Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Crazy Enough

Crazy Enough, by Storm Large

I am a polar opposite of Storm Large. I had a happy childhood with two stable, loving parents who were always there for me. I am happily married with three children and have never been promiscous or used drugs. Yet I love Storm Large, as you can see by the multiple posts about her on my main blog.

After seeing Storm's show, "Crazy Enough," twice at Portland Center Stage and purchasing the show CD, as soon as I read she was writing a book I put it on hold at the library. I've been waiting for several months to get my hands on it.

As I expected, the book delivered. Storm was able to go into deeper detail about her crazy childhood and young adulthood. Raw, honest, and full of profanity and crazy-making shit, she lays it all bare for her readers. Sex addict, drug addict, and now a performing addict, she knows all too well how larger than life and wild she is. It's part of her act. The world is a better place because she can use her wildness as art and be addicted to music and performing instead of the unhealthier habits. Much of the content was covered in her one-woman show, but she's able to go into more detail here.

If you have a strong stomach and are not easily offended, read this book.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Sing You Home: Best Jodi Picoult novel I've read so far

Sing You Home, by Jodi Picoult

I've read a LOT, but not all, of Jodi Picoult's novels:
Plain Truth was the first one, and My Sister's Keeper and Keeping Faith have also been some of my favorites. But Sing You Home is definitely in my top three, and perhaps #1 now.

It's about a music therapist, Zoe, who is struggling with major infertility issues. She has multiple miscarriages and finally a pregnancy "takes," only to end at 28 weeks with a stillborn. (I think these types of books should have warning labels on them for anyone who has experienced infant loss!!!) That's why my reviews of them often have spoilers. No one who has experienced the loss of a child should have to read something like this unless they are prepared to. As someone who experienced infertility and miscarriages, I could understand Zoe's feelings of helplessness...and the way the medical staff referred to her lost babies as "tissue." I could also understand her love for music, along with its healing power.

After their baby dies, Zoe's husband Max decides he can't take any more and announces that he wants a divorce. Zoe tries to pick up the pieces of her life, and she finds love again, and has some hope that she might be able to be a mom after all.

As do most Picoult novels, there's a court case involved, and a lot of hateful intolerance (this time in the name of Evangelical Christianity). If you don't mind knowing some of the plot details, I encourage you to visit Picoult's wonderful web site and watch the videos she made about how this book personally affected her and her family. She also shares her personal commitment to justice and equality for all. Although some might say that some of the characters were one dimensional, I disagree. Picoult writes on her web site in great detail about her research with fundamentalist Christians, and although she disagrees with their intolerance, she paints her characters with depth.

My only criticism of the book was one time when I felt that one of the characters acted in an uncharacteristic way (by getting angry when Zoe was at one of her lowest moments), but beyond that, it was a highly satisfying read...and it made me cry at the end! I heartily recommend it.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Happy Accidents: Memoir by Jane Lynch

Happy Accidents by Jane Lynch

I've long been a Jane Lynch fan, since I first saw her in "Best in Show," and of course who doesn't love Sue Sylvester on "Glee"?

Lynch talks about her growing-up years in a happy suburban Illinois family. She had a reasonably happy childhood, although she never really felt like she fit in with her Catholic, traditional family. She also started drinking at a very early age, with her parents' knowledge. One of the places she felt she really fit in was in choir class, similar to the kids on "Glee."

She didn't start feeling comfortable in her own skin until she was in her 40s...between being a fledgling actor (flitting from commercials to bit parts in movies and TV series for years), an alcoholic, and gay in a straight world...but everything in her life seemed to come together as a series of happy accidents. Just as she began filming "Glee," which shot her career up to fame, she met the love of her life, her now-wife Lara Embry, and became a mom after she never thought she would have children (and in fact, she hadn't had any interest in having children).

Some have criticized Lynch's memoir for not being more revealing or dishing gossip on her costars. It strikes me that Lynch is not that kind of person. It sounds like she might have been at an earlier age--she admits that she had a big dose of Sue Sylvester in herself in her 20s and 30s--when she came down on other actors when she felt they weren't pulling their weight--but now she's happy with her life, and the fact that all of her dreams have come true. Not only is she in a fun TV series with a positive message about diversity and self-acceptance and she is happily married, but she also got to share the screen with her idols Carol Burnett and Olivia Newton John.

This was a fun read--absorbing and interesting. Lynch seems like she would be a fascinating person to have to dinner.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Think: Straight Talk for Women to Stay Smart in a Dumbed-Down World

Think: Straight Talk for Women to Stay Smart in a Dumbed-Down World, by Lisa Bloom

I first heard of Lisa Bloom when I read a fantastic article she wrote for the Huffington Post: "How to Talk to Little Girls." I knew I needed to read her book.

Bloom is the feisty, bright daughter of a feisty, bright mother, pioneering and well-known lawyer Gloria Allred. Allred trained her daughter well--to be an advocate for equality and to stand up for herself and the downtrodden.

The book is divided into two parts. The first part, "The Problem," delves into the question of why we are all so dumbed down nowadays, especially women. She talks about the U.S. chest beating that we are "number one," when in fact we are not...in so many areas. One of those areas is the status of women and the numbers of women who represent us in the political arena. Although conditions are better here for women than in many other countries, we are far from number one. The World Economic Forum's 2009 Global Gender Gap Reports puts us at #31 because of our women's "stagnation in the political empowerment index." And 80 nations surpass the U.S. in the percentage of women holding elective office. You read that right: instead of being Number One, we lag behind 80 nations!

Why are we not up in arms about this? We're too busy spending a fortune on cosmetics and plastic surgery, reading about celebrity gossip, and watching reality TV shows. Wasting our lives away. (When I say "we," I'm referring to Americans in general and women in particular.)

As Bloom discusses, we devalue education, proudly read books that proclaim "Cooking for Dummies," and are more likely to know who Katy Perry is than who is the prime minister of Canada.

For example, take U.S. Weekly or Yahoo's web site, OMG! Bloom reports that U.S. Weekly had 800,000 subscribers in 2003, and now has nearly 2 million. Yet they estimate about 10 readers per subscriber, as many offices, nail salons, and gyms carry the magazine.

According to Bloom's statistics, in 2007 American women averaged $12,000 per year on cosmetics and salon purchases (and 42 percent of the worldwide total). I find that number to be truly staggering! We should be socking that money away for our retirement, or traveling around the world. Now that is really showing how dumb we are.

Bloom is a passionate vegetarian, and she makes an excellent case for us all to go meatless. I knew that raising livestock contributed to climate change, but she quotes a 2006 report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization that concluded that worldwide livestock farming is the #1 cause of climate change...more than all the cars, trains, planes, and boats in the world. The more meat we eat, the more we are degrading our planet.

As a legal analyst and reporter, Bloom talks about how much time she has been forced to cover missing stories of "pretty white girls," and if a missing child is not white or pretty, or even male, the media will not cover the story. This was not true in Oregon when Kyron Horman went missing over a year ago...but many made the excellent case that his story got way more attention than those of missing children of color. Not that we shouldn't care about Kyron Horman, but shouldn't we also care about all the children who go missing? Why don't we care as equally passionately about all the children sold into prostitution around the world? The U.S. media only wants to cover the "pretty white girls," and the American population are drawn to those stories, in a horrific Catch-22.

In another absurd example of our bizarre focus on the celebrity culture, Bloom discusses all the amazing humanitarian and philanthropic work Angelina Jolie has done throughout her career. But what makes the news? Her relationship with Brad Pitt and her supposed fights with Jennifer Aniston. Or Jolie's former nanny who says she's a neglectful mother. Or what she wore yesterday or where she vacationed. That's all people seem to care about...not the fact that she started working on behalf of refugees in 2000...has visited countries ravaged by poverty such as Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Cambodia, Pakistan, Namibia, and Kenya. She's even visited asylum seekers here in the U.S.

I'm sure that Jolie realizes that she can attract more attention to her cause by giving the public what it wants. Just a few days ago she got the media all excited by saying that what she was most excited about that evening (after the Golden Globes) was to go home to bed with Brad. Celebrities are narcissistic. Yes. But in the case of Angelina Jolie, there's more to her than meets the eye. But does the American public care? No, it doesn't seem to.

Jumping in to Part 2, Bloom gives us her recommendations for reclaiming our brains...such as carving out time in our lives to think, make simple food for your family and don't kill yourself by slaving over meals for hours, and hire someone else to do your housework (even if you have to cut corners elsewhere) so you can reserve time for yourself. She's very adamant on the housecleaner front, and of course I ask myself, what about the option to just not live in a perfectly clean house all the time?

She seems to have a very relaxed, funny parenting style...for example, interpreting "I'm bored!" as "How may I be of assistance?"
"Oh great!" I said, eagerly. "Here's a list of things for you to do. Start with cleaning your room. Next, wash the windows. There's some crud baked on to this pan that really needs a good scrubbing to get it off. Did you rewrite that homework assignment to bring up your grade? How's that thank you to Grandma coming along? Honey? Where'd you go?"
I've already begun applying this technique. Yesterday when my 15-year-old complained about loading the dishwasher, I began to give him a list of all the things I planned to get done that evening, and I told him he could help me with those if he wanted to. Worked like a charm.

She's adamant about not allowing kids into your bed. Well, it's a good thing I'm confident in my own parenting philosophy to know what to ignore and what to take in. I still have a five-year-old who crawls into bed with me around 6:15 a.m., and he usually comes downstairs and sleeps on our floor until then (but not in our bed). It won't last forever, and I do love my morning cuddles. I suppose Bloom wouldn't have approved of my nursing through the night when my babies were little, but I don't care. I was a working mom, and it helped me bond with my kids.

Bloom exhorts women to READ constantly, and the good stuff. Clearly, I agree with that advice, although it also shocks me to read that 80 percent of Americans did not read a book last year. She has tons of reading recommendations, many of which (but not all) I've already read. She's a big fan of Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl DuWunn, as am I, and has a reading list in the appendix.

She tells us to use our newfound time and knowledge to take care of our lives. Look things up if you're curious. Exercise. Have more sex! Hang out with girlfriends--they are great for your health (as is the sex!). Volunteer in your community and take a stand.

Finally, Bloom talks about how lucky we are to live in the good ol' US of A, with the freedoms we have and the privilege. We need to take advantage of these things and BACK AWAY from the cotton candy nutritionless junk food media. I certainly have been more careful not to click on the tabloid-style internet news since reading this book. What a waste of time it all is. Think!

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Books come alive in this charming video

Several Facebook friends have posted this, so I had to take a look. Toys aren't the only things that come alive when humans are away! This was filmed in a bookstore in Toronto, Type Books, by a husband and wife who had the idea after organizing their bookshelf. This must have taken HOURS to do!!

Monday, January 9, 2012

The Best Advice I Ever Got

The Best Advice I Ever Got: Lessons from Extraordinary Lives, Katie Couric, ed.

After delivering a commencement address, Katie Couric got the idea to gather commencement addresses and other advice from various celebrities, politicians, athletes, military commanders, philanthropists, and businesspeople. She opens each section with an anecdote from her own life...about her own childhood, how she got into television, losing her husband to cancer, raising her daughters, and being criticized for her work on the CBS Evening News.

I have always liked Couric, even though others have criticized her "perkiness." But I like perky. She's upbeat, energetic, friendly, and dynamic...the kind of person I'm naturally drawn to. She might be perky, but she's got guts, ambition, persistence, and drive!

I enjoyed it, and found some of the essays to be more powerful than others. A few I scanned over (such as the ones from some of the athletes and comedians). I read about the founding of the Blue Man Group and how the guys have used their fame for philanthropic purposes. I found myself nodding with Meryl Streep on the challenges female actors face and how females are conditioned to accept male protagonists but not so much the other way around. I was inspired by personal accounts of what prompted people to found charities that now help thousands or millions of people. I found myself dog-earing the pages to jot down fragments or quotes, including some that Couric used to open each section. Here are some the ones I liked:

"One person with passion is better than 40 people merely interested." --E.M. Forster

"Despite the obvious fault in the universe, it cannot be used as an excuse for not trying to be your best self. Instead, use unfairness as a starting point to be sure that your actions are the best you can muster, and find peace in navigating your time here with grace and humor whenever possible." --Valerie Plame

"Live is not so much what you accomplish as what you overcome." --Robin Roberts

"Acts of bravery don't always take place on battlefields. They can take place in your heart, when you have the courage to honor your character, your intellect, your inclinations, and yes, your soul by listening to its clean, clear voice of direction instead of following the muddied messages of a timid world." --Anna Quindlen

"Write down five things you love to do. Next, write down five things that you're really good at. Then just try to match them up! Revisit your list once a year to make sure you're on the right track." --Hugh Jackman

"Greatness is not found in possessions, power, position, or prestige. It is discovered in goodness, humility, service, and character." --William Arthur Ward

"Nobody ever erected a statue in honor of a critic." --John Wood

"You are carrying the future of America in your heart and your mind. So live your dreams and remember, whatever you choose to do with your life, you must also be a citizen of your country, your n ation, and our interdependent world. Because while our differences make life more fascinating, our common humanity matters more." --William J. Clinton

Fareed Zakaria, international affairs journalist and bestselling author, talked about how much fear and blame there is in the U.S. today, while people do not appreciate how lucky we are. "If you listen to the political discourse in America today, you would think that all our problems have been caused by the Mexicans of the Chinese or the Muslims. The reality is that we have caused our own problems. Whatever has happened has been caused by isolating ourselves or blaming others."

"Find a way to say yes to things. Say yes to invitations to a new country, say yes to meet new friends, say yes to learn something new. Yes is how you get your first job, and your next job, and your spouse, and even your kids. Even if it's a bit edgy, a bit out of your comfort zone, saying yes means that you will do something new, meet someone new, and make a difference. Yes lets you stand out in a crowd, be the optimist, see the glass full, be the one everyone comes to. Yes is what keeps us all young." --Eric Schmidt, Executive Chair of Google

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Deliverance from Evil: deliver me from this book

Deliverance from Evil, by Frances Hill
My apologies to the author, but I had to give up on this one.

Hill is a renowned historian on the Salem witch trials, and I thought the premise sounded fascinating. I remember visiting Salem, Massachusetts, when I was 16 years old, so the topic appealed to me. I love great historical fiction. I should have paid closer attention to the negative or lackluster reviews, though.

About the only positive thing I can say is that the author clearly knows her history and can paint a realistic setting--in the beginning I was intrigued by the Indian attacks, conflict between Anglicans and Puritans, and the girls who kept having seizures. But she lost me completely in the plot details (or lack thereof). Hill is a historian, not a novelist, and it shows. It felt like she thought we should understand the story without telling us what was going on.

I read about 60 pages into the book, but it was so poorly written and with so many colorless characters that I finally had to put it down.  And it was such a relief to do so.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Best Books of 2011

As I've done in previous years, I've created a list of the best books I read in 2011. Click the title to read my review. Enjoy!

  1. Cutting for Stone, Abraham Verghese
  2. The Red Tent, Anita Diamant (reread)
  3. To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee (reread)
  4. State of Wonder, Ann Patchett
  5. Words in the Dust, Trent Reedy
  6. The Personal History of Rachel DuPree, Ann Weisgarber
  7. The 19th Wife, David Ebershoff
  8. The Wedding Officer, Anthony Capella
  9. Girl in Translation, Jean Kwok
  10. The Sisters from Hardscrabble Bay, Beverly Jensen
  11. You Believers, Jane Bradley
  12. Midnight at the Dragon Café, Judy Wong Bates
  13. After You, Julie Buxbaum
  14. Pomegranate Soup, Marsha Mehran
  15. Hardball, Sara Paretsky
  16. Backseat Saints, Joshilyn Jackson
  17. House Rules, Jodi Picoult
  18. Bitter Bitch, Maria Sveland
  19. Faith, Jennifer Haigh
  20. Angry Housewives Eating Bon Bons, Lorna Landvik
  21. Wishin’ and Hopin’, Wally Lamb
  22. Wild Ride Up the Cupboards, Ann Bauer
  23. Bel Canto, Ann Patchett
  24. Mink River, Brian Doyle
  25. The Book of Fires, Jane Borodale
  26. Bad Marie, Marcy Dermansky
  27. The Beekeeper’s Apprentice: Or on the Segregation of the Queen, Laurie R. King
  28. The Gilded Chamber, Rebecca Kohn
  29. South of Broad, Pat Conroy
  30. Operation Bonnet, Kimberly Stuart
  31. Odd Thomas, Dean Koontz
  32. Attack of the Theater People, Marc Acito
  33. The Ruins of Gorlan, John Flanagan

  1. Knowing Jesse: A Mother’s Story of Grief, Grace, and Everyday Bliss, Marianne Leone
  2. Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn
  3. Drama: An Actor’s Education, John Lithgow
  4. It Takes a Worried Man, Brendan Halpin
  5. The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie, Wendy McClure
  6. Touching the Void, Joe Simpson
  7. Growing Up Laughing, Marlo Thomas
  8. The Male Factor: The Unwritten Rules, Misperceptions, and Secret Beliefs of Men in the Workplace, Shaunti Feldhahn
  9. Bossypants, Tina Fey
  10. Buzz: A Year of Paying Attention, Katherine Ellison
  11. Saving Graces, Elizabeth Edwards
  12. Laughing without an Accent, Firoozeh Dumas
  13. Up the Capitol Steps: A Woman’s Guide to the Governorship, Barbara Roberts
  14. Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Amy Chua
  15. Cockeyed, Ryan Knighton
  16. Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, Charles J. Shields
  17. Untied: A Memoir of Family, Fame, and Floundering, Meredith Baxter
  18. Letters to My Daughter, Maya Angelou
  19. That Day in September, Artie Van Why
  20. In Stitches, Anthony Youn

The Girl Next Door: An NYC apartment building full of drama

The Girl Next Door, by Elizabeth Noble

The Girl Next Door takes place in a Manhattan apartment building. The book starts with Eve, who has been transplanted from England because of her husband's job. Soon Noble begins adding a large cast of characters, most of whom live in that same apartment building. Fortunately, she includes a list of characters in the beginning, which is helpful.

I do struggle at times with books that have too many characters. For the most part, this device works here, but some characters are thrown in for unknown reasons and we hardly hear about them at all (the Stewarts, the Piscatellas, Dr. Hunter Stern, Arthur Alexander, the Gonzales, and the token gay couple Todd and Gregory). I'm not sure why she felt it necessary to include all of these people--they do not really serve much of a purpose. Other characters felt one dimensional, shallow, or unlikable.

It didn't help my reading of the book that I found an error in the List of Characters before I even began! Cath Thompson is listed as "Emily's sister," when in fact she is Eve's sister.

Another thing that really bugged me was that Noble clearly didn't do her research about Oregon. One of her characters, Emily, is supposedly from Wilsonville, Oregon, which she refers to as "small-town America." Anyone from Oregon knows that Wilsonville is in fact an affluent suburb of Portland, with a median family income of $65,172. It's full of retail shops and corporate headquarters and it's on the I-5 corridor. It's definitively NOT "small-town America."

The character Eve has a premature baby, born at 27 weeks and weighing one pound, two ounces. This is extremely small for a 27-weeker. (My son was born at 24 weeks and weighed one pound, six ounces, around the typical weight for that gestation. A 27-weeker would have been bigger unless she had been suffering from intra-uterine growth retardation.) For the most part, Noble did a fine job describing the extreme stress and trauma associated with having a child in the NICU, although she talked about how parents didn't talk to others in the NICU, saying that "everyone was on their own in the NICU." This might have been true for some, and especially for shy and reserved Brits, but for us meeting and commiserating with other parents was a lifeline. Most NICU parents feel that way.

I did enjoy reading about the blossoming women's friendships, and in particular about the friendship between Eve and Violet. The book had me in tears during the NICU chapters. (Spoiler warning: A baby dies in this book. I want to warn people about this, because many people do not like to read about childhood death.) Noble also deftly and sensitively handled the issue of grief and the comfort in shared experience.

Years ago I read one of Elizabeth Noble's earlier books, The Reading Group, and I didn't like most of the characters. I liked The Girl Next Door much better.