Friday, January 22, 2010

Superior Scribbler!

I got an award, which totally made my day - since I hadn't been blogging much when it I got it, it really motivated me to get moving again! So a big thank you to English Major's Junk Food for the Super Scribbler Award. Here are the rules:

■ Each Superior Scribbler must in turn pass The Award on to 5 most-deserving Bloggy Friends.

■ Each Superior Scribbler must link to the author and the name of the blog from whom he/she has received The Award.

■ Each Superior Scribbler must display The Award on his/her blog, and link to This Post, which explains The Award.

■ Each Blogger who wins The Superior Scribbler Award must visit this post and add his/her name to the Mr. Linky List. That way, we’ll be able to keep up-to-date on everyone who receives This Prestigious Honor! (I just left a comment on the original post).

■ Each Superior Scribbler must post these rules on his/her blog.

I'm passing this on to:

Julie Chats - who has a super-fun scrapbook blog
Ann Again - who hosts the very fun Virtual Girls Night Out on Friday evenings (go sign up! it's a fun way to find new blogs)
The Betty & Boo Chronicles - host of the 2010 Memorable Memoir Reading Challenge - if you haven't signed up yet, what are you waiting for?
Vicki's Scrapbooking & Tidbits - Can you tell I've been on a hunt for scrapbook ideas? This is a new blog to me, and she's got a lot of neat layout ideas.
Biobliophile by the Sea - She's hosting a funny kind of book challenge, called Prepare to be Shocked! Basically, you keep a tally of how many books you purchase this year.*

I also have one sad aside: When I started my challenge, I ran across the blog Bookworm Wannabe, who wa also attempting to read and blog her way through 50 books in a year. Unfortunately, the Bookworm was also a college student and had a lot of other reading to do - she pulled down her blog recently. Sad to see her go. Good Luck in your studies, Bookworm! You'll be missed.

Oh, and here's my award (Isn't it cute?):

*Those of you who know my superhero alter-ego, Spreadsheet Woman, know that not only will I probably do this challenge, I will keep a detailed spreadsheet and do all sorts of fun, yet unnerving, calculations with the data - like figure out the percentage of books I read out of all that I buy, and from that I will extrapolate the true cost of each book I read, but that's not really fair because I check out library books too so start tracking that data and then I'll figure out a way to average the cost and then ... I'm still debating if this challenge is a good idea for me personally.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

A Reliable Wife, by Robert Goolrick

Wow, did I need to find this book.

Now, when I say "find," it's not like I had to search or anything. A Reliable Wife piqued my interest when it first came out - I saw a review and added it to my TBR list. I checked a copy out from the library, let it sit forlornly on my shelf while I read other things, and then returned it, unread.

But I haven't been able to get into a real groove about a book recently, so I took the family to Barnes & Noble and we wandered around ... and there it was again, A Reliable Wife. Something about it finally said "READ ME!" so I bought a copy, started reading it in the car, and couldn't put it down for the next two days.

I've been reading a lot of good books, recently - but mostly of the put-downable variety - and was starting to think that maybe I was getting too old to still have that "I have to finish this book if I have to stay up all night to do it" feeling about a book. I don't have it very often, but I think it's less that I'm old and more that finding those books was never easy in the first place.

A Reliable Wife takes place in Wisconsin in 1907. A wealthy man places an ad in the newspaper looking for a wife, and a woman responds, describing herself as "a good, honest woman." She isn't, of course: her plan is to marry him and then poison him, leaving herself a wealthy widow.

The story is delightfully full of unexpected twists, all told in a contemplative, lyrical style full of stunning descriptions of the Wisconsin winter landscape. The beauty and desolation of the setting, both critical to the narrative, are perfectly conveyed: the writing is not rushed, or urgent, but slow-moving and thoughtful, as though the reader, too, was snowbound.

Although the writing feels unrushed, other story elements have an urgency about them that propel the reader through. Sex, for example, features prominently - and not always in a good way - a description of Mr. Truitt's increasing desire ends with, "He wanted to slice her open and lie inside the warm blood of her body." (This is probably a good time to mention that A Reliable Wife is not a book for the prudish or faint of heart.)  

Although it is clear from the outset that all the characters are, in some way, being deceptive, as I reader, I did not feel deceived by the author - I knew the characters were holding back, and the wondering continued as the revelations came forward. By the end, the characters had a marvelous depth to them, filled in as they were by the vibrancy of their individual narratives. Many of the twists I simply never saw coming, even though I knew there was more hidden.

A Reliable Wife is a rare find, probably one of my favorite books so far. 25 books down, 25 to go - bookwise I'm at the halfway mark. 23 more weeks to read!

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The UnDutchAbles

I have a problem.

Over the long weekend, I sent my husband up into our storage space in the rafters, to look for several old boxes of books I was sure were up there. He retrieved one box, insisting it was the only one, and I choose to believe him because I fear the crawl space and the critters and phantasms I am convinced live there, hiding behind our boxes of Christmas crap, waiting to jump out at me, and only me. Sure enough, the box contained the book I was looking for - my childhood copy of The Complete Brothers Grimm.

I re-read my favorite story, "The Juniper Tree," and wondered how on earth Walt Disney came up with idea of adapting any of these very macabre little stories into sweet animated children's movies with singing bluebirds and happy endings. Then I wondered if I could read them to my daughter without someone calling CPS on me.

But that's not actually the point of this blog post.

The book was stashed away in a box full of children's books. Many of them were mine and I was thrilled to find them and restore them to their rightful spot on my shelves. (Uncle Wiggly! So good to see you! Ozma of Oz! Delighted! SNOOOOOPY!! Good dog!) Many of them, though, belong to my 9-year-old daughter - and this is the problem.

The books, you see, are in Dutch. Technically, my daughter is Dutch, but I really can't overstress how much of a technicality that is: Her father is Dutch, and lives in Holland, and she has a citizenship through him. She lives in Seattle, speaks only English, and has no memory of her one visit to that country. I'm not sure she could find Holland on a map.

At one time, I spoke some Dutch - I spent a month in the Hague at a Dutch language immersion school, right upstairs from Christine le Duc, a sex shop. Good times, indeed. I acquired a number of these books while taking that class, with the idea that I could read them to help learn the language, and then they would be for our child someday.

You know what they say about the best-laid plans.  

So now I have this box of children's books, written in a language I didn't use long enough to master and have mostly forgotten, intended for a child who doesn't speak the language either. The difficulty with Dutch (the language, I mean) is that not many people speak it outside of Holland; and since I don't know any of those that do, I am at a loss for what to do with these books.

I love books, especially ones with lots of lovely illustrations: It's like a crime against literature to throw them away ... not to mention a crime against nature, since the world hardly needs more landfill. I contemplated a big, generous gesture: I could mail them to my ex-husband in Holland, who surely could find some young children to enjoy them. But there are a lot of books, and they're heavy, and although relations with him have not recently been hostile, well - it's kind of a lot of money to spend to make him look good.

Not that I gave that a moment's thought, obviously.

I'm giving myself a week or so to come up with a plan - which I swear will not consist of putting the books into back into the attic and once again, forget that they are there.

Monday, January 18, 2010

I'm Down, by Mishna Wolff

I have developed a minor obsession with book covers. Yes, I know - we're always told not to judge books by their covers, but it's very hard not to choose books, in part, based on their covers. Wandering through a bookstore or library, I see the illustration, it piques my interest (or not); I read the cover blurb or reviews on the back cover, they draw me in (or not); only then do I actually read a few pages and see if this is a book I'm going to invest some time in (or not). And yet, it is almost comical how misleading so many of these covers are: often, it feels like the marketing department wrote the jacket copy without actually reading the book.

The cover of Mishna Wolff's I'm Down: A Memoir bills the book as the memoir of a white girl, whose white father truly believes he's black and embarks on a lifelong crusade to make his daughter hip. The daughter first finds herself unable to fit in, as the most unhip white girl in a black school and neighborhood; later, her mother arranges for her to attend an accelerated school program for the academically gifted - at which point Mishna can't fit in socially with the well-to-do white kids at that school.

To quote some of the publisher's text: "I'm Down is a hip, hysterical, and at the same time beautiful memoir that will have you howling with laughter ... and questioning what it means to be black and white in America."

This is an interesting spin, because although the general outline is correct, I didn't find myself either howling or questioning. Rather, I found myself stunned at the abject poverty in which some families in America live, and appalled at what passes for parenting in some households. Also, I am awed that a person could be raised in such shocking conditions, and live to tell the tale so eloquently.

The book starts off explaining how the family came to live in a predominantly black area, and then describes how the author finds herself and her younger sister being raised by their father, a man whose occupation is laughably described as "contractor," rather than by their mother, a woman who worked two jobs and clearly didn't want to leave her children behind. The father is a bully, and the mother lacks the strength to deal with him, although she makes efforts, from the sidelines, to improve her daughters' lives; notably, she arranges for Mishna to be moved into a program for gifted children and receive a better education than she might have otherwise.

So, while mom is working two jobs and trying to improve her daughters' lives, what is dad doing? Unfortunately, he is providing lots of evidence that for some people, at least, poverty is their own damn fault*. He starts a lot of projects that he doesn't finish: at one point he tears out half their front yard because he is going to start some home-expansion project, which never happens, leaving the family entering the house for the next decade through the side door, as there is a 20-foot drop outside the front door. There is a mention of a huge pile of glass that was purchased to build a greenhouse and then just sat in the back yard. In another scene, Mishna's stepmother, who marries her father and then finds herself supporting the entire family even though she is barely 25, is dressed to go out and looking splendid - in a bathroom that is missing a wall, as the father tore out the wall at the start of a remodeling project, but then never got any further with it. When Mishna finally leaves home, in her late teens, she approaches this shamble of a house and realizes that her father had managed to "out-ghetto the ghetto."

Reading along, I found myself caring deeply about Mishna and looking for hope that, at any page, she would find herself removed from the squalor. Page after page, I wondered, Where the hell is that fairy godmother? Although opportunities for escape seem to present themselves, her father blocks them - he wants to keep his daughters. And while it's fair enough that a parent should want to be with their children, it also becomes clear that he doesn't want his children to be any better than he is. As Mishna progresses in school, her father and stepmother keep piling more burdens on her, and gradually the realization comes: they don't want her to succeed, and are actively trying to obstruct her.

As heartbreaking as it is, I loved I'm Down. The author takes a gentler view of her father than I was able to - she clearly loves him, in spite of it all. That generosity of spirit is probably what amazed me the most - not only does Mishna Wolff manage to overcome the terrible obstacles put in her way, she does so with grace.

* No, I do not think everyone is to blame for their own misfortunes, financial or otherwise, nor should this statement in any way be taken to imply that I do.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Too Much Money, by Dominick Dunne

Dominick Dunne died last year, and I am really going to miss him. The wonderful thing about Dominick Dunne books is that you know exactly what to expect when you buy one - high society gossip in the guise of a novel, with absolutely no redeeming literary or social qualities - and thus, his books never fail to meet your expectations.

In short, his books are guilty pleasures, about which I have no guilt ... why should I? Despite the very rich content, they have no calories.

Too Much Money is no exception, and it was the perfect way to finish out his writing - the book follows the same characters as People Like Us, only twenty years later, when one of them has finished his prison term and is attempting to re-enter New York society; one woman who was at the top of the social heap is embittered by her financial decline; there's an elderly society lady whose son appears to be making off with her artworks as her dementia progresses; and several other characters and plot points that are straight out of his Vanity Fair column.

Whenever I read Dunne's books, I wish they came with a Rosetta Stone that explained to me exactly who each character was supposed to be, because although many are familiar, I can't quite place them. I googled a couple of names and easily found out who the characters were based on - and then decided I just didn't care. It's not like I might ever mistakenly invite one of them for dinner. 

My biggest gripe about Too Much Money: It feels like it was written as a series of short stories, or maybe a soap opera, in the sense that we are continually reminded of plot points that even the slowest reader should not need reminding about. In order to keep up appearances, two relatives met for monthly lunches even though they hated each other and the lunches. Which is fine, but do we need to be reminded that "neither of them enjoyed it" every single time they have lunch? Same for explaining about halfway through the book that one character "has social aspirations." I'm sorry, but you just went on at great length about that for the last 100 pages ... I may not be in high society, but I can retain a concept for more than an hour, and really, it just doesn't take much longer than that to read one of these books.

But that's a minor gripe and the rest of the book was just the cotton candy I wanted: Sweet, easily consumed, blissfully lacking in substance.

23 books read, 27 more to go.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Happy New Year!

I've been a bad blogger for a while now, and much as I'd like to dive into the New Year with a blog post full of upbeat and inspiring resolutions, the fact is, I can't do it. For many years, I made resolutions, and for many years, I failed to keep them. Until one year, I made the perfect resolution:

I resolve that I will never again make a New Year's Resolution.

Do you like it? It's elegant and simple and so much more: It's a resolution I've kept to this day.

In the end, though, I do have things I want to accomplish this year, and first among those things is to finish some things I've already started.

One thing I've realized recently: Finishing things is not my strong suit.

  1. Crafts. As silly as Knit the Season was (and it was), it was also a painful reminder that finishing craft projects is not my strong suit. As with books, I'm really, really good at buying craft supplies. I'm great at organizing and storing those supplies, too. Under my bed is a box of half-finished needlework, which serves as a painful reminder of  my lack of follow-through, as well as the fact that tastes change, sometimes a lot.
  2. Decorating. I have several unframed pictures in the closet, several framed-but-not-hung pictures also in the closet, and several curtain rods I've bought that are in their original wrappers, sitting next to the windows for which they were bought, but unhung because I never found the right curtain. We've been in this house five years.
  3. Books. I'm not good at finishing books. Why is that? I like to read, but so many books end up being returned to my library only half-read. It makes me feel like a slacker, but I'm starting to think that maybe ... just maybe ... it has something to do with those books.
I've got six more months to go to finish this reading challenge, and I'm determined to do it. I'd like to make a resolution about it, but I can't ... I think you understand the dilemma.

I think part of the problem is I might have issues with perfectionism. For five years, I have convinced myself that the perfect curtains will have to be made by me, since there always something a little bit off about what's ready made in the catalogs. And suddenly it's a big project that requires a lot of effort from me and ...  doesn't get done.

Last night, though, I got a catalog and my husband and I picked out curtains for our bedroom - over dinner. In about five minutes. Well, five years and five minutes. I've been catching up with my reading and here we have my first blog post of the year. So, rather than make a resolution, I think I will make a wish:  2010: May it be the year we finish what we start.

Happy New Year!
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