Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Trial by Trail

The thing I love most about our subdivision is the running trail that circles the subdivision. If you run the complete loop, it comes out to about a 5K. At one point, the paved path becomes a dirt path that borders a lake. It's only about a quarter mile but I've had my fair share of adventures on it nonetheless.

I am not a fast runner but I compensate for my slowness in two ways. One, I wear fast clothes. You know, sweat wicking, slinky clothes that have racing stripes and swooshes. Two, I try to run at unpopular times, like say, 10 am or 1pm, so that I am the only runner out there. That way I won't be passed too often. I run as regularly as a SAHM with 4 kids can, and my times have slowly, (so slowly), but consistenly improved. I think I even convinced myself I wasn't so slow anymore until one Saturday when I broke one of my rules. I ran at the peak running hour for the weekend--9am.

I was pushing myself, running hard. I was sweaty and I could feel my form suffering. My hair was plastered to my face and I was making gasping noises. I was on the dirt path, rounding the lake. I knew I had less than a half mile and I was done with the run for the day. I fumbled with my mp3 player, trying to eek out some fortitude by amping up the beat, when from nowhere a runner side-stepped past me on the single-file path. Startled, I stumbled a little, and watched with dejection as toned, tan thighs and a perky pony tail bounced effortlessly past me.
I lurched awkwardly as I tried to answer with a burst of speed of my own, arms flailing, feet thudding, but it was pointless. I could have been standing still; the young runner steadily bounded from view. In a burst of recognition, I watched youth personified pass by me, without a look back, presumptuous and oblivious, now steadily receding from my grasp.

I sighed and resumed a joggers shuffle, ignoring pain in my knee, hip, and--was that a twinge in my back? My hips may have started their mid-life spread, age spots might be shadowing my face, my toddlers may have turned into teens, but I know my PR is still out there, and I have plenty of time to grab it. Youth may no longer be my adjective, but maturity has imbued me with tenacity and perseverance. I embrace this body with all its flaws and know that I have plenty of miles to wring out of it yet.

The Innocent Man

The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town by John Grisham

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Ok, when I say I like this book, I mean that it is an informative, well-written book that tells an important story. But I can't say I "liked" it--it made me more heart-sick than anything. It's the story of a man, who is falsely accused of a crime, sent to death row, and at the eleventh hour, is exonerated. But it is really the story of several men who were badly mistreated, and falsely accused and prosecuted and found guilty all in the same small town in Oklahoma. Grisham doesn't tell the story from the side of the policemen and investigators who basically tortured "confessions" out of these innocent men, and I wished that he had. I find it hard to believe that these policemen could behave like that without some other motive than just trying to nail somebody, anybody, for a crime. But the fact that they behaved like this more than once doesn't demonstrate that they were full of "good intentions".
This is the story of how justice can be grossly miscarried. But it is also the story of how mentally ill people are minimilized, villified, and abused. It is also the story of how people without money are minimilized, villified, and abused. How Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz were convicted of a murder they didn't commit is due more to their pocketbook than to the evidence at hand. I was also appalled by the conditions of prisons in this country. I was deeply saddened by the lack of care and respect people have for one another, people who should know better. How can we as humans see suffering and not try to relieve it somehow?
This isn't the best non-fiction I've read. It could be better researched. Some of it could be better told. And there are story lines that are delved into deeply in the story and then not referred to again (until the epilogue) but it is an engrossing story, and in the end, it is the story of how justice ultimately triumphed, at least in the case of the courts. What we can do for the mentally ill still seems to remain a big question.
Grisham said he could have written even more on this story, and I sort of wish he had. I wish he would have gone more into Gore's trial, told more of how the lawyers and people who helped him felt about Williamson, and what the original prosecutors thought, felt. But what is here is a great, tragic story. It's just too bad it's all true.

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Thursday, December 10, 2009


Coraline Coraline by Neil Gaiman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
In a world where the new YA novel is actually a 4-7 book-long epic, this little novella exposes the most imaginative and compelling world. Gaiman's simple tale of a little girl who walks through a door and discovers a world where nothing is what it seems sucks you in, and when you are done you are delighted and satisfied.
I was completely enchanted from the beginning. And then things got wierd, and then sort of disturbed, and I thought, should this be a kids book? But it's all about courage, and facing our fears, about looking at things in a new light. Toys forgotten at the bottom of toy boxes are actually precious, mirrors are really hiding places, other mothers who seem perfect--look again and they are not who they seem to be at all. I won't give it all away--just know that this little book is so much more than it seems. Truly amazing.

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Monday, December 7, 2009

If I Stay

If I Stay If I Stay by Gayle Forman

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Mia-- a senior in high school who is mature, studious girl who plays the cello, has a tight family she loves, and a boyfriend who just may be the love of her life--has just survived a car accident, and now hovers between life and death. As she reflects on her past and contemplates her future will she choose to fight for life, or will she let go?
It's an interesting concept and, given the subject matter, of course, it pulls at your heartstrings. In the end, though, I'm not sure the book had that much to offer, given the fact that it's a life and death book and it's marketed to teens. I mean, what makes a book a "teen" book? And who decides this is a "teen" book vs. an "adult" book? Is it just because the heroine is a teen? Because I find when I read "teen" books, I expect different things from them (and maybe that's not fair, but there it is). I don't expect there to be as much literary sophistication (which this book didn't have), but I do expect to find more clean language and less sex (which, I guess, comparatively this book did have, though not as much as I wished)but more than that, I expect the book to offer something more to sink your teeth into, to inspire or make you think. I think YA fiction sometimes just skims the surface, like teens aren't ready for deep thinking, and while Forman thinks her readers can relate to a serious girl that perfers Mozart over punk rock, and is mature enough to relate to her parents, who are "cool" enough to give her and her underage boyfriend alcohol, and then let them go upstairs with a "knowing smile" then surely, the decision to live or die should involve more inner struggle than "I am so tired" and "I just have to squeeze his hand".
This is not to say it's a bad book. The characters are well-written and aren't stero-typed. It does make you think about the little things in life that make life worthwhile, and it does celebrate a good family relationship. I guess I'm just as confused as Mia whether her story is good enough to tell.

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Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Sea of Monsters

The Sea of Monsters (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, #2) The Sea of Monsters by Rick Riordan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I am loving this series. The second book was even more enjoyable than the first. Riordan provides better focus, plot, and emotion with this follow-up to The Lightening Thief. Riordan also does a better job referencing the monsters back to the old Greek tales, so that young readers know where they came from. But he still does a terrific job at imagining what these gods and monsters would be like in 21st century America.
This time Percy must locate the Golden Fleece to save Camp Half-Blood Hill. They must sail through the Sea of Monsters to retrieve it, which, it turns out is off the coast of Miami a.k.a the Bermuda Triangle. Along the way, Percy learns that "Families are messy. Immortal families are eternally messy. Sometimes the best we can do is to remind each other that we're related, for better or worse...and try to keep the maiming and killing to a minimum."

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Friday, November 27, 2009


DIRT: The Quirks, Habits, and Passions of Keeping House DIRT: The Quirks, Habits, and Passions of Keeping House by Mindy Lewis

My rating: 2 of 5 stars
I picked this up because I am obsessed with the Idea of keeping house. Which is not to say that I am obsessed with keeping house. Only that after 6 years of college I often wonder how it is that the thing I feel most judged by is my ability to keep house, which despite my continual attempts, I suck at. So I am always interested how people can have spotless homes and still have a life. I didn't gain much insight with this book, but there were some little gems in the rough.
Lewis tells us in "Abhorring a Vacuum" that she hates vacuums. Apparently, she hates editing too. There are about 30 too many essays to begin with--there doesn't need to be 8 essays about how the relationship with cleaning reflects your relationship with your mother, or 8 essays about maids, and most of the ones that are good still need some major editing-- there is a prediliction to share too much about one's junk when one is writing about cleaning.
In fact here is a list of essays worth reading--throw out the rest:
"Windows" by Kathleen Crisci, "A Portrait of Ten Bathrooms" Sonya Huber, "A Clean House, A Sad Home" Michael Hill,"Spring Cleaning" Mira Bartok, "The Walden Pond Cleaning Service" Richard Goodman, "The House We Keep, the Home We Make" Rebecca McClanahan.

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World's Fair

World's Fair World's Fair by E.L. Doctorow

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This is the sort of book that has you narrating your life in your head after you finish reading a chapter. Doctorow has great descriptive language. He tells the story of a young boy growing up in the 30's, admist the Great Depression and the looming World War. I love how he describes the day to day life, how rich he can make a day in the life of a 9-year-old sound. However, if you are looking for action, this is not the book you want. Nothing very pivotal happens, although since it is a coming of age book there is the "mandatory" sighting of a naked woman. The description of the World's Fair was particularly interesting.

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Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Gum Thief

The Gum Thief: A Novel The Gum Thief: A Novel by Douglas Coupland

My rating: 2 of 5 stars
I got this book because it sounded like a Nick Hornby book, and I was in the mood for some comedy. The description I read said something about coworkers at Staples writing diary entries to each other, and one writes his first novel, Glove Pond(a book inside a book). I thought it would be full of clever, witty banter and maybe some sarcasm and black humor. It's ironic that the would-be author of Glove Pond, says that he is trying to write a novel full of clever, witty banter; ironic because niether Glove Pond or The Gum Thief has anything remotely witty or clever in it. The characters are depressed, and though they write long and hard about the pointlessness of life, of how they are too old to do anything great anymore, or about how everyone in their life leaves them eventually, they don't seem to benefit from this cathartic journaling--instead, everything in their life just seems to get worse.
The book inside a book, Glove Pond, follows two absurd characters throwing a dinner party, and while slightly amusing, the characters are ultimately so tragic that all it leaves you with is saddness.
The whole book read like an off-off-off Broadway play. And not one I'd want to watch.

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Friday, November 6, 2009

The Lightning Thief

The Lightning Thief (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, #1) The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This got 4 stars solely because it was the first real chapter book my 9 year old finished. That is cause alone to celebrate.
I read it and liked it. I really enjoy mythology, and this was a great way to introduce it to young readers. I liked how Riordan set the gods in modern time--really great stuff. And some of the adventures read just like a modern day Homer quest. Meeting Ares and Medusa were great scenes. Retrieving Ares shield was great, mixing the old myth with new technology. And the Lotus Casino was pretty good re-imagining, too.
However, I couldn't wholly rally behind the book, either. It lacked...gravitas. A monster attacks and he swipes his sword, and the monster dies. Just like that. And a lot of the plot lines are readable a mile away. A lot of the plot lines. And the author is not subtle at all in putting forth his agenda: "America is the best, but Americans don't appreciate or respect the earth and btw, NY is WAAAY better than LA".
But once again, this book is written for tweens and my tween loved it.

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Friday, October 23, 2009

Love in a Fallen City

Love in a Fallen City (New York Review Books Classics) Love in a Fallen City by Eileen Chang

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I'm not sure how this title ended up on my To Read list, but I'm glad it did. This was a collection of novellas and short stories by Eileen Chang, well known in China, but not in America, although she moved here in her 30's. All of the stories deal with love, marriage, and money or stature. I imagined she was China's Jane Austen, though the mood tends to be darker, and the endings don't always end happily--so perhaps it would be better to compare her to Edith Wharton.
I have to admit it wasn't the easiest read--I think some things were lost in translation. But the stories were well-told, intriguing, and beautifully written. In "Aloeswood Incense" where a poor country girl comes to live with her wealthy, worldly aunt to continue her education, (and receives an education of an entirely different type)--she finds a closet full of clothes that her aunt has made up for her. "Weilong couldn't go to sleep; as soon as she shut her eyes she was trying on clothes, one outfit after another. Woolen things, thick and furry as a perturbing jazz dance; crushed velvet things, deep and sad as an aria from a Western opera; rich, fine silks, smooth and slippery like "The Blue Danube," coolly enveloping the whole body." Or in "Sealed Off", a short story about Shanghi being shut down (Chang lived through the Japanese occupation): "The huge, shambling city sat dozing in the sun, its head resting heavily on people's shoulders, its drool slipping slowly down their shirts, an inconceivably enoromous weight pressing down on everyone." There are little jewels like that all over.
"Love in A Fallen City" is perhaps my favorite (and is also the happiest)but all of the stories are thought-provoking, well-written, and entertaining. No wonder she is a classic in her own country. Thanks to Kingsbury who translated these, perhaps she will become one here.

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Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Hunt for Dark Infinity

The Hunt for Dark Infinity (The 13th Reality) The Hunt for Dark Infinity by James Dashner

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is the second (and latest) installment in the 13th Reality series by James Dashner. We bought both of these books for Tritan, and he really seemed to like them.
I faulted the first one for lack of orginality--it read like a Harry Potter knock-off. I can't say that about this one. It is one of the most imaginative books I've read in a while. The story is much more suspenseful and complex than the first one. In fact, it is so much more fantastic and involved, that at times it could be confusing. But Dashner works it all out in the end. In fact, I would predict that with a few more novels, he could be a first-rate story teller.
From a parental p.o.v., it is much darker than the first one, but it seems as though most YA literature is darker.
I am looking forward to finding out what happens to Tick and the rest of the Realitants in the next installment.

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Friday, October 2, 2009

The Journal of Curious Letters

The Journal of Curious Letters (The 13th Reality) The Journal of Curious Letters by James Dashner

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
It's hard not to compare every YA book with Harry Potter esp. since a lot of YA books read a lot like Harry Potter. This, too, is about a boy (Atticus, aka Tick ) who is awkward and nerdy who finds he is chosen (along with a smart aleck girl and devil-may-care boy) to help save lives by mysterious means. There are flying motorcycles, and a wise English elder (Master George), a giant, an annoying dwarf, and Tingle Wraiths. I suspect that even his birthmark that he covers up with a striped scarf, marks him as the Most Special of the special youths (not unlike a certain scar, ahem). But we will have to continue to read the series to find that out.
If that all sounds hauntingly familiar, it is. But there are differences, subtle though they may be. Master George is quick to point out that the special "magic" that is exhibited is not magic at all, but science (Quantam Physics) that is behind it all. Perhaps one of the most welcome differences is Tick's home life is loving and caring. Tick's father in particular is supportive and compassionate.
It's an OK book, with a good message and the fight scene near the end was actually exciting. It's not Harry Potter but it's as good of a copy cat as I've read. (And I suspect that most YA, for whom it's written, won't even care.)

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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Ghost at the Table

The Ghost at the Table: A Novel (Shannon Ravenel Books (Hardcover)) The Ghost at the Table: A Novel by Suzanne Berne

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I loved this book. It was everything I hoped Sing Them Home would be. It's a book about the relationship between two sisters and how they remember their childhood and the events that happened when they were children. Berne perfectly captures how memories of the same time can be so different and how we perceive ourselves may not be how others see us. The only wish I could have is that Berne would write a sister novel from the perspective of the other sister!
P.S. No swearing or sex!

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Friday, September 11, 2009

Love is a Mixed Tape

Love Is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time Love Is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time by Rob Sheffield

My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Rob Sheffield takes an original spin on the memoir: he relates everything that happens in his life to music. He starts each chapter with a mixed tape listing from that point in his life or that exemplifies the feelings of that time. Unique idea. Probably would have been better if the book actually came with those songs. Unfortunately, being a few years younger and not exactly in tune with his musical tastes, I couldn't relate as much to what he was trying to portray. In fact, he relies so heavily on song, artist, and movie refrences that I didn't know that I never really cared about him or his wife, although I really wanted to.
I would recommend this to Alyssa if she is ever delayed at the airport or is bed bound for some reason, if only because he lives in Charlottesville, VA, and you may get a kick out of knowing some common places.

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Thursday, August 13, 2009

Man in the Dark

Man in the Dark: A Novel Man in the Dark: A Novel by Paul Auster

My rating: 2 of 5 stars
I have a list of books that I pick from at random, partially based on what is available at my library. Why this was on my list, I don't know. I think the review probably said something about "alternate realities" and I bit. I always bite hard on that stuff, but this time I got a mouth full of paper. Half-way through the book, I thought, are you serious? Someone got this published? Then I read the book jacket and found out Auster is an award-winning author. Go figure.
The book is about a man with insomnia who dreams up an alterate universe where America is at war with itself instead of Iraq and Owen Brick (the main character in this fantasy) must kill the man dreaming up this alternate America in order to end the war. Which could be an exciting premise but it's poorly developed, goes nowhere, and ends in the middle of the book. What this book really is is a stream of conscience book where an author makes up stories to divert himself from thinking of the horrible things he, his daughter, and his grand-daughter are suffering through. His conversation with his grand-daughter at the end, about how he and his wife fell in love, fell out of love, fell back in love is mildly interesting, like reading someone's diary would be. But in the end that's all this book was to me, mildly interesting. Here are the main themes: War is awful. Love can be war. Life goes on.

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Friday, July 31, 2009

Fast Food Nation

Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal by Eric Schlosser

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I would have given this book 4 stars if I had not read it 8 years after it was published. It is a well organized, well researched, well written attack of the fast food industry.
I have to admit my initial reaction to Schlosser's acerbic and condescending criticism was to defend the fast food industry. So what if McDonald's introduced the first "assembly" line kitchen to increase speed and efficiency? It's called innovation. So what if the majority of fast food employees are teenagers that work less than 40 hrs./wk. (so they won't qualify for benefits) and the jobs require little training? What else are teens going to do for summer jobs--and what teen wants to work 40 hrs./wk. anyway (esp. during school)? So what if the fast food industry panders to children with toys and playlands? It's a crime to try to make children happy at a restaurant? Scholsser also seems to have a deep set dislike for Disneyland, whose connection to fast food I never really understood, other than they both were born in Southern CA. He also seems to think that kids wearing cowboy clothing is really important.
But then. Then he delves into the food production issues and it is hard not to agree with Schlosser that food safty and production in this country have some major issues. He writes about the problems with horrific details and then expounds on our government's lack of ability to correct it. I think I was more outraged by our government's lack of concern for its people and the way big business owns and controls the government. I mean, this is not just the food at McDonalds, but the food we buy at the grocery store and that is served to our children in our schools.
He does end with a good example of how by demanding changes from fast food chains, who are the largest buyers of food commodities, they in turn can bring the needed changes to food production/safety faster than the government obviously can. Some of these changes are already taking place as an afterword in the paperback edition I read relates. You can see changes since the book was written such as fast food offering more healthy choices, esp. to children. Perhaps what I learned most from this book, is that if there is an issue you care about, don't appeal to the govt. for help--talk with your money. Find a business that you can persuade with your dollar or publicity, and the needed changes will happen.

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Monday, July 20, 2009


Indignation Indignation by Philip Roth

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This was my first Roth novel. Novella. Short story expanded into a novella. Here's what I liked: I liked his effortless style; nothing fancy and poetic, just good crisp writing--very timeless. I liked the theme of following life backwards, to the one action that created the domino that got you to where you are. I liked the irony of how the characters fear a certain outcome, and by trying to prevent it, actually produce that exact outcome--I've always been facinated by that. What I didn't like: I don't know. But I do know it was an ok book, but not one that I loved or thought was amazing.

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Monday, July 13, 2009

Nineteen Minutes

Nineteen Minutes Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult

My review

rating: 3 of 5 stars
This would probably be more like 3.5. Picoult really writes well and gives the reader a lot to think about. But it ended flat with me--the big reveal played more to surprise the reader than to be consistent with the characters, I felt.

Nineteen minutes is about Peter, picked on his whole life, who wakes up one day, takes 4 guns to school and shoots 10 people dead, wounding 19 others. It is also about Josie, who used to be one of Peter's only friends, only to abandon him to be part of the popular crowd. The parts I connected with best are from the points of view of Peter's and Josie's parents, as they wonder what they could have done to make things turn out differently. As a parent, it is hard not judge yourself for the actions of your children, and it is hard to know what they need or how to help them. It's also easy to take them for granted. In that way, this book really inspired me to try to connect better with my kids, and to be thankful for them.

Picoult writes well, getting under the skin of multiple characters without losing the reader. She's descriptive and emotive and the plot moves along well. There are a few factual errors that I found distracting though, like saying Peter's eyeglasses that help him see far away make his eyes look big--I know from experience that it would be the opposite, they would make his eyes look small. And then there is a pivotal point near the end that involves a sock, when she makes a point to describe Peter wearing flip flops. And like I said, the big reveal doesn't track with me--unless she's just trying to make a point about gun control.

A friend gave this to me, saying Picoult was her favorite author. I did enjoy it enough that I'll put My Sister's Keeper on my list.

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Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Pride and Prejudice

Pride and Prejudice Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

My review

rating: 5 of 5 stars
Can you find a more delightful book? I was reluctant to read this again since we read it to death in high school and then again in college (plus the prolific movie adaptations) so when my book club chose this book to read, I was a less than enthusiastic. I got Pride and Prejudice and Zombiesto spice things up, and read alongside it. That was a dissappointing experiment; but as I re-read P&P, I remembered how thoroughly entertaining it is. In fact, knowing how it all ends makes the moments in between that much sweeter. The characters are fully realized, the conversations zing, and the plot is near perfect. No zombies needed.

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Monday, June 29, 2009

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith

My review

rating: 1 of 5 stars
I hated this book. The first few chapters were charming and the addition of zombies and martial arts were an interesting change of pace. I wasn't particularly impressed and tried to understand the why behind the zombies. Then I tried to just read it as fun. And I can't say it benefited from either interpretation. Finally, about the time that Jane goes to visit Charlotte who is turning into a zombie, I came to the conclusion that the addition of zombies were neither symbolic nor fun, but just sensationalism and the lowest form at that. Grahame-Smith lifts text from the original word for word--and that is the only good part--but then omits parts that might seem boring or old-fashioned and then adds in zombie slaying and eating of hearts (not very well written either I might add--his only imagry of blood is of rubies--again and again). GS omits crucial speeches like the one Darcy makes about once forming an opinion of someone, he doesn't easily change his mind, and yet refers to it in another part of the book. Once while editing an exchange betweeen Elizabeth and Jane, GS edits too much and ends up with Jane speaking to herself. And I just read half of it. I am all for shaking up the classics a bit--The Graveyard Book was a beautiful re-imagining of The Jungle Book, etc. but just adding dead flesh on people's clothes and having people vomit in their hands is a poor excuse for literature. That it is #7 on the trade paper-back list is just sad.

(Of course, I also don't get Borat, Bruno, or Apatow sense of humor. I've never thought boogers, vomit, or poop as funny. So take it is as you will).

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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Lush life

Lush Life: A Novel Lush Life: A Novel by Richard Price

My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars
All the reviewers on the back of the book raved about how well Price captures dialogue and I have to whole-heartedly agree. I've never read such real exchanges before--it seemed like you were right there.

The plot revolves around a stick up that resulted in a death, and the detectives who try to sort out what happened. Honestly, there isn't much action, mostly conversations, but like I said, the conversations are amazing--not so much by what they say, but how real they are. I'll have to say at one point 3/4 of the way in, I did wonder if the book was getting anywhere. Ultimately, the book's message, I think, is how important families are, especially fathers, in giving structure and validation to a kid--and how the absence of that can have dire consequences.

This book was set in downtown NY, in the PJ's so there is drugs and swearing and some sex.

Price wrote for The Wire which I heard was based on his book Clockers. I haven't read or watched either but I heard they are both well-written.

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Thursday, June 4, 2009

Lark and Termite

Lark and Termite Lark and Termite by Jayne Anne Phillips

My review

rating: 2 of 5 stars
This is the story of Lark and Termite, and the mystery of what happened to their mother and respective fathers. Lark is 17 and on the verge of finding her place in the world. Termite is her half-brother who can't walk, doesn't really talk, and can't see well. Phillips lets us peek into his consiousnous however and we realize he may see and know more than most. Lark takes care of her brother with a tenderness and understanding that is at once tender and hoepeful. They both live with their aunt Nonie who has a strength and independence that she passes onto them. When a storm blows through their small town, it becomes a catalyst that changes their lives.

I don't know how I feel about this book. It is well written, with good character development and a plot that feels natural and creates mystery and growth in the characters. The writing is thought provoking and poetic, although it may be too challenging at times. The first chapter especially is hard to muddle through. It is almost too weighed down with symbolism and distracting details. I really liked Lark and Termite but never really understood where Nonie was coming from. There were also too many sexual refrences for me to recommend this book.

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Friday, May 29, 2009

An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination

An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination: A Memoir An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination: A Memoir by Elizabeth McCracken

My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars
McCracken re-lives her pregnancy and stillborn birth of her first child and the pregnancy and birth of her second. It is elegantly and beautifully written, even if the subject matter is heartbreaking at times. It is an amazingly self-aware memoir--she describes her feelings as best as she can remember, trying not to color her memories with hindsight; and then she tries to explain why she felt that way. I always find people who write memoirs brave, for while they document their struggles and lives for the world, they open themselves up for judgement, as the rest of the world tries to figure out what you did wrong so that they can avoid the same fate. McCracken does a lot of her own soul-searching as to what went wrong, and your heart aches for her. It ends on a hopeful note as she holds her newborn in her arms--"It is a happy life and someone is missing. It is a happy life--"

Obviously I would not recommend it to any of you about to have a baby, or are planning on having one in the next year. But for anyone else, I would say it is more of a tribute to life, and the blessings of being with child.

On another level, I love how memoirs reveal how our lives are as wrought with symbolism and absurdities as the most clever novels. The day McCracken scatters her babies ashes, and a week before she finds out she is pregnant again, she and her husband see a stag, and then turn around to find a whole herd of stags. (If I'm not mistaken, seeing a stag in the wild is supposed to bring good luck). And then they name their first child Pudding which is the most right, most precious name they could have given him--but one in which you usually only find in novels. Then there is the story of her friend, the telephone psychic, who used to be a telephone call girl, but all the women who worked together had their cycles sync up and had to quit the business--that actually happens in real life?

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Monday, May 11, 2009

The Graveyard Book

The Graveyard Book The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars
I loved this book, as much as for what it is as what it is not. The first chapter was a little dark, with the man Jack killing Bod's family, and little Bod escaping to a cemetary where the ghosts who live there decide to keep him and raise him. It sounded hauntingly familiar (Harry Potter) but it soon (thankfully) became a wonderful tale of growing up in its own right. In fact, Gaiman claims to have drawn inspiration from another childhood classic: The Jungle Book (which I haven't read. Yet.)

The book takes us through the childhood of Nobody Owens, how he learns the ways and secrets of the graveyard, his relationsip with the ghosts and other entities that live there, and how the man Jack is still hunting him. In the process The Graveyard Book tells an entertaining story and shows us what it means to be a family, what it means to be honorable and most of all, what it means to be alive.

I read this with my 11yo son for a school project and would highly recommend it for kids (9 and up) and adults alike.

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Sing Them Home

Sing Them Home Sing Them Home by Stephanie Kallos

My review

rating: 2 of 5 stars
During the first few chapters, I thought, wow, what wonderful, descriptive writing. During the next few, I thought, O.k. that's too descriptive (second by second recount of how a character eats a candy bar). But by the middle, I was comfortably tucked into the tale of 3 siblings whose mother was carried off by a tornado when they were children and now have reunited with the death of their father (by lighting). Kallos tries to follow each sibling as they deal with issues surrounding their childhood, and look for love in their present lives. And for the most part she succeeds in fleshing out these characters until the end, when suddenly it wraps up neater than a birthday package. To delve so deeply into 3 separate, messy lives and then gloss over the ending to "they live happily ever after" feels like a cop-out and frankly, makes the time invested getting to know these characters feel like a waste.

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Thursday, April 23, 2009

Ambition vs. Acceptance

Ambition. It sounds like a good quality. It's the drive we have to try to better our current situation. That's good; that's desirable--in most cases even admirable. But sometimes, usually in retrospect, we realize that in order to better ourselves, there was something sacrificed in the process.

When Pizarro went to conquer a new land in the Americas, he was the archetype of ambition. He came from humble beginnings, and in Spain at that time, it was almost impossible to overcome the station one was born into. Unless. Unless one was willing to strike out in the newly discovered Americas and conquer lands for and in behalf of Spain.

Pizarro gambled everything he had and all the respect he had gained so far in order to acquire the Peruvian lands the Incas claimed. The gamble paid off: he became wealthy, received titles and fame, and became the de facto ruler of Peru--everything an illegitimate child from the poor region of Spain could have ever hoped for. In the process, he annihilated thousands of Incas, including 3 of their chiefs, and stripped the land of all the gold and silver he could find. In the end, Pizarro himself would be killed by ambitious men looking to gain honor and glory themselves.

Perhaps that is too strong a case. Most people would say, "Sure, I want to get ahead, but I certainly wouldn't kill anybody. Or steal their stuff. I have my limits." But what about the guy who works long hours to get ahead, and leaves their families to eat dinners alone without him? Or what about the athlete who taunts his opponent and then, sometimes literally, crushes him? If getting a good deal on a house means taking advantage of someone who has to sell in a market that has suddenly tanked, well, that's just life, isn't it? And if you have to crawl into bed with people with low morals to get elected, well, it wouldn't be the first time.

Still, what is the alternative? Accepting the way your life is, without pining for more, can also be a good and desirable trait. Admirable, even. These are the people in a perpetual state of calm where trials and tribulations are peacefully accepted as part of life. Instead of yearning for things they cannot have, they make the best with what they have. And yet these are also the people who get stepped on, abused, and forgotten.

The Incas were by no means calm and peaceable people. They had conquered most of what is now Peru and parts of Chile and Ecuador only three generations before the Spaniards appeared. However, they didn't react when the Spaniards showed up, and instead did everything the Spaniards asked. They gave them gold and silver, women and food, thinking that if they just endured these hairy men from a strange land, they would eventually go away. It wasn't until it was too late that they started to rebel and revolt against these foreigners who were unilaterally cruel and untrustworthy.

Again, we might say, "Well, I would never stand for someone to take advantage of me time and again like that, without putting up a fight." But what about the guy who stays at a job that asks for all of his time and effort without paying enough to feed his family? Or the athlete who throws in the towel and gives up before the contest is over? If we get laid off of a job, do we try to make it by just on unemployment, hoping the economy will just turn around? And is it right to sit back and let others shoulder the responsibility for the PTA, the work committee, the local co-op, when we reap all the benefits?

I'm not sure what the answer is, where the fine line is drawn between the two and which virtue is better. Although they are mutually exclusive states, perhaps it is all about the timing. Learning when to fight, and when to stop. As they say, "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

To Kill a Mockingbird To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

My review

rating: 5 of 5 stars
I read this in one sitting on the way home from my grandmothers funeral. I'd read it in high school but honestly couldn't remember anything about it. It's the quintessential growing up in the South, coming of age book narrated by a young girl. It's what The Secret Life of Bees and countless others try to be.

In the first scene, Scout describes her Southern town as moving slowly in the hot summer heat. That is how Lee's novel seems to unfold, slowly and carefully, not rushing along, or preaching too much. Characters don't come from nowhere, or dissappear. The lessons learned in the book come about organically, naturally, yet leaves you with hope that we have actually learned something from them.

Atticus Finch was recently listed as one of the all-time best heros--and indeed, for his courage and his wisdom, he is one of my favorite literary figures.

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The Last Days of the Incas The Last Days of the Incas by Kim MacQuarrie

My review

rating: 3 of 5 stars
The book jacket introduces Kim MacQuarrie as a filmmaker who lived among Peruvian Indians for 5 years. Both experiences color his writing, but mostly for the benefit of the reader. The history he relates of the interaction between the first Spanish conquistadors and the Incas reads like a Hollywood film. I can almost picture the marquee: Tom Cruise in the Last of the Incas....But history is almost always at least as exciting as fiction and this is certainly entertaining reading. The Spanish conquistors come across as being selfish, bigoted, and cruel--which they most certainly were. However, while MacQuarrie takes pains to justify the Incas' retaliation, he gives no quarter to the Spainards. Which may be justified--but--the Incas themselves were conquerors--how did the native peoples feel about being subjugated by the Incas? The point being, perhaps it wasn't the most objective book about the subject.

Still, it was an exciting read. You root for the Incas and feel vindication when they are able to win a battle or two. The ensuing tale of the search for ruins of the lost city of the Incas is not as exciting, but still fairly interesting.

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Monday, February 23, 2009

Oscar love.

I don't know why I like the Oscars so much. Actually, I love the Golden Globes even more, TV and movies in the same night--yay! Anyway, the Oscars were fantastic this year. The set was gorgeous, Hugh Jackman was funny and entertaining. The opening number was really entertaining. The jokes and bantar was actually pretty funny. I loved how they had 5 representatives for each category as presenters--it was almost as exciting to see who was going to be presenting as it was to see who was going to win. Especially since the critics had the winners all right this year and there were no surprises. Then each presenter individually honored each nominee. I swear the actors were as touched by the salutes as by winning.
The "story" of the night was actually a really entertaining way to watch the evening. The presenters for the most part were hilarious especially Steve Martin and Tina Fey. That woman can do no wrong. The video year book was entertaining too. Honestly for someone who has watched NONE of the nominated movies--not even Wall-E--this was the most entertaining Oscars by far. Did anyone else notice the prevalence of Cold Play music?
As for the dresses this year, I think most of them were gorgeous. If there was any group that bombed it would be the under 20 crowd--Miley, Vanessa, Amanda Seigfried even Zac Efron with his slicked back hair.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Why I Run

I run because there is a monster in my brain.
It resides in the corner of my brain where I keep a list of all the things I have to do.
Most days, as I go about my business, I feel it rustle and bump around, but it is only a minor annoyance. Other days, it roars to life with a vegence. Through it's eyes I see the pile of magazines on the hearth that need to be filed or recycled, the dishes in the sink that need to be washed. There is paint peeling in the hallway that needs to be scraped and repainted. The kids need to learn to clean their rooms better. I should make a chore chart. Their clothes need to be gone through and expunged, that would make it easier. I need to shop for dinner. I need to organize the storage room. Really, someone should take that pile of giveaways to the curb. Why can't I remember to bring the recycling bags with me into the store? Then I wouldn't have to deal with these plastic bags everywhere. I need to get a dr. appointment for my son. Does he need a hearing test? We need to work on multiplication facts. I should read to them at night. Do I have a 3 month supply of food in case of a pandemic? I should organize this better so I know what I have. I should call that lady about whether she needs help while her husband is away...
And so it goes. With each added item, the monster grows longer and fatter. It's a giant grub with green tentacles that reach into each lobe of my brain, squeezing out all thought and function until I have to consciously tell myself to breathe.
That is when I try not to think and pull out lycra instead. I squeeze into it, lace up my running shoes, and shove in my earphones. I run and run and run until the only thing I can concentrate on is the rythm of my feet, in time with the music. I run until I don't have to concentrate on breathing anymore, it wheezes out of me in a desperate reflex to keep me alive.
The pounding seems to lull the monster to sleep, and when I'm done--soaking and heaving, my brain seems hollow and quiet.
Taking a shower, a tiny tentacle tentatively searches. The monster is not dead, but the tentacle in manageable: The most important priority somehow sifted to the top.
I'll methodically lop off the tentacles as they appear, until the monster multiplies unchecked again. Then I will lace up my shoes, and run again.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

"Beach" Reads

Picking books at random off of my list of 200+ books-to-read, I seem to have a predilection for picking books about whaling and the frozen seas at both ends of the pole. Either that, or there are a lot of books chasing Moby Dick.

When I read Moby Dick, I didn't understand why it was a classic. It seemed to be more of a field guide to whales, with a story of a personal vendetta against an anthropomorphized whale thrown in. Looking back now, especially after reading several books about the same subject, I realize that Melville captured the seas and the wonder and mystique of the giant leviathan better than any author yet.

Indeed, there is something about the whaling profession that made climbing into a ship and setting sail for the outer limits of the known world, hunting beasts larger than the largest of ancient dinosaurs more like space travel. A whole new world of icy poles, endless days, and monstrous bears was opened up. For a writer, is there a setting with more potential? These three books dwell on the survival of man in these extreme latitudes.
Georgiana Harding tells the story of Thomas Cave, a whaler who took a bet to spend the winter alone on an island off of Greenland. In a land of endless snow and ice, in never-ending night, the landscape becomes a blank slate where the panorama of the mind takes over. Cave's ghosts of his past visit him in his solitude, yet his inward struggle for acceptance, for peace, seem elusive. When the ship retrieves him at last they find a man aged and withdrawn. He seems to have acquired a gift for helping men dispel their "demons", yet his reluctance to intermingle with humankind betrays his inability to dispel his own phantoms. The kernel of wisdom Cave receives from this experience seems to be "there are some places that man should not be" and "the only evil that exists is the evil that man brings with him".

That lesson is better learned in The Terror by Dan Simmons. It is based on a real ship that set sail in 1845 looking for the Northwest passage and was locked in the ice for 3 years. There were no survivors, so Simmons imagines a rich and thrilling existence for the doomed men as they battle the elements and a horrifyingly intelligent white bear (sound familiar?). Yet what really dooms the men is the greediness of the company that provided the ships with defective canned goods and the lust for power and revenge among the men. Despite the gloomy material, Simmons lines his novel with hope. Unlike in Moby Dick, acceptance ultimitely becomes the antidote to revenge and leads to new life rather than death.

Perhaps the most intriguing of the three is the non-fiction book Island of the Lost by Joan Druett. It chronicles the tales of two ships that wreck on a small island near the South Pole. Through the industry and skill of the first mate of one ship, the entire crew of that ship were able to survive almost an entire year before they were rescued. Another ship wrecked on the opposite side of the island. However, as if to add credence to Simmons novel, this crew self-destructs with greed, lust, and slothfulness. Only one man survived. Its a thrilling contrast, all the more because it's true.

As the winter wears (seemingly interminably) on, I will continue to plow through my book list, but perhaps I'll read something sunnier next time. My reviews of these books are at goodreads.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

An Open Letter to Stephanie Meyer...

The Host: A Novel rating: 2 of 5 stars
O.K. Stephanie--I know you are a best-selling author and all, but really, I find your books as annoying as the Seeker in The Host. So I am going to give you my remedy, without your asking for it or wanting it, just like Melanie "fixed" the Seeker:

1. Edit, edit, EDIT! We don't really need to know every question the character asks in her head. (Seriously, if I'm ever laid up, bored out of my mind, I am going to count the question marks in this book.) We don't need to know the description of things that don't matter--like the precise placement of body parts when Melanie is squashed in the cave with the food--just say she was bent like a pretzel. And enough with the restating of the yearning, longing, alturistic crap--We get it already--Bella wants to be a vampire, Edward doesn't want to make her one; Wanderer will do anything for Jared and Jaimie, Ian will do anything for Wanderer,etc. etc.

2. Take a poetry class. You are very good at describing everything; but add some imagry and the words will stir the reader, more than merely informing them. "Our lids turned black, but not with death. Night had fallen, and this made us sad..." This made us sad? How about "the blackness seeped in under our eyelids and oozed through our body with a chill , knowing that even death would not come quick", something like that.

3. Grow some balls. I am as appreciative as anyone that someone out there can write a bestseller without sex, gross violence, or even the F-word, but seriously, how many raids do they go on, and nobody gets caught? The worst thing that happens is that somebody gets a self-inflicted wound? I think the story would take some interesting turns if bad things happened instead of everyone making it out o.k. What would happen if someone got captured? What if someone betrayed Melanie? What if someone (besides the old and/or fringe characters) actually died? Just saying, a good story could be great by adding some unpleasantness--opposition in all things, and all that.

Like I said, someone who has two books on the bestsellers list right now probably doesn't need any help. Your basic story ideas are fantastic, and you have a gift for writing about emotions. I just think you could be more than a pop writer...

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

My what big ears you have!

So I took my kid to the ENT the other day for a routine check-up. After waiting an hour and 20 minutes we finally saw the dr. who looked in my son's ears, pronounced them healing fine,(a total of 5 min.) and told us to come back in 4 months. Then, as we were leaving, he takes me aside and wonders, "Has he been teased about, you know" and he cups his hands behind his ears and flaps them. "Because I have a colleague that specializes in that--pinning them back."
"No, no. I haven't heard about anything," I reassured him, mildly shocked, and leave to make my next appointment for wasting another morning.
I say mildly shocked because this is the second time he's brought it up. The first time I was so shocked I was practically speechless. Now, I know he is just looking to drum up business and I shouldn't take it personally. My son does have bigger ears. We've commented on it before. Still I've never considered doing anything about them. I think they make him look mischievous and impish. He's never gotten any flack from his friends. But then again, he's only in preschool. Kids are still nice in preschool.
What will I do if he does get made fun of? If he had crooked teeth, I wouldn't think twice about getting him braces. If he hated his glasses I'd let him get contacts as soon as I thought he was responsible. But where should I draw the line? If my daughter had big breasts and it hindered her dream of being an athlete, or gave her back-aches, I would totally get her a breast reduction. But if she thought her breasts were too small, well, I'd tell her to learn to love herself just as she is. I'd take my kids to the dermatologist if they had acne, but should I take them to a plastic surgeon if they hate their nose? I'd let my daughter get dark hair on her upper lip lasered, but what if she had dark arm hair?
I want my kids to like who they are and of course I want to facilitate their being accepted by their peers. I remember wearing glasses and hating it so much. I'd like to think it helped me to develop my personality--like it made me rely more on my humor, or my brains, to gain acceptance. But the truth is, I felt liberated when I finally got contacts. I finally felt like I could be me. I finally felt confident and pretty. At the same time, I did learn to be more compassionate for people who looked different, to be patient (I had to wait til I was 16 to get contacts), and that life isn't always the way we wish it were. All good lessons that served me well. On the other hand, maybe I would have learned that anyway without also hating the way I looked.
Perhaps my son will never have an issue with his ears (I sincerely hope not); but I'll keep that doctor's card, just in case.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The apple

The apple posesses
a poem for a soul,
and a star in its belly.