Books Are Pretty

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The Last Summer (of You & Me).

Here's what I know about Fire Island: 1.)It is an island 2.) Where many gay men have summer homes, and who 3.) Call me at my job in Chicago to yell at me for not knowing how to have furniture delivered there.

It wasn't easy to reconcile Ann Brashares' soft, ethereal novel of passing youth with someone heatedly screaming into my headset, "FIRE. ISLAND. FERRY. What do you mean, 'What are their delivery hours?' Aren't you going to ask me which ferry? There are three! Three! And you have to tell them which beach to drop off the furniture! You incompetent! Am I really going to get my furniture? I have houseguests coming!"

Reading Brashare's novel, I'm sorry to say, did not clear up any of my burning issues regarding furniture - I still have nightmare visions of ottomans and sofa cushions just washing up onto the beach in a soggy free-for-all - but she did establish that, yes, there is a Fire Island Ferry, and more interestingly, that Fire Island has lots of separate towns. Sixteen, in fact. I had no idea.

The Last Summer (of You & Me), Brashares' first novel written for adults, plays out mostly in one of these small towns, Waterby, a quiet, village where everyone knows everyone else, and the kids grow up together, hair bleached and soles blackened from endless days on the beach. Beach life is as constant as the ocean itself, always moving but never changing, lulling the islander into a languid complacency.

The novel focuses on two sisters, 24-year-old tomboyish lifeguard Riley, and her younger sister, 21-year-old Alice, a beautiful dreamy girl always struggling to keep up with Riley and her best friend, their next door neighbor Paul.

After a lifetime of summers spent together, Paul disappears from the island for three years, and at the beginning of the story, he has returned. (on the ferry!) Instead of things picking up where they'd left off, Paul and Alice realize that life is going to move forward, pushing them into adulthood whether they want it to or not. As Paul and Alice struggle to deny their growing attraction to each other, they both hide behind Riley. As Alice observes,

Some people had gifts that made them great at being kids. Riley had those gifts. She was fearless, and she was fair. She was effortlessly expert at skateboarding, sailing, running fast, coaxing a fish off of any line. She was the pitcher on the winning corkball team for seven years in a row. She was the first kid up on a surfboard. She was even good at indoor things, like card tricks and video games. She didn't believe in hierarchies - not even mothers. She was the one kid every other kid wanted to befriend, and she never used her power for ill.

[...]As they all grew up, the qualities that defined success changed. Girly-girls had been customarily shunned by the central group, but the summer after eighth grade they got their moment...It seemed wrong to Alice that the child-gifts became trivial - hobbies at the most. It seemed wrong that what made Riley a superstar among them had so little currency anymore and that she was so distant from the things that did matter.

Riley is as constant as the ocean itself, never altering, effortlessly staying forever twelve years old. But the ocean has currents that are rough and deep, and the water that Paul and Alice cover themselves with to avoid facing their future overwhelms them when Riley experiences the biggest change of all, that strips away what they were and leaves them no choice but to move toward what they will become.

Brashares, author of the best-selling young adult novel The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants , has created a novel for adults that is like the ocean itself - simultaneously riveting yet predictable. A skilled writer, Brashares gives the reader a perfect novel to dive into (I'm trying so hard not to say a perfect beach read, but damn it, I can't help it.) Although there is really no turn in the book that could not be predicted, it's still like eating your favorite comfort food - you've had it before, but it's still good.
The Last Summer (of You & Me)

by Ann Brashares
to be released June 5, 2007 by Riverhead Books
Hardcover, 306pp.
ISBN: 978-1-59448-917-4

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Friday, May 25, 2007

Friends & Mothers.

Look! Australia has written another book! Several weeks ago, I posited the most controversial theory* that Australia has has only written one book**. In what can only be construed as a defensive move, Australia promptly responded to the criticism by unleashing a second book on the world, Louise Limerick's debut novel, the hideously titled Friends & Mothers.

I can't lay the blame for the title on Australia, however. This gaffe is all America's fault, I just know it. The book was first published in 2003 by Pan MacMillan as Dying for Cake, which is not only a better and more interesting title in general, but more appropriate for the novel. The cover is better, too:

But you know America and its views on woman readers. If you don't beat us over the head with the Obvious Stick, we won't realize it's a ladybook. There has to be some sort of reference to motherhood in the title, and the cover has to have a stroller on it or a baby or a pacifier or some shit. Unless it's a cover designed by my girl Olga Grlic, book jacket designer Top Dog, and then you have a book that looks worth reading.

And don't even get me started on legs and feet.

But the butterfly cover isn't as bad as all that. Designed by Cara Petrus, the trapped butterfly in the Mason jar is a decent enough analogy for the women in the novel, all of whom are struggling for their own particular brand of freedom.

In Brisbane, Australia, a tightly knit mother's group meets every morning at a coffee shop to connect with each other and fill the long hours that make up a young mother's day. At the novel's opening, the group is rocked by the complete psychotic break of one of their own. Evelyn, mother of five-year-old William and four-week-old Amy, is found having a meltdown in a nearby shopping mall. Social Services picks up William from school and tracks down her husband, Steve, but tiny Amy is nowhere to be found. While Evelyn sits in a nearly catatonic state in a psychiatric facility, the remaining women continue to meet, but the group is now taken over by the growing fear and suspicion that Evelyn, while deeply submerged in post-partum psychosis, is responsible for Amy's disappearance.

While the group struggles with the awful possibility that their beloved friend may have killed her child, they also struggle alone to recapture the individuality they sacrificed at the altar of motherhood. Clare fled an unstable career as a painter to become a teacher, and then fled her teaching career to become a mother, and now maybe possibly has come full circle. Susan squashes her insecurity and fears that she is a mother with no maternal instinct by micromanaging her family in order to chase doubt away. Wendy, the part-time nurse, is the vaguest of the five characters yet scores the most action, and Joanna is the overweight, sloppy Earth goddess with a maternal instinct on hyperdrive and an obsession with cake that borders on creepy (Hence the Australian title.)

Maybe cake is an Australian cliché for female indulgence like chocolate is in the U.S., and that's why Limerick had her character fixate on it so strongly, but Joanna's obsession with it completely takes over, as obsessions always do, and stuffs the book full of naked midnight baking sessions, lustful yearnings for frosting, and lascivious drooling in front of coffee shop display counters. Joanna is a cake zombie, lurching through the book in a fog, moaning, "Caaaaaaake.....caaaaaaake," until even the missing baby Amy takes a backseat to it. Why so much cake? I have no idea.

I'd make fun of this cake fixation, except I'm afraid that would reduce my chances of Limerick coming over to my house and baking me one. And she's here in Chicago tomorrow on her book tour, so you know, it could happen. She looks so nice, too. It's possible she roams the Australian countryside at night, leaving a trail of exsanguinated cows and confused, frightened farmers in her wake, but she looks so friendly you'd never suspect a thing. In fact, she looks exactly like the kind of person who would bake you a cake even after you tweaked her book a little bit:

God, now cake has taken over the review, too.

Less time spent on cake could have been more time spent on exploring post-partum depression, which, when Limerick does tackle it, she knocks it out of the park. Limerick explores both the milder form of what used to be known as the "baby blues" with Clare, who got better with the help of antidepressants and Evelyn, who is so far down in despair that she shuts down completely. Limerick skillfully uses Evelyn and Clare to hit all the angles of how the illness can affect a new mother. As someone who struggled with moderate post-partum depression, I appreciated how well Limerick captured the mindset. Evelyn's belief that her children would be better off without her and how logical that theory seems to her when she is caught in depression's web (Limerick also uses spiders and spider webs to serve as an excellent metaphor for depression.) Clare, a sufferer to a lesser extent, fights her depression by overcompensating with her daughter Sophie, who as a result is, well, kind of an asshole.

Although the characters try desperately to keep their group intact, the problems keep mounting and no matter how hard the characters work at maintaining their friendship, it seems inevitable that it's destined to crumble away, like so many crumbs of cake on an empty plate.

*Controversial in the Books Are Pretty sense of the word; i.e., 15 people commented about my review, myself included.

**I'd forgotten about The Thorn Birds, so, two books really.

Friends & Mothers
by Louise Limerick
May, 2007 by St. Martin's Press
Hardcover, 261pp.
ISBN: 0-312-35512-2

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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Dangerous Book for Boys

dangerous book

It is with great trepidation that I wade back into reviewing another gendered book about children. The last time I did this, (and for the same publisher, too - Hello, HarperCollins publicist, Felicia Sullivan!) I reviewed a book called Home Team Advantage, a book about the importance of getting mothers involved as sports coaches for youth athletics. Although the concept is something I can get fully behind, I found her point of view regarding girls' sports to be so radically different than my own that I ended up coming down a bit harshly. For full background, I played serious junior tennis when I was a kid, got a college scholarship, national ranking, even played in a few professional tournaments on the satellite level (like AAA baseball). I played against hundreds of girls over a period of 12 years, and was on the high school track team, and the girls I played against played to win, not to discuss their feelings and braid each other's hair or whatever her view about female athletes is. (It is possible I'm being a bit unfair here. She wasn't that bad, but she did quote James Dobson as an authority figure on child-rearing, so you see how we wouldn't necessarily see eye to eye on a few things.)

Anyway, I wrote the review, I posted the review, I pissed off quite a few people with that review. Mostly moms who bought into the Mars/Venus bullshit and thought I was an asshole, which is fine. I am an asshole, so I don't begrudge anyone their accuracy, even though I may not agree with the methodology they used to arrive at their conclusions.

Quite a few of them got a bit personal, and decided to ignore the really long intro I wrote in the review where I described in exacting detail my extensive childhood athletic history, and focus instead on the fact that I own a sex toy store and told me I had no right to review the stupid book because of that. And one overzealous mom decided to go to other blogs and link my review and call me a child molester.

Ladies and gentlemen, I bring you the internet at its finest.

I haven't learned a damned thing, you Mars/Venus moms, so suck it. I'm reviewing another gendered book, this time Conn Iggulden and Hal Iggulden's Dangerous Book for Boys, and I'll get this right out of the way: Hal Iggulden is a bit of a nitwit when it comes to the gurlz.

I think we’ve come through the period when we said boys and girls were exactly the same, but they’re not. Boys and girls have different interests, different ways of learning, and there’s no real problem in writing a book that plays to that, and says, let’s celebrate it. Let’s go for a book that will appeal to boys.

Who's the "we" who said boys and girls were exactly the same? Was it Conn and Hal? Because it wasn't me. I think this is another case of someone saying "not really that different" and other people hearing "exactly the same."

Then there seems to be the issue of a number of women saying, "We like that sort of thing, too," and Iggulden sticking his fingers in his ears and saying, "No you don't! No you don't! La la la la la la I'm not listening to you!"

My issue with this is that kids, when they're little, try to live up to adult expectations. If you're coming down heavy handed with the gender divisions of girls-do-this and boys-do-that, kids will think that girls do this, and boys do that. When they're older they may outgrow it, but early lessons are often learned well. I do wonder if the fact that girls don't very often have a mentor who will show them how to make a water bomb or a battery or a paper boat, and the assumption from the get-go is that there's no point in showing girls how to do any of that stuff because they won't like it, causes us to create a bit of our own reality that has nothing to do with "hardwiring" and every bit to do with cultural expectations.

**Tangent - Another personal anecdote in a sea of personal anecdotes: Last year at the birthday party of my older son, Alex, I got engrossed in putting together a race track that he'd received. The track came with instructions that looked like it had been run through Babelfish and back again, so it was slow going. My mother, after watching me mutter for several minutes, began this relentless campaign to get me to stop doing it. Instead of saying, "I didn't come over hear to listen to you swear at a piece of plastic track. Put it together later," she said, over and over, "You should leave this for the men to do. They're naturally better at that sort of thing. Let them do it." And when I started putting the stickers on the pieces to see if that would help direct which piece attached to what, she started laughing and said, "Decorate it with stickers! That's something you can do!"

Internet, I love my mom, but I wanted to kill her. And I put that fucking track together, too. And got buzzed on Heineken while I did it. And then Alex broke it in the first ten minutes of playing with it.**

That being said, I'm equally snippy over the people who keep saying things like this book "allows boys - but not their sisters - to learn how to play marbles...and build tree forts."

I'm pretty sure we girls are allowed to read it. I don't think anybody's going to come along and snatch it out of our delicate, manicured hands. Which is great, because this book kicks so much ass I think everyone should buy it. I seriously cannot say enough good things about the book itself. It really has everything, from the previously mentioned water bomb instructions* to gift wrapping, marbling paper, and poetry (quel butch, no?) to famous battles and true-life tales of derring do. So much is cool in this book that I keep wanting to add to the examples I'm giving. Bugs! Stars! Codes! Invisible Ink! Grammar lessons and Latin (for reals)! Seriously, Latin.

And my four year old has gone completely apeshit for it. The photos I've peppered the review with here are of him learning how to fold paper airplanes and tie a reef knot. (Even though I did get the memo that I'm not supposed to be interested in this kind of stuff, I have to admit I got a real thrill when Steve came home and Christopher ran to show him his airplane and his mad knot-tying skills and said, "My Mommy taught me how to tie these knots!" Hee!)

Parents! Spinster Aunts!: The section on knots kept him quiet and busy for 3 1/2 hours.

It has an old-fashioned, visually appealing cover, which lends well to the straightforwardness of the text. And here I give props to Iggulden: he's gotten the tone exactly right, breezy and gentle, not drowning in self-awareness or cynicism, and, despite what I may have led you to believe with my griping about his weirdo attitudes, it's not remotely macho or posturing. It's just a really, really excellent book that features the very, very best parts of being a boy kid.

*Steve and I got into a gi-normous fight yesterday when assembling our water bombs. Of all the how-tos, the water bomb instructions were by far the weakest. Steve, being a former boy (!) has had experience in this arena, and was trying to help me assemble it, and we had to throw the instructions pretty much out the window, because they suck. His way of helping was to snatch the paper out of my hand and do it himself.

"That does not help me learn," I told him. "What helps me is if you show me while I have my own piece of paper so I can fold while you are folding." And he wouldn't give me back my piece of paper! So I had to get another sheet and give him my old one, and he tried to take that away, too! Then he said that out of 7 billion people on the planet, I am the only one who takes issue with his teaching methods. Internet, tell me this is not true.

Anyway, I wanted to kill him until the absurdity of two 40 year olds fighting over the right way to make a water bomb finally got to me and I cracked up, which caused Steve to prematurely declare victory. Most married couples fight over money. Not us.

Dangerous Book for Boys
by Conn Iggulden and Hal Iggulden
May, 2007 by HarperCollins
Hardcover, 267 pp
ISBN: 978-0-06-124358-5

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Wednesday, May 09, 2007


During the first few years after we bought our house, letters from the water company would regularly appear in our mailbox every six months. "We are pleased to announce that the water is now in the normal range for chromium hexate. Stick your head under the faucet and drink up!"

Somehow, we failed to find the news comforting. Because moving was not an option, we stopped drinking and cooking with the water all together, using it only to bathe and hoping it didn't sink too deeply into our pores. We freaked so hard when our children started putting their bathwater in their mouths that, four years later, when we pass a water tower our kids ask us if "that water is safe to drink." I feel guilty about this, but then I remember Erin Brockovich and get angry all over again. When I was a kid, we played in the woods all day and, when we were thirsty, drank water out of a natural spring trickling out of a crack in a large rock embedded in a hill. When I went back a few years ago, there was a bright yellow sign next to the spring. "Warning! This water is not potable for humans or animals."

In H2O, author Mark Swartz takes this current downward spiral one step further in his noirish novel.

Set in the year 2020, a series of environmental disasters including a seven year drought devastate the planet, leaving the world's resources in the hands of the few. The government quickly privatizes all modern necessities, leaving water purification in the hands of Drixa, a multinational conglomerate that also controls the mail and all utilities. Due to its proximity to Lake Michigan, Chicago fared the best during the drought and the residents of both coasts flee inland, turning Chicago into a monstrous city-state. Amidst permanent gridlock and lethal water, Hayden Shivers, a lowly Drixa engineer who works in the Filters & Drains department is obsessively working on a secret project that began on his honeymoon in Malta, where he discovered a fungus that somehow produces more water than it absorbs. After a series of sporadic results, Shivers is pretty sure he has the ability to create fake water. When Lionel Dawson, CEO of Drixa, gets wind of Shivers' revolutionary new fungus-injected filter, he offers him the job of Chief Engineer of Drixa in exchange for the patent. Shivers' longing for success clashes with the knowledge that total control over all the Earth's water would give the corporation a dangerous amount of power (not to mention his guilty conscience at the disturbing side effects the fungus seems to cause), and he wavers uncertainly at the crossroads of his future.

Swartz skillfully leads the reader through the novel by dropping hints about the broader picture here and there, like jumbled pieces of a kaleidoscope that slowly jells into a pattern. However, it falls frustratingly short of being a fantastic read. The early exposition, delivered by minor characters, made getting involved in the book initially difficult. As difficult as it is to create an entire new world, having the characters catch the reader up to speed by trading facts back and forth isn't the best way to do it. They trade facts about their current world that they obviously both know, making the dialogue irritating and completely flat, like:

Native Chicagoan A: The name Chicago means "smelly onion."

Native Chicagoan B: And of course you know, it was founded on swamp land.

Native Chicagoan A: Yes, and it almost burned down in 1871.

Native Chicagoan B: And now it's the home of the Sears Tower, which for years was the tallest building in the world.

In reality, it would go like this:

A: The name Chicago means "smelly onion."

B: Yeah, I know.

A: And it was founded on swampland!

B: I know.

A: It was almost destroyed in a fire in 1871!

B: Shut up before I kick your fucking ass, you jag-off.

A: "Jag-off" is a colloquialism native to----Gaaaaaaaaaccck!

The characters seem a bit shallow and remote, not fleshing out enough to make the reader care about them. The exception is Miyumi Park, the gorgeous corporate suck-
up whose greatest talent is climbing the Drixa ladder, stepping on whoever's back makes up the next rung.

Despite its flaws, H2O tells an excellent story of an ecological nightmare, a grim future where people realize they've gone too far, and there may be no turning back.

by Mark Swartz
2006 by Soft Skull Press
Paperback, 166 pages
ISBN: 1-933368-19-5

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