Monday, March 20, 2017

The House of Mirth - Edith Wharton

The story of Lily Bart, the main character of this novel, is one that is particular to her time, but also strangely specific. Many of the events in the novel are based around outdated social customs and mores that we don't follow or adhere to today - nor should we. On the other hand, at its heart the book is about wanting to live above or beyond your means, and how you can thereby make poor decisions that ultimately ruin you. And it's a rather wicked satire on the so-called "upper classes," who buy things just for the sake of buying things, but who are hypocrites without consciences who are actually very uninteresting, and have no interest in the world around them, despite being able to afford to see that world.

Something about this book reminded me a lot of one of my favorite novels, Frank Norris' McTeague. Both books seem to be about people wanting to escape the class their family was in, but in the end becoming trapped at the level to which they were born, incapable of escape. One main difference is that Lily Bart is portrayed as someone who refuses to surrender her principles, while some of Norris' characters are willing to toss theirs aside if it means they will get what they want (or what they think they want).

What struck me most about the book was that the real tragedy of the story is that so many people were constrained by the silly "rules" and were unable to be who they wanted to be. More than once  while reading I thought to myself, why don't these characters just run off and live someplace else? Why are they so attached to this setting and these other people? Maybe I'm too much a product of my times and don't understand things as well as I should, but I feel like I'd rather be myself than have to put up with a lot of nonsense in order to have something different.

All in all I see why this book is a classic. Recommended.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

The Dangerous Animals Club - Steven Tobolowsky

This is yet another of my interesting Library Sale shelves finds, which I grabbed because I like the author, arguably America's most recognizable character actor. Possibly most famous for his role as insurance salesman Ned Ryerson in the wonderful comedy Groundhog Day, he pops up in virtually every movie and TV show. I wanted to read something light today, so I grabbed this from the pile and settled in.

Several hours later, I confess I have mixed feelings. The writing in this book came off as sort of pretentious. Before I started reading, I didn't quite realize that he was a Baby Boomer, but it made the writing make more sense once I figured that out. There was also what I can't help but view as bragging by said Baby Boomer that in his day one could move to a big expensive city like Los Angeles and find a reasonable, decent, affordable apartment as an out of work actor. For Pete's sake, we get it, in YOUR day, these things were possible, but strangely enough, they aren't any more. Go figure! Sigh. I also got tired of hearing about his ex, Beth. It's evident that he is working through his feelings about this long term relationship, but it's unclear to me why they were together for so long. Honestly, she just sounded exhausting, and I would love to hear her side of it.

In any case, this was a relatively fast read that kind of went all over the place. It wasn't a bad read, but wasn't great. So this is a mixed review, I guess.

On the plus side, I am claiming it for my "brown" book for the Color Coded Reading Challenge, based on the cover (see photo):

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Gypsy: A Memoir - Gypsy Rose Lee

Yet another fortuitous Library Sales shelves find. I had heard of Gypsy Rose Lee, and of course the award-winning Broadway musical based on this book, although I've never seen it. After reading this book I am not sure how much I actually know, and how much of it is made up, or at least embroidered.

All the same, it's a very entertaining book. It chronicles the early lives of the author and her sister (who ultimately became actress June Havoc). The sisters shared a stage mother that couldn't have been more on the nose if she had been sent over from central casting. Equal parts con artist and ambitious show biz wannabe, the mother looms large in this book, and her presence even sort of overshadows Gypsy Rose Lee as the star of her own book.

The tales are amusing and well told, and the author paints a picture of life in show business as vaudeville was succumbing to the "talkies" and then the Depression, and performers often had to switch to burlesque and similar specialities to keep performing. I feel like I can picture with great clarity what this life was like, and can also understand the allure of the transient life of "show folk" - and also be grateful that I am not dealing with people trying to cheat me, sleeping in fleabag hotels (if you're lucky), getting lice, and other perils of life on the road.

The book has less detail in the later parts, and in fact we gloss over such events as the birth of her only child, son Erik - we don't even learn who Erik's father was. The book ends sort of abruptly; maybe the author was adhering to the show biz mantra of "always leave 'em wanting more." If you do, it turns out Gypsy Rose Lee wrote a couple fiction books and many short stories before penning this memoir; she's a good writer so I would like to check those out. All in all this was a memorable read that paints a picture of a bygone era of show business. Recommended.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

February - This Month in Reading

February got away from me more than it should have. I was hoping to read 10 books, but only managed 6. On the plus side, most were for challenges, so at least I'm keeping up with those reasonably well.

For March, I'd like to actually read at least 10 books, obviously concentrating on challenge books as I have been.

How was your February reading?

Saturday, February 25, 2017

The Three Theban Plays - Sophocles (Spoilers)

This is my first book read for the Classic Book A Month Challenge, and also the first time I have read Sophocles. One thing that surprised me was the intensity of the emotion I felt while I was reading. I read the books in a strange order, following how they were grouped in this edition:

I'm not sure why the plays were put in this order; logically Oedipus the King would be first, followed by Oedipus at Colonus and lastly Antigone - this would take the reader through the reveal in King, which places the next 2 plays in context. But having said that, reading it in this order still had an emotional impact, so not much was lost. 

The root situation that causes drama in all three plays is the relationship between Jocasta and Oedipus, which is revealed in Oedipus the King. The reader begins to understand that what happens to them both is the result of a prophecy taking a long, circuitous route to being filled. This is a narrative device that is used fairly frequently these days, but it still resonates and horrifies. I think it gets at the "I did everything right, how could my life have gone so wrong?" line of thought. Colonus is the fallout of King, and shows that despite everything, Oedipus was a powerful and strong person, and that he has developed from his suffering. Antigone builds on the strong female character we see in Colonus, showing that she is willing to defy authority to do what she feels is right. All in all I found this translation to be wonderful, and I really enjoyed reading the plays. Recommended. 

One other note: for some reason, I had thought the the Chorus didn't interact with the other characters, and that it functioned more as a narrator, supplying the audience with observations and etc., but not really a part of the on-stage action. I was pleasantly surprised that that was not the case. 

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Out - Natsuo Kirino

Wow, this book is intense. It's absolutely not for the faint of heart. With that said, I loved it. It's a gritty "noir" kind of mystery/suspense thriller that is impossible to put down once you've started it. It kind of reminded me of Breaking Bad, in that it's about an ordinary person who decides to get embroiled in a criminal act, and it chronicles the fallout of that act. The characters' motivations are both murky and clear; I liked how they all seemed like real people, and reacted in logical ways to the events in the book. This book would make an amazing movie.

All in all, highly recommended, but fair warning that there is a lot of violence and etc. if that bothers you.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

God Grew Tired of Us - John Bul Dau with Michael S. Sweeney

Stumbled on this book at the library when I was looking for something else, and it looked interesting so I checked it out. It's a harrowing and heartbreaking story, that is also inspirational. The author was born in the Sudan, and due to a civil war, was separated from his family and ended up being one of the "Lost Boys" - children, mainly boys, who lost their families and ended up in refugee camps. Against all odds, the author has survived hardship unimaginable to me. I live in a country where people think having to wait 3 extra minutes for their $6 cup of coffee is some kind of unendurable horror, and there are camps filled with young people who have literally nothing, who would give anything to have 1/1,000 th of the opportunities I have. This planet is truly a mystery to me.

The author went through a lengthy process to immigrate to the US as a student, and is now married with children here. I am so happy he was able to have the opportunity to escape life in refugee camps, get an education, and become an American. He worked hard to get here, and has worked hard ever since, studying difficult subjects in a foreign language, working many different jobs to pay rent, etc. He is truly an inspiration.

And I will definitely think of him the next time I see some spoiled person melting down in public over something trivial.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Sula - Toni Morrison (Spoilers?)

This was a really lovely little book. You'd think by the title that it's mainly about Sula, but really it's more about the effect Sula has on both her best friend Nel and the town in which they both live, and in that way the book is more a portrait of the town of Medallion than anything else. This may sound bizarre, but something about this book reminded me of The Great Gatsby. Part of that is the beautiful writing and I think another part of it is that both books are (at least in part) about being separated from the "American Dream" and about how the past is always closer than you think. I definitely need to read more Toni Morrison. Recommended.

Since this book's cover is mostly green, I'm claiming it as my "green" book for the Color Coded Reading Challenge too.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Stiff - Mary Roach

The subtitle of this book, The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, pretty much says it all. The author's breezy, conversational tone takes the subject matter from disturbing to fascinating. It's a well researched book that is a quick read but provides a lot of information and food for thought. I will say that one probably shouldn't read this while eating, or if one has a weak stomach, but the information is provided in such a matter of fact and well written way that I don't think this would be an issue for most people. The same day I found this on the Library Sale shelves I also scored 2 other books by the same author, and I'm looking forward to getting to them sooner rather than later. Recommended.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears - Dinaw Mengestu

What a great book to kick off my February reading. Yet another lucky Library Sales shelves find, this book, originally published in 2007, seems very timely 10 years later. The story manages to pack a lot of elements - immigration and the immigrant experience; gentrification; racism; owning your own business; poverty; and the persistence of hope. The writing is beautiful and flowing, and the story unfolds in chapters that move through time. I found this book to be a deceptively quick read - it's a story that is at once timeless and immediate, with a narrator who is immensely sympathetic. Yes, there are heavy elements, but the author's skill is such that the reader is more conscious of the good than the bad, if that makes any sense. This book will live in my mind for a long time. Quick research shows the author has written two other books, so I will add them to my definitely-need-to-read-these-ASAP list. Highly recommended.