Wednesday, July 28, 2010

My Horizontal Life - Chelsea Handler

I think I've now come to the end of my Chelsea Handler reading list. I think it's a function of her humor slowly growing on me, but I found this collection of vignettes from her single life the funniest one so far. Published back in 2005, Chelsea focuses her attention in this one on her one-night stands and questionable "relationships." Not one to look for anything long-term, and upfront about her shallow criteria for taking a guy home, Chelsea often comes across as a stereotypical male. I definitely appreciated this given my hatred of gender stereotypes and assumptions about what ALL women want. While many would chastise her for her seemingly loose morals, I applaud her honesty - though hope she is taking the necessary health precautions. Once again, not a warm and fuzzy memoir, but a pretty hilarious account of one woman's unapologetic quest to have fun.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake - Aimee Bender

Laura Esquivel's novel Like Water for Chocolate was my introduction to magical realism and holds an incredibly special place in my heart. The book features Tita, an amazing cook with the ability to infuse her food with emotion. So, for example, when her sister marries Tita's life-long love and Tita cooks the wedding banquet, all the guests find themselves overwhelmed with the sadness in Tita's heart. The idea of food capturing the emotions of the chef has always stayed with me, and I think of it in particular when I remember my grandmother's baking and the love I felt everytime I bit into one of her delicious desserts. And so when I started reading The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, all I could think was, "this is just a bad rip-off of Like Water for Chocolate." But in reverse. Sort-of. In this book, nine-year old Rose discovers that when she eats, she can discern the emotions of the person who prepared her food. And so when eating her birthday cake, she is overwhelmed by the sadness her mother carries around, despite all appearances to the contrary. She can taste a local cook's anger, or another one's anxiety. The emotions become so distracting, and almost sickening, that Rose finds she can only take comfort in overly processed vending machine food that isn't put together by actual humans. While maneuvering her way around her strange eating discovery, she is also trying to figure out her brother who disappears at every turn (the mystery of which I just couldn't wrap my head around), a father who doesn't do much communicating, and a mother who eventually has to find her happiness outside her own family. In some ways, this was an interesting twist on the usual coming of age story. But, for the most part, I felt that Rose's "super power" was irrelevant to the rest of the story being told, and simply a gimmicky way to pull the readers in. But, lately, I've been feeling that way about a lot of books - that the little thing that makes the story semi-original doesn't really do much for the story overall. And because this little gimmick was just a Like Water for Chocolate rip-off, I think I was mostly disappointed.

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress - Rhoda Janzen

Two of my good friends with wonderful senses of humor were reading this book at the same time- and both thought it was hilarious. So, I figured it was worth a shot. Unfortunately, I always have trouble reading anything that comes with such high expectations. A memoir, Rhoda Janzen returns to her Mennonite family after her bi-polar husband leaves her for his gay lover and she suffers a debilitating car accident. I thought the premise left a lot of room for exploration - Janzen's Mennonite values and background clearly shaped so much of who she is, yet she left her faith and puruse higher education. Janzen comments frequently throughout the book about the "strangeness" of Mennonite culture, but doesn't fully explore why she ended up so different from her siblings. She also delves into the painful truth of her marriage to an abusive mentally ill man - and acknowledges that love blinded her to his treatment - but she doesn't fully seem to have learned any lessons from the relationship that would help her in the future. Despite my belief that this book could have served a much greater purpose given Janzen's tremendous experiences, it seems the book she wanted to write was one that poked fun at her tragic life. I did really enjoy her exchanges with her mother - a woman who seems to accept everyone for who they are without judgment, and has a great sense of humor herself, even when it seems to be at her own expense. I loved Janzen's interactions with her, and the model of patience and unconditional love she provided. Janzen is definitely funny, but like Augusten Burroughs I think there is so much sadness in the life she mocks that I often had a hard time finding the humor.

Imperial Bedrooms - Brett Easton Ellis

Twenty-five years ago, Ellis published his debut novel, Less Than Zero, featuring a cast of young beautiful former prep school kids in Los Angeles who seemed to do nothing but go to parties, get high, and have sex. Of course, there was more going on in terms of their relationships, which seem to be a portrayal of the depths of narcissism and nihilism, but with all Ellis's novels, I mostly finish reading them thinking, "this guy is messed up. I'm scared to know how he comes up with this stuff." And yet, I keep reading, because to me Ellis is one of the most innovative, creative, and talented writers of our time - even if subject matter-wise, he is often difficult to stomach. Imperial Bedrooms is the sequel to Less Than Zero, and shows us the characters of the first novel 25 years later, and not that much more grown up. Clay, the main character, is back in LA after a stint in NYC, trying to cast his latest film. In the midst of doing so, he meets and becomes obsessed with a wanna-be actress who has strange and not always straight-forward connections to his friends from his previous life. The violence, narcissism, and hedonistic indulgence from Less Than Zero is back in full force - with the story told in such a creepy straight-forward manner, it left me wondering if any of the characters had a conscience or true feelings about the lives they moved through so mechanically. Ellis plays a lot with technology in the novel, with the characters communicating almost exclusively via cell phone and text messaging, and there is extensive discussion of internet videos - again, this all contributed to my feeling that the novel was so much about lack of emotion and feeling, and the price we pay for growing into such an impersonal society. I would not say that I found this book enjoyable - and I was glad that it was a short quick read because I probably could not have spent much more than a day with it. That being said, it is pretty standard Ellis, for better or for worse, and for thoes who follow his work, certainly worth checking out.

Love Over Scotland - Alexander McCall Smith (44 Scotland Street Series #3)

The deeper I get into this series, the more enamored I become with the characters. Bertie, the precocious six year old whose mother forces him to take yoga and Italian lessons is still my favorite. In this one, his overbearing pregnant mother cajoles him into auditioning for a teen orchestra (nevermind that he plays the saxophone, and there is no place for such an instrument - or a six-year old - in a teen orchestra) in the hopes that she'll be able to accompany him on their annual trip to Paris. Pat, always unlucky in love, begins her studies in Edinburgh after moving out of 44 Scotland Street and into a new apartment with another strange roommate. Dominca makes her way to the Malacca Straits to do anthropological field work, leaving poor Angus Lordies back at home pining away for her. And so the adventures continue with misunderstandings, snafus, and fortuitous coincidences along the way. As always, I'm glad that Smith seems to be able to write faster than I can read, and more installments always lie ahead. Can't wait.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Blue Shoes and Happiness - Alexander McCall Smith (No. 1 Ladies Detective Series #7)

Precious Ramotswe and her trusty assistant Grace Makutsi are back at it again...this time questioning a local advice columnist, investigating a doctor prescribing strange amounts of blood pressure medication, and trying to keep cobras out of their detective agency. The usual endearing characters make their appearances from Mma Ramotswe's mechanic husband and his rascally apprentices to the head of the orphanage, and the latest addition to the detective agency, Mr. Polopetsi. Mma Makutsi also encounters a little difficulty with her fiance when she reveals that she is most definitely a feminist. While the mysteries in these books are never complex, they are always fun, and getting to know the characters better with each installment brings as much comfort as a hot cup of bush tea.

Presumed Innocent - Scott Turow

Scott Turow's most recent novel is a sequel to this 1989 legal thriller. I generally like Turow, and he's done some amazing work in the anti-death penalty community, so I'd like to support his writing. I'm a long queue at the library for the new novel, so I figured I better read the first one - which has been sitting on my shelves courtesy of my mother for years. I remember seeing this movie a long time ago, but couldn't remember anything about it except one scene at the end that presumably revealed the "real killer." The book takes place in the midwest, in the middle of a big District Attorney election. Rusty Sabich is the number two man in the DA office, backing the incumbent, when one of his colleagues and former lovers is murdered. He is chosen to head the investigation, and of course fails to disclose his prior relationship. When his mentor loses the race to a man Sabich once fired from the office, things go south quickly, and Sabich finds himself on trial for the murder. The book tracks both the investigation and the day-to-day courtroom drama, building the suspense and making you root for Sabich, even if he isn't the most sympathetic character. About half-way through reading the book, I remembered the significance of the last scene in the movie, but it didn't ruin my enjoyment of the book at all. Definitely looking forward to the sequel coming in.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Olive Kitteridge - Elizabeth Strout

Sometimes I think my mind must be turning to mush. I am thoroughly engaged in vampire stories and formulaic legal thrillers, but then I pick up something ostensibly of true literary value - a Pulitzer winner no less - and I just find it incredibly tedious. I'm trying to tell myself that it's the difference between a good story and good writing. Certainly, I can acknowledge that Olive Kitteridge, a collection of 13 stories about a retired schoolteacher in small-town Maine, is certainly well-written, but I just found it boring. The title character, Olive, is thoroughly unlikeable. Everything about her is negative - and while everyone around her (particularly her son) seems hell-bent on getting as far from her as possible (except her saintly husband who stays in love with her for reasons unfathomable), Olive just seems to live in her own world where nothing but her own opinions and needs matter. While not every story has Olive as the focus - sometimes she just appears as a passing character - I just couldn't find anything about the world Strout created that I wanted to keep reading about. Usually, I feel this way about the Man Booker prize winners, but alas the Pulitzer has become too intellectual for me. I'll keep looking to their winners for book suggestions, but as I get older and more feeble-minded, I may be sticking to the New York Times bestsellers.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Dead as a Doornail & Definitely Dead - Charlaine Harris (Sookie Stackhouse Series #5 and #6)

With the third season of True Blood now underway, I figured I better get back on the Sookie Stackhouse series before the television show catches up with me - it's clear to me that my enjoyment of the books significantly increased once I got past the point of the television show. It could also be that Harris's writing improved a tad bit as the series went on, but to be honest, not that much, it's still pretty bad. But, the story is good. So good that once I finished #5, I moved right on to #6, and am sad that I don't have #7 right at my fingertips (hopefully, my local library will set me up soon enough!). Dead as a Doornail focuses more on the local were community - when three shifters are shot by an unknown assailant, Sookie takes it upon herself to figure out the mystery, bringing her closer to Alcide, and intimately involved in the were struggle for power. In Definitely Dead, Sookie finds herself a romantic interest (yay, I was getting so tired of the Bill/Eric dynamic), and travels to New Orleans to clean up after her vampire-cousin is killed. This series is good mindless fun and I'm glad I stuck with it after the first few. Harris is definitely on a roll, and I can't wait to get my hands on the next one.

Storm Front - Jim Butcher (Dresden Files Series #1)

This book definitely requires some suspension of disbelief. And strangely for me, more so than other science-fiction/fantasy that I've read. Maybe because it sort-of takes place in the normal world, but is just filled with complete weirdness. I suppose it's no different than the True Blood vampire books I've been getting into lately, but for some reason, this one just did a number on my head. The main character, Harry Dresden is a wizard. He's also a private investigator who helps out the police department from time to time. There isn't really an explanation (that I can recall) as to how he became a wizard. It's unclear to me whether his parents were wizards and he was born into it - or whether he studied really hard and became a wizard (there's another charater in the book who studies and becomes one, so this is clearly possible - though Harry's participation in some secret societies suggest he's something more). When a couple is found brutally murdered, Harry is brought in to find the killer. It's clear that some on the police force believe in his supernatural powers - and buy his explanation that there are some vampires and other spritely creatures involved. And there are others on the force that think he is a complete hoax. And so Harry goes about trying to solve the crime just like any other private detective might - only along the way he has the help of a fairy who loves pizza, and a goblin of some sort that lives in a skull in his basement. At least to keep things familiar to the detective genre, the author made Harry totally awkward when it comes to women, and there is some disastrous dating that also goes on in the story. I'm a bit intrigued by the concept here, and I think I'll read at least one or two more in this series (of 13), but I'm just not sure how much I can buy into a wizard detective who solves crimes - it just seems too easy for him to conjure up a spell that seems a bit too much like cheating to figure it all out.

Stuff:Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things - Randy Frost & Gail Steketee

Thanks to some strange reality shows on television these days, most people have heard of the concept of hoarders - individuals who seem simply to collect stuff - newspapers, magazines, junk - until it completely fills their lives, making them prisoners in their own homes. This book attempts to understand what compels people to become hoarders - and what meaning they attribute to objects that the rest of us might merely view as junk. The authors are mental health professionals with backgrounds in obsessive compulsive disorder- and they began their research with the assumption that hoarding was a form of OCD. Their research, however, leads them in a different direction - looking more to trauma and dysfunctional personal relationships as the cause for these seemingly strange attachments. The authors tell the story of hoarding through the examples of specific individuals, and I thought they did a marvelous job of truly humanizing this bizarre behavior. I think this book could easily have become freak-show voyeurism, but I found it really painful to see what these individuals were going through in terms of their anxiety and inability to part with these objects. I also found interesting the different types of hoarding - from the newspapers and junk we expect, to people who are collecting decaying garbage populated with rats and cockroaches, to people who hoard animals, to children with hoarding compulsions (these, to me, were the strangest of all). I really appreciated that throughout the book, the authors emphasized practical approaches for dealing with hoarders - involving them in the decisions to get rid of things, even when that process may take years and years, for example. And, at the end of the book, there is a really helpful section with resources, support groups, and other help for people who want to get help for themselves or their loved ones. Hoarding is a fascinating mental illness, and one that clearly requires more studying and understanding. This book is an easy read for someone not at all familiar with the topic, but sophisticated enough to bring real compassion and (hopefully) change
for the people suffering from this illness.

Middle Son - Deborah Iida

Set in Hawaii, Middle Son tells the story of Spencer, a sansei Japanese-American who has returned home from war to his dying mother. Ostensibly a middle son, Spencer lost his older brother while they were still children, and his younger brother was given up to relatives with no children of their own. The truth surrounding the death of the older brother has been kept a secret by Spencer and his younger brother their whole lives, and has haunted Spencer and his relationship with his parents. There is not a whole lot to the plit of this novel. But, what I truly enjoyed about it was the Hawaiian setting, the delicious foods described in detail, and the Pidgin English spoken by the characters - all of which reminded me of home.