Monday, December 12, 2011

Week 46: Pride of Baghdad, by Brian K. Vaughan and Niko Henrichon

This graphic novel was loaned to me by a friend and fellow cat-lover. The book tells the story of a group of lions who escape from their zoo in Baghdad after it is shelled during an attack.  It is apparently based on a true story, as the end of the book informs the reader that in 2003, a group of Americans soldiers encountered a group of starving lions wandering around the city. The story is heartbreaking on many different levels. It asks us to consider a constituency of a city (zoo animals) that most people would never think of during a time of war. As the city is bombed and the zoo is destroyed, one feels happy for the lions that have unexpectedly stumbled upon freedom, but the lions are about to experience a life they have never really known. The lion cub, especially, is confused by the outside world. They have all become accustomed to their captivity. Their lack of understanding as to what war is, and why their city is being attacked, echoes the sentiment of many humans. It’s particularly moving to see the illustrations of the wrecked streets of Baghdad.  Seeing the awful landscapes of war reminds the reader of the gravity of what has happened in Iraq. There is no happy ending, and in fact, the book is quite sad, but I enjoyed it very much.

Week 45: Falling Man, by Don DeLillo

Let me tell you – I loathed this book. Every page of it was torture. I know that Don DeLillo is supposed to be awesome, but this book was terrible. The only reason I chose to read this book of his and not one of his two more famous works (Underworld or White Noise) is because this book was in our library at work. I’m sure there are people out there who loved it. It’s about 9/11, which is fine. I’m not one of those people who hates 9/11 stuff; in fact, I find art or literature on that subject to be quite cathartic. But this book was terrible. It’s so pretentiously poetic and obtuse, but not in a clever way at all. In a MISERABLE way. Here is an excerpt that I shall leave you with, and then I shall never speak of this book again:

“Do you have to leave?”

He would stand naked by the bed.

“I’ll always have to leave.”

“And I’ll always have to make your leaving mean something else. Make it mean something romantic or sexy. But not empty, not lonely. Do I know how to do this?”

But she was not a contradiction, was she? She was not someone to be snatched at, not a denial of some truth he may have come upon in these long strange days and still nights, these after-days.

These are the days after. Everything is now measured by after.

She said, “Do I know how to make one thing out of another, without pretending? Can I stay who I am, or do I have to become all those other people who watch someone walk out of the door? We’re not other people, are we?”

But she would look at him in a way that made him feel he must be someone else, standing there by the bed, ready to say what someone always says.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Week 44: The Time Traveler's Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger

I had wanted to read this book for a while, even though I had heard mixed reviews about it, with some calling it romantic and others, maudlin.  The truth is that it’s both.  But, it works. A book like this cannot succeed, in my opinion, without being a tiny bit sentimental – it’s a love story. But it is far more sad than it is romantic. It’s a deeply melancholy tale that is more about loss than love. This is the story of Henry and Clare, whose relationship spans nearly their entire lives due to Henry’s ability to time travel. He is unable to control it, and it is a burden in many ways for him. There is no rhyme or reason as to where or when he will end up. He simply disappears. This puts Clare in the position of being the one (as she puts it) “left behind”. She has to simply resume her life alone when Henry disappears, and try not to worry about him while he’s off in another time. This may sound like science fiction, and it is, but the essence of their relationship is something that many couples can relate to. Any couple that has to be apart for reasons such as long distance, or a job, or the military, will find that this book strikes a chord. On top of the very human element of Henry and Clare’s relationship, the time traveling layer is extremely interesting. At several points while reading this book, I marveled over the author’s ability to spin this tale. It’s complex in that it takes place in so many different times, yet it reads realistically because it is consistent in its portrayal of its characters, despite their multiple different ages in the story. Certain scenes foreshadow points in the book, but the reader is not aware of this until finishing it and reflecting on the story as a whole. It’s a lot to think about. I enjoyed this a great deal and find myself thinking about it often since I closed its pages.

Week 43: Gossip Girl: I Like It Like That, by Cecily von Ziegesar

I really enjoy the TV show Gossip Girl. It’s so snarky and brutal and just plain clever. It’s also chock full of couture fashion, which makes it fun to look at as well. Jamie is also a fan of the show, which prompted our friends to purchase this book for him while at a yard sale. I read it, thinking that it would make a nice, lighthearted book of the week. The book series preceded the show, and it was funny to read this particular volume and see how much is different. Many of the characters have been changed pretty dramatically (for example, Serena’s little gay brother on the show is her older, meathead jock brother in the book). What is not different is the ribald scandal that is woven throughout. It’s total smut and it is not apologetic in the least. It’s shallow, it name-drops constantly, and it’s not even written all that well, but it’s totally juicy and addictive. There is really not that much to say about the plot. It involves sex and parties with lots of booze and drugs. That’s all you need to know. It’s not a bad thing, though. I could possibly be convinced to read the other books in the series...perhaps!

Monday, November 7, 2011

Week 42: Last Night at the Lobster, by Stewart O'Nan

This was my book club’s latest pick. I read it in one sitting. It’s a quick read – it feels almost like a music video that was shot in one continuous take. It’s a fun book, yet it’s steeped in a bleak mood. The story revolves around Manny DeLeon, who is a manager at a New England Red Lobster that is about to close its doors permanently. Manny, and a few other of his staff, are headed the next day to The Olive Garden. On this last night at the “Lobster”, Manny tries to keep the restaurant’s final shift running smoothly, despite a blizzard and some complex feelings that are haunting him. Manny is expecting a child with his girlfriend Deena, but we learn that he was once seriously involved with another employee, Jacquie, who he cannot get over. He wrestles with his dwindling time with Jacquie, wondering what to say to her to convey his feelings. Meanwhile, there is a varying degree of drama emanating from every aspect of the restaurant: people getting stuck in the parking lot because it hasn’t been plowed, bratty children trashing the place, an angry employee taking off early but only after he has slashed the other employees’ coats. Manny weathers all of this beautifully, and it quickly becomes apparent that he is a great manager. More than that, he’s just a good guy. It’s impossible not to like him. The characters in the book are so realistically depicted, that they are truly entertaining. The appeal of the characters coupled with the frantic stress that comes with the holiday season creates a great read. Perfect book for this time of year.

Week 41: The Animal Dialogues: Uncommon Encounters in the Wild, by Craig Childs

Sometimes it is impossible not to judge a book by its cover. I saw this book in the store and its beautiful cover sucked me in. Plus, what was not to like? A book about chance encounters with wildlife, segmented by the type of animal? Sign me up. I had returned from a camping trip out West and was longing to be in nature again. Unfortunately, I felt somewhat disappointed by this book. I am not sure why, but I think it has to do with the author himself. He’s not wholly appealing, and at times comes across as a bit pompous. The book’s chapters are each named after a specific animal, and in that chapter, Childs tells a story of his real-life encounter with that animal. I learned a few interesting tidbits (porcupines’ quills contain a natural antibiotic, because porcupines are apparently very clumsy and stick themselves a lot) and found certain parts of the book thrilling (Childs finds himself stalked by a mountain lion). Childs constructed and lived in a tipi in Colorado for a while, something I can dig. But when he tells his incredulous grandfather that it is “simply something he must do”, it’s like, OK guy. Take it down a notch. You want to live in a tipi, and that’s cool, but don’t proclaim yourself to be some sort of earth prophet. That tone persists and kind of ruined the book in places, but overall, it’s still an engaging read. Childs’ arrogance is something to learn from in the sense that he does not panic when confronted with a wild animal, but rather handles the situation sensibly. If one can take that perspective, as opposed to being annoyed, then I would recommend this book to any nature lover.

Week 40: Tinkers, by Paul Harding

I was drawn to Tinkers, frankly, because it had won the Pulitzer Prize in 2010. When I picked up the book, it did not strike me as a Pulitzer winner. It’s a small book, a fairly short book, looking more like a young adult novel as opposed to a serious novel. These attributes, however, segue into what makes Tinkers appealing. It is a different sort of book. It’s somewhat abstract and single-minded in its subject matter. After reading a bit about the author and his Pulitzer win, I learned that Tinkers seemingly came out of nowhere to swoop up the prize, creating two camps of opinions: one, that Tinkers was a book about nothing; and the other, that Tinkers was a breath of fresh air. The book has to do with an old man on his deathbed. As he dies over the course of several days, surrounded by family, he reconnects with the memories of his family (particularly his father).  We don’t really get to know the old man all that well. We are only privy to certain aspects of his personality that play out as his mind deteriorates. Still, the reader feels a fondness for him as he mentally recounts parts of his childhood. There is a feeling of a passing of a torch, almost. The cycles of life and death are on full display here, as the old man’s family members tend to him. There is a melancholy emphasis on death’s inevitability. I suppose I’m making it all sound pretty dreadful, but in fact, I really enjoyed this read. Its poetic artfulness is what makes it transcend ordinary stories.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Week 39: Between a Rock and a Hard Place, by Aron Ralston

A coworker lent me this book right before my recent camping trip to the Grand Canyon and the Utah National Parks. Aron Ralston, the author (whose story was adapted into the movie 127 Hours) , went through his ordeal in Canyonlands National Park, and I was headed there on my trip, so it seemed appropriate to read this book while I was in the actual setting of the story. Let me tell you, I looked forward to reading this every night in my tent by headlight. It is an AMAZING story. For those who are not familiar with Aron, he was a 27 year-old outdoorsman when he was canyoneering and accidentally pinned his right arm beneath a boulder in a remote section of Canyonlands. He was trapped for six days before desperation led him to amputate his arm using a common multi-tool with a three-inch blade. The story is just unbelievable. The idea of being in Aron’s situation is utterly chilling. No one knows where he is. He is in a dark canyon (seven miles from the nearest trail) that can only be accessed by rappelling. Isolated in the slot canyon, he documents his struggle to survive. He only has a small amount of food and water and is unable to even sit down because of the position of his arm. As his situation becomes increasingly dire, Aron’s description of his physical and mental symptoms describe, in essence, what dying is like. It’s gripping. Despite the fact that it’s known that Aron will amputate his arm, it’s still thrilling and horrifying when it happens. (And he describes it in GREAT detail.) What’s more, Aron is an excellent writer. His wonderful, reflective prose is the icing on the cake. His insights on life, and what his purpose is, are truly moving.  I found myself rooting for Aron as if I knew him – that is how likable and sweet he comes across as. I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who is looking for an uplifting, inspiring read. You will feel great after reading it, and you will be reminded of all you take for granted in life.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Week 38: Born to Run, by Christopher McDougall

Born to Run has received a lot of buzz since it came out and has a bit of a cult following. Its primary claim to fame is its role in publicizing the barefoot running movement. You may have heard of this phenomenon – the idea is that wearing minimalist footwear while running (hello, Vibram Five Fingers) or even running barefoot (hello, calluses) improves running performance. This is because modern running shoes are overly cushioned and allow our feet to simply exist within the shoe, as opposed to actively participating in each step. The idea is that if you wear more minimal shoes, the muscles and bones in your feet will become stronger, your ankles will become more stable, and you will naturally adopt a more efficient gait. If you are a runner, or read any sort of fitness magazine, you have probably heard these theories before. At first they seem like anathema, but this book will soon have you wondering, “Should I be spending more time barefoot?” Its arguments, while mostly anecdotal, are compelling. This is only one component of Born to Run, however. The book largely centers on a tribe of people known as the Tarahumara in Mexico. These people are known for their superior athletic skills (think running 150 mile races), their lack of injuries and their overall excellent health. The Tarahumara subsist on a typical diet of just corn, seeds, and grain alcohol, and they wear primitive sandals to run in. With this in mind, one might wonder how they are able to maintain such incredible health. Born to Run examines the Tarahumara, and more broadly, the running industry. It takes a close look at modern, Western medicine and makes some provocative suggestions surrounding running. The overriding theme of the book is instilling faith in one’s own body, to trust oneself’s natural form and movement. The book also follows an epic race between the Tarahumara people, and some American ultramarathoners who come to Mexico for a 100 mile race. Their battle is humorous and engaging, and it also sheds some light onto those crazy people who run 50 or 100 mile races. They don’t seem quite so daft after reading this book; they just seem like people who genuinely enjoy running. I came away from this book with an appreciation for a simple, no-nonsense approach to exercise, free of sponsored athletes and expensive equipment. This book will get you excited about running.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Week 37: Talkative Man, by R.K. Narayan

Microblogging aka Lazyblogging review:

This book is mad boring. Snoozefest. 

Week 36: All the Pretty Horses, by Cormac McCarthy

Microblogging aka Lazyblogging review:

Another amazing book. Perhaps the abbreviated review is appropriate for McCarthy's spare, minimalist writing style. I'm a huge fan of McCarthy. Every time I read one of his works, I'm always struck by how much content and underlying themes are embedded in his simple sentences. It's haunting, and a thick fog of dread fills the pages. I loved this book.

Week 35: The Walking Dead, Volume 2: Miles Behind Us, by Robert Kirkman

Microblogging aka Lazyblogging review:

I really enjoy this series. I can see why it took off so well. It's a blast to read. It's exciting, but has great human elements to it as well. I will definitely read more volumes!

Week 34: The World According to Garp, by John Irving

Microblogging aka Lazyblogging review:

It's a shame I'm summing this one up so quickly, because this book is tremendous. One of my all-time favorites. It's hilarious and moving, filled with wonderful characters. I fell in love with this book, and when I finished it, I clutched it to my heart, closed my eyes, and smiled. Not kidding!

Week 33: Afrodisiac, by Brian Maruca and Jim Rugg

So, I've been pretty remiss in updating the blog. Really remiss.

To make up for some lost time, I'm going to write some super quick reviews here. Maybe a sentence or two. We can call it "microblogging" to make it sound fancy!

That being said, here goes:

This book was beautifully drawn, rather ribald, and filled with inappropriate puns. What's not to like? Thumbs up.

(Real reviews will be resuming soon!)

Friday, September 2, 2011

Week 32: Dead Until Dark, by Charlaine Harris

I borrowed this book from a friend, not really knowing much about the television series, True Blood, that it spawned. I knew that it had to do with vampires, and because of that, I was a tiny bit apprehensive about reading this. But let me tell you, it did not take long for me to get over it, because I really enjoyed this book! It such a fun read. The gloriously-named main character, Sookie Stackhouse, is a young woman living in Northern Louisiana. She lives with her elderly grandmother and makes a living waiting tables at a local diner. The story takes place in a time in which vampires are acknowledged members of society. Nowadays, they feed on synthetic blood, as opposed to killing people, but they still struggle against the prejudices and disdain of humans (this could be an allegory for a few different sociological groups facing similar struggles in our society today). Sookie meets a vampire named Bill, and she soon saves his life when she finds him in the hands of malicious people who are trying to drain his blood. (Vampire blood is quite rejuvenating for humans, and therefore, in high demand on the black market.) Once Sookie saves him, Bill is indebted to her, and the two become friends. Sookie learns that vampires are not that different from humans, although through Bill, she does meet some other shady vampires. Their relationship blossoms and they begin a romantic affair, but it seems that simultaneously, a number of murders are breaking out in their small town. Sookie must defend Bill from the masses as the tries to get to the bottom of the crimes that are turning their lives upside down. Sookie is a great character. She’s funny, and she’s independent and tough, but also kindhearted. The whole novel is steeped in a Southern flavor that is a delight to read. The dialogue is peppered with regional slang. It’s entertaining to read how Sookie and Bill’s relationship progresses just like a “normal” relationship between a man and a woman. The author gets it and is able to convey it onto to the page. In other words, it’s not just a vampire story – it has engaging characters that will make you smile and want to keep reading.

Week 31: The Hakawati, by Rabih Alameddine

I picked up The Hakawati on a whim because it had gotten a lot of great reviews, but primarily, I wanted to read it because it is about a Lebanese family, and I am part Lebanese. As soon as I started reading it, I knew I loved it, and by the time I finished it, it had become my favorite book. Of all time. It’s that good! I suppose that some might find the “frame tale” structure too convoluted or too meandering, but I can’t imagine not being utterly consumed by this book. Hakawati means “storyteller” in Arabic, and the entire tale is a tribute to the art of storytelling. It sets the tone immediately with its opening lines: “Listen. Let me take you on a journey beyond imagining. Let me tell you a story.” The central story revolves around Osama al-Kharrat, a young Lebanese man who lives in Los Angeles, but has traveled back to Beirut to be at his dying father’s bedside. There, he reunites with his large family as they all keep vigil and help support each other. The family immediately charms the reader, as we meet various characters, from Osama’s father himself, to Osama’s sister and cousins and cantankerous aunts. Each family member is captured perfectly, has their own sparkling personality and their own story. On top of this, more stories are interwoven. We follow the story of Fatima, a slave girl who seduces a demon. We are introduced to Baybars, a boy who grew up to become a prince and war hero. We learn the history behind Osama’s parents’ origins and the diverse ethnic background that comprised his ancestry. It’s stories on top of stories on top of stories, but through it all, the common thread is the bond that brings families together. Did you ever have nights with your own family in which you stayed up late, recounting funny stories from your childhood? This book is like that. It employs a heavy dose of magic, as many of the stories would qualify as fables. The reader will come across imps and trolls, magic spells, and carpet rides. It’s a fairy tale in that it will transport you into a different world. However, it is tethered to the present, as other stories recount the wars that have devastated Lebanon, or Osama’s journey to the States to look at UCLA. It’s all a fantastic tapestry. It will make you ache for the days when people told stories and kept a verbal tradition, as opposed to being steeped in our culture of digital nonsense. There are so many characters who will make you laugh and make you cry.  There are so many bewitching elements of Middle Eastern culture, so many beautiful, poetic sentences, so many strong female characters, so much romance and honor. It’s timeless and it was a joy to read.

Week 30: Asterios Polyp, by David Mazzucchelli

This book was my book club’s most recent selection. I was really looking forward to it, because it’s our club’s first graphic novel choice. We have a pretty relaxed book club, and I’m proud to say that we’ve read a lot of different types of books, from autobiographies to historical accounts to short stories. I’m not very well-read when it comes to graphic novels, but I enjoy them, and my intrigue peaked when I’d heard that this one had taken ten years to finish. Asterios Polyp is the main character of this story. He’s an architecture professor abruptly uproots his life when his apartment burns down. He gets on a Greyound bus and sets out for a small town called Apogee, where he meets a friendly car mechanic named Stiff. Stiff is kind enough to let Asterios stay with him and his wife and young son. As the story unfolds, we learn more about Asterios and his past. Through flashbacks of sorts, the reader is introduced to Asterios’ ex-wife, Hana, and we see the progression of their relationship. It is also revealed that Asterios had a twin brother who died at birth. Although Asterios is in a very different environment in this small town, his character is illuminated by these peeks into his earlier life. He isn’t all that likable – watching the decline of his marriage makes that clear. There’s a palpable sadness in observing how his initial love and happiness with Hana slowly dissolves. The author adeptly captures the feeling of watching a relationship slip away, something most people can understand. His lost twin figures heavily into the story, and one might wonder if Asterios can ever overcome his feeling of being incomplete. The book’s greatest strength is its illustration. It’s very clever. Unyielding, unemotional Asterios is portrayed in linear blue strokes, bringing to mind a blueprint. Hana, and artist, is often drawn with sketchy, cross-hatched lines. All of the characters have different fonts for their own dialogue, creating visual voices for each of them. It’s obvious that a lot of thought went into the rendering of these pages. The story dredges up themes from philosophy and Greek mythology, and there is a lot to chew on. I think it would take multiple readings to absorb most of the content of the book. I definitely enjoyed it.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Week 29: Jonathan Livingston Seagull, by Richard Bach

OK guys. This book is effing weird. Like, I think it might be propaganda for some weird cult that believes in some weird seagull god. It's trippy. I mean, I enjoyed it, it was sort of an epic mind journey. But I don't really get it, per se. It's about a seagull named Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Yeah, he's got three names. He lives in a flock of seagulls but feels as though he doesn't fit in with the others. He loves to fly, and wants to spend all of his time flying. The other seagulls fly, but only to catch food. They don't love flying the way Jonathan Livingston Seagull does. He continues to fly around all night, flouting all the seagull rules, and before he knows it he is in hot water. He's forced to stand before the seagull council who rules that he must be banished from the flock. Off he goes, into the sky, far away from his flock. He starts a new, solitary life. Then, some other seagulls from outer space come get him and bring him away from Earth to meet their seagull leader, Chiang. People, I am dead serious here. So Chiang basically extols Jonathan Livingston Seagull (I'll refer to him as JLS from now on, like one of those Hollywood celebrities) and tells him that he has a special gift, his love of flying and his flying skills. They teach him how to fly better. Then he returns to Earth and helps other seagulls who have been outcast by encouraging them to be themselves. It's an interesting story in the sense that I was not bored reading it. I was, at times, confused - is this a children's book? Was the author high? Is this an allegory for some bigger tale? Then I looked it up online and found out that not only was a movie made of this book, but it inspired an album. An album by NEIL DIAMOND. I feel like I'm missing something. I'm so confused! I welcome JLS's life lessons, but perhaps I'm not ready to receive them yet. Perhaps one day I will be.

Week 28: Tour De France for Dummies, by Phil Liggett, James Raia, and Sammarye Lewis

I got this book to complement my aforementioned annual Tour de France bender. Although my mania for the Tour puts my knowledge of the event way out of the league of "dummies", I purchased this book with the hope that it might acquaint me with some of the nitty-gritty rules and regulations that I wanted to become more familiar with. One of the authors, Phil Liggett, is the premier announcer for the Tour. He's charismatic, enthralling, and beloved by cycling fans. Also, the foreword of the book is written by Lance Armstrong. So, I figured that these all must be good signs, right? Well, kind of. The book, as its name implies, is indeed for dummies. Dummies who make spelling and grammatical errors (Editing for Dummies, anyone?). It's not especially consistent, and manages to be boring at times, yet never really gets into the minutiae and details that I was craving. It seems to glaze the entire event with a thick layer of mediocrity. It's not terrible, and it's certainly a good primer for someone who truly doesn't know anything about the Tour. Parts of it are interesting, such as the rundowns of the most dramatic Tour moments, or the best climbs. But there's just something goofy about it. I enjoyed reading this book and found it fun, but in terms of information, I think the Tour de France Wikipedia page has Tour de France for Dummies beat.

Week 27: Boy Racer: My Journey to Tour de France Record-Breaker, by Mark Cavendish

So here I sit, reflecting on this year-long reading challenge, realizing that updating the blog on a regular basis is proving more tricky than the reading! The reading is just a given - the blog takes more of a concerted effort. But I do enjoy having this evolving documentation of the whole process, so it's worth it, to me. At any rate, here come a few rapid-fire book reviews! First off is Boy Racer, by Mark Cavendish. Anyone who knows me is aware of the fact that bikes are a pretty big part of my life. That being said, I love the Tour de France. I mean, I LOVE it. Jamie and I don't have cable, but every July we get cable for one single month in order to watch the Tour coverage. Last year, I was in Paris for the final stage on the Champ-Elysees, and it was an experience I will never forget. I thought I would commemorate this very special time of year by reading a couple of books that are related to the Tour. Cavendish is a great cyclist, with a big personality, so it seems natural that he would write a book documenting his rise to fame. At a young age, this sprinter is already closing in on the all-time record of the most stage wins in the Tour de France. He's got an incredibly healthy sense of self-esteem, and is often brash and unrestrained in interviews. He's prone to swearing as well as breaking down in tears, prompting me to refer to him as Crybaby several times over the years. He reminds me in some ways of Lance Armstrong, in the sense that he's got this persona that sometimes overshadows his cycling. His book chronicles his upbringing in the Isle of Man (his nickname is "The Manx Missile") and his introduction to cycling. We learn about his constant struggle with authority as well as his difficulty with controlling his weight. The reader starts to understand that Cavendish's main motivation is the intense pressure he puts on himself. He's a perfectionist, of sorts, and very self-effacing - he's the first one to admit how stubborn and volatile he can be; additionally, he often refers to himself as "fat" and details rides in which he is struggling to keep pace. His accounts of key Tour moments is totally engaging and exciting. Certain details had me holding my breath as I read them. The man can write, and I think that anyone who is even remotely interested in professional cycling will find this book to be a delight.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Week 26: American Skin, by Don DeGrazia

American Skin is a novel loosely based on the life of its author, Don DeGrazia. It’s the story of Alex Verdi, a teenager who finds his life completely uprooted when his hippie parents get busted for dealing pot. In a single day, finds the family farm ransacked and one of their dogs shot, and his parents and little sister are nowhere to be found and presumably in police custody. He makes a split decision to run away from the bucolic Illinois town he lives in and head for Chicago. Alex is a smart, savvy kid, and he quickly gets a factory job and moves into the Y. Just as quickly, he is indoctrinated to city life by way of multiple muggings. He manages to learn from them and becomes incrementally more street-smart. One day on the subway, he is on the verge of a tussle with a few thugs when a group of skinheads come to his aid. Alex spends a night hanging out with them and they take him under his wing. He befriends Timmy, who helps manage a local music venue/club that provides a living space for many of the skins. Later on, when Alex loses his job, he takes Timmy up on his offer to move in. And so begins Alex’s initiation into skinhead culture – not Nazi skinheads, but the skinheads who listen to punk and ska music and are proponents of racial equality. These “good” skins are constantly fighting with the “bad” skins (the ones that are more into white power and all that). A brief history of skinhead/punk history ensues, and it’s pretty entertaining to read about it all playing out at the club with its cast of colorful characters. Alex’s current adventures are subtly shaped by his upbringing, as the reader sees how snippets from his past influence him in different ways. His longing for his family, or any family, is touching at many points. He silently carries around his past, never sharing the whole truth with any of his new friends. As life circuitously brings him from the club to the Army (enlisted by force after breaking the law) to Northwestern University (pretending to be a student to impress a girl), one finds his evolution from boy to man half inspiring and half sad. The reader will undoubtedly be rooting for Alex’s sweet yet tough persona, as well as all of the other hysterical, realistic characters. The book is slightly campy, but always entertaining; a great summer read.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Week 25: Lord of the Flies, by Wiliam Golding

OK, as mentioned in my previous post, I need to hustle through this review because it's the Friday before the Fourth of July, and I'm running late. But in an attempt to not fall behind on the blog too badly, I thought I would squeeze this post in. There's a lot of things to say about this book. And I think the first thing is: "WTF? Thanks, Golding, I'm totally creeped out now and terrified." I mean, look at this book cover! Could it get more disturbing? Plus, I took this book to a camping trip ON AN ISLAND. Ooh, how fitting and perfect for my island camping trip! Well, I sure was singing a different tune lying in my tent at night thinking about a gang of little boys chanting "kill the pig spill her blood", etc. For some reason, I had not read this book growing up like most adults nowadays. It was interesting to observe elements of the book that have been borrowed in pop culture today. For instance, everything about the show Lost?! For those unfamiliar with the plot, it revolves around a group of little boys who were in a plane crash and end up on a deserted island. Their attempts to fend for themselves and create order are successful until suddenly, they aren't. The deterioration of their society is pretty harrowing. The various personalities of the boys play out in ways that might initially be predicted, but hoped against. It's incredibly sharp commentary on what it means to be part of a community, and how that distills down into simple survival mode, as the boys revert back to a more primal nature. It's never maudlin or overly done; it's understated in a way that makes it more compelling. An important, thought-provoking book.

Week 24: AM/PM, by Amelia Gray

It’s almost time to leave work before the holiday weekend, so I will keep this brief. Very brief. And perhaps this is fitting, considering the nature of this book. AM/PM is a collection of short stories that are loosely connected to each other. At times, the stories are no more than a few sentences. Other times, they are a little longer, but not by much. No matter the length of them, they are all concentrated down into potent little vignettes. They can be moving, or abstract, and they are filled with interesting characters. For example, one vein of stories concerns itself with a personified John Mayer concert t-shirt. Another involves two people who are stuck inside a box. It was really fun to read about this quirky cast, and it was a reminder that sometimes less is more. Like this review.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Week 23: The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

This is one of those books that many people read in high school, but for whatever reason, I had never read it. Part of my motivation for taking on this reading challenge was to make time for these sorts of books and cross them off of my “to-read” list. I’m a big fan of Fitzgerald. Prior to The Great Gatsby, I had read Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and Damned, and I really enjoyed it. The two books are similar in that they both tell the stories of people in America’s cosmopolitan upper class. They both feature the same snarky, decadent undertones that I find delightful and highly entertaining. The Great Gatsby is narrated by Nick Carraway, a young man who lives in a wealthy are of Long Island called West Egg. His cousin, Daisy Buchanan and her husband Tom, live in nearby East Egg, which is equally wealthy but more glamorous. Through them, Nick meets Jordan Baker, a friend of Daisy. The four of them become friends and partake in an indulgent lifestyle that consists primarily of drinking, lounging around, and occasionally venturing into Manhattan. It’s not long before Jordan tells Nick about Jay Gatsby, an enigmatic man who turns out to be Nick’s neighbor in West Egg. Nick has seen lavish parties taking place at Gatsby’s mansion across from his house. He soon finds himself at one of these parties and is swept up in the grandeur of the event, not to mention the stylish and beautiful partygoers in attendance. He meets Gatsby, and they become friends. As their friendship grows, Nick finds himself becoming intrigued by Gatsby’s enigmatic life. He is unable to really discern exactly what Gatsby does, or what his origins are. In the midst of all this, we learn of Tom’s extramarital affair, and Nick and Jordan become more than just friends. As Gatsby’s story emerges, we learn more about his true history and his deeper connection to Daisy. It’s like the book version of the show Gossip Girl – all these fabulous, beautiful, rich people and the petty dramas that infiltrate their lives. One could make the observation that their lives are devoid of any real moral substance, but that’s part of the appeal of reading about them.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Week 22: Motherless Brooklyn, by Jonathan Lethem

Looking for my next book to read, I plucked Motherless Brooklyn off of our bookshelf, and squinted at the author’s name. Jonathan Lethem. I knew I had heard that name before. Flipping through the first few pages, I looked at the author’s list of works. Aha! Lethem wrote Amnesia Moon, a book that I read in my book club a while back, a book that I loathed. A book that I considered to be one of the worst I’ve ever read. I nearly put Motherless Brooklyn down immediately, but Jamie, the book’s owner, assured me that it was decent. So I had a go at it. The story revolves around Lionel Essrog, a man in his thirties in New York City, who is part of a mafia-esque organization. Frank Minna, the leader of this – for lack of a better word – gang, took several Brooklyn orphans under his wing back in the day. Minna became a father figure to these errant kids and introduced them into the gang, allowing them to make some money under the table by helping him out with various “projects”. One of these orphans was Lionel, who differed from the rest because he has Tourette’s syndrome. Despite Lionel’s frequent and often embarrassing outbursts, Minna cares about Lionel and believes in him. As the years pass, the orphans grow up and become known as the “Minna Men”, and the orphans find themselves in a pieced-together family at last. However, their lives are changed when Minna is murdered and the men are left without their leader. Lionel takes it upon himself to find Minna’s killer, shirking the order of the gang and flouting the authority of the higher-ups. He becomes a makeshift detective and vows to figure out what happened to the man who was the only father he had ever known. The book is thoroughly entertaining and endearing, and the reader gets a real sense of the love between these men. Add to that Lionel’s Tourette’s syndrome, and the book takes on a whole new level of ambition. Lethem is incredibly successful in portraying Tourette’s via the printed word. At times, it’s uncomfortable to read, because it’s so realistic. You can almost hear the stammering and shrieking, almost see Lionel tapping someone’s shoulder six times during one of his tics. Where the book falters is in its caricature-like depiction of “mob life”. Most of the time, it’s merely mediocre; sometimes, it’s just plain silly. Some of the other characters, as well (most notably a young woman with the unfortunate name of “Kimmery”), are one-dimensional and not believable. There are also a couple of chapters that throw in a few abstract, weirdly formatted sentences on a page – how edgy! It’s a shame, because Motherless Brooklyn has flashes of subtle beauty and truly touching moments. The book accurately conveys the acute loneliness of both growing up without a family and living with a mental illness. But overall, the impact of the story is diluted by gimmicks. After reading this book and Amnesia Moon, I think Lethem still needs to mature a bit as a writer. Motherless Brooklyn is definitely a step up, though, and overall, I enjoyed it.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Week 21: The Walking Dead, by Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore

The Walking Dead comics series is apparently what the popular television show is based on. I had never seen it before, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. This book is the collection of the first six comics in the series. It opens with a gunfight in which Rick Grimes, a police officer, is shot by a criminal while his friend and partner Shane looks on. Rick awakens in a hospital several weeks later, emerging from a coma that he had slipped into as a result of his injuries. He is unable to find a doctor and he quickly realizes that there is no one else in the hospital besides him. Stumbling upon a boarded-up door to the cafeteria, he opens it to find a throng of half-dead zombies. They are horrifyingly gory and immediately attempt to grab Rick and feast on his flesh. He manages to escape and sets out on a mission to figure out what’s going on. Outside of the hospital, he encounters more zombies, but no other human beings. After taking an abandoned bike, he returns to his home to find his wife and son missing. A neighbor helps get him to the police station where he suits up, takes one of the cruisers, and embarks on a trip to try to find his family. The story follows him as he learns how to navigate this new world and starts to get the hang of how to deal with zombies. What happened to the world while Rick lay in a coma is never explicitly explained, but the reader starts to understand more and more as the story progresses. Like any post-apocalyptic tale, there is a certain innate fear that is triggered by the thought of a scenario like this. It’s impossible not to think what one’s own self would do if the world suddenly fell apart. Perhaps a story like this can even serve to make us appreciate our lives a little more, even if zombies probably aren’t knocking down our door anytime soon. The humanity of the story really shines through to make this story rather moving and engaging.

Week 20: Bike Snob: Systematically & Mercilessly Realigning the World of Cycling

This book was written by the Bike Snob, a New York City-based anonymous writer whose blog is a delightful buffet of snark directed at all types of bike riders. He is a former bike messenger who also races, and has built up many years of experience in the saddle. Since riding a bike has garnered a certain trendiness as of late, he comments mostly on bike culture, and does not hesitate to poke fun at any sort of foofy cyclist. He doesn’t discriminate, whether it be hipsters on fixies or spandex clownsuits on expensive road bikes. He has coined several awesome bike terms, such as “bike salmon” (riders who ride the wrong way down streets) and he has whipped up profiles of common types of riders. His observations on urban cycling ring true for anyone who bikes around town, making his blog pretty successful amongst riders. This book is a primer of sorts, and introduction to some basic Bike Snob tenets that will definitely make any cyclist laugh. Here’s an example of his thoughts on “Contraption Captains” – people who ride recumbent bikes.

“The recumbent strikes fear into the hearts of nearly every non-recumbent-riding cyclist. If you've ever seen a dog growl at a plastic bag caught in a shrub because the dog thinks it might be some kind of weird animal, then you understand the reaction. Cyclists all notice one another, so when we see something that looks somewhat like a bicycle yet places the rider in an odd position with his feet kicking at the air as if he's defending himself from an attacking eagle, we become confused and disoriented.”

In addition to acquainting the reader with various types of riders, the Bike Snob also summarizes the basic components of the bicycle, why it’s important to learn some easy repairs, and how to bike in traffic. His attitude about biking is pretty simple. He advocates simply riding your bike and not thinking too much about it or getting too caught up in the aesthetics of it all. He’s lax on wearing helmets or following traffic rules, which I take issue with, but he never fails to stress common sense when riding. He also includes some photos of very silly bikes and picks them apart mercilessly. The book is wicked funny and worth reading if you are into bikes even a tiny bit. I finished it with a smile, feeling excited to hop on my bike again.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Week 19: Metamorphosis and Other Stories, by Franz Kafka


This edition of the Kafka’s short works is comprised of five stories: The Metamorphosis, The Great Wall of China, Investigations of a Dog, In the Penal Colony, The Giant Mole, and The Burrow. This was the first time I had ever read Kafka. Prior to reading this, my understanding of Kafka was limited to a portrait of a sickly man who succumbed at an early age to consumption (I had formerly regarded death by consumption as a sort of early 20th century urban myth). Unfortunately, this initial impression of Kafka, (bolstered by black and white photos I had seen of him looking serious, hair center-parted), permeated my opinion of his stories. For some reason, I couldn’t shake my sense that Kafka was an epic whiner. Kind of like the nerdy kid in school that is always sick and writes stories about how awful life is. This book really just rubbed me the wrong way. It starts with The Metamorphosis, which is one of the most depressing stories I have ever read. For those unfamiliar with the premise, it is the tale of Gregor Samsa, who wakes up one morning to find that he has been inexplicably transformed into a giant insect. The story chronicles the reaction of his family; their disgust intermingles with a desire to take care of Gregor. As time progresses, though, the benevolence dissipates and Gregor’s family regards him merely as a problem. Gregor is aware of all that is going on around him, but he is unable to communicate with his family. The reader starts to ponder the story as a metaphor for the aging or the sick, and the effect that their condition has on their caretakers. It’s brutally sad and it really bothered me. I found it difficult to get through because I felt so badly for Gregor. The rest of the stories are not quite as melancholy: The Great Wall of China is a somewhat boring account of (not surprisingly) The Great Wall of China; Investigations of a Dog is a story told from the perspective of a dog; In the Penal Colony concerns itself with an interesting torture device that carves the skin of inmates; The Giant Mole, about a schoolmaster who tries to expose (again, not surprisingly) a giant mole that lives in a nearby village; and The Burrow, which is told from the perspective of a mole-like creature (perhaps the same mole!?) that digs tunnels. It is interesting to me that many of these stories are narrated by animals, or animals figure prominently in the cast of characters. But that point of interest was not enough to fully engage me in the book, and I found myself wishing it was over. I know that there is a devoted legion of Kafka fans, and I wondered what I was missing. Perhaps I just felt that the stories were too bleak, but only for the sake of being bleak – as if they represented a stilted vision of life. I’m not sure. What I do know is that it’s going to take me a while to pick up another Kafka book.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Week 18: The Stranger, by Albert Camus

The Stranger is one of those books where you realize, about halfway in, how brilliantly awesome it is. It was loaned to me by my friend Roberto, a philosophy major. I was not a philosophy major, so I’m sure that my thoughts on The Stranger are not nearly as insightful as those of others who have studied the book, but, here goes. The Stranger takes place in Algeria. The book’s narrator, Meursault, is a young man who has just lost his aged mother. She died at a home for the elderly that Meursault had placed her at. The story opens with his experiences as he goes through the motions of her funeral. The account is told with stark, direct sentences that seemingly mirror Meursault’s general affectation. Strangely, Meursault shows no emotion throughout the event, refusing to even see his mother’s body. Initially it is unclear whether his emotions are muted by grief or if this is simply his nature. After the funeral, we follow his interactions with various people in his life. The day after his mother’s funeral, he meets up with Marie, a woman that he once worked with, and strikes up a romantic affair with her. Throughout their affair he displays the same indifference exhibited at his mother’s funeral. Marie at one point asks him if he loves her, and Meursault simply replies that he didn’t think so. Raymond, another neighbor, befriends Meursault and pulls him into a drama concerning his ex-girlfriend. Raymond soon incurs the wrath of a few thugs, only described as “Arabs”, who seek revenge on Raymond for beating his ex-girlfriend. Raymond, Marie and Meursault are enjoying an outing at a friend’s beach house when they encounter the Arabs, and it results in an altercation. Subsequent to that, Meursault wanders the beach by himself, as Raymond is injured and being tended to. He stumbles upon one of the Arabs, who flashes a knife, and Meursault shoots him dead. The murder comes across as unnecessary, even gratuitous (highlighted by Meursault repeatedly shooting the Arab’s dead body). Meursault alludes to the intense sun and heat as being factors in the crime, emphasizing his lack of empathy. Meursault is apprehended and all of his ambivalent personality traits are stacked against him as evidence of his guilt. The fact that he is apparently devoid of any sort of basic emotional understanding portrays him as an abhorrent human being. It is brought up that he had his mother committed to the elderly home and failed to grieve after her death; that he callously became romantically involved with Marie the very next day. These details, brought up by the prosecution, paint an unflattering picture of Meursault and persuade the jury to convict him. A priest visits him in prison to offer religious comfort, but Meursault turns him away, his atheism bringing the priest to tears. I found it interesting that the original French title of the book is L’Etranger, a term that can be translated as “the stranger”, or also, “the outsider”. In a sense, The Outsider is a more appropriate title, as Meursault’s persistent inability to show any sort of emotion renders him as an outsider amongst society. The book strikes up questions as to what the value of life really is, whether there is meaning in anything we do and whether it’s even worth it to experience emotion. The priest finds Meursault’s atheism sad, but Meursault does not understand this. He simply finds God a waste of time. The closest we get to seeing Meursault long for anything is when he is in prison, recalling the summer weather and the evening skies. As the book concludes, the reader starts to wonder whether Meursault is really the outsider, or whether society’s norms and religions are merely frivolities. I really enjoyed this book, and I find myself still thinking about it, unpeeling its layers one by one. The Stranger is an accessible pathway into complex topics that are worth pondering.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Week 17: Henry’s Demons, by Patrick Cockburn and Henry Cockburn

Henry’s Demons is the latest selection from my book club, picked by my friend Lisa. This is the non-fictional account of Patrick Cockburn’s son, Henry, and his struggle with schizophrenia. More accurately, it is the entire Cockburn family’s struggle, not just Henry’s, as the diagnosis and subsequent care of Henry devastates the lives of Henry himself, his younger brother, and his mother and father. The book’s chapters roughly alternate between Patrick’s narration and Henry’s narration. This technique is integral to the book’s appeal, because it allows the reader to delve into the mind of a schizophrenic. The story begins with Henry brush with death after swimming in near-freezing water and being rescued by strangers. This incident eventually led to his diagnosis of mental illness. His behavior becomes increasingly erratic and Patrick chronicles Henry’s breakdown as he starts to separate himself from reality. Henry begins a cycle of running away from his family and finding himself in socially unacceptable situations that usually involve nudity and end with him being apprehended by authorities. He transforms into a wholly different person, eschewing hygiene and claiming that nature is sending him commands. Henry is soon committed to a mental hospital, from which he continues to escape at any opportunity he can find. The family is thrust into a new reality of worrying about Henry, dreading every phone call for fear it is news that Henry has disappeared, and wondering how Henry will ever live a normal life. Meanwhile, Henry’s chapters shed some insight into his mindset during these times.  Early in the book, Henry (who, presently, is in no way “cured”) explains that he never felt that he was mentally ill. He simply thought that he was able to see and understand the world in a way that other people couldn’t. For example, he purported to have heard voices from trees. For Henry, this was a spiritual revelation and a source of great wonder – not mental illness. Therefore, to comply with doctors and take medication to quell these voices would be akin to crippling himself. So Henry refuses to take his medication, despite his family’s pleas to do so. He describes “polka-dot days”, days in which he would see polka-dots or rings everywhere, and that was a signal that a breakdown was looming. The book strikes a compelling balance between what Henry’s family is experiencing on the outside, and how Henry’s mind is functioning on the inside.  Readers will easily sympathize with Henry’s parents’ frustration at the sense that Henry’s life is irrevocably changed, and not for the better. It is a touching, interesting book, with concludes with no happy ending but leaves the reader with a sense of appreciation for the trials that this family has endured.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Week 16: Serena: A Novel, by Ron Rash

I was prompted to read this book when a Facebook friend of mine posted a news article stating that Darren Aronofsky was in talks with Angelina Jolie to create a film adaptation of Serena with Jolie as the title character. Being an avid fan of both Aronofsky and Jolie, this piqued my interest and I added Serena to my “to-read” list. (Of course, because of this article, it was impossible for me to not visualize Jolie as Serena after starting the book.) The book’s tense, compelling tone is set immediately in its first few pages. It opens with the dramatic encounter between George Pemberton, timber tycoon, and the father of the girl carrying his illegitimate child. Pemberton arrives at a train station in North Carolina in 1929 after spending three months away in Boston. He is joined by his new wife, Serena. The mother of his child, Rachel Harmon, is merely 16 years old and watches haplessly as her father challenges Pemberton to a knife fight to defend his daughter’s honor. What ensues is the first of many bloody, merciless scenes that will take place in this story. Pemberton and his wife, in their quest to acquire as much timber as possible to expand their empire, exemplify a greed and disregard for nature that typifies big business even today. The newlyweds settle into the logging camp, where the reader learns more about the dangerous, and often deadly, conditions that befall the workers. Pemberton and Serena attempt to purchase more land and fend off conservationists attempting to establish the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Simultaneously, Serena is revealing herself as a force to be reckoned with. She quickly earns the respect of the workers by winning a wager based on eyeballing the amount of timber in a particular tree. Her business acumen is equal to, if not surpassing, her husband’s. She is cold and calculating, physically strong and intimidating. She verbally destroys anyone who dares to contradict her; she tames and trains an eagle; she saves her husband by shooting down a bear that has attacked him. She transcends gender and cuts down anyone who does not recognize this. However, Serena begins to unravel when she is faced with the reality that she is unable to bear children. This misfortune is exacerbated by Pemberton’s lingering interest in his young son with Rachel. Serena’s burgeoning ambition becomes uncontrollable – she has already begun to dispose of anyone in her way, and she begins to focus her attention on Rachel (in many ways, Serena’s polar opposite) and the baby. Comparisons have been made between Serena’s character and Lady Macbeth, and one reviewer even asserts that Serena speaks in a loose iambic pentameter. She’s rather frightening, and the sense of dread she creates builds throughout the novel. Rash portrays both Serena and the less-educated timber workers with elegance, and the reader comes to appreciate all of the characters in this dark tale. I really enjoyed this novel, which I classify as a “stay up late reading” type of book, because I didn’t want to put it down. Epic in scope, it’s brutal, but also subtly beautiful in its examination of good and evil.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Week 15: Deliverance, by James Dickey

Deliverance is the story of four city men who embark on a camping trip to the backwoods of rural Georgia. It is a book that I have eloquently classified to my friends as "wicked scary". It is told from the perspective of Ed Gentry, a middle-aged commercial artist. His three friends, similarly, are middle-aged, married, and work in offices. One of the men, Lewis, is more athletic and adept in the outdoors. It is Lewis’s idea to get away for a weekend, to rough it and get in touch with nature once more via camping and canoeing. It is a sentiment that many can relate to and a fairly innocuous idea. Once they arrive in the country, however, they quickly find that they are not welcome amongst the locals. They are looked upon as outsiders from the city and their actions are interpreted as condescending. It is perhaps the men’s poor behavior that sets them up to be victims of all that follows. The group becomes wrapped up in a series of horrible events (which, thanks to the successful movie based on this book, have become well-known nuggets of pop culture) that I will not recount here in the spirit of not revealing too much. The alacrity with which the book moves from a simple camping trip to a terrifying disaster is stunning. The reader observes a Lord of the Flies-esque evolution of events that creates a pecking order among the men, designating some as leaders and others as followers. Ed in particular, described as “bald-headed and fat”, undergoes a transformation. His bland, urbane persona is cast aside like a chrysalis and he emerges as a strong, assertive outdoorsman. It’s fascinating to watch his instincts guide him, when at times, he himself is marveling over these newfound instincts. He seems to appreciate this new side of himself, this new outlook on the world, even as his life is on the line. His character serves as a challenge to the societal conventions that we all set up for ourselves, and makes us ask ourselves if there is more to our own personalities that we have yet to realize. That was the essence of Deliverance for me – the concept of unearthing hidden aspects in one’s self and reverting to that primal nature to survive, despite any refined culture that one might hail from. The story is frightening and thrilling, but I can’t help think that the fear I felt while reading was a tiny taste of the thrill Ed must have experienced when fighting for his life. Great book.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Week 14: Alias Olympia, by Eunice Lipton

As often happens, I had stopped by Lorem Ipsum (the used bookstore near my apartment) after work one day when I saw this book. Immediately I recognized the woman on its cover. She is the star of Edouard Manet’s masterpiece Olympia. I love Manet and consider him one of my all-time favorite artists. I remember being an art student and first learning about Olympia; I was fascinated by the piece. It was considered incredibly controversial. In fact, when it first debuted in the Parisian Salon in the late 19th century, an angry mob armed with umbrellas and walking sticks attempted to destroy it, and it had to be cordoned off. Why? Because details of the painting indicate that Olympia is a courtesan or prostitute. Equally notable and perhaps even more striking is Olympia’s confrontational, almost glaring look back at the viewer.  Olympia is not a passive, idealized figure of a woman to be fawned over. She flips the male gaze on its ear with her proud, blunt stare. Back in the day, this was unheard of and considered extremely vulgar. For Manet to choose such unseemly content for his painting was very provocative; one could say that it was revolutionary that Manet deemed the reality of street life to be worthy of any depiction at all. Manet’s model for Olympia was a redheaded beauty named Victorine Meurent. He used her as the model for several of his major works (including another controversial painting, Le déjeuner sur l'herbe). In each of the paintings that she is featured in, she showcases the same bold presence. Eunice Lipton’s book, Alias Olympia, chronicles her quest to learn more about the intriguing and enigmatic Meurent. A feminist art historian, Lipton travels to Paris to find out what became of the model, and in the meantime, she learns more about herself and becomes inspired by Meurent. One major detail that she unearths is that Meurent was not just simply a lower-class street girl, she was also an accomplished painter herself. As Lipton hunts down the facts, the book almost takes on the feeling of a mystery novel and the reader becomes swept up in her search. It’s not just an art history book, it’s filled with engaging personal accounts and stories. Add in the beautiful backdrop of Paris, and the tale truly becomes enchanting. Lipton is the type of woman that I would love to meet. She is a bold feminist, sharply intelligent, and someone who adores art. I became emotionally invested in her story and was rooting for her the entire time. I finished the book smiling, even more in love than before with Meurent, Manet, Paris and art in general.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Week 13: Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov

This might be the most fucked-up book I have ever read. I suspect that the entire time that I was reading, my face was scrunched up in a painful grimace. Even now as I type, my face is making the expression that one might take on when stumbling across open-heart surgery on the Discovery Channel. Most people know the premise of this classic story: Humbert Humbert, a middle-aged man, falls in love with Dolores “Lolita” Haze, a twelve-year-old girl. What is stuck in my mind is a spoof cover of Lolita that appears on the website Better Book Titles – the spoof is entitled “Likable Rapists”.  It’s perfect, because Humbert is truly a likable character. He’s self-effacingly hilarious, and saturates the book with black comedy. He has a long-standing predilection towards pre-pubescent girls, or “nymphets”, as he likes to call them. The reader gets the sense that he genuinely loves Lolita, although to classify his emotions towards her as love is another can of worms. The story follows Humbert and Lolita’s relationship as they begin as housemates. Not long after, Humbert is marrying Lolita’s mother in order to have unrestrained access to the girl. When Lolita’s mother dies suddenly, Humbert is left in full control of her. You can imagine where this leads. It becomes apparent that Lolita is more…“advanced”, shall we say, than most girls her age, but is still a child. Humbert soon takes Lolita on a road trip across the country and their relationship further deteriorates. The book is entertaining and beautifully written, but difficult to read at times simply due to the subject matter. It’s not so much the sex (all of the erotic moments are presented gently and elegantly) that is so jarring. It’s the intersection of Lolita’s childlike nature with her very adult relationship with Humbert. For example, Lolita has sex with Humbert but also runs into his room at night crying because she misses her deceased mother. Humbert manipulates her further by threatening to send her to an orphanage if she does not remain compliant. Their journey inevitably comes to a sad end, and we witness Humbert’s unraveling. Not more than halfway through the book I started wishing for it to end. Then I realized what a feat it is for a book to conjure up such visceral emotions and I realized I was selling the book short. With that in mind, I eventually came to really enjoy this great tale.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Week 12: Bikes and Riders, by James Wagenvoord

This book is the first non-fiction selection of my yearlong challenge. It was a nice change of pace from reading only fiction for the last eleven weeks.  Jamie gave me this book as a gift, considering that we both love all things bike-related. This book was published in 1972, and features what I consider to be an awesome cover. The fun visuals persist throughout the book, as it is filled with great vintage photos of old bikes and hip young people from the seventies riding them. By looking at these photographs, I have surmised that riding bikes used to be way less serious back then. For example, no one wore a helmet. As a helmet proponent, seeing pictures of people on bikes with bare heads makes me cringe, but hey, it was the seventies! (What's funny is that I learned that in lieu of helmets, some bike racers wore these weird leather headstrap things that kind of look like helmets...but I have no idea how they were supposed to protect your head. But I digress.) At any rate, Wagenvoord chronicles the history of the bicycle in American culture, starting off with a description of a cyclists' rights rally in which riders publicly champion the environmental and health benefits of cycling. This segues nicely into Wagenvoord's explanation of early bikes at the end of the nineteenth century. He describes penny farthings, those bikes with the giant wheel in front, and all of the injuries and chaos that they initially spawned. We read about the gradual transition to "boneshakers" (iron bikes that rattled over cobblestones), to bicycles with actual tires, to what we consider to be modern bikes with brakes and derailleurs and so forth. It's fun to read about the evolution of this beloved vehicle! I learned a lot about the history of the bike, and it made me more thankful for my three bikes and how much I take for granted about their functionality. The book definitely has an urban slant, since most of the story focuses on riders in the city, whether it be riding alongside horses back in the day, or riding through traffic in Manhattan. I enjoyed this, because I feel that riding should be accessible to all, and not just an activity reserved for spandex-wearing suburbanites. Overall, a great, upbeat read, with wonderful photos that will make you smile. 

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Week 11: The Girl Who Played With Fire, by Stieg Larsson

Oh, it’s THESE books. Yes, it’s the “Millennium Trilogy”. (If only you could see my smirk as I typed that.) I admit it. I can be snobby when it comes to creative mediums such books, or music, or art. I see a girl on the bus reading Eat Pray Love and it makes me want to die inside. When I hear someone mentioning some band they love and I hate, my internal monologue starts loudly singing “la la la la la la la” to drown them out. So with that in mind, imagine me reading “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”, face red, sleeve obscuring the cover of the book as if it were Hustler magazine. A coworker had lent it to me, and I needed something to read, and whatever, I just read the damn thing. When I finished it, I was fairly underwhelmed. I didn’t get what all the hype was about. I had once read a review of it that asserted it must have been “edited by a Pomeranian” and that thought always stuck with me. Not long after finishing it, however, I found myself reflecting on it here and there. Then I found myself renting the Swedish movie adaptation. So, when the aforementioned coworker offered to lend me the second book, “The Girl Who Played with Fire,” I accepted. I’m going to be honest and disclose that I actually enjoyed this book very much. It’s better paced than the first one, and it’s generally more suspenseful and engaging. The protagonist, Lisbeth Salander, is magnetic. She’s a goofy goth/punk kid that is sort of a mix of different subcultures, but her intelligence and tenaciousness really draw the reader in. She is an intriguing mix of kindness and coldness. As the reader learns more about her past, she becomes even more likable. There is an undercurrent of feminism that permeates the both this book and the first, and there are plenty of strong female characters. There are male characters who act terribly towards women, and they always get what’s coming to them. Without revealing too much, the plot surrounds itself around Salander being pursued for three murders while her ally, Mikael Blomkvist, tries to clear her name. At many points during the book I audibly gasped, and the ending is great (if not exasperating). Basically, if you can accept these books for what they are – a guilty pleasure, not literature – you will find each of them to be a fun, engrossing read.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Week 10: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith

I was inspired to pick up this novel after reading someone blogging about it. The person was praising it and recommending it to a friend, and said something to the effect of “I’m jealous that you get to read this book for the first time.” That really stuck with me! What a great testimonial. I found myself understanding exactly what that person meant when I finished the book. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a classic “coming-of-age” story that takes place in the early 1900s. The protagonist is Francie Nolan, a little girl who lives in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn with her parents and younger brother. They are poor and live in a tenement, often struggling to eat or make rent. Francie’s beloved father is a drunk who works sporadically, and Francie’s mom works most of the time cleaning the tenements in the neighborhood. Yet despite these hardships, they have a wonderful family and Francie’s optimism is never deterred. The reader follows Francie as she grows up over the years. It is stressed throughout the story that the key to escaping poverty is education, and it soon becomes clear that Francie loves books, reading, and learning. We can see that Francie is destined for better things. This all sounds terribly predictable, but the story is magical. Reading it is like being transported back in time – to a time where a lot of things seemed better than they are today. The descriptions of all of the residents of Williamsburg and their tight-knit neighborhood made me long for that kind of community. Everyone knew each other and looked after each other. Children ran to the store unattended for their parents with a nickel to haggle for a soup bone for their mom. Policemen stopped by homes for a cup of coffee and to gossip. When someone died, everyone in the neighborhood knew it and sent their condolences. If a baby was born, women let themselves into the mother’s unlocked apartment to tidy it up for her without asking. The story is full of enchanting accounts such as these that reminded me of stories my parents used to tell me about their childhoods. “Things were better back then,” they’d say as I rolled my eyes. I think I understand their point of view a little more after reading this. The author captures what it is like to be a child so beautifully that the reader finds themselves immersed in their own childlike wonder. I laughed a lot while reading this (Jamie, sitting next to me, would ask, “funny book?”). And the emphasis on education and reading is the cherry on top. If you’re in the mood for a great, uplifting book, definitely read this. It is truly wonderful.