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Sunday, December 27, 2009

33 Years, 33 Pages

Greetings, KuKd/TTC Regulars and Guests!

Nancy Pearl, a Seattle-area book reviewer and general literary guru, has a great rule for deciding how much of a chance a person should give a book: read until you reach the page number of your current age (in my case, a whopping 33), and if you're not into the book by then, toss it.

On the one hand, I really love that rule because it gives me a valid, mathematical excuse for giving up on a book without feeling like the Attention-Deficit-Disordered-Slacker that I am (an excuse that even Nancy Pearl - with her smart, aging librarian-voice - approves of!). On the other hand, I usually can't even make it to the page number of my current age. If a book doesn't grab me by page...oh...five or so, I'm done with it and back to reading Real Simple Magazine again, last-page fluff first and working my way forward to the more serious stuff. Deep, literary stuff, like how to make better use of one's closet space (just don't tell Nancy Pearl about that, please).

Not that I pick up many books to read anyway. Over the last few years on the KuKd track, I've done a lot of filling my life with "mandatory" crap and fictitious deadlines. Like: must create blog! Must sit down to write! Must plan happy hour with friends! Must visit parents! Must socialize dog! Must go lapswimming! Must eat more probiotics! Must, must, must! Which means, I really haven't had much time to kick back and throw myself into something as non-productive and decadent as a nice, juicy novel.

Well, this holiday beach vacation was largely about "flossing my brain," as I called it - that is, shutting down all those imaginary little things that I've felt myself responsible for these past few years, and doing nothing whatsoever. So before heading to Puerto Rico, K and I stocked up on a bunch of used paperbacks for the journey. With great fanfare, I got through three (3) of these decent-sized books - not War and Peace sized but respectable nonetheless - in a week.

Fleetingly, I thought it would be nice to review them here. But I've never been great at reviewing books. That's because, like I said, in order for me to get past page five or so, I have to really, really like the book. The second I stop liking it, that's it - I'm done reading it. Why waste precious life with a mediocre book that may or may not get better? Likewise, if I manage to get through a book at all, it means that of COURSE I like it. Reviewing books on a regular basis, for me, would be like a film or food critic who absolutely loves everything he or she reviews. Not exactly "critical."

Nonetheless, here are my Puerto Rico beach-reads (a few of which are now dog-eared and scattered around Vieques Island for other book-seeking tourists to discover) with a short blurb surrounding each.

Let's start with the bad: Lost and Found, by Carolyn Parkhurst.

Blegh. I got through page five before tossing it into the hotel waste basket - right alongside a couple of used Q-Tips and an empty tube of sunscreen. Yes, my dislike of the first few chapters really was that dramatic. It was the characters - the whole scenario itself - that got on my nerves from the get-go.

In a Nutshell: I've really pushed this one out of my mind, but here's what I vaguely recall in terms of plot: a teenage girl has a baby in her bedroom after having hid the pregnancy from her mother for nine months (either I missed the memo describing how on earth it's physically possible to hide a pregnancy right up until the due date, or this is something that only lithe, skinny young teen girls are able to accomplish). The girl and the mother aren't on the best of terms, needless to say, and they decide to go on a reality TV show together, I suppose as a way to patch up their relationship. This reality TV show involves, from what I can gather, traipsing around the world to do certain somethings in competition against other teams. Don't quote me on that, though, because I hardly read enough to know for sure.

My Highly Critical Evaluation: This book switches back and forth between the mom and daugher's perspectives, which would be fine if the daughter didn't act and talk like a total piss-wad. One of her first lines is something like, "Being in Italy (or wherever) wouldn't be so bad if I weren't on a fucking game show. With my fucking MOM."

Oh boo-hoo.

Maybe she improves in her attitude and general character as the story goes on, her pissy teenage voice quickly became so unbearable that I couldn't even afford her that opportunity to become less irritating. Nope: she blows it early on. Not only that, but the concept of reality TV-style game shows with people roaming the planet in search of secret objects or whatever is so...overdone, so mainstream, so pop-culture-y, that I just wasn't drawn in at all.

Oh, I should add that this book somehow involves parrots. Not sure how parrots come into play, but I sense that they do, somehow, somewhere, some way. Read the book (if you dare) to find out.

* * *

Next: Stones from the River, by Ursula Hegi.

In a Nutshell: A bunch of random people living in a small German town before, during, and after World War II have all kinds of wacky drama. The central character is named Trudi, who happens to be a dwarf. I still haven't Googled that term to confirm how a dwarf is different from a midget, or what it actually means to be a dwarf. At any rate, Trudi is a small gal. That much I picked up on. This book has lots of themes and mini-stories woven throughout - Trudi's insecurity with her physical difference being one of the primary elements. There's also some German guilt, some Nazi nastiness, some Jews hiding out in people's cellars, some love triangles, some pregnancies, some sex, some bombs falling on cities, and other things of that nature.

First Few Lines: "As a child, Trudi Montag thought everyone knew what went on inside others. That was before she understood the power of being different. The agony of being different." These lines pulled me in, making her character accessible, her thoughts suddenly universal. Who hasn't felt "different" at times?

Random Line from Page 33, In Relation to Nancy Pearl's Rule: "Her mother smelled like the lobby." This line is actually from the top of page 34, but who cares. I like this concept of people smelling like places. It's the very reason why I can't stand Subway sandwich shops: everything inside of a Subway and within a 100-foot radius (people, tables, food items, napkins, breeze, fire hydrants, trees) smells exactly like the inside of a Subway sandwich shop. Blegh.

My Highly Critical Evaluation: Of course, by virture of having read the whole damn thing, it means - of course - I liked it. Oh, there are probably nuanced little flaws I could pull out if I was feeling really bitchy and critical, but why bother. Overall, I liked it a lot. I really admire fiction writers who can come up with this crazy, harebrained scheme of a tale, complete with all sorts of wacky characters, and develop those characters in a realistic way and make them interact with each other coherently. How do people come UP with this stuff?? A German dwarf-girl hiding Jews in her cellar? There's a lot of interesting historical perspective in here, which was cool. Trudi's character isn't totally lovable all the time, but she keeps it real.

* * *

Moving on, Broken for You, by Stephanie Kallos.

In a Nutshell: Wanda, a young woman with lots of emotional baggage, rents a room from an elderly woman with lots of emotional baggage. They start to open up their emotional baggage and scatter it all over the place, kind of like what all of my belongings from our beach trip still look like, spewed all over the bedroom floor, still wrinkly and salty and unwashed. Shit happens: romances, deaths, car accidents, lots of flashbacks to unsavory times for both Wanda and the elderly woman - and through all this baggage and shit happening, the women manage to forge a deep connection. At least that's kind of what the back of the book suggests.

First Few Lines: Don't know'em, because I left this book on a table next to my empty virgin-Pina-Colada glass at the hotel. No point in carting this one home, because I knew Kevin wouldn't read it. Not that I'd recommend it to him: this is definitely more of a human-relatiohship-ish chick-book, which by now has probably been swept up by some middle-aged woman traveling alone to Puerto Rico in order to find herself.

My Highly Critical Evaluation: I liked it well enough. The writing was solid and filled with amusing human moments. Lots of feelings and emotions, and cool descriptions of sights and sounds and thoughts. The main character, Wanda, annoyed me at times; she just seemed kind of self-centered in a sulky teenage kind of way. It was the kind of book which - unlike Stones from the River - left my head immediately after I'd finished the final page. No lasting residual "ah-ha!" moments or deep philosophical epiphanies. Still, it was a page turner for me, I think largely because the writing was just so pleasant to soak up, and ultimately I wanted to know how the story ended.

* * *

Finally, A Thread of Grace by Mary Doria Russel.

In a Nutshell: Another World War II-themed story, purely coincidental. A bunch of Jewish refugees sneak over the Alps into northern Italy in order to escape German-occupied France. The central character, sort of, is a Jewish teenager named Claudia. This is another one of those epic tales that spans lots of years during and after the war, with all kinds of other random characters and sub-plots thrown into the mix. Ultimately, the story drifts away from Claudia herself and toward this much larger, more complex web of Italian Jews, Italian Catholics, Nazi fuckheads, Italian resistance fighers, Jewish refugee sympathizers, and others.

First Line: "This is what everybody would remember about his mother: her home was immaculate." Not a bad first line. This type of line, though, always makes me think to myself: I'd better find out pretty dark quickly who this passage is referring to, or I'm going to lose interest. In fact, this information doesn't directly come out, but one can make a fairly educated guess by page two.

Random Line from Page 33, In Relation to Nancy Pearl's Rule: "He limps as quickly as he can through an apartment filled with generations of dusty furniture." Can't you totally picture that? This World War II-era dwelling crammed with large, antique tables and chairs and what-nots, some dude navigating his way through there, trying to avoid smacking right into the sharp wooden corner of a clunky wooden writing desk? I like that kind of detail.

My Highly Critical Evaluation: This book swept me up into another world, and taught me a lot about history. I liked the historical perspective, the epic-saga nature of it, and the constant suspense running throughout every chapter. This was the sort of book that made me talk Kevin's ear off afterward, as though I'd just walked out of a movie theatre and was still in this sort of northern Italian, World-War-II brain fog for the rest of the day.

Oh, and if you read this book, you'll be glad to have the little cheat sheet provided on the first few pages, listing the names of all the charaters and classifying them in various ways - Jewish, Catholic, Italian, German, French, Nazi deserter, Nazi fuckhead, etc. Believe me, this little reference was a life saver for me.


AKD said...

I probably shouldn't admit that I know this offhand, but I think midgets have small hands/feet (proportionate to their size), while dwarves have disproportionate appendages. I may have it backwards, though.

KuKd Chick said...

AKD: Hmmm, interesting. I think you should admit proudly that you know that, actually.

Anonymous said...

Monica, thanks for these hilarious book reviews. I'll skip Lost and Found, thanks, but the others give me some good fodder for passing time over the next few months. I'm not into that "Subway smell" either, for the record.

betsyg said...

I read Stones from the River during Peace Corps and really got into the whole being different thing (although clearly not a dwarf/midget). A Thread of Grace sounds good, too.
By the way, if you want to know more (than you ever wanted to know) about dwarfs and midgets, watch TLC's Little People, Big World and some of their other docu-reality shows about little people. My sister makes me watch when I'm visiting her.

AnxiousMummyto3 said...

Hey Monica,
thanks for coming to visit me. You're always welcome there. I also love reading book recommendations by real people-the last one in particular sounds great. But the teenager in lost and found definitely sounds like a brat! Don't you love books with helpful bits at the beginning like maps & casts of characters etc!!!
I do :)
PS. Liked your other post about the plane experience-you made some interesting points.

Parenthood For Me said...

I like your book reviews. No fluff. Right to the point. I need to start buying more throw-aways so i don't feel so guilty about not reading some books I buy.

jen said...

OK _ Stones from a River is my all time favorite book. i've read it about a dozen times. and i felt eh urge to get her other books too (not nearly as good). glad you didn't think it sucked. i thought broken for you sucked. i'll never get that time back.

Karen said...

Love your reviews and can't wait to find the last book. I read all the time and am always looking for a great read. I've never heard the 33 page rule before. Hmm. I usually force myself to read right to the end unless it's totally brutal like the one you tossed. Am reconsidering that. Perhaps a new resolution for 2010! Best to you for the new year.