A Mixed Bag I believe Jonathan Franzen fans will be both delighted and disappointed with this collection, The Discomfort Zone. It starts out very stronA Mixed Bag I believe Jonathan Franzen fans will be both delighted and disappointed with this collection, The Discomfort Zone. It starts out very strong, showing off Franzen's remarkable vocabulary, storytelling ability, and his disregard for political-correctness. In a piece called, "House for Sale," Franzen tells what it feels like to take on the chore of emptying and selling what was his childhood home. Anyone who has faced the death of a parent and has undergone this emotional task will relate to his musings, admissions, and actions. We get to know his mother in this opening tale and soon learn she is a central figure throughout the collection. At first her controlling nature seems relatively benign, when we learn she's written the classified ad meant to showoff her home--her most successful investment--in the best light. Having done extensive research on her St. Louis-area neighborhood prior to her death, she even suggests an asking price. Franzen uses this story to kick-off a theme, where he comes off as a continual disappointment to his strict, provincial parents and shows how his mother's "strong opinions" have deeply affected his life.
The second entry, "Two Ponies," focuses on "Peanuts" cartoon creator Charles Schulz, and how Franzen related (or didn't relate) to the characters. He also relates to Schulz himself, particularly because of Schulz's feelings as an outsider while growing up. Additionally, I believe he admired Schulz for holding a grudge regarding his disdain for the label "Peanuts" placed upon his life's work. What I liked about "Two Ponies," is that I grew up reading this comic strip and could therefore relate to Franzen's story, and I liked the way the writing comes full circle.
Unfortunately, for me the collection goes downhill from there. Long passages about a Fellowship church camp and its youth minister, "Mutton" . . . a tale about his high school "gang" attempting acts of vandalism, and too much German (translations included) during a semester abroad, seem to be written more for himself and the characters he portrays than the general public.
Finally, with "My Bird Problem," Franzen is back on track. He offers political and personal takes on global warming, our country's energy policy, along with intimate revelations about his marriage and an ensuing relationship, and ultimately his passion for birding and what it has taught him about himself . . . and his mother.
Change the names, create an absurd little scenario, and call it fiction. As a fan of Notaro's essay collections, tAbsurd . . . But Pure Laurie Notaro
Change the names, create an absurd little scenario, and call it fiction. As a fan of Notaro's essay collections, this story, There's a (Slight) Change I Might Be Going to Hell, didn't surprise or disappoint. It doesn't stretch too far from her roots in writing first person vignettes about a funny, irreverent woman, however, the woman in this story happens to be named "Maye." Maye is clearly a Laurie alter ego, and it helped to have read her earlier collections to get a full picture of this likeable, humble creature.
Maye and her husband, Charlie, move from Phoenix, Arizona to Spaulding, Washington, because of her husband's new job. The plot centers on Maye's insatiable quest to make new friends. She is very unsuccessful--mistaking a coven of witches for a book group, infiltrating a meeting of vegetarians only to be busted eating meat later that night, and making a fool of herself at her first faculty gathering by getting stuck in her sweater and doing a striptease of sorts. She makes an enemy of the town matriarch, Rowena Spaulding, and her postman, who makes it necessary for her to take her dog, Mickey, to obedience training. Ultimately, Maye decides to win friends by attempting to win the annual "Miss Sewer Pipe" crown. She obtains a sponsor, the mysterious former Queen, Ruby Spicer, and as their friendship develops, the story grows more interesting. In spite of all the characters bantering back and forth in overly clever repartee and an annoying abundance of similes, I couldn't help but turn the pages just to see how the town pageant would unfold.
No great piece of literature, but fans of Laurie Notaro will love this book, and I applaud the author for giving "fiction" a crack, even though according to her acknowledgements, she seemed forced into it. Just keep writing Laurie. You make us laugh. ...more
These are the last three sentences of the book, "Traveling Mercies" by Anne Lemott. And they sum up this collection oThank you. Thank you. Thank you.
These are the last three sentences of the book, "Traveling Mercies" by Anne Lemott. And they sum up this collection of stories beautifully. This is a book about faith and a book about gratitude. It is intelligent, thought provoking, funny and highly readable. Anne Lemott, Annie--as it appears her friends call her--lets us into her world and shares a very personal and poignant path of a unique and awkward girl taking off her "glasses of puberty" and coming of age. She lays everything bare, from her feelings about her bushy hair and alien eyes, her drug and alcohol additions, to her love for her father and dealing not only with his death, but also with the death of her best friend. We enter the world of a single mother, a struggling and ultimately successful writer, and all her feelings of self-doubt. She seems to have a third eye when it comes to seeing those around her, and through her observations and writing, we too can appreciate people and situations to a greater degree.
Writes Lamott of a sick woman from her church in a story named Ashes: "It must have been too annoying for everyone to be trying to manipulate her into being a better sport than she was capable of being. I always thought that was heroic of her, that it spoke of such integrity to refuse to pretend that you're doing well just to help other people deal with the fact that sometimes we face an impossible loss."
The underlying theme throughout each brutally honest passage is the message of her faith in God and how she came to discover this faith. She LEARNS to pray and uses prayer to get her over the large and the small humps. One can't help but come to love this child of God, and everyone in her life. ...more
The Bengali culture of the Ganguli family and its assimilation to life in the United States is central to this work. The NamesakeA String of Accidents
The Bengali culture of the Ganguli family and its assimilation to life in the United States is central to this work. The Namesake, through intriguing and well-drawn characters, succeeds at raising questions about what it is truly like to be both a visible immigrant in this country and, more pointedly, a first generation American--offspring of Indian immigrants.
The primary focus, and the reason it's called The Namesake, is because of the main character, Gogol, and his obsession with his name. Like the author herself, "Jhumpa," this boy is unwilling to give up his traditional, "pet" name, when he becomes school-aged and is suddenly expected to use a "good name," Nikhil. Thus begins the conflict of the generations.
Gogol develops into a brooding, selfish character and in spite of his confusing upbringing, this reader found little reason to find him sympathetic. Thankfully, the storytelling alternates perspectives, going beyond the young boy sulking over his odd name, to that of his parents, Ashimi and Ashoke, together by way of arranged marriage, and includes Gogol's various love interests, not the least being his ultimate wife, the very unlikable Moushumi. Each of these characters is fleshed-out, arousing interest and empathy, and make the story absolutely readable. Additionally, there's a lot of focus on food, and the author described the meals and specialties so well, I could almost taste them.
To use Gogol's own conclusion (that appears a mere five pages from the end) "his family's life feels like a string of accidents, unforeseen, unintended, one incident begetting another." It begins in the 1960s, is written in present tense, and jumps across chunks of time until it comes to its conclusion in the year 2000. This story left me with a feeling of empathy for Indian immigrants and made me truly wonder what it was like to walk in their sandals. ...more
"Hypocrite" is a Little Harsh There's an undeniable trend in memoirs and in first-person memoir-like novels by, about and usually for women where the f"Hypocrite" is a Little Harsh There's an undeniable trend in memoirs and in first-person memoir-like novels by, about and usually for women where the flavor is more than a little self-deprecating. (Think Brigit Jones Diary). In some work this blatant self-loathing can seem contrived, peppered in to hide the flavor of an otherwise arrogant, irreverent, and self-absorbed protagonist; however, while Susan Jane Gilman can come across as all of the above in her memoir, `Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress," in no way is any of it contrived. It's real. It's brutally honest, laugh-out-loud funny and very original. I enjoyed reading every page of this well-crafted collection.
The chapters read like long columns--better yet, like short stories. Her tales start with a premise, ramble on so that you don't exactly know where they're going but you are nonetheless thoroughly entertained, and then BAM! She brings you right back to the point and leaves you smiling. I particularly enjoyed the tale about Mick Jagger and the congresswoman named "Minnie." I believe, however, her true character was revealed through "Picnic at Treblinka," where she tells the story of a week in Poland (as a reporter for The Jewish Week) visiting concentration camps--true character, by the way, that wasn't even remotely hypocritical.
I recommend this book and look forward to reading more by this talented author. ...more
Like the author, Jenny McCarthy, I was also raised Catholic in a Chicago suburb and attended Southern Illinois University. This is whatGirls Night Out
Like the author, Jenny McCarthy, I was also raised Catholic in a Chicago suburb and attended Southern Illinois University. This is what compelled me to read Life Laughs, her third book. She starts out the essay collection with a warning, preparing readers for her "honesty," as she discusses a variety of personal topics in a brash, "crude, raw, and sometimes dirty" manner. Truly, it's an honest description of her simple, conversational writing.
The first three quarters of the column-like compositions focus on marriage, and there are several woman vs. man scenarios typical to new relationships. As the marriage ages, the child is born, body parts start to sag, and then one day she rolls over in bed "and saw a nose with hair sticking out that was snoring with some pretty bad morning breath." There's no linear pattern to the collection, it's sort of random and all over the place, as Jenny goes places others fear to tread. Not knowing what to expect on the next page (a page that might include a caricature of Jenny falling into a toilet) added to the entertainment.
Throughout the hour or so it took me to read this bawdy little book, I felt like I was out for drinks with my funniest friends (it wasn't the book club, but definitely the bunco group) and even though I laughed out loud a few times, I have to admit, this gal also managed to bring out my inner prude. "Life Laughs," by Jenny McCarthy is for 30-something women the way "I Feel Bad About My Neck," by Nora Ephron is for 50-something women. She reminds us of the importance of laughing at ourselves, and she's willing to bare it all--even a seeming underlying pain--to do so. ...more
Pieced Together in a Lovely Pattern This book, Circle of Quilters, is a collection of several stories, sewn together to create a satisfying tale. The bPieced Together in a Lovely Pattern This book, Circle of Quilters, is a collection of several stories, sewn together to create a satisfying tale. The book is divided into character portraits of five people, all job applicants for a teaching position at the prestigious Elm Creek Quilter's camp in rural Pennsylvania. Some of their paths cross on interview day, but there is lengthy back-story and development for each, which elicits sympathy from the reader. I found myself rooting for each to do well during the interview for this highly desirable position. Each back-story leads to the interview experience, and not one candidate believes the interview went well.
The characters are as diverse as the blocks of a sampler quilt. Maggie is humble, hardworking, smart and capable. Karen is an overwhelmed mother of two small children, whose lack of childcare (at the last minute) makes you ache with sympathy. Anna, an underappreciated chef, tolerates her boyfriend's mistreatment and has an annoying lack of self-confidence--but anyone would want to taste her homemade cookies (!) Russ, a rare male participant in the quilting world, takes up the hobby after his wife's death and perseveres to become a renowned author and teacher of the art. And finally, there's Gretchen, who spends her entire life dealing with an evil neighbor and so-called friend named Heidi. I kept hoping Gretchen would at last go off on her with a sharp seam-ripper! But Gretchen had far too much class for that.
All of the candidates face the Elm Creek Quilters staff for an extensive and, due to a blonde named Diane, grueling interview. Each is also tested by a white-haired lady acting has a baffled camper in need of help with her appliqué piece. The way Jennifer Chiaverini pieces together the characters is clever and enjoyable, particularly if you have an appreciation for quilts and quilting. It was fun trying to guess which characters would receive offers for the two positions available.
A Reasonable, Mature Voice. Great Gift Book I picked up this book because of the title. I have daughters. There are 'things' I want them to know. UponA Reasonable, Mature Voice. Great Gift Book I picked up this book because of the title. I have daughters. There are 'things' I want them to know. Upon reading the Foreword, I grew a little nervous. The tone seemed rather patronizing, and I felt like I was about to get a lesson in what a rotten mother I am. The author writes: "No mother can have a relationship with her children without some heartaches and significant differences of opinion. With my own daughters I embrace our differences as well as the things we share in common." Well, yes, that WOULD be the ideal.
What follows beyond the Forword, where the author more or less introduces her qualifications for writing a book filed with advice, is just that. Lots of useful advice for getting through life. The conversational and rational writing style immediately allowed me to GET OVER MYSELF, and just enjoy the various topics. I found it hard to disagree with anything she wrote. Everything is based on the author's experience, and much of it is universal. The suggestions, "It's Easier to Get into Things Than It Is to Get Out of Them," or "In Really Tough Times, Regularly Take Time Off," for example, are pearls of wisdom for mothers to not only pass onto their daughters, but also to remind themselves of every now and again.
This is a well written collection, with a mature and rational sensitivity. It's an excellent gift book--for our daughters, and our friends who have daughters, and, of course, for mothers too. I recommend it.
"When you've made your point, sit down," reads the last entry. So, I will. ...more
Getting to Know Obama, the Man There is no way around expressing that this is a remarkably well-written memoir. Per the title, the author, Barack “BarrGetting to Know Obama, the Man There is no way around expressing that this is a remarkably well-written memoir. Per the title, the author, Barack “Barrry” Obama, tells not only his life story, but also focuses on the subject of race in America. He tells his personal history as well as the history of American’s race relations and understanding through the eyes of a biracial boy-turned man, coming of age in the late 20th Century.
Throughout his life, it’s apparent Obama has commanded attention through his intelligence, good nature, handsome being, and strong family background. This tale is as much about his Midwestern-born white mother and grandparents, “Gramps” and “Toot,” as it is about his biological Kenyan-born father. It’s still remarkable to comprehend that this narrator, given his roots, eventually becomes the elected 44th President of the United States.
I enjoyed listening to the narration of this story by the author. He unabashedly recalls both events and conversations of his youth, and without fear or tiresome, guarded political motivations. He expresses true accounts of his coming of age and the understanding of his heritage. And I particularly enjoyed Obama’s recollection of his journey to “Home Squared,” when he visited Kenya for the first time and related my own first visit to this fascinating country. Every American, black or white, can’t help but learn about the role of race plays in a community when traveling the streets of Nairobi or the red dirt roads of the Western Provence.
Please read (or listen to) this book. Love him or loathe him, at least get to know him. This book commands great respect and I give it my highest recommendation. ...more
Outstanding Debut Novel I stumbled upon this title and after savoring the final chapters, not wanting it to end, I feel incredibly lucky. This novel haOutstanding Debut Novel I stumbled upon this title and after savoring the final chapters, not wanting it to end, I feel incredibly lucky. This novel has everything I crave: Plot, mystery, well-drawn, eccentric characters, RIDDLES, history, art, lyrical and descriptive prose. I was transported to New England while following the unfolding story of Caroline Wharton as discovered by the somewhat reluctant biographer, Michelle Trutor.
Through her main character, Debbie Lee Wesselmann paints Trutor's subject as an "intellectual enigma" and the owner of souls. As she unravels the "sticky web" left behind by Caroline, a woman who committed suicide and virtually imprisoned her family (the "Balloonist," Arthur, and his twin brother, Proctor, and their niece, Roberta) in a former mortuary, she offers riddles that one can't help but try to solve before reading further. The clever riddles pull you through this fascinating story of complicated relationships.
Because of a convoluted will and a watchful attorney, Trutor was the only one who had access to the clues Caroline had left behind, which included her personal journals. I particularly enjoyed the journal entries, which intimately portray the creative and multifarious soul that was Caroline Wharton. My favorite entry: "I spent hours reading today here in the Botanical Gardens before I felt the need to write myself: the small leap from someone else's words to my own like a garden shading from lavender to deep purple."
Deep purple indeed. This novel deserves the royal treatment and my highest recommendation....more
I wanted to like this book. I think Cathi Hanauer is a very talented writer with a keen eye for detail and aNot a Desperate, but a Pathetic Housewife
I wanted to like this book. I think Cathi Hanauer is a very talented writer with a keen eye for detail and a conversational tone that allows you to know her characters and feel like you're chatting with them over a cup of coffee (or pitcher of margaritas). BUT . . . I had a hard time sinking my teeth into this story. The main character, Elayna Leopold, is an educated New Jersey housewife and mother of a precocious six-year-old. She is on the threshold of middle age, and struggles with her attraction to the boy-next-door-type character, who turns her head and seduces her with a potter's wheel. (I had a hard time NOT envisioning Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze in "Ghost," during this scene).
There's a lot to this book--primarily a story premise that made me buy it. (That and because I loved her first novel, "My Sister's Bones.") At once, there's sympathy for Elayna because we learn her baby boy has died and she's just coming into the acceptance stage of her grief. The problem is, we never get to truly feel her pain, and hence forgive her for her pathetic actions in pursuing the young hunk across the street----not to mention her stereotypical feelings of abandonment due to her lawyer husband's preoccupation with a death row case. Her character is shaped somewhat by the appearances of her sister----who suggests they were maltreated by their philandering, photographer father----and her best friend and former college roommate, Celeste, the I-Am-Independent-New York-Woman-just-let-me-prove-I-don't-need-to-be-married-but-sleep-with-a-married-man kind of character. But there's not enough of these characters, in my opinion, and instead we spend far too much time in Elayna's head as she struggles with her moral decisions and everyday routines.
Read it for Hanauer's descriptive and, at times, lyrical prose, and occasional pearls of wisdom regarding mundane, suburban life. But unless you like the desperate housewives plot line, don't expect to be riveted by the story. ...more