Friday, June 06, 2014

You get what you need

The Rosie Project - Graeme Simsion (Simon & Schuster, 2013)

I actually paid for a Kindle book! And this book faced some tough circumstances; I started reading it while spending my Saturday night at the emergency vet. Not the most auspicious of beginnings. But it was funny, and helped take at least a little of my mind off my poor sick cat.

And the book turns out to be a totally charming romantic comedy, and one from a guy's point of view, which is refreshing. Don is an Australian genetics professor with what seems to be an undiagnosed autism spectrum disorder. (He gives a talk on Asperger's early in the novel, and pretty much diagnoses himself then.) He's created an amazing and extremely rigid order and schedule for his life, all of which gets upended when his friend and fellow professor (also a cad) sends a seemingly wild child woman to his office. The woman herself isn't unexpected in and of herself, since he's developed a rather thorough questionnaire meant to screen for a compatible mate, but Rosie is clearly all wrong. And yet...

Don's journey away from the safe boundaries of his world is charming and often silly, but it works. I had a smile on my face pretty much the entire time.

She's back!

Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy - Helen Fielding (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013)

In college, my girlfriends and I wrote long and absurd email chains about - as I recall it - how much we related to Bridget Jones and of course her ancestor characters from Jane Austen. And I fell in love with Fielding's earlier novel, Cause Celeb, which introduced a character not unlike Bridget, but a little stronger and perhaps less absurd. And years later there was Olivia Joules, and I have fond memories of sitting on a beach, laughing outloud; Olivia was yet another mashup of Bridget & CC's Rosie.

But I digress. Fast forward some amount of time, and news breaks about a new Bridget Jones novel and the huge plot twist that destroyed everyone's notion of Bridget's happily ever after. Fielding killed off Colin Firth. (Or, you know, Mark Darcy, but for all intents and purposes...) Now Bridget is a single mom, at 51 shepherding her 7- and 5-year-old son & daughter to school, activities, playdates, etc. (Good news there for any ladies worried about the "your eggs shrivel at 30" forces, perhaps.) Still surrounded by her crazy friends, and after several years of just trying to survive the loss of her husband, she's ready to put herself back out there in the world. And in true Bridget-style too.

The book is fat, but of course too quick a read. Oh, and of course I laughed aloud several times. And despite its imperfections, I found myself slowing down to a snail's pace as I approached the end, because I was so enjoying spending time with Bridget again. And when I finished, I flipped back to the beginning and started over. It's not so much that I identify with Bridget -- I'm not sure that I do -- but being with that voice takes me back to a fun era of my life, and makes me laugh, and reminds me that our absurdities are what make us most lovable.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

More romance

Ten Things I Love About You - Julia Quinn (Avon, 2010)

Romancing the Duke - Tessa Dare (Avon 2014)

Yes, so I went to the library, and this is what happened. Quinn's book is a fairly rollicking account of Annabel's experience trying to avoid marriage to a much older duke looking for a bride who will give him an heir, which falling in with the one man the duke most hates, his nephew and current heir. Oh, and lots of lists. I like lists.

Dare's is about the a young woman who is essentially Christopher Robin, the daughter of a fairy-tale author who just happened to cast her in a starring role. But now she's destitute after her father's death, and latches on to her one chance at her own fairy-tale ending: the castle that has somehow been willed to her. Problem is, the castle still retains a duke, one with his own tortured history and who still believes himself the rightful owner of the castle. Plenty of plot twists.

Plenty of cute. Good selection for the end-of-semester rush at school.

Prepping for the ring

Emotionally Engaged: A Bride's Guide to Surviving the "Happiest" Time of Her Life - Alison Moir-Smith (Hudson Street Press, 2006)

I was expecting the wedding-planning stress. I don't like event planning. Several times before even meeting my future husband, I suggested the desirability of a "surprise wedding." In my vision, I'd be engaged, and I'd probably even have some say over the guest list and maybe some other broad details. But essentially just one morning someone would wake me up and say, "Okay, this is the day. Let's go" and hustle me into the dress and off to the ceremony site. All details handled. Obviously there are enough problems with this scenario that I didn't use it as much of a guide in planning my actual wedding. But still...

What I thought less about what the transition that the wedding marked, that the engagement was the transitory space between being single and being married. And that one is truly fundamentally different from the other. It was a good reminder that much of the planning stress isn't just about planning an event, but is also indicative of the broader changes going on in almost all of your relationships.

So Moir-Smith talks about her own challenges during her engagement, and how she turned to her own MFT training to try to get in touch with how she was feeling, and why. And then how she turned that into a professional practice, and also the book. She invites the reader to go deep, and grieve where necessary, and feel ALL the feelings.

Among the things that change: your own sense of identity -- saying goodbye to Single You; your relationship with your family; your relationship with your partner; your relationship with your friends (particularly the single ones). Beyond those, Moir-Smith offers advice on how to stay emotionally present and engaged not only throughout the engagement, but also during the wedding and honeymoon, and into marriage. Some of this seemed inapplicable to me and my life, but other parts of it really forced me to look at some things that were going on from a different perspective.

I read this long enough ago that I went back and re-read it this week, with a more critical and skeptical eye. Not sure why the change. I walked away glad that I read it, and glad that I engaged with the questions and emotions raised by the book, but also a little wary that I not "create" tensions that don't exist simply for the sake of doing the process "correctly." Everyone's journey is going to be different, and I maybe could have used a little more of a reminder of that. Maybe then, this is the sort of book that benefits most by being read more than once.

Love notes

An Equal Music - Vikram Seth (Vintage International, 1999)

So I really have been reading, I swear. Watch this mass of posts I'm about to drop on you. :)

I really love how Seth writes. He's beautiful and eloquent without being particularly difficult, so there's an easy flow and rhythm to reading him. (This was of course particularly the case with Golden Gate.) But I just never fell in love with this book. I wanted to. I kept waiting to feel utterly engaged, but I guess that the characters held themselves at such remove that I always felt kept at arm's length. I have to assume this was purposeful, but since I tend to want to fall headlong into my novels, it was difficult for me.

But if you are interested in the world of European musicians, it's still a lovely read. Michael is a violinist in a London quartet, haunted by the love he lost in Vienna when he fled with little warning. From what I can tell, he had serious issues with panic, and working with his mentor there was eating away at him. [With this, I can sympathize.] The lost Julia reappears, through a bus window, and slowly makes her way back into his world. She is married and has a small child, but their lives entangle once more, and she travels with the quartet to Vienna.

There's more to it -- a secret, another panic attack, an elderly and lost father and aunt back in the rural working-class North, and a violin which doesn't belong to him, but which is truly the greatest love and partnership Michael has ever known -- but it's not particularly a plot-driven novel. It's more about the vignettes of thought, observation, remembrance. If I knew more about music, I would venture to guess that the structure is somewhat reminiscent of some sort of work of composition, études maybe?

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Just not my taste

Franny and Zooey - J.D. Salinger (Little, Brown, 1961)

I've been doing things like re-reading Emma and find other ways to play with my Kindle. And that's gotten in the way of reading books that could really appear on this blog. But then I returned to Salinger.

I guess these are two short (long?) stories that form a sort of novella. And early in the first, about Franny, I could see why Catcher in the Rye works so well in high school. For all I hated that book, Salinger writes in a highly readable style. The pages turn quickly, and such was the case here. He does an excellent job of painting the moneyed classes, with their clothing and rituals and manners of speech. And then places black sheep within them, who can call out their hypocrisy and phoniness and just generally complain. In the case of Franny Glass, this crisis takes the form of a nervous breakdown; for brother Zooey, it's some sort of complaint both about the ridiculous world around him and of the melodrama of his sister's response.

Or something. I'm really open to the idea that I'm getting Salinger wrong. Maybe it comes from the same well from which springs the truism that we most dislike in others that which we abhor in ourselves? Perhaps my complete and total impatience with the ways in which Salinger's protagonists place themselves apart and somehow better than those around them comes from the fact that I do the same. Maybe I see too much of myself in Holden and Franny, and I don't like what I see.

Or maybe not. So that's the thing I give Salinger. I remain annoyed when reading him, and haven't grown out of that teenage pique, but by provoking that response he also inspires a lot of introspection. The struggle to figure out what I don't like is almost more valuable as an exercise merely reading a book I enjoyed.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Every five years

The Red Book - Deborah Copaken Kogan (Hyperion, 2012)

This is one of those books that I sort of can't get enough of (and clearly I'm not alone): a certain of friends who went to an elite college or university, and how their lives are turning out X years down the road. But I am probably close to burning out on them, so I picked up this book with some amount of skepticism.

And then it blew my expectations out of the water. (Yay!)

The Red Book is Harvard's version of the Class Books that come out every five years around reunion time. And if you've ever had to do one, you know how hard it is to sum up your life and present it in its best light when you know your page will be surrounded my those of your classmates who won Olympic medals and founded start-ups and joined Doctors Without Borders, etc. .... while at the same time maintaining a cool and self-effacing humility about the whole thing. The Class Book is just a bunch of #humblebrag on steroids.

And that's sort of what this novel is about, or at least the framing device. Addison, Mia, Clover, and Jane are in town for their 20th reunion. And we start with their red book pages and then learn the truth that hides behind those pages. And we see other alumni pages too, as their lives intersect with the four characters. Our omniscient narrator also gets into the minds of an ex-boyfriend, a couple teenage children, one character's husband (who I found almost absurdly likable), and possibly more. It also teases the future, and it is sometimes reassuring to have a narrator say that "years later" a character will look back on a moment, since the "now" of the book is 2009, and the book came out in 2012. Even right now, we're just heading into the characters' 25th reunion.

Maybe it's just that the novel was so readable. And while the characters weren't always likable, they were mostly sympathetic, and that felt real to me. And even the melodrama of the plot (and boy is there plenty of it) seemed reasonable in the context of the storytelling. So thank you, Deborah Copaken Kogan, for a very pleasant surprise.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Womanhood, in an earlier age

The Summer Before the Dark - Doris Lessing (Knopf, 1973)

Huh. As a non-yet-married third wave feminist without children, I found this book totally foreign. Maybe forty years is a surprisingly long time, or maybe I just haven't made it to the place where I can fully understand how a middle aged woman can have such trouble figuring out her "self" as an identity separate from how she is seen by others.

Kate's husband and children all go off for a long summer. She gets a job as a translator for some NGO that throws conferences and channels all the energies she spent running a household into that. And then with her free months she falls into an affair with a younger man and travels. Except one after another they are afflicted with some sort of illness that is explicitly considered existential as well as physical.

Throughout the course of the novel, Kate has a recurring dream, in which she is trying to rescue a seal. It's crucial that she let the dream run its course, and it has that metaphorical quality dreams do. But whole swaths of the novel felt the same way to me -- I'd be reaching out, trying to grasp the meaning behind what was going on in the moment, but it kept slipping through my fingers. And I was hugely annoyed to not be able to tell whether or not this was Lessing's intention, or if I was just too far away from Kate's existence to be able to understand it.

Creating citizens

History Lessons: How Textbooks from Around the World Portray U.S. History - Dana Lindaman and Kyle Ward (The New Press, 2004)

After a few drinks (and sometimes even before), I have been known to wax philosophical about the role of education in shaping our attitudes and beliefs about our country, our history, and the world. I wrote research papers on it in grad school, it was a big part of why I spent my 20s working in civic education, and I continue to find it utterly fascinating.

So no surprise that a book like this would make its way to me. Honestly, I would have liked the monograph version of this book. The one that was rich with analysis about the different ways international textbooks tell our nation's story, and what that says about their own national identity. And how the differences illustrate what our textbooks say about our own. Instead, Lindaman and Ward present lightly annotated excerpts -- oodles of them -- from an array of nations. They let the books tell the story, which is enlightening, but raised way too many questions for me. How well am I remembering the details of American textbooks? They books are mostly from the mid- to late-1990s -- how are American textbooks of that era different from the ones I read a decade earlier? How are they different today? And how much am I particularly interested in Canadian textbooks and Caribbean ones? How much is their national identity shaped by their different relationship with the United Kingdom? And with the United States itself?

(Oh, and also how interesting was the editors' note, which discussed the difficulties in translating adjectives that literally mean UnitedStates-ian and what relationship do other countries have with the adjective American?)

All of which is to say that this book was really cool. I liked it. But now I want much much much more.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Shopgirl

The Makeup Girl - Andrea Semple (Kensington Books, 2005)

The Bridal Season - Connie Brockway (Island Books, 2001)

A Kiss at Midnight - Eloisa James (Avon, 2010)

All of the heroines in this trio of novels are working girls. In Semple's, Faith works at a makeup counter, and also happens to make up most of the facts of her life, including a sexy and successful boyfriend named Adam. But when she meets a guy by the name, she starts to wonder if she can make her lies a reality. Fairly standard British chick list. Breezy, sweet, fun, although the love story feels only partially formed. (Maybe due to the short short chapters? 100 in just over 300 pages.)

Brockway's heroine, Letty, is a song girl on the run, who finds herself masquerading as a celebrated wedding planner to the Victorian elite. Unfortunately the area is under the jurisdiction of a stickler for law and justice. Except she awakens in him desires he thought had long been extinguished, and he gives her hopes of a life more glorious than the one she had eked out in London.

And lastly, there's Kate, or shall we call her Cinderella? She's been hard at work trying to keep her father's estate afloat while her stepmother squanders their wealth on jewels and dresses. Don't even ask why and how Kate ends up (also pretending to be someone else - yay for helpful plot devices) at the English castle of a Prussian prince. He's betrothed to a princess whose money will keep his eclectic collection of relatives afloat and she's not much interested in the arrogant sort. And yet they are drawn like magnets. It can only be flirtation -- both recognize their responsibilities -- until a magical ball leaves them wishing for more. (Oh, plus archeology!)

All three were charming, but I think I may finally need to take a break from the sweets.


Tuesday, February 25, 2014

One more circle

Life After Life - Kate Atkinson (Little, Brown and Company, 2013)

This is one of those books that you want to tell people about, but you can't quite find a concise way to do so. If you are like me, your pitch goes a little like this:
So there's this girl, and she keeps living her life over and over again. Like, she's born, but she dies in childbirth, and then she's born again... [interjection: reincarnated?] no, the exact same life, but this time the doctor arrives in time to save her, but then she drowns, and then she's born again but hesitates in the water and so is saved but then... and then there's the flu epidemic after World War I and...
This is the point where my FH admitted, "I lost you awhile ago and haven't really been paying attention." My mom tried, but was also stuck on the reincarnation point. Or then parallel universes, except they are not parallel since Ursula seems to maintain ghostly remembrances and premonitions relating to past lives, often in ways that help her save herself or a loved one. (And since it's nearly impossible to discuss this novel without reference to Groundhog Day, RIP Harold Ramis.)

But the reincarnation thing is a really awesome point, since a character even explicitly mentions the Buddhist notion that we keep living over and over again until we get it right. And while I've always understood that as living other lives throughout one chronological experience of time, there's no reason it couldn't be living the "same" life again and again.

But if that's the case, what is "getting it right" and is that something that's even possible? Atkinson dances up to this question, but I'd say she engages with it more implicitly than explicitly. She raises far more questions that she answers.

It's funny, reading how Ursula dies again and again mitigates the pain and sorrow of those deaths, but only to a point. You still grieve when awful things happen to her (and they do) and when a life that seems to be going well comes to an end before its time. And you grieve even more for the loved ones who are lost along the way, particularly when they appear to be collateral damage in Ursula's half-conscious attempts to alter her fate. Oh, while some sections (and lives) are short, other scenes are much longer and a huge chunk of the book is comprised of Ursula's varying experiences during World War II. And it should come as no surprise that there are an awful lot of (terrible) ways to die in that war.

So the book is really something. For the beautiful writing and the way that the premise never feels gimmicky first and foremost, but also for the metaphysical questions that it raises. I'll be thinking a lot about what the implications would be if we did indeed live our lives time after time.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Oh Valentine

The Trouble with Valentine's Day - Rachel Gibson (Avon Books, 2005)

How to Marry a Marquis - Julia Quinn (Avon Books, 1999)

It's February, so how could I not pick up the first book? And it's another one of those books where the protagonist is a former hockey player. Teemu Selanne even makes a brief appearance, on the television, where Katie astutely points out how hot he is. (This is during his Avalanche days though, so ugh.) But there really isn't much hockey. Katie has retreated to her grandfather's home, to help the widower run his store and get away from stresses back home in Las Vegas. Rob has retreated to the town where his mother now lives, following a shocking incident that ended his hockey career. And I feel like that's all I need to say.

Oh, except the Valentine's connection: the book starts on Valentine's Day, when Katie hits on a hot stranger in a bar on the way to town, is rebuffed, and later humiliated when the hot guy turns out to be her neighbor. Or, and he didn't turn her down for the reasons she expected.

Going back in time was a bit more fun. Elizabeth needs to marry money in order to care for her orphaned siblings, and when she comes across the embarrassingly titled "How to Marry a Marquis," she can't help but look through it. Funny thing is, there actually is a marquis around, except he's masquerading as an estate manager for spy-ish reasons. (As one does.) When they meet and sparks fly, she's sad that she's falling for a guy who can't solve her money woes, and he's not sure whether he ought to reveal his true identity. And when she finds out, the ensuing bedlam seems like something out of a Moss Hart/George Kaufman play. Delightful. Hard to believe, but delightful.

(Don't expect my romance reading pace to fall off anytime soon.)

Friday, February 14, 2014

The Butterfly Net

Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited - Vladimir Nabokov (Wideview/Perigree, 1966)

I have really mixed feelings about Nabokov. I am pretty sure I like his fiction, although I find it challenging. I definitely don't like his opinion that it makes no sense to try to translate Eugene Onegin in verge (why is Pushkin so popular on this blog lately?). And I am not a fan of his decisions on how to transliterate. Ys in confusing places, and the rendering of the Cyrillic "–•" (normally "kh" as in "Khrushchev") as "H," the decision to just use the masculine form of the last name for women (Anna Karenin, instead of Karenina).

Oh wait, I'm digressing. In his autobiography, he also just doesn't seem like the most pleasant guy to be around. Arrogant, homophobic and with a clearly complicated relationship with his gay brother (11 months his junior), and certainly convinced he was the smartest guy in the room (which, unfortunately, he usually was). Plus early in this autobiography (composed of a series of essays and revised over time) he discloses that he read and wrote in English before he did in Russian. So English was virtually a native tongue to him, and my awe of his prowess has to be played down just the teeniest bit.

All that said, this is a masterful work. I've seen it said (and of course I can't provide citations, bad librarian) that this is the best autobiography of the twentieth century. I'm willing to believe it. What he does with language... I'm not sure anyone can beat him. In whatever tongue. But while I admire him all the more for having read this memoir, I'm not sure I like him.

(Not mentioned above but also worth noting: a glorious look at late imperial aristocracy/intelligentsia, and a vivid portrayal of how those folk fled for their lives as the Bolsheviks took control)

Thursday, February 06, 2014

Fake engagements!

Dukes to the Left of Me, Princes to the Right - Kieran Kramer (St. Martin's Paperbacks, 2010)

Crush on You - Christie Ridgway (Berkley Sensation, 2010)

Sorry folks, this is how it's going to be for awhile. In spite of all my past, present, and future mockery, few things are as stress-relieving for me as light-hearted romance novels.

And this time, instead of fake marriages, there are fake engagements! (Well, sort of.) Huzzah! First up is Poppy, who has gotten out of a slew of proposals by talking up her imaginary beau, the Duke of Drummond. This gets awkward when he shows up and pretty much backs her into a corner for his own purposes. Hence they are engaged, which infuriates Poppy, until it doesn't. Oh, and some Russian twins have their amorous eyes on the two of them as well. Good times.

Next is Alessandra, who deals more in almost-weddings. Tragedy marred what was supposed to be her wedding day, so it seems a little weird that she's refitting her family winery into a hot new wedding locale. But that's what you have to do to save the family business, sometimes. And then there's Penn, whose backstory is absurd, but he's the handsome host of one of those heartwarming home remodeling shows, and has reasons to help out with the winery. But they are not the most interesting couple in the book. The B plot here is superb. Clare's upcoming nuptials are the winery's path to salvation, but she's starting to look at her long-time BFF in a new way. So yeah, the fake engagement isn't particularly obvious from this synopsis, but it's sort of there, I promise.

And I'm going back to the library tomorrow :) On the other hand, I'm also reading Nabokov's memoir, so I think they even each other out.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Drama in Verse

The Golden Gate - Vikram Seth (Faber & Faber, 1986)

It's a novel. Composed of sonnets. 300 pages of sonnets. All of the ababccddeffegg rhyme scheme, although he fudges some rhymes. Oh, and at the end, we see "pain" over and over again. But we also have rhymes for words like Dinkelspiel (hey Dink!) so I can be in a forgiving and still admiring mood.

Here's the thing. This book languished on my shelf for years because I am bad at reading poetry. I get bored, I meander. But when I finally picked it up, I was shocked at how quickly I got into the rhythm of reading it. Occasionally I'd have to stop to admire the construction, or I'd trip over some perceived awkwardness of meter, but the story is so compelling.

I kept saying it was like "Eugene Onegin meets a CW show," but in fairness, Onegin itself is like a great big soap opera. (Seth takes a moment to ask the reader's forgiveness for presuming to follow in Pushkin's footsteps.) My fiance quickly gave up as I tried to get through the interweaving story lines (this guy is dating this chick and his friend is with her brother except then there's a cat and also... etc.) which was disappointing, because I wanted someone to join me in fascination of the train wreck of these people's lives.

People, by the way, who weren't all that different from me. It's the early 80s, so the economic and political climate is a little different, sure, but you're still dealing with highly educated men and women in their late 20s, trying to figure out their place in the world, often colliding together and breaking apart.

So as not to ruin the fun of the plot for anyone who might actually pick up the book one day, I'll leave it there. But I found it shockingly moving. And also quite funny. Much of a chapter concerns the battle between boyfriend John and the grumpy cat who first laid claim to Liz, years earlier. (Made me glad my two boys love each other.) And you can pretty much guess who's going to win that one.