12 June 2010

I'm Day to Day, I'm Hanging on Today

#20 Downtown Owl by Chuck Klosterman

I’ve never read any of Klosterman’s works, even though he is regarded as a master of pop culture by many. And I love pop culture. One of my friends is a big fan of Klosterman and after seeing Downtown Owl in a bookstore for just $1, I figured “Why not, I’ll give him a try.”

This is apparently Klosterman’s first fictional work and if his non-fiction stuff is written in the same style and contains the same wit as Downtown Owl, then I’m going to have to expand my Chuck Klosterman collection.

The book begins with a newspaper clipping from February 1984 citing the damage of a massive blizzard in Owl, North Dakota which killed a few people. And then we meet the book’s three main characters: Mitch, Julia and Horace. Mitch is a junior at Owl High School. He’s a mediocre athlete and a decent student. Basically, he’s a normal teenager. Julia is Owl’s new elementary school history teacher. Upon arriving at the high school, the principal tells her that she’ll be the most popular girl in all of Owl and that everyone will love her. She is, understandably, confused. And lastly is Horace, an older widow who spends his days going to the local diner and doing the male version of gossiping with all the other older men of Owl.

The three characters live normal lives (for Owl’s standards). Mitch plays football and basketball. He hates his football coach, John Laidlaw because he tends to impregnate his female students. He has a running discussion with his friends over who would win a fight between the two strongest/craziest guys at Owl High School. Julia discovers that yes, she is the most popular girl in Owl because she’s the new girl that every bachelor in Owl wants to get his hands on, except the one she actually wants. She goes out drinking every night and discovers she doesn’t really give a shit about teaching the history of North Dakota. Horace thinks about his dead wife and about the mistakes he made after she was gone. From August to the day of the snowstorm we see how Mitch, Julia and Horace live their daily lives and are privy to their private thoughts.

If this book was written by someone without Klosterman’s wit and humour, it would have been your normal run-of-the-mill mediocre book. Klosterman made the characters real, nothing seemed staged or superfluous. It just flowed really well. The dialogue reminded me of conversations that I have with my friends. Sometimes a conversation is borderline ridiculous from an outsider’s standpoint, but for you it’s a valid conversation, something that needs to be discussed.

I usually read this book during my commute to and from work and I would crack the hell up. I’m sure my fellow German commuters were wondering, “What is with this chick and why is she laughing at 7:30 in the morning?”

I also enjoyed Klosterman’s social commentary on living in a small town in the middle of nowhere. I come from a small town, perhaps not in the middle of nowhere, but there were still plenty of parallels to draw between my hometown and Owl. The local football hero will always be remembered for the State Championship he won and not how many illegitimate children he has or that pesky drug problem that just won’t go away. It’s rather ridiculous how one can be remembered for the things accomplished before coming of legal age, but it happens.

30 May 2010

"But in the end it wasn't up to me. The big things never are."

#19 Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

Wow, I loved this book. It's a hearty 520 pages, but I wish it would keep going. I wish I could hear more of Callie/Cal's story.

Callie/Cal? Indeed. A baby girl is born in Detroit in 1960. In the summer of 1974, that girl becomes a man due to a genetic disorder. In order to trace how his genetic disorder came to be, Cal, now 41 and working for the US State Department, reveals his family history.

He begins with his grandparents living in Greece in 1922. They decide to leave their country as the Turks come to invade and experience the Great Fire of Smyrna first hand. Lefty and Desdemona end up in Detroit, where they raise their family and witness their grandchildren grow up. However, they are hiding a secret, a secret which will eventually affect Cal.

Fast forward to 1960. Calliope Stephanides is born. Her doctor doesn't notice a slight abnormality on little Callie's body. No one does, despite all the diaper changes and doctor visits. As she gets older, however, she notices she's more attracted to girls than boys, but doesn't think much of it because she ends up attending a private girls' school where feelings like that are normal. Once Callie hits puberty she's no longer the little Greek girl with long eyelashes and gorgeous hair; her features turn masculine. Her voice drops. She feels pain in her lower stomach, and no, it's not her period. She stays flat as a washboard. Upon meeting a specialist in New York City, Callie decides she can no longer live as a female. She becomes Cal.

While that merely summarizes Callie's story, there's so much more to the book. The family's personalities and interactions. I loved every anecdote that Cal provided, no matter which generation of the Stephanides clan he was talking about. The history of Detroit. There's so much to analyze and take from this book, I feel like it would be perfect for an English class. The writing is beautiful and if I wasn't trying to finish the book in a week (or less) I would have gladly maimed it with a highlighter and pen.

One of the things I loved most about the book was Eugenides' ability to interweave the family's history with real historical events. I would venture to say that it gave the Stephanides' family a greater purpose and stresses the sense of destiny that Cal speaks of regarding his condition. In Cal's perspective, he believes that was his fate for the genetic disorder to rear its head on him. I particularly loved an excerpt where Cal traces back to the moments when his mother becomes pregnant with him and his brother. That particular moment, that egg. They decided what Cal would become.

Eugenides is talking about gender identity and family secrets. And while some of these secrets would typically make one disgusted, Eugenides' descriptions made me empathize with the characters and their situations. Hermaphroditism isn't the easiest subject to discuss, nor is it a subject I would say people are particularly compassionate about. Honestly, how many jokes about transvestites have you heard (and laughed at)?

Loved loved loved this book.

25 May 2010

I'm the Slow Dying Flower in the Frost Killing Hour

#18 The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

In my review for Nick Hornby's High Fidelity, I said that it was something I needed to read at this point in my life. It acted almost as a catharsis for some things I was going through and I could relate wholeheartedly with Rob Fleming. It was good.

Well, The Bell Jar had pretty much the opposite effect on me. Don't get me wrong, I really loved this book. As a young woman, it's something I needed to read. But damn, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't questioning my own sanity by the time I got to the middle of the book.

Esther Greenwood comes from a small suburban town outside of Boston. She's always been a straight-A student and school is her thing. While in college, she is given an internship at a women's magazine in New York City with several other successful college girls. She isn't used to the privileged and glamorous life nor does she really care for it. She's not as awestruck as one might expect her to be. It's clear early on that Esther is merely going through the motions. Despite this enormous opportunity, Esther seems very neutral. She follows her friends around and does what they feel like doing. When she meets men, she doesn't use her real name. When her internship is over, Esther's world comes to a halt when she discovers some news regarding a summer college class. To be cliche, she goes off the deep end. The second half of the book shows how completely apart Esther becomes. How even though she was intelligent and showed plenty of potential, that wasn't enough.

I am someone who's life has always revolved around school. I made sure I did well in high school to get myself into a great college. I worked my ass off in college to make sure I could stay there. And then I graduated. What was I going to do after that? I didn't want to go to graduate school (not yet at least) and the US economy made sure I couldn't find a job. I felt lost. I felt like Esther Greenwood. She always relied on her intelligence to get her by. And then her intelligence and ability were put in doubt and she no longer felt worthy of living. Definitely not something I should have read when I was working part-time in a minimum wage job and hoping hoping hoping that something good might happen soon. Just to make myself clear, I didn't feel like downing a bottle of sleeping pills, but I certainly felt like, "Hmm, Esther and I have a little much in common. What does that say about me?"

Similar to when I read The Awakening a couple months back, The Bell Jar was written in the 1960s but it's still applicable to present day. If I can relate to a female college student from the 1960s when some universities didn't even allow women to study at that time (see UVA 1971), then we may have a problem.

Our Hell is the Good Life

#17 The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne

Bruno is a 9 year old boy living in Berlin during WWII. His father is a high ranking commander in the Reich and their family is sent to Auschwitz as part of his father's promotion.

Bruno is absolutely clueless to the goings on at Auschwitz, which is something I found hard to believe as I read the book. I'm pretty sure that if his father was a high ranking Nazi official, Bruno would be a member of the Hitler Youth and waving his little flag around. But Boyne decides to take the optimistic route in believing that a boy of Bruno's age would be completely oblivious to the hatred against Jews. A noble, but ignorant route. From the window in his new house at Auschwitz, Bruno can see the camp and is jealous that the children there are able to play with each other, yet he is all alone and left only with his bratty older sister as a companion. He's also curious as to why they're all wearing the same striped "pajamas."

Other officers are constantly going in and out of his house and Bruno realizes that they aren't nice people.

And so one day, Bruno decides to go on an adventure. He walks along the fencing of the concentration camp and eventually meets a boy the same exact age he is (they even share the same birthday), named Schmuel. Schmuel is (understandably) sad and scared and starving. Bruno can't grasp why Schmuel would be hungry and sad. Bruno continues to visit Schmuel. For Bruno, visiting Schmuel is a reprieve from his boredom. He tries to bring Schmuel food, but sometimes gets hungry on the way to visiting him and eats all the food.

I could only shake my head as I continued to read the book. The situation didn't seem plausible to me. I understand that the book is meant for "young adult" readers as a way to educate them on the Holocaust and provide a young boy's point of view, but... no. I just couldn't imagine Bruno as a Nazi officer's son who was neutral to the Jews. Solely from his social standing, I pictured Bruno as the little shithead who would point his finger at his Jewish classmates and start trouble against them.

I couldn't feel an ounce of remorse for Bruno when I knew that outside of his window were thousands of starving Jews who were being dehumanized and denigrated. He complained and complained and I wanted to slap him.

The book wasn't poorly or well written. It's just a book meant more to educate than wow the reader with its prose. Quick read, wouldn't particularly recommend. Read Anne Frank or Elie Wiesel instead if you want an account of WWII/the Holocaust.

02 May 2010

Big Girls Don't Cry... ha, yeah right.

I know I said that I was going back to my reading and reviewing ways, but apparently I'm a big fat liar. Now that things are no longer speculation, but truths, I'm okay with talking about what's going on and why I've been a shitty CBR kid.

I'm moving to Germany tomorrow for (at least) 6 months to work. I found out a little more than 3 weeks ago, so life has been super hectic. I've had time to read, don't get me wrong, but my mind just can't stay in a book right now.

I have about 10 books I'm bringing with me (including the April CBR Book Club pick, The Blind Assassin) and I've already looked at amazon.de for books in English, so I know I can keep doing this. I just have to get my head back in the game.

With that said, I've decided to make a personal blog to keep my friends updated on my travels and the like. Nothing is up yet - I'm far too emotional to write anything without a river of tears coming down my face, but yeah, here it is:


19 April 2010

You are a Runner and I am My Father's Son

#16 The Ministry of Special Cases by Nathan Englander

When I first borrowed this book from the library, I didn't really know what it was about. I'm trying to think how I even came across this book and became interested in it, but it's not coming to me. I'm pretty sure it's been on my GoodReads list for 2 or 3 years.


The Ministry of Special Cases has many elements to it, but the idea of family is it's strongest theme and most interesting, without a doubt. The book revolves around a Jewish Argentinean family during the country's Dirty War in the 1970s and 80s. During that time, 30,000 people disappeared, never to be seen or heard from again. This is, of course, because they disagreed with the government being a military dictatorship.

The Poznan family consists of Kaddish, Lillian and their teenage son, Pato. Kaddish is an outsider both to the Argentinean and Jewish community because he is literally, the son of a whore. His job to deface the gravestones of deceased Jews who had less than noble professions so that their children's reputations aren't ruined. Lillian works for an insurance company and watches as the client pool gets larger as the "war" goes on. People want to protect their families and make sure they're taken care of in case their political leanings make them disappear. However, the war hits home when Pato goes missing. Kaddish and Lillian dedicate themselves to finding their son, their only son.

I loved the family's interactions. If Englander's writing wasn't so strong in describing them, I probably would have lost interest in the book after some time. There was a lot of waiting and getting my hopes up, only to get cut down again. Kaddish and Pato have a fiery relationship and Englander isn't afraid to show how ugly the relationship between a father and his rebellious teenage son can sometimes be. Like any father, Kaddish is trying to protect Pato and do what's best for him, but like any son, Pato is in complete disagreement with his father's ways and ideas. Lillian is the mediator, the rock, and provides stability within the family. Once Pato goes missing, Kaddish and Lillian grow apart because one is the optimist and the other a pessimist (realist?) regarding what has happened to him. Lillian takes the official routes in finding Pato, going to the Ministry of Special Cases and talking to officials, while Kaddish prefers to go underground (which is what his profession taught him to do).

As someone who likes history, I wished that the book contained more facts about the Dirty War. Yet it was also interesting to see it from the Poznan family's standpoint. People didn't know much and Lillian and Kaddish's ordeal showed it perfectly. For them it was like being dropped in the middle of a maze and dared to find their way out. They didn't know where to go, they just tried any and every channel to get answers about Pato's disappearance.

08 April 2010

UPDATE (in the Unsolved Mysteries voice)

I only wrote 1 review for March and I'm pretty disappointed in myself for that. March was a shitty shitty bang bang month of ups and downs and unfortunately the CBR was something I couldn't deal with on top of everything else going on.

But it's April and I'm trying like hell to get back on track.

The list is ever growing. There's probably a couple books I can take down because I've lost interest in them...

1. The Shadow of the Wind - Carlos Ruiz Zafón
2. The Angel's Game - also by Zafón
3. Stasiland - Anna Funder
4. For Whom the Bells Tolls - Hemingway
5. The Book Thief - Markus Zusak
6. Captain Alatriste - Arturo Pérez-Reverte (and maybe the rest of the series if I like it)
7. The Ministry of Special Cases - Nathan Englander
8. Open - Andre Agassi
9. The Have-Nots - Katharina Hacker
10. Women in Love - DH Lawrence
11. A Room with a View - EM Forster
12. The End of the Affair - Graham Greene
13. The Blind Assassin - Margaret Atwood
14. Middlesex - Jeffrey Eugenides
15. A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again - David Foster Wallace
16. 100 Years of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
17. A Tale of Two Cities - Dickens
18. People are Unappealing - Sarah Barron
19. All Quiet on the Western Front - Remarque
20. Sarah's Key - Tatiana de Rosnay
21. Tender is the Night - F. Scott Fitzgerald
22. On Chesil Beach - Ian McEwan
23. The Kommandant's Girl - Pam Jenoff
24. Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen
25. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies - Jane Austen & Seth Grahame Smith
26. Little Women - Louisa May Alcott
27. Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist - Rachel Cohn
28. High Fidelity - Nick Hornby
29. Soccernomics - Simon Kuper
30. Soccer Against the Enemy - Simon Kuper
31. City of Thieves - David Benioff
32. Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters - Jane Austen & Ben H. Winters
33. A Thread of Grace by Mary Doria Russell
34. The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan (possibly the rest of the series)
35. Gourmet Rhapsody by Muriel Barberry
36. Eros by Helmut Krausser
37. Only Revolutions by Mark Z. Danielewski
38. Between Two Seas by Carmine Abate
39. The Lover by Marguerite Duras
40. The Emigrants by W.G. Sebald
41. If on a Winter's Night a Traveler by Italio Calvino
42. The Awakening by Kate Chopin
43. Soccer in Sun and Shadow by Eduardo Galeano
44. Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie
45. Downtown Owl by Chuck Klosterman
46. All the Names by Jose Saramago
47. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
48. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne
49. The Winner Stands Alone by Paulo Coehlo
50. Death in the Andes by Mario Vargos Llosa
51. Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris
52. A Man Without a Country by Kurt Vonnegut
53. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
54. American Music by Jane Mendelsohn
55. One Day by David Nicholls
56. A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
57. The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner by Stephanie Meyer