This is going to be a semi-regular feature. I’ll blog about a book, movie, TV show, or musical artist that I like and discuss what else I’ve been reading/watching/listening to lately. These things aren’t necessarily my favorites, just things I like that you might not be familiar with.
Pamela Ribon, aka Pamie who used to recap Gilmore Girls at Television Without Pity (one of my favorite web sites), wrote her first book, Why Girls Are Weird, a few years ago. It was an enjoyable book that I’d definitely recommend to anyone who likes her web site, as the book is essentially its fictionalized version. Recently, her second book, Why Moms Are Weird, came out. I read it expecting to get a nice romantic comedy with more emphasis on familial relationships than her previous book.
What did I get instead? Holy shit. The biggest cliche you can use when reviewing something is “I laughed, I cried,” but for this book, nothing is truer. Pamie has made me laugh numerous times, and this book is no exception- the first chapter of the book is funnier than almost anything you’ll see on TV nowadays- but she also writes things like this:
“You can fight it, you can rationalize it, and you can pretend to ignore it, but you can’t stop love. You can’t help whom you bond with, and the need we have for each other. All you can do is try to handle it with respect, and ultimately do the right thing.”
It’s worth saying twice. Holy shit, Pamie. You made me cry. You hit on a truth that I’ve felt but could never put into words.
So now that I’ve described her style– laugh-out-loud funny one minute, amazingly and originally true and insightful the next– I should describe the plot. Despite the title, it’s not about the characters in Why Girls Are Weird. It’s about a young woman named Benny (for Belinda) who flies from LA to Virginia after her widowed mother and wild-child younger sister are in a car accident. Her mother has begun dating again, which, to say the least, is awkward for Benny, and her sister has a penchant for dating criminals. Meanwhile, Benny is torn between a guy in LA whom she was just getting to know and a guy she meets in Virginia.
A million other authors would write a terrible book with this premise, but Pamie pulls it off beautifully. She has a knack for writing realistic dialogue and throwing in pop culture references without making them seem forced. But more importantly, she creates very believable and likeable characters who seem like they could be your own relatives. Benny definitely isn’t perfect, but Pamie creates her with flaws without ever sacrificing her likeability.
Yeah, it’s kind of a girly book, so it’s not for everyone, but if you like fiction that hits close to home, you’ll probably like this one.
Other books I’ve been reading lately:
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer: Just as weird as it is wonderful and amazing. This book has everything– it’s original, beautifully written, and hopeful. Oskar Schell is a precocious nine-year-old whose father died in the World Trade Center on September 11th. Oskar sets off on a quest to find the lock that goes with a key his father left behind. Once you get past the fact that Oskar doesn’t sound anything like a nine-year-old, you have to marvel at Foer’s skill. He creates this distinct voice for Oskar that’s unlike anything I’v ever read, and some paragraphs I just have to keep re-reading so I can appreciate their beauty all over again. He also manages to find humor even in devastating situations. But what I really love is how Foer isn’t trying to be cool by being cynical or sarcastic or self-deprecating. He’s not afraid to try to write something genuinely moving, and he definitely succeeds.
Smashed by Koren Zailckas
As I think I’ve mentioned, I’m not a big drinker. But that doesn’t mean that alcohol wasn’t everywhere in college, and that I didn’t get stuck drunk-sitting my friends. In this memoir, Koren Zailckas, who is now 26, details her descent into alcohol abuse starting at age 14 and continuing through high school and college. Her writing is vivid, clear, and easy to relate to, and you’ll definitely recognize the scenarios she describes—the awkward freshman year of college, the depressed and drunk friend. Her point is that young girls often drink because of low self-esteem, and I couldn’t agree more.
Lost and Found by Carolyn Parkhurst
Carolyn Parkhurst’s first book, The Dogs of Babel, was a well-written novel with a kind of bizarre subject: a widower who tries to teach his dog to talk to find out whether his wife died accidentally or by suicide. This one is about a topic so obvious that I can’t believe I’ve never read anything similar: a group of people on a (fictional) reality show. It’s told from the points of view of seven different characters: everyone from an “ex-gay” couple to a former child star to a mother and daughter trying to repair their relationship. She really gets into these characters’ heads, and the plot, like any good reality show, is engaging and keeps you guessing. The only disappointment was the ending—I kind of wanted more. But it’s fun and extremely well-written, and I definitely recommend it.
A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby
Nick Hornby is a great writer, and not only because his books are funny and insightful with well-written plots. He has an amazing talent for taking subjects that sound really sappy and turning them into funny, remarkably unsentimental novels. Here, he writes about four people who go onto a rooftop in London to kill themselves on New Year’s Eve: a disgraced former talk show host, a mother of a severely handicapped son, a depressed teenage girl, and an American musician. After talking, they decide not to kill themselves and to check in on each other on Valentine’s Day. With a description like that, wouldn’t you think it would be really sappy? But it’s not. It’s funny and sarcastic and self-aware. There are lines like, “First, I’ll have you know that I scored very highly on Dr. Aaron T. Beck’s Suicide Intent Scale. I’ll bet you didn’t even know there was such a scale, did you? Well, there is, and I reckon I got something like twenty-one out of thirty points.” The book is told from all four main characters’ points of view, and they each have their own distinct voice. It doesn’t trivialize suicide, but rather points out the absurdity of it. What it’s really saying is that when you think you’re alone, you aren’t really, and that the world doesn’t revolve around your problems—it just keeps going. But of course, it says so in a much less sappy way.
Goodnight Nobody by Jennifer Weiner
First, a disclaimer: I do not think there’s anything inherently wrong with “chick lit.” A girl I knew in college actually wrote an entire thesis on why chick lit is worthless, but I disagree. The only problem with chick lit is when books are a little too ditzy or when they all start to sound the same, or when people start to dismiss all books written by women as “chick lit.” But to me the term just implies a story that’s easy to relate to, entertaining, and cute. And when it comes to chick lit, Jennifer Weiner is the cream of the crop. She’s a smart, funny, confident writer who creates believable and likeable characters. This book is a little different—it’s a murder mystery. A bored mother of young children in a rich suburb sets out to solve the murder of a fellow mother. The mysyery keeps you guessing right up until the end, and there are plenty of laugh-out-loud details about life in the ’burbs. (Like the Starbucks in the center of town that couldn’t put up a sign because it ruined the town’s “feel,” or the woman who raises her children without diapers to get in tune with their “natural rhythms.”)
The Mermaid Chair by Sue Monk Kidd
Eh. Honestly, I didn’t really like this one. I loved her first book, The Secret Life of Bees, but in this one I couldn’t stand the main character. She’s a married woman who has an affair with a monk. Why should I care about her? I have no idea. The writing is pretty, but in the reading of this book, I discovered that when it comes to fictional characters, I have more sympathy for murderers than for people who cheat on their significant others. I think that says it all.
Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
I finally read this, and it was…interesting. And not in a bad way. It’s an unusual subject, and I learned a lot about geishas, a topic about which I had previously known nothing. The author obviously did a ton of research, and the characters are realistic and compelling. But plot-wise…I kind of wanted more in the end, and the romance at the heart of the story rang very false to me.
Hypocrite In a Pouffy White Dress by Susan Jane Gilman
This was awesome. When I think “memoir” I automatically think “depressing,” seeing as so many memoirs get made into Lifetime movies. But this one is hilarious. Susan Jane Gilman’s life isn’t terribly extraordinary (well, aside from having hippie parents who took her to a socialist retreat at age 4), but she writes essays about things like her first job and being picked on at school in the most hilarious and compelling way. One of the most important elements of humor is unexpectedness, and this book definitely has that. When describing her impending marriage, she says, “Both my overwhelming love for him and the desire for joint health insurance won out.” When describing a point on which she and a friend disagreed as teenagers, she says, “In standard Teenage Girl Culture, this should’ve been considered a massive betrayal, a pivotal moment that ended our friendship. The fact that it wasn’t was a testimony to how close we were.” The book follows her from her earliest memories to adulthood, so we learn about the lies she told to her kindergarten class, her massive crush on Mick Jagger as a teenager, and her thankless stint working for a congresswoman as an adult. The overwhelming impression you get of her is that she’s someone you’d love to be friends with.
Once Upon a Day by Lisa Tucker
Lisa Tucker has quickly become one of my favorite authors. Her first book, The Song Reader, was wonderful, and her second, Shout Down the Moon, was almost as good. Here, she’s taken her writing to the next level. It starts with a twenty-three-year-old woman who has been raised in a “sanctuary” away from society meeting a young man who has lost his entire family. The woman is searching for her older brother, who has run away from the world in which their father raised them. I hesitate to tell much more than that, because the plot is almost like a Gothic novel—secrets just keep unfolding. It’s a rarity: a literary novel with a page-turning plot, and it raises a resonant theme: the dangers you face in life shouldn’t prevent you from living your life. I highly recommend it.
The Man of My Dreams by Curtis Sittenfeld
I didn’t like this as much as Prep, but it was still enjoyable. I think Sittenfeld’s greatest strength is observation. She has this real knack for nailing truths about everyday situations. This one is about a woman named Hannah and her insecurities with relationships, and one reason why I liked it is because I’ve never read another book about someone who wasn’t kissed until college. In a lot of places I saw myself in Hannah. She truly seems like a real person, and while the ending isn’t terribly satisfying, it feels like the natural course of events.
We Are All Welcome Here by Elizabeth Berg
I’ve never read an Elizabeth Berg book that I didn’t like. In this one, she writes from the point of view of a young adult, which she’s exceptionally good at. The only other books where she’s done so are her books about Katie (Durable Goods, Joy School, and True to Form), and those are some of her best. So is this one. It’s loosely based on a true story about a woman who gave birth in an iron lung as she was being paralyzed by polio. The story, which takes place in 1964, is told from the point of view of the woman’s now-fourteen-year-old daughter. It deals with the struggles they, as well as their black maid, face. The mother-daughter relationship feels very genuine, and I enjoyed this book all the way through.