29 December 2009

"With My Body I Thee Worship"... or not.

#5 - On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

I picked up On Chesil Beach on the premise that I was wowed by McEwan's Atonement, probably his best and most famous work and one of my favorites books (the movie is amazing too). As an author he has a great ability to take what was supposed to be an ordinary day, or even an event, and turn it on its head to change the characters' lives forever. He utilized his skill with a hot summer's day in Atonement and I was hoping he would do the same with On Chesil Beach.

Florence and Edward are a newly married couple in 1962 England. The book begins at their first dinner together as a married couple. McEwan lets you know right away that they're both virgins and so its clear that this novel is about the consummation of their wedding night. Edward has been looking forward to this night for quite a long time, while Florence has been dreading it. The way McEwan described Florence's feelings left me confused for a majority of the novel. Maybe I'm used to dramatic soap opera like revelations, but I swear I thought she was hiding a penis or had some horrible deformity that she didn't want Edward to see. At times it seemed like she was actually fearful of the act.

The book's greatest moment is the climatic scene (ha) where Florence and Edward attempt to have sex for the first time. Let's just say it goes horribly wrong in one of those "OH GOD NO" situations. Because of said situation, the entire basis of their marriage is forever ruined. One night, one action, and everything changes. I found humor in it, mainly because I'm a jerk with a collegiate sense of humor, but I doubt Florence and Edward would agree with me considering how it effects their marriage.

Throughout their wedding night, McEwan weaves in anecdotes from Edward and Florence's memories. How they met. Background information of their parents. Their individual hopes and dreams. I found some of them to be superfluous to the novel, but some did help to build the characters of Edward and Florence and show us why they reacted the way they did following their attempt to consummate their marriage.

Another thing I liked about the book was how McEwan tied everything together at the end. The language and imagery really clicked for me. I suppose it's because I wasn't looking to see what would happen next, I could just enjoy the writing of McEwan. It's no lie that he's a great writer and his grasp of the English language is breathtaking at times. I was able to imagine their futures in movie-reel fashion. My favorite part takes place during the debut of Florence's quartet. His description of it carried a beautiful tragicness that I can't stop replaying in my head.

The book is good. It's well written, but it just didn't move me enough. I was left feeling flat. I know I shouldn't compare all of McEwan's works to Atonement, but that book got so many emotions out of me that I could be considered psychotic by the emotional mindfuck he put me through. I guess I was looking for the same reactions to On Chesil Beach and it just didn't happen.

12 December 2009

Mit dem Herz in der Hand und der Leidenschaft im Bein / Werden wir Weltmeister sein!

#4 - Soccernomics by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski

In case you've been living under a rock (or perhaps in America... just kidding!), the World Cup kicks off on June 11, 2010. That's 180 days and 20 hours from now. Are you ready?

I've been looking forward to the World Cup since the minute the whistle was blown to announce red-hot Spain as the 2008 European Cup Champions over my beloved Germany. Oh, but now it's just seven months away. Qualifying is over. Countries have been drawn into groups and holy crap, I cannot wait.

I was planning to hold off on Soccernomics until May to really get me into the World Cup spirit, but I couldn't help myself. All the soccer blogs were talking about it so that I too, wanted to be in the know of Soccernomics.

The book applies economics to the sport of soccer. Kuper and Szymanski use math to tell us which national team has the best fans, who are the biggest over- and underperformers of the game, and even investigate the correlation between suicide rates and major soccer events. I won't lie, I absolutely suck at math and their explanations of regressions and math formulas left me in a tizzy, but it was still really interesting to read about.

Soccernomics brings to light many subjects, both new to old to the soccer fan(atic). It discusses racism in the sport, which is still hard for me to fathom because it's unheard of in American sports. Also touched upon is the Iraqi national team and the torture they endured during Sadam Hussein's reign. For these men, the pressure to win was not rooted in fear of failure, but in fear of physical and mental torture. Kuper and Szymanski also analyze why some teams do better than others. Of course, money plays a role as bigger clubs can afford better and expensive players, but did you know that clubs based in capital cities are usually worse off than clubs that aren't?

The book was released in November 2009 - meaning most of the statistics and references are relatively recent, which was great for me. I would consider myself a pretty new soccer fan whose love for soccer has progressively grown into a behemoth. I will base my schedule around matches and I have little shame in this declaration. My obsession took off during the 2002 World Cup where I watched Germany make a (probably undeserving) run to the finals. My dad is a German who was raised on soccer, so the World Cup gave us something to bond over. I hopped on the fußball bandwagon and it's been a magical ride ever since.

Because I am a new-ish soccer fan, I sometimes found it difficult to read other books about the most popular sport on the planet. I adore Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch but constantly found myself going on Wikipedia to further research Arsenal's history and other major events in the world of soccer (the Heysel and Hillsborough tragedies immediately come to mind). Kuper and Szymanski cite events that are as recent as summer 2009 (Cristiano Ronaldo's epic transfer from Manchester United to Real Madrid), while also tracing back to the 70's (Brian Clough's Nottingham Forest team that won two European Cups). I enjoyed the fact that I witnessed some of these events (along with millions of other people watching it on TV and in the stands), but was also educated on the moments I missed, whether because I wasn't born yet or was still in my NSYNC-OMG-Justin Timberlake phase.

I'd like to highlight a couple of my favorite chapters because I can relate to them best as a soccer fan.

"The Economist's Fear of the Penalty Kick" was probably my favorite. For starters, I watched Germany dismiss Argentina in the 2006 World Cup Quarterfinals and it ranks quite high on my favorite international soccer moments. Jens Lehmann and that piece of paper that helped bring Germany into the semifinals (only to lose to Italy, which broke my heart and ruined my birthday, still a very sore subject) are forever in my mind.

I also witnessed the Champions League final between Manchester United and Chelsea. Even though Chelsea had beaten Liverpool (my favorite team in the EPL) to advance, they were still better than Man U in my book. I still blame Anelka for missing the kick, but now I see that Van Der Saar played some mind games. Anelka knew where he was supposed to kick (thanks to a Basque economist), but had to second guess himself because of VDS catching on.

"Are Soccer Fans Polygamists?" is also a favorite because I suppose I can consider myself one. Liverpool and Real Madrid are my favorite teams in their respective leagues, but I can still appreciate Arsenal and Barcelona. I follow Werder Bremen because I studied abroad there one summer, but Dortmund and Bayern Munich are also on my radar. Germany is my national team thanks to my dad's love for them, but Spain and the USA are also worth rooting for. For me, the players are just as important as the club, so wherever my favorites go, I tend to follow. I'm all over the place and while the soccer purists may consider me a heathen, I have too much love for the game and its players to limit myself to one club or national team.

Considering how much I wrote, I guess it's easy to see how much I loved this book. It made me look forward to the World Cup even more (I didn't know that was possible), while also making me mindful of the fact that soccer's impact goes well beyond the world of sport. I could go on and on about how large a role soccer plays in the world of politics, culture, and economics, but you'll have better luck with the eloquent writing of Kuper and Szymanski.

Blow a Kiss and Change the World, Yeah

#3 - Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan

Jersey kids falling in love in the city thanks to all encompassing power of music. What's not to like?

As a Jersey girl (I say this with both pride and disdain), Nick and Norah's... hit a special chord for me, no pun intended. I live right square in the middle between Nick and Norah's towns. Unfortunately, I wasn't one of those cool kids in high school who ventured into the city on the weekends to listen to the up and coming bands, roaming the streets until the early hours of the following day. No, no. If I wanted to have fun, I went to the movies and then hit up Wendy's or one of NJ's million diners. And that's only if I didn't have a cross country or track meet the next morning.

So allow me to live vicariously through Nick and Norah as a Bridge-and-Tunnel girl who doesn't make enough use of the GWB and Lincoln Tunnel.

If you haven't seen the movie or read the book, the plot is simply this: Nick and Norah are both in the city on a Saturday night, Nick to play a concert with his band and Norah to see some bands. They don't know each other, but while they both try to avoid Nick's ex-girlfriend, Tris, Nick asks Norah to be his girlfriend for five minutes. The five minute relationship turns into so much more as they travel the city. The entire night their relationship teeters between good and bad. They don't know each other so they don't really know how the other will react to his/her actions.

The book is told from the perspective of both Nick and Norah. Everything they're thinking, you're reading. Their reactions, oddities, and insecurities are what make their characters likable. I loved Norah's train of thought, mainly because I could relate to her. And while the two are hot blooded teenagers with raging hormones (as we see in one scene), their relationship maintains a sweet quirkiness. Nick's friend Dev explains the simple genius of The Beatles' 'I Wanna Hold Your Hand' -- which is probably one of my favorite parts of the book. It's not always about sex, marriage, or money. Sometimes it just about that moment when you reach for this person's hand. That simple but exciting moment.

I love this book, because honestly, who doesn't want to fall in love on a whim and take a tour of the city at night? I would consider myself a realist and say that the chances are highly unlikely, but if it were to happen, I can only hope its as magical as Nick and Norah's night. To find someone who rocks out to the same music (save for a few bands) and gets your weird pop culture references... now that's cool.

Nick and Norah taught me that there's still hope for us Bridge-and-Tunnel folk, especially if you've been watching MTV's Jersey Shore. Not all of us are destined to be with buff and orange-tan Guidos who fist pump to techno music even if its only playing in their heads. There's a Nick (or a Norah) who might be waiting to hold your hand at the next concert (or in my case, a sports bar) you head out to.

19 November 2009

Book Deux

#2 - Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay

I chose Sarah's Key because it received rave reviews on all the bookseller websites as well as from one of my good friends. Also, the book is centered on the Vel d'Hiv raid, an event that I've never heard of despite being a German Studies major who focused on the Holocaust a great deal.

For a brief history lesson from information I've gathered from Wiki and the book itself, the Vel d'Hiv raid was responsible for removing thousands of Jewish families from their homes in Paris. On the night of July 16, 1942, French police under the Vichy government knocked on Jewish families' homes and demanded they come with them with only a suitcase in hand. The families were brought to the Vélodrome d'Hiver, an indoor cycling stadium, and remained there for days. No food, no water, and barely any toilets available for more than 10,000 people. The Jews were then transported to camps. Men, women, and children were separated from each other. The children were left alone in the camps as the men and women were sent to Auschwitz and immediately gassed. Of the thousands that were rounded up and sent away, only a scant amount returned.

de Rosnay uses the Vel d'Hiv in order to interweave two stories that are sixty years apart from one another.

The first story begins on the night of the Vel d'Hiv. A 10 year old French Jew named Sarah is rounded up along with her parents. In order to protect her 4 year old brother, Michel, she hides him in their secret cupboard, promising that she'll be back soon. Only she has the key to unlock the cupboard, hence the title of the book.

Sixty years later, Julia Jarmond, an American expatriate living in Paris, has been assigned to write an article on the sixtieth anniversary of the Vel d'Hiv . While she struggles to balance her family life, she becomes engrossed with the history of the Vel d'Hiv and the thousands of children and their families that were never able to return home.

Suffice it to say that Julia and Sarah's path cross in one way or another.

The book, as a concept, is successful. The chapters alternate between her story and Julia's until the middle of the book where their stories converge and Julia's perspective takes charge. I found Sarah's story gripping, come hell or high water she was determined to return to Paris and retrieve her young brother from the closet. She sees her parents lose strength and hope. Her mother becomes a mere shell of her former self, but Sarah hangs on because she knows Michel is waiting for her.

The book's weakness, however, is Julia's story. Sarah's story is told in the third person, while Julia's is in the first person. She's grating and irritating. I found her side of the story to be trivial, bordering on Chick-Lit at times. I just didn't give a shit about her marriage or how despite her living in Paris for more than half her life, she was still seen as an American. Her French husband and his family embody the arrogant French stereotype. Come on, Julia. If your husband was always this bad, why did you bother falling in love with the bastard? Even when de Rosnay tries to make Bertrand (Julia's husband) a sympathetic character, I wanted to kick him in the face. Furthermore, the end of the story pissed me the hell off. It's too much of a spoiler to even describe the situation, but all I can say is, seriously Julia?

If you read my review of The Shadow of the Wind, you might remember my heart fluttering over how Zafón managed to make you ache with the characters. de Rosnay doesn't do this, not with Julia. I read the words and could only reply with "meh," when it came to Julia's family struggles. Sarah, on the other hand, was much easier to relate to. We all have family and in my case, I have a younger brother whom I still try to protect even though he's 17. It wasn't hard to connect with Sarah in that way.

I'm still not sure how I feel about the book. I loved Sarah's story, but couldn't stand Julia's character for the life of me. I could have done without Julia and her emotional struggles that were only connected to Sarah's story because she made them be.

Sarah gets a high five for being the most determined and strong 10 year old ever, but I'd like to trip Julia and make her fall into the Seine.

16 November 2009

As the days keep turning into night...


I'm pretty behind after a weird turn of events. Borders and Butler's have me working a lot, we're kind of renovating the house in preparation of the arrival of my sister and nieces from Germany in two weeks, and Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist is nowhere to be found (not my local library OR Borders).

But I'm getting back on track this week! I currently have Sarah's Key, Soccernomics, and City of Thieves in my possession. Nick and Norah's... is on its way from a neighboring town's library.

Is it pathetic that I already need to make a 'comeback' of sorts in this Cannonball Read?

04 November 2009

And so it begins - Book 1

#1 - The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Today I had an interview for a job with Borders Books (holla at yo' discount!). The manager asked me what was the last book I read and how I would recommend it to a customer. PERFECT question in regard to this review I'm writing.

So of course, I told her how I read The Shadow of the Wind and how much I fucking adored this book (a little less crudely said, of course). I was hired. Thanks, book!


In post-Spanish Civil War Barcelona, Daniel Sempere is brought to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books by his father when he is 10 years old. The Cemetery is a place where books go when they no longer have an owner. Upon his visit, Daniel is permitted to bring home a book of his choice in order to preserve its memory. Every book has a soul, he is told, and by reading a book from the Cemetery, he is helping its spirit grow.

The book he chooses, The Shadow of the Wind by Julián Carax, puts him on what becomes a dangerous journey to uncover the secrets of the little known author's life. In the meantime, a mysterious man is scouring the city for Carax's books so he can burn them, erasing any memory of the author and his books. Over the next 10 years of Daniel's life, we also see how the book and his ensuing quest have shaped him as a person.

The lone fact that the story takes place in Barcelona sold me. The book is about Barcelona and its history just as much as it is about Daniel. I spent 3 days in Barcelona as part of my post-grad Eurotrip and recognized most of the places and streets that Zafón describes in the book. Like Daniel (and millions of other people), I walked down Las Ramblas, went up to Montjüic, etc. It's all very cool to see. I only wish that I had read the book before visiting Barcelona so I could have followed the map at the end of the book and done my own little tour. Now I have even more reason to return. Playing into the history of the city, Zafón shows how the Spanish Civil War and the Franco era affected the characters and their actions.

The best thing about The Shadow of the Wind was that it constantly surprised me. Every time I thought I was doing a good job of piecing the story together, Zafón literally slapped me across the face with something new, leaving my theories completely worthless. He made me feel like my time (and money) spent in college, analyzing papers and books, was time not-so-well spent. And you know what? I liked it. I liked the challenge and the fact that I didn't know where the story was going next. It was unpredictable without being outlandish and silly.

I've read plenty of books where the characters announce their love for one another, but they were just empty declarations and promises that lacked any real substance. Zafón forces you to ache with the characters when he tells their stories of lost or unrequited love. His descriptions are so vivid that I never once thought that these characters were caricatures, conjured up purely for entertainment purposes. I cared for them and related to them. He takes great care in developing them into multi-dimensional people who have their flaws. Daniel isn't a perfect human being nor is the villain arbitrarily pure evil.

As I neared the end, I realized that I didn't want the book to end, yet I was desperate to know its conclusion. That's how I know a book is good - when I never want the reading experience to end, but can't wait to see what happens next.

Lucky for me, there's a (kind of) prequel to the book in The Angel's Game which apparently has similar motifs and also takes place in Barcelona. Looking forward to that.

21 October 2009

Let the Wild Rumpus Start!

The more I think about this Cannonball Read, the more excited I get. Since I graduated college in May, life has been wacky, a little bit erratic, and I'm looking forward to this year-long commitment.

I guess I'll talk a little about myself... I graduated from UVA in May 2009. Thanks to this woeful economy, I still don't have a real job. I'm barely employed at a cafe... I probably shouldn't get too in-depth with it in case Irish spies are watching me. I imagine them being leprechauns, actually.

Most of the books I read usually involve the following topics/themes:

Germany - was a German Studies major, I can't help it, it's engrained in me, literally (Dad is German)
War - also majored in Foreign Affairs, it's my thing and it tends to work well with the German theme
Heartbreak - I excel at reading and crying at the same time
Traveling - because it's fun and I'd much rather pretend to be there than here
Soccer (and Tennis to a lesser degree) - I toe the line between passionate and fanatical

Over the years, I've learned that I much prefer unhappy endings over happy endings. Maybe it seems more realistic to me, or I'm just a sadist who enjoys reading and crying a little too much.

Like my Twin, I hate ChickLit. In fact, I'd much rather everyone die at the end than the Shopaholic meet her rich man and live happily ever after. That's not to say I don't appreciate classic romance, I can watch Pride and Prejudice (BOTH versions) over and over and over again. I live for certain scenes in Sense and Sensibility. But I can't stand trite, cheesy bullshit.

That said, last night I did some research and compiled a list of books I'd like to read over the next year.

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

That's more than half of my list, but who knows if I'll still have interest in these books over the next few months. I think it's a good start though.

20 October 2009

52 Books in 52 Weeks

Pajiba Cannonball Read S2 = 52 books in 52 weeks starting November 1st.

I was thinking about doing it last year, but the goal was 100 books and I didn't think I'd be able to balance it with schoolwork. Since I'm done with school AND basically unemployed (I don't think a 10 hour work week counts as much), I have plenty of time on my hands.

It's for a good cause AND it'll challenge me. I haven't been reading as much as I'd like to, so a little competition will give me that extra kick I need.

Even though the competition won't start for another 2 weeks, I've already got my first book picked out - "The Shadow of the Wind" by Carlos Ruiz Zafón.

So yeah, stay tuned.