationships between black maids and their white bosses. While I found the story immediately engaging, this was a difficult one to stomach at times. The deep-seated racism portrayed in Southern society, and the viewpoints that stem from willful ignorance, made my blood boil. Stockett, a white author, took a huge risk in writing her two main black characters in the first person. In the Afterwards, she acknowledges the fear that accompanied this choice, and while I certainly thought she did it quite well - obviously, I would like to know what more African-American women from the South who had been through experiences similar to Aibileen and Minny, thought of the characters. Of course, writers are not limited to writing "what they know" - I always think of Wally Lamb's fabulous female character in She's Come Undone. It just raises interesting questions for me. This is definitely a book for sparking discussion - a page turner and a tear-jerker. I have to agree with the masses on this one. A definite book to recommend.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Purple Hibiscus - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I've seen Adichie hailed as Nigeria's greatest writer since Chinua Achebe - author of Things Fall Apart. So, it's only appropriate that her debut novel, Purple Hibiscus, starts out, "Things began to fall apart..." What follows is the story of 15 year old Kamibili, the daughter of a wealthy, fanatically religious and much respected man in her Nigerian city. Growing up under the watchful eye of her visciously abusive father, Kambili's sense of self is nearly non-existent. She yearns to win her his elusive acceptance, but finds herself mesmerized by her younger brother's defiance. When Kambili's aunt takes an interest in the children, they move out to join her in the country for a short time. There, Kambili finds herself confronted with her privilege, while also struggling to discover the meaning of independence. As with Adichi's later works, Half of a Yellow Sun and The Thing Around Your Neck, the writing in this novel is beautifully captivating. Kambili is tremendously damaged, and Adichi manages to write the novel from a first-person perspective that conveys the pain of her warped perceptions, while still allowing the reader to understand the view of the various other characters in the book. There is a particularly interesting and dangerous relationship between Kambili and and a young local priest. He is clearly Kambili's first infactuation and he encourages her to be free and enjoy life. The purpose of their seemingly inappropriate relationship is unclear, though perhaps just another example of an adult in Kambili's life with blurry boundaries. Whatever the case, Kambili's coming of age story is filled with tremendous pain, confusion, and the wonder of discovery - all told in Adichie's powerful and very enjoyable voice.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

How I Became a Famous Novelist - Steve Hely

This book made me realize that I don't read that many fiction books that are intentionally funny. Certainly, books made me laugh now and again, but this one was funny enough that I had to stop reading it in bed with my husband because my out loud laughter was interupting Sports Center. Narrator Pete Tarslaw is still getting over his college girlfriend. His life is a mess, and unfortunately, he's just received her wedding invitation in the mail. So, Tarslaw gets a brilliant idea: he'll write a bestselling novel by the time of the wedding and he'll become so successful and famous that he'll upstage her on her big day. And so Tarslaw gets to work - studying other writers on the bestseller list. He's not out to write beautiful prose. He's out to make make money. Tarslaw's writing, as well as his theories about what will and won't work, along with his conversations with self-absorbed literary agents and bestselling writers will definitely make you re-evaluate whatever is on your bedside table waiting to be read. As Tarslaw's novel, The Tornado Ashes Club, gains momentum and Tarslaw finds himself written about blogs and invited to talk shows, the ridiculousness of the situation is increased. I thought Hely (as the real author here) did an amazing job of juxtaposing Tarslaw's literary attempts with his own narrative - of course, Hely brilliantly created himself an out. Anytime I came across a sentence that didn't quite work for me - because it seemed bloated or overly dramatic, I had to question whether he did it on purpose. After all, he wants his book, How I Became a Famous Novelist, to sell tons of copies too. And what better way to do that than to follow all of Tarslaw's own rules for success? This was very different from any of the books I've read in the last year, and a welcome satire/reality check on the reasons I choose to read so much and why I like the ones I like.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

In Praise of Doubt - Peter Berger & Anton Zijderveld

As political positions seem to become more and more polarized, I feel like people rarely spend time discussing issues with those who feel differently from them. And then, when those conversations do take place, rather than people honestly listening to each other and trying to understand where the other is coming from, it just turns into a shouting match where the loudest voice is apparently the winner. In the end, people walk around more angry than ever, and become more extreme in their positions, regardless of reason, logic, or in many circumstances, factual reality. The subtitle of In Praise of Doubt is "How to Have Convictions without becoming a Fanatic." I thought maybe it would present an argument for rational discussion - a tool for debate that would lead to actual understanding and the finding of a middle ground. And so, I picked it up with some hope. This book was not quite what I expected - but it was still worth reading and thinking about. The basic thesis of the book is that it is possible to maintain moral certainty about democratic values without resorting to either moral relativism or fundamentalist. The authors eschew the notion, embraced in the 1970s, that modernity leads to secularization. Rather, they argue, it leads to plurality - or the ability to choose among a variety of world views and religions. While this broadening of choice seems appealing at first, the authors argue that the fear of where choice leads opens societies up to dogmatic and absolutist doctrines. Too many ideas that might all be "right" - causes too much chaos and uncertainty in a culture. The trick is to understand the value in individual independence and to embrace the panoply of choices, while still maintaining "the values of liberal democracy". This book was a reminder to me (as if I needed one), that I am no philosopher, and I'm sure about 90% of it went way over my head. But, at the end of the day what I can agree with is the idea that having doubt is not a danger to society or morality in general. There are issues on which folks may never agree - but different belief systems may share common ground - and there is value in determining what that common ground is and figuring out a way to co-exist without shoving our own values down other people's throats.