Friday, August 29, 2014

Completed: Life with My Sister Madonna


I guess I don't have to say much about this one---I got it from you! This was the perfect, trashy book to end the summer with. AND, even more satisfying, I am now caught up with 8 books in August. Whew!

What is there to say about this little gem? I made a little list, but it's sort of more listicle than real review.

1) Christopher is obsessed with her money an portrays her as a total cheapskate, which seems sort of funny to me. This is particularly tough not only because she lacks generosity, but because she so grossly underpays him! In theory, I totally get that it's not her responsibility to support everyone who just happens to be related to her; but in reality, I guess I'd feel pretty upset if I had a sibling worth hundreds of millions of dollars and they weren't willing to help me. I am particularly sensitive to this because of my Mom's story, I guess. But still, even though I doubt it's all true, she just seems like a total ass about it.

2) Family photos were definitely the best. This freaky photo of Madonna at her First Communion....LOOKING JUST LIKE HERSELF! It's totally weird, right?

3) There were parts of this book that were just a little creepy to me. I don't care how embarrassed he was by it, the idea of a brother being his sister's dresser was just...bizarre and more than a little yucky. As were any and all scenes where he described how well they danced together, their being soul mates, etc.

4) Overall, I just felt sorry for him because his whole life is playing second fiddle to his megastar sister. He struck me as a little sad and pathetic. But I still enjoyed the gossipy nature of a lot of the book. I especially liked the parts about how faked Truth or Dare was...which doesn't surprise me at all. Mostly, though, it made me want to go back and watch that and other Madonna videos again.

5) I generally really dislike memoirs, as you know and so it was particularly irksome that Christopher & his ghost-writer wrote a *memoir* in *present tense*!!! This annoyed the fuck out of me pretty much the entire time I was reading it, and I dog-eared a few particularly cringe-worthy sentences that resulted from this choice: I last see Warren four years ago when we have lunch together...  Oh, really? You last see him? What the ever loving fuck? if hadn't have been for the Madonna angle, I totally would have quit this book out of sheer annoyance. Even if it's to make some sort of  literary point (he's always living his memories as if they are present!), it did not work and it bugged me throughout the entire book. In fact, it bugged me more than any other stylistic choice I've seen authors make, up to and including, the dreaded lack of quotation marks. So, that's saying something, right? No one  reads this book for the lovely prose, I get it... But it was still ~painful~ to read.

I know that's a super brief review, but it's just a fluffy little number, as you know.

PS. Do you want this book back, or should I send it on into the universe?

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Completed: The Plot Against America


It feels really good to be getting back on track---especially before school gears up again in a week. I'm definitely hitting that Madonna book next! You've told me it will be fast and fun, and I'd love to be at 8 before Labor Day.

I just finished The Plot Against America by Philip Roth. I've had this book for a long time---at least 5 or 6 years is my guess, maybe more. I don't remember anything specific that made me buy it, but my guess is that I just read a good review of it. It just sounds like the kind of book I'd like: speculative historical fiction. In this novel, Roth creates a different version of the history of WW2. FDR loses in the election for his third term to Charles Lindbergh. Lindbergh is a famous pilot, of course, but I guess he was also a Nazi sympathizer. He cashes in on his celebrity and becomes President after swearing to keep American neutral during the War. After his election, he signs a pact with Japan and Germany to stay out of Europe---meaning there is no Pearl Harbor to drag the US into WW2.

Against this somewhat creepy revisionist history, Roth tells the story of...the Roth family of Newark, New Jersey, and 9 year old Philip Roth is the narrator. In other words, the author is the narrator as a child, imagining how his life would have been different if a fascist had come into the White House at exactly the wrong moment. For example, Jews *in America* are subject to special laws and it becomes clear that Lindbergh intends to round up America's Jews and put them in internment camps, there are policies for Jewish resettlement, etc. In order to fight Hitler, young Jewish men (Philip's cousin Alvin is one of them) go off to Canada to fight.

I liked this book. Philip's family is full of interesting characters---his Mother longs to leave for Canada, seeing America is no longer their country. His Father clings to the idea that they will always belong and to leave is rash. Philip's brother Sandy comes to believe his parents are being foolish. The author brilliantly shows  tenor of their family life become confused, then threatened, then terror-filled as events spiral out of control.

More interesting is to see how people change and morph in a pressure cooker. Philip's Mother seems meek and not at all interesting in the beginning, but as time passes, Philip sees that she is the strongest member of his family. In one brilliant scene near the end, she marshals everything she knows in order to save a neighborhood boy. On the other hand, his father shows himself to be a good man with flaws, and certainly more stubborn than insightful. Again, near the end, there's a fascinating scene where his Father has a violent fist-fight with Alvin, the cousin back from Canada. Philip's description of the fight begins with it's aftermath, and a long description of the wreckage not only in their bodies, but also in their home. Only after is there a brief explanation of what started the fight. It was a brilliant scene---how often something small becomes something too big, so much so that the aftermath is more damaging than what started it. Philip understands it is symbolic of political forces winning in their effort to destroy and destabilize Jewish life itself, he observes, "The South Boston riots, the Detroit riots, the Louisville assassination, the Cincinnati firebombing, the mayhem in St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Akron, Youngstown, Peoria, Scranton, and Syracuse...and now this: in an ordinary family living room--the anti-Semites were about to be abetted in their exhilarating solution to America's worst problem by our taking up the cudgels and hysterically destroying ourselves" (295). Kelly, it was hard to read these passages without thinking of Ferguson. This small scene perfectly describes how people put under immense pressure sometimes explode--with fury and an impotent and crushing sense of disappointment.

Philip is also an interesting character. As political events become more dangerous, he begins to take matters into his own hands to try to save himself and his family. At one point, he visits his aunt, recently estranged from the family. He says of her, "Never in my life had I so harshly judged any adult...nor had I understood till then how the shameless vanity of utter fools can so strongly determine the fate of others" (213). We understand in this moment that Philip is becoming an adult in the sense that he is starting to judge and evaluate by himself rather than parroting what adults tell him. But this is a double-edged sword, because by the end of this scene, Philip himself has foolishly set another family on a different and dangerous path. His observation is true of both his aunt and of himself.

It's interesting to consider that a work of speculative history has 2 choices---allow your novel to continue as is, or bump it back into the lane of historical reality. Roth takes the latter path, and has FDR returning to the presidency, engaging in the war, and the standard course of history resumes. However, that leaves little for Roth to do except wrap it up and leave the family to cope with their devastating losses and the knowledge of the harms done to others in an effort to protect themselves. I wouldn't say it's a bad ending, but it sure is abrupt. I actually turned the page looking for the next chapter! After thinking about it a little, I think it's probably a good thing---don't have a great plan for what to do when history returns to normal? Then just end the thing!

How are you doing? Making any progress with the reporting out?

PS I did find out that his book won The Sidewise Award for Alternate History. Who knew such a thing existed? I'm going to have to check that out. I might like more books like this one.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Completed: The Widow's War


To no one's surprise, I'm a bit stalled out on Postwar. I did listen to the first 7 or 8 hours of the audiobook, which took me up to Chapter 6. It's actually stunning to realize just how long it takes to read things out loud! But now that the commuting to Evanston has stopped, so has my audiobook listening. I certainly intend to read the back 2/3 of the book, but it won't be all that fast.

In a moment of panic, then, I thought maybe I ought to start reading some novels. I have two more weeks before I start back to work, and the fall quarter at Northwestern doesn't start until September 23rd.  There's no reason I can't knock out a couple of TBR books before then!

My Mom actually gave me this book, The Widow's War by Sally Gunning. Here's the weird part, she was telling me about it, and I was saying, "I feel like maybe I've already read that book, Mom." But it turns out that I had read the sequel, Bound. 

Both of Sally Gunning's novels are set in a small whaling town in Massachusetts (a state I still need help spelling, by the way) in the 1760s. In both novels, she uses her characters to explore the state of women in pre-Revolutionary society. The Widow's War begins when 39 year old Lyddie is told that her husband has drowned off of his whaling ship. Her husband's will is standard for the time, leaving her the "standard widow's third" which means their property goes to her nearest male relative (her despised son-in-law) who is charged with taking care of her financially. He can either sell or rent the house, leaving her with either a third of the property to use or a third of the interest of the sale, along with any personal belongings she brought into the marriage.

The story is the one of Lyddie's life in that first year after her husband's death. She decides to strike out on her own and live in 1/3 of the house rather than live with her daughter and son-in-law.  The story tells of her struggles to support herself, of how the town gossips about her and ostracizes her for her choices, etc.

It's a good book and a fast read. The thing that was weird about it (for me) is that I had read the sequel and so I sort of knew how things would turn out for her, so it did take some of the drama out of the "will she make it on her own" plot line. I liked this one better than it's sequel, which explores the harrowing life of an indentured servant. I think the question I always have in historical fiction is the question of accuracy: how likely was it that a 1760s woman would fight for property rights and her wish to live on her own? She knows how to take care of herself because her husband was gone for months at a time on whaling expeditions, but I'm still left wondering about her mindset. I'm absolutely sure that Sally Gunning did an amazing amount of research, and the book is full of fascinating details....but....I'm still left wondering.

Either way, I enjoyed it. And I definitely enjoyed knocking another book off my list.