Saturday, October 29, 2011

The World As He Knows It

When The Typical Book Group picked Room by Emma Donoghue as its book, I was dreading reading it.  I had read the reviews, and really didn't think that there could be anything good about a novel based on a woman who had been abducted, and held in an 11 x 11 square foot room long enough to raise her child there.  But once again I was pleasantly surprised.

The story in Room is told by Jack, a five year old boy who has never known a world outside of his small room.  He sleeps in a wardrobe, and refers to items in the room like "Rug" and "Skylight" with initial caps, as though he is referring to his friends.  He lives with his mom, who is only known in the book as "Ma".  Ma is frequently visited by a man who he refers to as "Old Nick".

Ma is an amazing mother.  She teaches Jack everything that she knows, and plans their days out with a rigorous schedule, so that Jack watches very little television, and has plenty of time to learn.  Ma makes the best of the few things that she has.  For instance, instead of throwing the egg shells away after making breakfast, she blows the eggs out of the shells, and strings them together to make Snake.  She also keeps Jack safe from Old Nick, by never allowing them to see each other, even in the constraints of the very small Room.

Is this a fictional version of the Jaycee Dugard story?  Sort of.  It is more like an author's exploration of how one could make the best of and survive a horrible situation.  Through Ma, Donoghue creates a world for Jack where he doesn't know he is missing anything, and where he feels safe even when he is in more danger than most people will ever face.  Everything that the characters experience seems real, and frighteningly possible.  I am not sure that I would have been able to be as good of a mom in the same situation, yet Ma still has enough faults to be believable.

Next up:  Lisa Robertson's Magenta Soul Whip by Lisa Robertson

Still Listening to:  Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Exhausting Limits

When a friend posted a Huffington Post review of his uncle's book, Exhaust the Limits:  Life and Times of a Global Peace Builder on Facebook, I checked out the review, and then added the book to my TBR list.  There it languished for a very long time, since no library in Michigan owned the book.  Eventually I asked my library to buy it, and it did.

The uncle and author, Charles "Chic" Dambach, has lived an incredible life, which could make for a great book.  He joined the Peace Corps as a young man, and then climbed the ladder to the top of that organization.  He was involved in negotiating peace in Ethiopia.  He became a national champion kayak racer, and an Olympic official for that event.  He met presidents, he ran non-profit organizations, and his words found their way into speeches in Washington. 

But for all that, the book read a lot like something that a amateur writer would self publish.  There is a great story here, but after the first 100 pages, I started skimming.  The book would have benefited from having an experienced author help Dambach to take the book to the next level.  I was hoping that the book would be really inspirational, but it didn't really feel that way.  I would have liked it better if there had been "tips" or "pointers" between the chapters.  Topics could be things like "How to make your voice heard at the local, state, and national level"; "How to become an Olympic volunteer"; and "How to maintain your dignity while asking friends and strangers to help with medical expenses".  Dambach seems to have been in the right place at the right time to make things happen, but it couldn't have been that simple. A book offering ideas to help the readers find themselves in those places at those times would be a must read, and a better buy for my library.

Next up:  Room by Emma Donoghue - This is The Typical Book Group's next pick. 

Still Listening to:  Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jaime Ford

Friday, October 21, 2011

Destination Unknown

The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris is the story of a man with a disease of sorts, that requires him to walk for hours on end, without the ability to stop walking.  He has met with endless doctors, and they are all unable to determine if this "disease" is a true physical ailment, or if it is a mental disorder.  Have I lost your interest yet?  I thought so.  My interest was also lost at that point, which explains why I delayed reading The Unnamed  for so long.

However, I had read Ferris' earlier book, Then We Came to the End, and I really liked it.  That story is almost like a literary version of the television show "The Office", with the strange glitch that it is all written in first person plural ("We all went out to eat."), so that we don't know whose story it is until the end.  My sister blogged about that book here, which is where I first heard about it, even though it was apparently hyped in hipper circles than my own.

I was interested in The Unnamed when it first came out, but based on the blurbs and reviews that I read, I just couldn't bring myself to add it to my TBR list.  I wound up listening to it on CD, which I loved.  As I mentioned earlier, Ferris reads the book himself, and reads it perfectly.  This is the best audio book that I have ever listened to, in that the author seems as committed to getting the audio book right as he was to the original novel.  Certain conversations are recorded so that one participant is heard through the right speaker, and the other participant through the left.  At the end of the CD, there is an interview with Ferris, which made me love the story even more.   Listening to The Unnamed was the first time that a story caused me to cry while driving.

So what makes The Unnamed worth reading?  Ferris' character development. Tim, the person suffering from the walking disease, is at first a high powered, hard working litigation attorney.  He and his wife, Jane, find ways to cope with the disease, while hiding it from his partners and clients.  At a certain point, however, Tim stops trying to fit the disease into his life, and decides instead to live his life to fit the disease.  Tim and Jane, and even their daughter, Becca, progress, regress and digress, while coping with Tim's prolonged absences.  Ferris shows the changes in Tim in a way that is believable, and yet still catches the reader off guard.

This was an incredibly moving book, but it was not at all sappy.  Once again, Ferris has done something that no one else is doing, and he has done it incredibly well.  He created a disease, but not a cure.  He created a family, but he didn't fix it.  While I enjoyed both Then We Came to the End and The Unnamed, I'm not sure that I'll be adding either to my list of favorite books.  However, Ferris has secured a place as one of my favorite novelists, and I can't wait to see what he does next.

Next Up on CD:  Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford

Still Reading:  Exhaust the Limits by Charles Dambach

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Wife Life

Back in 1999, when I was pregnant with my daughter, my husband's friend, Dave, and I were discussing baby names.  Although Dave was single at the time, and didn't have plans to have a child any time soon, he told me that if he ever had a daughter, he was going to name her Brett, after the character in Hemmingway's novel, The Sun Also Rises.  I hadn't read The Sun at the time, but I decided that if there was a character in it who was worth naming one's daughter for, I should.  After reading The Sun, I had no idea what Dave (or for that matter, Jake Barnes) saw in Brett. 

Earlier this year, Paula McLain's book The Paris Wife came out, and I knew that I wanted to read it.  I had heard about Hemmingway's wife, Hadley, over the years, and wanted to read about what had happened that led to her destroying one of Hemmingway's novels.  The Paris Wife dispels the myth of a hysterical wife tearing apart a great work of literature, and tries to shed light on Hadley's role in shaping Hemmingway's early works.

Unfortunately, The Paris Wife was not a page turner.  I guess that when a person is well known only for being someone's wife, there may not be a lot to tell.  Curtis Sittenfeld did a better job in telling a fictionalized version of Laura Bush's life in American Wife, and Nancy Horan took the lessor known figure of Mamah Cheney and made her story interesting in her book, Loving Frank.  To be fair, Sittenfeld's book is pure fiction, and she doesn't even name the characters George and Laura Bush, and Nancy Horan had a great and forgotten true story to work with, but I was hoping for more from McLain. 

What the reader does learn is that Hadley was Hemmingway's wife when he wrote The Sun Also Rises, and that he based the story on real events that happened to them, changing only the names, and telling it in his voice.  Hadley is not the character of Brett, and is somehow absent from the story, even though she was very much there when the events happened in Hemmingway's life which he attributes to Jake Barnes.  The woman who inspired the character of Brett, Lady Duff Twysden, seems to have been much like the character.

Many years later, Dave had a daughter, and named her Avery.  But his idea must have stuck with me with me subconsciously.  My daughter's name is Hadley.

Next up:  Exhaust The Limits:  The Life and Times of a Global Peace Builder by Charles Dambach

Still Listening to:  Unnamed by Joshua Ferris

Friday, October 14, 2011

Finding Z

In 1925, a British explorer named Percy Fawcett, set out with his 21 year old son and his son's best friend in search of a city that he believed existed in the Amazon, which he called "Z".  Fawcett was a very experienced explorer, and had spent most of his life looking for evidence of a lost sophisticated culture in  the Amazon jungle.  While this was not his first trip, it was his last.  Many people made expeditions to the Amazon in the following decades in an attempt to find Fawcett.  There were rumors that he was alive but a captive of the Indians, and rumors that he had died, but that his son had lived and had fathered blond haired children in the rain forest.  Many of the people who tried to find Fawcett were never seen again themselves.

Over the years, the methods of exploring became more and more advanced, so that when David Grann set out on his own expedition to find out what had happened to Fawcett for his book, The Lost City of Z, he was able to go to a camping supply store in New York, and get everything he needed, no experience necessary.  The modern world has also made the Amazon more accessible by cutting down miles of the trees through which Fawcett trekked.  Grann got help in South America from guides and locals, once they were assured that he was only a journalist, and not an explorer.  This presents the obvious question  -  what exactly is the difference between a modern day journalist and an early 20th century explorer?  Both want to find out more and reap the notoriety and monetary rewards of their discoveries, right?

The Lost City of Z details all of Fawcett's Amazon expeditions, and to a lessor extent, their toll on himself and his family.  There were definitely pages of details that I could have skipped, and questions that could never be answered.  However, the last chapter makes it all worth while.  While Fawcett was exploring, the world wondered if there really was a Z,  or if Fawcett was crazy for looking for it.  In the end it seems that he might have found what he was looking for, but couldn't see that he had found it.

Next up on CD:  The Unnamed  by Joshua Ferris.  I've started listening to this one and was excited to hear that Ferris was reading it himself.  I've had good and bad experiences with authors doing their own reading, but Ferris' voice seems to fit this story.

Still Reading:  The Paris Wife by Paula McLain.  Seriously.

Friday, October 7, 2011

We Interrupt This Blog

I know that this blog is supposed to be about reading, but I have to call your attention to the movie, "Midnight in Paris".  This is a Woody Allen film, which I wasn't all that excited about seeing.  As far as I could tell though, Woody Allen did not make an appearance. 

You may have noticed that for the last few posts, I have ended by saying "Still Reading:  The Paris Wife by Paula McLain"  without further comment.  I was really excited about reading The Paris Wife, because I had heard that it was about Ernest's first wife, Hadley.  I have been interested in Hadley since I first heard the rumors that she burnt a great Hemingway novel, so I really wanted to read a novel from her perspective. 

However, so far, and I admit that I am only about 100 pages into it, The Paris Wife has not  been all that exciting.  But, after seeing "Midnight in Paris", I am rejuvenated, and want to dive back into it.  "Midnight in Paris" is a movie about a man from 2010 who is vacationing in Paris with his fiance and her parents.  He is a budding novelist who has a nostalgic longing to be in Paris in the 1920s, with Fitzgerald, Zelda, Hemingway, and Gertrude Stein.  His finance does not understand this, and discord soon follows.  Our novelist explores the Paris of the 1920s, and finds that in the '20s, people were longing for a "golden era" even earlier. 

Seeing Hemingway, Stein, and the other characters who also star in The Paris Wife has me ready to read more!  So, here we go again:

Still Reading:  The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

Still Listening to:  The Lost City of Z by David Grann

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Magic Kingdoms

As I listened to Swamplandia! by Karen Russell, I thought that it was a very strange book.  I couldn't understand some of the youngest character's choices, and thought that Russell must have done detailed research into the minds of traumatized children in order to make Ava believable.  Then I realized that when I should have listened to disc 6 (of this 11 disc book), I listened to disc 9 instead.  When I eventually listened to disc 6, just before disc 10, more pieces came together, but really, Swamplandia! is still a twisted tale.

Swamplandia is a fictional amusement park, set in the swamplands of Florida, where the main attraction is Hilola Bigtree, an alligator wrestler, and the mother of Ava, Osceola and Kiwi Bigtree.  The children are "home schooled" on their island, but this schooling seems to consist of a great deal of ticket taking and popcorn making, and very little attention to current educational standards.  Ava, who is 13, is being trained to wrestle alligators, and this apparently has not come to the attention of the Florida child welfare authorities.  Osceola regularly falls in love with the ghosts who she meets via her Ouija board, and goes on "dates" with them.  Kiwi is the Bigtree who is least enthralled with the idea of Swamplandia, but even he goes to bat to save it when attendance drops off.

Russell is very clever in her mocking of the Florida theme park scene.  The parks that she creates for her characters to inhabit seem inevitable in a sad way.  When Kiwi leaves Swamplandia to try to make enough money to save it, he goes to work at the World of Darkness, a competing amusement park which features demonic rides and attractions.  Although the kids occasionally catch glimpses through the cracks in the Swamplandia propaganda, it is not until Kiwi is off the island that he is able to see the shortcomings in the park, his education, and his parents.

This is an interesting book that I am guessing will make the 2011 NYT list of Notable Books.  There are two very favorable NYT reviews here and here.

In Other News:  Today I ordered my turkey for Thanksgiving!  I also picked up my second 1/4 cow this past weekend.  If you don't understand why this is relevant to this blog, read my post about Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer.

Running Commentary:  As you might know, I started this blog to keep track of my mileage, times, and random thoughts while I was training for the Chicago Marathon.  I realized after one 10K race that I truly am not a runner.  But it turns out that my son is!  Last weekend he signed up for a 5 K race, and made a starting line decision to run a half marathon instead.  Things you do when you are 13 . . .

Next up on CD:  The Lost City of Z by David Grann

Still reading:  The Paris Wife  by Paula McLain

Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Frizzly Hair Girl

Today Jaimy Gordon, author of Lord of Misrule, did a reading at my library.  It is sort of funny that I've never gone to see an author before, and now, within 8 days, I have seen Jonathan Safran Foer and Jaimy Gordon.  It's even more of a coincidence when you consider that JSF's wife, Nicole Krauss, was Gordon's strongest competition for the National Book Award, which Gordon won last year.

The two authors, JSF and Gordon, could not have been more different.  Both were kind, and generous with their time.  But Gordon was also very down to earth and chatty, which was great.  She probably took 3-5 minutes with every single person who was the line for her book signing.  Several of her former students were in the line and she asked each of them about their writing while meeting their spouses and children.

There were great differences in their methods of writing as well.  JSF made a point of saying (and I'm paraphrasing here) that there is no hidden meaning to his words - they mean what they say.  Gordon discussed the meaning behind the name of the horse which is the title of her book, and asked if anyone noticed how often she mentioned twins.  The twins, according to Gordon, mirror the duality of her feelings about horse racing. The sex scenes echo the training of the horses.  I think that this difference in the significance of their words may have to do with the differences in how JSF and Gordon have lived their lives.  JSF became a rock star of an author almost as soon as he graduated from college, and then later became a professor.  Gordon was a professor for decades before she attained fame as an author, and has probably spent thousands of hours leading class discussions about what authors mean by what they say in their works.

It should be no surprise to anyone who has seen Gordon, that Lord of Misrule is based on her experiences.  Gordon's picture is at the top of this post, and as you can see, she closely resembles Maggie, "the frizzly hair girl", and both are Jewish.  Both also worked with horses in low stakes horse races, and had loan sharks for uncles.  Gordon  talked about how while she worked at the track, in the late 1960s, there was a race set up like the final race in her novel.  But while Lord of Misrule has much in common with Gordon's life, it is not even close to a memoir.  Gordon created amazing characters, who were strengthened by the details which only her experience, as a race track worker, as a writer, and as a person, could provide.

Still Reading:  The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

Almost Done Listening to:  Swamplandia!  by Karen Russell
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