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.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Week 9: The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion

Prior to reading this book, I was familiar with Joan Didion as the intelligent novelist/essay writer who smoked a lot and wore big sunglasses. I had been interested in reading some of her work, and I when I saw The Year of Magical Thinking at the used bookstore, I paused to pick it up. I knew that Didion had received much media attention for this memoir, which chronicles the year after her husband died suddenly of a massive heart attack while their daughter was in the hospital suffering from pneumonia and near death. (Didion’s daughter died at the time of the book’s release.) This double-whammy of tragedy was enough to interest me after an initial few moments of pondering whether or not I could handle such a horribly sad story. I decided that I could, and I left the store with the book. After finishing it, I reflected on how glad I was that I had read this. I would recommend this book to anyone who is dealing with the loss of a loved one, or if you care about someone who is grieving. Or, if you simply want to read a story of a remarkably loving and undeniably cool marriage. Didion is not sentimental or flowery in the least. In fact, the book is rather minimalist in its accounts. It is journalistic at times, even quoting textbooks on death. What it does is serve up a perfect rendering of grief that is so realistic, it allows the nature of Didion’s beautiful marriage to emerge at the forefront. The title stems from the author’s self-recognized tendency to think in “magical” ways after her husband died; an example of this might be Didion’s reluctance to dispose of her husband’s shoes so that when he “came back” he would have shoes to wear outside. Didion’s descriptions of what it’s like to mourn were so spot-on that I felt that this book understood my own personal experiences with death. When I say this, I mean that this book captured exact thoughts that I have had myself, but have never shared with anyone. And therefore the book became not just a book, but almost like a friend of sorts. Which I realize sounds strange, but it’s the simple truth. It was not just a wonderful memoir. I can matter-of-factly say this book enriched my life.