Saturday, January 21, 2012

Maine - J. Courtney Sullivan

If you give me a book about several generations of women in the same family that is a relatively easy read - one that you could see yourself taking out at the beach or on any relaxing vacation, then chances are that I'm going to like it.  Maine definitely fits the description.  Shockingly, it takes place in Maine, at Alice's summer home.  After the passing of her husband, she is left alone, except for the sporadic company of her three children - none of which she seems to particularly like, and none of which particularly like her.  A series of events bring her daughter Katherine, her granddaughter Maggie, and her daughter-in-law Ann Marie to the house at the same time.  As the family history unfolds so do the various conflicts among the family members - but though they all share a passive-aggressive gene, none of them seem much committed to resolving any of the family drama, acknowledging their own wrong-doing in anything, or making a commitment to living a life free of negativity.  Even Katherine, who takes her AA quite seriously is the biggest offender of starting arguments for no particular reason.  In this way, I found the book annoying and almost unbelievable - clearly there are unplesant people in the world, but are there any truly this unpleasant?  Maggie, the only one not trying to start a fight, and actually attempting to build relationships with her relatives, is a pathetic doormat in her relationship with boyfriend in a way that makes all her interactions with anyone just seem desperate and sad.  Yet, despite not liking a single character in this book, the overall story still worked for me.  At base, it's just another story about a dysfunctional family (kind of reminded me of Weird Sisters, though not as clever), but it was filled with some pretty good gossip and secrets, and definitely an entertaining read at the end of a long day.

The Paris Wife - Paula McIain

When I studied literature in college, my least favorite writers were the American ones from the '20s and '30s, and that definitely included Ernest Hemingway.  I thought the topic of many of the novels from this period were boring, and the writing just never grabbed me - even if I was told over and over that it was sophisticated in its simplicty.  But, I also know that I love a good backstory - and once I've learned something about someone, I suddenly become a little more interested in reading something about them that I previously couldn't stand.  This definitely happened for me with Henry James, after reading Colm Toibin's fictional biography, The MasterThe Paris Wife is the story of Hadley Richardson, Hemingway's first wife, and their tumultuous relationship in Paris, among the Lost Generation of Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, and many others.  It is fundamentally a story of a woman in love with a man in love with his fame and art.  This was a difficult read just in terms of watching a woman give up so much, constantly standing in the background and making sacrifices, and then made to feel as if she was hampering her husband's career or, at times, intentionally sabotaging it.  Given what many people know about Hemingway's life going in to this read, you know the relationship will end in betrayal, and that Hemingway's own life ends tragically.  His treatment of Hadley throughout the novel is a function of what seems to be a tendency toward depression, extreme self-doubt and loathing, alcoholism, and unaddressed mental illness.  In short, he is not painted in the most flattering light.  But, the book brings his relationship with Hadley to life, and introduced the reader to the life and obsessions that became the basis for his famous novels.  As a novel on its own, I thought this was fantastic - and yes, on my last trip to the library, I did check out a copy of The Sun Also Rises.

By Nightfall - Michael Cunningham

I have a hard time getting into Michael Cunningham's writing - while he can tell a good story, he often tells it in a disjunctive lyrical way that I find distracting.  By Nightfall is a definite melding of the inner stream-of-conscience of one character alongside a straightforward narrative about a strange family and their wayward youngest brother.  The story takes place in New York and focuses on the artistic married couple of Peter and Rebecca.  While they are not exactly madly in love with each other after years of marriage, they seem to have figured out their rhythm.  That is, until Rebecca's much younger brother Ethan turns up and drags up family history and unresolved feelings.  The book is short, so when I found myself irritated with how self-absorbed and manipulative each of the characters is, I had the push to keep reading to at least find out how it ended.  Cunningham has a wonderful way with words, and this book was a reminder that I need to read another one of his, Specimen Days, that has been sitting on my shelves for years.  But, despite his popularity, I don't think he'll ever be an author that I love.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? - Mindy Kaling

Unfortunately for Mindy Kaling, her book came out the same year as Tina Fey's Bossypants, and since both of them are women writing for television sit-coms, it's inevitable that the two books will be compared - and perhaps people will only read one, and it'll be Tina Fey's because she is more famous and people love that Sarah Palin impression.  But, if that's the case, it is too bad, because Kaling's book is hilarious and amazing in its own right.  I just can't get over the fact that she is an Indian woman, brought up by parents who hoped she would become a doctor.  She went to Dartmouth and studied like a good Indian girl.  But, all that time, she just loved comedy, and she studied that too, and somehow - in an industry that doesn't just favor males, but favors white males, she managed to become a writer for one of the most popular television shows, The Office.  Or, perhaps she became a writer for a show, and she made it one of the most popular on television.  Whatever the case, she is amazing.  I recommend Bossypants, but I recommend this one too.  If you are only going to read one humor book written by a woman though, I pick Kaling.  She's different and unexpected, and perhaps even without meaning to be, she is quite inspirational.