Monday, December 29, 2008

While I Was Gone

While trapped in my house during the great snow storm of ’08, I had lots of time to read. AND NO GOOD BOOKS! On a warm, sunny day I enjoy the walk to Half Price Books from my house. But in snowy, wet, windy weather I was totally disinterested in marching the 2 miles on packed, icy snow covered sidewalks. Let alone the uphill 2 mile walk back home. Therefore, I was stuck reading the scraps of literature I already had around the house when the snowfall began. One such scrap was While I Was Gone by Sue Miller. I had started it a few weeks earlier but lost interest. But after 3 days of being snowed in with terrible TV options, I decided I couldn’t afford to be fussy any longer. And I didn’t actually hate it. I didn’t even really dislike it. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I loved it, but I did like it.

While I Was Gone is about a woman named Joey. She’s in her early fifties with three grown children and a great husband. When an old roommate from college reappears, it gets her all rattled and distracted because, when they lived together in the 1960’s (with a bunch of other hippies), some horrible thing happened. Joey doesn’t feel like she has resolution on this horrible happening and thinks that the reappearance of Eli might be the answer. She makes a bunch of shitty decisions as a result of her semi-obsession with Eli's reappearance and eventually, things get creeeeepy.

Sue’s writing is very sophisticated, but I couldn’t help but think that I would have enjoyed the book more if I was my Mom. Or at least over the age of 50. The story is obviously well crafted, but I had a hard time getting past the fact that I didn’t really like the narrator. I didn’t hate Joey, but she wasn’t particularly likable either. The relationships are realistically complex and the descriptions of her marriage were really painful and yet beautifully truthful. I just had a hard time really investing in her as a character. I’d be interested in hearing from any of you who may have read Sue Miller – does she have any other books you’d recommend above While I Was Gone? And also? Why is it called While I Was Gone? I never really figured that out, which bugged. Part of my lack of enthusiasm about this book may be a result of my recent affliction with Reading ADD, but I’m not sure. Or maybe it was because it had an Oprah's book club sticker on it.

Sunday, December 21, 2008


A coworker loaned this to me in order to help me finish the New Classics Challenge. Considering the NEVER ENDING snow storm Seattle is currently experiencing, you'd think I'd have finished it sooner. But the truth is that Gilead is a slow moving book and it took some time to read. So despite the pajama-clad lifestyle I've been leading the last 4 days, I just finally finished it this morning.

Gilead is narrated by a 77 year old pastor in Gilead, Iowa in the 1950s. The entire book is a letter written to his 7 year old son before the old man dies from a recently diagnosed heart condition. The story meanders a bit to tell the story of his upbringing, but for me the real focus was on his love for his wife and son. You learn that his first wife died in childbirth (along with the child) and after living alone for many years he falls in love with Lilla, who is roughly 40 years his junior and they get married and have a child late in his life.

The pace is verrrrrry slow, but the writing is really beautiful. I will confess to moments of boredom, but not because it isn't a good book. It's a book full of good quotes about love and pondering the meaning and purpose of life. Knowing that he'll die soon, the way he describes his young son and their interactions is simultaneously heartwarming and heartbreaking.

So while I respected this book, I can't say that I found it particularly enjoyable. The simple but eloquent prose bore occasional resemblance to Plainsong, which is still one of my favorite books read this year (reviewed here) but I enjoyed the reading of Plainsong ten times as much as Gilead. Sorry, Gilead.

Now that I've completed The NCC, I'd like to read a book or two that might be classified by my friend Maggie as a GP. This stands for Guilty Pleasure. The problem? I'm effing snowed in! For reals! I guess I could walk somewhere to get a book, but my options are limited by 1. how lazy I am and 2. by how cold it is and 3. by the fact that the nearest bookstore is about a 4 mile round trip walk and lastly, 4. going outside would involve changing out of the pajamas I've had on all day. I'm considering walking the 1/2 mile to the nearest grocery store to see if they have any interesting trashy books in the card aisle. Although considering my grocery shopping experience yesterday, which was something akin to the Y2K panic of 1999, I'm not sure I'm up for it.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008


In the last 3 days (since finishing Eat Pray Love) I've tried starting no less than 5 books.

Drowning Ruth – Seemed good but I put it down to try and focus on finishing The New Classics Challenge.

The Road – Tried in a fit of commitment to the NCC, but wasn't in the right mood.

Out Stealing Horses – Started it after forgetting Drowning Ruth at the office. Seems interesting, but not something I'll love so I put it down.

While I was Gone by Sue Miller – The back description makes me stressed out and the first 15 pages were a little so-so.

Some Jodi Piccoult book – I can't remember the name, but it's about an Amish woman who has a sister with Leukemia and lives next door to an Indian burial ground where a murder is committed by a ghost with stigmata. Kidding! But I think I just successfully combined the plots of like 5 other Jodi Piccoult books in that description.

Finally, a coworker loaned me Gilead today and I'm thinking this book might save me from me reading-ADD.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Eat Pray Love

I don’t know. I just can’t jump on board the popularity train for this book. In fact, about midway through the book, I almost put it down and actually started to draft a review that I titled, “Eat Pray Barf” which pretty accurately reflected my initial feelings on the book. That said, after reading the last 100-150 pages or so, I decided to take the ‘barf’ part back. But only just.

I really like the book’s concept – recently divorced woman in her 30’s takes a year off to travel through Italy, India and Indonesia to figure some shit out. But the execution was filled with so many clich├ęs it was a little painful for me.

At one point she remembers going to a party hosted by her friend who recently had a baby. The sight of the tired mother taking care of a baby and doing the dishes leaves her literally shaking and so terrified that she locks herself in the bathroom. All she can say when a friend finds her cowering in the bathroom is, “I don’t know what to do.” Then her friend who has no background information on what's bothering Liz says, “Tell the truth, tell the truth, tell the truth.” Really? I hope this is an exaggeration to illustrate a point and not true because if so, then Elizabeth Gilbert is a grade A drama queen (and so is her friend). Same with the story used to illustrate her new found mental health in Italy when she wakes herself up by laughing out loud in the middle of the night. Annoying.

Also, the whole concept of taking off, leaving everything behind and travelling to “find yourself” isn’t really a novel concept. And having a spiritual “guru”? It just smacks of bougie celebs wearing red bracelets because it’s cool to be spiritual and “self aware”. Ditto on yoga retreats.

But my biggest bone to pick is that I didn’t really like Elizabeth Gilbert. Her writing is … fine. But her? Pretty annoying and kind of boring. I know, I know. I’m a heartless bitch. She was just a nice girl going through a rough time. I’m not saying that I actively disliked her, I just didn’t find her particularly unique, or engaging, or interesting. Don’t get me wrong, there were definitely moments when reading the Italy chapters that I was swept away with an aching desire to take a year off and pig out on pizza and pasta. But then she’d go back to brooding over her tempestuous relationship with David (the man she shacked up with immediately after leaving her husband) and I’d feel the annoyance creep back. It bothered me how much more hung up on David she was than her ex husband. This is mostly because from what she told us of David, he bugged the shit out of me. I could totally picture her relationship with David before they broke up and I wanted to barf all over it. I liked that she was at least willing to own up to her desperate, neediness in relationships, but I’m not sure that being honest about something annoying makes it less annoying.

Anyways, I’m feeling like a total Negative Nancy so I’ll tell you what I did like. Everyone told me the best parts were in Italy (and I did enjoy the makeshift Thanksgiving chapter), but my favorite parts were actually in Indonesia. I loved Ketut the ancient medicine man and found the Wayan character entertaining (particularly when Wayan was “fucking with her” about buying a house). I think I also liked it because in general, Liz became less annoying towards the end. She wasn’t crying about not liking to chant, or moaning about David, or having dramatic convos with herself in her creepy journal. Basically, I think maybe the problem is that I’m sort of a hater of books about “finding yourself”. At which point you are perfectly entitled to ask me why the hell I decided to read this book. The truth is I didn’t really want to read it. But I needed to read two more books for the New Classics Challenge and when I sent a plea out to my coworkers, this was the first book that someone brought in for me to borrow.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency

I've seen this series all over the place and for some reason assumed it was all Janet Evanovich style. Which is when I guess I have to confess to having read one of the Stephanie Plum books. But I swear I didn't like it! Actually, now that I think of it, I think maybe I listened to it as a book on tape. More shameful? Not sure. Mostly I just remember a sassy, red-head type who solves mysteries that involve a handsome, surly man who ends up in the sack with her. After having read The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency it's pretty hilarious that I put it in the same category as the Plum series because they are totally unalike.

This book features Precious (Mma) Ramotswe, an enormous lady from Botswana. Her much adored father dies after working in the diamond mines for his entire life and leaves his fortune to his only child. She spends it all on starting her own detective agency. She has no qualifications other than being wise and observant, in a folksy, tea drinking sort of way. She is the only "lady detective" in all of the country and she solves an assortment of quirky cases in this book. None of them are particularly challenging and each is resolved in about 24 hours. I don't know. It was sort of uneventful. Some woman's long lost father reappears only to mooch off her for weeks. Detective Ramotswe tricks the father into admitting he's an imposter and tells him to go away. So he does. Then she follows a high school girl around because her father thinks she has a boyfriend and doesn't approve. She finds out the girl doesn't really have a boyfriend and tells the father to give his daughter space. He does. All mysteries are solved faster than an episode of Law & Order.

Then you get to the case of the missing 11 year old boy. This case is referenced on the back of the book as being "the big mystery" so I was looking forward to this part of the book. The boy is abducted on his way home. Then Mma Ramotswe hears from her mechanic friend about a bag of witchcraft medicine (ie; bones and skin) that was found in a car at his shop. The "medicine" is the finger bone of a young boy recently---

Woah! I have to take this review on a detour for a minute because some seriously questionable music just started playing on Jeff's computer. I swear a minute ago we were listening to something normal, but this song appears to be Mexican gangster rap interspersed with mariachi music. Um, wha? Jeff was at the computer before I sat down and I left his playlist undisturbed. Strangely, when I look at the iTunes window it says I'm listening to God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. I wish Mma Ramotswe was here to solve the mystery of why Jeff is listening to this terrible music. But she's not, so I will continue with my review.

Back to the finger bone. So she tracks down the medicine man who sold the finger bone to the car owner. He must be the killer, yes? But after a 5 minute chat with the medicine man's wife, she finds that, surprise! The boy isn't dead. It wasn't even his finger! They bought those bones at some other village. They're just keeping the boy as a forced laborer at a cattle ranch a few hours away. Mma Ramotswe drives to the cattle ranch and takes the boy home. Except what? If it wasn't his finger, than how does the solving of the mystery even make sense? The only reason she found the medicine man is because of the finger bone! Is anyone else smelling something not quite right? Maybe I'm the one missing something, but it seems like this book could have used a continuity director.

Here's the thing, the main character is pretty badass. She's enormously fat and all the men love her. At one point, she's looking at some blouses and when the saleswoman asks her to buy one, she proudly responds that they don't have a blouse big enough for her, like if I were to say to the Clinique woman, "I'm sorry, but I can't buy any of your foundation because it doesn't come in a shade as flawless as my natural skin tone." She's smart and sassy and the descriptions of Africa and her father are really endearing. I guess it's a sweet book. I was just so distracted by the simplicity of it all, I couldn't really enjoy it. I think if you're looking for an entertaining series starring a lady detective, I'd recommend The Bee Keeper's Apprentice over this series any day. But if you're thinking of picking up the Stephanie Plum series by Evanovich, put that thought out of your head right now. The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency ranks higher.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

I finished this book on Friday but have been having such a holidayrific weekend that I haven't had time to post. In fact, I have company coming in 45 minutes for a dinner party, so I'm going to make this snappy. And yes, I just said snappy.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a the second book by Jonathan Safran Foer (see my post below for his first book). ELaIC follows 10 year old Oskar Schell around New York as he tries to find the lock that fits a key he found in his dad's closet. His father died in the World Trade Center on September 11th and looking for the lock seems to be the only thing that lightens his "heavy boots". On his search he encounters all sorts of people, who are each going through their own trials. Also interwoven throughout the book is the story of his grandparent's survival of WWII up through present day.

This book is very much a story of grieving. It's beautifully written and sad as hell. There are many poignant moments and passages where you find yourself thinking that Jonathan Safran Foer is a genius for writing out loud things you've thought before as well as things that you would never even think to think about. The narration of Oskar was always fantastic, I loved everything about him and when he finally tells his whole story (I'm being intentionally vague to avoid spoilers) I was balling like a baby. I had a slightly more rocky relationship with the story of his Grandparents. I think reading this book when in the right mood might be crucial to the enjoyment of it. I loved the writing and how beautifully he captures what love is, but at times, the Grandparent story line was a just a little too melancholy for me. I think Jonathan has an amazing voice, but it would be interesting to see him try something a little different. His first two books are a little samsey for me, but I'd definitely read whatever he has up his sleeve next.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Something to Tide you Over

"... she wants to know if I love her, that's all anyone wants from anyone else, not love itself but the knowledge that love is there, like new batteries in the flashlight in the emergency kit in the hall closet..."

Quote from Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which I still haven't finished.