Thursday, December 31, 2009

An Open Letter to Jonathan Kellerman

Dear Jonathan,

Greetings!  You probably don't remember me, since we've never met, but I am one of your most loyal readers.  I love your Alex Delaware novels more than my luggage.  I stuck with you through everything you did to him-the fire, Robin leaving, you killing off his new lover, your occasional dalliances with other characters.  Actually, I really like your Petra O'Connor books and your new brotherly duo of Moe Reed and Aaron Fox, but every time you write a book about them you aren't writing a book about Alex.  The thing that makes him great is the fact that he can use his not inconsiderable psychiatric knowledge to really get into the minds of his killers.

So why, oh why, my dear Mr. Kellerman, didn't you have him DO anything in your latest Delaware novel, Evidence?  He's a psychiatrist after all, he needs a warped brain to work on.  Why would Milo Sturgis, your gruff detective, even have called him in on this murder?  Two people killed in the act of having sex-I guess you were trying to make the connection that they were posed, which they were, but not because of some deranged serial killer's ritual, as it turns out.  And really, we are supposed to believe that some furious family member of a murdered girl knew enough about the tribal customs of a small island near Indonesia to devise a revenge strategy based on burning down a house to trap someone's soul in limbo?  I'm sorry, and it hurts me to say this, but this obscure rationale is not enough to justify the amount of time that Alex spent just following Milo around listening in this book.  I love Milo, but it's Alex that I pay to read.

Given the new characters that you have created, who are rich and nuanced and who actually, oh, I don't know, DO something in their stories, maybe it's time for Dr. Delaware to retire.  As much as I would mourn the loss of my favorite literary psychiatric detective, it would be preferable to watching him devolve into a glorified sidekick for Milo Sturgis.  I beg you, Jonathan...if you can't think of more compelling storylines that involve Alex using his insight and intelligence to track down truly devious and manipulative criminals, then allow him and Robin to retire peacefully to some bucolic place and let the new generation of characters take center stage.

Your Loyal Reader,
Heather

100+ Books List

Here it is, to keep me honest-the list of 100+ books I've read so far in 2010.  It's a work in progress.  Any suggestions?  Things you think I should pick up in my effort to read 100+ books?  (And no, your suggestions for War and Peace, Battlefield Earth, and the Complete Works of William Shakespeare will not be accepted!)

1.  Fledgling-Octavia Butler
2.  Last Night at the Lobster-Stewart O'Nan
3.  The Monster in the Box-Ruth Rendell
4.  The Likeness-Tana French
5.  The Night Tourist- Katherine Marsh
6.  I'll Take You There-Joyce Carol Oates
7.  The White-Deborah Larsen
8.  Chasing Darkness-Robert Crais
9.  The Lost Symbol-Dan Brown
10.  The Serpent's Tale-Ariana Franklin
11.  Night Work-Steve Hamilton
12.  Testimony-Anita Shreve
13. The Lost Symbol-Dan Brown
14.  The Tarnished Eye-Judith Guest
15.  Pretty in Plaid-Jen Lancaster
16.  The Hunger Games-Suzanne Collins

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Who Were the Witches?

For someone as avowed in my atheism as I am, I have a hard-to-explain attraction to all things magic.  Perhaps it is something left over from my childhood, when Madeleine L'Engel and Terry Brooks were two of my favorite authors.  I've spent many hours immersed in the fantastical worlds of Tolkien and Donaldson and Gaiman-I love to get swept up in a world where the normal rules don't apply and a whole new mythology determines the actions of magical creatures.  Call it my inner geek-and I love her to the point of spending days playing RPGs like Final Fantasy.

It is a rare author that can combine the elements of the fantastic that I love with the "real world".  Michael Crichton did it in Timeline, and Neil Gaiman does it frequently in novels like Neverwhere and American Gods.  We can now add Katherine Howe to the list in her novel, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane.  The book centers around  Connie Goodwin, a Phd. candidate at Harvard in American Colonial history.  Her mother, Grace, a New Age aura reader living in Arizona, asks Connie to clean out her grandmother's house and prepare it for sale.  Connie, who never even knew that the house existed, travels the 60 miles or so to Marblehead, Massachusetts and begins the arduous process of clearing out decades of dirt and detritus.  She arrives to find a small house, hidden away behind a tangle of vines and an overgrown garden.  She discovers, hidden in a family bible, a key with the name Deliverance Dane rolled up in the shaft.  So begins her journey into the history of her family, and into a world where witches and vernacular magic really exist.

The story is framed in the history of the Salem witch trials, a shameful period in early American History if ever there was one.  The author, through Connie, explains the various theories people have about the whys and wherefores of the panic, long seen to be the product of perceived threats by women in the community against the strict Puritan teachings and leadership of the time.  As Connie delves deeper into the history, and mystery, of her great-great-great-great-great-great-grandmother's missing book of "recipes", she discovers a new theory-what if the magic was real?

The book is well-paced, with a satisfying balance of exposition and action.  The descriptions of New England, both the geography and the social history, are well done and evocative.  The author herself is a descendant of two of the accused women-one who survived the trials and one who did not.  As a result, she takes a pretty dim view of the tourist attraction nature of modern-day Salem.  Her disdain is initially shared by her character, but as the book progresses reason and wonder battle in Connie's mind, and one can imagine that Katherine Howe herself wishes that the magic were real.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Drag Queens and Hookers and Goldfish, Oh My!

Ever wondered how drag queens get ready for a night on the town?  Or how sadomasochistic male escorts manage their professional lives?  Then do I have a book for you- I'm Not Myself These Days, by Josh-Kilmer Purcell.  This memoir (or at least, I assume it's a memoir, though it was reviewed by the infamous James Frey) tell the story of Josh's early days in New York as a hungover ad agency art designer by day and a drunken, 7'2" tall drag queen named Aqua by night.

Josh, a young man from Wisconsin, comes to New York after graduating from college, ostensibly to start a career in advertising, but really to hit the drag circuit.  Soon he is doing several shows a week in clubs all over town, and in the process becoming a raging alcoholic.  It is at one of these shows that he meets Jack, a handsome young man from California, who turns out to be a make escort specializing in bondage and humiliation.  Let the love story begin!

I know, it doesn't sound like the setting for a love story, but in fact it is.  The story of Josh and Jack is almost cliche in it's ordinariness...if you discount the setting.  They go to dinner, they spend days at the beach, they order in breakfast and read each other the paper-in between sex parties and drag shows.  By the time it starts to go so horribly wrong, you feel almost like their crazy lifestyle might not actually be a bad choice.  I suppose after a while even the craziest of circumstances comes to seem normal.  Eventually the drinking and drug use engaged in by both of them tears them apart.  While that may seem inevitable, the sadness that you feel for them as individuals and as a couple does not.

This is my favorite kind of memoir.  It is told in a very engaging, easy to follow narrative style that just tells the story like it is.  No sentimentality, no pages and pages of deep psychological discussion of why the author chose that particular shade of corset to wear with this fish boobs (yes, he put goldfish in his boobs)-just good ol' storytelling.  Plus Josh is that kind of sarcasti-gay that I adore, and he lays into himself more than anyone else.  At its core, this is the story of a fresh-from-the-closet gay man hanging all his hopes and dreams on New York City, and getting a slap-in-the-face dose of reality instead.  Josh may have felt to big for his small town in Wisconsin, but his brush with the dark side of sex and drugs ensures that the wide-eyed naivete that he arrived with is gone for good.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

100+ Book Challenge

I told you I have a problem.  I'll be the first to admit it-I'm an addict.  I need books like a fat kid needs cake.  As a result, when I saw the post on fellow blogger J Kaye's site, I just had to add my name to the pledge.  So, despite being in grad school again and despite coaching two afternoons a week and despite having rehearsal on Mondays and despite having youth group that takes up the better part of my Sunday, I am going to read 100+ books in 2010.  Really...seriously...I'm going to do it.  And no, I will not be reading the complete works of Dr. Seuss.  I'm gonna read novels-long ones even.  And autobiographies of interesting people (like the one I am reading now...wait-it won't count!).  And learned tomes about history and politics.  And at least 12 will be my book club's monthly selections.  I can do it-after all I've been training my whole life.  Anyone with me?  Just follow the handy link above.  Good Luck, and Happy Reading!

More Sexism for Christmas-Just What I Always Wanted!

You know, there's a reason that I don't read much chick lit in any of it's forms.  Even when it purports to be breaking stereotypes and questioning the status quo, most of the time it really just dresses both up in newish clothes.  Such was the case with my book club's selection for December, On Strike for Christmas by Shelia Roberts.

The story follows the members of the Stitch 'n Bitch Knitting Club in their crusade to get their husbands to help out and appreciate all of their hard work at the holidays.  The crusade is accidentally started by Joy (and yes, they all have annoyingly cutesy holiday names-the name of the town is Holly, for crying' out loud!), when she tells her scrooge of a husband (affectionately referred to as Bob Humbug) that since all he does is complain about the hubbub at the holidays, he can be in charge of their Christmas this year.  This idea infects the other women, and soon the whole town is choosing sides in this battle of the sexes.

Battle of the sexes, really, Shelia Roberts?  Are we still trotting out that old plot device?  Most of the "conflicts" in the book could have been solved by a polite request or a quiet conversations.  Your husband gets overwhelmed by your large family and needs to get away before you do-DRIVE SEPARATELY!  Your husband invites people over without letting you know ahead of time-TELL HIM HE'S DOING THE COOKING!  Or suggest he go to the nearest pizza joint for pizza and wings.  What is it about our society that insists that men are helpless and can't do anything nurturing without a woman there to guide them?  Really, not one husband in this books has ever wrapped a gift/cooked a meal/decorated a tree/hosted a party?  Maybe it's the Pollyana in me, but I really refuse to believe that we are still raising our boys to be so helpless.

Of course, the other subtext of this story is that the women really love doing it all, they just want their husbands to pay more attention to them.  I seem to remember reading an article from the 50s with a whole list of suggestions about how to do just that-are you really telling me we haven't moved past that yet?  Since all of the women appeared to be intelligent, well-spoken women, perhaps they could have just, I don't know, said how they were feeling in a way that didn't reduce their husbands to caricatures of Fred Flintstone variety.  I realize as a woman I'm supposed to be on their side in this little debate, but really, if you insist on having everything a certain way a la Bree Van De Kamp then you better be ready to do it your dammee.

I should say for fairness sake that several of my book club members really liked this book, and thought that it echoed some of the things in their own marriage.  And these were younger women-not women in their 50s and 60s.  Maybe it's the fact of my not being married to a man, or the fact that my own father never fell into those stereotypes to begin with (he wraps all the presents and makes Christmas dinner with the help of my mom, not the other way around), but this book and it's sexist message of women as long-suffering nurturers and men as bumbling idiots was not the Christmas gift I was hoping for.

Monday, December 21, 2009

What Are You Reading on Monday?





I found this on another book blog I recently discovered, J Kaye's Book Blog.  I think it's a cool idea, and I plan to post there on Mondays.  If you want to post what you are reading on Mondays, please just click the link in my Other Sites Bookish list for J Kaye's blog.  Happy reading!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

A Story by Nevada About a Girl From Mississippi Going to Florida

I have to admit I am merely a lukewarm fan of Nevada Barr.  Her stories of Ranger Anna Pigeon and the national parks where she works seem to have all of the components that I love in popcorn mysteries, but for some reason I often have a hard time getting into her books.  In her novel, Flashback, she finally gives me something that sucks me in from the beginning-a dose of historical fiction with my mystery.

Ranger Anna Pigeon has served in some of the most beautiful places in the United States as a park ranger for the National Parks Service.  This time she has been sent to a temporary posting at Dry Tortugas National Park, a series of small keys 60 miles east of Key West.  She is there to stand in for the regular superintendent of the park, who has mysteriously had some sort of breakdown.  Turns out, Anna's great-great Aunt Raffia was once a resident of the fort that comprises most of the public parts of the park.  It is through reading her letters that we learn about the fort's most infamous prisoners-Dr. Samuel Mudd and Sam Arnold, two of the men convicted of conspiring to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln.  Anna's story and Raffia's story weave together into rather creepy tale of betrayal, divided loyalties, and murder.

The present day mystery involves some very 20th century interests-Cuba, smuggling, and drugs.  The historical mystery reads like a gothic romance-a young girl, Anna's great-great Aunt Tilly, is drawn into the efforts of Dr.Mudd to prove his innocence, and her guardian, Raffia, has to try to protect her sister's virginity and her reputation while protecting herself from an abusive husband. Interesting as the Lincoln back-story is, Barr offers only the flimsiest of connections between it and the present day mystery that Anna is  trying to solve.  That said, both stories, past and present, are well-paced and engaging.  If nothing else, the story made me want to visit the Florida Keys, especially the national park.  The descriptions of hot sun, warm water, and cool ocean breezes sounds especially tempting when I'm reading watching the snow fall during a cold Chicago December.  If you are already an Anna Pigeon fan, I'm sure you'll thoroughly enjoy this book as well.  Of course, if you're an Anna Pigeon fan you probably already did-this is not her latest book.  I still have three more of Barr's books on my shelf...I guess the fact that they are not buring a hole through my shelf tells you more than anything how average I find this series to be.

(P.S.-for some reason my comments are not working.  I'm trying to get someone at blogspot to help me, but so far no luck.  If we're Facebook friends feel free to comment there.  Sorry!)

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Tale of Two Brothers

Recurring characters by beloved authors are like a favorite sweater that we put on when we want something comforting and cozy.  Alex Delaware and Milo Sturgis, the main characters of many of Jonathan Kellerman's novels, are old friends of mine.  Sensitive Alex and gruff Milo make a perfect pair as they travel around Los Angeles solving violent crimes.  So when I picked up the latest Jonathan Kellerman book, True Detectives, I was prepared to spend a few wonderful hours with a couple of old friends.

What I got instead was a couple of new friends-Moses Reed and Aaron Fox, half-brothers and long-time rivals.  Aaron, the biracial son of a black cop and white mother, becomes a smooth private investigator after a brief stint on the police force.  Moses, known as Moe, is the white son of Aaron's mother and her dead cop husband's best friend.  The brothers were introduced in Kellerman's 2008 book Bones, Moses as a young protege of gay police captain Milo Sturgis and Aaron as a PI helping them get information.  In this story, the brothers are drawn into the same case again.  Aaron is working for a Russian "entrepreneur" who is trying to help one of his employees find his daughter Caitlyn, who's disappeared suspiciously.  Moses gets assigned the girl's missing persons case, and despite the fact that it is going nowhere he doesn't feel like he can let it go.  The brothers inevitably collide during the investigation, and their natural resentment of and rivalry with each other threatens to derail both of them.  In the end, they are able to find a way to work together and bring a killer to justice.

I will admit to an initial disappointment when I started reading and realized that Alex Delaware and Milo Sturgis were not the central characters of this book.  But I was soon intrigued by the brothers' backstory and by the mystery itself.  Kellerman's other gig is clinical psychiatrist, and you can tell-his characters have sophisticated relationships and motivations that make them feel very real.  As always the mystery part of the story was well laid out and interesting, but it is really the interplay between these two brothers that makes the novel.  Alex and Milo do make several appearances in the book, but really that felt like appeasement to me.  Kellerman's publishers probably suggested he throw his loyal readers a bone.  It didn't take away from the story, but it didn't exactly feel natural either.  Bottom line-Moe and Aaron don't need Kellerman's other characters to carry a story, they are plenty interesting on their own.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

206 Bones-Kathy Reichs

I love me some David Boreanaz.  Way before there was Team Edward, there was Angel, the tortured vampire with a soul from Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  What does David Boreanaz have to do with a Kathy Reichs novel, you ask?  Nothing-except that he now plays a characters on Bones, a television show VERY loosely based on Kathy Reichs character Temperance Brennan.  I give you this background on DB as an explanation for my love of said show, despite the fact that the only things that the show and Kathy Reich's actual books have in common is the name of the main character and her profession.  If you want the REAL Temperance Brennan, you have to read the books.


Like her latest book, 206 Bones.  There's a lot going on in this one, even though it is one of her shorter books.  There is a sabotage plot, a serial murderer, and a 40 year old missing person's case.  The best part-Andrew Ryan, the hot Quebecois police officer, is back.  He's done with the mother of the child he just found about about, and he is ready to get back to business with Tempe. Question is, is she ready for him?  (I for one am rooting for them to get back together-hot guys that speak French are quite a catch!)

As usual, the story is fast paced, and there is lots of really interesting forensic anthropological goodness.  The title of the book, of course, refers to the number of bones in the human body.  One thing of interest for Chicago-dwellers is that the setting for the first part of the book is Elmhurst.  Tempe, who's originally from Illinois, comes back to visit her former in-laws, and while here she gets sucked into a missing persons case.  I so enjoyed reading that part of the book-the body is found at the Thornton Quarry, just below the bridge that take Interstates 294 and 80 over the large hole in the ground where my daughter thought the Flintstones lived when she was little.  This is, oh, about five minutes from my house.  I drive over that bridge so often it doesn't even trigger my bridge phobia.  Every step of their time in Chicago was recognizable to me...I love it when an author takes the time to get the details right.

I have to admit, I've felt let down by the last couple Reichs books.  It seemed like she was phoning it in, and I thought that maybe concentrating on the show was taking away from her writing.  But this book gives me hope that we are going to get out of the doldrums and get back to the fascinating exploration of forensic anthropology that is a Temperance Brennan novel.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Long Lost-Harlan Coben

So I was supposed to be reading The Story of Edgar Sawtelle for my book club this month, and I started it, I really did...but apparently work plus grad school plus youth group plus family equals limited cognitive effort left for meaningful literature.  As a result, I'm only 100 pages or so into poor Edgar's story...but, I was able to fly through the latest book by one of my favorite mystery/suspense writers, Harlen Coben.

If you are a mystery lover and you have not yet read Coben you should consider yourself scolded.  His Myron Bolitar books, such as his latest, Long Lost, are fun, action-packed stories filled with the most eccentric group of recurring characters in the genre.  The main character is a former college basketball star who was drafted by the Celtics, only to have his knee blown out in pre-season.  His best friend is Win, an ultra-rich, ultra-connected prep school grad with a questionable sense of morality who uses his privilege to act as a lethal vigilante.  Myron's partner, Esperanza, is a former female wrestler known as Little Pocahontas, and their office help is her former wrestling partner-a behemoth of a woman named Big Cyndi.  Somehow this band of odd characters manages to get involved in very private detectivey kinds of situations without actually being private detectives.

This particular story revolves around a woman that Myron had a short, torrid affair with when both were at particular low points in their lives.  Now, several years later, she has called and asked him for help. Her ex-husband has gone missing, and she needs Myron's unique skill set to find him.  What starts out as a simple missing persons case soon turns into something much more sinister, and Myron and his gang are drawn into the very darkest side of the global political landscape.  The story is fast-paced, and while it occasionally stretches the boundaries of the believable, you can't help but be carried along as Myron and Win take on their biggest adversaries to date.

This novel, in fact all of Coben's novels, is the perfect popcorn book.  It's short enough that you can finish it fairly quickly, yet the characters and story are well-developed.  Coben's stories-like his characters-are deep but not subtle.  He describes the motivations of the characters and the events in such a way that you don't have to think too hard to follow what's happening, but the story still feels smart.  Myron as narrator is sarcastic and funny in a self-deprecating way that makes him extremely likeable because of his faults, rather than in spite of them.  Coben's books may not delve deeply into the human condition, but for entertainment value you'd be hard pressed to find a better read.

If you haven't read him before, I suggest you start at the beginning-while his series books have enough exposition for you to understand and enjoy the stories in any order, the development of the characters through time is worth starting with the first book in the series, Deal Breaker.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

No, I didn't fall off the planet...

...it just took me forever to read the first book in Diana Gabaldon's epic Scottish time-travel series, Outlander.  While this is at least partly due to the fact that I have homework again for the first time since 2004, it may also have something to do with the breadth of the novel.  Outlander is nearly 700 pages of rather genre-defying goodness.

Outlander is part fantasy novel, part sci fi, part historical fiction, and all romance.  The story revolves around Claire Randall, an strong and independent spirit living with her husband in post-war England.  While on a second honeymoon in Scotland, she touches a singing boulder in a ring of standing stones and finds herself 200 years in the past.  There she is swept up into clan politics, a dangerous encounter with an English captain, and a love affair that leaves her breathless.

I love it when friends recommend books to me-especially when I enjoy them.  A very dear friend told me about this book, and I am happy to report to her that the story is everything she said it would be.  First of all, the real main character of this book is the Scottish countryside.  Amazingly, Gabaldon had never been to Scotland when she wrote the first book in the series.  Her research skills must rock, because I would never have guessed that she was not a frequent visitor.  She also does an excellent job describing the frustration and ambivalence that characterizes Claire's arrival and subsequent decision to fall in love with Jamie, a charming outlaw who also happens to be a laird with his own lands.

It is hard to describe this book without making it sound like a glorified Gothic romance novel.  But as mentioned above, this book seriously defies definition.  So instead of trying to do it's multi-faceted, 600+ page story justice here, I'm going to tell you to just read it, already!  There's history enough for lovers of historical fiction, there's the whole time-travel thing for the fantasy/sci fi geeks out there, and there is a good old fashioned love story with a new-fangled twist for the romantics out there.  But be prepared-Outlander is but the first in a series of epic novels about Claire and Jamie-none less than 600 pages that I can see.  You're gonna want them all.

Friday, October 23, 2009

No Good Deed, by Laura Lippman

What do you get when you cross a tough-as-nails PI, a liberal-white-guilt ridden bar manager, and a Streetwise homeless kid named, seriously, Lloyd Jupiter?  You get the easy, breezy mystery novel, No Good Deeds, by Laura Lippman.

Laura Lippman is a master of the popcorn book.  Have I explained my theory of popcorn books before?  You know, popcorn is a food that basically has no real substance-it melts in your mouth, it doesn't generally ruin your dinner-but as a snack it is satisfying nonetheless.  Popcorn books are similar-they aren't challenging intellectual exercises, just a good ol' time.  Mysteries make for great popcorn books.  Especially the recurring-character-driven kind like Lippman's.   Her main character, private investigator Tess Monaghan, is one of the quirkier female PIs out there.  She's a half Irish, half Jewish cop's daughter living in Baltimore, solving crime despite the efforts of criminals and the police alike to get her to mind her own business.

In this particular book, the story centers on the murder of an assistant US attorney.  Her do-gooding boyfriend, Crow, decides to take in for the night the young punk who tried to run a flat-tire scam on him.  Turns out, Lloyd knows a little something about the murder, and chaos ensues while Tess tried to get information to find the killer while protecting herself, Crow, and the boy.  Once I got past the improbable event of a white middle-class man taking a homeless black teenager into his home for the night (and his should-have-known-better girlfriend allowing it), the rest of the story flowed exactly as you might expect it to.
Lippman does a great job developing her characters into someone you care about, and despite Lloyd's obvious criminality you can't help but like, and maybe even admire, the kid a little bit.  The mystery itself is sometimes a little bit of a stretch, but it's flexible enough to take it.  All in all, this and all of her books provide a solid afternoon of fast-paced reading enjoyment.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

My Road Trip with Kathy Griffin

OK, so I didn't take a road trip with the actual Kathy Griffin, but her virtual audiobook counterpart.  Still, I can say without a doubt that she makes a great traveling companion.

I'm not usually a fan of audiobooks.  The act of reading is a sensual act for me (you know, the comfy chair, coffee, soft music thing), and most books I would be interested in listening to are actually books I would prefer to READ.  As I prepared for the five-ish hour drive to my parents' place in Northern Michigan after work on a Friday, I debated with myself the virtues of the audiobook over NPR.  Considering that away from the big city NPR's evening programming tends to lean heavily to smooth jazz rather than insightful, entertaining talk radio, I fired up my iTunes.

As I had feared, every author I clicked on had books I wanted to READ, not listen to.  Then I remembered-Kathy Griffin, beloved (by me and the gays) comedian and reality tv star, had released a book this summer.  "Did she", I wondered, "read it herself?"

The answer, much to my delight, was yes, and I quickly downloaded it and was off.  Her memoir, Official Book Club Selection, is a sometimes funny, sometimes sad, sometimes insightful look into the Hollywood world that is Kathy Griffin's.  As a self-described "D-lister", Kathy has a knack for speaking truth to power when it comes to the misogyny and lookism that are so ingrained in Hollywood culture.  (My spellcheck is telling me that "lookism" is not a word, but then it also tells me that "spellcheck" is not a word, so what does it know?)  In chronicling her long, hard march from Oak Park, IL (where she attended Oak Park River Forest High School) to Los Angeles, she shows wit, intelligence, and a vulnerability that was at times as moving as it was unexpected.

Let me just has that Kathy and I should be besties...BFFs of the first order.  I realize that I have to get behind a long line of gays for the privilege, but I believe it would be worth it.  She and I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago.  We both had gay boys as "boyfriends" in high school.  We share food issues that caused us (hell, still cause us) to obsess about our weight.  And...we both LOVE pop culture.  Sadly, I have yet to turn it into a living the way Kathy has, but no one could do what she does in quite the same way she does it.

Here are what I consider to be the highlights, though I enjoyed the whole thing and was sorry when it was over.  Working at Unity Temple in Oak Park with youth who go to the same high school as Kathy, two of whom live in the same street Kathy lived on, made the chapters on her growing up especially fun.  The chapter on her brother Kenny was pretty much the complete opposite of funny, but it showed me a side to Kathy Griffin that had never much been hinted at before.  The Andy Dick, college-town show story was laugh out loud funny!  And the chapter on her divorce explained so much of the weirdness that was season 2 of "My Life on the D-List".  The best part-listening to Kathy tell it herself.  For most of the book I don't even think she was reading-the words were there for her, but her delivery and tone made me feel like a close friend she was confiding in.  And actually, I think that is the magic of Kathy Griffin.  With her completely out-there, balls to the wall humor, she makes even large audiences feel like she is one of them, celebrity worshipping/bashing like the best of us at the water cooler on Monday morning.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Art of Cooking Dangerously

I suppose part of the reason for a joining a book club is to be forced (in the nicest possible way, of course), to read books that you would not otherwise have picked up on your own.  So it was with my books club's October selection, Julie and Julia by Julie Powell.  Admittedly, I tend to shy away from non-fiction in general.  When I read in my rather small amount of spare time I am usually trying to escape the stresses of everyday life.  Somehow reading the lates treatise on the war in Iraq or the inspirational story of some celebrity's battle with shoe addiction does not quite scream "relaxation" to me.  So whenever my book club chooses a non-fiction book I cringe a little.  However, my rather narcissistic insistence on being considered well-read usually overcomes my inherent reticence (with the notable exception of Sin in the Second City...it takes real skill to make the history of prostitution in my own city so boring and lifeless).  And at least this particular non-fiction book had the benefit of being made into a major motion picture that I actually wanted to see.

Julie and Julia turned out to be every bit as charming a book as the trailers make the movie out to be.  Julie Powell is someone I can relate to.  A democrat in a republican controlled world (though that particular nightmare is over for both of us at the moment).  A woman with ambitions who feels thwarted by circumstances completely (or mostly) outside of her control.  A person who takes on a crazy project just because she can (can you say "second masters degree"?).  And she is funny-with a kind of sarcastic wit that I appreciate (and sometimes indulge in myself).  The icing on the gateau?  Her obsession with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which I share, thanks to my best friend Rachel.

Reading the book at times made me question the sanity of my French forebears.  What sort of deranged person is the first to decide that boiling down calf hooves in your kitchen, and then eating the resultant gelatinous concoction was a good idea?  I mean really, who looks at a cow's feet and think "delish"?  Some sort of bovine fetishist, I can only assume.  But while the food often takes center stage in this book, with long descriptions of aspics and veal brains and deboned ducks, it is really the story of a dissatisfied secretary finding a way to create meaning in what appeared to be a rather meaningless existence.  The fact that she starts her journey on the heels of 9-11 only served to underscore the point.  I think that we as a country were struggling to find meaning in the wake of that tragic day, and deciding to take on a chaotic cooking project as an attempt to bring a modicum of control into a world that felt suddenly unmoored makes perfect sense to me.

The irony of me writing a book review on a blog about a book that was written because of a blog is not lost on me.  I think that it is one of the remarkable things about the way that we communicate in the 21st century.  Fifty years ago, this book would not have been published.  Fifty years ago, it wouldn't even have seemed strange for a woman to take on learning the art of French cooking.  In this beautiful myth we've created for ourselves about the American housewife of the mid-20th century, we would have nodded our heads in approval and felt guilty for not doing it ourselves.  Today, I can be glad that Julie blanched, sauteed, and pureed her way through Julia Child's masterpiece of home cookery.  The fact of her doing it, and writing about it in such an entertaining, self-deprecating way, means that now I never have to.  Trust me, reading about how to saute lamb kidneys in a red wine reduction sauce was enough for me-I'll leave the actual cooking and, more importantly, the tasting of it to the few, the brave, the Julie Powells of the world.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Overcoming Reading Guilt

That's it...I'm giving up guilt.  Well, maybe not the guilt I feel when I have that extra piece of pizza, but book guilt.  I'm giving it up cold turkey.  What is this book guilt, you ask?  Well, I'll tell ya...

I picked up a book a couple of weeks ago.  It was a book I had selected, not some required reading.  I sat down in my comfy chair with a cup of coffee, cracked open the new binding, and got to reading.  The premise sounded interesting-the story revolved around the mystery of two missing women.  One, a 200 year old red haired maiden, was discovered fully preserved in a peat bog in Ireland.  The other, a wealthy land-owners wife and her son, disappeared without a trace, and suspicion fell on her husband.  A mystery!  Set in a part of the world I would love to explore?  Sounds like my cup of Irish Breakfast!

20 pages in I was telling myself it was just a slow-starter.  75 pages in I was telling myself it was me-I was too stressed out to concentrate.  120 pages in I still wasn't hooked.  "What's wrong with me?", I thought.  "Someone went to the trouble of writing and revising and publishing this book.  I owe it to them to keep plowing through!"

Suddenly I found myself choosing every other free-time activity but reading!  I'm sure my Play Station appreciates the many hours of Final Fantasy I've played on it in the last couple of weeks, but surely that is not a laudable goal to which to aspire.  Even my treasured bedtime ritual of reading in bed til my eyes start to cross was expendable.  Fact is, I just didn't want to read that darn book.

Hence the guilt!  I have always been one of those people who believed in finishing what I start, honoring the creative process that went into drafting, re-drafting, and finally bringing to fruition the ideas that the author wanted to convey.  What a gift to be allowed to share in the author's vision!

Well, there's a reason that the term re-gifting has made it into the American lexicon!  Sometimes you get a gift you just don't want.  Sure, the intentions were good.  It's very gracious and kind of that person to give you the Christmas sweater with the huge gaudy reindeer on the front.  (Incidentally, a scene from a book I did enjoy!).  But good intentions or no, you stash that sweater in the Good Will donation box as soon as you can.

For whatever reason, this author and this story failed to reach me.  It wasn't the writing-it was very evocative of Ireland, and the author is obviously skilled at his craft.  The story itself is one that I was sure I would get into, loving mysteries as I do.  The characters were likable and decently developed.  Nope, there's nothing I can point to as the reason this book didn't appeal to me.  It just didn't.  Sorry, Irish-bog-girl story-it's not you, it's me.

So what did I do?  I pulled that bookmark out of that book like pulling off a band-aid.  It was painful to admit that I wasn't going to finish that book, but it was a relief as well.  No more finishing books that don't hook me in the first 100 pages or so (after all, you've got to give the author a little time to court you!).  No more finding other things to do when what I really want is to sit in my comfy chair with a cup of coffee and lose myself in a book.  There are too many great books out there for me to spend my time on the ones that just aren't doing it for me. 

So, now, on to my next book club book, Julie and Julia.  A delightful book, from what I can tell, that will finally allow me, if all goes as I hope, to write a positive review on this blog.   In it's short life I have yet to have that opportunity.  I can't wait!

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Curious Wine, Katherine V Forrest

I imagine that getting a lesbian love story published in 1983 must have been quite a chore.  After all, you couldn't really even talk about being a lesbian in 1983.  Writing a book about a lesbian affair, especially one with as much graphic sexuality as Curious Wine, seems pretty courageous.  So let's take a moment to honor that courage...ok, moment over...let's begin...

Curious Wine is the story of Diana and Lane, two women discovering they love women over a long weekend at a cabin in Lake Tahoe.  Drawn together by fate and irresistible desire, and unbeknownst to anyone else, they create a small lesbian oasis in the room they share.  Surrounding these two are a group of women, mostly in their 40s, in varying states of relationship with men.

The fact that this book was published in 1983 shows in the way that the characters relate to each other.  I had to think of the book the same way I think about an exhibit in a museum.  Dated, an object from another time to examine and study.  For a third wave feminist such as myself, it was hard to feel a kinship with any of the women, defined as they are by their relationships (or lack of relationships) with men.  There was Liz, the bitter divorcee; Madge, the "progressive" woman in an open marriage, though only her husband ever dabbled;  Chris, the spinster; and Viviane, who decided to forgo staying at the cabin with the rest of the women so she could stay in town with her boyfriend.  The main characters were equally stereotypical.  Diana had just come out of a bad break-up, a relationship which followed a bad marriage.  In trying to deny her lesbian feelings, she picks up a man in a bar who ends up assaulting her, thereby driving her into the arms of a woman.  Lane had briefly had a wonderful relationship with a man, only to be devastated when he died in Viet Nam.  She then spent the next several years being rather promiscuous, which I think the author wanted us to perceive as forward thinking and strong on her part, but which came off as desperate.  At one point in the book the women play some encounter games, the kind popular in the 1970s, and all of the negative female stereotypes of competition, jealousy, and apologizing for having ideas and opinions comes out clearly.  Maybe the author herself was struggling with how to be a woman in the age of the ERA-if so, her struggle is evident in her portrayal of these women.

As a lesbian myself, I hoped to feel some kinship with the two woman-loving women in the book.  I did feel a connection with Lane's character, a take-charge lawyer who refuses to be drawn into the other women's drama during the encounter games.  Lane was the character most like me.  As a teen and young adult she had intense feelings towards other girls, but didn't recognize them for what they were, or suppressed them out of guilt and fear about being a lesbian.  I didn't recognize my own first crushes for what they were, either, though I was saddled with WAY less guilt and shame coming out in 2000.  Sadly, that is where any identification I felt with the characters ended.  Do I think that trying to run away from your same-sex feelings and hiding from the world is historically accurate?  Of course.  I just don't think that this novel does a great job of making the reader feel like they are part of the story, and therefore experiencing the past in a way that speaks to the now.  Anyone who has read Stone Butch Blues or Ruby Fruit Jungle has had that experience.  This novel just didn't rise to that level.

I looked up this author before writing this post, and she has written many books and won numerous awards from gay literary organizations.  I suppose there is something to be said for reading Curious Wine as a primary source for the development of feminism and gay identified literature.  In that sense, it is very much like a museum exhibit-you'll learn something about the past, but in such a way that you can't really touch it.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Second Glance, Or How to Fit Ghosts, Eugenics, Suicide, and Native American Civil Rights into One Book

Now, I'm all for complex story lines in books. When I'm in the mood for mental gymnastics, I pick up some epic fantasy novel or intricate period piece. I don't usually expect to work quite that hard on a book of popular fiction a la Oprah's book club. So imagine my surprise when I picked up a new-to-me Jodi Picoult book, Second Glance, and discovered a story that stretched both my suspension of disbelief and my ability to keep the facts straight almost to the breaking point.

Now, mind you, I like Jodi Picoult. I find her writing style engaging, and her characters fairly well-developed considering the kind of fiction that she writes. It's hard to have really nuanced characters when most of them are meant to stand in as archetypes for some segment or other of our society. I also appreciate that her books are usually about something, in that they examine various real-life issues in our society. You have the "should we allow people to have babies just to save their other children?" book, and the "what makes kids shoot up a school?" book. And who can forget the "atheist is converted by little girl who performs miracle" book? (OK, so I'm not quite as jazzed about that one, being an atheist myself and all, but you get my point.)

According to the book jacket, this book is about the power of family and love. Well, I suppose I can see that. The story revolves around a cast of characters in a small town in Vermont, who for one reason or another are drawn to try and solve a 70 year old murder. There is the suicidal Ross, who also happens to be a ghost-hunter, looking for the fiancee he lost in a tragic accident. There is his sister, Shelby, mother to a young boy with a rare genetic disease that will cause his early death. We meet Az Thompson, a 100 year old Native American with a secret past, and Meredith, a genetic researcher who helps couples eliminate genetic abnormalities from their unborn children. The real star of the show is Lia, who...well, if you decide to you'll just have to read about Lia yourself. All of these characters find themselves drawn together through familial or romantic love, and set the stage for one of the central questions of the book-if you love someone enough, will you follow them even into death?

I say one of the central questions, because this book poses many. What is the nature of faith? Can love outlast life? What are the moral and ethical ramifications of genetic manipulation? What does it mean to be haunted? Is suicide ever justified? Is there one soulmate for each of us? What does it mean to be "family? And not only do we examine these questions through some fairly splintered narrative, we also get treated to a history lesson on the eugenics movement in America in the 1920s and 1930s. While I was horrified by the things I learned, I didn't feel like I could give the topic the attention it deserved because too many of my brain cells were occupied trying to keep track of who was who, when they lived, how they were related to everyone else, and whether I could buy the whole ghost thing.

Despite all of this, I was invested enough in the story to see it through to the end, but whether that is because I was truly engaged or just stubborn is up for debate. I'm going to call this one a "read it if someone gives it to you for free and you don't have anything else to read" book.

Welcome to My World!

I have what some may consider a pathological love of books. I surround myself with books the way some people surround themselves with friends-in fact, there are times when I love my books more than I love some of my friends! I love the way they feel in your hand, the way they smell, the weight of them on your lap...for me reading is not just an intellectual but a sensual practice. Nothing is better than sitting in a cozy chair with a cup of coffee, soft music on the iPod, book in my lap, and another world on my mind. I like to say I measure my wealth not in money (which is good, since I don't have much money!) , but in the number of books I've read and owned.

I call it an addiction to the written word. And I am certainly not the only one with this affliction. Despite the best efforts of television and the internet to draw us away from books, last time I checked my local Borders was doing OK. I was trained up in my addiction by a long line of the previously addicted. Heck, my mother is my supplier-I get a box or two of my best product from her every time I see her. And I am proud of my addiction, something that can't be said for drug or porn addiction. Best of all, I can share my addiction and not feel like a creepy old man saying "Come here little girl and try some of this!"

So allow me to do for you what my mother and others did for me. Allow me to introduce you to the wonderful world of book addiction. How, you may ask? Well, the only thing I love almost as much as books is my own opinions, and this blog will be full of them. This blog will be all about the books I love, the books I can live with, and the books that should never have been allowed to see the inked side of a printing press. And despite my deep down gut feeling that I am always right, I know that people will disagree with me from time to time, and I hope that we can have lively discussion about those disagreements here as well.

Sit back, kick up your feet, grab your coffee, and let's take a hit of reading together, shall we?