When I tell people that I taught high school in the Chicago area, their eyes will often get wide with amazement, as though I told them I was a tailgunner in ‘Nam. “Weren’t you worried about school shootings?” some ask. No, I assure them, my life was never in any danger. I did get mooned once, and that was unpleasant, but hardly terrifying. I did not live in fear of violence; I was scared of due dates.
Never did teenagers’ creativity shine like when they were making up excuses for not having done their work. And never was my resolve tested like when I was faced with a basically good kid who just wanted one more day. Because golly, Mrs. Williams, (cue Oscar music), I had to stoke the fire all night long for my ill granddaddy who has the pox.
I was often too kind for my own good, but here’s how karma works: you forgive, and you get forgiven, right? Lately I’ve been feeling a lot like one of my poor harassed students—when are you going to turn in your paper, Johnny? Everyone from my mother to my hairdresser to someone with the questionable screen name hotboots25 wants to know where my latest review is. Ummm…ummm…will it help if I cry?
I’ll spare you the excuses. I’ve been reading plenty, but since I’m a grown-up who gets paid about a gallon of milk for each of these reviews, I’ll just go ahead and say that I’ve been hanging out in my pool instead of writing.
So here is my make-up work, piled up all at once so you know how your poor high school teacher felt when you really, really wanted to graduate but just couldn’t be bothered to do any actual work for three months.
These are a little shorter than usual, but I have some good to-reads and not-to-reads for ya. I promise to do better next time!
Wit’s End by Karen Joy Fowler (1/5 stars)
If—like me and most other sane adults—you grew out of reading about mysteries that involve dollhouses when you were, like, eleven, then this will really annoy you.
Fowler also wrote The Jane Austen Book Club, which I never read just because it had the words “book club” in the title, and that just seems like marketing rather than storytelling. Anyhow, that one was a bestseller, which means exactly nothing because Stephenie Meyer could wallpaper her house with the pages of her bestsellers and can’t write her way out of a paper bag—or coffin, or whatever.
I won’t even bore you with the plot (confusing) or the characters (unlikable), except to say that they are not worth your time. I only bought Wit’s End because it was on the clearance table at the outlet mall—sort of like those fluorescent green ballet flats I bought at Nine West one year. I need to learn the lesson It’s on clearance for a reason.
For a much better modern mystery, read What Was Lost by Catherine O’Flynn.
Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage by Elizabeth Gilbert (4/5 stars)
After reading Gilbert’s somber collection of short stories Pilgrims last winter, I was prepared to be disappointed in this. However, Gilbert’s snarky memoir voice is back in Committed, a book in which she examines the wacky institution of marriage from the multiple angles of society, culture, history, biology, and religion. It sounds like fodder for a snoozy textbook, but she makes it funny and interesting.
At the end of Eat Pray Love, (spoiler alert if you’re the one person on Earth who hasn’t read it!) Gilbert met the man of her dreams and they quite literally sailed off into the sunset. After that, though, they are basically forced into marriage due to immigration laws if they want to live together in the U.S. Once divorced already and sworn to never wed again, Gilbert must re-examine her beliefs. Why do we still get married when divorce rates are so high? Why do we need a piece of paper that proves we love each other? Why do the gays want in on this mess anyway?
What she finds is fascinating (early Christians originally discouraged marriage!), bizarre (seagulls get divorced!), and ultimately touching. It’s not as good as Eat Pray Love, and I get the sense that if I met Gilbert in person I’d eventually want to tell her to shut up about herself already. But I found myself talking to other people about this book a lot as I was reading it; it’s good dinner party conversation—and by “dinner party,” I mean hanging out at Applebee’s or whatever, not like a scene from Gatsby or anything.
What she never quite answers, though, is why seven different women would marry Larry King. The man looks like a sea turtle.
Girls of Riyadh by Rajaa Alsanea (2/5 stars)
If Sex & The City took place in the Middle East, this would be it. Well, the film Sex & the City 2 spent a little time there, which may explain the low box office numbers and bad reviews.
The four Saudi Arabian girlfriends in this book are so clearly meant to mirror the modern single gals in Sex & the City that I briefly wondered if there was a copyright battle or something. But as the book gets trucking, it becomes clear that Girls of Riyadh cannot be Sex & the City, precisely because they are not American. These women’s problems are so much more intense, and their culture so much more oppressive, that you can’t help but be alternately horrified and bored. Out of necessity, it also lacks any humor. It is funny to watch Carrie and Big fight over whether he watches too much TV; it is not so amusing to watch Gamrah get married off to a cousin who is a bigger creep than Mel Gibson.
This novel—written in a series of emails—was translated from Arabic and was quite controversial and even banned in the Middle East when it first came out because of its “scandalous” portrayal of upper-class Saudi women. The only thing I found scandalous was how long it dragged on.
Last Night in Twisted River by John Irving (4/5 stars)
John Irving is one of my favorite authors, if for no other reason than he creates some of the most psychologically complex characters in modern literature. And Last Night in Twisted River is, well, pretty twisted. But if you ever read The World According to Garp or A Prayer for Owen Meany, then nothing will shock you. His novels unfold like dark daydreams, the kind where you shake your head to clear it of what you just imagined.
The book begins in 1954, where young widower Dominic Baciagalupo is working at a logging camp as a cook. When his twelve-year-old son Danny accidentally commits an unspeakable crime, they run. They spend the next 50 years living their lives, but always looking back over one shoulder at Twisted River. They remain loosely tethered to the place by Dominic’s best friend, a logger named Ketchum, who is one of the most memorable characters in anything I’ve read lately. That night in 1954 defines both Danny and his father’s lifetimes, and the book’s epic scope shows the consequences of becoming bedfellows with secrets.
I love how Irving is able to weave humor into a dark tale, and how you feel remorse for having to finish his stories. But—and this is just my opinion—I might suggest some therapy for the guy. He has major mommy issues. His books kill, maim, or de-fame more mothers than a Disney movie. If anyone out there is currently in a Feminist Lit course, I just gave you an idea for a paper. You’re welcome.
The Help by Kathryn Stockett (4/5 stars)
What can I say about this bestseller that hasn’t already been said? It’s unarguably good. Set in the early 1960s South, the story is told from 3 different perspectives: two black maids, and one white woman who is—to the horror of her Stepford Wife friends—sympathetic to the beginning of the Civil Rights movement. The white woman, an aspiring writer, decides to write a book that tells the stories of southern maids, which turns out to be a surprisingly dangerous endeavor in a place threatened by the prospect of change.
It is amazing to read this book, which seems like it takes place on another planet yet was very Earthly reality during my own mother’s lifetime. I am not naïve enough to believe that racism no longer exists just because we have a black President, but let’s face it—Barack Obama can share a bathroom with Joe Biden, his kids can go to school with John Edwards’ love child, and Michelle had other options in life besides cleaning white women’s houses—in fact, a good number of white women now probably clean hers. It is a different world. And thank God, because if I had to act like one of the horrible women in this book, I’d probably develop a serious prescription drug habit.
The Help is excellent, but at times the characters run a bit close to stereotypes. If I want those, I’ll turn on MTV.
Twenty Chickens for a Saddle: The Story of an African Childhood by Robyn Scott (5/5 stars)
Finally! Someone writes about her childhood and it doesn’t involve alcoholic, psychotic, and/or abusive parents. Robyn Scott’s childhood was (gasp!) a happy one, but far from normal. Her Oxford-educated parents are actually a lot like the parents from The Glass Castle, only without all the mental illness. They are cheerful nonconformists, born adventurers, and restless wanderers.
When Robyn is just six years old, her parents moved her and her two siblings from New Zealand to Botswana. Her father worked as a flying bush doctor, traveling to multiple clinics across Africa. They got there just in time to see the birth of AIDS, so needless to say, he’s a busy fella. Her mom, who was previously a scientist, set about the task of haphazardly home-schooling the three children. Her chief educational method is to “let them explore,” which really just seems like laziness. But then again, Robyn ends up going to Cambridge, so there must be something to it.
Scott tells the tale of their unconventional lives through a series of vignettes. Her stories are peppered with marvelous characters—most notably, her own wildly eccentric grandfather, who really steals the show whenever he appears. (This article she wrote for The Guardian gives you a good sense of both her style and her grandfather.)
If you read the book jacket description, the publisher seems keen to let you know that there is some serious stuff in here—namely, the AIDS epidemic, which still affects Botswana worse than any other African nation. But it is not really about that at all. It’s about a family who loves life and loves each other, and can even make living in a cow shed look like an enviable way to spend your wonder years.
I loved this book. It’s quirky, funny, and never dull. I read another book a couple of years ago called Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood, which was similar in that a white female spent her youth in an African nation (Zimbabwe), but the similarities end there. Don’t Let’s Go…, in addition to its perplexing title, was fun to read about half the time, and bored the bejeezus out of me for the other half.
Twenty Chickens for a Saddle was endlessly entertaining. I can also highly recommend the audiobook version; Robyn Scott herself reads it in her adorable Mary Poppins accent, which really made me wish I was British, and not for the first time. As a side note, I once faked a British accent (probably quite badly) for two whole weeks at summer camp when I was twelve.
Anyway, if you end up reading this book, call me so we can complain together about some things that happen in the end. Extra credit if you complain with a British accent.
So there you have it, Mr. or Mrs. Reader. Thanks for letting me do all that make-up work. I really learned my lesson and am all caught up now.
Someday I’ll thank you for getting on my case; it shows you care. But for now, I’m going swimming!
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