Friday, December 31, 2010

Lowboy : a review

Last book review of the year!

Lowboy by John Wray (2009)

Lowboy is Will Heller, a mentally ill teenager who is off his meds and wandering through the NY subway system in a conquest to stop global warming by finally having sex. His mother, an Austrian immigrant who he calls Violet, is working with police officer Ali Lateef to track him down before he causes harm. Though he is not especially violent, he once pushed his best friend Emily on the subway tracks in Union Station.

The chapters alternate between Will’s story and Ali’s. Though Will is schizophrenic and many of his thoughts are completely illogical, it was still easy enough to follow along in the story without confusion. But the scattered thoughts were disorienting enough to create a small taste of what Will may have been feeling. Wray gets inside Will’s head enough to make us understand why Will is doing what he’s doing and one can only have sympathy for this misguided, doomed character.

I found this in the Young Adult section of my library, but the writing is more like an adult book, and indeed many libraries have it in their adult collections. If you like well-written novels about teens in trouble, this may fit the bill. As an added point of interest, much of the book was written where it takes place – on the subway!

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Tweed Pullover

Now that Christmas has passed, I can show you what I’ve been knitting recently.


Let me tell you, knitting a sweater entirely in secret for someone you live with is extremely difficult and time-consuming. To have this done for Christmas, I started in August – August! And still barely finished. In fact, it still doesn’t have buttons (though I bought some on December 23rd) but I think we’ve agreed that it doesn’t need them. I'm relieved that it fits and that Eric seems to like it.

A few years ago when visiting the family in Maine, my mother pointed out that she made the sweater my sister was wearing. Eric commented that he liked it and wouldn’t mind having one so my mom gave me the pattern. I’m sure he forgot that conversation long ago, but I didn’t. When I decided back in August to knit him a sweater for Christmas I thought of this simple pattern – it's stockinette with a simple construction, and as a bonus someone I knew had already tested the pattern so there shouldn’t be any major errors or other surprises. Very different than the last sweater I knit for him, which took six months without having to work in secret.

When I began this project I set deadlines for when each part needed to be completed. The back by the end of September (which included an 8-day trip to Amsterdam without the project), the front by the end of October, the first sleeve before Thanksgiving. That left December to make the second sleeve, sew it all together, and make the button bands and collar.

I took the project to knitting group, to friend’s houses, to work. I kept it stashed in a drawer by the bed and even worked on it late at night before going to sleep. On mornings that I had off, I tried to rush Eric out of the house so I’d have more time to knit alone before I had to go to work. I encouraged him to spend more time with friends. Anything to gain knitting time. I finally finished on December 20th (except for the aforementioned buttons).

The pattern is from a Mary Maxim flyer which originally came as part of a kit. The only slight modification was that I picked up stitches along the neck for the button bands instead of knitting them separately and sewing on as directed. I did knit the collar separately and whip-stitched it onto the neck opening. I used Plymouth Encore Worsted yarn and needle sizes 7 and 5. I haven’t knit with straight needles in a while and, man, they stick out really far. They kept getting caught on things and I almost poked my cat’s eye out.

Thank goodness that’s over.

Monday, December 27, 2010

An Object of Beauty : a review

I have Christmas-related information to post, including pictures of a sweater I knitted, but cannot find the card reader that will enable me to share those photos with you. So stay tuned, and enjoy this book review in the meantime!

An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin (2010)

Martin’s latest novel takes us into the world of art collecting with all its accompanying competitiveness and intrigue. Lacey Yeager is the star of this show and we first meet her at Sotheby’s and then follow her career trajectory, and her love life, for several years. Lacey is smart, savvy, and calculating and uses everything she’s got to get ahead. The setting of this book was completely new to me as I know little about the art world, but Martin has woven in fascinating details about art auctions, theft – especially the Gardner heist – as well as economic and stylistic trends. His quirky characters added personality to the already interesting story.

As a reader, I felt more like I was following Lacey around rather than residing inside her head, similar to the narrative style I noticed in Shopgirl. Martin keeps the reader a bit distant from the main character, but somehow it also increases the feeling of loneliness that surrounds the character. In fact, I never really got a sense of what Lacey wanted in her life, aside from career success. Many men passed through and she seemed to not care at all about them except when she wanted sex but it’s difficult to imagine that she really had so little desire for any kind of relationship. But as I mentioned, we don’t really know what was going on in her head. Nevertheless, this wasn’t a book about relationships it was about one woman’s career in art and it was a fresh and unusual story, well written and very readable. As an added bonus, the novel includes color photos of art works – a fantastic touch!

Friday, December 24, 2010

The Night Bookmobile : a review

The Night Bookmobile by Audrey Niffenegger (2010)

Late one night, wandering the streets alone after a fight with her boyfriend, Alexandra stumbles upon a bookmobile. The librarian invites her inside, and she discovers that it houses a collection of everything she has ever read in her life. It closes at dawn, after which Alexandra spends countless nights looking for it again. She becomes obsessed with the bookmobile and even becomes a librarian in hopes of working on it.

A graphic novel from the author of the Time Traveler’s Wife, the Night Bookmobile is a beautiful and heartbreaking tale of how much one woman is willing to give up for her love of books. Alexandra’s life is lonely and empty. She is always a voracious reader but little else about her life is mentioned. She lost her boyfriend because of her frequent nights looking for the bookmobile, and her career success is glossed over because a career in a regular library has little meaning to her.

Audrey Niffenegger amazes me, and I found myself reading this dark tale a second time, and then a third time. As sad as it is, the story really speaks to me as a reader. How I wish there was a huge Winnebago out there full of everything I’ve ever read. If I should ever find it - what bliss!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Sweethearts : a review

Sweethearts by Sara Zarr (2009)

When Jennifer Harris was a kid, her best friend was Cameron Quick. Jennifer was a compulsive eater, Cameron lived in an abusive home, and neither of them fit in at their school. One day Cameron just disappeared and Jennifer learned that he had moved. Her devastation was complete a few months later when she heard that he was dead.

Years later she is reinvented as Jenna Vaughn, and lives a seemingly perfect life with her mom and stepfather, lots of friends, and super hottie boyfriend Ethan. But when Cameron suddenly resurfaces, Jenna is forced to confront her past and reconcile Jenna Vaughn with Jennifer Harris.

Jenna and Cameron have one of the most intense relationships I’ve read in a long time. Not only were they exclusive BFFs who were misunderstood by everyone else around them, but they experienced a trauma together when they were kids. Although theirs was always a friendship and not a romantic relationship, when they were reunited there were definitely strong feelings and sexual tension. Zarr expertly creates a bond between the two characters based on their childhood friendship and shared trauma, and vividly recreates feelings of teenage lust and angst.

Cameron was completely swoonworthy - an attractive, yet tragic, loner from a broken home. Jenna was a great character too, because she had complicated problems but wasn’t portrayed as too self-aware for someone her age, as many teen characters are. She didn’t handle things especially well, but did it pretty much how I would have at her age. (Or possibly now.) Although I found her mother rather two-dimensional, I thought her stepfather was fantastic. They had a good relationship and he was just slightly dorky and standoff-ish and totally charming.

Sweethearts was one of the best YA books I read this year. Of course, I am always a sucker for a good unrequited romance.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

A Christmas Promise : a review

A Christmas Promise by Anne Perry (2009)

Thirteen-year-old Grace Phipps happened across a lost-looking 8-year-old a few days before Christmas in Victorian England. The young Minnie Maude is looking for Charlie, her donkey, who was missing, along with his cart, after Uncle Alf was killed. Despite her reservations Grace says she’ll help look for the donkey, but of course they end up investigating the murder of Uncle Alf.

This short novel by Anne Perry has a stronger Christmas theme than the other one that I read, as it took place in the days leading up to Christmas and there were frequent mentions of preparations for the holiday. Another major contrast is tht A Christmas Journey took place among the upper classes, while A Christmas Promise was set in a poor neighborhood and the main characters were children.

Just as quick to read, it was less cozy than A Christmas Journey because of the frequent mentions of cold and discomfort. It seems there was always a harsh biting wind, and the characters were constantly pulling their shawls more tightly about their bodies. Still, it was enjoyable in its own way, so I recommend it if you enjoy mysteries set in the Victorian period.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Sorta Like a Rock Star : a review

Sorta Like a Rock Star by Matthew Quick (2009)

Amber Appleton lives in a bus with her alcoholic mom and hangs out with a group of misfits who call themselves Franks Freak Force Federation. When she’s not with them, she teaches the Korean Divas for Christ to speak English by singing the Supremes’ hits, visits a local nursing home to entertain residents by trading insults with cantankerous Joan of Old, and hangs out with a Vietnam vet who writes haikus. She spends her spare time (ha ha) with her dog, Bobby Big Boy (aka BBB or B Thrice), and her substitute mother figure Donna. She is positive and hopeful, but her outlook is put to the test when tragedy strikes.

I heard a lot of buzz about this book. Despite my expectations, I had a hard time getting into it. About halfway through there is a game-changing moment that I thought would infuse more reality into the story. Amber is pretty much destroyed and then slowly recovers, I think a little too perfectly – I felt like she should have been changed more by her experience but she managed to return to exactly the optimistic, inspiring person she was before.

Amber didn’t ever feel real enough to me. I found it hard to believe that a girl her age would have so many extra-curricular activities, and that most of them involved hanging out with adults. Maybe if I lived on a bus, I’d fill my time that way too, but I still found her larger than life and pictured her more like a cartoon character than a real person. More realistic was her overuse of catch phrases. “True? True.” I know that is how teenagers talk (and adults, for that matter) but it’s annoying in real life too. Amber is pretty religious and I think that aspect of her character was written well – she isn’t preachy or sentimental, and doesn’t even attend church, but ascribes to her own form of casual energetic spirituality.

I wanted to love this book like so many other readers, and I’m disappointed that I only liked it. But it’s pretty fresh and unique and filled with fun characters, so I do recommend it if you like YA books. Maybe you will love it.

Monday, December 13, 2010

A Wild Sheep Chase : a review

A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami (1989)

In this early Murakami novel, the unnamed protagonist is a youngish divorced man who is called upon by a stranger to solve a mystery. The main character had published a photo of a sheep with unique markings and the mysterious stranger demands that the exact sheep be found. Our hero and his girlfriend embark on a strange adventure to Hokkaido and then to a remote village to learn more about the sheep they are seeking.

The novel is somewhat fantastical, but mostly I found it frustrating and confusing. Had I not been reading it for a book group, I would have stopped after 50 pages. In the first 100 pages nothing whatsoever happened. There were vague references to people and events without context so I promptly forgot them. Near the middle when our hero and his girlfriend start on their quest it got interesting and I started to enjoy it. But then the ending left me bewildered.

The writing is not formal exactly, but not conversational either. There is no warmth or humor anywhere in its pages. None of the characters are named - except the cat who is named about halfway through the book (Kipper, if you are interested) - though a couple of them have nicknames. I can only speculate that this to retain the cold impersonal feeling of the story. There’s also a great deal of abstraction and symbolism, which is pretty much always lost on me.

The only other Murakami I’ve read was non-fiction, so I don’t know how this compares to his other fiction. I’ve heard that some of his books, especially The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, are quite good. But after slogging through this unpleasant mess, I probably won’t ever find out for myself.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

I'm done procrastinating

I’m officially throwing in the towel on the Practical Procrastination Pullover. I screwed it up again and realized it isn’t worth ripping back and redoing. Not because I don’t think I can get it right - I can - but because I’ve realized that I’m not going to wear the damn thing anyway.

A wise person once said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Well, I’ve knit several short-sleeved sweaters, like this one and this one and this one, and I don’t wear any of them. I’ve said time and time again that short-sleeved sweaters are impractical – if it’s cold enough for a sweater, surely you want your arms covered. Yet I continue to knit them for reasons which are unclear even to me. Oh, in this case I tried to convince myself that because the yarn is DK weight it would be more useful than a short-sleeved bulky sweater and I’m sure that’s true to some extent, but it’s still wool. Despite this pattern’s name, I suspect this one would be just as impractical as the others, and like the others it would loll about in a drawer until the Apocalypse.

Do you know what I do need? Some hats, mittens, and scarves that actually match each other. I don't think I want to take on another scarf right now, but I’m ripping out this damn sweater and making myself a hat and mittens. Now that is practical.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Eleanor Rigby : a review

Eleanor Rigby by Douglas Coupland (2004)

Liz Dunn is a lonely woman leading a quiet life. One night while out renting videos to get through a convelescence after the next day’s oral surgery, she sees a comet streak through the sky. That is the moment in which she decides she would rather have peace in her life than certainty. Soon after, she receives a phone call from a hospital. A young man has been admitted after an overdose and his medic alert bracelet lists her contact information. She has never met this young man, Jeremy, but she knows who he is and his sudden presence changes her life.

Written in first person, we visit a few different time periods in Liz’s life. The novel opens in the scene described above, but the story also skips ahead several years to a trip to Austria, and there are flashbacks to a high school trip to Rome. Towards the end of the book, events start happening in real time. For instance, Liz will say that something is currently happening and mentions something she is expecting, and then updates after it has happened.

Liz is not a happy person, though meeting Jeremy is obviously a huge turning point in her life and enables her to make peace with her past. The only allusion to the title is when she gives out her email address which starts with “eleanorrigby@” but it’s clear that lonliness is a major theme in the book. But her self-deprecation is never tiring, in fact she is insightful and quite witty. For instance: “But when you’re alone, you know that money is the one thing that can keep you safe. Safe from what? Safe from being hauled away in the middle of the night and baked into protein wafer cookies to feed people who are in relationships.”

See? How can you not like this character? The novel is very easy and quick to read, but don’t be fooled – there are sad, serious themes here. They are just wrapped in packaging that makes them easier - and more fun - to digest.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Strangers at the Feast : a review

Strangers at the Feast by Jennifer Vanderbes (2010)

A family comes together on Thanksgiving and the day goes from bad to worse, beginning with a faulty oven and ending in bloodshed. The hostess is Ginny, an academic who has just adopted a 7-year-old mute Indian girl and bought her very first home. Her brother Douglas arrives with his wife Denise and their kids, and the family is rounded out by Douglas and Ginny’s parents, Eleanor and Gavin, a housewife and a Vietnam veteran.

The day begins at Ginny’s new house. Her recent settling-down is cause for surprise and doubt in her family. When it becomes clear that her oven isn’t working – and that much in her house isn’t up to code – the family decides to pack up and drive to Douglas and Denise’s home which not only has a working oven, but a tv so they can watch the football game. Though the home is large and extravagant, Douglas and Denise are struggling financially and it’s putting a strain on their marriage as well.

Meanwhile, a couple of young men are planning a break-in. Peppered throughout the book are chapters focusing on Kiko and his friend Spider, two young men from the projects. Kiko feels responsibility towards his grandmother and wants to help her leave their neighborhood. He doesn’t want to become involved with crime like so many of his peers, and today is a one-off for him. But it’s something he feels he needs to do, for reasos that become apparent as more background is slowly revealed.

Switching perspective between six different characters, the day is broken up with many flashbacks to flesh out the characters and give more substance to the story. Each chapter was named for the character whose perspective we were seeing, which eliminated the usual confusion of that storytelling technique. The present day story was strong enough that the flashbacks didn’t leave me feeling untethered as so frequently happens.

The characters were fairly well developed, especially considering how many of them there were, but I didn’t really identify with – or feel especially drawn to – any of them. Ginny’s story was probably the most interesting, though I also enjoyed Eleanor and Gavin’s back story of their early relationship.

Vanderbes used two techniques that I usually dislike, and this double whammy of heavy flashbacks and switching perspective could have gone badly, but she managed to pull it together pretty tightly. The novel was well orchestrated, the pieces of the story coming together smoothly for the final, climactic scenes. I liked the book a lot, but if the characters had resonated a bit more, I could have loved it. It sounds like Vanderbes’ first novel, Easter Island, is a bit more personal and character-focused, so I’m adding it to my list now.