Friday, July 31, 2015

Beans and Birthdays

I have rarely been able to discuss the books with the people who chose them, so this week I was delighted to share breakfast with the guy who tried to abuse my poor math skills and get eight books onto the list. We negotiated down to three, with one to be read at a later date. His taste hews to non-fiction, but beyond that, it was very eclectic. Let's see what is of interest to one of my husband's oldest friends. 

#53 – Into the Wild – Jon Krakauer
Recommended by: KS

In April 1992, a young man from a well-to-do family hitchhiked to Alaska and walked alone into the wilderness north of Mt. McKinley. His name was Christopher Johnson McCandless. He had given $25,00 in savings to charity, abandoned his car and most of his possessions, burned all the cash in his wallet, and invented a new life for himself. Four months later, his decomposed body was found by a moose hunter.

The text on the front cover of the book sums it up succinctly. What you think about the book will be based on what you think of the McCandless. Is he a saint or a savant? The book explains what led him to the fateful trip to Alaska, what could have caused his death, and throws in a few other stories of people who died under similar circumstances to give you a broader view. The author also interjects himself in to the story, a year before he did so much more spectacularly in Into Thin Air.

It is an interesting book. I remember, years ago, talking to a friend about surfer culture and how surfers spend time making money, then time just riding the waves, and I remember snarking that, “their parents must be so proud of them.” Age and experience have taught me that maybe taking time to do what you love is something to be proud of, and as long as you are supporting yourself, and not hurting others, to each his own. Therein lies the rub. His death hurt a lot of people. Should he still have taken his journey? It’s so hard to say. I think this book will stay with me for a very long time because it didn’t provide an easy answer to one of life’s most fundamental questions – Does making oneself happy override the happiness of others? I urge those of you who have not read it to do so and try to come up with your own answer.

#54 – Founding Brothers – Joseph Ellis
Recommended by: KS

No event in American history, which was so improbable at the time has seemed so inevitable in retrospect as the American Revolution.

The book then shows us why, using several moments in time that changed America. This sounds like an awesome read in theory, not so much in practice. This book was dry as toast. It wasn’t boring; it was just devoid of any emotion other than rabid interest. Imagine being stuck in a room with a gaggle of history nerds while they discussed the minutia of a dinner party that happened two hundred years ago and was filled with people who all seemed completely interchangeable. That is what reading this book was like. People did not have conversations; they had ongoing dialogue or intense discourse. The preface alone nearly killed me. The author never used one word when he could use fourteen. His use of grammar was excellent as I’ve never seen commas used to such great effect in extending a sentence so that it had the weight and heft of a full paragraph. I thought the history of Lincoln would be the most unwieldy of the books on the list, but this one was by far much harder to digest. It was just so wordy. (Coming from a blogger, I understand the irony of that statement.) I admit that there was some (gasp!) skimming involved. I just couldn’t really dive into this book without drowning in a sea of vocabulary on topics that the author rendered so colorless. A chapter on the infamous duel between Hamilton and Burr was as thrilling as the goblin wars as told by Professor Binns. I think the author got in his own way quite a bit by over-explaining, over-analyzing, and just overwriting to the point of lunacy. If this part of history is your thing, then by all means, dive in. For the rest of us, here there be dragons.

#55 – What is the What – Dave Eggers
Recommended by: KS

                I have no reason not to answer the door so I answer the door.

Thus begins what I can only refer to as the Story of Job as lived by a Sudanese Lost Boy. The prologue makes it very clear that Dave Eggers is not the author. This is a true life account; an only barely fictionalized, horrifying, unbelievable, yet utterly realistic account of what Valentino Dominic Achak Deng lived through. It is occasionally funny in ways that are both sad and ridiculous, but it is never anything less than memorable.

There is a section in the book where Achak visits Nairobi for the first time and this visit happens to coincide with the death of Princess Diana. As people mourn in the street and his hosts are visibly traumatized, Achak, not understanding the customs of death outside of Sudan, wonders if this is how everyone is mourned when they pass. Only much later does he realize that it was her fame that made anyone care, but that when an anonymous man is killed, or thousands of men, women, and children are slaughtered in what can only be termed genocide, that people are oddly unaffected. Considering how the entire Internet seems to have lost its damn mind over Cecil the Lion this week, I think his observation still stands.

This is another book that I think should be required reading. Yes, it is violent. Yes, it is heartbreaking. But it is necessary for people to understand what they stories they see on the news don’t end when they change the channel. Those stories continue, but no one seems to care about them anymore. Achak talks about refugee camps being built in the most desolate, unwanted, unlivable places and then being stuck in them not for month, but for years. Years! Think about your worst night of camping, take away all of your camping supplies, and multiple the length of time past the point of all logic and reason – that is what his life was like – and that was after he survived so many other traumatic events that I am not even sure how he was still able to think or speak, let alone tell such a clear story in such a cohesive manner. The worst part is that I just checked out his website and everything he talked about in the books is still happening! It isn’t ancient history, or even the recent past. This is now. Read this book. Please. I dare you not to look at the world differently afterward. 

Friday, July 17, 2015

Humble Pie

#51 – The Help –Kathryn Stockton
Recommended by: AS

Remember a few weeks ago, how I talked about books like they were food? Some books are a five course meal, others are dessert, while some are dessert with secret veggies baked inside? This book is a granola bar that has healthy packaging but is filled with sugar.

Here is my problem with this book in a nutshell – the entire story of the oppression of working class blacks was told from the point of view of a rich white girl. It is fantasy, not fiction. We can all pat ourselves on the back that we would never act like that toward someone of a different race, but last week, greater than 50 years after this book was set, we JUST got rid of the Confederate flag, a symbol of black oppression if there ever was one. So, don’t go breaking your arm or anything. There is still a long way to go.

Was the book well-written? Yes? Was it fun to read and did it keep my attention? Yes. Has everyone in the world read this book or seen the movie? Yes, though I admit I actually haven’t seen the movie because if I did that, I’d have to add on another month to this project. Look, it is a cute book and all, but it isn’t half of what is has been made out to be. 

Friday, July 10, 2015

The Freedom to Despair

Fun fact, I once won a first-edition, signed copy of a Jennifer Wiener book by posting a picture of her books trying to guillotine one of his books. Odd, right? I also posted a blog about winning the contest on Twitter because it gave me a much needed dose of self-worth after a really shitty day. 

#48 – Freedom – Jonathan Franzen
Recommended by: SR

The news about Walter Berglund wasn’t picked up locally – he and Patty had moved away to Washington two years earlier and meant nothing to St. Paul now – but the urban gentry of Ramsey Hill were not so loyal to their city as not to read the New York Times.

I am not a fan of Franzen. I hated The Corrections. Sadly, I am not a much bigger fan of Freedom. I think it has the same two problems as his first book – all the characters are low-grade assholes that are impossible to care about in any meaningful way and nothing really happens. I can get behind a good villain or a really complex character that is neither good nor bad. In fact, I think that is what makes Gone Girl such a good book because if you take two minutes to think about the plot, it falls apart entirely. But you are willing to overlook the basic stupidity of the plot and the ludicrous ending because the characters are so fascinating. In this book, the characters are exactly the type of people you wouldn’t want to get stuck talking to at a cocktail party. They just exist in a vacuum of self-absorption and poor decision making. As a reader, we have to be told that characters are interesting because the author can never prove it on the page. I’m glad I read it because I can continue my active dislike for his novels with a perfect record, but I wouldn’t recommend anyone else suffer through it.

#50 – Despair – Vlaidmir Nabokov
Recommended by: LR

If I were not perfectly sure of my power to write and of my marvelous ability to express ideas with the utmost grace and vividness . . . So, more or less, I had thought of beginning my tale.

I didn’t get it. I can’t even pretend that I did. In fact, I can honestly state that if I didn’t go online and read the Wikipedia synopsis, I’d have literally no idea what happened in this book. I know this is a classic of literature, and Russian literature in particular, but I’d be damned if I had to explain why. It might as well have been written in Russian for all I understood of the characters, their motivation, and the plot. I can only be thankful that this was a very brief book and that my feeling of complete stupidity was short-lived. 

Friday, July 3, 2015

The Post-Birthday World

#49 - The Post-Birthday World – Lionel Shriver
Recommended by: SR

What began as coincidence had crystalized into tradition: on the sixth of July, they would have dinner with Ramsey Acton on his birthday.

Thus begins one of my favorite books of all time. I have recommended this book over and over again. I’ve made two different book clubs read it. I put a copy out in my Little Free library on the very first day it was open for business. I cannot emphasize how much I think every woman should read this book.

However, I’d be remiss in saying that half of the people who read it hated it.

Books are food for the soul. Some are light and airy, like lemon meringue pie. Others only seem shallow, but wind up being dense and thick, like brownies cooked with spinach or bread made with zucchini. Some are appetizers, others desserts. Many books are a meaty, loaded down with carbs and gravy, dates and details, so that when you finally finish, your brain is thick and sluggish.

The Post-Birthday World is a five-course meal. The first chapter is the amuse bouche – it sets the ground work for the entire story. Irina is in love with Lawrence, her fine, upstanding, somewhat boring partner of ten years. One night, she finds herself at dinner with Ramsey Acton, the rakish, dashing, snooker player. At the end of the night she has to make a choice – does she kiss him or not?
The rest of the book proceeds in alternating chapters. In one set, she kisses him. In the other set, she doesn’t. What is fantastic is how small decisions reap large changes and how perception is so different than reality. Choice is a common subject in my house and I’m always telling the kids to make good choices. But, really, what is a good choice? Which choice of Irina’s was the “right” one?

The first time I read this book, I thought one way. On this, my second reading, I feel completely different. I could talk about this book for hours and I will admit that I have thought about it frequently over the years. To me, this is a perfect book. The alternating chapters are like enjoying a tasting menu at a five-star restaurant. Each one is perfectly balanced against the one before it and the one next to it, but each could stand easily on its own. There is however, no sweet ending. This book eschews the traditional dessert course and goes for the cheese plate with multiple textures and smells.

The language is lush. The author is a master of simile and metaphor. You don’t skip sentences in this book; you allow them to wash over you word by word. There are no misspent words here, careless commas, or unnecessary asides. Every word has a purpose. It is really just a fantastic rendering of what could be and what was. 

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Supersize It

The problem with most sequels is that you already got everything you wanted out of the first movie. The perfect movie always leaves you wanting more – but the sequels tend to give you way too much. In the case of Magic Mike, the first movie sucked so badly that the sequel could only get better, and ladies, believe me when I say this, Magic Mike XXL was EXACTLY the stripper movie we all wanted.

This is what I said I wanted in the first movie:
I didn't go into a stripper movie expecting much. In fact, I was pretty clear that I wasn't interested in the "talky bits." I wanted hot, naked men dancing for my amusement without the hassle of a two-drink minimum and a handful of dollar bills that I am supposed to stick into dirty, sweaty, spangled thongs. I wanted a movie made for women - sweet romance with a hot lead, swoon-worthy secondary characters for comic relief, and at least one really good sex scene.

Check. Check. And while there wasn’t a sex scene, I am pretty damn sure that the finale was much, much dirtier than 50 Shades. Much.

The second movie had it all. I’ve been to my fair share of stripper shows (don’t ask), and I was always amazed at how ridiculous the men looked. There is nothing remotely sexy about spangled thongs. In, most women prefer nothing more than a man in pair of tight jeans hanging low off a set of tanned abs. Nothing is hotter than a man who can make us laugh, or a man who can sing, or a man who knows how to wear a tux. Check. Check. And Jesus Christ on a pogo stick, double check.

This movie was fun. It was a good time. I was once again accompanied by a wonderful set of women and we laughed, not at the movie, but WITH the movie. There was spontaneous applause, not once, but often. (Yes, I totally clapped like a child presented with candy when Matt Bomer busted out Bryan Adam’s “Heaven.”) The audience was involved, entertained, and delighted with what was on screen. Yes, it was a dumb stripper movie, but it was a perfect dumb stripper movie in that it didn’t try to be anything else. Did the men strip? You betcha! But in between, there wasn’t a lot of dead space. Each character had a chance to shine a bit, to be more than a cardboard cut-out with a six-pack, and to dance like no one was watching. Trust me, we were watching. Oh hell yes, we were watching.

While I may never be able to listen to the Backstreet Boys with the same level of innocence, I will also never see Michael Strahan the same way. And I’m pretty sure that Joe Manganiello just bumped himself straight up to the top of my list. Good lord. He wore a tux and made a really, really well-timed vampire joke? Hey baby, I think I want to marry you.  

Last time, I told the friend who was unable to attend that I’d buy the popcorn for the next movie because I wasn’t going back to see the first one. This time, I am ready, willing, and able to go back to see it with any one of you who did not make opening night. And ladies, let’s be clear – leave the men and the kids at home. This is one is for the girls.

(Closing note: I can only hope and pray that one day, if I am a very good girl and God is kind, that I too will have a book club meeting like the one in the movie. You are all invited. Promise.)