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Monday GoodReads: Sideways on a Scooter

Monday, September 5th, 2011 | Read with Us | 1 Comment

Sideways on a Scooter: Life and Love in IndiaSideways on a Scooter: Life and Love in India by Miranda Kennedy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The cover of Miranda Kennedy’s Sideways on a Scooter, with its lanky Western woman walking, Abbey Road style, between two women in bright pink traditional Indian dress, suggests the all-India version of Eat, Pray, Love. So does the subtitle: “Life and Love in India.” In fact, there’s a blurb on my copy assuring me that “if you liked Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, you have to read this book.”

I did like Eat, Pray, Love, but if you buy the book expecting Kennedy to do little but dish up her life’s most complex emotions and dissect them in the light of her exotic setting, you’ll be surprised, although probably not disappointed. Kennedy, who lived in New Delhi for five years while reporting from across South Asia for NPR and American Public Media, limits her personal story to how her experience in India changed her, and although she’s frank about saying that India’s family-centric culture made her reconsider her own reserve and her choice of a career (as a war and conflict reporter) custom-made for loners, drifters, and swashbucklers, she’s not one to strew herself, sobbing, across the pages. She’s just slightly guarded, as befits someone who wants to keep her day job. But her reserve lets India, and the women she meets there, take center stage.

And as interesting as Kennedy’s adventures are: renting an apartment and being taken for a prostitute, succumbing to India’s demand that she hire servants and learning that her Western “hippie” wardrobe (contrary to that picture on the cover) earns her no respect from the people around her, it’s in her relationships with the women she’s befriended by in various degrees that she’s able to see, and share, a view of India that’s seen by few feringhees (Hindi slang for a white foreigner). She works out at a women’s gym otherwise populated entirely by Indian women more intent on getting out of their restrictive homes than on breaking a sweat. She helps a friend create an online profile for an arranged-marriage website, and later serves as her bridesmaid in a two-week-long wedding extravaganza (her friend is upset that Kennedy can’t come to live with her at her parents’ home for the entire three-month period of wedding prep). For that, she’s mocked by her other close Indian friend, a modern fellow reporter, for trying to be too open-minded about what the friend considers to be archaic Indian customs—but even that most Westernized woman proves to still be very caught up in India’s conservative culture underneath her professional facade.

Sideways on a Scooter is a memoir with a hundred other stories within its pages; I was as interested in following Kennedy’s stories about her maid and the girl who wiped down the machines at the gym as I was in Kennedy’s own fate. Kennedy herself is at her most absorbing when trying to figure out what brought her to India in the first place, and who she might become if she stayed. I put the book down as sorry to leave Kennedy’s India as she was, but fully understanding why she had to go. It’s true: if you liked Eat, Pray, Love, you’ll probably enjoy Sideways on a Scooter. But if you didn’t like the now-iconic EPL, you might be someone who’ll like Sideways even more.

This review also appeared as the DoubleX book of the week on Slate.

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Reading Material: Good Eggs and Someday My Prince Will Come

Monday, August 22nd, 2011 | Connecting the Dots, Read with Us | Comments Off

Good Eggs: A MemoirGood Eggs: A Memoir by Phoebe Potts
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I love a graphic memoir, and I loved this one. I adore how tight and condensed the words of the story become, while the story itself, through the drawings, sprawls out as wide as any story can. I had a hard time putting this down to sleep. If you’re not a graphic novel reader, but you like memoir, you might be surprised how easily and thoroughly you get caught up.

As for story, this is a fresh, wry look at fertility treatments and at what it feels like to be, again and again, on the unsuccessful end of them. I think the drawings of Phoebe trying to give herself shots in the stomach will stay with me forever, both for their humor and for their grim depiction of a woman wadding up her own stomach fat with one hand, needle in the other. And as a wanna-be memoir writer myself, I’m touched by how Phoebe was able to go back and capture her own renewed optimism every time, and I loved the moment when she decided that what she REALLY needed was to become a rabbi. This is a woman who knows herself far too well–I’m glad she made good use of it.

Someday My Prince Will Come: True Adventures of a Wannabe PrincessSomeday My Prince Will Come: True Adventures of a Wannabe Princess by Jerramy Fine

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I love a good, well-voiced memoir and this is definitely that, but I’m still not sure how I feel about having spent an evening gobbling this down. The author tells the story of her deep inner conviction that she should be a princess, well-bred and properly behaved on all occasions, in spite of her hippie upbringing. (I admit I felt for her mother, who came off rather dissed.) So far, so good. She reaches England, dream and destiny, anglophilia in tow and manages to break into the serious London/Oxford It Girl set—but just when I was rolling along, amused and titillated by her stories of mingling with and mashing on young lords, she’d flash her hippy underside by hinting more than just a little about her belief in past lives. But I’d be quickly lured back in for more gossip, turning pages, dying to know if she ever actually managed to meet her prince. I rode along happily right to the end, but ultimately I felt unsatisfied. Things happen to the narrator, but I wasn’t convinced she’d really changed. Verdict: less filling, tastes great.

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The Witches!

Thursday, August 18th, 2011 | Read with Us | 6 Comments

The Avid Reader

Sam’s teachers call him an “avid reader.” “I’ve never had a child love to read like Sam,” one said last year.

You’d think my heart would ring with pride–that’s what my teachers said about me–but you’d be wrong, because I know the truth: Sam is an avid reader of Harry Potter. And nothing else.

He’s reading them through for the third time this summer.

I cheer that, I really do. But eventually, you have to read something else. Right? Right?

We’ve lined up all the likely candidates from this generation” Warriors. Magyk. Percy Jackson. Nope, nope and nope. Put forth our own old favorites. The Hobbit? Not yet. Narnia? Some, but not all. Five Children and It? Too dense. (I think giving him our old copies of stuff is a mistake–the new ones have bigger print and might look more welcoming.)

And then came the summer reading assignment. Caddie Woodlawn–a book I loved so much our old dog was named from it. A book of greek myths. Short, no problem. Plus: a book you haven’t read before. Any book.

Last night I stacked up ten choices. All those above, plus a Swallows and Amazons! A Great Brain! Half Magic! Sam, I said, you’re so lucky you haven’t read any of these yet!

And then Lily added one more to the pile. The Witches, by Roald Dahl, beloved author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which we read aloud (and have seen both movies). Gift of a favorite babysitter. Sam took it reluctantly to the couch.

And….bingo! “This book pulls me in like Harry Potter pulls me in, mom!”

Please, please let more books do the same!

What I’ve Been Reading

Friday, July 22nd, 2011 | Read with Us | 2 Comments

I’ve dumped my Kindle. Not really. I’m just taking a break from you, Kindle, and from my iPad on-the-side version, too. I just wasn’t ready for a monogamous relationship and I do so love holding a book, buying a book, folding down the pages of a book or going back to scoot around in a forgotten sentence from a few pages ago in a book. And I like loaning them or giving them when I’m done, too. And so, these were books, real books. read and in-the-midst-of reading.

Half a LifeHalf a Life by Darin Strauss
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’d give this six stars if I could. It’s a literary memoir and yet it’s so much more and less than a memoir. It’s perhaps the tightest, sparsest book I’ve ever read, reminding me of an artist Margery Allingham once invented who painted magnificent pictures and then took away just a little here, and covered in white just a little there, until there was just a perfect echo of a picture left. That’s what Strauss has done; he’s given us just enough of his life and himself to release the part of him altered beyond recognition by an accident “half a life” ago, in which he killed a girl from his high school.

I love it, I love how he gives us all the layers of his thoughts, from the thoughts he wanted others to think he was thinking to the thoughts he thought he should be thinking right down to the ugly thoughts beneath those, and then, sometimes, even down to the scrapings on real emotion that are left at the bottom. He’s one of the writers I want to be when I grow up.

Silver SparrowSilver Sparrow by Tayari Jones
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I don’t know how to justice to how much I enjoyed this book. I’ve been on a lucky streak with books lately (maybe because if I don’t like it, I just lay that puppy gently down). This is a book set back in the midst of my own childhood, but in the South, not Texas, and in a part of the south where the “outside child”—the child of a bigamist marriage or a long-term affair—is just a usual thing, tough on the kids and the wives, of course, but so not-of-note that “ushers at funeral homes carried smelling salts for all the first wives discovering their counterparts.”

The outside child here knows about the daughter of the first marriage, but that fortunate creature has no idea until, of course (and this is no spoiler, it’s the gun on the mantel of the whole book) she does. I rooted hard for these characters, but loved the book right up to the end just the same. It’s also that rare combination of a page-turner and a serious read. Just so good.

The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the PrairieThe Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie by Wendy McClure

Hanging out in Wendy McClure’s world, wherein one can pick up and visit Laura Ingalls Wilder sites and meditate over the jewelry box Laura got for Chistmas in On the Banks of Plum Creek—which I would dearly love to do—reminds me of the pilgrimage a friend and I once made to Jane Austen’s house. I’m as happily in Wendy-world as she is in Laura-world (a world I love, too) and I don’t want this to end.

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Books I Have Loved: Mamalita and The Anti-Romantic Child

Sunday, July 10th, 2011 | Read with Us | 2 Comments

I’ve been reading some good stuff lately. I love a good, engrossing memoir, and these were both tough to put down.

Mamalita: An Adoption MemoirMamalita: An Adoption Memoir by Jessica O’Dwyer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I loved this memoir of a procedurally tough Guatemalan adoption, which I know others who’ve lived through. It reminded me of Love in the Driest Season. An unflinching look at both Guatemala and its corrupt systems, and at adoptive parents, besides. It’s an exciting and even suspenseful read, as well, and more great exploratory inner memoir–how much is the author capable of, and how much can she take– more than “parenting memoir.”

The Anti-Romantic Child: A Story of Unexpected JoyThe Anti-Romantic Child: A Story of Unexpected Joy by Priscilla Gilman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A fantastic memoir of living with high-functioning Asbergers. Gilman writes about the ways her husband and son, both with Asbergers symptoms (if not a specific diagnosis) appealed to her extremely romantic outlook on life using constant references to her beloved romantic poetry, in particular Wordsworth–and then chronicles how her realization that the traits she’d seen as unique and magical were also symptoms–or maybe even just symptoms. The way she writes about how she herself manages to accept that a particular trait can be both symptom and personality is fascinating. I’m not going to lie to you–I am not a poetry scholar, and at times I was overwhelmed by the depth of the references, but I loved this book just the same. It’s a memoir in the vein of An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination–literary as well as deeply revealing.

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The Books, the BOOKS…

Thursday, May 26th, 2011 | Read with Us | 6 Comments

I have a problem.

Well, I have a lot of problems, but this is a specific problem. I have these books. Actually, I probably have a thousand of them, but most of them are not a problem. Most of them are beloved members of the household. But these…I’m not so sure about these.

Here’s what happened. Today I was inspired to take every single thing out of the kids room (I promise to share the result of that one later, but as you’ll see in a minute it’s still a work in progress) and also the upstairs landing. To rearrange, and dust, and sort, and recreate according to a new vision.

Contrary to appearances, many of these are beloved books.

During the process, I took all the books off the bookshelves. For one thing, they needed it. For another, I can’t move the bookshelves with books on them, and there was much furniture moving going on. (I don’t expect to be able to move tomorrow.)

I’ll sort the kids’ books, get them in on it, give away some and keep most. That’s not the problem. This is the problem:

Look in the back.

Not the kids’ books, but the piles under them and behind them. And even more so, this:

Ok, NOW you get it.

Tons of genre mysteries. A full collection of every Shopaholic book except the last. (I still maintain that the first “Shopaholic” book was one of the best-structured novels I’ve ever read.) Lots of chicklit (I know, some people don’t like the term, but these really do fit that bill). A smattering of sci-fi and fantasy.

Some of this there’s no question about. I’ll read Dorothy Sayers’ books again. The Asey Mayos are out of print; they’re not going anywhere. But then there are the more questionable cases. Books that were once the kind of thing I’d re-read (Ngaio Marsh, Carolyn Hart, Ruth Rendell) that I now don’t want to. Will I, when I have more time on my hands again? I used to go through a book a night, easy. That was years ago. But in those days, I munched these down like popcorn. Comforting popcorn. Familiar popcorn. I can see that I might need that comfort someday in the future. But how deep do my shelves of comfort need to be?

As for Shopaholic and her sisters, I’m done. I can’t imagine I’ll find any comfort there when I am old (and there is always the Kindle for those). But is there something to be said for keeping them on the shelves for exploring kids? I read so much from my parents’ shelves (some of it utterly inappropriate) when I was young. I learned tons. The less I understood, the more I learned. But will any of my kids really prowl through my paperbacks? How much do I hang onto on the off chance?

I know my kids aren’t the kid I was. But I do hope one of them will share my reading jones (well, really I hope all of them will). And I will keep those shelves packed with anything that might encourage them (including my full childhood set of Trixie Belden, a good assortment of the Happy Hollisters, and an ancient, well-read copy of Anne of Green Gables, among other things). But I suspect I probably don’t need all those Anne Perrys. But I do need the Marjorie Allinghams!

I’m having a really hard time figuring out where to draw the line.

Anyone want to come help?

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The Book of Joe (Jonathan Tropper)

Monday, March 28th, 2005 | Read with Us | 718 Comments

But here’s the thing. None of this ever happened. Or maybe it did. I can’t tell anymore. I’ve spent so much time reliving and rewriting those years that I can no longer descern which vignettes are the result of which process. In my reckless anger, I’ve managed to fuck up a vital area of memory to the point where I will never again be able to isolage reality, and so whatever good there might have been has now been lost to rambling fiction. And the worst part of it that I think I did it on purpose.

from The Book of Joe by Jonathan Tropper
Joe Goffman has made it in New York–hell, he’s made it in Hollywood–but he’ll never be more than shoe-shit in his home town, and he knows it. Never made the basketball team, best friends with a guy who turned out to be gay, wrote a book that laid out the whole town and added every nasty little salacious detail he could invent. The perfect revenge, provided, of course, that you stay the hell out of Dodge.
But Joe’s mind, his ego and, frankly, his dick are all still firmly planted in Bush Falls. The story of his physical return seventeen years after his disastrous senior year completely pulled me in. It’s rare for me to read a book with a male voice. Jonathan Tropper made me feel like I was sitting at a bar with my dearest Armani Asshole friend, listening to him ramble in between shots. Is it perfect? Nope. A little heavy on the dramatic foreshadowing, perhaps, but never pat, never cliched and never slow. I’ll read it again (and I’m sending a copy to my AA friend.)

Elegance (Kathleen Tessaro)

Friday, March 25th, 2005 | Read with Us | 1,042 Comments


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