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!