Monday, March 26, 2012

Book 15 - Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson




This is the new novel by Eleanor Henderson and takes place in Lintonburg, Vermont. Lintonburg is obviously Burlington, VT, and is rife with references to Vermont State (UVM) and Lake Champlain (which is still Lake Champlain). At the beginning of the novel, we meet Jude and Teddy - two teenage boys that are seniors at the local high school and who are into the local drug scene. Jude's father is a marijuana dealer in New York who is dating Di, a prima ballerina (literally). Teddy is Jude's best friend and his mother also is heavily involved in the drug trade. Eliza is Di's daughter from a previous relationship and is a few years younger than the two boys. At the opening of the novel, it is New Year's Eve and it is the Mid-80s. Eliza decides to stop in Burlington on her way home to New York after a ski trip to Stowe and parties with Jude and Teddy. The three attend a bash at a local, wealthy classmate's home where there is alcohol, pot and cocaine (the cocaine being provided by Eliza, who never was into the whole pot scene apparently). After using coke with Eliza (and having sex with her) and then huffing freon with Jude, Teddy suffers a tragic overdose and dies, leaving both Jude and Eliza with massive amounts of guilt (and a pregnancy). As a result of this, Teddy's half brother, Jude and Eliza opt to band together to raise the baby and often shuttle between Lintonburg and Alphabet City in New York City, where Jude and Eliza become members of the Straight Edge punk rock scene, almost by default.

What I found really interesting about this novel is how Henderson used the Straight Edge movement as a catalyst for a coming of age epiphany for each of her characters and how each of them came out markedly differently even though they all partook in very similar situations and actions at very similar times (pregnancy aside). And yet, while each struggled to use the movement to attain individuality and to rebel, they all were seemingly like lemmings - they alls haves their heads and got X tattoos and listened to the same music and abstained from everything. They force their belief system on others and beat up those who don't buy into their theories and belief system (a la the Crusades but on a much lesser scale of course?). What I also really thought masterful about this novel was Henderson's writing style actually. The prose that she uses moves smartly along, and the dialogue was wonderful. I also really like how she delayed plot turns until a character essentially started talking about the twist which is gutsy, particularly in a newer writer and which I really appreciated because it kept my attention. Henderson is also gifted in the sense that she developed her characters and they had discernible epiphanies and were markedly different at the end.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Book 14 - The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson






Let's get one thing clear right from the get go - Adam Johnson is a white American dude who teaches literature at Stanford University and who has had very little opportunity to live or work in North Korea, the country of which is one of the subjects of this novel. In fact, he's only been to North Korea once in his lifetime. But somehow, he manages to capture our imagination and what he believes the life that exists in North Korea must be like.


The novel follows Jun Do's (John Doe?) life and Jun Do is supposed to be a stand in for the average North Korean man - the anonymous, like our John Doe or Jane Doe would be here in the States. Jun Do is raised in an orphanage, even though he's not really an orphan. In fact, the man that runs the orphanage is Jun Do's biological father; but Jun Do has never met his mother (who is supposedly a beautiful opera singer that lives in Pyongyang) and he has never been to a museum (even the "North Korean kind"). The orphanage is located in a very remote industrial town, so Jun Do gets through his entered childhood without seeing Pyongyang. When Jun Do comes of age, he is assigned to military training where he is trained in no light combat and put into tunnels underneath the de-militarized zone and then on kidnapping missions where he is charged with kidnapping seemingly innocent Japanese citizens. As a reward, he is sent to Language School where he learns English and then assigned to a fishing ship where he listens to English broadcasts and types out what he hears on a typewriter. Eventually Jun Do is promoted so much that he is sent with an intelligence team to the United States (Texas) and eventually, to impersonation of a high level military official.


I found that the first half of the book was absolutely fascinating while the second half of the book was really, really weird The second half of the book also seemed to deal in stereotypes of North Korea (although I have to say that for all I know it's really like that there - I've never been there and probably never will be there so maybe I'll never find out, although I find it hard to believe that political prisoners are treated the way that they are treated in this novel). AS far as novels go, I really enjoyed it - it was entertaining although sometimes confusing, particularly in the second half of the novel. I generally enjoyed it though.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Book 13 - Bringing up Bebe by Pamela Druckerman





This is a parenting memoir (a la Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother) but, instead of intense, hand on parenting that borders on abuse, this is more of a laissez-faire style that the author would have her readers believe is actually pretty deceptive. In this memoir, Druckerman, who has moved to France, gotten married to a British sports journalist and has had children, documents her attempts to become a perfectly French mother. Her theory, which may actually contain some sentiment of truth, is that French parents are not actually obsessed with their children the way most British and American parents are. They don't spend weekends acting as the mom taxi and they definitely don't negotiate tantrums - instead, they have firm boundaries that allow for their children to be creative so long as they don't go outside of those boundaries. The French seem to base their parenting theories on a few, dare I say, common sense ideas: 1. That children and babies are really rational and miniature adults that can understand everything that we say as long as we explain things to them; 2. That children adapt to adult routines because it's important that they learn that they aren't alone in the world and that there is a time and place for everything.

What I found to be the most fascinating about this work was the research that Druckerman did in writing this book and how she incorporated it into it. I loved her interviews with the other parents that she came across in France - both the expatriates that she interviewed and the French parents that she owned. I also really enjoyed how she managed to incorporate the scientific and psychological research into her memoir as well. However, I didn't feel that anything that the French do is particularly unique to them - in fact, a lot of the stuff that was done was pretty common sensical so I'm not quite sure why this was particularly fascinating to Druckerman.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Book 12 - The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes





This novel is the 2011 Booker Prize winner, written by Julian Barnes. It's 176 pages, but just because it's so short, doesn't mean you should undersell it. In fact, you shouldn't at all because it wholeheartedly deserves the recognition that it has received. When we meet the narrator, Tony, he is in prep school in the 50's or 60's in England. His group includes him and two other boys, but makes space to include a 4th - a brainy young man named Adrian, whom the boys quickly begin to admire and emulate. Tony is also discovering romance in the form of Veronica, and actually develops a really warm relationship with her mother (that is odd in retrospect, but I guess hindsight is 20/20). When Tony and Veronica inevitably (and quickly) break up, Veronica begins to date Adrian. Years later, after the friends have moved away and apart, and have grown up and had families and careers of their own, Veronica and Adrian become a part of Tony's life again, but not in the way that you would think.

What I really enjoyed about this book is its message: memory is not infallible and is often more edited then we would like to believe. The editing is often done by ourselves and not in ways that often make us feel proud about what we've done. It's a book that I am still thinking about and am highly considering re-reading in a month or 6 weeks, after much thought, because I am sure that I will peel back even more layers with a second reading. This novel was thoroughly enjoyable and I look forward to a re-reading.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Book 11 - Go the F*** to Sleep by Adam Mansbach and illustrated by Ricardo Cortes




Author Adam Mansbach wrote this children's book for adults and it is so, so, so food and so, so, so funny. It is based upon his experiences with his daughter, Vivian, who, apparently, would take up to two hours to fall asleep at night when she was younger. It is written in the style of a children's book but also adds, at the end of each verse, the parent's profane thoughts about the inability of their child to go to sleep at night. I really, really liked this because it's so funny and so true - the child's excuses and the responses that I think that we all seem to have as parents. What I also really liked is that it opens up dialogue about those frustrations that we have as parents but are sometimes difficult to talk about because of the stigma sometimes attached to them and the fear about being perceived as bad parents.

Would I read this to my kids? No. It does con taint profanity and that's all I need - both my four year old and my 18 month old running around dropping the f-bomb (everyone knows I say it way too much anyways - why should I tempt fate by actually reading a book to my child with that word in it?). But would I read it or listen to is (as read by Samuel Jackson - how awesome?!) myself - absolutely because it made me chortle and laugh so hard. Go out and either read this or listen to the audio book or both. It's wonderful.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Book 10 - Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck by Eric G. Wilson




Can elephants really tell us anything about the macabre or morbid? What about our toddlers: will they ever stop wanting to blow things up? Why are we so drawn to things like the Holocaust Museum, Auschwitz, Ground Zero and Gettysburg? Why is there such fascination with autopsy photos of famous people? These are the questions that Wake Forrest Prof. Eric Wilson attempts to answer in this book, his newest. To answer these questions, Wilson not only draws upon his own experience but he uses philosophers like Kant, Aristotle and Freud as well as Shakespeare, among others (although there weren't any females that he relied upon interestingly enough but more on that later on). He also draws upon the cases of serial killers and the people that collect items that relate to them (because yes, apparently there are people that collect memorabilia that relate to Ted Bundy, Charles Manson and Aileen Wournos among others). We learn about his interviews with some of these collectors and about his attendance at a live re-enactment of the Passion of Christ.

Essentially, Wilson states that we're curious about death because we want the truth about that and we want beauty, as opposed to the view that death is the destruction and failure of the body that the medical establishment perpetuates it as. He claims that hospitals sterilize and hide the macabre aspects of death, creating an imbalance that can only be corrected by TV and our fascination by the morbid that we see and hear about on the television.

I was ambivalent and apathetic about this book. I really appreciated the short chapters but found them to be disjointed and hard to follow at times. I didn't feel that he even grazed the psychological and cultural machinations that lead to our oftentimes morbid fascination with the macabre. What was also disappointing is that he didn't use any female examples or philosophers to explain the experiences of fascination with the macabre. Wouldn't women experience this fascination for the same reason or would they experience it in a different way and why?

All in all, this book had a lot of potential but fell short.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Book 9 - The Adderall Diaries by Stephen Elliott


So, I picked up this book by Stephen Elliott expecting it to be the run of the mill memoir about a guy from the streets who has a drug addiction that he kicks and then makes good by becoming what he always dreamed of becoming - in his case a writer - and then writing this particular memoir in order to make sure that other people don't follow those early footsteps (or if they had, to prove to them that they too can achieve their goals). But this memoir isn't like this. It's actually way more complicated (and, by extension, much better). It's not just about Elliott's journey to self-discovery, although he manages to discover himself in the process. He's actually searching for a story that will help him to overcome his writer's block. His "official" story is about a murder that has occurred and the two people that are suspects in it - a soon to be ex-husband and his ex's new boyfriend. This search leads him through the wasteland of his childhood (in which he is a ward of the court and abused/neglected by his father) and his current addiction to Adderall (which he takes in pill form and snorts) and his penchant for S/M sexual relationships. No matter where he looks, though, he can't get around the demon of his father - all the paths that he takes seems to lead there.

I liked this more than I thought that I would. It's not a confessional, tell-all type of thing - more of the process of getting there then anything else and that was refreshing because the tell all memoirs can sometimes become very...old for lack of a better term. I thought it was also a creative take on the memoir genre. It used a real life murder trial to delve into and explore personal demons and that was brilliant, because it was different. It is, therefore, honest, raw and heart wrenching by turns. Elliott remains true to himself and the memories, as he remembers and feels about them. They're not sugar coated or filtered. They just are. And that is also what makes this memoir so interesting. Don't get me wrong, this memoir is sometimes disjointed and is more stream of consciousness or a mix of short stories held together by Elliott's reports of the murder trial, which act as the glue for the whole memoir.

I felt like this memoir was sincere and honest and I really enjoyed it. Go out and get it right now!

Book 8 - A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin


A Storm of Swords is the third in the Song of Ice and Fire Series by George R.R. Martin. It first came out in 2000 in the United Kingdom and then in the United States. It picks up the story lines slightly before the ending of the previous book, Clash of Kings, and features the remaining kings all fighting in the effort to secure their own thrones and secure domination of the entirety of the continent of Westeros. I don't want to provide too much more information because doing so would ruin the surprises (and let's face it, the surprises are the best parts of this series because they truly are gems that you don't see coming at all) but I can say that there are amazing plot twists and fantastic character development that draws you and almost forces you to become attached to the characters without you even realizing what's happening.

What I also really liked about George RR Martin in general, and with this book in particular, is that he is a master at both dialogue and prose. His dialogue is intricate and witty. His prose puts you into the scene and maximizes its use of the reader's senses in establishing scenes and the physical and emotional feelings of the characters that he's writing about. Somehow, Martin also never allows the pace to falter, even as the novel reaches 1100 pages. Definitely go out and get this book, but only after you've read the first two!

My Education by Susan Choi

I admit it: I have a thing about academic novels.  And by that, I  mean novels that occur on campuses and are about characters that are ent...