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.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Cutting for Stone, Abraham Verghese (2010)

Reviewer:  BeezusKiddo

Rating:  5 glorious homemade pierogies, slathered with fried onions

One of my favorite things about the book club I'm in is that we take turns in selecting the book. Each member gets a month. She can pick whatever the heck she wants in her month, and doesn't have to deal with winning people over to her choice. The result of this is that we cover very broad ground in genre and style. Best of all-- it gets me to read books I would not otherwise pick up. Sometimes these books, like Cutting for Stone, are magnificent.

Admittedly, I almost didn't read it at all. This book was up for discussion in July, and I wasn't able to make it to the meeting. I was already running a bit behind on some other things I was reading. Also, the book was selected by my friend Viki. Viki is a wonderful person, but she and I have just about polar opposites in reading tastes, so I assumed this book wouldn't be to my liking.

The bookjacket description wasn't doing much for me either:  

Marion and Shiva Stone are twin brothers born of a secret union between a beautiful Indian nun and a brash British surgeon. Orphaned by their mother’s death and their father’s disappearance, bound together by a preternatural connection and a shared fascination with medicine, the twins come of age as Ethiopia hovers on the brink of revolution. Moving from Addis Ababa to New York City and back again, Cutting for Stone is an unforgettable story of love and betrayal, medicine and ordinary miracles--and two brothers whose fates are forever intertwined.

 Ok, love, betrayal, miracles. These are all supposed to GRAB your attention, but for me, it seemed kind of blah.

Then I had the guilt. In the year or so of this book club's operation, there has been one book I didn't finish because I just did not like it. I've never skipped a book entirely. What a bad book club member I would be if I didn't even give it a try.

This isn't the kind of novel that sucks you right in with action and adventure. It's more like sitting around a fire with an old relative, telling you a story of life in the old country...and you start to listen, and your attention to the room around you fades as you are drawn in by the words and the figures, and before you realize what has happened, you are surrounded by the story, and can't (and don't want to) pry your attention away.


It's hard to explain the plot of Cutting for Stone, because it's so much more about the people. There's plenty of plot in there too-- war, danger, all that exciting stuff. But this book truly shines in its characters-- devoted Ghosh, admirable Hema, flawed Genet, hardworking and heartbroken Marion, and selfish but simple Shiva.

On a scale of 1 to 5, I hand out "4's" generously. If I think something is a good use of my time, it's a "4." But a rating of "5" I withhold for books that I think are truly amazing. This book really is a 5. Nice pick, Viki.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Aftertaste, Meredith Mileti (2011)

Reviewer:  BeezusKiddo

Rating: 3 pierogies.

Review: I first learned of Aftertaste from a piece in Pop City Media. The article described Aftertaste as a story about Mira, an up and coming NY Chef, who stumbles into personal troubles and returns to her hometown of Pittsburgh, with her young daughter in tow. Returning to Pittsburgh as an adult, she discovers it to be a great town to rebuild, and a great town for food.


The trouble was, that's not how the book came across to me. The main character, Mira, was a foodie to a fault. As a well educated and well traveled Italian chef, she has a taste for fine foods. However, she seems to only have a taste for fine foods, and that is where she lacks depth. She discusses the exquisite baby foods she prepares for her daughter-- butternut squash souffle, and the like. There is nothing wrong with having a taste for the exquisite, but with the exception of certain biscotti (called "Bruno's biscotti" in the novel, but easily recognizable as Enrico's), she is incapable of enjoying simple pleasures.

Mira pines for the fine dining scene of New York and the restaurant she left behind. At one point she mentions visiting the Carnegie Library to research the Pittsburgh dining scene "which took like 5 minutes." Yes, 10 years ago, the dining scene could be researched top to bottom in about 5 minutes. That is certainly not the case anymore. It was unclear whether Mira's inability to appreciate the Pittsburgh dining world was due to the chip on her own shoulder, or the author's poor research. It doesn't matter which, it was frustrating.


Pittsburgh is not New York. It does not purport to be. Pittsburghers have a taste for meat and potatoes, comfort foods and fried things. But Pittsburghers are also eager to experiment, and incredibly supportive of new ventures. This plotline is rich with the opportunity to discuss how much Pittsburgh LOVES to see a new restaurant, and especially to see it succeed (as contrasted with the dog-eat-dog world of NYC). For a prime example, take a look at the Pittsburgh Taco Truck. The taco truck has not even opened for business, and it has already developed a massive loyal following, excited to help the business prosper.

The "aftertaste" this novel left with me was that Mira would grace the 'burgh with her refined tastes, and teach the city a bit about fine dining. It felt condescending. I wish Mileti would have dug a little deeper into Pittsburgh's food community, and explored how new ideas, innovation, and hard work are cherished. That would have been a great story.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Gone Girl: A Novel, Gillian Flynn (2012)

Reviewer:  BeezusKiddo

Rating:  3, maybe 4, pierogies

Review: Gone Girl just KEPT coming up over and over again in my recommendations on Goodreads, Amazon, etc. Initially it didn't look too interesting to me, but then stupid Gwyneth Paltrow included a blurb about it in her stupid GOOP newsletter, and I decided I did want to read it. (Gwyneth's newsletter fills me with rage at her elitism and her obliviousness to HOW NORMAL PEOPLE LIVE, yet I feel COMPELLED to continue reading it, even though it makes me cray-cray.)

I can't say too much about the plot of this book, because there are a lot of twists and turns, and I don't want to give anything away. The novel begins with Amy-- a New York transplant to Missouri, who agreed to move to her husband's hometown after they both were laid off-- going missing. Her husband, Nick, appears to have been caught unawares, but after some unusual behavior from him, the police begin to suspect him.

The rest of the novel tracks down the suspicious circumstances around Amy's disappearance, as well as explores their sometimes blissful but other times rocky marriage. Gone Girl really was the kind of novel I was looking for right now. It is a light read, requires little thinking, but is full of action.

The plot was engaging enough that I stayed up late a few nights reading it, but not so gripping as to keep me at the edge of my seat, an up all night reading just to find out what's coming next.

If you're looking for something to read on the beach or on a plane, Gone Girl is a good pick. I can't see it winning any literary awards, but it does have the chops for bestseller lists.

Monday, July 2, 2012

My Horizontal Life, Chelsea Handler (2005)

Reviewer: BeezusKiddo

Rating:  4 pierogies, of the light summer reading variety

Review:  Chelsea Handler's got a solid line of comedy-- she knows what works and she sticks with it. My Horizontal Life is the same mix of self-depricating and hilarious stories of Chelsea's sex life, with a few anecdotes about her crazy family thrown in. I find that readers run hot/cold with Chelsea. Either they think she's hilarious or they think she's boring and gross, and don't get what the hype is about. That seems to be how comedy works in general, though, either you love it or you don't.

I have an Amazon Prime membership (that free 2-day shipping is a lifesaver, for all those millions of times I've forgotten to pick up Diaper Genie refills), which includes 1 free rental per month from the Kindle Lending library. The Kindle Lending Library touts itself as offering thousands of books for free check-out, but with the exception of a few bestsellers, it's one huge dollar bin. In June, I made the mistake of checking out a book so terrible that I could not go beyond the 10th page (I suspect it was written by an angry high school student). I couldn't check it back in for another rental, thanks to the 1-free-rental per month limit, so I was anxiously awaiting July 1 so I could return that garbage and get something new.

In those long weeks of waiting I discovered that hidden between all the lending library books that NO ONE wants, a Chelsea Handler book was actually offered. Yesterday morning, when the calendar turned to July, I greedily downloaded the book and read the whole thing that same day.

The book is a super-fast no-brainer, and just the kind of light reading I was looking for to kick off this summer. It's an ideal book to bring on an airplane or to the beach, or in my case, camping. The book is a lot of fun, you don't have to think, and when you finish you feel super accomplished for reading the whole thing in just one day. Wins all around!

Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls (2005)

Reviewer: BeezusKiddo

Rating: 5 of 5 glorious pierogies

Review: I find this to be an incredibly difficult review to write. Not because the book was tragic (it was), or because it was inspiring (it was), but because it is so incredibly complex that I don't know where to start.

Glass Castle is Walls' memoir of her eccentric but impoverished childhood. Other reviews I've read point out that this memoir demonstrates how Walls and her siblings ultimately thrived, other reviews point out how much Walls and her siblings suffered. All of these things are true. One review characterized Walls' feelings towards her parents as "warm," which they were sometimes, but she also seemed to have some resentment and sorrow.

Walls' father was a daydreaming, and at times violent, alcoholic, and her mother an artist. It's apparent there were some untreated mental health problems with both parents, but what really struck me were their deep and unapologetic personality flaws. Both parents were unshakeably selfish.

In one instance, the Walls siblings literally had no food, were digging in trash cans and picking through the woods to find something, anything to eat. Walls notices that her mother was getting fatter, and sees her mother sitting in bed under a blanket, and seemingly fishing around under the blanket then putting things in her mouth....and the Walls children discovered that as they were starving, their mother was hoarding and gorging herself on chocolate. In multiple instances the mother, despite being trained and qualified and hired to teach, refuses to get out of bed and go to work, because she wants to stay home and paint instead. Here and there Walls' mother would say things like "It's time to do something for me" and reading that would send me into a blind rage, because it seemed that Walls' mother only did things for herself anyway. The most egregious example of Walls' mother's selfishness came at the end of the book, and it made me so bitter that I don't want to divulge it as a spoiler.


Walls' father was even worse. He was an unapologetic alcoholic, with grandiose dreams and no sense of anyone but himself. He'd wrap himself so tightly in his absurd fantasies and conspiracy theories that he was blind to the danger, and at times sorrow, he put his children through. He was so far gone that it was easier to brush him off as unloveable and hopeless. Ugh, I don't even want to waste time talking about him in this review, even though he's a driving force.

Despite all these negative things, the book was amazing. I read the whole thing over 3 nights (despite working each night til nearly 10. I've had a tired week). The bitterness comes purely from me, as the reader, and not from Walls. She had a number of happy times in her childhood, she had a number of times that were so incredibly bad they were just ridiculous. She generally did her best to make the best of things, but she comes off as grounded, not Pollyanna-ish. Her relationship with her siblings is incredible, indeed adversity brought them together, but it is more incredible that she seems to have come to terms with her parents and her childhood. It's not even an issue of forgiveness and closure, she approaches it more with a perspective of "This is where I came from, and it's strange and different, but it was mine."

I was on the fence about re-upping my Pittsburgh Speakers Series subscription for 2012-13, but since Jeannette Walls will be speaking, I simply have to go. This woman is amazing.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

The Partly Cloudy Patriot, Sarah Vowell (2002)

Reviewer: BeezusKiddo

Rating: Very nearly 4 pierogies

Review: Sarah Vowell is a nerd, and she's rather proud of it. Not a skinny-jeans hipster kind of nerd, but a nerd that likes to read every word on every placard in a history museum, and then talk about everything she saw for the entire 4 hour drive home.  Vowell LOVES American history, and reading A Partly Cloudy Patriot is like having a cup of coffee with your friend, and chatting about her favorite subject.

Vowell wrote Patriot in the months after September 11, 2001, but the book does not beat you over the head with the patriotism of the moment. In fact, with the exception of one chapter on the topic, it's not obvious to the reader that the book was written so close in time to the tragedy. The "Patriot" of Vowell's world is neither gun toting nor chaw-spittin, but instead reflects on the accomplishments of Teddy Roosevelt, and explains the insulting absurdity of public figures' love of comparing any act of civil disobedience to Rosa Parks (insulting to the true heroism of Rosa Parks' act, that is).

Vowell is neither preachy nor boring. Her chapters are short enough that as topic wanes, she switches to another. Her tone is conversational and friendly. I read the book over 3 nights, so it was very quick going. I'd like to read her other books, but there is not an urgent plot line compelling me to pick up the next one RIGHT NOW.

Vowell would be an entertaining pal. If you're not in the mood to pick up one of her many books, at least try to catch her fairly regular appearances on This American Life.

Monday, June 4, 2012

A Confederacy of Dunces and Insurgent

Reviewer: BeezusKiddo

John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces (1980) and Veronica Roth's Insurgent (2012) are so completely opposite that I thought it would be interesting to discuss them side by side.

Rating: 3 homemade high-quality pierogies. Well, maybe 4.

A Confederacy of Dunces is a novel by an author who loved language, and who was exceptionally skilled with language. Nothing really happens in the plot-- the main character, Ignatius Reilly, is a slovenly buffoon, who is forced to find employment after his mother causes some property damage while driving in her signature drunk fashion. Reilly first works at a pants factory, where he gets canned. Then he works as a hot dog vendor, and gets canned. None of this gets him down. The world just does not understand his GENIUS.

Reilly was funny at first, but eventually got on my nerves, mostly because I know an in-real-life Ignatius Reilly. I love a good comeuppance. Reilly never gets one, despite his selfish, egomaniacal, bombastic ways, and neither has the in-real-life Reilly I know. The lack of retribution was grating.

Confederacy has been praised as the greatest comic novel of the 20th century. I certainly thought it was funny, but I was distracted from truly appreciating its humor by my annoyance that Reilly never gets what should be coming to him.

The true delight of Confederacy is the artful language. Some gems:

In spite of whatever spiritual qualities it may possess, skid row is definitely sub-standard in the matter of physical comfort, and I seriously doubt whether my substantial and well-formed physique would easily adapt to sleeping in alleys. I would definitely tend to hang over park benches. Therefore my size itself is a safeguard against my ever sinking too low within the structure of our civilizations. [After all, I do not believe that one must necessarily scrape bottom, as it were, in order to view his society subjectively. Rather than moving vertically downward, one may move horizontally outward toward a point of sufficient detachment where a modicum of creature comforts are not necessarily precluded. I was there--on the very rim of our age-- when my mother's cataclysmic intemperance, as you well know, catapulted me into the fever of contemporary existence. To be quiete honest, I must say that since then things have been getting worse and worse. Conditions have deteriorated.


I recommend Batman especially, for he tends to transcend the abysmal society in which he's found himself. His morality is rather rigid, also. I rather respect Batman.

These aren't even the BEST passages. There are several more passages that are significantly funnier and more brilliant, but they are too crass for me to post here. You'll have to go read them for yourself.

Rating:1 burnt Mrs. T's Pierogi. Blech.

Whereas Confederacy is a book of amazing language and no plot, Insurgent is all action but trite language.

Insurgent follows Beatrice Prior as she leads some sort of revolution or uprising or something in the post-apocalyptic America that has been divided into separate factions according to dominant personality traits ("Candor" values honesty above all else, "Erudite" values knowledge above all else, "Dauntless" values courage above all else, "Amity" values peace above all else, and "Abnegation" values selflessness above all else.)

I've read a few reviews that compare the Divergent/Insurgent books to The Hunger Games, but Suzanne Collins as a much more compelling storyteller than Roth. Divergent kept me interested by its fast plot and novelty, but the novelty has run out in this second book. The plot is again fast-paced, but it goes in too many directions all at the same time, and there are so many characters (and none of those ever-helpful one liner reminders of who the heck anyone is) that it's easy to get lost/bored.

Insurgent is mostly told through dialog, except the dialog is overwhelmingly banter, and not even witty banter. It reminded me of the kinds of short stories I wrote in high school (which I long since abandoned, because they were terrible). I really don't like saying bad things about a book, because I know the author worked darn hard to crank out and edit the story, and I know that if the author herself weren't proud of it, she would have never had it sent to print, but I just can't like this book.

Roth credits all kind of reviewers and friends at the end of the book...and none of them could break it to her that this book is terrible? The TWIST at the end was very predictable, and the promise of learning more about that plot line isn't even enough to keep me interested in reading the next one. If anything convinces me to read the third one (when it does come out), it would just be for the sake of finishing something I have started, not because I'm enthralled by the world of Beatrice Prior.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Great Expectations, Charles Dickens, 1860-1861

Reviewer: BeezusKiddo

Rating: 3.5 Pierogies, with the potential for more if read in a reading group, with the opportunity to discuss the characters and plot

Review: I DID IT! I can't believe I successfully made it through this book! And I LIKED it!

Great Expectations is the story of Pip, a penniless orphan, who unexpectedly comes into "Great Expectations" by an unknown benefactor. Great Expectations follows Pip's rise and fall from wealth, and his pining for the beautiful but cold hearted Estella.

Great Expectations was published as a serial. It reads like one, with plot lines and characters weaving in and out. There have been many movie adaptations of the book (and another expected soon, with Helena Bonham Carter as Miss Havisham), but I think Great Expectations would do perfectly as a mini (or not-so-mini) series. There probably already is one, I just need to do a little digging. Great Expectations definitely has the "feel" of TV.

The cast of characters is huge and colorful, and some have multiple names, which make them hard to track. Not surprisingly, Great Expectations is written in 19th century England's conversational language, while equally colorful as the characters, is sometimes hard for this 21st Century American girl to understand. To get through the language barrier, it would be great to read Great Expectations as a regularly-meeting group, where you stop and discuss each chapter or two.

Dickens is known for his memorable, crazy characters, and Great Expectations is a shining example of his talent. My absolute favorites were the crazed and embittered Miss Havisham, the flawed but lovable Pip, and Joe Gargery, who didn't have a mean bone in his body.

Dickens' works have aged into the Public Domain, so they are free downloads on a Kindle, as are many other classics. With all the new and exciting bestsellers, I've always got a bedside table groaning under the weight of my "to read" pile, but it's also worth it to take a step back, and visit the classics. These books are classics for a reason, and although the language can sometimes be a bit tough, the well-woven story is worth it.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

If I Stay, Gayle Forman (2009)

Reviewer: BeezusKiddo

Rating: 2 boring, sad pierogies.

Review: I'm a big fan of Young Adult lit-- it's entertaining, quick to get through, and doesn't require too much thinking. This one was just not a winner with me.


If I Stay follows Mia, a 17 year old Juilliard hopeful, in the 24 hours following the terrible car accident that killed her family, and leaves her in limbo, to decide whether to stay in this world, or pass on to the next.

 The author's biggest accomplishment here is also her biggest liability. Forman creates an incredibly authentic teenage narrator. The language is direct, and the narrator conceptualizes her world in naieve, simplistic categories. To me, this was maddening, because 17 year olds are immature and stupid, I do NOT want to be stuck in a 17 year old's thoughts. I spent most of this book gasping "ugggh I was just like that" and wanting to crawl under something and hide from embarrassment.

So in writing from a 17 year old's perspective, Forman does it well. Much TOO well. She deserves some credit for that feat, but it's not a feat that makes me want to pick up her other books.

 I didn't find the plot compelling, either. If the rest of my family died in a car accident, and I was horribly horribly injured, that's it, let me die, decision made. There's no struggle there for me. (Sidenote: Mr. Beez LOVES shows about the apocalypse and doomsday preppers. It makes him completely insane that my apocalypse preparedness plan is "I will just die." I am not interested in wandering the earth in desperation, struggling for survival.)

YA is a hot genre right now, and there is no shortage of interesting new authors. If you're interested in picking up a YA novel, there are plenty of other better ones out there for you.

Friday, April 13, 2012

A Confederacy of Dunces; John Kennedy Toole (1980)

Reviewer: Elle Ewok

Rating: 5 Pierogies

Review: My little brother, the literary genius, gave me A Confederacy of Dunces for my birthday. He has a 100% success rate in picking out books for me and this is no exception.

The backstory of A Confederacy of Dunces is worth noting because it is so remarkable. The author was unable to get the book published during his life time and committed suicide at the age of 32. It was published eleven years later and only after his mother successfully harassed novelist Walker Percy into reading the manuscript. Percy was so impressed with the book he had it published by Louisiana State Press (800 copies originally). A year later, Toole was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for A Confederacy of Dunces. Since then the book has developed a huge cult following and is considered to be one of the best comedic novels in American literature.

A Confederacy of Dunces tells the story of anti-hero Ignatius J. Reilly, a fat, over-educated weirdo who spends his time harassing his mother and writing indictments on the perversions and failures of society. He is, quite possibly, my favorite character ever written even though he is pretty much a horrible person; a hilarious horrible person. The rest of the book is populated with quirky, politically incorrect (by today's standards) characters whose paths all cross thorughout the book in amusing and clever ways. The book takes place in New Orleans and the culture, language and lifestyle of New Orleans seeps into every word of the book.

The plot line of the book is secondary to the characters and humor but is basically as follows: Ignatius is forced to get a job after his drunk mother causes damage to private property in a car crash and has to pay the bill - shenanigans of all manner ensure in his efforts to enter the workforce. Ignatius has an uncanny ability to cause trouble that reverberates throughout New Orleans in unexpected ways. The humor in this book is the most consistent, clever and entertaining I have ever read. I laughed out loud on almost every single page. The humor is dark but not too dark, really clever but not pretentious, and the writing is actually extremely literary. Although it is a comedy A Confederacy of Dunces, is an extremely literary book and I was blown away by the skill of the author. One can only regret what other masterpieces were lost when he chose to end his life as such a young age.

Hollywood has been trying to make A Confederacy of Dunces into a movie for years unsuccessfully. In fact, the part of Ignatius has come to be considered cursed after numerous actors considered or slated for the part died tragically (Jim Belushi, Chris Farley, John Candy). A version set to be directed by Harold Ramis in the 80s fell apart and a new version set to star Will Farrell in a fat suit has been on hold since at least 2006. I actually could hear Will Farrell delivering some of the lines in my mind as I read the book and I bet it would be hilarious.

There is not much more I can say other than I absolutely adore this book and I want to read it again almost immediately. I am definitely adding it to my all-time-favorite book list. In closing I will leave you with some wisdom from Ignatius J. Reilly:

  • "My respiratory system, unfortunately, is below par. I suspect that I am the result of particularly weak conception on the part of my father. His sperm was probably emitted in a rather offhand manner."
  • "I am at this moment writing a lengthy indictment against our century. When my brain begins to reel from my literary labors, I make an occasional cheese dip."
  • "Your total ignorance of that which you profess to teach merits the death penalty. I doubt whether you would know that St. Cassian of Imola was stabbed to death by his students with their styli. His death, a martyr’s honorable one, made him a patron saint of teachers."
  • "Veneration of Mark Twain is one of the roots of our current intellectual stalemate."               
  • "It's not your fate to be well treated ... You're an overt masochist. Nice treatment will confuse and destroy you."
  • "Mother, I must attend to my bowels. They are revolting against the trauma of the last twenty-four hours."
  • "Like a bitch in heat, I seem to attract a coterie of policemen and sanitation officials. "
  • "Go dangle your withered parts over the toilet!"
  • "This liberal doxy must be impaled upon the member of a particularly large stallion."
And my personal favorite...
  • "Filth ... How dare she pretend to be a virgin. Look at her degenerate face. Rape her!"

Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Hunger Games Trilogy; Suzanne Collins (2008-2010)

Reviewer: Elle Ewok

Rating: 4 Piergories

Review: I generally avoid young adult fiction unless it begins with the words "Harry Potter" but after years of hype and my friends carrying on about The Hunger Games books I decided to jump in. They are not that long and to quote my almost-brother-in-law, "those are the books with 6 words per page, right?" In short, I figured it wouldn't be that much of an investment if they turned out to be stupid.

The Hunger Games is a certified cultural phenomenon so I am sure you are aware of the plot. It is a dystopian story about North American sometime in the future. A rich capital in the Rocky Mountains rules and subjects everyone else in the country (divided into 12 Districts) to poverty and essentially slavery. To punish the Districts for a rebellion 75 years earlier, the Capital hosts the annual Hunger Games. One girl and one boy from each District are drafted to compete to the death in an outdoor arena that is full of death traps and misery. It is like a futuristic Roman Colosseum. The Hunger Games are both a punishment and a form of intimidation and control.

As I read the books I noticed they read more like movie scripts than novels. I was not surprised to later find out that the author was a television writer. I really enjoyed these books but I think this is a story meant to be told on the big screen. I am thrilled the movies are being made and based on the trailers, the first one at least looks excellent.

The first book is the tightest and the best. The second and third book are not as good as the cast of characters and scope of the story get big and somewhat unwieldy. That said, they are still incredibly fast-paced and entertaining. I was a bit worried because when I initially heard the plot (kids fighting to the death) it seemed so incredibly silly that I couldn't imagine it would work - but it did.

I think my favorite part of The Hunger Games Trilogy is that the main character and narrator is far from perfect. She is incredibly brave, strong and capable of incredible acts of love and selflessness. That said, she is also insensitive, self-absorbed, a bit mean-spirited and short-sighted/impulsive at times. In short, she is a deeply flawed person that is capable of great things - just like most people. I like how even though the story is told through her eyes and she is the catalyst for so much of the action in the story, I would argue she is not the hero of the story. In my opinion, someone else is - I liked that. Also - the book doesn't shy away showing how badly the trauma of war (inside the games and out) have affected her and others. These are not characters who can be victims of, and the cause of, numerous horrors of war without significant scarring.

Obviously, I also like that the main characters came from District 12 (ie Appalachia). Yay for Appalachia - Did you know that Pittsburgh is the Paris of Appalachia?

As I was reading the third book, I was kind of disappointed although I still was enjoying it. The story just started declining in the second and third books but I am not sure why exactly. 3/4 of the way through the last book I prepared myself for a lackluster ending because I had heard less than great things about the third book and I didn't really like where I saw the story heading. However, the end of the third book really won me over - I loved it. The ending is...well..realistic. The scars of trauma and war remain. There is no such thing as a fairy tale ending for people who have endured the absolute breakdown of humanity. I like that Katniss finally made her choice and I like the choice she made. I like wondering how much of a choice she really even had. I like how it isn't a neat and clean ending but a complicated one with elements of both deep sadness and hopefulness as well. It basically perfectly reflected the themes of the book as I saw it: That humans are capable of incredible evil but our capacity for love also propels us to do amazing things; That survival sometimes forces us to sacrifice some of our humanity - how much is too much? How much can you sacrifice and still go back to a normal life? In sum, I liked that the ending was more complicated and subtle than I expected it to be. Loved that the author didn't take the easy ending or the ending her readers probably wanted.
Here's hoping the movies can capture what made these books so great.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Steig Larsson (2005)

Reviewer: Elle Ewok

Rating: 4 Pierogies with a Disappointing Aftertaste

Review: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is a long book and I read it in about 2 days. I could not put it down and tore through it like there was no tomorrow. The mystery at the heart of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is totally captivating and I can respect any storyteller that can capture my imagination and interest so well.

Due to the popularity of the book and the current movie pretty much everyone is at least briefly familiar with the plotline. A disgraced journalist and a emotionally disturbed computer hacker join forces to solve a mystery involving a serial killer of women. At the heart of the mystery is the Vanger family - a wealthy family of industrialists comprised of oddballs, nazis and perverts.

My favorite part of the book was probably the setting. I have never been to Scandanavia and I cannot recall having ever read a book set there either. I really enjoyed becoming immersed in Swedish culture and lifestyle even though many of the political and cultural references were completely lost on me. Also, the characters are interesting even though they are totally unrealistic. The main character, Mikael Blomkvist, is a male fantasy projection. Every woman in the book throws herself at him sexually and he successfully avenges all who have wronged him. He bangs every main female character without consequence even though a normal man would have major ethical constraints on such behavior (one conquest is a co-worker, one is a rape victim half his age who works for him and the other is a person he is supposed to be objectively studying for a book he is being paid to write). But I guess its okay to bang all these women despite the inconvenient context because they initiated it. How Conveeeeeeenient - male fantasy much??  Lisbeth Salander is a really great character but she is basically an aspergers ward-of-the-state and emotionally disturbed rape victim who just happens to be a world class hacker and researcher even though she had no education or training to speak of - seriously, she might as well be a member of the X-Men.

Many of my friends said they struggled to get through the beginning of the book but I didn't have a problem with getting sucked in immediately. However, by the time I had finished the book I wasn't as in love with it as I had been initially. Basically, I felt I could have just seen the movie and not have missed much by skipping the book. In fact - I am going to skip the next two books in the series. Life is too short and there is too much I want to read.

Although I appreciate that the mystery in the book was totally solved by the end, I found the revelation to be not that interesting, imaginative or surprising. It was both over-the-top and totally underwhelming at the same time. Half way through the book  Bible clues are introduced ala The Divinci Code but as it turns out they were pretty much totally irrelevent. The connection between the Bible verse clues and the solution to the mystery were tenously related at best.

Another aspect of the book that confused me was the message behind the sexual violence. This is an extremely violent book and the violence is almost all sexual in nature and almost always directed towards women. However, if there was some social commentary or higher message regarding such violence it didn't come through. Between portions of the book, random statistics about sexual violence are stated. I kind of felt like these statistics were included to make it look like the author was making some sort of stand or commentary on the inhumanity of such violence. However, at the end of the day this book totally uses such violence itself as the engine behind the drama in the book. Those statstics just came off as a poor attempt of trying to have one's cake and eat it too. Obviously, that is just my opinion.

Even though there were aspects of the book I didn't love it is definitely worth reading simply because the mystery is set up masterfully and the character of Lisbeth is great (albeit completely unrealistic).
Also, I LOVED the final scene of the book (which had to do with the relationship between characters not the underlying mystery).

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, Ransom Riggs (2011)

Reviewer: BeezusKiddo

Rating: 4 pierogies


This book has the following things:

1. Creepy old photos.

2. Bird-people.

3. Time travel.

4. Monsters.

5. Scary half-human-half-monsters.

6. An abandoned orphanage.

Obviously you need to read it.



Peregrine is written in a very conversational tone, so it's a breeze to get through. The plot is quick-moving and does not dwell in drama or emotion, it's all action action action.

In terms of character development, Riggs only focuses on a handful of characters. It's enough to get the reader invested in the key players, but not so much that the reader gets bogged down in back stories.

Riggs builds Peregrine around real vintage photographs. He takes the easy way out by creating a world of "Peculiar" children. My imagination got distracted wondering about the real history behind these photos. They are so strange, how did they possibly come about?

Like Veronica Roth, Riggs is a contemporary writer with a blog. He is not as prolific as Roth, but he still writes enough to give you a glimpse into the life of a "real" writer. As a ridiculous book nerd, I tend to deify authors. It's amazing to me to see how down to earth they really are.

Peregrine has been tapped for the silver screen, with Jane Goldman (X-Men First Class) signed on for screenwriting, and Tim Burton for directing. Peregrine is so visually focused and action driven that it will easily translate to a great movie.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The World that Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square; Ned Sublette (2008)

Reviewer: Elle Ewok
Rating: 4 Pierogies (ignoring the last two pages)

Review: I have always been rather taken by New Orleans. Its unique culture (French/American/African influences) - particularly its dark creepy undertones - appeal to my interests. That said, although I can name all sorts of unique attributes of New Orleans (jazz funerals, cemeteries, voodoo, mardi gras, creole, cajun, jazz, vampires, pirates, lasciviousness ect) I could never understood how they all fit together or why they are even attributes of New Orleans to begin with. On my most recent trip to New Orleans in February I stopped by Faulkner House books (as I always do when in NOLA) and asked for a recommendation on a general history of New Orleans. The lovely lady who works there (and I suspect is a part owner) recommended "The World that Made New Orleans" and explained that it is a comprehensive history of New Orleans told through the prism of musicality. Sounded interesting so I bought it.

"The World that Made New Orleans" is simply a very good, interesting and straight forward history book. If you are interested in history you will like this book. If not - you will be bored to tears. Proceed accordingly.

I love history and enjoyed reading this book very much. All my questions about how New Orleans' peculiar atmosphere and culture came to be were answered and I learned a great deal. This book is not simply a book about New Orleans. The history of New Orleans can only be understood by studying the context of its time and place in the world. As such "The World that Made New Orleans" is also a comprehensive history book about English, Spanish and French colonization in North America; American Revolutionary history; Caribbean colonization; the African slave trade; the American Civil War and the Haitian Revolution. Considering I have not studied any of these things since high school, it was an incredibly engaging and interesting history to read about.

Surprisingly the least successful part of the book was when it talked about music - which was supposed to be the "hook" of this book. I really appreciate what he was trying to do here, but the reality is, reading about music that you can't hear just is not that interesting. I studied music extensively for a very long time and I found it hard to follow and boring. I ended up using You Tube to hear some of the songs and styles the author was talking about and they sounded absolutely nothing like what I was expecting from what I read. This is just a mild criticism, however, and reading about the historical evolution of musical styles was interesting.

I really enjoyed this book and only have one gripe with it but it pissed me off enough to mention here. On the last two pages of the book the author, out of nowhere, states that the less-than perfect government response to Hurricane Katrina was a calculated effort on the part of the Republican Party to drive black Democratic voters out of Lousianna so that Louisianna would be an even redder state.

Um okay.

I really lost all respect for the author for saying such a ridiculous thing as a fact and it made me question the credibility of the entire book. The fact that he would make such an inflammatory accusation without feeling the need to produce any supporting proof whatsoever was offensive.  Look, I get that turning people with different political beliefs than you into evil caricatures is tempting - it is easy and allows you to feel morally superior in the process. In reality, however, most people are not hyper-partisans who are going to fall for it and you are just making yourself look like an idiot. The majority of Americans probably lean one way or the other politically, but have beliefs that cross party lines on occasion. Furthermore, most Americans have friends and family members of different policial persuasions that they love and respect and don't think of as supporters of evil. Gratuitiously accusing republicans of something so horrendous and evil may get you a high five from Kanye West and back slaps at Manhattan academia dinner parties but everyone else is going to look at you as a complete fart-sniffing a-hole (South Park reference FYI).

Let me posit an alternative theory Mr. Sublette: Perhaps the lackluster goverment response to Katrina was because the federal government (regardless of which party is in charge) was not prepared for such a crisis and is generally a big, bloated, slow, wasteful, and ineffective bureaucracy. It has never had to change or streamline its operations to become less bloated/slow because is immune from liability and can pay for its constant screw ups by taking tax money off the citizens that actually earned it. Not to mention that it hardly makes sense from a policitical perspective for Republicans to drive black democratic voters out of one red state (Louisianna) directly into another (Texas mainly). The whole thing was mean-spirited, groundless and stupid and it left a really really bad taste in my mouth.

Ignoring the last two pages, I would otherwise recommend this book to any history lover.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Rules of Civility, Amor Towles (2011)

Reviewer:  BeezusKiddo

Rating: 5 Delicious homemade pierogies

Review:  This is the book that Breakfast at Tiffany's failed to be. Katey Kontent is an intelligent, strong-minded young woman brushing elbows with New York's blue bloods, never quite fitting in herself, but taking the city by storm. I loved this book.

It's not a typical pick for me-- I usually like mysteries, scary books, dark humor. Rules of Civility has none of those, and even has a touch of romance. That's usually not my style. But Katey's narrative voice hooked my right in, and I couldn't help myself. I finished this book in less than a week.

The synopsis, from Towles' website:

Set in New York City in 1938, Rules of Civility tells the story of a watershed year in the life of an uncompromising twenty-five-year-old named Katey Kontent. Armed with little more than a formidable intellect, a bracing wit, and her own brand of cool nerve, Katey embarks on a journey from a Wall Street secretarial pool through the upper echelons of New York society in search of a brighter future.

The story opens on New Year’s Eve in a Greenwich Village jazz bar, where Katey and her boardinghouse roommate Eve happen to meet Tinker Grey, a handsome banker with royal blue eyes and a ready smile. This chance encounter and its startling consequences cast Katey off her current course, but end up providing her unexpected access to the rarified offices of Conde Nast and a glittering new social circle. Befriended in turn by a shy, principled multimillionaire, an Upper East Side ne’er-do-well, and a single-minded widow who is ahead of her times, Katey has the chance to experience first hand the poise secured by wealth and station, but also the aspirations, envy, disloyalty, and desires that reside just below the surface. Even as she waits for circumstances to bring Tinker back into her orbit, she will learn how individual choices become the means by which life crystallizes loss.

Katey's voice is so authentic that I was constantly surprised that this book was written by a man. Towles' captures the intricacies of female friendships, jealousies, and rivalries but never retreats to catfighting.

There are so many quote-worthy passages in this book that it took great restraint for me to only pick one to share:

If my father had made a million dollars, he wouldn't have eaten at La Belle Epoque. To him, restaurants were the ultimate expression of ungodly waste. For of all the luxuries that your money could buy a restaurant left you the least to show for it. A fur coat could at least be worn in winter to fend off the cold, and a silver spoon could be melted down and sold to a jeweler. But a porterhouse steak? You chopped it, chewed it, swallowed it, wiped your lips and dropped your napkin on your plate. That was that. And asparagus? My father would have sooner carried a twenty-dollar bill to his grave than spent it on some glamorous weed coated in cheese.

But for me, dinner at a fine restaurant was the ultimate luxury. It was the very height of civilization. For what was civilization but the intellect's ascendancy out of the doldrums of necessity (shelter, sustenance and survival) into the ether of the finely superfluous (poetry, handbags and haute cuisine)? So removed from daily life was the whole experience that when all was rotten to the core, a fine dinner could revive the spirits. If and when I had twenty dollars left to my name, I was going to invest it right here in an elegant hour that couldn't be hocked.

Before starting this book, my interest went back and forth. The synopsis didn't particularly grip me, and I named it as a book I planned to read in 2012 only because it was getting so much noise over at the BlogHer book club. My friend Regina lent it to me, and since I had finished up my book club books for the month, I decided to pick it up. I'm so glad I did, this book is a gem.

Monday, March 5, 2012

The Scented Ape: The Biology and Culture of Human Odour, D. Michael Stoddart (1991)

Reviewer: Ignacio van Kugel

Rating:  4 musky, onion scented pierogies

Review:  “Take your stinking paws off of me you damn dirty ape!” –Astronaut Taylor.

How often do you consider your nose, the way things smell, or how smells affect you?  There can be little doubt, that of all our senses, olfactory receives the least conscious thought on any given day.  In fact, humans have a distain of their own human smell, as we all are aware of the great amount of daily effort to remove all trace of human scent.  Language reflects a human preference to sight over smell with the phrase “I see” to mean I understand, whereas, “something smells” to mean that something is wrong.  D. Michael Stoddart attempts to explore this lack of conscious thought of the nose, why humans have a complex relationship with how we feel about how things smell, and our own human scent.  Stoddart takes a multidisciplinary approach in his book in attempting to analyze the role olfactory plays in human biology, culture, psychology, and evolutionary history. 

Stoddard begins with a fairly technical explanation of how the olfactory bulb is connected to the brain of various creatures, including humans.  It is well known that other animals use scent, and sexual attractants to aid in reproduction.  In fact, olfactory is often critical to reproduction, and in some species sexual development and maturation.  Experiments on mice that have their olfactory bulb removed results in the mice having no interest in sex, and other hormonal effects.  Whether such sexual and behavioral disruption is effected in humans is unknown (as it would unethical to remove the olfactory bulb in a person), however, it is suspected that such an effect may occur.  Indeed, the olfactory bulb, which is in the highest passage of the nose, shares a special connection with both the pituitary gland as well as deepest parts of the brain that control emotion.  It would seem the unique feelings that can arise from a scent are the result of this nose-emotional brain connection.  Our eyes and ears lack this direct connection to the emotional brain as the sensory information from the eyes and ears are filtered through the neocortex (conscious brain) before any emotion can be triggered. 

Beyond our olfactory sense being different from our eyes and ears the question is raised, for what purposes does our nose continue to play in human life?  The human body, more than any other primate, contains more scent glands, focused in greatest number in the pubic region, axillary (armpit) region, and face.  That we develop pubic and axillary hair at puberty and that hair excels at increasing the surface area for scents to be release, it would seem that “goat under the armpit” or “flower of youth” scent is directly tied, at least, to sexual maturity and notification of sexual maturity. 

So then, why do we have such disgust with our own odor, and where did the custom of scenting ourselves with perfumes come about.  One interesting aspect of human females is that ovulation is concealed and kept secret from males, whereas in other primates, it is not.  Also, humans, although subject to debate, form monogamous (or at least serial monogamous) relationships in a “gregarious” group.  One theory for this type of relationship to work in a group is that ovulation must be kept secret from males.  Thus, courting behavior will result and force the male to invest time with the female thereby increasing the likelihood that the male will stay with the female throughout the duration of the pregnancy and the resulting 10-15+ years until the offspring reaches adulthood.  One theory of the use of perfume, is that the sexual attractants of plants and animals that do mimic human body odor, was applied to scramble any fertility signals given away by human odor.  

It is clear from the book, that Stoddard is only scratching the surface of the role of scent and human odor.  Although we may think that the nose is a primitive organ and merely a vestigial sense, it is clear that the olfactory sense and our numerous scent glands endured to play a role in the behavior and development of modern humans.  Although, much of the book focuses on the likely sexual connection between humans and scent, it is interesting that the nose is also a direct gateway to emotional parts of the brain.  This likely accounts for the unique feeling that comes about when a scent triggers a memory.  

One final theory worth mentioning is that although human scent may no longer advertise sexual readiness (ovulation), human scent may rather be a way to promote pair bonding, and monogamy through strong emotional attachment.  Could this then account for the ever increasing divorce rates in the last 100 years in Western cultures, where we cleanse, deodorize, engage in depilatory activities; that our ever increasing lack of scent makes it ever easier to break the pair bond?  So ladies and gentlemen, perhaps the best way to keep your significant other is to throw out the soap, deodorant and razors.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Divergent, Veronica Roth (2011)

Reviewer: BeezusKiddo

Rating: 4.5 tasty pierogies

Review: Divergent was selected as the top book of 2011 in the Goodreads Readers Choice Poll. It's easy to see why- this book is engaging, excited, and leaves the reader eager for Roth's next book (Insurgent, expected in May 2012).


Roth has the unfortunate timing of her book being released in the height of Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games books. Both depict dystopian futures with strong, brave women in the lead role. Veronica Roth's book is excellent, but her writing is less mature than Collins, so the comparison weighs in favor of Collins. It's not necessarily fair to compare these books in this way, but it's unavoidable due to the timing.

The only criticisms I have about Divergent are few and petty. I wish the lead, Beatrice, didn't re-name herself "Tris," it reeks of trying to hard to fit in. (Admittedly, strong female characters named "Beatrice" or "Beatrix" mean more to me than most, my daughter's middle name is "Beatrix," and she is named after a certain brave, ruthless woman of the same name.)

The love story is predictable and kind of immature, but that's not entirely a valid criticism, because the characters are young, so an immature love story is appropriate in that context.

I liked the way Roth characterizes and develops each of the factions. I also liked the extensive initiation process for joining the factions, it was an excellent plot device for developing the faction's personality, and makes the social structure much more interesting than "ok, this is where you're going."

There is the perfect balance of action and description in this book for it to be transformed to a thrilling movie that is completely true to the book. (Although I love the Hunger Games, it's so heavy on description that I think the movie won't be able to everything.)

Roth keeps a blog about her writing experiences, and it's interesting to get such an intimate view into the writing and editing process. I particularly liked her entry about the differences between the early drafts and the final story of Divergent. She seems down-to-earth, intelligent, and friendly. Also, she's only 23! What an amazing accomplishment for someone so young.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Happy Friday Gift: Best Short Story Evah!

Well, it's Friday - finally. This has been one of the more stressful weeks of my life professionally so I need to decompress something fierce.

To celebrate our collective impending weekend freedom here is a link to what may very possibly be the best short story ever written: Symbols and Signs by Vladimir Nabokov.


I'm pretty certain at this point that Nabokov is the best writer ever although there are a few more of his works I need to read before I can say this definitively. No one can do what he can do with the written word. I love this phrase from Symbols and Signs so much, "...of neglected children humming to themselves in unswept corners." He writes phrases like that - which stick in my mind for days.

I began writing short stories when I was eight years old. I love writing but everytime I read Symbols & Signs I want to punch myself in the face and burn everything I have ever written.

Enjoy! Love, Elle

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Mildred Pierce, James M. Cain (1941)

Reviewer: BeezusKiddo

Rating: 4 Pierogies

Review: When my book club picked Mildred Pierce for our February book, the only thing I knew about it was that the HBO miniseries got plenty of buzz at the 2011 Emmy's. I figured that if the miniseries was good, the book must be too. Luckily, I was right.

This book is not "good" in the traditional sense, with the traditional battles of good/evil, love/hate etc. This book is driven purely by the reader's schadenfreude--you turn pages quickly because you so desperately want to see the bad people suffer. There is not a single likeable main character. Some are bad, some are mean, some are pathetic. None of them are admirable.

 I found the plot gripping and wanted to keep reading and reading and reading, if only to see the dislikeable characters get their comeuppance, and the rare good displayed be rewarded.


 IT DOESN'T HAPPEN. EVER. Good things happen to bad people. I want Bad people to suffer consequences, terrible terrible consequences. I want Good people to be rewarded. That never, ever happens here. The Bad people revel in their badness and reap reward after reward, and the Good people suffer.

 I didn't end this book disappointed because the writing was so engaging and because there is a certain level of resolution at the very end. Also, I really do like books that are filled with baddies. The Believers and Notes on a Scandal (both by Zoe Heller) are some favorites that come to mind.

Mildred Pierce was adapted to an Oscar winning film starring Joan Crawford in 1945, and the Emmy-winning miniseries starring Kate Winslet just came out on HBO last year. I can't wait to see them both!

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Stieg Larsson (2005)


Reviewer:  BeezusKiddo

Rating: 4 Pierogies

Review: My mom left her copy of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo at my house well over a year ago. It has been sitting on my dining room table the entire time.

My book club picked it as the next selection, and I finally shook off the dust and took a look. Now I ask myself what took me so darn long? All the hype around the book made me less interested in it, but there was hype for good reason.

Larsson is an excellent storyteller, who has created intriguing characters, and can weave a quick and intelligent plot. Even though this book is 300+ pages, I got through it in less than a week.

A number of friends have told me that they struggled through the first 150 pages. That first section wasn't boring or difficult for me, but I didn't find it particularly gripping either. After the first 150 pages, things pick up and the plot really takes off.

I suppose the mark of a good translation is that the book doesn't feel translated. Still I find that most translated works are a little choppy. This book had no such problem. The language was very smooth.

This is not a book for the faint-hearted. It's full of violence and dark themes. According to the all-knowing Wikipedia, Larsson's writing was heavily influenced by a violent assault on a woman that he witnessed, and he never forgave himself for intervening. This comes through clearly in the book.

What most impressed me was that all 3 books in the Millenium Trilogy were only discovered and published after Larsson had died. I'm sure some editing was done, but I can't imagine any major editorial overhaul was undertaken without the author being available. For an unpublished author to just leave a work like this behind was amazing to me.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

A Game of Thrones, George R.R. Martin (1996)

Reviwer: BeezusKiddo

Rating: 4 Pierogies, homemade even

Review:  I finished that darn book! After a very tiring day yesterday, I plowed through those last 50 pages, had a good sleep, and am now ready to GO today!


I feel silly reviewing this book, because I think I'm the last person on the planet to get around to reading it. It is also very hard to give a concise definition about what it's about. It's an epic--how do you define The Odyssey or Lord of the Rings? It's a huge book with a huge cast of characters and a huge number of things happen.

When you have this many main characters, it might be easy for the reader to lose track or get confused. Martin is skilled at placing tiny unobtrusive reminders throughout the book, so that the reader can effectively and effortlessly keep track of all the pieces in play. I liked the mix of names in this book.

Often a book will either have all fantasy names, or all common names. Martin mixes it up and puts a little of both. The only name I got hung up on was "Cersei" (if this is not familiar to you, see Circe). I understand the value of giving a character a recognizable name. The name itself is weighted with connotation, which gives the author a shortcut for having to describe the character's personality in detail. However, I got hung up on the issue of WHY WOULD ANYONE MARRY SOMEONE NAMED CERSEI? Would you marry someone named Freddy Kreuger? Although that kind of obliviousness seems par for the course for Robert Baratheon.

The characters were easily divided into "likeable" (Daeneyrs, Ned, Tyrion, Bran, Jon Snow, Arya), "horrid and mean and dislikeable" (Cersei, Jaime, Viseyrs, Joffrey, possibly Sansa although she quickly becomes more likeable at the end), and then there was a group that wasn't particularly likeable or dislikeable, but more neutral (Catelyn, Robb, Khal Drogo). What most impressed me was that there were so many main characters with distinct personalities, but I never felt like I lost track.

I really liked the book, but I'm not dashing out to read the next one. I am sure I'll read it eventually, but I'm not in any hurry to pick it up. I'm interested in finding out what happens to the characters and the Seven Kingdoms, but the book did not end on such a cliffhanger that I'm dying to find out what happens right now. I've been told the action slows down considerably in the following books.

Also, I really don't care for super long books (Game of Thrones is 800 pages). I prefer to read books under 300 pages, for the satisfaction of starting something, finishing it, and moving on to the next thing.

I am, however, eager to see how HBO translated this saga for television, so I've got to get out and get those DVDs!