Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Now, as I write this, I am horrified at what an absolute pig I was.

Kate was one of those books I got for Christmas a few years ago and didn't read until now. I've never been a huge fan of Katharine Hepburn, but I love the films of her golden era in general, and I've always loved reading about the making of old movies. Once I was finished reading Kate, I was curious to read Hepburn's own memoir Me, which was referenced often in Mann's book. As luck would have it, my friend (Kate - no joke) had Me on her bookshelf and generously loaned it to me.

Kate: The Woman Who Was Hepburn (William J. Mann) tells Hepburn's life through the lens of her relationship with her own image. Mann second guesses nearly every well-known aspect of Hepburn's history, including her relationship with the press, her gender and sexuality, her philosophy as an actor, her politics, and her relationships with various friends, men, women, and Spencer Tracy. It's a rather dispiriting take on the life of the unique actress, but not implausible. Mann posits that Hepburn, as she grew older, concealed the honest, complicated but compelling elements of her life (everything from ambiguous sexuality and gender identity to contrary politics and a thirty-year indefinable connection with Tracy) in favor of a more digestible narrative. The press colluded with her and the public ate it up, and here she is, the American icon of independence and pluck that we all know and love.

Me (Katharine Hepburn) is Hepburn's voice, above all else. It was odd to read after recently finishing Kate. I almost felt guilty with Mann's voice in the back of my mind, contradicting many pronouncements Hepburn makes with aplomb. One thing's for sure, though: Hepburn had clearly defined her voice by the time she wrote this book in 1991. She's quite funny. She also chooses to focus on some topics that I thought were unique: dealing with voice problems when performing in the theatre; making a garden with younger and more fit friends; discovering Shakespeare. There was a good bit of moonshine identifiable in some of her accounts, but none of this stuff is any of our business anyway, so what of it?

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

In which...

The plot thickens, the emotional implications deepen, and Harry makes a furry friend.

  • Harry's sojourn at the Leaky Cauldron/in Diagon Alley
  • the Marauder's Map
  • Professor Lupin, best teacher ever
  • Ron's plan for dealing with the boggart
  • Animagi
Beginnings of the rest:
  • dementors
  • Harry's Patronus
  • the makers of the Marauder's Map
  • Voldemort's servant
  • Trelawney's prediction
The movie:
  • Pros: Alfonso Cuaron finally shows us the world of Harry Potter, not with twinkling music, mediocre effects and generic childlike wonder, but with realistic scenery, lighting, and styling. So cool. Everything's scarier and more beautiful and just cooler this way. And the kids look so real. The Weasleys! Also: Emma Thompson!
  • Cons: Sidestepping the heartbreaking revelations that come at the end of the book. So Harry doesn't know the story of his dad, Lupin, Sirius and Pettigrew? He doesn't know why his Patronus takes the form of a stag? Come ON!
The book:

My enduring favorite, along with Book 7, of the series.

Kalle Fucking Blomkvist

Slacker guilt aside, I'm glad I waited until I'd finished the whole series to write about these three books.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo Old-fashioned mystery, with the requisite violence, twists, and sexual tension. The difference: female characters with depth, relentless attention to detail (I for one love to know what characters in books eat for each meal), and a larger mission to explore violence/abuse/injustice committed against women as the series develops. Definitely not standard.

The Girl Who Played With Fire My favorite of the series. Much more Salander time, and a more engrossing mystery, as it directly involves an already fully-drawn character.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest This final installment is as different from the second book as the second book was from the first. How refreshing to read three books about the same main characters and have each one be so distinct. There's something nicely modern about this series; Larsson refuses to romanticize any of his characters (I even, by the end of the series, ended up regarding the Blomkvist-Berger relationship without rolling my eyes) and persistently tackles the Women-In-Society question in creative ways.

All said and done, a series not to be missed.

And one more thing: I love Robin Wright's work, but I wish they had thought of Jennifer Beals. Just saying.

reading is FUNdamental

I am so behind on my blog posts. I'm sorry, gang.

With August coming to a close, I've realized that I have twenty books to read in two months.

Oh no!!!!

I really want to complete this challenge. My show is closing. I have many books waiting to be read. My friend Robyn, a doctoral candidate with a six-month reading list consisting of 400+ books, soldiers on. And so must I.

To begin with, I plan to try to catch up on my posts. Because what's reading without digesting? Please forgive short and/or combined posts. I'm sure you all understand. It's time to get sort of serious.

Meanwhile, check out my movie essays on this blog, A Bright Wall In A Dark Room. They're fun.

One messed-Up Thanksgiving dinner

Strangers at the Feast: A Novel
by Jennifer Vanderbes

I have not read Jennifer Vanderbes first novel, Easter Island, but now I will, having just finished her entertaining second book, Strangers at the Feast. In this book, Vanderbes writes about three generations of the Olson family, as they celebrate Thanksgiving dinner in Connecticut. Each character in the story is described with humorous undertones without obscuring the very real problems that each is suffering with. The book comes across as if a social anthropologist wrote a charming novel about an American Thanksgiving dinner. Themes of feminism, emasculated manhood, mistreatment of the lower class, and ruthless building development, each have a seat at the dining room table. The novel moves along quickly with plenty of surprises.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Spam spam spam spam spam baked beans spam and spam.

I just learned that when logged into this blog, there is a tab that reads "comments" on which we can mark comments as spam. This then trains the spam filter and weeds out such things in the future. I marked about 20 of them and hopefully our spam numbers will start to dwindle. Right now there's about a one-to-one Asian Spammer to Member of the Extended Lampl Family ratio, and I'd like to see that change (in favor of the Lampls, of course).

Just thought I'd spread the word on that delightful feature.

Happy reading, you marvelous folks, you!

The Story of Stuff by Annie Leonard

Or "Sure, Don't Shoot the Messenger... But What If the Messenger Shoots Herself???"

I JUST DON'T KNOW WHAT TO DO ABOUT THIS BOOK! You guys! I am in such a quandry! I haven't felt this kind of internal conflict since seeing Toy Story 3!

Quick summary of the aim of the book: The Story of Stuff looks at our extreme consumer culture and how it is "trashing the planet, our communities, and our health." Basically it's In Defense of Food to the millionth degree, and with more Stuff and less Food. In so many ways, this is an extremely important book with ideas that need to be heard. But in so many other ways, Annie Leonard's approach is self-defeating, and I question if, on a large scale, she is helping or hurting. In all fairness, I haven't seen the internet video sensation of the same title that spawned this book, so perhaps her approach is more effective on the screen than it is on the page. But since this is the Year of Magical Reading and not the Year of Magical Watching, the book is what's gonna get reviewed.

The Good
Leonard has spent her entire adult life studying and tracking waste. Where it comes from, where it goes, how much of it there is, and the impact that it has on our health, environment, economy...everything. As a result, she knows, well, a lot. I agree with so much of what she addresses. Stopping waste at the source. The dangers of marketing. That planned obsolescence is the worst. She presents a whole lot of information in a pretty palatable way, and leaves no stone unturned from coal mining to Wal-Mart to PVC. (And oh boy does she talk about PVC!) As I read the book, my brain was actively engaged, reflecting on my own life and consumption habits - I learned a lot, had a lot of ideas reinforced, and definitely look at things differently. So that's all great.

The Bad
What's not so great is Leonard's approach. And this is a problem I have a lot of the time, with a lot of writers, filmmakers, etc. I liken my experience with The Story of Stuff to my experience with Bill Maher's wretched documentary Religulous. I agreed with every word in that documentary, with all of his skepticism, the ways that religion causes more harm than good. But throughout the film Maher was such a colossal dick that I found myself siding with everybody else. So what good does that do? What good does it do to call the status quo into question when the only people who will listen are the people who already agree with you, because you yourself present the information in such a snarky, unempathetic way? I got a lot out of The Story of Stuff because it is, by and large, already in line with the things I believe and value. But picturing myself reading this book as the head of a major corporation or even as a yuppie Lincoln Park mother with three SUVs and expansive collection of technological wizardry was a very different experience. There are plenty of flaws in math and logic that would make it easy to tear this book apart on a micro-level (I kept reminding myself that, although extreme, Leonard generally had the right idea). If I wasn't on her side already there would have been very little to get me there (guilt, mockery, and sarcasm are not great ways to convert the non-believers), and plenty to disagree with if I was looking for an enemy.

The Ugly
As someone who did agree with much of what Leonard posited, I left The Story of Stuff feeling like there is very little for me to actually do. On one hand, I deeply appreciate that she doesn't oversimplify the problem and say "But if you buy organic all this will go away!" because that's unrealistic and untrue. I did find myself wishing, however, that she provided more concrete resources and solutions for those of us who are galvanized into action. My greatest fear with this flaw in the book is that not only does she alienate her non-left wing audience right from the get-go, but that she also leaves such a sense of overwhelming hopelessness (with only the occasional pinch of optimism) that her supporters will feel as if nothing will make a difference anyway, so why try. In the same way that In Defense of Food made me feel empowered by my new found knowledge, The Story of Stuff just made me feel doomed.

The Bottom Line
I wish I wanted to shout this book from the mountaintops and recommend it to everyone I encounter, but I just don't.

But for better or worse this book is an important one. So I'm torn. Maybe The Story of Stuff is intended for those of us who are already on her side, to incite us to action. Maybe it's not meant for the CEOs of major corporations or SUV collectors, so their vilification is all a tactic to make the rest of us work harder to fight against them. But it seems to me that this book - or, more accurately, the information this book contains - should speak to everyone. Because if there is one thing that's abundantly clear, it's that if we are going to reverse this cycle of waste and depletion of resources, it's going to take to take some major work on everybody's part.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Then We Came to the End

We were a fan of this book being written in first person plural. We have never read a book where the main character are a bundle of characters. Instead of reading the inner-conscious of a singular soul, we were delighted to read the group dynamic. Especially as it corresponds to something we are very familiar with - the confines of an office. Benny tells stories, Genevieve is a gossip, and Joe Pope locks his bike to itself inside his office every day, but everybody's quirks and character traits serve a purpose. An office may be inanimate but its people are not. They have emotions. They have much humanity. And we were sad to see them go even when some of them stayed behind. But we really enjoyed reading this book. Me in particular.

Trip to the grisly Tower of London.

The Six Wives of Henry VIII by Alison Weir

     As I read Weir’s book about the unfortunate wives of King Henry VIII, I felt like I was really there in 1500s Britain. I’m not one to enjoy too much detail in story telling. I always want the author to get on with it already. However in this book, Weir smoothly swirls in the details about dress, food, sport, war, disease, torture, beheadings, and politics. No need for a spoiler alert. All of us have heard that Henry the VIII would not take “no” for an answer. Even if it meant telling the Pope to get lost or beheading a couple of wives that were in the way. Weir invokes our sympathy for even the bitchiest wife, Anne Boleyn. It is fascinating to find that the rich and powerful are just as miserable and foolish as the rest of us. It is a long book, 656 pages, but it is action packed. Not a dull moment. Even the executioner’s axe is sharpened to provide clemency.

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Ask

Milo Burke is pathetic. And that's not just me passing judgment. He knows it. His wife knows it. Even his preschooler knows it. His infinitely more successful college friend, whom Milo needs a huge favor (a give for an ask) from to save his job and maybe his life, knows it. As does his mother and her partner. Same with the experimental daycare grad students, old college girlfriend, and even the neighborhood kiddie-diddler. I know it, too. And yet I find myself rooting for Milo Burke. The world can be a cruel, cruel place.

Sunday, August 15, 2010


That's the sound of the pages turning at lightning speed as I was planted outside on the hammock and basically only got up to tend to some basic needs in the past 2 days. Whew!! This was quite a story and well-done for a first-time novelist. Annie O'Sullivan, a 32 year old realtor, is abducted at an open house late one afternoon and spends a year of her life with a madman in a secluded cabin somewhere near Vancouver. The story is told through Annie's sessions with her therapist after she comes back home. It's a horrible, frightening story....if you're at all squeamish, this one is not for you. If you're in the mood for a page-turning, peek-through-your-fingers, twisted tale, go for it. Don't say I didn't warn you though!

The Thieves of Manhattan: a Novoir? Memvel?

I like this book. Langer takes issue here with the art of lying, or, as it is framed in this novel, what it takes to make it on the literary scene. His protagonist, Ian Minot, is a coffee shop worker and struggling writer living in New York City. He has sent out manuscripts and letters to numerous agents and publishing companies over the years, but nobody even offers him a second look. He spends most of his time resenting and hating those who do make it as authors. Especially people like Blade Markham, whose "memoir" Blade by Blade about Markham's thug life seems too ridiculous to be true. Why can't any of the characters in Blade by Blade be verified? "Because they all dead, yo."

Sooner or later Minot comes into contact with Jed Roth, a former big shot editor (note left in Roth's former employer's library: "To Geoff, Thanks for all the corrections, Jon Franzen") with much disdain for his old industry. Roth wants Minot to resubmit the 10-year-old manuscript of Roth's first book effort, The Thief of Manhattan: A Novel by Jed Roth, as The Thief of Manhattan: a Memoir by Ian Minot. Because after Minot has reaped the benefits of his memoir, he can announce his lies, spite the book industry, and drum up interest in his real fiction. Shapes up to be quite the story.

And it is! But I won't divulge any more details.

The gist of it is this book is much fun to read. It even comes with a glossary in the back to help with the literary slang that hits its pages like speeding highsmiths or piercing hammets (pahlaniuk - to vomit). So yeah. Cool book.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Two of a Kind

Abraham Verghese
Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

If you heard the plot of this book, you probably wouldn’t read it. You may shy away from the descriptions of disease, medical procedures and conjoined twins. Possibly you have no interest in the small town life in Ethiopia. But then you would  miss a fascinating story about a boy who grows up near Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. He becomes a doctor like his father, an American surgeon who disappeared at his birth. Dad ran away because his girlfriend, who was an Indian nun, dies under his care as she gives birth to the narrator and his twin brother. Verghese writes a story that flows so smoothly that without any effort you learn about life in Ethiopia, how twins think and a medical internship in a Bronx hospital. Nothing is as you expect it to be and you won’t forget it.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

Or "I Was Going To Write Something About 'Viddying This Real Horrorshow Like Novel' But Every Ninth Grader Has Already Taken That Idea."

A Clockwork Orange goes along with The Handmaid's Tale on my Books Everyone Else Read in High School But Somehow I Missed list. And it goes along with my current dystopian future kick. Also like The Handmaid's Tale. But that's where the Atwood/Burgess similarities end so we'll just focus on Clockwork.

It's impossible to talk about A Clockwork Orange without talking about the language. I can't think of another book I've read where the crafting of the language is so complete and so effective. Burgess's entirely new slang (a little bit Cockney, a little bit Russian, a little bit country, a little bit rock 'n roll) not only brings to life this ultra-violent future Britain, but it also serves to distance us - and, in essence, desensitize us - to that ultra-violence. It was astonishing, vivid, and at times disarmingly funny.

I'm assuming that most of you have read this book or at least seen the movie (I'd seen the movie first, and really admire the adaptation), so I won't dwell too much on plot. I will, however, spend a moment responding to ol' Burgess's introduction. Perhaps you are familiar with it. To summarize, Burgess hates the movie, resents that Clockwork is his most famous novel, and is mad at the American publishers for publishing it without it's final chapter. The publisher briefly responds, saying that in this edition the final chapter has been restored, so American audiences can read it the way Burgess intended. The publisher also writes (and I love this) that "the author and his American publisher...differ in their memories as to whether or not the dropping of the last chapter, which changed the book's impact dramatically, was a condition of publishing or merely a suggestion made for conceptual reasons." After reading Clockwork, I tend to prefer the American publisher's way, omitting the last chapter. Sorry, Anthony.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Trust nobody.

Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith

Taking place in Stalin's Russia in the '50's, Leo Demidov, a highly-regarded State Security officer, has discovered a series of child murders. This fast-paced thriller takes us on the hunt for the killer along with Leo and his wife, Raisa, while they themselves are being hunted down and suspected of disloyalty to the government. People are suspicious of everyone they see, nobody trusts anybody else, the government denies that any crime exists, people are shot for just knowing someone who is being suspected of any wrong-doing....all true occurrences under Stalin's rule. This is a tightly-wound story, loosely based on a true crime, and I recommend it to anyone looking for a tense experience!

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

It is REALLY cold out there!

Robert Goolrick

A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick

     This was an unusual story that takes the reader on a tense, lustful journey to a desolate small town in 1907 Truit, Wisconsin. The harsh, cold winter, which lasts almost as long as the novel, is an oppressive force on all the characters. The book begins as wealthy Ralph Truit, waits at the railroad station for Catherine Land to arrive. She has answered Truit’s personal ad which stated "Country businessman seeks reliable wife. Compelled by practical not romantic reasons.” Ralph, Catherine and others in the book are not as they first appear. They are all scheming, violent, vengeful and surprisingly generous. The story takes several unexpected twists and turns against a backdrop of frozen landscape. It is an entertaining book for readers who enjoy reading about extraordinary behavior in ordinary, mundane settings. Alfred Hitchcock could have made a great movie from this book. This is Robert Goolrick's first novel.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Remember that girl who stole your boyfriend?

Karen Bergreen

Following Polly by Karen Bergreen
     Apparently graduating from Harvard does not guarantee one a job. Protagonist Alice Teakle is a likable oddball, unemployed and without a boyfriend or a life plan. Because she has nothing better to do, she decides to follow a fellow Harvard class-mate, Polly Linley Dawson. Polly is a highly successful lingerie designer and married to a powerful film director. Polly has achieved everything Alice has not. Following Polly leads Alice to charges of murder, being on the lam, becoming temporarily homeless, and falling in love. The author, Karen Bergreen, was previously an attorney who now does stand-up comedy. This is her first book and lots of fun.

Roller coaster ride

Get ready my friends. Over the next couple of days I will be catching up with you fine fidy bibliophiles. My reviews will be short but sweet. Here goes...

Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

Tom Rachman
     This is a stunning first novel by Tom Rachman about various employees who worked in an English-language newspaper, based in Rome. The action spans over the course of the sixty years, non-chronologically, of the paper's existence. Each chapter focuses in on a different employee along with one avid reader. The characters are fascinating, sad, lonely yet unsympathetic. There are no heroes to admire, just people with complicated motivations. These people seem familiar because they are our fellow workers, relatives, or us. As each chapter ends, the reader hungers to know more about the fate of the troubled or calamitous character we have just been given a glimpse of. However the novel moves on to the next wretched soul.
     The back-story of the novel is a typical newspaper, with the expected power struggles and economic pressures. We know from current media trends that the newspaper’s days are numbered. This black cloud hangs over the enterprise, unacknowledged by the owner, executives, reporters, copywriters and readers alike. Newspapers may be disappearing but hopefully Tom Rachman will continue to write many more delicious novels.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Give me some of that sweet dysfunction.

This Is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper

I devoured this book. In the midst of some LOL moments, I had a lump in my throat at some of the more tender descriptions of a messed-up family, sitting shiva for their deceased father. Judd Foxman, one of the sons, has caught his wife in bed with his boss and at the same time that he mourns his father, he is mourning the death of his marriage to Jen. When the whole Foxman clan (his brothers, sister, and hot mama) assembles to sit shiva for 7 days and nights, sparks fly, old grudges are dug up, and we're treated to the inner workings of this family who, in the end, learn that they really do love and need each other, in their own odd way. So often, I finish a book and immediately forget about the characters or don't care about them. Not this time. This family will stick with me for awhile and I've already recommended the book to so many people. I guess I'll be looking into some of Tropper's other novels....even though I had never heard of him before. Great writer with a lot of meaningful, insightful things to say and a great sense of humor. This is one of those stories I'll be tempted to pick up again down the road. I loved it!

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

New Member

Dearest Bloggers,

My sister-in-law, Karen, (married to my brother, auntie of Mikey and Andrew) would like to join our year of magical reading. I have no idea how to sign her up. She's been lurking for awhile, by the way. Would somebody be so kind as to get her started? Andrew? Mikey? Julie? Bueller? Bueller?