Thursday, April 29, 2010

Goldengrove, by Francine Prose

My mother died unexpectedly when I was thirty, but when I heard the news I suddenly felt thirteen again. The protagonist of "Goldengrove," Nico, is thirteen years old when her older sister drowns. Prose's novel is a stunning rendering of a girl dealing with overwhelming grief at that fragile age, a time when life for a girl is really not just one thing, but is more a passage to becoming to what lies ahead.

Nico's parents, who are wallowing in their own grief, pretty much check out. Nico, who Prose describes as chubby girl who looks up to her uber-talented sister, is left to deal with her grief, rudderless, and acts out in the risky ways that manifest the turmoil she feels inside. I love how Prose captured her character's experience. Nico reminded me of all the times I felt terrified, and fumbled, as if blind, when I was 13, (I wasn't grieving my mother back then, although I felt unmoored as she was not available because of her mental illness), and how that same experience flooded back when I did get that phone call, at thirty, telling me she had died. Looking back, the sense of loss, and the entire experience of grief, made me a little crazy. At the time I remember feeling like a different person was inhabiting my body, a person who might do things out of character, just like Prose describes Nico's journey down that same road. Prose's depiction of the family's grief, as they each drifted off on currents of their own felt very real.

Prose intrigues me. The name Francine Prose (with a name like that, how could she not become a writer?)would not normally set off my "Jewdar", but her name must be misleading, as there are so Jewish-related elements in some of her works. Before "Goldengrove" I had read only one other of Francine Prose's many novels - but that one was a doozy. The premise of "A Changed Man" was that a young Neo-Nazi enters the office of the head of a Jewish agency (someone who reads suspiciously like Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League) and claims to have turned over a new leaf. That novel, "A Changed Man" was so suspenseful and thought provoking, that when "Goldengrove" caught my eye, I had to bite.

Checking the library system, I found that among her many listings, Prose co-authored a children's book called "The Lamed-Vavniks", referring to the Kabbalistic concept that God has hidden 36 holy people in the world at any given time. (According to gematria, the system that assigns numerical values to Hebrew letters, the number 36 is derived by adding the values of the Lamed and the Vav.) Anyway, there is some definite Jewish connection here.

But I digress. "Goldengrove" is so well written that reading it is akin to sitting in a big, comfy easy chair. I don't mean to infer that this is an easy, fluffy beach read, because it's not. What I mean is that when you dig into a book like this, just as when you lower your behind into a well built, solid chair, you feel good, relaxed. You know you won't fall. You are in good hands. Prose's prose is stunning, in the way the best books are when they capture details about common experiences that we have never put into words. I love her storytelling and look forward to what comes next.

What Remains, by Carole Radziwill

Carole Radziwill lost her husband, Anthony, within the same two-week span that Anthony's first cousin, John Kennedy Jr. and his wife (Carolyn Bessette, Carole's best friend) died in a plane crash. It was an unbelievable confluence of tragedies, a story just waiting to be written.

Carole actually has some writing chops - she worked for ABC News before her marriage, winning an Emmy. In the back storyof this memoir, she tells of her modest, colorful family, and how her spunk facilitated getting her out of the small town where she grew up, just outside of New York. It was during her tenure at ABC News that she met Anthony Radziwill, a descendant of Polish royalty. I liked Carole Radziwill's writing, and her story is a compelling one, but I had a few issues with her telling.

The issue of privilege was the biggest issue at hand; from the time she meets her husband, "privilege" becomes almost a character of its own. Carole doesn't describe her family of origin as having a lot of money, but her transition into a gilded life appeared seamless. Her descriptions of the many events she attends always include the name of the designer of the outfit she wore. She tosses about the maker of the crystal of the wine glasses at the luncheon. Maybe in any story about the rich and famous these are details readers want, but I found them gratuitous. And, no, not all cancer patients can afford to hire Merryl Streep's hair and makeup man to come to the hospital and make a wig to cover a chemo-balding head. Or keep a personal trainer around the house to help speed the recovery after surgery. Does the fact that these tragedies happened to a wealthy person make them any less tragic? I want to say no, but I'm not entirely sure.

Another thing that caught my attention is that I had the feeling that sometimes Radziwill wasn't dishing out the whole story. For instance, as Anthony's health begins a steep decline, Carole talks about falling in love with an antique car she spotted for sale. Really? What is that about? Indeed, I thought there was something missing in her description of her relationship with her husband. I never got a sense that she stayed completely devoted to him and in love throughout his illness. And, this may just possibly be me and my own emotional baggage talking here, but I smelled something fake about Carole's bff relationship with Caroline. If it really was as close as she claims it was, she didn't show it in the book. In fact, when Carole casually drops the bomb that, at Carolyn's urging, she begins to see a therapist, but meanwhile, Caroline has just stopped seeing her own shrink, I thought she sounded petty, slightly hostile and possibly jealous.

The author's best line is, "We create narratives for people because they are simpler than the complexity of real lives." How true! I just wish Radziwill included the complexity in her own narrative.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Little Bee, by Chris Cleave

I have to say it: This book is why I started this blog. This book, and the small circle of other great novels that leave you feeling charged and changed at the end are why I'm typing these words. Why I've always pestered my friends, pleading, "Read this! Read this!" Yes, in writing about "Little Bee" I'm a little "farklempt," as Barbra would say. And what can I say, except that this is the best, the most compellingly perfect novel I've read in a long, long time.

I must admit I didn't really want to read "Little Bee." I love reading about far-off cultures, but, to be honest, I just didn't feel up to reading another book set in Africa. The never ending violence, the unstable governments, the widespread hunger, they all leave me feeling so hopeless. And, of course, the U.S. always shows up as a minor character, fueling friction between waring groups, sticking its dirty, monied hand into the pot. So when I read a book set in Africa, not only do I face hopelessness, I feel guilty, too.

About the plot - there is very little I want to say here. When I listened to this audiobook I hadn't heard a thing about the storyline, and the surprise was just delicious. Given that, I will say that the story is told in two voices. There is the title character of Nigerian refugee Little Bee, whose lyrical and wise-beyond-her-years voice is beautifully captured. And then there is Sarah, the yuppie magazine editor, whose path crosses Little Bee's. Unlike Little Bee, Sarah is not a completely likable character, but in the details revealed about each of the characters, the author renders them both completely believable.

Cleave kept me breathless with suspense and a pace that never let up, and all this with prose that just stunned. My favorite line, spoken by Little Bee: "I did not want to tell her what happened, but I had to now. I could not stop talking, because now I had started my story, and it wanted to be finished. We cannot choose where to start and stop. Our stories are the tellers of us." Gulp.

Chris Cleave has masterful storytelling skills. I am so convinced you will love this book that I'm almost inclined to offer a refund to anyone who doesn't. I so rarely fall completely head-over-heels for a book. Please read it!

Monday, April 26, 2010

A Hatred for Tulips, by Richard Lourie

Anne Frank appears as an icon in many novels that take place in the time of the Holocaust, exemplifying the theme of hope surviving amidst evil. When I made a mental survey of the novels I've read that use Anne Frank as a jumping off point, riffing on the powerful themes of good and evil, "A Hatred for Tulips" immediately came to mind. This is a disquieting book, one that shakes up the way we tend to pigeonhole the world around us and like it to line up in neat rows. It's only natural to want to spot the good guys, to be able to tell them apart from the bad guys. If only the gray of our world could be unmixed, and separated back into the pure, contrasting colors of black and white, our lives would be much simpler.

In "A Hatred for Tulips," Lourie mixes it up and takes us out of our comfort zones. Did Joop, ostensibly the bad guy, really turn in Anne Frank's family, as he claims he did? Or is his confession a ruse, used to either elicit sympathy from his brother or to hurt him? Can someone who does the unthinkable, an unsympathetic character, evoke sympathy? Can the bad guy's action be explained and change our perception of him? And can the good guy be bad?

In a stark retelling of his childhood, a sad-sack Joop reunites with his brother and immediately spills the secret that he was the informer who turned in the Frank family. The back story, which compellingly informs the ambiguous dialogue that is spoken at this reunion, takes up most of the book. As a child, before the war, Joop gets short shrift in the family, and suffers. After the war, Joop gets the short straw again. He is left in Amsterdam with his alcoholic and abusive father, while his brother Willem leaves for America with their mother. At first, the contrast between the two brothers is black and white. Joop got the "bad" parent, led a lonely, single life and worked in a factory, while Willem left for the promised land of America with the "good" parent, married and had children, and had every advantage. But then the lines blur.

In speaking to his brother for the first time in sixty years, Joop tells of a lifetime of events that don't excuse his terrible deed, but perhaps explain it. He is the quintessential victim, and as the world around him spins out of control he gets none of his needs met and is constantly blamed for things completely out of his control. By confessing to this terrible crime, though, Joop becomes a victim himself. If we believe him, that he indeed was the informer, we bestow victim status on him; he claims that through his own guilt, he has suffered more than Anne herself. One might (naturally) imagine the informant of the Frank family as a villain, but in Joop's own eyes, it is not the Franks, but he who is the victim. This one mistake, driven by bile and jealousy, leads Joop to carry with him a guilt that surrounds him like a cloud, closing out the life he might have had.

What I really liked about "A Hatred for Tulips" is that in the end, it didn't wrap things up in neat packages. Like so much of real life, life outside the pages of a novel, the truth of a situation is often never discovered. Or there turn out to be many facets of the truth. Just as in life, "A Hatred for Tulips" is a study in shades of gray.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Mona Simpson

Butler has played host to a diverse array of authors this year. I've heard Junot Diaz ("The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao") who wowed me with his bad-boy persona, all attitude. I've heard Edwidge Danticat speak eloquently on the devastation wreaked on her Haitian homeland by the recent earthquake. I've heard the erudite Mark Strand read his poems to the young, Butler crowd whose world seemed light-years away from his.

Mona Simpson, who ironically, drew the smallest crowd of all these authors, was by far the most relatable and accessible. I haven't had the chance to read any of Simpson's novels yet, but she described her newest, "My Hollywood", as a novel in two voices: one, a white, middle-class, woman with a baby, and the other, a 52 year-old Filipina immigrant who works as her nanny.

Simpson shared many pearls of wisdom about her craft. In referring to her upcoming novel, she remarked how ironic it was that the voice of the "other," the Filipina character, was the voice she felt was the easiest for her to capture.

I asked her if, as she begins the process of writing a novel, she has the entire plot already in her head. She answered that she doesn't - although she is usually aware of the signposts that would guide her way.

She was asked what she knows now that she wishes she knew at the start of her writing career, and she shared that she wishes she knew she didn't have to be so afraid of how she appears. She said she had aspired to be a Primo Levy, or a Tolstoy, and not a "Ladies' Home Journal" writer, but that over time she has become more comfortable in who she is as a writer. That seemed to be an important piece for her, and was something she thought was important for us all - to become comfortable in who you are and what you do best, no matter what that is.

Mona Simpson didn't have the bravado of Diaz or the emotional distance of Strand, but she was candid, genial and open, and a great close to this year's Butler Writers Series.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Imperfect Birds, by Anne Lamott

There is nothing, absolutely nothing, I like better than to sink my teeth into Anne Lamott's non-fiction stories. Lamott has a genius for finding just the right words to shine a light on the shadowiest, wormiest parts of us - the parts we all strive to hide. In the warmth of this light she creates a sense - within the messiness of our shared flaws - of our shared humanity. There is the glow of a higher power at play in her writing, one that flickers from the acknowledgment of the vast distance that lies between the kind of person we strive to be, and the person we actually end up being - how we fall short, day after day, on life's journey.

Lamott and I have a few things in common, so I have always felt a kindred spirit with her. We both grew up around the San Francisco Bay Area, and each sport somewhat troubling histories of risk-taking in our younger years as we learned to navigate the transition to adulthood. Yes, there were drugs, and also, in her case, a long-lasting love affair with alcohol. So it has always deeply troubled me that I haven't found the same wonderment in Lamott's works of fiction that I have in her non-fiction books. Still, I know my fiction gene is underdeveloped, so I have blamed myself for not finding joy in her fiction, and kept this disappointment as my own dark, dirty secret. I awaited my copy of "Imperfect Birds," a little nervous, yet eager to break through and find the delight she's so famous for in her non-fiction.

So, I'm still struggling here. There is so much that I "got" in this story. I saw (and related to) the protagonist, Rosie, a crazy, manipulative, drug abusing teen, and her pain. I saw, and unfortunately related to, Elizabeth, Rosie's over-identifying mother, as she time and time again buys into the lies that Rosie tells her. But there is something missing for me in Lamott's storytelling, and I just don't know what it is. There is lots of "telling" in this novel, lots of interior dialogue, and maybe that just wasn't enough action to keep the story moving along enough to hold me. None of the characters were particularly likable, and perhaps this was only an issue because neither Rosie's mother or step-father felt completely fleshed out, and realistic.

A few days ago author Mona Simpson came to speak at Butler. The one remark that I held with me spoke to how authors should strive to be the best at whatever it is they do. She gave the example of the uber-popular David Sedaris, who writes twisty and twisted essays on his take on life. Perhaps what Lamott does best is non-fiction, her own essays on the frustrations of life and all there is to learn from the struggle and pain that life brings us.

Below is a link to a recent interview with Lamott posted on, where she was a columnist for some time. It pains me to say this, but to be honest, I enjoyed the interview more than her new novel.

Anne Lamott's parental guidance

Have a Little Faith, by Mitch Albom

I know I'm swimming against the current when I say that Albom's "Have a Little Faith" just didn't do it for me. "Believe me," which is what my octogenarian father always says, I'm disappointed to say this. I love reading about spirituality. I love finding stories that remind me that we all connect at the most fundamental level.

Albom has a great premise: the octogenarian rabbi of his childhood synagogue asks him to write his eulogy. Albom, describing himself as the stereotypical lapsed Jew, agrees. In order to write the eulogy, Albom begins to get to know the rabbi. Interspersed with the telling of his visits to the rabbi's house, he tells of his relationship with another man: a poor, ex-con, former drug addict, African-American preacher.

The back and forth that Albom employs in "Have a Little Faith" feels like an easy, mass-market device. Yes, Mitch, we can see that these two spiritual leaders are as different as two men could possibly be, and yes, Mitch, we can see that their belief in a higher power is the common denominator. But I don't think Albom did himself, or us, any favors by weaving the story of these men's lives this way. By structuring the book within the framework of this cheap and easy trick, both stories devolve into superficial character studies. The many facets and incongruities of each of these potentially fascinating characters have been pounded down into until they look flat and stereotypical - - and this does not make for compelling, thought-provoking reading.

And, by the way, am I the only one out here who found the character of the rabbi, as Albom describes him, as incredibly annoying? He is rendered by Albom as an "altacocker", cracker-brained, and breaking into old ditties at random moments. "Believe me!" I love all the peculiarities of old Jewish men -- the hearing loss; the herring breath; the hard candies -- but this is one old Jewish man I couldn't cotton to at all. And when I find myself endlessly annoyed by one of a book's main characters, it's hard to have even a little bit of faith.

Friday, April 16, 2010

The Weight of Silence, by Heather Gudenkaupf

A friend recommended this book, and although I had no idea what it was about, it intrigued me. Subconsciously, I attributed a certain gravitas to whatever the subject of the book might be. "The Weight of Silence" conjured up in me the idea of a story that would examine themes of freedom and voice.

But it didn't take very long at all for me to realize that the gravitas that I thought I would find within its pages was nowhere to be found; this is a Picoult-a-be. Not that there's anything wrong with that. If an author wants to battle Ms. Picoult for the title of "Queen Bee" of authors of suspense novels written for women readers, that's great. I like a lot of Picoult's books, even if I can't always tell them apart. Gudenkaupf uses many of Picoult's tried and true devices: dividing her chapters between alternating narrators, writing one of the characters as a child in peril, tossing in lots of red herrings, and throwing in a big "OH!" moment at the end that is supposed to surprise us and upend the story.

I enjoy an airport kiosk suspense novel as well as the next girl, but "The Weight of Silence" fell short, even by those standards. The characters were written so one-dimensionally, they seemed caricature-like. Stock character number one: the drunk, abusive husband. Stock character number two: the ex-boyfriend of Stock character's beleaguered wife, who still secretly holds a torch for her. I could go on, but I won't waste your time.

Turns out "The Weight of Silence" was not weighty at all. Serviceable? Sure. Worth the time you'll spend to read it? Not really.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Call Me Crazy, by Anne Heche and Mark Strand, Pulitzer-prize winning poet

Memoir is by far my favorite genre. The juicier the better, and some of the juiciest are penned by the rich and famous. Rosie O'Donnell's memoir? Loved it. Maureen McCormick's? Loved it. (And shame on you if you don't recognize her as Marcia from The Brady Bunch!) There is just something irresistible about getting the "dirt" on someone shiny and privileged, on knowing that they suffer through the same ordeals we do. Celebrities' lives make for great memoir - their lives are full of the stuff that makes for fun reading: the conflicts of family life, sexual indiscretions, and emotional lives that are, well, maybe just a tad less than rock-solid. And best of all, they know how to give it all up on the page.
At the time I read Heche's autobiography, the coals of her love affair with Ellen Degeneres had just cooled. I dare anyone not to be fascinated by the story of Heche, a young, blond starlet who - flash! bam! - suddenly declared herself bisexual as she fell head over heels for Degeneres, who herself had just come out of the closet as a lesbian.
The story of Anne Heche's childhood is not pretty; in fact, it's painful to read. Her father was an emotionally disturbed minister who sexually abused her. Her childhood brought her one crushing indignity after another. She survived, even succeeded, by her own grit, and ambition. One day, post-Degeneres, Heche basically lost her mind, becoming Celestia, an alternate personality that emerges, and finally takes over her life.
And then, just as quickly as Heche fragments, she integrates and heals. Sounds crazy, yeah? But, is she crazy? I dunno, but she's interesting as hell, and she's honest, and she has a truth to tell. And, aren't we all just a sum of our parts - the happy, the sad, the joyful, the mad? Like the facets of a jewel, those myriad aspects of ourselves are our birthright, and make us human. Heche gave it all up in her memoir and at the end, I felt I knew her. Call me crazy - but I liked Anne Heche (and Celestia,too.) " Call Me Crazy" - sure, it's a little angry (who can blame her?) and it's no literary masterpiece, but it was one good read.

On a completely unrelated note, poet Mark Strand recently spoke as part of the The Butler Writers' Series. The intersection of the Venn diagram of celebrity memoir fans who are also poetry lovers is very slim, so it should come as no surprise that I'm not a "poetry-girl." I've always felt bad about that, embarrassed that I've never understood this literary form. Despite not "getting" poetry, I've always loved the idea of poetry. I love words, and I long to be swept away by the emotion that comes with hearing how words are strung together. I think that poems must be the equivalent of word-paintings.
Mark Strand is a big deal. Pulitzer Prize winner. Poet Laureate. His oeuvre could fill a bookshelf. I sat perched in my folding chair, waiting with barely contained anticipation. But, I suppose it's folly to assume that an artist is necessarily as facile at communicating about art as s(he) is at creating it. Mr. Strand read his poetry, and dutifully answered a few perfunctory questions at the end, but kept the audience at arm's length throughout the evening. He did not speak to his inspirations, or delve into the meaning behind the imagery, or the form. I wondered if this was because Strand's personality is such, or if it had more to do with the interiorness of the form, and the personality-type it attracts. The one interesting, if disturbing, comment Strand made was when he stated that, counterintuitively, poetry had failed to bring insight or transformation to his emotional landscape. This moment of dark honesty was tossed out with a chuckle. I don't know anything about poetry, but I thought that was what it, and all art, is about!
I look forward to hearing what novelist Mona Simpson has to say this Monday at Butler.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Swan Thieves, by Elizabeth Kostova

I began this book feeling sure I was in good hands. I haven't read Kostova's first book, "The Historian", but I've heard the glowing reviews, so I was hoping that "The Swan Thieves" would be a treat. In fact, as I tucked into the first few CDs of the audiotape of this book, I was happy to find I was very much into the story. I'm not usually a big fan of genre writing in the first place, especially of historical fiction -- am I the only person out there who hated "The DaVinci Code"? -- but this book had such a compelling start I thought I might be converted. The book's beginning had such great architecture that I got the same supported, "in good hands" kind of feeling that I get when I sit on my red couch -- that I am on a solidly constructed structure -- as opposed to the feeling I get sitting on my green couch -- which is the fear that I might actually end up on the floor. But the honeymoon didn't last long. The story disappointed and I was not converted to the legions of genre lovers. Double whammy.

"The Swan Thieves" begins with Dr. Marlow, a psychiatrist, as he accepts painter Robert Oliver as a patient. Oliver has been arrested in a museum after trying to damage a painting with a knife. Now he is depressed, obsessed, and mute. I had flashbacks of the movie "Ordinary People" as Dr. Marlow begins his quest to find the key that will unlock Oliver's mind.

And then things quickly fall apart. First complaint: Kosova's characters do implausible things to move the story along. The breath-catching suspense the author crafted so well at the very beginning of the book fell apart because the story became unbelievable. For instance, Dr. Marlow's character is a professional, middle-aged man, never married, but not gay. Still he is well-adjusted, confident, and caring. Has any of us ever come across a man like this? I know this is fiction, but it has to seem real! Personally, I have never come across a never-married, straight, middle-aged man who does not have the word "Issues" lit up on his forehead! And then there is the matter of how Marlow struggles with his interest in helping Robert Oliver. Marlow repeatedly takes liberties with patient confidentiality, going to extraordinary lengths to interview the people in Oliver's life. And then - Spoiler Alert! - he beds and weds Oliver's ex-lover. Come on! Second complaint: The parts of the story that take place in France in the 1800s were so incredibly boring I often realized a passage had ended and I had no idea what had happened - nor did I care. Third complaint: TOO LONG! Come on, Elizabeth. Don't you think it's a little self indulgent to write a tome that tops out at over 500 pages? I listened to the book on tape, and there were 17 CDs in the case! This is not a big-sweep story, a story that needs the long fingers of detail necessary to dip into myriad far-reaching topics. Sometimes, less really is more. In fact, although the descriptions and exposition that filled the text were well written, so much of it riffed on the same topics, all written with the same sensibility, that I became dreadfully bored by the whole thing.

More interesting to me was that Anne Heche was one of the readers on the audiotape, which also featured Treat Williams. Heche's life, way more far fetched than anything within the unbelievable pages of "The Swan Thieves", is completely believable. Why? This is what I think: Anne's cringingly honest story is crazy all the way through, from beginning to end; that she's "crazy", whatever that means, is the premise of her memoir. If she didn't act out in crazy ways her story would lose its credibility! Every story needs its characters to do crazy things. That brings the conflict, the tension, the drama. It's what makes us want to turn the page. But when characters aren't developed in a way that makes us believe they might actually do the crazy things they do to move along the plot, then it's time to call it a day. Stay tuned for a review of Heche's memoir, "Call Me Crazy", which I thoroughly enjoyed.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Going Gray, by Anne Kreamer

"Going Gray" is a book that is both superficial and deep. Kreamer begins by telling how she had an epiphany while looking at a photo of herself, noticing for the first time that her hair color looked artificial and much too dark for a woman her age. She investigated and did a lot of soul searching, finally forgoing the dyes and letting her hair return to its natural gray. This doesn't necessarily speak to anything deeper than hair color, but when you think about it, there may be no signifier that packs more punch as to how we want others to think of us than the color of our hair.

I found this book, no surprise here, on my hairdresser's counter. Or maybe that is surprising, since a hairdresser has a vested interest in keeping her clients coming back for more expensive hair color! I usually add up the costs while my head covered in goo and I'm sneezing over the fumes.

Going Gray is filled with an assortment of coif-related trivia. For instance, I didn't know that the percentage of people dying their hair has gone up dramatically in the past few decades. When I read Kreamer's take on the outdated looks some people continue to sport -- that people become "frozen" in the look in which they felt they looked their best -- that sounded just right. I smiled, remembering my Dad in his toupee and 1970s leisure suit and how, even though he has thankfully moved on, I occasionally still see that look on men that came of age back then.

Kreamer connects the fact that hair coloring is so ubiquitous these days that it reflects society's collective anxiety -- hair dye as a reflection of our need to be in control, and to show off that control to the rest of the world. She reflects on this in her conclusion, coming clean as a borderline OCD control freak who, despite ten years of therapy, becomes able to identify the problem, but never strong enough to overcome it. By going gray, Kreamer finally feels able to relinquish some of the control in other areas of her life, too.

I have been dying my hair for decades, since the first grays started streaking through. I haven't seen my true hair color in so long I'm even not sure what it would look like, but a check at the roots leads me to believe that my hair would be completely gray! Perhaps it's time for me to call it quits and give up the expensive, time-consuming, and no doubt toxic, chemicals of hair dye. It's scary to think about doing this, though; I imagine I would look much older. But come to think of it, I am older! And, really, why would I want to look younger than my actual age? Sure, every year brings with it some new sign of the body's slow disintegration, but it also undeniably brings with it more experience and, if I may be so bold to say so, wisdom. "Going Gray" was a nice, light, yet thought-provoking read, as within this superficial topic there are many layers of meaning.

And under the category of "Who Knew?", gray hair may be the newest fad! Below is a link to a recent article in The New York Times, that features models, and other fashionable women in their twenties, who have decided the gray hair is in!

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Thoughts on Books and Basketball

Monday night's championship game made me wonder why Butler's "Cinderella story," as it was called, had so captured our hearts. Yeah, the underdogs came out of nowhere; this in a town where basketball matters. But it occurred to me there was something more to this story, something that grabbed us from a place deep inside and sparked a wide-eyed optimism that we long forgot we harbored.

Every day, this world of ours seems to stretch further and further out of our control, cannibalized by rampant globalization and massive unemployment. Our culture is governed by the glossy concerns of commercialization and fame; money and fame being the only two currencies that haven't been devalued. The culture of celebrity distracts us with never ending stories about the escapades of the young, beautiful and talentless fame-seekers. Today's culture's focus is not on the journey, not in the long years of learning, practice and hard work necessary to produce excellence, but is solely concerned with the accolades of fame that used to be prerequisites for public acknowledgement.

The superficiality of the values of today's culture extends to all aspects of our lives. The models who appear in TV and magazines sport looks no self-respecting woman should aspire to. Society's idea of womanly beauty is exemplified by anorexic girls painted up with heavy, black eye-liner, smudged to give them the look of a heroin addict.

How tiring, and soul-sucking is the vapidity of today's culture. So here's where our Dawgs come in. How refreshing to see the unexpected, meteoric rise of The Butler Bulldogs, who, against all odds, found themselves fighting for the championship Monday night. In a culture that values athleticism over academics, where multi-million dollar salaries for pro athletes are the norm and our schools that struggle to teach kids from impoverished neighborhoods, Butler brought us back to a time when values mattered. A time when the term college athlete meant exactly that - a college student with one foot in the athletic realm and one in the classroom, not a marquee athlete paying lip-service to the college that has recruited and groomed him.

When Butler ascended to the top, I felt a slight shift in perspective, a bright hope, and I suspect others did, too. This shift took us momentarily away from present day culture, where the flash-in-the-pan glory of a star, fame, and athleticism are valued above all, to a world that holds at its bedrock the solid values of honesty, teamwork, and academic achievement. Duke may have scored more basketball points, but in my book, Butler definitely won.

March is the month of tournaments, and not only for basketball, but also for books. Who knew? A recent article in Salon by Laura Miller spoke to the insanity of these "battles of the books." How do you pit a collection of short stories against a novel? A sci-fi thriller against a memoir? Again, just as in college football, the question is asked: What makes one thing better than another? Follow the link below:

March literary madness

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Books I were supposed to love - but hated!

Okay. I've accepted the fact that certain authors will write books I am not going to "get." Maybe to fully understand and appreciate some of these books the reader has to be able to reflect back on classic texts and make connections. I'll just go ahead and say it: I do not like these authors. These authors are not welcome on my nightstand. Granted, I have a bit of a handicap here which flavors my opinion - due to the informal drug education I received in high school (this was before my formal education in drugs at pharmacy school) I just don't remember any of the classics I read, or much of anything else. Still, when I think about these kinds of books, I wonder, what is it with all this pretense? What is our reading experience supposed to be about?

This is what I want when I pick up a book: a compelling story and characters that are believable (although they don't have to be likable). Maybe the elephant in the living room is that the "literary" books that flow from the publishing houses are like the rancid Passover crackers I whined about a few posts back. Sure, they had a nice box. Yes, they were kosher for Passover. My G-d, they were even WHOLE WHEAT! They must be good for me, I told myself. When I think about it, life is way too short to plod through a book to see if it gets good (it should already be good); or because it's supposed to be good; or because you will sound smart if you can chat about the book over lattes with your friends; or because you've already suffered through two-thirds of the text and feel committed to finish it.

So I tried to give 'The Infinities", by John Banville, the benefit of the doubt. I hung on for a little while but then I could stand no more of Adam and the chatting gods who look down on their pathetic world. And I gave "Where the God of Love Hangs Out", by Amy Bloom, even a bit more leeway. I remember suffering through her book, "Away", which had a strong Jewish connection, thinking there was something there I was not getting. The characters were as dimensional as spilled water; I didn't believe in them for a second. At the time I thought, this must be a writer's technique. I'm just not sophisticated enough to understand it. In WTGOLHO it was deja vu all over again! And the writing was very...studied. I read once that a writer's job is to get out of the way; in other words, the reader shouldn't be aware that a tortured, obsessive writer is conjuring up these sentences; the writing should be invisible. Maybe it's just me and what's left of my LSD-addled brain, but I'm going to label these books the elephant in the living room - the books we think we're supposed to like, the books that everyone tells us are supposed to be good for us, but are just Bad Books!

Enjoy your celebratory end-of-Passover pizza! Then find something GREAT to read!

Monday, April 5, 2010

An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, by Elizabeth McCracken

I recently read a quote by McCracken. I can't find it for the life of me but I'll do my best to paraphrase: I've always despised memoirs, especially the ones in which the author writes of surviving the worst possible thing. Then the worst possible thing happened to me, and I had to write about it.

This is a truth I see over and over in memoir - that the worst possible thing happens and it sits, festering, waiting to be transformed by the process of writing, by the telling. The magic of the memoir is that when that horribleness is finally organized into words and put on the page, the transformation that reaches into the writer also reaches out, seeping into the consciousness of the reader.

An Exact Replica is the difficult, beautifully told story of McCracken's first baby, who was stillborn. The author takes us deep into this journey with her, from the exciting before, to the stun of the news, right around her due date that the baby had died in utero, to the pall of the afterward. And although the afterward certainly takes us into the grief, and the adjustment, it also tells of the healthy baby that came after.

What Elizabeth McCracken went through was a worst case scenario, something too horrible to happen to anyone. Even though the specifics of her story may be different than our own tragedies, I think it's a fallacy that any of us ever make it through life dodging the worst case scenario bullet. By writing, in such stunningly honest detail, the painful truth of her own story, McCracken unites us all as we share in the transformation the telling brings.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much, by Allison Hoover Bartlett

I was proud of myself; I had the foresight to stock up on kosher for Passover crackers ahead of time, remembering that inevitably, the stores sell out of all the kosher for Passover snacks by the time the first Seder comes along.

Last night I looked at one of the boxes of Maneschewitz whole-wheat, kosher for Passover crackers I stashed on the overflow shelves in my garage. Needed a carb fix. I ripped open the hermetically sealed inner bag. I was Passover hungry. A terrible odor rose from the box. Okay, I said to myself, I'll be generous. I'll just wait a minute. The mustiness of the cracker vapor must have built up, so I'll give this a chance to disperse, to air out. I was desperate for my fix of carbs. I was also desperate to hold onto what felt like the last shred of my respect for the kosher manufacturers who, it seems to me, put out a pathetic array of outrageously overpriced, underflavored, cardboard-like foodstuffs every spring. So I stepped away from the box, wiped the ever-present matzah crumbs off the kitchen table and then turned back to the box, ready to nosh.

The rancid odor was still there, maybe even more pungent than when I first tore open the bag. I couldn't believe it. The contents of this particular box of crackers had to be seasons old, although of course, there was no "sell by" date on the box. At over $5 a box I was out over $15 for my 3 boxes. I was mad. More importantly, I was hungry. Were the people at Maneschewitz crackers?

The same scenario happened when I read this book. I had high hopes, was ready to dig in, only to find out that what's inside wasn't what was billed on the outside. In The Man Who Loved Books Too Much I thought I would get to read about someone like me. Not that I steal rare books, or any books for that matter. I thought this book would tell the story of someone so hungry for stories he would go so far as to steal to get them. I imagine that if you're reading this post you love books too, so you know exactly what I mean: That magical (is magical too "precious" an adjective?) moment of magnetic connection to a book; the moment you know you're a goner; the moment you know that it's time to start dinner so you reluctantly put the book down, but your mind is still in those pages; the moment you know you are sunk because you know you will end up staying up til 2am to see what happens.

I thought this book would be about just that: a man who so loved "story", that his need for more, more stories, more books, eclipsed everything else in his life. But that is not this book. Here, Bartlett chronicles the exploits of John Gilkey. In Bartlett's description there is clearly something "off" with Gilkey. Way off. Dare I say anti-social? The book is peppered with quotes that communicate his persistent sense of victimhood. He doesn't abdicate responsibility, he has a mindset that he never was responsible in the first place.

But Gilkey's motivation in stealing rare books is not the have-to-stay-up-past-midnight book lover syndrome I was hoping to read about. His impulse to steal rare books seems to have at its bedrock more of an obsessional need to impress others with his books than with anything within those books' pages. The story of The Man Who Loved Books Too Much was different from the one I expected, but it could have been compelling in its own right. Sadly, it wasn't. It dragged on and on, like reading one police report after another.

Turns out I didn't love "The Man Who Loved Books Too Much" very much at all.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Not Becoming My Mother, by Ruth Reichl

I have to laugh at the title of Ruth Reichl's recent book, "Not Becoming My Mother". I'm still recovering from my father's recent Passover visit, where I devoted most of my energy to "Not Becoming My Father." That, however, is a story for a different day.

Reichl writes about her mother, whose mental illness she has written about in her memoirs "Tender at the Bone" and "Comfort Me With Apples". I thought "Not Becoming My Mother" would be an examination of how Reichl's mother's mental illness affected the author, but it's not. Essentially this is a study of the stultified world of the 1950s housewife. Reichl does a great job putting her mother's illness into the feminist, political context of the bored, repressed woman who is offered no other choice than to be a homemaker. Here, her mother is representative of all the women of her time. Society had stifled women's intelligence and creativity, and these life forces had no outlet. As the author explores this scenario and how it played out with respect to her own mother, she never says, but seems to insinuate, that this build up expressed itself as bipolar illness. As I read Reichl tell of her mother's sad story of frustration I pictured her mother's smarts and artistry overflowing, like a running bathtub whose drain is plugged.

Along with Ms. Reichl, I am a card-carrying member of the daughters-of-mentally-ill-mothers-club, and maybe this is why I left this book feeling cheated. Perhaps the title misled me, but I craved the personal story, not the political one. I thought Reichl would offer up an in depth look at how her mentally ill mother affected her own life, but that part of the story was conspicuously missing. Reichl's chronicle of her mother's challenges brought a different focus onto women of that time, and I was glad to have this part of women's history detailed so intelligently. Still, I have to admit that unlike Reichl's previous books, all which involve her life as a foodie (She eventually became the editor of the now-defunct Gourmet), "Not Becoming My Mother" did not leave me feeling sated.