Monday, March 28, 2011

Heart of the Matter : a review

Heart of the Matter by Emily Giffin (2010)

What would you do if your husband cheated on you? Would you throw him out, or forgive him and try to patch up your relationship? This is the central question of this chick lit novel from the author of Something Borrowed, (soon to be released as a movie.) Tessa is married to pediatric plastic surgeon Nick, and lives in Wellesley, MA. Once a career woman, she gave it all up to stay at home with her kids, and is beginning to feel dissatisfied with her life. Her friends are of the Stepford Wife variety and she simultaneously likes and dislikes them, wants her kids to get into private school and opposes everything it stands for. Valerie is a single mom (and a successful corporate lawyer) in the same community. When her son Charlie is badly burned in an accident, Nick becomes his doctor and Valerie’s friend. Over the course of the novel their friendship escalates into something more.

The chapters alternated between Tessa and Valerie, Tessa’s chapters written in first person and Valerie’s in third. (Nick remained a mystery, which is appropriate since neither woman knew what the hell was going on in his head.) Unlike in most novels where there is spousal cheating, both Tessa and Valerie were likeable characters and I was unable to root for either of them at the expense of the over, nor was I able to predict the outcome. Tessa had a conversation about the cheating question with her friends early in the book, but of course it’s completely different when it is hypothetical. Tessa has spent a lot of time thinking about this topic because her father’s infidelity was the reason for her parents’ divorce. Late in the book she has a very interesting and influential conversation with her parents about this.

This certainly wasn’t a shopping-and-dating-and-drinking-martinis kind of chick lit book, but rather one that probes at a timeless issue with no easy answers. Comparing her situation to that of her mother and Eliot Spitzer’s wife, Tessa had to decide what to do in a situation in which the outcome of her life – and that of her children – would be forever affected. I thought it was handled fairly well and enjoyed the book the whole way through. As a sidenote, Tessa’s brother was Dex, a central character from Something Borrowed, which was a fun surprise, as were the allusions to Dex’s early relationship with his wife (and I won’t mention who that is, in the interest of not spoiling Something Borrowed for you).

I listened to the audio version on Playaway, my preferred audio format, while walking to and from work. I love chick lit on audio and, indeed, it seems to be the only genre I can handle in that format, but my library system sadly lacks playaways in this genre. Cynthia Nixon was a great narrator who managed to get the tone exactly right and make the voices different enough to recognize without making any of them sound fake. I really enjoyed listening to her read this book.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Another Bullshit Night in Suck City : a review

Another Bullshit Night in Suck City by Nick Flynn (2004)

Maybe the city sucks, but the memoir sure doesn’t. Nick Flynn has written an account of his time working at the Pine Street Inn, where he crosses paths with his absentee father. Both men have had pretty hard times and it seems as if Jonathan serves as a warning to his son. Nick writes about his addictions, his somewhat drifter lifestyle, brief involvement with drug smugglers, failed relationships, his mother’s suicide. Multiply his issues by 10 and you’ve got his father. Decades of alcoholism have ravaged Jonathan, and he seems to be sustained by his delusions of grandeur. He is convinced that he will be a Great Writer and that his book, once sold, will be a huge success, but as much as he talks about it Nick isn’t convinced the book even exists. Jonathan lives in hovels, or the shelter where Nick works, or sleeps on benches or in ATMs. Flynn expertly weaves their stories toghether, though their paths do not cross often or for long.

Flynn is very matter-of-fact about his life, which by any measure is pretty tough, but he does not try to evoke sympathy. I liked hearing about the day-to-day procedures at the shelter, about the men who are regulars there. He passes no judgment on the homeless or blame them for their situation. His descriptions of his father were similarly distant, but filled with the kinds of details that painted a lifelike portrait. He describes another side of Boston, one that I know is there but only catch glimpses of.

But the book isn’t just a chronological listing of facts. Flynn plays with narrative styles, including a short one-act play, a stream-of-conciousness chapter, and peppers the text with quotes from Shakespeare. Rather than desctracting from the topics at hand, these excursions seem appropriate to a memoir about two men prone to wandering and aimlessness. I’m happy that Nick Flynn has found the success he father always craved, and now that his memoir is soon to be made into a movie, it seems that continued success is assured. But don’t wait for the movie – read the book now!

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Book Thief : a review

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (2006)

We first meet Liesel on a train. Her mother is bringing both children to Molching to live in a foster home after their father has been taken away for being a communist. On the train ride, the boy dies and Liesel steals her first book. After arriving at the home of Hans and Rosa Hubermann, her new foster father teaches Liesel to read using the stolen book. Over the next few years Liesel befriends her neighbor Rudy Steiner, a Jew named Max Vanderburg, the mayor’s wife Ilsa, and sustains herself throughout WWII and all its tragedies through her love of books.

Death is the omniscient narrator, and in the prologue he describes the few times he has met the book thief. Because it jumped around in chronology and I had no context for the events or any idea who the characters were, the whole beginning was confusing and I promptly forgot everything about it. Though I began with mixed feelings about Death as a narrator, overall it added depth to the story. The main focus was on Liesel and her friends and neighbors in Molching, but Death placed these stories in the larger context of what was happening all over Europe during this time.

Zusak is generous with metaphors, but they don’t all work. “Her voice was like suicide.” “They shivered like the future.” I have no idea what those mean and felt like he was trying too hard. They sound poetic, but metaphors should also add to the reader’s understanding and these do not. Despite this small shortcoming I liked his writing, such as the way he animated inanimate objects: “Hans Hubermann had her by one hand. Her small suitcase had her by the other.” He knows how to develop a story and its characters, setting us up for heartbreak.

Through most of the book I felt like it was only so-so. I’ve read so many books, fiction and non-fiction, about that era that I always feel like I can’t possibly read another one. Filled to the brim with death, fear, and cruelty, they are all essentially about the same thing. But I’m a sucker for a book-loving theme, and the characters felt so real that as I progressed through it I became very invested in these people and, consequently, saddened by their many tragedies.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

One Sweetheart Sock

Making the second sock feels insurmountable at the moment, but I believe it is possible and that I will accomplish it!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Heaven to Betsy : a review

Heaven to Betsy and Betsy in Spite of Herself by Maud Hart Lovelace (1945-1946)
Written in the 1940s, the Betsy-Tacy series is set in Deep Valley, Minnesota at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. The two main characters, Betsy and her friend Tacy, are children in the early books but the series follows them into adulthood, the reading level increasing as they age.

Because I’m so fond of YA, I skipped the kids’ books and started with the combined volume Heaven to Betsy/Betsy in Spite of Herself, which covers their first two years of high school. And what fun and exciting years they are! Betsy Ray is such a typical, recognizable teenage girl that it’s easy to forget she’s starting high school way back in 1906. The girls are silly and fun, writing songs about the boys they like, using a Ouija board to predict the future, talking on the phone, putting off homework until the last minute, and trying to create new and mysterious personas for themselves. They have inside jokes and catch phrases, at one point constantly crying “O di immortales!” and during another period, “Hully Gee!”

The period details are just the best. Every night Betsy puts her hair in Magic Wavers, and then styles it into a pompadour. Cars are new and Betsy at one point has a boyfriend with a car and they drive around at a thrilling 20 miles an hour! Imagine!

Lest you think being a teenager was all fun and carefree in those days, it’s important to mention their more serious concerns as well. When Betsy and her sister Julia decide they want to become Episcopalian though they were raised Baptist, they are both terrified of confronting their father about it. And like any teenager, Betsy has ongoing struggles to remain true to herself. She gets so caught up in being part of a crowd that she goes along with them regardless of what she really wants. Although Betsy hates skating, “she always pretended radiantly to like whatever the others liked, and the others…adored skating.” Another time, after a failed romance with a boy, she is sleighing with a large party including said boy and his new flame. “It was a horribly party for Betsy who remarked at frequent intervals that she never had had so much fun in her life.”

We frequently think of women in that era as being confined to the roles of housewives and mothers, but one of the great aspects of these books is that the characters have big ambitions. Sure, Betsy is as taken with romance as any teenage girl, but she has always wanted to be a writer and that doesn’t take a back seat to any man. Similarly, her sister Julia is devoted to music and even turns down a marriage proposal because she wants to pursue her dreams. Betsy is a bit appalled at how fixated on marriage some of her friends are, having alrady picked out silver patterns and started embroidering towels for their hope chests. “When Betsy and Tacy and Tib talked about their future they planned to be writers, dancers, circus acrobats.” It’s all very hopeful and inspiring!

This recent edition includes a forward by Laura Lippman, which was an added bonus. There’s also some great author information in the back – the whole series is apparently strongly autobiographical, which would account for how realistic it is. In a way, it’s like a slightly more grown-up and modern version of the Little House books. Which of course is my way of saying how much I loved it.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Civil War : a review

The Civil War: a concise history by Louis P. Masur (2011)

One of the challenges of reading non-fiction is that everything seems so long-winded. I have neither the patience nor the attention span for the dense or scholarly, so I was happy to hear about the 124-page Civil War history that was just released in February. Bear with me as I switch gears from the superfun times of young adult novels to a serious book about our nation's history.

Masur won me over in the Introduction in which he managed to quote both Cormac McCarthy and Tolstoy, and then went on to present a straightforward and readable narrative of a fascinating and extraordinarily difficult time. You think politics is polarizing now? At least states aren’t seceding and we’re not literally at war with ourselves (nor are we likely to be.)

Though brief, the book touches on the complex issues of the war - states’ rights, slavery, economics – as well as describing the horrors of battle and sharing a few photos. The Civil War was the first war to be photographed - what a shock that must have been for those following along at home!

Having little education on the Civil War, I learned a lot and was surprised by some things that just hadn’t occurred to me. After the Emancipation Proclamation, for instance, there was a great deal of resistance. Though many hailed the abolition of slavery as the right thing to do, many others thought slavery should be preserved at all costs. I mean, obviously, or there wouldn't have been a war. But it's strange to think about how long it took people to get on board with abolition.

This book would be a great place to start in educating oneself about this important period in history, and I would be happy to recommend it highly, except for one small thing. And by small, I mean tiny. The font! It’s almost microscopic! I’m mystified as to why Oxford University Press would choose to do this. Without the notes and bibliography, the book is only 94 pages long – with a normal font it would still be a short enough book for the easily-deterred. The good news is that this is available as an ebook, so if you're willing to pay for it (or if your library has it), you can adjust the font size to suit you. Problem solved!

Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Sweetheart of Prosper County : a review

The Sweetheart of Prosper County by Jill S. Alexander (2009)

More young adult books should be set in Texas. The backdrop ensures that these are not typical YA characters. They live in the country, they raise barnyard animals, they pray, they hunt. They are the Future Farmers of America! Every year one of them gets to ride on the hood of a car in the No-Jesus Christmas Parade, and Austin Gray is determined that next year she too will be a hood ornament. She joins the FFA, adopts a rooster named Charles Dickens to enter in the poultry division, and even tries her hand at grappling. It is all very fun and country fried!

But there is a dark side to Austin's life. Six years ago her daddy drowned in Prosper Lake and although she and her mom have made an art form of moving on, it is clear that neither one of them has actually done so. Austin's activities in the FFA and her new relationship with Lafayette Boudreaux (from whom she obtained Charles Dickens) dredge up her mom's anxieties until ultimately the two are forced to confront what happened to Austin's dad. To make matters worse, Austin has to deal with her nemesis, the bully Dean Ottmer, making fun of her every day.

Austin could have been a better developed character, but then again she is a teenager and when I was a teenager I wasn't a very well-developed character either. Luckily, this story carried itself pretty well with a whole cast of colorful characters and a fun offbeat plot.

What a great departure from the recent dark paranormal/vampire/zombie books with their uniformly black and silver colors. (Seriously, have you checked out the YA aisle in a bookstore recently?) As you can see, this cover is pink and has a chicken on it. If you're getting tired of the same stories of romance with the undead, this little book will perk you right up!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

This Book Is Overdue

This Book Is Overdue : how librarians and cybrarians can save us all by Marilyn Johnson (2010)

Marilyn Johnson isn’t a librarian, but she sure appreciates us. In the course of researching her book about obituaries she received a great deal of help from librarians, which inspired her to write This Book Is Overdue.

Chapters explore various librarian-related topics:
  • the relationship between librarians and IT departments
  • librarian bloggers
  • the Connecticut Four, a group of librarians who challenged the Patriot Act
  • librarians in Second Life
  • Radical Reference
  • St. John’s University, Queens, librarians who train students from developing nations on technology so they can go home and pursue distance degrees while being involved in local in human rights issues
  • Librarians’ image – including the sexy and/or tattooed, with a shout-out to book cart drill teams
  • A chapter on the New York Public Library
I’m not sure if she explained how librarians and cybrarians can save us all, but she definitely talked about many ways in which librarians are making the world a better place. Fighting to uphold intellectual freedom and privacy, helping people from developing nations become tech literate, assisting job searchers and researchers, and preserving important documents and ephemera are all important and noble causes. I’m not sure Second Life merits such a large portion of the book, but it was interesting. Although I feel like a lot was left out, had she included everything important that all types of librarians do, it would have been a much longer book indeed.

Both informative and entertaining, this was a very quick read and certainly worth the time invested. I’m curious about the intended audience – librarians already know that we are important, but are people who aren’t librarians reading this? Such as legislators and voters? Let’s hope so.

(By the way, Johnson is an excellent speaker – if you get the chance to hear her, don’t miss it!)

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

And the winner is….

Parcel! After posting about the challenges of finding the perfect sweater pattern, I bought some yarn and swatched and my gauge was spot on for this pattern. It doesn’t look like much so far, just a waistband and about 47 stitch markers, but it has so much promise!

The dreary winter doesn’t provide enough light for decent photos, but believe me, this yarn is a beautiful color! It’s Debbie Bliss Cashmerino DK and it cost me a pretty penny but I’m hoping it will be worth it.

I’m glad to finally get started on this sweater, but I won’t celebrate yet. We all know that gauge swatches lie, especially when knitting in the round, so there’s a chance that I will have to rip out and restart. If I find that my gauge isn’t right and am tempted to just go forward because I’m making such good progress, please please do not allow that to happen! Remind me that I actually want to wear this sweater many many times after I finish it. This isn’t about process, it’s about product.

I’ll know in another inch or two. Wish me luck.