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.