Tag Archives: books

Life is Too Short to Read Things That…

9 Jul

I feel like I’ve been abandoning everything these days. Classes. Blogs. Definitely my sanity. But sometimes you need to abandon a few things to make way for others. So I gave up my MOOC class for my novel. Oh, I’m still viewing the lectures and reading the books (all fantastic, actually!), just not the doing the writing.

I’ve neglected the 52 Books Project. Although I’m not far behind on reading, I am WAY behind on blogging reviews.

So, in the spirit of abandonment, I share this fabulous infographic from Goodreads.

And YES – I did abandon Fifty Shades and its predecessor, the Twilight series. Life is too short to read things that suck.

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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

Libraries are Compassionate and Awesome

9 May

For almost three and a half weeks, I’ve been flat on my back and in horrible pain. I couldn’t sit or stand at all, making driving impossible. I just didn’t have the flexibility or swift reactions to navigate a car.

For that reason, my latest three library books were grossly overdue – by more than a month! Today, after finally getting a good diagnosis and better drugs, I was able to get up and move around enough to go the library to return those grossly overdue books.

“I hope you aren’t going to revoke my library card!” I joked when I got to the counter.

The librarian dismissed my comment with a wave.

I held out my money as she checked the books back in.

“That’s it. You’re good,” she said.

No fees? Nope, she’d waived them because of my condition (which, by the way, is a bone spur pinching a nerve in my neck).

See? Aren’t libraries awesome?

So, a huge shout out to Plainsboro Public Library for being so compassionate. And in return, I’m going to give them a little Twitter love: Follow them on Twitter @PlainsboroLib. They just joined and deserve to have a following.

Also, another huge shout out to my youngest son, Devlin, who DROVE me to the library. He’s just learning, and for the next few weeks he’s my official driver around town.

And so the 52 Books Project continues. I’m behind on writing reviews, and now I have new books to read. But we’ll catch up. Here’s what’s coming up:

  • The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg
  • The Age of Miracles, Karen Thompson Walker
  • We Bought a Zoo, Benjamin Mee
  • The Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison

Also, the new books I picked up today will follow:

  • Waging Heavy Peace, Neil Young
  • Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake, Anna Quindlen
  • Live by Night, Dennis Lehane

And one more that’s on interlibrary order:

  • The Woman Who Wasn’t There, Robin Gaby Fisher

Visit your local library today, and travel the world without leaving your home.

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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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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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Book Review: Wild by Cheryl Strayed

11 Feb
Wild by Cheryl Strayed

Wild by Cheryl Strayed (Photo credit: bubbletea1)

“There is no ‘great’ literature being written today.”

I was having dinner with a few of my husband’s colleagues, and I must admit that I was ready to pounce on this statement. My dining companion and I had discovered common ground: We both majored in English and were passionate readers.

He was a little disillusioned with the current literary landscape. In an era where a book like “Fifty Shades” gets an entire publishing house an extra year-end bonus, I could understand why. But no great literature? No, that couldn’t be true.

Or was it? In the heat of the moment, I found I couldn’t come up with a single example that I’d be ready to defend.

Is this so surprising? We live in a country that hasn’t won a Nobel Prize for Literature in 20 years. It has been said that we’re too insular, too narcissistic, and incapable of producing writers who can write about larger, more worldly themes.

In a way, it’s a strong argument. The literary trend for more than 30 years has been “realism” – as Alexander Nazaryan put it in an essay for Salon.com a couple of years ago, the MFA way of “writing what you know.” If you really think about it, it’s rather limiting advice.

Over the last few years, I’ve become increasingly frustrating with American literature, particularly the much-hyped “greats” such as Philip Roth and Jonathan Franzen, neither of whom I suspect have ventured – in person – into the real world at all. At an earlier age, I did enjoy John Updike’s Rabbit novels, but Roth’s American Pastoral nearly killed me in the reading.

A couple of years ago, I saw with utter clarity the problem in contemporary American literature. I read a book weeping with self-indulgence on the heels of a book about greater societal issues: Franzen’s Freedom was opened just as I’d closed the bookjacket on Sapphire’s Push. I’m sorry, but the whinging of an upper-class (not, as Franzen inaccurately described them, middle class) couple doesn’t compare to the desperation of a wounded, underprivileged and abused teenager – and the societal forces that fostered her situation.

It’s ironic, actually, that Franzen has complained about America’s solipsistic culture and lamented that today’s fiction is one-dimensional, since he and his novels are of a feather. I suppose it’s possible that I’m not “reading the text intellectually,” but I doubt it. Freedom is an insipid novel and emblematic of American literature’s current state.

Anyway, this isn’t about Franzen, necessarily, or Roth or even Updike. It’s also not only about these “great white male narcissists” as David Foster Wallace once called them. There are women narcissists as well (Elizabeth Gilbert comes to mind, as does Lena Dunham).

We are, in fact, an entire culture of narcissists. But is this a bad thing? We’re Americans after all, and this country, in its own way, has been created and propelled forward by a unrestrained sense of self. Our literature – at least some of it – should represent both the spiritual and physical journeys we make.

Which brings me to this week’s review of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.

The 52 Books Project: Book #1

Wild is a memoir; so by definition, it’s egocentric. Strayed is a broken woman at the age of 26. She mourns her mother, who recently died; she has cheated on her husband and destroyed their marriage; she has dabbled in heroin. Her life is a mess. Then she has an idea: she’ll hike the Pacific Crest Trail for 1,100 miles – from Southern California to Oregon – alone. It’s a journey of self-reliance, self-discovery and physical rejuvenation.

Many of the reader reviews were critical of Strayed, saying that she was stupidly underprepared for her journey, foolish and very full of herself. These criticisms are valid, and yet, I’m inclined to be more forgiving.

Strayed doesn’t shrink from assigning herself blame. She’s a mess, it’s her own fault, and she knows it. She doesn’t ask for sympathy.

Raw is the word that comes to mind when I think of the book. Strayed’s pain is stripped to the bone. Her fears and doubts keep rising to the surface, and over the long hard miles of the trail, she slowly sheds them just as she sheds most of her toenails. But it isn’t an easy task.

“How fabulous down was for those first minutes! Down, down, down I’d go until down too became impossible and punishing and so relentless that I’d pray for the trail to go back up. Going down, I realized was like taking hold of the loose strand of yarn on a sweater you’d just spent hours knitting and pulling it until the entire sweater unraveled into a pile of string. Hiking the PCT was the maddening effort of knitting that sweater and unraveling it over and over again. As if everything gained was inevitably lost.”

You may read Wild and question Strayed’s life, her decisions and her journey, but she is a talented storyteller. The story had momentum. I read well past my bedtime, and at the end, well – I just wanted to flip the book back over and start again immediately.

It’s a rewarding story, as worthy of the word “inspirational” as Eat, Pray, Love is not. Is it “great literature?” No. It’s too introspective, and Strayed is a fluid writer but not a great one.

Still, I’d recommend it. It’s a keeper.

Next week’s review: What in God’s Name, by Simon Rich

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The Mysteries Tucked Inside Your Library Book

9 Feb

I love when I find little surprises in the books I check out at the public library.

Sometimes I find receipts or business cards or grocery lists (I really love the grocery lists). Some readers will underline or star passages, or they’ll jot notes in the margin. These little scribbles always give me something to think about, sometimes spurring a virtual argument with some invisible library patron. “Are you kidding me? No reasonable person would consider these characters middle class! I’m sorry, fellow reader, you and this author need a dose of the real world!”

A few years ago, a New York Times reporter hid $100 bills around the state and challenged New Jerseyans to a scavenger hunt. One of those bills was found in our local public library.

That’s a treasure. And a good story.

Now and again, I discover a real treasure myself. Sadly, I’ve yet to find cash; though that would be nice. No, sometimes I find something better: scribbled notes.

Wild extra notes 1

Literary treasure hunt.

Which is what happened when I opened my borrowed copy of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild.

Three small pieces of note paper tumbled out from behind the book jacket. Grocery lists? Notes on the book? Philosophical musings?

Of course, these could also be intensely private, so perhaps it’s morally wrong to peer into the innermost thoughts of a previous reader.


These turned out to be wickedly good. Not a grocery list, and not a rumination on the book. Rather, I like to believe they’re by a budding author, free-associating ideas for a new story.

Either that or one of our local comedians has been testing out joke ideas for an appearance in Atlantic City.

So, are you a comedian?

So, are you a comedian?

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