Monday, November 6, 2017

#6 [2017/CBR9] "Eligible" by Curtis Sittenfeld

The problem with waiting way too long to write reviews is that I forget all the details. I read Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld because it's a modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice, and it was on NPR's list of recommended books from 2016. I remember enjoying it. It was fun and well done, inspired by Pride and Prejudice without being too tied to it.

Liz Bennett is a magazine writer while her sister Jane is a yoga instructor, and they both live in NYC. Jane is almost forty and ready to start a family while Liz is thirty-eight [both are significantly older than the original, but I appreciate that it accurately reflects modern American culture when it comes to marriage]. They hurry home to the suburbs of Cincinnati when they hear that their father has collapsed. Liz quickly realizes that her mother and three useless younger sisters are not capable of caring for their recovering father and deteriorating house. Jane and Liz choose to stay in Cincinnati to help out for awhile.

Chip (Mr. Bingley) is an emergency room doctor at the local hospital in Cincinnati. He was recently on the Bachelor-like show Eligible but did not find a wife. His good friend, Darcy, is a neurosurgeon at the same hospital. Mrs. Bennett, not one to let an eligible bachelor slip by, makes sure he meets her daughters.

The book continues with many familiar plot points updated for this new time and place. Kitty and Lydia are useless, annoying, and inappropriate, but now they are Crossfit addicts, living at home. Instead of dealing with the laws of inheritance, the family home is now in peril because of mortgages and maintenance issues. At times it feels as though Sittenfeld throws every modern issue around into this book. There is IVF pregnancy as well as interracial and transgender relationships.

On the whole, I enjoyed this book. It did not have quite the same tone as the original, often feeling more frantic, but if you can allow the two books to be both separate and both enjoyable, then I think most would find this one fun.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

#5 [2017/CBR9] "The Time Traveler's Wife" by Audrey Niffenegger

So, now that we're into November and Christmas toys and decorations are proliferating the stores, I should probably start writing some reviews. I've never been this far behind, but I'm still hopeful I can pull off a Cannonball...we'll see.

I almost never re-read books, but my book club decided to read The Time Traveler's Wife (2003) by Audrey Niffenegger. I had read it a long time before--at least ten years ago, probably more--and I decided I liked it enough that I should read it again.

The Time Traveler's Wife is a love story between Clare and Henry. Henry has some kind of chromosomal defect (you just accept it to make the story work) that makes him travel through time. He never knows where or when he is going to end up, but he pretty much stays within his lifetime. The chapters jump back and forth throughout Henry's life. Because of this, the book begins when Henry first meets Clare, when he is 28 and she is 20. However, because of the time traveling, Clare had first met an older Henry when she is only six, and he is in his late 30's. Thus, Clare has known Henry most of her life when the two first meet in real time, but she is still a stranger to him.

I thought Niffenegger did a very good job jumping through time, telling the story in a clear, interesting way that was both emotional and understandable. There is also some mystery and adventure as Henry is often in danger when he arrives, naked and unexpected, in unknown times and places. Clare and Henry must deal with him leaving without warning as well as other marital problems, including many heartbreaking miscarriages. I definitely bought into these two as a real couple that I cared about.

I first read this book when I was probably in my mid-twenties, and now I'm thirty-eight. I found that I now have a decidedly different perspective on this love story. I still enjoyed the story and found it eventually heartbreaking. However, in my younger years, I found the entire story wholly romantic. Reading it again now, I had more problems with how young Clare is when she first gets to know Henry. Clare is six years old when she first meets her future husband. At some point, he tells her they are going to end up together. They make out when she's sixteen, and Henry, as a forty-year-old man, sleeps with Clare when she's eighteen. Now, on the one hand, having your first sexual experience with an older, experienced man who loves you and already knows what you like, sounds just about perfect. On the other hand, there's a 30-40 year-old-man telling a young teenager that they're going to be married. It creeped me out much more the second time around. I found myself wishing that Clare could have had experiences and a life before she was tied to Henry.

Finally, there is a scene in the book where a boy Clare knows when she is in high school mistreats her. She tells Henry, and the two of them go over and terrorize him in retaliation. I did not remember it from the first time I read the book, and I found it both disturbing and unrealistic. I think I would have preferred that scene not be in the book, which is probably why I forgot it the first time around.

Anyway, even with the loss of my naive romanticism as I get older, I still really enjoyed this book and would recommend it to anyone who may have missed it the first time around.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

#4 [2017/CBR9] "Desert Solitaire" by Edward Abbey

"Original sin, the true original sin, is the blind destruction for the sake of greed of this natural paradise which lies all around us--if only we were worthy of it." (208)

"We need the possibility of escape as surely as we need hope; without it the life of the cities would drive all men into crime or drugs or psychoanalysis." (162)

Desert Solitaire (1968) by Edward Abbey is one of those classic environmental books that I've heard about for years but never got around to reading. One reason I've avoided it is that I've often heard people comparing Desert Solitaire and Thoreau's Walden. When I tried to read Walden a couple of years ago, I hated it enough to stop in the middle of the book. It was so disappointing to find Thoreau so boring and pretentious, and I was afraid Abbey was more of the same. However, I was heading down to Zion in April on a backpacking trip, and I thought reading Desert Solitaire might get me primed for my Southwest adventure. Fortunately, I found Abbey to be an entertaining and thoughtful writer. Not only did I finish the book, but I really enjoyed most of it.

Edward Abbey was a park ranger at Arches National Monument in the summers of 1956 and 1957. He tells his story of the park and some adventures he had in the surrounding areas about that time period. Throughout the book, he explains his philosophy of people, wild places, and how the United States government should run the park system.

Back in 1956, Abbey was the only park ranger at Arches for the entire summer. The few tourists who could make it over the sometimes impassable dirt road mainly came on the weekends. Abbey raged against the paved road and the many "improvements" that were just beginning to come to Arches during his time there.

"Where once a few adventurous people came on weekends to camp for a night or two and enjoy a taste of the primitive and remote, you will now find serpentine streams of baroque automobiles pouring in and out, all through the spring and summer, in numbers that would have seemed fantastic when I worked there: from 3,000 to 30,000 to 300,000 per year, the "visitation," as they call it, mounts ever upward." (54)

I was ready to call Abbey out as a snob--wanting to enjoy the beautiful area himself while not letting anyone else in on the public lands, but that wasn't exactly his attitude. Instead, he disliked the way people related to the land. With public roads accessing all of the gems in the park, visitors sit in their car, popping out for photo ops now and again. They don't get outside and they don't experience nature. Instead he wanted to close the roads and use them for bikes and horses. I'm also guessing that Abbey would be appalled at the over 1.5 million people who visited Arches last year.

"Industrial Tourism is a threat to the national parks. But the chief victims of the system are the motorized tourists. They are being robbed and robbing themselves. So long as they are unwilling to crawl out of their cars they will not discover the treasures of the national parks and will never escape the stress and turmoil of those urban-suburban complexes which they had hoped, presumably, to leave behind for a while." (64)

Abbey was adventurous: from exploring unknown canyons and cliffs solo; hiring himself out as a ranch hand; and boating through Glen Canyon right before the dam was built, he definitely has a lot of knowledge and experience. In addition, Abbey is a good writer, often humorous, descriptive, poetic, passionate, and opinionated. I found myself highlighting passage after passage while reading.

"We think we have forgotten but we cannot forget--the knowledge is lodged like strontium in the marrow of our bones--that Glen Canyon has been condemned. We refuse to think about it. We dare not think about it for if we did we'd be eating our hearts, chewing our entrails, consuming ourselves in the fury of helpless rage. Of helpless outrage." (232)

However, I also had trouble with some of it. I was hoping to find a true kindred spirit of the outdoors. But Abbey was still a man of his time and he had some troubling and dated ideas, including some of his views on Native Americans. These varied from knowledgeable and compassionate to downright disturbing (calling for compulsory birth control). He also rolled an old tire into the Grand Canyon and killed a bunny with a rock just to see if he could do it--things that aren't drastic in the scheme of things but didn't sit well with me.

Mostly, though, I got a sense as I was reading the book that Abbey did not appreciate women. Maybe it was the fact that he seemed to be writing about and for men and that there was literally no mention of women in his book--at least until he said: "True, there are no women here (a blessing in disguise?)" (199) On this hunch, I looked him up in Wikipedia to find out more. I was shocked to learn that during the time period he was working as a ranger all summer and playing around in the canyons and mountains, he was married to his second wife. His life history is peppered with his five marriages and countless affairs. When he married another seasonal park ranger, I thought maybe he'd finally found a true partner. But he cheated on her, wrote an autobiographical book about the affair ("which was a contention in their marriage") and then dedicated that book to his late-wife after she died of Leukemia. Ugh. I can definitely see how someone so smart and adventurous would be appealing, but some people just shouldn't get married. And even though all of this information was not a part of the book, the knowledge of it affected my appreciation of the writer. It's hard to admire someone who would have dismissed you entirely because of your gender (unless he wanted to sleep with you).

Sunday, January 15, 2017

#3 [2017/CBR9] "Blonde Date" by Sarina Bowen

Blonde Date (2014) is a sweet novella by Sarina Bowen. Bowen uses the Ivy League setting and characters we already met in The Year We Hid Away. The romance is between Katie, one of Scarlet's roommates, and Andy, the guy who lives in the dorm room next door to Bridger. When Katie is looking for a nice guy to bring to a sorority party, Scarlet sets her up with Andy.

The novella is set up in chapters with the alternating perspectives of Katie and Andy. Andy has had a crush on Katie since he first saw her in his Art History class, but it takes a little while for Katie to realize how much she likes him.

I was a little worried at first that I wouldn't like Katie. She seemed overly concerned with appearances and partying, all of which are wholly unrelatable to me. She's focused on dating an upperclassman and an athlete and cannot go dateless to the sorority she's rushing. Fortunately, Bowen almost immediately makes her a more interesting person. She's intelligent, likes to laugh, and is tired of trying to meet everyone else's expectations. She just recently had an incident with an ex of hers where he acted terribly, and she's embarrassed to face him and his friends at the party.

Andy is delightful. He's smart, athletic, funny, compassionate, tall, and he has a great relationship with his sister. There is talk of him being goofy and not confident enough around women, but he seems to have plenty of confidence around Katie. He handles Katie's situation with a nice blend of encouragement and protectiveness without being overbearing.

I don't have much else to say. Blonde Date was short, entertaining, and satisfying. Bowen did a good job of having Katie own her sexuality without shame. Andy and Katie bring out the best in each other. My main wish was that the story could have been longer.

#2 [2017/CBR9] "Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty" by Ramona Ausubel

I've been working my way through another book list I found, this latest one being NPR's Best Books of 2016. With over three hundred books, this list is going to keep me busy for quite a while. There are just too many good books out there for me to keep up with. However, I was initially a little unsure of Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty (2016) by Ramona Ausubel.

The blurb from amazon states:
Labor Day, 1976, Martha's Vineyard. Summering at the family beach house along this moneyed coast of New England, Fern and Edgar—married with three children—are happily preparing for a family birthday celebration when they learn that the unimaginable has occurred: There is no more money. More specifically, there's no more money in the estate of Fern's recently deceased parents, which, as the sole source of Fern and Edgar's income, had allowed them to live this beautiful, comfortable life despite their professed anti-money ideals. Quickly, the once-charmed family unravels. In distress and confusion, Fern and Edgar are each tempted away on separate adventures: she on a road trip with a stranger, he on an ill-advised sailing voyage with another woman. The three children are left for days with no guardian whatsoever, in an improvised Neverland helmed by the tender, witty, and resourceful Cricket, age nine.

Many of the negative reviews of this book complain that the characters are annoying and unlikable, which isn't too surprising given the blurb above. Rich, entitled, and hypocritical people who fall apart at the first whisper of difficulty in their lives are not particularly sympathetic characters. But I downloaded it anyway and began to read. Very early on, I hit a point where I was so impressed by Ausubel's writing that I felt safe. I had no idea where she was going with her story, but I trusted that she could keep it interesting and emotionally engaging. And she did. It's difficult to write characters who make bad, selfish decisions and still make them understandable. I think Ausubel accomplished this.

Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty jumps around between time periods and perspectives. The story is centered around the relationship of Edgar and Fern and their three children. We learn of Edgar's and Fern's childhoods as well as the, sometimes surprising, history of the other main characters. I would characterize this book as meandering, exploring how family and experiences shape us. Although there is some urgency brought to the plot with the children at home alone, and wondering about how things could possibly work out, it is more about the journey and an investigation of the characters' lives.

Ausubel has a remarkable ability to keep the big picture in mind while giving us minute details of her characters' motivations. Edgar is fascinating and infuriating. Born feeling guilty for his privilege and wealth, he constantly rants about the coal workers dying for his life of ease. Yet he's oblivious of the many other privileges that are afforded to him, including his wife's sacrifice and work to keep their family going.

"Maybe the girl would care about something along the way--art or history--but it would be pressed out of her slowly until she was nothing but a woman, nothing but a mother." (31)
"Edgar let it be. He did not want to tell his wife that he thought she could amount to more, though he did, because he loved her and because she was smart and because he was blind to so much of the work she did in their home, the invisible structure she built to support five lives." (222)

Edgar is also oblivious to the fact that his wife's money, that he lives off of, was grown on the back of slaves. In addition, his daughter is learning a caricatured version of Native Americans in school, believing that they are some mythical, western story and oblivious to the fact that she is living right where they used to live. What makes Edgar so frustrating, though, is that he is idealistic, but not strong enough to follow through on his convictions. I imagine many of us are like this to some degree, but Edgar's life puts a spotlight on his hypocrisy. As easy as Edgar is to dislike, he still suffers. His life would be so much easier if he could imagine that he had earned such a life (as many people do) and just enjoy it.

I really liked this book. It is interesting, well-written, and thought-provoking. There is so much more to it than I was able to describe in this review. I was, perhaps, disappointed that the ending came so quickly and cleanly. Ausubel spent the majority of the book unraveling people's thoughts and lives. It all came back together so swiftly in the end that it was almost anticlimactic. However, like the story, this book is more about the journey than the ending, and I'm very glad I read it. NPR's best books of 2016 hasn't let me down yet. If only I had more time.

#1 [2017/CBR9] "F*ck Feelings" by Michael I. Bennett, MD and Sarah Bennett

F*ck Feelings (2015) by Michael I. Bennett, MD and his comedy writer daughter Sarah Bennett was probably recommended for me on Amazon at some time. The gist of this book is that many people go to therapy looking for miraculous solutions that simply aren't going to happen. F*ck Feelings argues that  there is a more realistic and practical way of dealing with what life throws at you, from addiction to depression to dealing with asshole co-workers and asshole children.

Michael Bennett is a psychiatrist and seems to have a large amount of experience and knowledge. On the whole, though, this book didn't quite work for me. Although it made some interesting and helpful points, I didn't get as much out of it as I was hoping. The authors hit many different topics with a relatively broad brush. Much of it was repetitive, and I often wished for more details.

The book is separated into chapters, including, fuck: self-improvement, self-esteem, fairness, helpfulness, serenity, love, communication, parenthood, assholes, and treatment. The overriding theme of this book is the both depressing and heartening idea that many of the things we struggle with cannot be changed. Someone battling depression and anxiety will probably never fully rid themselves of it. That person will always have to work harder to have a "normal" life. Instead of feeling like a failure for not curing themselves, they should accept that this is who they are and focus on how to best live with it. Then they can feel pride for effectively dealing with this daily struggle. Sometimes waking up in the morning, getting to work, and not being assholes to your family requires a giant mountain of effort and should be acknowledged.

Each chapter is broken up into a five or six page subject, all in the same format. A short discussion of what people struggle with and what changes they would make in a perfect world. Then the authors make some more realistic prognostications. They use three (always three) hypothetical paragraphs of a personal story illustrating the issue. The chapter always ends with a bulleted list of "what you want to happen" in these situations and "what you can realistically expect" in these situations. After these, there is a "script" of what you can say to yourself/friend/enemy/person it may concern in this situation.

I liked some of the discussion and I liked the hypotheticals, but I got very tired of reading the bulleted lists and even more tired of reading the scripts. The lists were simply a retread of what had already been discussed earlier, but in a choppier way that slowed down the reading. The scripts were ridiculously painful to read, and they were my least favorite part of the book.

I liked the general idea that sometimes you just have to let things go. The world isn't fair or just and some people have to struggle much more than others without seeing anything for their efforts. Focus on what you can change and be proud of what you've done to achieve it. On the other hand, the book is too broad and too general to help people specifically. Perhaps it might be useful to look over a specific chapter or sub-chapter that relates to you. It could give you an idea of how to frame your problem and where to start. I'm not sure how useful reading the entire book is, though.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

2016 Year in Review

It's the last day of 2016, so it's time to waste some time looking back and seeing what I've read this year.

Total: 58 books

Fiction: 41
Non-fiction: 16
Poetry: 1

Books written by women: 48
Books written by men: 9
Books co-authored by men & women: 1

Romance novels: 21
Non-romance novels: 37
Non-romance books written by women: 27

Most read authors:
Romance won the day with repeat authors. I read four books each by Sarina Bowen and Lisa Kleypas, and I will probably be reading more. I also read two books by J.K. Rowling (if you count Harry Potter and the Cursed Child) as well as Rainbow Rowell and Elizabeth Peters.

Favorites:
Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley
Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
Notorious RBG by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik
The Year We Fell Down by Sarina Bowen
The Hating Game by Sally Thorne