Friday, August 31, 2012

Book Review: Weekends at Bellevue: Nine Years on the Night Shift at the Psych E.R. by Julie Holland

I'm not sure why but for some reason I expected more stories about the crazy people in the Psych E.R. than about author Julie Holland's life, which was just bad on my part. After all, this is a memoir, and rarely is a memoir just about work and not also about home, and I'm glad this one incorporated both sides. While I read it to find out what a Psych E.R. is like, I found out who Julie Holland is. And she's a bundle of contradictions, as are we all.

Dr. Holland grew up with a tough and demanding father, and unlike her two sisters, she managed to be the tough little kid he always wanted by completely subverting her feelings, denying her femininity to the point of being almost butch, and being so tough she bordered on combative. And while these defense mechanisms really helped, and were a big part of how she managed to stay in the Psych E.R. for 9 years (a record at Bellevue), they also got in the way a lot. When a crazy, angry, hyped-up druggie is screaming at you, it's not always a good idea to challenge him right back. And I was thrilled when Dr. Holland began seeing a therapist herself. Not only does it further break down barriers to therapy (even therapists need it sometimes!) but it showed an understanding of her issues and a willingness to change that made her very appealing.

Now there are plenty of crazy patients. Bellevue gets all the potentially crazy and/or drugged-up arrestees in New York City, not to mention they are the most high-profile psychiatric hospital in the country so they get a lot of walk-ins, some from several states away! Dr. Holland has to deal with a serial killer, a baby killer, and one I remember, the guy who pushed the girl in front of a subway on the NR platform at 23rd Street in 1998. I moved to NYC only a year later and I took the N and 23rd Street was my stop for work. Shiver.

Along with the rare and memorable cases, there are thousands of depressive, schizophrenics, bipolars, and people with addictions (often people have 2-3 of the above!) Trying to stay sane yourself while dealing with hallucinating, violent, disgusting, and dangerous individuals is not for everyone, and Dr. Holland's tough tomboy attitude helped her keep up a wall so that her motions and empathy didn't overwhelm her and burn her out right away. However, her unfamiliarity with her own feelings really gets in the way when her boss and mentor, Lucy's cancer returns. Instead of being a support for Lucy, Dr. Holland finds she hides and avoids, which makes her feel terribly guilty but she does it nonetheless, blaming her new motherhood for being too busy.

At the beginning of the memoir, Dr. Holland is brash and swaggering, almost in denial of her femininity, and yet she gets a boyfriend, they get married, she has two kids, and turns into a mom with a private practice and an apartment on the Upper West Side and a house upstate, a far cry from the punky, rebellious doctor she started out as. It's nice to see her soften and become more vulnerable, and yet sad at the same time to see her inevitable realization that she can't continue forever at Bellevue without her armor, and yet she can't put the armor back on that she's worked so hard to take off.

While the crazy patient stories are riveting, it's really Dr. Holland's growth that is the most fascinating story here. The stories are wild and told so quickly, and there are so many of them, that you almost get whiplash. But at the same time I'm glad they were short because they'd be so much harder to process if they had even more detail. When dealing with insanity, it's best to stick to the surface, lest you get pulled under as well. The book is in chronological order but a lot of the chapters are like stand-along essays. I wish there was a little bit more of a through-thread tying them all together, but it held together in a narrative well enough.

I found myself anxious for Dr. Holland's safety at times, glad for her insights at others, and overall very happy to have been able to glimpse into a world I hope to never see even as a visitor, even if it was so thought-provoking that it was hard to go to sleep afterward.

I bought this book at a Borders GOOB sale.

Book Beginnings: I Will Not Leave You Comfortless

Book Beginnings on Friday is a meme originally hosted by Katy from A Few More Pages but now hosted by Gilion at Rose City Reader. Anyone can participate; just share the opening sentence of your current read, making sure that you include the title and author so others know what you're reading.

I Will Not Leave You Comfortless: A Memoir by Jeremy Jackson

"On the last Wednesday of April, 1983, my grandmother went to a funeral."

A funeral is an intriguing way to start things off! Makes me want to find out whose.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

“Waiting On” Wednesday: The Sibling Effect

“Waiting On” Wednesday is a weekly event, hosted here, that spotlights upcoming releases that we're eagerly anticipating. This week's pre-publication “can't-wait-to-read” selection is:

The Sibling Effect: What the Bonds Among Brothers and Sisters Reveal About Us by Jeffrey Kluger

Synopsis from Goodreads: 

A provocative and surprising exploration of the longest sustained relationships we have in life—those we have with our siblings.

Nobody affects us as deeply as our brothers and sisters. Our siblings are our collaborators and co-conspirators, our role models and cautionary tales. They teach us how to resolve conflicts and how not to, how to conduct friendships and when to walk away. Our siblings are the only people we know who truly qualify as partners for life.

In this perceptive and groundbreaking book, Jeffrey Kluger explores the complex world of siblings in equal parts science, psychology, sociology, and memoir. Based on cutting-edge research, he examines birth order, twins, genetic encoding of behavioral traits, emotional disorders and their effects on sibling relationships, and much more. With his signature insight and humor, Kluger takes science’s provocative new ideas about the subject and transforms them into smart, accessible insights that will help everyone understand the importance of siblings in our lives.

Expected publication on September 4, 2012 by Riverhead Trade.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Teaser Tuesdays: I Will Not Leave You Comfortless

Teaser Tuesdays is hosted by Should Be Reading.

Grab your current read. Open to a random page. Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page. BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!) Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

I Will Not Leave You Comfortless: A Memoir by Jeremy Jackson p. 36

"That Toni and I were in the same classroom for the third year in a row was a stroke of gorgeous luck. And that she picked a locker near mine... maybe she liked me--or still liked me?"

The start of school was always ripe with possibilities, including the opposite sex.

A book I edited is published!

I don't often write about my editorial work, but it's not every day that a book I worked on it published, so I did want to let people know! Especially if you know anyone who went to YMCA Camp Greenville? Betsy Thorpe and I worked on a beautiful coffee table book about the camp's 100th anniversary which came out this week! (She did the writing, I did the editing.) It's titled YMCA Camp Greenville: High Atop the Blue Ridge and was a lot of fun to work on. Betsy got to look through 100 years of archival material, we both went to the camp last winter and got a personal tour from the director, and I know we both learned a lot about a nearby organization that has both done a lot of good and been a vitally important experience in many, many young boy's lives (and now young girls!)

Personally, I adored camp and think it was even a life-saver of sorts. I know most people go to camp to learn to build a fire, canoe, and use a compass (all of which I did learn), but the social aspects were by far the most important impact for me. As a kid who was teased and bullied in school, camp made me realize that it wasn't me, it was them. At camp I had a ton of friends, was popular and well-liked, and had no problems. It really helped me shore up my self-esteem and not take my schoolmates' opinions as seriously as I might have. I hope other people have as wonderful memories of camp as I do!

Editing a coffee table book is a very different experience than a novel or other straight-prose book. I had to edit lists and photo captions and you have to work with the designer and author on the exactly placement of sidebars and call-outs and making sure the text is on the same page as referenced photos. It may not have nearly as much text as a traditional book, but it involves nearly as much editorial work.

The book is filled with memories and stories from bygone times, up through today. The period photos really bring the book to life. If you know anyone who'd be interested, please send them to this site to buy the book: http://www.campgreenvillebook.org/.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Book Review: Terms of Endearment by Larry McMurtry

You'd think I would know better than to read a book that was the source material for a movie I'm not crazy about. I thought the movie was fine, although it didn't make me cry (and I hate Jack Nicholson). But I adored Lonesome Dove which I read in the winter, and since this is considered a modern classic (and Larry McMurtry is my best friend's favorite author), it seemed like a no-brainer to give it a shot. It started off badly as I began it on the very end of the longest flight in the world (Sydney to Dallas, 16.5 hours) after not sleeping a wink. After that, I think my body just associated the book with tiredness.

I've spent a couple of days trying to really figure out what I think about the book, and the best I can come up with is, it's fine. I am having a hard time coming up with any emotional response either way. It is a fantastic character development with Aurora Greenway, but that's pretty much it. After Aurora, Vernon and Rosie were the best developed, but some character were pretty wooden (The General), or just plain confusing (Flap, Emma). Oh, and there's not really much plot to speak of. Here's what goes on, essentially:

Aurora is upset that her daughter Emma, who married young and badly, is now pregnant as she fears that becoming a grandmother will hold back her many suitors, which is how she mostly occupies herself. On a date with The General, Aurora hits Vernon with her car and he becomes suitor #4. Vernon is shocked and bowled over by Aurora but she won't marry him (nor any of the others) because he is no match for her and it wouldn't be fair. Meanwhile her maid Rosie's husband has run off even after Vernon gave him a job, we see Aurora go on various dates with her many men, and Emma exasperates her. Things come to a head when Rosie's husband is stabbed by his girlfriend's ex-boyfriend the same night Emma goes into labor. In the last bit of the book we fast-forward ten years and switch to Emma's life being the focus. She has a series of unfulfilling affairs, her relationship with Flap goes from bad to worse, yet she doesn't leave him (I'm not sure why except perhaps inertia.) And - spoiler alert - she gets cancer and dies.

I'm really not sure why the book switches to Emma at the end. Maybe to show how Aurora's theories and parenting comes home to roost? Except that it doesn't exactly. Emma neither repeats her mother's mistakes nor goes so far in the other direction to be a complete reaction to Aurora. The beginning and middle of the book are more languorous, taking 250 pages to get through about 6 months. Then we just skip 10 years altogether, and fast-forward through about two years in the last 50 pages. The pacing is off, the tone changes abruptly, and I still don't understand the purpose for the great shift.

That said, Mr. McMurtry is a master with words. His dialogue, imagery, and descriptions are spot-on. Aurora is both a completely unique character, and yet totally believable. (Emma on the other hand is a bit of a dishrag.) I really wish he'd just stuck with her. It truly is Aurora's story, after all. I really did enjoy spending time with her, as cranky and moody and flaky as she could be. I also really liked Rosie and Vernon, who were both endearing in wildly different ways. I wish the storyline with Vernon hadn't just tapered off. I wish the women in the book weren't so willing to put up with wretched behavior from their men: Flap tries to throw pregnant Emma out of a window, Rosie's husband tries to run her over with a truck, even Rosie's daughter's husband is abusive. Maybe Aurora is supposed to be a counterpoint to all of those women by her authority and refusal to put up with anything? Except that she does. I'm sure The General isn't physically abusive in any way, but he does seem to be emotionally abusive, rigid, cantankerous, and argumentative.

I did very much like the title. I'm sure most people assume it's referring to words like "darling" and "honey" that we use to refer to our loved ones, but that's not what it means at all. It refers to the terms under which we are willing to have relationships, almost like terms of a truce. I love titles with multiple meanings.

And if you're a big fan of the movie, be warned that it's quite a bit different, starting with the movie mostly being from the last 25% of the book, and the very unlikable General being transformed into the Astronaut (who, despite being played by Jack Nicholson, is supposed to be wily and irascible and seduces Aurora with his love of life and playfulness. That's pretty much the opposite of how The General is written.) I do think the casting of both Aurora and Vernon were perfect and I did keep imagining Shirley McLain and Danny Devito while reading the book.

So it turned out to be not a great book from a plot and pacing angle, but the characterizations and writing were almost enough to overcome that. Almost, but not quite.

And when did they stop putting movie stills in movie tie-in editions? I really enjoyed my little 8-page photo insert.

I bought this book at a used bookstore.

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

This meme is now hosted by Sheila at Book Journey.

Books completed last week:
Terms of Endearment by Larry McMurtry

Books I am currently reading/listening to:
I Will Not Leave You Comfortless: A Memoir by Jeremy Jackson
Weekends at Bellevue: Nine Years on the Night Shift at the Psych E.R. by Julie Holland

Up next:
The Fall of Alice K. by Jim Heynen
The Night of the Gun by David Carr
A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara W. Tuchman

Friday, August 24, 2012

Book Review: The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

Haunted house books aren't my usual cup of tea, but this one was assigned for book club. I am not a big reader of horror at all, although I've read the classics (Frankenstein, Dracula, The Shining.) In fact, in college I wrote my senior paper on horror movies, thinking that if I understood why they scared me, they wouldn't scare me so much (didn't work at all.) My argument was that really effective scary movies aren't about ghosts and goblins at all. Instead, they take really ordinary things and make them malevolent. When you doubt what the very definition of something is, such as a car (Christine for example), it makes you start to doubt the definition of everything. I did my paper on The Shining (a hotel), Poltergeist (a house), Night of the Living Dead (the people around us), and Halloween (the boy down the street).

The Little Stranger not only falls perfectly within my thesis, it flat-out states it! "It was all the more sickening, somehow, for the glass being such an ordinary sort of object. If--I don't know, but if some beast had suddenly appeared in the room, some spook or apparition, I think I would have borne the shock of it better. But this--it was hateful, it was wrong. It made one feel as though everything around one, the ordinary stuff of one's ordinary life, might at any moment start up like this and--overwhelm one.." p. 166. And then poor Rod sits in his room, on high alert, looking from one thing to another, not knowing what might become a weapon next, as anything might. Nothing is safe.

But, first to explain the story. In post-WWII England, Dr. Faraday is making his way in the world, having taken over a practice and recently paid off his debts for the practice and school, and one day he is called out to the estate in the area, Hundreds Hall. He is familiar with the manor house as his mother had worked there before he was born, and had once taken him there as a child for a party for the town. But the estate has fallen on hard times. With no money to maintain it (this family did not have the foresight to marry into American wealth a generation earlier, a la Downton Abbey), the widow, Mrs. Ayres, and her adult children Caroline and Roderick (who had been badly injured in the war in a plane crash) just barely got by with half the house closed up. Dr. Faraday treats their one servant, Betty, a young teenager from the nearby countryside, and becomes somewhat friends with the Ayreses. He begins to treat Roderick's legs and in doing so, comes by the house weekly. Over time he is trusted and let in on Roderick's belief that something evil has "infected" him and his room, which eventually leads to a horrible fire. Roderick is committed to a mental hospital, and hopes the evilness is now gone, having run him off and destroyed his mind, but something is still in the house, waiting, watching, teasing, torturing. As Dr. Faraday and Caroline tentatively start a courtship, Hundreds Hall seems to become malevolent, almost like a thinking, seeing creature, and as Caroline, an exceedingly practical girl, becomes increasingly convinced it is haunted, Dr. Faraday, the man of science, clings to rational explanations.

Ms. Waters never gives us a final explanation and there are a couple of possible arguments you could make to explain things, certainly including a haunting. There are a lot of topics to discuss, the most obvious being class distinctions. While Dr. Faraday is a doctor, his mother was a maid and his father was a grocer and they went into a lot of debt to send him to school. He doesn't have much money (although it's still probably more than the Ayreses have) but it doesn't matter if he did, for money alone would never elevate him to same class as the Ayreses, as is demonstrated by a party early on given for nearby society interlopers, the Baker-Hydes. New money, they have bought a nearby estate like Hundreds Hall, and while the Ayreses do invite them over and throw a little shindig for them (Mrs. Ayres hopes Caroline and Mrs. Baker-Hyde's brother might hit it off), it's clear the Ayreses still feel quite strongly that they are superior to the newly minted aristocrats. If it weren't for the disrepair and neglect the estate has fallen into, and the lack of funds, Dr. Faraday would never have a shot with Caroline. Unlike America, England is still very much a classed society and you can't just educate or earn your way into the upper class.

This book was really spooky. I mostly had to read it during the day. Which was hard, because I found the book impossible to put down. Even writing this review is spooking me a little bit. Every sound my house makes, makes me jump (and I am thankful for the cat, on whom we can blame most mysterious noises.) The tension and atmosphere are masterfully drawn. There is nothing gruesome in the book, so if squeamishness is a reason you've not read horror books in the past, that's no excuse now. The crumbling state of Hundreds Hall with its leaks and mold and grime, heighten the anxiety and mood of the book. Hundreds Hall is nearly a character itself, which is appropriate for a house that might be sentient, might be malevolent.

I loved this book. I particularly love when a book in a genre I don't normally read, captivates me. Excellent books easily defy their genre boundaries and The Little Stranger definitely is one of those. I likely will have a hard time passing this book along, as haunted house books aren't a big draw for many of my friends, but I will foist this book on someone who will end up quite happy in the end for the experience, as was I.

Book Beginnings: The Little Stranger

Book Beginnings on Friday is a meme originally hosted by Katy from A Few More Pages but now hosted by Gilion at Rose City Reader. Anyone can participate; just share the opening sentence of your current read, making sure that you include the title and author so others know what you're reading.

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

"I first saw Hundreds Hall when I was ten years old."

I think this book is basically a haunted house story, so it makes sense to start right off with the house, before we even know who our narrator is. In a haunted house story, the house is arguably the most important character.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Book Review: Eucalyptus by Murray Bail

I was going to give up on this book. It's very lovely, atmospheric, poetic, but nothing happens, and I was getting very bored. I should have been able to finish it before I left for Australia but instead I was just past halfway. But then while I was in Australia, I really gave eucalyptus trees a second look. They are really everywhere. There are over 800 species, and while the plot of the book never really picked up for me, I did appreciate the attention it demanded I take of the humble and omnipresent gum trees, and so I did finish the book upon my return.

Holland is a widower, living with his stunningly beautiful daughter Ellen. One day he declares that whoever can name all of the 500+ species of eucalyptus trees lovingly planted on his property from all over Australia, will win Ellen's hand in marriage. Ellen doesn't have much reaction to this, until a man named Mr. Cave seems on the brink of succeeding, just as she meets a mysterious stranger who tells her captivating stories, and seems to know all the trees as well.

I can see this book working very well for a college course on contemporary literature. I could see, although I also knew I was missing, that there were a lot of themes and tropes throughout. The stories the mysterious stranger told were mostly about daughters and some about fathers (and this is pointed out bluntly, so I didn't figure this out on my own) but other trends are alluded to, though I did miss them. The dreamy atmosphere combined with the numbingly boring recitation of Latin scientific names for hundreds of trees, dulled my senses quite a bit. But it did remind me somewhat (and I'm not sure why) of Margaret Atwood's Surfacing. I can easily see that with some rereading and analysis, that some excellent papers on symbolism and themes could easily be written on Eucalyptus. However, just because a book would make for good English papers, doesn't make it necessarily a good read (in fact, I repeatedly experienced in school that often the best papers I wrote were on books I didn't enjoy at all, and I found it fairly frustrating that I would sometimes end up writing multiple papers on books I disliked, simply because the heavy-handed symbolism made for easy essays.) There's not much plot, there's not much character development (Ellen mostly is inert), there's no big climax really, and the book fell flat to me. That said, aside from the scientific terminology it wasn't at all a hard read, which is a big reason I actually finished it. But I did find it very staid, quiet, and uneventful. If you like poetry and romance, this book might be for you. But if you like plot and characters, I'd pick something else.

I borrowed this book from a friend.

“Waiting On” Wednesday: In Between Days

“Waiting On” Wednesday is a weekly event, hosted here, that spotlights upcoming releases that we're eagerly anticipating. This week's pre-publication “can't-wait-to-read” selection is:

In Between Days by Andrew Porter

Synopsis from Goodreads:

An exceptionally engaging first novel from a commanding new voice in fiction, author of the award-winning and widely acclaimed story collection The Theory of Light and Matter.

The Harding family is teetering on the brink. Elson—once one of Houston's most promising architects—is recently divorced from his wife of thirty years, Cadence. Their grown son, Richard, is still living at home: driving his mother's minivan, working at a local coffee shop, resisting the career as a writer that beckons him. But when Chloe Harding gets kicked out of her East Coast college, for reasons she can't explain to either her parents or her older brother, and returns to Houston, the Hardings' lives begin to unravel. 

Told with piercing insight, taut psychological suspense, and the deftness of a true master of character, this is a novel about the vagaries of love and family, about betrayal and forgiveness, about the possibility and impossibility of going home.

Expected publication on September 4, 2012 by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Teaser Tuesdays: The Little Stranger

Teaser Tuesdays is hosted by Should Be Reading.

Grab your current read. Open to a random page. Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page. BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!) Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters p. 30

"I didn't answer for a second, recalling some of my mother's stories about her time at the Hall--how, for instance, she had had to stand each morning with her hands held out while the housekeeper examined her fingernails; how Mrs. Beatrice Ayers would every so often come unannounced to the maids' bedrooms and turn out their boxes, going through their possessions piece by piece . . . I said finally, 'I think my mother made some good friends here, among the other girls.'

"Mrs. Ayers looked pleased; perhaps relieved."

So our narrator, a doctor, is the child of a former maid at the mansion. And the owners now need his help. It can be ironic how history can continue to affect the present, and how we should always treat people well because we don't know how they'll come back into our lives.

Monday, August 20, 2012

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

This meme is now hosted by Sheila at Book Journey. I am finally getting over my jetlag from my trip to Australia. But I was swamped with work so didn't get a lot of reading done.

Books completed last week:
The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

Books I am currently reading/listening to:
Terms of Endearment by Larry McMurtry

Up next:
The Painted Kiss by Elizabeth Hickey
One of Those Hideous Books Where the Mother Dies by Sonya Sones
Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl

Book Review: The Devil Wears Prada by Lauren Weisberger

About a decade ago I was an avid reader of chick lit (I have dropped off a lot in that genre), and I also am known among my friends for having had more than a few crazy bosses, so everyone is always surprised when I admit I'd never read The Devil Wears Prada. Until now. And I really liked it.

To start with, it has one of my pet peeve chick lit tropes nixed: the girl in hunt for a man to complete her. Nicely, Andy has a boyfriend from the start, so that annoyance isn't a concern. Yes, there is an additional romantic complication, but that also makes for a nicely more complicated and less stereotypical plotline. That helps make up for the fact that it does have several of my other chick-lit pet peeves in spades: the protagonist is very early-20s, multiple roommates are involved, the setting is Manhattan, and the work setting is the media industry. That said, occasionally books are so good that they can be chock-full of pet peeves and I'll love them anyway (see: Blindness by Jose Saramego. Freaking fantastic book, but if I'd known much about it beforehand and hadn't been reading it to impress a guy, I doubt I would've gotten into it. But instead, it's one of my favorite books.) This is one of them. Lauren Weisberger is good writer and Andy is a good 3-dimensional character, although of course it's her boss, Miranda Priestly, who steals the show.

Not that there aren't issues. Andy's best friend Lily doesn't have much character development, and her boyfriend is also pretty flat (his main personality characteristic is being annoyingly nice). Miranda doesn't get a reason for being such a huge bitch like she does in the movie (in the movie, it's sort of explained that she does everything for the sake of the magazine which is her #1 love. I suppose that's obliquely implied in the book but never as overtly, and you more get the idea that mostly she's just mean.) Some of the best secondary characters like Nigel, only appear 3-4 times and just don't get the page time you'd like. Why oh why in books set in New York filled with broke young adults aren't they looking for apartments in Jersey City, Queens, or at least Brooklyn? But I really preferred the book ending. I'll try to be oblique so as to not spoil much, but in the movie I felt like at first Andy did understand that fashion does have some value, although perhaps not quite as much as Miranda puts on it, but it's also not as dismissable as Andy had first assumed, but then at the end she just gives in to her do-gooder boyfriend's sanctimonious bullshit (and in the movie it's even more annoying as he's a chef, not actually doing anything do-good at all, but in the book he's an inner city teacher who also volunteers so his do-goodery is much more there, although still quite annoying) and she just dismisses all that she learned at Runway. In the book, she does go on to have success writing, and it's also in a commercial arena which is nice (not The New Yorker, her ultimate aspiration), but she doesn't go completely in a 180, applying to work at a political non-profit like in the movie. So that one sour note for me was much improved. I also did like the way things ended with the boyfriend. I thought that was realistic and likely. And a good lesson for post-college 20-somethings about how things usually work out.

Another thing I didn't like was that in Ms. Weisberger's world, apparently everyone who moves to the South gets a hideous accent their first week or so (I was born and have lived here for 34 years give or take and still don't have one myself) and all of them, except for Andy's sister (who is a transplant after all) are tacky rednecks. Sure, there can be pockets of that, but the party for Miranda's brother in law features people from Charleston, a very savvy, worldly, and sophisticated city, who apparently act and dress like extras from Dallas (and no, not the modern remake, but the 1980s version). If you're going to use that particular stale stereotype, you should have the tacky Southerners come from the country, not a city, and particularly don't pick a city known for its culture and arts. I hope that did not ring true even for Northerners reading the book.

I am undecided on how I feel about the Lily sub-plot. I think it is an important lesson of sorts, but it seems like a distraction, and we never really got to know her very well. We were told a bit about her, particularly in the flashback scenes, but mostly she's just a sofa for Andy to crash on, someone to watch movies with, and someone who goes out for drinks too much. That doesn't distinguish her at all from millions of other 23-year-old young women in grad school.

I did have flashbacks to my own assistanting days, and am much relieved I never had to deal with anything like Miranda, although I thought my own bosses were unreasonable enough in their own ways. I believe one reason this book resonates so much with the pre-25-year-old crowd is that they believe (and this is the fault of the media, their professors and parents, and all of the rest of us for not presenting them with a reasonable expectation of the real world, particularly of the first 5-7 years of it) they will have interesting jobs straight out of college with responsibilities that will use skills they developed in school. That's laughable. Not only do pretty much all 21-25-years-olds end up (with good reason) in assistant positions with no real responsibilities that are filled with grunt work a monkey can do, but that's mostly what they're qualified for, and you will never, ever, find a job that uses skills learned while analyzing Shakespeare, aside from the job of professor. The assistant position is the modern-day equivalent of the apprenticeships of yore. As an assistant one learns the ins and outs of how a company (hopefully in their field) functions, they learn the back-office day-to-day doings including who the important people in the industry are (this is best and most easily learned by answering the phones), how to keep up with industry news, what the trends are and how to keep up, and so on. There's no way to come out of school knowing any of that, particularly for media, so while publishing houses teach this, they do also need someone to answer the phone and get coffee and open mail and water plants. Someone has to do it, after all. Does anyone have the right to be as demeaning or demanding as Miranda? Certainly not. But people do get away with it all the time, especially if they've been successful.

I found the book to be an easy read, quickly sucking me in and keeping me interested on my flight. It's the perfect airport read. I think all about-to-be college grads should read it, but they need to read between the lines for the real lesson: a simpler, kinder version of this tale is likely in your future. Be prepared, and be glad, as your boss could be so much worse.

I bought this book at a used bookstore.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Book Beginnings: Terms of Endearment

Book Beginnings on Friday is a meme originally hosted by Katy from A Few More Pages but now hosted by Gilion at Rose City Reader. Anyone can participate; just share the opening sentence of your current read, making sure that you include the title and author so others know what you're reading.

Terms of Endearment by Larry McMurtry

"The success of a marriage invariably depends on the woman," Mrs. Greenway said.

Wow, I'm very glad attitudes have changed, and I really hope Mr. McMurtry was being sarcastic when he wrote this (Aurora Greenway is a fairly ridiculous character so you're not supposed to take what she says too seriously, I hope.)

Book Review: The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas

A friend dismissed this book as gimmicky, and I suppose it is, but I don't think that's a good reason to not read it. As it states right on the cover, as a barbecue, one guest slaps someone else's child, and the book goes from there. Each chapter is told from the point of view of a different person from the barbecue, starting with the host and eventually getting to both the slapper and the slappee's mother. I wasn't sure how that was going to work exactly, particularly since at first some of the narrators seems only very tangentially related, but it does actually work quite well in the end.

Sure, it's gimmicky. But this sort of thing does happen and it's a nice hook to hang the whole book on. It really is a black-and-white moment for most people, and many of them are shocked when everyone isn't on their side. Even for people not directly involved (like the slapped kid's mother's friend), it's still a very visceral and potent issue, bringing up issues of abuse, neglect, good parenting, limits, loyalty, friendship, and trust.

I didn't like two of the characters very much, which was a problem, and it was even more of a problem since they were narrators #1 and #3. #1 was the host, Hector, and #3 was his cousin, Harry, the guy who slapped the child. They are both Greek misogynist assholes (although Harry much more so). In fact, by the end of the Harry chapter I was seconds away from giving up on the book altogether, but the next chapter redeemed it nicely. But seriously, these men are supposedly adults but they act like teenagers, and not very mature teenagers at that, with constant drugs, cheating, fast cars, show-offy money grubbing, and they were just horribly unappealing people. I felt like a lot of that was done purely for shock value, which I don't appreciate. Details should be in a book to further the plot or character development, not to shock your readers. That's a very immature tactic. That said, I did like Aisha (although he thoughts on sex were a bit laughable and obviously not written by a woman) and Anouk and Connie and Richie. So Mr. Tsiolkas writes women (and gay teen boys) better than men. The men were much more caricatures and caused incessant eye-rolling, but the women were much more believable, closer to 3-dimensional characters.

That said, there were issues. Anouk isn't actually developed much (which is a shame as she's very interesting), Aisha acts considerably out of character at one point, I never understood Rosie and her husband's relationship at all, a few loose ends aren't tied up, and seriously I just don't believe that every single person in this book including a great deal of responsible adults with real jobs and kids would do drugs (they all do at one point. All of them.) The language is foul, and I'm no prude. It doesn't bother me so much except that it's lazy and again it feels like it's done for shock value, not because people actually talk this way (in front of children? In front of grandparents? At work?) The ending petered out a bit for my taste without ending quite solidly. It was a good effort. It did keep me turning the pages and wondering what would happen next. It certainly brings up a lot of interesting issues and would make for an interesting book club discussion (although most book clubs I know would be quite put off by the terrible language, graphic sex, unnecessary yet persistent drug use and cheating, and just generally offensive bits that serve no real purpose.)  I like that it was set in Melbourne - that was unique for me - and I loved how multicultural it was. I'm glad I read it. I didn't love it and it sure isn't for everyone, but it did really make me think.

I bought this book at the Friends of the Library book sale.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012


So, I just spent two weeks in Australia! While there I read 4 very different books set in Australia (The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas, The Last Anniversary by Liane Moriarty, The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough, and Eucalyptus by Murray Bail) and of course I went to bookstores! I bought only three books because Wow, are books expensive there! About double what they are in the U.S. Paperbacks are often $25. It certainly made me think that Americans need to quit yer whinin' about book prices because you ain't seen nothing! Back when 60 cents US bought you an Aussie dollar, it was nearly par. But now that it takes $1.05 to buy an Australian dollar, it's painful.

There were a ton of books I wanted to buy - particularly books that I've heard great things about that are publishing in the US this fall, but are already out in paperback in Australia, like Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend by Matthew Dicks (Matthew Green elsewhere), Albert of Adelaide by Howard L. Anderson (wow, I think the Australian book jacket is a million times better than the American one!), and The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman. But, because the paperbacks cost as much as a hardcover back home, I resisted. I only bought books that I thought would be very difficult to find in the States. I ended up buying:

Salvation Creek by Susan Duncan (from Dymock's)
The Dig Tree: The Story of Burke and Wills by Sarah Murgatroyd (from the Wilpena Pound Resort shop)
Mr Stuart's Track: The Forgotten Life Of Australia's Greatest Explorer by John Bailey (from The Raven's Parlour)

They're all nonfiction, two of them history, one a memoir. I was thrilled to find the history ones! Back when I was in Australia in 1986, I read a middle grade book called Cooper's Creek what was about the explorers Burke and Wills who attempted to be the first to cross Australia (South to North) and it was a horrifying and riveting story of brutal circumstances. Around the same time I remember watching a PBS miniseries about the race to the North Pole, and it was similar. So now I can refresh my memory. And the book Mr Stuart's Track is the story of the first successful expedition across Australia. I guess that's a spoiler for The Dig Tree.

The bookstores were also impressive. For one thing, there were so many of them! In Adelaide's Rundle Mall there was a bargain bookstore (in an old Border's!) and a Dymock's. Dymock's is a franchise chain, so I guess the closest American reference would be the Mr. Professor Booksellers. It was a smaller superstore equivalent to about a half-size B&N. The gift shops we visited at museums and state parks were also full of books about Australia, but the best selection was at the independent bookstore, The Raven's Parlour, in the Barossa Valley (wine country!) It was a fairly small store, about half the size of my local indie, but it was super-well curated. I've rarely seen such a terrific selection in such a small location. I could have spent hours there. I picked up a copy of their wonderful multi-page newsletter (it's all recommendations) and Liked them on Facebook! When we were back in Adelaide in the suburb of Glenelg, there were another two bookstores on Jetty Road. Adelaide is not quit twice the size of Charlotte, but it has probably triple the number of bookstores or maybe more, and that's with books at double the price! Although I did notice that all the Australian bookstores' children's sections were much smaller than in any American store.

So I really enjoyed my book shopping in Australia and was very impressed with such a literate country. Want to go back! Hope I don't have to wait another 26 years!

Book Review: The Last Anniversary by Liane Moriarty

I really liked Liane Moriarty's What Alice Forgot, so when I ran across this title, I figured I'd give it a go and I'm really glad I did! It's nowhere near as chick-lit-y as the cover implies, and it's actually got a pretty unique premise.

Scribbly Gum Island is off the coast of Sydney and the tiny island (8 houses) has long made its name in promoting the mysterious disappearance in the 1930s of a couple from one of the houses - who left their newborn infant, tea boiling on the stove, and a cake ready to be iced. The couple was never found but the two island teenagers, Connie and Rose (at the time, the only other people living on the island along with their father), raised the baby, winningly named Enigma. The mystery about her parents' unsolved disappearance turned into a money-making enterprise with tours, a cafe, souvenirs, and an annual anniversary bash. The island now is also home to Enigma's daughters and their children, which include Thomas. When Aunt Connie dies, she leaves her house to Thomas's ex-girlfriend Sophie, to everyone's shock, and it's from her point of view that we see most of the story, although the POV actually jumps around to most all of the characters at one time or another. Initially that was confusing, but the characters are for the most part so different and well-drawn (with the exception perhaps of Rose and Enigma) that it was very easy to tell them apart after just a short while.

Sophie is 39, successful in business if a little bored, and did debate marrying Thomas who was so perfect on paper - and her clock is very much ticking - but in the end she did the right thing (although as it was on the day he was planning to whisk her away for an island proposal that everyone knew about, her breakup went over even less well than most.) Connie admires her honesty and gumption, which is why she left her the house. So Sophie is trying to figure out how much the ticking clock means to her, still single and childless, how hard she's willing to pursue options in that arena, and what sacrifices she is (and isn't) wiling to make. Meanwhile, all the family members around her are going through their own growth and new understandings, involving everything from weight loss to post-partum depression to questioning sexual identity. The story stays light and airy despite some heavy topics (and the depression is not handled lightly, it is treated with respect and seriousness.) Sophie is a winning central figure, and many of the surrounding characters are quite likable as well. While many don't start out that way, by the end you do end up understanding all of them better, and understanding always helps likability.

One mystery was solved exactly as I had guessed, which I like (I hate a ton of red herrings and a solution out of left field) and at the very end there's a lovely twist I didn't see coming at all but liked very much. Also the solution to Sophie's issues is fairly novel, as was the reason for Thomas's sister's nastiness after the breakup. While this book certainly is lighter and sillier than Ms. Moriarty's more recent novels, it's a great read for someone who would like something lighter but not insubstantial. There's plenty to ponder and think about here, but it's wrapped in fairy floss (that's cotton-candy to us Yanks) and tied up with a mystery. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

I bought this book at a used bookstore.

“Waiting On” Wednesday: Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend

“Waiting On” Wednesday is a weekly event, hosted here, that spotlights upcoming releases that we're eagerly anticipating. This week's pre-publication “can't-wait-to-read” selection is:

Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend by Matthew Dicks

Synopsis from the publisher:

Budo is lucky as imaginary friends go. He's been alive for more than five years, which is positively ancient in the world of imaginary friends. But Budo feels his age, and thinks constantly of the day when eight-year-old Max Delaney will stop believing in him. When that happens, Budo will disappear.

Max is different from other children. Some people say that he has Asperger’s Syndrome, but most just say he’s “on the spectrum.” None of this matters to Budo, who loves Max and is charged with protecting him from the class bully, from awkward situations in the cafeteria, and even in the bathroom stalls. But he can’t protect Max from Mrs. Patterson, the woman who works with Max in the Learning Center and who believes that she alone is qualified to care for this young boy.

When Mrs. Patterson does the unthinkable and kidnaps Max, it is up to Budo and a team of imaginary friends to save him—and Budo must ultimately decide which is more important: Max’s happiness or Budo's very existence. 

Narrated by Budo, a character with a unique ability to have a foot in many worlds—imaginary, real, child, and adult—Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend touches on the truths of life, love, and friendship as it races to a heartwarming . . . and heartbreaking conclusion.

Expected publication on August 21, 2012 by St. Martin's Press.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Teaser Tuesdays: Terms of Endearment

Teaser Tuesdays is hosted by Should Be Reading.

Grab your current read. Open to a random page. Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page. BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!) Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

Terms of Endearment by Larry McMurtry p. 33

"The girl who was the cat's meow went in and attempted to arm herself against the alternating senses of anger and futility, emptiness and apprehension that had invaded her heart and spoiled her pleasure in what she had thought might be a wonderful morning. All she had wanted was for Flap to face up to her for a minute--maybe just look really friendly, and not guilty-friendly, as he had looked."

Memories of the movie keep invading my reading of this, even though it's been many, many years since I've seen it.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Book Review: The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough

I have heard wonderful things about this novel my whole life. I have heard it compared to Gone With the Wind, among other sagas, and I vaguely remember the miniseries being on TV although I was much too young to be interested, but a romance involving a priest just never interested me much. Still, I was looking for a longer book for my flight to Australia, and this fit the bill.

This family saga covers about 60 years in the life of the Cleary family in Australia in the early half of the twentieth century. Initially the Clearys are living a subsistence life in New Zealand, when Paddy's rich sister Mary invites Paddy and his family out to live on the 250,000 acre sheep station (ranch) in New South Wales which they will eventually inherit. The only girl among the children, Meggie, immediately forms a tight connection with the local priest, Ralph de Bricassart. The boys all fall in love with the station and are very happy working there. Meggie does also work the sheep, but she knows that's not her destiny, and after the realization that she loves Ralph, despite the age difference (I think 18 years) and his vocation, and he loves her too but they can't be together, she married a ranch hand who looks a lot like Ralph. Never a good reason to get married. And it's not a very good match. Luke drags Meggie up to the rainforest where he disappears to cut sugar cane for months on end while she works as an aide to an infirm woman, living with her and her husband (who luckily are just great). I don't want to give away too much more, but there are great loves and great losses, epic droughts and wars.

The characters are all very well-developed (one of the advantages of such a long book!), including the station, Drogheda, which is nearly a character itself. The story, though long, never feels bogged down or slow. I didn't fall in love with it like GWTW and I am still a little creeped out by love scenes with a priest, but that may be that I came to the story too late - GWTW really hit me in my teens when romance was much more appealing in and of itself. But I loved the scenes of the Australian outback. I felt the landscape and the dryness were very well evoked, the country well-represented even for people who haven't been there. It's a wonderfully sweeping saga starting with horse-drawn wagons and outhouses, and ending with Meggie's daughter Justine moving to London to become an actress. I wish I had liked Justine more as she's really the major character for the last 150 pages or so, but she was just too prickly for me. Still, the book is really great. It does suck you in and the story's enthralling and hard to put down. For anyone facing a long flight or just a long weekend looking for the ultimate distraction and getaway, The Thorn Birds is perfect.

I bought this at a used bookstore.

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

This meme is now hosted by Sheila at Book Journey. I've been out of the country (Australia!) so this covers the last three weeks for me. And you will notice a definite Australian theme in the books below.

Books completed last three weeks:
The Devil Wears Prada by Lauren Weisberger
The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas
The Last Anniversary by Liane Moriarty
The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough
Eucalyptus by Murray Bail

Books I am currently reading/listening to:
Terms of Endearment by Larry McMurtry

Up next:
Salvation Creek by Susan Duncan
The Dig Tree by Sarah Murgatroyd
Mr Stuart's Track: The Forgotten Life Of Australia's Greatest Explorer by John Bailey