Friday, September 07, 2007

Okay, so I'm back a little bit and this summer reading project has just become a really good way to track, remember and reflect a bit on what I'm reading. I don't exactly spend hours crafting these posts but they are really just for me anyway. I sometimes read so quickly that I don't take a lot of time to reflect on what I've read, how its made me feel, what topics it has triggered in my own life and how I relate to the characters in the books. These are all really important reasons that keep me reading. I like to be able to relate in some way to the characters or people in the books I read, I also enjoy escapism reading but more so I enjoy reading books that allow me to understand different people, how they think, feel, react, live their lives, and in doing so it allows me to look at my own life, past, present and future choices and experiences. On that note I devoured two books yesterday while I was home sick, between sleeping the afternoon away and trying to fall asleep with my stuffy nose and scratchy throat last night, I read Where and When by Anita Shreve and Jesusland by Julia Scheeres. They were both really great reads for very different reasons. Where and When is a fairly short novel about two teenagers who fall in love over a week spent at a summer camp in Rhode Island. The book is set in the 1990's with now 45 year old lovers finding each other after spending 31 years apart, and rediscovering a love that they thought had faded back when their week at camp ended in the summer of 1963. The two reconnect and discover a passion and desire that they did not expect. Both are married with children, married to people that they may or may not love, and certainly don't feel a strong passion for. I'm torn by this book. I'm the kind of person who has never cheated on a partner, could not conceive of cheating and would be hard pressed to forgive someone who cheated on me. So while I hate the fact that these two lovers are commiting adultery together, the compelling love story, the exquisite and detailed writing, and the dramatic ending really made this a good read all around. It also made me really grateful for my happy, passionate, fulfilling marriage!

Jesusland, the other book I read yesterday, was a memoir by a woman who grew up in an extremely religious Calvinist family. Julia was the youngest of four children growing up in 1970's, when her fanatical mother and father, father a surgeon and mother a nurse, decide to adopt a three year old little boy, her same age. And in the racist backwoods Indiana countryside where they live, this little African American child, David, and his white "twin" sister are faced with some nasty bigotry and prejudice. If this were the only drama in their lives that would be plenty. But the family adopts another little African American boy, this time an older child, 7 years old. And Jerome, with a serious history of being bounced from foster home to foster home, is a troubled little boy, by turns cruel and loveable, dangerous and sympathetic. And things get worse. Julia is molested by Jerome during her early teens, Jerome runs away, mom and dad severely beat both boys, breaking an arm and scarring their backs with welt marks from a belt. And David, reacting to the abuse at home, the bigotry and nastiness of high school and the constant chaos that reigns over their home, tries to kill himself. So he gets shipped off to a religious reform school in the Dominican Republic. Julie soon follows if only to keep her brother company and keep the good part of her family together. Over a year spent at the brutal, dangerous and incredibly strict boot camp, the kids survive, make it out and start their lives as adults. This book is excellent. The writing style is so blunt and open that you almost can't believe its a true story. The abuse and harsh treatment that the children suffer is startling and disturbing. Their parents have so little healthly interest in the children on a daily basis that I felt sick to my stomach. So quick to ship them off and so quick to cut them out when something isn't perfect. They are cheap, nasty, selfish abusive people, but somehow they made these wonderful kids, in spite of themselves. I highly recommend this book.

Back to work for me, I could write about this one all day. For some reason I am really drawn to stories about crazy families and children who find a way to dig themselves out of the muck of their parent's home and make their own healthy and satisfying lives. I wonder why that is?

Monday, August 27, 2007

Ok, so I'm still reading for sure. Just with the new job and all I haven't felt like writing much lately. I finished Harry Potter and loved it. Loved it so much. Enough said. There are plenty of amazing reviews out there. Find one and read it and that's probably some of what I would have said only less eloquently. I also read Affinity by Sarah Waters. Didn't really like it that much. Kind of dull, boring and odd. Which is strange because I have really enjoyed everything else that I have read by her. So, that and now I'm on to The Fellowship, a non fiction book about Frank Loyd Wright's architecture "school" that he and his wife ran on their property in Wisconsin. Kind of a combination cult, school, slave labor, religious/cultural reform movement. A bit slow to start but its picked up about 150 pages in. Lots of ego, lots of odd religious/metaphysical belief, dancing and of course a bit of art talk. Now 150 pages in we get to the sex, manipulation, and flat out cruelty of Wright and his third wife Olgivanna. I'm looking forward to it.

I read something else between Harry Potter and Affinity but for the life of me I cannot remember right now what it was. I'll get back to you if I recall. More later, as my summer reading program draws to a close.

Monday, July 23, 2007

I haven't posted in awhile, with the job hunt and interviews in full control of my life right now I just haven't felt like posting book reviews. That doesn't mean I haven't been reading, cause I'm always reading, but I just haven't been able to put together a nice concise well written review. My brain is thinking about grant writing, data management and "what do you consider your biggest weakness, biggest strengths?" Last week I blew through two James Elroy essay collections, great mix of short story and magazine non fiction stories. Enjoyed them but I think I burned myself out on his style and topic choices for a bit. I need a break from LA and the unsolved murders of young damaged women. Then over the weekend I read 19 Minutes by Jodi Picoult. Not a bad book, but not a great book. I get a little tired of her forced twist endings, always in the courtroom, always with the last minute self incriminating confessions. She is a very talented writer, but I think she falls back on some trite stereotypical characters, some convoluted plot points and too much pop culture referencing. The portions of the book that describe the school shooting are very compelling, and she does manage to create some characters that you care about but in general it wasn't my favorite book. It was missing something for me. Maybe I'm too much of a critic and unable to just sit back and shut off the editor in my brain, but there were too many cheesy descriptions and line choices that just stuck out for me.

Unlike Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows which I started last night. That book is perfection, so seamless, and apparently effortless in its writing, plotting and superb character development. I'll write more later for my avid readers, ok, reader.

Monday, July 09, 2007

I flew through another book this weekend. I read The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunnant yesterday. Picked it up from the library, hoping it would be one of those fast, light, exciting, fluffy reads and it was exactly that. Set in Florence in the 1500's it follows the life of a wealthy textile merchant's precocious, intelligent tomboy artist daughter. Political intrigue, forbidden loves, fabulous art, clothes and side characters, just an entertaining trifle of a novel. The ending fell a bit flat for me and didn't seem to quite reflect the main character's previous actions but a delightful way to spend a couple of hours. It really makes me want to go to Florence again. It takes place in all the amazing spots we had a chance to visit, so I could really picture where the action was taking place. A beach read for my Midwestern deck! Now I'm ready for the gritty, noir storytelling of James Ellroy again.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

I'm not sure what I'm reading next. I said a couple of posts ago that I was going to read the Mitford sisters biography, I started it but I couldn't stick with it. Just not in the mood. But I have so many choices! Its exciting, and yes, I'm a book dork. Went to the library today, grabbed a couple of James Ellroy short story and essay collections, a Margaret Atwood short story collection, and a little light art/love story The Birth of Venus, something summery and fun, I can sit on the deck, read it and pretend that I'm at the beach! Or, I have another pile of Kristen books and books of my own that are calling me from their cabinet. Too many choices and not enough time. Stay tuned....
I had time for two books this week, so awesome with the 4th of July holiday! The first book was A Dirty Job by Christopher Moore. Wonderful! So funny and droll, heartbreaking and ridiculous. I thoroughly enjoyed it and highly recommend it. I got a big kick out of one of his previous books, Lamb, and this one was just as good. It follows the story of Charlie Asher and his daughter Sophie. After a tragedy in their family, Charlie discovers a bizarre set of changes happening in his life, while he first suspects that he is going crazy, he is shocked by something even worse, he's now working for Death. This book is by turns silly, bizarre and really sweet, plus it's set in San Fransisco, one of my favorite cities. I kept laughing out loud while reading it and stopping to read lines out loud to Joe, which I'm sure amused (and distracted) him from Tom Clancy. Anyway, great, goofy, absurd, dark, and sad little book. (I particularly loved the goth teenager Lily! Her goth name is perfection.)

The second book I read this week was All The Finest Girls by Alexandra Styron. A beautifully written book. A bit sparse and it left me wanting more description, more background and just more information in general about the characters. The basic story jumps between present day on St. Clair an island in the Caribbean, where Adelaide is attending the funeral and wake of her former nanny, Lou, and then the story swings back to the 1970's when Lou is working for Adelaide's parents as her nanny, in their wealthy New England home. Adelaide is an out of control, neglected and rather troubled child. She has an alter ego she calls Cat who seems to arrive while Adelaide is under extreme stress, while her parents argue yet again, when her fragile actress mother leaves for months on end to film her movies, and while her arrogant cold father disappears to complete his next book. Lou is the only stable parent figure that Addy has and yet when Lou leaves to return to her own family back in St. Clair, Addy loses touch with her and doesn't see her again, until she attend's Lou's funeral in the 1990's. I liked this book and yet I feel a bit let down by it, not much resolution or change in the main character and just a general malaise at reading about Addy's lonely and isolated adult life. Styron captures loss, loneliness and isolation so well that is actually felt uncomfortable to read.

It's funny that between these two books, A Dirty Job and All the Finest Girls, I find myself writing more about the book that I didn't like as much. With Christopher Moore's book, I enjoyed it so much that I almost don't want to write about it and ruin its lovely suprises and humor. All the Finest Girls was skillfully written but just felt like more of a chore to read, with its focus on death, grief and childhood traumas. Read A Dirty Job, read it today!

Monday, July 02, 2007

Finished Basilica yesterday. Great book, I feel smarter just holding it my hand. The book follows the history behind the construction, design and creation of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome (technically Vatican City). The author does an excellent job of bringing the reader into the excitement and challenge of undertaking such an enormous building project, especially in the 1500's. And talk about drama, this book has poisonings, backstabbings, illegitimate children, rape and plundering and solid gold plates being tossed in the Tiber for sheer amusement!
St. Peter's was originally an ancient church built by Constantine after he first legalized Christianity and when it was becoming a hugely popular new religion. So Pope Julius II's idea, in the early 1500's, to tear down the old St. Peter's in order to build an enormous expensive new St. Peter's was met with outrage, anger and disbelief by the citizens of Rome and by Catholics across Europe. The books essentially follows each of the popes, who are essentially the money and control behind the project, that are involved in the century long process of building St. Peter's, and the architects and artists who lead the design and construction teams, with thousands of artisans, craftsmen and laborers. The building of the church, with the numerous changes in leadership, changes in artistic vision, and financial and political intrigues, took over 100 years to be completed. Through the sacking of Rome, through the deaths of numerous popes, the death of lead architects Sangallo, Michaelangelo, Raphael and countless other struggles, St. Peter's was born, born to be one of the largest churches in history and heart of the Catholic church for centuries to come. Reading this book makes me want to visit Rome again! The next book I'm starting tonight is the Mitford Sisters, non fiction but a complete departure from Basilica, I'll miss it.

Monday, June 25, 2007

I finished Loving Che on Sunday. I liked it but it felt very light, nebulous and kind of hazy. Not an amazing book, but it sketched a lovely romantic picture of Cuba in the 1950's and 60's. Lovely until Cuba collapses into chaos, destruction and communism, of course. The hazy romance of the book is the love affair between a young married upper middle class woman and Che Guevera. The product of their love affair is a baby girl, who is shipped off with her grandfather when the Cuban people begin their mass immigration to the US in the 1960's. The mystery of the book is that the baby girl grows up with no knowledge of her parents or their history and the only family member she knows is her silent and steady grandfather. Years later, after her grandfathers death, and many investigative trips to Cuba in search of her mother, the daughter receives a random package filled with photos and letters from her mother. These letters, which make up over half of the book, lend some insight into the family history and the girl's possible parentage. The book never quite clarifies whether the love story is true or whether Che is actually the girl's father, and it doesn't really matter in the long run. But its a romantic and beautifully written story. Next up is Basilica by R. A Scotti, about the building of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, really good so far, especially since I've visiting there so recently.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

So let's get to Prep. I really liked this book. It was a fun, fast, and an entertaining read. And though it also followed a high school girl's daily life, it was a much different book than The Cheerleader. Prep follows the high school career of Lee, a 14 year old middle class girl from Indiana, who one day just decides that she would like to attend a boarding school. She applies, gets accepted, gets a scholarship and then has to convince her family to let her go. They acquiesce and so she packs up and drives out with her parents to her new private boarding school right outside of Boston. She is immediately overwhelmed by the massive changes her life undergoes as soon as she arrives at school. She's one of the poor kids, she's not into sports, she's not beautiful and because she is a bit shy she becomes extremely isolated and alienates herself, making very little effort to get to know her classmates or teachers. She warms up over the first year and starts to make some real friends but its a struggle for her during her entire high school career. She never feels like a part of a group, always feels like an outsider, and holds herself back too much. She begins to loosen up later in her high school years and its just so fun and entertaining to read about the ups and downs of her life. Takes me back to high school and makes me think of the things I would do differently if I ever had to go back. But thank god I don't have to! High school sucked! On to the next book, Loving Che.
Ok, things have been super busy the last few days and I haven't had a chance to post my two new book reviews. Last Saturday I finished The Cheerleader (don't have the book in front of me and can't find anything but young adult books called The Cheerleader on Amazon!) and last Sunday I read Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld. Both fit together pretty well since they both chronicle the craziness, chaos and joy of high school life for two teenage girls.

The Cheerleader was the book that I finished on Saturday. Honestly I didn't like this book for the first 25 pages. I found it depressing, melancholy and rather a bit too familiar to my own struggles with depression. But once I got into the book, it moves from short monologues into a more narrative style, I felt more like an observant, worried adult watching this girl as her hold on sanity collapses. Part of that is certainly the fact that I'm now in my thirties and able to look back on my late teens and early twenties with a little perspective. But as I read about the struggles of this young, sensitive, high school girl. No one seems to see through her facade of health and happiness. She gets stuck in an abusive relationship, she has such insecurities and doubts while the outside world can only see a beautiful, popular cheerleader. I liked the first person narrative aspect of the book. You are right inside Jo's head, hearing her thoughts, witnessing her interactions with friends and family, and seeing the discrepancies and pretense in her inner voice versus her outer actions. She covers up so much of her depression and anxiety that things really start to unravel in her freshman year at college when her entire support system is gone. This book touched me with the author's ability to really get inside Jo's head and present her in such a way that you empathize with her, understand her and only want to protect her. Thankfully the book wraps things up a bit and catches up with Jo in her twenties, feeling healthier and able to function as a stable adult in graduate school. Honest, painful and well written. But still hits a bit too close to home for me personally to really enjoy reading it.

I'll write my little Prep review a little later.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

So the next book I'm reading, started yesterday actually, is The Cheerleader. A complete 180 from Handling Sin. This book is not funny. This book is not absurd. So far its just rather bleak, a bit depressing and sad. But I'm giving it a try. Interesting format actually, each entry in the book is just a couple paragraphs so far and the narrator is looking at photos of herself and her family explaining what's happening in the photo. The Cheerleader (the narrator) is leading up to a mental breakdown, so I'm just anticipating it. It should be a fast read, very short.
Ok, so I finally finished Handling Sin a couple of days ago. That book took me two solid weeks, it was long but not that long! With all the job hunting and jewelry show stuff I just haven't read as much the last couple of weeks. I really liked this book. I found it a bit hard to get into, I think because of the variety of characters, constant action and chaos, and Southern banter, it just took a bit to slide into the flow of the story. I laughed out loud during some of the ridiculous escapades, teared up during the tender moments, and generally just had a good time, would have been a great beach read. It reminded me of A Confederacy of Dunces. Both are absurd, over the top, quirkly, loveable and endearing. Raleigh is the main character and with the help of his father, a former pastor and musician with a serious heart condition, Raleigh learns to let loose, meets a wild cast of characters, finally creates a friendship with his half brother, realizes how much he loves his family, follows a treasure map in search of non-existant Confederate gold, and learns some deep dark family secrets. This is the kind of book that hides its depth and the talent of the writer under the fun and chaos. Its such a smooth easy read that you don't even realize how difficult it is to create this type of book. Raleigh has such a profound experience and it creates such change in his life without beating you over the head with its message. I could read this book 5 more times and still find new things in it. Quite great!

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The next book on my list, that I started yesterday is one of Kristen's. Its called Handling Sin by Michael Malone. So far its pretty damn funny. Sort of a Southern treasure hunt, quirky and smart slapstick. Its pretty long so we shall see how long it takes!
Ok, finished Kitchen Confidential on Sunday. Really enjoyed every chaotic minute of it. Anthony Bourdain's voice is one of the strongest aspects of the book. It feels like he's just smoking a cigarette and telling you stories, sitting across from you at a busy restaurant. His blunt and often totally self deprecating descriptions are terrific. The basic story of his culinary pursuits begins with a childhood trip to France where he discovers that he loves eating strange food and impressing people with his daring appetites, and then follows his education at a variety of restaurants, the CIA (not the government agency) and then his constant ups and downs as a talented but self destructive chef. He closed numerous restaurants, consumed a variety of illegal substances, kicked heroin, met some amazing friends, and collected a motley kitchen crew of degenerates, eccentrics and ball breakers to assist him in creating delicious high quality food. The main feeling I take away from this book is a deep respect for chefs and cooks who create great food. The discipline, time commitment and multi tasking balancing act that it is to be a chef, is something that I now feel I understand on a much deeper level. The chapter that describes a typical day in Bourdain's life as an executive chef at Les Halles was excellent, giving such a clear picture of the organization, creativity, stamina and dedication it takes to be a top chef. That man is a bad-ass. Fast read, but it was over too quickly. I'll be picking up a couple of his other books soon.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

So the next selection will be Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain, Joe loved it and said it was a quick read, so here goes!
I love reading blogs but I can't seem to write something everyday or even monthly! It feels like a chore. So this summer I'm just going to write quick notes on what I'm reading. More just for me to keep track of everything I read this summer. So here goes, just finished this last night, first book of the summer.

The Black Dahlia
by James Ellroy

Really liked this book. Dropping you into 1940's L.A., gritty, dark and yet blindingly sunny, Ellroy captures the language, the passion and the pressure of cops trying to solve the brutal murder and torture of a young wanna be actress. No one is good, everyone is flawed, the cops are brutal racists, the women are all sly broads or trampy victims. And I found myself loving every minute of it. From race riots, to scuzzy motel room liasons, down to its rough and tumble cracked and twisted ending. Perfect noir mystery, excellent. Can't wait to read the next three books in Ellroy's LA quartet. If you are bothered by graphic sex, violence and 1940's politically incorrect language this isn't the book for you. But if you love a mystery, complex and flawed characters, and relish the artistry in perfectly selected and controlled language that Ellroy so deftly uses, then please borrow it from me!