Monthly Archives: February 2012

It Looked Different On The Model

I have a confession to make. I adore Laurie Notaro. She is freakin’ hilarious. I have read all her other non-fiction works and I love them. She writes about her life – and makes it hysterical. A lot of the time, she reminds me of myself. Which is probably why I find her so funny.

In her latest collection, she talks about getting stuck in a shirt while trying it on, having plants stolen from her front yard, taking her nephew on vacation, and her ‘issues” with what happens when she takes Ambien. Each story is relatively short. But all are really funny.

My favorite story dealt with her husband’s pillow. He came to bed one night and found chocolate stars on his pillow. He accused her of ambien eating in bed and getting chocolate on his pillow. Laurie doesn’t find any wrappers by the bed ( a tell-tale sign she’s been ambien eating) and there’s no chocolate in the house. She cannot figure it out. When it happens the next night, her husband gets mad and accuses her of eating in bed on purpose. She swears it is not her and goes through the whole chocolate search again. Then, she gets lucky. She sees her geriatric cat one night, up on the bed. It sits down on his pillow and gets up…..and leaves behind a chocolate star. She tells her husband and hilarity ensues.

I think one of the reasons I love that story and this book so much is that it reminds me of Mike and me. She is a bit neurotic, a bit messy, a bit chubby, and a lot human. I love reading her stories because she isn’t afraid to write about abject humiliation and the humorous things that happen to her.  If you have not read any of Laurie Notaro’s books, I highly recommend them. They are just funny. And sometimes, all you need is funny

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The Help

I first heard about The Help when NPR interviewed Kathryn Stockett about the book. I was enthralled by the interview and went out and bought the book. Shortly after, it was picked for book club. I read the book in a couple of days.

The book is set in Mississippi at the dawn of the civil rights movement. The story follows Skeeter and her friends and the maids who work for them. Skeeter lives with her parents. She got done with college and unlike her other friends, who went to college to find a husband, she went to college to become a writer. Skeeter does not want to get married.

She gets a job working for the local paper writing the advice column. Since Skeeter’s never had to maintain a household, she asks her friend’s maid, Aibileen, for help with the column. As she talks to Aibileen about tips to get stains out and whatnot, she decides to write a book from the perspective of the maids who raise the kids and maintain the houses.

When she first approaches Aibileen, she refuses to help. But then Medger Evers is murdered. That changes Aibileen and she and Skeeter go about writing the book. Skeeter realizes that she is going to need more maids to tell their stories. The maids are reluctant, but soon enough begin to tell their stories. They all worry that the readers will be able to tell where the book was written and who they are.

Skeeter’s friends are raised in a time and place where it was considered okay to be racist. One of her friends introduces a home-health initiative requiring homes who employ African-Americans to have a separate toilet for them. This woman has a maid Minney, who has attitude, but who can cook like no one else. When Minney flushes the toilet in the house, she is fired. She comes to make amends and brings her famous chocolate pie.

My mom and I went to see the movie and it was very close to the book. I adored the movie. But I suppose it’s easy to make a great movie from a great book. I read that this book was rejected 61 times. I don’t know if I would have the persistence to submit a manuscript that many times, but I’m certainly glad Kathryn Stockett did.

The book is just amazing. It is a story of relationships, friendships, equality, and tolerance. It is told in such an amazing way. My favorite character, though, was Skeeter. She was idealistic and persistent and independent at a time when women were not supposed to be any of those things.

I cannot fathom treating someone as a lower class citizen because of the color of their skin and allow them at the same time to raise my kids. It’s a generation and an era I don’t understand. But Kathryn Stockett does a wonderful job of putting you there. And of making you feel the injustice and the resignation of the maids as they take the bus and walk miles to and from work to help raise their children while spending more time with the white children they take care of.

The book is a vivid reminder that no so very long ago, we relegated an entire race of people to toil and struggle. We are no so far removed from that.

This was the best book I read in 2010. I cannot wait to see what she does next.

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One Day

One Day is the story of two friends who meet as they are graduating college. The book follows them over the course of 20 years. What makes this book a bit different is that it follows them on the same day each year – July 15th. Emma and Dexter meet. They have a one-night stand and go their separate ways. Then they meet again. And become friends. And more.

This book is about all manner of relationships. Emma and Dexter start out as awkward friends. They become best friends, even though Dexter is a bit of an ass. He is egotistical and full of himself. He drinks too much and dates too much. He’s superficial and hard to like.

They each marry other people. And through the course of the book they go through everything you can think of. Death, birth and everything in between. I spent the first two-thirds of this book not really liking it. But then something happened and I started to like Dexter. Emma I liked then didn’t then did again. I think I liked them toward the end because David Nicholls made them human.

Emma and Dexter remind me of people I know. I think the thing about this book that I like is that Emma starts off as a saint and she becomes human. Dexter starts off as an ass and becomes likable. The beauty in this book is in how the characters work through their issues and try to accept each other as they are. A lesson that most of us do not learn.

I cannot say much about the ending because there are some plot twists that I do not want to give away. But I will say that it certainly caught me by surprise. The book is well-written and reads quickly. It’s certainly not the best book I’ve ever read, but I will say it’s not a waste of time to read it.  There are some references to British pop culture that may throw you but if you read around them, the story flows well.

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A Lucky Child: A Memoir Of Surviving Auschwitz As A Young Boy

This book is our current book club pick. And I’m so glad it was. The book was written by Thomas Buergenthal, who was eight years old when the Nazis invaded Poland. At first, he and his family were relegated to a Jewish Ghetto. There, his father ran a factory. In order to survive, Thomas told the Nazi in charge that he could work. And he did, running errands for the man in charge.

As World War II wore on, the Ghetto was terminated by the Nazis. Thomas and his parents were sent to Auschwitz, where he was immediately separated from his mother. He managed to stay with his father. His father kept him from being chosen to be eliminated because he was a child. Then he was sent on the death walk. He had to friends with him. They walked and walked and during that time, Thomas got severe frost bite on his toes and had some of them amputated. While in the hospital ward, a Norwegian named Odd kept an eye on him and bribed the doctor to keep Thomas alive. When the camp was liberated, Thomas was sent to an orphanage. He had no idea what had become of his parents.

Thomas was reunited with his mother. She looked for him and eventually found him at the Orphanage through a tremendous stroke of fate. Her mother married a doctor friend and Thomas spent time with a tutor to catch up on the education he missed. He also decided to mail a letter to Norway to his friend Odd who helped keep him alive. Knowing only his name and not his address, the letter found its way to Odd. Thomas went to Norway to meet him.

Thomas eventually separated from his mother and moved to the United States to go to school. He lived with his aunt and uncle. Thomas went to college and law school and eventually became a lawyer. He became the Dean of the George Washington University Law School. He is a human rights lawyer and served as a judge at the International Criminal Court in the Hague.

Thomas explained that he waited so long to write this book because he had a career and a family. He also is explicit about the fact that he has forgotten some of the details of what happened to him to avoid drowning in survivor’s guilt and to deal with the huge traumas he saw.

Even lacking in some detail, this is an amazing book. The whole time I was reading it, I kept thinking about the fact that Patrick is the same age as Thomas was when he went to Auschwitz. And I think about how Patrick is just a child and hasn’t done anything to anyone. What if he were rounded up for having red hair? That’s about the equivalent of rounding up someone based on their ethnic background or religious affiliation. I don’t know what I would do if someone took him from me. I felt for Thomas’ mother, who must have been just sick with worry and thinking that she lost her husband and son.

This book made such an impression on me that I’m going to have Patrick read it. I think it’s important for people to know what horrors we inflict on others so we can try to keep them from happening again.

One of the things that I truly love about my book club is that I read books that I otherwise may never find or may overlook. I may never have found this book and I have to say that next to Anne Frank’s diary, it’s one of the best holocaust books I’ve come across. To think what the world would have missed out on if he had been killed.

I actually think that everyone should read this book to remember what irrational fear of people or groups can do.

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11/22/63

I just finished 11/22/63, Stephen King’s take on time travel and the Kennedy Assassination. I don’t want to say too much about plot because the book is so plot driven. But I am going to do my best to discuss the book because it was that good.

Let me preface this by saying that I have read many books about the Kennedy Assassination. I believe that Oswald was part of a conspiracy to kill Kennedy and I do not think that Oswald acted alone. Almost nothing would convince me otherwise. In the afterward to the book, King discusses conspiracy theories and says that based upon reading “Case Closed” and “Oswald’s Tale” (the latter being a work of fiction), he’s convinced Oswald acted alone. He’s certainly entitled to his opinion and I realize that he would have to believe that way for his book to work. Overall, I’m fine with that because for the purposes of his book, it does work.

 

The main character is Jake Epping. He’s a high school English teacher in Maine in 2011. He has an ex-wife who’s a recovering alcoholic. It’s the last day of school before summer break and he goes to a diner he lies to eat. The owner, Al, tells him he’s closing it down. He says that he needs to talk to Jake about something important and to meet him at the diner after it’s closed. Jake meets Al and then the story begins.

Al tells Jake that he’s found a “rabbit hole”. He goes back to 1958 through steps in the pantry at the diner. All tells Jake that he has cancer and isn’t going to live long – from smoking his whole life, is what he says. He tells Jake that he ha a project for him. He wants Jake to go down the rabbit hole to stop the Kennedy Assassination. Jake at first says no. Al tells him that there are certain watershed moments in history, but if you look at each one, nothing affected this country more negatively than the Kennedy Assassination. Al believes that had JFK not been killed, MLK Jr. wouldn’t have been killed and RFK wouldn’t have been killed; Vietnam wouldn’t have happened and this country would be completely different.

Meanwhile, Jake has a former student from his Adult GED English class whose family was killed by his dad when he was a kid and who was seriously injured. Jake decides his first act of heroism will be to change Harry’s life. So Jake goes down the rabbit hole…….

All I will say about the remainder of the plot is that Stephen King is a genius. Jake goes down the rabbit hole, where he always comes out in September, 1958. He goes two or three times before he tries to stop the assassination. There is a lot of discussion about the butterfly effect – the theory that a butterfly flaps its wings in California and there’s an earthquake in Russia. Cause and effect is a lot at play in this story. So is the theory that history is, as Jake likes to say “obdurate”. Unwilling to change.

King’s genius lies in several places. One, he’s a marvelous writer. He’s a master of plot twists and his writing style is just so easy.

But the book is more than time-traveling and history bending. It’s also a love story. Jake happens to find the love of his life in his journeys to stop the assassination. Her name is Sadie and the story of the romance between them is nearly as compelling as the plot about the Kennedy assassination. Her name is Sadie and he meets her when he goes to Texas. I don’t really want to say any more because there are so many twists and turns.

What I will say is this – I loved this book. And his version of the future after Jake comes back, is nothing I would ever have imagined. And that is what makes Stephen King so great at what he does.

This book is not typical King in that it’s not super-scary in the “Cujo” or “Children of the Corn” way. The book is scary in the future that it envisions and the way that history tries to stop Jake’s mission. It’s masterfully plotted and though it’s 842 pages, it reads quickly and does not seem to be too heavy and certainly it’s not hard to read. Keeping track of the characters is challenging in parts, but he weaves things together beautifully and keeps them involved enough so you never really lose track of them.

I haven’t read Stephen King in a long time, mostly because he scares the crap out of me. This book made me think. It’s a tale of be careful what you wish for and maybe things do happen for a reason. There were plenty of things for me to ponder. If time travel were possible, does that mean we should do it? What intended and unintended consequences do our actions have? These questions are answered and give me much more to think about.

 

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The Paris Wife

This is yet another book that I wanted when it came out, but did not buy it. Paying for a wedding last year put me on a tight book buying budget. However, one of my book club mates, Diana, had it and gave it to me. And I’m so glad she did. It’s another book that I’m truly glad I read. The book, for those who don’t know, is about Hadley, Ernest Hemingway’s first wife.

Paula McClain wrote a fictionalized version of the real lives painted so vividly in Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. The book doesn’t really read like fiction. It’s been too long since I’ve read A Moveable Feast to compare the two and that wouldn’t really be fair since one is memoir and one is pure fiction. I will say that the one word that comes to mind when I think about the Paris Wife is “lovely”.

The book starts by introducing us to Haldey. She’s from St. Louis and we find out that her family was once well off from pharmaceuticals, but her father killed himself when Hadley was young. And her mother was smothering and her sister in a marriage in which the husband turned out to be a bit nuts. Hadley goes to Chicago to visit her best friend, Kate, and meet the young Mr. Hemingway, fresh from the battlefields of World War I. There is an immediate attraction and Ernest writes her consistently. He tells her that a friend says he needs to go to Rome to be a serious writer. He does not want to go alone and proposes that Hadley go with him – as his wife. He is 22 and she is a bit older. Much to everyone’s surprise, including, I think, Hadley’s she agrees.

They are married in Chicago but change their destination to Paris at the suggestion of another writer. So the newly married Hemingways sail across the Atlantic and end up in Paris. The cost of living is low and they find a cheap apartment. We are introduced to a litany of literary figures who were ex pats in Paris at that time. We meet Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. Gertrude is enamored of Hemingway’s talent and urges him to write. He meets John Dos Passos and Ezra Pound. And much later in the story, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.

The story centers on Ernest and Hadley living the life of poor artists. But they always manage to find a way to afford what they need. Ernest writes for a newspaper to support them. They winter in Switzerland and Italy. They spend their time in Paris, Ernest writing and Hadley playing the piano or finding other ways to pass the time.

At its heart, this is a love story. And a story of infidelity and betrayal. Eventually, Haldey bravely decides to leave Ernest. She ends up in the U.S. remarried and seems to have lived a full life, though not much of the book (the last 30 pages, perhaps) are centered on this.

The heart of the story is how Hadley, an admittedly traditional Henry James reading woman, stuck in a place and time where the bucking of convention is more than mere past time. Gertrude and Alice are a lesbian couple in a time when that did not happen. Ernest pursues an affair with Hadley’s best friend, and both he and the friend have the audacity to think that Haldey will go along with Ernest having her and a mistress.

Ms. McClain’s descriptions of the landscape and the people are so vivid that you are there. You are in the French Riveria drinking every night with the high society American Ex Pats, in Paris at the cafes and in the small, dark apartment, in Italy when Ernest takes Hadley to see where he was wounded, only to be psychologically wounded when he discovers the landscape has changed to what it was before the war.

I have to say that if Hadley was anything like Ms. McClaim portrays her, I like her. I like her in the book because she isn’t afraid of admitting her vulnerabilities. She isn’t afraid to admit she feels she would be lost without Ernest. She feels lost when he’s gone on his reporting missions. I can identify with her

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The Submission

When I heard that “THE” 9/11 novel had been published, I wanted to read it. I, like everyone else I can think of, was affected by 9/11. It sent me on a journey of reading book regarding the Middle East and U.S. foreign policy and the war(s). I have read other fiction about 9/11 (Falling Man, Terrorist, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Netherland (kind of)), and I liked each book. But I never felt any of them were the quintessential 9/11 book. So, on to The Submission, which I badly wanted when it came out and finally got it around Christmas time.

The Submission involves a terrorist act in New York that destroys skyscrapers and was perpetrated by Islamic Fundamentalists. One of the protagonists in the book, Architect, Mohammed Khan, is in Los Angeles at the time of the attacks, but is from New York. As he tries to get home, he is detained by goon-like agents. They question him at length about his background. While Khan is not a practicing Muslim, this encounter scars him. This encounter is our introduction to Mr. Khan.

After the terrorists attacks, a committee is formed to pick a memorial to stand on the fictional “ground zero”, though it is not called that. Anyone can submit their ideas and they are submitted anonymously. The committee narrows it down to two possible memorials. The representative of the families who lost loved ones in the attack is Claire Burwell, who is widowed and left with two small children. Her husband was wealthy and Claire was an attorney before marriage. She is smart and affluent. She fits in with the committee of society debs and artists. Claire falls in love with one particular memorial – a garden. She convinces the committee to approve it. Once they do, the name is unsealed, and lo and behold – the winner is Mr. Mohammed Khan. A firestorm erupts after his name is made public.

Without giving too much more away, the story is told through the eyes of several different characters – Mohammed, Claire, Azma, the wife of an illegal immigrant from Bangladesh, the brother of a firefighter who died, and the chairman of the committee. The cast of supporting characters is long and is comprised of a committee of Muslims who have come together to protect Muslims and get tied up in supporting Mr. Khan, a radio host who is the perfect combination of Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Rielley, and Michael Savage, a celebrity-hungry reporter, and a politician who sways more than a willow tree in the wind.

Overall, I thought the book was well-written and I was sucked into the story. Ms. Waldman does a good job of developing her characters. I thought the book was populated with too many “main characters”. Some were underdeveloped. I also thought – and this may have been her editor – that the jump in time near the end was not as well developed as it could have been.

Ms. Waldman does do a fantastic job of showing how much we have changed as a country since 9/11 and realistically portrays (in my view) what would happen in this country if this situation would occur. She shows the partisan politics and fear and ignorance that would most likely reign. The protests and counter-protests that – after the controversy about the mosque being built near the real ground zero – evolve into violent confrontation that includes a murder.

Ms. Waldman’s portrayal of the media is ironic given that she is a reporter for the New York Times. She portrays them as money-hungry, power-hungry, people who care no more for objectivity, than for the people they cover. I was particularly entertained by the young female journalists who bulldozes her way through everything to get the column she thinks she deserves and finds that she cannot write a column.

Is The Submission the penultimate 9/11 book? I’m not entirely sure about that. I do know that Ms. Waldman writes a compelling story. She is obviously talented and a very good writer. I think the book suffers from trying to develop too many characters and from being edited down too much. Overall, however, I would highly recommend the book. It would be good for book clubs as it would probably spark a lot of discussion about whether all Muslims are bad and how we as a nation react to things that are different from our ideas of democracy and freedom. The book doesn’t answer any questions and that is probably why I liked and was at the same time dissatisfied with the ending. Maybe it was too real for my liking or I’m used to neat little bows. What I do know is I’m not giving it away here. That would save you the pleasure of forming your own opinions and coming to your own conclusions.

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Hello world!

I have decided to start a blog exclusively devoted to books and reading. I think the format will be that I will discuss books I have read or am reading giving you my thoughts. I do not want to call them reviews, necessarily, because I do not think I am qualified to review a book critically. However, I definitely think I’m qualified to talk about books intelligently.

I hope those of my friends who are readers pop in and say hi and comment so we can discuss the wonderful world of books and reading.

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