Monday, September 28, 2009

Library Run, and Reading Notes

I beat the director! I really did!

On Saturday, I ran in the Collingswood "Beat the Director" 5k, which I wrote about here. If you beat the library director, you got $10 of your registration fee back.

I wasn't sure how I was going to do. I've felt sluggish since shoulder surgery, and even though my miles are up, my speed is not. Still, I pulled out a 22:24 time and beat the director by 10 whole seconds. I finished 11th overall, and 4th among the women. I even placed in my age bracket! I did not, however, ask for $10 back. It's for charity, after all.

Here's a picture of the start. I'm in the middle in yellow:

This is a picture with fellow Collingswood writer, Matt Quick:

Matt is author of The Silver Linings Playbook. It fell between my "book a week" series, so I never wrote about it on the blog, but it's a fantastic novel that he wrote in accordance with the 2006 Philadelphia Eagles football season. It's not just a football novel, though -- the main character, Pat Peoples, is trying to get his life back together, and does so by moving into his parents basement. It's got a dash of a love story in it, too, and -- best of all -- it takes place in Collingswood. Matt shared some details about the film adaptation (the Weinstein brothers bought the rights), and if it holds's going to be a big movie.

I've run into Matt at a lot of events, and also while running around Knight's Park. I didn't choose to read his book because it takes place in Collingswood. His publicist sent it to me without knowing that I lived here. I also didn't know when I read it that I went to high school with Matt's brother.

Just one more example of what a small, constantly overlapping world South Jersey is. I'm sure it's like this in other areas of the country...or maybe not.

I haven't posted about a new book because I haven't read any that I've enjoyed. I read the first 12 pages of Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals(Pub date Nov. 2) before tossing it into the donate pile. I liked his novels, but this...not so much. When I got the galley, I wondered why he was suddenly jumping into the non-fiction, food writing world. After 12 pages, I still wondered.

Usually, I'd soldier through, but I'm not reviewing the book for anyone, and I had a foot high stack of magazines to work through. I'm almost done with them now (oh, Atlantic, you are blocking me from that goal), and I also ordered another book through that arrived today. It's a compilation of essays, which I haven't read in a while. I have a few meetings tomorrow and am going to take it with me to read in-between sessions, and essays should work for that purpose.

My last meeting tomorrow is at Rutgers University -- I'm talking about what English majors can do with their degrees. Should be an interesting discussion...

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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Review: Cleaving by Julie Powell

I didn't want it to end up this way. But, unfortunately, it's true: Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession, Julie Powell's follow up to the best selling, immensely fun and delightful Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously, is not a very good book. It's dull. It's trite. And it reads more like an unbalanced woman's rambling than something being marketed as the Hot Holiday Memoir.

I started my first Book a Week series with Julie & Julia. It's a charming book where Powell sets out to cook every single recipe in Julia Child's Mastering The Art of French Cooking. It started as a blog, and once the blog caught media fire, became a book, then a movie starring Meryl Streep and directed by one of my heros, Nora Ephron.

That book isn't just about the cooking challenge, but also about being a 20-something stuck in the middle, and she can't get out of it. She married young, which is part of the story. The other is not knowing what she wants to do in life. Together, those conflicts and a fun true life story formed a very funny blog and charming book. It inspired me to start this blog, even if I'm not keeping to the strict "book a week" format anymore. I found great inspiration in what she did, and it helped me take on a project to work through a breakup. It wasn't a salve for everything, but it helped.

Cleaving is what happens after the fame and success, and it ain't pretty. Powell apprentices for six months as a butcher's shop in New York state after having a two year affair with someone she met in college. He's a sinister creature, even if she tries not to describe him as so. He's abrasive, distant, and plays her like a fiddle while her husband, a seemingly sweet guy, clings. The husband dates but still dotes on Powell, even as she makes little attempt to hide or end her affair.

Her actions are not what I'm judging here. It's hard to see her as sympathetic, but I've been caught in a relationship I can't shake, and I've read and appreciated books about far worse.

The reason I don't like the book is because the retelling of the whole sordid thing is dull. She whines -- a lot. Powell becomes that best friend who is dating the absolute wrong guy, knows it, still does it, and won't shut up about it.

In this case, though, that friend wrote a book about it. It's not something you want to listen to over the phone, and it doesn't make for good reading.

What this book would have looked like if she wrote it from years from now? The narrative ends in February 2008. That's hardly enough time to process the ordeal, especially since, even in the acknowledgments, it's unresolved. Have you ever tried to write about a break up right after it happened? It's impossible to do without sounding like a mopey teenager. In Cleaving, Powell has zero perspective. So when she tells the story, it reads like a diary recounting facts. The same kind of food writing is there, and some of the butchering information is fascinating, but it's not nearly enough to prop up the book.

Friends have told me than an exeprt from Cleaving appeared in movie-branded version of Julie & Julia, and that's where I think some of the problem lies. With all the attention heaped on the first book and the movie, I'm guessing Powell was under pressure to pop out another book. I read that the release has already been delayed once. The original timeline probably had the book publishing right when the movie hit, but now it's coming out in December.

One lesson to take away from the book, and it's more of a life one: marriage is not always the answer. Just getting married will not make people whole. It will not slice away all of their problems, their issues, and create a perfect being. It's not a balm. Money and professional success aren't either. This book shows that. Clearly.

I know a lot of people are going to buy this book anyway. The media storm means there's a lot of interest in Powell, and I got my preview copy of Cleaving in September when it's publishing in December. But if you're looking for a good book on a break up that involves food, try Nora Ephron's Heartburn, which is a fictionalized version of her break up with Carl Bernstein. It's a caustic novel, but intelligent, funny, and includes the same kind of wonderful food writing that Powell is known for. But the difference is that Ephron makes us care about the characters. By shading the truth in fiction, she can say how she really feels. Powell is far from clear. She's muddy in writing about herself, her husband, and her lover. A book about such an intense topic needs to be sharp. The wishy washy business? It's a disappointment.

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Thursday, September 10, 2009

Review: The Big Steal by Emyl Jenkins

I'm not much of a mystery fan, which is why Emyl Jenkins' The Big Steal had been in my "to donate" pile. But I had nothing to read -- and I mean NOTHING. None of the books on my "to check out" shelf looked appealing. Most are non-fiction, and for Labor Day weekend, I didn't want to read about parenting skills, social networking or the power of no.

So I pulled this book out of the donation pile, plunked my butt in a lawn chair, and read away on Saturday.

For that purpose, it was a good choice. It's part of a series called the Sterling Glass mysteries. Sterling Glass isn't a pretty item; rather, she's a middle aged antiques appraiser who happens to get caught up in a mystery with every job she takes. In The Big Steal, she's been hired to assess the value of antiques broken and/or stolen from the estate of Hoyt and Mazie Wyndfield, who built a huge palace filled with stuff in Orange County, Virginia.

But Glass doesn't just waltz in, give a value, and go home. What kind of book would that be?

This isn't high art here, but a light, fluffy mystery that reminded me a lot of the board game Clue. There's no real violence, not graphic sex, and no cursing. It's just a story to keep you company. Every chapter starts with an antique's question too (Jenkins is an antique's appraiser), which gives the book an Antique's Roadshow type feel. And I love Antique's Roadshow. Ask my mom. We've conference called during some episodes.

Next up is a book that a lot of people are waiting for:

I'll report back!

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