Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Vacation Reading, Part II

Next on my very slow (sorry!) review of books I read on vacation: What I read in Nashville

Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle has been sitting on my shelf for at least two years, but after a friend recently urged me to JUST READ IT, I moved it up in the queue. This one’s had a lot of hype and been around for quite a while, so you probably already know it.

Jeannette grew up with some…interesting…parents. They were, at the same time, incredibly inspiring and incredibly negligent. I hesitate to specify any particular anecdotes so as not to sway your judgments one way or another, because this book has a very strange grey-area sort of perspective. It’s written in brief snippets of chapters that are anecdotal, which make it, yes, unputdownable; it’s a fast read and engrossing. But it’s one of those stories that glides by on the surface as you’re reading, and then when you stop to think about it, the questions pop up.

Like, isn’t it interesting how Walls writes this with almost no subjectivity? Situations that enrage me, as the reader, are simply stated, without reflection or emotion. In fact, we feel more a sentiment of affection rather than anger—a sentiment that is reinforced by the fact that these family members remain a presence in each other’s lives when you think most would want to move on and never look back, victims of a soon-to-be-forgotten dysfunctional adolescence.

And perhaps most importantly, how trustworthy is the author’s voice? I can only attribute Walls’ objectivity to the analytical adult perspective she possesses now, when looking back on memories decades old. But all these things she suffered through, all the thoughts and emotions she must have experienced as a kid and a teen, what were they like then? How would she have recorded her life in her diary, in the moment? Of course, this is a question for all memoirs, when a story relies on memories to be told.

Paris Was Ours by Penelope Rowlands is really a collection of 30-something essays or articles by a number of people who have, at some point in their life, packed up and moved to Paris. Because, really, who doesn’t have that dream? I feel I can safely say that Paris is the only other city in the world alongside New York that has that “ooooOOOOoOo” aura of “living in Paris.” It just has this style, this glam, these worldly cultural connotations, that make the idea of “living in Paris” something one feels they must do at some point in their life.

You know what I felt after reading all these stories? Afraid of living in Paris. Parisians are a unique breed of person (like New Yorkers) who have a distinct way of doing things (like New Yorkers) and aren’t necessarily always kind to those who aren’t native to their lifestyle (like New Yorkers). The thirty-two authors who contributed to this collection are diverse in age, profession, lifestyle, writing style…The stories weren’t all glamorous, nor were they all intimidating. Some were humorous anecdotes, some were trivial observations. Overall, I think it painted a bit more realistic a portrait of the City of Light, making the point that it is a city with a profound influence on its inhabitants and their identities.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Vacation Reading, Part I

I hope you gathered from my pre-vacation post that I was, in fact, going on vacation! I’ve been out of New York for, pretty much, the last three solid weeks. I spent a week in New Orleans at ALA, a week in Nashville, and a week on real vacation at the beach in Florida. I’ve read a ton the past three weeks, so much that I’m going to have to scramble to write about all the good books I’ve read so that I remember something about them later!

I’ll start with the first leg of my trip: What I read in New Orleans

First up, Tomorrow River by Lesley Kagan. This book was more of a mystery and more thrilling than I expected, and I loved it. It’s been a while since I’ve read something that gets my heart racing. In the story, it’s the summer of 1969 and Shenandoah’s mother has been missing for a year. Her father has turned into an unhappy drunk, and her twin sister Woody has gone mute. Once Shenny gets over her own heartbreak, she storms into an investigation to find the truth about what happened the night her mother disappeared, with the belief that Woody may know something that’s shocked her into silence. Shenny is a headstrong girl who is smart, but whose weakness is her own innocence. It’s one of those situations where we, as the reader, cringe or get anxious as we realize things that Shenny, as an 11-year-old, does not. Overall, I enjoyed this one and got through it pretty quickly.
In between novels, I opted for Life With Mr. Dangerous, a graphic novel by Paul Hornschemeier. Amy is in the latter half of her 20s (I am hitting this mark with my own birthday this October, so I am refusing to call it her “late twenties”) with a crappy job, a best friend (and love interest) living across the country, and having just broken up with a crappy boyfriend. Basically, she’s down and out. And she’s surrounded by people who give her little hope that things will ever get more interesting. I liked Hornschemeier’s drawings a great deal, but in this case, the story just didn’t do it for me. I’m a 20-something, so I get it. I get how your twenties can feel boring, exciting, bleak, meaningless, adventurous, stressful, hopeful and hopeless, all at the same time. But this story just had a serious WOMP WOMP tone to it. Frankly, it was Amy. I would not hang out with her because she’d just bring me down. She notices the sad things that exist about people and their lifestyles, and yes, these things exist and are sad. But she wallows in them and just seems kinda…pathetic. Here’s it in a nutshell: She’s waiting for life to happen to her instead of seeking things out for herself. And that is not an attitude I want to live by. And ranting spoiler alert (highlight to read): I don’t buy the sudden happy ending that just “worked out” in her favor. Seems totally unrealistically optimistic for a story about this character that’s all about the depressing realities of her age. Nor do I buy the fact that multiple men are interested in her, because from these 160 pages, she was permanently moping and always thinking/talking about an obscure TV show. 
My last book of the trip, mostly an airplane read, was Diamond Ruby by Joseph Wallace. I really liked this one too, for a few reasons. It had a likable main character—Ruby is tough and does what she has to do; you cheer for her. It’s historical fiction set in New York, and I love reading about places I encounter daily. It’s about baseball, particularly women in baseball, reminding me of A League of Their Own, for which I will always have a special place in my heart. It ties in all sorts of historical people and places and events, which just makes a story much more rich. Anyway, it’s about a girl, Ruby, whose parents and other family members die in the Spanish Influenza epidemic of 1918 and she’s left to take care of her two young nieces. She’s got something special, though—an arm that can throw as fast and as accurate as a major league pitcher. Diamond Ruby spans the 1920s, from Ruby’s gig as a sideshow artist on Coney Island to the starting lineup of the minor league Brooklyn Typhoons and encounters with Babe Ruth, the Ku Klux Clan, gangsters, rumrunners, and gamblers. This is a really good story to get sucked into—the writing is quality with lots of plot twists and turns to keep you guessing, the characters elicit an emotional connection, and it’s one of those books that has so many details woven in that it feels like an educated read.

What have been your vacation reads this summer?

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

World Party: An ambiguous Siberian tourism endorsement

It’s been a long, travel-filled two weeks for me. After spending a week in New Orleans for ALA, then a night in El Paso for more work-related things, I’m now in Nashville for the week before heading to Florida’s Gulf Coast on Saturday for REAL vacation.

You know what all of these places have in common with Siberia? NOTHING, because it is cold there. At least, that is the impression I got from Ian Frazier’s travelogue, Travels in Siberia, which was my June Russia pick for the World Reading Challenge. Frazier is most well-known as a writer for The New Yorker and has a slew of other travelogues published.

Siberia is an interesting place. Just to put the size in perspective, in Frazier’s words: “Three-fourths of Russia today is Sibera. Sibera takes up one-twelfth of all the land on earth. About 39 million Russians and other native peoples inhabit that northern third of Asia. By contrast, the state of New Jersey has about a fifth as many people on about .0015 as much land.” That’s a big mass of land, one that I know very little about. It just seems so…remote, desolate, and cold. And that’s sort of the impression I got from Frazier’s notes—a land so rich with resources but so sparsely populated, with living conditions and lifestyle so contingent upon the environment.

Frazier’s Travels is Siberia blends his own travel notes with Siberian history to paint the pictures of just how ‘out there’ Siberia really is. And why it is that, despite Siberia’s sad and violent history, it’s still so captivating. Some of my favorite, memorable lines or passages (you can skip reading this part if you want):

  • I believe the tropical poster is the most common indoor decoration in Siberia.
  • In Russia, writing is so revered that no one had had the nerve to interrupt me in what might have been an act of literary creation.
  • Beneath a surface layer of unbelief or Orthodox Christianity, Russia is an animist country. Ordinary physical objects are alive in Russia far more than they are in America, and however Russia’s religious or political currents flow, this native animism remains strong…In Russia the windshield wiper on your car isn’t called a mechanical name–it’s a dvornik, a word whose more common meaning is “custodian.” What we call a speed bump in America the Russians call lezhashchii politseiskii, which means “lying-down policeman.”
  • What struck me then and what still strikes me now was the place’s overwhelming aura of absence. The deserted prison camp just sat there–unexcused, un-torn-down, unexplained. During its years of operation it had been a secret, and in some sense it still was. Horrors had happened here, and/or miseries and sufferings and humiliations short of true horrors. “No comment,” the site seemed to say. / I thought this camp, and all the others along this road, needed large historical markers in front of them, with names and dates and details; and there should bne ongoing archaeology here, and areas roped off, and painstaking excavation, and well-informed docents in heated kiosks giving talks for visitors. Teams of researchers should be out looking for camp survivors, if any, and for formers guards, and for whoever had baked the bread in the bakery. Extensive delving into KGB or Dalstroi files should be showing who exactly was imprisoned here when, and what they were in for, and what became of them. The zek engineers and builders who made the hand-constructed bridges should be recognized and their photographs placed on monuments beside the road, and the whole Topolinskaya Highway for all its 189 kilometers should be declared a historic district, and the graves, of which there may be many, should be found and marked and given requiem. / The fact that the world has not yet decided what to say about Stalin was the reason these camps were standing with no change or context; the sense of absence here was because of that. / The world more or less knows what it thinks of Hitler. Stalin, though, is still beyond us. As time passes, he seems to be sidling into history as one of those old-timey, soft-focus monsters–like Ivan the Terrible, like Peter the Great–whose true monstrosity softens to resemble that of an ogre in a fairy tale.
  • Thus I was once again convinced that the Russian car is the most reliable in the world, because it is possible under necessity to replace any part in it with a piece of wire or with a nail.
  • I had not flown Aeroflot since the nineties. Now the complete absence of smoking, in accordance with revised policy, made a real change in the airline’s tone. Russians not smoking!…Everything about the Boeing 767 we flew in was better than what I remembered of their former planes. Now they had real seats, not lawn chairs. Nothing about the interior looked beat-up or shabby.
The memoir sections are naturally more interesting than the history lessons, but they both serve their purpose. If you like Bill Bryson books, this is probably one you should check out. Frazier has an eye for the little details that make a place what it is. His observations will introduce you to the same culture and make you feel just as awkward as Frazier often felt.
I’ve always gotten the impression that Russia (and Siberia) is a fascinating place. But I can’t confirm that I’ve ever actually heard a recommendation to plan a visit. I think this book just confirmed that sentiment. Interesting country; spend your vacation days elsewhere.