Monday, January 31, 2011

Water for Elephants

February's book club selection is Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen.  I had seen this book on many a bookstore shelf over the last couple of years, but it had never really grabbed my attention.  I can't believe what I was missing!  This book was rich and textured and gritty and beautiful.

It's an emotional tale of one man's accidental circus life.  In Water for Elephants, Jacob Jankowski is a ninety-something year-old man remembering his time with the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth.  I found the present-day scenes in Mr. Jankowski's nursing home heartbreaking.  After living such an exciting life it must be especially trying being relegated to a corner of the world where his greatest fantasies are either one more "roll in the hay" with a woman or maybe just an ear of corn on the cob.  Mr. Jankowski takes great offense at the mushy, tasteless food he is allowed.  When one particularly kind nurse brings him her fruit salad and he sees that it includes apple he can't speak for the tears he is attempting to contain.  Of this nurse, he says, "I'm so used to being scolded and herded and managed and handled that I'm no longer sure how to react when someone treats me like a real person."  Then as he is remembering his wife's swift decline and death, I was unable to contain my own tears.  I'm sure I looked like a fool, walking down the sidewalk returning from the bus stop, reading a book and blubbering.  "Although there are times I'd give anything to have her back, I'm glad she went first.  Losing her was like being cleft down the middle.  I wouldn't have wanted her to go through that.  Being the survivor stinks." 

The descriptions of life in the circus were full of moments I never could have imagined.  Sara Gruen researched so many different aspects of the circus and it seems none of it went to waste.  Mr. Jankowski becomes the circus veterinarian.  At one point, he is giving fruit to an orangutan and is shocked when the animal seems to thank him.  And this is, after all, titled Water for Elephants and Rosie, the elephant is an actual character not just piece of the background. 

I really can't say much more without retelling the whole story- and you can bet that I'm tempted.  I can't wait for our book club discussion.  I will also be sure to see the film version that will be released this coming April.  I can only hope it will be as good as the book, but there is a lot to live up to here.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Iron Jawed Angels

Okay, so I know this is supposed to be a book blog, but I just can't stop myself from sharing this wonderful film with you.  I hope you'll forgive my digression. 

Recently, while reading the homeschooling section of Pioneer Woman's website, I came across a discussion about the women's suffrage movement.  Over and over again readers were recommending this film so I just had to see it for myself.  And since my wonderful library system had it in stock, I was able to get it quickly and for free (it doesn't get much better than that, does it?).  This HBO produced film was released in 2004 and won Anjelica Huston the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress.  The film also stars Hilary Swank as Women's Rights Activist Alice Paul, Frances O'Conner, Vera Farmiga and Patrick Dempsey. 

This was a fascinating chronicle of a pivotal event in American history about which I ashamedly know very little.  Well, that's about to change.  My curiosity has been sparked and I can't wait to learn more.  I hope you'll take the opportunity to view this film and share it with the other women in your life. 

And like the tag line says, "Lead, Follow or Get Out of the Way."


Just a disclaimer:  While I think it is important we share this with our daughters, and I hope you will, I recommend your viewing it first.  There is one scene in which the character played by Hilary Swank spends a little alone time in the tub.  Just sayin'.   

Monday, January 24, 2011

Bitter Is the New Black

A lovely lady in my book club (you know how I love my book club!) lent me this book, Bitter Is the New Black by Jen Lancaster.  It's been out for a while- published in 2006- but this was the first I had seen it.  Jen Lancaster describes it as a "layoff memoir" and it is wonderful.

The book begins with descriptions of Jen's fabulous life- Prada handbags, Ralph Lauren Capri pants, and a list of regularly scheduled spa services (she says her favorite is the simple mani-pedi: "They work on your hands and feet at the same time while you sit in a vibrating chair.  I call it the sorority girl's version of a threesome.").  She is, well...a little umm...witchy with her criticisms of other people, but her one redeeming quality is that she usually keeps these criticisms to herself, thinking them for the reader's benefit and not saying them aloud.  The book is filled with the most deliciously snarky little footnotes.  Really, I think one of the best things about this book is the footnotes.  So much fun!

Now I have one friend who said she quit reading after the second chapter because she thought Jen was just too mean, but she really should have kept reading.  I loved the scene where Jen is trying to get "half a dozen anorexic wannabe models" who work the reception desk at her salon.  By the end of the scene, I was begging Jen to strangle someone!  She remains far calmer than I could have done. 

Of course, this is a layoff memoir, so Jen is let go from her job that provided not only the lifestyle to which she had become accustomed, but also a great deal of her identity.  For months she searches for work.  She is turned down for jobs because she is over-qualified.  She is even turned down for a job that she almost had but lost because a "friend" swooped in and sabotaged Jen's opportunity.  And then she is forced to go to the unemployment office.  You can imagine how well she did there.

As she becomes aware that her financial situation is becoming more bleak, she concedes the need to move to a smaller, cheaper apartment.  And so she begins to pack.  This is the point where the new Jen really enters the world.  She can't believe all the "junk" she has:  All the bottles of expensive lotions that she never used, all the bottles of nail polish (many the exact same color), her ridiculous DVD collection, and finally her shoes and hand bags.  She monetizes each junk collection by calculating what she could have bought instead- COBRA health insurance, six months phone service, a year's worth of auto insurance, and a healthy money market account.  "I now understand that I have no right to bitch about being broke because I was really foolish with the money I had when I had it."

It is a beautiful thing to watch Jen grow and realize what is really important in life.  I loved her and I can't wait to read more of her books.  If you are interested, she has a blog of her own.  You can find it here.  A great book that I highly recommend- especially to my friends out there who have their own touch of the snark.  You know who you are...

Oh!  And just a quick side note- I nearly DIED when Jen described her friend's wedding in the former Chicago Public Library.  Married in a library?  That is totally up this book nerd's alley!

Friday, January 7, 2011

Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt

Happy New Year!  And the first book of the year is....well, not exactly happy.  Actually, I was thinking if the post-holiday anti-climax and the cold, sometimes cloudy weather (I do live in Arizona, so it's not like it's that cold and cloudy) didn't depress me, this book was sure to push me over the edge.  And there was no easing in to it, either.  Already, there is a dead child in the first paragraph.  In the second, the author says, "When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all."  And the worst part was knowing that this was a memoir.  All these awful things really happened.  All to one family.  

When I read a book, I try to read the whole thing.  I like to read the dedication at the front and I often read the acknowledgments as well.  Well, let me tell you- having read the dedication at this book was like knowing in which room the ax murderer waits in a horror film.  I saw the list of his brothers on the first page and it was heart wrenching to read in the first chapters about brothers not on that list.  I was reading about these sweet boys and knowing they weren't going to make it.  It was awful.

 I was heartbroken reading about the first child's death, their daughter Margaret.  The doctor arrives to examine the infant and he is very impatient with the family's grief.  "My mother begs for another few minutes with her baby but the doctor says he doesn't have all day."  Has he no compassion?  His mother then takes to her bed and his father, an alcoholic who had not had a drop to drink since his daughter was born, disappears for days, drunk.  A father's grief must be terrible, but to leave his grieving wife and four small sons alone in a house with no food and no warmth is unforgivable.  Frank, the oldest, but still only four-years-old, tries his best to care for his brothers.  He makes something to eat from a little bread and boiled sour milk and he fills the babies' bottles with water and sugar because that's all he has.  Thank God for the two wonderful neighbors who help care for the distraught mother, two small boys who don't even know what bowls are, and twin infants with only dirty rags for diapers. 

I believe Frank McCourt's father is a good dad, but a worthless man.  The instances we see where he isn't drinking, he plays with his children.  He tells them stories.  He loves them.  But his addiction is much to powerful and regardless of his good intentions, he succumbs each and every time.  I wanted to smack that man every time he came into the house, sloppy drunk and pulling his sons out of bed in the middle of the night demanding they promise to die for Ireland. 

I love the scenes when Frank grows a little older and stands up to his father.  When the second of the twins dies, Frank's father stops in to a pub, taking Frank and little Eugene's small coffin with him.  Frank is upset seeing two pints sitting on the coffin, as he should be, and threatens to tell his mother.  When his father tells him to wait outside, Frank simply says no.  His father finally admits it is time to go home. 

And poor Eugene!  His twin, Oliver, had died only six months earlier and Eugene was never able to accept it.  He was only a year or two old and continued to stare out the window calling for his twin.  How does one mother take all that and still survive?  Her own mother, Frank's grandmother, tells her she has to get up out of her bed.  "There are children dead, she says, but there are children alive and they need their mother." 

The years go on and thank goodness no more children die.  Then poor Frank contracts Typhoid Fever.  It's lucky he is diagnosed in time because one doctor who "has the smell of whiskey on him" just calls it a bad cold and tells his mother Frank should stay in bed.  Prodded by another good neighbor, Frank's mother calls for their own doctor who rushes Frank to the hospital.  While in that hospital, Frank meets a young girl who introduces him to poetry.  Sadly, the girl dies, but Frank continues to seek after poetry and books.  The nurses try to keep him from reading and they are angry about the poem the girl shares with him, but I love when he says, "I can dream about the red-lipped landlord's daughter and the highwayman, and the nurses and nuns can do nothing about it.  It's lovely to know the world can't interfere with the inside of your head."  It is lovely, isn't it?  Incidentally, The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes has been one of my favorite poems since I saw Anne of Green Gables as a little girl.

Frank McCourt makes his way through public school and his final teacher tells him he must "study and learn so that you can make up your own mind about history and everything else but you can't make up an empty mind."  This is some of the best advice Frank is given and I think it's good advice for the rest of us, too.  Following this advice, Frank chooses to go his own way and take steps to return to America.  When he is denied entrance to the secondary school, this teacher is "disgusted by this free and independent Ireland that keeps a class system foisted on us by the English, that we are throwing our talented children on the dung heap."  He then says, "You must get out of this country, boys.  Go to America."  And five years later, after working and saving the best that he can, that is just what he does. 

This was a very difficult book for me to read.  It was just too sad.  Set during the depression and World War II, the poverty McCourt experiences is deplorable.  I am relieved to know that Frank and his three brothers all made it out alive, immigrated to America and made better lives for themselves, but what a difficult journey it was getting there.  This was our book club selection for January and this month's host says this is her favorite book.  I can't wait to discuss this with the group and with her specifically.  Maybe I missed something.  Maybe it touched others in a way it didn't touch me.  Maybe I'm just a big ball baby that cries too easily (we all know this is actually true) and that's why it was so difficult for me.  I am looking forward to our discussion, but I feel sure this is not a book to which I will return. about some fluff!  My next book, Bitter is the New Black, should fill that need nicely.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

What I've Read- 2010

This is not a full list, only the books I've read since beginning this blog.  I imagine the 2011 list will be much longer.

  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling
  • Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling
  • Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling
  • Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling
  • Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling
  • Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling
  • Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger
  • If I Stay by Gayle Forman
  • The Kind Diet by Alicia Silverstone
  • The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner by Stephenie Meyer
  • Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson


I hope you are enjoying reading my book ramblings.  I am certainly enjoying writing about the wonderful books I find.  In my earlier posts, I was afraid of putting too much information in each post because I would hate to spoil the story for any of you who haven't read these books yet.  Unfortunately, I was finding that I had little to say about each book other than "I liked it" or "I didn't really like it."  That was getting a little boring to me to write, and I'm sure it would be boring for you to read.  For all future posts, I will be discussing each book as if I were discussing it with my book club girls.  If you don't want to spoil the story for yourself, just keep an eye on the right hand side of this blog. That's where you can find what books I'm currently reading and what I have read.  Then check back and see if our opinions matched up or if you think I'm totally off base.  And I'd love to hear what you think.  Please leave comments- it makes me feel like I'm not out here all alone!  Now- enough blah, blah, blah from me!  Go read something wonderful!

I love you, Smart Girls!

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

I did it!  I actually made my deadline!  I read all seven Harry Potter books before the end of the year!  And it really wasn't all that hard because they were good.  If they had been awful, I'm sure it would have been a different story.  But what a story it was!  I can't imagine being J.K. Rowling and being able to plan out such a complex storyline.  It is one of my greatest fantasies to be a writer- the kind of writer who could create such wonderful books. 

But this, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was by far my favorite of the series.  It started with this wonderful quote on the very first page: "Death is but crossing the world, as friends do the seas; they live in one another still." 

I was touched to see that poor Dudley just couldn't understand that Harry would not be going into hiding with the rest of the Dursleys.  He was worried about Harry.  The Dursleys have absolutely no idea who Harry is, how important he is, but Dudley is finally seeing that Harry is not the worthless drain, the "waste of space" that his mother and father have always taught him Harry was.  Dudley is grateful that Harry saved his life.  I thought it was rather sad that Dudley would only then have been able to express, however inadequately, his gratitude and concern for Harry.  When Harry realized the cold cup of tea outside his door had been from Dudley, I wanted to cry.

I did get a little frustrated again with the pace of the middle part of this book.  I know that Rowling has to fill an entire year in her time line, but at parts it did feel slow to me. 

I really liked how Kreacher became such an important part of the search for the Horcruxes.  His story gave them so many clues and brought them one step closer to defeating Voldemort.  It made all the difference in the world to Kreacher for Harry to treat him with respect and kindness.  Suddenly, Kreacher was happy to serve.  The house became cleaner and he worked hard to provide better meals.  Don't we all work better when we feel appreciated?  And while we're on the topic of house elves: poor, sweet Dobby!  He loved Harry Potter and defended him at every turn.  That his final act was saving Harry and his friends once again is no surprise.  How touching was Harry's digging of Dobby's grave and burying him with respect, dignity and shoes on his feet!  You guessed it-  I cried again.   

So much happened in this book that I simply cannot comment on it all so I will skip to the end where I seem to have quite a few of my Post-It flags.  I loved that Neville stepped up and became so much stronger while Harry was gone.  Someone needed to fill that spot and he was just the right person.  As they began their education at Hogwarts, Neville was not exactly a strong wizard, but his confidence grew over the years and with Harry's encouragement.  My favorite part of that story was that in this final book, Neville's grandmother was suddenly so proud of her grandson. 

I was relieved when Percy returned to his family and fought along side them.  Fred's shock at Percy making a joke about resigning from the Ministry was classic, but painful when, in the next moment, Fred was killed.  I know it would be far too unrealistic for every character the reader cares about to survive, but that doesn't make it any easier when we've become so attached to each one. 

I must admit that I was heartbroken over Snape's story once it all finally came to light.  There are several of these "lost boys" in this series.  I didn't realized how many until it was pointed out for me: "Hogwarts was the first and best home [Harry] had known.  He and Voldemort and Snape, the abandoned boys, had all found home here...."  Snape had been in love with Lily nearly all his life and had never really known love in return.  After hearing Snape's memories, I realized that Snape's request for Harry to look at him as he died was because he wanted to be able to look into Lily's eyes as he took his last breath.  I also learned from those memories that when Dumbledore died, he wasn't begging Snape for his life, he was begging Snape to kill him.  This allowed Dumbledore a painless death and spared Draco: "That boy's soul is not yet so damaged.  I would not have it ripped apart on my account."  Severus Snape really had repented of his time with Voldemort.  He really was serving Dumbledore.  He really was trying to protect Harry. 

I was in tears as Harry walked to his death.  He knew he had to die and was ready.  How painful to not be able to say goodbye to one's friends, but how brave to go knowing his death would protect them.  I was pleased that Dumbledore was able to meet Harry after he died.  Finally everything was understood.  Harry had to discover the truth the hard way.  "You are the true master of death, because the true master does not seek to run away from Death.  He accepts that he must die, and understands that there are far, far worse things in the living world that dying."  I absolutely loved that quote.  Also:  "Do not pity the dead, Harry.  Pity the living, and, above all, those who live without love."  And finally, when Harry asks if this interaction with Dumbledore is real or in his head, "Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?"

And so we come to the final battle scene.  Did you cheer for Molly Weasley like I did when she said, "NOT MY DAUGHTER, YOU BITCH!"?  Bellatrix never guessed she would be beaten by a mother, but she underestimated a mother's instinct to protect her children.  I gave another cheer when Harry started calling Voldemort by his actual name, Tom Riddle.  He is no longer the Dark Lord.  There is no fear in Harry to pronounce his name.  Harry already knows he will win this battle and the war.  The final curses were flung at one another, the Elder Wand flew through the air to its true master, and Voldemort was finally dead. 

Much later, sweet Luna provides an escape for the exhausted Harry and he retreats to the headmaster's study.  As they enter, they are greeted by the "earsplitting" applause of all the former headmasters and headmistresses of Hogwarts.  Harry lets go of the Hallows.  He repairs his own wand and finds a way to break the Elder Wand's power.  All is well.  Life goes on.  They grow up and they are happy. 

Whew!  This was an extremely quick journey through Harry Potter's world.  Eight weeks to read seven rather large novels during the busiest time of the year took real effort, but it has been very rewarding.  I know that I will probably go back and read a few of the later books again, if not the entire series.  I hope that my children will someday read these books.  I am happy that I did.  Thank you for joining me on this journey and thank you to all of the Potter fans who told me over and over again that I must read these books.  You were right.