Saturday, January 29, 2011

Mary Ann in Autumn - Armistead Maupin (Tales of the City #8) (CALIFORNIA)

This book marks the first in my armchair travels within the states. Maupin's series takes place in San Francisco, and features loveable couples and characters from North Beach to Noe Valley and all the neighborhoods in between. In his latest, Mary Ann returns to SF after fleeing a terrible marriage in NY, and to face the reality of cancer. She moves in with her old friend Michael Tolliver, and his husband Ben. Surrounding them are the matriarch transvestite (and former landlady) Anna Madrigal and her protege in waiting, Jake. Mary Ann's daughter Shawna plays prominently in the story, finding herself obsessed with the identity of a lone homeless woman. With a couple major story arcs, Maupin brings back the soap opera that is the Tales of the City, presenting unorthodox relationships in an an everyday way, and mixing the macabre with the sublime. I can't get enough of this series and hope that Maupin keeps providing us more adventures with all our favorite characters.

Baby Laughs - Jenny McCarthy

This book is absolutely terrible. While there are some nuggets of potentially helpful information for new moms and maybe a line or two that brought a little chuckle, for the most part McCarthy seems to be trying to hard to be glib in the hopes of getting a laugh or two at her own expense. This quick read is McCarthy's perspective on being a new mom to her little boy, Evan. She goes on and on about his development, labasting competitive moms (which I did appreciate) and speaking frequently about the "next time" she has a child with her husband, the love of her life. As I suppose is the case with any memoir type book written before the end of one's life, knowing how things turn out made me cringe. Since the publication of this book McCarthy has been a outspoken about her son's difficulties with autism. And, her marriage ended in a divorce before she had any additional children. Of course, given who McCarthy is as a celebrity, I doubt that any one would come to this book thinking that they should actually follow any serious advice she might give. The purpose of the book, I suppose, is to remind new parents to have a sense of humor - that this is a difficult new road they are going down, and if you're going to survive, you need a little perspective and a lot of laughter. While I didn't find McCarthy herself very funny, I do think she succeeded in bringing her positive message through to the reader.

36 Views of Mount Fuji - Cathy Davidson (JAPAN)

I first read this book when I was in high school and had never been to Japan. Davidson, an American professor participates in a teacher exchange and moves with her husband to Japan on several occasions for extended periods of time. During her visits, she truly makes an effort to immerse herself in Japanese culture, and dedicates herself to learning the language, as well as Japanese traditions - and is committed to getting to know the real Japanese. I recently decided to re-read this book - partially after my truly negative experience with Dave Barry's book. I worried that the years that had passed since I first read the book would affect my view of it. But, all it did was make me better appreciate Davidson's ability to honestly report her experiences and to better understand how the Japanese are so different from Americans. Davidson has a love affair with Japan, but she is realistic. She knows she cannot move there permanently for a number of reasons, but she still makes an effort to incorporate the best parts of Japan into her life. Rather than write off the Japanese as weird or different, she really digs to understand why. The results are fascinating. I particularly enjoyed her observations about the Japanese education system - the pressure on mothers to produce perfect children, and the ever-mounting pressure on children to study to the point of exhaustion, just so they can later get all-consuming jobs. Davidson is meticulous in her observations and study of Japanese traditions, their interactions with each other and with foreigners. My husband has done a lot of work with a Japanese client over the past several years, and I think for him reading this book would be invaluable to understanding the people he interacts with on a daily basis - and for recognizing when and why their motives and behaviors are so different from the ones we assume of others in the United States. About the second half of this book focuses more on Davidson's personal life - her personal struggles with reconciling her need to be in the United States with her desire to be in Japan. I did not find this as compelling as the first half, but by the time she got to it, I trusted her opinions and thoughts a bit more than I would have if she'd started out focused on herself from the beginning. While this book can't possibly answer every question about the Japanese, and is clearly dated in many ways with Japan's ever-changing youth culture, I still found it immensely intriguing and worthy of lengthy discussion.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Finkler Question - Howard Jacobsen

I think I've just been a bad mood lately or something because nothing that I've been reading has quite bit sitting well with me. I'm finding myself irritated by characters, unable to focus on the plot of a given story, and generally feeling bored. I certainly hope this is not reading burn-out and that I just need to find the right book to re-ignite myself! I have noted before that I don't have the best luck with Booker Prize Winners, but every year I do find myself wanting to give the winner a shot, and so that's how I found myself picking this one up. The Finkler Question tells the story of three old acquaintances: Julian Treslove (a celebrity double strangely obsessed with Judaism), Sam Finkler (Julian's rival and anti-Zionist scholar), and Libor Zevcik (their elderly professor). After the death of Finkler and Zevcik's wives, Treslove is mugged in what he believes to be an anti-Semitic-motivated attack. The assault causes Treslove to question everything about his own identity, as he examines his life, his former and current loves, and what it means to be or not to be Jewish in today's world. While I found much of the friendship and interaction among the three men interesting, Treslove as a main character was so obsessive and tedious that about half-way through the book I simply could not stand his musings anymore. He was so self-obsessed - and had no ability for self-reflection - despite his friends and family members being pretty blunt with him about his short-comings. Again, as with most of the Booker winners, while I did appreciate the writing, I just couldn't get into the story.

It Sucked and then I Cried - Heather B. Armstrong

Humor is a strange thing...what some people absolutely love, I've found I just can't stand. The author of this book is apparently one of the most popular, if not the most popular blogger on the internet (I have no idea how such things are measured). This is her semi-serious book about giving birth, the miracles of motherhood, and how she dealt with it all given her history of depression. I found most of the things she joked about to be tiresome, and her effusive emotions about her love for everything having to do with her child were just annoying. The book came across as a love letter to her kid - which while very sweet in the abstract isn't something I'm particularly interested in reading. What I was interested in reading about was her experience with post-partum depression - but she doesn't get to this until nearly the end of the book. I think many people think of post-partum depression as "the blues" or general crying and mopiness. Armstrong was quite honest about how her depression utterly debilitated her - how it prevented her from sleeping, and caused her not to just lie around as many people assume, but actually to do the opposite - to cause her such anxiety and stress that she was physically incapable of slowing down. Armstrong credits her husband and some of her family for getting her through her most difficult time - and this seems much deserved - but I did feel like the solution was mostly time and medical intervention - and maybe that is the real solution. I think I was looking for more in terms of how to better recognize this problem in oneself and others, how one can be a support for a family member going through this, and how one can ask for help if they recognize the symptoms in themselves. While billed as a book about getting through mental illness, this was more just a memoir of one woman's experience with childbirth and the first year or raising a first child - not my cup of tea, but certainly something (given her popularity) that apparently a lot of people are in the market for.

The Coroner's Lunch - Colin Cotterill (Dr. Siri #1) (LAOS)

In 2006, I traveled to a number of countries in Southeast Asia. My favorite, by far, was Laos. Given how small the country is, I guess it never occurred to me that someone might think to set an entire series of detective stories there. But, it really is a perfect location - it's beautiful and unassuming. The people are polite and perfect for hiding secrets. It is a place that is all at one time straighforward and shrouded in mystery. The Coroner's Lunch is the first in a series that currently features 7 books. Dr. Siri, the coroner in the title, is a 70+ former physician who found his retirement derailed when the communist government forced him to earn his keep while he was still able. Completely untrained as a coroner, it's clear that the powers that be would prefer that he simply rubber-stamp the bodies coming through his morgue. Instead, with the help of his two assistants, one female and the other who is mildly mentally retarded, Dr. Siri is committed to going against authority and exposing the truth. As a character, I grew very found of Dr. Siri - he doesn't care what anyone thinks of him, and he without even trying to be, he is charming and quite endearing. The murders he investigated were not in and of themselves particularly intriguing, but they were interesting enough, and I thought the author did a great job setting up the various characters who I assume will continue to make appearances throughout the series. While I am not planning to rush out and get the rest of the books in the series, I do look forward to returning to Laos to visit Dr. Siri in the near future.

Earth - Jon Stewart (THE WHOLE WORLD!)

I really enjoyed Jon Stewart's previous book, America (the Book), so I was looking forward to reading this one - a guide to aliens about our world. Of course, America lent itself more readily to Stewart's political humor - while this one takes on a far wider scope. With chapters ranging from religion to science to culture, I found that it was pretty hit or miss. There were definitely some laugh out loud lines and clever turns of phrases (particularly in the religion section), in general, I felt like this book was trying too hard. Definitely an entertaining coffee-table read to pick up now and again and leaf through, but as a book to sit down and read from cover to cover, I found it a bit underwhelming.

The Godfather of Kathmandu - John Burdett (Sonchai Jitplecheep #4) (THAILAND/NEPAL)

The fourth installment featuring Bangkok's finest Buddhist detective features Sonchai at the crossroads of his career and his own personal tragedy. As the corrupt Colonel Vikorn convinces Sonchai to become his own personal consigliere, Sonchai sets out to solve the murder of a famous Hollywood director, while at the same time, traveling to Kathmandu to broker a drug sale of immense political importance. While in Nepal, Sonchai finds himself under the spell of Tietsen, an exiled Tibetan lama. As in his past adventures, Sonchai's ethics are tested - though this time, given his incredible need to escape the physical world, he is more often than not under the influence of marijuana or other drugs made readily available to him by his superiors, as well as the prostitutes he often finds himself in bed with (literally and figuratively). Burdett went a little off the deep end with this one, but I still found myself rooting for old Sonchai, even when he let his material carnal self get the better of him.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Dave Barry Does Japan - Dave Barry (JAPAN)

Back when I was in middle school, I remember thinking that Dave Barry was a pretty funny writer. I haven't read him in quite some time, but in my mind liken him to Bill Bryson. So, when I saw he had a book about his travels to Japan, I thought it would be a perfect fit for my armchair travel goals for the year. Looking at the cover alone, however, should have tipped me off as to what I was in store for. To be fair, this book was written in 1992, which must have been a very different time in the world. Barry and his family take a three week trip to Japan and he writes all about it - in the most offensive, ignorant, sterotypically rude self-centered white American way possible. Needless to say, I did not find a line of this book funny. I have been to Japan, and I will admit that I too found that there are some weird things about that culture - but for the most part, Japan is a highly efficient, incredibly beautiful country with amazingly delicious food and sophisticated technology. Barry seemed to have no appreciation whatsoever for any of it. He just thought it was all gross and strange and seemed to revel in his closed-minded approach to their culture. Given my background, perhaps I am overly sensitive to anything remotely critical of the Japanese, but I think I still have a decent sense of humor. Perhaps it's just changed since I was 12, and Dave Barry just simply isn't funny to me anymore.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Room - Emma Donoghue

This book has been all over "Best of 2010" lists - I requested it months ago at the library and it finally came in for me. I had no idea what it was about - though I anticipate that by now most readers will. The author has indicated that this book is based on the real-life horror story of Josef Fritzl who sexually abused his daughter and kept her locked in a room for 24 years, fathering 7 children before she finally escaped. In Room, the victim was kidnapped at the age of 17 and kept for about 8 years. She is raising her 5-year old son, Jack, in the room. While they have access to a television, she chooses to raise him to believe that their room is the world, and that everything on television is make-believe. The book is written from Jack's perspective - in general, while I am impressed by authors who try to get into the head of a child or a mentally disturbed person, or someone other than the "average" or "reasonable" person, I think this is incredibly difficult to pull off without getting annoying. The difficulty here is magnified by the fact that not only is the narrator a 5-year old, but a 5-year old who has not been exposed to so much that the rest of us take for granted. Contrasting Jack's better than average knowledge of language, math, and other skills - with his social retardation also presents an added challenge. Given the subject matter of this book, it made my skin crawl and I can't say that I found it at all enjoyable. I wouldn't recommend this book because it's just too depressing and unnecessary in so many ways. At the same time, I think Donoghue accomplished what she set out to do - which is to thoroughly and honestly explore this strange phenomenon and the effects of isolation.

Never Let Me Go - Kazuo Ishiguro (ENGLAND)

I read this book years ago and absolutely loved it (along with all other Ishiguro books I've read). I recently joined a book group - and we decided we would pick our reading selections from prior Booker Prize Finalists. And this was the first selection which we will discuss this upcoming weekend. I was eager to pick it up again and see if I loved it as much the second time around. Never Let Me Go is told by the first-person narrator, Kathy, as she looks back on her years at Halisham - a boarding school in the English countryside. She focuses her story on her two closest friends, Tommy and Ruth, telling the story in pieces as she recalls small details and tries to piece together what she knew when. Throughout the book it is clear that there is something sinister or different going on with the children at Halisham - they are special in some way that is at first unclear - to both the reader and the students. Slowly, the story comes together, and while plot-wise the book is decently interesting - I think what I particularly enjoyed is the idea of memory and recollection. As Kathy remembers pieces and shares them with her friends, their memories don't always match up - though it's unclear whether they simply don't want to remember. I had the added twist to this reading experience of remembering parts of the story, but not others and seeing it unfold a second time was definitely well worth it. I believe I have one Ishiguro book on my shelves at home that I have not yet read (The Unconsoled). I've been saving it for a special occassion, but the time to fish it out might be sooner rather than later.

Around the World in 2011

I anticipate that I will not be doing too much traveling in this new year. But, I don't want to give up the ability to discover new places. So, my goal is to read books set in as many different countries (as well as the 50 states) over the next 12 months. At first, I thought I'd devote one month to a given country or region, but then I decided that would prevent me from visiting more than 12 or so places, and I find that if I read to many books in a row set in similar places that I start to get bored. So, I figure I will take advantage of the cost-efficiency of armchair travel and allow myself to skip from Botswana to Thailand to Mexico without a thought about what it would cost me in air travel. I have a lot of books on my shelves set in various locations that I'm looking forward to reading, but I also look forward to discovering new authors and series and countries. Book Lust To Go is going to come in very handy, and I hope that I will also receive many recommendations from friends and family as the year progresses - fiction, non-fiction, memoirs, travel narratives - I'll take them all. Bon Voyage!!

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Favorite Reads of 2010

I ended up reading 140 books this year - 10 shy of my yearly 150 goal. I definitely slowed down in August-October because of work projects, but for the most part felt like this was a good reading year. Below are my favorites of the year (meaning I read them in 2010, not that they were necessarily published in 2010).

Supreme Courtship - Christopher Buckley (satire about a television judge nominated to the Supreme Court)
The Passage - Justin Cronin (post-apocalyptic Vampire novel)
The Help - Kathryn Stockett (life of three women in Mississippi in 1962)
The Geographer's Library - Jon Fasman (an intellectual Dan Brown, steeped in alchemy)
Faithful Place - Tana French (murder mystery set in Dublin amidst a dysfunctional family)

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian - Sherman Alexie (memoir masked as juvenile fiction tells the life of a kid trying to get of the reservation)
Stuff - Randy Frost & Gail Steketee (in-depth look at the phenomenon of hoarding)
Committed - Elizaebeth Gilbert (skeptic's look at the institution of marriage)
Eating Animals - Jonathan Safran Foer (vegetarian's manifesto of the origins of eating traditions)
Play Their Hearts Out - George Dohrmann (critique of AAU basketball leagues)

Skipping Christmas - John Grisham

This little holiday stocking-stuffer has been sitting on my shelves for years. I decided it an appropriate choice to round out my 2010 reading. This is the story of the Kranks. Every year they are caught up in the Christmas hype. They go to office parties and buy gifts no one really wants. Like everyone else on their street, they string lights on their house and mount a 7-ft. Frosty on their roof. And every Christmas Eve, they throw a huge party with wonderful food. But, this year, their daughter is off in the Peace Corps, and they decide to take their money and spend it on a cruise instead. As they turn down invitations and decide not to send out holiday cards, the news of their blasphemous Scrooge-like behavior spreads through the neighborhood. Faced with animosity from all those around them, the Kranks become more and more motivated to stick to their guns. The book got a bit repetitive with each interaction the Kranks had - from the Boy Scouts selling Christmas trees to the police officers selling fruit cake. I got tired of hearing their anti-Christmas speech, and just didn't believe that so many people would actually care. I knew there had to be some kind of feel good ending, and Grisham did a decent job tying up the loose ends - but not before thoroughly irritating me and making me wish I were on a Caribbean cruise myself instead of reading this book.

Astrid & Veronika - Linda Olsson

Set in a small village in Sweden, Astrid & Veronika is the story of a young woman (Veronika) fleeing a tragic relationship, and an older woman (Astrid) dealing with the mistakes of her past. The two develop a friendship and eventually discover the healing power of sharing their secrets. The book is told in the present - as the relationship between the two women grows - as well as in flashbacks, as they each share the details of their prior lives. This book is beautifully written, and because parts of it take place against a snowy Scandinavian backdrop, it was a perfect read for the winter season. While sad and desperate at times, ultimately, I found this to be a very satisfying testament to the power of female friendships.