Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Oh, Amazon. It's like you don't even want me to buy books.


As we have previously discussed, there is nothing more infuriating that buying a newly released book from Amazon. The ridiculous markdown on hardbacks combined with the infuriating mark up on the Kindle version creates the following situation:

Broken Harbor is a book I have been looking forward to all summer. Last summer, I blew through these mysteries set in Dublin. Each one focuses on a different member of the detective squad, and I loved them. The new one came out yesterday!

How infuriating. I can buy the Kindle version for 15 bucks or get the hardback from Amazon for $16.43. The hell?

You know what I'm probably *going* to do, even though it's totally illogical? Go down to my local independent bookstore, right in the neighborhood, and plunk down full price for it. At least that way the local bookstore gets a cut. Those jerks at Amazon, or those jerks at the publishing house, or whoever it is that makes hardback sales the be-all-end-all number, make me want to scream. Don't get me wrong---I still by plenty for Amazon. But every once in a while, I just want to protest the stupidity. It also makes it more likely that I will get my small, petty revenge by letting other people borrow it. That's why I almost always purchase the actual book in these situations---I hate spending $15 on a non-lendable Kindle book.


PS. You know what, the more I think about it, the more likely it will be that I won't buy this book at all. I'll borrow it from the library at school and read it for free. Take that publishers! Of course, the downside of this plan is that I'm not supporting the author. 

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Completed: Olive Kitteridge

Dear Jenny,

Well, I'm 3 months late with this review (Olive was April's book) and I'm 3 books behind (May, June, and July = zero books) but I'm not giving up. So here I am! Honestly, I'm not sure I remember that much about this book, but I'm going to press on...

This is a book of short stories where the character Olive Kitteridge plays a part in every one -- as both a satellite character and the central figure. One thing that threw me off while reading was that Olive is the protagonist in most of the stories, but not all of them. I was constantly looking for some sort of pattern -- is Olive the main character in the first and last stories? No. In just the ones about the town she lives in? No. In alternating stories? No. I don't think I ever discerned a pattern. Not sure what that means (either the part about me looking for a pattern or that there was no pattern), but it's something that struck me (and kind of distracted me) while reading the book.

My general lasting impressing of the book: I liked it. And, more importantly: I liked it, but did not particularly like Olive. At least, not at first. And, even in the end, I'm not sure that I "liked" her. We have talked at length about the possibility of liking a book even when we did not like the main character... I think I have pretty much said, "No. Can't do it." but this book has proven me wrong. 

If there was a single story that made me begin to "like" Olive, it was her empathy while attempting to save an anorexic girl -- making a connection between a secret-doughnut-eating fat woman and a starving-herself-to-death skinny one was truly brilliant. Whatever is broken inside of these two women is, essentially, the same thing.

As I sit here thinking more about this book, I realize how powerful the writing is -- the past 3 months have been totally and completely hectic in my life, and yet I remember the suicide attempt story, the infidelity story, the story about Henry's assistent, the lounge singer's story... that's some good writing, to  stick in my post-cross-country move brain.

I was particularly interested in the continued story of Olive and her son, but now cannot remember how it turns out... did we ever find out what crime (or perceived crime) Olive had actually committed against him? Or was it just her perpetually overbearing motherhood that ruined him and their relationship (in his mind, at least)? I remember a feeling of "We're going to find out something horrible that happened to him as a child..." but then remember that feeling being unanswered.  (Did something shocking get revealed and I cannot remember it now?)

Since I cannot remember any specific dramatic event, I think the issue was just... general mom-was-a-shit issues, which leads me to the conclusion of... we're all damaged in some ways by our parents, right? The key is how we deal with it as adults. This guy doesn't seem to be dealing with it very well. Was Olive's over-protectiveness worse than any other item on the laundry list of mistakes parents make? I don't know -- it didn't really seem to me like it was. Maybe someone with a "perfect" upbringing would think it was? Perhaps that was the point -- most of us, at some point, think our parents are "the worst." And some parents really are -- but Olive, despite her flaws (heck, I barely liked her), didn't seem to be "the worst." But, again, perhaps I am misremembering and something shocking took place -- set me straight, wouldja?

What furthered me most in "liking" Olive was definitely her care and attention to Henry after his stroke. It also broke my heart and scared the living shit out of me. God, I hope this never happens to me. I guess that's an awful thing to say after, "Yeah -- we all have to deal with our shitty upbringings." I guess the message there is "Yeah -- we all have to deal with life's tragedies," right? (But if I could choose, I'd choose less tragedies. That's all I'm saying.)

Okay. I will now wrap up this wildly-careening review/re-hash of a book I read in the midst of one of the most hectic times of my adult life. Sorry, Olive Kitteridge. You may not have gotten the attention you deserve. But hey -- I did like you!

I am going to try my best to catch up over the next month or so ... I've been reading plenty of junk lately, so I just need to sub out TBR for junk (this helps: I unpacked my books today!)


Monday, July 23, 2012

Completed: Country Driving


The author
I'm plugging along with this year's reading choices. It's already mid-way through the year---how did that happen?---and it *feels* like I haven't read as much this year. But when I added Country Driving to the list of this year's list of completed books, I was pleasantly surprised to see that I've read more than I thought. I think part of it is that I usually pick up my reading pace significantly in the summer, but this summer so far has been too busy for lots of reading. But summer school is over after Friday, so I hope to squeeze in a few more books before school starts. In fact, one of the reasons I picked Country Driving for July was that I was starting late (I didn't finish June's book until the beginning of July) and I knew that I would enjoy the book and want to read it.

Not the author
I love the author Peter Hessler---I don't know why I have such passionate feelings about this guy. Obviously, he's a great writer and I like how he sees the world. His books are fascinating exposes of China, but I also like how they contain snippets of his own personal experience as an American abroad. His work is highly readable and informative: the perfect mix. (Also, I think he looks a tiny little bit like Christian Bale...mmm, Christian Bale.) In fact, I love Peter Hessler so much that I've considered subscribing in National Geographic because he writes for them so frequently. I already get the New Yorker, a magazine that also publishes his writing. Looks like Hessler's recently moved to Egypt, and I look forward to learning more about that culture. Okay. Enough creepy stalker talk about the author...on to the book!

This is a book about the rise of car culture in China. In fact the full title of the book is Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory. The book has 3 major sections, and I'm happy to report that it's a nice, clear organizational structure. You may remember that my only real quibble with his last book, Oracle Bones, was the forced narrative structure. In the first section, Hessler take several driving excursions in a rented Jeep Cherokee (hilariously renamed The City Special for the Chinese market) along the path of the Great Wall of China. The second section details the five or six years of visiting a small village, Sancha, as a writer's retreat from Beijing. The last section describes life in the special development zones and factory towns in China's southern provinces.

It was all excellent, but I'd say that I enjoyed the first two sections the most. The first, about the Great Wall and how it was actually built and for what purposes, was probably the most interesting in terms of expanding my knowledge of China. Specifically, he recounts the fascinating the history of the Great Wall. He debunks the myths about how you can see the Wall from space, or that the number of bricks could go around the Earth twice. But what was most interesting was that the Great Wall isn't *one* wall. It's hundreds of smaller walls, built over thousands of years for defensive purposes. Just reading about the Mongolian invaders and the response of the Ming Dynasty was fascinating. Basically, the Mongols were nomadic while the Chinese were sedentary. The Mongols, unlike other people near China, didn't want anything to do with the Chinese way of life. Hessler quotes a historian who explains that the Chinese were perplexed by the Mongols: To them, it wasn't Chinese civilization, it WAS civilization. It would naturally appeal to anybody, regardless of their ethnicity, in the same way dentistry with novocain would appeal to anybody...The horse nomads are the first people to whom [Chinese civilization] has no appeal at all. And this baffles the Chinese" (35). I just found this whole discussion fascinating. Of course it made me think of the large extensive walls that we've built along our border with Mexico. What does it mean when a society relies on walls to keep others out, or to preserve a way of life?

The other part of this section was the extensive descriptions of the driving culture of China. (What is it with me and books about driving?) For example, when you get into a fender bender, the 2 parties quibble over a proper payoff at that moment and money exchanges hands immediately. He talks about how everyone in China loves to use their horns and no one obeys the standard rules of driving. It sounds harrowing, but he vividly portrays life as a driver in China. Hessler quotes directly several questions from the Chinese driving exam, and they are appallingly hilarious.

When driving through a residential area, you should 
a) honk like normal
b) honk more than normal, in order to alert residents
c) avoid honking, in order to avoid disturbing residents 

When overtaking another car, the driver should pass
a) on the left
b) on the right
c) wherever, depending on the situation 

I don't know why, but I laughed out loud at some of them. For example, in the first question above, aren't you dying to know what it means to honk like normal? Hah!

The second section describes life in small Chinese villages. Many---most---villages are dying out as their young people leave for factory towns. Hessler and a friend are determined to find a writer's retreat in the countryside, and they settle on a small rental house in a town called Sancha, which is near a beautiful section of the Great Wall. Here, Hessler and his friend become friends with many of the local families. In this section, he movingly writes about these dying villages: the difficulties farmers face, the results of a town without young people, and the slow changes that happen as the city encroaches on rural lands. There's a heartbreaking story of what happens when the last child in the village develops a life-threatening illness. This was definitely the most personal part of the book, but it also contained fascinating information about the political systems that rule China.

The last section was fine, but didn't have the hum and zing of the first 2 sections. In the last part, Hessler describes the booming factory towns popping up in the southern and eastern parts of the country. He interviews the bosses and workers at a bra ring and underwire factory (bra rings are what he calls the plastic tab that adjusts the lengths of a bra strap). Maybe because I've already read a few articles or books that explored this phenomenon, it was less interesting. Still well written and and I enjoyed it, but less revealing.

Overall, a good book and an easy and interesting non-fiction read. I feel like my review was just summarizing, but that's not too bad for July, right?


Saturday, July 7, 2012

Completed: Private Life


My June plans to read The Best and the Brightest were completely stymied by the fact that it just didn't seem like the right book for such a bustling, busy month. That and it was just too big to carry around in California for 10 days.

Instead, I read Jane Smiley's excellent and satisfying novel, Private Life. This book was given to me as a gift by one of my all time favorite families. As it turns out, Jane Smiley is my student's aunt! She came to school once and spoke about a YA book she wrote called The Georges and the Jewels.

This book, Private Life, starts in the late 1800s and continues up until World War II. The main character, Margaret, grows up in a small Missouri town. She suffers through several early tragedies, including the accidental death of one brother, another brother's death from illness, and her father's suicide. Margaret is an interesting character, emotionally scarred by these early events, she withdraws from life. She can tell that she is different from her sisters, she's aware of lacking some human, nurturing touch that others seem to possess.

In her late 20s, Margaret is destined for spinsterhood, but manages through the machinations of her mother and another town matron, to land Andrew Jackson Jefferson Early as a husband. Andrew is the closest the town gets to a local celebrity. He's a well-known astronomer and scientist, but there's a whiff of disgrace attached to his name, something went wrong with his teaching post at the University of Chicago.

Margaret and Andrew marry and move to Vallejo, California. Andrew works for the Navy and busies himself with writing a book of his scientific findings. Margaret gives birth to a boy, Alexander, who dies only a few weeks later. Smiley's description of what it is like to fall in love with your baby is beautiful and true. As the years pass, various tragedies and world events (the San Francisco earthquake, World War I, etc) impact their lives in both large and small ways.

The interesting thing about this book to me was how vividly Smiley portrays such a small and uneventful life. Margaret is a quiet woman, a reader and housewife. She knits and sews and visits with other Vallejo families. But Margaret is a keen observer of the life around her---except that she is not able to fully understanding her own husband. Only over the course of many years does she discover for herself what is obvious to everyone else: Andrew is a megalomaniac, a small man convinced of his own genius and greatness. He is at times delusional and obsessed with proving his own ideas. The moment when Margaret realizes that he is nothing but a fool is one of the most powerful scenes in the book. She both understands the reality of their situation and at the same time is completely powerless to do anything about it. She stays with him for a lifetime, feeling more and more miserable, trapped, and alone. Interestingly, the book isn't as depressing as this would make it all seem.  Margaret has stoically withstood so much trauma, that she is able to bear the misery of her marriage without complaint. She is a tragic figure, but also one that I felt great pity and empathy for. Although she has a friend, Dora, who has never married and has traveled the world, Margaret completely lacks the imagination and will to extricate herself from her marriage. At one point, she talks about Andrew's old-fashioned manners and morals, but she is just as much a victim of her upbringing.

There were a few other things of note in this novel. Andrew is a man who only talks about science, knowledge, and thinking. Early in their marriage, she ends up finding out a lot about him and his past by reading his letters. (This makes her sound like a snoop, but it's on the advice of a fellow Navy wife, a very likeable character who we understand is trying to help Margaret figure out who it is she has married.) Margaret reads a great deal of correspondence from his mother, which makes perfect sense to me. But then there's also several letters that she reads FROM Andrew to his mother. This isn't the age of email, it's 1900! How does Andrew have to come *his own* letters that he sent to his mother? It just didn't really make any sense, and I found myself sort of annoyed that the author couldn't come up with a more clever way of divulging that information to Margaret. She also picks up the letter conceit some 40 years later, again in order to give some needed information to Margaret. Are we really supposed to believe that Margaret read only *some* letters, 40 years apart, that happened to give her some much needed information about Andrew? Just a little too convenient, and I found myself sort of irritated by the contrived nature of the letters. Not a deal-breaker, just a mild disappointment, maybe.

The other thing that really bothered me---I don't know, maybe this is a good thing---is that there is a prologue and epilogue set in the immediate aftermath of Pearl Harbor. In the beginning, before we know anything, a man named Pete comes calling for Margaret and takes her to a prison/internment camp to visit a Japanese family that she clearly cares for. Pete assures Margaret that the imprisonment of this family isn't Andrew's fault. In the epilogue, Margaret confronts Andrew about the wild and improbably accusations he made against the family. Finally, the last scene is one where she tells her friends about a childhood incident that she has always claimed to have forgotten. When she was five, her brother took her into town to watch a hanging. The book ends with her recollection of this terrifying and disturbing incident.

About this framing device: NOT A SINGLE QUOTATION MARK IS USED IN THE PROLOGUE OR EPILOGUE. First of all, you know how much a fucking hate that. But here's an example of it drawing my attention to something I might have not have otherwise noticed. My brain is considering several different possibilities here, but the one I keep coming back to is that perhaps these scenes have been embellished/created/dreamed by Margaret. All of her life, she's been...well...symbolically speechless in the face of societal expectations. Maybe these scenes are just a glimpse of who she wishes to be rather than the person she really is? After a lifetime of subservient silence, would she ever confront Andrew? After a lifetime of forgetting, would her memory of the hanged man appear so easily? I think I will be puzzling over these quotation-mark-less sections for a while.

Of course, maybe the author is just doing it to annoy me. Perhaps I am totally over thinking it. Anything's possible!

Overall, I truly enjoyed this book. The question of how our private selves intersect with the outside world is a fascinating one. Smiley does some interesting things with Andrew and Margaret---he's not *always* wrong, and his ideas are occasionally proven correct. The fact that he's not 100% crackpot makes Margaret's life all that more confusing, because she herself cannot gauge when he's wrong or right. Her entire public life is beset with doubt and unhappiness. Only her inner life is serene and peaceful, but as time goes on she begins to wonder why she was so unwilling to take action or to make changes. What goes on inside a single person, or inside a marriage, can never be known to anyone but that person living it---a point that this novel illustrates in a way that is both beautiful and heartbreaking.