Monday, February 27, 2012

Kelly's Book 3.12: Starvation Lake

Dear Jenny,

I have not only already chosen next month's book, but I've already started reading it! With the craziness of this month, plus churning through 1Q84, I figured I could use as much time as possible.

I bought this book for Bill a couple of years ago -- it's about hockey and Michigan, sooo... yeah. Seemed like a winner. Bill has not read it yet, so I grabbed it for my own TBR pile. Perhaps once I finish, he'll read it too and we can discuss it together, which I always enjoy.

It's a murder mystery, so it's definitely outside of my realm of usual reading. But I like hockey and I like Michigan, so that seems promising. :) In the "small world" category, the author now lives in Chicago.

The book has a neat looking interactive website -- I looked at it a little, but then found myself worried about getting too much from the site before reading the book. I can see where it could be useful if deciding whether or not to read it, but as I have already decided (and started!), I'll check it out when I'm done.

Know what you're reading next month yet? Oh! And how's the tournament reading going? It starts next week, right?


Completed: The Art of Racing in the Rain

Dear Jenny,

This book opens with a very sick dog, contemplating the end of his life. Right then, I thought, "There is no flipping way I can read this m'fer." So I shut it down and went online to read reviews. The majority of reviews claimed that it's "uplifting," so I pressed on.

I'm glad I did -- it was a very quick read (I started one day and finished the next), not terribly complex, and, despite some tears, generally uplifting.

The narrator of the book is a dog named Enzo. While reading the book, I kept thinking, "So that's what my dog is thinking!" and then I'd have to remind myself that, um, yeah... it's not actually written by a dog, Kelly. I guess that's a sign of good writing, right? There were moments where I believed it was written by a dog!

After the death's-door opener, the story goes back to Enzo's puppyhood, his adoption by a single man (a race car driver) and that man's life as he finds a wife, buys a house, has a child, loses his wife, almost loses his child, but ultimately triumphs, and, finally, the dog feeling at peace to "leave" this man and his daughter (ie, die), now that he is old and they no longer need him (heart wrenching there.)

Enzo loves to watch TV and becomes educated by watching it all day long while his master is at work. He wishes he could speak, but:
I have no words to rely on because, much to my dismay, my tongue was designed long and flat and loose, and therefore, is a horribly ineffective tool for pushing food around in my mouth while chewing, and an even less effective tool for making clever and complicated polysyllabic sounds that can be linked together to form sentences. [1]
However, he has learned from a documentary that, if a dog has lived a good life, some cultures believe that he will come back as a human in his next life, which he greatly desires.

As unrealistic as the intelligence of this dog is, the story is surprisingly believable (perhaps because he does resort to doggish behaviors from time to time for which he is, heartbreakingly, ashamed) until the very end when he dies, comes back as a human, and then seeks out his old master and meets him as a man, with the same name as the dog had. In retrospect, this seems completely far-fetched, but while reading the book, you're so involved in all of the heart-wrenching twists and turns of this family's life that you are rooting for him and you cry with joy when the author gives you the Disney-style satisfaction. At least, that was my experience, and, based on the reviews, most readers agree.

The highlights of the book were definitely the dog insights. (Which are, of course, imagined. But they're so great, I want to believe them.) The name of the book comes from driving skills of the dog's master -- he is especially skilled at racing in the rain. In one scene, the master takes Enzo to the track as a passenger and says, "One bark for slower and two barks for faster." The dog barks twice. To keep this in the realm of reality, the master is startled by this reaction, but it's amazingly sweet to read this dog's perspective on driving fast, as he absolutely loves it. I am actually tearing up as I write this -- this part was not sad at all, just very touching. Enzo's unbridled joy at riding in the car on the racetrack was incredibly well-written. He did not want the ride to end and I, as the reader, did not want the passage to end. Really nice work.

In one heartbreaking scene, he is left alone in the house for three days (the master's wife is ill with some kind of brain tumor and, in her distraction, forgets he is there when she goes to get help) and he ends up destroying the daughter's stuffed animals. His recollection of the event is that one of the animals, a zebra, went mad and started torturing him and the other animals. He does not remember tearing the animals apart himself -- just that the zebra was insane and drove him insane. Later , whenever he touches on some of his more dog-like tendencies (he really wants to be a human), he refers to that zebra -- the zebra is there, in all of us, waiting to rear its ugly head. I thought it was a pretty well-done take on the darker side of human nature, from a dog's perspective. As much as he wants to be human, he's still a dog. In a dog's terms, it's the crazy zebra that pushed him to do things he should not. For humans... well, who knows what excuse we have? It would be nice to blame it on a damned zebra.

Overall, this was an endearing quick read. The character of Enzo is likeable and his observations of the human condition are poignant -- both heart-breaking and heart-warming. It's not life-changing, but I would recommend it to anyone who likes dogs and is looking for a good story with an interesting voice.


Sunday, February 26, 2012

TBP1: California Interiors

Dear Jenny,

On the heels of Historic San Francisco, I chose one of my California-themed books from the TBP list in January with California Interiors by Diane Dorrans Saeks. (I did read it in January -- just haven't had time to post til now.) I bought this book not long after I moved here and I glanced through it then, but have not looked at it much since.

I spent hours poring over this book one evening last month and I am SO happy I did! I read quite a few design blogs, but sitting down with a book... really staring at the photos... it's a different experience -- immersion! Ever since reading this book, the images from it keep popping into my head. I'm super excited about my next house which will be decidedly non-Californian (as, of course, it will be in Michigan) and have been thinking about ways to incorporate some "California" into it.

The book is divided into sections -- Los Angeles and SoCal, exploring those glam and crazy glass houses; SF and Northern CA, touching more on that arty/bohemian look; Coastal homes that are rustic, understated and nautical, including some floating homes; country/interior properties, sprawling and refined; and "California classics" -- homes of famous folks like Ray and Charles Eames and Diane Keaton that you see and immediately think, "California!"

For the most part, the Northern California styles were more in line with my personal preferences (not surprisingly), but I also loved looking at some of the outrageous things going on in SoCal.

Amazingly, although the book is over a decade old, none of these homes looked "dated" (except, of course, for the ones that were intentionally "retro") -- that's a true test of design. Stay away from the trendy stuff and decorate with what you love and your design will be timeless.

As great as this book was, the best part of my experience was the next day, finding my mind wandering to thoughts of homes I had seen in the book. I am such a visual person so I loved having so many images crammed in my head when I finished. I have a few more interior design books coming up this year -- perhaps I should save them for inspiration when we make the Big Move.

I feel like I can't post about a book of photos without showing you some... this is going to make this post huge, but I don't have the energy to make some fancy picture widget right now.

Here are my favorite book-ish photos (click to see them larger)...

I love this combo bookshelf/desk -- the books under the desk are great:

LA home of Katharina Ehrhardt and Karl Dietz. Photo by John Reed Forsman.

This library actually seems pretty do-able:

LA home of Merri Howard and Merrill Shindler. Photo by Grey Crawford/Beate Works.

And this one is a sort of pie-in-the sky -- leave it to the Eameses to outdo everyone else:

Pacific Palisades home of Ray and Charles Eames. Photo by Tim Street-Porter/Elizabeth Whiting and Associates.

Here are some fantastic bedrooms...

I love how this one feels like camp:

Lookout Mountain home of Jeffrey Harlacker. Photo by John Ellis and Tim Street-Porter.

And here's one I'd have if I lived alone, cause it's pretty girly. What I really like, though, is the molding piece attached to the ceiling -- I think I could do that even with a man around the house. ;)

SF home of Elsa Cameron. Photo by David Duncan Livingston.

This one is just crazy straight-up hilarious retro. I actually said "Wow" out loud when I saw it. I can't see having this in my house, but I have total respect for it:

LA home of Stephen Chin. Photo by Michael Mundy.

And this one? Well, I'd love to just move straight into this picture. I loooove this one:

Sonoma home of Louise and Ron Mann. Photo by Tim Street-Porter and Grey Crawford/Beate Works.

Here are a couple of dining rooms that caught my eye...

Don't really need the religious theme in this one, but I love this packed-to-the-gills look:

LA canyon home of Joel Schumacher. Photo by Thibault Jeanson/Inside.

And I am totally in love with the fireplace, built-in bookcases, and skylight in this:

SF home of Patty Brunn and Fred Womack. Photo by Grey Crawford/Beate Works.

Here's a really awesome super-cozy living room. Generally, I might find it a little dark, but with those huge windows and fantastic ocean views, it works:

Mendocino coast home of Greg Gorman. Photo by Grey Crawford/Beate Works.

I cannot get over the gorgeous stained glass in this one -- it's a visual feast (this one is definitely worth viewing at a larger size, as the details are amazing...):

SF home of Tony Duquette. Photo by Tim Street-Porter.

And, finally, here is a perfect little writing nook -- I love the sloped attic ceiling, the messy-but-tidy look about it, the art crammed in above the windows, the white shutters, the basket of rolls of paper... everything. I would love to sit here and write letters:

Sausalito home of Stephen Shubel and Woody Biggs. Photo by Cesar Rubio & Dominique Vorillon.

As I was just flipping through this book again, verifying credits, I saw about a dozen more photos that made me think, "Oh, I should have included this one and this one and this one!" So this post is really just a small sampling of the good stuff in this book!

Next up, I think I'll read Alameda -- the entire book is scans of old postcards and I'm excited to drive around town and compare the current state of things to what is shown in the old cards. (Plus, I'm hoping to catch a glance of our house!)


Sunday, February 12, 2012

Kelly's Book 2.12: The Art of Racing in the Rain

Dear Jenny,

My mom recommended this book to me last year. I don't really know anything about it -- looks like a quick read, it's got a very cute dog on the cover, and I have the Kindle edition, so it will be with me all the time.

Sounds like a perfect read for a short and extremely busy month. I'm in!


Thursday, February 9, 2012

Completed: Bound


Well, you were right! I don't know what I was thinking. This might be a gross generalization, but even the hardest novel is an easier read than non-fiction. I like non-fiction, but it seems to require more of my brain power. So I'm glad I asked for you advice. Now I'm done with my February read and can move on with Tournament reading (more on that later).

Bound is historical fiction, set in Cape Cod in the 1760s. The main character is Alice Cole. The story starts when she is a young girl. She and her family leave London for America on a ship, hoping for a better life. Unfortunately, Alice's mother and both of her brothers die on the voyage over. When they arrive, her father does not enough money for the 5 fares (because even if someone dies on the second half of the trip, you still have to pay their full fare. Charming.), so he "sells" Alice as an indentured servant. She is now bound into servitude until her 18th birthday.

The book jumps ahead to Alice at 15. The family she has been with for so many years has taken rather good care of her. The family has a daughter, Nebby, only a few years older than Alice. She gets married and takes Alice with her to her new home. Kelly, I'm sure it won't surprise you to guess what happens to Alice next. And although the scenes where she is raped by Nebby's husband are mercifully brief, it really doesn't make it any less disturbing. After some weeks of this nightly abuse, Alice escapes, runs off, and boards a ship as a stowaway.

One of my issues with this novel is that Alice is a closed book, emotionally speaking. All of these awful things happen to her, yet she's remarkably stoic. Although I get that being a servant doesn't allow a lot of space for emotional upheaval, the net effect is that I just didn't find Alice to be all that compelling as a character.

Alice's ship lands in Cape Cod and she finds herself some work with the town's widow. The widow takes boarders as a way of keeping herself afloat financially, and her other boarder is a man called Freeman. Freeman and Widow Berry take good care of Alice and they find a way to make a life together.

Now we come to my second issue with this book, which is that none of the plot twists seemed all that surprising. All seems to be going well, but I just knew that some sort of further conflict would have to present itself. Obviously, at some point Alice is going to have to face up to running away. And, I found myself thinking, I bet Alice is pregnant! I found myself thinking, I bet the Widow and Freeman are lovers. And sure enough, I was right. Ho-hum.

It's Alice's pregnancy that drives the rest of the plot. She thinks about trapping some local into thinking he's the father, but ultimately is unable to carry off her plan successfully. Then, as months pass, her best defense is to just deny that she is pregnant. Finally, on the night she gives birth, the widow goes for the midwife, but then come back to discover the baby is dead. Alice is put on trial for murder and also for breaking the terms of her service.

By the end, everything felt simultaneously melodramatic and predictable, which is quite an accomplishment when you think about it. Some long court scenes of Alice's murder trial ensue, and I bet they are historically accurate, but it was also boring. I still wanted Alice to FEEL something, and it didn't help that I found the whole plot at this point ridiculous. In what 1770s Massachusetts village could a servant successfully hide a pregnancy for 9 months? (Come on, am I the only one who's ever read The Crucible?) Was I really supposed to believe that the handsome young man in town, bound for Harvard, would be able to carry on a romance with a serving girl? Could it be that Alice will try to solve her problems once again by running away?

I feel like I'm making this out to be worse that it was. I quite liked the writing, but I just wasn't too interested in Alice's story. Interestingly, Widow Berry and Freeman are the primary characters in one of Gunning's earlier novels, The Widow's War. I'm sort of tempted to read it because they were quite likeable and interesting. And they are adults! Alice is a teenager, and she thinks like a teenager. That's not her fault, but it was something else that was annoying about the narrative.

Quick, done, and moving on,

PS Tournament Update: I've finished 9 of 16!

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Jenny's 2.12 book: Up for Grabs

Dear Kelly,

I feel a bit stressed out about my choices this month. I have a lot of long to very long books on my list. Here's the list of remaining titles with length:

All The King's Men: 672 pages
Best and the Brightest: 720 pages
Blind Assassin: 544 pages
Book of Night Women: 432 pages
Bound: 336 pages
Charlie Wilson's War: 520 pages
Country Driving: 488 pages
Cutting for Stone: 667 pages
Embracing Defeat: 680 pages
Matterhorn: 640 pages
Private Life: 416 pages
Warmth of Other Suns: 640 pages
We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families: 356 pages

I mean, what in the hell was I thinking? Remember last February? I was able to breeze right through Amsterdam and get to Tournament reading. This year, I just don't know what to do. The good news is that I've already complete 8 of the 16 Tournament books, so that's actually looking pretty good moving forward.

Want to weigh in and help me decide? Here are the 3 I'm considering with pros and cons for each:

Pros: It's shorter than almost everything else on the list. It was given to me by a parent of one of my students. This woman's name (also Jennifer) and I  run into each other at the Starbucks and talk about what we've been reading. She's a serious reader and she knows what she likes, and so I trust the recommendation.
Cons: Despite the recommendation, the topic of the book just doesn't sound super interesting to me, but that doesn't necessarily mean anything. Also, it's a novel and I'll be reading a lot of novels this month.

We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We will be Killed with our Families
Pros: In the scheme of things also short. Next month, I start teaching Africa books to the kids. Although I'd never have them read this, it's always good to know more and have more background.
Cons: This book has a reputation for being brutally depressing.  

Charlie Wilson's War
Pros: Recommended to me by Erik, who has a pretty good sense of the kind of non-fiction I tend to like. Of all the titles above, it's the only one available in the Kindle lending library for Prime members, so I can read it FOR FREE on my Kindle. I've seen the movie, so I'm already familiar with the basics of the plot.
Cons: It's much longer than the others.

What do you think? If you have any thoughts, I'd love to hear them.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Kelly's TBP List

Dear Jenny,

It addition to my To Be Read (TBR) pile, I also have a stack of art books that I am neglecting. So I've also selected 14 of these books to go through in 2012 and I'll report on them here. I mentioned this idea to you in December and was not sure if I was going to be able to commit to it, but since I have succeeded in January, I'm in. (Although not reporting till February... but who's counting?)

I wasn't sure what to call this list, because most of them don't really require much "reading" and we already have a TBR list, so that seemed confusing.

I'm calling it the To Be Perused (TBP) List, even though "peruse" is one of those words (like "nonplussed") that's losing its original meaning -- not "browse," as commonly thought, but "to examine or consider with attention and in detail," and that's what I plan to do with these books: really go through them, cover to cover. The thesaurus didn't really give me any good alternatives (pore over, inspect, analyze -- blech.) so I'm taking back "peruse!" Heh. ;)

Two of these books I just received for Christmas (Helvetica from you and the Bechtle book from Bill) and I thought, "Don't let these get dusty! Look at 'em!" So I'm doing it!

Without further ado, here is my To Be Perused (TBP) list:

(click to see that bigger)

In alphabetical order, they are:
  1. Alameda (Postcard History Series) by Greta Dutcher and Stephen Rowland (Completed 02.28.12)
  2. Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty by Andrew Bolton (Author), Sølve Sundsbø (Photographer)
  3. Art for the People: The Rediscovery and Preservation of Progressive and WPA-Era Murals in the Chicago Public Schools, 1904-1943 by Heather Becker
  4. Art of Modern Rock by Paul Grushkin
  5. The Audrey Hepburn Treasures by Ellen Erwin
  6. California Interiors by Diane Dorrans Saeks (Completed 1/28/12)
  7. Decorate: 1,000 Design Ideas for Every Room in Your Home by Holly Becker
  8. Design*Sponge at Home by Grace Bonney
  9. East Bay Then and Now by Dennis Evanosky
  10. Helvetica and the New York City Subway System: The True (Maybe) Story by Paul Shaw
  11. Lost Detroit: Stories Behind the Motor City's Majestic Ruins by Dan Austin (Author), Sean M. Doerr (Photographer)
  12. Pictoplasma by Robert Klanten
  13. Punk House: Interiors in Anarchy by Abby Banks
  14. Robert Bechtle: A Retrospective by Janet Bishop
And, as I mentioned, I've already perused one of them and I am so happy that I did. Full report soon!


Thursday, February 2, 2012

Completed: Historic San Francisco

Dear Jenny,

As predicted, this book made me say, "Awww... I'm leaving and I should have seen [awesome SF thing]!" But on a positive note: It's a list of things for me to do when I come back to visit.

I learned a lot about both California and San Francisco history reading this book. Of course, I knew practically nothing to begin with, so that wasn't tough, but it was easy to read and I found myself compelled to share information with other people as I read it (a sign of a good book, I think... when you say, "I was reading about this in a book the other day...").

Plus, many street and landmark names were made so clear to me (Sutter, Stanford, Mark Hopkins, just to name a few.) And, I learned some interesting things things about how San Francisco "works" (or doesn't -- why Market St. is such a clusterfuck, for instance.)

History book + Guide book. Two great tastes... ?
The author had a very ambitious goal -- to write a history book and a guide book. For the most part, I would say he succeeded.

The organization makes sense, at least on paper: Each chapter covers a discrete period of San Francisco's history and is broken down into the following sections:
  • Introduction/Executive Summary telling what is covered in the chapter
  • The "meat" of the chapter, reporting the period in detail
  • A "break out" section, highlighting one particular notable individual of the time period
  • A list of attractions that you can visit today that are mentioned in the chapter
Sounds good, right? Learn a little bit about history, then go and see where the history happened! But... there are a few problems.

For one thing, certain locations are mentioned relating to several different time periods. The fourth time I came across the Wells Fargo Museum, I thought, "Wait... we already covered this, didn't we?" So I flipped back and yes, that museum had already been mentioned in previous chapters... but in each chapter, only the artifacts and exhibits that related to the particular time period were discussed.

If I really did use this book as a city guide, I might end up missing interesting things in a particular location because I didn't notice that the location came up several times in the book.

Oddly, there was also a complete list of all of the locations at the very end of the book, with "highlights" that reference the chapters in the book that covered the location. Sooo... as much as I hate endnotes (the little numbers always distract me so!) I think that may have been the most effective way to deal with this throughout the book. And, perhaps, if the author wanted to address all of the sights to see for one particular time period, he could have just had a simple list at the end of each chapter, with instructions to go to the back for more details?

The same thing happened with the person/event highlighted at the end of each chapter. He would often repeat part of the story that had already been covered in the chapter itself before expounding on it more. I found myself thinking, "Wait. Didn't I just read that?" I'm pretty intolerant of repeated information when I'm reading -- trust me to read it once and get it the first time.

Surprising info: Silver, Barbary Coast, Pan-Pacific
It was interesting to read about the mining of silver being more important to the development of San Francisco than the gold rush. I guess gold is just more glamorous? Cause that seems to be all that everyone can talk about here. I guess I've heard of the "Big Bonanza" before, but did not realize exactly what that meant. So that was really interesting.

I've also heard people talk about the "Barbary Coast trail" and I've seen the markers for it in the City, but I had a vague notion of what that was actually about -- Gold rush, right? Something about that? "Red light district" or something? Um, it was about 1000 times worse than that name implies. The author did not shy away from describing some of the terrible debauchery that women were forced into, as well as the horrifying "shanghaiing" that went on -- trapping sailors (Literally! Trap doors in bar floors!) and enslaving them as crew members on ships bound across the ocean. Just... really terrible stuff.

The book was not gratuitously graphic, but the picture ain't pretty. San Francisco, the Barbary Coast is nothing to be proud of -- I've never considered "human trafficking" to be an awesome tourist attraction. (Just looked it up online -- the description of the walking tour at the Barbary Coast Trail tourism website is definitely whitewashing things. It's like making a Holocaust museum that "explores German history.") I'll admit I am probably overly sensitive about these things, but... come on!

So let's swing back around to the good stuff: I already knew quite a bit about the Pan Pacific International Exposition of 1915, as it is the origin of my most-favoritest-building-in-the-whole-wide-world (pictured above -- the Palace, of course), but I was still amazed by some of the details -- they built a 43 story "Tower of Jewels," described this way:
"This glittering edifice literally shimmered, because attached to it were over one hundred thousand colored, cut-glass beads suspended by wires so that they would flutter in the breeze. The effect was further enhanced by tiny mirrors placed behind each bauble, which made them glint and flash in the light." [197]
Dude. 43 stories of that?! I'm just amazed. Flipping awesome. And just 9 years after a good portion of the City had burned to the ground. Go, San Fran!

A couple of hiccups
The history hiccup I had was that we sort of skipped from the "Summer of Love" in 1969 to the earthquake in 1989. The 70s and 80s are glossed over in a few paragraphs, but I would have been interested in more about that, especially since a timeline in the back of the book shows a rather dramatic population decline during that time. After the exhaustive details about mining silver, where are some details about this time period?

And the attraction hiccup: sometimes the author would talk about an exhibit or location in great detail and then say "This attraction/location closed on [insert date here]." What?! Then why even mention it? This was the second edition of the book (the first was in 1991), so perhaps he was just quickly editing to get it to print, but it seems odd to leave the "Look at the neat thing you can see! Whoops! Just kidding!" element in the book.

The history book from history
Random note because we've talked about books that are "pre cell phone": This book was published in 1999 (I'm sure I bought it right when I moved here in 2000) so there are zero references to websites for information about the attractions, which I noticed (What's this... phone number thing...?) It's not the fault of the book at all -- just a funny observation. It looks like there was an updated version in 2007, so that probably has more online information.

Conclusion: I liked it!
Overall, I really enjoyed this book -- definitely learned a lot and it piqued my interest in exploration (you can see the epicenter of the 1906 quake at Point Reyes, where "what was once one continuous fence is now two fences, sixteen feet out of alignment." [182]) (Wild!) but the odd layout did make it a bit of a digging expedition to use a straight-up guidebook. I would love to read the history book and then have the guide book available via a website/e-book/app, but I'm not quite sure we're there yet.

Even without the electronic ideas implemented, I think the history book and guide book could have been split up for more effective use. Regardless, this book was chock full of info and I enjoyed it more than I thought I would.