Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Book 16 of 52: How to Sleep Alone in a King-Sized Bed by Theo Pauline Nestor

I picked up Theo Pauline Nestor's How to Sleep Alone in a King-Size Bed: A Memoir of Starting Overat the Wild Mountain Memoir Retreat in Leavenworth, Wa., this weekend. The conference was about - you guessed it - memoir writing, and it was organized by Nestor herself.

I'd read some of the presenter's books alreading, including Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trailby keynote speaker Cheryl Strayed, but I'd never heard of her before (sorry Theo!) I enjoyed the classes she taught this weekend, so this is the one I bought.

It starts with Nestor putting a chicken into the oven, and by the time she takes it out, her husband's gone. The book chronicles the year (or so) after that moment, with flash backs giving insight into Nestor's own feelings about divorce, which include being split up from her sister because dad got Kathy and mom got Theo after their owner separation. As a child of divorce myself, I could relate to some of the anger, hurt and guilt. I think I got lucky, though. I was in college when my parents divorced, and I knew they weren't right for each other. I was relieved when it was over between them, and I think they're both much happier now.

But it still hangs a big cloud over my perception of relationships, which I've been thinking about a lot since my own breakup. This passage rang true. It's a quote not from Nestor but another writer friend. "As far as I'm concerned...there are two camps of people. Those of us who lived through our world being ripped in two and those who haven't. Those who haven't can try, but I don't think they can ever understand how ill at ease we are, how we are always waiting for the other shoe to drop."

I had more to say about the book - other than I really liked it - but I took the red eye home and sat next to a man who maximized his seat space but taking up some of mine. So I'm a bit fuzzy.

BUT! I can share a few pictures of our retreat spot, which is called Sleeping Lady. It's been a while since I sucked down some crisp, clean mountain air. I didn't so much enjoy the high altitude running, but it sure was pretty.

I spent some time in Seattle, too. I knew about the Space Needle (of course), but had no idea so much other World's Fair architecture had been saved. This is the Pacific Science Center, which had been part of the United States Science Pavilion, which was part of the 1962 Worlds Fair

I also stumbled up on this little diner/bar called Mecca while looking for a quiet spot to eat on Monday  not easy since it was St. Paddy's Day and most people I passed near my hotel had been drinking all day. Behold, a few of my favorite things:

BLT, hash browns, pickle and Tecate. Happy St. Paddy's Day to me indeed.

I have mixed feelings about the retreat itself. I heard a lot of great things that I think will help me with my own memoir project (which is way stalled), but some of the classes were duds. Maybe it's an East Coast/West Coast writer thing, but some instructors seemed more focused on the no/low pay zine model than, say, writing essays from your book for magazines and real money. The only other magazine writers in the group were friends who came with me. We felt a bit out of place.

One more note: in 2008, I got stuck in the Phoenix International Airport and noticed that a lot of books for women featured the back of someone's head.  Go look at the cover of Nestor's book again.

I think it's time to retire this trend, book cover designers.

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Monday, March 18, 2013

Book 15 of 52: Ladies' Night by Mary Kay Andrews

I did not pick Mary Kay Andrews' Ladies' Nightbecause of the author. I'd never heard of her before the galley of her book, which comes out in June, showed up at my house. I certainly didn't pick it because of the cover - pink with drink umbrellas (I'll add a cover picture when I'm not writing on my iPad). And I absolutely did not pick it because of its title which, after reading the book on my flight to Seattle, seems to dumb down the book.

No, I picked it for this description from the back of the book: "Rising lifestyle blogger Grace Stanton's life gets torpedoed..."

Well hello there.

As some of you may know, I write for Runner's World magazine. I got so fed up with terrible/unethical/bad advice dealing running bloggers, and their posts with 15,000 pictures each - even one where the runner went through the finish line multiple times to get *just* the right post-race photo - that I pitched a story on how to not be a bad running blogger.

The end story was a flip of that, about how blogging can help your running (it's not online). That's typical for me. Most of my articles for them start with something that bugs me and turns into a piece that can be helpful to readers.

After writing that story, I stopped peeking at those bad running blogs, and bad lifestyle blogs, and bad mommy blogs. A group of fellow runners like to share these posts and mock them, but I didn't find it to be worth the hassle or the time. Besides, I have a feeling that most of these bloggers are hiding behind their DSLR cameras, putting on a show about how perfect their lives are, how great "the hubs" is, and how everyone should be like them when, really, their lives are big messes that can't be completely covered up by pretty pictures (for the best take on this kind of stuff, check out Cheaper Than Therapy. She has actual stuff to say while also poking fun at the blogging community. And she likes beer).

Which is exactly the case for Grace Stanton, the main character in this book. She runs a blog called GraceNotes, which she started when the housing market went bust in Florida because her interior design work went bust with it. The blog took off, bringing in $20,000 a month in ad revenue. Grace's husband, who is her employee, squeezes out even more by trading editorial space for discounts on their home, free stuff, etc. - another bugaboo I have with some of these bloggers who write about products like they're the best thing since sliced bread but don't disclose that they were paid to write such nice things about it.

Everything seems to be going on just fine until Grace finds her husband with his pants down (literally) in the company of her personal assistant. That leads Grace to drive his $175,000 Audi into their pool. That gets Grace into more than just hot water with her soon to be ex-husband, but also a anti-woman judge who orders Grace to take divorce counseling classes. That's where Ladies' Night comes in - the women in the group (plus one man) start having drinks post-class at Grace's mother's dive bar.

This isn't all light fluffy stuff, even though some of the characters are archetypes (the slutty assistant! The heartless husband!) In one therapy session, their counselor asks the group to remember a good time they had with their exes. It's a good reminder for me, fresh from a breakup, that there WERE good times. My ex is watching my dog while I'm away. After I dropped her off, I hung out in his kitchen to borrow some WiFi (mine's not hooked up yet) while he made his dinner. That reminded me that I wasn't crazy for having dated him, or for living with him. We did like each other, even if the relationship end didn't work out. It was a good feeling, though, yes, still a bit awkward.

I liked this book. A lot. It'll be a big beach read - literally. It's 685 pages. With no WiFi for my flight, I read most of those 685 pages on the way over to the left coast. I even dug the renovation stuff in the book (Grace ends up working on a 1920s Florida home, the exact kind I'd have bought if I'd moved to Tampa - the book takes place in that general area though more on the Gulf Coast).

It'll be published on June 4.

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Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Book 14 of 52: Sweet Valley Saga: The Wakefield Legacy: The Untold Story

On January 3, Sarah Wendell of Smart Bitches sent out the following tweet: "Okay, I may regret asking this, but what's the weirdest sex location you remember from a romance novel?"

Her followers had some interesting answers, including on the back of a galloping horse and a camel. My answer, though, brought me around to re-reading Sweet Valley Saga: The Wakefield Legacy: The Untold Storythis week. That answer was a building that collapsed during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake (apparently, Sweet Valley is not the only book to, uh, tackle this situation).

This book was published in 1992, what I'd consider the tail end of Sweet Valley's dominance over teens and tweens at the time. I was 12. I read this and the first Saga, Sweet Valley Saga: The Wakefields of Sweet Valley, after I'd read just about all the "Sweet Valley Twins" and "Sweet Valley High" books available. The Sagas tell the history of Jessica and Elizabeth's ancestors, making stops in history along the way. Here, we have the great flu epidemic of 1918, the crashing of the Hindenburg, WW II, Southern California hippies, and the 1906 earthquake.

The first saga book tells the twins' maternal history, and this one the father's. The stories overlap in many places, suggesting that destiny wanted these two families to be together at some point. Yes, there is a woman's story told here - you can guess what happens to an 18 year old who has sex the morning of her wedding, and what happens to the father. This is a "saga" after all. There are two more after this - for Lila Fowler's and Bruce Patman's families.

The book is much cheesier than I remembered, but 12-year-old me was much more susceptible to melodrama. It was so scandalous back then. Broken love affairs! People having sex! (even though you don't read anything about it, just what happens after) HIPPIES! It was a nice step back in time for 32 year old me.

I'm bummed the reboot of Sweet Valley didn't work out, at least for me. I hated Sweet Valley Confidential and didn't even know that there were more new books under the series "Sweet Life." Diablo Cody insists that she's still working on a movie musical version of the series.

Hopefully, that'll fare better than the book reboot did. The original series was so fun, as were these Sagas. I want the brand to consider, but in the right way (and to show that I'm still invested in this...I've been thinking waaaay too much about casting).

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Monday, March 11, 2013

Book 13 of 52: Pound Foolish by Helaine Olen

This is one of those reviews where work gets in the way. I've written a Q&A with Helaine Olen about her new book, Pound Foolish: Exposing the Dark Side of the Personal Finance Industry, for a financial website, and don't want to give away too much here before that interview runs.

So what I'll say is this: Olen has put together a remarkably researched and scathing view of the personal finance industry. If you feel like you're getting squeeze money wise, and that advice dispensed by talking heads on TV doesn't add up, this book explains why. Whatever most personal finance experts say won't make up for growing income inequality, rising healthcare and education costs, and the disappearing safety net. This idea that it's up to us to save more to make up for these things is ridiculous, says Olen. We need to work as a group to change these major problems, and no skipping on the Starbucks coffee is going to make up for the difference. Throw onto that life's unexpected events, like a major medical bill, divorce, etc., and it's easy to see why people get into debt and feel hopeless about money, and retirement.

It's a good, long read, especially for skeptics. Her goal, she says, is to start a conversation so we can start addressing this as a society instead of an individual. I hope it works.

On a freelance writing note: I read the entire book before I interviewed Olen, which not only made for more pointed and specific questions, but also earned thanks from Olen. So many times, reporters won't read the book before interviewing the author. I get that some of that is time, and I've had to scan books before, but try try try to finish the book before the interview. It'll make for a better piece.

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Thursday, March 7, 2013

Book 12 of 52: A Good American by Alex George

What do you say about the book of someone who's come to Thanksgiving dinner? Well good things, since Alex George's A Good Americanis a good read (and I'm glad I can say that because otherwise, this would be an awkward blog post).

George is the friend of a friend who came to a Thanksgiving dinner hosted by me and my now ex-boyfriend two years ago. A Good American was about to be published, and George was already earning excellent advance reviews. I was going to buy a copy, though he said don't do that as he wanted to thank us for our hospitality by sending a signed copy of the book.

That never happened (for which he has apologized PROFUSELY! and I've made the same oops as an author, too). I was in Tampa last week and stopped at Inkwood Books before heading to St. Pete Beach and there, filed as a staff recommendation, was A Good American.

After DNFing two books while on vacation already, I was relieved to find a good fit with this one, which is about three generations of the Meisenheimer family, starting with Frederick and Jette, who leave Germany because her mother won't let them marry. They establish a new life in Beatrice, Missouri, Frederick bartending and Jette making house (and unhappily so). The book's narrator is James, their grandson, and he tells the story up until he's an old man.

It's a family tale, and how different generations try to be good Americans, however that shifts and changes as the distance between them and Germany widens with time and two wars against their home country. It's an engaging book, and I'm not surprised it's garnered so much praise and wound up a staff pick at Inkwood (George was also chosen as a Barnes & Noble Discover Pick).

George himself is English, and his mother came to England from New Zealand. He moved to the U.S. because his then-wife is from here, and he's stayed. He writes in the author's note that this idea of being from one place and finding a home in another is on his mind, and it shows in A Good American, even if the countries involved are not part of his background.

I do have one quibble. George tends to use Dickensian-cliff hangers at the ends of sections, even within chapters (Dickins' stories were published in installments, so it beehove him to end each installment with a cliff hanger so readers would buy the magazine next week).

Two examples from A Good American:

"Which was an interesting remark, given what happened next."

"As it happened, at that very moment, Fate was slowly making its way toward Tillman's Wood, wheezing up the steep hill behind our house."

One or two is okay, but the more they're used, the less effective they become.

But that's a minor problem in an otherwise enjoyable read. Bravo, Alex. Since I never got a signed copy, you can buy me a beer next time you're in town.

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Friday, March 1, 2013

Book 11 of 52: The Starboard Sea by Amber Dermont

I'm writing this post from a Florida poolside, but don't get too excited: it's not quite 70 degrees, and the only person who has been here as I've worked was an 80 year old man.

I'm on the last part of my Florida swing. After stops in St. Pete Beach, Tampa and Gainesville, I've come across state to spend a few days with my grandparents in Sebastian, a quiet town, made even quieter in their over 55 community. These trips are a tradition that involve me reading and napping quite a bit. In anticipation, I brought five books down with me, two that I bought from Target.

The first book, The Night Circusby Erin Morgenstern, was a bust that's already been donated to their senior community library. The second, The Starboard Seaby Amber Dermont, is the second, and I stuck with it, even though I found it to be a disappointing novel.

The Starboard Sea is about Jason Prosper, who left his tony boarding school after his roommate and sailing partner, Cal, hung himself. He's ended up at Bellingham Academy, which is the prep school of last resort where kids go after getting kicked out of other rich kid schools. His father secured him a spot by paying for a new dorm. There, he's a misfit on an island of already misfit toys, and his senior year rolls out from there.

As I read, I kept getting frustrated with the novel. I've read about these types of characters a zillion times before: the stoner, the slut, the weird arty girl. They're not interesting, and neither is Jason. I just didn't care to know the answer to the mysteries that Dermont tried to build up through the course of the book.

This is a crowded genre, and anything in this category written now is going to be compared to The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, which dealt with many of the same issues (suicide, mental illness, sex, homosexuality) in the same time period (late 80s/early 90s) but beautifully. I cared about those characters. I worried about them after I finished the book. I don't care about these snots and what happens to them after they graduate.

So BAH. Zero for two. My fault for looking for reading material from Target and thinking best seller automatically equals good book.

My next book is one from an author I've meant to read for a long time - a Florida author at that. Maybe I'll have better luck this time.

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