Monday, April 30, 2012

Mommy Dearest

Ruth Reichl's book, Not Becoming my Mother is the story of Reichl finally figuring out who her mother was, by reading her mother's letters after her death.  It seems that Reichl had a goal of never becoming her own mother, and was surprised to find out that her mother wanted Reichl to avoid that fate as well. 

Reichl's mom was born in 1908, and lived in Tom Brocaw's "Greatest Generation".  What that meant for women was that they needed to work while there was a war going on, and they could not work when the war ended, without making their husbands look bad.  Reichl takes from this that her mom believed that "working is as necessary as breathing" and that her greatest wish was for her daughter to have a meaningful career.  I wonder if Reichl will still feel the same way when she is older and looking back on her own life.  There's the cliche that no one ever says on their deathbed that they wished that they had spent more time at the office, but if I had a job like Reichl's (she is a food critic in addition to being an author) I might spend too much time at work myself.

There's a lot of bitterness hiding in this book.  When I first bought it, I said that it looked "crazy short and gifty".  Crazy short, yes.  But I'm not sure to whom one would give this book as a gift. 

On the same note, I also started listening to Lit by Mary Karr.  For some reason, I picked up two memoirs, one in paper form and one in audio form, at the same time.  Both Reichl and Karr spend a great deal of time talking about their mothers.  But while the two authors were born only 7 years apart, Reichl seems to be able to look back on her mom's life with a hint of regret for all those years of judgment, while Karr still has a lot of  anger.  Of course Reichl's mom never threatened to kill her, like Karr's mom did, but happy families are all alike, right?

To be fair to Karr, I quit listening about a quarter of the way through the 3rd disc, and I think that there were 14 total.  To be fair to myself, there is no reason that I need to waste valuable hours listening to an angry person complain. 

Lit  was a NYT Notable Book in 2009, but I just don't have the energy or desire to hear the whole story.  I did enjoy hearing about Karr's insight into poetry that she gained from sharing poems with cognitively impaired (my words, she said "fairly functional retarded") women, and it was for that reason alone that I listened as long as I did.

In terms of the Challenges, that's 2 more down for the Off The Shelf Challenge, and one more down for the Support Your Library Challenge, since I checked Lit out in audio form from my library. 

Next up on Paper:  A Moment in the Sun by John Sayles.  Yep, this one has been on the top of my TBR list for a while, and I have even checked it out of the library, and returned it without opening.  This book is 968 pages, and the hardcover version, which I have, looks a lot like a dictionary.  We'll see how this one goes!

Next up on CD:  The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. 

Thursday, April 26, 2012

New York Winters

At the end of 2010, I read A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin, and I liked it, but I couldn't say that it was life changing.  For some reason, after that, I picked up another book by Helprin, Winter's Tale, and added it to my nightstand, where it has sat, waiting for me to read it.  As part of the Off the Shelf Challenge, I am trying to plow through the books that have been just sitting around my house not being read, and I came to Helprin's book.  Now I only wish that I had read it in 1983 when it was first released.  In the right hands, Winter's Tale could change lives.

Winter's Tale begins with Peter Lake trying to make his way in New York City in the late 1800s and early 1900s.  The city is a rough and magical place, which only becomes more surreal when Peter meets Beverly Penn, a wealthy girl, dying of consumption, who takes him to her family's vacation home in the Lake of the Coheeries.  The descriptions of the Penn home, and especially of Beverly's rooftop sleeping deck are amazing.  Likewise, the descriptions of New York City during the hard winters of the early 20th century are enough to make one want to travel back through time.  Without giving away the whole story, we fast forward to 1995, meet new characters, and reunite with some from the past.  One of the modern day characters is seeking a perfectly just city.  Many of the others find work at the enlightened newspaper, The Sun, which is constantly battling to stay ahead of its better funded counterpart, The Ghost.  All of the characters seem to be living in a charmed, golden age, where harsh winters and cloud walls hide secrets that defy the concept of time.

The story in Winter's Tale screams to be interpreted for Biblical meaning.  Most obviously, the white horse, Athansor, invokes the image of Aslan, the lion in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe who was said to represent Jesus.  It is less clear to me who is who if I compare Helprin's human characters to their Biblical peers.  We have a fallen angel, who may be the devil.  Could Peter Lake be Jesus, or is Athansor Jesus?  Some characters seem immortal, and others rise from their graves.  I would love to talk to other people who have read this book about whether they feel certain characters may have been intended to represent figures from the New Testament.   Each summer, The Typical Book Group reads a Big Fat Book (BFB), and this year I have recommended Winter's Tale.  If they pick this one, I will be sorry to not have a new BFB assigned for me to read this summer, but excited to see what they thought about it.

An interesting feature of this book is that Helprin wrote it in 1983, predicting the future with specific focus on New York at the turn of the millennium, but I read it in 2012, with New Year's Eve of 2000 now seeming like the distant past.  Helprin predicts fires that will try to destroy New York at the turn of the century.  Speaking of the fire, Praeger de Pinto, who is then the Mayor of New York says "The city's not going to burn forever.  We're going to rebuild it. . . If this fire stops at night, we'll begin to rebuild on the next morning.  If it stops in the morning, we'll begin to rebuild in the afternoon.  When that happens, I want all the arsonists to be dead, and I want anyone who even entertains the idea of lighting a match to be able to remember what happened to the people who started this fire."  Couldn't you just hear Giuliani saying that on September 12, 2001?  How about this description:  "The bridges were crowded with uncountable thousands of refugees who streamed across their darkened roadways . . . They walked in stunned silence, children on their backs, briefcases and bundles in their hands.  The streets became a huge rag-and-bone shop as people carried off an infinite assortment of objects that they wanted to save."  Doesn't that sound just like the images of people leaving their offices to walk home on September 11?

I listened to the book on CD in my car, and then read ahead at home.  The audio book reader, Oliver Wyman, was amazing.  He had distinct and true voices for each of at least 20 characters, all of which seemed to fit them perfectly.  I would listen to Wyman read again any time.

In my humble opinion, this is one of the best books ever written, and it will definitely be on my list of Favorites.  Helprin's character development is fantastic, his scene descriptions are second to none, and although the stories twist and turn, they come together just as they should.  For some reason, this was not a NYT Editor's Choice Book (the 1980s equivalent of the Notable Book), and in fact, no book by Helprin has ever won any awards.  This is astounding, and disappointing to me.  NYT gave Helprin an excellent review, which you should read if I have not yet convinced you to read Winter's Tale.   Rumor has it that Winter's Tale may be made into a movie starring Will Smith.  Based on how well I have thought that The Help and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close have been interpreted on the big screen, I will be first in line to buy tickets.

So, Go. Get. It. And. Read.  Really.

Next up on CD:  Lit by Mary Karr

Next up on Paper:  Not Becoming My Mother by Ruth Reichl

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Rubber Duckie, You're The One

Moby-Duck by Donovan Hohn is the story of a man, Hohn, trying to find rubber duckies.  I'm serious.  Except that, as Hohn patiently explains, they aren't really rubber and they aren't just duckies. 

In 1992, a container filled with cardboard boxes, filled with plastic bags, filled with plastic ducks, turtles, beavers and frogs, fell off of its container ship, and into the Pacific Ocean.  Because of the nature of the shipment, many of the 28,800 toys floated, and found their way to various American and Canadian shores.  Hohn interviewed people who had found the animals, who study the Pacific Garbage Patch(es), who monitor the ice in the Arctic, who ship containers, and who make plastic bath toys, and reported his findings in Moby-Duck.

Strange, isn't it, that a container of floating bath toys would be the one to fall off the container ship?  Not really.  According to Hohn, somewhere between 2,000 and 10,000 containers fall overboard each and every year, filling the ocean with cell phones, computer monitors, shoes, bikes, and lots and lots of plastic.  In fact, Hohn says that 2,000 supertankers and container ships have actually sunk in the last 20 years due to weather alone, and that two undefined "large ships" sink every week.  Apparently this is not widely known because the companies that lose shipments don't want to get reputations as polluters, and the shipping industry is not well regulated.  The disposability of the lives of the primarily Filipino crew members is also mentioned.

Hohn believes that the way to minimize the ocean's pollution is not to organize beach clean ups, but to go straight to the source - the corporations that actually make the things that pollute the oceans.  He points out that many of the names of organizations that claim to be all about keeping the world clean are really deceptive, as many of these organizations, like "Keep America Beautiful" are actually created by big corporations that contribute to the pollution problem.  By creating ad campaigns, like the crying Indian campaign of the 1970s, these corporations try to shift the blame away from themselves and to individual litter bugs who they imply cause pollution by not disposing of unnecessary packaging appropriately.  Hohn also reveals that the crying Indian himself, Iron Eyes Cody, is actually not a Native American at all, but a Sicilian born "Espera Oscar De Corti". 

An example of this unnecessary packaging that had never crossed my mind before is the plastic bag which Subway puts around each and every sandwich that it makes.  When I buy one sandwich for each member of my family, I wind up with 5 plastic bags, because they put our 4 bagged sandwiches into a larger plastic bag, for my convenience, all of which I throw away 30 seconds later.  Why do I accept that?  I bring fabric shopping bags to the grocery store, but I never thought to bring them to Subway.  Jimmy John's and Potbelly don't use plastic bags.  Subway might try to redeem itself by sponsoring a "recycle your plastic" ad campaign, but really, wouldn't that problem be solved if they stopped using plastic, instead of shifting the blame to their customers for not recycling?

Hohn is also interested in our fascination with the "rubber duckie".  As mentioned above, they haven't really been rubber for years, but are made from cheap plastic.  Hohn credits Sesame Street, and specifically Ernie, with making the yellow duck (which doesn't exist in nature) a cultural icon.

All told, this is an interesting book, but I would have preferred if it was 100 pages shorter.  Hohn went on tangents, pursued each to its logical or illogical end, and reported his well researched findings.  The end notes in this book are especially interesting.  They are not citations to articles supporting his conclusions, as one might expect, but instead are Hohn's commentaries that were so tangential that you just know his editor insisted they be cut from the body of the book.  With about 50 pages left, Hohn explained how a ship that he was on broke ice by charging toward it, landing on it, and waiting for the ice to break under the weight of the boat.  This is exactly how Mark Helprin described a ship breaking ice in Winter's Tale, which was sitting on my nightstand staring at me while I trudged through the end of Moby-Duck.  Next to Winter's Tale, Hohn didn't have a chance, and I admit to skimming through after that point.

Moby-Duck was published in 2011, although Hohn seemed to do most if its research around 2007.  At that point, it had been 15 years since the container full of bath toys fell overboard, and they were still, occasionally, washing up.  My guess is that right now, Hohn is somewhere on the West Coast of the US, impatiently awaiting fresh arrivals.  According to this article, published today, the first debris from the April 7, 2011 Japanese Tsunami has just begun to arrive in the Gulf of Alaska. 

Next up:  Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin!  Yep, I've been listening to it for a couple of weeks, and loving it, so now I am going to read too while I'm at home, so that I'm not tempted to drive around aimlessly (polluting the environment at $3.99 per gallon) in order to find out what happens next.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Typical Book Group Report - 6

Tonight 9 Typical Book Groupers got together to discuss The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.  Mind you now, we are a group of moms who read.  In that order.  Moms first, readers second.  Several of the book groupers had refused to read Hunger Games for years, because they could not imagine how a book about children fighting to the death on television could be worth reading.  But after giving it a chance, we all loved it.

Basically, The Hunger Games is a book about children forced to fight for their survival, as part of a reality TV show.  The children are selected lottery style from the 12 districts surrounding the Capital.  The people in the districts are poor, and the people in the Capital are wealthy.  For instance, the people in the districts are frequently cold and starving, while the people in the Capital are all about plastic surgery and outrageous outfits.  The main characters are Katniss, Peta and Gale who are all from District 12.

What makes the story bearable is that Collins imagines it so well.  It seems almost conceivable that if we aren't careful, something like this could happen in the future.  We are obsessed with reality TV.  We constantly thrive to make the challenges more difficult on shows like Survivor and Wipe Out.  How far could we really be from a reality TV "star" dying on camera?

One issue that we discussed tonight was who, in today's terms, is playing to the role of the Capital residents, and who is playing the people in the districts.  Most of the book groupers thought that the U.S. is like the Capital, where medicine, food, and plastic surgeons are readily available, with the other less wealthy countries playing the role of the districts.  Being more politically jaded, I have to wonder if maybe the Capital is "the 1%", and the people in the districts are the rest of America.

Another debate that we had was how old our kids should be before they should be allowed to (1) read the book and (2) see the movie.  Both of my kids, who are in 12 and 13, have seen the movie.  My son and I read the book together when he was about 10.  Although I have not seen the movie, those who had indicated that some of the most violent scenes from the book were only alluded to in the movie.  I think that as a group, we would draw the line for seeing the movie somewhere around 6th or 7th grade.  As for reading the book, we agreed that 3rd grade is a little young, but seemed to think that 4th or 5th grade could be OK.

On a related note, my daughter, who I never thought would be interested in The Hunger Games saw the movie, and loved it, so she saw it again.  Now she is reading the second book, Catching Fire.  As the parent of a young child with dyslexia, parents of older dyslexic kids told me time and again that some day my child would find a book that she loves, and that would make all the difference in her reading.  I have tried everything to get her to find that book.  It turns out that all it takes is a hot guy.  After seeing Josh Hutcherson in the movie, her interest was piqued.  Last night, we got to a critical part in Catching Fire, and I told her that I wasn't going to read any more.  She wound up staying awake and reading for another hour and a half.  We joked that I never thought I would have to tell her that she can't stay up all night reading, but I did last night.  And now, the only thing that I worry about is that she is going to get through all of the books too fast!  If only she had fallen for Harry Potter -  his stories are a lot longer and there are more of them!

Next up:  Next we are going to read Sister of My Heart by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Still Reading:  Moby Duck by Donovan Hohn

Still Listening to:  Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin.  Have I mentioned that I am loving this book?

Monday, April 16, 2012


So the 2012 Pulitzer Prize winners were announced today, and guess what?  No Fiction Winner.  What does that even mean?  The writing right now is so bad that no one is worthy?  The last time that there was no Fiction prize awarded was 1977.  I questioned the quality of popular fiction in the 1970s when I reviewed The Furies by John Jakes, but I really don't think that we've fallen back to that level!

The Finalists were Swamplandia by Karen Russell, The Pale King by David Foster Wallace, and Train Dreams by Denis Johnson.  Of those, I have only read Swamplandia,  but I have to say that it was better than Olive Kitteridge and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which won in 2009 and 2008, respectively. 

In the past I have asked whether authors should brag about being "short listed" for an award, and decided that they should.  But in this case, where there were finalists, but  the judges apparently concluded that none were good enough, will Karen Russell even want to include that on her resume?  I do concede that Swamplandia  was not life changing, but Russell's writing is certainly worthy of the $10,000.00 prize.

Still Reading:  Moby Duck by Donovan Hohn

Still Listening to:  Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin

Friday, April 13, 2012

Driving Hazards

Did you know that if, instead of going straight to work, you sit in your car listening to a book on CD in the parking lot of your child's school, you may wind up spending the morning with your dad, and your husband, and when neither of their jumper cables are long enough, the guy from AAA roadside assistance?  Yep.  It happened.  I was listening to Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin, and it's just too good to only listen to while driving.

I am only about 1/3 into the story, but so far, it is like a long fairy tale for adults.  The main characters at this point are Peter Lake, an orphan who raised himself in New York City at the turn of the last century, his nemesis, Pearly Soames, and Beverly Penn, the woman he falls in love with while trying to rob her father.

This is another 27 hour long story, so I have a lot more listening to do.  I'm asking for extra long jumper cables for Mother's Day, because I just can't be sure that I won't drain down my battery listening again.

By the way . . . don't forget to vote for this blog in the Independent Book Blogger contest by April 23, 2012.  The link is on the top right corner of this Blog. 

Still Reading:  Moby Duck by Donovan Hohn

Happily Listening to:  Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin

Friday, April 6, 2012

Starting at the End

March by Geraldine Brooks was sitting in my nightstand for over a year before I decided to read it.  The reason that it climbed to the top of my pile is that my library has been doing a series on Civil War books, and it included March as  a discussion book.  I had picked March up only because I had read People of the Book by Brooks and loved it, and hadn't realized that March was a Civil War book.  So I dove right in, knowing only that.

And I was confused.  March is a civil war book, in the same sense that a book about the Holocaust could be considered a World War II book.  It is focused on abolitionism, and not so much on war.  March reminded me a lot of Beloved by Toni Morrison, in telling the story of the mistreatment of the slaves.  I thought that it was strange that  a book that won the Pulitzer in 2006 would be so cutesy as to give the main character the last name "March", and then have him have four girls, named for the four March girls in Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.  Then it seemed a little too coincidental that the main character was friends with Henry Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne.  The whole book just felt a little too contrived for me, and certainly too hokey for an award winning novel.  Why was the main character a vegetarian?  Were there even Civil War era vegetarians? 

Then I got to the end, and read the section titled  "Afterward".  There Brooks explains that the character in March did not name his daughters after the girls in Little Women, but that his girls were the girls in Little Women.  March  is intended to be the story of the father in Little Women, who is not fully developed in the original novel.  The dad is off to war, and then said to be close to death in a Washington hospital, but that's really it.  In March, in order to make the character of Mr. March more complete, Brooks models him after Alcott's true father, Amos Bronson Alcott.

In real life, Bronson Alcott was a vegetarian.  He was also an abolitionist, who was friends with Emerson, Thoreau, and Hawthorne.  Amazingly, they all lived in Concord, Massachusetts, at the same time, making Concord in Civil War times the literary equivalent of Brooklyn today.  Alcott was a person who didn't believe in hurting people or animals, which explains some of March's more strange decisions in the novel.

Looking back on March with the realization that it is intended to be an expansion on Little Women, but with true semi-biographical information added, makes it much more interesting to me, and I wish that I had known it from the beginning.  So a word to the wise:  Read the Afterward first.  Or, at least read the back cover of the book, which I also somehow failed to do.  It's been years since I read Little Women, and actually I'm not even sure that I ever finished it.  For now, I think I'll add it to the pile of books that I want to read to my daughter.  After reading March, I am sure that I will have a new perspective on the story.

One more done for the Off the Shelf Challenge!  16 to go.

Next up:  Moby Duck by Donovan Hohn

Still Listening to:  Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin

Thursday, April 5, 2012

I Could Do That

Exhibit A
Following Atticus:  Forty-Eight High Peaks, One Little Dog, and an Extraordinary Friendship by Tom Ryan, is the story of an overweight man and a miniature schnauzer (see Exhibit A) who hike all of the 4,000 foot peaks in the White Mountains of Maine and New Hampshire.  But that's not enough.  They had to try to hike them all twice, during the 90 day period that constitutes winter proper.

I had some problems with this book that I'm having a hard time explaining.  One issue that I had is that Tom kept saying that there was something unusual about a big guy like him, and a little guy like Atticus hiking these peaks.  However, even while he was telling me that it is normally more fit people who do these things, he made it sound like the hikes were pretty easy, and definitely something that I could do.  I'm not sure that is really the case.  I can't think of the words that Tom could have used to make the expeditions sound as challenging as I logically think that they must have been.  He sometimes talked about coming across young buff groups of men all in premium hiking gear, who may or may not be able to reach the peaks that he and Atticus reach.  That helped me a little, because I could picture those cocky guys, but still, it seemed like hiking a 4,000 foot peak was something that I could do, right now, if I was just there.

I had this same feeling when I read A Walk in the Woods:  Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail by Bill Bryson.  It seemed to me that I too could hike the trail.  I would do it in pieces, over a period of many years, so that I would always be hiking when it was warm out (and sunny, and free of bugs, and with lots of snacks), but I could do it.  Have I mentioned that I have never even gone camping before?  But surely I could hike the Appalachian Trail, and enjoy it.

My other problem with Atticus is that I really couldn't relate to Tom's desire to do all of the hiking in the winter, or to try to do all of the peaks twice.  Why isn't once enough?  Why not set attainable goals, at least the first time around, and then improve on them?  It seemed that Tom's preference for winter hiking had to do with him being less likely to see other people while he was out.  Tom took being anti-social to an extreme, which made me wonder, how sad would his life have been without Atticus? 

My friend, Ann, recommended Atticus  to me after she listened to it on CD.  She felt that the story was so much better when she heard Tom reading it himself.  There have been books that I have listened to the author read on CD, such as The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris,  and The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender, where I felt that the author reading it made all of the difference in the world.  In this case, however, I wish that Tom could have been more conversational.  I know that he was supposed to read the book to me, and that's what he did, and really, he did it as well as most of the actors who read stories for authors who won't read them themselves.  But there was a distance to his telling that I wish wasn't there.

Could it be that my complaints about Atticus are actually be compliments in disguise?  Could it mean that Tom is really a great and humble story teller, if he is able to tell the story of his journeys in a way that makes me think "Yeah, I could do that too.  I just don't want to right now"?  Could it mean that I really understand what Atticus meant to Tom if I can see him as sort of a jerk who I wouldn't want to hang out with, but as much happier guy because he has Atticus?  Maybe.  The Friends Book Group will be taking about this one next month, and I will look forward to hearing other points of view on Tom, Atticus, and their journeys.

One more down for the Support Your Library Challenge!

Next Up on CD:  Winter's Tale  by Mark Helprin

Still Reading:  March by Geraldine Brooks
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