Monday, February 28, 2011

Everything Is Going to Be Great: Too bad the book wasn't...

Everything Is Going to Be Great: An Underfunded and Overexposed European Grand TourEverything Is Going to Be Great,
by Rachel Shukert


My rating: 2 of 5 stars

After graduating from college, Rachel Shukert gets an unpaid, unrewarding "job" as an actor in a play, and after a run in New York, the play is staged in Vienna, Austria, and Zurich, Switzerland. After that, she journeys to Amsterdam, where much of the action takes place.

Shukert, a Jewish girl from Omaha, Nebraska, drinks heavily, smokes some, sleeps around, and generally parties her way indiscriminately through Europe. Halfway through this book, I questioned myself: why am I still reading this book? Silly me. I kept thinking it was going to get better.

Perhaps part of the problem is that it was supposed to be funny, and I've realized that I am not easily amused. (Take, for example, my feelings about David Sedaris.) I guess I don't find drinking until you end up in the hospital with broken bones...or sleeping with a Viennese man old enough to be your father and whose ancestors' whereabouts during the war you question...to be amusing. 

Upon visiting the Anne Frank museum with her parents in tow, Schukert observes: "Say what you will about the horrors of the concentration camps, they might at least present some interesting networking opportunities. But to be trapped for years in five rooms with your family was a torment I could scarcely fathom." Interesting networking opportunities? I do not understand how Shukert, as a Jewish woman, can even joke about something like that.

I did learn some new information in the book: that of the Dutch tradition of Sinterklaas, which is akin to Santa Claus. What is most startling about this tradition is that Sinterklaas is accompanied by the character of "Zwarte Piet," a man in blackface who is Sinterklaas' "servant." Yes, blackface. See below. In recent years, this racist tradition has been debated in Holland and elsewhere, but it still continues. Many Dutch people insist that there's nothing wrong with this tradition. In fact, speaking of David Sedaris, he wrote about this oddity in Esquire.

Zwarte Pieten in Holland
Schukert has an ill-fated, pointless affair with an American, Pete (no relation to Zwarte Piet), who was living with his long-term girlfriend. Everyone around her--certainly the reader--could see that the relationship was worthless and he was an asshole. When Pete breaks up with her (repeatedly), she enters into a deep depression. That's when I knew I should have given up on this book long ago. I just didn't care, and I didn't really like this person. Maybe I would like her now, years later, assuming that she's grown up a little. Who knows?

She ultimately meets the man she ends up marrying in Amsterdam--he's a Jewish South African named Ben. About the only thing I could relate to in the book was at the end, when she wrote about how "showing up in Omaha while involved in a marriage-track relationship with a well-mannered, gainfully employed, age-appropriate coreligionist who is on paper virtually identical to whomever they would have arranged for you to marry a hundred years ago in the shtetl will...dispel any doubts your parents may still harbor about the viability of your future." She calls her grandmother to wish her happy birthday and after first throwing her off the trail by saying her new boyfriend is African (at which her grandma panics), then she informs her that her new boyfriend's name is Abramowitz...and her grandma screams.

I have a great relationship with my parents (especially compared to Scukert's, although I suspect some of what she was writing was purely for laughs), so it's not completely the same. But I do have to admit that it's gratifying to end up marrying someone whom your parents actually like and approve of!

Conclusion: not my cup of tea. I couldn't care about this woman or the way she was wasting her youth away. Lovers of David Sedaris, however, might find it amusing.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Wedding Officer: Never judge a book by its cover

The Wedding Officer: A Novel (Bantam Discovery)The Wedding Officer, by Anthony Capella

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

When I received this book via Paperbackswap.com, I was a bit dismayed by the cover. Except for a brief foray into Danielle Steele when I was in college, I DON'T DO ROMANCE. And the book cover definitely looks like romance, "women's" type of fiction. Blech.

Naples and Mount Vesuvius, the setting for this novel
So I was happily surprised to enjoy this book very much. Young British army captain James Gould is stationed in Naples, Italy, assigned as the "wedding officer," to discourage marriages between British soldiers and Italian women. In dire straits, most women in Naples could only find one way to make a living: by selling their bodies. Therefore, how would it look for upright Brits to be marrying prostitutes? Not good. Naive Gould approaches his job at first in a very black-and-white way, but eventually he comes to realize that truth and beauty, and in fact justice, often lie in the gray areas.

Women with their children in wartime Naples, Italy
Gould falls in love with extraordinarily talented chef Livia Pertini, who grew up at the base of Mount Vesuvius. After her family falls into ruin, she ends up taking a position as the cook for the British officers. Capella is not the first author to portray the stirrings of young love among the appetizing aromas and flavors of exquisitely prepared (and described) food. Livia was a wonderful character: spunky, passionate, brave, and wise.

As with all great historical fiction, I learned a great deal about that era and setting during World War II. I knew about Pompeii and had heard about Mount Vesuvius, but I did not know that it erupted during the allied occupation of Italy. In fact, I knew very little about Italy during the war.


The 1944 eruption of Mount Vesuvius
Apparently scientists say it's overdue for another eruption, but this time millions of people will be killed. Naples is only 6 miles away from the volcano.

Toward the end of the book, I found myself wondering whether Capella was a happy-ending or tragic-ending sort of guy. The plot could have gone either way. I won't spoil the ending by answering that for you.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

It Takes a Worried Man: Touching, poignant memoir of a man supporting his wife through Stage 4 breast cancer

It Takes a Worried ManIt Takes a Worried Man, by Brendan Halpin

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

This book review has been cursed. First, I spent about 1/2 hour writing this book review, and then when I hit "publish," the entire review was gone. Then when I rewrote it this evening I kept getting HTML form errors. If it were not such a good book, I would not have put so much effort into it, I can assure you. Of course, the earlier review was completely brilliant, but now I have run out of steam!

In this moving memoir of his wife Kirsten's battle with Stage 4 lung cancer, novelist Brendan Halpin offers a beautiful, loving, brutally honest tribute to his beloved wife, who died a year after the book was published.

Some people might find it ironic--or stupid--that I read this book so soon after my own minor (in comparison) breast cancer scare. I recently had my first mammogram, which resulted in a terrifying morning of further mammograms, ultrasound, and painful and traumatic breast biopsy...followed by days of waiting to get the all clear. So yes, I'm a little crazy to read this memoir so soon afterward...but it gave me perspective...and I am not scared off by sadness or death.

I've read Halpin's novel, Donorboy, and also follow his blog, so I was aware that his wife died after this book was published. The book sat on my bookshelves for a few years before I finally decided to pick it up.

I dog-eared several pages and made notes about my favorite bits (in the blog post I wrote earlier). Here are a few, but not all, of those notes:
  • Brendan, Kirsten, and their preschool-age daughter experience amazing caring from the members of their family and church. As he discovers, "God has no hands but our hands (Saint Teresa of Avila). As we too experienced when our oldest child was born 4 months early and we received similar TLC, "It is very difficult under such circumstances to maintain the idea that God is not working in the world. When we are in our time of need, we are suddenly surrounded by love and we can't forget even for a day how many people care about us."
  • This man clearly adores his family. "I know this sounds corny and probably unbelievable in light of everything I've just said, but it is absolutely true that the whole rest of the room just falls away because my whole life just walked in the door, and I hug and kiss them both."
  • I admire Halpin's brutal honesty about his anger at the 50-year-old men in the cancer survivor spouse group...whose wives are ill with cancer...not knowing whether his own wife will make it to 50.
  • Tragically, Halpin lost his own father when he was nine years old...and he realizes in the midst of this crisis that "I was always so afraid of ending up like my dad that I never bothered to worry about ending up like my mom."
  • One day when Halpin met a woman whose sister-in-law had given birth to a stillborn baby and nearly died herself, the woman expressed her belief that all of the prayers had worked. Halpin notes "presumably the people who are praying for her now were also praying for her to have a healthy baby. So how can you say it works?" I remember people commenting that Chris did so well in the NICU after his horrific birth and first few months of life because of prayer--and our steadfast love and presence. Yes, of course our prayers were answered, but were our prayers or love any more powerful than those of parents whose babies had died? I think not. It doesn't compute. I don't believe in a God who values the prayers of one person or family over another.
  • I could also relate to his frustration in having to deal with family drama (with his mom and in-laws) while he was facing his own family crisis. I remember that, too.
  • Halpin experiences the powerful healing and understanding that comes when someone else--who has been through what you have gone through--can offer simple validation and support. A coworker expresses how when her girlfriend had cancer, all she wanted to do was work (because it helped him escape), validating how Halpin had been feeling...and he comments "I don't know whether Jesus was God, or God was Jesus, or whether either of them had uncontrollable boners when they were thirteen (though every human male I know did), but I do know that for me, today, God's face is the face of a gray-haired lesbian who tells me she understands me."
If you can handle books with sad endings (even though the book ends on an uncertain note), I strongly recommend this beautiful memoir. I'll forgive him for his hatred of James Taylor and the Indigo Girls and his love of B-grade horror movies.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Unclutter Your Life in One Week: Perhaps if you live in a tiny apartment...

Unclutter Your Life in One Week (Hardcover)Unclutter Your Life in One Week, by Erin Rooney Doland

It's hard to give this kind of book a rating: how can I compare it to the typical fiction and nonfiction books I read?

I like to read an inspiring organizational book occasionally, because it keeps me motivated. This did the trick, although I found the premise of uncluttering and organizing my life in one week to be distracting and downright ANNOYING! The author, who is the editor-in-chief of unclutterer.com (a Web site I like very much), even admits that it took her more than one week to unclutter her own life. And at the time, she was living in an apartment! So why does she say one week? One month would have been a tiny bit more realistic, but I like Regina Leeds' much more practical, measured approach by using a whole year for the organizing process. (Okay, no cracks about how my "One Year to an Organized Life" blog has stretched into its third year now--ha!)

Doland approaches the uncluttering process in a similar way to other organizers: room by room, with guidance on what to keep and what to get rid of. In Chapter 1, she provides a list of "Questions for Items Already in Your Home" and "Questions to Ask Before You Buy," which I've already found helpful in the past few days of uncluttering (or decluttering). She also provides lists of what to do in the spring and fall. Much of the guidance she provides is not new for me, but as I said, it's always good to read these types of books to get me off my butt!

Some of the tactics are not practical for my own family...for example, the laundry schedule she proposes:

Monday: Launder all the sheets from the beds
Tuesday: Launder children's clothing
Wednesday: Launder adults' clothing
Thursday: Launder towels
Friday: Launder children's clothing
Saturday: Launder adults' clothing
Sunday: Rest

If we had separate laundry hampers for every room, I can see how this approach would make sense. But we have a laundry chute (reduces clutter in theory!), so dividing up the clothing into various age groups and towels, sheets, would be a pain in the neck and not helpful in any way. And even with five people in my family, I don't particularly want to run the washing machine six days a week.

Here's one thing I discovered from this book: higher-thread count sheets are usually a waste of money. According to Consumer Reports, "Pick a sheet between 200 and 400 thread count. Paying more for higher thread count is wasting money." I found this out when I ordered some expensive, higher-thread count sheets from overstock.com (they were a good deal, but supposedly a great bargain). Not long after we got them, they started pilling....not what I expect from high-quality sheets!

Doland also gives lots of advice about organizing your workplace, your work style, and your approaches to communication. Here are some good ones about e-mail:

Cure your e-mail addiction: Check it only once or twice an hour--don't feel compelled to check it constantly. Most of the e-mails you get are not going to be urgent.

Kill the notifications: Turn off the notification that a new message has arrived, and check your e-mail at regularly scheduled times when you need to be focusing on another task.

Know that the fewer you send, the fewer you will receive. Find alternative ways to talk to your clients and coworkers to cut down on e-mail traffic.

Make it short and sweet. When you send short e-mails, you're more likely to get a short one in return. Doland said that Kevin Rose, founder of digger.com, is rumored to write "Sent from mobile phone" at the bottom of his e-mails, even ones he sends from his computer.

Keep it out of the news. Before you send any e-mail, ask yourself how you would feel if your message ended up on the front page of a national newspaper. (This is one of the tenets one of my company founders wrote about in the early days of our firm, and even though I do not always remember to follow it, it's a good one!) Who hasn't had the experience of someone else forwarding our e-mail unintentionally or without reading the whole content?

Another recommendation she makes is to blind copy a large group of people, to eliminate people's tendency to reply all (one of my major pet peeves at work!). The challenge I would have in implementing this is that people often want to know who else got the message, so they can figure out if they need to forward it or not. I also find saying "do not reply all" to work, although it's tiresome to have to say it!

Doland also offers some good suggestions on how to say no politely in the workplace:
  • Treat the request with respect.
  • Express appreciation that the person thought you would be qualified to fulfill the request
  • Communicate alternatives, such as a different date or a different person to help
  • Don't leave room for negotiation; state the facts and be firm
Moving back to the house (the book goes back and forth from home to workplace--not sure that format is ideal, really, but she's proposing that all this stuff gets done in 1 week, remember? I'm not sure how any real work is supposed to get done during that time...).

She also advises that people take a full inventory of everything in their house and store the data securely online. This should be a goal for us, as friends lost their home in a fire a little over a year ago...and they lost nearly everything.

Another thing I'm considering is purchasing a photo scanner so I can scan many of our photos (not to mention receipts and other paperwork). Then I wouldn't have to keep all of them in storage. I have boxes and albums of photos from the many years before the digital camera age.

Getting back to the week premise (the subtitle is "A 7-day Plan to Organize Your Home, Your Office, and Your Life!")...another unrealistic thing about this book is that it's patently clear the author does not have children. I would say that 80 percent of the clutter in my home comes from my children. Yes, clearly, I have not raised them well enough to clean up after themselves! But having kids just means more clutter. So does more people in the house. Isn't it fascinating that most of the authors of these organizing books do not have children at home? I'm now going to hunt for an organizational and decluttering book for families! I'm sure there has to be one out there. And I don't want one written by an OCD, organizational overachiever, but a practical, focused-on-parenting-and-not-just-a-clean-house parent.

In summary, this book had some helpful hints and some inspiration for continuing my efforts to simplify my life. But the one-week idea is purely ridiculous.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Nancy Pearl's rule of 50 for dropping a bad book

Book Lust: Recommended Reading for Every Mood, Moment, and ReasonFamous Seattle librarian writes in the Globe and Mail about her "rule of 50":
"When you get to page 50 of a book, ask yourself whether you are really liking it. If not, put it down and seek out another one. Perhaps you'll pick it up again later, and perhaps not. She talks about how she had to overcome the guilt of letting the author down to be able to choose her own reading content."
As Marie's book garden readers will know, I have reached a stage in my life where I too will put down a book if I'm not enjoying it. Sometimes I give it beyond 50 pages, and sometimes I do continue because I want to see how it ends. Pearl says if "all you’re really interested in is who marries whom, or who the murderer is, then turn to the last page and find out. If it’s not on the last page, turn to the penultimate page, or the antepenultimate page, or however far back you have to go to discover what you want to know." I think I could be more disciplined about this practice, and after reading Pearl's wisdom, I will give that a try. (I realize that not all books have to be fine, upstanding literature, but even if they are light they should at least be enjoyable!)

Pearl goes on to say:
"As I wended my way toward 60, and beyond, I could no longer avoid the realization that, while the reading time remaining in my life was growing shorter, the world of books that I wanted to read was, if anything, growing larger. In a flash of, if I do say so myself, brilliance, I realized that my Rule of 50...needed an addendum. And here it is: When you are 51 years of age or older, subtract your age from 100, and the resulting number (which, of course, gets smaller every year) is the number of pages you should read before you can guiltlessly give up on a book. As the saying goes, 'Age has its privileges. And the ultimate privilege of age, of course, is that when you turn 100, you are authorized (by the Rule of 50) to judge a book by its cover.'"
Excellent advice from one of our best Northwest book experts!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Dead Hand: Making me think of Mother Teresa in a new light

A Dead Hand: A Crime in CalcuttaA Dead Hand: A Crime in Calcutta, by Paul Theroux

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I first discovered Paul Theroux back in my early 20s when I was living in Japan and traveling through Asia. Theroux wrote about his adventures on the Trans-Siberian Railway across Asia and Russia in The Great Railway Bazaar, the fascinating book that launched the travel memoir industry. I also read Riding the Iron Rooster about Theroux's travels in China. Theroux is a keen observer of different cultures, traditions, and people. Back in those days, Mike read his novel Saint Jack, but I do not recall reading it. Theroux also wrote the book The Mosquito Coast, probably the most famous of his works because of the movie.

So I approached A Dead Hand with some experience of Theroux. His insightful observations and colorful descriptions of India were the best part of this book. It's the story of a travel journalist, Jerry, who is slumming in Calcutta...waiting for the next freebie hotel stay and experiencing writer's block (one reason for the novel's title). He receives a letter from a wealthy American woman, Mrs. Unger, who has adopted many of India's customs for her own. (She wears a sari and henna tattoos, practices tantric and sensual massage, and eats only Ayurvedic food.) A friend of her son had woken up in a hotel room one morning and discovers a dead body on the floor. He had panicked and run away. She professes admiration for Jerry's writing and because of this, asks him to investigate the situation, presumably to clear the boy's name.

He soon enters into an odd romantic relationship with her, whereby she summons him when he fits into her schedule and shares only tiny, strange tidbits of her life. Even though she claimed the investigation of the dead body was her primary purpose for contacting him, she soon seduces him into being her devotee. Jerry becomes completely besotted with her, and we have pages and pages ad nauseum where he writes about how pure and saintly she is. Blah.

Mrs. Unger (always called by this name) arrived in India to work with Mother Teresa at the Missionaries of Charity. She hates Mother Teresa and badmouths her to Jerry. (For this reason, many have called this book anti-Catholic.) (And now a little diversion about M. Teresa...)
What I was not aware of before reading this book was that Mother Teresa was a highly controversial figure. She collected millions of $ for her charity, but very little of the collected funds went to help the sick and poor. Nearly all of it was given to the Vatican. She did what she did for her beloved church. (And as many have written, those funds given for the specific purpose to help the poor and destitute have instead been used to defend pedophile priests.) Mother Teresa believed that to be poor is to be holy. She did not allow her sisters or other workers to spend money on improving their own lives or the lives of the poor and sick. Google searches for "myth of Mother Teresa will yield all sorts of disenchanted stories and experiences, such as this one
Mother Teresa was also heavily anti-abortion and anti-birth control and reproductive technologies. Much of what's on the internet is hardly objective or from respected authorities, but here's an article in the New Statesman about the squalid conditions in her homes. I certainly will think differently of her from now on.
It's ironic that Mrs. Unger criticizes Mother Teresa, because she turns out to be far worse than the tiny nun...as of course, the reader could see coming a mile away.

I was not very impressed with the plot of this book...it meandered all over the place, and some parts were more interesting than others. On the pages and pages where Jerry blathers on about what a saint Mrs. Unger is, or about how he's able to write again, I felt bored to the point of scanning. As apparently is typical for Theroux, he includes a scene with himself in the book. This is a bit weird, and if it were a better book, or if I could understand the point of the scene better, I would have accepted it more. I believe that Theroux meant this book as an indictment on white rich people dabbling in developing countries, swooping in to help the poor and destitute...while actually hurting them. He is missing the point, though, by ignoring all of the reputable and indeed-helpful white people working in the developing world, providing sustenance and support to millions of people.

Theroux needs to hit the road again and go back to writing nonfiction. Or maybe he's just past his prime.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Women on the Edge of a Nervous Breakthrough: Lured in by a recommendation

Women on the Verge of a Nervous BreakthroughWomen on the Verge of a Nervous Breakthrough, by Ruth Pennebaker
My review: 1 of 5 stars

I picked up this book at the library (on the "new" shelf) and decided to read it, mostly based on the recommendation of Sarah Bird, a talented Texas writer. Ruth Pennebaker is another writer from Texas. According to the book jacket she is a commentator for an NPR facilitator and keeps a blog (which looks much better than her novel!).

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakthrough is about a trio of generations living under the same roof. Joanie is mom to Caroline and daughter to Ivy, and they all want to tear each other to bits. Caroline is a sullen teenager, Ivy is an overly critical older woman, and Joanie is a sad, bitter divorcee. The life she was holding together by shreds comes crashing around her when her ex-husband announces that his new girlfriend is having a baby.

I found the writing and story to be overly simple, the characters one-dimensional, and the interactions between them grating. Perhaps this is meant to be written in such a way, and I just have no appreciation for it...sort of like Hemingway. (I can't stand Hemingway.)

Or maybe it's that I have a wonderful relationship with my own mother and can't imagine living my life in battle with those around me. I could not relate to the characters at all. Ivy, in particular, I found to be downright grating.

One thing I found completely implausible is that Joanie was out of the workforce for 20 years (and has minimal computer skills) and then she lands a plum job in the advertising industry. Never going to happen.

I read to page 100 or so, and then gave up. Life is too short to waste on mindless books that don't give us at least some amount of pleasure.

My only conclusion is that Sarah Bird must be biased in some way--perhaps she personally knows the author, or she was just being polite.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Beekeeper's Apprentice: Spunky young woman pairs up with Sherlock Holmes

The Beekeeper's Apprentice: Or On the Segregation of the Queen/A Novel of Suspense Featuring Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes (Mary Russell Novels)My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I'd never heard of The Beekeeper's Apprentice (by Laurie R. King) before my friend Kristin recommended it as a book group selection. It's the first in a series of five, and I will definitely be reading more of the series.

Mary Russell is a girl of 15 when she is wandering about in Sussex Downs, her nose in a book. Right at the beginning, I knew I would like her--I do not know many other people who are crazy enough to read while they are walking. Like Mary Russell, I have had one accident while doing so...but I was not too terribly injured. I'm just more careful now!

Whilst she was wandering, she nearly tripped over Sherlock Holmes, who was bee peeping at the time. After an initially rough start together, the eccentric Holmes realizes what a bright spark she is and adopts her as his apprentice and erstwhile daughter/friend.

"Russell," as Holmes calls her, goes off to Oxford when she comes of age (she is an orphan and was living in the care of her unlikable aunt) and returns home to visit Holmes and his housekeeper, Mrs. Hudson. Russell has a brain similar to Sherlock Holmes; she is extremely observant and intuitive, in addition to being off-the-charts bright. She and Holmes get involved in some small cases, followed by a rescue of an American senator's daughter, who has been kidnapped. These all lead to the penultimate case, in which someone is trying to kill both Russell and Holmes. At last, they meet their match.

I have never actually read any Sherlock Holmes stories. The most I know about him comes from that clumsy Robert Downey film that came out a few years ago (I saw it while riding on an Amtrak train going up to Tacoma). From what I've deduced, the author paints a faithful picture of Holmes and Watson. She doesn't shirk from his drug habits, but they are minimized.

The story is told from the perspective of Mary Russell, and what a great young feminist role model she is! It's also rare to find a novel about the purely platonic friendship between a young woman and an older man. They had a marriage purely of minds.

Definitely recommended for mystery or historical fiction fans who like spunky young heroines.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011