Sunday, December 20, 2009

In the Country of Brooklyn by Peter Golenbock

Aloha, everyone! I'd apologize for my absence, but I think I already did that. I've been busy spending all my savings on Christmas presents and car repairs, and in a few weeks, I'll be busy spending the rest of my savings on a new car (unless there's one in my driveway on Christmas morning with a gigantic bow on it - ha! That's a nice fantasy...) and a new laptop (as for the old one? hard drive failing). Luckily I've still got my dad's relic (it runs Windows 98! YouTube is phasing out its browser! Ha!) to type out the occasional review and to hack away futilely at the backlog in my Google Reader (even with the occasional comment so everyone will know I'm still here...somewhere). Amid the strife that this month has brought me, I've also been engaging in lots of Christmasy fun in NYC and at day long Christmas parties and attending a delightful "holiday brunch" at work and, of course, listening to Christmas music nearly non-stop and have thus managed to regenerate a good deal of holiday cheer that I thought was lost forever from a week or few of almost laughable bad fortune which prompted my loving father to rename me "black cloud."

And today, I have even more reason to celebrate because I've finished it. My arch-nemesis review copy. Peter Golenbock's epically huge oral history of Brooklyn, In the Country of Brooklyn, which I so foolishly requested from LibraryThing Early Reviewers not realizing how ginormous it would be. Now this book has been skulking about in various states of "readness" for probably more than a year, serving as the considerable base of most of my "reading now" piles that I'm not actually reading. As a Christmas gift to myself, I decided to finally get this monkey off my back (or, well, at least off my bedroom floor) and give my sad and pathetic reading page totals a boost for the year with its well beyond considerable 663 pages. The two of us have such a long history, that I almost don't know how I'll finally review it, but I think I'll manage....

In the Country of Brooklyn is Peter Golenbock's compilation of dozens and dozens and dozens and possibly a few more dozen interviews he conducted with various residents of Brooklyn throughout its last almost-century of history. Through the spoken experience of various average and important personages of Brooklyn through the years, Golenbock attempts to give us a sense of an exciting and progressive place, home to the entire spectrum of immigrants that eventually found their way to the United States, that spawned a variety of political activists, sports heroes, as well as an impressive array of cultural contributions. Golenbock uses his interviews to comment on Brooklyn's struggle and ultimate willingness to integrate its diverse population, the struggle to get government to recognize and respond to the needs of its people, its present efforts to rejuvenate parts of the community that have fallen into disuse and disrepair, and, given its length, much, much more.

Golenbock must have taken an incredible amount of time to speak with his many subjects and transcribe their words, and it shows. This book is packed with the thoughts and memories of countless people connected in some way to Brooklyn. These interviews make up the meat of the book. Most are interesting, and many are downright compelling. In addition, there are past and present pictures of Booklyn as well as of each of the interviews' subjects which is another definite addition to this book.

That said, if you're going to read this book, read it for the interviews. Golenbock's background and assorted "filler" information is at times, unfortunately, downright painful to read. Golenbock's wild generalizations and obvious political intrusions will bother any serious historian and any average person who happens to disagree with his views. The book's organization is also sorely lacking. While the interviews are a pleasure to read, Golenbock seems to struggle to make them coalesce around any sort of main point. Indeed, some of the interviewees, while interesting, seem to have only the most fleeting of connections with Brooklyn which, it seems, Golenbock might have been attempting to include in an effort to define Brooklyn in a certain way that doesn't quite seem to pan out. Instead what we have is a massive tome that, once you've passed the midway point, seems to drag on to some uncertain destination that is never reached. With a good edit for page count and organization and perhaps an overhaul of Golenbock's background information, In the Country of Brooklyn, with all its potent first person accounts, could have packed quite a punch, but as it stands, it will leave real history buffs wishing for something a little more substantial.

Disclaimer: In the Country of Brooklyn was sent to me at no cost by Harper Collins/William Morrow in conjunction with LibraryThing Early Reviewers.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Wild Roses by Deb Caletti

I will finish In the Country of Brooklyn before the end of the year. I will finish In the Country of Brooklyn before the end of the year. I will finish In the Country of Brooklyn before the end of the year. I will finish In the Country of Brooklyn before the end of the year....

Oh, sorry. Didn't see you there. I'm just a little bit busy with my token, how you say, Old Year's Resolution. I've got just over 100 pages left, and I'm going to finish it. Mark my words, because you don't read more than 500 pages into a book and just wander off. 50, yes, 100, yes, 200, maybe. But 500? No. I'm too close to let it beat me.

But I digress. Really I'm here in an attempt to catch up on the back logged reviews. So, I give you my review of Wild Roses, which, I'll have you know, is the third consecutive book I've read this year with a main character named Cassie. This was entirely unintentional and not just a little bit strange.

Cassie is the narrator of Wild Roses, and her life has gotten just a little bit confusing. It started when her parents got divorced, continued when her mother remarried mentally disturbed world-famous violinist Dino Cavalli, and got even worse when Cassie met Ian, a young violinist whose playing melts Cassie despite her usually being impervious to the power of music. Dino is off his meds trying to produce new work for an upcoming concert, and slowly coming unhinged. To keep him sane and focused, Dino takes Ian, who is trying to get into a premiere music school, as a student. Soon, Cassie finds that all the confusing and difficult parts of her life are colliding.

I confess I had a Child of Divorce Reunion Fantasy Number One Thousand, where I for a moment imagined my father finding out that Dino really was a killer woman and that my parents would have to get back together. I saw them running through a meadow, hand in hand. Okay, maybe not a meadow. But I saw me having only one Christmas and one phone number and only my father's shaved bristles in the bathroom sink.

Cassie is a great narrator, strong and smart yet vulnerable, serious but with a biting and laugh out loud funny sarcastic wit. She comes off as pretty normal and well-adjusted, but behind the scenes she's struggling with the fear and potential humiliation that comes with living with Dino, with the occasional irrational fantasy of her parents reuniting, and of course, with her feelings for Ian and whether she is willing to let him get close even though she knows that his very circumstances guarantee that he will soon leave. She's a veritable everygirl trying to keep up the front of being fine while dealing with trouble at home, parents that can't quite be relied upon, and her first feelings of real love for Ian.

I couldn't believe it. I loved my mother and I loved my father, but there in that circle I felt something I hadn't for a long time. It was something I'd been missing, that I'd been long for without even realizing it. It was a sense of family.

Wild Roses definitely has it pegged. Life with the paranoid and mentally ill, life as a "Child of Divorce," and life as a normal girl falling for a guy she knows she shouldn't. Other than a slight problem with pacing that probably results from trying to cover each angle equally and a finish that seems to peter out more than definitively end, Wild Roses is a sweet and honest story about real love, trust, and learning to let people in.