Thursday, April 28, 2011

Thin, Rich, Pretty : a review

Thin, Rich, Pretty by Beth Harbison (2010)

Holly and Nicola became best friends at camp, where they shared their dreams and insecurities. Holly wanted more than anything to be thin, and Nicola thought her nose was the one BIG thing getting in the way of being pretty. But they had more pressing problems, because cabin bully Lexi was driving them both crazy with her taunting and pranks. Holly and Nicola had enough and they made a plan to get back at her, though it didn’t quite go off without a hitch.

Twenty years later Holly and Nicola are still best friends. Holly owns an art gallery and is on the verge of engagement Randy, contingent on losing 20 pounds (WHAT?) Nicola is an actress who enjoyed moderate success but now is having a hard time getting work because of her looks. One day Holly runs into Lexi and finds that the girl who seemed to live such a charmed life has fallen far indeed, and Holly wants to fix the wrong she and Nicola committed so long ago.

Honestly, I chose this book only because it was the only chick lit I could find at my library on Playaway and I needed something to listen to on my walk to and from work. That said, it wasn’t bad as far as that genre goes. Some of it was contrived and hard to believe but it was enjoyable for what it was. I couldn’t believe that even someone with Holly’s self-esteem problems would put up with an ass like Randy (who as a character I found rather hard to swallow). On the other hand, I enjoyed the parts about Lexi dealing with her current-day problems and I think I liked her storyline the most out of the three characters.

Although this book doesn’t dig deep, it contains some satisfying positive themes about being true to yourself and making the most of what you’ve got. Take this book on your next flight or bring it to the beach this summer!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

When the impossible becomes merely difficult

The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place: The Mysterious Howling by Maryrose Wood (2010)

At the Swanburne Academy for Poor Bright Females, Penelope Lumley’s education was based on the teachings of Agatha Swanburne, whose pithy sayings provide guidance in many situations. Now that Penelope has graduated and is starting her first job as a governess this guidance is sure to come in handy. When Penelope arrives at Ashton Place she finds that the children pose a quite unusal challenge, but as a Swanburne girl she is prepared for even the most difficult situation. Penelope forges ahead despite the strange goings-on and mysteries at her new home.

Penelope is a fantastic character. Fifteen years old and as prepared as a Girl Scout, she is armed with a positive can-do attitude and a proper education. All the way to Ashton Place she quizzes herself on topics such as geography which ultimately prove completely useless. To help her in her work, she relies on lessons not only from Agatha Swanburne, but from her favorite children’s book series about a pony named Rainbow. How awesome!

The writing style is similar to the Lemony Snicket books, but the content isn’t so dark. Although written for children, there are some rather amusing adult references. For instance, when explaining the meaning of “hyperbole” the author explains that “in some cases it has been known to precipitate unnecessary wars as well as a painful gaseous condition called stock market bubbles.” In another passage, “party guests shrugged and resumed drinking and flirting with one another’s spouses, just as party guests have done since the beginning of time.”

The book is also peppered throughout with the wise sayings of Agatha Swanburns upon which Penelope relies so heavily. These nuggets of wisdom include:
“When the impossible becomes merely difficult, that’s when you know you’ve won.”
“If it were easy to resist, it would not be called chocolate cake.”
"Complaining doesn't butter the biscuit."
“One can board one’s train only after it arrives at the station. Until then, enjoy your newspaper!”

A stately home full of mysteries, unruly children, a na├»ve yet determined governess: what’s not to love about this book? Wood’s inventive and witty writing was great fun to read and I breezed through it in no time. Book two, The Hidden Gallery, was just released and I’m looking forward to Penelope’s continued adventures!

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Ape House : a review

Ape House by Sara Gruen (2010)

Isabel Duncan relates to animals better than people, and has truly found a home in her work at the Great Ape Language Lab, where she studies the way bonobo apes communicate. When John Thigpin of the Philadelphia Inquirer visits the lab for a story, he is instantly captivated by the apes and Isabel’s work with them. But the very next day the lab is bombed, freeing the apes and seriously injuring Isabel. An extreme animal rights group calling themselves the Earth Liberation League takes credit for the bombing and soon the apes reappear in a very public way. Isabel, barely recovered from her injuries, immediately sets to work trying to form a plan to get them back. John also tries to get involved despite a work-related setback that threatens to remove him from the story for good.

Sara Gruen spent a great deal of time with bonobos before writing the novel, so although it is a work of fiction, the animals were presented in a realistic way. The similarites between the apes and humans was amazing and, given everything that happened to them, one of the more disturbing aspects of the book. The Earth Liberation League is a thinly-veiled reference to the Animal Liberation Front, a real-life animal extremist group. (Speaking of thinly veiled references, there was also an appearance by protestors from the Eastborough Baptist Church!)

Gruen did a great job of handling animal rights issues, showing how people who all claim to care about animals can express that in such incredibly different ways. Her characters are wonderfully nuanced on this issue, making the central question of who is responsible for the bombing so difficult to discern.

The story about the apes was captivating, but the details about Isabel’s and John’s personal lives added more interest and complexity. I especially liked the storyline involving John and his wife Amanda and their simultaneous career difficulties. I loved John’s unflagging devotion to his wife, who unquestionably had some issues that made her difficult to live with. In fact they were both going through difficult times that made it hard for either of them to focus on anything other than their own indivdiuals problems, but I admired the way they persevered.

Reviews on this book were mixed, and I have to wonder if some of the reviewers just wanted another Water for Elephants. This is truly a different book, completely modern-day with some fantastic cultural satire. I don’t care what the review publications say – Gruen has proven her talent once again with this departure, and has shown that she is still at the top of her game.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Bossypants : a review

Bossypants by Tina Fey (2011)

I've enjoyed the comedy stylings of Tina Fey since I watched her on SNLs Weekend Update with her delicious co-host Jimmy Fallon. She was smart, funny, and down to earth. Throughout her successes with SNL, 30 Rock, movies like Mean Girls and Baby Mama, Fey has remained a relatable everywoman, only increasing her appeal. This quality is nowhere more apparent than in her recently-published book, which I prefer to think is titled Manhands.

From her humble beginning as a “change of life” baby (omg, so am I – we are sisters!), Fey recounts her early life and career, as well as more recent experiences such as her return to SNL to play Sarah Palin. The memoir is chronological, but not linear; that is, events are presented in order but there is no continuous flow between chapters. Some chapters are about events or experiences, others more thematic in nature. There is a chapter of remembrances on being very skinny, and one on being a little bit fat, both ending with “we should leave people alone about their weight.” She also shares a very funny story about her honeymoon, during which their cruise ship caught on fire. (Which I realize doesn’t sound funny, but it is.) An odd but fascinating chapter called “Peeing in Jars With Boys” recounts the unusual personal habits of some of the men at SNL. The book ends with a strangely neurotic chapter in which she agonizes over whether or not to have another baby. (Apparently she chose to, as she recently announced that she’s pregnant.)

Though her humor can be self-deprecating at times, it is tempered by a healthy dose of self-confidence and an apparently positive body image. In a chapter listing an exhaustive number of expectations for females, she includes a list of “all my healthy body parts for which I am grateful” and concludes: “I would not trade any of these features for anybody else’s…I wouldn’t even trade the acne scar on my right cheek, because that recurring zit spent more time with me in college than any boy ever did.”

A bit choppy, it’s a very quick read and, as you would expect, pretty funny. Much of her hilarity is in the delivery so I wish I had held out for the audio which she narrates herself, but it was still an enjoyable few hours and I’m glad I read it.

Ending on a random note, this may have been my favorite quote from the book:
“I have a suspicion that the definition of “crazy” in show business is a woman who keeps talking even after no one wants to fuck her anymore.”

Tina, I hope you never stop talking!

Sunday, April 17, 2011

A million little stitches

Like with any project, before I began the Whisper Cardigan I looked through the projects on Ravelry to make sure it was possible to recreate the garment in real life. Frequently, it appears to be difficult for the average person to follow a pattern and end up with anything remotely like what was pictured. Or it’s possible, but looks terrible on people not shaped like the model in the photo.

Usually I also look for comments on how pleasant, or torturous, the pattern is to work on. For instance, are you required to pick up approximately 4,367 stitches along an edge?

I mention this because it has become obvious to me that I did NOT look for such comments this time. And last week I had to pick up approximately 4,367 stitches around the opening of the damn thing.

Had I read through the pattern before starting (a lesson that is apparently impossible for me to learn) I would have realized that the construction is a little different from what I’ve been telling everyone within earshot. I was under the mistaken impression that I knit the side-to-side shrug portion (sleeve, upper back, second sleeve) and then pick up stitches just along the back and work downward. In fact, after knitting that top shrug-like part, I had to pick up stitches around the entire opening. Some will be knit downward for the back as expected, but the rest form a band around the whole neckline and armhole area.

I was so surprised by this development that after spending the afternoon bent over my project in the manner of a Dickensian factory worker, I looked again at the Ravelry projects for overlooked warning signs. One of the first comments I saw regarding the picked up stitches was “I imagine it’s how the Egyptian slaves would’ve felt if told they had to build the pyramids out of field stones.” Yeah, missed that one the first time.

But maybe it’s a good thing that I was oblivious. Surely I would have foregone the entire project had I known about this and I’m really pleased with how it’s coming out. The edging really makes the cardigan look structured and pretty.

You can't tell from this photo, but take my word for it.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Hold me closer, Tiny Cooper

Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan (2009)

Meet Will Grayson. To get through high school, he tries to abide by two rules: 1. Don’t care too much, and 2. Shut up. He’s convinced that everything bad that’s ever happened to him has been the result of not following these rules. Though Will tries to keep a low profile, his efforts are undermined daily by his proiximity to his best friend, Tiny Cooper. Tiny is the size of a refrigerator, flamboyantly gay, and writing an autobiographical musical entitled Tiny Dancer.

Meet Will Grayson. He is angry, disappointed, and very private. The person he hangs out with the most is Maura, a similarly gloomy and cynical girl who seems to think of herself as Will’s girlfriend. But every day Will looks forward to the one bright spot in his life: chatting online with Isaac, the only person Will feels truly comfortable with. Although their relationship is purely virtual, Will is madly in love.

One night, through a series of rather unfortunate events, the two Will Graysons meet face to face and the result is the most important musical of our time. Well, a lot of stuff happens in between but I don’t want to ruin the story by telling you too much about it.

I really liked spending time with both Wills, Tiny, Jane, and even Maura. I was envious of their high school experience, where it’s ok to be different, and the school supports you putting on an elaborate musical you wrote yourself, and you have a fake ID to get into cool clubs to see crappy bands. Even if some people tease you for being who you are, you still have your few close friends and your favorite music. It’s a little like Glee.

Despite the title, the real star of the book is Tiny Cooper. He makes most of what happens in the story happen, brings people together, provides comic relief, supplies ample drama, and teaches everyone about love. It’s really quite a ride.

Both authors did a great job of differentiating their characters while maintaining the flow of the story. Chapters alternated between each of the title characters, one Will Grayson per author, with chapters focusing on the second Will Grayson written all in lower case. What could have been a very confusing book was handled quite deftly. I haven’t written anything else by either author, but after this awesome collaboration, I definitely will!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

American Uprising : a review

American Uprising: the untold story of America's largest slave revolt by Daniel Rasmussen (2011)

Quick: when was the largest slave rebellion in U.S. history? Think it was Nat Turner’s rebellion? Or do you simply have no idea? Then just like me, you have been sadly uninformed about a significant part of our nation’s history.

After reading this book about the Civil War, I went a bit farther back in time and read Daniel Rasmussen’s brand new, and blessedly short, book about the 1811 German Coast uprising. Yeah, I had never heard of it either. A small group of slaves from several plantations in the New Orleans area carefully planned their rebellion in secret and on the night of January 8th they led a huge group – maybe as many as 500 slaves - to revolt. Ultimately, they were quashed and cruelly punished, but the event had far-reaching consequences. For instance, one of the reasons the Americans won the Battle of New Orleans was because the city was so well fortified in response to the slave rebellion.

There was a lot packed into the 150 pages of this book. The first couple of chapters created some context for the events, including a brief description of the slave revolts in Haiti, probable inspiration for the German Coast uprising. After the detailed description of the revolt were a couple of chapters about the aftermath and how the uprising affected later events up through the Civil War. Rasmussen tied together a lot near the end, comparing the uprising to the later actions of militant civil rights activist Robert F. Williams and the Black Power movement. These later chapters were necessarily less detailed, and perhaps he was too ambitious in including all this information, but I appreciated it. Finally, he described the cover up of the uprising and how the events were downplayed by the government and consequently became somewhat lost in history.

I found this book very readable and surprisingly enjoyable. It’s not written like a history book – a litany of names, places, and dates - but has a pretty good narrative feel. For instance, when describing the initial events of the revolt Rasmussen writes:

“With the clouds darkening the cane fields and the rain blotting out the noise of their approach, the slaves hastened toward the back door of the Andry mansion.”

So much tension and excitement! Similarly, during a battle scene he writes:

“As the first soldiers on both sides fired their muskets, clouds of smoke would have quickly poured down on them, hiding everything but the flash of enemy guns.”

It’s these details that make the history in this book really come alive. He describes sights, smells, food, weather conditions and other details throughout the book, making it seem so much more real and immediate than the history I read in school. In fact, this book would be excellent for high school students who are bored of the usual list of facts and dates that run together into a meaningless jumble. Or, of course, anyone interested in learning more about American slavery.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Once Was Lost : a review

Once Was Lost by Sara Zarr (2009)

The child of a pastor and an alcoholic, Sam’s family struggles to appear picture perfect when in fact they are anything but. Her dad spends much more time and energy on his congregation than on her, and her mom was recently sent to rehab after a DUI-related accident. When a 13-year-old from her church goes missing, Sam loses the already tenuous hold on the beliefs in which she has been raised.

Sam’s friends and people from her church try to reach out to her but the only person she wants to talk to is her mom. Since she can’t, Sam just keeps her thoughts to herself and plans for the time they’ll spend together after rehab. Zarr explores how alcoholism can tear a family apart, but doesn’t do it in a preachy way. Sam has pushed her friends away because of her mom’s problems, has to switch schools because they can no longer afford private school, and missed a big mission trip to Mexico, on which her good friend Daniel had a significant religious experience.

Zarr’s novel is primarily about faith – in a higher power, sure, but also in one’s family and friends. Sam is ok with her missed opportunities because what is most important to her is her family and she has faith that they will make it. She also believes in Nick, the older brother of the missing girl. Sam’s dad warns her against spending time with Nick, a suspect in his sister’s disappearance, but Sam is sure that he is innocent.

This book was every bit as good as her other two. The fact that the missing girl had to have been taken by someone she knew in her small community made for some truly creepy moments. She also deftly handled the difficulties of a teenager struggling with her beliefs, and trying to figure out who she can trust when the one adult she feels she can always turn to is out of reach.

Now that I’ve read and enjoyed all of Sara Zarr’s novels, I can count her as one of my favorite young adult authors. Each of her three books is just as good as the last, and this consistently excellent writing only increases my anticipation of her next novel. How to Save a Life will be released in October and I plan to be first in line!

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Emily, Alone : a review

Emily, Alone by Stewart O'Nan (2011)

Stewart O’Nan’s latest novel, picking up seven years after Wish You Were Here, begins with my favorite opening line in quite a while:

“Tuesdays, Emily Maxwell put what precious little remained of her life in God’s and her sister-in-law Arlene’s shaky hands and they drove together to Edgewood for Eat ‘n Park’s two-for-one breakfast buffet.”

Emily is a widow whose grown children live far away and are busy with their own lives and children, and she spends a great deal of time looking forward to, and planning, their visits. In the meantime, her most frequent companion (aside from her old dog, Rufus) is Arlene, upon whom Emily has grown dependent after she gave up driving several years ago. But when Arlene passes out at the Eat ‘n Park one day and Emly has to drive her car to the hospital, she rethinks decision to put her car away for good.

Considerably shorter than it’s predecessor, this novel is more focused as it centers solely on Emily’s character. It’s still more slice-of-life than action-oriented, but the themes are more prominent than in Wish You Were Here. We see Emily growing more independent at a time of her life when we expect the opposite, and the result is a touchingly hopeful portrait of old age.

I loved everything about this book. The descriptions of her small daily life were exquisite, as one would expect from O’Nan. One of my favorite passages was a one-page chapter called “Kleenex” in which Emily notices that a box of Kleenex has gotten low and so she restributes all the boxes in her house according to which areas get the most use. (Which I will absolutely do when I am that age.) I also especially enjoyed Emily’s visit to an art exhibit, where she is awestruck by the Van Gogh painting “Almond Blossoms” (which struck me similarly when I saw it in Amsterdam last fall.) Even though it made no sense that Rufus was still alive when he was already old in last novel, I was glad that he was because Emily’s relationship to her pet added so much to the story.

Having read Wish You Were Here filled in a lot of background about Emily's history and family, but I think this novel can easily stand alone. If you are hesitating because you haven’t read the previous book, put it off no longer. Emily is so much like someone we all know that she will be immediately recognizable.