Monday, November 14, 2011

Belben Lately

Inspired by my friend, author Cami Ostman's selection of this blog as one of her fifteen favorites, I am updating it with some new recommendations while I figure out how to manipulate the infinitely more confusing format of my new blog, Sexier Than Stupid ( over at WordPress. Holy Mother of Moses that thing is more complicated than I expected. But I own the domain name and can soon be writing posts there. Soon. Really. 

In October, I got back into the groove with my reading. School stuff squared away, and 40 minutes twice a week during my classes' silent reading time allowed me to plow through some new titles, with fabulous results: I have some (mostly) great recommendations and am much more smarterer than ever before. 

As promised, I finished some of my nightstand pile reads, including Sugar in My Bowl, a collection of essays by women about sex, edited by Erica Jong. Meh. I like reading about other women's attitudes and ideas about sex, but this wasn't (in my opinion) a particularly outstanding collection. One author writes about being a prude, Jong's daughter writes about being conservative despite growing up with one of the 70s most notorious authors, etc. I have read collections I enjoyed and remembered more. (But hey--check out that cover!)

The Family FangThe Family Fang by Kevin Wilson was amazing. Wilson's writing is of the type that makes me want to write (that's always the truest proof for me that a book is incredible: it makes me want to create something as good). Wilson's novel revolves around the Fangs, a family of four who are warped in a particularly unique way. Parents Caleb and Camille are performance artists, and have raised their children, Buster and Annie, as (mostly unwilling) participants in their various acts of improvisational chaos, an upbringing that has consequences for the two as they enter adulthood and struggle to make sense of their past and forge more normal lives outside their weird family. When personal crises send adults Annie and Buster back home to live with their parents, the elder Fangs disappear, leading everyone to wonder whether they've been the victims of foul play or are simply enacting one final, triumphant drama. The truth turns out to be even stranger than anyone would have guessed.

Dog On It by Spencer Quinn is a funny mystery narrated by a dog. Every  time I tried to paste the cover image here, it screwed up the formatting and caused me to swear profusely. Thusly, I deleted the image and rewrote the summary of the book three times before finally giving up. At any rate, Chet describes the case that his human, Bernie, a priviate investigator, gets embroiled in. A very sweet story, and the dog-as-narrator gimmick actually works surprisingly well.

I hit a blue period and bought Chelsea Handler's books, Lies That Chelsea Handler Told Me and Chelsea Chelsea Bang Bang because she is hilariously nasty. In the first, Chelsea's friends recount their experiences as victims of her numerous, and quite elaborate practical jokes. It's amazing, frankly, that she has any friends after the pranks she pulls. But I guess when you're gorgeous and rich and have your own TV show, you can buy your friends a new house or a car when you hurt their feelings and all is right with the world. If you're a fan of Chelsea Lately, you'll appreciate this book even more, since most of the writers are folks who appear on or behind the scenes and/or are referenced in Handler's other books. Chelsea Handler is an acquired taste. It's cold here, and dark, and it rains too much, so I've acquired a taste for tasteless humor. Cheer me up , Chelsea. Anytime.

Nicholson Baker, one of my all-time favorite writers, has created what is either a huge joke or a brilliantly creative work of literary porn. Either way, House of Holes is the nastiest (and by that I mean most sexually explicit) book I've read in a long time. So graphic in such weird, weird ways that I can't describe it here. Suffice to say, briefly, that it involves relatively normal people being sucked into a fantastical netherworld (the House of Holes) where they participate in sexual situations that are either amazingly imaginative or the by-product of creepy perversion, incredible intellect, and possible narcotic abuse. I recommend this only for readers who have exhausted every other variety of pornographic writing. And even then, I hesitate.

We the Animals by Justin Torres is a super-short novel that I suspect is semi-autobiographical focusing on the lives of three young brothers and their parents, who are alternately passionately in love or angrily at odds with one another. The narrator is the youngest of the three boys, and through his eyes, we watch his parents struggle to make ends meet and experience the challenges he faces growing up homosexual amid brothers who are aggressively male.

I Remember Nothing by Nora Ephron disappointed me after I Feel Bad About My Neck, her previous collection about the indignities of aging. I felt like the more recent collection contained a lot of "in the good old days" complaints that weren't particularly insightful or original and made "getting old" a code phrase for "getting crabby," which it might be, but I don't want to read a whole book about it. Ephron's earlier work (picture here) was much, much more enjoyable. Read it instead. And while you're at it, let me remind you about How Not to Act Old by Pamela Redmond Satran, which is the funniest, and most helpful, book you can read about getting. Her blog's awesome, too.

The Talk-Funny Girl by Roland Merullo was the best book I read this month. The main character is Marjorie, a teenage girl who has been raised in isolation by parents who are members of a small, strange religious group that inflicts some unusual punishments on misbehaving children. Her parents' lack of interaction with the community around them has led them to develop bizarre speech patterns, a family dialect intelligible--but just barely--by those around them. When Marjorie's aunt finds her a job with a local man in town who is constructing his own personal cathedral in town, Marjorie's life is irrevocably changed for the better. In the shadows of her growing relationship with her employer, the stonemason, Marjorie's life is haunted by the mysterious disappearances of several local girls. The story of her growing courage to stand up to her family, the gentle, sweet relationship with her employer, and the dogged attempts by her aunt to help her escape her parents make this a thoughtful, unforgettable read.
On my reading list for November: several novels, more humor, Miranda July's new, weird-looking non-fiction book, and a thick, colorful guide to WordPress. If  I get around to reading that last one (and whoa, not much more exciting than a computer manual), I'll get my new blog up and running in time for Christmas. I hope.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

September Slowdown

One of my favorite writers, Nick Hornby, wrote a column for The Believer for several years about his reading--he reviewed books, but more than that, he reflected on the reading life. His essays are collected in three short volumes (The Polysyllabic Spree, Shakespeare Wrote for Money, and Housekeeping vs. The Dirt that I highly recommend. He's funny, smart, and his insight into reading and books is unique. Each month, Hornby began his piece with a two column list: one side with the titles of books he'd purchased that month, the other with the titles of books he'd actually read. Like Hornby (and many other readers), I collect books; or rather, I accumulate them. I purchase books when I spot them on the shelves and know that I HAVE to read them. But they often rest, unread, on my nightstand for months (and in a few too many cases, years).

September was a resting-book month for me. Titles I'd accumulated over the summer languished unread, while I dipped partially into others and nearly finished several. This means that for September, I have only a few recommendations. By the end of October, however, I should have a hefty list of those I started in September but didn't drag myself through until my school schedule had settled, summer had finally worn itself out, and I had more time (Tuesday and Thursday SSR time with my junior and senior English classes) to read.

My first recommendation is one you should add to your Christmas-gift-buying list. When Parents Text by Lauren Kaelin and Sophia Fraioli is absolutely fantastic. The two began with a blog (of course) in which they collected texts from readers who had entertaining, confusing, bizarre, and ultimately hilarious text-message exchanges with their parents. The generational divide and the technological know-how gap combined with typical parent-child interactions (when are you coming home? call me! what do you want for dinner!) are combined with random, inexplicable messages from parents who are simply learning to communicate in a language they didn't grow up using. Parents who text and the children on the receiving end of their messages will love this one. 

The second book I read in September (and the only other book I read in its entirety) was Tom Perrotta's new novel, The Leftovers. Perrotta, best known for the novels Election and Little Children, both of which were made into decent movies, writes about religion in The Leftovers--sort of. The story revolves around a small town reeling from the impact of what appears to be (but is never exactly named) The Rapture--as in Revelations, wherein the faithful are taken to Heaven and the disbelievers are left behind. Families worldwide are impacted by the massive disappearance of millions of people, Christian, and otherwise, but Perrotta focuses specifically on one family affected by the event. 

Kevin's wife has left the family to join a mysterious group, The Guilty Remnant, whose exact intentions are unclear, his son has also left to pursue enlightenment with another group, and he and his teenage daughter are left to navigate their drastically altered lives alone. Both form new connections, Kevin with a young mother whose husband and two children were "taken," and his daughter with a friend who eventually moves into their home.

The premise of the story is fascinating, and the book is a quick read, although it left many questions unanswered and the situation basically unexplained in the end, which was disappointing--I would have liked more exploration into the religious implications of the disappearances and the overall theme. Because of this, it would make an excellent choice for a reading group. If anyone out there has read it, I'd welcome a discussion!

October, so far, has been more productive, and I hope to have many more recommendations--and a new Wordpress blog--by month's end. Stayed tuned for details!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Highway Librarian

I spent six weeks on the road this summer, traveling through Oregon, California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Colorado, Utah, and Idaho with my dog, Frida. We camped and spent some time with lifelong friends, and I read many, many books. Some of the highlights from the Summer I Read SOOOO Much will appear in the fall issue of Village Books' quarterly pub, The Chuckanut Reader, exactly or almost exactly as they appear here.

Bumped by Megan McCafferty offers a glimpse of a future in which a virus has rendered adults over 18 infertile, thereby making the wombs of teenage girls highly sought-after property. Twin sisters separated at birth when their own parents used a surrogate are reunited when one of them discovers she has a twin and leaves the conservative religious colony where she has been raised to seek her sister. She finds her, and discovers her twin is in negotiations to have her first child. Things get complicated when the two girls are mistaken for each other by the players in the surrogacy transaction. It sounds cheesy (twins separated at birth! mistaken identity! sinister money-grubbers!) but it actually works--entertaining and thought-provoking at the same time.

Housekeeping vs. The Dirt and Shakespeare Wrote for Money, both by Nick Hornby, a.k.a. my mental husband. Nick Hornby (About a Boy, High Fidelity, Juliet Naked) is the shit. Smart, absolutely hilarious, and brilliant when it comes to writing about reading and books. Both of these are collections of essays he wrote for The Believer, in which he lists the books he purchased and books he read each month and then reviews them--sort of. Mostly, he talks about reading, why it matters, how it differs from reader to reader, and how much richer life is when it is full of books and words and people who love both. 

A Billion Wicked Thoughts: What the World's Largest Experiment Reveals about Human Desire by Sai Gaddam and Ogi Ogas combines two of my favorite things: science and sex. The authors conducted a modern-day Kinsey study using the internet, a bunch of complicated algorithms and data filtering techniques that I will never understand, and collated their findings to come up with numerous fascinating theories about human sexual behavior based on the sexual images and text that people seek when they surf for satisfaction online. Their findings reinforce some truisms: men are more turned on by pictures than women; women like to read erotic stories more than watch porn, and Rule 34 is definitely true: if you can think of it, there is porn of it. This book was fascinating, entertaining, thought-provoking, and I will read it again soon, which is saying a lot because I don't usually read books more than once anymore.

Elliott Allagash by Simon Rich, a writer for Saturday Night Live, is the author of two hilarious collections of humor, Ant Farm and Free-Range Chickens. In Elliott Allagash, his first novel, he writes of a teenage underdog Seymour Herson, who becomes the pet project of his exorbitantly wealthy, clever, and potentially evil classmate, Elliott Allagash. Allagash is the son of another evil-doer, and between the two of them, they manipulate, trick, and arrange other people and circumstances for amusement and personal gain. It’s all very funny and extremely clever. I loved Rich's previous books, which are collections of short, humorous essays: Ant Farm and Free Range Chickens.

Beauty Queens by Libby Bray
What if a group of teenage beauty queens crash-landed on a deserted tropical island and had to learn how to survive without their curling irons and manicurists? That’s the premise of Bray’s work, and it’s perfect for a wickedly funny send-up of our celebrity-obsessed, appearance-minded consumerist culture. The story is like a mash-up of Glee, America's Top Model, The Daily Show, and late-night informercial. Very fun, and very funny, but with some real material to think about, too.

Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink helps explain why I took off for a summer of solitude and competition. Pink spent years studying human behavior, specifically motivation, and found that typical strategies used to encourage better performance are misdirected and based on psychology over a half-century old. Instead of being motivated by rewards and threats of punishment, Pink asserts, humans are compelled towards accomplishment by a desire for autonomy, mastery of their skills, and a sense of purpose, and he uses scores of examples from recent psychology, neurology, and culture to illustrate his theories.  Success in the future--both for employees and those who manage them--will depend on workers who are motivated intrinsically by a desire to complete a project or see an idea to fruition because they love it, and by managers who recognize this kind of desire and make it the standard operating procedure of their company. Choosing people who love their work and then getting out of their way and trusting they will do it is the key to good management, Pink asserts. Teachers, parents, personal trainers, and anyone who wants to help themselves and others in their lives achieve their potential will find something worthy to take from this book.

Bold Spirit by Linda Lawrence Hunt is the story of Helga Estby and her teenage daughter, Clara, who walked from Spokane to New York in 1896, making my little drive around the Southwest feel remarkably luxurious in comparison. Estby, the mother of nine, undertook the endeavor in order to win a cash prize that will save her family from financial ruin. Her journey and its consequences were unspoken of by her immediate family and her descendents for years after, and much of her story was lost. Hunt recreates as much as possible the trek the women undertook, its impact on her family, and the powerful importance of story-keeping and story-telling.

In You Know When the Men Are Gone by Siobhan Fallon, interconnected short stories reveal the inner lives of and family secrets of women and men living in Fort Hood, Texas, one of the drive-by locations on my journey. From the outside, there’s nothing out of the ordinary about the insular Army community, but as this collection demonstrates, there is always a story beneath the surface. A cancer-stricken mother is bewildered and shaken by the disappearance of her belligerent teenage daughter; an intel officer sets up surveillance on his wife, a wife readers her husband’s email and discovers unsettling possibilities about marriage and military service—as do all of these amazing stories.

Bad Dog: A Love Story by Martin Kihn is the only dog-memoir I’ve read specifically about the Bernese mountain dog—the breed of my dog, Frida, who accompanied me on my roadtrip. In Kihn’s story, his marriage is crumbling due to alcoholism, and his badly behaved Berner, Hola, doesn’t help matters by terrorizing his wife. When Kihn’s wife leaves, he is determined to win her back. In addition to quitting drinking, he undertakes to re-train Hola and earn the Canine Good Citizen medal, an AKC honor for pet dogs that fulfill 10 behavioral requirements. The story of Hola and her human’s adventures to improve themselves and win back their woman reveals the fun and frustration of dog-human partnership and is a terrific read for anyone who loves—and is sometimes exasperated with—their furry friends.

I traveled through Austin, Texas, one of my favorite cities, and spent several days enjoying the sun next to Barton Springs. In James Hynes’ novel, Next, Kevin Quinn flies there for a job interview in the wake of several missile attacks on U.S. cities. The entire narrative traces this one day in Quinn’s life, as the attacks prompt him to reflect on his relationships, past and present, and on the meaning of his life. His reveries take us through his chronology of love, sex, various infatuations, regrets, and current desires, concluding in one of the most unforgettable, stunning endings I’ve experienced as a read. I cannot stop thinking about this book.

How could I not read Rebecca Makkai’s novel, The Borrower, when it’s about a librarian on a road trip?! Lucy Hull, a 26-year-old librarian, helps a 10-year-old patron escape his fundamentalist parents, who are trying to “de-gayify” him in a controversial church program. Their roadtrip across the country struck me as implausible, but their relationship was authentic and moving. The two bond over a shared love of reading, and both are struggling with families they don’t understand—in Lucy’s case, their journey enables her to sort out her complicated feelings about her Russian √©migr√© father, who has a mysterious past. Despite straining my credulity, I loved the road trip, the book references, and sweet, precocious Ian.

The Year We Left Home by Jean Thompson was reviewed widely late this spring--I think I read about it in Oprah, People, and Entertainment Weekly, so Thompson has a pretty good publicity team. But for good reason--she's an incredible writer. I loved this novel, which centers around the changes in the family over several decades, swinging between each of the four siblings and their parents as they move away from one another and pursue lives independent of one another and the small farming community where they were raised. If you liked Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, you'll enjoy this one.

My American Unhappiness by Dean Bakopoulos was my favorite novel on the trip. Protagonist Zeke Pappas is the head of a government organization that distributes money for humanities projects and the overseer of a project on the reasons behind Americans’ unhappiness. As such, he interviews individuals and fields letters, phone messages, and emails from people unloading their burdens. His own unhappiness is another subject altogether—his estranged brother and sister-in-law have died, orphaning young twin daughters, and according to stipulations in a will, they will live with their mother’s sister out of town unless Zeke marries. His quest to find love—or at least-matrimony is only one of several subplots in this entertaining novel, at the core of which lies a secret that may explain all that is truly troubling Zeke.

On the other end of the spectrum, The Geography of Bliss is NPR correspondent Eric Weiner’s quest to discover not what makes people unhappy, but what makes them happy, and he travels to various points on the globe to what role, if any, geography plays in our happiness, any why places we’d expect to be misery-causing (isolated, freezing-cold Iceland, for example) are some of the most joyous on earth. Weiner, who admits that he’s not, on average, a particularly happy person, discovers and relates a great deal of wisdom about what makes a happy life, and his insights are often funny and profound. Weiner notes, in one chapter of The Geography of Bliss, that we often don’t know how travel changes us until long after the trip is over. I sure hope that the discoveries I made this summer, and the joy I found traveling, competing, relaxing with my dog, continue to surprise me and teach me in the months and years to come.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

May Reading Recommendations

This month I think I read more books with more with than pictures than I did books with more words than pictures. If that sentence made no sense, read on and all will become clear. Ish. I just realized that I didn't read a single book this month about a disappearance, and I have no explanation for that. I included information under each title about how I came across each book and happened to read it, just because Nick Hornby does that often in his column, and I thought it was interesting.

You Know Who You Are by Ben Dolnick
Display table at Village Books.
Dolnick's novel follows protagonist Jacob as he copes with the death of his mother from cancer, his evolving relationship with his older brother, Will, some female character whose name I've forgotten, and his father, Arthur, who struggles to cope with his wife's death but eventually finds love. I liked this book, and I'm sorry I've forgotten small precious details that might encourage you to like it also. That's what happens sometimes.

The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch
Recommended by Chuck Robinson at Village Books. This is an incredible, beautifully written memoir. Yuknavitch, a lifelong competitive swimmer, begins her story by recalling the stillborn birth of her daughter in haunting, beautiful prose. Much of the book takes place in Eugene and Portland, where Yuknavitch completed her Ph.D. and was part of one of Ken Kesey's writing workshops. She recounts her adult life, complete with failed marriages, drug addiction, and sexual rendezvous with both men and women, and retraces the relationship with her abusive father than may have contributed to her young adult recklessness.

Skin Deep by Karol GriffinFound at Goodwill, looked like a good follow-up to Chronology of Water. Griffin is a tattoo artist, and her memoir recounts various characters she's encountered on the job and examines the changing culture of Wyoming towns that are encroached upon by outsiders seeking new lives in the West.

Secrets of the Teenage Brain by Sheryl Feinstein
Found it at a brain conference.
Every parent and teacher I know needs to read this book in order to have a better understanding of why the adolescents in their lives behave the way they do. Feinstein clearly explains the neurological science from the past two decades which reveals that the human brain is not completely developed until the early twenties. Consistent growth--particularly in the frontal lobes, which regulate decision-making--explains much more about how teens act and learn than the old "raging hormones" idea. Feinstein's use! of exclamation! points! and slightly elementary-teacher-ish tone grated on my nerves, but the information is essential and really must be a part of a responsible, comprehensive teacher education program.

The Adults by Alison Espach
Read a review in O! Magazine.

Emily Vidal is the precocious and witty narrator of this novel, which focuses on the adults in her life and the effect they have on her upbringing. The story opens at her father's 50th birthday party, a lavish backyard event her mother has organized, despite her impending divorce from Emily's father. Together with her neighbor and classmate, Mark, Emily uses the party to make observations about her parents and their friends, and at one point, the two discover a stunning secret about Emily's father and Mark's mother that will resonate for years. In high school, challenged by her mother's post-divorce depression and probable alcoholism, Emily finds security and comfort with a young teacher at the school, and again, the relationship reverberates for years. I loved Emily's voice, which was older-that-her-years, funny, and resilient despite the many failings of the adults she is surrounded by.

My Cool Caravan by Jane Field-Lewis and Chris Haddon
Found it searching for books about campers on Amazon.
Prepping the NapCamper for my big summer adventure means doing some research into the interior decorating of travel vehicles, which you and I call "campers" and "trailers" and the Brits call "Caravans." There are a scant few books about this topic, but My Cool Caravan is an excellent opportunity to gaze inside some beautifully maintained and sometimes restored caravans. Most are vintage European models with exquisite upholstery and gorgeous mid-century modern lines and details. I can't transform the NC into a rare British caravan, but I can be inspired by the colors and ideas. Yum.

This Is a Book by Demetri Martin
Found on display at Village Books and started reading it.
I am embarassed to admit that I had no idea who Demetri Martin was until I read this book, which I bought because I liked the cover and the fact that, upon thumbing through it at the book store, realized it also had short chapters and lots of funny charts and comics. Then I read it and laughed out loud over and over again, discovered lots more Demetri Martin (he has his own TV show on Comedy Central! I am such a loser) and now I am obsessed with him. He makes the funniest charts, and charts are funny. Read this book and it will cancel out one day of rain and two days of 40-something-degree weather.

Housekeeping vs. the Dirt: Fourteen Months of Massively Witty Adventures in Reading by Nick Hornby
Circuitous discovery via Amazon search for book on another topic.This is one of those books that I was sorry to see end. Finishing the final essay (all published previously as Hornby's column in The Believer) made me sorrowful because I had grown to adore Hornby's wise, funny, snarky humor about books and writing. Each month, he lists the books he purchased and the books he actually read, and then writes about the latter. But his column is really not as much a book review as it is an ongoing meditation about reading, readers, books, and culture. 

Friday, April 29, 2011

Damn It Rains A Lot Here. Glad I Like Reading in Bed.

It's almost not April anymore, and my homework for the month is nearly done. Given the enormous amounts of time I was unable (unwillingly) to go outside because the weather was bat-shit crazy, I would have expected to have read a lot more. But I didn't. Instead I read these books, and they were all entertaining, smart, and fun. Enjoy. (The red title is the Pick of the Month!)

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home by Rhoda Janzen is absolutely amazing. I want Rhoda Janzen to quit whatever she is doing right now and go write more books! After her husband of 15years leaves her for a guy named Bob that he met on, and she is severely injured in a car accident, Janzen returns home to her Mennonite parents for physical and emotional recuperation. In telling the story of her mid-life repair, she retraces her upbringing in the conservative Mennonite religion (they're the ones that wear the little white doily-ish hats) and her recounting is both hilarious and wise. Janzen, who left the Mennonites to pursue academia, nonetheless has a warm, funny story to tell about how her parents chose to raise her, how the church's strict beliefs shaped her strengths, and how she ultimately found comfort in the traditions and community of Mennonites as she rebuilds her life (i..e begins dating: "In my opinion sexiness comes down to three things: chemistry, sense of humor, and treatment of waitstaff at restaurants." Amen, Sister Rhoda.) In the end, I appreciated--admired, really--Janzen's ability to love her family and respect their faith while choosing another path.

My Horizontal Life: A Collection of One-Night Stands by Chelsea Handler is as funny as the previous book, but in an entirely different way. This is one of those books I picked up at Goodwill, and then decided to read because Mennonite in a Little Black Dress was so funny and I needed another funny book as a follow-up and I was on Spring Break and therefore, unable/willing to read anything academic or erudite. And Handler is funny. She's also lewd and ridiculous, politically incorrect and occasionally disgusting, and if she's really had all the one-night stands she writes about in this book, then ew. Nevertheless, super funny if you like reading about other people's regrettable sexual exploits, which I do. Read it if you're in a funk and need to feel better about yourself. I felt like a virgin again by the time I was done with it.

I grabbed Are You There, Vodka? It's Me, Chelsea, at the airport after my initial dose of Handler's deliciously gross humor. Unbeknownst to me, this book turned out to be the perfect choice, once I discovered that I was seated next to hairy-armed, bulgy-eyed man reading Anger Management for Dummies who looked like the Phillip Seymour Hoffman character from the Todd Solodnz movie Happiness (which, if you haven't seen, do NOT go watch it and then call me up and me how sick and disgusting it is and break off being friends with me. I repeat: I did NOT recommend this movie).  In addition to hogging our mutual armrest and intruding into my personal no-fly zone for the entire trip, Anger Management Man also indulged his tic of rubbing his dry palms together every 2-3 minutes. During snack time, he funneled his bag of treats into his mouth from above, spilling a portion down his shirt, and then dove for the crumbs, rustling around between his manboobs until he retrieved a half a pretzel and a fuzz-covered peanut. I mentally rehearsed my Emergency List of Ways This Could Be Worse:  I could have a horrible facial deformity. I could be dirt poor. I could have a bunch of children. Thankfully, I have none of these, but I do have Chelsea Handler, and I thank her.

The Uncoupling by Meg Wolitzer has been reviewed a great deal lately, in People and Entertainment Weekly,among other sources, so there's a good chance you've heard the buzz. The gist is this: a new, funky drama teacher arrives in Stellar Plains, and chooses the Greek play Lysistrata by Aristophanes as the high school's performance. In the play, the women of Greece band together to bring an end to war by refusing to have sex with their men until peace is attained. In Stellar Plains, the production of the play has a mysterious effect on the town's residents: the popular, married high school English teacher couple finds their intimacy disrupted; the heavy, long-married guidance counselor stands up to her thoughtless husband, and even the teenage girls are denying sex to their bewildered boyfriends. The events lead them all to examine themselves and their relationships with one another; a fun, smart book.

Boys and Girls Like You and Me by Aryn Kyle.
Bunches of people won't read poetry because it makes them a) think of black berets and b) feel dumb. Also, a lot of poetry seems pretentious and full of itself, which it is, and why waste time complicating your life reading it when you can shut the door and spend 10 minutes taking a happy nap with Penthouse Forum instead? Short stories can seem a bit like poems, only longer, and they have characters and dialogue and sex scenes. The best short stories showcase the best a language has to offer: original word combinations, humor, subtlety, and cleverness. Aryn Kyle's collection joins my list of favorite short stories for eactly these reasons.

Muscle: Confessions of an Unlikely Bodybuilder by Samuel Wilson Fussell is mentioned on my other blog because I 've been doing a lot of weight-lifting and strength-training as I prep for a summer of triathlons, and in doing so, have become fascinated by the way bodies change in different ways in response to exercise. Fussell, an Oxford-educated writer, decided to pursue body-building in the late 80s after being harrassed repeatedly on the streets of New York City. At 6'4" and 170 pounds, he's a stickly target. Over the next two years, he progresses from this waifishness to competitive body-building stature, gaining over 80 pounds, and offers an insider's view of the steroid-and-body-oil fueled gyms of the 80s.

Modern Ranch Living by Mark Jude Poirier is this month's missing-person novel. A teenage Sharpie-huffing loser named Petey Vaccarino disappears one summer from a Phoenix suburb, but the real focus of the story is on two characters with whom he's loosely connected: his neighbor Merv, a 30-year-old Splash World Water Park employee who still lives at home with his mother, and Kendra Lumm, a 16-year-old weightlifter who occasionally slept with the missing boy. Both of these characters are transformed by the events of this summer, but only in part due to Petey's disappearance, and their stories are the catalyst for a funny, insightful examination of what it means to develop, change, and struggle to discover what our potential is and how to reach it. I loved reading this book--Kendra is tough, funny, and grammar-challenged; her interactions with her mother, her wimpy older brother, her classmates, and the therapist she is forced to see results in some of the wittiest, most original dialogue I've read.

Why Manners Matter: The Case for Civilized Behavior in a Barbarous World by Luncinda Holdforth is a short, provocative argument in favor of manners--voluntary social agreements to adhere to certain rules of behavior. A brief summary of her main arguments:  Manners matter because 1) we are social animals with habitat to protect; 2) they are more important than laws because they are less invasive and better than social confusion; 3) they nurture equality; 4) order matters for freedom; 5) rudeness won't make us authentic; manners aren't just for right-wing bigots; manners advance social progress; 6) McDonald's doesn't own matters (you definitely have to read this chapter to get what her point is here); and 7) they give us dignity by improving communication, preventing premature intimacy, unlocking our humanity and making life beautiful. Teachers and parents take note.

I Knew a Woman by Cortney Davis is a nurse practioner's account of working with women over the course of her career and what she has learned about women's bodies as a result. Davis follows the cases of four clients--a pregnant teenager, a drug-addicted mother, a post-menopausal woman with cancer, and a thirty-something woman whose past, when uncovered, reveals the reason behind her sexual problems. Following each woman's story is sort of like watching an episode of Grey's Anatomy or House--a medical drama unfolds gradually and suspensely, and we learn something about medicine in the process. Davis is a gifted writer who has written books of poetry, and her talent for prose makes this a fascinating and thoughtful read.

Friday, April 1, 2011

March Reads

YAY Books! I had the best reading month--inspiring advice, fun novels, and just a great mix of quirk and kink. I've highlighted the one book I'd most recommend once again. As always, I encourage you to support your locally owned bookstores and public libraries!

Seeing Me Naked by Liza Palmer is a quick read about Elisabeth Page, a pastry chef in Los Angeles who has long lived in the shadow of her Pulitzer-Prize-winning father, author Ben Page, and in the comfortable, familiar arms of Will, her longtime boyfriend. When she meets Daniel Sullivan, her options for the future suddenly change, she creeps out of the shadow of her wealthy, notorious family to find a life waiting for her that is much different than the one she expected. I like this kind of smart, sassy, upbeat chick lit.

The Lover's Dictionary by David Levithan uses a gimmick to tell the story: each page is an entry in a dictionary, with a brief vignette or observation instead of a definition. All of these short entries add up to a portrait of a relationship between members of an unnamed couple. I love Levithan's writing--poetic, spare, subtle, and original. Two quotes from the book that I appreciated: 1) "Fuck you for cheating on me. Who came up with the term cheating, anyway? A cheater, I imagine. Someone who thought liar was too harsh. Someone who thought devastator was too emotional. Fuck you. This isn't about slipping yourself an extra twenty dollars of Monopoly money. These are our lives. You went and broke our lives."  2) "The key to a successful relationship isn't just in the words, it's in the choice of punctuation. When you're in love with someone, a well-placed question mark can be the difference between bliss and disaster, and a deeply respected period or a cleverly inserted ellipsis can prevent all kinds of exclamations." (Try it. He's right.)

Tiger, Tiger by Margaux Fragoso. I read this book so you that don't have to. Seriously, this is an 11 on the ick-factor scale, and I read it only because reviews in Oprah and Entertainment Weekly led me astray; I had heard that it would be controversial; and I want to be able to participate in the dialogue of that controversy from a knowledgeable standpoint. Not sure I'm right about that. The gist is this: Fragoso was sexually abused from the time she was 7 until the age of 22 by a man 44 years her senior, and she recounts in detail how the relationship between her and "Peter," her abuser developed as she and her mentally ill mother spent more and more time at Peter's home, in scenarios that will remind readers of the f***ed mess described by Augusten Burroughs in his memoir Running With Scissors (only not at ALL funny). She includes the details of their sexual encounters and I cannot stress enough how disturbing this is; although her prose is skillful and the storytelling compelling, I can't help but feel a more nuanced writer (and one who wanted to warn us of the danger in the world, rather than share it with us) would have been able to relay the sheer horror of these events without giving us an up-close-and-personal view of her tormentor's scrotum. Seriously. Yuck.

Nothing by Janne Teller is a short young adult novel with long-lasting impact. Like Lord of the Flies, it offers a glimpse at the powerful and destructive nature of peers on one another, especially when those peers are children acting unregulated by experience, wisdom, and adutl guidance. In this story, a student announces to his classmates that nothing means anything, and proceeds to stop attending school and hang out in a tree instead. The other students, eager to prove him wrong, beging accumulating a mass of items that are meaningful to them by challenging each other to relinquish their most prized possessions. Their challenges escalate to the point of violence, and yet the question continues to haunt them--does anything mean anything? And if so, what? Absolutely one of the most powerful YA novels I've ever read. 

Adios, Nirvana by Conrad
Seattle writers have made a rich contribution to the YA literature scence, and this new novel is no exception. Set in West Seattle, it is the story of Jonathan, who has recently lost his twin brother in an accident. Failing school and slacking just about everywhere else, Jonathan's only real pleasures are writing and music, both of which he excels at. His high school prinicpal gives him a chance to make up his missing credits by collaborating with a dying WWII vet on the creation of his memoir. That part of the story fell apart a little at the end, but the voice, the teen writer/musician narrator, and the presence of Eddie Vedder more than redeem this excellent story.

Smooth: Erotic Stories for Women edited by Rachel Kramer Bussel
There's such a thing as snow porn. Who knew?

Don't You Forget about Me by Jancee Dunn
Lillian Curtis returns to her hometown after her husband announces he wants a divorce, and finds herself reconnecting with old friends--including her gorgeous ex-boyfriend--as they prepare for their twentieth class reunion. I adored this book for lots of reasons--a narrator who was in pain without wallowing, the connection to the late 80's, and especially Lillian's boss, a 70-something ex-starlet who hosts a TV talk show and lives life to the fullest. Very sweet and the writing was great, thanks to Jancee Dunn's years and experience--including dozens of cover stories for Rolling Stone. Read it if you liked Big Love and Secrets to Happiness by Sarah Dunn (no relation, as far as I know).

The Art of Possibility by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander

Easily one of the most inspiring books I've read, the art of possibility offers guidelines for reframing our thinking to make room for possibilities that we might not have contemplated, such as remembering that "it's all invented" and we have the power to reimagine ourselves and our lives and make those imaginings a reality. In terms of offering new ideas and supporting anecdotes about how to make your work, interpersonal connections, and personal goals a reality, this is a powerful, uplifting book.
Three Stages of Amazement by Carol Edgarian
Lena and Charlie find their marriage, already made fragile by the death of their newborn twin, strained even further by a cross-country move and Charlie's tenuous grasp on a business deal. Though the writing was gorgeous, I thought this story was a real downer. So unfair to dismiss a well-crafted piece of contemporary literature this way, when it's really and admirable piece of writing, but I wasn't really in the mood for a marriage-on-the-rocks story, no matter how beautifully spun. I enjoyed both The Heights by Peter Hedges (less financial talk, more sex and tension--also some mean girl action) and The Inheritances by Jonathan Dee (still about rich people, but they're less whiny) more.
Drinking Closer to Home by Jessica Anya Blau
Every now and then, I stumble upon a book that I begin reading and have to carry with me everywhere I go in order to sneak pages while I wait in line, get stuck in traffic, or blow my nose between sets at the gym. This month, this was that book. For starters, I love funny stories wherein big, dysfunctional families with scads of adult siblings and their lovers, husbands, children, and so forth gather  a la Big Chill to air their memories and grievances, and this is definitely one of those stories. Anna, Portia, and their brother Emery are summoned home when their mother, Louise, finally has the heart attack she's been smoking towards for their entire lives. Louise and her husband, Buzzy, raised their children in a filthy, pot-smoke-filled home in Santa Barbara in the 70s, and it is between then and now that we rotate, gaining a thorough and hilarious insight into the history of the family and its bizarre mechanisms. Author Jessica Blau freely admits to basing the characters on her own parents and siblings, and an interview with family members at the end of the book adds an additional, entertaining dimension to this novel. Read it.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

February Reads and Recommendations

If you're on my Facebook, you know that I whined interminably about the length of January this year. It took too long, cost too much, felt too miserable, and is now, happily, nothing but a dim blip in the rearview mirror of my life.

However, because it seemed to be comprised entirely of excess hours, January afforded me the opportunity to read 13 books, most of which were amazingly good. February, unlike its predecessor, whipped along in an ever-lightening frenzy, hurtling us all toward spring as if the planet spun extra-fast in sort of cosmic meth trip. Accordingly, I didn't read nearly as much. I did, however, follow my rule of reading stuff that excited me and inspired me to encourage others to pick it up, too. Here it is, a list of what I read in February, again with the title of the one book I recommend most highlighted in red just in case you don't have time for more.

A Thousand Cuts by Simon Celic
High school teacher Samuel Szajkowski enters a school assembly one day with a loaded gun and proceeds to take aim, killing three students, a colleague, and himself. The crime is then dissected from various angles, most of which take the form of first person narratives delivered to Lucia May, the police detective assigned to investigate the crime. May's inquiries into the cause of the event, however, make her superiors uncomfortable, as she discovers hints that the tragedy might have resulted from something other than just the deranged and psychotic impulses of a sick and twisted man. Instead, as she interviews his students, his colleagues, his former lover, and others, she learns that Samuel was tormented by students about his appearance, his teaching style, and just about everything else--bullied much like students who don't fit in are bullied--and that the mistreatment he suffered may have led to his eventual outburst. The novel offers a unique look at a crime and its potential genesis, as well as presenting an angle on bullying that isn't often handled in fiction (or otherwise).

All About Lulu by Jonathan Evison
Evison is a Seattle writer whose latest novel, West of Here, about generations of families on the Olympic Peninsula, is receiving all kinds of acclaim, but I haven't read it; I read All About Lulu instead after seeing it on display at Village Books. Set in the 80's, it's narrated by teenager Will Miller, who starts the story sounding a bit like Holden Caufield, but (thankfully) that voice doesn't persist and we get instead a smart and likeable young man slightly adrift in a family where he doesn't fit. His mother has died of cancer, leaving Will alone with his father, Bill Sr., (a.k.a. Big Bill), a competitive body builder, and his two younger brothers, Doug and Ross, identical twins who are also weightlifters and (in Will's estimation) not so smart. Family dynamics change dramatically when Big Bill meets and marries Willow, who moves into the Miller residence with her daughter Lulu. Lulu and Will become inseparable--a closeness that veers close to and eventually becomes obsession on Will's part--until one summer when Lulu returns from her grandparents' home mysteriously distant. The story follows Will through high school and beyond as he tries to solve the mystery of Lulu's disconnect and re-establish their friendship. I found myself cheering for Will, enchanted by the multi-dimensional Big Bill and his body-building younger sons, amused by the 80's setting, and entertained by the novel in more ways than I can count.

Food Rules: An Eater's Manual by Michael Pollan
I'm really lazy about reading sometimes, so I haven't ever finished Pollan's opus, The Omnivore's Dilemma, and so this brief pocket-sized guide to eating is the perfect refresher on what to eat and why. Basically, his message is simple: eat food, mostly plants, not too much. These three rules are broken down in more detail, creating a list of 64 rules total that are still pretty easy to follow, emphasizing the need to avoid processed foods, eat mostly vegetables and fruits, and to eat less. Only the exorbitantly confrontational person could find anything to argue about here; Pollan's list is based on common sense and science, and while it will undoubtably piss off the fast-food and packaged food industry, it's really tough to claim that he doesn't know what he's talking about or that he isn't right. Buy a copy and keep it in your kitchen.

How to Become a Scandal by Laura Kipnis
Kipnis deftly, and briefly, analyzes why we are obsessed with--and in many cases, gleeful about--scandals. She examines four recent, well-known scandalous events in the headlines: the case of Lisa Nowak, an esteemed astronaut who traveled 950 miles by car to confront her ex-lover's new girlfriend; the downfall of Judge Sol Wachtler; the betrayal of Monica Lewinsky by her "friend" and confidante Linda Tripp; and the exaggerations that led A Million Little Pieces author James Frey to humiliation. Rather than just summarizing the salacious events, Kipnis writes intelligently about human nature and carefully dissects why scandalous stories have such appeal, and why public interest in them reveals more about the public than it does the one who committed the offense. Timeless, entertaining, and thoughtful.

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin
Here it is, the monthly missing-person novel. Larry Ott is living alone, tending his chickens and minding his auto shop when he is ambushed in his home, shot and left for dead. Accused years earlier for the disappearance of a local teenage girl, Larry has spent his life living in the shadow of suspicion created by the event, and now another girl has vanished and Larry is again suspected in her disappearance. Larry's shooting is thought to be self-inflicted: unable to live with his crimes, the townspeople think, Scary Larry has finally decided to kill himself this time. But he doesn't die, and the investigation into his near-fatal shooting is headed by his old childhood friend, Silas, now the town constable. As Silas investigates Larry's attack and the missing girl, he, himself, is forced to confront his past friendship with Larry and the secrets he keeps about what happened years earlier. Dynamic, original characters paired with a gripping storyline kept me reading this through the weekend!

Some Girls: My Life in a Harem by Jillian Lauren
At 19, Jillian Lauren had worked as a high-paid prostitute and stripper, and was pursuing a career as an actress when a friend in the escort business offered her an opportunity to travel to Brunei, where she would be one of about 40 young women in the harem of Prince Jefri. Eager for adventure and money, Lauren accepted the offer and spent a couple of years living among beautiful women from around the world who were competing for the attention of Prince Jefri, one of the wealthiest men on the globe. Her experience was disheartening, of course--despite the money, competition among the women was soul-crushing, privacy was non-existant, and there was little to do, as the women were allowed no personal freedom. Lauren's story is fascinating, if a little sad, and her writing is admirable. Flashbacks into her past reveal just enough about her to partly explain why she agreed to participate in the harem, but I would have liked a little more analysis and introspection.

for Night by Frederick Reiken was an absolutely fabulous read that reminded me in some ways of Jennifer Egan's book A Visit from the Goon Squad, which I recommended last month. Told by ten narrators, Reiken's novels pieces together a series of interlocking mysteries that weave characters' lives together. Included among the characters and their connections are Beverly Rabinovitz, who escaped Poland in WWII; her boyfriend, David, who is dying of leukemia; their children; an odd couple of musicians, Tim and Dee, who have a loose connection to a woman on the run from the FBI, and Dillon, Dee's 21-year-old comatose brother, and a bunch of other minor players. Somehow Reiken manages to blend these characters' stories together within a plot that involves the Holocaust, Satanic ritual abuse, manatees, and a bunch of other seemingly random topics to create a beautifully written, thoroughly engaging story that kept me riveted.

When She Flew by Jennie Shortridge is the second novel I've read that is based loosely on the true story of a man and his adolescent daughter living in a Portland Park. My Abandonment by Peter Rock, was reviewed here awhile back, and is the more literary of the two books, both of which focus on "Frank and Ruth," who in 2005 were ousted from their wilderness camp by authorities but received much support from the community at large. Shortridge's version of events switches between two point of view: that of Lindy, the 12-year-old girl who's found living in the woods, and Jess Villareal, a police officer assigned to the case. Lindy's observations are told in first-person, and reflect her love of her father and nature and aher angst at being torn from the home she's known for five years. Jess's perspective is third-person, which is unfortunate, because her side of the story feels more like something we're being told, rather than something she's telling us--her emotions are narrated, rather than shown. In addition, Villareal's response to the events hinges upon her discord with her own daughter, which worked in a Lifetime-movie-of-the-week kind of way but frankly, felt sort of artificial.
It's March now, and I've got a lot of reading to do.