Tuesday, May 30, 2017

When a book becomes a TV story becomes a book review

I'm not quite ready to review the book yet, but I finished my 22nd book of 2017 a little early this week! It was done Monday because I am doing a news story on it Friday! So, I did the interviews last week, read the book over the weekend and will air the story on TV Friday. Here's a preview of both the news story - and, the book review!

Saturday, May 27, 2017

21. Modern Lovers


I don't remember why, but I had this book on the list I keep on my phone of books I'd like to read this year. If I don't keep that list, I'll forget what I wanted to read by the time I get to the bookstore or library. Casualty of old age, I suppose. Anyway, this was on my list and it just happened to be available at my tiny, largely picked-over local library. It's nothing like what I normally read; it was fantastic.
I've had the above song in my head since picking up this book. Even before I knew what the book was really about, this Matt Nathanson song was rolling around because of the title. It's one of my go-to songs when I'm in the car and I feel like singing so loud I embarrass myself and hurt my own eardrums (which is pretty much every day.) I saw him in concert a few years ago; he said he wrote it when talking to a female friend about the Bachelor. Anyway, it's a good song. And, the similarities between the song and the book were evident as well. I'm listening to it right now, because it's just a fantastic song.

So, nothing really happens in this book. I mean, it does. But, there's no big climax we're building to, no real mystery, no major character shakeups. That's not to say it's boring - it most certainly is not. I found myself moving through it as quickly as I would any book that had those more traditional plot elements. What it is, is real. A real look at the reality of relationships at two very different points in life.

The main characters are college friends, years later. One couple is two women raising a daughter; the other is a man and woman, raising a son. They're connected by a shared past and a neighborhood street. Three of the four were in a college band together in another lifetime; one of them wrote a song that became an iconic hit, made famous by one of their bandmates who left the group. As a movie producer reaches out to buy the rights to the song for a biopic on the late singer who made it a smash hit, the reality of how their lives hits them square in the face. And the decision to hand over the song opens up wounds and secrets they did not expect.

That sounds like the plot, right? It's really not. Really, that's just the thread that moves the story along. What it's really about is how those marriages have changed and evolved and how, in many ways, complacency has turned them into roommates more than passionate partners. 

They ask themselves, are we happy? And, one concludes, "Happy was a word for sorority girls and clowns, and those were two distinctly fucked-up groups of people." The decision they face is what so many long-married couples would echo: is content the same thing as happy? Can you be happy without white-hot passion? Is it worth chasing the passion, if it means risking the contentment? 

While they're looking back longingly at what they believe they've lost, their children are beginning a relationship. So, you're seeing love at its fiery beginning and what may be its flickering end. It's not depressing, it's real. It's common. It's nostalgic. 

I love that line. LOVE THAT LINE. Because we all had that summer, right? When our skin felt like it was sparking with the touch of someone new. When you fell so hard, you were sure you'd never get back up. The entire world laid out before you; it never occurred to you that it might end.

In this book, the parents look back at that summer with sadness, knowing they'll never recapture that magic - never feel that same euphoric high. The teenagers, though, know to embrace it. To remember every line, every curve, every first. To hang on to what they know is fleeting by living it, knowing somehow that someday, they'd need to lean back on these memories to get them through the quiet nights, decades later.

I really liked this book. Every character was perfect and flawed, selfish and unselfish. And, the ending wrapped up in a nice enough bow to feel like everyone's going to be alright. That we're all going to be alright.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

20. The Circle

I deserved this book.

After sleepwalking through a lackluster 18th book of the year and struggling through a terrible 19th, I wanted a book that would rip. This was most certainly the one.

Maybe I'm the last person on earth to know it, but Dave Eggers' The Circle is showing already on the big screen with a guy named Tom Hanks in the lead role. Maybe you've heard of him; he was amazing as skeptical neighbor Ray in the 1989 classic movie "The Burbs." Either way. I didn't know it was being made into a movie. Once I heard, I promised myself I wouldn't watch the trailer until I was done. Now, you have to promise not to watch the trailer until you're done reading this post, okay? I'll post it at the end for you. Don't cheat.

The story is a cautionary tale of a world towards which we are currently careening. Its backdrop (and, a character of sorts) is the Utopian California campus of a tech company that's swallowing every other startup in its wake. The Circle, as its called, is a Google-Apple-Facebook combo, started and operated by three guys referred to as The Three Wisemen. A young woman named Mae lucks into a job there and you watch her life transform. She quickly drinks The Circle's kool-aid, believing at once that she never wants to work anywhere else. And, why would she? She's in a brain trust punctuated by parties every night, constant warmth and enlightenment, free food and places to stay - and, free health care for her aging parents. She buys into the mantra "All that happens must be known", believing that privacy is equal to lying. She quickly becomes a cog in the machine of surveillance around the world.

(Can you see why now I tore through 309 pages in the first 24 hours after checking it out from the library?)

The Circle's founders create a way of connecting every account and every device, all linked back to a person's true identity. You can hear Zuckerberg chomping at the bit already. They believe that this brings authenticity to the world and to everyone's online experience. They also foster the notion that engagement, likes and online comments are what all of humanity should strive for. Mae quickly becomes enraptured with the constant connections and constant feedback among "Circlers" that is required of her in her new position. She quickly finds more satisfaction through those online relationships then she does with the real humans standing right in front of her.

While Mae doesn't seem to notice a descent into madness, the reader quickly will. You feel a sense of foreboding as she visits the on-campus health clinic for the first of her required bi-weekly checkups; she drinks a smoothie at the doctor's request and learns that she's swallowed the sensor connected to a health-tracking bracelet on her wrist. You see the problem with that, of course. The Circle will have you believe, however, that the invasion of privacy is worth every bit of privacy violation that comes with it.

As Mae moves higher up in The Circle, she takes on a public role and you watch the "real world" fall away. You see her heading straight for disaster; like the people in her life, you want to stop her. But, the instant online gratification is just too much and she willingly walks over to the other side.

The book is fantastically written, the setting and characters are easy to imagine. What's most compelling, though, is how easy it is to see all of it coming true. You find yourself asking, when does it stop? When have we give up too much? When, like Mae, we are constantly connected to each other, constantly alert, when do we actually have time to breathe?

I'm not going to lie and say I don't see how it all starts. As of this moment, I have tweeted more than 43,000 times. I spend my life with my phone attached to my hand. I track how many people watch my Instagram stories and I get workout ideas from Khloe Kardashian's Snapchat (Bosu ball booty, here I come!) I work in a newsroom where, all day long, a giant monitor tracks the social media accounts of every journalist in the market and ranks us, based on performance and engagement. Which is why I cringed watching Mae fall down the rabbit hole of artificial adulation. How short is the walk from smiling over a Facebook "like" to agreeing to nonstop surveillance so we can feel loved by the world?

I'd venture the walk is further than this book, but not by much.

The book was fast-moving and utterly compelling. I suggest you check out the movie, too, though I'm seeing it's not getting great reviews.

Judge for yourself on that. As promised, here's that guy Bling Ring in The Circle. 

Saturday, May 13, 2017

19. The Other Typist

A few years ago, too late in life, I made an important decision: I would no longer finish a book I didn't like. That may not seem like a bold move to you, but after taking so many literature classes in college that I inadvertently ended up with an English degree, it was a hard habit to break.

((STOP: Hard Habit to Break by Chicago is an amazing song. Let's stop and appreciate.))

It should tell you how I feel about this book when I'd rather stop writing about it and talk about an early 90's Chicago ballad.


I made that decision because I was tired of wasting my time on books I didn't like. But, since I've begun this experiment of reading a book every week in 2017, I don't feel I can afford myself that luxury. If I decide I don't like the book on a Wednesday, it's really too late to start something new.

Nevertheless, she persisted.

That first line had so much promise. The idea that women learning to type exposed them to a world for which they were not ready. That the clunk and mechanics of that machine would slowly turn them away from the feminine. The story begins with a typist named Rose, who records confessions in a police precinct in the 1920's. If the author does anything well here, she really paints a picture of prohibition-era New York City and its inhabitants. You feel yourself in that dank, old brick precinct, where the men do the real police work and the women fade into the walls; they're only there for filing, typing and fetching coffee.

Rose describes herself as a plain, simple girl; she grew up in an orphanage and has moved slowly from one stage of life to another. Her black and white world shifts to color, however, when she describes the hiring of a new typist. Exotic Odalie has no use for what is proper. Rose immediately describes following Odalie down a rabbit hole of speakeasys and other questionable moral behavior until she crosses a threshold from which she cannot return.

Sounds promising, right? Yeah. Well.

That quote doesn't apply to most things in life, don't get me wrong. But, it applies to a book. By page 175 (of 354), I was incredulous and frustrated at the lack of any sort of movement in the plot. She had been foreshadowing since the early pages, which is completely acceptable. But, at this point, it was all talk and no action. I was beginning to wonder if the author was being paid by the word. Tiny, word-packed and completely unnecessary paragraphs stretched the exposition beyond all reasonable norms. I found myself skipping over entire paragraphs and still not missing a beat. I'm all for good prose, but not for the sake of additional sentences.

Around the time I started to lose my mind, I also zeroed in on what I thought would be the late plot twist. I was fairly certain at this point what the narrator was hiding. That made everything else that happened a lot more anti-climatic. Something similar happened when I figured out the plot twist of The Sixth Sense in the first half hour of the movie. It made everything else a lot less exciting.

In this book, I was wrong about the plot twist. I think. It comes so late in the book that you basically don't even care anymore. And by being so "creative" about it, the author actually confuses the reader more than rewards them for slogging through the slop to get there. The last line of the book intends to shock; it actually made me mad instead.

There are good things, structurally, here. The setting and characters were believable and vivid. The use of an unreliable narrative was compelling - at first. And, the writer clearly knows her subject matter. But, I think she tried to do too much. In that, she didn't do enough.

I should have known something was up when the blurb on the jacket invoked Gone Girl. Any book written after that thriller with a woman protagonist finds a way to reference it, which I find more of an annoyance than an endorsement. Looking back just now, this one actually says "If you liked Gone Girl, you might enjoy The Other Typist." I might enjoy a blow to the side of the head, too.

After this book (not good) and the last one (meh), I'm desperate for Book 20 of 2017 to redeem the whole experiment. I need it to rip. I hate that I haven't chosen it yet. Either way, it has to be better than this one.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

18. Let's Explore Diabetes With Owls

A couple reasons for why I chose this as the 18th book to read in 2017. One, I went to my local library to find a new book to offset the cost of buying two books in the last couple of weeks. And, my library - while I appreciate it's proximity to my house and general cleanliness - doesn't really have very many books. I go in with a list in the notes section of my phone and they don't have a single one. So, it turns into aimless browsing until something catches my eye. In this case, they had just given me the library equivalent of "last call" (read: a very nice library lady telling me they were closing in 10 minutes), so I grabbed the first thing I saw that looked decent on the shelf in front of me. I've read a lot of Sedaris's stuff before, so I knew I'd like it.

The main reason, though, that I went with a book of essays is that I needed a palate cleanser after reading book 17 of the year. The weight of that book camped out on my chest and I needed something weightless. This served that purpose quite well. 

If you haven't heard of David Sedaris before, he's a comedian, but not in a Dane Cook sort of way. He's a comedian in the NPR world. I'd heard him there years ago and went on a bit of a Sedaris binge. Most of his writing isn't LOL funny, it's smart, nodding funny. Though, there are times when you laugh your ass off, too.

This book, though, sort of underwhelmed me. There were funny parts, for sure (most of them are reflections on his clearly stoic father.) But, I was actually glad to be done with it. It also seemed to lose steam as the pages went on. It didn't take me long to read, but I wasn't rushing to pick it up, either. It may have been my mood. It may be that I'm not a good target audience for this particular collection of essays. It didn't diminish my appreciation for Sedaris overall, but if I was recommending anything he's written, this would be it.

Better get it back to the library; one of the 10 shelves is missing its anchor.