Sunday, February 26, 2006

A Little Chick Novel Doesn't Hurt Every Now and Then

I know... I'm supposed to pretend that I'm such an intellectual, only reading high-quality literature with "grown up" words, like copious and raucous. Well, sometimes a girl just needs a little chick novel... and the one my roommate lent me recently just so happens to be a book that men would enjoy as well. Don't believe me? I was reading this book on my lunch break at the office on Friday, and about five different guys came up to me, saying how much they enjoyed that book and what a great message it has and blah blah blah.
But I digress. The book in question is Good In Bed by Jennifer Weiner, and while sex is involved, as the title suggests, that is definitely not the focus of this fabulous chick novel. Obviously, each chick book has to have the obligatory sex scenes, but what really makes Good In Bed stand out from the pack is its heroine, Cannie Shapiro, and the message she gives.
The story begins with Cannie having recently dumped her boyfriend, Bruce. Cannie discovers that Bruce has begun writing for a popular women's magazine, Moxie, and his debut column, entitled "Good in Bed," features none other than Cannie herself. Bruce's article is called "Loving a Larger Woman," which is about his relationship with Cannie, who is in fact a larger woman. While Cannie is initially outraged at being exposed in such a public manner, she realizes that the article actually shows how Bruce truly understood her - her anxiety and sadness over her size and how people perceived her, as well as her inability to truly love as a result. Cannie then decides she needs Bruce back in her life, which leads to a series of events that alters who world so dramatically that she finds herself in an entirely different place at the end of the book.
Weight is, of course, a huge issue in Good In Bed. While Cannie is definitely not obese, she is not an "All American" size four. She is a good, solid sixteen, and she spends much of the novel hating herself for it. However, she begins to learn that it is not about your weight, your looks, your job, your family... it's about you and how you feel about yourself, how you love yourself. Obviously, weight is a huge issue for all women in America, so Good In Bed definitely provides a different perspective on the subject. Men can also appreciate it as well.
Between her verbally abusive, absent father, her recently "outted" lesbian mother, Bruce and her own self-doubting internal monologue, Cannie certainly has her work cut out for her on her road to self discovery. But that is what this book is all about... discovering yourself, seeing those around you in a different light and learning what you really want in life. With that in mind, Good In Bed also stresses the idea of seeing a human being as the person he or she truly is, not just as a body or haircut or outfit. Weiner challenges you to delve below the skin and see what lies beneath. It can be scary, but the end result is infinitely more satisfying.
I read Good In Bed in two days, but I probably could have read it in one. It's such a woman-empowering book, but not in the cheesey "girl power" way. Rather, Good In Bed challenges you to look at who you are and who you want to become. Weiner shows that there are more important things in life than your weight or how you look, and sometimes it takes a mere chick novel to show you that.

On a side note, a friend of mine, whom I respect immensely, pointed out that I have only reviewed more emotional books in this blog thus far. I will strive, hence forth, to make more diverse selections for reviewing.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Simple Things

Alright, so I know this is officially a book blog, but after reading an article in Real Simple magazine this afternoon during my lunch break (As interesting as All My Children is, sometimes one needs another diversion in the lunch room.), I felt the need to share what I read with you all.
Real Simple magazine is one of my favorites out there on the newsstands right now.
National Geographic will also hold first place in my opinion, but Real Simple is such a delight for me to read. It's the ideal magazine for my budding housewife side. Not only are the articles interesting, but they are about practical, everyday matters that are incredibly useful and informative. The feature articles also make for great reading material because, while usually touching stories, they are never dripping with sappiness. Rather, they have a nice icing of it that's delicious to the palette.
Also, let me just talk about Real Simple for an artistic perspective for a minute. The covers are always, and I mean always, beautiful. Even if all that's on the cover are a pink box and a bowl of change, as in this month's issue, the resulting image still manages to be so appealing to the eye, it makes you want to stroke the magazine. (Ok, maybe that's not the reaction everybody has, but it's definitely mine.) Real Simple always has a color scheme for each month that is simultaneously easy on the eyes and incredibly eye catching. The paper they use is also this great rustic-feeling weight, and I love the way it glides across my finger tips. Alright, I'm getting mushy about magazine paper here, so I'm going to continue to the article I read.
The main feature of the March issue of Real Simple is one entitled,
"Fix Your Money Leaks." As a newly "freed" college graduate, I am just beginning to learn the in's and out's of budgeting, so I found this article very useful. However, some of the tips were obvious, such as don't eat out for lunch, cut back on impulse buys, etc. While this article was definitely a must-read, the one I found to be most interesting for this month's issue was the article about friendships rekindling after many years. The article told four different stories about childhood friends who had somehow lost touch but reconnected many years later. One story in particular really stuck with me. The two girls were friends between the ages of five and thirteen, and they didn't reconnect again until they were in their sixties. When they were about eight, they were playing at this abandoned warehouse, pretending to discover buried treasure, when a car pulled up. There was a man inside, and he asked the girls if they wanted to "play sex." Not understanding, one of the girls was about to climb into her car when her friend began to cry. Her friend had been told never to get into cars with strangers, and for this reason, she didn't want her best friend to do so either. The little girls quickly ran away from the car, and the man drove away. The friends didn't realize the magnitude of this situation until they were older and reminiscing. I couldn't believe how lucky they were either.
Even though my best friend, Kate, and I haven't lost touch, this article still reminded me of her. We've been friends since we were 10, and our friendship, despite us living in different cities, is still going strong. Even though I'm always grateful for our friendship, this article reminded me just how lucky I am to have a friend like her.
Anyway, enough for today. I'm getting all misty.
You should read Real Simple because it is an awesome magazine, if only for the pretty paper.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Green Morning

When I was 12, my dad gave me The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury. We had read a short story of his in my sixth grade language arts class (Remember when English used to be called language arts?), which I had thoroughly enjoyed, but I didn't pursue any of his other works thereafter, having never considered myself much of a "science fiction" person. However, when my father told me that The Martian Chronicles was not just science fiction, but, rather, a beautiful example of American literature, I thought I might as well take a whack at it.

I then proceeded to read that book three times in a row.

It was beautiful, just as my father said. Simply beautiful. There are no other words for the feeling this collection of Bradbury's stories creates. As the title suggests, The Martian Chronicles is in fact a chronicle; in other words, it is a collection of short stories that, while seemingly unrelated in subject matter, flow perfectly together, like stars in the night sky or a velvety river on a warm summer evening. Each story is magnificent in its own right; they're all so different yet there is a common thread, one of mystery, beauty and the precious and fleeting nature of time, that connects them all.

All the "chapters" in this book are enthralling, and Bradbury draws you into his world with his fluid phrases and vivid descriptions. However, one story always comes to mind first when I think of The Martian Chronicles: "The Green Morning." In this story, people from Earth are trying to make Mars have a liveable atmosphere. Due to the acute lack of greenery, there is a shortage of oxygen, clearly producing problems when it comes to habitation of the planet. One man, however, persists in his quest to make Mars a habitable planet, and he keeps trying to plant trees in the harsh Mars soil. But it is all to no avail. However, one morning, the man awakes to find a miracle. His planting experiments have finally worked, and he sees before him a sea of trees. Oak trees, maple trees, magnolia trees, chestnut trees... They cover the surface of the planet as far as his eyes can see. But what makes this miracle all the more spectacular is the way in which Bradbury writes it. Through his words, you can see the bright green leaves shining in the morning light, you can feel the breeze blowing softly off the branches, you can feel your lungs filling with lucious, rich oxygen... This story has stuck with me over all these years, and "The Green Morning" is only one of many such fantastic stories.

The Martian Chronicles was, and still remains, one of my top five favorite books. I know each and every story like the back of my hand, and if you take a chance on a little "science fiction," I'm sure you will feel the same way about this beautiful chronicle.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Smells Like Snow

My grandfather is a true scholar, one of the last of a dying breed. He speaks more languages than I can remember, has the most extensive CD collection I have ever seen (all classical and jazz of course), enjoys food more than even a professional critic and has several floor-to-ceiling bookshelves jam packed with books. From dramas to thrillers, fiction to non-fiction, French to Latin... my grandfather's personal library has it all. Thus, whenever he has a literary recommendation to make to me, I always take it seriously and promptly pick up the book he has suggested. They are all excellent, and his latest recommendation proved to be no different.
Miss Smilla's Feeling For Snow is a Danish book (translated into English for me of course!) written by David Hoeg. Both a thriller and a love story, this novel proved to be a literary powerhouse that packed quite the punch. With his unique and captivating tone, Hoeg weaves a story through the ice and snow of the Northern Hemisphere that is like fresh powder on a crisp winter morning - pristine, pure and soft yet one step forces the entire mound to cave in on itself. Nothing in this book is quite what it may seem, which is precisely what makes Miss Smilla's story so mesmerizing.
Miss Smilla, as the title suggests, has an amazing sense for snow and ice. She knows and detects things about these water-based substances that no one else can see, and, because of this special gift she possesses, Miss Smilla becomes involved in the solving of a mystery that goes deeper than the waters of the North Atlantic.
The book begins with the death of a young boy who lived in Miss Smilla's apartment complex. The boy, whose mother is an unstable person and alcoholic, befriends the solitary Miss Smilla, and a bond develops between the two. Thus, when the boy suddenly perishes by falling to his death from the top of their apartment building, Miss Smilla takes it upon herself to investigate his death, or murder, further. In her journey to reveal the truth, she grows closer with a handsome mechanic who lives in her building and also knew the boy very well. The two are brought together by the investigation, but soon their relationship develops from a "business" partnership to into a partnership of romance.
But, as I said earlier, things are not always as they seem in this book. Miss Smilla's investigation evolves into a mystery so vast, she must travel through the great ices of Greenland to solve it.
Miss Smilla's Feeling For Snow was a surprise in and of itself; not only was the story full of twists and turns, but I was also taken aback by the sadness I felt upon finishing this book, not because it was bad, but, rather, because I had reached the end. This is truly a book you will not want to put down, and I can not think of a better time to read it than on a chilly winter's night, bundled up inside in your pj's with a nice cup of tea.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

A Feast of Words

Ernest Hemingway once wrote, "I learned never to empty the well of my writing, but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, the springs that fed it." Hemingway clearly followed what he preached because every single one of his short stories and novels is a work of pure, unadulterated genius - an example of the level of beauty the English language can attain when wielded by a true master. Hemingway's uncanny ability to weave words into seemingly simple, yet fully loaded, phrases is what sets him apart from other American authors, as well as what makes him my all time favorite author. His way with descriptions is unlike that of any other; you can practically taste the wines and meals he writes about, feel the rain on your face as he walks you through the streets of Paris on an overcast day and hear the clap of shells crashing during a battle in war-torn Italy. I know some people are not terribly fond of Hemingway, but to me, his writing is sheer perfection.
While I have read all his books, and love them all dearly, one in particular continues to resurface on the top of my "books to read" stack: A Moveable Feast. I have read this particular work of Hemingway's about three times already, which is a lot considering I have such a busy literary schedule, and every time I read this wonderful book, I find something new to delight over.
Full of delicious bites of prose, A Moveable Feast is Hemingway's personal account of his life in Paris. The story that unfolds is any aspiring writer's fantasy. Hemingway spends his days wandering the streets of Paris and writing in charming cafes, where he dines on succulent oysters that taste of the sea and drinks crisp white wines, robust reds and liquors as strong and verile as he once was. Hemingway's co-characters, friends really, are nothing short of marvelous. Between Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald, each chapter is better than the last.
And, of course, as the title suggests, the manner with which Hemingway describes the meals and libations he and his friends partake of is almost too fabulous to read in one sitting, that's how good he is. You will not want to put this book down because you won't want it to end; you won't be ready to leave Hemingway's Parisian world just yet.
This book made me want to pack up my bags and move to Paris straight away. Now I know you're thinking that many people probably say this after reading books by Hemingway, but, seriously, if it hadn't been for that pesky finishing high school and college thing, I would have gone. A Moveable Feast makes you yearn for the way things once were and long to be in Paris, even if it's the cold dead of winter or pouring down rain. Hemingway illuminates this romantic city's many faces of beauty in ways you never thought possible, especially considering he isn't even a native Parisian.
I also strongly believe that anything you need to know about life is in A Moveable Feast. Love, laughter, sorrow, struggles, pain, happiness, contentment... it's all mentioned in this book, and Hemingway's basic yet poignant phrases tell you exactly what you will need to know for every situation. Trust me, you'll be pleasantly surprised.
Of course, I would recommend anything written by Ernest Hemingway. He is my idol, my hero, my personal literary god. But A Moveable Feast is certainly an excellent way to start, especially if you have read nothing or very little by him. So I raise my glass to you and cheer with the hope that you will go now and pick up this literary masterpiece.

"We ate well and cheaply and drank well and cheaply and slept well and warm together and loved each other." Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

Sunday, February 12, 2006

A Side of Religion with my Coffee

When the lovely young woman I share my office with found out I love The Alchemist by Paolo Coelho, she was kind enough to lend me several of his other books. A big fan herself, she suggested I start with By the River Piedra I Sat Down & Wept, which is exactly what I did.
I read The Alchemist several years ago, when I was a senior in high school, and the underlying theme of finding one's personal legend motivated me to include Coelho's most widely-read book in my senior thesis. All of Coelho's works have strong messages throughout, largely related to love and faith, and By the River Piedra proved to be no different.
This powerful story tells the tale of Pilar and her closest childhood friend, a young man who not only has harbored an ardent love for Pilar his entire life but who also has the mystical ability to perform miracles and cures with the help of his strong faith. Pilar too learns that she has loved this young man ever since they were small children, but she struggles with her ability to love until she is finally able to free both herself and her heart. A woman who has lived in fear and doubt her entire life, Pilar embarks on a journey with her childhood friend and learns more about love, life and faith than she could ever have imagined.
Set in the beautiful landscapes of northern Spain and southern France, this story flows as gently and captivatingly as morning mist over snow-capped peaks. In fact, the famous, religiously-loaded town of Lourdes plays a key role in Coelho's story, and the events that transpire therein are both mystifying and enlightening. Coelho not only weaves a romantic tale, but he also delivers quite the interesting history lesson.
Coelho's River Piedra not only addresses love but also delves into the Catholic faith. As I was reading, I learned a great deal more about various religious beliefs that stem from Catholicism than I would have thought from the summary on the back of the book. Not an incredibly religious person myself, I did have some difficulty swallowing the more intensely religious passages, but I can definitely appreciate Coelho's take on faith, as well as his descriptions of the main characters' journeys towards discovering their own personal take on religion. Coelho consistently compares love and faith in God, and weaves an almost cause-and-effect relationship between to the two, and while I do not fully agree with this, I can certainly understand where he is coming from. The book also does an excellent job of supporting these theories, and the love story between Pilar and her friend is, if anything, an interesting one.
One thing I found to be particularly intriguing is that Pilar's friend is never named. She never calls him by name, and none of the supporting characters do as well. They all simply refer to him as, well, "him." Not to pull an "Exe-Jesus"-esque approach on you all, but I have to admit that the first thing that crossed my mind when I realized this was: "Christ metaphor." Yes, Pilar's love is truly a Christ-like figure, and the fact that he is addressed similarly to Jesus in the Bible only proves this hypothesis even more.
Of course, this book is not just smooth sailing. Ultimately, Pilar and her friend must make a choice, and this choice is, of course, not an easy one to make.
Now, while I did not love this book, I did like it. River Piedra was a quick, yet enjoyable, read, and it did made me think. I appreciate a good dose of mental stimulation every now and then, which I then proceed to totally negate by the Iron Chef America marathons on the Food Network...
If you haven't read Coelho's The Alchemist, do so immediately, but River Piedra is another solid performace on his part.

PS - I may or may not be listening to "Ave Maria" while writing this...

Friday, February 10, 2006

A Little Time Traveling in Chicago

This is only my fourth winter in Chicago, yet I'm slowly, but surely, learning the intricacies of this fascinating and windy city. My own mini adventures throughout the streets and many diverse neighborhoods of Chicago helped me become more familiarized with the city, but one book in particular truly made me feel at home. (No, I'm not talking about some cheesey guide book that goes on and on about the former sites of gangster show downs or speakeasy's, athough, yes, I have read one of those. It was a little slip, ok???) Actually, it was a work of fiction.
While I tend to be slightly dubious of modern writing, or at least more critical, The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger is utterly captivating. The writing is beautiful, and Niffenegger truly has a distinctive voice - one that is exuberant, sensual and bittersweet.
Now, to get to the plot of the book... (If you haven't noticed already, I have the unfortunate tendency to ramble.)
The Time Traveler's Wife tells the story of Henry and Claire - two star-crossed, time-crossed rather, lovers. This love story is, pardon my lack of eloquence, freakin' amazing. It's both passionate, yet heartbreaking, soulful yet troubled... it's everything life is all rolled up into one unbelievable relationship. We follow their relationship through time, in all directions. As the title suggests, Claire is Henry's wife, and Henry is, in fact, a time traveler, only unlike the science fiction movies that glorify time traveling, Henry's is out of his control, displacing him in random times, leaving him without clothing and putting him in harm's way each time he "jumps." However, the time traveling adds an incredibly interesting twist to Claire and Henry's relationship and makes us question whether fate exists, and if so, if free will is subsequently irrelevant.
Now you might be thinking, "Time traveling, that could get confusing," and, yes, it can, but Niffenegger narrates the story so well that your confusion will remain at a minimum, if not at a totally non-existent, level. Trust me, it's good. She's good, the book's good, it's all good. But anyway...
The supporting characters are also flawlessly written. You'll find them just as intriguing as Henry and Claire themselves, and the way in which all the various characters lives intertwine is spectacular, yet startingly realistic... despite the whole time traveling bit.
The Time Traveler's Wife touches on all the major themes in life: family, the concept of time, life, death and, of course, love. This book covers everything and does so flawlessly. It divides its time between Chicago and Michigan, and the Chicago references make both Chicago natives and new residents feel right at home. The entire time I was reading this book, I kept thinking, "Oh my gosh, I love that place!" But the Chicago references, while fabulous, only contribute to the overall greatness that is The Time Traveler's Wife. This book is a tremendous read and a tremendous success. Even as a full-fledged card carrying member of the "I Only Read Post 1975 Literature" club, I absolutely adore this book and firmly believe that anybody who reads this will as well. Trust me, you will never look at life, love and fate in the same way as you did before.
Happy reading.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

ee cummings installation one

Despite the trauma that was high school poetry analysis, which I am still so bitter about, I did in fact develop a love for poetry, or at least some poetry. In high school they make you analyze poetry, and the teachers and professors test you on your analysis, telling you that, no, the way you see this poem is not in fact "correct," but very, very wrong. Thus, you fail because you did not see this poem in the "way you're supposed to." I have never agreed with this view point, and while I obviously don't think you can just pull something out of your ass and call it the meaning of a poem, there are different ways a poem can be seen. Perspectives and opinions on poems differ from reader-to-reader. Yes, the poet clearly had specific ideas in mind while writing the poem, but that does not mean that a reader can see the meaning in a variant manner. That is why many consider poetry to be like art - "beauty is in the eye of the beholder." (Sorry, I had to include a cliche at one point. Please forgive me.)

One of my favorite poets is ee cummings. I have always enjoyed his writing, especially his interesting poetry structures, use of punctuation and charming lack of capital letters. I bought Selected Poems: ee cummings several years ago, but the pieces therein never fail to amaze and surprise me. With each subsequent reading, something new emerges from the patterns of letters and phrases, which is why reading his poems is unfailingly entertaining and mentally stimulating. I also believe that ee cummings is one of the poets that truly captures love, or at least how I think of love. With that in mind, I have included one of my favorite poems of his below. I'm not going to sit here and analyze it because, well, that would be like high school all over again. I am merely including it for your reading pleasure, and you can take from it what you will.

i carry your heart with me (i carry it in
my heart) i am never without
it (anywhere
i go you go, my dear; and whatever is done
by only me is your doing, my darling)
i fear
no fate (for you are my fate, my sweet) i want
no world (for beautiful you are my world, my true)
and it's you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you

here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life; which grows
higher than the soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that's keeping the stars apart

i carry your heart (i carry it in my heart)

ee cummings

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Welcome in Brief

Much as the title suggests, this is a welcome entry (in brief). I have little time, but SO much to write, meaning there will be oh-so-much more to come later. But this, dear readers, will be my literary outlet... A place where I can vent and rant and rave on all the books I read, and which I hope you will adore, or at least like, as much as I do.

Wood of the Norwegian Variety

I love books. And I love the Beatles. So, naturally, a book that combines the two is my idea of perfection... that and a really good slice of flourless chocolate torte. But I digress... I was recently introduced by a dear friend of mine to the works of Haruki Murakami. Other than poetry and several non-fiction works, I had not delved into the realm of Japanese fiction until I began reading Murakami's books.

Published in Japan in 1987, "Norwegian Wood" was the book that propelled Murakami into the pop-culture lime light. After reading this book, I can certainly understand why. Like the Beatles song, "Norwegian Wood" is mysterious yet revealing, sad yet sweet, lovely yet scaring. This book leaves an aftertaste similar to that of the song from which it is named - one that lingers in your mouth for days after that last bite but whose flavor cannot truly be identified.

The main character, Toru Watanabe, is 37 years of age when the story begins, but the Beatles song brings him back to the time of his college days as a young man grappling with the ever-present "loss of innocence" archetype. Like the narrator of the song, Watanabe has a girl, or should I say, she once had him? (Sorry, had to sort of quote the song at least once in this review.) Naoko is the intriguing waif of a leading female. She and Watanabe are forever connected, and effected, by Kizuki, a mutual friend, whom Naoko dated since childhood and Watanabe considered his best friend. When Kizuki takes his life at the young age of 17, Naoko and Watanabe are both impacted more than they even know, which continues to reveal itself throughout the novel.

Norwegian Wood is indeed a love story, but a love story like one you have probably never read before. True, many love stories are complicated, but this one is complicated in an entirely different way. Watanabe and Naoko are tied together by a love so deep it cannot quite be reached after all. Naoko's depression puts a continual block on the blossoming of the relationship, and when she checks herself into an unusual clinic in the mountains, things really begin to change for her and Watanabe.

When Watanabe make the acquaintance of Midori, a fiery young student at his university, his life begins to transform even more. Midori brings a sense of spontaneity and vibrancy to his life, which is extremely different from the tender yet torn love Naoko cannot fully share with him. The love triangle that forms, if it can really be called a triangle, is both touching and, I hate to admit it, frustrating. You think you know the perfect choice for Watanabe, but then something will happen, and your feelings have changed entirely. The book, in essence, "messes with" your feelings in a similar fashion.

As most male leads in Murakami's works, Watanabe seems to constantly be surrounded by simultaneously wise and fragile women, with the exception of his gallivanting college dorm friend. Another woman who has a dramatic affect on Watanabe's life is Naoko's roommate at the clinic. She not only enlightens Watanabe, in many senses of the word, but also serves as a liaison between him and Naoko. The fact that she plays "Norwegian Wood" on the guitar, and it is Naoko's favorite song, is also not a coincidence.

Like all of Murakami's male narrarators, Watanabe is a surprisingly ordinary young man. He may occasionally drink too much, but his taste in music is solid, as well as reflective of the times (1968). His favorite book is The Great Gatsby, which many young people going through the major changes in life claim as well, and his daily routine is basic and uneventful. But his entire world is blown apart by both the death of Kizuki and even more so by the increasing presence of Naoko in his life. This seemingly too ordinary young man is thrown into a whirl wind of events that carry you just as quickly through the book and leave you feeling both breathless yet strangely exhilarated at the end.

This review has already gotten way too long, and I think the topics jump all over the place. I apologize for my lack of structure, but I feel this review reflects the book Norwegian Wood, at least somewhat. Norwegian Wood has its own special type of structure, and it works incredibly well with the themes and messages of the book. Murakami's writing will intrigue you yet terrify you, and that, my friends, is one fantastic way to read a book.