Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Swimming Home

Like Denis Johnson's "Train Dreams," I'm not quite sure what to make of "Swimming Home" by Deborah Levy. In the beginning, I almost stopped reading it. But I found that I couldn't. In fact, I couldn't put it down and ended up reading the whole thing very quickly.  (To be fair, it is a very short book.)
"Swimming Home" is about two couples and the daughter of one of the couples who are on vacation. When a woman named Kitty Finch turns up in their swimming pool, everything is turned upside-down. Or is it? Is it really Kitty Finch who sets things into motion, or were they already on their way down that path?
"Swimming Home" is set over the course of a week, and not that much really happens. Even so, it's taut with suspense. It has stuck with me and made me think, which is what a really good book should do. The only thing I wasn't sure about was the ending. It seemed tacked on and not completely necessary.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Paris Wife

I love Hemingway. I don't love who he was as a person, but I love his writing. Almost a year ago, I read "A Moveable Feast," which is about his time in Paris during the early 1920s with his wife, Hadley. It had a major impact on me, and I now consider it one of my favorite books.
"The Paris Wife," by Paula McLain, is the fictional "she said" to Hemingway's "he said" in "A Moveable Feast." Parts of it are also very close to an unfinished novel published posthumously called "The Garden of Eden," and parts of it take place during his writing of "The Sun Also Rises."
I came very close to hating this book. I found myself asking "why?" Why was this book necessary when we already have Hemingway's first-person perspective on it? While that question still nags at me a little, I've mostly gotten over it. Hemingway was larger than life. To hear about that time of his life in his own words is, to me, priceless. Yet maybe it's important for us to look at it from the perspective of the women in his life; Hadley, in this case.
I think the reason I ended up loving "The Paris Wife" in the end is that it drove home that Hemingway never really got over Hadley. You get that sense in "A Moveable Feast," but "A Paris Wife" ties it all together. It also tells us what Hemingway did not: what happened to Hadley afterward. She went on to live a happy life without him, while he continued to struggle along in his relationships and wrestle with his inner demons, all the while continuing to produce some of the most brilliant literary work ever written.
I should also say that "The Paris Wife" is beautifully written. To write about Hemingway is a daunting task. If it had been poorly written, I would not have been very forgiving. But I think McLain really nailed this. She strikes me as someone who is well-versed in Hemingway's work, and it shows. She really nails the "voice" of Hemingway, which is such a strong part of his work. She really nails his style of writing dialogue, something I might not have noticed if it had been written differently, but I did take notice to how she utilized his same style. It was really well done.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement

"Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement," has been on my list of books to read for a long time. I've been fascinated by the Quiverfull movement for years. It's oddly appealing in some ways, and disturbing in others.
"Quiverfull" was really fascinating, but not really what I expected. It mostly talks about the leaders of the Quiverfull movement, not the families, which was what I was hoping for. I wanted to learn about families who chose to leave the movement, and found the really long chapter about the family that fought so desperately to stay in the church kind of odd. I never really understood why they fought so hard to get back into the church, after everything that had been done to them.
I think the thing that bothered me the most about the leaders in the movement was their hypocrisy. There are multiple women out there, writing books and editing magazines, all the while instructing women that they should not be working outside of caring for their families and homes, yet isn't that just what those women are doing? Does no one really think to question them about this? To me, that just made it obvious that for a lot of these leaders, it isn't about the Bible or doing what's best for families, it's about money.
Although this type of lifestyle is definitely not for me, I can definitely see why it appeals to some. There is something romantic about it. However, I can see how it could lead to abuse in some situations, when people take it to the extreme.


I generally tend to stay away from books written by comedians. The few times when I have picked one up, I've come away feeling disappointed and like I'd wasted my time. I'd heard a lot of good things about Tina Fey's "Bossypants," however, so I decided to give it a shot.
"Bossypants" is definitely the best comedy book I've ever read. I felt like I could really relate to Tina Fey. Her experiences with breastfeeding were especially hilarious and so, so true. I loved reading about how she came to play Sarah Palin on "Saturday Night Live." I loved, LOVED the chapter about her father. Really, about the only thing I didn't enjoy was the stuff about "30 Rock." I watched the show on and off, but didn't really love it, so it was a little dull reading about it.
Maybe the most important thing I took away from this book is that Amy Poehler does not give a f**k that I don't like her. That's good to know....

Cathing up & The Fate of Mercy Alban

I've been slacking, so I have a lot of catching up to do.
First I'll focus on "The Fate of Mercy Alban," by Wendy Webb. I wanted to love this book so much. It had absolutely everything I'm looking for in a book: creepy old house, ghosts, set in Minnesota, and a Minnesota author. It doesn't get much better than that, right?
Unfortunately, it was a huge disappointment. I really try not to be one of those people who thinks, "I've written better things than this. Why is this person published and I'm not?" but I have to admit it crossed my mind a few times while reading this. The idea was fantastic, but the writing was lacking. I think it was a mistake to write it in first person; it would have been more suspenseful if it had been written in third. The narrator was very vague and almost distant from her own story, which I thought was odd, and it kept me wondering throughout the book if she was an unreliable narrator. Honestly, I was ready to forgive all and call it brilliant right up to the end, if that would have been the case. It wasn't.
There were times when the book screamed for an editor. The use of the word "scant" twice in two pages comes to mind as an example. I know it's probably not a huge deal, but it's not a word that I see used all that often and it stood out to me.
It became increasingly annoying that the narrator had the opportunity to find out the truth multiple times throughout the book, but she didn't. She could have insisted that the maid tell her. She could have read the whole manuscript she discovered in one night, but she didn't. No, she always had something else to do first (like play kissy face with her boyfriend), and the truth could wait.
The most unbelievable aspect of the book was the world-famous writer. I can believe that a ghost appeared to the narrator while she slept in her bed. I can't believe that this brilliant, award-winning writer decided to go back to college and get a degree when his career was already taking off. I can't believe that the amazing novel the author came up with was a thinly veiled, poorly written account of his summer at Alban House. I can't believe that high schoolers would have studied this man's work in school. There's just too much there that doesn't work for me.
Even though there was a lot I didn't like about this book, I think I'll be giving Wendy Webb another try. As I said, I LOVE her ideas, and that her books are set in Minnesota. I'll be keeping my expectations low this time, and hoping that "The Fate of Mercy Alban" was just a fluke.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Eleanor & Park

I'd heard a lot of good things about Eleanor & Park, but I'll admit I was a little skeptical about it. The minute I saw the word "punk" on the cover, I thought it was going to be one of those "cooler-than-thou" books. You know, lots of name dropping of bands no one knows and talk about how cool someone dresses. It was my main complaint about The Time Traveler's Wife. While there was a *little* bit of that in Eleanor & Park, it didn't bother me.
I was also afraid this was going to be another one of those YA romances where the whole plot is, "OMG, I like him, does he like me?" That was my main complaint with Anna & the French Kiss. Nothing else happened. But Eleanor & Park didn't feel that way to me. I've been asking myself if I feel differently about Eleanor & Park than Anna & the French Kiss because the kids in Anna are rich and the kids in Eleanor & Park are not, but I think it goes much deeper than that. Eleanor & Park's romance is intense, and it feels like the real deal. It doesn't feel like a bunch of fussing over something that's going to last 15 minutes. I like how Rainbow Rowell alternates viewpoints between the two of them. It takes the, "OMG, I like him, does he like me?" part out of the equation because you already know. She takes you inside each of their heads and shows, very realistically, I think, how love happens very gradually. This isn't "OMG, she's so hawwwt!!11" They both have their doubts about where this will lead, but they can't help themselves.
I also really liked how Rowell takes some characters that look stereotypical and at first (Park's parents, Tina and Steve), and gives them depth. I was a little confused toward the end about one of those character's actions, but I loved it that what Eleanor & Park thought about her through the whole book ended up being not true. Rowell does a great job of showing how people's perceptions of what another person is thinking or feeling often turns out to be false.
Overall, I have very few complaints about Eleanor & Park. It wasn't perfect, but it was lovely...a lot like Eleanor & Park's love for one another. I now want to read everything else that Rainbow Rowell has written.

I also read One and Only: The Freedom of Having an Only Child and the Joy of Being One by Lauren Sandler. While I did get some good stuff out of it, I was a little disappointed. It gave me some of the answers I was looking for, but in the end all it told me was what I already know: each family should do what's right for them, whether it's number of children or breastfeeding or having one parent stay at home or both parents working. No matter what size of family you decide to have, whether it's 0 kids or 10, someone is going to have a problem with it. Those people are dumb and should keep their mouths shut, but they never will. 
Sandler seems to want to make "her way" the only "right way," and I don't really agree with that. When you start passing judgment on other people's choices to justify your own, you've got a problem. She seems to cherry-pick to find the answers she's looking for, throwing out data when it's convenient and making a big deal out of it when it's convenient. 
I'm still undecided about whether I want a second child, and One and Only didn't do a lot to help me make that decision. I need to learn to stay away from these kinds of books, because they don't really do much for me.
Up next for me are Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement and The Fate of Mercy Alban.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Life After Life

"Life After Life" by Kate Atkinson was one of those books that had a lot of hype surrounding it and, in my opinion, did not live up to it. It took me two weeks to read it, partly because I read "Catch-22" during the same time frame, but mostly because I simply didn't want to pick it up and read it most of the time.
It started out with a lot of promise, I thought. The life of the main character, Ursula, is on permanent repeat. She dies in numerous ways throughout the book, and goes right back to where she started, being born on a snowy evening. She rarely makes the same mistake that results in her death twice, but sometimes it takes more work than others.
What I liked best about this book was that it showed  how one decision, even one that might seem insignificant at the time, can change the outcome of your whole life. When Ursula finally makes it to World War II, things change. And for me, that was where the book started to drag. Sure, she lives longer, but to me it became depressing and drawn out. I also found this section of the book to be confusing at times. I had a hard time figuring out how she'd gotten where she did, especially during one part that I don't want to talk about here because I wouldn't want to spoil it for anyone.
What I didn't like about this book was that, for the most part, the other characters seemed to stay the same while Ursula changed. I didn't feel connected to any of them, really, and none of them seemed to grow as characters. There were also times when the actions of characters were mentioned, and it seemed like it would be a significant development, and then it wasn't. Why say that Ursula saw someone in a place that was unusual if nothing was going to come of it?
The ending was very open-ended, which bothered me. Was she repeating her life over and over so she could do things right, or was it just going to repeat on and on forever until it all became a jumbled mess in her mind and she wound up institutionalized somewhere?
"Life After Life" was a really interesting concept, but I didn't think it was executed as well as it could have been.