Sunday, December 14, 2008

My Latest Checkout List from the Library

No real thoughts on any of these. None of them were amazing and none of the stunk. I may change my mind later, after letting them sit for a while. If that changes, I'll be sure to let you know. Any one of these books is worth reading:

1. The James Boys: A Novel Account of Four Desperate Brothers by Richard Liebmann-Smith
2. Rosewater and Soda Bread: A Novel by Marsha Mehran
3. Lord, Save Us From Your Followers: Why is the Gospel of Love Dividing America? by Dan Merchant
4. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrow

If I had to choose one to suggest, I would say that The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society would have to be my pick. It's a novel in the form of letters set in Post World War II England. A sweet novel for certain. This book made me a bit wistful for the days of real written correspondence. I am not so sure I dig the whole e-mail, texting, Facebook status thing, even though I am an active participant. A nicely worded note still holds a lot of weight with me. Back to the library tomorrow. I am seriously jonesing for some good reads.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Lita gets the thanks for this one and a hearty, vodka soaked thanks at that! On the decidedly utilitarian, often unshaded playground of our elementary school, Lita handed me "Mother On Fire: A True Motherf%#$@ Story About Parenting" and am I ever glad she did. Sandra Tsing Loh, author and performance artist (as well as NPR commentator) wrote this book as a shout against the insanity of her own search for a school for the elder of her two daughters. She calls this "the year I exploded into flames." This book is hysterical and convicting without being preachy or elitist. I was worried about reading this book, as every time I read a book about parenting, I inevitably feel guilty that I am not doing enough or have done something wrong or just don't care enough. Parenting books usually suck if you have a low self-esteem to start with. I'm sure there are some of you who love them. If you are that person, we probably should not hang out. Sandra Tsing Loh, however, is invited.

I often have guilt,especially in the circles I tend to unintentionally end up in, because my children attend public school. The guilt is self-induced I am sure, but the "pity eyebrows" (oh you know the ones, where the well meaning parochial school mother raises her eyebrows and wrinkles her nose in an "Oh dear, it's so nice that your son goes to the local high school. Do they give him his own 'will work for food' sign with his diploma?") certainly don't help. It gets on my nerves from time to time. I love my public schools. No, they aren't as shiny as some of the private schools. No, our football field isn't maintained by an army of NFL retirees who just want to give back. No, we don't have field trips to the Great Wall of China or Science Camp on the Space Station. But what I do have is a great school filled with great people and great teachers who love children. I have a school where my kids can be a part of their local community and of their world, learning that making a difference doesn't mean having the most money to throw at what ever needs fixing. I have a community of parents who love their children, just like I do, and want what every caring parent wants: for their children, and for everyone else's, to grow up healthy, safe and happy. All kids deserve that.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

I really like kaleidoscopes. I love the "oh" moment when I am looking through the viewer and the combination of color and light and pattern are just right and my heart is filled with a tiny jump of joy. Then, inevitably, my hand shakes and then colors are mixed up again and I know that I will never have that same moment ever again. Sometimes I pick up a cheaply made kaleidoscope and take a peak through the viewer and find that the colors are muddy. Whether this is because the colored pebbles are too dark, not enough light is able to enter the chamber or the quality of the mirrors inside are poor, it doesn't really matter. What matters is that what I see isn't that great to look at. Every once in a while, though, even with the poorest of kaleidoscopes, I get an "oh" moment.

That's how I felt while reading "The Maytree's" by Annie Dillard. I felt as though there were so many words, so densely packed onto each page, that no light could shine through. The plot and character development felt thick and muddy. It was like looking through a poorly made kaleidoscope. That is not to say that I felt that "The Maytrees" was poorly crafted, quite the opposite in fact. It is obvious that Dillard spent a great deal of time and effort choosing each word she used in this novel. It is extraordinarily crafted. And every once in a while, I would catch a combination of words so lovely, so beautifully chosen, that I would have that "oh" moment that I do so love.

Friday, September 12, 2008

I have spent most of the day at Kaiser with my dad, going from appointment to appointment. As ever, I had a book with me, "The Maytrees" by Annie Dillard. Halfway through, this is what I think:

SO . . . MANY . . . WORDS . . .

Sounds a lot like yours truly. I'll let you know soon what I think of the book. It's not looking good folks.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Let’s just get it out of the way: I eat meat. I eat chicken, fish, pork, shellfish, buffalo, ostrich and even (gasp) red meat. I do not eat veal, but that’s neither here nor there. My family has strong vegetarian leanings going back many generations. My brother is an “omnivore who chooses not to eat meat” and I am married to a man who was raised on a dairy farm. I am not amused (and am often annoyed) by people who use their food consumption choices as a way of bullying others who may not make the same choices they do. Smug “we don’t eat (insert food choice)" comments make me want to eat whatever it is they don’t. Seriously, I have had enough of this self righteous food snobbery that grass fed, organic, free range, locally grown, soy based goop might spurt out of my eyes if I have one more raised eyebrow pointed in the direction of my grocery cart. Don’t get me wrong, I read labels and avoid high fructose corn syrup as much as possible. I buy the bulk of my produce from local farmers. I love food, but I don’t hold it up as an idol to be worshipped or as a weapon to be wielded.

All this leads up to a book I just finished: “My Year of Meats” by Ruth L. Ozeki. It was a summer reading option for my book club and I have to say that I really enjoyed it. It is the story of Jane, a Japanese-American documentarian who lands a job producing a Japanese television show for an American beef exporting business. During her year producing “My American Wife!”, she learns about the unpleasant side of the commercial beef industry. She also learns about life, love and understanding. A parallel story of an abused Japanese wife searching for self and safety weaves in and out of the main narrative, as do poems from Sei Shonagon’s “The Pillow Book”. Reading this book felt like I was watching an expertly edited film or gazing upon a piece of collage.

Yes, it’s pretty disturbing in parts. I skipped a whole scene toward the end. But all in all, it is a darn funny book. I loved it in the way I loved the movie “Lost in Translation”. It wasn’t completely Japanese in sensibility, but it wasn’t entirely American either. It was like a wonderfully tasty dish, something that is both American and Japanese at the same time. Like drinking a Coke and eating sushi at the same meal, “My Year of Meats” was two worlds meeting on the same dinner plate.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

At our last book club meeting (Note: I dislike calling our times together "meetings", they are so much more than that, but at this writing, I have lack of a better word!) we decided that there would be four books on our summer reading list and that we should read as many or as few of them that we could and our first time back together would be spent talking about what we read. One of the books, The Master Butcher's Singing Club by Louise Erdrich, I had already read and the other two (My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki and The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein) were nowhere to be found in my quest for free or nearly free books. The only book I managed to get my hands on and read was The Distant Land of My Father by Bo Caldwell. Hooray for! I like to think that there was some divine providence involved with my acquisition of this book because it was exactly the book I needed to read at this moment in my life's journey.

To the young Anna Schoene, our narrator, life in Shanghai is indeed magical. There are servants, a luxurious villa, a beautiful mother and a young, handsome father. Unfortunately, her father is also a smuggler and speculator who loves his freewheeling life more than anything (or anyone) else. Despite warnings, Schoene's father refuses to leave Shanghai even after the Japanese invade, and his wife and child retreat to Los Angeles. Anna's dreams and ideals of her father fall with Shanghai and she leaves China forever, learning to live in a land different from her his.

As the adult daughter of an father who is growing older between blinks, this book grabbed my heart and poked it in tender places. I don't always know what to do or who to be with my dad anymore, especially since my mom died three years ago. Most days I feel like the roles have been exchanged and then there are days when I feel like I am still 10 years old, searching for his approval. It gets to be confusing and frustrating and maddening and sad, all at the same time. The worst part is that I know it only gets tougher from here on out.

The Distant Land of My Father wasn't so much about cultural identity, as I thought it would be, but more of an exploration of what it means to be a daughter. But that's just my take on it. I'd love to know what you thought.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

My book club friends are going to laugh, if not heartily at least under their collective breath, but the book I picked up at Emily’s Used Books in Nisswa, Minnesota was “Trans-Sister Radio” by Chris Bohjolian. Our group enjoyed Bohjolian’s “The Double Bind” so much that we chose to read “Midwives”, making our discussion back to back Bohjolian. Then I was at the library and checked out his latest book “Skeletons at the Feast” which I wasn’t super fond of and thought that, perhaps, I was just Bohjo-ed out. But then, in the far reaches of northern Minnesota, I found a Bohjo book that I hadn’t yet read. I did what any traveling obsessive reader would do, I pulled it off the shelf and took it on the road with me.

“Trans-Sister Radio” is the story of Allison and Dana. Allison is a divorced elementary school teacher living in a small Vermont town with her daughter Carly, who is getting ready for her first year of college. Dana is a professor at the local university. Allison is a student in his class on literature and film. Allison and Dana become friends and eventually begin a romantic relationship, both falling in love more deeply than either of them had ever fallen before. What Allison doesn’t know is that Dana is in the final stages of gender re-assignment, preparing for the surgery that will change him from a genetic male into a physiological woman. Allison has to decide what to do with this new relationship, whether to stay with the person she has fallen in love with or to end it and avoid the controversy that inevitably will come with it.

Each chapter is told from the perspective of either Allison, Dana, Carly or Will, Allison’s ex-husband, allowing the reader to see this supremely complex issue, if the soul or spirit of a person has a specific gender, from multiple perspectives. Thanks again for reading with me. Next time, we’re going old school, really old school

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

I’m a glutton, pure and simple. I have this habit, which I am altogether sure I am not the only one who does, when I enjoy a book, I feel compelled to read as many books by the same author as I can stomach. Often it’s intentional and I actively seek out additional titles. Other times it is like the universe hands me the books, like tiny existential presents.

On our Great Northern America Road Trip (that’s what I am calling it these days), I have had instances of both. Since I was not able to pack a whole lot of books for the long drives across the Northern States, my plan was to stop in thrift stores and used bookstores along the way, in order to trade in the finished books and to pick up new ones. I started in Seattle with a book of short stories by Jane Smiley called "The Age of Grief". Smiley is the author of several books I have loved, "A Thousand Acres" and "Moo". If I believed in past lives and reincarnation, I would propose that Jane Smiley was a weaver or rug maker. Her narratives are beautifully rich and complicated, with many, many different characters and plot lines woven together to create a larger story, not unlike a rich tapestry. Her short stories are quite the opposite. The stories in "The Age of Grief" are clean and direct, yet beautifully crafted. There is not an extra word or detail in any of the stories, but they never feel spare or minimal. Each is exactly right. On an interesting note, the 2002 movie "The Secret Lives of Dentists" was based on the title story. I haven’t seen the film yet, but it is certainly going on my Netflix queue.

By the time I got to Montana, I was done reading "The Age of Grief" and was on the lookout for my next fix. In Miles City, while visiting my brother-in-law and his family, we found a thrift store run by the St. Vincent de Paul society. I stopped in and headed straight for the book section. The first book I picked up was "Horse Heaven" by (wait for it, wait for it) Jane Smiley. "Horse Heaven" is a novel about the world of Thoroughbred horse racing. As "The Age of Grief" was minimal, "Horse Heaven" is ornate. As much as I was engaged in the stories of horse trainers, breeders, jockeys, owners and those who simply love thoroughbred horses, I sometimes felt like I needed to be taking notes and keeping a log of who belonged to whom. Nevertheless, I enjoyed this book immensely and am looking forward to a day trip to Golden Gate Fields to place a little bet on the ponies. Thanks for reading with me.

Next time, what I picked up in Nisswa, Minnesota.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

I'm on a long road trip at the moment. I didn't have a large margin of packing space, thus the amount of books I could bring along was hugely limited. The one book I did bring along was Born Standing Up by Steve Martin, an autobiography of sorts. He describes the book as the story of "why I did stand-up and why I walked away".

Martin is one of those performers that I have a secret crush on. I find him intelligent, hysterical, thoughtful and classically handsome. I loved the movies "The Jerk" and "LA Story", still laugh aloud at the "King Tut" skit from SNL and find his works of fiction to be brilliant. He writes this piece carefully and thoughfully, revealing his studies of philosophy and logic, yet maintaining his amazing sense of humor, making this an engaging read.

As I did not have any room to pack books, I am stopping at thrift stores and used bookshops along the way. I have two Jane Smiley books on deck: The Age of Grief and Horse Heaven. I'll let you know what I think as soon as I finish.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

It's been a long, long time and I have done something that I swore I would never do . . . I joined a book club! In lieu of my longish rambles on the books I am reading or have read, in honor of my "never say never" moment, these are the books we have read in my time as a book club woman:

1. Pope Joan by Donna Cross

2. Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen

3. Monique and the Mango Rains: Two Years with a Midwife in Mali by Kris Holloway

4. Loving Frank: A Novel by Nancy Horan

5. The Double Bind by Chris Bohjalian

6. Midwives by Chris Bohjalian (We liked The Double Bind THAT much, we had to read something else by the same author!)

I believe there was another one in there, but for the life of me I cannot remember what it was. If I had to choose one of these books to recommend to you, I would choose "The Double Bind" by Chris Bohjalian. Amazing. Seriously. Truly amazing.

As ever, if you have a chance to read any of these, let me know what you thought!