Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Warmth of Other Suns

The Warmth of Other Suns makes The Help look like a piece of shit.

I finished this book the week of Thanksgiving, but with the semester wrapping up and the holidays I haven't had a chance to write about it until now. I had to read it as my "context book" for my Intro to Library and Information Science class. I had 6 options, and this was the only one available as an audiobook, so it won. I'm so glad this is the book I chose, because it is a fantastic book. Because I don't feel like writing it all out again, here's what I wrote about Warmth for my context book discussion (You can ignore the last two paragraphs if you want, that's where I had to talk about how the book related to libraries):

In The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabelle Wilkerson tells the story of the wave of Southern African-Americans who moved out of the South to cities in the North and West. Between 1910 and 1970, the African-American population of cities such as Chicago and Detroit grew by 40%. Wilkerson interviewed hundreds of people about their experiences during the “Great Migration.” She includes many stories from her various interviewees, but the majority of the book focuses on three: Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, who moved from Mississippi to Chicago in the ‘30s, George Swanson Starling, who left Georgia for New York in the ‘40s, and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, who moved from Louisiana to Los Angeles in the ‘50s. Every story is different, but there are definitely common themes. Each person in the migration was looking for better opportunities than what they could find in the south.

The Warmth of Other Suns only mentions libraries explicitly once, when Wilkerson notes that it was illegal for African-Americans to use the “White” libraries in the Jim Crow-era South. However, there are other connections to library science that can be made. In addition to the segregated libraries, Wilkerson mentions how a popular weekly African-American newspaper, the Chicago Defender, had to be smuggled into the South, because it was not freely available. Limiting the access of information by banning the Chicago Defender and having separate libraries would clearly be a violation of today’s ALA Bill of Rights.

While not nearly as significant as access to information, there is also the simple fact of changing demographics. I can’t find the exact numbers, but Wilkerson mentions that the demographics of Chicago went from around 1% African-American at the beginning of the Great Migration to 33% at the end of the migration. This is a huge change in demographics in just a few decades. Public librarians at the time would have had to adapt to provide services to a large number of patrons coming from the rural South, which was a different culture than that of large Northern cities. In the library where I work I have occasionally helped people who are new to the area find resources they need, from the best ice cream shop and playgrounds for their kids to where to find good job resources. Rural Southerners fresh to the big cities would have needed similar assistance, and a library could have been a good resource.

So that's a general overview of the book, but I guess I should explain my opening statement. Two weekends ago I watched the movie The Help with my parents (we have semi-weekly movie nights). I'd already seen the movie when it was in theaters (I took my mom and grandma to see it, because we're a ridiculously cute family). The thing that was different this time watching The Help was that I had read The Warmth of Other Suns. Since Warmth is about the migration of black Americans from the South to the North and West, it understandably contains many stories about inequality and brutality in the South to explain why so many were fleeing. Some of the stories are absolutely horrifying. I find the phrase "necktie parties" profoundly disturbing. What does this have to do with The Help? Neither the book nor the movie really gives any idea of the danger the maids were in by speaking out against their white employers. Watching the movie now after having read Warmth just makes The Help seem somewhat dishonest. The Help wishes it was as profound as The Warmth of Other Suns, but it's just a watered-down, cartoonish version of American history. The Help is designed to make you feel good because you're not racist like Hilly; Warmth makes you feel bad that your ancestors were white Southern farmers. Does that make any sense?

I don't really know how to end this review, so I guess I'll just leave you with the Richard Wright poem from which Warmth takes its title:

“I was leaving the South
to fling myself into the unknown . . .
I was taking a part of the South
to transplant in alien soil,
to see if it could grow differently,
if it could drink of new and cool rains,
bend in strange winds,
respond to the warmth of other suns
and, perhaps, to bloom”

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Grammys? I thought this was a book blog!

Two of the books I reviewed this year have been nominated for Grammys. Abby may have thwarted my attempt to completely dominate the homepage with my own reviews, but she can't take this one away from me! I've reviewed 100% more Grammy nominees than she has! That may have something to do with the fact that this is a book review blog and not a music review blog, but whatever.

Between Bossypants and If You Ask Me (And of Course You Won't), I'm going to have to root for Betty White. Yes, I enjoyed Bossypants so much that I listened to the audiobook after having already read the book (and then I asked for the book for Christmas so that I could read it again), but I have to be honest and say that Betty White's performance is just better. I love Tina Fey with all my heart, but all the whispering asides in the Bossypants audiobook didn't really work.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition by Daniel Okrent:

Snippet of Amazon's summary: Writing with both wit and historical acuity, Okrent reveals how Prohibition marked a confluence of diverse forces: the growing political power of the women’s suffrage movement, which allied itself with the antiliquor campaign; the fear of small-town, native-stock Protestants that they were losing control of their country to the immigrants of the large cities; the anti-German sentiment stoked by World War I; and a variety of other unlikely factors, ranging from the rise of the automobile to the advent of the income tax.

That should give you an idea of the range of this book. Okrent leaves no rock unturned in this detailed history of the Prohibition era. The book starts with the political manueverings and personalities that got the 18th amendment passed. All fascinating. It moves on to describe the legal, political, judicial, economic and social impacts of Prohibition's enactment and enforcement, not just in the United States but in Canada, the Caribbean and Europe. Finally it tackles the rather fast fall from favor and repeal of Prohibition and closes with a short reflection on how the movers and shakers of the time have been essentially erased from our cultural memory.

In individual paragraphs and sections, the book is great. The stories are carefully researched and detailed and the individuals and events are really interesting. When taken in portions of more than a couple of pages however, it's just dense. Especially the first half where the movement is kind of gelling from different sections of society. There's no overarching narrative, so it's hard to stay engaged. I ended up reading it in 15 minute stints on my lunch break (thus, it took 4 months to finish). The actual Prohibition-era sections were much more fun, a lot of Baptists & Bootleggers type stuff.

Fans of history will enjoy this book, especially those that are amazed by the power of lobbyists (hint: Prohibitionists invented modern lobbying). It may be dense, but the individual stories are fascinating and often amusing. I recommend the book and intend to check out the PBS miniseries that is it's companion.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

I finished The Book Thief on Saturday, and I've been trying to figure out how to write about it ever since. I enjoyed the audiobook immensely. Allan Corduner's performance is fantastic, and listening to his performance may actually have made me more emotional than had I read the paper version of the book.

I wanted to include some quotations from the book in my review, because Markus Zusak's writing is very lyrical. Some could argue that it's overly-flowery, but I think it works, especially considering our narrator. However, since I listened to the audiobook, it's hard to actually remember the quotes I liked, since it's not like I can just bookmark the page and come back to it later. I tried googling for quotes, but most of the good quotes I found were all super spoilery. So you'll just have to live without examples of Zusak's prose.

The Book Thief is told from the perspective of Death. An appropriate narrator for a book that takes place in Germany during World War II. Death is a compassionate and actually quite witty narrator. Death tells the story of Leisel Meminger, the titular book thief. The first book Leisel steals is The Gravedigger's Handbook, which she finds in the snow next to her little brother's grave. She later goes on to steal a book out of a fire at a Nazi book burning, and a bunch of books from the wealthy mayor. Books are the most important things in Leisel's life, next to her best friend and next-door-neighbor Rudy, and her foster parents Hans and Rosa.

I don't want to spoil any of the plot of the book, but should you choose to read The Book Thief, I would recommend keeping a box of kleenex nearby. I'm just saying. I know it's hard to believe, but a book narrated by Death in Nazi Germany has some sad parts.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

How to be a Woman by Caitlin Moran

The blurb on the back of the book is so apt I'm just going to copy it here.
1913 – Suffragette throws herself under the King’s horse.
1969 – Feminists storm Miss World.
NOW – Caitlin Moran rewrites The Female Eunuch from a bar stool and demands to know why pants are getting smaller.

There’s never been a better time to be a woman: we have the vote and the Pill, and we haven’t been burnt as witches since 1727. However, a few nagging questions do remain…

Why are we supposed to get Brazilians? Should you get Botox? Do men secretly hate us? What should you call your vagina? Why does your bra hurt? And why does everyone ask you when you’re going to have a baby?

Part memoir, part rant, Caitlin Moran answers these questions and more in How To Be A Woman – following her from her terrible 13th birthday (‘I am 13 stone, have no friends, and boys throw gravel at me when they see me’) through adolescence, the workplace, strip-clubs, love, fat, abortion, TopShop, motherhood and beyond.
So there's that. I picked up this book as part of the A Practical Wedding Book Club and loooooved it. Moran talks about feminism the same way I feel about it. And she's fiercely feminist without giving up the fun things about being a girl (bitching, dressing up, sleeping with musicians).

Moran is terribly funny and the book is a very well put-together memoir/manifesto. Each chapter starts with a (usually traumatizing) episode on Moran's road to womanhood (getting her period, falling in love, having a baby) and segues into a discussion of the effect of the kyriarchy on modern women. Only not as boring as I made that sound. It hilarious. I lol'ed out loud. Several times.

I'm trying to think of a particularly funny passage to share, but it's hard to pin one thing down. The time Moran and a friend were thrown out of a strip club accused of being hookers? Her night with Gaga in a BDSM club? Discovering that even with professional stylists and designer duds, she still didn't look like a model in 98 out of 100 photos? Life's tough out there for a girl.

As a warning, Moran writes very conversationally and is British. I had a bit of difficulty following some of the celebrity references (other than those about Jennifer Aniston) and I had no idea what TopShop is. Not a big deal really, the context comes across. Additionally the book was only published in Britain so Amazon shipping is slow and $$$. I bought my copy used on and got it faster and cheaper.

So basically everyone should read this book. Its amusing, affirming, it made me fall in love with Lady Gaga and finally, finally gave me a simple litmus test for detecting sexist bullshit - "Is it polite? Are the boys doing it?" Yay for feminists having fun :)

Friday, October 21, 2011

Bossypants by Tina Fey (audiobook)

I know what you're thinking. "Wait a tick, hasn't Miranda already reviewed Bossypants? What is this, a 'Best of UBC' week?"

Yes, I already reviewed Bossypants. No, this is not a "Best of" thing, because that would pretty much consist of this because it lead to this. This is actually a review of the audiobook version of Bossypants. It was just as good as the print version, maybe even better if you take into account the fact that included is the actual audio of the Sarah Palin/Hilary Clinton SNL bit.

The only problem I had with the audiobook was with sound quality. This is the first time I've tried a downloadable audiobook from the library, so I don't know if it was this specific book or if this is how all downloaded audiobooks sound. Or maybe it's my iPod, which is almost 6 years old. Or maybe it's my car stereo, which is 10 years old. At times during the book Tina would say things sort of under her breath, which didn't really work in my situation because I was listening while driving down a loud interstate in a car whose stereo has basically no volume control. And the whole time Tina sounded a little muffled. But the book itself was great.

There was one section that I had forgot about from the print book that apparently I didn't talk about in my first review. It's the only part of the book I don't like. It's a part where Tina responds to her online critics. This section is not nearly as clever as the rest of the book and really seems kind of unnecessary.

But, all in all, this is still one of my favorite memoirs. I recommend the audiobook just as highly as I recommended the print version.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

If You Ask Me by Betty White

So I still haven't gotten the audiobook copy of The Warmth of Other Suns that I ordered from another library. Hopefully it'll get here next week after I get back from my Georgia vacation. I needed something that I could listen to on my way to and from class last night, but not something that was going to be more than a couple of discs, because I don't want to have to put off listening to Warmth (I have to read it for school, and I'd really just like to get it over with). So I looked over the list of audiobooks I had on hold, and one of them happened to be just two discs (about 2 hours and 15 minutes) long: If You Ask Me (And of Course You Won't) by Betty White.

If You Ask Me is a collection of stories from Betty's life. Did you realize that Betty White is 89 years old? I mean, I knew she was old, but I didn't know she was almost ninety. I guess I didn't realize she was so old because my great aunt Betty B. was about Betty W.'s age when she died, and Betty B. wasn't nearly as fun or spunky as Betty W. One of my favorite stories in the book was when Betty is talking about how she doesn't want to be a cougar. She often meets men she finds interesting but she doesn't want to go out with them because usually they're all younger than she is. "He might be only 80!"

This is the first time I've listened to an audiobook read by the author. For a memoir like this, it really adds to the story because you feel like Betty White is just talking to you, telling you stories about Saturday Night Live and her pets. I really enjoyed it and would recommend it to anyone who needs a quick, fun read.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher

Read by Debra Wiseman and Joel Johnstone

After my last audiobook, which was violent and difficult to listen to, I decided to pick a cheerier subject for my next listen. I picked Thirteen Reasons Why, which is about a teenage girl who commits suicide. I'm awesome at picking books.

In Thirteen Reasons Why, our protagonist is Clay Jensen. Two weeks after one of his friends, Hannah Baker, commits suicide, he receives a package in the mail (no return address) with 7 cassette tapes. When he plays the first tape he is shocked to hear the voice of Hannah Baker. Hannah made these tapes as a sort of suicide note. Each side of each cassette is about one person who directly or indirectly contributed to her decision to shuffle off this mortal coil. The first person mentioned on the tapes was the first to receive them, and when he's done he sends them on to the next person. Basically, if you receive the tapes, it's partially your fault. Well, sort of. Clay receives the tapes, but he didn't really do anything bad to Hannah. I was wondering how Jay Asher was going to keep the protagonist of his novel sympathetic after we find out how he contributed to a teenage girl's suicide. But since this is a YA novel, I wasn't really surprised to find out that Clay is a super good guy instead of an anti-hero.

It's an interesting book that focuses a lot on bullying, rumors, peer pressure, that sort of thing. There's a short discussion about what is or isn't rape that I found interesting. The phrase "victim blamer" is used at one point, which was awesome. My biggest problem with the book was the performance of Debra Wiseman, who performs Hannah's tapes in the audiobook version.

I'm not sure how it comes across while reading the book, but for several discs I had myself convinced that Hannah was punking everyone and didn't really commit suicide. I mean, it's specifically mentioned that there wasn't a funeral, so it wasn't impossible for her to have faked her death. (Yes, I was raised on Soap Operas, why do you ask?) The whole theme of rumors getting out of control actually could have contributed to my version of the story. But, no, Hannah really did die. Debra performs Hannah as being damn near cheerful on the first few "tapes," which was disconcerting when you consider that you're supposed to be listening to the voice of a girl who commits suicide just after finishing the recordings. The performance just didn't fit into what I imagine a depressed, suicidal teen sounds like. Also, she sounds kind of old. Maybe they wanted Hannah to sound like an old soul, I don't know. And she says "repercussions" in a way that sounds weird to me, and as you can imagine in a novel like this, "repercussions" is said quite often.

In case you're wondering: Audiobooks are pretty much going to dominate my posts for the foreseeable future. I'm in grad school, so all my reading time is dominated by book-learnin'. But, since I have a little over an hour commute each way to class, I can use that time to power through audiobooks for fun. I can pretty much knock out one disc each way. It's great.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Under the Banner of Heaven by John Krakauer

The full title for this book is Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith, and I really feel that the subtitle is the least superfluous subtitle in the history of books. Or at least in the history of books that I have read. If I had to choose one word to describe this book, I would have to go with "violent."

Under the Banner of Heaven tells the story of a double murder committed by two fundamentalist Mormons because, essentially, God told them to. But instead of just focusing on the murder and the trial, Krakauer delves into the violent history of Mormonism. The short history (the religion was founded under 200 years ago) of Mormonism has been colored by bloodshed, both committed by and against Mormons. I am not a Mormon, so the history of the religion was new to me. I had read the memoir of a former polygamist before, but she didn't really go in to the history of the church the way Krakauer does. I picked up this book after seeing it recommended several times in the comments section on Jezebel articles about the trial and conviction of Warren Jeffs.

Well, I didn't pick up the book. I picked up the audiobook, and that may have been a mistake. I've been in the car a lot the last few weeks, so I grabbed the audiobook to listen to during my drives. Now, I am no stranger to violent fiction. I started reading Stephen King novels when I was in 9th grade. However, listening to the description of how an 18 month old had her throat slashed to the point that she was nearly decapitated.... I almost vomited in my car. I'm not sure if it was the fact that this is a true story or if it was actually hearing the words out loud.... but it was very unsettling. I guess if I was reading the physical book I could have just skimmed that paragraph, but in the car I didn't have that option. I just turned the radio off and drove in silence until I had worked up the courage to turn it back on.

If you're not so much interested in all the blood and guts, but you are interested in legal proceedings, I would check out this book in order to read about the trials of the murderers. They truly believed they were acting out the word of God (one of the foundations of Mormon beliefs is that all believers have the ability to communicate directly with God). There is a really interesting debate on whether this kind of belief is a delusion. If the belief is a delusion, is the believer then incompetent to stand trial? Does this mean that all religious zealots would automatically be ruled incompetent? Could no person of faith be held responsible for their own actions?

Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith is a great book. Check it out if it's something you're interested, but you've been forewarned: it's definitely not for the faint of heart.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Stupid History by Leland Gregory

I really feel like I need to start out this review by stating that I did not pay for this book. I downloaded it because it was Barnes and Noble's Free Friday selection a month or so ago. Sometimes you get what you pay for.

This book had real potential. Stories about people being stupid? Sign me up! However, most of the stories aren't really about people being stupid, but about how somewhere along the way we twisted history so that we believe something that isn't actually true. This book sets out to tell the truth, but I can't actually attest that it does so, because there doesn't seem to be any footnotes or sources listed by the author. He could be making all this up for all I know. I wanted to tag this review as "Non-Fiction?" but I don't think we can have question marks in tags. And I haven't actually finished the book, so maybe there is some sort of bibliography at the end. I don't know.

But the absolute worst part of this book, pardon my French:

THE MOTHER FUCKING TYPOGRAPHICAL ERRORS. There are so many typos in this book, I can only assume the author wrote the whole book while drunk, didn't spell check, and then skipped the editing stage and went straight to publishing. I started out highlighting errors I came across, but it became too tiresome after a while.

The stories themselves are fairly amusing, but I just can't deal with the typos. I'm glad I didn't spend money on this book.

Monday, July 4, 2011

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

"It's not fair! She's the most important person in the world and her family living in poverty. If our mother so important to science, why can't we get health insurance?"

Henrietta Lacks is responsible for the polio vaccine. She helped create the HPV vaccine, and numerous other medicines and cancer treatments. And she did it all after she died in 1951. While she was at Johns Hopkins Hospital receiving treatment for cervical cancer, a sample was taken from her tumor that never died. The cells are still growing and reproducing today. And her family had no idea until decades later.

Reporter Rebecca Skloot tells the amazing story of Henrietta's life, her death, and her family. While people were making millions selling HeLa cells (named for the first letters in Henrietta's first and last names) to labs around the world, her children were struggling to get by. This is a remarkable story and one I think everyone would benefit from reading. It's not just the story of one woman's incredible legacy, it's also the story of what it was like to be a black patient in Baltimore in 1951. Henrietta's cousins believed that doctors from Johns Hopkins were kidnapping black people off the sidewalks at night to do medical experiments on them. It's the story of a family coming to terms with the fact that their mother was possibly the single most important person in medical science in the last century.

For a good part of the book Skloot tells about trying to get to know the Lacks family so she can include their perspective in the book. She meets a wall of distrust from the Lackses, until she is able to befriend Deborah Lacks, Henrietta's only living daughter. Once Deborah begins to trust Rebecca, the story really starts to come together. Deborah begins to move from being angry over the fact that her mother's cells were taken without permission, to just wanting people to know who her mother was. That's this book.

Abby read this book before, but I don't know if she ever wrote about it because I couldn't find her post in the 3 minutes I looked for it before I started writing. But I picked up this book mostly because she recommended it so highly, and I'm glad she did. When we got the book in at my library I thought it sounded kind of science-y, but most of the book was focused on Henrietta's family. I would recommend this book to anyone. It's a great read, and a fascinating true story.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Peep Show by Joshua Braff

Braff's Peep Show is a strange read. I didn't love it, it left a bit too much unresolved. Not in that "it makes you think" way but in a "and then he stopped writing" way. But it is an interesting story full of bizarre, flawed characters and it definitely dropped me into unfamiliar territory. I think this one sentence from Amazon's summary pretty much sums it up: In the mid 1970s, 16-year-old David Arbus is caught between his mother, whose Hasidic faith is becoming more and more central to her life, and his father, who runs a Times Square porn theatre.

So basically young David is thrashed back and forth between these two strange and polar opposite worlds, neither of which seems like a healthy environment for a young man. He's essentially unwelcome in his mother's life because he's refused to join the Hasidic faith, but he's not sinner enough to want to jump into the family business on dad's side either. David and his father cause a bit of a rukus and David is unceremoniously ousted from his mother and sister's new life and forced to take up with his father and his father's stripper/former porn star girlfriend. The book sticks pretty closely to the major events in the father's life over a 3-year period, but only as they're experienced by David, which feels odd. There's a lot of insight into changes in the porn industry in the mid-70s and also into the lives of Hasidic Jews. A jarring comparison to say the least, and an interesting one.

I was disappointed with the ending which resolved nothing (even negative resolution would have been more satisfying), but it's an interesting read from a young author. Braff has a good voice and an enjoyable writing style. His characters are well-developed and believable in their strengths and flaws. I'm thinking of picking up his first novel, The Unthinkable Thoughts of Jacob Green.

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

The Help is not a bad book, but it does deserve some criticism for falling into the "White Savior" trope. One of the three main characters in the book is Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan, who has just moved home to Jackson, Mississippi after completing her college degree. She wants to be a writer, and eventually she gets the idea to write a book about what it's like for black women working as maids for white families. She enlists the help of her friends' maids, Aibileen and Minny, and eventually 10 more maids join. And they write the book, change the names, publish it anonymously, and everyone lives happily ever after. Well, that last part isn't 100% true.

I can see why this book became so popular with reading groups. It's a really quick read (downloaded it to my Nook from the library Thursday night, finished it this afternoon) and there's really no controversial material. I mean, it's clear who is right and who is wrong. These characters don't really have layers. The protagonists don't have any real flaws, and the antagonists don't have anything but flaws. Celia Foote probably has the most layers of anyone in the book, both good qualities and bad, and she's a tertiary character at best. The only controversy could be whether or not Minny actually put shit in Miss Hilly's pie. That is not a euphemism.

So, while it certainly wasn't a perfect book, it was enjoyable. This was Kathryn Stockett's first novel, and she clearly shows talent for pacing and an ability to tell a story. This wasn't exactly a mystery or a thriller, but there were still times that I had to keep reading and reading just to find out what happened next. However, there were some stylistic choices that grated on my nerves. The book is told from three different perspectives: Skeeter, Aibileen, and Minny. Stockett writes Aibileen and Minny's chapters in a Mississippi accent, but not Skeeter's. Now I'm sure there was some dialect differences between society girls and the domestic help, but it really bothered me that the white girl apparently thinks and speaks in perfect standard English, while the black women speak like caricatures. There was also a moment in a chapter told from Minny's point of view where we get Skeeter's inner monologue. That's just sloppy writing, and something that should have been taken care of in the editing stage. She also does that thing that you see all the time in historical fiction where the writer points out something (for no reason) that was new or meaningless in the setting of the novel but has significance to the reader thanks to historical perspective. Like having Skeeter watch the news and hear about a conflict in Vietnam that probably won't last too long. Vietnam is never mentioned again and has absolutely nothing to do with the story. Writers just throw stuff like that in because they think it's clever, but more often than not it comes out clumsy.

I chose to read this book because my mom and grandma read it and really liked it, and I want to take them to see the movie when it comes out at the end of summer. It's not the best book I've ever read, but it was really good. I know I've kind of picked at the faults of the book a lot in this review, but I think it's a worthwhile read. A solid B, even a B+ in parts. I didn't live in Mississippi in the early '60s, so I can't tell you how accurate the storyline is or isn't. So if you're a nerd like me and you have to read the book before you see the movie, go ahead and pick up The Help. The trailer looks like the film will be a decent adaptation. I saw the trailer before reading, so I had the actresses' faces in mind while reading, and I think they did a decent job casting.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Kid: What Happened After My Boyfriend and I Decided to Go Get Pregnant - Dan Savage

So on APW's recommendation I read The Commitment. And I hearted it (though it seems I never blogged about it). So like any obsessive reader I had to pick up more books by the same author.

I loved The Kid just as much. Savage is great at weaving his personal story with politics, humor and stats. Basically, Savage and his partner decide to become parents via open adoption and the book tells that story while educating the reader on adoption law, gay rights and Savage's relationship with his own family.

The story starts with Savage in the mire of negotiations to donate sperm to various lesbians. When things fall apart he and his partner go down the rabbit hole of adoption. It's an expensive hole full of paperwork. And straight people dealing with infertility. They end up matched with a homeless, pregnant street kid and finally, finally go home with a baby. Its an emotional experience but also a tedious legal proceding and a rather dull wait. Such is adoption, apparently. There's a lot to take in, and it's totally worth it.

I'd recommend this book to anyone who is interested in adoption, thinking about having kids or is passionate about social justice and finding homes for kids. Totally amusing and educational. My favorite combination.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Church of Dead Girls by Stephen Dobyns

Well. That was interesting. I picked this book off the library shelf because I was intrigued by the title. I thought it would be a simple whodunnit serial killer mystery, but it's really not. It's more about how the suspicion infects the members of a small town, and how it escalates as each girl goes missing. Also, it's very slowly paced, which isn't normally something I would expect from a mystery novel. But I don't read a lot of mysteries, so maybe the pace isn't actually that unusual.

While the pacing does help build the suspense, I really think the book could have been fifty pages shorter. I know the author was trying to give the reader a sense of the town, but honestly, at some point you just want to know who the killer is. And it took forever. By halfway through the book only one girl had gone missing.

The book starts with a prologue describing the room in which the girls' bodies are found. It sets a gloomy mood for the rest of the book. As each of the three girls go missing, you read about the parents and town members searching and praying for the girls' return, but you know the truth. The girls are dead, tied to chairs in someone's attic, dressed in weird decorated robes, surrounded by melted candles. It's the "church" of the title, and it's a very creepy mental image. The most suspenseful part of the book is wondering if Sadie, the young girl whom the narrator lives near, is going to be one of the dead girls.

The book really spends most of its nearly 400 pages describing how the anxieties and suspicions of a small town grow and grow. At first everyone assumes that it must be someone from outside of Aurelius, because certainly none of their friends or neighbors could have done it. As each successive girl disappears, the townspeople become more and more suspicious of anyone whom they perceive as different. It's really a great examination of how a small town turns on its own members. And the big reveal in the last few pages was definitely unexpected. I found myself thinking "how on Earth did these people live with this psycho and not suspect something was up?" And then I remembered that I live in a small town where a three-year-old was stolen out of her own home and murdered, and the president of our library board was convicted of possession of child pornography in Canada. Those incidents are unrelated, btw. There are evil people everywhere, even if you don't suspect them. Terrible things happen all the time. I mean, Criminal Minds has to get its plot ideas from somewhere, right?

Friday, April 8, 2011

rose: love in violent times - inga muscio

Can I just say, I love Inga Muscio? I think I can, because it's unquestionably true. I loved cunt so much I've already read it twice.

rose is a kind of sequel to cunt. cunt was specific (specifically about cunts), microfeminism. rose is macro, the philosophy of cunt splashed worldwide. Muscio talks about violence, not just the kicking and shooting people kind, but the passive violence that seeps into every aspect of our lives, from deforestation to racism to celebrity. We are a violent people.

I'm still processing the book, I tore through it in two sittings so I'm still marinating. The way Muscio can transform a mildly awkward interaction with a neighbor into it's violent core and then contexualize that in both the culture of modern America and our collective history of colonization and war is amazing. In her world, feeding the goats that live behind her house becomes a radical act of love.

Reading Muscio is so inspiring, it (again) makes me put my life and my interactions with my world under the microscope. I can quiet the violence around me. I can walk away from hate and I can unconditionally love the assholes of the world. And now I'm gushing. I have no shame.

Everyone should read Muscio. The End.

In other news - next I'm picking up The Sicilian by Mario Puzo. I've been a little intense lately with the nonfiction so I'm returning to the saga of the Godfather. Still picking up pages here an there in Acid Dreams, but it's a little dry. (Which seems impossible, right? How do you make a story about the CIA experimenting with LSD boring? Maybe by overuse of the word "ironic".)

I love you, internet. And Miranda.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Bossypants by Tina Fey

"I hope that's not really the cover. That's really going to hurt sales." - Don Fey, Father of Tina fey

"Totally worth it." - Trees

You know a book is going to be awesome when even the blurbs on the back of the book are hilarious.

I've been a fan of Tina Fey for years, ever since she first started doing Weekend Update on SNL. This was back when I was young and still had the energy to stay awake past 10pm. She was a tiny, smart, funny brunette. I identified with her. I still do. She rocks the sexy librarian aesthetic by being smart and wearing glasses. I rock the same look by being an actual librarian.

The book is filled with tales from Tina's life, starting as a child growing up in Pennsylvania, through her time at Second City in Chicago (I have also been to Chicago! The similarities are endless), up to her current job as show runner and star of 30 Rock. The book is hilarious, filled with what I assume are the best stories from Fey's life. The book is really more a series of funny stories than a flat, "this happened and then this happened" autobiography, but you definitely get a sense of her life story.

Bossypants is a feminist book, because Fey is a feminists and a "woman in a man's world." Whatever that means. (Wouldn't it be nice if certain areas weren't viewed as a "man's world," but just as part of the world? I look forward to the day that a woman being the head writer for SNL is so commonplace that it doesn't get remarked upon.) Fey is living proof that feminists are not humorless, man-hating bitches. Here are her pointers for women trying to make it in a male-dominated workplace: "No pigtails, no tube tops. Cry sparingly. (Some people say "Never let them see you cry." I say if you're so mad you could just cry, then cry. It terrifies everyone.) When choosing sexual parters, remember: Talent is not sexually transmittable. Also, don't eat diet foods in meetings." Those are wise words, my friend. I work in a female dominated workplace, but these are still applicable to my life.

Obviously, I freaking loved this book. We're getting married, and Abby has agreed to become internet-ordained in order to perform the ceremony. You should absolutely read it, it's quick, funny, smart, silly. You'll probably love it just as much as I do, but you can't marry it because I beat you to it and I'm not into bigamy.

I know I already made it quite clear that I identify with and look up to Tina Fey, but there was one passage in the book that made me feel like I might secretly be Tina Fey. While listing off her faults: "I have no affinity for animals. I don't hate animals and I would never hurt an animal; I just don't actively care about them. When a coworker shows me cute pictures of her dog, I struggle to respond correctly, like an autistic person who has been taught to recognize human emotions from flash cards. In short, I am the worst." Yup. That's me. I'm a cat person, which means I like it when my pets pretty much hate me and leave me alone until they want to be fed. I also like goldfish because they never want to cuddle. That actually explains a lot about me. I am the worst.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Agent Zigzag - Ben Macintyre

Agent Zigzag: A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal

and so it is. Agent Zigzag is the story of Eddie Chapman, an English gentleman thief who talked his way out of prison in German-occupied France by becoming a German spy then immediately turned double-agent for Britain.

I quite enjoyed this book. Macintyre found most of the story in recently declassified documents, which gives this outrageous story a strong anchor. It's a deep look at WWII espionage, counterespionage, technology and psychology, but never dull. Chapman is truly a character made for movies - explosives, bank robbery, beautiful women, expensive taste, cover stories and sabotage. And yet often Chapman is restless and bored.

For anybody who likes a spy story (or the tv show Alias) or WWII trivia, this is a must-read. The story is well-written and most of the auxiliary characters are really well fleshed out. Plus there's a certain schadenfreude for the reader as upstanding government employees are compelled to provide a valuable spy with "loose women". The English are appropriately scandalized.

Chapman provided an astounding amount of valuable intelligence to the English at a crucial time in the war and was able to provide just as much valuable misinformation to the Germans, directing bombs away from central London and misleading them about the Allies technological capabilities.

Despite his amazing contribution to the war effort, Chapman was a con man and he was never fully trusted by his British handlers. Macintyre kind of obsesses over Chapman as a psychological study (as did the Germans and the Brits in their time), a man who will "look you straight in the eye while picking your pocket". He's an opportunist, for sure, but at a time of great need he was a patriot. His story is one worth reading, and it seems that Chapman himself would strongly agree.

Macintyre published another book about WWII last year called Operation Mincemeat which made's Top 100 Books of 2010. When I get through the backlog I'll definitely pick that up. At the moment I'm in the middle of Personal History, Katherine Graham's autobiography, two chapters into Acid Dreams, the complete social history of LSD, and I'm quickly consuming Rose by Inga Muscio. Clearly, I lack focus.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Finishing "Poplorica." Sort of.

This may be the first time I have ever accidentally finished a book. I was sitting there last night, Poplorica in hand, reading a really interesting chapter about product placement in movies. It might have been my favorite chapter in the book. The next chapter was about the invention of a certain golf club driver. I don't know if the chapter was as boring as it sounded, because I decided to skip it. The golf club chapter starts on page 225 of 284, so I thought I still had another chapter to read. Turns out those last 60 some pages are all chapter notes and index. I thought about going back to read the golf club chapter just so I could say I read the whole book, but the overwhelming boringness of golf persuaded me to just call it a day.

The boringness of golf leads me to the point I want to make about this book: your enjoyment of it is directly related to your interest level in the subject matter. As a Mad Men fan, I enjoyed the chapters about the birth of product-placement and market research. Reading how these now commonplace marketing strategies were started was really interesting. Also extremely interesting were the chapters about Night of the Living Dead, graphical user interfaces, and tabloids. Even the chapter about the slam dunk and how it shaped the NBA carried a certain amount of nostalgia. As a kid growing up in Chicagoland in the '90s when The Bulls were Gods, everyone liked basketball. That chapter brought back memories of watching games with my dad, watching Michael Jordan soar to the basket.

Other chapters were less interesting. Seriously, who cares about golf? (Yes, I know. Abby's husband golfs. He would probably like that chapter.) After reading Bonk, the chapter on Kinsey seemed really light. And I get where they were going with the chapter on pantyhose, but I think a chapter about bras would have been more interesting. How did we go from longline bras and girdles to modern bras? From custom-fit to ABCs? I also think discussing the invention of the birth control pill would have been fantastic. As it is the chapters that talk about women's liberation are the ones about frozen dinners, pantyhose, and disposable diapers. I know I'm biased, but I would have loved more chapters about women and society.

Overall it was a good book. It was easy to read and well researched. Definitely worth the $1 I paid for it.

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Graduate - Charles Webb

I picked up this classic several months ago at an antique store. I think I paid $2 for the 1963 hardcover edition. It has an inscription To Susie ~ xmas 1969 ~ From Katie Yeatts. I love inscriptions. Note to self, write shit on the first page of all those books you give as gifts.

So! It's a classic, I think everyone is familiar with the plot either from the book, the film or the Simon & Garfunkel song. No need to dwell on it.

Charles Webb's style is distinctive, very minimalist. Not Hemingway-sparse, but the language isn't flowery and he doesn't waste pages on the touchy-feely bits. In fact the story is told from a 3rd-person objective point of view and the narration only follows our dubious protagonist Benjamin Braddock. The effect, for me at least, lent to the idea that young Ben has no idea what the hell he's doing with his life. He's never able to properly explain himself to anyone and he acts with seeming disregard for, or possibly unawareness of, his relationship to his world.

The cover advertises hilarity, which I think is an overstatement as most of the humor is quite understated. Actually some of it felt really stale, but I imagine it's because it's been frequently copied. Not to spoil the story, but somebody's gonna break up a wedding. It is funny though, and easily worth the short 191 pages that it sets you back. One of my favorite funny things is the fact that months into their affair Braddock is still addressing to his lover as Mrs. Robinson. Hee.

The theme though is a bit dark in a quaint "what does it all mean" way, which I'm inclined to appreciate. The characters all seem weighed down by their upper middle class lifestyles and intellectual boredom, but that stiffness in no way drags on the story. I also like Webb's resistance to judging his characters for their actions. Though he certainly suffers the inevitable consequences of his decisions, Braddock is never written off as a villain or a boy in need of saving. He just is who he is.

On a slightly different note, I'm finding that a lot of "modern literature" is starting to feel really dated to me. Benji Braddock watches TV until the stations stop broadcasting. Anything that happened before the invention of infomercials seems like it would have little bearing on my life.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Children of Henry VIII by Alison Weir

Barnes & Noble's 'buy 2 get the third half price' rack provided me with several fun reads recently. For someone with a kind of weird obsession with medieval European royalty this book did not disappoint.

Weir tells a well-known story from a fresh perspective. The exploits of Henry VIII and his six wives and the rein of his eventual heir, Queen Elizabeth, are well-documented in film and television. The childhoods and relationships between Henry's three children, however are less common knowledge.

The book chronicles the childhoods of Anne, Edward and Elizabeth as well as their cousin Jane Grey. It follows the lives of each child and their tenuous relationships with each other from the time of Henry's death through Elizabeth's ascension to the throne.

What fascinated me is the sense of isolation - even when each was on the throne they were without true, loyal friends. Everybody around them was constantly trying to manipulate and control them for their own ends. There was never a time when they really knew who they could trust. Those in line for the throne feared for their lives constantly (and with good reason - Jane Grey was put to death and Anne's advisors lobbied strongly for Elizabeth to meet the same end). The crazy religious upheaval of the time, the youth of the prince and princesses, and the lack of trust between them all make for compelling drama.

The book is an entertaining read, Weir has lots of first-hand accounts and quotes which bring the characters to life and humanize them. And at the end of the day it reminds you how lucky we are to have modern medicine, video and religious freedom. The fate of the British Empire would most certainly have changed if they only had the information we get by peeing on a stick.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Poplorica by Martin J. Smith and Patrick J. Kiger

I know it looks like I must have developed a life or something over the last few months, because I haven't posted any book reviews here since early November. I assure you this is not the case. I haven't actually finished reading anything recently, but since there's nothing I love more than procrastinating on finishing my grad school applications, I'm here tonight to post about the book I'm currently reading, Poplorica.

I picked up Poplorica for a dollar off a Borders clearance rack years ago. I had completely forgotten about it until I pulled it out of a big box of books I rescued from my old bedroom at my parents' house. I started reading it last week and so far I'm really enjoying it. It's got a great balance of history and humor. It's well-researched without being heavy and boring. I've finished the first four chapters, which were about front lawns, air conditioning, calorie counting, and Alfred Kinsey. The purpose of the book is to look at the small inventions or ideas that lead to bigger movements and are still influencing our society today. Like how a landscape design book from 1870 praising grass lawns lead to nearly every household in America having a lawn, despite the fact that most Americans hate yard work. How Alfred Kinsey's unsuccessful honeymoon lead to his research that helped fuel the sexual revolution. How the invention of air conditioning prompted a population boom in the more conservative Southern states, shifting the votes in the Electoral College for each state and therefor influencing national elections.

It's an interesting book, and the chapters are nice and short (about ten pages each). I'll let y'all know how the rest of the book was when I'm finished. The next chapter is "The Rise of Tacky Chic" and I am pumped. There's nothing I love more than a little tack mixed in with my chic.