Thursday, September 27, 2012


When I first met my friend, Kim, she did not like dogs.  She would tolerate my dog, when she came to my house, as long as my dog didn't try to "touch" her.  Then, The Typical Book Group read The Art of Racing in the Rain, and her heart grew a size.  When we read The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, her heart grew again.  Next thing you know, Kim got dog, who looks remarkably like the dog on the cover of The Art of Racing in the Rain.  Coincidence?  I think not.

About a year ago, Kim told me about Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst, and said that I had to read it.  Unfortunately, at that time, Kim was stuck in a rut of reading books, and especially memoirs, involving people with mental illness.  She described Dogs of Babel as being the story of a mentally ill woman who kills herself, and her husband who tries to teach her dog to talk when he misses his wife.  For some reason, I was not interested.

So this year, Kim stepped up and offered to have the Typical Book Group meet at her house to discuss our summer BFB, 11/22/63, by Stephen King, if she could pick the book when we met at my house the following month.  This was a fair trade off, as she agreed to let me pick the book when the Friends Book Group meets at her house that same month.  But then she picked Dogs of Babel, and I was a little worried.  I considered sending an email out to the group explaining that I really didn't pick the book, Kim did, but that seemed a little cowardly.  So, with a bit of dread, I started reading Dogs.  And I found that I really liked it.

Let me describe Dogs to you, in a way that might make it a little more attractive than Kim's mentally-ill-woman-lonely-man-talking-dog description:

Dogs of Babel is the story of a man, Paul,  who comes home from work to find that his wife, Lexy, died after falling from the top of an apple tree in their back yard.  Neighbors were alerted to the tragedy by the couple's dog, who was running back and forth between the house and Lexy's body, and barking frantically.  Lexy is not normally the tree climbing type, so Paul suspects that she may have killed herself.  Once the police leave and he has his house to himself, Paul notices two things.  The first is that Lexy rearranged the books on their bookshelf in a seemingly random manner before climbing the tree.  The second is that someone cooked a steak in a frying pan, and apparently consumed it, without using a plate or silverware.  There is only one witness who can tell him what happened - the dog, Lorelei.  Since he is already a linguist, Paul thinks that he just might be able to teach Lorelei to communicate intelligibly.  Complications arise, involving convicted felons, psychic hot lines and masks, as the story twists toward its satisfying ending.

Now do you want to read it?  You should.  Yes, the wife is probably mentally ill.  Yes, it is ridiculous to think that a dog could be taught to speak.  The book works through flashbacks that tell the story of Paul and Lexy's relationship, and their mutual love of Lorelei.  The critics agree - Dogs was a NYT Notable Book in 2003.

I'll post more about this one when the Typical Book Group meets to discuss it next month.

In Other News:  I read this story in the New York Times about a small island off the coast of Georgia with few inhabitants and fewer utilities, services and opportunities, and couldn't help thinking of The Watery Part of the World by Michael Parker.  In that book, descendants of island settlers are trying to make due in the modern world, despite the declining state of the island.  It seems that places like Parker described really still exist.

Next up:  Gods Without Men by Hari Kunzru

Still listening to:  World Without End by Ken Follett.  I'm on the 9th disc, which means I am about 1/4 of the way through.  I'm really liking it though, so I think I'll make it to the end.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Homage to the Menstrual Cycle

I delayed reading The Red Tent by Anita Diamant for a long time, because of what I thought I knew about it.  What I expected was a book about women in 14th century England who were forced to go to an island (island?  why did I think an island?) and live in red tents each month when they had their periods.  I imagined them scheming against the men, and discovering their own strengths.  In short, I thought The Red Tent would be "an homage to a menstrual cycle", to quote Tim Gunn's recent commentary on an unfortunate Project Runway dress.

Basically, I was all wrong. 

The Red Tent is set in the time of Jacob, from the book of Genesis.  The main character, Dinah, tells the story of Jacob and his many sons from her perspective.  Dinah is apparently mentioned in the Old Testament, and is better known for being the only sister of the famous Joseph, of the Technicolor Dreamcoat.  Genesis 34 tells the story of Dinah's rape.  In The Red Tent, Dinah tells the tale from her point of view, and includes her version of what happened to her before and after.

Yes, there is a red tent, and women go there when they have their periods.  However, it is considered an honor to get to go to the tent.  The women of Dinah's family were all on the same schedules, so the red tent was a place where they could get together and tell their stories to each other.  While there, they also were freed from their regular daily chores, and were waited on by others.

Reading The Red Tent reminded me of something that I forgot to mention when I was discussing The Muslim Next Door by Sumbul Ali-Karamali - the perception that Muslims have many wives.  Ali-Karamali mentioned that it is very uncommon now for a Muslim to have multiple wives, but that in the past it was common, with Muhammad having several.  She also pointed out though, that in other religions, multiple wives were also common.  In fact, Jacob had 4 wives, including two who were full sisters, and two more who were born of the same father as the first two wives, but with slaves as mothers, and were treated as slaves themselves.

The Red Tent got off to a slow start, but picked up, and was a worthwhile read.  If I had known my Old Testament better, I may have liked the book more, as I would have known what was coming, and appreciated the differences between this book and the Bible's story.

That's one more down for the Off the Shelf Challenge, and a challenge double countsie, since I listened to it on CDs that I checked out of my library.  Now I just need to read one more book to complete the Support Your Library Challenge.

In Other News:  Guess who "liked" my Goodreads review of The Starboard Sea by Amber Dermont?  Amber Dermont.  One of my favorite things about Goodreads is how easy it is for authors to interact with readers.  I wish that I could "like" her like!

Running Commentary:  Just a quick brag - my son made the varsity cross country team as a 13 year old freshman at his high school!  I may not be a runner, but I seem to have become a Cross Country Mom.  Now to convince the politicians that we are just as important as the Soccer Moms . . .

Next up on CD:  Bear with me.  The next book that I will listen to on CD is World Without End by Ken Follett.  This is 45 hours of story, on 36 discs, and it will be the longest book that I have ever listened to, if I make it through.  I finished The Red Tent a couple of days ago, and since I've done a lot of driving lately (including picking up another 1/4 cow!) I am already on disc 5. 

Still Reading:  Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Typical Book Group Report - 7

Tonight the Typical Book Group met to discuss 11/22/63 by Stephen King.  There were 11 of us there, which just might be a record turn out!  Each summer, we pick a Big Fat Book ("BFB") to read, and then we get back together in August or September to discuss it.  Usually we are struggling to finish the book before the meeting, but this summer it seems that everyone tore through 11/22/63 in June or July, so we had to work to remember the details.

All of us liked 11/22/63, even though none of us would consider ourselves Stephen King fans.  In fact, we were glad that one member's daughter was there to fill us in on the references to his earlier book, It, which we all missed.  Apparently Derry, one of the towns that Jake visited, was the town featured in It, and the kids that were dancing were characters in the earlier book.

One of the things that we wondered was whether there were other historical events that Jake could have chosen to influence rather than the JFK assassination.  We didn't like how Jake gambled to make money, instead of finding another, safer way to profit from his knowledge of the future, but it did fit the story well, and gave us a Jack Ruby tie in.  Our host, Kim, printed out Stephen King's letter to the NYT Editor about Oswald's motivations for us, and we talked about that.  We wondered whether Oswald, at least as written by King, would have been smart enough to come up with the assassination plan on his own. It seemed that the assassination might have been a lot of bad luck, in that Oswald might not have put in the effort to try and kill Kennedy if the President wasn't scheduled to drive right by him.

We're reading Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst for the next Typical Book Group meeting.  Several Typical Book Groupers had already finished that one too, so they are going to get started on Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, which the Friends Book Group is reading, and they'll join me at that meeting next month.

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Formula Remixed

The Starboard Sea by Amber Dermont is the story of a boy, Jason Prosper, who finds himself attending a third rate prep school, Bellingham Academy, and racing on their sailing team.  Bellingham is described as an island of misfit toys, only with wealthy but defective children as the inhabitants.  The students' defects generally relate to misdeeds that caused them to be asked to leave the other, less tolerant prep schools.  Whenever there is a novel about a boy attending a prep school, and especially if he is at his second or third prep school, Holden Caulfield comparisons are sure to surface.  In this case, I was looking for Jason to be like Holden, who was the main character in Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, but I found myself thinking of other books instead.

There are certain books set in prep schools, colleges or graduate programs, that involve a new comer to the school, and an elite clique of both men and women. The clique may or may not include the most popular people at the school, but to the new comer at least, the clique includes the most interesting people.  The new comer tries to become a part of the clique, and ultimately succeeds, only to realize that the clique is hiding a secret which the new comer would be better off not knowing.  Examples of books using this formula are Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl, The Secret History by Donna Tartt, and The Hidden by Tobias Hill.  In The Starboard Sea, Dermont seems to be aware of this formula, and determined to defy it.  The pieces are all there.  Jason comes to a new prep school which has recently started admitting girls.  Many of the students are familiar to him through his other schools and his social circle, and so he immediately identifies the popular crowd.  The twist is that it is the popular crowd that wants Jason, and not Jason who wants to join them.  In fact, it is not until Jason realizes that there is a secret to uncover that he even tries to play nice and win their trust. 

In The Starboard Sea, Jason is an accomplished sailor, who is recruited to join Bellingham's sailing team.  For the last 20 summers, I have raced sailboats.  My husband had been sailing for years when I met him, and he was anxious to teach me.   Jason's character is so familiar to me in the words that he uses and the things that he notices that I know Dermont must have spent years with sailors herself.  The way that Jason notices minute changes in the weather, and can't keep away from the water rings true.  I also loved how Dermont mentioned Jason and his sailing partners feeling so lucky to be able to be out on the water for a race.  So many times when we have been racing, someone has commented on how lucky we are.  I can't think of any other amateur sport where a person would say that - win, lose, or even sitting and waiting for wind, the sailboat racer is lucky, and knows it.  And I mean lucky.  I don't mean fortunate, which when talking about sailing seems pretentious and monetary.

Another great thing about The Starboard Sea is that it is set in the 1980s.  In fact, Jason's class is the same as mine, the class of '88.  It was cool to read another book set in the 1980s so soon after reading Ready Player One by Ernest Cline.  In Ready Player One, people in the 2040s studied James Halliday's favorite things about the 1980s in order to be better prepared to win a huge challenge.  The 1980s of Jason Prosper were entirely different from the 1980s of James Halliday, with Jason reminding me of the "Preppy Killer", Baby Jessica (in the well, remember?), and perestroika, instead of video games, movies and commercials.  Monty Python movies were the only overlapping mention between the two books.

Jason is a flawed character, who believes that he is self-aware, and that he has learned from his mistakes.  However, he is also somehow genetically destined to always be a part of the clique which he tries to avoid.  He is quick to judge others for failing to do the right thing, but sees himself as helpless to correct wrongs even as they unfold in front of him.  It is as though his own errors have condemned him, and he is just watching his life happen from a self-imposed prison.

I really loved The Starboard Sea.  The characters were well developed and interesting, if not always likable.  Being a book using the "elite clique with a secret" formula which I love, being about a sailboat racer, and being set in the 1980s, it's the prefect book for me.  If you liked the books by Pessl, Tartt or Hill, you should give this one a try too.   I would think that other sailors would love the book as well, as long as they are not homophobic, and believe that bullying, even when referred to as hazing, is just wrong.  Unfortunately, that may rule out a good number of potential readers.

One more down for the Support your Library Challenge!  I'm almost done!

Next up:  The Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst. This is the first book of the 2012-13 year for the Typical Book Group.

Still Listening to:  The Red Tent by Anita Diamant

Saturday, September 8, 2012

One to Read and One to Skip

A gazillion years ago, when I knew the name of my sister's blog (in fairness, maybe she just doesn't blog anymore?) she mentioned in said blog that she wanted to read I was Told There'd be Cake by Sloane Crosley.  Eventually, I stumbled upon the cake book at a used book sale and picked it up.  I have to say, it was really pretty great.

However, I was confused, from a Dewey Decimal stand point. Specifically, I thought that I was reading a book of short stories, which the author pretentiously decided to call "essays" instead, but when I looked up the book at my library, it was in non-fiction territory.  I recently read a collection of short stories by Tobias Wolff, so I double checked on my library's online catalog, and sure enough, that book was listed as  fiction.  It turns out that an essay is different from a short story in that an essay is supposed to be true.  So while Wolff may have been writing about himself, and calling it fiction, Crosley was admittedly writing about herself, which turned her short stories into essays.  And not memoirs, which are, apparently, longer essays.  So, I was Told There'd be Cake is not in the biography section, with the other memoirs.  However, for my purposes, because Crosley is writing about herself, and because my standards are somewhat lax, I'm calling this one a memoir.

Crosley's stories are mostly about her time as a college graduate trying to navigate NYC with undefined career goals.  She stumbles; she falls.  But she also writes really well, and her stories are worth reading.  It was refreshing to read mini-memoirs from someone who seems to genuinely like her family.  She is sort of a less materialistic Jen Lancaster, and Crosley doesn't try quite so hard to be funny, but is funny nonetheless.

On the other hand, I am not going any further with Freddy and Fredericka by Mark Helprin.  F&F seemed like the perfect book for me.  I recently read and loved Winter's Tale by Helprin, so I knew I liked the author, and the characters of Freddy and Fredericka were said to be loose characterizations of Charles (Prince of Wales) and Diana, so what's not to like there?  Camilla was cast as Lady Boilinghot - really.  For the first 5 discs  that I listened to on CD, (there are 22 discs in all), I thought of it as a Monty Python-esque story, and tried to play along.  Having just finished Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, I had a soft spot for Monty Python movies, and followed the ridiculousness obediently.   But when Freddy found himself tarred and feathered (in the 1980s) and complained that his wife wouldn't play with his [tennis] balls, I questioned my commitment, and checked the GoodReads reviews.  They were mostly positive, with lots of people saying that the book got off to a slow start, but that it got better after a couple of hundred pages.  So, I gave the story 3 more discs.  The idea, where I left off, is that Freddy and Fredericka/Charles and Diana were dropped in New Jersey, naked except for furry bikinis, with the charge to conquer America for England, or to lose the claim to the throne.  They were portrayed as being clueless about how to speak American, and that is supposed to lead to hysterical antics.  Not for me.  I figure I have about 10 hours into that book so far, and that's enough.

That's two down for the Off the Shelf Challenge, and I'm counting Freddy and Fredericka  for the Support Your Library Challenge too, since I checked the discs out on CD.

Next up:  The Starboard Sea by Amber Dermont

Next up on CD:  The Red Tent by Anita Diamant

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Next Perspective

I read The Muslim Next Door - The Qur'an, the Media, and that Veil Thing by Sumbul Ali-Karamali with the hope of gaining some understanding of the Qur'an.  But, as I should have expected from the title, it is about much more than that.  Living in South East Michigan, I was probably not Ali-Karamali's target reader, as Muslims are already a part of my family's daily life.  In fact, when my daughter was in 4th grade, I brought in rice krispy treats for her birthday, thinking that I was doing well by avoiding both nuts and gluten.  But alas, the Muslim girls wouldn't eat them.  This was a new one for me!  It turns out, as Ali-Karamali mentions in her book, that marshmallows contain pork gelatin, and instead there are special Halal Krispy Treats made for Muslim children.

Although much of the book was an introduction to the lives of Muslims in America, I did learn a thing or two about the Qur'an and rules that most Muslims follow.  Specifically, I didn't realize that the Qur'an is as new as it is.  It was first compiled into a book in 650 A.D.  For its time, the Qur'an was actually quite progressive in treating women as equals in terms of issues like inheritance, when they would not inherit equally in England for centuries.  Additionally, the Qur'an is somewhat fluid, in that its interpretation changes with the time and culture.  I was also surprised that there are not central leaders, and that imams are just people who are able to lead prayers, not necessarily people trained in the meaning of the Qur'an.

In the wake of 9/11, the media and many commentators quoted sections of the Qur'an in support of the position that the Muslim religion is necessarily violent, and seeks to dominate others.  Ali-Karamali accurately responds by pointing out that lines of the Bible, taken out of context like the lines of the Qur'an quoted by these talking heads, are just as violent and domineering.  Ali Karamali's message is that Muslim Americans are just like us, and are outraged by extremists who act in the name of Islam but are actually defying the word of the Qur'an.  The Qur'an itself, as she explains, authorizes violence only in defense, and places a premium on maintaining peace and offering forgiveness.

I also hadn't realized how many of the issues that we may think of as being Islamic or Muslim are really culturally specific to the country.  For instance, there is nothing in the Qur'an that says that women can't drive, and Muslim women drive in most countries, just not Saudi Arabia.  The same is true of the veil.  Whether a woman wears a veil or not may have more to do with where she is living or where her family is from than with the words of the Qur'an.

If you are looking for an in depth study of the Qu'ran, this is probably not the book for you.  However, if you don't know any Muslims, and would like to hear the perspective of a Muslim American woman, you may enjoy this book.

One more down for the Support Your Library Challenge!

Next up:  I was Told There'd be Cake by Sloane Crosley

Still Listening to:  Freddy and Fredericka by Mark Helprin
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...