Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Book 6 of 52: The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Sean Greer

On this blog, I try to review books the day that I finish them. Here, I want to record that gut reaction. It's what I think makes this blog different than, say, a review of a book that I'll write for American Way magazine, or do an interview with the author.

But I waited 24 hours before even thinking to write about Andrew Sean Greer's The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells. I wanted to give myself some time to digest it. I even dreamt about it last night.

The book opens with Greta Wells in New York City in 1985. Her brother, Felix, has recently died of AIDS. His partner is dying, too. Her boyfriend of 10 years had an affair with another woman, then left. She is in such a steep depression with nothing else working that her doctor recommends electroconvulsive therapy - what used to be called electroshock therapy.

After she has her first treatment, she goes to bed and wakes up in her room in her apartment in New York City, but something is very different: the wallpaper, the furniture, herself. She has long red hair. She's wearing a long yellow nightgown.

She's woken up, as herself, in 1918, before the end of World War I and in the middle of the flu epidemic. This Greta, too, is undergoing the same kind of therapy. When she's shocked again, she wakes up in 1941, right before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The people in her life, for the most part, are there in those other worlds including her brother, who is alive.

"What difference could it make the era in which we are born?"

And that's the heart of this story: how much can you change? Knowing more about the people around you, could you change them, too? Her brother is alive in 1918 and 1941, but not living openly as a gay man. Can she help him? Can she fix things with her former lover, to whom she is married in these earlier times? Did she want to? Was he even the same man? Was she the same woman?

When I read the description of the book, I worried that this would be a book about wanting to living in another era, about a woman who felt she was born in the wrong time period. Fortunately, it is not that. After a few shifts in time, I forgot that this shifting back and forth in time with the same cast of characters is really an impossible thing. Instead, I wanted to know what's going on in the next Greta's life. Each one was rife with conflict, heartbreak, and extremely difficult decisions.

It's easy to forget, too, that the book is written by man. I saw a lot of myself in Greta (woman of a certain age, recent break up, wondering what am I going to do now?) Obviously, women's rights were not the same in each of the areas to which Greta leaps, but not so terribly different:

"Why is it impossible to be a woman? Men will never understand, men who are always themselves, day after day, shouting opinions and drinking freely and flirting and whoring and weeping and being forgive for it all. When has a woman ever been forgiven? Can you even imagine it? For I have seen the plane of being, and nowhere upon it is the woman tracing her life as she always dreamed of it. Always there are the boundaries, the rules, the questions -- wouldn't you prefer to be back home, little lady? -- that break the spell of living."

I'd quote more, but I'd be giving part of the plot away. There are too many passages in the book to share, but I want you guys to discover them for yourselves. You'll have to wait, though - it won't be on sale until June. But put it in your calendar. Do it now. It's well worth the wait.

On a side note, I was in Manhattan on Monday. The book includes a map that marks the location of Wells' apartment - part of a little alley called Patchin Place, near the campus of NYU. I thought maybe it was made up.

I wonder what Greta of 2013 would be like.

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Saturday, January 26, 2013

Book 5 of 52: The Lady Most Willing by Julia Quinn, Eloisa James and Connie Brockway

I've never been shy about my penchant for romance novels. I've covered it many times on this blog before. After interviewing Eloisa James for two different articles, I got into her books, which surprised me since historical weren't really my thing.

It took me a few years, but I finally worked through her entire catalogue. In December, she released The Lady Most Willingalong with Julia Quinn and Connie Brockway. As the title says, it's a "novel in three parts," and each writer took over the duties of writing a third of the book.

In the novel, Taran Ferguson, a Scottish laird, decides that his nephews have taken far too long to get married, so he kidnaps a few women from a local ball, tosses them into a carriage, and drives them up to his castle with the intention of trapping everyone inside during a snow storm and hoping the nephews would each pick a wife from the bunch.

This being a romance, of course that happens. Each author took one couple, and by the end of the book, there's a group wedding and, we assume, everyone lives happily ever after.

My problem with The Lady Most Willing is that it requires EXTREME suspension of disbelief. All of these couples fall in love within days - in one case, in one day. In James' other books, the soon to be happy couple has some time to meet, have a conflict, and then get married. Here, those timelines are compressed into a matter of days. It seems a bit ridiculous to me, even within the context of a romance.

Example: "She, Fiona, was finally not alone any longer. Even though they'd known each other for no time at all, she knew it with a certainty that flooded her whole body."

Eye roll.

Of course, the fault may be in more of the timing than the book. Given I just went through a break up with someone who I felt this way about at one time, I'm not able to believe these rush of feelings on behalf of these characters. Because sometimes you can feel like this, and it all goes to shit.


If not for this Book a Week series, I'd have bought this as an ebook and read the three sections when I was between books, but I buy physical copies of books for this project so I can line them up on a shelf.

Another note about reading these historical novels: it's made understanding the society rules unravelling in Downton Abby much easier to understand. I knew all about entailments, lords and ladies, and marriage matching within classes before I watched the show. So thanks, romance writers.

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Saturday, January 19, 2013

Book 4 of 52: The Introvert's Way by Sophia Dembling

I first heard Susan Cain's "The Power of Introverts" TED Talk while driving to Emmaus, Pa., for a meeting with my editors at Runner's World magazine. I had geared myself up for what I considered an "appearance" - not just in putting on pants that did not have an elastic or tie waist band, but in having worlk discussions with people face to face, not over email.

I always enjoy these meetings, which usually involve running and lunch (so, yes, there is an elastic waist band involved though I do not show up in running clothes), but I always feel drained at the end, and I knew that I would expel a lot of energy in the next few hours.

The shortest route to the offices is a complex one, and I still rely my GPS to get there. I was so enthralled in Cain's talk that I had to pull over. Someone, finally, had put words to why I prefer working at home, think the idea of co-working is insane, and why sometimes I just need to stay home on a Saturday night and read instead of going to whatever event I've been invited to, even if it's with people I really like.

I'm an introvert, and so is Sophia Dembling, who blogs about being so for Psychology Today. In The Introvert's Way: Living a Quiet Life in a Noisy World, she delves into what it means to be someone who is inward and quiet but not shy or awkward, and why being this way isn't such a bad way to be.

One of the things people say when I tell them that I'm introvert is that I'm wrong. But you're so outgoing! You can go to a conference and talk to people all day! You don't fear public speaking!

This is true, but I can only do these things in pockets of time, with breaks in between. As Dembling writes, "I am introverted and not shy. This means when I want to step out from my own head, I can do so without much trouble. But I don't always want to. For example, my job often requires traveling and touring different areas with groups of people. Some days, I am right in the middle of things, chattering and joking and bringing my happy noise to the proceedings. Other days, I'm just not interested, so I hang back, let others have the spotlight, and enjoy my own company."

This happens to me, too. Sometimes I'll go out to dinner with a group and just listen. I couldn't identify why before. Now, this book has helped me see why.

Dembling calls acting like an extrovert the "dog and pony show." I know this because I do this all the time. I must for work. Sometimes I enjoy it. I love going to a big writer conference in New York and talking to editors all day. But I only go for one day instead of three, and I never go to the large group dinner after because after eight hours of it, I'm wiped out and want nothing more to be in my bed with my dog and a good book. Or if I stay later, I'll have dinner and drinks with one or two people where I can really be connected with them instead of watching a cloud of noise around me.

I realize now that I've always been this way. As a teenager I'd mow the lawn because I enjoyed the alone time walking in circles with little effort because it gave me space from my family of six people (I believe this why I enjoy running now - it gives me that same sort of space from people and technology). In college, I would get up extra early and go work in my newspaper office before the noise of the campus woke up because I needed that peace. When I worked in offices, cubicle life terrified me, and now, as a self employed writer, I write from home. No coffee houses or co-working space. The idea gives me the creeps. I want to be in my space doing my thing. It's how I work best.

I also take Dembling's warnings about getting too comfortable being alone and using introversion as an excuse to not go out. My boyfriend and I broke up two weeks ago, and since then, I've been living with my mother while I wait for my tenants to move out of my house so I can move back in. In those two weeks, I've set up an office on my mother's dining room table, seen a good friend in Washington, DC, and spent a few days with my father. Today, I met with a contractor and my tenants and talked talked talked for hours. My urge has been to hibernate, but I let these well meaning people push me out and into the world, and some of these meetings are necessary so I can go back home.

Now, though, I'm exhausted, which is why on a Saturday night when people whose company I enjoy are out at a bar local to my mother's house, I stayed in. Mom's out of town, so I had my quiet. I did my nails, finished reading this book, made myself dinner and watched some TV. I'll watch more after I'm finished with this review. I could have made myself go out, but I knew I needed this time to be me - really me. I just can't get too introverted when I am really back to my home and living alone again, which was very easy for me to do before.

My quibble with The Introvert's Way is that it's too long. There are many chapters about parties and crowd aversion that could have been consolidated into one. As I kept reading, the quips grew fewer and far between, and my attention started to fade. This might have worked better as a shorter work, though it's already a short one. I read it in three days.

It's still worth a look if you're an introvert, or know someone who is - especially if this is a person who is important in your life, like a partner or spouse. Introversion is hard to explain to an extrovert. This book does a good job with that task.

I ended up pitching an idea to Runner's World based on that TED talk about how different people run. I'll post the link when it's live.

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Thursday, January 17, 2013

Book 3 of 52: Wildwood by Colin Meloy

When I found Wildwood by Colin Meloy staring at me from a shelf at Kramer Books in Washington, DC, I had two thoughts:

1. This has nothing to do with the Wildwood I write about.
2. The Decemberists guy?

Despite my aversion to Colin Meloy's band - and especially his voice - I gave it a shot anyway. I read Strathmere's Bride, another book that had nothing to do with a Jersey Shore town I cover. I should probably also read the best selling one about a different town.

Wildwood is about Prue McKeel a Portland kid (of course) whose baby brother Mac is stolen by a murder of crows. They take him into the Impassible Wilderness, where people shouldn't be able to go. But Prue can't let birds take her brother away, especially when she was watching him at the time of the kidnapping, so rides her bike with a Radio Flyer wagon still attached into the woods, followed by a classmate, Curtis, who tags along despite her telling him to stay home.

It has all the elements of recent popular YA serials: an epic adventure, an alternative world the protagonist didn't know existed, fantastical characters. Animals here talk, and coyotes are soldiers. Some birds will give you a ride. Like Harry Potter, the book seems to come to a conclusion at the end of the book, but the door is left open to future adventures - Under Wildwood, the second book in the Wildwood Chronicles, was published in September. It's all a bit twee, too: Portland, pea coats, granola bars, gorp. But given Maloy's history, it could have been a lot worse (though he did, technically, put a bird on it).

I feel the same way about this as I did the Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events: interesting, but I'm not rushing out to by the next book as I did with Harry Potter. I first read The Bad Beginning, the first Lemony Snicket book, while waiting to pick up my copy of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. The line was so long that I left and ended up buying a copy in a 24-hour Pathmark grocery store. Wildwood is good, but I won't wait to pick up the next book in the series at midnight.

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Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Book 2 of 52: Truth in Advertising by John Kenny

Truth in Advertising by John Kenney is about Finn Dolan, a copywriter for a big New York City ad agency. He fell into his job and stayed there for eight years. He's obviously in love with a younger woman at the firm. His respect for his industry is just about nill, right at the time when he's expected to put together a Superbowl ad for a diaper client in just a few weeks while his father is dying in a Mass. hospital.

The book starts out as a send up of advertising:

"Give me your tired, your poor, your great teeming masses of middle-managers who are unable to move the process forward or make a decision! These Carlos and Maries and Trents and Tracys and Carls! Give me your resentful and angry, your worried and deeply frightened, your petrified of the next round of layoffs and of those insufferable human resources women with their easy detachment and heartless smiles. You're eligible for Cobra and the family plan is just $1800 a month. The afterlife for HR people is a Clockwork Orange-like reel of everyone they've ever fired, playing over and over again."

FUN! Let's see how stupid this industry is! Kenny has a way with words, but after a few chapters, this "lol look at these idiots" wordplay grew stale. I knew that if the whole book went that way, I'd have a problem finishing it.

Suddenly, though, when Finn gets to the point of sharing that he was almost married but called it off, Truth in Advertising takes a turn into a serious novel with comedic elements. He writes about a gravy boat. He and his fiancé said they weren't going to do the whole every-party-for-everything marriage thing, yet - of course - that changes, including registering for things they will never use, like a gravy boat. You find out more about Finn's relationships with women with a discussion about a gravy boat than you do in his thoughts on his actual fiancé, foreshadowing to the fact that there is a root cause for his issues.

That's when the book becomes one about death, heartbreak and family that, at some points, rang so true that I had to put the book down.

The book could have been predictable - all knots could have been unwound at the conclusion, like a good Shakespeare comedy. But they don't, and I'm glad. Life isn't pretty like in an advertisement - this book shouldn't be either.

It's a good read. I'm glad I either picked this one up at Book Expo America, or a publicist thought to send me this galley (the book comes out on Jan. 22).

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Thursday, January 3, 2013

Book 1 of 52: Clear Cut: One Woman's Journey of Life in the Body by Ginny Jordan

I had a hell of a medical year in 2012. I spent many hours in doctor's offices and labs, having one test, another, a repeat of the same. I had nine vials of blood taken from me at one time and, when that wasn't enough, another three. I've had to face the possibility of very bad news too many times to count. Fortunately, it seems that I can put the worst of those fears aside. Maybe. More tests must be done.

So I came to Ginny Jordan's Clear Cut: One Woman's Journey of Life in the Body
 I already feeling like my body had betrayed me. Hers has too. Jordan has undergone two mastectomies - 17 years apart - surgery for Meniere's Disease, and had her ovaries removed. I felt ashamed of myself for self-pity on my year of horrible testing compared to what she's lived through. Despite the aching pain throughout, it's a beautiful memoir. I don't usually go for these types of books, but she choose her words very carefully, poetically, and the lyricism in her prose is enchanting instead of overwrought, even about such difficult topics.

In a passage about time leading up to having her ovaries removed, she writes: "In a few weeks, my ovaries will be tossed up on the beach, like bleached nautilus shells. I fantasize that some little girl with a ponytail and a tiny bikini will collect them in her turquoise beach bucket. She will take them home along with the other shells and place them on her bedside table and store them together, inseparable. I hope she keeps them her entire life and tells her daughter the story of how she found them on vacation with her parents, how the shells glowed in the dark--like moonlight, like little lamp oracles--and contained a miracle.

"I came home renewed. The ocean moves inside of me, washing up and down my legs. The full moon rises in my belly, and my uterus is lined with shiny wet sand."

I had to put the book down and take a deep breath after reading that one. It's so sad, yet so beautiful - this passage and the book.

I've had a copy of Clear Cut: One Woman's Journey of Life in the Body since the summer, and couldn't bring myself to read it. I think I needed to get through the worst of the questions first. The timing, a year later, was just right.

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Wednesday, January 2, 2013

For the New Year: Romance novel workout

I'm well into my first book of the series and should have a review soon. Until then, the ever wonderful and witty Sarah Wendell over at Smart Bitches Trashy Books has put something together for those of you who are adding fitness to your New Year's Resolutions: the Romance Novel Reader Workout.

She posted Part I today, and it is very clever: you do strength training exercises, like planks and squats and push ups, every time something happens in the chapter. For example, whenever "A tingle or spark goes up the arm of one or both characters if they touch," do 10 jumping jacks (and I would like to point out that I accidentally typed "humping jacks" first there. So you know where my mind went while reading her post). At the end of the chapter, you re-do whatever exercises you did while reading.

I'll also add that reading a romance novel while on the elliptical or stationary bike is a great way to stay on the machine longer, though I don't recommend doing that while running. It's too jarring, at least for me.

Sarah's first book was part of the second series of "Book a Week with Jen." Since then, I've interviewed her more times than I can count, and usually see her once or twice a year. She's a fun lady who has done a lot for a much maligned industry. And now, she's helping you work out, too. Five gold stars for you today, lady.

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