Friday, December 20, 2013

Fiction | How Olive Sees It

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I picked up another one that's been on my shelf a while... (Are you sensing a trend? There is a reason; more later) ...Elizabeth Strout's Pulitzer winner Oliver Kitteridge. Despite the notoriety of this book, I really didn't have much idea of what it was about. All I knew was that my mother-in-law "couldn't get into it," which probably contributed to why it sat on my shelf unread for so long.

Olive Kitteridge is more of a collection of stories that are tied together by, yes, a woman named Olive Kitteridge. The setting is a small town in rural Maine, the kind of town where everyone not only knows each other but knows each other's business. While some of the stories focus on Olive and her life with husband Henry and grown son Chris, many of them feature other members of the town, and Olive is just a small background character.

The first is Denise, a meek sort of plain-Jane assistant at Henry's pharmacy. He's taken with her in a protective sort of way, but Olive just finds her insufferably naive and boring. Another is Angie O'Meara, an alcoholic lounge performer who seems trapped by her past relationships. Then there's Harmon, the owner of the hardware store who is having an affair with a woman that accompanies Henry Kitteridge to church (because his wife refuses), because his own wife Bonnie has gotten rather cold and indifferent in the marriage.

These stories introduce you to a number of characters, and that's what these people are—characters. It's a wonderful look at the overlapping lives of neighbors and the intimate details probably unseen by one another. Olive is the stand-out character—if that wasn't going to be apparently with the title—and she's an odd one. She's prickly and a little ornery and very set in her ways, but she's also got this sympathetic side that is revealed through her interactions with others, mostly her son Chris. You realize she can read other people well but is lost when it comes to herself, like one of those people that can't seem to take their own good advice.

This isn't a plot-driven book, but it's also not too "literary" to feel intimidating. Mostly, it feels honest. And if nothing else, it's got that Pulitzer Prize stamp on the cover, so you can participate and contribute to culturally astute literary conversation once you've read it.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Fiction | Surviving, One Ghost at a Time

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"The First Woman made the sun and moon out of quartz," he said, "but after they were set in the sky, she noticed all the sparkling bits left over. So she decided the dust could be made into extra lights for the night sky. But before she sent the new stars into the sky forever, she said, 'These are what I will use to write the laws for people for all time. Only what's written in the stars can be remembered forever. Such things can't be written on the water, because water is always shifting, and they can't be written in the sand because the wind will blow them away. You can't write the truth in the earth—it's always changing its shape.'"

I read Gin Phillips' The Well and the Mine ages ago, and though I don't really remember much about it now, I know I really liked it at the time. Therefore, I was excited to grab her (at the time) newest, Come In and Cover Me, at a library conference last year. Despite it sitting on my shelf for over a year and a half, though, I really had no idea what it was about when I recently picked it up to read. And to be honest, I alllllmost gave up on it about 30 pages in.

I am glad I didn't.

[And this right here is why I always feel the biggest apprehension at not finishing books. What if it turns out to be great???]

The main character, Ren, is an archaeologist that's been hunting a specific 12th-century pottery artist in the southwest since her grad school days. She's been summoned to a remote part of New Mexico by another archaeologist, Silas, who thinks he's found more evidence of her artist.

The story starts off slow. There's a lot of surface conversation and plot, and it takes a while before we really get to know our characters, particularly Ren. We see hints that she kind of isolates herself. She gets sucked into her work and doesn't seem to have much of a deep and meaningful personal life. And eventually we learn that Ren is unique because of something from her past; ever since her brother died in a car accident when she was a young tween, Ren has seen ghosts. Yes, ghosts. And this is what has drawn her into her profession—and why she's so good at it. She sees people and places from times past, leading her to what physical evidence remains. To her, it's the story behind the objects that matter. The lives of people who touched these tools or bowls or figurines and left them behind.

There isn't really any one thing easy to identify as to why I ended up enjoying this book. The story is part supernatural; it's part mystery/thriller (albeit not a very fast-paced or intense one); it's part historical fiction as we explore the lost Mimbres community. All these things contribute to an alluring story, but its main focus is, ultimately, our main character—her past, her pains, her relationships, and how she takes hold of her life that's been on autopilot.

And also, it's got some great quotable passages.

This was the thing she realized. That it was a staggering, unfathomable thing to want no one other than the one she had. To mentally scan the whole endless world, considering all its potentially brilliant, beautiful, perfectly unexplored loves, and to know that even their imaginary possibility fell short of this man sleeping under the curve of her elbow and knee, breathing against the weight of her fingertips.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Nonfiction | How One Woman Saved 90,000 Babies

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November's book club selection was a little something old, a little something new. You see, our book club was originally founded to explore NYRB's world lit catalog, and we returned to our roots this month with an NYRB selection. The new part is that it was a nonfiction title, something we haven't often visited, and it was a nice change of pace.

The book in question is S. Josephine Baker's memoir Fighting for Life. "Who is S. Josephine Baker?" you may ask. No, it is not the famous French dancer of the 1920s... this Josephine isn't often known by name (at least in most communities) but you've certainly heard of the things she's done. Seeing as how she is almost single-handedly responsible for revolutionizing infant healthcare into what we accept today as common sense... yeah, she's a pretty important lady!

A bit of a history lesson: New York at the turn of the century was home to the most densely populated, most poverty-stricken neighborhood, the Lower East Side. This area was mostly populated by immigrant communities recently arrived, and folks were stuffed to the gills in old tenement housing. It was dirty and hot and stuffy and just a breeding ground for germs. It was no surprise the city, and this area in particular, had an extremely high infant mortality rate.

This is where our Dr. Baker comes in. Family tragedy forced her into a profession rather than a marriage like most women of the early twentieth century, and medicine was the route she chose. At a time when healthcare was provided at the time of an illness, Dr. Baker championed preventative care to prevent illness from happening in the first place. Name a norm of modern infant care, and she probably started the trend. From school nurses to milk stations to healthy infant attire, Dr. Baker approached medicine on a problem-solving basis.

If you want to look at a successful PR campaign, just look at all of her work. When I say she problem-solved, I mean she really approached an issue from every angle. She got everyone involved in preventative care on a level each group could understand—doctors, nurses, politicians, parents, even the children themselves. Much of Dr. Baker's career was an uphill battle—just look at who she was and the times in which she lived. She fought for respect from her male colleagues, for resources and funding. I'm sure it wasn't easy as she lived it, but my takeaway from her memoirs was that she was the right person in the right place at the right time. These memoirs are written as recollections by the author in the late 1930s, a good twenty plus years after the start of her health revolution. Perhaps this is the reason her experiences all sounded so easy, like things just fell into place. Certainly her day to day must've been more chaotic than it comes across in her writing!

As a narrator, she's entirely unsympathetic. I don't mean she sounds insensitive; she just never discusses her experiences on a personal level, rather as a puzzle that she had to solve. She was clearly a driven, effective woman that let her work speak for itself. Fighting for Life is a piece about her work, not about her personal life, and reading this, one would almost assume she didn't have one. But surely that can't be true--small anecdotes reveal a witty, outspoken woman. As we decided in book club, it sure would be interesting to read a biography on her that included more than just her professional life; I have a feeling she was a real character. Overall, her story is fascinating when you realize the influence she's had. Like she says, it's just common sense.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Fiction | If Dogs Could Talk

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On Goodreads, I rated Pete Nelson's I Thought You Were Dead as a 5-star earner. That five star rating is rare, so I know you're dying to read why I bestowed such an honor on this book.

But before we get into that, I'll give you a brief summary. In the opening, we meet Pete Gustavson, a writer in the earliest part of being "middle aged." (I'd say he's in his early- to mid-40s?) He writes a version of those Dummies and Idiot Guide books—in this case, it's the "For Morons" series. He lives alone, divorced from his wife; he has a sort of serious girlfriend, but they've kept the relationship open just to avoid getting hurt; his best friends are fellow patrons/regulars down at a local dive bar. Paul's not a bad guy, and his life isn't too terrible, but what we eventually come to see is that he doesn't totally have it together. When his father has a stroke, Paul takes it as a wake up call, and he starts to shake up the life he has somehow settled into.

Oh, and the real bright spot in Paul's life is his aging lab, Stella. And she can talk.

Yes, Paul has a talking dog. Stella is Paul's one source of unending support, of advice without judgment, of unconditional love. And though the pages are filled with dialogue between dog and human, that's not really the focus of this book. It's not something you harp on—a talking dog???—it just kind of is.

Instead, our focus is on Paul, and herein lies why I boosted it from my usually 4-star "Enjoyed It." Because I "Really Unexpectedly Enjoyed It." The premise is so simple that it feels almost like a short story—we have a singular character in a singular setting; we've got this quirky component that immediately piques our interest. But you know how with short stories you're drawn into the characters and then it just so disappointingly has to end? That doesn't happen here! We get a full story, not just a brief glance, and it's so satisfying. I really liked Paul, and I like having a good character to root for.

So this, friends, is why I Thought You Were Dead earned 5 stars from me. It snuck up on me and gave me something I wasn't expecting—and that's one of the many potential joys of reading.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Revisiting Potter, Part 3: The Prisoner of Azkaban

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I'm going to be honest—I could blow through all these Harry Potter books in the next couple of weeks, because I am absolutely loving this re-read. I'm not going to do that, though, because I'm trying to spread them out so that maybe after this time around, I'll remember one from another.

Prisoner of Azkaban is probably the one I know best, because my husband adores the movie, and until recently, it was the only one in our collection. (He's a film nerd, and it's partly because Alfonso Cuaron directed it.) During this re-read, this is the only one so far where I remembered exactly what was going to happen, and I could even picture the movie scenes as I read the words on the page.

Maybe it's because of this familiarity or maybe it's because it's just that good, but so far, I definitely think this is the strongest in the series...and while I hesitate to say it's the best overall, that may very well be true as well. This is when Harry Potter, to me, becomes Harry Potter. This is when it gets real, when we start down that road of what's going to be a long adventure for Harry and his friends towards the big picture. And so much of what is introduced here carries through the rest of the series. Here is where we meet the Dementors and Professor Lupin and Sirius Black, and learn about Azkaban, and frequent Diagon Alley, and uncover the mystery about Harry's parents' deaths.

In the briefest of brief plot summaries, the new year at Hogwarts begins under the threat that one of Voldemort's inner circle, a murderer named Sirius Black, has escaped from Azkaban. And no one ever escapes Azkaban. The wizarding world is under lock-down, and to make matters worse, Harry overhears a conversation that blames Black for his parents' death and surely he's out and looking for Harry to finish the job.

Everything in this book takes the Harry Potter world to a new level. History is revealed as it paves the path for the future. We're learning to settle in for a long, nuanced story that takes time to reveal. These are no longer brief action-adventure books; there's more to the stories than that, and we'll learn as we go. Not only that, these characters are maturing, and their issues are getting more relatable to their adolescent audience. Hermione, for example, spends half the book snubbed by Ron and Harry. Throw on family stress, peer pressure, and academic anxiety, and this Harry Potter is essentially a guide to the life of a 15-year-old.

I feel with this one like we're really into it now. Goblet of Fire is the first qualified chunkster of a novel, and it doesn't get any simpler from here on out.

In closing, with the wise words of Albus Dumbledore:
“But you know, happiness can be found even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light." 
(I cheated—this line is only in the movie and not the book. But it's the best quote of "wise words" from either telling of Azkaban.)

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Reading Roundup: Mysteries, Of Sorts

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The Potter's Field by Andrea Camilleri is a fun book I picked up at a library conference last year. Since it has been sitting on my shelf, I've continuously forgotten it's a mystery. It's one in a series of mysteries, in fact—the Inspector Montalbano series, translated from Italian, of which there over a dozen titles. The Potter's Field is #13 in the series, one of the newer ones published in 2011. I can't even remember the last time I read a mystery, and I really think I should dig into this genre more often since I've always enjoyed it. (I distinctly remember back in the 8th grade, we had to read And Then There Were None for English class, and I sat in the back of Algebra class devouring the pages of Agatha Christie as my teacher rambled on about FOIL.)

Because I don't really read mysteries that often, I'm not practiced at writing about them, either! Obviously, I can only share the briefest plot summary. In this Montalbano installment, an unidentified corpse is found in a clay-rich field known as Potter's Field. In the midst of this, the Inspector is also tracking down what his deputy Mimi is up to as his behavior in the office has recently become insufferable. On top of that, there's another piece when a young woman reports the disappearance of her husband who apparently had family ties to an infamous mobster.

I'll stop there, but the writing is quick, straightforward, and witty. Montalbano is not afraid to throw a few expletives, and his procedures may not always be up to code. As I was reading, he struck me very much as that character who is sarcastic and a bit of a rogue, but entertaining enough to probably have his own BBC series. AND GUESS WHAT, HE DOES! It's technically an Italian series, but the BBC does air it in the UK! Colin and I don't agree on books (or movies or TV shows) very often, but I did pass this one along to him.

My second quasi-mystery is the well-known Where'd You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple. I actually knew nothing about the plot of this prior to reading; it was only on my list because it's seen a lot of buzz in the past year, so I thought it was worth picking up. To quickly set the stage for those of you who haven't already read it, it's about an eclectic family living in Seattle. Elgie the Father is a super-wiz at Microsoft, usually working, rarely at home; Bernadette the Mother is a one-time architecture great who once won a MacArthur Genius Grant but now doesn't seem to do much but complain; their daughter Bee, short for Balakrishna (see, eccentric family), once suffered congenital heart defects but now is 15 and totally fine and sick of that attention. Bee is brilliant and thriving at her sort-of hippy dippy school. The issues come when Bernadette, all "misunderstood-genius-woe-is-me," has to interact with anybody, because she is insufferable. There's a fight with another parent, a Russian mafia who may be stealing her identity, and a looming trip to Antarctica. None of these things bode well for Bernadette, so she just up and disappears.

This book was entertaining enough. I really enjoyed the style and structure that used notes, letters, and other pieces of evidence to tell the story (with a bit of Bee's narrative built in.). It was so madcap that I couldn't really ground it in reality, though. First of all, the setting was odd. It constantly felt like it was 1995, but then there are lines thrown in about iPhones and you remember it's supposed to be present day. There are references of Encyclopedia Brown and Friends reruns, but then we're jumping to TED Talks and Bing. I never really made peace with when this story is supposed to be. My biggest trouble, though, was Bernadette. UGHHHHH. She represents everything that drives me crazy about people. She's incredibly judgmental; she talks down to anyone she doesn't agree with; she complains incessantly just to voice her opinion. She is basically everything I strive not to be in life. As a result, I couldn't sympathize with anyone in this book. (I used to say, "I don't have to like the character to like the book," but now I think that is a lie; I do need to mostly like the characters.) Bee was the most interesting, but even though this story was from her perspective, I didn't feel very close to her.

This is exactly that kind of book that is going to catch on with a large crowd because it's quirky enough to make people think, "This is so quirky and I am so quirky for reading it so I love it," and look at that, it made me utter words of judgment when that's just the kind of thing I try not to do, so that is my point, UGH I'm done with this book. Great cover art, though!

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Fiction | Learning to Love the Unexpected

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Back when I first read Sarah Dessen for my YA class last fall, I knew she would become a go-to when I wanted a wonderful, light, teen-angsty read. I found The Truth About Forever at the book barn back in the spring and have been holding onto it for the right moment ever since. [I also discovered the Nashville Public Library has, I think, her entire collection available for eBook check out, so I am definitely all set for the future.]

When I first read the synopsis for this book, I thought I might be offended: its main character Macy is spending her summer at a "boring job in the library" filling in for her perfect boyfriend who is away at Brain Camp. A) Boring job at the library, no such thing. B) I am offended you would even suggest as much. But ok, I know not every teenager has such a library-obsessed attitude as I did, so I decided to let it slide. In Macy's story, she's spending her summer this way because it's all part of her plan. She's very organized, very driven, and very safe. She's been that way since her dad died suddenly of a heart attack. Unable to cope with something she could never control, she tries to control everything else in her life. It's what helps her get through.

But living as Macy does is no way to live. Her plan leaves no room for error, for spontaneity, for adventure, for experience. When perfect boyfriend Jason decides to put their relationship on hold, from a distance, Macy starts to lose control...but this time she holds on for the ride. A new job with an eclectic catering company, new friends, and new experiences helps Macy open up and finally face the grief she's worked so hard to smother.

I get the feeling that Sarah Dessen's books are somewhat formulaic, and based on what she writes, I think that's unavoidable. She writes about real, relatable characters that, yes, can be considered unique as every individual is indeed unique. But they're all very normal. The settings are very Anywhere; the situations can happen to Anyone. Is this a turn-off? Heck no! As a kid, I always preferred "normal" stories about real people and real settings than anything fantastical, and I'm mostly still that way. Dessen's books are a great escape into a life that could be your own but isn't your own. And to prevent burn-out or that formulaic feeling, maybe space out your Dessen reading.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Idlewild Discussion on an Anthropological Botswanan Journey That's Really a Love Story

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I've talked about all the light reads I've been working my way through this fall, but my October book club choice was the opposite of a light read. Take one look at Mating by Norman Rush and everything about it says heavy read. It's almost 500 pages; those pages are nearly transparent; even the cover makes you think, "...Oh, this is definitely literary."

These surface judgments were only half accurate. If a book can be both dense and easy to read at the same time, then this one does that. Let me explain: the narrative isn't told in a hard-to-understand way; the language is fairly conversational, and there is a plot there—it's not just musings. But it's actually this casual language that makes this book take a lot longer to read than most. (To give you an example, I had 200 pages left on the Thursday before our meeting, and that night I read from about 6pm to 11:30 pm, minus about 45 minutes, to finish those 200 pages. It took that long. My usual approximate 1 pg/min rate did not apply here.) Dialogue punctuation is non-existent, so you really have to get in the flow of what's happening to follow. (Not a book that can be read in short little 10 min subway commute chunks.) Also, the language is sort of stream of consciousness but not in a totally rambling way. More of a, this is how I would say it if I were talking to a person, with interrupting clauses and without correct sentence structure, way. 

So now that I've given this great rundown on how this book is written, you probably want to know what it's actually about. The year is somewhere around 1980. Our unnamed narrator (and she remains unnamed throughout the entire novel—a fact I didn't realize until our discussion) is an American anthropologist in Botswana. She's around 32, highly intellectual, highly independent, and also incredibly curious about people. Specifically, her relationships with people. We gather early on that this narrative is a recollection; she's telling us, from the beginning, about her relationship with one Nelson Denoon, the fascinating but mysterious founder of an alleged utopian society out in the desert. Denoon becomes our narrator's obsession, as she is bound and determined to venture to this settlement and make herself part of Denoon's life.

While this book is somewhat plot-driven, what's most interesting is the story running below the surface. At the basic level, you have this woman on her own in Botswana, seeking out a man out of curiosity. A bit deeper, though, Mating is about this woman and how she makes decisions, and this relationship and how these two people interact. The setting alone could be its own story, but Mating isn't really about the setting so much. It's more about our narrator and Denoon, their lives simply set against an interesting backdrop. Our narrator is a unique character in a unique setting. Perhaps it's this quality and this quality alone that made her feel like a somewhat distant character, unrelatable to a degree. But Mating also felt very much like a product of its 1980s time, and maybe 32 in 1980 is very different than 32 in 2013. (E.g. At 28, I'm at the point where I related more to 30 than 20, but I felt nothing in common with our narrator.)

To be honest, I expected to get a lot more out of our discussion. And maybe we did dig deeper, but I had two glasses of wine at our meeting and then stayed up way too I could just be forgetting all our ground-breaking points of discussion! Either way, I did enjoy this book and it felt good to stretch my heavy duty reading muscles for a change. To me, reading serves one or two purposes, sometimes both at the same time: it provides entertainment and it, in some way, educates. Sometimes one trumps the other when you choose a book off the shelf, but both are fabulous.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Revisiting Potter, Part 2: The Chamber of Secrets

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Continuing on my re-read of the Harry Potter series, and I am just so glad I am doing this. My brain that has been oh-so distracted this year (as I mentioned before) is extra excited by fun reads. The only books I've been able to devour recently are ones that are enjoyable and don't require too much deep thought. I like broadening my reading horizons more than most, but I haven't enjoyed light reads this much since my high school Chick-Lit binge.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is where we meet some series regulars, like Dobby the House Elf (who drives me nuts) and Moaning Myrtle, and the annoying and pretentious guest star, Gilderoy Lockhart, who is really just worthless. It's also where we get to know the youngest Weasley, Ginny. Other than these folks, we've already been pretty well introduced to the characters we'll follow through the rest of the series. Loyalties and intentions have been proven—we known Ron, Harry, and Hermione are a team, and the Malfoys are of a dubious character. Harry has made a home at Hogwarts, settled in, more comfortable and confident than in the series' previous title.

The main plot here (so I don't forget, because I know by book 6 all these stories will inevitably run together in my brain) is that someone, or something, is attacking students at Hogwarts, leaving them in frozen, petrified state. Harry and his gang have heard rumors about something called the Chamber of Secrets, a room hidden in Hogwarts by Salazar Slytherin that only his true heir can open. Rumor also has it that the Chamber has been opened before, and Harry embarks on a mission to find out the truth and stop the attacks.

Remember how I said in my first post about Potter that the series sets up what's to come from the very beginning? I still think that's true, but it's subtle in these early stories. Chamber of Secrets is another action-adventure story with good characters and good humor but without monumental revelations...unless you know the whole series and can see the hints Rowling leaves. [ie: Having read the whole series, we can see the pattern in the things of Voldemort's that Harry destroys...but it's not completely clear yet.] All of this doesn't make Chamber of Secrets any less enjoyable. I love these characters. And I love that what happens to them is so quintessentially them. [Ron is really the best.]

Because this is only my second time reading this series, I have nowhere near enough knowledge or familiarity to judge them against one another. Maybe that will change as I get deeper into the series, but for now, they're all just so fun and so imaginative. It constantly blows my mind how much attention Rowling paid to the smallest details, and how completely immersed the reader gets in the Potter World via the tiniest plot points, like de-gnoming the garden and the Howlers. Overall, I look forward to seeing how the pieces of the Potter Puzzle unfold.

And in following up from my last HP musing with the profound words shared by Dumbledore, this is without a doubt probably the gem from Book 2:
“It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

Thursday, October 10, 2013

It's Fall! Reading Roundup: Part 2

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It's a miracle I haven't created another back log of books to write about in the time since my last post, but my reading pace seems to be way down this year from years past. I guess you could chalk it up to being a busy year, but I also haven't had any reading projects or read anything super amazing lately. I actually just wasted about a week's worth of reading time on a book I eventually had to abandon. [A story about a flock of sheep solving their shepherd's murder sounds so amazing, right? Well, Three Bags Full did not live up to my expectations.]

Anyway, to start Part 2 of my quick reading roundup, we have The Train of Small Mercies by David Rowell. The length is short, appealing to my distracted brain; the setting, historical; the perspective, varied. Rowell depicts the very ordinary lives of several different folks, from New York down to DC, as the Bobby Kennedy funeral train rolls through. The year, obviously, is 1968 as the country is embroiled in Vietnam and Civil Rights conflicts. But what Rowell tries to show is the relationship between these very big things and people's very small day-to-day lives. You see things happening on the news and read them in the paper, but then you turn the TV off and put down the paper and they become back matter, because you have bigger crises and conflicts in your own immediate life.

I liked this story, because it didn't try and link everything together to sum up with some big conclusion. It was a snapshot of individual lives and their interaction with the surrounding world. The characters weren't all connected in some sort of Love Actually type web; their situations were different but their experiences were all a product of their time. Simple and thoughtful.

Tish Cohen's The Truth About Delilah Blue, like Evenings at the Argentine Club, as been sitting on my shelf for about as long as I've had this blog. And in my quest to read what has thus far remained unread, I finally picked it up. It's actually unfortunate I let it sit there so long, because it was different than I expected...and I really liked it a lot. Lila is a young woman living in LA with her father, always believing her mother abandoned her at a young age. Lila's own life is sort of unsettled. Her interests lie in art, but her father won't pay for art school. So, she's taking to the osmosis theory of learning by working as a nude model and picking up what she can from the classes. Her father, who's been her protector and confidante as long as she can remember, is developing early onset Alzheimer's but remains mostly in denial about it. Lila's world really turns upside down when her mother comes back into her life, and everything she believed about her past is thrown into question.

That sounds like a very melodramatic plot, but it's not told in a melodramatic way. The reader is always privy to both sides of the story, and we're left, like Lila, trying to figure out what to feel and what to do about it all. The story is actually very moderately paced, lending to the tone of realistic, rather than contrived, drama. This is a good mix of a character-driven and plot-driven story that keeps your attention.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

It's Fall! Reading Roundup: Part 1

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It feels like I haven't done a reading roundup in a while because I've actually stayed on top of my review writing! I guess that is pretty representative of my summer—it was gloriously relaxed after what was a very hectic, stressful spring. WELL, it's back to a busy fall with work and class (last semester!) and too many other things on the docket that seem to keep me busy nearly every waking hour. (So maybe some of those "things" are actually just binge-watching Revenge, but it's still an important thing!) Anyway, it's time I play catch up before I get unmotivated from being too far behind...

Alice Mattison's When We Argued All Night is an epic story of friendship, following two Brooklyn boys Harold and Artie through several decades of their lives. Beginning in 1936, we meet two young men who are full of ideals, trying to find their place in world that feels chaotic. Through their personal lives (jobs and wives and children) and what's happening in the world around them (World War II, the Red Scare, and Flower Power), Harold and Artie remain each other's counterpart and confidante. Somehow.

Harold and Artie have the type of friendship that seems incredibly toxic because it's so competitive. They feud like crazy, but we have to somehow believe that their relationship behind the words the author put on the page is actually full of love and respect. I couldn't really feel it...because they were both just so selfish! I didn't find either of them very likable—their flaws were certainly apparent!—but I enjoyed the book because I liked the structure of the story. I love the multi-generational saga; I love reading about characters strongly shaped by their time. So while this book may supposed to have been about friendship, I liked the historical aspect better. Peter Lefcourt's An American Family has that same sweeping saga structure.

Evenings at the Argentine Club by Julia Amante is one of the very first books I got from a publisher as a result of this blog...which means it's been sitting on my shelf a long time! This was the perfect choice to follow When We Argued All Night because I knew it would be light, enjoyable, and really fit the mood I wanted. (Sometimes, you just have to save a book for years, waiting for the right moment to read it!) This story centers around Victoria, the eldest daughter of Argentine immigrants who have made their life in California owning a popular Argentine restaurant. Victoria has always been deeply connected to her family and culture, helping with the restaurant at the expense of her own dreams. She's never had much of a relationship; she wasn't ambitious with college; and she's never thought much about it until an old school and family friend, Eric, returns and reminds her about a life outside their close-knit Argentine community.

This actually reminded me quite a bit of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, just in terms of theme and characterization. But that's not to say this is just a re-telling of that story with a different culture. Victoria is her own character, and it's enjoyable to see her determination and success as she blossoms on her own. Definitely a quick and fun light read that's the perfect antidote to the heavier stuff.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Fiction | A Proper Kind of Romance

When I discovered last month that it was Read-A-Romance Month and hatched my plan to introduce myself to the genre, I didn't really consider the fact that the book I was reading at that particular moment was, in fact, a romance.

I would have never guessed, because Julianne Donaldson's Edenbrooke isn't a romance of the shirtless cover, steamy sex variety. In fact, its publisher, Shadow Mountain, used this title to debut its new line of romances dubbed "A Proper Romance." (Guess Shadow Mountain isn't as entertained by the creative use of impassioned adjectives as I am...) No matter, Edenbrooke is a perfectly fine novel, more in line with a Jane Austen-type love story than the sultry, seductive kind.

This was one of my few grabs at BEA last year when I was sick as a dog, and I picked it up for its historical, English countryside setting. Marianne is our heroine—a girl going stir crazy in Bath, living with a grandmother who disapproves of her independent, atypical ways. Marianne basically thinks the world she lives in is ridiculous. Women are expected to be meek and mild, preen for a husband, follow a designated path rather than live their own lives; and she wants no part of it. Marianne's twin sister Cecily is basically her exact opposite—everything a woman of the times "should" be. Cecily's been spending her time at a sprawling country estate called Edenbrooke, hatching a plan to marry the estate's hier. When she invites her sister to Edenbrooke for a stay, Marianne jumps at the chance to get out of Bath and enjoy the countryside she so deeply loves, fully intending to keep to herself and stay far, far away from Cecily's mission.

But of course plans go awry.

Marianne's coach gets robbed by a highwayman. This somewhat obnoxious but dashing stranger keeps showing up. And Marianne generally feels that her entire way of being will both disgrace her grandmother and keep her single for life. But of course, I promised a romance with this post, so of course that "obnoxious but dashing stranger" plays a bigger role!

This story is really about Marianne, a very young woman (late teens, I think?), growing up and making peace with what's expected of her and what she wants. She's a likable character to follow as she navigates her place in the world. This is a "pretty" romance, with an idyllic setting and plot twists that entertain without overwhelming. And, following what I learned about Romance novels, you can rest assured everything will work out in the end.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Revisiting Potter, Part 1: The Sorcerer's Stone

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Since my Anne of Green Gables re-read is mostly over (I'll get to the last two eventually...), I decided to start a fun new one. I discovered that the entire Harry Potter series is available in eBook format for checkout from my home city's library, and this seemed like a fun re-reading project mixed in with my class readings for this, my last, semester of grad school! I read the Harry Potter series as it came out, but I usually confuse one with another and don't remember details very well. I've been wanting to do a HP movie marathon for a long time (I haven't seen them all), but that's to be saved for a cold, rainy day. A reading project felt like something fun to do in the meantime!

I remember the summer when I was 15 and I heard buzz about this series called Harry Potter. (Where did I hear this buzz? Social media didn't exist; I didn't work at the library yet; and I was the bookworm that talked about books. Where could I have possibly heard about it?) I picked up the first two in the series from the library and quickly sped through them as I was visiting my sister who lived in Tampa at the time. The third had been recently released and I got my sis to drive me to Barnes & Noble to pick it up; I just couldn't wait until I was home to read it. Since then, I read the rest of the series as it was released. It was always something to look forward to, yet something you always knew would have a definite conclusion. I remember when the series was finished (in both book and movie format), it felt very weird to be in a world that didn't have a new Harry Potter on the horizon.

Anyway, this re-read of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is much how I remembered it; there was no new perspective on the second go-around, no new revelations reading as an adult instead of an adolescent. I think this is a wonderful introduction to the series. It's full of action and humor; it has well-drawn characters that we feel we know after just one short book.

It's hard to separate this introduction to Harry Potter's world from the rest of the stories that follow, that we're so used to. But this paints a clear picture of that world that's easy to get lost in—the rest of the books just build upon it. I remember, upon seeing the first movie, that so much of the visuals were so similar to how I pictured it in my head. That's a testament to how well this world is created on paper.

There are so many wonderful little tidbits contained in the pages of this book (and all the others). From the wonderful little drawings at the beginning of each chapter (that thankfully translated to the eBook version, as well!) to the profound musings summed up in thoughtful one-liners. Such as: "It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live." And: "It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends." And the story is funny. The characters are colorful; the writing is witty.

I've always appreciated how, much like Betsy-Tacy, this series ages along with its characters and its readers. What starts off as a fairly simple action-adventure grows increasingly complex, in both plot and with its characters, as the series continues. Looking back, you can see that Harry Potter always had this potential. Book One is simple but it has much more than just a plot; it sets the stage for what's to come. Onward and upward we go!

Monday, September 9, 2013

A Romance Virgin's First Time

[I fully intended to get this post out while it was still August but alas, that did not happen. Forgive me for the slight untimeliness of this!]

I got an email a few weeks ago that August is Read-A-Romance Month, and my interest was piqued; I've never read a romance before. I'd argue it's one of the most popular AND most stereotyped genres of literature, but I'd never experienced it for myself. In my thesis class last semester, one fellow student did her research project on the changing face of the characters in romance novels. She analyzed the characteristics—physical features, background, economic status—of both the men and women to see if there is any change historically (from the 1980s to now) and across romance genre (historical, fantasy, etc).

Her answer, in a nutshell, was no. While details like background and economic class may vary, the vast majority of women are still saved by men; the men are still handsome. Ultimately, romances are formulaic; they always end happily, with the lovers (figuratively, sometimes literally) riding off into the sunset together. And that's probably why romance readers love them so much (heck, it's my general preference in stories, as well); no matter what happens throughout, there's going to be a happy ending.

So, on top of getting this timely email about Read-A-Romance Month, a random copy of a romance mysteriously appeared on my office floor, getting passed around from desk to desk. It was like the stars had aligned, and the universe was offering me the chance to pop my proverbial Romance cherry. So I said yes.

The book in question was called The Duke of Shadows by Meredith Duran. Its cover featured that stereotypically shirtless male chest of Romance novels, leading me to think, This is already the perfect book for this reading project! Duran, I learned, is new to the Romance-writing world (or at least was in 2008)—this is her Romance debut. I didn't have much idea of the plot upon turning to page one, nor did I really care. I know Romance as a genre is stereotyped, but darn it, I wanted to read that stereotype. My only real thought was...This better have some good sex! I didn't want a mild intro to Romance!

The plot of The Duke of Shadows was actually much more complex than I had expected. This would be categorized as historical romance, taking place in India during British occupation. Emmaline is our heroine that has already skirted death once and now finds herself amidst escalating rebellion and violence. A potentially violent encounter introduces her to Julian, a charming (duh!), handsome (of course!), mysterious (obviously!) man who seems to have more to him below the surface (all the charming, mysterious ones do!). The rest of the novel, to sum it up rather quickly because this post is getting rather long, follows their stories, both together and separate, from India back to Britain as they must each make peace with their pasts.

The story itself was intriguing and complex...and detailed! Yes, it had the steamy sex (thank goodness!) but it also had violence! Parts were shocking and dark and, though of course there's a happy ending, the whole story didn't fall victim to that sugarcoating. I'll have to read more to find out of that's common or if I got the fluke Romance that featured a sudden, random beheading.

I enjoyed this well enough as an entertaining read, and overall, I get it. I get the appeal of Romance, and I am constantly impressed with how devoted a fan base it attracts. Like anything else, different stories appeal to different people because we all have different interests. My outlook on books is that there is no right or wrong, or bad or good. As long as you're reading.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Fiction | Madcap Motherhood

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I'm not sure how Shirley Jackson's Life Among the Savages ended up on my Goodreads "to-read" shelve; I just know it's been there for years. The author may sound familiar to you; Shirley Jackson wrote "The Lottery," one of the most famous short stories in American lit. [Have I heard of it? Yep. Have I read it? Nope.] Life Among the Savages has quite a different tone of voice. It's funny. It's a voice you can picture Myrna Loy playing on the silver screen. It's sarcastic and witty in a time when sarcasm and wit from a woman are rare.

Apparently, Life Among the Savages is memoir-esque. The time is the early 1950s. The place is rural Vermont. Our main character and her husband (neither of which are ever identified by name, only first-person identifiers and "my husband") move out of their city apartment to rent a big house in Vermont. With it comes a way of life they're....unaccustomed to—more space, more things to break down, and oh, who's going to learn to drive a car? Also, there are kids. Three kids later and it's easy to say the home is no longer as peaceful as it once was. Our narrator's life is now filled with keeping peace between her three energetic progeny and basically making sure the house doesn't fall apart.

Jackson must have a gift for story-telling, because it's not so much what's happening but rather how she tells it. The life chronicled here is pretty simple, pretty ordinary. You could finish the last page and say, "Well ok, that's it?" because there's no plot or rise and fall to action. Rather, it's the voice of Jackson that makes the story something because it's so unique. She's untraditional in that her words lack sentimentality; like I said, she's witty and a little bit ridiculous. She's painting a picture of a life familiar to so many at the time (and so stereotypical to us now!), but what makes you want to actually read it is how she paints that picture.

Just one example of a humorous passage:

"I do not know what the official world's record might be for getting out from under a blanket, flying across a room, opening a door and a screen door, and getting outside onto a porch with both doors closed behind you, but if it is more than about four seconds, I broke it. I thought the bat was chasing me, for one thing. And i knew that, if the bat were chasing me, my husband was aiming that gun at it, wherever it was....Inside, there was a series of crashes. I recognized the first as the report of the air gun. The second sounded irresistibly like a lamp going over, which is what it turned out to be."

I don't think there was enough of a story here to make this read a really memorable one, but that doesn't have to be a bad thing. It was an entertaining read and an amusing voice (and author) to discover.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Reading Roundup: Eternal Summer

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When I read Jenny Han's The Summer I Turned Pretty a while ago, I had just grabbed it from the shelf at the library because I recognized the title and needed a light summer read. I didn't realize it was the first in a trilogy, and I also didn't think I'd enjoy it as much as I did. I'd decided to space out the reading, so as not to totally binge, and I picked up the second in the series about two months later. Well, after speeding through that one, I just threw out my pacing plan and finished the last one about a week later, reading it all during one bus ride home from the Jersey shore.

I won't give any spoilers away in this post, because these books are like an angsty WB teen drama with the constant "will they or won't they?" tension keeping you guessing how it's going to turn out in the end. I will share my thoughts, though, because these books gave me some feelings.

The second in the series, It's Not Summer Without You, starts off where we, unfortunately, kinda knew it would (based on the first book and this one's synopsis)—and it's not very joyous. Susannah has passed away and Conrad's gone distant and AWOL. Belly is miserable at the prospect of spending her first summer away from Cousins. She's going through the motions at home, but nothing feels right. Belly, being a 17-year-old girl, is prone to melodrama, but this time even the cynical adults like myself can see justification in her moodiness—she's lost everything most important to her and, in a nutshell, is having to grow up. That harsh light of day is tough, and Belly's having to experience it without her security blanket.

What I like about this one is just that, how actual drama takes the place of melodrama and forces Belly to move beyond the inconsequential angst that has defined her for years. She's held onto this fantasy of Conrad since she was a kid, but real life is teaching her how to handle new situations and how relationships with those you love should be. We see a lot more of Jeremiah in this one, which I love, and I love seeing how Belly changes as she experiences the dichotomy between the two brothers. Han's use of changing perspective and flashback moments paints a thorough picture of Belly's world that helps the reader feel totally immersed in it.

Jump forward to the last in the series, We'll Always Have Summer, and all hell broke loose for me. The story jumps forward about two years, finding Belly in college and happy in a relationship with [highlight for spoilers] Jeremiah. But of course, because it's Belly, the past has its way of surfacing and making her head spin. [Spoilers] Of course, it's Conrad, because she just can't quit him.

Here's my very serious issue with this third book: I feel like I was taken for a ride. Over the last two books, we've gotten to know these characters very well; their personalities have been very well defined, to the point that we believe the "growing up" you do in adolescence can't possible change their roots because we have seen their backgrounds, we know what's engrained in their very souls, and we know what is true to character.

And the author, excuse my language, just shat all over that. It became very clear that she wanted a certain ending, and she manipulated her characters to reach it—leading them to actions that are 100% opposite of what we've felt to be so true about them. [Spoiler] THERE IS NO FREAKING WAY JEREMIAH WOULD SLEEP WITH SOME FLOOZY ON SPRING BREAK. NO. WAY. It's like she wrote the two books and then started the third and said, "Wait, I want it to end like this but I've already led it to this opposite direction....well SCREW EVERYTHING I ALREADY WROTE, I'll just switch it all out of the blue and BOOM, happy ending." More than anything, I felt insulted, because she abandoned these characters that we've grown to root for to achieve this ending that felt totally unauthentic.

So whatever. I adored the first two books in this series and am just sorry the last one disappointed me so. It's like how I've heard the 3rd season of Veronica Mars is terrible—that it's not even worth viewing because it just makes you so mad and almost ruins the entire experience—which is why I just watch Season 1 on repeat.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Book Tour: In the Land of the Living

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If "women's lit" can be considered a legitimate genre of novel, then Austin Ratner's In the Land of the Living falls into its counterpart, what I am calling "dude lit." Here, we're given insight into the way the story's male characters think and react in the situations they encounter. As a woman used to all the connotations that come with women's lit, it was refreshing to read this different perspective.

Ratner's story is one about family. We start with Isidore who grew up with a distant and abusive father but made his own life—graduating Harvard, attending med school, marrying a wonderful and supportive woman. But Isidore has got a lot of anger, stemming from his unbalanced childhood. He's impetuous and flies off the handle, but his life feels a whole lot better than it once did. Of course, that doesn't last forever, and shortly after his two sons are born, Isidore is plagued with an incurable form of cancer.

The boys, Leo and Mack, grow up haunted by the events of their early lives. They're a textbook psychiatric case—consumed by a past they can't change, hindered from healthily moving forward. Their anger—at each other, at the world, at themselves—consumes their lives and ultimately destroys their relationship with each other. The story mostly follows Leo as he navigates through his adolescence and young adulthood, experiencing all the "firsts" that a young man should experience but with an insecurity about himself. Though his relationship with Mack is tenuous, at best, they're really the only people who can truly understand each other. In the Land of the Living focuses on these complicated relationships that are destructive yet indestructible. It's the dark side of strong, familial bonds—very "you can't live with it, can't live without it" sort of thing.

I'm not sure how much I actually enjoyed the process of reading this, for a couple reasons. The voice was unfamiliar; I felt a disconnect from the characters and never really felt there with them. And, it's dark. It shows the worst in people and how family doesn't always make everything better—sentiments that are far different everything I experience and believe to be true. But actually writing down this reflection on the book is helping me understand exactly why I felt somewhat uneasy while reading it. I said the voice was unfamiliar, and a lot of that may be just because the perspective was so new. I'm not used to reading about men's inner turmoils. It's a completely thought process, completely different attitude. Though the voices may be different from gender to gender, the troubles are universal. Ratner writes a complicated story on past and present shaping a person, and I'm glad I had the opportunity to experience a familiar story through a new voice.

This post is a TLC Book Tour stop—and this is only the beginning! The tour for In the Land of the Living continues through September 12th. Visit the tour page to learn more about the book and its author and follow the discussion on many more wonderful blogs.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Reading Roundup: Maybe If I Were Older...

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Despite my love of Southern lit, and despite Lee Smith being a preeminent author of modern Southern lady lit, The Last Girls is actually my first encounter with any of her books. This story reunites a handful of college friends on a Mississippi River cruise, decades after their first trek down the river on a makeshift raft as young, idealistic co-eds, at the request of the husband of their recently deceased friend, Baby. It's one of those situations where completely different personalities come together because of a common bond. We meet four modern-day characters from the original gaggle of girls [there are like a dozen of them, so why do we meet only four?], and these women all have their flaws. They've lost touch; they're mostly cynical; and none seem too pleased for this reminder of their pasts.

I didn't like a single character in this book. And as a result, didn't really like this book at all. It felt like all these people had been dragged down by things in their life, when nothing really bad had happened to them to warrant such a negativity. [They're all middle class and white and probably just bored.] I think the author was trying to say a lot about life and friendships and secrets and how these things shape the person you eventually become. Maybe I just not old enough to understand and appreciate that kind of reflection, but I find it hard to believe that every single character had somehow morphed into a shell of her former, youthful self. There was such an aura of negativity that I wondered why any of them agreed to this trip in the first place. So maybe The Last Girls was not the best intro to Lee Smith. [It is, by far, her lowest rated on Goodreads.] We'll have to try again.

Russell Hoban's Turtle Diary was this month's book club pick, and while I was neutral towards it [mostly just thought it was boring], I was excited for the discussion; we have such a range of ages in our group that I knew others would be able to provide insight I never saw.

The story follows two characters—two strangers—whose lives are pushed together by the most random of situations. William G. and Neaera H. are both adults living fairly quiet, lonely lives. William was once married but now lives alone and works in a bookstore. Neaera writes children books and self-describes as a spinster without cats. They're both drawn to the turtle tank at the London zoo and become obsessed with the idea of freeing the turtles. The short chapters alternate in perspective, but their thoughts are often so similar that you forget whose thoughts you are reading.

I think that's much the point of this story. It's about these two people who feel utterly unconnected finding a connection in an unlikely place. It's not a cute story; it doesn't follow the expected trajectory of a romance. It has a lot of thoughtful musing on life and relationships; the sea turtles represent something to each of them, and that's why they find a connection there. As I was reading this, I felt too young for it. And older members of our group agreed. I think the right kind of reader can grab onto a lot in this story. There is a lot that can be taken away; maybe I just need to save it for a re-read in 2043.

[PS: You may recognize the author's name; Russell Hoban is the author of the "Frances the Badger" children's series. True classics!]

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Reading Roundup: Adventures for Youth

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It's been a good while since I read a graphic novel, so I decided to pick one from my list and request it from the library. The lucky chosen was Faith Erin Hicks' Friends with Boys, a YA story about a girl, Maggie, who is starting high school after having been home schooled her entire life. Can you think about anything more terrifying than starting a new school—a new high school—having never stepped foot in a school before?

Maggie has three older brothers who have taken the plunge before her, though, so she's not totally alone; she has them for backup as she tries to make friends and navigate her new campus. It also becomes clear that Maggie's mother has recently left the family—though we don't have too many details on that. Oh, also, Maggie is haunted by a local ghost. All things that are totally manageable, right?

The art is humorous and lighthearted, creating a fun dynamic between the characters in their daily high school lives. It's also a multi-faceted story—Maggie's trying to fit into her new school, meet new friends, adjust to a new family dynamic, and solve the mystery of what happened to this ghost that's been following her. Friends with Boys is an enjoyable, quick read about a girl trying to fit in and find her place in a new environment.

The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart is an odd little book I picked up at a book sale because I adored the cover. It's hefty for a children's book—almost 500 pages. Once you get into the story, though, you realize it's quick to read and the plot is a puzzling adventure.

Reynie Muldoon is the hero of this story. When we first meet him, he's living in an orphanage and encouraged by his tutor to answer a newspaper ad aimed at gifted children looking for special opportunities. So Reynie embarks on a journey to a mysterious location to take a mysterious set of tests, questioning what exactly is behind all of this with a handful of other children in his same boat. As the details are revealed, Reynie and his new friends Sticky, Kate, and Constance realize they've been recruited for a very serious mission. Essentially, the future of the world is in their hands.

The fun thing about this book is that you, the reader, have the opportunity to solve the puzzles alongside the characters—and you realize that each of their individual strengths have power; they may reach the conclusion in different ways, but all their methods of thinking are valuable. I think that's a fun approach to life, in general. While this is an adventure story, it's not incredibly fast-paced; a reluctant reader may get antsy for some action. However, I think it's good for more mature middle grade readers, and this is just the beginning—there are three other titles in the series!

Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Idlewild Discussion on Drugs, Class, and Modern Pakistan

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Last month for my book club, we read Mohsin Hamid's debut novel, Moth Smoke. I read his second, more well-known novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, a couple years ago and quite enjoyed it, thus I really pushed for Moth Smoke during the decision-making part of our prior book club meeting. I remember thinking The Reluctant Fundamentalist would be great for discussion, and I hoped this one would be the same. [Honestly now, I can hardly remember a thing about TRF except that I liked it...and my review on it was too ambiguous to jog my memory!]

For a book that you read and feel has so much to discuss, it was actually another one of our unusually short discussions. Perhaps we felt the story was pretty straightforward; perhaps none of us had enough personal connection to the culture to really share insight; perhaps it left us in the same wordless daze I clearly felt when writing about TRF.

In Moth Smoke, the main character, Daru, is a young man clearly on a downward spiral. At the opening, we find out he's on trial, and it's the story's subsequent flashbacks that give us the full picture. After getting fired from his banking job, Daru can't find another job and eventually loses motivation to do so. Naturally, his funds dwindle and he finds himself surviving without the luxuries he once had. His casual habit of smoking weed spirals into a pervasive, though not crippling, drug addiction. Daru turns to drug dealing and a series of heists to keep money in his pocket, and you, the reader, are following his story knowing the ending, but wondering how he got there.

The notable thing about Moth Smoke is how slowly and naturally Daru's downward spiral feels. It's never set in a melodramatic light; even the big occurrences that signal his decline are told casually and without much fanfare. Further, the story is told through different perspectives—that if Daru, his best friend Ozi, and Ozi's wife Mumtaz. As you read each of their words, you understand each of their perspectives. And it ends up diluting the gravity of Daru's situation; essentially, we're seeing several angles to the story, rather than a Daru-centric one.

I think one of the big takeaways from this book—and I believe from TRF as well, because the background of the two main characters were strikingly similar—is a statement on the influence of class in Pakistan culture. Daru and Ozi grew up together and attended the same well-to-do private school, but their different backgrounds dictated what they did with their adult lives. Daru grew up poor, was given the opportunity for a good education, but didn't have the same wealth to fall back on in his adult life; he had to continue working for his place in society, and that left him with a lot of resentment.

The most interesting character to me was actually Mumtaz, Ozi's wife. She attended college in New York with her Pakistan background mostly absent from her life, even dreading run-ins with traditional Paki boys she met. When she met Ozi, they married, had a child, and headed back to Pakistan, her life took a turn she was unprepared for; growing up so independent, so much an "American" woman, she strongly disagreed with the traditional role of wife and mother she was forced into under Pakistan culture. Mumtaz reminded of so many girls I met in college, wondering if they ever feel as conflicted about their cultural heritage as she was.

This book had a fairly positive response amongst our group, but I don't think anyone really felt passionate about it. The main reason for that, as discussed, was just that no one really liked Daru. And you don't have to always like your main character, but no one cared about him. He was ultimately a lazy individual that blamed everyone and everything around him for his current plight, without ever making a real effort at improving himself and his situation. And who has time for people like that?

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Revisiting Anne, Part 6: Anne of Ingleside

After my somewhat disappointing re-read of Anne's House of Dreams, I was pleasantly surprised by the 6th in the series, Anne of Ingleside. It almost felt like a return to the Anne I knew and loved; little details and remarks indicating that grown-up Anne is somewhat the same as adolescent Anne, with the same romantic view of the world and a bit of that driven individuality.

Once again, Anne's world is expanding—as is her family!—as Anne moves beyond the beloved "house of dreams" of her and Gilbert's early married days. Ingleside is their new home, and though Anne misses that cute little first home dearly, she's finally fallen in love with Ingleside as well. Gilbert and Anne are parents to 5...6? (I lose count), and they start to take center stage in this installment. We meet the Blythe kids through their own stories—the same kind of hijinks and heartbreaks that we followed with Anne as she grew up. Jem, the eldest and most independent, yet a sensitive soul; Nan and Diana, the fraternal twins who constantly fall victim to the emotional traps of girlhood; the romantic Walter with an imagination that runs wild; and I think there is another one or two, but I can't remember him/her. We also spend a lot of time with Susan, the hired help we met in Anne's House of Dreams. She's that wonderful nanny figure who just adores the kids she, actually, helps raise.

I think the rest of my thoughts on this book can best be summed up in a nice PRO and CON list, but overall, I did like it much better than the last one. It does have that bittersweet sort of feeling, though...where you feel Anne's story is almost done, and the childhood innocence and upbringing is over. We've moved on to the next stage in her life, which, to us readers, can feel much less entertaining, but to Anne, you're certain it's even more exciting.

PRO: The story begins with a great interaction between Anne and Diana (bosom friend, not offspring) in Avonlea, reflecting on their childhood days and giggling like kids again. You realize they've never lost it.
CON: See above paragraph.

PRO: We reunite with characters like Marilla and Rachel and Miss Cornelia.
CON: It's a very very brief reunion. I fear they are lost to us now, fellow reader.

PRO: We get a snippet of an Anne motivated outside her matronly role; she does a bit of writing, including one very troublesome obituary.
CON: I emphasize "a bit" because this is definitely not the focal point of Anne's life. She has settled down, and the motivated Anne of her youth seems to have fizzled. Maybe she's okay with this life of wifehood and motherhood, but I am always disappointed that the Anne stories didn't give her more. It feel so much like settling for the precocious girl we knew.

CON: Where is Gilbert? Seriously, he's such an outlier, it's like he doesn't exist. Movie Gilbert is so much better than book Gilbert. (Jonathan Crombie, be still my heart.)
PRO: The scenario involving Gil's old flame, Christine Stuart, with Anne and Gil was pretty fabulous. It finally made Gilbert an active character, albeit briefly. And it showed an Anne with flaws and jealousy...just like a normal person.

I'm afraid, from what I remember at least, that Anne of Ingleside is the last of the true Anne stories that actually involve Anne—though I think many Anne fans would argue that House of Dreams is that. (I thought she still played a large role in this one, though she did share the limelight with her kids.) The last two books in the series are so majorly focused on her children that Anne becomes a true background character, if she's in them at all (can't remember!). Farewell, dear Anne!

Monday, July 8, 2013

Fiction | Whatever Happened to the Novaks?

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Baker Towers by Jennifer Haigh is not a book that eases you into the story. You are thrown into the middle of Novak family history and left to sort through who's who and what's happening to them. That doesn't mean it's confusing, though. This is a family saga that hops from one family member to another, sharing each person's experiences as the decades pass.

Bakerton is one of Pennsylvania's many coal mining towns that saw a boom of industrial growth with World War II. It's a town defined by the coal mines—the company owns the houses; they own the general store. Unless you're a member of a more elite class, the coal mines define your entire livelihood. And background doesn't matter. Bakerton is a melting pot of Irish-, Polish-, Italian-Americans.

The story begins with the death of the Novak family patriarch. His widow, Rose, is left raising five very different children—George, the eldest who left Bakerton early for the war and rarely looked back; Dorothy, who returns to Bakerton emotionally fragile after years working as a young woman in DC; Joyce, the strong, militant daughter that takes control of the Novak family after her own stint with the Air Force; Lucy, the youngest daughter, always doted upon and, as a result, struggling with her own sense of self; and Sandy, the youngest son, raised in a world entirely different than older brother Georgie, a free spirit that wheels and deals his way around the country.

Baker Towers follows each of these characters as they find their own places in the world for the next thirty years or so. While they each have their own personal conflicts, much of it is tied to their relationships with both family and town. Bakerton is as much a character in this novel as any member of the Novak family. It follows its own rollercoaster of ups and downs; it directly affects its residents and their lifestyles. It pushes these characters away but the ties are strong and cannot be broken so easily. This story is especially one of Bakerton as a town so strongly defined by industry; its very existence is dependent on its livelihood. So what happens what that is threatened?

This sweeping saga is subtle, as time creeps along, and these contrasting characters reflect their own time and upbringing. It's a story of town and family when you're not quite sure which one has a stronger grasp on the characters. If you like this one, I recommend picking up An American Family by Peter Lefcourt for a very similar trip through one family's history.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Nonfiction | America by Highways and Byways

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On the old highway maps of America, the main routes were red and the back roads blue. Now even the colors are changing. But in those brevities just before dawn and a little after dusk—times neither day nor night—the old roads return to the sky some of its color. Then, in truth, they carry a mysterious cast of blue, and it's that time when the pull of the blue highway is strongest, when the open road is a beckoning, a strangeness, a place where a man can lose himself.

There's something about road trips that holds a special place in the American psyche, that has inspired generations of folks to hit the open road and discover what makes this country tick—the forgotten towns and the people in them forgotten, too. One thing I took away from college in New York was the reminder that "there's a whole other country out there; you're living in a bubble, and there are as many ways to live as there are people." Road trips have always been about discovering those people and those ways of life, and probably discovering something about yourself along the way.

At least, that's the romanticized version you usually read about.

Blue Highways by William Least Heat-Moon takes us on a journey around America by the back roads. The author strays from the interstates and highways and circles the country via the back roads that wind through those small forgotten towns. Escaping, however impermanently, from the fizzling end of a relationship, he sets out in a makeshift fort of his own—a trusty old van equipped with sleeping and cooking utilities—to "discover America." Along the way, he meets an America that is "disappearing." [Though, seeing as how this book was published thirty years ago, it's probably already gone.]

This is about one person out to explore, without anything particular in mind. It's about the journey being more important than the destination. And it's a reminder that there's more out there than what you see every day.

One of the things I enjoyed the most was the author's style of writing. He shares his experiences with a frankness and honesty that conveys his own confusion or apathy or curiosity during his journey; he paints small scenes that capture a moment that can say so much without words. Mostly, though, he serves as kind of a straight-man riding through the country, letting the experiences bounce off him so that we can more clearly see them. As he rolls up in small towns and converses with strangers, we see little glimpses into these ways of life that are probably very different than our own.

I don't think any record of "travel writing" can truly convey the vastness and diversity of a place and/or its people, because travel writing is so inextricably linked to the writer, the one voicing the experiences. But it does introduce you to people you've never met, places you've never seen, and fuel that drive to hit the road and experience for yourself.

I wish there was a cross-country road trip memoir that is more current (and if there is one and I'm missing it, feel free to share). Society is a lot different now than it was in 1979 and I'd like to see if that small-town isolation still exists in our current technologically-driven and -connected world.

If you like this, A Walk Across America by Peter Jenkins is another travelogue from the same era with a similar feel. And that's one of my all-time favorites.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Fiction | One More Dilly Bar

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Looking for Salvation at the Dairy Queen by Susan Gregg Gilmore is the perfect light summer read that doesn't feel too fluffy. It's got more meat than your average chick-lit, but it's not too bogged down with literary drama to keep it from being enjoyable. I've had it on my list for years just because of its sweet Southern title that rolls off the tongue.

Meet Catherine Grace—daughter of a small-town preacher, smart, spunky, and dying to get out of Ringgold, Georgia. Catherine Grace has been plotting her escape for as long as she can remember, making plans over Dilly Bars at the local Dairy Queen with her sister Martha Ann. The two sisters live with their father, the local Baptist preacher; their mother drowned when the girls were young. Catherine Grace's only connection left with her mother is Gloria Jean, a neighbor and good friend of the girls' mother who helps Catherine Grace plot her escape as soon as she turns 18.

When her eighteenth birthday rolls around, Catherine Grace's bags are already packed. She heads to Atlanta to start a new life, because, at the root of it, she just can't understand how anyone can be happy stuck in Ringgold, Georgia. In Atlanta, Catherine Grace gets settled in a new job and a great place to live. Having worked so hard to escape home, it's only fitting that she gets dragged back by a family emergency and once there, gets some news that rocks her world. Faced with home and family or the life she made for herself, Catherine Grace must decide where she fits and which place feels more like home.

Ultimately, this book is about family, and everything that comes with it—love and mistakes and forgiveness. It's about home and figuring out where that is and what it means. Catherine Grace follows the same path that many people do—belittling a town she hates and all the people in it, only to realize there's nothing actually inferior about it (or them). She was a protagonist to cheer on, understanding her mistakes are the most human of human mistakes as she tries to figure out her place in the world. Gloria Jean is the most refreshing, heart-warming character as one who knows her faults but lives and loves anyway.

I recommend this as a good summer read, and if you enjoy, follow-up with these titles for a similar reading experience: One, Two, Three, Four

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Idlewild Round-Up

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After what's seemed like a long, unintentional hiatus, I've actually made it to book club the past couple of months! The Friday night meetings are sometimes killer, as we often go away for the weekends, but I'm hoping that this summer will be low-key enough that I'm able to keep going. I always love reading the books in the summer when I don't have to think about anything else!

Our May selection was Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis. The summary and introduction hyped this up as a hilarious, witty novel, but wasn't all that to me. The story follows Jim, a lecturer of medieval history at an English university. He's not really a grump, but he doesn't have a shred of optimism in him either. He's cynical and sardonic, almost in a pleasant way—which is where the comedy is supposed to come in. Jim feels like he's living in a world of crazy people, both inside and outside of academia.

Lucky Jim doesn't have much of a plot; rather, it chronicles Jim's encounters to make a sort of satirical statement on English society, particularly academia, in the 1950s. And that must be why it's lauded as such a hilariously trenchant novel; it was to the society in which it was written. For me now, it just sort of existed. We didn't have a ton to say about this one; everyone sort of enjoyed it but also didn't get a ton out of it. The characters were enjoyable, and at points it was a total entertaining farce (especially in the last third of the book). Amis didn't treat any of his women particularly well, either. I think I would enjoy this more on a second reading, as I would for any of Elaine Dundy's works, but I doubt I'll ever get to it.

Our June pick was a collection of short stories: The Polish Boxer by Eduardo Halfon. We have never done short stories as a book club and thought it would be an interesting experience. Well, it turns out, calling this a "short story collection" is pretty deceptive. So the publisher calls it that, but really, this is more a series of vignettes focusing on the same characters. It takes you a couple stories to realize that you're reading about the same people, but as you get further in the book, the "stories" feel more like chapters as the running thread becomes more dominant. The overarching plot involves a Guatemalan literature professor, Eduardo, and his encounters with different characters—a brilliant student who suddenly leaves school, verbose Mark Twain scholars at a lit conference, a Serbian classical pianist who favors his gypsy heritage over classical upbringing, and, tying it all together, Eduardo's own Polish grandfather with a story of how it made it out of Auschwitz alive.

In most of the stories, you learn more about these characters than the narrator that ties them all together. In the end, you still feel like you don't know much about Eduardo; he's sort of lost, himself, and he keeps chasing after something or someone because that's what he does—it becomes his own sort of obsessive treasure hunt. And though you don't know much about it, ultimately Eduardo is the one this book is about, as he explores his own identity and history. I feel like the author was trying to do something really poetic and subtle and sort of self-indulgent that maybe a lot of people could think they identify with. Maybe it went over my head or maybe I just didn't appreciate it, but ultimately, it was just okay.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

A Little, Monumental Bit of Real Life

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This little blog has seen its days of drought on occasion—those days/weeks/months when posting frequency drops nearly to non-existent. Usually my excuse is just "ehh, busy," and though I've been keeping it up pretty well the past two semesters (miraculously!), you may have noticed a drop-off over the past couple of months.

I rarely go into real life here (I save that for Tumblr), but I just have to share the reason for the recent absence. In a nutshell—a wedding! June 1st was the big day in Nashville for Colin and myself, and it couldn't have been any better. A wonderful week and weekend with friends and family in the city I will always call home and one that most of our guest list had never even visited. I hope the city showed them a good time, and I know the wedding showed them a good dance party.

Photo credit: Q Avenue Photo

So now the wedding is over, the graduate thesis is complete, and it's smooth sailing for the rest of the summer until my last semester begins in the fall. 

Happy summer reading!

Monday, June 17, 2013

Fiction | Sun, Surf, and Summer Boys

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Jenny Han's The Summer I Turned Pretty is the first YA book I've read since the great Fall of YA 2012, and oh, I thought it was great. This was the perfect book for me to celebrate my end of semester and kick off summertime.

What I loved about it is how Han really tries hard to capture everything that makes summer so great—at least for those of us who love it. Most integral to the story, she taps deep into the details that make summer so memorable and so defining for Belly, the story's main character.

Fifteen-year-old Belly has spent every summer of her life in the beach town of Cousins. She's described as measuring her life in summers; all year she looks forward to the day she, her mom, and her brother pull into the beach house owned by her mom's best friend Susanna and begin unpacking the car. To Belly, the summer in Cousins isn't vacation; this is the life she lives for. And alongside Belly's family is Susanna's—her two boys, Conrad and Jeremiah, that have always, for the most part, treated Belly as their little sister.

But as happens when kids grow up and teenager hormones are running rampant, things just aren't that simple anymore. For the first time in Belly's life, she feels eyes on her in a different way. Boys are starting to take notice, and it's causing a shift in the household dynamic with three testosterone-driven boys that Belly isn't sure how to handle.

Belly's dramas are the same ones everyone suffered in adolescence that just feel so darn Earth-shattering. As you get older, you look back and realize that a lot of it was rather silly and melodramatic, but that doesn't make it any less important. It's part of growing up—feeling confusion and angst and just so much emotion about everything. For me now, at 27, I remember those feelings, but it's like I've matured and the rollercoaster has leveled out beyond the ups and downs.

Once you're in Belly's shoes, nothing she's living feels melodramatic the way you may expect being a YA romance drama. She's a strong character that experiences a lot of contrasting elements in her life; she's just trying to figure it all out, just like any other teenager. Her nostalgic levels rival my own as she relishes sweet memories, specific moods, and little details that have defined her summers so far. It's enjoyable to follow her experiences as she navigates first crushes, changing relationships, and figuring out her place. All I wanted after this is sun, surf, and cute floppy-haired boys. At least there's two more in the series!