Tag Archives: 52 Books Project

The Miracle Is that We Survive

27 May

“We’ve reached a critical desalination point!” – Jack Hall

“It’s going to get bad! Really, really bad!” – Sam Hall

Whenever the weather gets rough, it’s inevitable that my husband, one of my sons, or I will find a way to quote Jack or Sam. The Day After Tomorrow is so simultaneously awful and wonderful that it’s hard to resist. (We’ve no idea how Dennis Quaid or Jake Gyllenhaal managed to say either of these lines without cracking up.)

There’s a certain fascination to the idea of the world ending, partly because we all know it’s possible – and probably likely at some point – and partly because hard evidence points toward inevitable and noticeable change in our global environment. (Yes, climate change IS happening. Sorry, Republicans and conspiracy theorists.)

Last week’s tornado in Moore, Okla., and last fall’s Hurricane Sandy were near the extreme end of their respective scales, but some scientists are predicting that storms of this size will become the norm.

When we do finally agree that change is happening, how will we react to it?

We’ll continue to live and love, while finding new ways to adapt to our new situation. Colonization of a far off planet certainly seems in the cards, but it’s the day-to-day human experience that will likely stay the same. We’re creatures of habit, in a way.

That’s the way that Karen Thompson Walker presents it in her wonderful “The Age of Miracles.”

Walker envisions a different kind of disaster: the world is slowing down. Days and nights are growing longer, and the effect on nature and the world as we know it is devastating. It’s not completely debilitating, at least not yet. Julia is just 11 and  adolescence – her age of miracles – coincides with this new way of life.

This isn’t a complicated novel, either in plot or characters, and its real focus is on Julia’s coming of age. But it’s the small details that make the story special: how people cope with “clock time,” the hundreds of beached whales and the strange reaction of the cats. I found myself thinking about this alt-Earth long after finishing.

Well, I do love to ponder “what if” scenarios.

Climate change or not, the world will change, but human nature will not. We’ll continue to fight over things that don’t matter; we’ll continue to find love and lose love; we’ll continue to find ways to survive using our natural ingenuity. In the end, there is hope.

Even on the day after tomorrow.

Later, I would come to think of those first days as the time when we learned as a species that we had worried over the wrong things.

– Julia in The Age of Miracles


Sweet Story, Bitter in the Telling

4 May

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

Ah, unrequited love. It’s my favorite kind of love story. It can be so sweet, until it all ends so bitterly.

So it is with Keiko and Henry, who meet and fall in love when they are just 12 years old. He’s Chinese, she’s Japanese, it’s Seattle, and it’s 1942.

In Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, Jamie Ford tells the story of these star-crossed lovers, divided by prejudice and separated physically when she’s sent off to a Japanese internment camp.

This novel garnered a lot of good buzz when it was published, and I can only assume it’s because it had a stellar marketing and PR buzz. Why anyone thought it warranted such a commotion, I can’t say.

It’s not that it’s a bad book. It’s a promising debut for what should be a teen book. Ford frames several themes in a way that’s appropriate for middle-school social studies and language arts discussions: complicated father-son relationships, prejudice and tolerance, and assimilation challenges of immigrants. He layers these on top of the historical events of 1942, specifically the Japanese internment of World War II and the deep animosity between the Japanese and Chinese.

He does a fine job of capturing the sights and sounds of Seattle, bringing to life its sights and sounds and giving a distinct feeling of place, but the plot is predictable and flat, lacking the tension that normally keeps me turning the page.

His characters are completely out of character. In 1942, Henry and Keiko are 12, but speak and act as if they’re in their 20s or 30s. Far too sophisticated for their ages. In 1984, Henry is just 52, but is presented as a doddering 80-something.

The ending ties up in a neat little bow. It’s perfect for Hollywood, but for the discerning reader, I’d like more complexity and depth.

Definitely not a keeper.

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J.K. Rowling Steps Out of the Mystic

5 Apr
English: J.K. Rowling reads from Harry Potter ...

English: J.K. Rowling reads from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone at the Easter Egg Roll at White House (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve long been an admirer of J.K. Rowling. When you look beyond the insane success of her Harry Potter books, you realize that she’s a spectacular writer with an unsurpassed imagination.

I loved the Potter series for the dozens of inventions and complex characters that Rowlings conjured. In the distance between the books and the movies, I think people forgot just how remarkable a writer and dreamer that she is. Though many of the items in her books were just a half step from reality – the moving images on newspapers and the game of quidditch – it’s her ability to wind up the tension in the plot or develop complex characters that is so admirable. Professor Snape and Moaning Myrtle are two characters that could easily have been one-dimensional, but were much more nuanced as the story progressed.

I read once that Rowlings envisioned writing the Potter novels for adults, but the publisher persuaded her to write the series at a level more suitable to children. And of course, that’s how they marketed it.

We knew she’d write a novel for adults someday, and now we have it: The Casual Vacancy. I didn’t expect to like this novel. It’s hard to compete with something of the magnitude of Harry Potter. I can’t say I’m disappointed, because I hadn’t set the bar very high.

The story focuses on a town councilman whose sudden death sets off a battle for his seat, examining the tensions between parents and their children, the rich and the poor, and between friends and acquaintances. Rowling evokes at least one British news story of the 90s, but I’d lost interest long before the book reached that part.

The Casual Vacancy has its moments. The writing is there, and the characters show hints of complexity. It’s the plot that’s missing. In all fairness, I read the first half of the book and skittered through the rest. The tension that drives stories simply wasn’t there for this one, though early on, I had high hopes.

Consider this family’s breakfast table conversation.

“Goes to show, doesn’t it?” he said portentously. “Got to watch yourself.”

That’s wise, thought Andrew, with furious contempt; that’s profound. So it was Barry Fairbrother’s own fault his brain had burst open. You self-satisfied fucker, Andrew told his father, loudly, inside his own head.

At this point, as I wonder who to root for, I’m leaning toward the son. What we see of his father, Simon, in the first few pages is entirely unlikeable. So I think he’s picking on the son without reason. Then this:

Simon pointed his knife at his elder son and said, “Oh, and by the way. He’s going to be getting a job. Old Pizza Face there.”

Startled, Ruth turned from her husband to her son. Andrew’s acne stood out, livid and shiny, from his empurpling cheek, as he stared down into his bowl of beige mush.

“Yeah,” said Simon. “Lazy little shit’s going to start earning some money. If he wants to smoke, he can pay for it out of his own wages. No more pocket money.”

Ah. Now I understand the source of the rage bubbling under Simon’s surface. Typical parent-teen conflict. Or is it? Read on, and I might change my mind again – maybe I should side with Andrew.

This is the true magic of Rowling’s writing. I just wish it hadn’t faded so early in the novel.

Still, I look forward to her next book for adults. I suspect she’ll find the right mix of subject matter, plot, character, and tension.

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When the Holy Retire: Book Review

19 Feb

Timing is everything, as both Pope Benedict and I discovered last week. The pontiff’s resignation came as a huge surprise, because, like God, Popes are supposed to serve a lifetime. Retirement just isn’t an option.

Pope Benedictus XVI

Pope Benedictus XVI (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve written before about the troubles with the Roman Catholic Church and the steps they might take to get back on a moral path. And, I’m afraid we’ll find that there’s certainly much more to Benedict’s decision than failing health and age. In fact, the Pope will remain in the Vatican after he steps down, which provides him legal protection, immunity and security in the face of potential legal action against him.

There is a small sliver of hope that the bishops will make a change and do the right thing – really address the crisis and bring the perpetrators and their accomplices to justice. More likely though, justice will come in the afterlife.

That is, of course, if God himself doesn’t retire too.

The 52 Books Project: Book #2

What in God's NameThis is the premise of Simon Rich’s novel, What in God’s Name. This short, light novel imagines that God is the CEO of Heaven, Inc. (Again, timing is everything! Here’s Bill Keller giving advice for Catholicism Inc. I swear, this is all coincidence.)

God is tired and fed up, so he decides to retire, leaving mankind to, well, death and destruction. The angels who create miracles on Earth will soon be out of a job.

I’d read the reviews of this book before it was released, and absolutely loved the concept. Rich’s org chart for Heaven Inc. includes both the usual and unusual departments one might find in a corporation dedicated to running humankind – Prophet Outreach (where I’d be, of course, as a PR pro), Angel Resources, and – my personal favorite – Snowflake Design.

The story centers around two Angels in the Department of Miracles, desperate to stop the world from ending. In the meantime, God is busy planning his new restaurant. They cut a deal: if the Angels make two earthlings fall in love, God won’t end the world.

The book is best when it’s up in Heaven, roaming the halls of the giant corporation and peeking in on the modern tools God has to keep up on Humans (interactive TV!). Say what you will about God, but at least He has moved into the 21st century. In a move that might seem familiar to some, he even writes a resignation letter.

After much consideration I’ve decided to resign as CEO of Heaven Inc. It’s been a fun ride, but part of being successful is knowing when to quit.

Sound reasoning – and good advice too, I suppose, if he decides to share it with anyone. Right? Oh, and he attached FAQs. It’s a bit more buttoned up in Heaven Inc.

Down on earth, though, the story creeps along. I can’t get too vested in these humans, hapless as they are. And I’d hoped there’d be more “LOL” moments, especially since Rich once wrote for Saturday Night Live.

It’s a fun, ethereal read, though, and you’ll be done with it in 24 hours. I know at least one person who will soon to have extra time on his hands and may want to pick it up.

Next week’s review looks at the evolution of a writer. Lionel Shriver’s The New Republic and We Need to Talk About Kevin, read side-by-side provide some fascinating insight into how a good writer learns to be great.

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The 52 Books Project

3 Feb

Each time I pick up a book, I make a journey into someone else’s imagination, memory, analysis or perspective. It’s why I love to read, why I buy so many books (Frankly, it puzzles me that Barnes & Nobles isn’t doing well. How could that be? It’s my primary bookstore!), and why I don’t hear people when they try to talk to me.

I’ve no idea how many books I read in a given year, but in January, I decided to keep track. That’s when I came up with the idea of the 52 Book Project: read and review – here in this blog – 52 books in 2013.

With all due respect to B&N and every other book retailer, I’ve added a wrinkle. The books must be borrowed. It doesn’t matter from where or from whom, but I’ll certainly make many trips to my public library.

If this project accomplishes anything beyond my reading, I hope it raises awareness of the amazing value that public libraries offer. While taxes vary from town to town, my public library costs my family $187.64 in taxes each year – or about $3.61 per book for this project. That’s if I don’t incur late fees. A pretty good deal, really.

This project actually kicked off on Jan. 2, when I stopped at my local public library to select my first choices. The book club is reading The New Republic by Lionel Shriver. Snapped that up. On a whim, I grabbed Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail for my second book.

Not content to leave this project to my own whims, I also asked Facebook friends for book recommendations. One of my personal goals for this project is to read outside my comfort zone: absorbing opposing views and exploring topics not normally within my interests.

I’ve always enjoyed biography, history, science and other nonfiction, but my friends suggested quite a few titles I may never have looked at. You can find what’s upcoming by looking at the Nightstand. When I finish a book and its review, you can find it on my Bookshelf.

I should also take a moment to explain my quirky reading style. I read up to 4 or 5 books at a time. Longer bios, nonfiction and novels over 600 or so pages will take longer than a week, so they’ll be spread out over a period of weeks or months (so mid-read reviews won’t be out of the question).

Also, I have this funny (endearing? irritating?) habit of reading the first 100 pages of a book, and then skipping to the last 20 or 30 pages before heading back to the middle. To borrow a line from Harry, I do this so that if I die before I finish, I’ll know how the story ends.

Finally, I reserve the right to scan or abandon a book midway through. Life’s too short to read stuff that sucks.

Anyway, I finished three books in January, and I’ve just picked up four more from the library. Technically, I’m a bit behind, but January was an unusual month for personal reasons. I expect to be back to normal reading – and writing – levels now.

First up for review: Strayed’s Wild. Check back in a couple of days to read what I have to say.

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