Sunday, July 31, 2011

Book #92: Into the Wild

Into the Wild By Jon KrakauerTitle: Into the Wild
Author: Jon Krakauer

Okay, I'll admit that I ventured north to Alaska without ever having read Into the Wild. I feel it was a great sin of omission and I'm publicly repenting. Once we got to Alaska, most of our tour guides alluded in some way to the story of Christopher McCandless, the young Emory graduate who disappeared from society after college and drifted around the western US before heading up to Alaska to have a great adventure living on his own. Two months later, he was dead. 

I think that McCandless's story is interesting, but what made this book really memorable for me is Krakauer's obsession with the story. When he was assigned to cover the story for Outside Magazine, he realized that McCandless's life had many parallels to his own life, so in many ways probing the story of McCandless's life and death was an exploration of what could have happened to him if the circumstances had been slightly different. The book is well-written, but I disagree with Krakauer's assertion that McCandless didn't have a mental illness-- his whole lifestyle (drifting from job to job, hitckhiking, not keeping any money on principle, severing all ties with his family) doesn't seem healthy or normal to me, but whatever, I am not a psychiatrist. I've often bristled at Krakauer professionally (I thought Under the Banner of Heaven was a bit of a cheap shot, using the strangest branch of a fundamentalist sect to represent mainstream Mormonism, and I think he's being downright nasty to Greg Mortenson), but I can't read this book without admiring his writing. And it's short-- so bonus.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Book #91: Barrel Fever

Barrel Fever: Stories and EssaysTitle: Barrel Fever: Stories and Essays
Author: David Sedaris

I've read a lot of David Sedaris, and although I didn't love his most recent book (the animal one), I'd probably still say that I'm a fan of his work. But if anything would turn me into an anti-Sedarisite, it would be Barrel Fever. The work is short on the essays (I love me a Sedaris essay) and long on the short stories. I'm probably outing myself as a provincial and a prude, but the stories were pretty vulgar and frankly didn't always make a lot of sense. If this is "real Sedaris," then I guess I'm a fan of "Sedaris lite." I ended up skimming or entirely skipping quite a few of the stories. There were one or two nice essays thrown in, but by and large, this is one I think all but the most die-hard readers can safely skip. 

Friday, July 29, 2011

Book #90: Thinking in Pictures

Thinking in Pictures (Expanded, Tie-in Edition): My Life with Autism (Vintage)Title: Thinking in Pictures: My Life with Autism
Author: Temple Grandin

It's almost a universal that the book is going to be better than the movie. I've rarely walked out of a movie and said, "Wow, that movie blew the book out of the water." We watched the film adaptation of Thinking in Pictures a year or so ago, and I loved the movie, so I had high hopes for the book. As much as I admire Temple Grandin for what she has accomplished (which would be remarkable even if she didn't have autism), I feel like the film version of this story took all of the really compelling parts of Grandin's story and made them come to life in a way that they don't on the pages of this book (I guess that shouldn't be all that surprising). I'd expected a fuller analysis of Grandin's life, a richer look at her motives and her inner life, which are probably unrealistic things to expect, and instead I got a lot of the same information about autism that I've already read in other books. If you're only going to read one of Grandin's books, I'd say this is a good one, but if you've read some of her other books about autism, I'd skip this book and just watch the movie. 

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Book #89: Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar ChildrenTitle: Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children
Author: Ransom Riggs

I feel a little bit bad that I don't remember this book better, but I guess that also tells you how much I liked it. It was okay-- not so bad that I wanted to throw it across the room, but not so good that I'm eager to read the next installment in the series. In fact, it felt like Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children was more about setting up a series than it was a stand-alone book on its own. I hate books like that. I'd rather read a "stand-alone with series potential" than a book in a series (that said, most of the books I've finished but haven't reviewed so far are the middle books in series where I've never read the first books.

Anyway, back to the book at hand. Miss Peregrine's Home... is about a kid whose name I don't remember (see?) whose grandpa dies under mysterious circumstances. The kid is pretty messed up after finding Grandpa dead, so his dad agrees him to take him to Wales to find the orphanage where Grandpa grew up. Once the kid gets there, lots of weird things start to happen and he discovers that his grandpa, and the kids he grew up with, are all "peculiar" (a fact that the grandfather tried to teach the kid without much success while he was alive). Worse still, the kid himself starts to realize that he may also be peculiar, that bad guys want to destroy these peculiar kids, and that the kid may have brought the danger with him.

I though the chapters in South Florida (where the book begins) were strongest-- they reminded me of Carl Hiassen or Dave Barry. But overall, the book just didn't move me. I think my kids might like it, though.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Book #88: Sister

Sister: A NovelTitle: Sister
Author: Rosamund Lipton

The premise of Sister isn't all that original-- when Beatrice learns that her younger sister Tess is dead (well, she's missing first, but I'm not giving much away telling you that she's actually dead) she's unable to accept that the death was a suicide, so she starts investigating herself, and has to find the killer before it finds her. Despite the BTDT nature of the story, Lipton does a great job bringing Sister to life. I was interested in both Beatrice's backstory and Tess's story, and also in the device Beatrice uses to tell how the hunt for the killer transpired. As the story goes on, the reader starts to realize that something is wrong with Beatrice, and I won't tell you more to give it away, but discovering exactly what is wrong with her, and why, and who did it, is worth reading the book. Once again, a great beach (or deck chair) read.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Book #87: Before I go to Sleep

Before I Go to Sleep: A NovelTitle: Before I go to Sleep
Author: SJ Watson

The second of the books in the amnesia series really, really reminded me of Memento, especially as the story went on. Originally, I thought was reading about a woman whose short-term memory reset every night, but who would eventually overcome her memory loss and live happily ever after with her husband. I don't want to give away too much of what happens in the book, but I can safely say that that is NOT what happens at all. 

 Of all the "beach read" books I downloaded for the trip, this one was the most engaging and most riveting. I was really interested Christine, who woke up every morning not knowing who she was, and how she managed to live a life like that for twenty years. I was also fascinated by Ben-- why would he stay with her, how could he care for her adequately, why didn't he rely on a larger support group? I'd definitely recommend the book-- it's not Tolstoy, but it will keep you reading, and the end is pretty darn great.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Book #86: What Alice Forgot

What Alice ForgotTitle: What Alice Forgot
Author: Liane Moriarty

When I was packing for Alaska, I turned to my bedside table to pack my books. When I go on vacation, I typically arm myself with about one book for each day. I don't often read them all, but since books are my transitional objects, it would be disastrous if I had to endure a day without the possibility of something to read (I know, it sounds dramatic and kind of crazy, but I can hardly get through a pb&j and a bag of Doritos for lunch without a book in my face). So I looked at the stack on my bedside table, serious books about what it means to be a writer, essays by Annie Dillard (in other words, something I know that I should like, but I don't like much anyway), books about Asperger's and international adoption, a few historical books, and Siddhartha Mukherjee's tome on cancer, and most of the books didn't feel like vacation books. So I did what anyone in my position would do, I loaded up the iPad with some lighter reading. Interestingly enough, three of the four books I bought (I did tackle some of the less swishy books, but The Emperor of All Maladies was not among them) that afternoon (this and the next two I'll review) all felt fairly similar, like I could be reading them and discussing them in the same graduate seminar.

I take that back. As much as I enjoyed Liane Moriarty's What Alice Forgot, it's not the kind of book I'd read in any of the graduate seminars I've had so far. But it's a perfect book for a mom to read on a beach (or in my case, freezing my booty off in a deck chair while watching glaciers calve). In What Alice Forgot, Alice falls off her bike in a spin class one morning, and when she regains consciousness, she wonders what the heck she's doing on a spin bike in the first place. As far as she remembers she's 29 (ish?), a little soft around the middle, desperately in love with her husband, and expecting her first baby. Unfortunately for Alice, she's really 39, fit the way only a rich housewife can be, frustrated by her three children, and getting a divorce from the lovely Nick. And the 29-year-old Alice isn't sure that she likes who the 29-year-old Alice has become.

At first I wasn't sure if the book employed some elements of magical realism, but instead Moriarty is working with the soap opera's best friend-- amnesia. The book is light enough, and well written enough that I didn't find myself stumbling over her word choices, but that's not really what What Alice Forgot is about. Instead, it made me (only a few years away from 39 myself) question how the 26-year-old Shelah would judge the 36-year-old Shelah. And I think that's Moriarty's point. While we're all eager to know if Alice and Nick can mend fences (in this genre do you think it's possible for fences not to be mendable?) or if Alice's sister can finally have a baby (once again, expect happy endings) or if she can be happy if her belly isn't perfectly flat, I think the larger take away is how we can work to change the people we've become if we decide that we don't like those people.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Book #85: On Gold Mountain

On Gold Mountain: The One-Hundred-Year Odyssey of My Chinese-American FamilyTitle: On Gold Mountain: The One-Hundred-Year Odyssey of my Chinese-American Family
Author: Lisa See

A few years ago I read one of Lisa See's books and commented on my blog "I don't understand this woman's fascination with China-- she's not even Chinese." At which point several of my readers said, "Oh, but she is. You have to read On Gold Mountain." It took me a while to get around to it, but I'm glad that I finally tackled this book, which does, as its title sort of indicates, resemble a mountain. It's not that long, but the type is really small and the margins are narrow. My husband was reading the new ESPN book at the same time and his book was 700 pages but I think it had half as many words as On Gold Mountain.

Anyway, in On Gold Mountain, See starts with the story of her great-grandfather Fong See, who came to America (Gold Mountain) in the late 1800s and made it big. By late middle age, he'd had at least three wives (some simultaneously, in the old Chinese fashion), more than a dozen kids, and the most prosperous and well-regarded antiques stores in Southern California. He was a complicated, somewhat frustrating figure, and it's not surprising that he became a legend in the family.

Although I enjoyed the story of Fong See, what I was really interested in, as an outsider with a vested interest in Chinese culture, is the women of On Gold Mountain. Fong See's second wife (he was married to a prepubescent girl when he was a teenager in China) was a red-haired American who came to Fong See when he was running a factory to make underwear for prostitutes and told him to hire her because she could help him with his business. A business partnership turned into a marriage, and the couple had half a bunch of children. One of those children (Lisa's grandfather) also married a redhead and the story continues with Lisa's grandfather, the third or fourth son, trying to carve out a space for himself where the larger-than-life personalities of his father and older brothers won't restrict him. I thought it was really interesting that the women who married into the See family (the name taken by the American wife, the other wife's children were known as Fongs) were so drawn into the family circle and the culture that they were willing to give up their own natal culture to be part of it. See's grandmother and great-grandmother definitely considered themselves Chinese, despite their red hair.

So I guess it's not surprising that See is only 1/8 Chinese by blood, but she identifies strongly with Chinese culture. I saw the inspiration of many of her different books in both her family members and the friends they had in Chinatown. I also have some hope that we'll be able to get a little bit of Chinese in us as we add our new daughter to our family.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Book #84: Moon Over Manifest

Moon Over ManifestTitle: Moon Over Manifest
Author: Claire Vanderpool

Years ago, when The Blair Witch Project came out, I remember all the buzz surrounding the movie. It was phenomenal-- like nothing that had ever been done before. So one summer afternoon, I took off from work early and met Eddie at the little arthouse theater north of the Wash U campus. When the lights came back up at the end of the movie and people started filing out, we looked at each other and were like "that's it?" Since then, I've often talked about things that suffered from the "Blair Witch Phenomenon" when a book or movie or tv show (often independent or low budget) was so hyped that it invariably failed to meet expectations.

After that long introduction, you probably think that I hated Moon Over Manifest. I didn't hate it at all. In fact, I quite liked the book (other than the fact that it was pretty slow, and the mystery didn't turn out to be much of a mystery after all). But I think that Moon Over Manifest suffers a bit from the Blair Witch buzz. On the day it won the Newbery Award, I got on Amazon and saw that it had only a couple of online reviews. Then the buzz exploded. I heard people talking about the book everywhere. When I broke down and ordered it, it took several weeks to arrive (with my beloved Amazon Prime shipping) because the publishers had a hard time keeping up with increased demand (at least I presume that's the reason).

Anyway, Moon Over Manifest is the story of a Depression-era girl whose father decides she's too old for tramping and sends her to Manifest, the Kansas town where he spent time as a teenager. Abilene is embraced by most of the town, and she decides that while she's in Manifest for the summer she'll try to find out more about her father and the town's past. She has a little bit of a Pollyanna experience, revitalizing the town and learning a lot about her own past in the process. The book is definitely well-written, but it didn't suck me in the way a lot of the books I've read this summer have. It the kind of book that my 5th and 6th graders would probably put down after a few chapters and call it boring. But eventually I got caught up in the story. I just think the story didn't live up to the hype. But unhyped, it's a really sweet little story.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Book #83: Faith

Faith: A NovelTitle: Faith
Author: Jennifer Haigh

Wow, it feels like forever since I read this book, so my review isn't likely to be especially detailed or insightful at this point. In Faith, Sheila McGann returns to Boston after years of estrangement from her family when her brother, Art, a Catholic priest is accused of molesting a little boy. The story turns out to be a lot more complicated and nuanced than I originally expected. I thought the story could have gone in one of two ways-- either he did it and Sheila was going to discover that her brother wasn't the person she thought he was, or he didn't do it and was being set up unfairly. The actual story lay somewhere in the middle. It was, in many ways, a sweet and heartbreaking portrayal of a man who had been scarred in his childhood and managed to live into adulthood in innocence, but then lost that innocence in the last months of his life. It's also a story of how a family rallies (or doesn't) around a brother. My main quibble with the book is that some of the female characters (notably the other brother's wife) seem relatively one-dimensional, but I think I only noticed the flatness of that character because the rest of the story was so nuanced. 

Midsummer Update

1) We've been back from Alaska for a week. It was really fun, but I abdicated all photographic responsibilities to my mother and therefore don't have any pictures. We saw Mount McKinley, orcas, humpback whales, sea lions, moose, caribou, lots of bunnies, seals, porpoises, dolphins and so many bald eagles that eventually they became commonplace. We hiked in a rainforest, kayaked on a lake, floated down a river, and saw lots of totem poles in the rain. Both Isaac and the Alaska cousins have made us promise to come back in two years.

2) Speaking of Isaac, he's scheduled for surgery #4 (or is it #5?) on August 30th to get the metal plate out of his leg that he had inserted two years ago when they went in to straighten his femur. After that he'll have just two more (little) surgeries a few years down the road and he'll be fully recovered.

3) Bryce has had a fantastic summer at camp. Phew. He's already asked if he can go again next year and told us that he doesn't want to miss ANY days for vacations and stuff like that. It's great to see him so happy.

4) Yesterday we got our official approval from the US government that we are "suitable" to adopt from China. So things there are proceeding apace. We hope that Rose will join our family sometime in the winter or spring. Once we're matched with an actual child and Rose becomes more than a theoretical abstraction, I'm sure I'll have a lot more to say on the matter.

5) In the meantime, I'm working on changing a room for two girls into a room for three girls. We bought a quilt. We ordered a personalized blankie for Rose from the same company we got the other kids' favorite blankies. I found an old set of sheets that matches the sheets in the girls' room and I made them into a duvet cover. My mom finished her owl extravaganza on the walls. Our neighbor is scheduled to come in and build a bed in the reading nook to make a little preteen alcove up there for Annie. Now I need to find someone to come in and do the wallpaper and the room will be finished (only two years after we moved in).

6) Annie just came back from two nights at sleepaway camp and has 48 bug bites to show for it.

7) Maren hasn't slept in my bed in three nights (yes, that is an accomplishment).

8) I'm running the Deseret News marathon on Monday (but just for fun, not for a recordbreaking time).

9) Number of books I've read since the kids got out of school: 23.

10) Number of chapters (pages, paragraphs) I've written on my novel since the kids got out of school: 0.