Sunday, February 28, 2010

Review: The Body Shop by Paul Solotaroff

I've had a free subscription to Muscle & Fitness magazine for two years - a professional courtesy. It's stuffed with pictures of hugely muscular guys screaming, yelling, their muscles veiny and overwrought. A guy dressed as a spartan is on the cover. It's about as muscle worshiping a magazine as I've ever seen.

Everything in the publication is about how to build muscle and get lean naturally or with the help of supplements (and those ads are pretty scary). But in the back, in the classifieds, are text only ads about what look to be illegal ways of getting that same muscle mass. No matter how much Mark McGuire cries for forgiveness about using steroids, he still stacked millions upon millions of dollars for doing so, and guys still want to get big.

Paul Solotroff's The Body Shop is about the same thing: steroids, but in a far cruder form. He started juicing in 1976 as a college student, using something that was probably mixed up in a guy's basement sink. As a skinny Jewish guy desperate for girls to pay attention, getting big was a way to get them to look.

"The dockworker arms, with their bell-curve lines and vascular, shrink-wrapped skin; the rounded corners where the pectorals met and stood a little taller by the day--I had to keep checking my own reflection, touching and poking, rejoicing," he writes. "Even my face broadened, filled its own hollows, looked hand-carved, confident, ready."

But that's only the beginning. Throw in a dysfunctional father/son relationship AND mother/son relationship, and Solotroff was an easy mark to get hooked, first on steroids, then on drugs as he took his pumped up self back to New York and started stripping for cash with a shady band who kept sending him down the wrong coke-laced road.

Solotroff is a magazine journalist - unlike me, the the hard hitting kind (I lean toward features, something of which I'm not ashamed). Even though the book seems absurd, the writing is brilliant, vibrant. I can see him trapeezing through crime-rank New York, hitting the Jersey Shore to shake it for society women, losing it s the back alley stuff he's been shooting into his ass starts to uncoil him. Even though it's an engaging story, it turns tragic as Solotroff writes about what two years of stupidity did to him, and how it damaged him for life.

I knew a few guys in college who juiced. A roommate dated one of them, and one night after they got into a fight, our door was the victim of his friend's roid rage. I have never seen someone so completely unhinged. If he had managed to kick down the door, I fear what he would have done to her. It's scary.

So is The Body Shop, but it's well worth reading. As long as those shady adds continue to appear in fitness magazines, and kids are still offered the chance to get big fast, it's a must read.

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Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Review: Vanishing Acts by Jodi Picoult

Cue up book two of the weekend mini-break.

I've avoided Jodi Picoult. I know I'm fuzzy on the details but bear with me. It was a while ago, and I only have a faint memory it: She wrote an essay for a writer's magazine - I don't remember which one - that annoyed me. It was right around the time when the chick lit argument burned through the literary world, and I think it had something to do with that. It reminded me of something Jennifer Weiner, who I cannot STAND, would say, so I never read any of Picoult's books.

I ended up with Vanishing Acts because I found a used copy in an antique store for $5. I added it onto my bill, which also included an obnoxious yellow and white cocktail ring.

For $5, it was worth it. Vanishing Acts is a story of disappearance told from a six points of view (I think). She gives each character his or her own voice and writing style. I don't want to give away too much of the plot because, if I'd have read the back of the book before reading, I think it would have spoiled the experience. This is the kind of book I like to approach with a bare mind.

But it's not perfect. Some of the late plot turns are too clunky, and one narrative turn that I think is too easy and even "cute," not as in pretty but as in "ha ha, I'm so clever for doing this!" Still, I sunk myself into the couch after dinner and followed it to the end. I wanted to see what happened.

Will I pick up another Picoult novel? Maybe. I'm not rushing out to buy more of her work. But if I see another book for $5 in an antique store, or need a beach read, or something to go along with a long flight, I consider it worth the investment.

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Monday, February 15, 2010

Review: Water Hazard by Don Dahler


I didn't think I'd like Water Hazard by Don Dahler. It's a mystery novel. It's manly. It's about golf. I dated a pro golfer in high school. Our four years together was enough birdies and eagles and par for me, thank you very much.

But I needed a book to take with me on my weekend trip, and the galley of Water Hazard came right before I left (it'll be published in March). Despite a wobbly start, I got sucked into the story of Huck Doyle, sometimes pro golfer, sometimes private eye, as he runs around Hawaii trying to solve his friend's father's murder while also playing in a pro golf tournament. There's plenty of booze, babes and golf talk. I skimmed through most of the golf stuff, which made the reading easier.

It's an incredibly male novel, but I ended up liking it anyway. It reminded me of all those Clive Cussler novels I read as a teenager. For an airport book it was pretty good. It kept me occupied during the three-hour delay on my flight to Minneapolis, and on my three hour wait on the way home. The latter wasn't because of a delay. Apparently, USAirways stopped letting people fly standby for free if you're trying to get on a flight that's not completely full. Harumph. But this book made the wait more bearable, which is what a good mystery novel should do.

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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Review: How to Make Love like a Porn Star by Jenna Jameson

Don't freak out, people. This isn't an instruction manual. How to Make Love Like a Porn Star is Jenna Jameson's memoir about, well, how she became a porn star.

I've read parts of this book since it was published in 2004. I read a few chapters at the Barnes & Noble in Philadelphia while waiting to meet a friend; another few chapters from another friend's copy that he kept on his coffee table. But I never wanted to pony up to buy the hardback copy.

I needed a book to take with me on what I hope will be my flight tomorrow, and bought the paperback edition at Borders. But given that we got socked with another huge storm in New Jersey, I was stuck instead and read all 577 pages in two days.

It's not the best memoir ever, but it's pretty interesting. She doesn't try to hide that she had a ghost writer either. Neil Strauss, who's been on the blog before, worked with her on the book. I lost my way a bit in the middle when the book shifted from narrative to transcripts of Jenna talking with her family, and old diary entries. It seemed unnecessary. And the book's dated. It ends with a wedding. She's already divorced.

I've spent most of the week worrying about my flight leaving tomorrow. But compared to some of the stuff she's been through? A delay is nothing.

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Monday, February 8, 2010

Review: The Edge of Ruin by Irene Fleming

I cracked open The Edge of Ruinon Friday night, just as a light snow started to fall. By Saturday, when I was in the thick of the mystery, almost 30 inches of the white stuff had piled up outside. Sunday morning, I raced to the end of the book before setting out on a 10 mile snow run.

I therefore dub The Edge of Ruin by Irene Fleming (who also writes under the name Kate Gallison) my blizzard book (it will work as a beach book, too - it's not published until April 27).

I'm not a big mystery fan, but this story about a murder on an independent movie set - a 1909 independent movie set - was perfect for being stuck inside.

It's largely based on fact, too. In 1909, Thomas Edison (yes, THAT Thomas Edison) held a monopoly on the movie industry. He employed "Trust detectives" to bust up any independent companies. Sometimes they'd walk up to the camera and break it.

Yet - in this novel at least - Adam Weiss decided to defy Edison and create four movies anyway. But the book's not really about him. It's about his wife, Emily, who doesn't agree with the plan but goes along with it since Adam sells all their belongings to get the film company off the ground. When he's accused of a murder on the set, Emily takes over and tries to get the four movies made by deadline while also freeing her husband from jail, and avoiding being killed herself.

It had just the right touches of historical flare to make this a period mystery, but it didn't go over the top with the details. It had enough characters who COULD have committed the murder to keep me guessing, too. Fun read for a long, frozen weekend.

We're scheduled to get another foot tomorrow, and I'm flying out again on Thursday. I have nothing to read. That's right - NOTHING. This thought is paralyzing. But I hope whatever I find is as fun as The Edge of Ruin.

For more in my blizzard book, here's a trailer:

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Thursday, February 4, 2010

Review: One Fifth Avenue by Candace Bushnell

Alrighty! Last book from vacation!

I found this one at the airport bookstore. Even though I've enjoyed two of Candace Bushnell's novels, I never bought one, nor have I followed her career.

I read Lipstick Jungle and Trading Up while visiting my grandparents because those books were available for free in their retirement home community.

But I had a Borders gift certificate, and I do love wandering around airport bookstores. They try to stock whatever is popular for different groups of travelers in a small space. One Fifth Avenue, this time, appealed to me.

Like Lipstick Jungle, it wasn't terribly serious and perfect for beachside reading. It's about the residents of one building in New York City, the politics of that building, and a snapshot what real estate means to some people in New York. It is a world beyond me, but it was interesting to read about it (geez, hedge fund managers), especially as it takes place right before the housing bust.

My favorite part of the book was Bushnell's skewering of people who want to be famous for nothing. The character is Lola Fabrikant, who skates through life on her parents money (which paid for, among other things, breast implants and a nose job by 18) and expects her parents to fund her New York City dream. She feels so entitled to what she wants whenever she wants it, and uses her vagina to get it when her parents money can't quite make it happen. She reminds me of every reality bimbo on TV right now, especially the one I call the troll (no, I won't explain here. She makes me too angry).

Best part? When she realizes that her parents having money in Atlanta means squat in New York. Oh, little fish. That big pond'll eat you up.

The book isn't going to tax your brain, but isn't that the point of fun reading?

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Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Review: Hot Damn! by James W. Hall

When I tell people I went to college in Florida, I'm just as surprised as they are - still, nearly eight years after graduating. "You're SO Northeast," is the usual reply, or something along the lines of how I seem Ivy league, preppy or some other such silliness that really means: Why would someone who went to and performed well at an upper class public high school (my parents paid for tuition for me to go there) head south to a small private college with virtually no reputation north of the Carolinas? The answer is simple: Money.

I wanted to go to Boston University with all the passion and fervor my 17 year old body could muster. I got in, too. But BU is expensive. My parents were divorcing, so money was tight, and BU didn't offer any financial help.

The University of Tampa did. They were in the middle of a huge recruiting drive and kept throwing money at me. "It's not a matter of whether you get in," an admissions counselor told me when I made my on campus visit. "It's a matter of how much money we give you." The eventual answer was almost the full amount. By the time I became editor of the student newspaper, I was covered since my pay for that job was a stipend applied toward my tuition - and the first steps toward what would become my eventual career.

But I didn't stick around after graduation. I barely stuck around during my four undergraduate years - I left every summer and, one semester, for England. I didn't think the UT was terribly challenging, so I tacked on experiences that made it so (internship in a Washington, DC newsroom, semester studying Shakespeare at Oxford, editing the student newspaper).

Another reason I fled? I don't like Florida.

Sure, it's a great place to visit, especially when it's 20 degrees and snowing in New Jersey. While my family and friends dealt with snow and ice last weekend, I was lying by a pool in my bikini reading James W. Hall's Hot Damn!: Alligators in the Casino, Nude Women in the Grass, How Seashells Changed the Course of History, and Other Dispatches from Paradise. It's a love letter to the state written by Hall, a mystery writer and Kansas native. He writes about those things that kept me from staying in Tampa after graduate: The heat and humidity that gloms to your skin nine months a year, the recurring fear of hurricanes, the vagabond culture (no one is really from Florida). His recount about Florida summers shot me back to the Ford sedan I rented in 2003 to drive from Tampa to Gainesville for a job interview near the University of Florida. The front of the white car was nearly black at the end of the trip with all the bugs I killed. I thought I saw an alligator on my way over.

Even though I was offered the job, I turned it down. It might get hot here in the summer, but it's a different hot, no matter if the temperatures in New Jersey and Florida sometimes come out the same. Florida heat will suck you down into a deep abyss. New Jersey heat passes you over.

Hall didn't leave - obviously. He moved his life to Florida and bristles that he can never put a Florida native bumper sticker on his car. Even if we feel different about the state, I enjoyed his essays. It was perfect reading to go along with my explorations of Florida's west coast. While, yes, I did spend a lot of time by the pool, I also visited those sites I couldn't get to in college because I didn't have a car - the Salvador Dali Museum, Fort DeSoto, the Ringling Estate. And for a moment, while wandering the grounds of the gulf-side estate in the soft humid pre-storm winter Florida air, I thought "maybe I could do this." Then I remembered what it was like to run in that humidity, and that it was already sticky in January, and called my mom back home.

I picked up Hot Damn! from Inkwood Books, a fantastic independent bookstore in Tampa. I wanted some sort of Florida reading to go along with my St. Pete Beach vacation, and what better to read than stories about the strange place that is Florida? I might not embrace the state like Hall does, and I may cross my heart and pledge loyalty to the northeast, but I can still appreciate the odd corners of the vagabond state, and writers who show their love for it in a fun, zippy book of touching essays. And how could I not love a book with the opening line of "Essays are about as sexy as donkeys?"

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Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Review: The One That I Want by Allison Winn Scotch

I got a galley of Allison Winn Scotch's upcoming book The One That I Want the DAY before I left on vacation. I've enjoyed Allison's first two books, The Department of Lost and Found and Time of My Life. I've also followed along as she transitioned from freelance writer to novelist (she still freelances but not that the level she used to), so I feel a separate sort of joy in reading her work.

The One That I Want is about Tilly Farmer, a 32-year old high school guidance counselor who works at the same school where she was once a student. She married her high school sweetheart, settled in that same town, and expected her life to spool out from there.

But everything's not OK in Tilly's world. First, her mother died of cancer when Tilly was in high school, which tore apart her family. It kicked off her father's drinking problem. Her younger sister became one of those stick thin aspiring musicians who ran off to Los Angeles at the first chance and comes storming back into town to raise everyone's hackles. Tilly and her husband have fallen into a well worn groove, and while Tilly thinks everything's perfect, it's not.

This unease is amplified when a chance meeting with a forgotten middle school friend enables Tilly with a curse/gift. She can flash forward to see what happens to people in her life, which sets the novel in motion.

It's a good book. I read the first 150 pages on the plane. It's better than Allison's first novel, but I liked Time of My Life better - it was my top fiction choice of 2009. I don't have a lot in common with Tilly Farmer. While I wasn't itching to get out of dodge after college, I didn't want to continue the life I had before. I "got" Jillian Westfield, protagonist of Time of My Life, more. Jillian is allowed to see what would have happened to her life if she'd stayed with the bad boy instead of settling down with someone else. When I read it, I was wondering the same thing about the former badboy (read: asshole) from my past. I thought about that book for weeks after it was over. This one? Not so much.

But that doesn't mean it's not a good book. I know plenty of women like Tilly Farmer who will have the same experience I did when reading about Jillian Westfield. And for a beach book, it's perfect - a quick yet thoughtful read. It comes out at the perfect time, too - June 1.

So have you ever had the same experience? Where you like one author's works better than others based on whether you can identify with the main character?

P.S. Forgot to add the pic of where I read the rest of the book. Ah, vacation...so soon a memory.

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Monday, February 1, 2010

Vacation Reading

I read three books while on vacation - well, 3.5 if you count the one I started on the flight home. I usually post in "real time" i.e. as soon as I've finished reading the book, but I'm not going to rush to post everything at once. Stay tuned!

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