Sunday, October 14, 2012

What Happens on Sunday, Laurie Koozer (2012)

Everybody give a warm welcome to our newest contributor, Blue Scissors! (Ok, BeezusKiddo unilaterally picked that name for her, maybe she'll pick a different one)
Reviewer: Blue Scissors

Review: When Elizabeth asked me if I'd be interested in reviewing What Happens on Sunday by Laurie Koozer for her blog, I, of course, said yes. Since this book involves women, Pittsburgh, and football, and I am a woman who lives in Pittsburgh and likes football and reading, Elizabeth thought that I might enjoy this book. 

Pittsburghers are full of Pittsburgh-centric stories. We also like to see our city featured on the national stage. The Pittsburgh Steelers are the nadir of both Pittsburgh trivia and national exposure of Pittsburgh. The Steelers have consistently been one of the top football teams in the NFL, frequently making playoffs, with six team Super Bowl wins. Fans are rabid. People move away, but the Steelers are always their favorite team, spreading Steelers Nation across the nation and globe. And the Steelers have the strongest female fan bases in the NFL.

This book follows six women through the 2005-2006 Steelers football season. This was an excellent season to choose from a plot perspective. The Steelers barely squeaked into the playoffs as the sixth seed and won three road games to make it to the Super Bowl, a huge (and dramatic) feat. (I personally was "required" to drive to a small bar in Irwin for every playoff game because "they won last time we were all here.") Similarly, the characters in this book overcome obstacles while they ride the Steelers roller coaster.
  • Jen is 21 and has recently found out she's pregnant. She and her boyfriend Dave plan a wedding and prepare for the unexpected child.
  • Patty is recently divorced and struggles to make connections with her troubled, closeted teenage son, Robbie. She lost her season tickets in the divorce, but she is a huge fan and supports the team with special fan mail.
  • Desiree (Jen's cousin) is married to Patty's ex-husband, who is spending an increasing amount of time at work. She's become more successful than her background would predict but feels unsettled.
  • Shannon spends her evenings tending bar part-time and putting up with her self-centered sister while secretly crushing on her sister's boyfriend.
  • Angela (whose best friend is Patty's son, Robbie) hates the Steelers and can't wait to leave Pittsburgh when she graduates from high school. Due to her father's assertion that she's a "curse," she's "forbidden" from watching the games.
  • Megan is a hot mess. She drinks too much, spends all her money, dresses provocatively, and sleeps around. She gets a new position at work and must cope with new responsibilities.
Because we would only spend a few pages at a time with each character, it was difficult to keep track of who was who for the first part of the book. The characters are interrelated (moreso than what I've noted above), which helped to a certain extent, but this book would have done well with fewer people. For example, although they ended up being very different characters, it took me a while to differentiate between Shannon and Megan. Megan ended up being deliciously unlikeable, but sympathetic. I found myself rooting for her to get her shit together already. However, Shannon's story, while somewhat interesting, could have been eliminated entirely from the book. Jen also felt underdeveloped, and I didn't really care whether she sorted things out with Dave.

There were a number of characters who were extremely interesting and I would have liked to read more about them. In particular, the arc involving the overlapping stories of Patty, Angela, and Desiree was well-developed and engaging. Patty is probably the most interesting character because she's someone you know, but not very well - she's your neighbor down the street, she's your aunt's best friend - and the peek behind her curtain reveals the most surprising and compassionate results. I'm so glad Angela was included because it's absolutely true that not everyone in Pittsburgh is a huge "bleed black and gold" Steelers fan, and it's annoying when all your family and friends can't make plans because there's football on. The description of her desire to see the bigger picture outside the city, and her sometimes misguided attempts to protect Robbie from what she sees as his biggest problems, ring true. And Desiree is one of those people who seems like you would hate her but it turns out she's really awesome. We all know people like that.
Overall I would certainly recommend this book to people. It's something that would be interesting to any reader, even if you don't like football, and even if you're not from Pittsburgh. In which case you should obviously read it because Pittsburgh is awesome.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Round House, Louise Erdrich (2012)

Reviewer:  BeezusKiddo

Rating: Five insanely enthusiastic pierogies
Review:  I think of myself as liking happy, upbeat books, but reviewing my reading list from this year alone, it's clear that man do I love a heartwrenching drama. My favorite books are full of suffering (The Grapes of Wrath, Room, Cutting for Stone, What Was She Thinking/Notes on a Scandal). My favorite TV shows are stressful and sorrowful (American Horror Story, Six Feet Under, Mad Men, Big Love). Drama, drama, drama, drama, drama.

I caught Louise Erdrich's interview in promotion of her new book, The Round House, on All Things Considered as I drove home from the Pennsylvania Conference for Women. I knew immediately that although her new novel is tragic, I would love it. It did not disappoint. Erdrich has such a hand for prose. As I read her words, the page quickly fades and the story unfolds visually.

The Round House is a coming of age story, slightly reminiscent of Stephen King's novella The Body. Joe is thirteen years old, spending his summer riding bikes with his friends, sneaking cigarettes, and generally getting into harmless mischief. One Sunday, his mother goes out for a drive, and is uncharacteristically late. As Joe and his dad pile into the car to go look for her, her car screeches up. Her face is bruised and battered. She sits in the seat, blank, unmoving. She has been brutally raped.

Hopes for legitimate justice evaporate quickly. Joe's family is members of the Ojibwe tribe, living on reservation lands. His mother does not know if the attack occurred on Native, Federal, or fee lands, they do not know who the attacker is, or of which nation he is a citizen. Joe's innocence of the world melts away, and he struggles to keep his tattered family together, he struggles to come to terms with the terrible violation of his mother.

In my judgment, this novel could easily be the best novel of 2012.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Light Between Oceans, M.L. Stedman (2012)

Reviewer: BeezusKiddo

Rating: 4 pierogies (I feel like I've been giving out a lot of 4's lately, I guess I've been reading a lot of good books)

Review: Some books must make your heart ache. I finished The Light Between Oceans last night and couldn't help but wander into Baby Beez's room, listen to her tiny snores, and give her a snuggle. I felt so very fortunate to have her at all, and so grateful that she is sweet, charming, beautiful, and best of all, mine. Tom and Isabella Sherman tend the lighthouse on Janus rock, an isolated island off Australia's Western Coast.


They are eager to start a family, but Isabella suffers three traumatizing miscarriages. Unexpectedly, a rowboat washes ashore. Inside is a dead man, and a tiny, wailing baby. This small baby is an answer to Isabella's desperate prayers. But every decision has a consequence, and the consequence to Isabella's decision is heartwrenching.

This novel is so realistic, in exploring how not every turn of life can have an easy resolution. Fearing to divulge a spoiler, I'll tell you that things eventually resolve about as well as they can, but the journey to that point is a rocky one. Stedman is a talented storyteller, and I look forward to seeing her future works.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

A Stolen Life, Jaycee Dugard (2011)

Rating: 4 pierogies

Reviewer:  BeezusKiddo

Review: A Stolen Life is an incredibly difficult book to review (although nowhere near the difficulty its author faced in writing it). In this memoir, Dugard recounts and reflects on her kidnapping and eighteen years of imprisonment and repeated rape by Phillip Garrido, which was assited by his wife Nancy Garrido. The usual rules for reviewing books just can't apply. When reviewing a book, I usually consider how convincing or exciting the plot is, and how skillful the author is with language. Here, however, I don't have the heart to analyze Dugard's prose. She's survived a nightmare. She's bravely sharing it with the world, both as part of her healing, and because she has realized that the Garridos do not deserve her silence.

What was even more striking than the inhumanity of the Garridos was the persistent incompetence of the California police and parole board. There were countless opportunities for Jaycee to be discovered and rescued from her hell. Only when Garrido, in the throes of his delusions, affirmatively walked into the police and made all kinds of crazy statements to them did they bother to take a second look. In 2010, in recognition of its massive failing and potentially limitless civil rights action exposure, the State of California approved a $20 million settlement to Dugard. After reading her memoir, I believe that is only a drop in the bucket of her suffering.

What most impressed me about Dugard was the bright tone of her memoir, despite her suffering. Despite the dark conditions, she remained full of hope. Her love for her two daughters is inspiring and heartwarming. She was impregnated by Garrido at ages 14 and 17, and she delivered those daughters with no medical attention, in Garrido's backyard. She cared for her daughters with love and tenderness, she was devoted to educated them, despite she herself only having a fifth grade education. I would be afraid that her children would be dark reminders of Garrido, but to her they are no such thing. She loves them deeply.

It's hard for me to decide whether I recommend this book. I picked it out of curiosity. I'm a little ashamed that I am curious about someone else's terrible suffering. Dugard is an inspiration for everyone-- to care about the safety of our communities, to ask questions when something seems amiss, and to maintain an outlook of hope and compassion. I wish for nothing but the best to her and her daughters.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Tess of the D'Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy (1891)

Reviewer: BeezusKiddo

Rating: 4 pierogies. It takes a LOT to get me to give something a 5. I thought this was a great book, but it didn't break into 5 territory.

Review: Although written a mere 30 years after Dickens' Great Expectations, I was surprised to find the language in Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles to be significantly more accessible to a modern reader.

I selected Tess because my friend Katy described it as "COMPLETELY MISEARABLE." I cannot resist such a review.


Tess of the D'Urbervilles follows young Tess of a working class (nearly starving) family named "Durbeyfield" in rural England. Her father is informed that his family actually descends from a line of the D'Urbervilles, a once-thought-extinct noble family. Tess' father sends her out to "make kin" with a local family also named D'Urberville, but it turns out that they actually paid for the name.

The introduction pushes Tess into the hands of Alec D'Urberville who, well to summarize all the ups and downs of this rather long novel, RUINS HER LIFE FOREVER. Tess is a sweet and industrious woman, but she internalizes every brush with bad fortune (and there are certainly many) and blames every one of these unfortunate turns on herself.

This is completely projecting, but I saw Tess as a symbolic of modern American womanhood, and all of the challenges women are facing with health access issues and even larger cultural perceptions toward women. This is not entirely out of place-- apparently in its own time Tess brought issues of womens' morality and sexuality to the forefront of the cultural conversation. These issues cross time and country.

High school is that time where you are supposed to really get into the "Classics." (I suppose that's for college, too, but I did most of my literature classes in German, and the classes I took in English literature were usually obscure ones like Pop Culture, Chaucer, or Children's Literature). My time in high school wasted entirely too much time on Shakespeare. Yes, Shakespeare's good to read, but we didn't have to read his works every single year of high school. That's a lot of time wasted that could have been used on other authors. Tess would be perfect for an 11th or 12th grade lit class. Its language is easy and flowing, and there's enough drama and heartache to get young minds engaged. Lets give Hamlet a rest for a bit, and put Tess on those reading lists.

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me (and other concerns), Mindy Kaling (2011)

Reviewer: BeezusKiddo

Rating: 4 delicious homemade pierogies slathered in fried onions. (fantastic, but not quite a "5")

Review: Dude, this book is funny.


Mindy Kaling is a producer for The Office, did some writing for SNL, and wrote a hit off-off-Broadway play. You know she's funny. Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me isn't a book of jokes. Instead its funny in that OMG I TOTALLY DO THAT, TOO kind of way.

I found myself comparing it to Tina Fey's Bossypants (probably because Bossypants was the only other comedy book I've read in a while), but loved Kaling's book a whole lot more. Bossypants is tinged with stress and anxiety, while Kaling is totally laid back and fun.

Kaling's book is assembled from a number of essays on whatever topic happened to pop in her head. She jokes about her chubby childhood, and her ascent to a hit TV show-- which was filled with plenty of ill chosen sweaters and goofing off.

You don't want to just read about Kaling, you want to jump right in and BE HER BEST FRIEND. This book was exactly the medicine I needed after just finishing the excellent but long Tess of the D'Urbervilles. This book is fast, fun, and short. I read it in 2 days, and didn't even have to stay up super late for it.

Bachelor Number One, Mishka Shubaly (2012)

Reviewer: BeezusKiddo

Rating: 3.5 pierogies

Review: I stumbled upon this book browsing through the Kindle Owners Lending Library (a feature of Amazon Prime that lets you borrow one book for free per month, and advertises itself as offering thousands of titles, but unfortunately most of them suck).

This is Shubaly's third Kindle Single, and he has a hand for writing fun and light novellas. Apparently he has had a kind of insane life, full of drinking, drugs, and getting shipwrecked. He writes these shorts about the (mis)adventures he has found himself in. They're a little pessimistic and self-depricating, but completely entertaining.

I love the accomplishment of plowing through a book in one or two evenings. Shubaly's writing is fun, and makes me feel like some genius speed reader (the whole thing is maybe like 100 pages). Bachelor Number One recounts Shubaly's turn at eligibility for a television dating show.

The book is focused on the absurdity of the whole audition process, and is rather funny (although not entirely surprising). Unfortunately, right when the book is really starting to pick up steam is where the whole thing ends. And not "ends" like in "leaves a cliffhanger for a sequel" but "ends" as in "the bottom falls out of the story and its done." I would have liked it to go a bit longer, but it is a book about his life after all, and sometimes life doesn't give you the plotline you're looking for.

Although summer reading lists are quickly coming to a close, Shubaly's a shoo-in if you need something light to read on the beach (you lucky dog, you), or on an airplane.