Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Book Review: The Commitment by Dan Savage

Book Review: The Commitment
Author: Dan Savage
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Audible
This book would be rated: R for language and frank sex talk (this is Dan Savage, after all)

Dan and his boyfriend Terry have been together for ten years. They have a mortgage and a dog and a six-year-old son and a division of labor that both works for them and looks, to many couples, to be straight out of the 1950s. They aren't married, because it's 2004, and the only state in which gay couples can be married is Massachusetts, but they can't seem to escape everyone else's opinions on why they should be married. So for about six months, from that summer until their ten-year anniversary party the following winter, Dan and Terry (and their son DJ, who doesn't want to have to watch his dads get married) try to decide if they should make their union official (at least in the eyes of Canada or Massachusetts, since they are still disallowed any legal rights in their home state of Washington), while musing on the nature of marriage in general.

Savage is an engaging writer, and he does a great job creating and shaping the characters of his family members. I liked the book best when he was telling stories and least when he delved into historical information about the nature of marriage or waxed philosophical. There were times when I wanted to shake him and say "just decide already!" but all in all, I thoroughly enjoyed this read. While I think it might be a good read for someone who wants more personal exposure to a gay couple or insight into gay marriage, most of the book makes Dan and Terry's partnership seem completely pedestrian, but there is a chapter or two that might raise some eyebrows.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Book Review: We Are Water by Wally Lamb

Title: We Are Water
Author: Wally Lamb
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Audible
This book would be rated: A strong R for vivid descriptions of child sex abuse, plus language and violence

We Are Water tells the story of the Oh family. Annie Oh is an artist, and in 2009, when most of the action of the novel takes place, she has recently divorced Orion, her husband of 27 years, in order to marry Vivica, who owns the gallery that represents her work. Orion has just retired from working as a therapist at a college, and their three children, all in their twenties, are in various stages of relationships, finding themselves, and resenting their parents, mainly Annie, and mostly for sins that can be traced back to her difficult childhood. Lamb tells the story in the voices of all of these characters, plus many more.

I listened to the book as an audiobook, which felt like both the best and worst way to experience it. I loved that the people at Harper Collins decided to use different voices for the audiobook, and that Lamb himself voiced Orion. I felt that the use of different voices really made the characters come alive and highlighted the ways that the stories worked together and contradicted one another. However, one of the characters is an unrepentant pedophile, and it was almost impossible to keep listening when he was telling his part of the story (although important, and ultimately, I'm glad I stuck with it, despite my revulsion). There were some problems with the timeline of the story that niggled at me as I read (for example, Annie's mom was 29 when she died. Annie's brother was a sophomore in high school at the time, and we know that Annie's mom got engaged at her senior prom and did not have her son until she was married-- see it doesn't compute). I was also a little bit disappointed that the entire last section of the book, which takes place in 2012, was told in Orion's voice. I wanted to see some closure from the other characters, not just filtered through Orion. All in all, though, We Are Water is the kind of book I love to read-- it's epic and sprawling and engrossing and a little bit tough. The end is remarkably happy, which I think some readers might think is a little bit out of sync with the rest of the novel, but I'm always a sucker for a happy ending.

Sprawling, epic, great use of voice (audiobook was amazing).
Timeline problems (Annie's mom as 29 when she died but her son was a sophomore in high school, parents got engaged when mom was 18).
Weird that the whole 2012 part of the story is told in Orion's voice

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Book Review: The Blood of Flowers by Anita Amirrezvani

Title: The Blood of Flowers
Author: Anita Amirrezvani
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Audible
This book would be rated: R for sexual situations

I read this book six months ago, and the other day, I was lying in Eli's bed (no, he's still not through the night, and neither, for that matter, is Rose) and it hit me that I never reviewed this book. So here is the sketchy and belated review. A girl (who is never named in the novel) loses her father in the opening scenes of a novel that takes place in 17th-century Persia. She and her mother move to the city, to live with an uncle who is a rugmaker for the king, and she has to endure the indignity of a family who doesn't want her and eventually forces her to take a position as a concubine. Later, after her concubinage is over, she learns her uncle's trade, which allows her to see a place for herself where she and her mother might be financially independent. The book is difficult to read at times because the situations the girl faces are so challenging. It's hard for me not to see his book as someone imposing 21st century motives and morals on a 17th century situation, but it was still an interesting, rewarding read. 

Friday, December 20, 2013

Book Review: Brain on Fire by Susan Cahalan

Title: Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness
Author: Susan Cahalan
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Kindle
This book would be rated: PG-13 for language

Susan Cahalan is a 24-year-old journalist for The New York Post, just getting started in her career and in her relationship with her boyfriend, when she starts to act strange. One day her hand is numb. Then she's feeling grumpy and paranoid. Then she loses her appetite and can't sleep. She goes to doctors who tell her it's nothing or prescribe anti-anxiety drugs that don't begin to touch the problem. Pretty soon, she can't form coherent sentences and is lashing out at the people closest to her. When things finally reach a breaking point and she's admitted to NYU hospital after having seizures, she's finally diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disease which, if untreated, can basically destroy the brain and leave patients greatly diminished.

What's amazing to me about Brain on Fire is the way that Cahalan has to go back through the darkest, fuzziest, stupidest part of her life in order to reconstruct the events surrounding her illness, and that she's able to do this as she's coming out of the illness, maybe even as a way to help herself heal from the ordeal she's been through. While we're very familiar with medical dramas where a brilliant doctor diagnoses a rare disease, it's much less common to see the progress of that disease from a patient's perspective, and that's where I think Brain on Fire finds its niche.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Book Review: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Title: The Goldfinch
Author: Donna Tartt
Enjoyment Rating: *****
Source: Kindle
This book would be rated: R, for pervasive language, violence, drug use

Theo Decker is thirteen when he survives a terrorist bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art which kills his mother and leaves him, essentially, alone in the world. But this isn't the kind of story where Theo is a poor, innocent orphan. Theo and his mom were only at the Met because they were killing time before heading over to the school from which he had been suspended (for stealing? smoking? he's been doing both). And on his way out of the museum, after seeing the man trapped in the rubble next to him die, Theo sticks one of the most famous and valuable paintings in the world into his shirt and runs out the door.

This is the first novel I've read by Donna Tartt (I think I had the wrong idea about her name and thought she wrote romances), but based on this huge, sprawling, thorny novel with an unreliable narrator and the last hundred pages that come right out of an (awesome) action movie, I hope to read more of her work. Yes, the book is profane, and violent, and Theo does some completely reprehensible things. There are times when I'm not sure I want to root for him. There are also some problems with anachronisms (the terrorist attack, for example, has to take place in the late 1990s or very early 2000s, yet everyone has an iPhone). But Tartt makes Theo incredibly vulnerable in the early chapters when he's living on Park Avenue with a school buddy and his family, and I have a hard time forgetting that Theo when the character gets older and starts drinking and drugging and stealing and worse. There were also points in the novel when I was deeply uncomfortable (basically whenever his Russian friend, Boris, entered the story), but I was glad I persevered, because the ending of the novel was one of those delightful surprises that doesn't come along very often for a reader. I expected that there would be a depressing ending or a non-ending (this is, after all, literary fiction) but Tartt gave this reader what she wanted. And the painting, there's always the power of the painting in Theo's life, and the power of the girl who inspired him to steal it in the first place. It's definitely worth a read for anyone who feels that they have the chops to go on a long, somewhat difficult journey with this character.

problems of timeline
uncomfortable but payoff is awesome
unreliable narrator

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Book Review: The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

Title: The Rosie Project
Author: Graeme Simsion
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Kindle
This book would be rated: PG-13 for sexual themes and language

Don is a genetics professor living in Australia who knows that now that he's in his late 30s, it's time for him to start looking for a wife. And so he starts the search with the same methodical precision that he applies to his weekly dinner menus (no variations in his meals, whatsoever). He creates a questionnaire, and before he'll go out with a woman, she has to take the questionnaire, and he has to score it, after which time there are very few women who pass his test, and very few women who are willing to date him after taking it.

At the same time, Don meets Rosie, who isn't a candidate for the wife project, and even if she were, she'd totally fail Don's test. She's unpredictable and feisty and a smoker, and she enlists Don's help to find her biological father. Rather predictably, Don and Rosie fall for each other over the course of the novel, and Don starts to see that he's okay with a little bit of uncertainty in his life.

The Rosie Project was a cute book, but last time I checked Amazon it had something like a 4.8-star rating, and while I liked it well enough, I certainly didn't think it was a five-star book. In the first place, there didn't seem to be much story beyond whether Don would realize that he and Rosie were perfect for each other. And while I'm loath to admit this, as the parent of a kid with Asperger's, my kid barely resembles Don, with his regimented behaviors and nerdiness (although the social cluelessness is there), to the point that I'm not sure if Simsion has Asperger's wrong or I do. Anyway, a fun read, but I don't think it lives up to the hype it's getting.

The winter runner

Remember running? When I first started this blog, I wrote a lot about running. I wrote about my training programs, and my races, and everything I was thinking about as I ran. But after a while, my pace started to plateau and I stopped setting goals for myself, and I realized that reading about someone else's running was pretty boring, so I stopped writing about it. But I still run about 60 miles a week, and most days you can find me at 5am on the streets of Salt Lake, trying to get a run in before the crazy day sets in. But just for a minute, indulge me as I write about running.

The summer runner gets ready in less than five minutes. At five am, all she needs is a tank top, a pair of running shorts, socks and shoes. She pulls her hair into a ponytail, and she's out the door. It's dark most mornings when the summer runner sets up, but she's always rewarded with a gorgeous sunrise. She can't run much past sunrise, because it's too hot by midday, and she picks routes where she knows she'll find water fountains. She also sees people she knows almost every morning, and takes welcome breaks to chat. On mornings when it's not too hot, the summer runner can take the kids out in the jogger if they keep her from getting out the door. The summer runner can also escape to the trails when she's sick of running the same routes week after week.

The summer runner also feels the pressure of speedwork, tempo days, and race training.

The winter runner sets out her gear the night before, but it still takes her 15 minutes to get dressed. A pair or two of tights, a shirt or three, an outer layer, heavy socks (with the tights pulled down so not a millimeter of skin shows), reflective gear, a hat, and gloves. Oh gloves-- the bane of the winter runner. She never knows which gloves to wear, despite checking the weather app on her phone more regularly than her email. If it's over forty, she doesn't need anything on her hands. Between 30-40 and she wears a shirt with foldover cuffs. Between 20-30, she adds a pair of light gloves. Between 10-20, she swaps out the gloves for mittens. Between 0-10, she adds hand warmers. Below 0 and her hands will be cold, no matter what she does. But the science is inexact, and most mornings her hands are either sweaty or freezing.

And chapped. Every inch of the winter runner is chapped. She has cracks in her heels and her fingers. A friendly pat on the back or the butt is liable to elicit a howl of pain, and no amount of exfoliating or shaving will help with her dry, scaly legs. She knows the limitations of every kind of lotion on the market, and super glues herself on a daily basis.

The winter runner often finds herself alone in the dark. I don't mean she's running by herself, I mean that she might not see another runner the entire time she's out, and the beautiful winter sunrises happen long after she's inside and getting started for the day. And in the dark, she has to be careful not to slip on ice or step in puddles of freezing water. She might even fall a few times during a winter, and spend days hobbling around, convinced she broke something in her back or her elbow (she didn't).

If the winter runner can't will herself out of bed before dawn, she could go any other time during the day, providing she has someone to watch her kids. And she feels no pressure to run fast or meet goals or to really do much of anything other than to stay upright when she's out during the mornings.

You might think that the winter runner spends the whole season pining for summer, or at least for spring, but she doesn't. She loves the quiet meditative mornings with no one on the roads. She loves the brisk air and the bragging rights. Her favorite times of the entire year are when there's fresh snow on the roads and she can be the first one to put her footprints in it. Of course, those feet might be a little bit tentative and her heels are certainly full of cracks, but she wouldn't change it, not for a whole year of summer running.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Book Review: One Summer by Bill Bryson

Title: One Summer: America, 1927
Author: Bill Bryson
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Audible

You can probably tell, based on my reading list, that I'd rather read fiction than nonfiction. And if I'm reading nonfiction, my favorite genre is definitely memoir. When I buy books from Audible, I often buy nonfiction books, and then find myself not interested in listening to them (but I'm too dutiful, and eventually end up listening to almost everything). So I wasn't all that enthusiastic about starting Bill Bryson's One Summer, despite the fact that I've enjoyed almost everything I've read by Bryson.

The book starts in May 1927 with the race to fly across the Atlantic, follows the Mississippi floods (I was listening to this at the same time I was reading The Tilted World, which was a delightful coincidence), Babe Ruth's home run streak, Calvin Coolidge's decision not to seek reelection, the Sacco and Vanzetti executions, and many other big historical events that all took place in one momentous summer.

I shouldn't have doubted Bryson. An hour into this 20-hour masterpiece, I was hooked in a way that I rarely am when I read nonfiction. He was so adept at crafting characters out of historical figures, getting me as a reader to care about them, then leaving them for a while to talk about a new story, then somehow bringing both stories together in a way that illuminated both. While I think that 1927 was a remarkable summer in some ways, reading this book made me wish that there was a book like this written for every year in American history.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Book Review: The Tilted World by Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly

Title: The Tilted World: A Novel
Authors: Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Kindle
This book would be rated: PG-13 for violence and language

Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly are a married couple. He's the author of several previous crime novels, including Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, which won an Edgar for best novel a few years ago. She is a poet, and they both teach in the MFA program at the University of Mississippi. Based on the recommendation of a friend, and the whole premise of a novel written by a married couple who both bring unique skills to the project, made me eager to dive in to the story, a crime novel set against the backdrop of the devastating Mississippi floods in the spring of 1927.

The story centers on a bootlegger who lost her only son as a newborn, a prohibition enforcement agent, and a baby found in the middle of a murder scene. The other characters include the bootlegger's slick husband, the agent's partner, and the swirling waters of the Mississippi. And while the writing is gorgeous, and the novel worth reading for that fact alone, and the unlikely romance is compelling, I felt like the crime aspect of the story (the whodunit part) wasn't as big of a factor as I had hoped it would be. As a result, I felt a little bit underwhelmed by the story, while being totally enchanted by how the story was told.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Book Review: Global Mom by Melissa Dalton-Bradford

Title: Global Mom: Eight Countries, Sixteen Addresses, Five Languages, One Family
Author: Melissa Dalton-Bradford
Enjoyment Rating: *****
Source: Kindle
This book would be rated: PG

Global Mom is the story of an expatriate family, beginning when Melissa Dalton-Bradford and her husband decided to make a change-- they were going to leave his corporate job in New Jersey, and her jobs teaching college English and working in theater in NYC, take their two small kids, and move to Norway. From there, they spent time in France, Germany, Singapore, and many other places, many of which required the family to learn new languages, not to mention adjusting to new school and cultures. While a lesser writer might turn the book into a list or a travelogue, Melissa chooses stories that come together thematically as the book progresses.

I'm going to let you in on a little secret: sometimes I go easy on my reviews when I know the author. That's not to say that I won't call a spade a spade, but sometimes I might be willing to overlook some problems in a book when it has been written by someone I know and respect. And in the interest of full disclosure, if the author is LDS, I might be inclined to go a little easier, because you know, member of the tribe and all. Melissa Dalton-Bradford is not only someone I know personally, but she's also LDS and a member of the staff at Segullah, so based on those factors alone, I knew that unless it was terrible (and since I know Melissa, I knew it wasn't going to be terrible), I was going to give Global Mom a good review. What I was unprepared for was just how much this book would knock my socks off. Since bringing Eli home, my reading productivity has gone way down. Last year I read almost 200 books, and though I'm not keeping track this year, I know it's not anywhere near that high this year. I average about one "real" book and one audiobook each week, or maybe slightly less. But I read Global Mom in two sittings, and I cried big, ugly heaving tears at the end. And not because the book is emotionally manipulative (because it's not) but because I was both grieving along with Melissa (who writes about the death of her oldest son, Parker, as part of the narrative) and so sad that the book was done.

If you're someone who would love to pack it in and move to Shanghai with your kids, this book will give you the confidence that you can do it. If you want a story about living and grieving, this is that story. If you just want a well-written memoir, read this. It's one of the best books I've read this year, and that was a delightful surprise for me as a reader.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Book Review: Attachments by Rainbow Rowell

Title: Attachments
Author: Rainbow Rowell
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Audible
This book would be rated: PG-13 for talk about sex, and one character who swears

Lincoln is kind of a loser. He's been pining for his one and only girlfriend for a decade. He lives with his mom. He could stand to lose a few pounds. And he hates his job, which is something in IT for a newspaper, but basically boils down spying on people by reading the emails which have been flagged as objectionable by the filtering software. Lincoln hates reading these emails and he especially hates reading the email conversations between Beth (the movie reviewer) and Jennifer (a copy editor). He hates it because their emails are funny and cool, and he feels like such a jerk for being drawn to them. But through their emails, readers get to see the lives of Beth and Jennifer unfold. We know that Beth desperately wants to marry her boyfriend, but he's not interested. We know that Jennifer is terrified to have a baby. Over the course of nearly a year, their story unfolds, and Lincoln finds himself falling in love with Beth, which brings about a whole set of complications and guilt.

I believe that Attachments was the first novel Rainbow Rowell published, and I also think it's the only book she wrote for adults. However, it's very much in the vein of Eleanor and Park or Fangirl, it's just that the protagonists are in their late 20s instead of their late teens. I had a friend who commented that the book has less "adult" material than her YA novels, and that is true (just skip the parts where Lincoln is out partying with his friend Justin). I felt that unlike the other novels, which had small payoffs throughout the story, which made the whole reading process enjoyable, this novel felt more like a traditional romance, where the whole story is based on what happens in the final chapters, when the romantic leads come together (whoops, spoiler alert, but you have to know it's going to happen). Anyway, some of the things I liked best about the novel was seeing the evolution of all three characters, but especially the evolution of Lincoln, who was motivated by these two women he's never met to get his life in order. I also liked that a romantic novel was primarily voiced form a male POV. And the final chapters really are great-- she brings the whole story together in a way that's really rewarding for a reader.