Friday, June 26, 2015

The Odds Have it

This is a long one. I managed to fly through a couple of books, but this post is unusual in that I spend most of it recommending other, better versions of the topics at hand. 

#42 – After Camelot – J. Randy Taraborrelli
Recommended by: MK
          It was a gray, dreary, and unremarkable Saturday afternoon in Hyannis Port.

I never really cared about Camelot. My parents were of the Kennedy generation and I never once heard them mention that family, good or bad. As such, I didn’t have much of an interest in them or their lives. I knew the basics, I mean, I am American, but I couldn’t have drawn a family tree or named more than a few of them off the top of my head. So an entire book about them post-JFK and RFK was not high on my reading list.

Unfortunately, after reading it, I don’t think it should be high on yours either. My first problem was the author wrote a book about the Kennedy family pre-1968 and seemed to think that if you read this one, you must have read that one. I didn’t. Which means the assassination of JFK and the murder of RFK are just breezed past. It was an terrible editorial misstep that informed the entire rest of the book because you cannot base an entire family history on how they overcome grief, how they based their lives on service, and how they always, always, always were in the shadow of those great men without actually talking about those great men and how they died! A chapter on each of them, with their terrible deaths included, would have gone a long way toward filling the emotional center of the book, which I found sorely missing.

My other problem with the book was the “Oh, woe is them!” feeling. Yes, many people in the family died of cancer. When your family is as big as the Kennedy clan, and when cancer is so prevalent, statistically, I think they were about average. Yes, many of them died in small plane crashes – which, by the way, they flew in constantly. Again, statistically, when you fly in a small airplane 10 times more often than average, your death in a plane crash will increase. It is still sad. It is still terrible. There was no Kennedy curse. There was only the law of averages. 

The central theme of the book seemed to be that everyone was always grieving, trying to just survive, bonding as a family, and trying to be of service. There was no dirt. It does not appear that anyone very close to the family actually sat down to be interviewed for this book, including any Kennedy. The author pulled all of his punches. He didn’t disclose anything that wasn’t already public knowledge. It was all very polite, which also, unfortunately, made it all rather boring.

If you really want to know what being in the Kennedy clan was like, I highly suggest you read Carole Radziwell’s memoir, What Remains. It is about the death of her beloved husband and while I normally avoid cancer books, like, well cancer, this is quite honestly one of the best books, let alone memoirs, I have ever read. It’s beautiful and fascinating and interesting and really gives you a sense of what losing a loved one is like. It also gives incredible insight into the Kennedy family because Carol and her husband were best friends with John F. Kennedy, Jr. and Caroline Bessette Kennedy. It is dishy, but not in an invasive way and it presents everyone in real lighting, not in the most flattering one.   

#44 Wifey – Judy Blume
Recommended by: BD
           Sandy sat up in bed and looked at the clock.

As a child, I read every Judy Blume book I could get my hands on – and my child has done the same. As a tween, she taught me all sorts of things. I learned about masturbation in Deenie, about sex in Forever, and about grief in Tiger Eyes. In fact, I loved the last book so much I wore tiger eye jewelry for years. I haven’t let my kid near those books yet, but when the time comes, I can only hope she learns that sort of stuff in a compassionate, understanding way – but probably not from Judy.

Look, some books age well. Others don’t. I’m sure Super Fudge is still relevant, but in this day and age, Wifey reads like a down market episode of Mad Men. A frustrated housewife in the early 70s has a few affairs during one summer when her kids are away at camp as she tries to figure out how she wound in a loveless marriage with a man who expects the same weekly meals, the same weekly sex, and values beauty before substance. Yawn. Maybe it was the stilted language, or maybe it the paper thin characterizations, but this book left me cold. Every man was made of straw. Every woman was a harpy.

Have you heard of the Bechdel test? Passing it requires two female characters sharing a scene (in a movie, but I think it is equally relevant in a book), talking about anything other than a man. The book failed that test. Miserably. Even worse, I don’t think anyone in the book every talked to anyone else openly and honestly. It was just so depressing. But worst of all, it was really dated. This book is not a classic. It is of a very specific time and place and that place is, unfortunately, the 70s. No one wants to go back to the 70s, least of all with the writer of Freckle Juice. There are literally dozens of books about this same exact type of life, written by much better authors. I'd start with Jennifer Weiner and work your way outward from there. 

#46 – High Fidelity - Nick Hornby
Recommended by: BD
      My desert island, all-time, top five most memorable split-ups, in chronological order:

This was a re-read and I liked it exactly the same amount the second as I did the first time. It’s a very cute, very British book. The guy is sort of a wanker, the whole vintage record shop (this was set during the time of vinyl and mix tapes) is all rather twee, and honestly, I couldn’t give a rat’s ass about him or his girlfriend or their problems. Sure, it was generally amusing, but if you want to read a book about a wanker who finds a way to screw up his life through apathy, then read About a Boy by the same author.  Or if you want to read a book with endless musical references, mix tapes, and lost love, then I recommend Love is a Mix Tape by Rob Sheffeld. Both books are superior to this one.  

#47 – Harry Potter and the Prizoner of Azkaban
Recommended by: BD

Harry Potter was a highly unusual boy in many ways.

This is the best of the Potter books in terms of smart, tight storytelling, clear characters, and a great plot. If you haven’t read Harry Potter yet, well, what on earth is wrong with you? And if you tell me you have only seen the movies, I will cease being your friend. These aren’t children’s books. They just happen to be books that children enjoy. Rowling is a master of setting up far-reaching events. A throwaway line about a vanishing cabinet in the second book becomes a major plot point in the sixth book. A casual mention of a sporting event in the third becomes a major set piece for the fourth. Characters make choices you can believe because they aren’t made in a vacuum. These books may be about magic, but in the end, Rowling always shows you how the rabbit got into the hat. My daughter is addicted to them. She has destroyed all of my first printings. She plays Harry Potter trivia games like it is her job and if she ever finds out about the Harry Potter theme parks, she will be out hawking lemonade at every major, minor, and rookie event at the local high school to earn the money to go. I actively encourage her addition. I mean hell, it’s better than Twilight, right? If you haven’t dived into the Harry Potter universe yet, I highly recommend that you get right on it. If you prefer audio books, the Jim Dale versions are superb.  Hogwarts is waiting! 

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