Monday, February 25, 2013

Book 10 of 52: The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonathan Evison

After the downward slide that was Book 9 of 52, I wanted something that would lighten my reading mood, especially since I'd be taking that book on vacation.

Despite looking like a fun road trip type book, The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving: A Novelby Jonathan Evisonwas another downer, though in a well-written, touching way.

The book is about Benjamin Benjamin (yes, really), who has just about hit rock bottom. It's not too much of a spoiler to give away that his two children died in an accident - that's revealed early in the book, but how they died is told through flashbacks with that final, horrible scene coming toward the end of the book.

After the accident, his wife leaves him. The novel starts years later when he is living in a crappy apartment and starts working as a caregiver, helping Trev, a 19-year-old with muscular distrophy for $9 an hour (he had been the one to stay at home with the kids, so his resume is light). His wife wants him to sign the divorce papers. He's deep in debt. He can't let go.

Guilt and regret are big themes of this book - not just with Benjamin but with Bob, Trev's father, who bolted when Trev was young. Ben and Trev do go on a road trip (and no, I won't tell you why) where they come across a band of characters also dealing with regret, or the fallout of someone's very bad decisions. It's a heavy book, filled with messy people, and Ben's desperation about everything winds through. But it's not a bad book. It's sad, but beautifully so.

The book is based on events in Evison's life - not exactly, but things that did happen, namely his sister dying in a freak accident while on a road trip, and his parents' subsequent divorce. My own stabs at fiction based on things that happened in my life have been painful enough. I can't imagine working through and around something like this. It adds more weight to the book. Reading about that in Writer's Digest is what finally prompted me to finally open the novel

I read Evison's first book, West of Here, when it was published in 2011. I've had the galley copy of The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving since May of last year and kept shoving it to the bottom of the to-read pile. West of Here was a sprawling, time-jumping epic, and I have to be in the mood for that kind of involved read. The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving wasn't what I'd call anything like a light read, but I didn't need to keep track of multiple time periods to follow along. It's a very different book, and I'm looking forward to see what he has next.

I'm writing this to you from St. Pete Beach, Fl. I try to come down every year in January or February for some sun and R&R. This year's different with the breakup. I'm trying to clear my head here then I'm off to two schools to speak about journalism and then to the other coast to visit my grandparents, but I have to admit that I'm feeling a bit lonely. I've never stayed at this resort before, and it seems everyone on the beach is in a couple or part of a family. The more I think about what's happened lately, the sadder I become (there's also been this march of the ex boyfriends playing in my head, not helped by a party I was at Saturday night when someone started reciting them, as if it's 100% my fault that I tried and tried and tried again and it still hasn't worked out; reminders of my age aren't helping anything either. In my worse moments, I imagine what other people think about me when they realize I'm 32 and single, that something is wrong with me since I'm not settled down). This book didn't help with its big theme of regrets and what could have been, but that's not Evison's fault. Wrong book at the wrong time, but one I'm glad I read.

Also, that's not a plea for compliments. I realize I've been holding back on this blog (maybe because I know more people are reading it?) so I'm trying to be more open with how these books hit me.

I finished this book on the beach today and started a new one right after - another book that I've wanted to read but have been shoving aside for a while. Stay tuned.

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Friday, February 22, 2013

Book 9 of 52: The Lost Weekend by Charles Jackson

I ordered The Lost Weekendby Charles Jackson after Vanity Fair published a feature on Jackson in March, and how his life changed after the novel was optioned into a movie in 1945 (it won best picture Oscar in 1946).

The Vanity Fair piece isn't online. It's they're typical "look at this old crazy thing that happened in Hollywood" type piece (which isn't a bad thing), but here's what you need to know for this review: the novel is largely biographical and like the main character Don, Jackson was an aspiring writer and alcoholic. The book chronicles five days of Don's binge drinking. It's not an easy read, not only because of the absolute sadness and terror of Don's inner thoughts while working through a five day drinking binge, but because there is very little action or even dialogue with other people.

Most of the book is a running internal monologue of Don rationalizing his need to drink, rationalizing borrowing money he can't return to get a drink, then dropping into deep despair, all while sliding through flash backs that gradually give the reader an idea of how he became a drinker in the first place, and how his drinking has affected those around him.

It's a familiar to anyone who's been involved with an addict. I had an on and off relationship with an alcoholic in my 20s (the end of that relationship prompted the first Book a Weekproject). So while I'm glad I chose to read this book, I had a difficult time with it. Like Don, he made a lot of bargains with himself: "I'm fine if I stick to weekends" turned to "I'm fine if it's on weekdays too if it doesn't affect work" turned to "I'm fine if I miss on appointment a month." Like Don, too, he was energized when he was drinking, made plans he knew he'd never keep, said things to me that he never meant. Don would propose to Helen, his ex-girlfriend, whenever he was drunk. My ex would tell me we should get married when he was drunk, too. I'm glad Helen and I both escaped that - or at least I assume she had by the end of the book.

In a lot of ways, The Lost Weekend is a book of its time - with page-long paragraphs and lack of action outside of Don's mind, I think it would have a hard time finding a publisher today. But its story is an old one, and one worth reading to understand how the mind of an addict works.

The Lost Weekend had been out of print so I bought a used copy online, but it was just re-issued on Feb. 12 if you'd like a new copy (which also explains why the Vanity Fair piece ran when it did).

I stayed up too late last night finishing the book because I didn't want to take it with me on vacation (can't you blame me?) So expect some fun books and fun reviews coming your way.

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Thursday, February 14, 2013

Book 8 of 52: Drinking with Men by Rosie Schaap

I picked up Rosie Shaap's Drinking with Men: A Memoirafter reading an excerpt from the book published in the New York Time Magazine, where she's the "Drink" columnist. The book had promise: the essay was snappy, interesting, and about a topic I know a little bit about.

But buying up a memoir based on an excerpt is always a risk. Could what attracted me to the essay be sustained by the author throughout a full memoir?

Unfortunately, in this case, no.

The book is supposed to be a recounting of an unapologetic drinker and all the bars at which she's been a regular. Instead, it's a memoir lite shoved around the contrived outline of "this is the bar I was at when this happened," whether she was in college, post 9/11, in Montreal (which, if I talk about poor use of adjective phrases for a moment, doesn't need to be referred to as "the sophisticated Canadian city") or pages upon pages about how she became a soccer fan.

Beyond the first two chapters, where she became a tarot card reader to bum beers on the Metro-North New Haven Line, and then dropped out of high school to follow the Grateful Dead, the book becomes one of the banal "I went to college, learn to drink, and things happened while I kept drinking" variety.

The main problem is that big things are brushed aside. Her dealing with 9/11 feels forced and  focused around bars. In one passage, she recounts how she got blasted one night and ended up sobbing in one of her regular spots, but gives us no real inkling as to why. Her troubled relationship with her father is only brought up when he's dying, and even that is given short shrift. There is no indication as to how she afforded a pricey private college in Vermont except for a passing mention that her father didn't understand why it was more expensive than Cornell. There are European trips - one to France during World Cup - that are mentioned casually in the narrative, as if EVERYONE jaunts to Europe with their English professor husbands. It smacks of privilege, which doesn't ring true with her earlier stories of living in shitty apartments in rat-infested TriBeCa, and creates a glaring, silent hole in the book. Things just aren't explained.

In the epilogue, the reader finds out that her husband, from whom she was estranged, died of cancer. I don't buy the explanation that "this was a story I could not tell her." If you're writing a memoir, you need to go there, as painful and awful as there may be. Readers can tell if you don't, as happened here.

I met with a few agents on a memoir book project I want to write, and they told me that unless something dramatic happened i.e. a shark bit off my arm, the writing would need to be absolutely stellar in order for a memoir to sell. Outside of those first two chapters, anyone could have told this kind of story. It's the job of the writer to make me realize why this specific iteration of said story is so interesting, so special, so worth my time. That didn't happen here.

I hate writing reviews like this. I really do. But I can't lie to you guys. You read these reviews for my honest opinion, and here it is, ugly as it may be.

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Friday, February 8, 2013

Marking a book DNF

DNF is an acronym used in running to indicate when a runner Did Not Finish a race. When Ryan Hall pulled out of the Olympic Marathon, for example, his performance was referred to as a DNF.

Sarah Wendell of Smart Bitches tweeted that about a DNF review, and it turns out it's a category on her site. I think the term works well for books, too, so I'm going to use it here.

The timing of her post was apt as I was considering marking a book that I thought I'd enjoy as a DNF. It's a summer beach read set mostly in Avalon, N.J., a town that I write about often. It's endorsed by a favorite author. But the writing is so flat, and the characters so bland, that I've wanted to chuck it across the room.

Usually I'll nix a bad book before the end of the first chapter, but I'm stopping here at page 87. Why so far in? Because I wanted to give it a chance. Local book! Good endorsement! It has to turn around soon, right?

No, not for me at least.

Sometimes bad books are worth reviewing. I gave a negative review to Curtis Sittenfeld's second book, The Man of My Dreams. I proceeded only because I knew a lot of people would be interested in reading it it given the strength of her first novel. Same with Julie Powell's follow up to Julie and Julia.

But this? It's not a high profile book or author, and it's just not worth my time to gnash my teeth over its faults, then gnash my teeth over writing a negative review. So I'm putting it in my donate pile.

Readers, how do you decide to mark a book DNF?

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Monday, February 4, 2013

Book 7 of 52: Casino by Nicholas Pileggi

This review is a case of reading a book that's already been widely praised, made into a widely praised movie. Because what else can I say about Casino that hasn't already been said?

So I'll be brief: it's a really great read, told largely with chunks of direct quotes from the players involved. It's a great telling of the way Las Vegas used to be: when the mob ran the show, and how it all fell apart. The book's almost 30 years and still riveting. I got a copy for $.99. Well worth the buck.

On a side note, did you know that Nicholas Pielggi was Nora Ephron's husband? He was the last of three, and was married to her when he died last year. She based the Steve Martin character My Blue Heaven on Henry Hill, Jr., who was the center of Pileggi's Wiseguy, which became the movie Goodfellas. And I'll never pass up an opportunity to post a clip from My Blue Heaven.


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