Friday, December 21, 2012

30 Second Book Review: Snowy Recaps

The end of 2012 is nigh, not the end of the world, obviously, we're still here, but the end of the year. So I thought I'd offer up a final 30 second book review, just in time for your last minute shopping for that beloved book nerd in your life.

I've read several books that I adored this year, a few I loathed, and plenty that I didn't feel very strongly about. Those bug me the most. The ones I don't care much for, not enough to hate or love, just meh. Meh is the kiss of death. Meh means I don't really care about the characters, or the writing isn't beautiful or challenging enough to elevate a weak story or plot. Or the author just never grabbed me, or the timing was off and it's my fault as a distracted reader. That happens. Frankly it's happening right now, and no book I've picked up in the last week is capturing my attention. I blame Christmas. So I'm going to focus on the books I've loved reading this year, and what I've read since September.

Of the more than 100 books I've read this year, many of them audio books on my commute, four of my favorites are included here: Tiny Beautiful Things, Absolution, Wild and Tell The Wolves I'm Home. (Others from earlier this year, wrapping up my top ten of 2012: The PassageEleanor and Park, Daring GreatlyMatterhorn, The Warmth of Other Suns, and The Night Circus.)

So let's dive into the recent offerings, so you can go hit Barnes and Noble and buy the paper copy to wrap up for a lovely present, or be lazy like me and just send your beloved book nerd the Kindle/Nook version and stay in home, comfy in your pajamas:

Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed - I read this book on our flight to Maine in September. I cried, I laughed, I sighed. It's one of the most open, heartbreaking and real books I've read in ages. A compilation of the most insightful, vulnerable and personal advice column answers from the Dear Sugar series. I became a convert to the cult of Dear Sugar, who is actually the writer, Cheryl Strayed.

Run by Blake Crouch- No clutter no heavy character development, just fast paced terrifying action. I devoured this in one night, and then couldn't fall asleep for the thinking about it. Sort of a zombie apocalypse novel, but not really.

The Girl Below by Bianca Zander -I liked parts of this book. The writing is consistent and the story line and setting are interesting, but I kept waiting for something significant or just more to happen. It really never did.

The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty - Enjoyable, but not as good as I wanted it to be. I loved the stories of the Orphan Train and New York in the 1920's but it tried to cram too much history and

The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey - A modern day, well 1960's, retelling of the Jane Eyre story. Lovely, just lovely.

Before I Go to Sleep by S.J. Watson- Clever, thought provoking and creepy. But a little unbelievable, ok, totally unbelievable.

Absolution by Patrick Flanery - Joe went to high school with Patrick and I had the pleasure of meeting him a few years ago, he's charming and an incredibly gifted writer. Absolution was one of my favorite books of the year, but it wasn't an easy read. The novel is set in South Africa during and after apartheid and told from several perspectives including the main character Clare, a famous novelist, and her young biographer, Sam. The book doesn't follow a straight narrative flow, but instead weaves nearly five different story lines with overlapping characters, including letters, journals, a draft of a novel/memoir, some of them fictionalized versions of the truth, so you never quite get your footing as the reader. What is true? What really happened to Clare's daughter? Who is Sam? Is South Africa really free from apartheid yet? Who is Clare? Absolution is a book about sin, our roles as both sinners and those offering forgiveness, and more than a story about apartheid, this is a story of family and betrayal and a search for truth, a truth that may not even exist in the way we want it to. Patrick's writing is simply beautiful and inspiring. Scenes of hideous torture and violence can be wrought in an eerie and jarring way, each page has a layered intensity that made it a challenging and rewarding novel to dive into. It left me anxious, confused and contemplative, in all the ways a good novel can. Thank you, Patrick. I can't wait to read your next book.

Son by Lois Lowry - A fine conclusion to The Giver series. I love how Lowry's stark, clean style takes on the heavy, broad philosophical issues of evil, love, family and belonging and places these struggles in such a personal context at each of her distinct dystopian communities. I wish I'd had these books to read as a middle school student.

Once Upon a Secret by Mimi Alford - I watched the Rock Center interview with Mimi Alford, and I felt for her, young, naive, seduced by a powerful man, famous horn-dog philanderer, President Kennedy,but the balance of the book was not particularly engaging or intriguing. Keeping secrets can be incredibly damaging and suffocating, but doesn't necessarily require a full length memoir.

Diary of a Submissive by Sophie Morgan- Well, at least the writing was better than 50 Shades of Grey. I struggle to believe that this is a real memoir. Not because anything in it is too shocking or surprising to be believed, but because all of the characters feel cliched and bland. Sure, some of the many many many sex scenes are sexy. They should be since that's really all there is to this book. A couple of pages of non sex plot or back story stringing together the sex scenes. It just got boring after a certain point. Like watching five hours of pornography in a row. Though I'm sure some readers will find this book enlightening and racy, it just made me want to read another Dan Savage column or listen to another episode of his pod cast. Real callers, real stories, and real advice. Or try Whip Smart by Melissa Febos, a memoir of a young dominatrix in New York City that was insightful and engaging, or for straight up filthy sexy fiction read Ann Rice's Beauty series. It's full of strong characters set in creative, intricate and layered worlds where dominance and submission are the rule of the land. Hot.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn- Quite a twisty little novel, amusing and fast paced once it gets moving. You'll be shocked by the twists and turns, unless someone gives the secrets away, which they accidentally did to me, so it might have cut into my enjoyment just a bit. Still inventive and fun.

The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown - This should have been a rollicking audio read on my commute. Or stupid. Or both! Verdict: stupid and it went in way too long.

History of a Pleasure Seeker by Richard Mason - Charmingly ambitious romp through 1900's Europe, makes social climbing look fun. Can't wait for the sequel to find out where our bi-sexual adventurer will end up.

The Wolf Gift by Anne Rice- I'm bummed, just didn't like this book at all. All the things that I used to enjoy about an Anne Rice novel have faded away into overblown details and flat characters that are simply rich and pretty. Stopped less than 1/2 way in.

The Twelve by Justin Cronin -Why did I doubt this sequel to one of my favorite books, The Passage? It weaves it's story slowly down a seemingly disconnected and indulgent path until Cronin suddenly shocks you with plot twists and the hidden history in his elaborate fictional world. I should have just leaned into it and trusted him. He's got the carefully constructed map and I just need to be along for the ride. Not quite as good as The Passage, but how could it have been? Long wait for the finale.

Nick and Norah's Infinite Play List by Rachel Cohen and David Levithan- Just goddamned adorable.

Tell the Wolves I'm Home by Carol Rifka Brunt- This book just killed me. Such a beautifully rendered portrait of a young lonely teenage girl, the tragic confusion of loss and grief, and the pain of growing up during the early years of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980's. There was so much beauty in the book and so much unnecessary sorrow that I found myself crying like an idiot for the last perfect pages.

Everyday by David Levithan- 14 year old me would have been blown away by this one. I thoroughly enjoyed the premise, the encapsulated day long stories of each sixteen year old that the main character, A inhabits, and the impossible chemical connection between A and Rhiannon. Unique, thoughtful and engaging.

Wild by Cheryl Strayed- Probably one of my favorite books all year. Insightful, gripping, sad, and uplifting all at once. Cheryl Strayed is a brave, bold, fool-hardy woman who I can't wait to read more from. This book is incredibly popular for a very good reason, Cheryl is engaging, self-aware and so willing to delve into her deep suffering, sadness and mistakes that you fall in love with her.

Pure by Andrew Miller - A strange little novel set in 1700's France, as a young architect sets about moving the overflowing Les Innocents cemetery, which has been polluting the surrounding neighborhood for decades. Right before the revolution, a time period rarely covered in historical novels, this was a captivating, gruesome story.

The Happiness Project by Gwen Rubin - Fine. It was fine.

No Angel by Jay Dobyns - I liked the idea of this book better than the book itself. The first 100 pages whiz by and then it stalls a bit. Also to spend nearly two years of your life collecting evidence on biker criminals and having the charges against them dropped or reduced has to be infuriating. I think I'll read Hunter S. Thompson's book on the Hells Angels for more history of the notorious Angels.

Insomnia by Steven King - What's happening in this book? And why is it taking so long? Ok, skipping to the end. I just can't take the slooooow speed of this audiobook. Turns out, I like most every Steven King novel, but not a huge fan of the fantasy Talisman type stories. And this is essentially a part of that series. Not for me.

Sybil Exposed by Debbie Nathan - Sybil was one of those books and movies that swept me away when I was in high school and certain that I'd grow up to be a world renowned child psychologist. This expose takes a look at "Sybil", her psychiatrist and the author of the book, Sybil, and essentially pokes gaping holes in every part of the story you thought was true. Sybil was an mentally ill woman, but Sybil the book is blatantly false. This whole book was sad and frustrating and eye opening. Sally Field would not approve.

The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bojahlian - I knew nothing about the Armenian genocide that occured right before WWI, before reading this book. A very sad and compelling story. I would have preferred to just stay with the past story line and cut the present day story line entirely. It felt rather perfunctory and was only there to move the narrative along and wrap things up. Cut that out and keep us with Elizabeth and Armen, and their moving love story instead.

So that's it for 2012 30 Second Book Reviews! Merry Christmas and Happy New Year Reading!

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Ridiculous Hand Wringing

Joe and I had the most asinine conversation yesterday morning and it was all on me. I came upstairs from the basement, where I'd just finished a really good interval training run/walk on the treadmill. (Inside, not because it's too cold outside to run yet, but more because I'm obsessed with Breaking Bad and must watch as I work out, so I can see how evil Walter White truly will become here in the fourth season, but anyway, back to my story.)

I'd just spent the 45 minute workout staring at the TV transfixed by Skylar White's suddenly puffy face and Hank's struggles to walk again, while in the background I tried to ignore the nonsense and anxiety and questions that seem to be constantly running through my brain the last few weeks. My brain is full. Really full. I feel the normal stress of the holidays, shopping and baking and wrapping, the normal stress of working and stepping it up so I feel like I deserve my recent promotion, and then there's all this other stuff taking up new space in that vital brain area.  Joe and I are seeing a fertility specialist and I'm shocked by how stressful, overwhelming and frustrating it all can be. But mostly I've been gnawing away at this one issue.

I can't train for the triathlon that I committed to do next July. I can't do it. Doctor's orders. And I'm disappointed and guiltily a little relieved, and I feel like I'm letting myself down even though it's not my fault. That's probably that little bit of relief making me feel guilty.  But I came up from the basement, all sweaty and crazy eyed, and just started talking a mile a minute, interrupting Joe's quiet morning with an onslaught of questions that had been percolating in my head for days. Questions he had no idea I was even stewing about. Because he is a man. And I am a lady machine powered on hormones, self-induced guilt and too much self-flagellating negative talk disguised as self-analysis. Should I sign up for the tri just in case I don't get pregnant and can then start training? But when would that even be? Why can't we have more control in all this? This sucks, right? Are people going to think I'm a quitter? What should I do? Why did I ever tell people I was doing this in the first place? Why am I an idiot? God, I'm being narcissistic. Why am I making such a big deal out of this?

He looked at me, closing his eyes and patiently shaking his head and said, "What's with all this ridiculous hand wringing? The doctor told you that you can't train for it, so you can't do it. What's the big deal? No one's going to care. And why do you care if they do?" And he's right. There will be other years. I want a kid. So no heavy training. It's simple.

I can still run and work out, I just can't work out at the level that I'd need to in order to be ready for the triathlon next summer. Joe suggested I sign up for a 5K instead. So I just did. Like 15 minutes ago. It's a small thing, a 5K. People do them all the time. But I haven't. So I'm gonna go run a race. For a great cause: January 26, the Polar Plunge and 5K Strut for Special Olympics! So if you live in Kansas City I'd love you to join me. Or just show up and bring me some hot coffee. Or if you want to make a donation to this wonderful organization, just click on the friggin adorable Oz themed polar bear below. Or do nothing and wait for me to post gross sweaty pictures of my happy, shiny face when I cross the finish line. It might take me an hour, but I'm doing it. And I'm going to stop wringing my hands about it. I'm going to control the things I can, and let the rest go. Or at least I'm going to try. You're welcome, dear.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Friday Five: Festive Procrastination

Shouldn't you be in the other room watching football or wrapping presents or making a grocery list or something? Procrastinating then, huh? How about some Friday Five question and answers? Ok, ok, it's Sunday you tell me, I know that. Duh. But I'm pretending otherwise. So read on, Captain Obvious! And kill a few minutes before you go fold that laundry or finally put on pants. The pants can wait. I have no formal dress code over here. I'm pro-no-pants.

You know those delicatessens that name sandwiches after famous people? What would be the ingredients of the sandwich named after you?

Bacon, Smoked Turkey, Mayo, Spicy Mustard, Sliced Gouda on soft Potato Bread. Because as stated on my favorite show this week: "Things with fat in them taste better than things without."

What’s your favorite part of staying in a hotel?

The bed gets made every day, the trash gets emptied, and free tiny bottles of shampoo and lotion. And hotel sex. Ok, mostly hotel sex.

What was the last book you read, and how was it?

I've been in a reading funk the last couple of weeks. I've started and stopped about three books, most recently Cloud Atlas, which just made me feel like I was re-watching the movie. And I got tired of Tom Hanks popping up in my head with a variety of creepy accents and heavy pancake make up. That's the stuff of nightmares. I'm sure the book is better, but not today.

What’s something super-unhealthy you’ve recently eaten?

Member that thing I said about fat? Yesterday was a day spent making cookies and candy with my brother, dad and step-mom. It's a tradition. So I had to have some samples. Peanut butter cookies baked with a bite size Snicker hidden in the middle, chocolate cookies with white chocolate chips and dried cranberries, spritz cookies, and peppermint patties. Yeah, I might I have had at least one, ok, two of each.

Chocolate cookie with cranberries and white chocolate chips.

What do you do with all those Christmas cards with photos of friends and their kids?

We have a large window/pass through that opens our kitchen out into the entryway/living room, so all of the cards get taped up around the frame of the window. Come January I pick my favorites, tuck them away for future scrapbooking/crafting, and sorry, being honest here, I trash the rest. You and your kin end up getting recycled if you aren't cute enough. You'll keep that in mind next year, I bet. Sorry.

Now go lay on the couch or make dinner or put your pants on and take the dog for a walk. Whatever you had on your to-do list today. I'm off to put some pants on myself and head to a holiday concert with my mom and a bus full of wealthy elderly investors. They do have a dress code, and pants are most certainly a requirement. So Merry Christmas!