Saturday, October 3, 2009

Bonk by Mary Roach

I've read all of Roach's single-word titled books, and she just keeps getting better. This one is about the science of sex. It would be hard to go wrong with this, as it merges two of my favorite topics.

Roach has a delightful sense of humor, and she's very diligent in her research. She traveled to a number of unexpected places during the writing of the book, including a mostly wasted trip to Egypt. Not really a country you'd expect to have pioneering sex research going on, and you'd be right. One determined guy was trying to prove a theory but the government frightened his subjects into not speaking with Roach. Nonetheless, that folly gives you an idea of how hard she works to find people on the margins who might add something to the body of research.

I learned a lot from the book; including a further confirmation of my belief that most of us try to make sex and sexual response seem simple. It can be, of course, but it can also be very difficult to fix certain sexual problems. The whole system is incredibly complex, and those of us who have systems that work reliably should be very, very grateful for them.

The final chapter was my favorite, and it surprised me a little. I won't reveal what she found, but I recommend you read the book and discover it for yourself. Don't let the science part intimidate you. It's science-light, and you'll understand it even if you didn't do well in biology.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Home by Marilynne Robinson

This companion to "Gilead" took me a while to get into. But once I hit my stride I was obsessed. The book centers on two of the characters of "Gilead," and takes place simultaneously. If you've read "Gilead" you will definitely want to check this one out. If you haven't--you should!

The Sealed Letter by Emma Donaghue

I must admit I don't know what's in the sealed letter. I got through the first 50 pages, then decided this was the day I was going to follow through with my recent decision to stop at 50 if I wasn't enthralled. To be honest, there are too many books out there to spend a day reading something that doesn't really grab me.

I was surprised I didn't like this one. Donaghue can usually be counted on to present a well-researched, fact-based tale that transports the reader to the time of the action. But this time it felt like she was saying, "look how much I know about Victorian England." Not that there's anything wrong with knowing a lot about anything. But her facts weren't integral to the story and that left me cold.

Donaghue can tend to write more like an academic than a novelist, and this one seemed devoid of emotion. But her writing is crisp and clear and her facts are always presented well. So you might like this if you crave Victorian tales even when they're on the dry side.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon

I admit I'm a huge fan of Chabon's, so you may want to take my view with a grain of salt. I'm afraid I can't be entirely objective.

The Wonder Boys is his second novel; written after he'd wasted several years (and spent a big advance) writing a bloated opus that he finally abandoned. One day he sat down and started The Wonder Boys and found he could focus and get somewhere again. Improbably, The Wonder Boys is the story of a semi-famous author who can't finish a bloated novel for which he's been paid a large advance.

As someone who writes, I identify with his inability to write what he's supposed to write when he's supposed to write it. So I was fascinated by this tale with such a big true-life thread. It's the old "when life gives you lemons"...

The story is pretty dark and the characters are, for the most part, not terribly appealing. But the plot carried me along and made me not really care that most of the people were self-involved jerks. Chabon has the ability to make me care about people I'd never care about in real life, and I find that a phenomenal gift.

The plot has some twists and turns that I won't give away. Suffice to say that he tells a slightly odd but compelling tale about a writer and his friend/agent. He skewers literary types, academics, novelists and their sycophants and still manages to be tender at times. I haven't read the novel for which he won the Pulitzer since I'm a delayed gratification kinda girl. But I'm sure I'll give in before too long.

Wishful Drinking by Carrie Fisher

I've read all of Carrie's other books, so when I saw this at the library I picked it up immediately.

She's had a tough adult life; and her childhood wasn't a whole lot easier. I know most people believe that being wealthy, not to mention famous, is the key to happiness. I happen to think it's harder to be happy when you're both.

Carrie's had some intense shock therapy and it has seriously affected her memory, but her sense of humor is pretty intact. This book is a very quick read; mostly full of anecdotes about her family--many of which she doesn't recall. She says her life is more like a movie to her than her life, and I find that rather sad.

She's had a very tough time with depression and being bipolar. But she's trying her best to be a good mother to her daughter and to make sure she sees her grow up. The book is wry and funny; but there's an undercurrent of sadness that runs through it. I recommend it if you're a fan of Carrie's or a fan of old Hollywood. And since it will only take a couple of hours to read it, it's a great book for an afternoon by the pool or the beach.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Bad Mother by Ayelet Waldman

The subtitle of this book is "A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities and Occasional Moments of Grace." While reading it I considered that the subtitle is actually quite accurate. Waldman is one of those moms who doesn't find each moment of raising a child to be filled with joy and delight. As a matter of fact, when she says "moments" of grace she's deadly serious. But you get a real feel for how incredibly important her kids are to her--even though having them and raising them is a hell of a lot of work.

The new crop of "bad mother" books have shone a light on a phenomena many women haven't been comfortable saying aloud. Women raised in the 60s and 70s, that is. They were the women who were going to have it all and when they had kids they were going to do it right. Waldman recounts how there is no "right." Any way you choose is filled with compromises and disappointments. If every woman read and believed this book fewer of them would voluntarily have kids. I think that's a very good thing, since at least 25% of kids in America seem vaguely unwanted. Of course, that's not a scientific sample. Just observations from the mall.

I enjoyed the book and found it funny and poignant at times. Waldman and her husband have money, they live in a great town, they have supportive families and can afford to hire help. And still they struggle to be good parents. I think being a good parent is the hardest job in the world and wish people would only undertake it when they truly have the calling. But I have a felling my wishes are for naught, even with Ayelet Waldman's stern warnings.

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

I put off reading this book for quite a few years. It received rave reviews when it first came out but I was put off by the subject matter and didn't think it would resonate. Wrong, wrong, wrong!
Great writing resonates with anyone who's open to it, and I'm going to remind myself of that the next time a book comes out that doesn't seem up my alley.

In Gilead the narrator, John Ames, begins to write an epistle to his young son. The boy is only 6, but the father is in his 70s and his heart has begun to fail. He knows he won't live to tell his boy all of the tales that he'd like to convey, so he decides to write his "begats."

Ames is a minister, as were his father and grandfather. Both men play central roles in the book, based on their massive influence on John as a boy and a man.

I read the book while sitting outdoors on my deck on a lovely summer day. That was the perfect setting because the book forces you to slow down and adapt to its pace--not your own. It's slow and careful and precise; but always enthralling. That's due to Robinson's prose, which is world-class. She describes a house or a church or a road in Kansas so compellingly that I was utterly transported to the places I read about.

The characters are so lovable, so earnest, and yet so fallible that they seem more real than many people you actually think you know.

I could recount the plot of the book but there's actually very little of that. The story doesn't actually go anywhere. But it goes deeply into the history, motivations, joys and sorrows of one small family in a small town in Iowa in the middle of the 20th century.

I was very touched by this work and I feel a little silly for having avoided it. I've got to learn to trust a good writer, and Robinson is truly good.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Nursery Crimes by Ayalet Waldman

I'll admit I picked this up at the library because Waldman is Michael Chabon's wife and he's one of my favorite authors.

The book is entertaining and provides a nice glimpse into the life of a mother with small children who isn't fulfilled by only rearing her kids. I think that's a perspective that we don't acknowledge often enough, so I'm glad she included it so prominently.

"Nursery Crimes" is a mystery, but real mystery fans will be able to figure out who done it fairly early. That's not the book's main lure. I'd say that's the main character and her family. This is a good start to a series where the characters are as interesting as the crime...and that's my kind of series. I'll read another for sure.

The Fire Gospel by Michel Faber

"The Crimson Petal and the White" is one of the most memorable books I've read in a long while. Faber wrote that about 5 years ago, and it was a big seller that merited a lot of critical acclaim.

I believe my puzzlement and slight disappointment with "The Fire Gospel" is because I was expecting another "Crimson Petal." That's clearly not fair to the author, and I should know better.

This book was fairly funny and was a very quick read. I'd say it was about 175 pages if they'd printed it in a more standard format. But I'm not usually looking for fast in a book. I'd rather have character development, and that's where Faber really let me down. I know almost nothing about his main character and the secondary characters are just there to have the protagonist have someone to talk to.

Nonetheless, the book was funny, particularly if you like reading about a man unintentionally destroying most of what Christians believe about the actual life of Christ. I'd think there isn't a huge market for that, but if that's your interest this is the perfect book for you.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

The Fires of Vesuvius by Mary Beard

Fascinating book if you're interested in Pompei and Roman life in the first century CE.

Beard is an academician, but she writes in a fashion that a layperson can easily understand. For people who like answers about the period she's probably not your girl. But if you want to read about a historian's conjectures about what the various finds mean, you'll enjoy it.

She writes with a heavy dose of skepticism about everything a tour guide will tell you is a fact, but she supports all of her conjecture with ample evidence.

The book is separated into sections dealing with work, play, bathing, etc., and all are nice peeks into life in a very old city at the time of its destruction. Given its depth and the scholarship involved it's a strangely light read. I attribute that not to the content but to Beard's style. She has a plain, direct manner that makes it seem like an excellent college-level lecture by a fascinating professor.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon

This oddly compelling novel merely cements my view that Michael Chabon can write anything he darned well chooses and continue to entertain me.

This short novel tells the tale of a few highwaymen in the 10th century. It's a tale of adventure, cunning, and loyalty; and I can't believe I read it. I'm no fan of adventure tales. I generally like stories that take place in current time. And this book is light on character development and heavy on action--not my thing.

But I started reading it this past rainy Sunday and I didn't put it down until I'd finished, some 5 hours later.

Chabon is such a stylist that he can make things that don't interest me interest me. That's my view of an excellent writer.

I don't want to give away any of the surprises, so I'll leave it at this. If you want to read a short novel that could have been a fantastic script for Xena:Warrior Princess--look no further. That might not sound like a huge compliment, but it is.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Kaaterskill Falls by Allegra Goodman

I can't believe I haven't read a book since December, but I fear that's true. I've been on a very good writing spree, and when that's so I tend to read magazines and blogs. I'm taking a writing break of a couple of weeks so I'm going to buzz through a few books.

First up is Kaaterskill Falls. Last year I read Intuition by Allegra Goodman and I was stunned by how good it was. It was one of those books that made you want to go to that place and live with those people for a while. I mean, you know them all so well that you'd slip right in with just a nod and an extra spot at the dinner table.

Kaaterskill Falls was Goodman's first novel, and in many ways that shows. She doesn't have the surety of her voice in this novel, and her prose isn't as poetic as I know it can be. She also doesn't use her descriptive powers as well as she can. But those are fairly small quibbles.
Goodman has a wonderful talent for storytelling, and even in this, her first novel, that aptitude shines through.

Kaaterskill Falls is a bucolic spot near the Catskills in New York where many sects of devout Jews began to summer sometime after the Second World War. It's a very small town which had been back on its heels when the Jewish families started to rent or buy their summer homes. It's a very modest place and many of the families are orthodox. Oddly, there are no stores for them to shop at. Each husband stops on the way up on Friday night and buys the family provisions for the week.

The group we meet are followers of Rav Kirschner, a rebbe from Frankfurt whose male followers wear modern fedoras and black suits. The women cover their hair once they're married and they dress very modestly, even in the summer heat. Many of the people we come to know are devout followers of the rav, but, as in all groups, some are more devout than others.

I'm a bit surprised that The Dial Press agreed to publish the book. Not that it isn't worthy of publication. But its style is fairly unique and very challenging, even for an established writer. Goodman tries to show us the town and its inhabitants as a whole, never fully concentrating on any character. We get into their heads, but their are so many heads that we don't know any of the characters well. She also "tells" us a fair amount about the people, rather than letting us "see" for ourselves what their motivations are. This is the type of thing that beginning creative writing teachers always warn against, but Goodman breaks every rule. She jumps from one character's thoughts to the next in the space of a sentence. She explains a complex set of emotions in just a few words. Largely, she succeeds, but I wouldn't have wanted to take the chance if I were her publisher. Just shows what I know.

I had a hard time getting into the flow of the book, but once I realized that nothing was really going to happen I let myself settle into the rhythm and enjoy the seasons with the families. In that way the book is hyper-real. There's no driving plot; actually, there's barely any plot at all. Just people living their relatively simple lives in a relatively simple time-the mid 1970s. 

For those of you who lived in the 70s you might recognize it as a time of great tumult, but if you were a member of the Kirshner sect you'd hardly see a difference between then and 1950. No TV, no New York Times, no theater or movies; in short, just the small joys and sorrows of daily life centered around God.

For me, the book showed how clans are both comforting and binding; satisfying and constraining. Most of the members of the sect have made bargains with themselves to be able to stay and be happy; in the end, the least happy are those who are outside. I think that's probably true for most humans. We love to belong, but we don't want anyone to hold on too tightly.

The book offers a quick peek into a life that most of us will never know, and I'm glad I got to visit. I don't feel like I could go there and join in, but I think that's part of the story. It's not the type of group an outsider would ever feel comfortable in, but for those who are members of the sect belonging can seem like a warm, maternal embrace--or a noose.