Tuesday, December 16, 2014

"Gone Feral: Tracking My Dad Through the Wild": Searching for her Dad and Finding Herself

"Looking back on my struggle to find my father, I began to understand my quest as part of a bigger human drive.  My journey triggered by my desire to have children, but whether we reproduce or not, the need to understand where we come from is universal.  It's just part of the human process, like learning to talk, or to jump.  We have an instinct to tell the story of our past, to understand what came before, to try to make sense of it." - Novella Carpenter

I love to read memoirs that chronicle the searches that people undertake for healing and understanding in their lives.  In Novella Carpenter's "Gone Feral: Tracking My Dad Through the Wild" she searches to better understand her elusive, erratic father, George Carpenter, whose moods, beliefs and lifestyle baffle her.  Her parents divorced when she was only four years old, and she spent a lifetime becoming more and more estranged from her father.

Novella's search for her father begins because she gets a message from her mother that her father is missing.  Her mom's commentary on George's disappearance is "weird, huh?" Novella reasons with herself that she "had always accepted, or at least didn't dwell on, his absence, but now that he had disappeared in such a dramatic, tangible way,  [she] felt compelled to find him." After days of worrying over never seeing her father again, Novella receives an email from him that he's alive and well in Arizona, but as she processes the news of her father's unintended disappearance, she decides that she needs to "make things right with her dad" because she has a "breeding plan" and wants to figure out what happened with her parents.  Why was her dad the way he was? Could they reconcile or rebuild a relationship? 

She crafts a quick email to her dad which says, "This whole missing person thing made me realize how much I would regret it if we don't have some meaningful time together.  I would love to stay with you and learn some mountain man skills, or just go fly-fishing.  I love you dad and love your spirit, I know it flows in me." 

In this story of discovery, Novella discovers ugly truths about her father - his hot temper, his suicidal tendencies, his ramshackle life in a run down shack of a cabin, and his increasingly crazy and anti-social behavior.  She also starts to see herself more clearly - how her mom and dad's ideals are also some of her own.  She starts to take a harder look at the life she lives surrounded by goats, urban farming and her love of growing plants on a plot of abandoned land next to her rented home,  her hoarding tendencies, and her uncompromising viewpoints.  She realizes that the life her parents dreamed for her when they were young parents - a feral existence of living off of the land, and how they arrived at their beliefs about how to raise two little girls off of the land in Idaho - mirror some of her own philosophies about life.  She sees this as "rhyming the past" rather than repeating it. Our parents run through our veins whether we like it or not.  

I loved Novella's search for her father which really led her to a discovery of herself and more of a clear picture of not only her parent's paths in life, but how she became who she is. She notices the subtleties of life around her and has a keen sense of the natural world (just like her father and mother), and she can profoundly declare the truths of existence in a way that clarifies life.  My favorite passage of the book comes close to the end: 

Families are like ecosystems.  They begin looking one way, but as the years tick by, the inhabitants change. Some grow and flourish, others are wounded.  They might rebound, or die.  Nests are built and young are raised, then the fledglings leave.  When disaster hits, only the adaptable survive.  In my family, there were constants that added a certain texture to our family's ecosystem: love of language, of reading.  A tendency toward living on the fringes.  A hot rage that burns inside of us, and sometimes threatens ourselves and others. Sensitivity, a sense of the incredible power and beauty in the natural world.  A love of the numinous so powerful that it mesmerizes and inspires us.  We are craggy and hard; intense and uncompromising . .  . Every movement, every act, is a meditation on those who came before us.

These are HUGE realizations that many people choose to ignore in their lives.  As I read this book I thought about my own father and mother - who they are as people and how they shaped the person that I am and the person that I still hope to be.  

If you've never asked yourself what constants are in your family or who you are because of (and in despite of) your parents, this book will make you confront those questions and take the journey to discover yourself as you discover what you love and despise about your mom and dad equally run through your veins.  

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

"Delancey: A Man, A Woman, A Restaurant, a Marriage": Be ready to crave pizza

"There is something about Delancey that, to me, matters just as much: We get to make people happy.  We get to give people a good night. We get to spend our days doing work that we can be proud of, and when we're done, there's all the pizza you can eat."

I'm pretty sure I was the only kid who didn't go crazy over pizza.  Whenever my parents wanted to have a pizza night, I nicely requested for them to get me a sub instead.  I even lied in my 3rd grade class when I was interviewed by a high school student assigned to write a book about me.  The personalized book would include all of my favorite things.  When asked what my favorite food was I lied and said, "pizza" just because I knew that saying shrimp scampi would sound weird.  My parents owned a fine dining restaurant when I was in 3rd grade, so when all my friends were loving macaroni and cheese, I grew up on lobster tails and filet mignon.

Pizza was just never my thing, until I moved to the Chicago area and discovered the joys of Georgio's deep dish spinach pizza.  OMG.  It's glorious with just the right amount of cheese, and a thick layer of bright red sauce.  The spinach and onions offer a beautiful balance and the crust is light even though it's a deep dish. Something about the baked in cheese on top of the crust and then the layer of spinach,  topped by the sauce makes it irresistible.

I didn't know pizza could taste like this, but now that I know, I can't un-know it.  I'm still a liar when it comes to my 3rd grade biography, but at least now I get what all the fuss is about, so when I read Molly Wizenberg's memoir "Delancey: A Man, A Woman, A Restaurant, A Marriage" I could relate and even crave the perfect pizza that her husband, Brandon set out to create.  Wizenberg is the critically acclaimed author of The New York Times bestseller "A Homemade Life" and she also created the blog "Orangette" voted the best food blog in the world.  In her memoir "Delancey" she reveals the back story of when she and her husband conceived the idea to open a restaurant, and not just any restaurant, but the perfect place to eat pizza that didn't feel like any old pizza joint, but felt instead like a dinner party with farm fresh ingredients and a simple menu.

Although Wizenberg didn't believe her husband Brandon would ever go through with his idea to open a restaurant and even supported his dream, when the reality of the hours, the unreliable employees, the pizza flour that got everywhere and required late night cleanings, the stress of not sleeping and having to contend with payroll and food ordering and pleasing the public set in, she understandably fell apart. I loved her candor about wanting to be involved in the kitchen and forcing herself to be who she wasn't and how unhappy it made her.  The tension between her and her husband grew thick, and only until they devised a transition plan to get her out of the kitchen did things start to gel.

Daunting.  That's the word I thought about when she described those unsure days after they opened their restaurant's doors to a pizza hungry crowd.  I was part of that as a child as my parents tried to run a successful fine dining restaurant.  The hours were crappy.  My two older sisters and I never saw them.  They were always stressed.  The employees stole food and whatever else they could get their hands on when my mom and dad weren't being vigilant, and the public is hard to please on a consistent basis.  Not knowing what you are doing and opening a restaurant are a lethal combination (if you ever watch Kitchen Nightmares or Restaurant Impossible, you know what I'm talking about), but Brandon and Molly stuck with the idea, figured out their roles (after trial and error) and went on to create a successful restaurant and even open a companion bar / restaurant later on.

Was it easy? No way, but nothing worth doing is ever really that easy.

If you know a foodie or a pizza lover or maybe even someone who really wants to open a restaurant, Wizenberg's candor and wit and especially her descriptions of the pizza pilgrimages she and her husband took across the country as research for their restaurant will entrance you and probably entice you to seek pizza either during or right after reading.

Happy reading and eating (pizza).

Monday, December 8, 2014

"The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry": The Journey to Find Meaning in a Life of Drudgery

"You'd think walking should be the simplest thing . . . Just a question of putting one foot in front of the other.  But it never ceases to amaze me how difficult the things are that are supposed to be instinctive really are." 

I once hiked for 6 hours on the Appalachian Trail.  When I returned to my car, I felt relaxed, hungry and mildly exhausted.  During my hiking days, I would run into "through hikers" who intended to hike the 2,200 mile journey that stretches from Georgia to Maine.  They looked feral, and thin but intently focused on their ending point, and that's how Harold Fry, the unlikely hero in Rachel Joyce's book, "The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry" looks in the middle of his journey when he decides to let go of all material things - even money and tough out his journey by trusting in the universe to provide what he needs. 

Harold Fry, a recently retired man who lives in a small English village with his overly critical and hardened wife, Maureen receives a letter from Queenie Hennessy written in shaky handwriting that says she is in hospice care and wanted to say goodbye.  Harold, unsure of how to respond to his former work mate and friend, writes a quick reply letter.  As he goes to put his letter in the mail, he decides to keep walking.  He makes it to the post office, and decides to keep walking.  Without telling anyone (including his pinched wife, Maureen), he starts walking the over 600 mile journey to hand deliver the letter to Queenie himself.  He alerts the hospice directors that he is walking to say goodbye to Queenie and politely asks her to wait for his arrival.  

Thus begins Harold's journey of self discovery as he spans the English countryside encountering interesting characters who want to help him, talk to him and eventually follow his lead and journey with him. Harold faces numerous challenges on his walk to Queenie.  First, he contends with his health issues.  Walking so much at first causes bruises and aches and pains that Harold is unaccustomed to in his soft life of tea and sitting on a couch.  He struggles against the weather, his physical condition, and hunger, but mostly along his journey he struggles with self-doubt (Is he doing the right thing? Does it even matter? Why is he walking in the first place? Can he really walk over 600 miles?). Even more pervasive by the end of the novel,  Harold struggles with the demons of his past and the realizations about what his life has become.  

In many ways, we are all Harold Fry, struggling against ourselves in our journey through life.  Unlike Harold Fry, many people are too afraid to face our fears and travel through them to annihilate them and live more fully.  Most of us aren't drawn by our instincts or by the internal drive that tells us that we can accomplish whatever we want to accomplish regardless of the odds.  Most of us don't put our trust in the universe to provide us with what we need. 

I thought often of the Henry Ford quotation while reading this book, "Whether you think you can or think you can't - you're right." Jodie, from my book club, asked the question, "Could it even be possible for someone like Harold to take this journey?"  My immediate and heart felt response was, "Absolutely!" We can all accomplish so much more than we believe we can.  Just like Harold, it might not always be clear why we need to do the things that are the most unlikely, but if we believe we can, we might just meet with success and overcome whatever plagues us from our past or in our present lives.  

One of the nuns who works in Queenie's hospice center tells Harold that his journey to see Queenie and his respectful request for her to wait for him to arrive to say goodbye is "a rather unusual kind of healing." She goes on to say, " I don't know how you came up with it.  But maybe it's what the world needs.  A little less sense, and a little more faith." 

That sounds like good advice to me.  

If you are looking for an inspiring book about an unlikely hero overcoming impossible odds on a journey of healing and self discovery, Rachel Joyce might just be your new favorite author and "The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry" might become your new favorite book. 

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

"Big Little Lies:" Add it to the list of books you can't put down

Last December I read Liane Moriarty's book "The Husband's Secret."  Although it was highly recommended and I flew through it, I wasn't all that enthralled with it and discounted it as chick lit with a bit of a sinister edge.  I loved the pop culture references thrown in and the converging of the different characters. Moriarty also did a great job of incorporating the themes that we never truly know anyone, that we all have secrets to keep, and we remain blind to truths that we don't want to know about those that we love.

Moriarty's 6th novel, "Big Little Lies" reads much like "The Husband's Secret," but something about it made me think more, read faster and ultimately feel more satisfied at the end.  It could be that I liked the characters better, or possibly that Moriarty set up the mystery even better in this book. The mystery revolves around suburban moms in an idyllic Australian beach community called Pirriwee Penisula who all have children in the same school.  From the very first chapter, the reader knows that something terrible happened on Trivia Night at the school and that it involves one of the main characters.  But who? Could it be the outspoken and stiletto heel wearing, Madeline who on her 40th birthday twists her ankle only to be rescued by the new mom in town? Could it be the new, young, single mom in town, Jane, whose mousy exterior hides her devastating secrets about her son, Ziggy's real father? Could it possibly involve the devastatingly beautiful and wealthy Celeste who appears to have the perfect husband and perfect life? Maybe it's Bonnie, the peace loving yoga instructor who is the new wife of Madeline's ex-husband, Nathan (who just happened to walk out on Madeline and their 14 month old daughter).

As the seemingly mundane situations that arise in normal life - a bully in the classroom, invitations to a birthday party, a book club, and a school fundraising function - become way more twisted and sinister, the truths about the character's lives and hearts tumble out with tragic consequences.

I had to know what happened in the gossipy town that turned ugly (and bloody) amidst the parents who dressed up as Audrey Hepburn and Elvis to attend an annual trivia night.  Without food to sop up their copious amounts of alcohol, tempers flared and situations that may have seemed trivial (on trivia night . . . get it?) turned deadly.

Would guys like this book? No.  Is it Chick Lit? Yes, but it's Chick Lit with a backbone.  It isn't just as the cover suggests, an exploding, neon colored lollipop, and it's worth reading and becoming entrenched in until the very last page (honestly, if you are looking for a book that you won't put down until you get to the end, read it).  Liane Moriarty knows how to capture her readers and keep them guessing until the very last page and do so without over-sentimentalizing. She also masters the art of throwing in subtle human truths (without hitting the reader over the head with them) in the midst of the soap opera scene of suburban moms squabbling.  That's a gift.

If you are looking for books that you can't put down to either read during the cold, long winter, or to give as gifts (or maybe, if you are lucky enough, to take on a winter vacation), here are some of my other recommendations:

YA Literature:
We Were Liars by E. Lockhart
Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
Wonder by R.J. Palacio

Wild by Cheryl Strayed
A House in the Sky by Amanda Lindhout
Gone Feral by Novella Carpenter (I'm reading this right now, and I can't put it down.  It was actually hard for me to take a break to write this blog post!)
Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan

Books that have romance and substance:
The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin
Me Before You by  Jojo Moyes
One Plus One by Jojo Moyes
The Rosie Project by Graeme Stimison

Happy Reading this winter, everyone!  If you have a book suggestion for me (something I won't be able to put down), I'd love it!

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 MeetUp.com 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 "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.

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.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

"We Are Water": A rambling tale with too much tragedy

Darn you, Wally Lamb.

I'm just so disappointed that I didn't like this book that I actually feel angry with Wally Lamb.

I read "She's Come Undone" by Wally Lamb all the way back during my undergraduate classes at the University of Minnesota.  My then boyfriend, Eric, was just starting his first real job as an academic recruiter for the University.  We took a road trip to one of his recruiting conferences in the late summer, and while he was walking the floor touting how awesome the UofM was, I was captured by Wally Lamb's deft 1st persona narrative depiction of Dolores Price and her struggle with life as an overweight teen and woman.  I spent that weekend poolside reading at a fast pace, just wanting to keep going. Lamb's ability to capture the voice of a tragic and comical heroine, left me in awe of his writing talent.  His next effort, "I Know This Much Is True" didn't leave me as breathless, but I still enjoyed it.  It's been awhile since I've read Lamb, but when I saw this book int he library with it's beautiful title and haunting blue cover, I couldn't wait to sink in.

Even after the first chapter, I knew that "We Are Water" wasn't going to rock my world.  The novel centers on the lives of the Oh family, a tragically flawed and messed up bunch of people.  Annie Oh works as an artist selling her angry art installations to famous celebrities like Lady Gaga.  Annie recently ended her 27 year marriage to husband, Orion, to wed her rich, socialite art promoter, Vivica.  Orion suffers from this news and while reeling from the loss of his wife, he also loses his career as a college counselor amidst sexual harassment allegations.  Annie and Orion's three children also suffer from this news, but each deal with issues of their own including explosive anger, disillusionment, prostitution, and loneliness.

Throughout this stream of consciousness novel, the narrator changes with each chapter, but the rambling diatribe seems to be consistent among each of the characters.  They all divulge all of their secrets in waves and waves of confessionals.  From the tormented molester of Annie's youth, to the racist mom of Josephus Jone's "girlfriend," to the seemingly virtuous Ari, all the characters sound almost identical.

I found the endless tragedies in this book a bit much.  Did Orion really need to be wheel chair bound? Did Andrew need to be tormented indefinitely due to his mother's physical abuse? Too much is too much.  I thought that about the narration, too.  There was no subtlety in this book.  Every story line goes over the top with too much (in the case of Kent's storyline, way too much).  It wasn't until the very end of the book while Andrew and his dad have heart to heart talks about life as they walk along the beach, that I saw glimmers of the genius of Wally Lamb's life insights, but by that time it was too late to save the entire book of stream of consciousness ramblings (and what's with the ...... all over the place, Mr. Lamb?).

I loved the link to the title (which also comes close to the end) that “We are like water, aren’t we? We can be fluid, flexible when we have to be. But strong and destructive, too.” And something else, I think to myself. Like water, we mostly follow the path of least resistance.” 

I may have loved "She's Come Undone" but this book is one that I would recommend leaving on the shelf if you see it on the new fiction section of the library, especially if you are looking for a book to capture you poolside during the last remaining days of the summer season.