Sunday, January 29, 2017

Starting Book 5 - This Wasn't the Plan

First of all, holy cow! Book #5 already! I've really enjoyed this dedication to reading a book a week, as it has forced me to slow down a little bit and relax. Which is a perfect segue into why I'm writing about a book before I actually read it.

I was all set to read a different book for #5. I loved Maria Semple's book Where'd You Go Bernadette and couldn't wait to read her new novel. I got it as a Christmas present and have been waiting for the right time. All last week, as I read a book I didn't love, I stared longingly at Today Will Be Different and counted down the days until I could start it. Yet, here I am, about to read a completely different book that wasn't in the plan.

I've had Dan Harris's book on my radar for awhile. He's one of my favorite news anchors; I love that he's really funny and really approachable and strikes that balance between being smart and self-deprecating. Reading the jacket of his book surprised me; he talks about an on-air panic attack which set off a mission to figure out how to calm the constant voice in his head. He finds, the synopsis reveals, meditation.

I don't know if I'm a meditation kind of person. Slowing down for me is really hard; introspection can be extremely scary. I spend most nights before I fall asleep wishing I could turn off my brain. I'm the person who has a hard time doing yoga because the whole "quiet time" thing at the end makes me antsy. At the same time, I realize meditation - or at least some sort of quiet reflection - would do me a lot of good. So, here I am.

I have to say, most of the stress I feel, I put on myself. I have a fantastic life. My sons are healthy, my husband cooks dinner every night, we live comfortably, I have great friends and my job is personally satisfying. But, many days, I feel like I go hours without truly exhaling. I carry my tension in my shoulders and clench my jaw when I work. My relaxation techniques now are pretty solid - gym, wine, bath, books, the occasional ugly cry in the car - but, I know I should probably do better. My fuse is, at times, frighteningly short.

What better time, really, than to find a way to slow down and reduce unnecessary stress? My kids are getting busier, the demands of my job are always increasing and - in case you hadn't heard - our president has declared war on my profession. If I can get even 10 percent happier and reduce some of the outside stress that tends to dominate life in the quiet hours, I'd say this book will absolutely be worth the read.

I'll keep you posted.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

4. The Vegetarian

Ugh. This book, guys. This one is... interesting.

Let me preface everything by saying this is a very well-written book. I mean, it won the Man Booker Prize, it made virtually every "best book of the year" list. I will not deny this is a good book. But, did I like it? 

Facebook status: it's complicated.

The story is, essentially, about two sisters as one of them begins a slow spiral downward. She has a dream that compels her to throw away all the meat in her house and declare herself a vegetarian. That doesn't sit well with anyone, particularly with her husband and her controlling father. Broken into three acts, the book switches perspective and narrators, but essentially, tells her story until the end.

A co-worker lent me this book, but warned me that she didn't "get it." She's really smart, extremely well-read. But, I was confident I would find the deeper meaning that she must have missed. I'm such a literary genius, you see ;) 

From the first page, I was enthralled. The writing is clean and the pages move quickly. Switching narrators at the 60-page mark was jarring enough to keep me reengaged. The problem for me is the story builds - slowly - to an end that is not only predictable, but disappointing. Most books, you get to the end and feel either satisfied or disappointed. I closed this book with a resounding "meh." And, kind of a "huh." Mostly a sigh of bewilderment that left me racing to read other reviews, hoping to be enlightened about what I missed. Didn't happen. Every review I read showed me that I didn't miss anything, I just didn't see it as a message that moved me. It happens.

That message (I think?) is about whether not death is a noble choice. More specifically, whether or not intentional self-destruction is the ultimate way to take control of one's life. But, for me, the author presents that message in a way that is both too obvious and too subtle all at one.

See? Complicated.

For what it's worth, I used to be a vegetarian. For nine years of my life, the only meat I ate was the one celebratory bratwurst I ate during baseball season every summer (what can I say, I was born in Milwaukee.) Nothing about that was complicated or profound. But, I don't think it's a coincidence that my now-husband proposed to me very shortly after I started eating meat again. 

A big part of the book that I did not miss was the overt cruelty of the male characters. Holy cow, these are terrible people. The womens' father is a controlling, physically abusive tyrant. Equally as evil, in my opinion, are their passively abusing husbands. Check out this gem from page 72: "She's a good woman, he thought. The kind of woman whose goodness is oppressive." Great, dude. Later in the book, a different man (the other sister's husband) describes how he sees his wife's "patience and desire to do the right thing stifling." What a lovely couple of gentlemen.

So, the takeaway. There has to be a takeaway, right? It is well-written. It is well-executed. The imagery is strong, the characters are well-developed. Should you read it? 


Friday, January 20, 2017

3. Death in the City of Light

Buckle up, y'all.

For book #3 of my year in books, I went dark. Dark. Death in the City of Light is the true story of a Parisian doctor who becomes a serial killer, all while the city is under Nazi control in World War II.

This ain't rainbows and unicorns.

As soon as I read the jacket of this book, it was a no-brainer. I have somewhat of a fascination with both serial killers and Nazis (in literature, people, not reality.) My only apprehension was that these books sometimes tend to move slowly through the minutia of history. I didn't know if I had that kind of time. This one, though, took off right out of the gate and grew in intrigue and complexity all the way through the end.

That guy right there? That's Dr. Marcel Petiot. Charming physician by day, sinister madman by night. His downfall begins when people living near his townhouse report a foul-smelling smoke coming from his chimney. The smoke is the stench of bodies, burning inside. What investigators discover is a macabre display of bodies in various stages of destruction and decomposition and a room that appears designed for torture. The discovery sets off a manhunt that culminates in the most bizarre trial you've ever heard of.

The subject matter is disturbing, yes. But, fascinating in its detail and absurdity. Dr. Petiot maintains, until he takes his last breath, that those he killed were traitors to France. He maintained he was part of the resistance and that each killing, many more than for which he was charged, was justified. In reality, though, his motives were far more sinister. People came to him believing he was part of a group that would help them escape the Nazi regime and give them safe passage to South America. He was, in fact, killing them and stealing the belongings they'd packed for what they believed was a new life abroad.

The crimes were disturbing, the victims extremely vulnerable; but, it's the trial of Dr. Petiot that steals the show here. This thing makes the O.J. Simpson trial look like traffic court (there's even a "if it doesn't fit, you must acquit" nod involving one victim's hat.) Because of the court rules in France at the time, Petiot is allowed to interrupt, question witnesses and cause a general spectacle that even Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne would find absurd (Kimmy Schmidt, anyone?) The trial drew spectators, some of whom were women proposing marriage to the man on trial for 27 murders. It's a trial where the defendant yells "fuck you" at the attorney and draws caricatures of him while the court hears arguments that he should be put to death.

It's a trip.

Dr. Petiot preyed on the patriotism and fear of those living under Nazi control and maintained his innocence until the guillotine forced his final breath. The author saves his most fascinating detail for the very end, uncovering new evidence of how the doctor carried out his atrocities.

Should you read it? I can't really tell everyone they should read a book that describes, in graphic detail, the mutilation of bodies. But, if that doesn't turn you off on principle, give it a shot. It's a story of WWII you've never heard and a fascinating look at a criminal madman.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Finding the Time

"I haven't read a book for fun since reading Harry Potter when I was a freshman in high school."

A co-worker said that a few years back and my jaw hit the floor. On a practical level, I get it. I mean, people are busy, we carry TVs in our pockets, there are a million ways to distract yourself and spend your time. But, on a gut level... wow. I can't imagine my life without books. The older I get, though, and the more competing responsibilities that pile on my plate, I have to strategically carve out the time to make it happen. And, that's what it is. It's the planning.


Let's back up about 30 years. I've always been a reader. I learned very young, taught by a bossy sister who wanted to play teacher when she came home from school. I also grew up in a house full of books. My mom always has a book to read and, until we bought her a Kindle a few years back, she always bought brand-new books in hardcover (thanks, ma, for that expensive and house-cluttering habit.) Because of those factors, I was a kid who always loved to read. I remember books going back to Sweet Valley Twins (YES), Judy Blume, and one of my all-time favorites The Chocolate Touch. I started reading Stephen King in about 4th grade (thanks again, Mom!) and I cheated to get the better endings on Choose Your Own Adventure Books (if you say you didn't, congratulations. You're either a candidate for sainthood or a dirty liar.) When I got to college, I ended up one class short of a double major in English just because I liked taking classes where we read and talked about books. I never imagined it would be hard to find time to read.

Fast-forward to now. I'm in my 30's, I have two kids, a husband and a full-time job managing a newsroom. My job is demanding, my kids are young and our lifestyle is busy. While I would love to say I spend my leisure hours sipping coffee and devouring books at a hipster coffee house, it's just not the reality. I'm also extremely busy with three of my favorite evening pastimes: taking baths, watching Netflix and painting my nails. All that said, reading continues to be a huge part of my life. And, now, it's as much for my sanity as my entertainment.

In the time I am able to sit down and read, I shut everything off. It's the only time in my day I'm not tethered to a screen. It's the only time in my day where it's perfectly silent (whenever possible in a house with five and eight year old boys.) When I'm reading, I'm not switching between apps, listening for a notification or making decisions for anyone else. It's a huge cliche and makes me feel gross inside to say it, but it's me time. When I read before bed, I sleep better. When I read while blow-drying my hair in the morning, I am less likely to rush through the task. When I read on vacation, there's no more complete form of relaxation. To me, the only thing better than cracking open the spine of a new book is closing it again after the last chapter.

My life moves too fast most of the time. It's noisy and messy and I'm entirely dependent on things like email and tweets and Instagram comments. Reading forces the slow down. Since I've been doing this "book a week" project, I'm getting back to some of those basics. The only TV I've watched is while running on the treadmill at the gym (now that I'm done with this week's book, though, I'm gonna hit that new This is Us episode like it's my job.) Last week, I was waiting for a ride at the mechanic and, instead of grabbing my phone and scrolling, I opened my book. My heart rate slowed. I could feel myself more relaxed. It proved to me that revisiting the simple joys of reading that date back to the days of Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield is not only good for my brain, it's also good for my soul.

If you love to do something, you'll make time. You'll get up earlier. You'll stay up later. You'll leave the phone on the charger in the other room or set the DVR and catch up later. If you love it, you'll find a way.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Book 2: Luckiest Girl Alive

I came up with a really profound saying, you guys. Like, it's really deep. You're going to want to write this down.

Grab a pen.

I'll wait.

Okay, here goes: Don't judge a book by its cover.

Right? I mean... that's some serious sh*t right there. I think it's gonna really catch on.

Alright, enough fooling around. But, that's the phrase that keeps going through my mind about book two in my Book a Week plan for 2017.

I vaguely remember buying this book in early December and I kind of remember why. I always buy books in pairs and I like if they contrast each other. When I bought this, I went to the bookstore to buy Truman Capote's In Cold Blood. It's considered the gold standard of true crime reporting and I felt like a sham of a journalist never having read it. But, Capote's work is heavy. I bought this one to lighten things up.

This book falls into the "suspenseful books with the word 'girl' in the title" genre. Gone Girl, Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Girl on the Train, The Good Girl (that's the best one, IMHO.) Some publisher decided we'd eat those up - and best-seller lists show, they were right.

That's probably what caught my eye. Between the title and the cover art, the book looks like an easy beach read. It looks like you should read it between trips to the swim-up bar, its pages saturated with pool water, margarita mix and suntan lotion. Maybe it's the pink - maybe it's the title. But, my expectations for a deep read were low at best.

As much as I hate to admit (ever), I was wrong. While the book starts out in a very cliche "chic NYC girl with a magazine job" kind of way, it certainly does not end that way. And even though the author not-so-subtly sets you up for the "this person is not what she seems" twist, I admit: I never expected the twist to turn as hard to the left as it did.

What you find, without giving away the suspense that keeps you interested, is that this woman has been putting a face for years. She's trying to be something she's not to hide a dark, terrifying past. Events in her life force her to face her past and it has damning consequences on her future.

Sounds like you've heard the story before, right? But, when the twist comes, it will overtake you - even if it's just for 20 pages or so. It makes the preceding set up worth it and kept me awake two hours past my bedtime.

If you've read my other posts, you'll know I'm a stickler for endings. While this book really picked up for me about 60 percent of the way through, the end went out with too much of a whimper for me. I found myself wanting one more big turn to the right and found myself meandering instead. I don't like the "neat little bow" endings, don't get me wrong; this one, though, felt like someone tried to squeeze 20 pages of ending in three pages to save in printing costs.

While the writing and pop culture/fashion references felt a little obvious, it's a quick, satisfying read. 352 pages flew by in two days. It had the speed of a beach read without the empty feeling that often comes afterwards.

The whole thing, I suppose, is proof that the book's main character is a Louboutin-wearing, Preseco-sipping metaphor that you can be two opposing things at once. And, that you can't always judge a book by its cover.

(See? That phrase is catching on already.)

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Book 1. A Man Called Ove

She took him by surprise. That's how a simple, rule-following, lonely man named Ove met the love of his life on a train. She was different from him in every way and somehow, they fit together perfectly. When she was gone, he had nothing left to live for.

Sounds like total downer, right? Yet somehow, A Man Called Ove goes from being what could be a depressing mess to an uplifting, beautiful piece that ended with me smiling as I closed the cover for the last time.

There's no real reason why I started my Year in Books with Ove. I put it on my wish list and got it for Christmas, yet somehow, I wasn't chomping at the bit to read it. I don't read a lot of books about 59 year old guys from Sweden. But, something about Ove caught my eye several months back and it was on the top of the stack when I sat down to read the first book of 2017. I can't imagine a better place to start.

That quote is what hooked me. About a quarter of the way through, I was interested, yet not blown away. That line stopped me in my tracks. I love those declarations that seem so simple, yet paint the picture of everything that's to come. Once I read that line, I was off to the races and knew this was a book that would stay with me. In a few months time,  I may forget the names of minor characters and little plot twists that kept this book moving; but, that line, I will not forget.

Without too many spoilers, I can tell you a little about Ove. He's lost his wife, which means he's lost his purpose. And, this cantankerous curmudgeon is simply looking for a way out. Of this life. Forever. But, every time he's ready to end it for good, he finds someone new to help. And realizes he has so much more to live for.

There's no real dramatic climax. There's no real delineation of acts. It's really a simple story about a simple man. The author walks us back and forth from past to present, which seems to be an increasingly popular storytelling mechanism. But, it doesn't feel gimmicky here. It serves to build our understanding of all the layers of Ove. And, you fall in love with him more on every page.

The writing is clean and without drama, much like Ove himself. The supporting characters color Ove's world - much to his chagrin, they color it out of the lines. The book is 330+ pages, but it feels much lighter than that.

So, what about the ending? I'm not going to tell you what happens, I'm not a psycho. But, I'm a stickler for endings. For example, I LOVED Art of Racing In the Rain. I DEVOURED that book. But, the ending was so unnecessary, it made me mad and left a bad taste in my mouth about the beautiful story I'd just read. So, I can love a book and if I hate the ending, it ruins everything.

The ending of Ove was perfect. I felt the tears welling in my eyes, but was perfectly satisfied. It ended exactly as it should have. I literally felt a smile cross my face as I closed the cover (which is why I read REAL books instead of e-books; I need that smug satisfaction of the book closing for the last time.)

My co-worker Camie loved the book, too, and put it so well: it's the kind of book that's so sweet, you want to cradle it in your arms. She also told me the movie is equally exquisite and that Ove is perfectly cast. I don't know that I've ever seen a Swedish film. Ove might just be my first.

*Side note: before you read this book, figure out in your head how you want to pronounce "Ove." There's a right way, of course, but it's Swedish and I didn't know that until I was about halfway through. So, I was calling him OH-ve. The back of the book says "All you need is Ove", so you can see why people might call him UH-ve. The Swedish was is OO-ve. (Look, I'm not the only one who had this problem!)

Bottom line: just pick how you want to pronounce and stick with it. Otherwise, you'll distract yourself with it. And, unless you're Swedish or giving a book report on the thing, does it really matter anyway? 

One down, 51 to go.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

The Last 3

What are the last three books you've read?
I've heard that question posed to celebrities and others in magazine articles and I try to think of how I would answer. Most of the time, I can't remember. Either they weren't that great or I've spread them out too far and I can't remember. Since I can actually remember this time, I thought I should take the time to answer.
I read three books over my week-long Christmas vacation. Before you get impressed by that, I should be honest about what I was doing. We spent our Christmas vacation traveling, so I had two six-hour car rides and flights to and from San Diego to do nothing but read (I tried to sleep on one flight, but every time I nodded off, my eight-year old would tap me and say, "Mom! You fell asleep!") So, while it's fresh in my mind, I thought I'd go over the last three.
1. They Can't Kill Us All by Wesley Lowery
This was, far and away, the heaviest of the three. It's a look at race and police violence by an amazing Washington Post reporter who has been covering pretty much non-stop since Ferguson. I had the amazing chance to learn from him during a reporting workshop last summer and, as he was speaking in Chicago, I grabbed my phone and pre-ordered his book. It was a quick read because the subject matter was so compelling. It was fascinating to read about the stories behind what we read in Lowery's news articles. It was also refreshing to hear him write of the mistakes he's made covering this complicated issue. It's not exactly uplifting, but it is fascinating and important and, if you're all interested in the topic, I'd recommend a read. I also recommend you follow him on Twitter.
2. Thanks for the Money by Joel McHale

Yeah, book number two took a dramatic turn in the other direction. I'm a Joel McHale fangirl from way back. I was a devotee of The Soup and the early days of Community. I also happen to think he's really handsome and has great hair. A co-worker lent me this book and I was really excited to read more about his life and what makes him tick. There was some of that - mostly at the beginning. Tales from his childhood and college life in Seattle were funny and I've watched enough of his stuff to hear the book in his voice. The latter half of the book turned into a mock self-help book about how to build your life and make it more like his. Is it funny? Of course. Do I recommend it? Meh. He uses a ton of footnotes in the book to tell the story and, while it's clearly a comedic device, it makes for really disjointed reading. It was a quick read, but that may be because I skimmed the last quarter.
3. Scrappy Little Nobody by Anna Kendrick
This was the cherry on top of my vacation binge reading dessert. I LOVE Anna Kendrick (so do you, unless you're some kind of awful person.) In addition to her movies, I love her on interview shows and on Twitter. She's unabashedly hilarious (she's also insanely hot, which is not fair. MY MOM SAID YOU DON'T GET TO BE BOTH!) While I consider myself a fan, I didn't know much about her; I actually thought she was Canadian. I read this book on one flight home from San Diego and was actually sad when it was done. It's a great look back at her life, beginning in community theater. It also shows how little she has changed as a person, despite this pretty quick rise to hot girl-super celeb status. She tells great stories of doing the press junket for Up in the Air, while going home to the crash pad apartment she'd had for years. This is such a great vacation/beach read. If you like her even at all (WHICH YOU SHOULD, WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU??), pick it up.
So, that's my "Last 3" list. I think it shows the range of my reading interest. I typically wouldn't read three non-fiction books in a row, but it just kind of worked out that way. Then, I dove right into my first book of this 2017 experiment: A Man Called Ove. I have about 20 pages left, I'm in LOVE and can't wait to share the review.