Friday, November 21, 2014

"We Were Liars": Dark, Mysterious and Incredibly Addictive

I waited almost two months to get E. Lockhart's highly touted YA book "We Were Liars" from the library.  When I finally brought it home, and cracked open the cover, I couldn't get up until I finished. I closed the book after the shocking ending and still couldn't believe it.  When I picked my girls up from school that day, my thoughts about the book still churned around in my head and my older daughter got worried.  "Are you okay Mommy?" I replied, "I just can't believe how the book I just finished ended."  She asked me what happened, but I didn't want to tell her because it's a surprise and you never want to solve the mystery before someone else has the opportunity to discover it on her own.

"We Were Liars" revolves around the privileged, cashmere sweater, overly wealthy Sinclair family who own a private island called Beechwood off the coast of Massachusetts. Parallels abound between King Lear and the grandfather who rules the island wielding control over his three useless and ungrateful daughters who drink too much, can't hold onto love and can't hold down jobs.  They all fight to win their father's approval to secure their inheritance.  Stuck in the middle of the sister rivalries are the oldest grandchildren who are nicknamed the liars, Cadence (Cady), Mirren, Johnny and in summer 8 they are joined by a sorta step brother / step cousin, Gat who plays the role of Heathcliff from "Wuthering Heights", the dark, penetrating outsider who lacks the approval of the patriarch of the wealthy family.  Gat and Cady form an unbreakable and somewhat forbidden love connection.  The liars entertain themselves on the island while their moms bicker over money and what they are owed by the grandfather.

And then, in summer 15, things get a bit cray cray.  Cadence washes up on the beach in her underwear with a case of amnesia and wicked migraines.  The next summer, she is forbidden to return to Beechwood without reason since the doctors want her to remember the awful events of summer 15 on her own.  She struggles with depression and claims that her new boyfriend is percocet.  She fruitlessly reaches out to her fellow liars.  When she turns 17, she is allowed to return to Beechwood and she starts to remember what really happened summer 15.

Maybe some of you are groaning and eye rolling at the amnesia aspect of the book which seems a bit like a bad subplot in Days of Our Lives, but something about E. Lockhart's edgy style and deft writing works with Cadence's gradual memory recovery.

There is way more to love about this book than to not love.  Even with the time shifts to the past, and the watery characterization of the moms and the littles (the younger grandchildren who form an amorphous clump of people rather than contain their own distinct roles), the storyline makes you want to find out what happened and why so much has changed on the seemingly ideal Beechwood.

"We Were Liars" will make you guess, remember summer beach loves, think about being 15 while parents are busy drinking and talking about life, dream about feeling rebellious and ponder feeling lost and feeling even more lost when the truths about life are slowly revealed.  It's a book worth reading or giving to your favorite YA reader.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

"Cranford": A Dull Glimpse into Victorian Feminism Utopia

I did something I never thought I would do.  I registered on and joined a MeetUp Book Club called The Crystal Lake Bookworms.  When I discovered that the book for their November meeting was "Cranford" by Elizabeth Gaskell, I almost decided not to go through with the first meeting.  Victorian literature? For the past 15 years, I've always had a book club, and we've never touched Victorian era literature.  Why? Because . . . well, because it can be a bit British and a bit boring and a bit like Brit Lit in high school.  Don't get me wrong, I love Jane Austen, and I "Jane Eyre" by Charlotte Bronte was one of my favorite books in college.  I even taught Brit Lit for a few years, but book clubs were created to read anything but Victorian era literature, right?

I reluctantly picked up my copy of "Cranford" from the library.  When my daughter saw the cover she said, "Mommy, what are you reading? That looks so boring!" I then had to explain that Dame Judi Dench is pretty amazing, and that "Cranford" has been adapted into series on PBS.  I referred to my love of Downton Abbey mostly because I wanted to give the book and the MeetUp Book Club a fighting chance.  Serendipitously, my husband was on a business trip to London while I read "Cranford," so while he was reminding me about the British vernacular that I loved so much when I lived there and talking about afternoon mandatory tea breaks, I was plodding my way through Gaskell's book.

Many people believe that this vignette style book which gives a glimpse into what a utopian female centered Victorian society would be like and supposedly does this tongue in cheek, is charming and heart warming.  I found it dull, and slow, BUT I also see the charm in it and that it must have been revolutionary when Gaskell wrote it in 1851.  It follows the lives of two sisters, Miss Deborah Jenkyns and Miss Matilda (Matty) Jenkyns who live in . . . you guessed it, Cranford.  Mary Smith, who visits them regularly, narrates their tales and gives a glimpse into what daily life was in the community of Cranford where all the women are in control of their lives and their meager fortunes.  This is not the Downton Abbey class of people.  The Cranford women are more of the proud, non-working townsfolk who take pride in what they have and their station in life.  They don't flaunt money (because they don't have much), but they have savings and tea times, and enjoy the simple pleasures in life and revel in fineries as well.

It's a simple book with some mishaps (all the men have a terrible habit of either dying or disappearing).  There is almost a love story, but that fizzles when the man who could have been Miss Matty's love interest dies shortly after a visit to Paris.

The most memorable aspect of the book for me is the fact that the women control the fictional town of Cranford, a small town in Northern England.  The first line of the book sums it up, "In the first place, Cranford is in the possession of the Amazons."  Cool, right? I wish the rest of the book could have lived up to the excitement alluded to from this first line, but the stories of life in the Amazonian controlled Cranford are more simple - how Captain Brown came to be respected (because he died saving a child's life), why Peter Jenkyns ran away and how he returned, how Miss Matty lost her money and how the Cranford women rallied to help her, how Betty Barker reacted to her beloved cow falling into a lime pit and losing all of its hair, how the women enjoyed the new spring fashions, how the town reacts to Lady Glenmire marrying a lowly doctor.  None of it was riveting, but I read the whole thing and wasn't taxed too much by doing so.

When I finished the book, I wanted a cup of tea (which to me is a good sign that the book at least put me in the mood for a British custom).  I got out the East India Tea Company set my husband brought back from his business trip to London, and steeped a hearty cup of English breakfast tea after I closed the book.  I did a silent cheers to Dame Judi Dench, smiled warmly, and vowed not to read Victorian literature for quite some time.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

"The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry: : A book for book people

I love books more than I should.  I love the way they smell. I love the way they feel.  I love when I get to a point in a book where I don't want to stop reading, and I don't even remember turning the pages until I am at the very last page.  I love when I meet characters who speak my world and my truth.  I love reading real stories of real people who have overcome incredible hurdles.  And, of course, I love bookstores.  I mourned the day that Borders closed in York, Pa, even though my favorite bookstores are the small ones run by independent store owners who just love books.  When e-readers became the rave, I held fast to my tangible books with pages and covers.  There is something about the weight of a real book in my hands - the weight of it, the protection of it, that makes me feel more alive. When I lived in London, I got into the habit of always having a book tucked under my arm no matter where I went, that way I would never feel alone.  Reading books helps me feel more connected - way more than Facebook, or any type of social media ever could.

I am not alone in my passion for books, and when I find a book that is really written for book people but in an unpretentious, unassuming way, I want to rave about it. I passed by "The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry" by Gabrielle Zevin in the Hot Picks section of the Crystal Lake library several times before picking it up and reading the book jacket which said, "an unforgettable tale of transformation and second chances, an irresistible affirmation of why we read, and why we love." Yes, please.  I want to read a book that has all of that wonderful-ness inside of it.

The story starts with A.J. Fikry, a contentious, recent, young widower who own Island Book Store on the tiny Massachusetts, Alice Island.  After his wife dies in a tragic car accident when she is two months pregnant, Fikry spirals into a depression, drinking himself into isolation and rage.  He pushes away his sister in law, Ismay, who wants to pick him up and set him straight, and the very friendly Chief Lambiase who seems genuinely concerned for Fikry's well-being.  He is rude to everyone including his customers, employees, and even the very hopeful and persistent Knightley Press sales rep, Amelia Loman.  Everything changes when shortly after losing his prized possession, Tamerlane (a rare and valuable collection of Edgar Allen Poe poems), he gets a special package delivered to his store and he decides to keep it (or should I say to keep her).  Fikry's icy exterior melts the day baby Maya comes into his world and he decides to raise her as his own and eventually adopt her.

The short novel weaves its magic through the power of book people coming together in a decade long span of love, loss and redemption, not to mention some powerful statements about the beauty of reading and the meaning of our lives. By the end of the novel these statements increase as Fikry tries to articulate what he is not able to for Maya.  He says, "We read to know we're not alone.  We read because we are alone. We read and we are not alone.  We are not alone."  Fikry finds love, but he finds more than that, he finds a family and a new revitalization of his book store.  He comes to the realization, "We aren't the things we collect, acquire, read.  We are, for as long as we are here, only love. The things we loved.  The people we loved.  And these, I think really do live on."

Zevin, a seasoned YA writer,  presents a few twists and turns in her first adult fiction book, but each rings with believability. She paces the book brilliantly and even though it spans a decade, it feels like life - it's over before you know it.  For the book people out there, who just like Lambiase discovers and Zevin believes (as she stated in an interview with NPR) - everyone is a book person, you just need to find the right book, who like paper and how books feel in their back pockets, too, this is a book for you.

Friday, October 31, 2014

"One Plus One" and "Me Before You": Entertaining, Romantic, and Endearing

Once again the Crystal Lake Public Library's "Hot Picks" section came through for me.  I discovered a new author, Jojo Moyes, and spent the last 4 days binge reading two of her latest books, "One Plus One" and "Me Before You." I had never heard of her before, but she shot up the U.K. bestseller charts with "Me Before You." Her most recent book, "One Plus One" came in at a respectable #11 on the bestseller charts with its release in July of this year.

What makes Jojo Moyes' books so irresistible stems from their "pretty woman-esque" vibe.  No, the main female characters in these two books are not prostitutes.  They are women of substance who are somewhat down on their luck. In both books the main female character meets a wealthy older man who is having a difficult time of it.  Romance ensues, problems with the romance arise, and some things are solved while others remain unsolvable.  I am oversimplifying the plot of both books, but in "Me Before You" when Will Traynor took Lou to the classical concert and she wore a fetching red dress and got tears in her eyes as soon as the music started, I was reminded of Julia Roberts and her tearful visit to the opera with Richard Gere at her side watching for her reaction.

Most of the similarities stop there, but just like "Pretty Woman" these books are genuinely likable with memorable characters and smart writing.

In "One Plus One" the main character, Jess struggles to make enough money for her and her two kids, Tanzie (who is a 10 year old math whiz who has terrible eyesight and loves sparkly clothing) and Nicky (her bullied, goth step-son) and their flatulent old dog, Norman.  When Tanzie gets a 90% scholarship to a private school because of her impressive math prowess, Jess finds a math competition that will help to cover the 10% tuition that she owes.  The only problem is the competition is in Scotland and with no way to really get there, it looks like the competition and the probable winnings are a lost cause.  But an unlikely hero, Ed Nicholls, who unbeknownst to Jess (who is his housekeeper) is also fighting a lost cause because of unintentional insider trading, helps the family to take the road trip to the math competition.

So much happens on this road trip and even after the road trip that to give any of it away would be too much of a spoiler.  Just know that if you haven't found a good chick lit book with substance lately, read this one.  You'll love it.

I read "Me Before You" after quickly devouring "One Plus One" and although the tale is a bit more murky (and will most likely be made into a movie since I could picture every scene on the big screen), I laughed, cried, and cheered my way through this book just as quickly as "One Plus One." The storyline of "Me Before You" follows the plight of Louisa (Lou) Clark who lacks ambition and scrambles to find employment after her beloved cafe job ends abruptly.  Although she lacks qualifications of any kind, she lands a temporary contract helping wealthy ex-businessman, Will Traynor, who suffered a severe accident leaving him a very angry quadriplegic. Will's mother hires Jess due to Jess's fire and spirit and her ability to be chatty in uncomfortable situations.  The situation with Will is depressing and Jess almost quits until she and her sister concoct a terrific "anti-bucket list" idea.  To give any more away would ruin this book as well, so just read it.

If you need two good books to dive into for the fall, I highly recommend becoming addicted to author Jojo Moyes and her entertaining, romantic and endearing stories. 

You won't regret it. 

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

"I Like You Just the Way I am": Narcissistic and Immature with a Few Laughs

I really wanted a funny memoir to make me laugh out loud.  All the reviews of Jenny Mollen's "I like you just the way I am" touted her as the most hilarious woman on Twitter and praised her hysterical blog posts for "Playboy's" Smoking Jacket.  After the Author's Note where she explains how she created composites and exaggerations and then says, "The only thing I'm sure of with complete certainty is that I was really thin and cute the whole time I was writing this" her likability factor dropped way low for me.  This book was more narcissistic and gross than I wanted it to be, and the laugh out loud moments were few and far between.  Maybe I was in the wrong mind set to read it, but it was hard for me to get to the end, and I found myself reading other books rather than facing another one of Jenny Mollen's tales of self centered TMI.

What I love about memoirs or personal essay collections is that you really get to be inside a person's head.  David Sedaris is one of my favorite writers and his honesty and storytelling about the ridiculous things that happen in his life make me laugh out loud. When I saw Garrison Keillor speak and he presented some of the ridiculous moments of his life - some of them more perverse than others, I laughed.  When I read "Bossypants" by Tina Fey, I laughed almost the entire way through the book at all of her ridiculous moments which she describes with awkward clarity.  Jenny Mollen pales in comparison to the storytelling greats who incorporate humor into their life tales.  She instead reverts to the most perverse, most disgusting, most sexual and most twisted events in her life to shock her audiences, and it just wasn't for me.

I didn't want to know about she and her husband's tryst with a Vegas prostitute, or her foray into the world of S&M after reading "Fifty Shades of Grey." I was disturbed by her adolescent behavior in stalking her husband's ex-girlfriend and her antics to try and meet her because she really just wants everyone to like her.  I was dismayed at her manipulation of one of her best friends to get Botox, and horrified that she threw her entire social circle and family under the crushing Jenny Mollen bus.  I did chuckle a little at her essay "Show Me Your Teets" about the time her dog ate condoms, but other than that, the rest of the book either freaked me out because of her emotional instability (even if it was exaggerated) and the crassness of the stories.

I really wanted to like this book as much as I think Jenny Mollen really wants people to like her.  Her honesty was not charming or funny, but disturbing.  Do women really think this way? Is this what the internal voice of the typical American woman is like? Am I that out of touch with what people think is funny? Ultimately, this book was not a laugh out loud collection of personal essays as much as it was a collection of essays that people who love "Playboy" would love to read.  I am not that demographic, and people who are (and people who aren't) will never look at Jason Biggs or Jenny Mollen the same.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

"Habibi": Luscious drawings, painful story

My husband grew up reading comic books and later became addicted to graphic novels. Me? Not so much.  The first graphic novel I read was "American Born Chinese" by Gene Luen Yang at the urging of my writing institute professor.  I loved it, so by the time I taught "Maus 1" and "Maus 2" a few years later to my 10 Honors English class and took my students to the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C., I felt like we were getting an intimate look at the horrors of the Holocaust even if the characters were mice and cats.  When I read "The Complete Persepolis" by Marjane Satrapi I didn't want it to end, and I felt like I gained an understanding of life for a modern woman in Iran.  When my cousin recommended the graphic novel, "Habibi" by Craig Thompson to me, I couldn't wait to read it.  My husband read it first, and finished it in a day.  His only comment was, "This book has a lot of rape in it." I know he liked it though, not the rape parts specifically, but the book for the artistic value and for the story.  

"Habibi" (which means "my beloved") centers around the story of two children born into slavery who find each other.  Dodola's parents sell her into marriage when she is only 9 years old to a man who translated sacred texts.  After her husband is killed she meets Cham (who she renames Zam "the water finder"). Cham's mother does not want to care for him, so Dodola rescues him and herself from a life of slavery.  They live on an abandoned boat in the middle of the desert and Dodola prostitutes herself to men in caravans to get food for survival.  Dodola becomes a mother figure to Zam, and he falls in love with her in an Oedipal complex sort of way.  The story turns even more painful and thrives on sexual repression and the castration of desires as Zam gets older and then sees Dodola being raped by the caravan men.    

Through seasons of separation and one disaster after another from literal castration to pregnancy and possible beheadings, Zam and Dodola search for each other only to be further tormented and torn apart when they eventually reconcile.  The story fluctuates between an ancient Arab society, parallelism to biblical stories, and eventually a modern society.  Thompson shows the all too real horrors of modern man which are the same as those of ancient societies and focuses in very heavy handed way on the pitfalls of sexual desire.  

The pictures are a veritable eye orgy on each page. Thompson's beautiful artwork helps the story almost dance, but the story itself is a painful and often horrific tale of too much brutality in the face of innocence and survival.  Why the castration? Why the repression of sexual desires? Why does Dodola constantly need to survive by selling her body and soul to others? 

The story pained me.  The pictures pleased me.  

Coming from someone who never wanted to read graphic novels because I didn't think I could get into an adult book with pictures, I think that having the pictures stir me up is a good thing.  I just wish the story could have given me the same thrill.  

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

"My Accidental Jihad": The Complex Journey of the Marriage of Two Cultures

“According to Ismail, the prophet Muhammad taught that the greatest jihad, or struggle, of our lives is not the one that takes place on the battlefield but the one that takes place within our hearts - the struggle, as I understood it, to manifest humility, wisdom, and compassion. Ramadan threw me into my own accidental jihad, forcing me to wrestle with my intolerance and self-absorption. And I had been losing ground in this battle, forgetting my husband’s intentions and focusing instead on the petty ways I was inconvenienced by his practice.”

When aspiring journalist, Krista Bremer, turned in her California surfing lifestyle where the next wave took precedence over material wealth or job security, for an educational opportunity in North Carolina, she had no idea that she'd meet her future husband while doing her daily run.  She had no idea that her future husband would be way older than her, have yellowing teeth, nor that he would be a Libyan.

In Bremer's memoir, "My Accidental Jihad", she uncovers what those of us who are married already understand - marriage is hard work.  But, the work that Bremer and her husband, Ismail, encounter possesses it's own complications based on faith (he's Islamic, she's a non practicing Christian) and culture (he haggles over the price of a wedding ring, she just wants to pay what the salesperson asks and is mortified that her husband would even consider arguing the price).

The power in the book stemmed from Bremer's internal grappling with what she loved about Ismail (he is a warm place for her that she didn't know she needed), and what she can't understand or tolerate about him (his need to strictly follow Ramadan restrictive practices which she calls "Ramathon" or his insistence on living on what we need rather than living in excess).

Their accidental love story begins with a love of running on the trails around Chapel Hill, North Carolina and a coincidental meeting at a market where he shows her how amazing fresh tomatoes can be.  They hook up even though he is everything that she never wanted.  He lives in a sparsely furnished attic apartment with meager possessions.  He seems to love cleaning the counters.  He's much older than she is (and he even has, gasp, wrinkles which are taboo in the California landscape she's used to which worships at the alter of youth and false appearances).  After Bremer accidentally gets pregnant, they decide to get married on purpose and begin the precarious balancing act of starting a life together as two relative strangers who know little about each other's histories, dreams and desires.

She traverses the marriage missteps, but is always able to eventually see things from Ismail's perspective like when they are on a used car lot because she no longer wants to be embarrassed by his 1987 Toyota.  Giving into Krista's demands to get a new car, he tells her that all the cars are the same to him.  To her, there was a difference between a shiny new car and a 1987 Toyota.  She reasons, “In that instant, I glimpsed the lifelong challenge of our marriage: I assumed we saw the same thing when we observed the world, but our interpretations of what we were looking at would never be the same.”

At times Bremer's overflowing, flowery language was a bit much. Like when she described her pregnancy nightmares: "At night I dreamed of the taut skin of my belly tearing like tissue paper against the weight of this somersaulting body, of frantically tucking tiny limbs back inside as hot blood spilled through slippery fingers." At other times, she doesn't give enough information about Ismail's history (maybe she doesn't know it?) or about his present situation. He comes off sounding more like an Americanize peasant rather than an older, sophisticated, PhD student who lives simply. She sometimes goes for an easy victory of how Ismail's view of the world and his culture with it's emphasis on family raising, spiritual fulfillment, and an aversion to material possessions are infinitely better than the "thing crazed," lack of faith, selfish, workaholic Americans.

Even with the chronological leaps, the story of Ismail and Krista sustained my interest and even invoked a few tears. Who hasn't had marital strife or communication problems with their spouse who at times feels like a foreigner? Who hasn't questioned the in-law's practices or cringed at the thought of being left alone at a dinner table while the in-law relatives spoke in what seemed like a foreign language? The only difference here is that Krista really did marry a man from a different culture which becomes painfully clear when they travel to Libya to meet Ismail's family. They bring their 5 year old daughter, Aliya, along on the trip, and Krista deals with the language barrier, culture barrier and with her early pregnancy pains as well.

Marriage can often be a wrestling match of intolerance of the other's point of view or self-absorption. It's a precarious balancing act to love the differences between us and our partners and not let them tear us apart. Bremer's book "My Accidental Jihad" shows that marriages between even the most dissimilar people can work when they treat each other with respect, and celebrate rather than vilify the differences between them with humility, wisdom and compassion. That's the real magic behind marriages and love stories that last.