Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Return to the Hundred Acre Wood - David Benedictus

Growing up, I loved the adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh and all his Friends and Relatives in the Hundred Acre Wood. Eeyore was always my favorite, even though I can't recall any of the actual stories. I hesitated to pick this one up given that it's written by an author other than A.A. Milne, but though it would be fun to see some of those little critters on a new adventure. And it definitely was. I have read some criticism of the book - perhaps some of the characters are not as likeable as in the original and there is a new character - an otter who wears pearls. It's also almost sad to see Christopher Robin nearly outgrowing his childhood companions. But, mostly, I laughed at the clever mix-ups and all the outlandish plans the animals concoct. It did make me want to go back and read the originals, and just in general I think it would be so fun to share these characters with children now. I read the book in one sitting - smiling the entire time. So happy to return to the Hundred Acre Woods, even while nervously on the look-out with Piglet for those Heffalumps.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Dexter by Design - Jeff Lindsay (Dexter Series #4)

As I've written on this blog many times, I'm a sucker for books in a series. Even when the books become formulaic, or I find that I just don't like the main character, out of some sort of twisted loyalty, I just keep reading the next one after the next one. So, it makes me quite happy when I find an author who is able to make his characters more fascinating with each installment. I've found this particularly true with Barry Eisler's John Rain series, and Jeff Lindsay has done it here with his fourth in the series of Dexter Morgan - Miami's serial killer who purports to only kill the really really bad guys. In this one, Dexter has just returned from his honeymoon in Paris, and is well on his way to establishing the appearance of a prefect life. But, there is what appears to be a killer on the loose in Miami - targeting the tourism board. Dexter takes a few missteps and the bad guy gets personal. Along the way, Dexter continues his relationship with his two step-children who are also on their way to for-the-greater-good homicide, and his police officer sister Deborah finds herself in a conundrum of her own. And of course, there is no shortage of blood spatter and gruesome torture along the way. In some ways, as I write out this vague plot I think - hmmm...perhaps these Dexter books are getting a big formulaic, but still Lindsay does move the overall story along. There's also no denying (for me) Dexter's amazing sense of humor - and even the alliteration, once annoying, has emerged as one of Dexter's signature OCD traits. I was thrilled to discover that Lindsay has a fifth Dexter novel forthcoming (Dexter is Delicious). In the meantime, I'm going to get around to renting the first season of the television series inspired by these books.

Good in Bed - Jennifer Weiner

Jennifer Weiner is the poster author for chick-lit. For that reason, I think I've put off reading her novels - even though I clearly read a lot of chick lit...but I thought I'd go to the source and see what this author who kind of started it all had to say for herself. Good in Bed is the story of Cannie, a 28-year old journalist, who has a penchant for food, but for the most part seems relatively happy in her own body. When an ex-boyfriend that she was never that into starts publishing a column in a popular magazine about their relationship, Cannie goes somewhat off the deep end. She finds herself convinced that they should get back together, and despite her common sense and better judgment, turns into one of those annoyingly whiny charicatures of a self-absorbed and pathetic woman. Cannie then hits upon a stroke of good luck, interviewing a famous actress with whom she develops an unlikely but fortuitous friendship. I had to admit that the story while irritating at times and far-fetched at others, was a pretty well-written almost fairy-tale. I was turned off by Cannie's ability to move on from bad relationships and to recognize good ones - though there is an explanation for it that revolved around her broken relationship with her father - and I thought Weiner did a decent job of being real with her characters even when the plot sometimes took a turn for the absurd. This was perfect mindless/entertaining airplane reading for me (though I did find myself a little embarrassed carrying this around in public) - I'm happy that Weiner has continued to publish and see her books appearing on this blog in the future.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Liar's Club - Mary Karr

Mary Karr's memoir Lit received huge amounts of praise last year - and shot to the top of my to-read list. But, I discovered that she wrote this memoir back in 1995, so I thought I would check it out first. It was very reminiscent of The Glass Castle, given the main theme of surviving childhood with mental unstable parents. Reading this book was kind of like watching Citizen Kane for the first time in the year 2000. While I know that back in 1995, the memoir genre was not as well exploited (see Angela's Ashes), but now, it seems like everyone with checkered past has written about it. In some ways, it dilutes the impact of the trauma suffered and the importance of the chaos survived. Nevertheless, Karr's story is compelling and one worth learning from. Raised in East Texas, she is the child of a nearly psychotic mother and an abusive father. While she and her sister hang on for dear life, they are forced to grow up too quickly and subjected to abuses of all kind. Given the large number of memoirs out now that recount traumatic lives of neglect and abuse - I sometimes feel like the stories lose their impact and that readers are becoming numb to the horrific realities of the lives of the children depicted in these books. But perhaps it also educated more people on the fact that there are so many children living these lives and that we need to do more to ensure that they receive the protection they need. I did not find anything about Karr's book that made this one a stand-out in the genre, but for those interested in trauma, poverty, and mental illness, it is worth checking out.

Girl Sleuth - Melanie Rehak

Despite the fact that I have loved reading for as long as I can remember, I don't think I've ever read a Nancy Drew mystery. According to the author of this book about the cultural phenomenon that is this girl detective, such a thing is absolutely unheard of. Nancy Drew, created in 1930, has helped sell 80 million books and has taken the country by storm. Changing her personality, her appearance, and her approach to crime to suit our changing views of women and feminism, Nancy Drew has always been an icon with universal appeal. Through this book, Rehak tells the story of Drew's creation and the journalists that brought her to life. While not a Nancy Drew fan myself, I am interested in anyone and anything that has adapted to withstand the test of time, and that can get a little kid interested in picking up a book. Part of this book explores the ubiquity of Nancy Drew - which I never noticed until after I read this - and I realized that the next couple books I picked up all referenced her. I'm tempted to go back and read a few of these - though I wonder if the magic would still apply to an adult who didn't meet Nancy when she was still a child. Whatever the case, it's clear that Nancy Drew has made a lasting impact - not only with respect to literary mysteries, but on our collective consciousness world wide.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Fault Line - Barry Eisler

I am a huge fan of Eisler's John Rain series. When I heard he had a stand-alone book out, I was excited, but also worried that it just wouldn't be as good and I'd wish for the return of John Rain. Fault Line takes place in the Silicon Valley, and features estranged brothers - Alex, a hard-working associate as a cut-throat law firm, and Ben - a military assassin. When one of Alex's potential cash-cow clients is murdered and he suspects that his own life is in danger, he calls upon his brother to come save the day. Eisler delves into the family drama surrounding the brothers - at times a bit more tragic than believable, but a nice attempt by Eisler to develop his characters - something he didn't start to do until the tail-end of the Rain series. Alex comes across as a spoiled whiny brat, with absolutely no perspective and no forgiveness. Ben, on the other hand, is the misunderstood tough guy who has turned to killing foreigners in an obvious attempt to mask his real pain. In some ways it's all just a bit too cliched. But, I have to admit, this story grabbed me. Maybe I was just in the right mood - but I couldn't put this one down and stayed up past midnight alone in my hotel room to finish it. Part of the appeal is that the story took place in Palo Alto and San Francisco, and I think it's fun to read about places you know (though I don't consider the Four Seasons, which is located ON Market Street in SF to be "South of Market")...I mostly appreciated the nod to Vesuvio in North Beach. At the risk of becoming disloyal to Rain, I did fall in love with Ben's character. At times the dialogue and constant bickering between the two brothers got old, but the story tracked well, and while there are a couple assassination/murder scenes, they weren't as drawn out as they sometimes are in the Rain series, and there's less of the surveillance/counter-surveillance showing off that Eisler often gets carried away with. I very much appreciated the indirect reference in the book to John Rain, and look forward to more of Ben, or even a couple more stand-alone books by Eisler - before he eventually writes another John Rain book, of course.

Brother, I'm Dying - Edwidge Danticat

I've been having trouble keeping up with my blog - with an increased work load and more travel, it has been difficult to find time to sit down and reflect on the books I've been reading. Luckily, though, I've still had time to read. With everything going on in Haiti recently, I've found myself wanting to learn more about the country. Since I'm not very good with reading news reports or history books, I turned to one of my favorite novelists, Edwidge Danticat. I picked this one up from the library, having no idea what it was about. This is Danticat's own story - of her childhood in Haiti - growing up with her brother, away from her parents who had made their way to the United States in hopes of setting up a better life for the entire family. It is a story of Danticat's hard-working and proud father, as well as her uncle, the man she knew as her father for all those years back in Haiti. As Danticat finds herself unwittingly torn between her loyalties for the two men, she also finds herself torn between her two countries - at a time when finding herself and understanding life take on a whole new meaning. At times it seemed like Danticat was trying to do too much - give a historical perspective on Haiti, come to terms with her childhood and her relationship with her family, understanding what it meant to have two families, dealing with the illness and potential deaths of her father and brother, understanding the relationship between the brothers, addressing the issue of immigration...each time I felt myself drawn to a character of part of her story, she moved on to something else. But, each piece is told with compasion and beauty - and it was worth it to learn something about Danticat's amazing life, as well as to get a flavor of the country she so clearly loves.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Chronic City - Jonathan Lethem

People seem to love Jonathan Lethem. His books are all over recommended reading lists and I've had several people tell me that one of his books is their favorite ever. And because I'm always interested in a book people would call their "favorite ever," I always find myself shelling out for his books. But, there is just something about this writer that I don't understand. My reaction to him is like my reaction to Jonathan Franzen. He seems like a show-off who is too clever for his own good - which is to say that he is a great writer, but his characters are too obsessed with their own banality to merit any interest from me. Chronic City takes place in Manhattan's drug-induced social scene. The main character, a former child actor is dating an astronaut made famous by the fact that she is current stuck in the Earth's stratosphere. The child actor befriends a slovenly pop critic and a self-loathing entertainment ghostwriter, and they engage in conversation an and action all in the search for Truth. And there's also an elusive tiger on the loose in the neighborhood - but I could never figure out if it was real or not. If this all sounds nonsensical, that's basically what I thought the entire time I was reading this. I simply did not care about the characters, and I found each of them individually to be quite tedious, and as a group positively insufferable. I almost didn't make it through this one -but it was the only book I brought with me on a 24 hour trip out of town and I didn't want to break down and buy anything from the airport bookstore. I've culled through many reviews of this book to figure out why so many people love it and declare it a masterpiece. Maybe most of these people are from Manhattan? Or this is the kind of book that appeals to readers who enjoy working for their entertainment - who (perhaps with the help of a few substances) also love Thomas Pynchon and other worldly-genius-but-often inaccesible to us mere mortals -writing. I'm glad I checked it out to see what everyone was talking about, but this just really isn't my kind of book.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

I Feel Bad About My Neck - Nora Ephron

While packing up after visiting my mother one weekend, I needed to grab a book to read on the plane. This one was sitting on the dresser, so it seemed as good a book as any. Ephron, a screenwriter, famous for When Harry Met Sally, has thrown together random musings on being a woman of a certain age. This book is so short and such a quick read that unfortunately, I finished it before the plane ever boarded, and I was forced to do the Southwest magazine Sudoko puzzles for the remainder of the flight. For the most part, Ephron's observations were mundane - and the typical complaints of aging women - and while I hope I won't find this funny in 20 years, perhaps it is something that would appeal to someone a litlte bit older than me (but sadly, probably not THAT much older). This is definitely light, and probably every woman would see a little of herself in these pages. Something to quickly pass the time while waiting in line for coffee or at the post office.

A Gate at the Stairs - Lorrie Moore

In general, I'd say I do like books that are about people living their every day lives - where nothing in particular happens, but where learning about the characters and walking in their shoes is just kind of the point of the whole exercise. Moore's A Gate at the Stairs has received many excellent reviews - and I've seen it all over Best of 2009 lists, and had to wait quite awhile for it at the library - always s sign of commercial success. I knew it was about life in a post-9/11 world, but other than that really did not know what to expect. The story is told from the perspective of 20-year old Tassie - who is meandering aimlessly through life, going to school without much ambition. She takes a job as the nanny to a working mom and all-but-completely absent father - to take care of their newly adopted child. Issues of race come in to play as the couple is white, and their daughter is black - and the mother attempts to surround herself with other people of color, engaging in politicized and often ridiculous-with-a-kernel-of-truth debates about the state of race relations in the United States today. Tassie, meanwhile, visits her parents (former potatos farmers), falls in love with a rarely seen by the reader man, and creates a tremendous bond with the child she cares for. Along the way, it is clear that Tassie marches to the beat of a different drummer - and the way she sees the world, her humor, and her assessment of often awkward situations, I found spot on and hilarious. But, given the subject matter of the book, also often inappropriate. In this way, I suppose, Moore does capture the reality of every day life - that we all live among this madness, attempting to find meaning - whether it is through romantic relationships, our work, or in having children, but in the end kind of just finding ourselves where we started - still confused and not quite happy. I'm actually surprised that this book is so popular - it seemed completely random to me in terms of plot diversions and characters, and ultimately the relationship between the couple and the adopted child is so heartbreaking for the reader, but almost as if unfelt by the characters themselves. Again, perhaps this is the detachment that is symbolized by 9/11 itself, the numbness that crept into the lives of so many - and the need to find meaning, as Tassie struggles to do, in the face of so much absurdity.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Of Bees and Mist - Erick Setiawan

I grabbed this book off the shelf at Barnes & Noble because it has beautiful cover art. I then flipped to the back flap to learn that the author, a Stanford grad living in San Francisco, grew up in Indonesia but is of Chinese descent. I am always eager to read books by Stanford alums, particularly those who are local - and of course I have a bias in favor of Asian and Asian-American writers. So, this one fit the bill. Of Bees and Mist is the story of Meridia - the sad only child of parents who don't quite seem to know how or want to love her. When he is barely old enough, she runs away into the arms of her first-love, Daniel. Only to discover that her new mother-in-law is a bigger nightmare than she could have ever imagined. Setiawan employs elements of magical-realism and the gothic in telling his story of trechery, revenge, and manipulation in the two families spanning over thirty years. The writing and fantastic elements of the story reminded me of The Shadow of the Wind (which I absolutely loved). But, at times, the evil mother-in-law character became too much for me - she had no redeeming qualities, and there was no explanation for how she came to be so twisted or the nature of her power to control her husband and those around her. Much of the actions of the characters are motivated by hatred, and the characters don't seem to learn much from all that they lose because of the grudges they hold. In this way, I found the story so sad and unfulfilling. But, I do think Setiawan was able to evoke a feeling of terror - no easy task - and his ability to create beautiful magical imagery contributed to my desire to keep reading, even when the characters were getting on my nerves.

Outlander - Diana Gabaldon

This book is The Time Traveler's Wife meets Philippa Gregory - only not as much time travel bouncing around and set in 18th century Scotland. While on her second honeymoon in Inverness, Scottland post-WWII, Claire witnesses a pagan ritual among the stone ruins of Craigh na Dun. When she returns later on her own, she finds herself transported through time and left to explain herself to Scot warriors - not all with the best intentions. Suspected as a spy, Claire is forced into alliances to protect her honor, and finds herself torn between her loyalty to her husband in the 20th century, and her attraction to a man from the past. A nurse during the war, Claire makes use of her healing powers and gains respect among the clan, while struggling to fit her feminist personality into the realities of the 18th century. For the most part, the time travel aspect of this book came across as gimmicky, though I understand Gabaldon has written a number of books in this series, and I anticipate they all allow her to leap through time to different world and adventures. This book has a soap opera quality about it - with Claire's stubborness getting her into predictable and sometimes irritating predicaments, but the numerous characters (villains and heroes among them) are entertaining. Claire's 18th centure infactuation, Jamie, is also a lovely man to root for - with all the charm and none of Rhett Butler, and none of the scoundrel-ness. The immense popularity of this series was not difficult for me to understand, and anyone who enjoys Philippa Gregory and a little science-fiction would probably find themselves drawn to this series. I think it'll probably be awhile before I pick up another one, but it's nice to know they're out there whenever I'm in the mood for a complete escape.