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

10 March 2010

There's No Need to Rush, We're All Just Waiting...

#15 All the Names by José Saramago

I had never heard of this book, or José Saramago for that matter, until a customer at work bought the book a couple weeks ago. I liked the cover and I thought Saramago sounded like a cool last name. (I'm a little bit shallow).

The book takes place in an unknown city somewhere in Portugal (I say this only because Saramago is Portuguese) at some point in time, probably before computers became the technological necessity that they are now. Senhor José is a clerk at the city's Central Registry, which basically holds an index card regarding every person's date of birth, death, marriage (and divorce). He's an older man who has been working at the Central Registry for 25 years or so. Given the humdrum routine of his life, Senhor José makes it interesting on his own accord. His apartment is adjoined to the Central Registry and at night he sneaks into the building to borrow the index cards of the city's famous citizens. He knows who is lying about their age and whether or not they were born into a wealthy neighborhood like they may claim. He doesn't share these secrets - it's purely to feed his own curiosity. One night, however, he mistakenly grabs the file of a regular woman and becomes obsessed with discovering her background. The novel follows his journey to discover more about this woman, as well as his refusal to take the easy route in finding her.

I found Senhor José's character admirable, even though he's not a hero. He's just on his own little mission that doesn't need to be as grand and complicated as he makes it out to be. I think he's looking for that bit of trouble or danger after all his years spent cataloguing in the Central Registry and I don't blame him for it. I loved his imagined conversations when he believed he was going to be caught in a lie. I thought that Senhor Jose's conversations with himself were my favorite, but I also liked his interactions with other people. It showed that he wasn't some weirdo eccentric, but that he was just a normal, albeit very clever, man. He's no longer satisfied by only knowing a person's date of birth, marriage (divorce) and death. There's far more to a person than just a couple of dates and Senhor José wants to know about it. Everyone has a backstory and the woman's holds a bit of intrigue.

The book is simple. There isn't a twist at the end nor does Senhor José enter a web of deceit that puts his life in extreme danger. His work is affected by his obsession and he does become paranoid, but it's all his own doing. I'll admit that it took me a little while to get into the book. I think it was when I finally realized that I had to appreciate the book for its nuances and beautiful writing style instead of constantly being on the alert for a big climatic scene. I liked this book, but I'll probably need to read it again in order to properly appreciate Saramago's writing. I started the book without much background information, I just knew about the Central Registry and that the book won the Nobel in 2003 (so of course it had to be good, right?).

01 March 2010

You Can Fly! You Can Fly!

#14 Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie

In college I took a class on the origins of fairy tales. Did you know that the Little Mermaid dies and turns into sea foam in the original Hans Christian Andersen story, or that Sleeping Beauty was impregnated while in her deep sleep because Prince Philip couldn't wait to wake her? Peter Pan isn't a classic fairy tale, but it is another reminder of Disney's ability to take a story with disturbing elements and make it child friendly. I haven't seen the Disney version for quite some time, but I don't remember ever being scared or worried while watching it.

Barrie's novel isn't necessarily "scary," but it's a book for children, and I don't think stories about cutting off a pirate's arm are appropriate for young readers. It has both a whimsical and dark tone to it. The characters are violent. The group of lost boys is constantly changing because they die in Neverland. Tinker Bell hates Wendy and tries to kill her. I was half expecting the little fairy to bare her fangs at some point because she had few redeeming qualities. The violence between the Lost Boys, Hook and his pirate gang and the rest of the groups on Neverland isn't typical children's Power Ranger violence. It's not a punch and the bad guy is unconscious; it's more of a stab with a sword and he's dead. Even though Peter is the book's protagonist, he's not a likable character. He's selfish and arrogant, but then again he's just a little boy.

The idea of Neverland is disheartening once you see how everyone but Peter Pan grows old and matures. There's nothing sweet to it. I wanted to cry for Peter and his inability/stubbornness to grow up, yet I could relate. Wouldn't it be nice if we never had to worry about school, finding a job or complicated relationships? But wouldn't it also be horrible to never mature and experience adult things?

I don't think I was touched by the book until the last couple of chapters where we see how Wendy has aged and Peter has remained a boy. Because he'll never grow up, he has no sense of time and fails to realize that other people will get older and move on with their lives. Even though it's Peter's choice to stay a child, I still became sad knowing that he got left behind. It doesn't phase him, but it phased me and I pitied his naivety.

25 February 2010

Our Bodies Get Bigger, but Our Hearts Get Torn Up

#13 High Fidelity by Nick Hornby

Throughout reading High Fidelity, I realized I'm a lot like Rob Fleming aside from a few glaring differences (I'm a 22 year old woman, not a 35 year old man). He likes lists (he starts off the novel by naming the top 5 girls who broke his heart). He's pretty good at being an asshole when he wants to be. He's a music elitist. He enjoys mocking people. He's in a bit of a rut. Check, check, check, check and check.

This is somewhat worrying to me, because I don't want to be like Rob. He's a great character, an interesting fictional person to read about in a book. But to be the female version of him? No, thanks. If I wanted to model myself after a certain character, I don't think Rob Fleming would be at the top of my list. (Now I'm thinking about who I'd want to be... Elizabeth Bennett, Hermione Granger, Elinor Dashwood... that's all I got. Apparently the characters of books I read have unhappy endings.)

The book revolves around his break up with Laura, a woman he's been seeing for a couple of years. They break up because they seem to have grown out of each other, they want different things, but there's a lot of backstory to it, too. Rob owns a small music store and has two employees, Dick and Barry, who end up being his close friends. There's a lot that goes on in the novel, as well as a good amount of past incidents to help us understand Rob and Laura's relationship. But the plot is pretty simple: we're watching Rob grow up. Even though he's 35 years old, he's got a lot of growing up to do. It's not just about committing to his relationship with Laura, but also acting like an adult and getting out of his rut. His music business is failing, but he doesn't do anything about it.

There's a thought raised by Rob in the early goings of the book when he considers the relationship between his love life and music - what came first, the music or the misery? It was pretty clear I would adore this book upon reading that line. I started thinking to myself, when did I truly start appreciating music about relationships and unrequited love and all that sad crap? Does he mean misery as a whole? Or misery regarding a certain event? What was the event that made me disregard happy pop music and turn to Fiona Apple, Bon Iver, etc etc.? You can argue it a part of growing up, but why is it that some people don't need listen to the sad stuff? What do my musical tastes say about my life?

I feel like I can't properly put this book into words because it's too personal. I can't really describe my feelings for it without making this my own therapy session. So I'll end my review with this: The book had good timing and I needed to read it at this time in my life.

23 February 2010

108 Days to the World Cup

#12 Soccer Against the Enemy by Simon Kuper

Ah, yes, another book about sports. I couldn't resist.

"How the world's most popular sport starts and fuels revolutions and keeps dictators in power" is the book's main idea. Kuper spent 1992 traveling the world, interviewing people involved in soccer in order to show how soccer, as a global sport, is affected by politics and culture. Dream job right there. He spends hours on trains and planes and finds himself in countries that the State Department would advise one not visit. Traveling and soccer. Totally my kind of thing. To be 23 years old and say "Okay, I'm gonna write a book about soccer, politics and culture, travel the world and meet some cool people." Well, I bow down to you, Mr. Kuper.

Kuper speaks both to people actively involved in professional soccer and the sport's fans. While I thought that his interviews with soccer officials/players were intriguing, it's when he interacts with fans that the book is at its strongest. It's probably because I, too, am a fan of soccer. I obviously have no experience in running a soccer club or playing professionally (or even recreationally), but I could definitely relate with the fan's perspective. I also saw how politics and culture can intervene with the way someone supports their club.

For one thing, I think the timing of Kuper's investigation was spot on. The Cold War was over by 1992, but the countries were still getting acclimated to their new situations. After the Cold War, the USSR became 11 countries. Who do the national players play for now? Once Croatia became independent, there was plenty of controversy over the names of its clubs (Dinamo Zagreb to Dinamo Croatia and back to Dinamo Zagreb).

There's a chapter on East Germany - how the Stasi kept tabs on East Germans who liked West German soccer clubs. I mean, we all know that the Stasi were bad people who ruined people's lives, but to be monitored and considered a risk to the East German state because you like Hertha Berlin (West) instead of Dynamo Berlin (East)? That, of all things, makes you a bad comrade?

Kuper also tackles the rivalry between Celtic and Rangers - the Catholics and the Protestants. Soccer and religion? This is heavy stuff, friends. Kuper tells the story of a group of fans who don't count goals scored by players who play for the wrong team, religion-wise. Um, ok, fools. I'm all for soccer fanaticism, but that's just damn ridiculous. A goal is a goal and if it determines the win, then I'd think it a good idea to count it. There's a lot of players I don't like, but if they score to my club or country's benefit, I'd still want to give them a high-five.

One of the most important sections of the book focuses on football in Africa. The section means a lot more than it probably did back then as the World Cup is taking place in an African nation for the first time. Despite the fact that the book is 15 years old, it still has relevance. It's interesting to reflect on expectations from back then and see how they sized up in reality. Soccer people in Africa expected that an African nation would have won a World Cup by now. Still no dice (and I don't really see it happening this July, either).

I've said it in papers (yes, I wrote college essays on soccer) and even in my review for Soccernomics, but I'll say it again. Soccer is so much more than just a sport. It's a beautiful game, but remains compelling after those 90 minutes are over. You can go on and on about how much better any other sport is, but try to write a politics paper on its vast global impact and then we can talk.

I liked this book a lot (duh), but I had one problem with it - the US version calls American football (NFL) American soccer. Bad! First, I was confused when Kuper made comparisons between soccer and "American soccer." And then I finally got it. Whoever did the editing needs a talking to. There's a new edition coming out in April. Hopefully that'll get fixed.

I Can Go the Distance Till I Find My Hero's Welcome

#11 The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan

Hmm. I could have sworn I've read this before. Misunderstood boy labeled as "troubled" when he's actually "special." Enlists the help of his two friends (smart girl and a boy who provides the laughs) to fight the baddies and save the world. Wait, his name isn't Harry Potter? He's not a wizard but a demigod? Oh and his parents are alive this time? Okay.

I'm part of the Harry Potter generation. I pretty much grew up with Harry, Hermione and Ron. I started reading the books when I was in sixth grade and the final book came out a few days after my 20th birthday. I'll be reading them until my eyes can no longer see. When that time comes, I'll listen to the audiobooks (I already have The Deathly Hallows). The books are that precious to me.

I'm not trying to be bitchy or put Riordan down, but I don't think the Percy Jackson series will ever reach such heights, despite its glaring similarities to the Harry Potter series. The novel lacked depth. J.K. Rowling spoiled us. Sure, kids can still grow up reading Harry Potter, but he's "ours" as one of my friends put it. Kids no longer have to wait for the next installment of the series. Who dies in what book is no longer the biggest secret ever. It's just different.

Maybe I don't understand this generation's young readers. Perhaps they're all sufferers of ADHD who can't deal with a build-up, it's just action action action. Do they like predictability and lack of emotion? I hope not.

But wait, I'm reviewing The Lightning Thief. My bad.

Percy Jackson has never lasted more than one year in the same school. He's a troublemaker. He's dyslexic and has ADHD (or so he thinks) and has thus decided he's not cut out for academics so no use in trying. After a series of events, he discovers that he is a demigod and finds himself at Camp Half-Blood where all the bastard offspring of gods and humans reside and train for quests that will make them heroes. Of course Percy is a little more special than the rest of these demigod children because his daddy is one of the more important and powerful gods. So within a few weeks in Camp Half-Blood, Percy goes out on a quest to halt World War III.

There were parts I liked and didn't like. I give Riordan low marks (I've been watching too much of the Olympics) for failing to invoke any kind of emotion within me. There are some pretty traumatizing events in the book, but they didn't mean anything to me. I hate to draw comparisons to Harry Potter again, but that series had the ability to turn me into a blubbering mess. The action sequences were fun, but I still held doubts over Percy's ability to fight big mean monsters after just a few weeks of training at camp. He's 12 years old. I don't care whether he's a demigod or not, but 12 year olds shouldn't just be like "WHAM PAM MONSTER I'LL KILL YOU."

The book is quick and painless. I never found myself cringing or screaming at the book. It's a good read if you're 10, even though we are dealing with bastard offspring of gods and humans. Alas, I'm 22 and the book just doesn't have the ability to transcend age groups (unlike Harry Potter, yet again). I'm semi-interested in reading the rest of the series for entertainment's sake and also to see how the whole gods and humans story unfolds. BUT I know there are better books out there and I don't think I need this series in my life.

I've already got Harry Potter to fill the void for kids with special abilities who get themselves into mischief. And it fills the void quite well.

11 February 2010

"C'est quelqu'un qui m'a dit que tu m'aimais encore"

#10 The Awakening by Kate Chopin

Kate Chopin's The Awakening caused quite the uproar when it was first published in 1899. Sacre bleu!, a wife and mother who does not want to bear the responsibility of being a wife and mother in turn of the century New Orleans.

I love this book because my AP English teacher shared it with my class in 12th grade. She told us how she broke up with her long-term boyfriend after reading this book because she, too, wanted an awakening such as Edna Pontellier's. My teacher eventually got married to this boyfriend and had a bunch of kids, but that goes to say that this book instilled feminist feelings within me too.

Edna Pontellier is a young wife and mother who is vacationing with her family off the coast of New Orleans. She's not like every other doting wife and mother in 1899 New Orleans. There she meets Robert Lebrun, the resort owner's son. And while her way thinking is already different from all the other wives and mothers of the time, she has an awakening during her time with Robert. She doesn't want to bear the burden of having a family. She wants to be able to love Robert, freely.

Once Edna starts to think about Robert more, she tells her friend, Adele Ratignolle, that she would never sacrifice herself for her children. Adele, the quintessential wife and mother, vehemently disagrees with her. Edna says that she would gladly sacrifice the "unessential" - her life, money, material things, but not the essential. Well what is essential if life is considered unessential? I took it as her livelihood, her happiness. I suppose it's one thing to give your life for your children's well being as opposed to suffering in a loveless marriage for them. It's a fine line and even though I think I understand Edna's point of view, I'm not entirely sure of it.

While the book is fairly short at 150 pages, it still manages to convey plenty of emotions and vivid descriptions. The book made me think both times I read it, as a high school senior and five years later as a 22 year old. It makes you wonder about your role as a woman (wife, mother), and even though this book is more than a century old, there's still plenty to draw from it. Sure, it's considered socially acceptable if you choose not to get married and pop out kids every few years. But I'll be damned if I'm the only one who has been told "I was married and already pregnant at your age!" or that I should have a man in my life because it's "right" and it's what I "need" as a woman.

I know a few people who hate this book and the hatred is largely manifested in the book's ending. I liked it and thought it was appropriate. I guess that's what separates the Edna Pontelliers from the Adele Ratignolles.

10 February 2010

The Destination / We Reached It Now We're Feeling Worse

#9 The Have-Nots (Die Habenichtse) by Katharina Hacker

I expected a lot of things out of this book and finished it feeling empty.

The Have-Nots received the 2006 German Book Award for best novel and I found it difficult to see why. With every turn of the page, I kept thinking to myself, "Okay, it's gonna get good now." Then the book was done. It never got good. It never seemed worthy of a prize to me. Fine, it's well written, I'll give it that much, but it surely did not live up to my expectations.

Perhaps I misinterpreted the synopsis when it told me that the novel focused on how the characters' lives were affected by September 11, 2001. How 9/11 changed how they looked at the world. Maybe it's because I live less than 10 miles from New York City, but 9/11 affected me far more than it did the characters. It's background noise to them. Mentioning a terrorist alert or being more observant of Arabs made it a stretch to show how 9/11 altered their perceptions.

The book is more of a commentary on those who have and those who don't. There are three plot lines that eventually interweave with one another. There's Isabelle and Jakob, a yuppie couple from Berlin who move to London for Jakob's career. They go to London instead of Jakob's colleague because he dies in the World Trade Center on 9/11. In that respect, you can say that 9/11 is a catalyst for Jakob and Isabelle. Their first date just so happens to be on 9/11. 9/11 happens to be the reason why they move to London and their lives change. But I feel as though their lives change on their own accord. The other two story lines focus on a drug dealer and a violent family with an autistic child - Isabella and Jakob's neighbors in London.

I found the book infuriating. The characters were frustrating and unlikeable. Just when I thought a character could be redeemed, something else went awry. I didn't understand what was going on at times because of the descriptions. Hacker (or the english translator) doesn't mind beating around the bush. And this may sound off, but the book was very German. I've decided I can say this because I'm half-German and have spent a considerable amount of time in Germany. There's a kind of... unapologetic bluntness surrounded the characters. They're not good people and Hacker doesn't try to make them seem like good people.

For instance, Isabelle is an enigma and not in a good way. She follows Jakob to London because why not go with Jakob to London? There's one moment toward the end of the novel when another character says to her, "You're like a black hole, anything can be poured into you and it vanishes without a trace. Nothing shows in your face..." to show how unaffected she is by everything. She's going through the motions in a manner that's so frustrating. She does what she does because... well... why not?

I've been looking forward to reading this book for a long time. I thought it would be a commentary on 9/11 and how it affected those outside of the NYC/Washington DC bubble. How 9/11 was viewed from an international perspective. But it wasn't. It was just a novel about stupid people. Whether or not they're privileged, they lead ugly lives.

Very disappointed.

22 January 2010

I'm in the War of My Life / At the Core of My Life / Got No Choice But to Fight 'Til It's Done

#8 - Open by Andre Agassi

I've often said (semi-jokingly) that my future children would be tennis and/or soccer prodigies. Put that tennis racket in their hands around the time they start walking. Learn how to kick a soccer ball once they learn how to stand up straight.

But upon reading Andre Agassi's very candid autobiography, Open, I have had a change of heart.

Dear children that don't even have a chance of existing at the moment,

I am sorry. I take it back. I take it all back! You don't have to play a sport unless you want to. You don't need to be a prodigy and turn pro before you hit puberty. Play with your Barbies and Ninja Turtles, please.


I vaguely remember watching tennis in my house while I was growing up. My parents would watch the US Open while I played with my toys. I didn't care for it. Yet I remember Agassi's lion mane of hair, can you believe that? Tell me to think of one tennis moment from the early 90s and Agassi's bleached mullet and acid wash jean shorts imeddiately pop into my mind. He's even an icon to my 5 year old Barbie playing self.

I must say that Andre Agassi's book Open attracted publicity for all the wrong reasons. The focus should not be on how he wore a wig to hide his baldness in his early 20s, or how he had a problem with crystal meth and lied to the ATP about his failed drug test. Those are the sensationalized aspects that got the attention of the non-tennis fan. But the book is so much more than these these outrageous aspects of his life that require only a few pages (out of the 385 pages) to explain.

It's about how a man who detested the life he was forced into eventually came to terms with it. He learned to respect tennis and appreciate all the doors it opened for him. That is what is most striking about the book.

The book begins when he is 7 years old, battling the "dragon," or the tennis ball machine that his father crafted. Mike Agassi undertakes the infamous role of father living vicariously through his child's experiences. Except he takes it to a whole new level. Andre hits thousands of balls a day and is told that he'll hit one million balls a year. "?!?!?" is all I can really say to that. If my parents ever dared to drag me away from the Disney channel or my Skip-It to hit a thousand balls in one day, I can only say that it would not end well. Tears would be shed. Parents would get bitten.

Agassi provides the reader with a thorough and candid look into his life as a tennis player and a human being, tracing back to his childhood and going all the way to his retirement at the 2006 US Open at the age of 36. It's painful and embarrassing to read at times. He's not shy about giving details about his less than perfect family life or the difficult times he faced as a tennis player. He's not afraid to discuss the gritty details about his relationship with father or to say less than flattering things about his peers in the tennis world. Considered to be a private person, he lets loose about his marriage (and divorce) to Brooke Shields as well the fairytale-esque way he courted Steffi Graf, his wife (soulmate).

While going through the motions, he eventually comes to terms with the path his father chose for him. He spends most of his young life rebelling against tennis and yet it provides him with his name in history books (one of the few male tennis players to win all 4 Grand Slams) and a wife that he cherishes, truly cherishes. The way he talks about Steffi Graf makes you think she can't actually be real. And it's beautiful to read about. He also finds a father figure in Gil Reyes, his trainer, and it's really special to see how their relationship progresses. Agassi has faith in Gil because Gil has faith in Agassi.

His private life provides the most poignant moments in the books, but his tennis life is worth mentioning, too. I enjoyed reading about his rivalries. Everyone thinks that Agassi's biggest rival is Pete Sampras. While that has some truth because you know, they're the top Americans, meeting in slam finals, yada yada, but Boris Becker is his most hated rival. Becker brings the rage out of Agassi. He's out for blood when he plays Becker and you feel it when you're reading the book. I, too, wanted to beat the crap out of Becker with an inside-out forehand and make him weep. Quite ironic how his most hated rival and the love of his life both hail from Germany.

Definitely thought this was a great read. Fine, I'm a tennis fanatic, but I definitely appreciate Agassi much more. I think people who care as much about tennis as they do about the color of their socks can appreciate Agassi's humanity.

I've seen short documentaries on ESPN and the Tennis Channel. I read a lot about his early years as he neared retirement. Now I finally heard it all from him and that makes the difference. He could have let us all believe in the facade he created. He didn't have to tell us about his anguish and heartache, both on and off the court. But he did and I'm grateful for it.

Being separated from your parents from the age of 12 doesn't make a kid's life the funnest life ever. Traveling the world 11 months out of the year isn't as luxurious as we think. Playing tennis isn't the easiest job in the world, even if you're only spending 3 or 4 hours a day in the "office." I didn't truly realize this until I read Agassi's book.

I hope my kids lack hand-eye coordination just like I do so that I don't get any ideas a la Mike Agassi. Barbies and Ninja Turtles, Barbies and Ninja Turtles.

21 January 2010

We're Gonna Dive into the Emptiness, We'll Be Swimming... When the World Ends

#7 - Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters by Jane Austen and Ben H. Winters

Okay, first an admission of guilt. Despite my adoration for movies based on Jane Austen novels (Sense and Sensibility and both versions of Pride and Prejudice rank high on my top movies list), I have never completed a Jane Austen novel. My one attempt to read P and P was a failure, even though I was on a vacation without internet, television, AND it was too hot to go outside. I can appreciate Miss Austen's wit and humor within a movie, but it hasn't worked for me in book form.

But then Quirk Classics threw zombies and sea monsters into the mix and they were praised for it. So I said, "Okay, the books are on my list, I'll give it another go at some point," and forgot about them. And then I received both novels as a Christmas present and figured that I might as well read them since they were in my possession.

That said, I'm comparing Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters with what I know from Sense and Sensibility, the movie. Bad Jen, I know. My apologies to all the Austen diehards.

SSSM is what I'm calling it because I'm far too lazy to type the whole damn title out every time. SSSM takes the original Austen novel and basically throws sea monsters into the mix. At some point, something called the Alteration occurred, where sea monsters suddenly appeared and began terrorizing the people. The Dashwood sisters, Elinor and Marianne, are simply looking for love amidst the existence of sea monsters and how they have changed the world. I wish more time was spent on the Alteration, when it happened, what happened to the people when sea creatures became monsters, but since it's merely Sense and Sensibility PLUS sea monsters, there's no room for that to happen. The sea monsters are supposed to serve as background music to the Dashwood sisters' story.

For most the novel, the sea monster aspect has minimal impact. It affects the characters' lives, of course, but it was more to say, "Oh look, there's sea monsters!" without really changing the course of the story.

Despite this, I still found the sea monsters to be distracting to the overall story. I appreciate Austen for her ability to tell a love story, and I felt as though that got pushed aside a lot in SSSM. I'm familiar with Sense and Sensibility so I know how the story ends, but I found myself trying to guess how sea monsters would be integrated into the plot. Without spoiling SSSM I can say that Mr. Dashwood dies at the mouth of a shark, and not whatever illness he would have had in 19th century England. Instead of everyone enjoying a picnic outside and that's it, they enjoy the picnic and then some gets eaten by a hugeass jellyfish. Entertaining, but kind of unnecessary.

People die often due to the sea monsters and it's considered normal, a part of the food chain kind of deal, and that irked me. I wouldn't care how normal it was, if I were to see a women devoured by a hugeass jellyfish so that only her bones remained, I would be fucking scarred for life. Not only would I stay away from the ocean, but I probably would never bathe in water again in fear that a jellyfish would come out of the faucet.

Until the sisters go down to Sub-Station Beta (SSSM's bougie underwater kingdom that replaces London), I found that the only significant impact of the sea monster theme could be found in Colonel Brandon, Marianne's fervent admirer. Instead of just being far older than Marianne and far less appealing than Willoughby, he's got tentacles on his face. Squishy gooey tentacles. Poor man. But it helped in amplifying how undesirable he was to Marianne. Despite his polite and sensitive demeanor, a woman would still have to deal with his squishy tentacles. Call me shallow, but no thanks.

Despite my critique of adding in the sea monster theme, I still enjoyed the read. Winters added an extra amount of wit with the sea monsters. Something about Colonel Brandon's tentacle curse not only affecting his face made me giggle. I think that the alterations to the characters worked well. Mrs. Jennings and her daughters as island natives was successful, as was Mr. Palmer's surly demeanor due to his experiences out at sea. I didn't really care for Margaret's story line, because I didn't care for her in the original either. Her plot line just freaked me the hell out. The sea monsters worked best when their existence wasn't glaringly superfluous to the novel. Was Margaret and the Leviathan pertinent to the story? I'm not sure. I could have done without it.

The Blackest Stain on History or Last Laugh Blues

#6 - City of Thieves by David Benioff

The novel takes place during the Nazis' siege of Leningrad during WWII. The two main characters, Lev and Kolya, are arrested (for different reasons) one night and in order to avoid execution for their wrongdoings, they must find a dozen eggs for a Russian general's daughter's wedding cake. A dozen eggs, easy peasy, right? Not quite. This is Russia during WWII. People live off scraps of whatever they can find. They eat candy made out of melted wax. Finding a dozen eggs will be no easy feat.

Despite the story being relatively simple - two guys need to find a dozen eggs in exchange for their lives, the novel is multi-layered. The story told is from the perspective of a writer's grandfather, after the writer has been asked to write an autobiographical account of his life. Instead of his own life, he chooses to focus on his grandfather because of the tales he heard of his grandfather's younger days. These are "tales" because he never heard them firsthand from his grandfather. The grandfather is, of course, Lev. His story is a hard one to tell, but he does it for his grandson. My dad was born in Germany, just a few years after WWII ended, and I don't think he (or I) will never know the whole story to his parents' experiences during the war. It's just not one of those things that becomes easy to talk about, no matter how many years have passed. So in that respect, I definitely appreciate that short portion of the novel.

Lev is 17 years old, still in that awkward stage bordering on being a boy and a man. Even though I'll end up discussing Kolya a lot, I liked Lev's character. He's just a regular kid who gets caught up in this situation. He cares for Mother Russia, but realizes how much she's screwing him over and remembers how much she screwed him in the past. He enjoys Kolya's company, but resents him at times, too.

Kolya, on the other hand, is a self-assured Russian soldier. He tends to put Lev down in certain situations, but Lev doesn't take him too seriously. I loved their interactions, mainly because Kolya is such an outrageous figure. He doesn't think before he speaks. He's confident to a fault, as he is the one who ends up getting them in dangerous situations. One of the funniest/oddest ongoing themes of the novel is Kolya keeping tabs on how it's been since he last took a shit. Perhaps I found it so hilarious because he reminds me of my friends. Conversation is no holds barred. Even though you don't want to hear it, you will. Too bad.

The book is quirky, even though it describes one of the more horrible moments in recent history. Anything you may have heard about the atrocities against Russia during the war is covered. Benioff throw Lev and Kolya right into the thick of things. Their search for eggs serves as a method to show what was happening in Russia. Lev's apartment complex is one of the many building destroyed by the German bombers. During their search for the eggs, Lev and Kolya come face to face with cannibals who try to trick them into becoming their dinner. Realizing that they won't find a dozen eggs in the city, they go to the outskirts. There they encounter teenage girls who have been providing pleasure to German soldiers in exchange for their livelihood, despite the fact that the German soldiers murdered their families and all the other inhabitants of their villages.

While Benioff's description of their various situations is gruesome and realistic, the novel still maintains a comedic aspect, mainly from Lev and Kolya's interactions. No matter how dangerous the scene, there existed some type of side note that made me smirk at them. The language is crass, which is just my kind of thing considering my foul mouthed vocabulary. Like I said, Kolya doesn't hold back. He talks about sex like Lev is his good friend, not someone he got paired up with a couple days ago. The search for the eggs is always in the back of his mind, but he won't let that stop him from talking about his interests.

With that said, you have to be up for these types of conversation to fully enjoy and appreciate the book because it's what brings the lightheartedness into such a horrible situation. Without Lev and Kolya, the book, while compelling, would just be another humdrum novel with a historical backdrop.

15 January 2010

And The World Spins Madly On

Review for City of Thieves coming soon. About halfway through Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters so I'll probably write up both reviews when I'm done with it.

I need to revise my book list. More modern books needed.