Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Child neglect...with love and best intentions

The Glass Castle
Jeannette Walls

This was an unbelievably moving story of Jeannette's childhood - she grew up poor, on the verge of homelessness, with parents that obviously had psychological and emotional problems. Jeannette and her three siblings (older sister Lori, younger brother Brian, and younger sister Maureen) grow up in squalor, often on the brink of starvation, and struggling for any semblance of normalcy in their lives. They move from California to Arizona and finally to West Virginia, always swinging through boom and bust cycles of money that lasts for a few days to weeks and near-debilitating poverty for longer stretches of time.

I have a really low tolerance for stories about child abuse, I just can't stomach them, so I was hesitant to read The Glass Castle. There is no doubt that this book is full of child abuse in the form of neglect but, at the same time, the parents were not malicious in their neglect - they just didn't seem to have the mental awareness to fully grasp the seriousness of their situations - and actually seemed to love their children and want what was best for them. I was SO angry at the parents and their immaturity throughout the story and literally found my hand balled into a fist at some parts. There were some touching moments though when the parents did small things that regained some of your trust - isn't that what makes abusers so dangerous?

Despite all of the negative and truly sad aspects of this memoir, the kids (with the exception of Maureen) made extremely respectable lives for themselves. They all got out of small-town West Virginia, escaped the control of their parents, and became content adults in NYC. More than that, they supported each other; from childhood when they stood up for each other against the neighborhood kids, through adolescence when they all saved money to buy a bus ticket for the oldest sister, and adulthood when they got together for holiday dinners. Their love and support for each other was the most inspirational part of this story.

More than any book I have ever read, The Glass Castle illustrated the conflicted feelings that neglected children feel toward their parents and different side of poverty and homelessness. This definitely had many dark moments but the story was overall full of hope and written in such a stark, matter-of-fact manner that it will stay with me for a very long time.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Sometimes your frog turns into a KING!

The Frog Prince
Elle Lothlorien

Sometimes your frog turns into a prince, even when you don't want him to.

The Frog Prince is a chick lit novel by a new author that is only available on Kindle. In my experience, that be a toss up between a poorly written, poorly edited, copycat story that is destined for obscurity or a rare diamond in the rough that introduces me to a new author. The Frog Prince was definitely the latter. With intelligent wit, self-deprecating humor, and predictable chick lit romance with a bit of a twist, this story had me spell-bound from start to finish.

Leigh Fromm is gorgeous. Super-model gorgeous. But don't be too quick to judge. She lives in a trailer park, conducts human sexuality research (which you all know I find endlessly fascinating), and she is incredibly awkward and clumsy in social situations - resulting in odd sexual facts spewing out of her mouth at odd times! She meets Roman Lorraine at her great-aunts funeral (quircky) when she impales his foot with her stiletto. Imagine her surprise when he finds her charming...and turns out to be the crown prince of Austria. It is a title in name only because Austria hasn't had a monarchy in over 80 years but all that could change in a matter of seconds and make him the King.

Leigh was funny and charming, in an awkward way; Roman was royalty with an environmental penchant, evidenced by him building homes in Swiss Family Robinson-esque tree house fashion; and the chick lit romance was predictable with a unique and fun twist. A couple things that I found irritating were that the dating timeline contradicted itself and there was a little too much German for me (I don't have anything against German, I just don't speak it. A sentence here or there is great and I can usually get the general meaning but paragraphs of it with no translation just kind of annoyed me).

Overall, a great debut novel that will have me reaching for Ms. Lothlorien's future books! Also, the fact that her last name is the same as a Middle-Earth Elven forest will ensure that I don't forget her :)

The fictionalized reality TV has been replaced by a realistic war

Mockingjay (Hunger Games #3)
Suzanne Collins

****Spoilers if you haven't read the first two books****

When we left out heroine the Quarter Quell had come to an end, Peeta had been captured by the Capital while Katniss went to the rebels, and the Districts were primed for war to overthrow the government. Ensconced in District 13, and the remaining citizens of the now-destroyed District 12, President Coin beseeches Katniss to become the Mockingjay - to inspire the District citizens to rise up against the Capital. While Katniss does what she can to help the rebel cause, she realizes that things are not always what they seem. Struggling with right versus wrong, Katniss also must come to terms with Gale, Peeta, and - most challenging - herself.

Mockingjay was a fitting end to the Hunger Games Series. Darker than the previous two installments, there was much more focus on the personal struggles of the main characters, who all rightly are afflicted by a variety of psychological issues following the atrocities they have lived through. As with the first two books, I don't feel like I can say too much because I don't want to give away even the tiniest bit of the fabulous plot but will say that 1) I thought it was a bit anti-climactic. We know Collins can build up the suspense in an intense manner but she didn't deliver on the promise. 2) The ending was perfect, a little expected, but what I felt was the only fitting end to the story.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Super Satirical Cautionary Tale

Super Sad True Love Story
Gary Shteyngart

Super Satirical Cautionary Tale....no wait, that's not the title, although it might be a better fit than the ill-advised real title.

At it's heart, SSTLS is a social commentary thinly veiled in a superficial love story. Lenny Abramov is a near-40 Russian-American who is obsessed with living forever - a technology that is on the brink of becoming reality. While on a working holiday in Rome, he meets Eunice Park, a young Korean-American who embodies physical perfection and youth. Their lives lead them both back to New York and sets them on the path to a dysfunctional relationship. The "love story" didn't do it for me. In fact, the main characters held absolutely no appeal for me and were the embodiment of the exact behaviors that irritate me most in real life people - superficial, self-centered, indecisive, and inconsiderate.

What made this book so interesting to me was the social commentary aspects. Lenny and Eunice live in a New York City in an undisclosed future year (or is it a dystopian present?) where mega-conglomerates like LandO'LakesGMFord rule the Credit world, real-time ego-centric streaming on apparati (think super-smart iPhone) rule the Media world, and the American economy is extremely destitute and is attached to the Chinese yuan for any kind of value. People no longer interact except through their apparati, the written word is virtually extinct, and the ruling government is the near-dictatorial Bipartisan Party that determines your worth based on monetary value.

There were times when I got very frustrated with the self-absorbed, technology-obsessed characters but then I took a step back and realized that perhaps society isn't as far from that as I would like to think. SSTLS was very slow-moving for me at first but picked up about 100 pages in - I kept slogging through the first bit because there were little gems hidden here and there to make me realize that the ending was going to hold more than meets the eye.

Overall, an intriguing and worthwhile book for every reason except the love story.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Getting Smarts - the Jenaissance way!

My Fair Lazy: One Reality Television Addict's Attempt to Discover If Not Being A Dumb Ass Is the New Black; Or, A Culture-Up Manifesto
Jen Lancaster

Jen Lancaster is back with hilarious tales of her life in Chicago with her husband, writer friends, and house full of pets - this time she is convinced that her TV diet of reality television has made her uncomfortable in social situations and makes people look down on her. To solve this problem, she is taking a page from Miss Eliza Doolittle and is getting some culture -Jenassaince style! Nothing is taboo: plays, operas, classic literature, poetry, and Eating the World! As always, she manages to add a touch of humor to every situation and sometimes even gets the Shame Rattle....laugh out loud funny!

I was pretty disappointed in Jen's last book - Pretty in Plaid - but this was a flash back to Jen's earlier works. The central theme was a little weak (especially in the beginning) but it finally came together and added continuity to the story. I heard a rumor that Jen has already been signed for another book and I will definitely be picking it up to see what ensues next in her life!

Ps. Kudos to Fletch (Jen's husband) for managing to tolerate her crazy tactics and keeping a wry sense of humor through it all! lol. I would love for an entire book to be published of Jen and Fletch's emails to each other while she is at home doing "research" for her books and he is at work. Those emails in between the chapters are some of my favorite parts. :)

Sunday, August 8, 2010

A man ahead of his environmental time

The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America
Douglas Brinkley

At a critical time in our Nation (and the world) when much attention is focused on environmental issues ranging from improved water quality and disease control to destruction of forests and degraded coastal communities, the current generation is often portrayed at the first serious crusaders for environmental awareness and protection. However, that song has been sung numerous times in history, only to a different melody, but perhaps never as effectively as during the Theodore Roosevelt era. Roosevelt provided a call to arms in environmental protection decades before it was fundraiser topic for the nouveau riche or a soapbox for the nature-loving activist.

Temporarily setting aside the impressive accomplishments of Roosevelt as Lt. Col. of the Rough Riders during the Battle of San Juan Hill, the driving force behind the construction of the Panama Canal, and the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for mediating the Russo-Japanese War, The Wilderness Warrior focuses on the profound effect Roosevelt had on conservation and preservation at a time when the US was rapidly expanding due to the industrial revolution. Through the power of Executive Orders, Roosevelt and his hand-picked team of Darwinian naturalists created or enlarged 150 national forests, 51 federal bird reservations, 4 national game preserves and 6 national parks. Brinkley depicts the life of Roosevelt in vivid detail from his childhood in New York City where he harbored a fascination and love of all things nature, through his obsession as a hunter of big game who took pride in bagging the biggest and the best, to the end of his presidency when he secured his place in the annals of political and environmental heroes.

I cannot begin to express what a gift Brinkley has for making history not only readable, but enjoyable. He doesn't just spout out facts (although this tome is certainly full of them) but weaves together historical stories involving some of the most colorful characters of the time - you couldn't imagine more entertaining people of the West: Catch 'Em Alive Abernathy wrestled wild wolves to the ground with his bare hands, Holt Collier killed more than 1,000 bears, and John Muir revolutionized the philosophy of nature. My one criticism of this wonderful book is that it simply ends when Roosevelt's presidency ended. I would have liked at least a chapter that described his hunts and efforts during the last decade of his illustrious life.

If you are interested in conservation, national parks, the preservation of the West, or nature in general, then I highly recommend The Wilderness Warrior.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Wittiness in a dystopia world is just plain genius

Shades of Grey: Road to High Saffron
Jasper Fforde

Eddie Russett is a Red - that is, he can only see red colors of the spectrum - and he lives in a world where people are divided into castes based on their visual perceptions. Unfortunately, Red is at the bottom of the scale with only Greys being lower and all colors being higher up to the ultimate in visual acuity - Purple. Eddie has a pretty good life: he is in the running to marry a Red of higher status than him, he will inherit her family's string factory, and he can actually see more shades of red than he lets on, which may result in a future career with National Color. However, all of that changes when he travels with his father to the Outer Fringe to conduct a chair census as punishment for a practical joke. While in East Carmine, he realizes that not all is as it seems and that the beautiful Grey, Jane, could be the key to it all.

I really enjoyed the fictional world of Chromatacia! Fforde is not only a witty writer, cleverly forming novel words that are descriptive and acerbic, but he manages to deliver wittiness in a completely made-up world that centers on the colors of the visual spectrum in a time that is 500 years after the collapse of the present society (whenever that may be!). Where the Thursday Next books often lose me in all of the literary references that I am not well-read enough to catch, Shades of Grey was a wonderful balance between educated reading and attainable comprehension.

I will definitely be waiting for the second installment of this trilogy to see where adulthood takes Eddie, Jane, Tommo, and the other inhabitants of East Carmine.