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.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

"The Book of Unknown Americans": Much needed empathy for the plight of Latino Immigrants

“We’re the unknown Americans, the ones no one even wants to know, because they’ve been told they’re supposed to be scared of us and because maybe if they did take the time to get to know us, they might realize that we’re not that bad, maybe even that we’re a lot like them. And who would they hate then?” - Micho Alvarez

We moved from a predominately white, blue collar small town in Pennsylvania to a predominately white, white collar small town in Illinois.  Unlike our small town in Pa, here there is a high percentage of Latino Americans.  We heard reports before we moved about which local schools to avoid because of the influx of Latino immigrants ruining the education at those schools.  We heard that test scores for a few of the local elementary schools are abysmal because of all the non-native speakers, that teachers don't know what to do with all these ESL kids, that THEY are taking over schools that were once top ranked.  I don't know what I believed or thought I believed about Latino Americans, but after reading Cristina Henriquez's second novel 'The Book of Unknown Americans' I discovered empathy for the plight of the Latino immigrants who struggle with different kinds of "moving stress" than my family will ever need to encounter.  

Moving is hard. Regardless of who you are, where you are moving, or even how excited you are about it, the upheaval and strain of uprooting and leaving a home and moving to another takes its toll.  Imagine if you didn't speak the language, or didn't have access to the same kinds of food you were used to, or you were treated like a lesser human being by those around you.  The characters in Henriquez's novel all deal with the stereotypes of Latino American immigrants and all tell their tales of discrimination, hardships and the fight to assimilate for the hope of a better life than the ones they left behind. 

The main story revolves around Alma and Arturo Rivera who immigrate legally from Mexico with the hope to find help for their beautiful, 15 year old daughter, Mirabel who suffered a near fatal fall from a ladder that left her brain damaged.  They move to an apartment complex in Delaware close to the mushroom facility for Arturo's work visa employment and to Mirabel's special school.  The Toros from Panama live in the same apartment complex and their teenaged son, Mayor is immediately taken with Mirabel.  Their star crossed love story falls at the center of this novel.  Even with the chorus of voices (each given their own first person narration in chapters throughout the book), the real power in Henriquez's novel comes from the tentative and awkward moments that Mirabel and Mayor spend together.  She gives him faith that he is not the disappointment his father sees him as (because he doesn't play soccer like his brother, Enrique), and he helps to draw Mirabel out from her disability.

Although many critics argue that the other narrative perspectives sound the same - from Benny Quinto, the Nicaraguan who sold drugs to escape the "safe house" he encountered after crossing the border and ended up working at Burger King to Nelia Zafon from Puerto Rico whose dreams of being a Broadway star ended so she opened up her own theater. The critics also argue that they clutter the main storyline, but they add more "Unknown American" voices and give a broader perspective on the struggles of different Latino Americans.

The overall dismal gray and wintery landscape of the Delaware serves as a backdrop for the isolation and struggles each of the characters face - from job losses, to struggles communicating when they need help from the police, to standing up to creepy teenagers who loom around their daughter. Each character tries to find their own version of the American Dream even if it seems that America doesn't want them to dream here.

Although the ending tragedy is abrupt, I still cried and still found myself really rethinking any preconceived notions I hold about the "Unknown Americans" who reside all around me in my new community.  We're a lot more alike than different as we struggle through our own hopes and fears as we try to assimilate and make a new community feel like home even when it is miles away from where we grew up.  Henriquez succeeds in creating empathy for these Unknown Americans and making their plight more known.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

"The Rosie Project": Rom Com At Its Finest

I needed a fun book.  When my daughter's 4th grade teacher mentioned that her favorite book of the summer was "The Rosie Project" by Graeme Simsion because it was "great fun," I made a mental note. I can't read every book that people suggest, but I am always looking to expand my reading horizons.  In the case of Australian author Graeme Simsion's highly publicized debut novel, I am so glad I listened to my daughter's teacher.  It was, as she touted, great fun.

The novel revolves around Don Tillman,  a socially inept genetics professor who decides after living alone for too long, that it is time to find a wife. He launches a full scale "Wife Project" which includes a detailed 16 page survey to locate a potential mate.  Don designs the survey questions to weed out smokers, drinkers and pretty much anyone who has any type of human characteristic that is unsuitable to him.  In the midst of his Wife Project, Don meets Rosie, a smoking, vegetarian with bright red hair who is anything but conventional.  She cusses openly, is free with her emotions and makes no excuses for her actions.  Although Don immediately deems her an unsuitable wife, he becomes intrigued with her search for her biological father, and begins an unethical genetics project ("The Father Project") to help Rosie find her father.  While searching for Rosie's father, Don begins to break out of his daily routines and begins to feel rather than think his way through life.  Inevitably (as the title points out) his focus becomes "The Rosie Project" or how to get this woman to fall in love with him.  He doubts the logic of falling in love with Rosie "I want to spend my life with you even though it’s totally irrational. And you have short earlobes. Socially and genetically there’s no reason for me to be attracted to you. The only logical conclusion is that I must be in love with you." As Don realizes (and everyone else who has ever been in love has realized), logic and love do not coincide.  

Throughout the book, I could picture the movie that this will soon become (since Sony Pictures bought the movie rights) and could see myself on a Saturday evening watching it - laughing and crying, enjoying the romantic comedy that holds up a mirror to the follies of love and the inconsistencies of life.  That's what Simsion does brilliantly in this novel.  By choosing a male love interest who has Asperger's Syndrome (but somehow doesn't know it) and can't connect to people emotionally, he is able to show how incredibly illogical dating and love are, but we are also privy to seeing the downsides of a life full of only logical thinking.  Life and happiness meet somewhere in the middle.  

This book, though, is not one that anyone will need to dwell on or think about too much.  It is pure fun even with Don's smarmy best friend, Gene's ethical fidelity issues thrown into the mix. The lightheartedness outweighs any of the gloom in Don's lonely life or Rosie's messed up childhood, or Gene and Claudia's marriage arrangement that makes sense to no one except Gene.  If you haven't read a fun book lately, pick up "The Rosie Project" and prepare to be charmed. 

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

"Wonder": Wonderful. For Real.

I cried.

Actually, I cried more than once while reading this book.  If it's been awhile since you have read a really great book that made you want to stand up and cheer, you need to pick up the book "Wonder" by R.J. Palacio.

Someone in my old book club wrote this on her list of "books she wants to read" and I remembered it last week while I was at the library picking up a book for my daughter.  After I sobbed three times yesterday while finishing this book, I decided that I really want my daughter to put down her "Dork Diary" series and read this, so I can talk to her about it.

Palacio's book revolves around 10 year old, not so ordinary August (Auggie) Pullman and his first year not being homeschooled.  His mom and dad decided to homeschool Auggie due to his severe facial abnormalities and his constant visits to the hospital for many surgeries to correct complications due to his abnormalities.  It's not just the surgeries or past health problems that keep him home, it's also the fact that people actually recoil when they look at Auggie.  He even says, "I won't describe what I look like.  Whatever you're thinking, it's probably worse."

Fifth grade life can wear anyone down, but Auggie's experiences as a new 5th grader to Beecher Prep school are treacherous.  Without the kindness of the unfortunately named headmaster, Mr. Tushman, Jack Will (a boy who was forced at first to befriend Auggie and later becomes his friend), and Summer (a girl who decides to forgo the popular path and sit with Auggie at lunch because they both have summery names), Auggie's experiences at Beecher could have been downright tragic.  As Mr. Tushman's speech at the graduation ceremony at the end of the book demonstrates, when people place kindness as the measure of success in education, everyone wins.  He includes a quotation from J. M. Barrie's book called "The Little White Bird" in his uncharacteristically short commencement address, "Shall we make a new rule of life . . . always to be kinder than is necessary?" Just re-reading this part in the book made me all choked up again.

Palacio makes Auggie lovable - the right blend of self awareness and an earnest determination to stick it out in school against all odds.  She doesn't stop at Auggie, though.  Each chapter is told from another character's perspective, so we get the full spectrum of emotions revolving around August's entry into school.  Palacio effortlessly captures the voice of Via, Auggie's older, protective and guilt riddled sister just as well as she gives a voice to Jack Will and his nonchalant attitude towards life until he meets August.

I don't want to give too much away because this is one of those books that I believe will eventually be made into a movie, but it's also one of those books like "The Fault in Our Stars" that people can believe in.  After reading it, I had a renewed faith in humanity.  I know this is fiction that I am writing about, but certain books just speak to our hearts and heads, and R.J. Palacio was able to achieve this in her debut novel.  She just rocks.

Monday, September 8, 2014

"The Girls of August": Why do people read books like this?

I caved and got a summer beach read, right as the last breath of summer descended in our area.  I blame the heat and humidity for choosing the schmaltzy book with the beach cover picturing two middle aged women lounging under a huge umbrella with their hands behind their heads in a totally relaxed position.

I needed something that I knew would be quick, and I wanted something more lighthearted than orphans or struggles or child molestation or any of the other tragic tales that I read this summer.  BUT while reading Anne Rivers Siddon's 19th novel "The Girls of August" I realized something.  Most books I read have a purpose.  They have some substance.  They give me something to learn or relate to.  This book, on the other hand, made me question how Anne Rivers Siddons ever became a best selling author.  Who reads this stuff and likes it?

The storyline in "The Girls of August" hurt to read.  It revolves around a group of wives (Maddy, Rachel, Barbara, and Melinda) who all have doctor husbands.  Each August the four wives go on a beach getaway together without their husbands (hence their very creative name "The Girls of August").  They stop going after Melinda dies in a tragic car accident (who the girls all blame on her negligent doctor husband, Teddy), but decide to reunite after being prodded to by Teddy's new wife, Baby, to join her at her family's idyllic beach house on a private island.  Baby grates on all the older women because they view her as childish and a sad replacement for their good friend, Melinda. Mostly it could be because she is only in her early 20s and all these women aren't.  They are petty and jealous and keep eyeing up Baby's hot body and commenting on how free she is with it.

I could go on, but there is really no point, because there was no point to this story.

Like no point.

The novel could have been renamed "The Mean Girls of August" since as tolerant as they viewed themselves, Rachel, Maddy and Barbara acted like gossipy high school girls out of some sort of 1980s John Hughs movie.  None of them seemed even a little bit gracious to be invited to this beautiful beach house or even try to act appropriately.  They openly rolled their eyes at Baby and treated her poorly at her own home.

Siddons tried to thicken the plot by giving each of the women a secret, but even the secrets were so very predictable and underdeveloped.  As a last ditch effort, Siddons even tried to throw in a climactic ending, but it all fell so very, very flat and dull.  The writing was so bad in spots that I actually stopped and read lines aloud to my husband like "Teddy and I were simply a bad fit, like hair spray and fire." For real? Yikes, Anne.  Maybe it's time to retire?

Maybe beach reads are meant to be fast and dull books.  Maybe this isn't a good example of Anne Rivers Siddons who by all accounts seems like a well loved and well received author of many books. Maybe I should stop being lured by pretty covers that have beach umbrellas and women with their bare feet in the sand and stick to the books that I know have something to offer me as the reader.

I know, next time I hit the "Hot Picks" section of the library, that I will choose more wisely.