Thursday, January 26, 2012

What Could Have Been

This Beautiful Life  by Helen Schulman, is a book that Jodi Picoult should have written.  In fact, I am almost certain that Jodi Picoult is cursing herself for not coming up with its premise before Schulman brought it to print.  TBL fits Picoult's formula perfectly:  a kid does something wrong which raises moral, ethical and legal issues which affect the entire family and which threaten to tear the family apart. 

In this case, it is the son, Jake, who receives a video from an 8th grade girl in which she is naked and using a baseball bat inappropriately.  Jake, who is 15, forwards the video to one friend.  Within hours it is all over the internet.  Meanwhile, the dad has a high powered job which requires him to present a strong image to the public, and the mom is obsessing over an ex-boyfriend's blog.  Sounds great, doesn't it?  And it could have been.  If Picoult had written it. 

Schulman has an entirely different style from Picoult, where she seems to back down from the anxiety provoking moments.  She is able to find a suitable resolution for every issue, and the reader is never put into a position where he or she can't imagine a good way out.  Picoult would have pushed the limits.  In Schulman's world, even though millions of viewers know about this child porn (which it is a crime to even possess, let alone forward) the New York City police and prosecutors apparently don't own computers.  Jake's biggest problem is ending his suspension from school, which his dad adeptly manages.  The mom and the dad readily download the video, knowing that it is child porn when they do so, with no concern that an investigator might seize all of the household computers and prosecute all of the people found to have downloaded it.  The issue that Schulman presents is whether the girl is "bad" and whether Jake is the "victim".  I guess I wanted more.  We are told that the mom is reading an ex-boyfriend's blog obsessively, but we don't feel the obsession.  She doesn't wonder how their kids might have been different from her real life children.  Why wouldn't she?  And did you notice how I mentioned that they have children in This Beautiful Life?  The daughter, Coco, felt like an accessory.

Note to Jodi Picoult:  As far as I am concerned, this storyline is still available and ready for you to write.  There's a great story here, but it needs your formula to work. 

I'm sort of bummed that I picked this book for The Typical Book Group to read.  We'll see what they think, but we've read Picoult for this group before, so my guess is that they will feel a lot like I did about it.  At least that's one more book down for the Support Your Library Book Challenge - 22 to go!

Next up:  London Train by Tessa Hadley  OK, I admit it.  I saw the review for this one on the New York Times 2011 Notable Books List, and would have passed on it, if the author's last name wasn't Hadley.  I've got to give Hadleys a chance!

Still Listening to:  The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Extremely Good & Incredibly Right

I saw the movie, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, last night, and loved it.  I sort of expected to not like the movie, since the book is my all time favorite, and I knew that the movie couldn't do everything that is done in the book within the 2 hours and 6 minutes that it is on the screen.  While the movie was not exactly like the book, it is true to the spirit of the book, and well worth the price of a ticket.

My favorite scene from the book, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, by Jonathan Safran Foer, where Oskar looks up his dad's name in Mr. A.R. Black's card catalogue, was not in the movie.  In fact, A.R. Black was not in the movie, even though he was such an integral character in the book.  The other Blacks who Oskar visits in the book are also mostly absent.  The movie shows Oskar visiting lots of people, but we don't really get to know the people that he visits.  In the book, the grandma has a much more important role than in the movie, and in the movie, the grandpa has a much more important role than in the book, but it works.

My husband, who hasn't read the book, felt that something about the phone messages that the dad left on 9/11 was unresolved.  It didn't bother me, because I knew what happened in the book, and it was like the movie left off before what happened in the book could happen.  The issue of Oskar's mom being MIA throughout most of the book was resolved in the movie more completely than in the book, and I liked how the screenwriter did that.

All told, if I could buy the DVD today, I would and I'd watch it again right now.

Still Reading:  This Beautiful Life by Helen Schulman
Still Listening to:  The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz.  Another Oscar.  I hope I like him too.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Falling Empires

Empire Falls is the fictional town in Maine which Richard Russo creates in his novel by the same name.  It is a small town with too many big fish, who keep swimming into each other.  Empire Falls focuses on two families living very different but equally unhappy lives, the Robys and the Whitings.  Miles Roby is the protagonist.  He is a man who grew up in Empire Falls, and whose mother wanted nothing more than for him to leave.  He returns home to watch his mother die, and finds himself trapped in the Falls, like its other inhabitants.   Mrs. Whiting is a woman who believes in power and control, and wields each in ways that seem both domineering and somehow benevolent.

A feature of small town life is that it is hard to get away from someone who wants to keep tabs on you. The relationship of one who wants nothing more than to be ignored by another and the one who refuses to ignore is played out again and again in the novel.  Take, for instance, the small town cop and the man he insists was his friend in high school.  Or the high school loser and the cop's son.  And even the millionaire and the woman who seduced her husband.  These are only a sampling of the complicated, one-sided relationships that Russo explores.

Empire Falls won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize.  The Corrections by Jonathan Frazen was a finalist that year.  Like The Corrections, Empire Falls  explores the dynamics of dysfunctional families.  In The Corrections, the siblings are more interesting because their choices and situations are outrageous, while still remotely believable.  In Empire Falls the relationships within the families are more predictable and possibly more realistic, and the added characters from the town give the story a wider focus.  Overall, I preferred The Corrections, but Russo's story is also very good, and probably worthy of The Prize.

In Breaking News. . . Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, the movie, opened today.  I'm not sure if I will see it tonight or tomorrow, but by the end of this weekend you'll have a full report.

Next up on CD:  The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz.  This is another Pulitzer Prize winner.  I'm looking forward to getting started on it!

Still Reading:  This Beautiful Life  by Helen Schulman

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Typical Book Group Report - 4

Last night the Typical Book Group met to discuss Stories I Only Tell My Friends by Rob Lowe.  My husband was conspicuously absent.  It was probably a good thing too, since we didn't even start talking about the book until an hour and forty-five minutes into the "meeting". 

As you may recall, my husband loves the Rob Lowe autobiography which we were discussing, and he had planned to attend this month.  But when the time came, he chickened out.  He sent me with a short list of discussion points (check that box - we discussed), and when I got home, he quizzed me on what I learned about the book.  I don't think he understood that there wasn't much of a lesson, and that we mostly debated the validity of mandatory after school middle school programs.

There were 9 of us there tonight, and 8 of us had read the book.  All of us who read it really liked it.  I said it before, but it's worth repeating that Rob Lowe is a surprisingly good writer.  The book inspired several of us to watch old Rob Lowe movies which we had forgotten about.  We're not going to meet next month due to the school break schedule, but we have decided to try to get together to watch the DVD  "The Outsiders:  The Complete Novel"  which was released in 2005 and more closely follows the story of the novel.  Good thing Lynne got that Netflix subscription and giant TV from Oprah!

Next up:  This Beautiful Life by Helen Schulman at my house.  Although we have a while before we will meet to discuss it, I'm reading it now.

Still listening to:  Empire Falls by Richard Russo

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Defining Psychopathy

Last night I finished reading State of Wonder by Ann Patchett, and this morning I woke up wondering what the definition of a sociopath is.  Coincidence?  I think not.  However, I learned, thanks to Merriam Webster, that the word I should have been thinking of is "psychopath".  A psychopath is defined as someone afflicted by "a mental disorder especially when marked by egocentric and antisocial behavior."  A sociopath is just a person who is asocial or anti-social.  Clearly, Dr. Swenson in State of Wonder is something beyond that.

State of Wonder is the story of a doctor, Marina, whose co-worker, Anders, dies in the Amazon while trying to get more information about Dr. Swenson.  Dr. Swenson, Marina, and Anders all work for the same company, Vogel, which is funding Dr. Swenson's research.  Dr. Swenson has found a tribe in the Amazon where the women are able to continue to have children into their 70s, and she is studying their diets and environments in the hope of developing a fertility drug.  However, she is so secretive about her research that no one at Vogel knows how to reach her.  Anders, an avid bird watcher, volunteers to go down and find the reclusive researcher.  A couple of months later, a letter from Dr. Swenson informs Vogel that Anders has died.  Anders' wife and Vogel both want more information, for very different reasons, and as a result, Marina is sent to find out what happened, and how the research is progressing.

The other books that I have read by Patchett, Run and Bel Canto, have both centered on the relationships created by people who are brought together by an unexpected act of violence.  Those characters, who have every reason not to like each other, learn to trust and love.  State of Wonder starts on the opposite end of the relationship spectrum, with characters who think that they know each other, and believe that they are working toward a common goal, only to realize that they have all been manipulated by a psychopath.

State of Wonder is Patchett's best book so far.  I read it for The Friends Book Group, and there will be a lot to talk about.  Most obviously, the question of whether women who are over a certain age should have children is a topic that any group of women could debate, and Patchett supplies ammunition on both sides of the argument.  The characters are well developed, and Patchett's description of the means by which the members of the tribe are able to maintain their fertility is so clear that it almost seems possible.  The lines of medical ethics are blurred until there are none. 

One book down for the Support your Library Challenge.  23 more to go.

Next up:  This Beautiful Life by Helen Schulman.  This is my pick for The Typical Book Group, and I can't wait to read it.

Still listening to:  Empire Falls by Richard Russo.  This is a long one, but a good one.  More on this soon.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Grosse Pointe Lock Down

Many years ago, I saw the movie "The Virgin Suicides", and I have thought back to it from time to time.  Completely unrelated, I read Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides.  Middlesex is the novel of a hermaphrodite living in an affluent Detroit suburb immediately after the race riots of 1967.  Middlesex was an interesting novel which appealed to a wide enough audience to warrant its receiving a Pulitzer Prize in 2003.  As a metro-Detroiter it had a special appeal, because although my parents had told me about the riots, I knew only their stories, which didn't include tanks patrolling streets which are now familiar to me, or other episodes which Eugenides related. 

More recently, when I was looking for a book for my son, Amazon recommended The Virgin Suicides.  This was the first that I realized that TVS was written by Eugenides.  In reading the review I learned that the story was set in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, an area that is only about a half of an hour's drive from my house.  This piqued my interest, and I added TVS to my TBR list, in part to see if it would be suitable for my son to read.

TVS is a great story, and a very quick read.  It is the story of the five Lisbon sisters, who are teenage girls trying their best to be normal.  The Lisbon parents are very sheltering, and control what the girls wear and what they do.  The girls, in part because of the number of them, are something of a mystery to their peers. They don't seem to have many girlfriends, but the boys are all enthralled.  Very early into the story, one of the girls commits suicide.  This, along with some minor infractions on the part of the most popular sister, Lux, causes the parents to pull the sisters out of school, and lock them down within their house. 

The story is told from the point of view of neighborhood boys who are infatuated with the girls.  At times the boys are the same age as the girls, and at times the boys are older, and are reporting what happened in a documentary style, with details from interviews and exhibits.  Like Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris, TVS is narrated in first person plural (ex: "we spied on the girls through binoculars"), and it is never clear exactly which boy is speaking.  This is a very welcoming form of narration, making the reader feel as though friends are filling him in on what happened while he was away, and what they have discovered in their research. In fact, it is clear from internet searches that many readers, like me, thought that the story must have been based on true events, which it was not.  This is a credit to Eugenides' writing and creativity.

Now that I have read the book, I would like to see the Virgin Suicides movie again.  The first time through, I didn't know that the story was supposed to have been set in my area.  Now I know to look for familiar settings and listen for street names.  Although I'm not in any rush to encourage my 8th grade son to read TVS, I think that it is probably a book that would be appropriate for a high school student.

TVS was also the first book that I read on my kindle.  For the last year or so I have been annoyed countless times when I've asked my friends what page they are on, and they answer that they don't know the page, but they are 68% (or some other random percentage) done.  I thought that I would stay loyal to page numbers, even when reading electronically.  However, I have to say that the percentages are addictive.  I don't want to be 28% done - 28% is failing!  I kept on reading to increase my GPA by a few extra percentage points.  I don't have that issue with page numbers.  The kindle was convenient, and I didn't miss turning pages.  I could get used to this.

One down for my Off the Shelf Challenge!  23 to go . . .

Next up:  State of Wonder by Ann Patchett.

Still Listening to:  Empire Falls by Richard Russo

Monday, January 2, 2012

Early Murakami

Norwegian Wood is the fifth book that I have read by Haruki Murakami.  I think that last time I read 5 books by the same author, it was about 1980, and the author was Judy Blume.  Oddly, both authors like to write about women's periods, but that's another topic for another blog.  Norwegian Wood is the story of a college aged man, Toru, who is trying to find his way in the world while deciding which of the women in his life he should love.  It is also a story of the survivors coping with the suicide of a good friend.  Norwegian Wood is said to closely track Murakami's own life, and is purported to be the most autobiographical of his fictional works. 

My favorites of the other books that I have read by Murakami are Kafka on the Shore  and The Wind-up Bird Chronicle.  Norwegian Wood, which came out earlier than the other two, mentions some of the subjects and concepts that will take on a greater importance in Murakami's later works, including wells, cats, feminine hygiene products, birds, and spring winding.  One of my favorite aspects of Kafka was the peaceful atmosphere that Murakami created in the library.  This is probably a replication or an expansion of the sanatorium of Norwegian Wood.  The characters comment about how comfortable Toru (Murakami) makes them feel.  I couldn't agree more.  Although this story is mostly one of loss, the reader feels lulled into a sense of security, along with the women who Toru loves.

If you haven't read a Murakami book, Norwegian Wood might be a good place to start.  Murakami has a new book out now, called IQ84, but all of the reviews that I have read indicate that it is not a good book for people new to Murakami, and is really for his biggest fans.  I'm not so sure that I'm ready for it yet, and might tackle some of his earlier works first.

Next up:  The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides.  This will be the first book that I read for the Off the Shelf Challenge, and the first book that I read on my new kindle.

Still Listening to:  Empire Falls by Richard Russo
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