Sunday, July 4, 2010

100. Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

When I set up the different categories of books to read for the project, I decided to give Colin one pick. He could choose any book and I would have to read it. It didn't take him long at all to choose this one, so I've known for almost a year that I would eventually be reading Good Omens. I haven't read any of Neil Gaiman's work before, but I have seen two movie adaptations -- Stardust (yay!) and Coraline (nay!). So it seemed to me there was a 50-50 chance that I would like this book.

We hear the world will end on a Saturday. Next Saturday, in fact. Just before dinner. Unfortunately, Sister Mary Loquacious of the Chattering Order has just misplaced the Antichrist. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse ride motorcycles. And the representatives from Heaven and Hell have decided they actually like the human race...

Plot summary taken from the paperback back cover.

After I finished The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Colin said he felt a little bad that I'd be reading both that and Good Omens in the same week because they were somewhat similar. As you can see from the quote on the front cover, "A direct descendant of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy." -- New York Times, he wasn't the only one to think so. I happened to like Good Omens more. I found it to be a little more accessible and I thought it was slightly more witty. The religious aspect made it more entertaining for me somehow, and I was pleased with what I found to be the overall message. My favorite characters were Crowley and Aziraphale, I would totally watch a buddy cop show starring the two of them. I thought the book could have been trimmed down about 50 pages but that's hardly a major complaint. Overall, a great recommendation from Colin. I may have to take a closer look at his bookshelf.

99. Pretty Little Liars by Sara Shepard

I first heard about the ABC Family show Pretty Little Liars a few months ago, and I eagerly looked forward to it. It's really good, too, you should watch it. I had one more my pick for the project, so naturally I decided to read the first book in the series that the show is based on. Yay! I love me some YA fiction.

In the exclusive Philadelphia suburb of Rosewood, Alison is the Queen Bee of her elite seventh grade hive. BFs Aria, Hanna, Spencer, and Emily vie for her attention, even as each of them hides a hideous secret only Alison knows. So when Alison goes missing after a slumber party, never to be seen again, each girl is heartbroken, but also a little relieved. Now it is three years later, and though the four girls have grown apart, they are each still hiding something. Artsy Aria is carrying on an affair with one of her teachers, fashionista Hanna shoplifts to accessorize her trendy outfits, blue-blood Spencer is sleeping with her older sister's boyfriend, while straight-A Emily is trying to ignore her attraction to a new female classmate. When the girls begin receiving threatening text messages and emails from someone known only as "A," they must confront the fact that against all odds, it appears Alison is back. Could Alison still be alive? And if so, why is she so determined to uncover all their dirty little secrets?

Plot summary taken from amazon.com.

And it did not disappoint! It was so good! Really, really good! I can see this series being completely addictive, I didn't want the first one to end. If I didn't have a million other books on my to read list, I might run out and get the rest of the series. Even though I don't think I had many (any?) of the experiences that the girls in the book did, it was still relatable. There were good characters, all with secrets and bad deeds but all ultimately likeable and sympathetic. I do love reading about female friendships -- always so complicated and messy! Especially at that age... drama drama drama. I like to live a little vicariously through books like this, too -- I get to find out what the cool kids are into. Paper Denim jeans are apparently a thing. :)

Like I said, the show is really good, too. It's a good adaptation and I will most definitely keep watching. And I'm not the only one who loves the show, by the way. Check out one of Eric Stonestreet's (you know, Cameron on Modern Family) recent tweets

98. Drama Queers! by Frank Anthony Polito

I liked Band Fags! very much, and started reading Drama Queers! almost immediately afterward.

Meet Bradley Dayton -- a wickedly funny high school senior whose woefully uncool life always seems to be full of drama, even in the sorry little suburb of Hazel Park, Michigan. It's 1987, the era of big hair, designer jeans, and Dirty Dancing. George Michael has "Faith" and Michael Jackson still has a nose. Brad, on the other hand, has a thing for acting, and while his friends are trying to get laid, Brad's trying to land the lead in Okla-homo! and practicing the Jane Seymour monologue from Somewhere in Time.

Sure, he'd like to get laid too, but while Brad has known he was gay forever, the rest of "Hillbilly High" is not so forthcoming. Brad's already lost one best friend, Jack, who dropped out of the marching band to step into the closet. But lately, things are looking up. Not only has Brad made Homecoming Top Five, but Richie, a new, totally cute member of drama club, definitely seems to be sending signals -- and he's not the only one. Before senior year ends, Brad will know more about love, lust and friendship than he ever thought possible. Because if all the world's a stage, he's ready to be in the spotlight...

Plot summary taken from the paperback back cover.

didn't have too strong feelings about Brad while reading Band Fags! -- Jack is so in his own head that you stay there, too. I ultimately found him to be more likeable than Jack and I think it's because he's more comfortable with who he is; his doubt about being gay is more short-lived and less tortured than Jack's. This is probably why other characters reacted to them similarly, you get better vibes from Brad. It was interesting to get the other side of the senior year story, they inform each other and fill in gaps of information -- if you read one, you have to read the other (and I recommend reading Band Fags! first because it covers a longer period of time). Both books are good, quick reads that you won't regret checking out!

97. Band Fags! by Frank Anthony Polito

Both my friend Jeff and his roommate Ryan recommended Band Fags! (and its sequel Drama Queers!), they know the author Frank Anthony Polito (FAP, as I came to think of him). Jeff loaned me his copy, along with Vanna Speaks and a few other books. I have to tell a Jeff story here. We saw American Pie 2 together, and when the Jason Biggs character realizes that he loves the Alyson Hannigan character and declares that he is a band dork (nerd?), he just never joined the band, Jeff (master floutist) turned to me and said that I was a band dork (nerd?), I just never joined the band. Agree? Disagree? Discuss amongst yourselves.

September, 1982. John Cougar's "Jack and Diane" is on endless radio rotation, and Dallas and Dynasty rule the ratings. Jack Paterno is a straight-A student living in the Detroit suburb of Hazel Park, with his own Atari 5200, a Beta VCR, and everything a seventh-grader could ask for. The only thing he has is common with foul-mouthed Brad Dayton, who lives on the gritty south side near 8 Mile, is that both are in Varsity Band. Or maybe that's not the only thing. Because Jack is discovering that while hanging around with girls in elementary school was perfectly acceptable, having lots of girl friends (as opposed to girlfriends) now is getting him and Brad labeled as Band Fags. And Jack is no fag. Is he?

As Jack and Brad make their way through junior high and then through Hazel Park High School, their friendship grows deeper and more complicated. From stealing furtive glances at Playgirl to discussing which celebrities might be like that, from navigating school cliques to dealing with crushes on girls and guys alike, Jack is trying to figure out who and what he is. He wants to find real, endless love, but he also wants to be popular and "normal." But, as Brad points out, this is real life -- not a John Hughes movie. And sooner or later, Jack will have to choose.

Plot summary taken from the paperback back cover. 

Ah, coming of age tales. I don't think I could ever write so much in the voice of a young adult, but I immediately recognized the writing of Jack as authentic. It rang true. I thought to myself while reading that FAP must have kept diaries from the time to reference because he wrote so convincingly. And 
of the gay coming of age fiction that I've read for the project (Sugarless, The Density of Souls, The Screwed-Up Life of Charlie the Second), FAP's was most relatable -- even though band (and drama) was not my world at all, but being in my own group of friends aside from "popular" kids was my experience. Also the pop culture stuff was totes up my alley; it's nice to know there are other geeks out there who know actors in TV movies from the other TV movies they've done. And best of all, no boys are gross stuff! :)

While reading, I identified with Jack and empathized with him, found him likeable. But when I was done with Band Fags!, I started to feel a little differently -- especially because I started Drama Queers! almost immediately after finishing it, which is from Brad's point of view for his and Jack's senior year in high school. Jack is insecure and unsure of himself just about to the point of making him someone uncomfortable to be around; popularity and "normalcy" are so important to him that it's almost off-putting. I didn't feel that way while reading which is to Polito's credit -- it's when I stepped out of Jack's shoes and saw him from the outside that I started to feel that way. When you're on the journey with Jack, you're with him.

I highly recommend this one! Stay tuned for my Drama Queers! post, coming soon to a blog near you.

96. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

My dad loaned me The Uplift War to read as one of my sci-fi picks months ago and he asks me every time we talk if I've read it yet. For some reason or another, I kept putting it off. Either a book came in from the library or something else that someone loaned me looked more appealing. But I was finally all set to start reading it a few days ago. I came home from work and Colin sat me down for a serious talk -- flipping though the book, he told me there was no way I would be able to finish it AND the other books I had lined up by the July 4 deadline (one year exactly from the start of the project). I think he thought it was longer and more dense that I was expecting. He suggested that I read another sci-fi book for the project, he came up with a list of titles to choose from, and that I read The Uplift War after the project is over -- that way, I could take the time to enjoy it, instead of rushing through it. Point taken -- The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy it is. Dad, I promise The Uplift War is first on my post-project reading list.

Don't panic! Losing your planet isn't the end of the world.

Earth is about to get unexpectedly demolished to make way for a hyperspace bypass. It's the final straw for Arthur Dent -- he's already has his house bulldozed this morning. But for Arthur, this is only the beginning... In the seconds before global obliteration, Arthur is plucked from the planet by his friend Ford Prefect -- and together the pair ventures out across the galaxy on the craziest, strangest road trip of all time.

Plot summary taken from the paperback back cover. It took a surprisingly long time to type. 

This book is hilarious! I don't know why, but I didn't expect it to be funny. Check out a couple of quotes as proof:

"And then, one Thursday, nearly two thousand years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change, a girl sitting on her own in a small cafe in Rickmansworth suddenly realized what it was that had been going wrong all this time, and she finally knew how the world could be made a good and happy place. This time it was right, it would work, and no one would have to get nailed to anything."

"It is an important and popular fact that things are not always what they seem. For instance, on the planet Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much -- the wheel, New York, wars, and so on -- whilst all the dolphins had ever done was much about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed they were more intelligent than man -- for precisely the same reasons." 

(This second one is the beginning of chapter 23; I would have quoted all of chapter 23 if room -- and my typing skills -- allowed.)

My second reaction is that this book is totally and completely bananas. Wackadoo, for sure. But it was very amusing and I really enjoyed reading about the purpose of earth, the plan of the mice, etc. Colin said that much of the book parodies other science fiction works, so it's possible that I wasn't going to get as much out of as the next guy. 

Now, usually I get a photo of the book cover by searching for images on Google. I couldn't find the exact cover of the paperback from the library, so I took a photo with my phone. Why is it important to get a photo of the actual book that I read? Because of how the title is type set -- The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy. This didn't look weird to me, so when I created my Google Doc to keep notes, that's the spelling that I used. When I added this title to the Currently Reading box on the blog, that's the spelling that I used. Later, I noticed that the title on the book spine and on the back cover used "Hitchhiker's" -- being a proofreader, this inconsistency pissed me off a little. Which spelling was I supposed to be using? I copied and pasted the answer I found on Wikipedia below. My conclusion about the cover of the book I checked out of the library? Lazy art direction. But then, I'm a little judgmental, so there you go.

Spelling

The different versions of the series spell the title differently—thus Hitch-Hiker's GuideHitch Hiker's Guide and Hitchhiker's Guide are used in different editions (US or UK), editions of the novel, (audio or print) and compilations of the book. Some editions used different spellings on the spine and title page. The BBC's h2g2 style manual claims that Hitchhiker's Guide is the spelling Adams preferred.[44] At least two reference works make note of the inconsistency in the titles. Both, however, repeat the statement that Adams decided in 2000 that "everyone should spell it the same way [one word, no hyphen] from then on." [45][46]

95. Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick

When my sister Annie came home for my other sister Mollie's bridal shower in March, she had two books to lend to me -- Persepolis and this one. It's kind of funny that they both feature totalitarian governments, but I think it was just a coincidence. :)

Nothing to Envy follows the lives of six North Koreans over fifteen years -- a chaotic period that saw the death of Kim Il-sung, the unchallenged rise to power of Kim Jong-il, and the devastation of a far-ranging famine that killed one-fifth of the North Korean population.

Taking us into a landscape that most of us have never before seen, award-winning journalist Barbara Demick brings to life what it means to be living under the most repressive totalitarian regime today -- an Orwellian world that is by choice not connected to the Internet, in which radio and television dials are welded to the one government station, and where displays of affection are punished, a police state where informants are rewarded and where an offhand remark can send a person to the gulag for life.

Demick takes us deep inside the country, beyond the reach of government censors. Through meticulous and sensitive reporting, we see her six subjects -- average North Korean citizens -- fall in love, raise families, nurture ambitions, and struggle for survival. One by one, we experience the moments when they realize their government has betrayed them. 

Nothing to Envy is a groundbreaking addition to the literature of totalitarianism and an eye-opening look at a closed world that is of increasing global importance. 

Summary taken from the book jacket.

The information in Nothing to Envy was organized differently than I was expecting, so it took some time for me to get into it. It's hard to describe how it differed from my expectations; as best I can remember it seemed to jump around at first. Once I got used to the writing and organization, the book went really quickly for a non-fiction about a non-cheery topic like totalitarianism in North Korea and its effects on average citizens. I have to say, I kept mixing up Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il while I was reading; the names look too similar in print! That's a little embarrassing, but the really shame-inducing part is that I had no idea what the conditions were like in North Korea, let alone that there was a famine in the 1990s. A famine -- that just seems like something that can't happen anymore in this day and age. The limited electricity, no access to the Internet, a famine -- as Demick puts it, North Korea is where South Korea was fifty years ago. That's hard to wrap your mind around, even though the book describes average people's experiences very well. Reading about the ruling of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il reminded me of reading about cults. To generalize, cult leaders excel at isolating their followers. They cut people off from the rest of the world, taking away their resources --money, family and friends, information. They don't want you to want to leave and if even if you do, they make it so that you won't be able to leave and survive. This also seems to be the point of North Korean rule. Citizens are told repeatedly that they have nothing to envy in the world -- they have it the best of anyone. And because accurate information about the outside world is so limited, just about everyone believes it. On of the most interesting parts of the book to me was when Demick wrote about the efforts of South Korea to accommodate North Korean deflectors.

As serious as the book is, it's not altogether completely depressing. One thing that made me smile was reading about Jun-sang, one of Demicks' ordinary North Korean citizen interviewees, and his voracious reading habits. He read anything that he could get his hands on, something that led to his decision to defect to South Korea. I loved that he enjoyed reading Sidney Sheldon's Rage of Angels (I have much-loved copy of that one on my bookshelf) and that Gone With the Wind (also on my shelf) is his all-time favorite book.

This book was eye-opening for me, and a really valuable experience. I'm going to wrap this one up with some quotes that spoke to me while reading:

"For all the support provided by the government, defectors can sense the pity and fear and guilt and embarrassment with which South Koreans view them. The mixed welcome is part of what makes them feel like strangers in their homeland."

"Guilt and shame are common denominators among North Korean defectors; many hate themselves for what they had to do in order to survive."

"Choosing where to live, what to do, even which clothes to put on in the morning is tough enough for those of us accustomed to making choices; it can be utterly paralyzing for people who've had decisions made for them by the state their entire lives."

"Kim runs his country as though it were in the thick of the Cold War, churning out bombastic propaganda, banning most foreigners from visiting, threatening real and imagined enemies with nuclear weapons and missiles."

94. The Irresistible Henry House by Lisa Grunwald

I read about this book in People magazine and thought the premise was intriguing. I immediately placed a hold at the library. And then had to wait weeks and weeks. I guess I wasn't the only one who thought it sounded interesting.

It is the middle of the twentieth century, and in a home economics program at a prominent university, real babies are being used to teach mothering skills to young women. For a young man raised in these unlikely circumstances, finding real love and learning to trust will prove to be the work of a lifetime. In this captivating novel, Lisa Grunwald gives us the sweeping tale of an irresistible hero and the many women who love him.

From his earliest days as a "practice baby" through his adult adventures in 1960s New York City, Disney's Burbank studios, and the delirious world of Beatles' London, Henry remains handsome, charming, universally adored -- and never entirely accessible to the many women he conquers but can never entirely trust.

Filled with unforgettable characters, settings, and action, The Irresistible Henry House portrays the cultural tumult of the mid-twentieth century even as it explores the the inner tumult of a young man trying to transcend a damaged childhood. For it is not until Henry House comes face-to-face with the truths of his past that he finds a chance for real love. 

Plot summary taken from the book jacket. I also suggest reading the Author's Note, which can be found on lisagrunwald.net.

Like Grunwald, this topic piques my interest. I would love to read some non-fiction or see a documentary about the practice of borrowing babies from orphanages to use as "practice" in university home ec departments. It sounds kind of barbaric, doesn't it? And yet, Grunwald writes sensitively from both perspectives, pro and con. Theories on child rearing have evolved and changed dramatically in the last hundred years, and it is the greatest fear of Martha, the head of the Practice House in the novel, that she and her colleagues were wrong all along. Even Henry, who grows to resent his upbringing and all it represents, finds it difficult to unlearn the teachings of the Practice House. Henry is a dynamic and conflicted character, and the reader is taken in by his charms as much as his conquests are. Grunwald's imaginings of Henry's reactions to his circumstances ring true, which I think is a great accomplishment.


I enjoyed reading this novel in part because Grunwald paid such careful attention to the settings -- the East Coast college campus, the wholesome Disney studios, swinging 60s London. You really get a feel for the times and places that Henry existed in. It was a quick read, which I wasn't really expecting, but I think that it's because you become so immersed in the story. I found myself looking up from reading and feeling somewhat disoriented, because my head was still in Henry's world. That's not to say that it's the easiest read. There is a lot deep sadness experienced by most, if not all, of the characters: Martha, desperate for Henry to need her as much as she needs him; Betty, who's made a complete mess of her life and can't completely ignore the fact; Mary Jane, aware of just how hard it will be for Henry to become the man she needs him to be; and even Henry, who does a good job of covering it up anger and feelings of betrayal. Their stories stay with you for long after you've finished reading. 


This novel is beautifully and lovingly written. I highly recommend it.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

93. Defining Conservatism by Jonathan Krohn

I don't like to talk politics very much on the blog. I don't want to pretend to be the most well-informed person on current events and at the end of the day, this is for fun. It's not meant to be too weighty. But if you know me or have been reading for awhile, you're probably aware that I lean to the left. Some might say bleeding heart liberal. For the project, I have read some political books: The Audacity of Hope (definitely toward the left) and Game Change (more toward the left than the middle). So in the interest of fairness, I always intended to read something non-fiction that was from a conservative standpoint. Fair's fair, right? I wasn't sure how to start looking for something, though. Most of the conservatives that pop up on my radar don't appeal to me because they don't seem to be interested in a rational dialogue -- keep in mind, this mainly refers to people like Glenn Beck. I know there are serious-minded conservative voices out there, though; I just can't hear them over the noise of Beck et al. So when I saw Defining Conservatism on the new non-fiction shelf at the library, my interest was piqued. Maybe this was just the thing that I had been looking for?

Defining Conservatism is a passionate appeal to a political movement that is re-examining its identity as Republicans set their sights in 2010 and beyond. A dedicated young conservative, Jonathan Krohn presents conservative philosophy's basic tenets in this remarkably earnest and impeccably reasoned primer. This book, clear and informative, is a history lesson, a manifesto, and a roadmap for the future. It is Krohn's rallying call to action not just for conservatives, but for anyone interested in the political state of our nation. In Defining Conservatism, Krohn challenges "government expansionists," whose faith in Washington and the basic pillars of government exceeds their faith in the individual. At the same time, he boldly stakes out four unshakeable principles for conservatives to rally around:

Respect for the Constitution
Respect for human life
Belief in minimalist government
Insistence upon personal responsibility

Anyone interested in the basic differences between conservative and liberal thought will find Krohn's writing at once compelling, informative, intelligent, and -- for those who do not agree with him -- controversial. Defining Conservatism is a must-read for anyone who is interested in the basic principles upon which the United States was founded, and perhaps most importantly, for anyone who is concerned with the future of this country.

Summary taken from the book jacket copy. 

This book was in no way, shape or form what I was looking for. I bolded parts of the book jacket copy to indicate what must have appealed to me as I read it while at the library. I think I must have been skimming, rather than really reading. I brought the book home with me thinking that I would be reading about those four basic tenets of conservatism, which I actually don't find much fault with. (Seriously. At the root, we're not that far apart.) I thought the book would be accessible to liberals, explaining conservative principles at least partly in an attempt at a greater understanding between the two parties.

Krohn does go into detail explaining those basic principles. But I found that at every opportunity, he took pleasure in also explaining why liberals (referred to in every instance as "government expansionists") were wrong -- and dangerous. I found his writing to be obnoxious and offensive. One of his assertions is that liberals have no moral compass. I think he puts it as conservatives believe natural law and morals to be inflexible, while liberals change their morals based on context of situations -- thus having no true (read: inflexible) morals. That's the best way that I can paraphrase, something may get lost in translation. I wrote down a quote about morals, maybe it will give you an idea of how he writes on the topic:

"The so-called tolerant left claims that in order to have tolerance, one must first and foremost deny morality a stake or even a claim in society."

I have never been so frustrated in my life. The book is about 170 pages long, and I cried for most of the second half. I could rant and rave about what Krohn said and the rude way he said it, but it's really my fault for now knowing what I was getting into.

I want to wrap up this post with a couple of quotes from President Obama's commencement speech at the University of Michigan, which took place earlier this year. As I said above, I don't have a problem with the basic ideas of conservatives. I don't feel so far apart from them to preclude understanding or cooperation. But I think we have different ways of looking at things, and the quotes below express (more eloquently than I could) some ideas that reading Defining Conservatism stirred up.

"It was the first Republican President, Abraham Lincoln, who said the role of government is to do for people what they cannot do better for themselves."

"...government shouldn't try to dictate people's lives. But it should give you the tools you need to succeed. Government shouldn't try to guarantee results, but it should guarantee a shot at opportunity for every American who's willing to work hard."

92. L.A. Confidential by James Ellroy

Colin and I were looking for movie adaptation ideas, and he was reading titles off of some website. When he got to L.A. Confidential, he was all for it -- he said that I should really read this one and then we could watch the movie together. It turns out Colin loved the movie adaptation when it came out and thought it should have beaten Titanic for Best Picture. Okay, then: decision made. L.A. Confidential it is.

James Ellroy's L.A. CONFIDENTIAL is epic noir, a crime novel of astonishing detail and scope. It stands as a steel-edged time capsule -- Los Angeles in the 1950s, a remarkable era defined in dark shadings.

Pornography.
Police corruption.
Gangland intrigue.

A horrific mass murder that invades the lives of victims and victimizers on both sides of the law -- three cops treading quicksand in the middle.

Ed Exley wants glory. Haunted by his father's success as a policeman, he will pay any price, break any law to eclipse him. Bud White watched his own father murder his mother -- he is now bent on random vengeance, a time bomb with a badge. Trashcan Jack Vincennes shakes down movie stars for a scandal magazine. An old secret possesses him -- he'll do anything to keep it buried. Three cops in a spiral, a nightmare that tests loyalty and courage, a nightmare that offers no mercy, allows for no survivors.

Greed.
Perversion.
Ruthless ambition.

L.A. CONFIDENTIAL is incendiary, a novel as broad and explosive as its themes. Here is James Ellroy's masterpiece, his stunning gifts stretched to the limit, darkness to haunt you in shades of red, gray and black. 

Plot summary taken from the book jacket. Laying it on a bit thick, aren't they?

Ellroy's writing style was extremely off-putting at first and I had a really hard time getting into this book -- a bad omen, considering its 500-page length. I can't describe it really, but the style just didn't make sense to me and it was difficult to decipher what the hell was going on. It's a good thing that the plot is so damn intriguing or I might have considered giving up. After about 150 pages, I felt more comfortable with the writing and desperately wanted to make it to the end. It went pretty fast after that first 150, and I ended up finishing the book in two days, surprising myself. I liked the twists and payoff of the exposition, but I didn't think this was the best mystery/suspense/thriller that I've ever read -- maybe at heart, I'm just not a noir person?


One thing that I found really interesting, and I'm not sure if I liked or disliked, was Ellroy's incorporating actual people and events into his fiction. The gangster Mickey Cohen was mentioned in the first chapter, and the name sounded familiar but I didn't think much of it -- until Johnny Stompanato, one of his associates, came up. Now that name I know for sure. I'm the proud owner of Lana Turner's autobiography and her daughter Cheryl Crane's autobiography -- and Johnny Stompanato takes up at least a chapter or two in each. Stompanato dated and abused Turner and was killed in her home. The official story is that Cheryl stabbed him to prevent him from beating her mother, but there were a lot of rumors and other theories about what happened at the time. It was a huge scandal. So once I saw that name, I did some online research and found that Ellroy used a lot of historical information in the book, most notably the Bloody Christmas affair, which puts several plot points in the book into motion. I'm still deciding it that was cool or confusing. Probably both. 

And now for some trivia before I get into the movie adaptation that Colin loved so much. 

At one point, the name Barney Stinson came up -- we never meet this character but his name is provided as a criminal's drug dealer. Who cares, you ask? Well, Coin and I are big fans of the show How I Met Your Mother, and Barney Stinson is the name of Neil Patrick Harris's character. Coincidence? Hm...

This may be a spoiler, so please avert your eyes if you wish to remain spoiler-free. Pierce Patchett, one of the big baddies in the book, was from Grosse Pointe, Michigan. Just like me! This fact doesn't have a lot of bearing on anything, but it was interesting to me. In another world, maybe I would have been the Grosse Pointe native that ended up running a Hollywood look-a-like brothel in Los Angeles. Who knows?

Now, those of you paying attention will know that I read L.A. Confidential immediately after No Angel. This is apropos of nothing, except that in both books the city San Bernardino, CA, is referred to as "Berdoo" and "San Berdoo." What's up with that? I thought it was just a Hells Angels things when I was reading No Angel, but then it comes up in L.A. Confidential? What does it mean? I did some preliminary research online, and it seems that it doesn't mean much of anything -- "Berdoo" has been a nickname of San Bernardino for over 100 years. Shrug. Mystery solved, I guess.

I had never seen the movie adaptation of L.A. Confidential. All I really knew about it was that Kim Basinger won Best Supporting Actress for her role and she wore a really lovely green gown to the ceremony and was still married to Alec Baldwin at that point. Colin and I watched it just a few days after I finished the book, so everything was still fresh in my mind. And every time the movie deviated from the book, I couldn't help but point it out. Yes, I was that guy. Even though I knew they would have to trim down a lot to adapt the book, I was still surprised by how much that was different. I'm not sure why Kevin Spacey agreed to play Vincennes -- his entire background was cut out, as well as his romance, and (spoiler alert!) he dies sooner in the movie than in the book. What's up with that? Also, it's more noticeable to me when a movie takes itself very seriously than when a book does. I'm sure the book did take itself very seriously, but I couldn't help but notice it during the movie. At one point, White is beating up Exley and Exley is trying to convince him that someone is setting him up. He actually yells, "Think, goddamn you! Think!" I laughed. This was one of those times when I couldn't watch the movie objectively, so if you want to discuss it I suggest you talk to Colin. I didn't appreciate it as much as he did. 

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

91. No Angel by Jay Dobyns

My friend Ken told me about this book he was reading and he sounded really excited about it. The more he told me, the more interested I became. He generously offered to loan it to me, so I took him up on it.

Here, from Jay Dobyns, the first federal agent to infiltrate the inner circle of the outlaw Hells Angels Motorcycle Club, is the inside story of the 21-month-long operation that almost cost him his family, his sanity, and his life. 

Summary taken from the paperback back cover. It's pretty succinct, eh?

Okay, I want to get the bad out of the way because I have plenty of good things to say.

I usually don't despair when I read non-fiction books about bad people/things... it's generally an interesting topic and I can be a bit objective. But for some reason, this one got to me. I felt bogged down in the bad things that happen in this world -- a hand signal for gangbangs, a woman murdered for insulting someone in a clubhouse, so many people using/addicted to crystal meth. It just got to me. Not to sound naive, but there is just so much more to life, you know?

Also, I didn't get through this one as quickly as I usually do. It was good and interesting, but because it was taking longer to read, I felt frustrated and as if I didn't like it as much as I did. 

And onto the good!

While reading, you become completely immersed in this world, which is pretty incredible. Not everyone can write that effectively. And I came away with all this knowledge that I never thought I would have:

people use the abbreviation "OMG" for "outlaw motorcycle gang" (tee hee)

it is, in fact, "Hells Angels" and not "Hell's Angels" (apparently there's more than one hell based on where you are)

they also say 81 (eight one, not eighty-one) to refer to the Hells Angels (8 for H [the eighth letter in the alphabet] and 1 for A [the first letter in the alphabet])

I love finding a Detroit connection, and this book has a great one. When describing Slats, aka Joe Slatella, who ran Operation Black Biscuit:

"He'd worked in Detroit in the eighties and nineties -- the Vietnam of federal law enforcement..."

Wowza, right? Also, Slats named it "Operation Black Biscuit" because he's a huge Detroit Red Wings fan, and "black biscuit" is slang for hockey puck. (This was new to me -- I've never heard that, and my parents said that they hadn't either. But we're none of us huge hockey fans.)

This is possibly the best quote from a rough-and-tumble undercover ATF agent ever:

"October 5. On the way to the Patch, I stopped at a Starbucks. They already had the Halloween seasonal, a pumpkin-flavored latte with brown sugar cinnamon sprinkles. I love the seasonals at Starbucks -- I get them with extra foam and low-fat milk. Totally lame, but there you go."

Ooh, and get a load of this quote on the back cover:

"Fuhgedaboudit! Moving and frightening ... The most informative and authoritative book on undercover work since Donnie Brasco."
--Joe Pistone, aka Donnie Brasco, and author of the New York Times bestseller Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia

Tee hee! That kind of quote takes balls, and I love that they put it on the back cover. I read Donnie Brasco forever ago, but I don't remember enough of it to compare to No Angel.

And those of you who enjoy the movie Hot Fuzz will understand that I'm completely paranoid that this post has "angle" instead of "angel" somewhere in it. And that's a mistake that spell-check isn't going to find! But in all seriousness, this book is pretty amazing. I recommend checking it out if you're interested in undercover work or motorcycle gangs or just want an incredible peek into a world that's completely different from your own.

90. The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

I decided to read The Big Sleep a long time ago when I saw it on one of my lists of classics. My interest was peaked because I had a vague idea of what it was but I wasn't sure. This work is referenced in pop culture all the time -- I heard the name Philip Marlowe pop up on Veronica Mars once -- so I thought it would be cool to go to the source, as it were.

There was no book jacket copy to speak of and I couldn't write a plot summary of this book to save my life, so please kindly visit Wikipedia to read what The Big Sleep is about: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Big_Sleep

The Big Sleep is a great read. I loved the writing style and the dialogue and it was fun to read. But here's the thing: I had the hardest time trying to follow the plot. Even the plot summary on Wikipedia -- I can't wrap my mind around it. So after a few chapters of reading and re-reading paragraphs trying to make sure I was taking all the action in, I let go a little bit. I tried to just enjoy the ride and stop tracking the details. I don't really like it when this happens, but sometimes it does and you have to decide not to get frustrated and give up entirely. Like I said, I genuinely liked the writing style and the dialogue so I didn't want to throw the book aside and choose something else. So all in all, I did like this one but I don't think I'll be picking up any of the other Philip Marlowe books any time soon.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

89. Evil at Heart by Chelsea Cain

I went to the library a few weeks ago with a list in hand. I was on a mission. As I walked down the C aisle of the Fiction section, looking for Capote  and Chandler, Evil at Heart by Chelsea Cain caught my eye and I stopped. I read Cain's first two novels, Heartsick and Sweetheart, a couple of years ago and really enjoyed them.

Fun fact: I noticed that Nathan Fillion's character was reading one of them on an episode of Castle, although I can't remember which one. Probably Sweetheart.

So even though I had already somewhat decided that I had read enough mysteries this year, I decided to check it out. I was really excited to see there was another book in this series -- the second book was good in part because of a twist from the first one that must have been part of the plan all along. I really appreciate when authors have a grand plan, rather than continuing on for continuing on's sake or in an obvious bid for another payday. 

Please note: The review below does contain spoilers. Stop here if you want to read this series (and it's a good one) without prior knowledge. 

Gretchen Lowell is still on the loose. These days, she's more of a cause celebre than a feared killer, thanks to sensationalist news coverage that has made her a star. Her face graces magazine covers weekly and there have been sightings of her around the world. Most shocking of all, Portland Herald reporter Susan Ward has uncovered a bizarre kind of fan club, which celebrates the numbers of days she's been free. Archie Sheridan hunted her for a decade, and after his last ploy to catch her went spectacularly wrong, remains hospitalized months later. When they last spoke, they entered a detente of sorts -- Archie agreed not to kill himself if she agreed not to kill anyone else. But when a new body is found accompanied by Gretchen's trademark heart, all bets are off and Archie is forced back into action. Has the Beauty Killer returned to her gruesome ways, or has the cult surrounding her created a whole new evil? 

Plot summary taken from the book jacket.

As far as mystery premises go, this is a pretty good one. Gretchen, a notorious female serial killer, posed as a psychologist consulting with the very task force working to track her down. She and Archie, the lead detective, had an affair. And then she kidnapped and tortured him because, well... that's what she does. Now the task force knows who they're hunting, but their lead detective is in bad shape. That's some good stuff, right?

This was a good installment in the series; it held up well against the the first two. Some effed up things happen, but it is a thriller about a serial killer, so that's to be expected and it wasn't too over the top. I did pick up on a clue, so I felt pretty good about that. I liked the ending because Cain could return with another book but if she doesn't, it's still a satisfying ending to series.

I read up on Cain on Wikipedia and was interested to learn that she's from Portland, Oregon. I love my Portland-raised authors! Apparently she described the Green River Killer as the "boogeyman" of her youth. I do have a bone to pick with her, though. I didn't realize that she is also the author of Confessions of a Teen Sleuth: A Parody. I read that book awhile ago -- I was intrigued because I have a lot of nostalgia for my days of reading Nancy Drew. This "parody" was more like a mockery, though. I thought it would be written kindly, but I was really off-put by the condescending tone. I do not recommend it even one little bit. I hope Cain sticks to thrillers in the future.  

88. Proof by David Auburn

When the movie version of Proof came out, I somewhat wanted to see it. I love Jake Gyllenhaal and loved Gwyneth Paltrow at the time, which was before she became British and insufferable. Ultimately I thought the movie would be too sad, so I decided not to see it. I didn't think much of it until my friend Peter showed me the copy of the play that he found -- in perfect condition -- at a garage sale. He thought it might be fun to include a play in my reading project, which I thought was both smart and sweet.

We had kind of a long conversation about the book cover, by the way. Peter mentioned that he thought the woman on the cover resembled Mary-Louise Parker and I disagreed. I thought it looked more like Kristen Stewart -- most likely because of the sad expression. Miss Stewart is not all sunshine and rainbows, you know. We debated it for awhile, and I conceded that I could see why he thought it looked like MLP but the resemblance wasn't jumping out at me. I read over the back cover while we were talking about something else and noticed this line:

Cover photograph of Mary-Louise Parker in Proof by Jean-Marie Guyaux.

As it happens, MLP originated the role of Catherine. You learn something new every day.

On the eve of her twenty-fifth birthday, Catherine, a young woman who has spent years caring for her brilliant but unstable father, Robert, must deal not only with his death but with the arrival of her estranged sister, Claire, and with the attentions of Hal, a former student of her father's who hopes to find valuable work in the 103 notebooks that Robert left behind. As Catherine confronts Hal's affections and Claire's plans for her new life, she struggles to solve the most perplexing problem of all: How much of her father's madness -- or genius -- will she inherit?

Plot summary taken from the back cover.

I haven't read a play since I was in school, not that I can remember anyway. And even then, I don't know that I've read one that's left me speechless, as Proof did. I felt completely blown away, and just sat to digest it for a few minutes. It is, quite simply, brilliant. Smart and witty, sarcastic but heartfelt -- I don't know how Auburn did it. And I really don't know how he managed to craft such a pitch-perfect relationship between the two sisters. I have to go on record and state that neither of my sisters is like Claire, but the way that Catherine and Claire interact and the sense of the history between the two of them is just staggering. He got it just, absolutely, perfectly right. In general, I don't even know how to articulate a response to the play. l was amazed.

Colin brought home the DVD of Proof that I had been so reluctant to see. And no, it did not end up being too sad. It was a very well-executed adaptation and in particular, well-casted. I recommend seeing it if you haven't already but I think the experience of reading the play is more enjoyable.  

87. Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote

I have always loved the movie Breakfast at Tiffany's -- not necessarily for the story/plot but for the style, look and feel, lingo, etc. And Audrey Hepburn. She is the epitome of class and grace, and I just love her in the role of Holly Golightly. I actually own three copies of the movie: one on VHS, one on DVD, and one DVD in a box set with two other Audrey Hepburn movies. So when I was trying to think of books to read for the movie adaptation category and Colin suggested Breakfast at Tiffany's, it was a done deal.

When Breakfast at Tiffany's was first published in 1958, Time magazine described its heroine, Holly Golightly, as "the hottest kitten ever to hit the typewriter keys of Truman Capote. She's a cross between a grown-up Lolita and a teen-age Auntie Mame...alone and a little afraid in a lot of beds she never made." Of all his characters, Capote later said, Holly was his favorite, and it is easy to see why. This wacky hillbilly-turned-playgirl who lives in a Manhattan brownstone shares not only his philosophy of freedom and acceptance of human irregularities but also his fears and anxieties -- "the mean reds" she calls them. For her the cure is to jump into a taxi and head for Tiffany's; nothing bad could happen, she says, amid "that lovely smell of silver and alligator wallets," and her dream is to have breakfast in that soothing setting. "Holly Golightly is outre, funny, touching -- and real," remarked The Atlantic

This is from the book jacket. It's not a plot summary per se, but I think it's great. 

Relief! I really loved it. I had heard somewhere that they had to change a lot to adapt the book into a film, so I wasn't sure what to expect. I thought it might be grittier. But it was actually a really faithful adaptation, I even recognized some of the dialogue. The changes they made worked for the new medium very well. They changed the ending but really had to -- the novella ending is probably more true to life, but the movie ending is more satisfying and people can walk away happy, it feels more like an ending.

Side note: I didn't like the use of the n word, but I have a feeling it was accurate for the time and place/context. 

Breakfast at Tiffany's is the first book of Truman Capote's that I've read, and I'm not sure if I will read more of his work... all I really need to know about Capote, I think I do:
    
1. he wrote this novella
2. he was the basis for Dill in To Kill a Mockingbird
3. he was in Murder by Death

Although I bet a biography of his celebrity years would be full of dish... and I do love reading about the scandals of New York society. (I'm kidding a little bit -- I saw the movie Capote, which doesn't really make the case for his being a nice person, you know? I think that's why I would be hesitant to delve more into his work.)

And a final note: both the book and the movie can make you feel a bit sad about life, which I HATE, but I really like them more for feeling of the time, the glamour and clothes, and the lexicon, you know? I don't think that either will give you a case of the "mean reds," but consider yourself forewarned. 

86. Summer Sisters by Judy Blume

I consider Summer Sisters a recommendation from one of my Facebook friends. Technically, she mentioned in a status update that she was reading one of her favorite books after a bad day. Tenuous? Sure. But recommendations were a little harder to come by than I was expecting, and I was excited to read a Blume novel that was aimed at adults. There you go.

When Victoria Leonard answers the phone in her Manhattan office, Caitlin's voice catches her by surprise. Vix hasn't talked to her oldest friend in months. Caitlin's news takes her breath away -- and Vix is transported back in time, back to the moment she and Caitlin Somers first met, back to the casual betrayals and whispered confessions of their long, complicated friendship, back to the magical island where two friends became summer sisters. Caitlin dazzled Vix from the start, sweeping her into the heart of the unruly Somers family, into a world of privilege, adventure, and sexual daring. Vix's bond with her summer family forever reshapes her ties to her own, opening doors to opportunities she had never imagined -- until the summer she falls passionately in love. Then, in one shattering moment on a moonswept Vineyard beach, everything changes, exposing a dark undercurrent in her extraordinary friendship with Caitlin that will haunt them through the years. As their story carries us from Santa Fe to Martha's Vineyard, from New York to Venice, we come to know the men and women who shape their lives. And as we follow the two women on the paths they each choose, we wait for the inevitable reckoning to be made in the fine spaces between friendship and betrayal, between love and freedom. 

Plot summary taken from the book jacket.

It was an enjoyable read, but here's the thing: Caitlin is a right little bitch. I can't really mince words on this one. All of the "casual betrayals" mentioned in the copy above are things that Caitlin has done to Vix, none are the other way around. I don't really understand the friendship between the two, but I suppose that Vix's relationship with the Somers family is the reason that they never completely lost touch. We get peeps into other characters' points of view at the end of each chapter, which worked well for the most part and rounded out the story. The one person we don't hear from? It's no coincidence that it's Caitlin. I think I'm just past the point of finding someone like Caitlin to be mysterious or romantic or intriguing. She's damaged and she hurts people. Period. That shouldn't "dazzle" people.

Whew. Can you tell I felt strongly about that? Now that I've got it off my chest, I want to reiterate that Summer Sisters is an enjoyable read. It's great for a beach read or a lazy Saturday afternoon. I love Judy Blume and you can definitely see her in this book. It's not going to end up being one of my favorites, but that's fine. I still had a good time reading it. 

85. My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor, Ph.D

I saw My Stroke of Insight on my mom's book shelf forever ago, and thought it looked really interesting. It's been sitting on my coffee table for months now, so I figured it was high time I got started reading.

On the morning of December 10, 1996, Jill Bolte Taylor, a thirty-seven-year-old Harvard-trained brain scientist, experienced a massive stroke when a blood vessel exploded in the left side of her brain. A neuroanatomist by profession, she observed her own mind completely deteriorate to the point that she could not walk, talk, read, write, or recall any of her life, all within the space of four brief hours. As the damaged left side of her brain -- the rational, grounded, detail- and time-oriented side -- swung in and out of function, Taylor alternated between two distinct and opposite realities: the euphoric nirvana of the intuitive and kinesthetic right brain, in which she felt a sense of complete well-being and peace, and the logical, sequential left brain, which recognized Jill was having a stroke and enabled her to seek help before she was lost completely. 

In My Stroke of Insight, Taylor shares her unique perspective on the brain and its capacity for recovery, and the sense of omniscient understanding she gained from this unusual and inspiring voyage out of the abyss of a wounded brain. It would take eight years for Taylor to heal completely. Because of her knowledge of how the brain works, her respect for the cells composing her human form, and most of all an amazing mother, Taylor completely repaired her mind and recalibrated her understanding of the world according to the insights gained from her right brain that morning of December 10th.

Today Taylor is convinced that the stroke was the best thing that could have happened to her. It has taught her that the feeling of nirvana is never more than a mere thought away. By stepping to the right of our left brains, we can all uncover the feelings of well-being and peace that are so often sidelined by our own brain chatter. A fascinating journey into the mechanics of the human mind, My Stroke of Insight is both a valuable recovery guide for anyone touched by a brain injury and an emotionally stirring testimony that deep internal peace truly is accessible to anyone at any time.

Summary taken from the book jacket.

Okay, once I started re-reading the book jacket to type up the summary, I got a little nervous. The book was sounding a little touchy-feely and almost like a how-to -- did I really want to read about how to access a part of my brain to achieve nirvana? Also, one of my relatives suffered from an aneurysm when I was eleven years old. Did I really want to know what she might have been going through before she got medical attention? I had to force myself to continue on, and remember that this did sound interesting and I should give it a chance.

My first reaction is that the science of the brain is a little beyond me. Taylor includes a section of background information, so that you can better understand how she writes about the stroke and her recovery. I gave it an honest effort, but after a few pages it was clear that I wasn't taking anything away from it. And she was dumbing it down! Sigh. It's just not my area.

Also, Taylor is a little... well, I would say hippie-dippie, but that's a little mean. I'm just not the type to walk around a park with my guitar and sing. So I had a hard time relating to her because we didn't have much in common. 

However, this book was as interesting as I expected. Although it was nerve-wracking, reading about the experience of having a stroke was valuable to me. And the wisdom that Taylor imparts about how to interact with someone recovering from a stroke is priceless. You can be sure that I will pick up a copy for myself should I ever need a refresher. 

84. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest by Stieg Larsson

If you read this and this, you already know how much I was looking forward to reading The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest. Please note that this post has to be spoiler-free because Colin just started reading the second book in the trilogy.

Lisbeth Salander -- the heart of Larsson's two previous novels -- lies in critical condition, a bullet wound to her head, in the intensive care unit of a Swedish hospital. She's fighting for her life in more ways than one: if and when she recovers, she'll be taken back to Stockholm to stand trial for three murders. With the help of her friend, journalist Mikael Blomkvist, she will not only have to prove her innocence, but also identify and denounce those in authority who have allowed the vulnerable, like herself, to suffer abuse and violence. And, on her own, she will plot revenge -- against the man who tried to kill her, and the corrupt government institutions that very nearly destroyed her life. One upon a time, she was a victim. Now Salander is fighting back.

Plot summary taken from the book jacket. 

I read this book on the way home from North Carolina; I started it at around 7:00 a.m. and finished it as we drove into Delaware, Ohio (my college town!). Those nine or so hours went by really quickly.

Sigh. I am so sad this series is over! It's satisfying at the end, but I can see threads and characters that I know would be revisited and expanded upon later. I like the evolution of Blomkvist and Salander's friendship and would have liked to see where it progressed further. I just want to keep visiting this world, you know?

There's not much else I can write about and remain spoiler-free... Oh, Colin and I watched the Swedish film adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo the other night, and it was pretty good. I hear Daniel Craig is going to play Blomkvist in the American version, which would be fine. I think George Clooney could handle it, though. Just sayin.'  

Friday, June 25, 2010

83. The Screwed-Up Life of Charlie the Second by Drew Ferguson

This book is another loan from Jeff, he threw it on the pile along with A Density of Souls when getting together the books I asked to borrow (including Vanna Speaks, for which I cannot thank him enough).

Being Charles James Stewart, Jr., AKA Charlie the Second, means never "fitting in." Tall, gangly and big-eared, he could be a poster boy for teenage geeks. An embarrassment to his parents (he's not too crazy about them, either), Charlie is a virtual untouchable at his high school, where humiliation is practically an extracurricular activity. Charlie has tried to fit in, but all of his efforts fail on a glorious, monumental scale. He plays soccer -- mainly to escape his home life -- but isn't accepted by his teammates who basically ignore him on the field. He still confuses the accelerator with the brake pedal and has failed his driving exam six times. He can't work on his college essay without writing a searing tell-all. But what's freaking Charlie out the most is that while his hormones are raging and his peers are pairing off, he remains alone with his fantasies. But all of this is about to change when a new guy at school begins to liven things up on the soccer team -- and in Charlie's life. For the first time in his seventeen years, Charlie will learn how it feels to be a star, well, at least off the field. But Charlie discovers that even cool guys have problems as he embarks on an unforgettable, risk-filled journey from which there is no turning back. 

Plot summary taken from the back cover of the paperback.

I read The Screwed-Up Life of Charlie the Second while we were in North Carolina for Mollie's wedding. We had a little more downtime than I was expecting, which was really nice, and I think I finished it the day before we left. I liked a lot, it's very funny. I especially liked Bink's mom with her examples of famous people that Charlie should emulate or use as inspiration -- her descriptions of them always started out well but ended tragically, with her supposing that maybe Charlie shouldn't look up to them after all. Ah, the best of intentions. 

The format of the book is like a journal -- Charlie is attempting to write a college application essay, and his writing is basically the attempt to do so. I was impressed at how he grew over the course of the story and gained understanding of himself and some of the people around him; and the evolution of the college essay was a great way to show that. It's an interesting narrative device -- he's writing with hindsight about events that have happened, in extreme first person. I found myself wondering how the book would have been different if written in another format. 

If you read my Sugarless review, you know how I feel about boys -- they're gross. Charlie is no exception. I felt a bit squeamish at parts, but nothing that made me want to stop reading. Oh, and in case you were wondering, here's how you can tell that I'm old: Sometimes, or a lot of the time, I find myself sympathizing more with the parents than with the teenagers. Charlie was frequently sarcastic with his parents, reacting to their questions about whether he started his homework as if being personally attacked. And so his dad was overprotective -- there are worse things than that! Buck up, kiddo!   

Thursday, June 24, 2010

82. A Density of Souls by Christopher Rice

A Density of Souls is another book on loan from my friend Jeff. He highly recommended it, noting that he's read it eight times (and cried each one) and very much enjoys the frequent use of the word "portico."

The story of four young friends in New Orleans whose lives are pulled in drastically different directions when they enter high school. Meredith, Brandon, Stephen, and Greg, once inseparable, are torn apart by envy, secret passion, and rage. Soon two violent deaths disrupt the core of what they once shared. Five years later the friends are reunited, and, when one of the deaths is discovered to be a murder, secrets unravel and the casual cruelties of high school develop into acts of violence that threaten an entire city. 

Summary lifted from the book jacket. Sounds good, yeah?

I read this book during the 12-hour drive to North Carolina for my sister's wedding, which was lovely, thank you for asking. Colin and I were really tired this day, we basically had no sleep the night before, but we actually had a lot of fun driving together. By the time we got into West Virginia, though, I couldn't wait any longer to read this book. (And Colin had the iPod hooked up to listen to, anyway.) That book jacket copy is really intriguing -- I thought it would be kind of delightfully soapy based on that.  

A Density of Souls is much more serious and heartfelt than I was expecting. I finished it around when we got into North Carolina, and felt like I just needed to sit and think about it for a bit. It wasn't easy to move on from. The "casual cruelties of high school" is definitely an understatement. Nothing that I went through during my teen years even comes close to what these characters put others -- and themselves -- through. So much pain could have been avoided if they could just forget about their little society's expectations, and accept and embrace others -- and themselves -- for who they really are. The pain and suffering is just wasteful, there's no need for it. But that's somewhat of a simplification of the issues. 

If nothing else, reading this book reaffirms my belief that it truly, genuinely matters how you treat people. Don't downplay the effects that a "casual cruelty" can have on someone. If you need a reminder, start with reading A Density of Souls.

Oh, and I did not notice an overuse of the word "portico." 

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

81. Vanna Speaks by Vanna White

I remember my friend Jeff telling me ages ago how good Vanna Speaks was. He kindly lent me a few books to read, and I made sure this was one of them.

At last, VANNA SPEAKS...and tells her fabulous story. You'll meet a celebrity it's impossible not to love...the girl-next-door who fantasized about being famous -- and worked to make it happen...the young model in Atlanta setting out in a rented U-Haul to see her fortune in Hollywood...the struggling starlet falling in love, surviving heart-breaking tragedy, and getting both lucky and tough breaks...and finally, the glamorous star, who after a decade of hard work, achieved "overnight success" and national fame on Wheel of Fortune. Sweet, sexy, candid and always herself, here is the real Vanna -- and the inspiring story of her breathtaking dream come true. 

Summary taken from the back cover of the paperback published in (hold on to your hats) 1987. Have you ever seen so many ellipses in your life?

Can I just start out by saying that this book is fabulous? There are so many elements of the ridiculous! I love how unintentionally hilarious Vanna is. She starts out the book with her morning routine, includes her favorite afghan pattern and has an entire chapter on the inner workings of Wheel of Fortune, including answers to her top ten most frequently asked questions. And her cats are (or at this point were, I guess) named Rhett and Ashley -- and she claims that this is not after Gone With the Wind. Wowza. I love it. 

Although Vanna has been dealt some tough breaks, namely the untimely deaths of her mother and boyfriend, she seems to have had an overall pretty vanilla, charmed, Norman Rockwell-esque existence. I think she's pretty anxious to downplay that; she's very insistent about the fact that hers was not an overnight success but rather took years of struggle. At one point, she describes feeling particularly low and not taking care of herself physically:

"At that rate it didn't take me very long to balloon up to over 130 pounds, between 20 and 25 pounds above my ideal weight."

Please keep in mind that Vanna is only 5'6". This is only about an inch taller than me and I hover between 130 and 135 lbs. Next time you see me, take stock and let me know if I should lose 20 to 25 pounds to achieve my ideal weight. Sigh. I may have cussed a little when I reached this point of the book. I mean, really.

But I can't stay mad at Vanna, because she goes to say stuff like this:

"Being on the show has also presented me with opportunities to do things that I'd never dreamed I'd do, like hula-hooping on national television."

Oh, Vanna. I'm very glad that you have finally spoken. 

80. The Girl Who Played With Fire by Stieg Larsson

Not to sound too much like a twittering tween or anything, but here is what I wrote in my notes about why I wanted to read The Girl Who Played With Fire:

l-o-v-e The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, totes excited to read the next two!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

(I'm funny.)

Mikael Blomkvist, crusading journalist and publisher of the magazine Millennium, has decided to run a story that will expose an extensive sex trafficking operation between Eastern Europe and Sweden, implicating well-known and highly placed members of Swedish society, business, and government. But he has no idea just how explosive the story will be until, on the eve of publication, the two investigating reporters are murdered. And even more shocking for Blomkvist: the fingerprints found on the murder weapon belong to Lisbeth Salander -- the troubled, wise-beyond-her-years genius hacker who came to his aid in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and who now becomes the focus and fierce heart of The Girl Who Played With Fire. As Blomkvist, alone in his belief of Salander's innocence, plunges into an investigation of the slayings, Salander herself is drawn into a murderous hunt in which she is the prey, and which compels her to visit her dark past in an effort to settle with it once and for all. 

Plot summary lifted from the book jacket.

This book is similar to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, but definitely set apart enough so it's not a retread. I can't even explain how masterfully Larsson interweaves the subplots and drops clues and hints. I caught on to a couple of things, but didn't figure anything out (which I didn't mind). I was extremely interested to delve more into Salander's past, and the book does not disappoint. I've read that the character Salander is somewhat inspired by Pippi Longstocking, but I was a little surprised to see the reference made in the book. Completely works, though. Honestly, I'm not going to wax too poetic about this one, even though I could go on for days. I'm too behind in my posting and too close to the deadline to spend hours and paragraphs saying what basically boils down to this one thing: this is a great f#@*ing read and you should definitely check out this trilogy. 

79. Never Tell Our Business to Strangers by Jennifer Mascia

I read about Never Tell Our Business to Strangers in People magazine, and was immediately intrigued. Reading The Godfather whetted my appetite for more mafia-related books, and I really liked the title and the cover. It took forever to get through the waiting list at the library, so I was pretty happy when I finally got it.

When Jennifer Mascia is five years old, the FBI comes for her father. At that moment Jenny realizes that her family isn't exactly normal. What follows are months of confusion marked by visits with her father through thick glass, talking to him over a telephone attached to the wall. She and her mother crisscross the country, from California to New York to Miami and back again. When her father finally returns home, months later, his absence is never explained -- and Jenny is told that the family has a new last name. It's only much later that Jenny discovers that theirs was life spent on the lam, trying to outrun the law. 

Thus begins the story of Jennifer Mascia's bizarre but strangely magical childhood. An only child, she revels in her parents' intense love for her -- and rides the highs and lows of their equally passionate arguments. They are a tight-knit band, never allowing many outsiders in. And then there are the oddities that Jenny notices only as she gets older: the fact that her father had two names before he went away -- in public he was Frank, but at home her mother called him Johnny; the neat, hidden hole in the carpet where her parents keep all their cash. The family sees wild swings in wealth -- one year they're shopping for Chanel and Louis Vuitton at posh shopping centers in Los Angeles, the next they're living in one room and subsisting on food stamps.

What have her parents done? What was the reason for her father's incarceration so many years ago? When Jenny, at twenty-two, uncovers her father's criminal record during an Internet search, still more questions are raised. By then he is dying of cancer, so she presses her mother for answers, eliciting the first in a series of reluctant admissions about her father's criminal past. Before her mother dies, four years later, Jenny is made privy to one final, riveting confession, which sets her on a search for the truth her mother fought to conceal for so many years. As Jenny unravels her family's dark secrets, she must confront the grisly legacy she has inherited and the hard truth that her parents are not -- and never have been -- what they claimed to be.

Summary lifted from the book jacket. I typed it up, and it took forever.

It took awhile to settle into Mascia's writing style; it seemed over-written or over-dramatic or just over-something. The book eventually drew me in, but took its sweet time in doing so. I ultimately didn't connect to it in the way that I expected, so the experience was disappointing. 

First off, we're supposed to know that her parents loved intensely and fought intensely. All I could feel was the fighting, I didn't get as strong a sense of the love. That just didn't come across as successfully. 
  
Secondly, this isn't my world and I don't want it to be, so it was hard to settle into the book for that reason as well. My dad never kicked me in the shins for talking back to my mom, you know? There was no "busting" of credit cards in our house (to my knowledge). So much of Mascia's childhood is just unpleasant to read about, rather than interesting. 

And finally, so much of the book is about the parents dying of cancer -- the two separate prolonged illnesses and deaths feature prominently and it is so sad. I was expecting to read more about her digging to find out about their past, and that's really a very small part of the book. 

As I read, I kept wondering where the expression "on the lam" comes from anyway. What does it MEAN? As usual, Wikipedia was the fastest answer (even though -- I know, I know -- it's not always the most reputable).

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

78. Fantastic Mr. Fox by Roald Dahl

Colin was so looking forward to the movie version of Fantastic Mr. Fox that he went to see in the theater. Alone. For whatever reason, it really wasn't on my radar. But Colin loved it, so when he brought home the DVD I sat down to watch it with him. I realized that I had never read the book -- we always had a lot of Roald Dahl books around my house, because my sister Annie loved them, but I don't remember this one. So I checked the library and was happy to learn that they had a copy waiting for me.

IN THIS BOOK YOU WILL FIND:

BOGGIS
An enormously fat man, a chicken farmer...and a mean man.

BUNCE 
A pot-bellied dwarf, a duck-and-goose farmer...and a nasty man.

BEAN
A thin man, a turkey-and-apple farmer...and a beastly man.

BADGER
The most respectable and well-behaved animal in the district.

RAT
A rude creature and a drunkard.

MRS. FOX AND HER FOUR SMALL CHILDREN
A fine family.

and

MR. FOX
Our hero, a fantastic fellow.

If you're three years old or more you'll love this extraordinary adventure story, Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Plot summary lifted from the book jacket.

This book is really good! I liked it so much! I definitely want to have a copy to read to any future sons, daughters, nieces and nephews. Fantastic Mr. Fox is a really charming kids' story that adults will still enjoy (as I did). They made some significant changes when adapting the book, which I understand as necessary. The book is pretty slender, and a movie version needed more character development and background information. I think the movie works really well on a more adult level. Even with the changes and Wes Anderson's stamp all over the movie, it has the same tone and irreverence that the book has. Anderson complements Dahl's work beautifully and I have to believe that Dahl would be pleased with this adaptation. One thing that I really liked in the movie was the cussing -- every time a character would cuss, they literally said "cuss" instead of ... you know. Certain other four-letter words. The wit and charm really won me over, both the book and the movie. Definitely check out both! 

77. The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien

After I decided to split up the sci-fi and fantasy categories for the project (thanks to Annie for the suggestion!), I needed some help figuring out what to read for each. Armed with e-mailed recommendations, I sat down with Colin and my dad. We talked a lot about the difference between the genres and each of the recommendations that I got. They both mentioned that The Hobbit was funny, so I made sure to add it to the list of definites. I had a serious mental block about reading it for the longest time, though. I remember thinking that it would probably be boring and I wouldn't like it, so I kept putting off reading it. One night when Colin was at work, I decided enough was enough. I sat down to read it and finished it that same night.

Bilbo Baggins was a hobbit who wanted to be left alone in quiet comfort. But the wizard Gandalf came along with a band of homeless dwarves. Soon Bilbo was drawn into their quest facing evil orcs, savage wolves, giant spiders, and worse unknown dangers. [Side note: what could be worse than giant spider?] Finally, it was Bilbo -- alone and unaided -- who had to confront the great dragon Smaug, the terror of an entire countryside!

Plot summary lifted from the book jacket. 

Sometimes it's good to have low expectations. I was dreading reading this book so much, and for so long, that it greatly exceeded my expectations and ended up being a pretty good experience. The writing style is more readable than I thought it would be (me and my preconceived notions about classics!), but not as readable as I would have liked; the saving grace was that it's fairly well-paced. I did enjoy the humor, especially how "Escaping goblins to be caught by wolves!" becoming a proverb along the lines of "out of the frying pan and into the fire." Here's the however: I don't feel like I got as much out of it as someone else would, it was a more superficial enjoyment. So while I liked The Hobbit, I didn't love it and I don't think that I'll be re-reading it any time soon. 

Just for fun, here's what I wrote down during the giant spiders scene:

SPIDERS NO AWFUL I HATE THIS I HATE THIS I HATE THIS SO MUCH WORSE THAN ANYTHING ELSE EVER CREATED AWFUL AWFUL HEEBIE JEEBIES

(Hee-hee.)

76. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

I wanted to read The Age of Innocence as one of my classics because I had a vague idea of the plot and it sounded interesting. I always like reading about New York City society and its rules and regulations. For some reason, this setting always gets me -- whether it's Gossip Girl or The Age of Innocence, I'll try it.

The rustle of silk, the glitter of diamonds -- here is New York society in all of its Gilded Age splendor. May Welland is pure and delicate, a vision of young American womanhood. Her fiancé Newland Archer is a dashing and wealthy young man. All of New York is abuzz with this perfect match. And then, into the midst of this very dignified and decorated world, the mysterious Countess Olenska, a scandalous divorcee, makes her entrance. Archer, upon his first sight of the beautiful Countess, is thrown into a whirlwind of passion and doubt over the woman in his life. Bowing to society's power nonetheless, Archer marries May, but the Countess never leaves his innermost heart. Highlighting the problematic nature of one of America's most glamorous eras, this is a human drama full of the lofty dreams of which society approves and dark desires that may never be brought into the light of day.

Pot summary taken from DailyLit.com.

This is the second time that I've tried the site Daily Lit.com. You can read about the first time here. It was a little smoother this time -- I preferred subscribing via e-mail because it was easier to request the next installment immediately. This is my fundamental problem with subscribing, though -- I can't read a little bit at a time. Especially when I'm enjoying something or if it's difficult to keep track of the characters. I prefer to read more at one time, which is why I don't think DailyLit is right for me. At least I tried it. I finally downloaded the book for Kindle on PC (for free!), re-read what I had read sporadically via e-mail, and finished it. It seemed like I was reading this one for forever!

As I think I've said in most of my classics posts, this book was surprisingly readable. Maybe I just have bad memories of English classes? I always expect "classics" to be boring or difficult to follow. Definitely not always the case! Although I had a hard time keeping everyone straight -- unlike with Pride & Prejudice, the Wikipedia entry only helped so much because in the book characters are referred to in different ways, not always their full names, and there are multiple generations, so there's more than one Mrs. So-and-So, etc. I really needed a Mingott family tree. I started taking notes on the family members, so I could keep track of them, but reading them over now I have to say the notes are pretty pathetic:

old Mrs. Manson Mingott
her daughter-in-law Mrs. Lovell Mingott and her daughter Mrs. Welland = sisters-in-law
mentioned two daughters, one married or Italian marquis and one married to English banker, they don't visit...
Medora Manson - Ellen's eccentric aunt who raises her after she's orphaned -- was Medora married to the Italian??
her daughter May Welland

(I gave up after a while.)

This is not to say that I didn't enjoy the book. I did! This story isn't really about what happens, per se, but Archer's observation of his world and how it changes after he meets Ellen. Some people may find it slow-moving or boring for this reason, but I didn't. The writing is well-paced and kept me turning the pages (or clicking through to the next screen, rather). I have to say that I don't feel sorry for May in that way that I expected to -- I think Little Miss Innocent knew the score and could take care of herself. I feel more empathy for Archer and Ellen. I'd be hard-pressed to expand on that very much, I just remember thinking about that when I was (finally) done reading. 

I was curious to see how a movie adaptation would work -- so much of the story takes place inside Archer's head. It's not like he even had a confidant, really, to discuss things with. So I had Colin rent the movie for me and immediately saw how they solved for that problem -- a narrator. So simple! I'm not sure why I didn't think of that. I don't have much to say about the movie, except that Mrs. Mingott had three pomeranians. Love. 

At some point, I'm going to read another of Wharton's novels, The House of Mirth, because according to the Wikipedia entry (linked to above), "Wharton considered this novel [The Age of Innocence] an 'apology' for her earlier, more brutal and critical novel, The House of Mirth." It's true that The Age of Innocence is pretty soft in its judgment of society, so I'm intrigued to read the brutal criticism of it in The House of Mirth

I'm going to wrap this one up with some quotes that stood out to me while reading:

"Yet there was a time when Archer had definite and rather aggressive opinions on all such problems, and when everything concerning the manners and customs of his little tribe had seemed to him fraught with world-wide significance."

(this is after noticing that Lefferts was watching for violations of protocol at the wedding and recalling the argument over showing the wedding gifts at the breakfast that ended after Mrs. Welland cried and said she would just as soon turn reporters loose in the house)

Archer then reflects:

"And all the while, I suppose," he thought, "real people were living somewhere, and real things happening to them..."

"There was no use in trying to emancipate a wife who had not the dimmest notion that she was not free."
(during their honeymoon, as Archer gets to know his wife, he relaxes into his old attitudes toward marriage)

"...he was struck again by the religious reverence of even the most unworldly American women for the social advantages of dress."

he comes to think of it as armor, defense and defiance of the unknown

"It surprised him that life should be going on in the old way when his own reactions to it had so completely changed."

"His whole future seemed suddenly to be unrolled before him; and passing down its endless emptiness he saw the dwindling figure of a man to whom nothing was ever to happen."