Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Such a Pretty Fat

I haven't really found anything lately that I was super-excited to read, or at least was able to read fairly quickly. I tried out a few library books that didn't quite meet my standards, and am still in the middle of In the Garden of Beasts, but otherwise I've run dry. I haven't even listened to any good audiobooks lately, although I did just start the Bill Clinton autobiography, My Life. 

The other night I just wanted to read something fun and light, so I picked up a Jen Lancaster book I've read a bunch of times, Such a Pretty Fat. 

For those of you unfamiliar with Jen Lancaster, she and her husband were dot-com success stories whose reign ended suddenly when the bubble burst. During their long-term unemployment, Lancaster began blogging about her experiences at Jennsylvania. Her writing voice was so original, witty and opinionated that she caught the attention of publishers and eventually turned the blog posts into her very successful first memoir, Bitter is the New Black. She followed that up with Bright Lights, Big Ass. Such a Pretty Fat is her third memoir, written on an entirely new topic: what it took for Lancaster, a woman with prodigious vanity and healthy self-esteem, to realize that she's overweight, and her subsequent attempts to get healthy.

I've read all of Jen Lancaster's books except for her most recent one, Jeneration X, and I was a pretty big fan at first. I like her sense of humor, her chutzpah at putting her feelings and opinions out there in such a candid way, and the way she was able to re-make herself into a popular blogger and author. As time has passed, I've become less of a fan of her blog and her books. I still admire the same things about her that I did at first, but her opinions, while always quite different from my own, have seemed to become less open and accepting of others. I'm finding it harder to find common ground with her.

That being said, I do enjoy her earlier books, and Such a Pretty Fat is always a fun read. Jen is such an original character; she could only have sprung from real life. She often makes me laugh out loud, and that's something I rarely do while reading. It would be a mistake to characterize Pretty Fat as a weight-loss book. It's more like a journey in which the heroine forces herself to break down, mentally as well as physically, in order to get herself into a healthier state. Yes, she does visit Jenny Craig and Weight Watchers, and has some hilarious interactions with a kick-ass blond trainer named Barbie. But it's really more about the realizations Jen makes about herself, and in fact, that's how the book ends, with one final breakthrough.

Like I said, it's a fun book. I'm still looking for that next great new read though! Any suggestions?

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Fifty Shades of Not Happening

Whenever a book craze sweeps the nation, I feel compelled to check it out. Sometimes I am disappointed, as in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Other times, I am reasonably satisfied, as in the Twilight series or The Hunger Games trilogy. And of course, there was that one time that reading an intensely popular novel changed my life and planted me smack in front of the bandwagon, waving the flag of fandom. (I refer, of course, to Harry Potter, which is the most popular series of all time for a REASON.) So when I started hearing all the hoopla about Fifty Shades of Grey, I thought I'd see what the fuss was about. I went to Amazon and, after noting that the first three books in the series are at the top of the fiction bestseller list, checked out the reviews.

I usually take book reviews with a pretty big grain of salt. Yes, I'm aware that's a bit of an odd statement from someone who reviews books, but I've always said that you are all welcome to either take my opinions or leave them, with or without salt. All reviewers have a taste preference and a frame of reference, and one or two overly negative or overly positive reviews rarely sway me in either direction. But the top review on Amazon today for Fifty Shades of Grey was so well-written and mentioned so many of my personal reading pet peeves that I just had to pay attention. Here's what it said:

Fifty Shades Amazon Review

For the first time ever, I was completely convinced not to read a book on the strength of one review. This reviewer was sensible, funny and critical. The flaws he/she described are exactly the flaws I most despise: unbelievable characters, constant repetition, and lack of literary prowess. I almost felt like I'd read the book already and written the review myself.

For those of you who have read the book(s) and had a different take, I'd be interested in your opinion. Or, conversely, if anyone is disappointed that I am shutting the door on these books and wants me to read them, I'll try to suffer through. I'm sure I could find some redeeming quality; I always manage to find something. But I don't see the point in torturing myself with poor writing when there's so much wonderful, less recognized writing out there.

While I'm on that subject, does anyone HAVE any recommendations for well-written books? I've hit another dry spell. I further searched the Amazon Kindle store for something new to read, and found nothing to interest me. I think a browsing trip to Barnes & Noble is in order over this long weekend.

Happy Memorial Day weekend to everyone in the States!

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Difficult Read

I'm reading a book right now that I know is going to take awhile to read. Not because it's particularly lengthy, but because of the subject matter.

It's about the life of U.S. Ambassador William Dodd and his family during their post in Berlin, right after the election of Hitler as chancellor, and through the years building up to WWII. It's a fascinating book (and here I should thank my sister-in-law for giving it to me). But I can only handle a few short chapters a night. I love, love, love history, but I've always had a problem studying WWII, particularly when reading or hearing about the inhuman treatment of Jews in Germany and its conquered lands during that time. Oddly, the subject makes my palms itch in a very creepy way. It must be my half-Jewish blood. Despite this, I feel it's important to keep this historical knowledge at the forefront of my consciousness. I imagine an African American might feel the same way about slavery or segregation. Contemplating these subjects does not make one happy, but the continued awareness feels vitally important.

This post has taken a more serious turn than I'd intended. I'd planned to blog tonight about books that take awhile to read, for various reasons, but it seems to be turning into a post about why we read about things that are difficult for us to handle for emotional reasons. This topic must be on my mind because a friend of mine emailed me earlier today about starting to read a book I blogged about recently, Every Last One, even though I'd warned everyone that the subject matter was emotionally challenging. She said it sparked a conversation between her and her husband about why she would go into a book knowing that and yet still be willing to try it. She said it was for the same reason people watch TV cop shows, medical shows, war or disaster movies. I think that's a great point, but I have to laugh about it, because while I'm perfectly willing to brave a difficult read, I'm a lot less interested in watching those types of TV shows or movies. Most of my favorite TV shows are comedies, and on the rare occasion I watch a movie, it's usually something light. I think that's because I'm an extremely visual person, and I have trouble getting graphic scenes out of my head. So I'm willing to read In The Garden of Beasts, which takes me right into Hitler's backyard, but unwilling to watch Saving Private Ryan. And I assume there are plenty of people out there who feel the opposite, and are more likely to watch a terrifying movie than read a devastating book. It's an interesting quirk of human nature.

Maybe I'll get to that other post another night. In the meantime, think about what you find difficult to read or learn about, and try to challenge yourself to try it. Even if you can only manage a little bit at a time, it might open new avenues of thought or feeling for you. I know it does for me.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Magazine Guilt

Like most of America, I subscribe to a lot of magazines. Here's the current list of my subscriptions:

Women's Health
Real Simple
In Style
People Style Watch
Fit Pregnancy
The Writer

And here's the current list of titles in the ever-growing stack by my bed:

Women's Health
Real Simple
In Style
People Style Watch
Fit Pregnancy
The Writer

I'm not reading them. And I feel bad about it.

I used to read magazines more. Back before my gym had TV screens on every cardio machine, and back before I had an elliptical machine positioned in front of a TV in my own home, I used to read my fitness- and health-related magazines while exercising. I am one of those freaky people who can read while I am in motion (that includes reading in cars) and still get a good workout. But TV is just so much easier, more convenient, and more absorbing, I've gradually stopped that practice.

Then I got pregnant, and suddenly most of the articles I was reading didn't apply to me anymore. I can't try to "Lose 8 Pounds in 2 Weeks!!" or "Find Your Slimming Swimsuit Style!" and the recipe for "Skinny Eggs Benedict" won't be useful until I'm allowed runny yolks again. (Oh, how I miss eggs over-easy.) The models on the covers and the new spring clothes taunt me with their tight bodies and slim fits. I'm not obsessing about this- after all, there's a certain beauty to pregnancy that these women don't currently have, and I do. But it makes me feel very removed from my former life, when I would have been interested in all the above articles.

Now I only read a few of the titles from cover to cover- Real Simple, Fit Pregnancy, and the two fashion magazines (I may not fit into any of the clothes, but I can't help it- I love fashion). The rest are collecting dust on my bedside table or crowding up the top drawer, but I can't bring myself to throw them in the recycle bin. I have magazine guilt. I feel like I need to read all of them, or at least skim them. Why? I can only come up with two reasons:

1. I paid for them, so I have to read them. I can usually get around this rule with food (even if I already paid for it with my wallet, I don't have to pay for it with my body if I'm not hungry) and with movies (rental fee, schmental fee. If it sucks, I'm turning it off). But for some reason that logic doesn't work for me on reading material.

2. I admire the work that goes into putting a magazine together, and I want to honor that work by reading it.

Both of those are pretty weak, and yet that pile sits there. I'm not a pack rat; when I'm done with something, I get rid of it. But maybe I'm not done with those magazines yet. Maybe I will read them (even when they're six months out of date). That's what I keep telling myself. The more permanent solution is to let the subscriptions expire, but that won't happen for several months yet, and in the meantime I keep getting those annoying reminder notices: "Only 2 issues left!" (even though I have until October) or "Act now on this low price!" Maybe THAT'S what's making me feel guilty.

Does anyone else suffer magazine guilt?

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Every Last One

Spoiler alert: In this blog post, I intend to give you major reason not to read this book, and then flip it around to tell you why you should read it anyway. Ready?

I recently listened to this book on audiobook. Though beautifully written, it was, without a doubt, the most sad, depressing, difficult piece of fiction I've ever read.

I'm not going to give you a synopsis, because it's the kind of book where knowing details ahead of time would take away from the experience of reading it. I will say this: it's not a typical piece of fiction. It doesn't follow the normal rules of storytelling: introduction, delving into the story, rising action, a climax, falling action, and a denouement. Instead, the climax takes place smack in the middle of the story, just when the characters are going along easily. It's such a huge event that it couldn't be anything but the climax, whatever came after it. The rest of the book is devoted to falling action. There isn't really a normal resolution. There couldn't be, after what happens to the characters. And yet the heart of the book is found after the climax.

I know that was irritatingly vague, but I really don't want to give anything more away, in case you want to read it. But why would you, when I've already said it was the most sad, depressing, difficult book I've ever read? Here's why:

Anna Quindlen is a genius writer. She creates flawed characters, puts them in impossible situations, and gives them reactions and emotions that are completely true both to themselves and to the needs of the situation. I also love how tantalizing her writing is. She'll drop a little hint of something in the middle of a sentence, something that gives you the seed of an idea.  You'll think "Wait, did she just imply that-" and then it's gone, and the story continues, but eventually all those seeds take root, and you understand them by book's end.

Additionally, while it's sad, there's also a lot of hope in the book. And remember that what I find difficult to read may not be what you find difficult to read. I recently turned off an audiobook by Jodi Picoult, whose books I normally love, because it was about a child born with OI, or severely brittle bones, and I couldn't handle thinking about that while I myself am pregnant. Everyone's definition of depressing is different, and everyone finds certain subjects hard to handle at times. Keep in mind, also, that despite the fact that I wanted to cry almost every time I listened to the book, I kept listening. I almost turned it off several times, but I didn't. That's how compelling the story was.

Have I convinced you to read it, or to stay away?

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Lady or the Tiger

Last night I had a very strange, two-part dream. It opened with a good friend of mine, tall and beautiful, joyfully entering my home (which, in the dream, was not my house but my parents' house). Though in real life my friend is not particularly wealthy, in the dream she was bedecked with jewels and designer clothes and carrying a brand new Louis Vuitton handbag. She wandered all over the house, spreading her wealth and happiness about. Then she vanished, and the second part of the dream began. As I looked down from the second floor, a tiger appeared on the stairway. It was a very small tiger- it looked like a combination of my orange cat Miles and the cartoon picture of Calvin on the occasion when Hobbes turned him into a tiger. I chased the tiger all over the house, trying to catch him, but in the end, he vanished and I woke up.

At 3:30 in the morning, lying awake thinking about this dream, I realized that it was the first time I'd ever dreamt something odd that could be deciphered through literature. I'd dreamed of the Lady (my friend) and the Tiger.

For those of you unfamiliar with the story, you can find it here: The Lady or the Tiger?

It's a fascinating story of love, fury, and betrayal, but the most fascinating part is the open end. What choice does the princess make for her lover? Does she choose for him to live, but with a beautiful woman other than herself? Or does she choose for him to die brutally at the claws of a beast?

I'm still trying to figure out why this story worked its way into my dreams. I feel that there must be some decision, some complex emotional conundrum, that I'm struggling with. I often struggle with things, oblivious to my conscious self, until something reveals them to me. I'm sure this story will help me in some way. Not only was I presented with the lady and the tiger consecutively, but it was also in my parents' home, which recalls the princess being confronted with this decision within the walls of her father's castle and because her father decreed it. I'm going to keep thinking about this, but in the meantime I wanted to share it with all of you. I think it's amazing that this story- which, by the way, I haven't read in full since high school- sunk itself into my psyche and inserted itself into the narrative of my dreams.

Has anyone else ever dreamed a story?

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Leanne of 1,000 Books

This afternoon I stole a few minutes to wander through my local library. It's a small branch, with the mere basics of fiction: all the classics, and the most popular books of the last 10-15 years. As I walked the aisles, titles and authors' names jumped out at me like the formulas in A Beautiful Mind. Maybe it was due to this specific library's selection, but I realized I'd read dozens, maybe hundreds of these books. What's more, I'd forgotten about almost all of them. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. Babylon Sisters and What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day by Pearl Cleage. A Day Late and a Dollar Short and How Stella Got Her Groove Back by Toni Morrison. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. The entire works of Marian Keyes. They leapt out at me, reminding me how I felt, how old I was, and who I was when I read them.

As I continued to wander, I started to feel some regret that I'd never kept a list of all the books I'd read. I wish I'd started one when I was, say, fourteen. I'd have included everything from the great works of literature I studied in high school to the James Patterson thrillers I read on the beach every summer. Surely my list would number in the thousands by now. Sixteen years of adult reading times an estimated 60-70 books a year (that's about 4-5 books a month in the winter, 6-8 in the summer). That would get me to about a thousand. But it's not really the number I'd be interested in. I'd like to be able to look back and see which books spoke to me at different times in my life. Why did The Importance of Being Earnest strike my funny bone when I found a copy of the play in my arts camp theater bookshelf at nineteen? Should I give Things Fall Apart another try now, because I have a nagging feeling I didn't really understand it at fifteen? And notice how my summer in England at twenty-one begat a flurry of reading P.G. Wodehouse and Agatha Christie! It would be like a personal diary, told through books. Think of the memoir I could write with that material!

I suppose the obvious conclusion from this experience is that I should start cataloguing my books now. After all, I'm only thirty. If I look back on my reading years from the distance of seventy or eighty (may it please God), missing my first sixteen years won't seem like such a big deal. But part of me is still uncertain. It almost feels as though writing down what I've read- literally everything I've read- reveals too much of my soul. I'm not sure if I'm ready for that type of exposure, even to myself. I suppose that's an odd feeling to have, given that I write so much about what I read. But I can't ignore it.

What do you think? Should I start a list? Do you have one of your own? And if you don't, as I suspect is the case, do you wish you had?

Friday, May 4, 2012

Interpreter of Maladies

I've been suffering a little writer's block this week (which, ironically, I may use as a topic for a post soon) so tonight's book recommendation will be short, sweet and to the point:

I started this short story collection many months ago and abandoned it after a few stories, but recently unearthed it from my book pile and finished it. As a rule, I don't read a lot of short story collections. Most of the short stories I read are one-offs, distributed by professors in writing classes or written by my classmates for workshop. I find that collections are usually disappointing, in that there are one or two stories that are really enjoyable, and the rest are just okay. (Case in point- the only collection I have hung onto through the years, written by W. Somerset Maugham, has just one or two stories worth reading, one of which, "The Three Fat Women of Antibes", I blogged about in my post about food writing.)

But Interpreter of Maladies was no such disappointment. I think it's because Jhumpa Lahiri's writing is so innately comfortable, even when she's writing about foreign lands and customs. All of her stories involve either Indians in America (Indian-Indians, not American Indians) or Americans visiting India. Or Indians in India. But though I'm not as familiar with the culture, I still found myself reading easily and sinking happily into the characters and conflicts of each story. I think the story that will stick with me longest was written from the perspective of a twelve-year old American boy who was being watched by a recently immigrated Indian women in the afternoons, witnessing her desperation to cling to some semblance of her country's ways. I also enjoyed the story about the couple, estranged after the death of their child, brought together by three evenings' loss of electricity in their apartment. Each of these stories is simple, but the characters are deftly drawn and the emotion is potent.

Try some of Jhumpa Lahiri's work- you will not be disappointed!