Sunday, August 30, 2009

Title Sixty Three: Oswald's Tale: An American Mystery by Norman Mailer

So, the good news is that I finally found a cure for my chronic insomnia. For serious, every time I read this I fell asleep. I'm blaming Mailer for The Great Nap Debacle of Last Sunday, wherein I took not just one but two lengthy naps, and was awake till the wee hours, when it occurred to me to pick up the book again. Bingo. Out like a light. This shit is better than Xanax.

So anyway. I was feeling guilty about all the trash I've been stuffing into my brain lately, so I wanted to redeem myself. This Guy Formerly Known as My Stepfather had this for years, and was kind enough to leave it when he vacated the premises. I spotted it and said, "Nicole, grab that. You need to make penance for all that Nora Roberts noise you've been reading." In the future, the next time I tell myself to do something, could one of you hit me in the head? 'Kthanksbye.

This book is exhaustive. I mean, really and truly. I read all 791 pages, because I do not like to give up on books, but my stars, I was more confused at the end than at the beginning. Like, trying to solve a physics problem confused. I wasn't even sure where I was. (Extensive research led me to the conclusion that I was in my bedroom.) Mailer interviewed family, friends, acquaintances, and colleagues of Lee Harvey Oswald; he pored over and frequently references the Warren Commission testimony; he took excerpts of other books written about LHO; he incorporated letters and other writings, both to and by Oswald. Oswald's time in Russia, where he married Marina and had his first child, takes up nearly the first third of the book. His military history with the Marines is dissected. His job history is investigated. KGB and FBI records are made public. Mailer leaves no stone unturned in his quest to find the man who killed JFK (I don't even want to go into conspiracy theories). He not only delves into Oswald's past, but that of his wife, her family, and his mother. He goes back decades and decades to the beginning of the 20th century. He outlines the differences between various intelligency agencies and the perceptions of Oswald gleaned by said agencies.

The problem is, Oswald was a puzzle in life, and remains a series of contradictions in death. He was a failure who thought that he was something special; he renounced his US citizenship in Moscow (but not formally) only to return to the States a few years later, his experiment with communism a wash; he may or may not have been gay; he was a gregarious recluse. There's just too much information, and there is never a satisfactory answer to the question "Who was this man?" Again, this was no fault of Mailer's. It was just a question that will never be answered. No one could get a handle on Oswald before Jack Ruby put a bullet in his belly, so how could anyone possibly do it when the man's secrets died with him?

I'm going to keep the book on hand as a weapon for the zombie invasion. They're coming. Just you wait.

Title Sixty Two: Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

I read this lovely book about six years ago, and I wanted to see if it still held up. I'm delighted to say that it does, but it's also so bittersweet that I think I'll wait another five or six before visiting it again.

One evening, during a birthday party for a Japanese businessman held in a poor Latin American country (in the hopes that his electronics company will build a plant in said poor country), the Vice Presidential mansion is taken by terrorists; their intended target, the President, is not in attendance, and so the group must quickly formulate a new plan. They decide to take everyone hostage, including the evening's entertainer, world-renowned opera singer Roxane Coss. The first hours following the terrorists' arrival are filled with fear, confusion, and desperation, which Patchett transfers masterfully to the page. As time passes, the Red Cross brings in a negotiator, and eventually all women are released, with the exception of Coss, who chooses to stay.

Dozens of hostages remain, and the days pass. What began as a horrifying ordeal transforms into something unique: a small community of people, from all over the world, coming together and cobbling a satisfying little existence from the circumstances. Neither the terrorists nor the government will budge, so the experience lasts for months. In the meantime, Mr. Hosokawa, the guest of honor, becomes the chess partner of one of the Generals; Carmen, one of the two female terrorists, falls in love with Gen, Hosokawa's translator and aide; Vice President Iglesias becomes close with one of the young boys in the terrorist party and begins to plan a life, afterwards, in which he can raise the boy as his son; Coss begins singing arias every day for the delight and amusement of everyone in the house. They live in a bubble, a sort of hazy limbo, where the outside world ceases to exist and all that matters is their little group. None of them think any longer about the "after," because why would they want to? Friendships are forged, relationships flourish, talents emerge, and emotional bonds form. They don't need anyone but each other.

Of course, something like this can never end well, and the climax is heartbreaking and sudden. Patchett has breathed such life into her characters that they become real people, and by the end the reader cares as much about them as they do for each other. No one wins at the end of Bel Canto, and you will close the book with a sense of melancholy and dissatisfaction, but like the arias that Roxane Coss sings, just because something is sad doesn't mean it's not beautiful.

Title Sixty One: The Pact by Jodi Picoult

Emily Gold and Christopher Harte were born, months apart, to parents who lived in adjacent houses and mothers who were best friends. Growing up, they were two halves of a whole, partners in crime, and as close as any two humans could possibly be. As they moved into the maze of their teenage years, it was only natural that Chris and Em take the next step and become a couple. After all, it's like they were made for each other, so what could be more natural or perfect?

That perfection shatters on an autumn evening when both sets of parents are called with horrifying news: they must come to the hospital immediately; there has been a shooting involving Chris and Emily. The Hartes and the Golds race to the emergency room, but it's too late for Em, killed by a gunshot wound to the head. Christopher has a scalp laceration and stitches. In the ensuing hours, tragic details will emerge: Emily and Chris went to the local park, where Chris operated the carousel in the summer, to fulfill a suicide pact. The gun that killed Emily was Dr. James Harte's. Chris fainted after Em's shot and before he could follow through.

It's not that simple. When Chris is charged with Emily's murder, an already tragic situation becomes catastrophic. What really happened that night? Melanie Gold becomes so consumed by bitterness, blame and rage that she turns on everyone, alienating not only her best friend, Gus Harte, but also her own husband Michael. James Harte withdraws into himself and avoids his wife. Chris's younger sister, Kate, is all but forgotten (the Christmas morning scene is downright painful). In the midst of all of this, defense attorney Jordan McAfee is trying to build a case that will let Christopher off the hook while asking his client to just sit down and shut up; meanwhile, Christopher needs to face the truth of his relationship with Emily, and ask himself how much she really loved him. The answer is devastating.

Picoult uses a combination of legal and emotional plotlines to frame her most successful works, and I would argue that The Pact is in her top three, along with My Sister's Keeper and Handle with Care. While moving through the present day, focusing mostly on Chris but keeping a good handle on the supporting characters, Picoult intersperses the details of Chris and Em's years together, from the day Emily was born and Chris shared her hospital bassinet, up until the night that she died and left Chris behind. In the meantime, everyone tries to put together the pieces of what, exactly, happened. Too many variables don't add up - the trajectory of the bullet, Emily's demeanor, her future prospects as a very talented artist - to label her death a suicide; however, if Chris loves Em as much as he, and everyone else, claims, he could never have killed her, because he doesn't want to live without her. Slowly, secrets are rescued from their hidden corners and pockets, and the answers eventually come together in a moving scene that has Christopher taking the stand in his own defense. The outcome and the answers are completely unbelievable, but they fit the novel to perfection. There is no happy ending, and the truth hurts everyone, but it's fitting. Life isn't always sunshine and rainbows. Sometimes it's a cold marble headstone and regret.

Title Sixty: The Last Cowgirl by Jana Richman

I actually read this book months ago, and then re-read it after that. I'll put it on the stack of books to be reviewed, and then I take it off again and set it aside. I don't know why, but I just feel like I won't be able to do the book justice when I write about it. Then I realized that I need to get my ass in gear on this Challenge, so I resolved to do it. I apologize in advance, because the book deserves more than I'm about to give it. I just...I don't know how. I'm not that good.

Dickie Sinfield (only her father calls her by her given name of Darlene) had a normal suburban girlhood in Utah with manicured lawns and playing on the sidewalk in front of the house until the day her father decided that the family was going to move to a ranch outside of town so that he could follow his own childhood dream of becoming a cowboy. With the exception of Dickie's brother Heber, the family is less than enthused - Dickie misses her neighborhood and friends, her older sister Annie is horrified by the entire thing and spends her time out of the house or locked in her room, and their mother just quietly resents it. Her father's dream is only viable thanks to the efforts of two neighbors and fellow ranchers who would become more family than friends - Bev Christensen and Merv Nelson. A few years later, a local army base and the secrets beneath it would devastate all three ranchers, and Dickie would bolt for Salt Lake City as soon as she hit 18, where she would become a journalist and cut ties with her cowgirl past.

Dickie's story begins with the death of her brother Heber, an accident hushed up by the military base where he works - the same military base that played a role in the destruction of cattle herds decades earlier. Dickie is forced to confront the past in order to come to terms with Heber's death, and the story switches gracefully from the present day to Dickie's recollections of her youth, all told from her point of view. The novel ebbs and flows, unfolding at just the right pace. The plot folds in ranching, government research, environmentalism, Mormonism, family drama, friendship, betrayal, and acceptance in a fascinating way. It's not exactly a tale of redemption; it's more a tale of peace, and coming to terms with your life.

It's just so real. I think that's always been one of the best compliments I can give a book, because I want a story that I can believe in and characters I can know. I'm telling you, there is so much I'm missing here: Dickie's tumultuous relationship with Stumpy, Merv's grandson; her strained relationship with her father; the faithful details of cattle raising and ranch life; the pain of loss; Dickie's spiteful best friend Holly; the residents of Ganoa county and their uneasy acceptance of the military presence that provides jobs yet always casts a shadow of potential disaster. I just don't know how to incorporate all of my thoughts. This book is layered and thought-provoking and insightful and emotional. It's the book that any aspiring writer wants to create. It's lovely. I probably haven't made a very convincing argument here, because I'm babbling, but The Last Cowgirl is a gem. I hope that Richman keeps writing, because she has a fan here.

Title Fifty Nine: Play Dirty by Sandra Brown

Ok, I'll admit that this book is pure trash from front to back.* It's totally aimed at bored housewives who love the Lifetime Movie Network. It's possible that it destroyed a few of my brain cells.

A former Dallas Cowboys quarterback just got out of prison - I'm not sure why he was in prison, but it had something to do with him throwing a game for the Mob or something, and gambling, and I don't know what else. Anyway, this cat, Griff Burkett, gets the offer of a lifetime when he gets out - the billionaire owner of SunSouth Airlines wants Griff to get Mrs. SunSouth pregnant. The old-fashioned way. Because Mr. SunSouth is in a wheelchair and can't get the job done. Griff will make a boatload of money if he agrees. So he agrees. Mrs. SunSouth is okay with it. They knock boots at several appointed times, and Mrs. SunSouth gets up the pole right as the two fall in love, which is sad because now that the rabbit's dead, they have no more reason to meet. Then Mr. SunSouth turns up murdered, Griff is the suspect, but Mrs. SunSouth loves him anyway and helps him run. They figure out who really did it, everyone is redeemed, it turns out Mr. SunSouth was a manipulative, crazy bastard so no real loss there, and everyone is happy.


*Disclaimer: I was high on perfectly legal, professionally administered drugs when I read this.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Title Fifty Eight: Being Committed by Anna Maxted

Yes, again with the British chick lit. You shut your mouth when you're talking to me.

Hannah Lovekin prides herself on her lack of emotion; she believes that it makes her a good detective, and serves her well enough in her private life. The first sign of trouble comes when her boyfriend, Jason, proposes to her on a hotel bathroom floor, and she turns him down. This leads him to turn around and propose to his neighbor Lucy, which then makes Hannah decide she wants him back, even though he's kind of a puss. "Encouraged" by her father Roger to reconcile with Jason, Hannah goes through a sort of test course proposed by Jason in order to facilitate a reunion - she needs to be more feminine (the novel is written in the first person, and the description of a Brazilian had me putting down the book so that I could wipe away tears of laughter), she needs to learn to cook, she has to attend therapy in order to be more emotionally open, and she needs to find some closure with her ex-husband, Jack. The last proves the most difficult, since Jack left Hannah five months after they got married, at age twenty, because he believed that she cheated on him. Hannah has to spin a complicated web when she realizes that she's still in love with Jack, but needs to break off her engagement to Jason - he asked again after the Brazilian and the spray tan and the haircut and the dinner she made - in a delicate manner and return him to Lucy.

Things start to fall apart. Lies begin to spread, and with them truths come out. Memories of her own mother's affair, twenty-five years earlier, start pushing their way into Hannah's brain. She begins to see the people around her for who they really are: her parents, her brother Oliver and his wife Gabrielle, Jack, and her best friend Martine. Hannah starts feeling and it freaks her right the fuck out, but there's nothing she can do about it, and she finally begins to grow up.

Being Committed, like Maxted's other books, is a fast, fun read with a great central theme and a well-developed cast of characters. As the story branches out, it never becomes unwieldy; it just seems to evolve naturally. Maxted mixes humor with levity and creates an overall enjoyable experience. I dig it, and I'll read it again. And again.

Title Fifty Seven: A Final Arc of Sky: A Memoir of Critical Care by Jennifer Culkin

So, we all know by now that I'm a sucker for memoirs, medicine-related books, and combinations of the two. (Look, are you reading a hundred books in a year?) So I went to Barnes and Noble one day at lunch, as I tend to do when my friend Lo is craving one of their pizza pretzels, and was trolling for something cool and came upon A Final Arc of Sky. In all honesty, I checked out the flappy thinger that tells you what it's about (my job renders me brain dead, shut up) and put it back. Then I wandered away, wandered back, looked again, wandered away, wandered back, and grabbed it. It promised me tales of Culkin's career as a critical care/emergency flight nurse, and I wanted the blood and guts and syringes and O2 tanks and flying while trying to keep a dude who wrapped his car around a telephone pole going long enough to make it to the hospital. I'm that kind of girl.

Culkin half-delivered. I don't even know if that's a word or if I made it up, but if you had to read spreadsheets all day you wouldn't be coherent either. There are some great tales of accident victims, medical type actions, and the general bad-assery of the job - I mean, for serious, it takes some titanium balls to do everything in your power to keep someone alive while you're flying in a tin can through a storm in Washington state. And that's your job. Like it's my job to look at spreadsheets, it was Culkin's job to keep people alive in the air. During 24-hour shifts. No fancy machines, no team of doctors, no Code Blues. Just a couple of nurses, a pilot, and someone with one foot out life's door. Do you realize how cool that is?

Culkin frames the story in vignettes more than chapters, and it lends a sort of choppy feel to the narrative. I also became disappointed when the story veered off into her personal life and followed the illnesses and deaths of her parents (her dad was kind of a prick in his final months) and then her own struggle with MS. Don't get me wrong, I admire her for speaking up about her own illness, but I think I was so tired of reading about her father that I just couldn't muster up the energy to feel genuine emotion. There were also a couple of chapters about her love of bike riding, and I just didn't care about that. I skipped them. They were, at best, tangential and, at worst, completely unnecessary. Culkin rounds out the memoir with a powerful chapter on a fatal crash and the deaths of the colleagues involved, even though she had gone on disability by that point, and how it affected her. She realizes that it could have been any one of them, and recalls the deceased with affection and respect. Then it just kind of ends.

Honestly, I wish I hadn't spent my money on the book, because it really only comes out as mediocre and uneven on the whole. I did use a coupon, though.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Title Fifty Six: The House at Sugar Beach by Helene Cooper

It is so, so rare to find a memoir that can blend fact, experience, personal and political history, and a conversational tone and deliver something so pitch-perfect that you can't put it down. I managed to read Cooper's lovely account of her privileged girlhood in Liberia, followed by her escape to America as a refugee and successful career as a journalist, in about three and a half hours (roughly the time it took for me to fly to Portland and back). It was that engaging and gripping; touching without being manipulative, and informative without being pedantic.

Cooper begins with a short history of the country of Liberia itself - the only American attempt at colonization - and traces her own roots back to the founders of the country through both her mother and father. The author neatly encapsulates the background and peppers it with enough details and anecdotes to keep it from becoming dusty or dry. Fast forwarding nearly a hundred and fifty years, Cooper describes her childhood as a daughter of a wealthy and influential family; her father built a luxurious estate in a secluded suburb of the city of Monrovia, a home that the family called "Sugar Beach." Cooper's parents, who already had children of their own, brought a poor native girl named Eunice to live with the family in order to keep Helene and her sister Marlene company. Eunice was treated well and loved by the girls as a sister, but the Liberian caste system prevented her from truly belonging to the family. Cooper evokes vivid memories of parties, private school, clothes from America, vacations, fancy cars, and handsome boys as she describes a charmed girlhood. Then overnight, a coup destroyed the delicate balance of Liberian life and families such as the Coopers were marked for death. Helene watched her uncle, a government official, executed on television. In a matter of weeks Helene, Marlene, and their mother refugeed from Liberia and fled to America as the world they left behind crumbled and burned, giving way to a new world where women were raped and slaughtered and children were orphaned and forced into militias. Eunice had to be left behind, and Helene didn't see her again for decades.

After the coup and the escape, the Coopers built a new life in America, but Helene was never comfortable, and they moved around quite a bit. John Cooper eventually went back to Liberia and died there; Calista and Marlene Cooper also returned but came back to the U.S. after several years. Only Helene never cared to go back. Helene dedicated herself to her studies and became a reporter at UNC, then moved on to a journalism career that took her to the Wall Street Journal and later all over the world, but she locked away her feelings on Liberia and focused on her new life as an American, preferring to forget her past, until she found herself in Iraq in the beginning of the war and narrowly avoided dying in an attack. Helene Cooper picked herself up, dusting herself off, and decided that if she were going to die in a war, it should be Liberia. Her decision brought her face to face with the horrors she never wanted to see again, but it also brought her back to Eunice, and gave her a second chance that should probably never have happened.

A story like this should be trite. It should make you roll your eyes and sigh derisively. The beauty of The House at Sugar Beach is that, instead, it makes your heart ache and your eyes tear in the best of ways. (I fully admit to crying a little while reading the description of Helene's father's death, although I was surreptiously trying to knuckle the tears away lest the air hostess ask me if I was all right and embarrass me on a plane full of strangers.) It made me wonder why I didn't know more about Liberia or the atrocities committed there, and it made me respect someone who took the pieces of a shattered life and rebuilt them while she was still just a child, and then had the courage to risk that fragile existence by going back as an adult. Cooper keeps it real in the best sense of the word, being matter-of-fact without being cold, being honest without being callous, and being true without being exploitative. The mixture of emotion and fact is beautifully balanced, and makes for a bittersweet story with the happiest ending it could have had.

Title Fifty Five: Sushi for Beginners by Marian Keyes

I like Brit chick lit, we've established that. I dig the slang and the settings and the phrasing and the pace. I prefer Keyes' Walsh sisters stuff to her standalones, but the latter are serviceable enough. I feel like I've reviewed enough of her books here over the last several months that if I get all analytical it's just going to be boring, so to sum:

Lisa is a hotshot magazine editor based in London who is ruthless, bitchy, and almost guaranteed to snag a promotion and posting in NYC. To her shock, she's sent packing to the backwater of Dublin to launch an Irish women's magazine, Colleen. Lisa loathes everything about it but is determined to claw her way back to the top. She acquires a sexy new boss in Jack Devine and a doggedly loyal assistant in Ashling Kennedy. Keyes gives you interesting characters, and it's fun to watch them move through the process of launching a new magazine. Ashling is the most endearing, but Lisa becomes a sympathetic figure and is redeemed by the end of the book. Ashling gets betrayed by her best friend and her boyfriend, but lands on her feet. Jack smolders his way along and gets his own happy ending.

Really, I don't have much more to tell you. It's a fun book if you're into this kind of thing, and Keyes doesn't really hit wrong notes that often. Sushi for Beginners holds up nicely.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Slackergirl Stall

Ok, I know I suck, but I'm-a blame work, a wonky home PC, and health issues, because while I'm known for my laziness, this is ridiculous. I'll be back on point real soon, because I'm still reading like a mofo.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Title Fifty Four: The Gun Seller by Hugh Laurie

Guess what? House wrote a book! I had to buy it. Those sexy blue eyes were just gazing at me from the back cover, whispering, "Oh Nicole, I've been waiting for you. Take me home." So I did.

I didn't expect it to be a great work of literature, and it's not. But what The Gunseller is, is a fun, fast, twisty romp of a spy thriller. Thomas Lang, ex-Scots Guard and general layabout, was drifting along just fine until the day he was offered a large sum of money to kill a wealthy businessman. Lang, of course, doesn't want the job, thank you very much, but he gets sucked into a tangled scheme involving arms dealers, terrorists, the CIA, a groundbreaking new model of fighter helicopter, and a pretty girl before he can even open a fresh bottle of Scotch. Blackmailed on several fronts, Lang is forced to be a bad guy, which he manages to do pretty well, but not without several layers of guilt weighing on his conscience and making him determined to find a way to flip the script on the guys holding the reins.

Honestly, the novel is a blast. The conversational tone made me picture Laurie, sitting in a leather armchair with a drink at his elbow, just spinning out this yarn while we relaxed in front of a fire on a chilly day. Lang is a fantastic protagonist, just a sort of everyman with some specially-acquired military skills who would prefer to mind his own business but has just a little more under the surface than you would expect. The plot double-crosses and then twists back on itself, but it's never too complicated to follow, with just enough sex and violence thrown in. The dialogue is organic and snappy and the characters given the right bit of nuance to make them interesting without taking over.

Go ahead, try it. Those eyes are begging you.

Title Fifty Three: The Time Traveller's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

Y'all, I love this book. As in, I would like to have adorable little babies with it. It's just so gorgeous and full of life. Henry and Clare's love story is so beautiful, and so breathtakingly painful, that you just want to crawl into the pages and watch it unfold before your eyes. The truest testament to Niffenegger's skill as a writer is that she makes that possible. Henry DeTamble and Clare Abshire DeTamble are real people to me; they're old friends whom I love and can't bear to let go, and the end cracks my heart a little more each time I read it.

To sum: Henry is a time traveller. Not a TARDIS sort of time traveller; rather, he has some genetic malfunction wherein he disappears from the present and finds himself in various times and places. Nothing fantastical like 14th century France or present-day Mars, but it could be a parking garage in Chicago in winter, the Field Museum at night twenty years earlier, or the Meadow at the Abshire home during Clare's childhood. Henry can never tell how long he'll be gone or when he'll come back, and it's Clare's curse that she must wait for him, and that she can never follow.

Clare and Henry met when she was only six, and he materialized in her favorite play spot. Henry was already grown. Throughout her childhood, Clare is visited by various Henrys from the future, a future where the two have already married. As she grows older, Clare falls in love with this man, and there is never anyone else for her. One day, looking for information at the library where Henry works, twenty-year-old Clare sees him and the pieces of her life begin to click into place. Henry hasn't met her yet, but their fate is sealed. Within hours they are lovers, and within months they are married. As they settle into married life, Clare begins to see the magnitude of their situation, but it's what she signed on for. Despite the awful limbo in which she must exist, Clare loves Henry absolutely, and he loves her with the same ferocious one-mindedness. They can only belong to each other. I swear, the love just bleeds off the page, but it's not sappy or overly sentimental. It just is.

You've got these two people who want nothing more in the world than each other, but they know that they have to be careful and grab what they can while they can, because time is so fluid and they never know when it's going to run out. The narrative should be jerky, with its constant flashbacks and -forwards, but it's not; it's beautifully seamless and smoothly undulating. You can't help but drift along on the current. I even love the ending, which is so bittersweet, but again brings such a sense of reality to what should be an absurd premise. Nothing is perfect, nothing is forever, but when you have something beautiful, hold onto it with all you've got.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Title Fifty Two: Vision in White by Nora Roberts

Shut up.

Four friends run a wedding planning business in Connecticut. Sassy red-headed photog Mac has no use for commitment, but she's great with the brides. She has a lot of baggage from her childhood and her parents, who treat marriage like it's a hand of bridge. Her mother blackmails her emotionally and her father ignores her. She just wants, as my friend Lauren would say, "a hot guy to bone."

Enter Carter, brother of a bride. He had a crush on Mac in high school, and he surprises her when she falls for him. He's an English teacher, back at the old alma mater, and he's bookish, smart, careful, and thoughtful - all the things Mac doesn't want. But folks, this is mass market paperback romance, so what do you think happens?

Mac and Carter fall in love. Wildly, madly, passionately. The sex is earth-shattering. Angels weep. Mac is able to toss aside her baggage and leap into the arms of her man. He asks, she says yes. Fin.

I needed a break from Anna Karenina, okay?