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Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed

April 11, 2014

wildI am so behind on writing about the books I’ve read! This was a book club book from back in January and it got mixed reviews within our group. I think I liked it a bit more than some of the other members because even though Cheryl can be a bit idiotic at times, I ultimately was on board with her journey.

After her mother’s death, a failing marriage, and a bout with drugs, Cheryl Strayed is looking for some kind of meaning in her life. She happens upon a copy of a guide to the Pacific Crest Trail at a sporting goods store and decides that hiking the trail may be the challenge and change she’s looking for. She begins preparing for the hike, having a pretty low level of understanding of exactly what a hike like this – hundreds of miles – will entail.

Not surprisingly, she’s ill prepared. She overpacks her bag so that she can barely lift it. She doesn’t give herself enough money for restocking supplies during the hike. She doesn’t know the weather forecasts or how the trail has been impacted by a long winter. Like I said, she’s kind of idiotic. And that can be annoying to read about, but something about Cheryl and her journey was redeeming for me.

For every silly mistake, there was a beautiful scene. For every annoying misstep, there was a moment of peacefulness. For all her silliness, she was strong. I can respect that she didn’t know what she was up for, but she made it. Cheryl and her journey reminded me a bit of Chris McCandless (in a very different way, of course, but there was some similarities in their struggles) and I loved his story. She made the trip into something that changed her life and brought her happiness and gave her a sense of accomplishment. She was a different person at the end of the Pacific Crest Trail. Even with all her mistakes, I commend her for taking up the challenge and enjoyed reading about her journey.

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

March 17, 2014

Short History of Nearly EverythingI loved Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. It’s a big task to tackle: Bryson sets out to answer the oldest and most complex questions we all have about the universe and ourselves. I found it absolutely fascinating. And while there is a ton of information packed into this book, Bryson’s writing style and his ability to break down complicated topics, makes it completely digestible and enjoyable.

Bryson starts off with a story from his days in elementary school: in a school textbook there was an illustration of a cross-section of the earth. This fascinating picture was accompanied by the dryest explanation ever – “This is the core. This is molten rock. This is the crust” – and young Bill wondered how scientists ever came to know this about the earth. He deduced that that part of the story was the most interesting part and A Short History of Nearly Everything sets out to tell it.

With extensive reading lists and interviews with experts, Bryson takes us from the Big Bang and the solar system to evolution and the earliest humans – everywhere in between. It’s an incredibly fascinating ride and Bryson is a knowledgeable, funny, and clever tour guide.

The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

December 19, 2013

The Interestings

I think Meg Wolitzer set out to write a novel that would represent a generation. She took six teenagers and put them in a summer camp for the arts, Spirit-in-the-Woods, in 1974. She gave them different personalities, different strengths and weaknesses, different experiences, but made them bond one night in a teepee in the woods. Then she made them grow up, go to college, have kids, work at jobs, live their lives –  all while trying to illustrate everything that happened during this generation through these six people.

But first let’s back up.

The six teenagers who meet at Spirit-in-the-Woods are: Jonah, the son of a famous folk singer; brother and sister Ash and Goodman, who are attractive and popular and rich; Ethan, a budding animator; Cathy, a talented dancer; and Jules, the insecure ugly duckling who just feels grateful to be included.

The odd group stays friends through high school, with their fair share of misunderstandings, fights, romantic entanglements and other teenage nonsense, until one member permanently leaves the group one fateful New Year’s Eve. Ash, Ethan, and Jules set up shop in New York, and their relationship is strained when finances become obviously unequal between the friends. Jonah deals with some childhood demons and Goodman gets into legal trouble.

While the narrative of the friends through the years could be interesting, I had a few issues with The Interestings that I couldn’t get past. I felt like Meg Wolitzer was trying to cram every single possible identifiable thing that happened during this generation into this book – these friends see the first cases of AIDS , they encounter the cult founded by Sun Myung Moon, the struggle with cordless phones, they live in NYC on September 11. It’s all a little too much and too convenient and it felt forced to me.

Also, Jules is the most dominant voice in the novel and I really didn’t like her. She is jealous and mean-spirited and I didn’t see her a good friend at all. I’ve read books where the main character isn’t particularly likeable, but I felt that Wolitzer wanted me to like Jules – she wanted me to think she was funny and goofy and likeable, but I found her annoying and dumb and particularly unfunny.

While reading The Interestings, I wanted to see what would happen to the group; I was eager to see if and how situations would be resolved and it was interesting to get a glimpse into some events of the time period. But, all in all, The Interestings is not a book I’d recommend.

Agatha Christie Kick

September 11, 2013

I haven’t read many mysteries but I wanted to give them a try and friend recommended that I start with the queen of mysteries, Agatha Christie. And holy moly am I enjoying them. I’ve devoured seven in two months and have two more on my nightstand as we speak. So far I’ve read:

  • And Then There Were None – Recognized as one of Christie’s best works, ten strangers meet on an island and are terrorized while they are killed off one by one.
  • The Murder of Roger Akroyd  – Hercule Poirot has retired to the  fictional village of King’s Abbott in England, but of course he’s on hand to solve the murder of Roger Akroyd, a widower in the small gossipy town.
  • Murder on the Links – Paul Renaud’s body is found in a shallow grave on a golf course near his home. Is the murderer an acquaintance, a member of the household, or a stranger passing by? Hercule Poirot and Hastings are there to solve the crime. 
  • Evil Under the Sun – While vacationing on an island, Hercule Poirot solves the murder of a fellow vacationer. 
  • The Mysterious Affair at Styles – Agatha Christie’s first book in which a wealthy widow is murdered and the key suspects are her stepchildren, the household staff, family friends, and her new husband. 
  • Poirot Investigates and Poirot’s Early Cases – A collection of short stories staring the famous detective Hercule Poirot.

Have you read Agatha? Which are your favorites?

The Group by Mary McCarthy

August 11, 2013

The groupOne of my book club friends found a list of books everyone should read before they are 30, or some such list. I’ve looked high and low for the link, but I can’t find it anywhere. But anyway, the list was pretty great and our book club decided to choose one of the recommended reads for our July meeting. We picked The Group by Mary McCarthy. Written in 1963 and set between 1933 and 1940, it was quite scandalous for its time. And I just loved it.

When The Group begins eight friends have just graduated from Vasser, class of 1933. One of the young women, Kay, is getting married to a guy named Harald who no one seems to know very well or like very much. At the pretty casual wedding are the seven other members of “The Group” – Dottie, Pokey, Lakey, Polly, Priss, Helena, and Libby. Over the course of the next eight years we see where life takes these women. And while different members of “The Group” have different experiences with their families, jobs, husbands, travel, and children, what is really most interesting about this novel is the way it portrays life of women in the 1930s.

I’d never thought much about birth control in the 1930s, but McCarthy throws it right out there in chapter 2. And let me tell you: she does not hold back one bit. No wonder this book was such a scandalous affair when it was published! Then there’s a whole section on breastfeeding and what a battle that was, with doctors and nurses and even families pushing the “scientifically better” formula. Top that off with some domestic abuse and a little mental illness and we have ourselves a pretty hefty story.

It was interesting to see that many of the aspects of being a woman haven’t changed at all in nearly 80 years. But it was simply amazing to read about what life was like for these women in the 1930s. We see a group of woman who are a little catty, a little proud, a little ambitious, a little unsure. We see woman much like the woman we know today, but wrapped up in a time that I realize I know very little about and is so interesting to discover. This novel was amazing and I can’t stop gushing about it.

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

July 1, 2013

Rules of CivilityKatey and her friend Eve are working class girls in Manhattan in 1937. On New Year’s Eve, they meet the fun-loving – and rich – Tinker Gray and 1938 begins with a fast friendship.  I loved Rules of Civility by Amor Towles because taking a look inside 1930s Manhattan was absolutely fascinating.

Seeing Katey and Eve’s lives in the working class was super interesting, but a stark contrast to Tinker’s dinner parties, servants, and fancy clothes. The carefree lives of the three friends changes with an accident, and the dynamic of the friendships is altered. As Katey navigates this new landscape, we see her move in new circles, tackle obstacles at work, and become more independent. And we can’t help but fall in love with her. She’s spunky, smart, witty, and independent. I just loved her.

Eve, on the other hand, was a little too self-centered and conniving for my taste, and I didn’t see how our smart and lovable Katey would consider her a good friend. Tinker Gray is immensely likable, a fun and sensitive character, and I loved when he and Katey matched wits. We also meet tons of other characters, get an inside look at the bar scene in New York, and see our three friends grow and change over the course of the years.

Towles has created a terrifically compelling book filled with very interesting characters. From the description of a day as a secretary in a male-centric law firm to the intricate details of high class clothing, from navigating the streets of Manhattan to the endless glasses of gin, Rules of Civility dips you right into the 1930s so you’ll never want to leave.

The Broom of the System by David Foster Wallace

June 21, 2013

The Broom of the SystemAndrew loved David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, but after hearing about the plot I wasn’t sure I would love it too. And with more than 1,000 pages, I just wasn’t ready for the task. But since I really wanted to read something by David Foster Wallace, I thought The Broom of the System seemed like the perfect choice. And I loved it.

This novel was published when Wallace was just 24 years old. The Broom of the System is set (mostly) in 1990 and the main character is Lenore, who works as a receptionist at Frequent and Vigorous Publishing. Yes, the name of the publishing house is Frequent and Vigorous, and that is what I love about David Foster Wallace. I also love his cast of characters: we meet Dr. J, whose patients ride into his therapy sessions on automated chairs; Rick Vigorous, who urinates when nervous; Lenore’s great-grandmother (also named Lenore) who sets her home thermostat at exactly 98.6 degrees; Wang Dang Lang, no comment; and a bird named Vlad the Impaler.

Lenore’s family, which includes a stoned brother who talks to his leg and a sister who puts on slightly creepy therapy plays with her children, owns Stonecipho Baby Foods and they are in some sort of competition with Gerber. Lenore’s great-grandmother goes missing and havoc is wreaked at Frequent and Vigorous Publishing when the phone lines become crossed and hundreds of calls are misdirected there. Then Vlad the Impaler becomes a sensation, a man tries to eat the entire world, and Wang Dang Lang reappears.

The Broom of the System is an incredibly funny, entertaining, and unique novel. I loved every minute of it, right up until the unfinished-but-slightly-wrapped-up ending, that I hear is pretty classic David Foster Wallace. I liked this book so much that I just may have to tackle Infinite Jest, and every other David Foster Wallace I can get my hands on.