Sunday, June 29, 2014

Come to Me

Book 35 of my 2014 Reading Challenge

Come to Me by Amy Bloom

Summary
A collection of short stories about family relationships.  5 of the stories are interconnected and the other 7 stand alone. 

My Opinion

I devoured this book in one sitting last night, reading and rereading her passages to fully absorb these fascinating stories.  The characters were so human that even when I didn't want them to act the way they did (such as the girl's unhealthy reaction to Mr. Klein's attention in "Light Breaks Where No Sun Shines", or seemingly every married person's thoughts of affairs), I understood it so clearly.

I rarely remember my dreams but when I woke up this morning I recalled a hauntingly beautiful dream I had last night that incorporated themes from both "Silver Water" and "Semper Fidelis", further proving that these characters will stay with me for some time.

I absolutely loved this book.  While researching her other books to add to my 'to-read' list, I was surprised to find I've read her before (A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You).  Since I liked that one but it didn't resonate with me like Come to Me did, it will be interesting to see how I feel about the author as I read her other books.


Favorite Story
"Hyacinths"

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Let Me Off at the Top!

Book 34 of my 2014 Reading Challenge

Let Me Off at the Top! My Classy Life and Other Musings by Ron Burgundy

Summary (via the book jacket)
My name is Ron Burgundy and what you have in your hands is a very big deal.
It's my life.
It's my words.
It's my gift to you.

My Opinion
First, I feel like I have to mention that Ron Burgundy is a fictional character from the Anchorman movies.  If you didn't already know that, you're not in the target audience for this book.  Myself, I'm not a superfan of the movies (I don't think I've even seen the second one) but I know who Ron Burgundy is and thought this would be an amusing read.
Unfortunately, I was wrong and I didn't enjoy it at all.
There were two main reasons I didn't like it.  One, a blowhard character is tolerable as part of an ensemble but quickly becomes tiresome when reading a book devoted entirely to him.  Second, it was offensive.  Not like the "old school ignorance" characters can get away with for satire or comic relief, but straight up offensive, chapter after chapter (Mexicans...Canadians...the 'r' word...women...specific celebrities...and that's just what I remember off the top of my head).
Not recommended.
    
Quote from the Book 
"I've been so busy being Ron Burgundy the legend that I never stopped to really get to know Ron Burgundy the man."




Sunday, June 22, 2014

Sitcom

Book 33 of my 2014 Reading Challenge.

I would like to thank NetGalley, the author, and Chicago Review Press for the opportunity to read and honestly review this book.

Sitcom: A History in 24 Episodes from I Love Lucy to Community by Saul Austerlitz

Summary (via Goodreads)

The form is so elemental, so basic, that we have difficulty imagining a time before it existed: a single set, fixed cameras, canned laughter, zany sidekicks, quirky family antics.  Obsessively watched and critically ignored, sitcoms were a distraction, a gentle lullaby of a kinder, gentler America - until the artificial boundary between the world and the television entertainment collapsed.
In this book we can watch the growth of the sitcom, following the path that leads from Lucy  to The Phil Silvers Show; from The Dick Van Dyke Show to The Mary Tyler Moore Show; from M*A*S*H to Taxi; from Cheers to Roseanne; from Seinfeld to Curb Your Enthusiasm; and from The Larry Sanders Show to 30 Rock.
In twenty-four episodes, Sitcom surveys the history of the form, and functions as both a TV mixtape of fondly remembered shows that will guide us to notable series and larger trends, and a carefully curated guided tour through the history of one of our most treasured art forms.

My Opinion
Assuming the reader has a basic knowledge of the shows mentioned and an interest in the subject, this was an informative and entertaining read.  Being able to picture the shows and characters as I read added to my enjoyment.  Of all the chapters, the only show I didn't know was The Phil Silvers Show (although I did recognize the title of Sgt. Bilko, as it is apparently referred to sometimes).
  
The information about the early sitcoms was especially interesting.  I didn't realize commericals were generally presented live, making goofs (a la Lucy's "Vitameatavegimin" commerical) a distinct possibility.  Also, I didn't realize how quickly TV caught on; according to the book, the number of television sets in operation jumped from twenty thousand in 1946 to forty million just ten years later.  To quote the author, "the television set displaced the piano and fireplace as the focal point and conversation piece of American living rooms".   

I also found the information about Gilligan's Island and its theme song fascinating.  Apparently, CBS liked the premise but didn't think it would work because it would require too much time to explain why they were on the island every single week (before VCRs and DVRs and Netflix bingewatching marathons, each episode pretty much had to stand alone because you had one shot to watch it and if you missed it, you missed it).  Sherwood Schwartz's solution?  Write a catchy theme song (admit it, it's now in your head) that quickly introduces the audience to the characters and the premise before going on with the show.  Gilligan's Island was the first to use a theme song for this purpose, and it was very effective.  Schwartz also used the same technique on The Brady Bunch (and now that song's in your head...you're welcome).

One more fun fact that was unbelievable to me: Bill Cosby has 3 'best actor' Emmys but they were all for the drama series I Spy.  He was never even nominated for The Cosby Show.    

Overall, the memories made me smile and occasionally sent me to Youtube and/or Netflix to relive an episode.

Quote from the Book

**Note: I read an uncorrected proof of this book and the following quote may have been altered in the final copy.
"The sitcom is a blanket we wrap ourselves in to provide us with the TV-fueled illusion of stability."





      

Monday, June 16, 2014

The Witch of Blackbird Pond

Book 32 of my 2014 Reading Challenge

Book 2 of our Newbery Challenge.  My 10 year old daughter Alison and I have set a hefty goal - to read every Newbery Medal winning book together.  At this time there are 92 winners spanning from 1922 - 2013.  


The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare
1959 Newbery Medal Winner

Summary (via the book jacket)
Kit has grown up on the island of Barbados, loved and pampered by her grandfather.  But after his death, Kit must leave.  It's not proper for a sixteen-year-old girl to live by herself.  She's heard stories about her aunt and uncle who live in the colony of Connecticut.  These are the only relatives Kit knows of.  So, alone and desperate, she sets sail to live with them in New England.
When she arrives, Kit is shocked by the gray, damp landscape, but even more stunned by the Puritanical lifestyle of her uncle's household.  Fitting in is not easy - until she meets Hannah Tupper, and older woman who lives alone and is the only person who lets Kit be herself.
But the colonists believe Hannah is a witch.  If they discover Kit is her friend, they will think the same of her.  Kit must choose: should she abandon her only friend, or stand by her and risk losing everything?


My Opinion
I wasn't able to find it officially (ballots are supposed to be secret) but it has been reported in multiple places that this book was the first (and/or only, depending on the source) to win the Newbery unanimously on the first vote.  
Another note about the author: she only wrote 4 books for children, 2 of which won the Newbery Medal and another which was a Newbery Honor book.  I look forward to reading her other books as we continue this challenge.
The author has high expectations for her young readers; this book is a dense 249 pages with long chapters and small type.  If I had known that I may have saved it for later in the challenge - Alison would be happy it was time to read but only able to make it through one or two chapters at a time before being ready for something else.
It was well-written and interesting but not something I would recommend a young reader try on their own. 


Alison's Opinion
"It was a good book and I really liked it.  I liked it when she rescued Hannah.  I wish they had told me a little bit more about the grandfather but other than that it was pretty good."


Quote from the Book
"She could see the glow of the fire, but she could not feel its warmth.  It was like gazing in at a window, from the cold outside, at a forbidden room she could never enter again."


An Unnecessary Woman

Book 31 of my 2014 Reading Challenge

An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine

Summary (via Goodreads)
A heartrending novel that celebrates the singular life of an obsessive introvert, revealing Beirut's beauties and horrors along the way.
Aaliya Sohbi lives alone in her Beirut apartment, surrounded by stockpiles of books.  Godless, fatherless, divorced and childless, Aaliya is her family's "unnecessary appendage".  Every year, she translates a new favorite book into Arabic, then stows it away.  The thirty-seven books that Aaliya has translated have never been read - by anyone.  After overhearing her neighbors, "the three witches", discussing her too-white hair, Aaliya accidentally dyes her hair too blue.
In this breathtaking portrait of a reclusive woman's late-life crisis, readers follow Aaliya's digressive mind as it ricochets across visions of past and present Beirut.  Insightful musings on literature, philosophy, and art are invaded by memories of the Lebanese Civil War and Aaliya's volatile past.  As she tries to overcome her aging body and spontaneous emotional upwellings, Aaliya is faced with an unthinkable disaster that threatens to shatter the little life she has left.
  
My Opinion
There were no chapters but the page breaks built in every few pages felt like natural pauses.  Written in the first person, it really felt like Aaliya was telling me a story and the pauses were the moments of silence that occur when someone takes a breath or gets a drink.  It also felt like I was listening to a narration because Aaliya would frequently go off on tangents, only to say things like 'right, let's get back to the lunch, shall we?' and pick up where she left off pages earlier.

Some examples of the author's beautifully vivid phrasing:
- "In every evocation of a childhood scene, my stepfather's face is the least detailed, the most out of focus; when I think of him my memory's eyes have cataracts."
-"Such a worrywart I am.  I miss miracles blooming before my very eyes: I concentrate on a fading star and miss the constellation."
-"We stumbled into friendship.  She was the first person who wished to have me in her life, the first to choose me."
-"frankly it was quite a long time before I understood much of what I was reading...In philosophy, I was a page-turner long before I was a reader."

Aaliya was funny, too:
-"Beirut is the Elizabeth Taylor of cities: insane, beautiful, tacky, falling apart, aging, and forever drama laden."
-"There should be a new literary resolution: no more epiphanies.  Enough.  Have pity on readers who reach the end of a real-life conflict in confusion and don't experience a false sense of temporary enlightenment.  Dear contemporary writers, you make me feel inadequate because my life isn't as clear and concise as your stories."

This is frustrating because the parts that were good were so so good but the unevenness prevents a wholehearted recommendation.  I would repeatedly be drawn in only to find myself skimming a few pages later.  As I mentioned, it felt like I was listening to a real person.  Am I going to be enchanted by every sentence that comes out of her mouth?  No.  Am I glad I heard her story?  Yes. 

Quote from the Book
"In other words, most of us believe we are who we are because of the decisions we've made, because of events that shaped us, because of the choices of those around us.  We rarely consider that we're also formed by the decisions we didn't make, by events that could have happened but didn't, or by our lack of choices, for that matter."

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Parenting: Illustrated with Crappy Pictures

Book 30 of my 2014 Reading Challenge

Parenting: Illustrated with Crappy Pictures by Amber Dusick

Summary
Humorous stories about parenting (the author has a blog with the same name as the book title).

My Opinion
How refreshing to read a "mommy blogger" that I can relate to!  She's not Pollyanna talking about how perfect and rewarding parenthood is at all times but she doesn't go too far in the opposite, negative direction either.  She can talk about how hard it is while still being respectful to her partner and children and not saying flat-out mean things about them. She's quick to point out that she uses the word "crappy" to describe her stick-figure illustrations, not to describe her family members.
 It was a quick, light read that I enjoyed very much.  I wasn't familiar with her website before reading this book but I will definitely go take a look now. 

My Favorite Part
I wish I could quote the whole book because I smiled and nodded along through the whole thing, but the chapter I especially related to was Chapter 2, "(Not) Sleeping"



Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Potty Mouth at the Table

Book 29 of my 2014 Reading Challenge

The Potty Mouth at the Table by Laurie Notaro

Summary
A collection of humorous essays about life. 


My Opinion
I like to have a light read of essays or short stories available for those stolen reading moments in the van or the waiting room.  For that purpose, this book fit the bill.  It was enjoyable while I was reading it but not difficult to put down.
One quibble I have with the author's writing style is that she occasionally makes what I would refer to as "one-liners" too long.  For example, this sentence: "I cooed over it like a baby [the natural stop to me but it continues] I gave up in order to go college instead of going on food stamps [too much]". 
This is the second book of hers that I've read.  If I saw another one at the library I might get it but I don't expect to make a lot of effort to seek her out again.

My Favorite Essay
"Live From the Bellagio"

Monday, June 2, 2014

Behind the Scenes at Downton Abbey

Book 28 of my 2014 Reading Challenge

Behind the Scenes at Downton Abbey: The Official Backstage Pass to the Set, the Actors and the Drama by Emma Rowley

Summary
The title seems pretty self-explanatory...the longer the title, the shorter the summary!

My Opinion

I love Downton Abbey so when I saw this book at the library, I had to get it.  It was fun to page through with lots of information and photos, and I found it very interesting.  
Fun Fact 1:  Highclere Castle is a real family home and a majority of the furniture and wall decorations are not props (which is why they chose it).  They use rubber sheets to protect the floors from the equipment/crew while filming, and they use tablecloths on the dining table to protect the antique (tablemats only would've been customary in that era).
Fun Fact 2:  Only married women could wears tiaras.
Fun Fact 3:  Since the cars used are antiques today they aren't always in the best working order so they sometimes have to replace sputtering engine noises with the "healthier engine sounds" the car would've made when it was new.
Fun Fact 4:  The show is the highest-scoring reviewer-rated show ever and holds a Guinness World Record for the highest critical review ratings for a TV show (92 out of 100 on Metacritic, a site that aggregates reviews).  It is also the most nominated non-American show in Emmy history (with 27 nominations).
As a note, the behind the scenes tidbits are more "technical" than "dishy", making it a good read for both lovers of the show and people interested in how tv shows are made.

Quote from the Book
"Nothing last forever, and the show will end one day, so we're enjoying it while it lasts" ~ Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary).