Thursday, July 31, 2008

Home Girl: Building a Dream House on a Lawless Block by Judith Matloff

Greetings, everybody. Sorry (yes, I really am - I'd much rather be here doing this than, say, at my pooey job) it's yet again been a week since I've been able to entertain you with my thrilling anecdotes and thoughtful book reviews. I've been busy working at that aforementioned pooey job and, get this, reading books. I finished The Abstinence Teacher which is another one that needs to marinate a while before I decide if I did or did not like it or if I fall into neither camp. I'm about halfway through the first Farworld book, and it's a great page turner. Also, again with the help of the TBR randomizer which somehow "knew" that I was hoping to alternate fiction with non-fiction and chose me a non-fiction title, I've just started The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry by Kathleen Flinn - at least, I think that's what it's called. The title is so long that I wouldn't put it past me to screw it up. Anyhow, it's a memoir by a woman who got fired from her corporate management job which she didn't particularly like in the first place and then decides to follow her dream to learn to cook at famous French cooking school, Le Cordon Bleu. I've only read a few pages, but it already seems promising.

I'm afraid I've been putting off my review of Home Girl. Not because I didn't like it - I actually liked it quite a bit. I just don't feel like I have anything especially penetratingly insightful to say about it. That, and the working and the reading usually leave me with hardly enough time to even say penetratingly insightful things about books for which penetratingly insightful thoughts do readily come to mind. Anywho, I fully intend to make a solid attempt forthwith even if I have to do so without my usual penetrating insight.! Yeah, you! Quit rolling your eyes!


Okay, I think I'm ready now.

After years of cultivating a successful career as a foreign correspondent that had her traveling to all manner of dangerous locations, Judith Matloff stumbled into her mid-life crisis seeking all the things that she had neglected all her life: commitment, safety, and family. When she loses a baby in dangerous and painful fashion in Russia after chasing a story in Chechnya, she vows to change the way she lives and seek out a real home in New York City, her hometown. Having accumulated a fair amount of funds, she sets out to find the right neighborhood for herself, her husband John, and their well-traveled canine companion, Khaya. Her scouting leads her to West Harlem (before it was cool or even safe to live in West Harlem) a place she deems to be a thriving neighborhood with lots of Latin American flavor that reminds her of her past travels. When the opportunity comes to buy a run-down, fixer-upper of a house at a rock-bottom price, she pays cash on the spot without a second thought as to why the asking price is so low, hoping for the best from the house and from her new neighborhood.

What she gets is far from the best. Judith soon realizes that the reason the house was shown so early in the morning was that by noon the street becomes a hotbed of cocaine-dealing activity complete with hoards of Dominican men eager to be rich back in their own country effortlessly coordinating massive drug transactions providing drugs to much of the east coast. The dealers think nothing of leaving trash everywhere, urinating on her front steps, and leaning somewhat menacingly on her gate. As if this wasn't bad enough, there's Salami, the unhinged crack addict next door, and he's angry about being displaced from "his" house. While Judith assembles a motley crew of workmen to begin the long task of restoring the house, Salami spends all his spare time, of which he has a lot, skulking about and singing "I'll be watching you" in an effort to get Judith to abandon the house he still thinks of as his.

What's surprising about this book is not that Harlem was a hub of criminal activity nor that frightening and disruptive people seemed to be lurking at all hours in this dangerous neighborhood, but how Judith and John embrace their melting-pot neighborhood. Judith strikes up a surprisingly respectful and businesslike friendship with the director of the local drug crew, Miguel, at the same time as she is collecting another group of acquaintances at community meetings where, it is thought, her white face will encourage a stronger response from police to the neighborhood's many problems. Clarence the super from across the street doesn't have the most attractive personality, but he does have a natural cure for whatever might be ailing you while Mackenzie a well-educated recovering addict squatting in the basement of Clarence's building is a frequent borrower of books from Matloff's collection. Other interesting neighbors include a Julliard-trained organist who grows a garden of fake flowers and a feisty elderly black woman still going strong in her 80s who is renowned throughout the neighborhood.

Matloff's connections with the many unique characters that make up her neighborhood even as it begins to transform from underprivileged drug Wall Steet to the dwelling of yuppies are what makes this book shine. It's as charming as it is ironic to find one of the first white couples to venture into West Harlem embracing their community and its members embracing them. Sure, there are many bumps, and occasional bottomless craters, in the road which Matloff renders honestly, but by the time the house is restored and police have finally begun to crack down on the most egregious drug activity, it's clear that her house in Harlem proved to be a great growing experience for Judith and that the she did, at last, find just the sort of home she was longing for albeit in the most unlikely of places.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

A Wolf at the Table: A Memoir of My Father by Augusten Burroughs

*looks around*

Psst... There's no one here. You know what that's time for me to attempt a book review in relative quiet. It's time for me to reflect on whether or not I did or did not like A Wolf at the Table though I fear the ultimate conclusion will still be that I don't really know.

Augusten Burroughs' father never loved him. Apparently, not even one little bit. As a child, Augusten's enthusiastic greetings were stalled by his fathers ever-interfering Arms. When young Augusten decides to keep a "scientific" tally of how many times his father says "not now" or "go away" versus how many times he says "come here," the results are so overwhelmingly negative that Augusten is ashamed to say he even tried to measure such a thing. Not only was his father astonishingly unloving, he was also, as Augusten realized not too far into his young life, remarkably unlovable. Father had a sadistic streak that made simple things like owning pets or asking to get an ice cream cone exercises in terror. One after the other Burroughs chronicles his most horrific memories of a father who was profoundly disturbed and wonders if he will grow up to be like the monster that struck terror into anyone who could see past the surprisingly normal face he projected to the outside world.

If I were to give in to my first impression, I would have to say that, above all, this book is depressing. Probably the most depressing thing I've read all year, maybe the most depressing thing I've read in a few years. As the book moved into its second hundred pages I was reading it with the trepidation of the easily scared watching a horror movie (Oh nooo, don't leave the guinea pig behind with him! Don't ask to get an ice cream cone! Don't put those cookies in the shopping cart - it can only end badly!). After reading this book, there is surely no doubt in my mind that Burroughs' father was totally unhinged and reprehensible in nearly every way.

So, that's my initial reaction. This book is too depressing to be enjoyed. Why would any happiness seeking human being ever want to read something so utterly dispiriting?

(But wait, I promised ambiguous feelings, and I don't plan to disappoint.)

Whenever I could seperate myself from the unfortunate happenings inherent in this book, it occurred to me repeatedly that Augusten Burroughs is really a great writer. Despite its more depressing properties, I never once thought that I wanted to lay this book down and not finish it. From the very start, this book has a touch of brilliance. Burroughs brings to life his early childhood memories in a perfectly clear and surreal manner in which those memories tend to linger. They're filled with smells, textures, in almost photographic glimpses in which memories from such a young age seem to manifest themselves. Burroughs puts into words the essence of his childish enthusiasm for loving his father and the crushing and shameful disappointment he felt when he realized his advances never seemed to penetrate his father's, at best, indifference toward him. He pinpoints the exact moments when he began to understand, and in some measure accept, the most difficult truths about his father. He captures that tension between desperately wanting to be loved and fiercely hating the same person he can't help hoping will love him unconditionally. He insightfully contemplates what a father should be and whether he did or did not turn out to posess the worst qualities of his own father.

"Can we go outside?" I asked, embarrassed because I knew I was leaking hope the way our dog Cream would sometimes squirt pee on the floor when she was excited.

He folded himself into the rocking chair in the living room, exhaling loudly as he sat. "Oh, not now. You go play. I'm in a lot of pain."

"Just for a minute?" I begged.

He closed his eyes. "I'm very tired right now. You go on and play with your new glove."

I walked away, carrying the mitt by the wrist strap. The trouble was, I didn't know how to play with it.

I knew I should be very grateful for this extraordinary present, but I couldn't help feeling almost sad. Because before I had a glove, I didn't need a father to throw a ball at me.

A ball. That's when it occurred to me, he'd given me a glove but nothing to catch.

Now that I think about it, it may be because Burroughs' writing is so skillful that this book is so hard to read. We see and feel exactly what Burroughs intends for us to see and feel through his narrative. We come to know the youngster Burroughs was, to understand his deepest desires and to be just as disappointed, angry, and fearful as he once was. A Wolf at the Table is a painful, difficult read, but it is also a sort of cathartic masterwork of a very talented writer.

Monday, July 21, 2008

The All-Purpose Reading Update

Hey, look at me. I blog. Sometimes. Er...rarely. I didn't feel very talkative last week. Well, I don't even feel very talkative this week. As a matter of fact, I spend most of my time these days feeling just stressed. Changes are happening at work and, while I'm not especially afraid of losing my job, I am afraid of getting forced into a shift that will make me want to quit it. Tomorrow is the day when the changes are supposedly going to be announced, and lacking any sort of seniority whatsoever, I've been feeling like I'm about to get shackled with an especially rotten shift (can you say 4 to midnight? Ew!) and no other available option. Hopefully I'm just overreacting and nothing so rotten will happen, but either way some big changes are about to happen and I fear that even if I end up with a decent shift, I won't work at the same time as half the people that I really like to work with which was the only reason that I took this job so far afield from my knowledge and experience in the first place. At least, hopefully, tomorrow's meeting will put to an end on the wild speculating that has been flying about in the absence of any concrete information. I'm just afraid most of us aren't going to like the concrete information and, in any case, the changes won't have much of an affect in achieving their aim of getting the work done faster, as a matter of fact, it's more likely that the opposite will happen which makes it that much more frustrating.

All right, job whining aside, there have been some interesting book developments. I got my Elle Reader's Prize jury books for the grand prize. That's all 5 of the best ones from each of the months they do it, and since I had the good fortune (or maybe the word I'm looking for is foolish? Or could it be "mixed blessing"?) to land on a fiction and a non-fiction jury, I get not just five books but uh....ten books to read. They're brand new sparkly hardcovers, and they look just delightful. The only drawback being, of course, that I'm supposed to have all ten read by mid-September, and let me just say that the final fiction one, despite looking to be a very good read, is way more of chunkster than I would have expected. Hmmm, maybe I should just quit my job and read - that would save me a lot of strife all around except for the whole not getting a paycheck thing.

So, I jumped in with both feet, using the time-honored "pick a number between one and ten" to choose the first to be read. Augusten Burroughs' memoir, A Wolf At the Table about his twisted, unloving father came out on top. If, after Running With Scissors you weren't convinced that this poor guy's childhood was ridiculously twisted and crappy, this chronicle of the time before the being the kind of adopted child of a nutty shrink should certainly convinced you. As I was reading it, I was sure I wouldn't have the severely ambiguous feelings about it that I've been having about most books, but alas, I do. So I'm letting it marinate for a while in an effort to discern whether or not I actually thought it was any good.

I just dug into the second one, Tom Perotta's The Abstinence Teacher, which was chosen by Somer's husband's creation, the TBR randomizer, a very handy tool for the indecisive. It sounds like it's got a very interesting premise, but I've heard a lot of mixed reviews.

I'm also reading Judith Matloff's Home Girl, a memoir of the author's rehabbing of a decrepit house in West Harlem before it was "cool" to move to that part of Harlem. Turns out it wasn't cool because the street she moves to is like cocaine Wall Street with Dominican drug dealers out in force all day and all night fueling the east coast drug trade, not to mention that frightening addict squatting in the house next door. It's a little bit strange and sometimes funny watching her and her husband embrace the many sides of their crime-ridden neighborhood. I should be finished with it in the next few days, so that review is forthcoming as well.

When the mood strikes I'm trying to hobble through Franklin and Lucy by Joseph E. Persico a book about FDR and all the women in his life and the effect they all had on each other. FDR is one of the most interesting presidents, in my opinion, and I care about this book, but it also sort of reminds me of something that I would have been forced to read in one of my college history courses which kind of puts me off every time I go to pick it up. It's definitely serious non-fiction, the kind that really takes an attention span and lots of time to read. And if there's two things I'm short of lately, they are...well...time and an attention span, which is making this a bit of a challenge.

So, that's the week in reading - turns out I was feeling more talkative than I thought. I never can tell until I sit down to actually write anyway. So...what's on your reading agenda for this week?

Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Wednesday Sisters by Meg Waite Clayton

When I found out I would be receiving this book from Library Thing Early Reviewers, I kind of wondered what it was that made me request it in the first place. That's not to say that the premise didn't sound interesting to me or that I wasn't very eager to finally get a fiction book from them (has anybody else been noticing a trend toward memoirs here?'s not over). I mean, it sounds fluffy, it sounds like a feel good book. I'm categorically against fluff and when asked to recommend a feel-good book, I usually find myself completely unable to (yes, this has actually happened) because, it happens, I just don't read them.

So I approached The Wednesday Sisters with interest and, admittedly, some trepidation. Here is the story of five friends meeting together in a local park where their kids play. It's the 1960s and while women have made some strides away from more traditional roles, they aren't quite "liberated" yet and they've still been trained to believe that they belong in the house with the kids and that their dreams should play second fiddle to their husbands' dreams. Clayton's writing proceeds with the breezy ease that comes with a book that would make for good company at the beach. The easy, simple writing style is deceptive, however, as there is just so much here. This is a tale of grown women coming of age. Despite their being out of school and having husbands and children, these women don't yet know themselves or where they belong in a time and place fraught with changes.

As the five decide to turn their Wednesday conversations at the park into a more serious time of writing and critiquing each other's work, Clayton brings their quest to know themselves and each other to life. Through their writing, the women slowly get to know the most intimate truths about each other and begin to realize some things about themselves in the process. As Frankie, Linda, Brett, Ally, and Kath take their dreams down off the shelf where they were relegated when marriage and children came along and simultaneously face the struggles and trials of everyday life, they are forced to find out just what they are made of and how far they will go to be there for each other.

Clayton offers an insightful depiction of an uneasy time in history when women were struggling both to maintain the sort of feminine expectations their mothers had modeled for them and to take hold of new opportunities to pursue their own dreams and break free of the stereotypes of what a woman should and should not be. Clayton's book asks the questions about womanhood that continue to be relevant today, questions about what really makes a woman. A child? A family? A career? A dream?

What emerges is a heartwarming tale of the friendship of five women who seem to be meeting and defining themselves for the first time in an era when having a child might still define a woman but so could being a surgeon or even an astronaut. This is an easy read, but don't let it fool you. There's a deeper story here than what meets the eye.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Weekly Geeks #10 - Magazines!

This week's theme in Geekdom is magazines. The proposition of this topic made me giggle a little bit considering the quandary I've gotten myself into with magazines. It even has an accompanying "interesting only to me" story which I am, nonetheless, going to share with you perhaps for the second time because I'm sure there are still people out there who haven't been afflicted by my free magazines story yet.

Okay, so, my dad has these frequent flyer miles leftover from the days of yore when he used to travel for work. Not nearly enough to send any of us on a nice vacation, most unfortunately, but as it happens, plenty to squander on mountains and piles of magazines nobody needs or wants. So, when it turns out that your trivial amount of frequent flyer miles are about to expire, in your mailbox arrives a piece of paper that says, basically, "Hey, you could just let these miles expire or you could subscribe to a randomly chosen pool of magazines" complete with checklist and business reply envelope. So, with glee borne of receiving free stuff, we diligently check off each magazine that we have even the most passing interest in because "hey, we can't just let these miles go to waste and it's free." You may think that is the end - we just subscribed to fifteen magazines we have no particular need of or desire to read - but no, this is not the end.

Through some flaw of paperwork, we then receive these notices repeatedly despite the fact that we already used up those 7,000 or so miles/points. Except, each one has a slightly different selection of magazines. The last one had Time, well this one has Newsweek (and the like)! So with glee borne of simultaneously getting free stuff and sticking it to "the man" we fill it out and return it again - signing up for yet 15 more magazines we neither particularly need nor have any desire to receive figuring, "hey, what the heck? Worst case scenario we don't get any additional free stuff and don't get to stick it to the man." Much to our delight (or do I mean consternation?) it does work. At least until the third or fourth time you try it.

So, I, in all my wondrous idiocy decide to indulge my ridiculous love for news magazines and other stuff that comes out not merely once a month but every week. So, now, instead of merely reading magazines, I can swim in a large vat of them something akin to those cartoon scenes of ridiculously greedy folks swan diving into mountains and piles of money. For every magazine I read/throw away, five more spring up in its place. Yes, that's me and my magazines. If they burned a little slower, I'm quite certain we could forgo heating oil and keep our house warm through the winter on the magazines alone. Proving that, yes, there is, in fact, too much of a good thing.

So here's what I get...

The Economist - I had a political science professor in my first year who had a profound love of this magazine, so when I saw it on the checklist, I just had to give it a shot (I'm way too poor to get it when it's not free - so what better opportunity?). I love it, but I read far too slowly to get through even a small portion of it every week. It's good real world news that doesn't assume that I'm too much of an idiot (or too much of an American) to know/care about/think critically about what's happening around the world. I rave about it frequently despite the fact that I rarely actually read beyond 40 pages of its densely packed weekly volumes.

Newsweek - Yeah, more news! Except more idiot friendly! My favorite part is probably their one page "My Turn" articles where some average joe or jill gives a snapshot of something important in their life - learning to teach biology for non majors, how their siblings shaped who they are, how setting up an e-mail card shower helped his wife fight cancer - stuff like that. I like it.

Time - Heh - uh...more news. Funny thing about news magazines, it turns out that if you read one news magazine from one week you can pretty much disregard the other five news magazines from that week. The same stuff is happening in every one. I know! Imagine that! You would think they could come up with more original news...

New York - Yeah, this comes weekly, too. Interesting articles, but my favorite has to be that big crossword in the back. I've never finished it, because I'm terrible at crossword puzzles and these are huge and difficult. I'm happy to report that I've significantly improved my crossword clue completion rate with the help of these weekly crossword puzzles, but still fall well short of finishing the whole puzzle. If I ever manage to completely finish one, I think I'll have no other choice but to simply die. Happy.

The New Yorker - This one has short stories written by well-known authors. Who couldn't love that?

Elle - There's not all that much in this magazine that interests me, but they've got a surprisingly good book section complete with Reader's Jury program that I've gotten to participate in repeatedly. I've actually had my little reviews "published" in Elle magazine. As a matter of fact, I think the one pictured here has one of my little reviews in it...but it's possible I'm mistaken, if not this one, then any of several others.

Atlantic Monthly - Yup, I subscribe to this one, too. Funny story about it, though. It looks like a great magazine, great looking articles, all kinds of book reviews and even some lit crit. Guess how many pages I've read out of all the issues I've received since last September? Did you guess zero? If you did, you're uh...very nearly right. I'm saving them...for a rainy the year the earliest.

I think I need to crawl under my desk and cower in shame for a while now. But I promise I'll take something with me to read. ;-)

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortensen and David Oliver Relin

Greg Mortensen's mind was clouded with his failure as he retreated from an unsuccessful attempt to climb K2 in Pakistan in 1993. His spectacular tribute to his sister who had recently passed away had gone uncompleted. It's no surprise then, that he took a wrong turn and ended up in the wrong secluded village. In Korphe, Mortensen found people who were barely ekeing out a living in one of the most secluded of villages in northern Pakistan, yet people who were eager to give him the best of everything they had when he arrived in his weakened state from his failed climb. When he recovered sufficiently, he asked to see the village's school and on finding out that they had no such building, he determined to return home to the U.S., raise the money, and bring them back a school.

Only when he returns to Pakistan and assembles the necessary materials for the Korphe school does he realize the vast need for education across northern Pakistan, and beyond, as several villagers shamelessly attempt to woo him to build his school in their village instead of the one he has already chosen. This sets the ball rolling for the many schools Mortensen eventually builds with the help of funding from Jean Hoerni, a wealthy inventor of technology for silicon chips. Mortensen travels throughout Pakistan bringing education to both boys and girls in the most remote villages where, typically, the best chance of an education would come only in the form of Islamic fundamentalist madrassas which refuse girls and turn out angry young men whose only chance at a good life seems to lie in hate and intolerance.

If you're anything like me, this is a book you will find yourself eager to talk about. Mortensen's (unfortunately) new and unusual approach to building schools and educating the children of Pakistan is a study in how peace can be won among people who could easily and understandably loathe Americans. Rather than forcing a foreign curriculum on students, he determines to cover a well-rounded set of courses in basic education - education for education's sake instead of education with shady alterior motives that many who might be helped have learned to expect in "help" from the United States. Instead of launching himself at a village and dictating how things should be done, he works with villagers and other locals eager to have their children educated, using the village's own labor, including locally hired teachers, and donation of land to give the people pride in their village's school and vested interest in making and keeping it a success.

His obvious love and respect for the people and their beliefs and customs as well as his efforts to build lasting relationships with the people of the villages in which he works make Mortensen an anomaly among American foreign aid workers and perhaps among Americans, in general. His efforts to tread lightly and with a genuine respect for the villagers and their devout belief in the tenets of Islam often saw him coming out above reproach even when money-hungry village mullahs seeking to stop his education of girls or at least earn a hefty bribe level fatwas against him that could easily have ended his work and sent him packing back to America. Mortensen's worthy mission and the way that he pursues it has the power not only to educate but to unite people across religious, cultural, and geographic divides behind one common goal. Now, as he moves his operation into Afghanistan, Greg Mortensen continues to fight the war on terror in perhaps the only way it can truly be won, with respect, understanding, and education.

I could write all day and not give you the essence of this book. The writing has its flaws, it took me awhile to settle in and get sucked into Mortensen's story, but when it happened, I was all in. All I can really say is that if you care about education, if you care about understanding the dynamics of the Middle East, if you care about knowing about non-extremist Islam and the people who practice it, if you care about helping people in less wealthy nations in the best way possible, this is a book that you should not miss.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Weekly Geeks #9

It seems as though I've been sitting out most of the Weekly Geeks lately. I did do the one with the catching up on your reviews, but never made it to the wrap-up post. So, this week, with the help of having an extra week, I'm back with a vengeance.

This week's challenge was to organize your challenges, or if you happen to never have joined one, to join one. This was a good one for me because it definitely helped me move some stuff from the "I should do" pile to the "I did" pile.

Now, I can't say that I'm a great fan of challenges (Did anybody just hear that collective gasp from all of book blogdom?). I like the meeting new people and feelings of accomplishment and maybe seeing a new face or few around the old blog, but I loathe overstructuring my reading. It makes it feel like work. Which means, I'm currently a little peeved at myself for acquiring a bit too many free books that come with reviewing commitments attached. Not that I regret a single one, I just need to gear up on some good old fashioned self-discipline, you know, not jumping at every opportunity that comes along even if that book does sound like it maybe might be good and, you know, making an actual concentrated effort to read more instead of uh, looking for more books that I want to read. Oh, it's a vicious cycle here in Booklust Land.

That said, I do indulge in a few challenges here and there and would say that I had a pretty well-rounded week of challenge housekeeping.

I started out by wrapping one up. That would be the Spring Reading Thing which I sort of succeeded and failed at, at the same time. It's my first completed challenge for better or for worse.

I cleaned up my list post - solidified the list a bit and linked my completed reviews - for the Pub '08 Challenge which I'm near to finishing. I just need to read more fiction. Now wait, let's take a moment to let the ridiculosity of that statement sink in. "I need to read more fiction." Ha! My how the reading tables have turned.

Finally, I joined one. I'm hoping this will be one that I can't fail at, because that would be very bad for me indeed. Everybody loves a challenge they're just about guaranteed to succeed at, now, don't they? So, yes, I joined the ARC Reading Challenge, a challenge that I'm sorely in need of. I'm about halfway through one of my selections already, and about a chapter and a half into one of the others, so it seems to be kicking off on a good note. I hope to far exceed my four selections!

That's about it. Like I said, there aren't too many challenges that I've joined for me to organize, but I still think I got a lot out of my week of challenge organization. Thanks, Dewey, for finally getting me off my butt to do some of this stuff that I keep telling myself I'm going to do! =)

On a bit of a side note, I'm wildly excited that my long holiday weekend has begun (the 4th of July should be on a Friday or a Monday every year if you ask me). Looking forward to hanging out with my family, doing a lot of reading, and, of course, getting that Three Cups of Tea review that you've all been waiting for written. Hope the rest of you have a fun/exciting/relaxing weekend as well!