What happens when two thirtysomething siblings relive the summer reading programs of their youth in an all-out battle of the books? The race is on as they read by the rules and keep tally on their logs to see who will be the ultimate reader by Labor Day 2011.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Wish you were here (and you were!)

Things we did while Brendan was here for a week:
1. Went to the beach a few times (and did not read).
2. Went on a boat (and did not read).
3. Went to the movies (and did not read).

Do you sense a theme emerging here?

My brother claimed he's "50 pages into a bunch of different books" and that "he's going to finish something, sometime soon". Let's all give him the support and encouragement he needs to achieve his goals.

In the meantime, I've read three books.

I discovered Mindy Klasky in a "buy a bunch, get one free" sale at Barnes & Noble a few years ago and fell in like with her Jane Madison series, a trilogy that follows a 20-something historical librarian as she discovers her magical abilities. While spells and potions aren't really my thing, I do like when chick-lit authors take the time to really embed their characters in their professional lives, and this series gives a glimpse into the world of non-profits, museums, libraries and small businesses.

Amazon kindly reminded me a few weeks ago that I've liked Klasky in the past and made the recommendation that I try out her "As You Wish" series on my Kindle (Ha, Amazon! You may track my every move on your site, but you don't know that it's my mother's Kindle. My secret is safe.) This time, the story is about a magical lamp with a genie inside (who grants four wishes!), and what happens as the lamp travels around the theatre world. Again, Klasky takes a setting that is unfamiliar to most everyone and gives readers a glimpse of what life is like for the professionals there (ok, so there may not be a magical lamp in your theatre, but excepting that). The plot itself isn't as tired as I expected: the choices each wish recipient makes as she decides how to use each wish are actually thoughtful and not always anticipated. What's also different is the story of the genie and how that character evolves and changes throughout the three books as he grows closer to his own wish. All three are quick, but fun, reads that gave me all that I wished for: some easy bedtime reading...and three points!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

But I was Supposed to LOVE this Book!

"The Three Weissmans of Westport" was heavily reviewed in 2010 and sat high on my list of books to read last summer. Life being life, I didn't pick up the book until now. It was a happy moment when I came upon a copy at the library, and I delayed starting it until I knew I had the time to read a good chunk of it.

How disappointing, then, to be utterly bored by this book.

Maybe it was the comparisons to Jane Austen. Yes, this is a modern twist on "Sense and Sensibility", and much better than the other dozen attempts published in the last few years...but I think that the Austen expectation overshadowed the initial reading attempts for me. It took several starts for me to make it through the first 50 pages and, even then, I was having trouble keeping characters straight. The extravagance and superficiality of many of the characters prevented me from feeling much empathy for their positions (Betty, a 75 year old woman, is unceremoniously dumped by her husband of 45 years, Joe, who wants to move his new girlfriend, Felicity, into their magnificent Central Park West apartment. Betty accepts an offer of a Westport "cottage" and moves in with her two 40-something daughters, Miranda and Annie, both of whom are having personal and professional struggles of their own). I couldn't summon an ounce of caring for anyone.

It takes about 250 pages, but finally the three Weissmanns hit rock bottom and begin working their way toward independence. Cathleen Schine's writing is flawless as she tackles the growth of these three women, not to mention the others milling about and making a mockery of their lives. The ending is far from formulaic and, in many ways, is unexpected. It completely makes up for the slow moving start and left me thinking about what's to come for the Weissmann family. All in all, I liked the book...but only wished I could have started liking it a whole lot sooner.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Hey, wasn't this a TV show first?

Every so often, I manage to watch 30 Rock on TV (instead of later on the DVR). When that happens, I sometimes keep watching the show that follows, Outsourced. Truthfully, I haven't seen enough episodes to really know the full plot, but it's basically the story of a call center manager from the States who is sent to India to improve a call center there. Between the tired jokes that befit the stereotypical male from the Midwest and the haven't-we-moved-beyond-these jokes about Indians, the plot twists around the challenges of adjusting to a new culture, the view of the United States from abroad, life in a call center, and office romance.

I picked up "One Night @ the Call Center" as a little reward for completing "Dark Places". According to the back cover blurb, it's the story of six (mostly 20 something) call center coworkers (in India, for a small appliance manufacturer in the States) and the changes that take place in both their personal and professional lives during their night shift one (American) Thanksgiving Day. Written by Chetan Bhagat (one of TIME's 100 Most Influential People in 2010 for his ability to portray youth in present day India), I've since learned that several of his books have been remade for the Bollywood screen.

Perhaps that is the reason the book read like a movie or, in my mind, a television show. I couldn't help but picture characters from "Outsourced" as Shyam, Priyanka, Esha, Vroom, Radhika, and Military Uncle. I completely confused myself at times when the book plot mirrored themes from "Outsourced", and I couldn't remember which happened where (this may be due more to the fact that I read the book while sleeping in a tent with the kids, one of whom kept waking up from nightmares). In any case, the book had moments of fun, was decently written, and helped to pass a long night in the backyard.

Here's where the book took a weird twist, and I'm still not sure what to think of it. Sandwiched between the dedication page and the prologue is a page of three questions: name one thing you fear; one thing that makes you angry; one thing you do not like about yourself. Then follows 300 pages of story, until God calls the call center folks and has a little chat with them...and asks each employee to answer those questions. From there, each makes dramatic changes in life and the final chapter informs us of how profound those changes are (especially within Indian culture). After reading more about the author and his reputation in India of motivating and influencing younger people, I get why the self help/improve yourself vibe was there...but it struck me as over-the-top and Oprah-like.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Cost of Success

Sometimes reading a book series is like removing a bandage: it's best done quickly. I knew that if I didn't complete "The Hunger Games" trilogy immediately, I'd never get there. With that in mind, I downloaded the final two books on my borrowed Kindle and got to work.

If you think the first book is full of horror, the second, Catching Fire, focuses on the unfairness of life (in another horrific way). Katniss and the other former victors are informed that, in "celebration" of the 75th anniversary, 24 of them will face each other in a special version of the Games. Gore ensues.

While reading the first book, I was entirely focused on the terrible things that were happening, what children were being forced to do in order to survive. The fog somewhat lifted during the second book (perhaps too saturated by sadness?), and a corner of my mind resumed it's usual occupation while book reading: catching errors.

No, I don't mean typos and grammatical mistakes (although, thanks to a former teacher who used to award extra credit points for those catches, I see them, too). I'm talking about leaps in the plot that just don't make sense (why everyone lives in fear of being overheard through hidden receivers everywhere, but don't worry when they're walking down the street). I found myself really being taken off track by these thoughts until I forced myself to remember: these books were written for teen readers. Lay off a little, Kerry.

So, I finished the series as if I were a sixth grader on summer vacation. I ignored jobs I knew needed to be completed (yes, I do believe those dishes will wash themselves). I pretended not to hear someone calling me from the other room. I vacuumed while holding the book in my other hand (sinfully easy to do with a Kindle; I must keep that in mind). My one submission to reality is that I limited my reading to when my husband was home, so at least my kids weren't left to completely fend for themselves while I remained in the war world of Panem.

Collins' concludes the trilogy quickly, violently, and unexpectedly. Previously, important characters were killed off every chapter, then page. Suddenly, I found myself rereading sentences to comprehend the realization that several major characters died within a sentence. With a word or two, they were gone and never mentioned again because the plot, Katniss, life was moving forward. Survivors don't exist because they dwell on life lost. Survivors march on.

There's no great place to mention this, so as an aside I'll just point out that Katniss' younger sister, Prim, is an exquisite character to watch evolve over the course of the three books. Many of the characters have stunted development (especially the victors, as their lives so abruptly changed by playing the Game as a teen), but Prim is one of the few children in the story who are allowed to grow into themselves. To say more would ruin the storyline, but I found myself really interested in how Prim found success in her life despite the absence of the sister who had so protected and sheltered her.

Monday, August 8, 2011

When Reading Induces a Panic Attack

I've had the same recurring dream since I was six or seven years old. The scene is the set of a television game show, where three pairs of contestants compete against each other in a combination of quick answers and physical feats. One pair is an engaged couple; another friends; the final a recently returned Vietnam Vet (in full uniform with a bandaged arm) and his mother. Mother and son reunite for the first time on the set, and it's quite emotional. After winning several rounds, their final challenge is Russian Roulette. One must pick up a handgun and shoot themself in the head, chancing that it's an empty round. The mother begs and pleads for the son to let her do it, that he has suffered and survived so much already, but the son simply picks up the gun and shoots. Other versions of this dream have the mother being forced to shoot the son. Regardless, the son always winds up with a lethal head wound, the mother always cries out an anguished scream, and I awake as his life is slowly fading away. *

Since our mother was a high school English teacher for much of my childhood, I was always privvy to what authors the older kids were reading in class. In elementary school, I thumbed through one anthology and came across Shirley Jackson's short story, "The Lottery".  (Take five minutes to read it there, I'll wait.) The story freaked me out so much that I thought I'd throw up. A few years later, we read it in English class and I told my teacher that I could not, would not talk or write about the story. I can't remember the exact outcome there, but I think it involved taking a lower grade and doing at least one other assignment instead. (My ninth grade History teacher was much more understanding when we read and watched "Lord of the Flies". You can play a game here, but I'm too chicken.)

So, there you have it: I don't like stories where family members are pitted against each other in order to survive; I don't like survival stories where children discover their most primal instincts; and I really don't like reading of communities having annual events where they kill one of their own.

And, yet, I just read Suzanne Collins' "The Hunger Games".

Brendan talked up this young adult trilogy earlier this summer, and I've had it on my mental list of books to peruse before they hit my 9 year old daughter's reading radar. First off: I will only be checking these books out of the library, to reduce the chance that she will stumble upon them in the house. This is definitely middle school reading. I'm also both horrified and mesmerized at the thought of this book hitting the big screen. Really, you're going to make that a PG-13??

That is simply the story of teenagers, two each selected by lottery in each of the 12 districts of the former North America, who are forced to fight each other for survival...where only one will survive. While these teens (some not even, as they are as young as 12) fend on their own for food, shelter, and survival tools, the rest of their country watches the events unfold...televised. It's Survivor meets Big Brother meets...whatever crazy creepy show Mark Burnett thought of and dismissed as too barbaric. The plot of the first in the trilogy is the actual game, where we meet Katniss, a 16 year old from District 12 who has kept her mother and sister alive with her hunting and bartering skills for the last five years. Told from her perspective, we live the weeks of the game through her eyes, meeting her male counterpart from the District, Peeta, and the other competitors. Even though I knew she would eventually win (there are, after all, two more books), I turned every page, expecting it to be Katniss' last. Collins has written a book that not only captivates, but makes the reader question with every page, "Would I make it past the first minute of the game?". The themes in this book about community, governance, survival alliances, and civil disobedience make this a possible book to share and discuss with even the most reluctant middle school readers.

Library opens at 2 today...I think I'll find the second book of the series upstairs on the second floor.

* If you think this an odd dream for such a young kid to have, I always did too...until, in my 20s, I saw an old rerun of Saturday Night Live with this skit. When my parents used to have friends over, I was given permission to watch television in their bedroom (this was in the pre-cable era, where our antenna limited us to four or five stations; the most illicit stuff I'd find was Dynasty). Usually, I'd fall asleep and wake up in the middle of a new show (hence, SNL)...or when the station would show the flag and sign off for the night, waking me with the sudden burst of static. In any event, I must have groggily watched the skit, then fallen back to sleep. My subconscious took some liberties with the skit over the decades, but the pieces are essentially the same.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

My Summer of Reading Like Brendan

My ability last summer to outread my brother outraged several of our fearless followers (no, of course I'm not referring to you, Martin), which led me to defend my reading choices. This summer, I contemplated (for a nanosecond) whether I wanted my win to be questioned again and decided on a different strategy: I would simply read the same books as Brendan. That would stop the criticism, right?

With this decision made, I picked up "A Long, Long Time Ago & Essentially True", Brigid Pasulka's debut novel and one of Brendan's earlier summer reads. Pasulka weaves together two stories, that of Anielica (Nela) and Czeslaw (the Pigeon) in World War II Poland and Beata (Baba Yaga), their grandchild living in 1990s Krakow. As a reader, I was taken by the details of the small community of Half-Village (located in a remote section of the mountains) and the slow development of the relationship between Anielica and the Pigeon. Pasulka drops in enough Polish phrases that I finally forced myself to pause and look up the vocabulary instead of guessing it (worth the effort, although I have since discovered that Pasulka has all the pronunciations and definitions on her website).

Beata's life to date has been similar to her grandparents' early years. Also raised in Half-Village, she has lived within the bubble of her small community, raised solely by Nela following her mother's death and father's abandonment of her. Upon Nela's death, 20-something Beata moves to Krakow to live with her (much older) cousin, Irena, and 20-something daughter, Magda. Life has certainly not been easy for Beata, but as more is revealed about her family's trials in the war, I couldn't help but wish she showed more of their strength and determination with her own struggles (and found myself mentally shouting, "It's in your genes to be a survivor, so stop being so mopey about your life!").

While parts of Beata's story dragged for me, the final chapters made up for it, with descriptions of the raw truths of wartime (a time when revealing a secret could absolutely end in someone's death) and the sacrifices families make that are kept in confidence for decades.

(P.S. to Brendan: Standing still in a fountain to avoid being captured by the Nazis seems rather extreme...and wet. Running very, very fast for a long, long time is always an option, and one I'd totally support.)

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Making Helen Reddy Proud

I am confident that Helen Reddy would affirm that "reading books about bad parenting and horrible childhoods" was on her mental list of things confident women can do when she helped pen the words to "I am Woman". If ever I needed a background song to keep me focused on a book, reading "Dark Places" was it for me (also a contender, The Little Engine that Could's mantra of "I think I can, I think I can", which would also restrain my mind from creeping to tunes like Suzanne Vega's "Luka").

I bravely read Gillian Flynn's first novel, "Sharp Objects", earlier this summer and managed to keep my subconscious fears ("Could this happen to one of my kids?") at a dull roar while I lost myself in Flynn's writing. Brendan (who read it last summer) somewhat burst my bubble by telling me that her debut was nothing compared to "Dark Places", the story of the youngest daughter, Libby, of a family allegedly murdered by the eldest child, the only son, Ben. Told in chapters alternating between the present time (in which she is, 20+ years later, questioning the guilt of her brother) and the past, readers are overwhelmed with the horror of the murders and the sadness of Libby's ensuing childhood and life. Fortunately for me, the book begins in the present time, where the facts are directly presented: Libby's two older sisters and mother were gruesomely murdered (suffocation; blunt force trauma with an axe; knife to the heart) in their decrepit farmhouse late one night in January, 1985; Ben, the 15 year old son, was found guilty of the murders (conducted, they claim, as part of a Satanic ritual) and sentenced to life in prison. I can handle facts; it's the events that lead up to those facts that are unbearable for me to read. Flynn's choice to alternate between time periods (and narrators) allowed me to handle the brief glimpses of the unraveling, but also gave me a break from the present heartache that is Libby's life. How much bad stuff can one person take in a lifetime?

Other writers could certainly take the ideas in this plot and string them together to make a decent mystery. It's the emotional angst that Flynn captures so well that puts this book over and above the top of her peers. After reading 344 pages of turmoil, it was this sentence in the final chapter that got me: " There is such a thing as a pretty trailer park, you know." Life will never come easily for Libby, or any of the characters from this impoverished community, but particularly for damaged Libby. Despite that, the journey she takes in this book ends with her having more support and more options for a better future.

Flashbacks with Commencement

A book about four roommates at Smith College and the paths their lives (and friendships) take? Yes, please, I'll read this.

I think I'm like many readers: I either unconsciously insert myself into the plot as a silent bystander, seeing where I fit in, or attach myself to a character that most feels like me. (The latter can backfire; when reading "Little Women", I always want to be Jo, but ultimately must face that I'm Meg.) In J. Courtney Sullivan's debut, "Commencement", I was both the unheard and unseen fifth friend but also felt the book from the viewpoints of the four women: Celia, Sally, April and Bree.

Reading this book was, at times, like revisiting college. I attended a small, private liberal arts college (that was mentioned in the first few pages of the book. Go Swat!) and spent my first year living in a quad with three other women. As the characters got to know each other and their new environment, I couldn't help but remember my first days of college. While some of the Amazon reviews criticized the book for its lack of discussion about Smith's academic life, I was content to read without memory of the intensity of that part of college. Bring on the occasional down time and relationships!

Ultimately, I was more drawn to the lives of this four women after college, that weird time when you're supposed to be an adult but you're still not exactly convinced you are one (and have no idea how, exactly, to succeed at being one). While their choices have placed them throughout the country, they stay connected with each other through the instant reward of email, cell phones and text messages-- a privilege that both allows them all to survive the insecurities of their early 20s, but that also somewhat restrains each from branching out into new, adult friendships. Eventually, though, they each find their own place in the world.

The second half of the book is difficult to discuss without giving away major plot developments, but this is no fluff take of Sex in the City: Smith Alumnae. Each woman makes decisions that the others think are entirely wrong, and they flounder as they try to support each other as adults but with the instant/no filtered reactions that governs their friendship. Ultimately, this leads to a major fallout that lasts for over a year...a time in which one friend desperately needs the logic and straightforward statements of the other three. The book concludes with a horrifying problem, one that brings the foursome together again in unexpected ways and will alter the path of each of their lives forever.