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2014 Book Challenge Results- 50 Books Read!

I did it! I met my goal of 45 books read in 2014 and went ahead and read 5 more. Actually, I’m glad I over shot my goal because there were a few books I couldn’t (and refused) to finish.

At the bottom of the post is my reading list for the year, but I wanted to take a moment and point out some highlights from my year of books.

BEST OF 2014:

  • Outlander, Diana Gabaldon. I know, I know. I’ve talked about this book quite a bit. It made me fall back in love with books. After a long slump of reading ho-hum fiction, along comes this sweeping epic that truly moved me and sparked my imagination into high gear. What more could a reader want?
  • The Signature of All Things, Elizabeth Gilbert. Give Elizabeth’s fiction a chance. This is one mother of a book. Gilbert’s astounding attention to detail and research is mind-blowing. She is an excellent storyteller. And while the book does have its slow (and even slower) moments, I really appreciated the main heroine and all that she stood for.
  • Stories I Only Tell My Friends, Rob Lowe. Why, you might ask, is THIS book on a list? Let me tell you that I was skeptical, too. I thought I was in for a juicy and gossipy light-hearted ride, but instead was treated a tender and insightful memoir that was actually quite inspiring. I have to hand it to Rob Lowe, he’s incredibly intelligent and hardworking. I’m almost ashamed that I didn’t give him the benefit of the doubt before I read his book.

WORST (or most disappointing) OF 2014:

  • Winter’s Tale, Mark Helprin. Could be one of the most pretentious, overblown, and dullest novels I have ever not finished. I usually finish all of my book club picks, but this one was next to impossible to see all the way through. I nearly fell asleep on the road while listening to it, and so the book became a dangerous driving hazard. I know there are folks out there who rave about this novel but not me.
  • The Light in the Ruins, Chris Bohjalian. So disappointing. He’s normally such a beautiful writer, but his latest book fell flat with a thud. Read his The Skeletons at the Feast in place of this novel.
  • Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, Maria Semple. God, such a turgid book. I don’t even know where to start with how much my expectations were destroyed after reading it. Marketed as somewhere between a humorous satire and (supposed) tender look at mental illness, the novel just comes off as mean-spirited and trite. A complete disappointment.

BIG SURPRISES:

  • The Fault in Our Stars, John Green. Well, the joke is on me. I went on to read this book fully expecting to hate it. I was curious as to why the novel was garnering so much attention that I had to read it, but as I’m not a huge fan of YA novels I put my snob face on. The snob face was promptly wiped away. This is a sneaky book. While it’s not the best piece of literature out there and features some fairly unbelievable characters, it’s a heartbreaking and ultimately well-written story about kids with cancer. And one I think most teens would benefit from reading.
  • Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, John Berendt . A reread that I’m glad I reread. For a true crime novel, it reads more like a biting and zesty article in a gossip rag. Better the second time around.
  • The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald. I think everyone should reread this novel every ten years. Its tone and imagery evolves as one matures. I love this book so much, and I can’t wait to read it again and again. It’s lost none of its charm since I first read it in high school.

AUTHOR OF THE YEAR:

  • Ms. Gillian Flynn gets my vote for one of the best mystery/thriller writers out there, especially in the female writer category. She is unapologetically gross- and not for the shock value, either. Flynn captures the dirtiness and scumminess of human society in the most realistic way. Her heroines are anything but heroic, but nor are they tragic figures. They are raw and flawed women with scratches and scars, yet are somehow at the same time likable and repulsive characters. I can’t wait to read more of her stuff.

LESSONS LEARNED:

  • I’m glad I gave myself permission this year to not finish books that didn’t speak to me. I saved a lot of precious time.
  • I need to be more discerning about choosing audio books. Some of the narrators are just awful and do not do the books any justice.
  • I will not do any reading challenges in 2015. While I do like to see how many books I can read in a year, and I love discovering new authors through a variety of challenges, I find that time-wise I become almost maniacal about getting through a large amount of books in short time periods. I don’t think I enjoy the books as much. Plus I want to finish some of my longer series, such as Outlander and Game of Thrones, and those hefty novels take up so much time.

Behold the 2014 book list! Here are my categories:

  • YES: This book changed my life in some way and hopefully it will change yours. Or I just really enjoyed it.
  • VACATION READ: We all need books that can sustain us for long periods when we are sitting on a beach or in front of a fire in a log cabin. These are not necessarily the best books I’ve ever read, but will hold your attention for more than a few hours, while still allowing you to relax. (I may even put YES and VR together, mean yes it’s great AND good for vacation).
  • NO: I just didn’t like it or it wasn’t worth my time. Doesn’t mean someone else might not love it, but I would never hand this book to another and say “You gotta read this!”

(I apologize for the format below. I tried copying and pasting from Goodreads, which was a mistake).

Happy reading in the New Year, everybody!

 NO
VACATION READ
YES, VR
NO
YES
NO
YES
YES, VR
NO
YES, VR
YES
VACATION READ
NO
YES
YES
YES
YES, VR
YES
YES
YES
YES, VR
YES, VR
YES
NO
YES, VR
YES (hesitantly)
YES, VR
NO
VACATION READ
NO
NO!!
NO
YES (hesitantly)
YES
NO
YES
YES
YES
VACATION READ
YES
VACATION READ
YES
YES
YES
YES (Hesitantly), VR
YES
YES

 

2014 Reading Challenge Check-in

Whoa, it’s been a while since I’ve posted any books for 2014. My apologies. I am now a creature to the 405 traffic situation to/from work.

In other news, I’ve started taking a writer’s workshop. I simply want to learn how to write- creatively or not- better.  Hopefully I can translate my new fangled writing skills into more blog posts, but for now here are some book recommendations.

I LOVE getting book recommendations, which is part of the reason I joined a book club years ago. I crave new books and new authors to explore. I will often recommend books to others, but they are usually the ones that were so incredibly life-changing. It almost hurts me to loan out a favorite. I almost usually never get it back. However, I can’t prevent myself from sharing the love!

Below is what I’ve read so far out of the 45 books I’ve earmarked to read in 2014. I am at a solid 39/45 so I’m on track to maybe even beat my proposed record! I’m recording what I’ve read but also whether I am recommending it or not. In lieu of book reviews for the blog, I’ve been done some shortie reviews on Goodreads and that has sustained me for now.

Here are my categories:

  • YES: This book changed my life in some way and hopefully it will change yours. Or I just really enjoyed it.
  • VACATION READ: We all need books that can sustain us for long periods when we are sitting on a beach or in front of a fire in a log cabin. These are not necessarily the best books I’ve ever read, but will hold your attention for more than a few hours, while still allowing you to relax. (I may even put YES and VR together, mean yes it’s great AND good for vacation).
  • NO: I just didn’t like it or it wasn’t worth my time. Doesn’t mean someone else might not love it, but I would never hand this book to another and say “You gotta read this!”

 

 NO
VACATION READ
YES, VR
NO
YES
NO
YES
YES, VR
NO
YES, VR
YES
VACATION READ
NO
YES
YES
YES
YES, VR
YES
YES
YES
YES, VR
YES, VR
YES
NO
YES, VR
YES (hesitantly)
YES, VR
NO
VACATION READ
NO
NO!!
NO
YES (hesitantly)
YES
NO
YES
YES

Book Review: “Stories I Only Tell My Friends” by Rob Lowe

 

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Surprisingly delightful! I have to admit though, I did have low(e!) expectations going in. I saw an interview with Rob Lowe on Oprah Prime a few weeks ago, and he was promoting his latest book- and sequel to this autobiography- “Love Life”. As my dear friend Stacie would say, a lot of my problems stem from watching too much Oprah. I immediately ordered a copy of his first memoir from Amazon Prime and felt only slightly sheepish about it.

But “Stories I Only Tell My Friends” is luckily not the cheesy, poorly written and arrogant dish-fest I first suspected it might be. Rob Lowe is very insightful, heartfelt, and candid in this book. I’m a sucker for all things 1980s nostalgia, so of course I couldn’t wait to read about his adventures with the Brat Pack. I was only slightly disappointed- this isn’t as “telling” and no-holds barred as the jacket copy would have you believe, but I found his story as an up-and-coming actor suddenly swallowed up in the murk of fame and excess fascinating and inspiring nonetheless. 

And while much of what he discloses in the book is revealing in nature, if not particularly juicy, it’s more interesting to note what he doesn’t reveal. A few years back, my friend went on a huge biography binge and promptly loaned me some of the more dishy/trashy books in his canon, including Tori Spelling, Jodie Foster, and Melissa Gilbert. In Gilbert’s memoir, she recounts in excruciating detail a tumultuous affair with Rob Lowe, her first big love, that ended in bitter heartbreak. Lowe is described as being a complete cad (which, by the way, I’m sure he would agree with at that point in his life). While Melissa Gilbert devoted more than a few chapters to Lowe in her book, Lowe gives her barely a 3 sentence mention. It’s either a hilariously subtle “F-You” to Gilbert in retaliation to her comments, or he really thought she perfectly summed up their relationship so much that it didn’t merit a re-telling in his book. I would have gladly given Rob Lowe’s book 5 stars if he just put “My relationship with Melissa Gilbert in the 80s: Please see Melissa Gilbert’s memoir. ‘Nuff said.”

Neither does Rob Lowe give any mention to his younger brother Chad’s rising career during the period where Lowe’s was sagging. Chad Lowe actually won an Emmy for his role in Life Goes On circa the early 90s, an award which has eluded Lowe for the bulk of his career despite starring in some of TVs greatest shows. Granted, this is Rob Lowe’s story not Chad’s, and maybe he left it out in case Chad ever needed to write his own memoir. Rob Lowe also discloses more stories in his latest follow up, “Love Life”, so perhaps he writes about it there, but I found it odd that he didn’t even give one sentence to Chad’s similar rise to stardom in this work. 

I was never a huge “Rob Lowe Fan”, though I knew who he was and happened to like cult classic St. Elmo’s Fire as a teenager. He’s probably the least likely member of the Brat Pack to carve out such a long and successful career. I had no idea he was a former alcoholic, but I did know at age 13 that by the time he did Wayne’s World he was already considered a has-been. In his book, Lowe recounts that much of his career has been spent trying to be taken seriously as an actor, a considerable task for a man as gorgeous and “pretty” as he is. Somehow Mike Myers tapped into a part of Lowe no one had ever encountered before and I find his comedic turns, especially Parks and Recreation, to be some of his best- and most charming- work.

The man name drops with abandon, but not without good cause or purpose. I had no idea until reading this book that many of our biggest actors and celebrities today started out around the same time. Lowe either went to school with or worked with the likes of Emilio Estevez, Charlie Sheen, Chris and Sean Penn, Robert Downey Jr. Holly Robinson (Peete), Tom Cruise, John Cusack, Sarah Jessica Parker, Darryl Hannah- just to name a few- and all before they had even landed their first big gigs. Was there something in the water in Malibu circa the late 70s? Do we see this same phenomenon today? If this book tells us anything it’s that Hollywood has changed ten-fold within the last 30 years, and thank goodness we have Rob Lowe’s intelligent eye to bear witness. 

Actors will love this book and find it extremely engaging. His humbling stories behind some of his earlier films, The Outsiders in particular, are pure instruction for inquisitive actors. Lowe is at his most candid recounting his distaste and dissatisfaction with the Hollywood system, and how he’s managed to overcome several setbacks throughout his career by becoming more in tune with who he is as a person. Part of this came about with his sobriety and a large part has to do with his wife, Sheryl, and becoming a family man- something he never imagined doing in his youth.

I love the below passage because it sums up my life in a way as well:


If you’d asked me when I was a young punk what would be the best thing that could come my way, I would’ve said, ‘A movie with Martin Scorsese’. But God had other plans. He gave me Sheryl.

As Rob will tell you (and learned the hard way), happiness comes in many forms and not just in the form of a fulfilled career.

This is a guy who went from teen heart-throb to addict and chronic ladies man with probably more than 50 (not kidding) sexual encounters under his belt, to serious TV/Film actor/writer and political activist who has been married to the same woman for 25 years with whom he has two children. Not a small feat, especially when you consider all of the current teen star meltdowns happening these days. He’s earned this autobiography, let me tell you. I highly recommend it for anyone who is interested in reading an inspiring, well-written, and unschmaltzy work by a bad guy who made good.

And P.S.- Tori Spelling’s first book, “sTORITelling”, was also enjoyable. Who knew?!

The Discerning Reader.

“Read widely and with discrimination. Bad writing is contagious”- P.D. James

The above quote tickled me when I read it a few weeks ago. Call me guilty: I’ve read my share of bad lit as of late.

The thing is, I’m a stickler for finishing a book even if it is decidedly bad. I recently just finished “One Thousand White Women” by Jim Fergus and a quarter of the way into the book I put it down with the full intention that I would not pick it up again. But there it sat on my nightstand with the library due date looming and glared at me.

“Finish me! Finish me, you coward! You even had the library waste valuable resources shipping me to a different branch! You OWE me!!!”

How can I properly judge and rate a novel if I don’t finish it? Are some books just a waste of time? And most importantly, how has my writing suffered because I’m not reading “with discrimination” any literature that is thoroughly engaging, enlightening, and richly and thoughtfully written? Probably a lot. I couldn’t even be bothered to summarize Stephen King’s 11/22/63 (even though I liked the novel, it wasn’t his greatest work writing-wise).

As I move forward in my 2013 Book Challenge where I am attempting to read all 55 books on my Goodreads “To Read” list, I am still 12 books behind because I refuse to give up on the awful. I think I would be caught up by now if I properly gave up on these ho-hum selections:

“Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” Seth Grahame-Smith

“The Partly Cloudy Patriot” Sarah Vowell

“The Red House” Mark Haddon

“Starting Over” Debbie Macomber (a book club pick. Truly terrible)

“One Thousand White Women” Jim Fergus

However, in their defense, the above are not the type of novels or authors I normally read, so in a way I did broaden my horizons, or “Read widely” as P.D. James suggests. But perhaps that isn’t the point. I want to be a good writer and good writing isn’t strictly limited to Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Austen, Steinbeck, Joyce, etc. In short, I must become a more discerning reader; to aim broadly but with  precision.

So from now on: I will give each book the first 40 pages to make its case and if the book doesn’t speak to me or is just plain bad, I will let it go. I promise. No, really, I do.

And for fun, here is my post on Goodreads about “One Thousand White Women”:

Good god, if there is a medal awarded to those who “Never give up! Never surrender!” when it comes to finishing books, then I would surely win. And I would win in a major eye-rolling contest as well, had I been given this book to read.

I almost bailed on the novel several times. In fact, I stowed “One Thousand White Women” away on my night stand in favor of another novel and fully intended to return it to the library unfinished. And if it wasn’t for a chance viewing of “Dances With Wolves” that re-sparked my interest in Native Americans circa the 1870s, I never would have picked the book back up again.

In all actuality, the research and care the author has given to the Cheyenne Indians and their tribal customs is the best part of the book. It was also the most fascinating to me because I sadly do not remember ever reading anything about Indians in such detail when I was in school (a topic for another time). He has clearly done his homework about these people and daily life, but it wasn’t enough to make the story as a whole incredibly interesting or even factually relevant. The concept of the book is extremely intriguing: it is supposedly based on an actual event where an Indian chief in the 17th Century (although the story takes place in the 19th) asked a US Colonel for 1000 white women in exchange for horses so that the Indians and Whites could properly assimilate in the new territory on account that their offspring would be of mixed blood. But Fergus takes this idea (that was also never truly acted upon that we know of) and runs with it, using the voice of one of the White women- May Dodd- as his narrator and heroine to tell the tale of what might have actually happened had this treaty gone into effect. And here is where the story goes awry.

The main reason I did not like this book- and this seems to be the consensus of EVERYONE who has reviewed the book- is that it is written by a man in the late 1990’s trying to write from a woman in the 1870’s point of view. And he fails, miserably. May Dodd, talking about herself and her emotions and feelings, is so laughably bad that I actually got quite angry at one point. She’s written as a cross between Samantha and Carrie from “Sex and the City” and in no way did I believe this was a woman from over 100 years ago (at one point he has May woefully exclaim to a fellow white woman in the Indian camp during chores that her Indian name should be “Woman in need of manicure”). Apparently the author feels that only women who are sexually enticing and adventurous can be feisty, passionate, and opinionated. I mean, come on, if you were a well-brought up woman in the Victorian era who was raised in the Church and brought up to believe sex outside of marriage is a sin and there are no role-models around you for what a healthy marriage and sex life should look like and no sex education to speak of either, and you are desperately trying to prove your sanity and that you are not a promiscuous woman, would you REALLY SAY THIS to someone who has the power to free you from a lunatic asylum:

“‘Au Contraire!’ I said, and I told the nurse of the two precious children I had already borne out of wedlock, the son and daughter, were were so cruelly torn from their mother’s bosom. ‘Indeed,’ I said, ‘so fruitful am I that if my beloved Harry Ames, Esq., simply gazed upon me with a certain romantic longing in his eyes, babes sprang from my loins like seed spilling from a grain sack’!”.

And would a woman of limited sexual education who has only had sex with one man in her life at this point in the book, REALLY have this advice to give to another woman on “carnal matters”:

“‘Oh, yes, one final thing- let him believe that he is extremely well endowed, even if, especially if, he is not’. ‘But how will I know whether or not he is well endowed?’ asked my my poor innocent Martha. ‘My dear’, I answered. ‘You do know the difference between, let us say a breakfast sausage and a bratwurst? A cornichon and a cucumber? A pencil and a pine tree?'”

Do you see what I mean when I say “Sex and the City”? In fact, I think the discussion of penis size was even a topic straight from an episode in the series. Were women of the 1870s even talking about penis size? Somehow I suspect this is a modern age concern. Plus, if you only had one lover and porn obviously wasn’t around, how would you even know how to compare one penis to another?

And what does a liberated woman of extreme passion (but who is NOT promiscuous, just another fool for love) do right after she’s freed fro the asylum to go live with the Indians as part of a government experiment? She immediately takes up with a solider as her lover, of course! The whole affair with Captain Bourke is incredibly ridiculous and unnecessary. Again, it just reminded me of how badly written May is as a character. And the other women in the book fare no better. The author’s portrayal of all the white women who participate in the experiment is so flimsy and transparent at best, and they are given no inner life. May is the only one among them who is written as showing any intellect whatsoever. And the fact that Jim Fergus felt the need to constantly write the dialogue in each woman’s dialect was cringe-inducing:

Says Gretchen Fathauer (even the name is awful), a stereotypically large Swiss German-speaking woman: “Vell, I tink de savages not be so choosy, as dat farmer yah? Sure, vy not? I make beeg, strong babies for my new hustband. Yah, I feed da whole damn nursery, yah?”

Says Meegy and Susan Kelly, Irish twins who SURPRISE, SURPRISE! are a bunch of hooligans: “It’s sartain, Susie, and that would’ve been the end of it” chimes in Margaret, “if it weren’t for that damn cash. The jeewdge went directly to his great good pal the Commissioner of Police and a manhoont the likes of which Chicago has never before seen was launched to bring the infamous Kelly twins to juicetice!”

Says Daisy Lovelace, Southern Belle and token bigot: “Why Daddy lost everythin’ during the wah, suh,”

The only person the author chose, very wisely, to not write with a regional dialect was Phemie Washington, a freed slave. Obviously, he probably would have been lambasted and critically panned for having Phemie speak like a character out of “Gone with the Wind”, but why do it to the others? Why do it all, I ask? Regardless of the character’s color and station in life, the dialogue still comes off sounding ignorant, stereotypical, and vaguely cruel.

Part of the reason I think the story suffers so is that it is too plot heavy, but I also think that the way the novel is structured was not the best way to tell the story. Using journal entries and letters, we only get to know May through May and she has an awfully high opinion of herself. And while the author is obsessed with May’s sexual appetites, apparently May herself is not too concerned about daily life as a woman in the Plains among a people and a culture that is completely foreign to her. Um, I think my first thought- and the first thought of women everywhere since the dawn of time- would be, “what do I do and where do I go when I get my period and where can I poop in private”. And wouldn’t she wonder what an Indian woman would do in this situation anyway and try to learn from her? This is not discussed (probably because men forget this happens to women every single month, and anyway, the author conveniently avoids this topic by having May and everyone else get pregnant right away), but there are several discussions about how May likes to bathe and be naked and how she likes to smell good while everyone else smells awful. Halfway through the novel, the author abandons the concept of having May write letters to her family and it is never explained why. The writing often feels clunky and uneven when it is coming strictly from May Dodd, and I wish wish wish Jim Fergus didn’t feel the need to end the book so abruptly, either!

I do have to say, in defense of the book, that it does get better as you read through it. The first half is truly awful and is the sole reason I wanted to shove this book away and never look at it again. Once he starts describing the Cheyennes and their tribe, the book picks up immensely. This is ultimately why my review is two stars and not one. It’s never a “hard” read, either, and eventually the pages flew by. But I’m left wanting something by the very end, and it makes me feel unsatisfied and just plain sad. This book could have been so much better had it been put in more capable historical-fiction-writing hands, such as Charles Frazier or Geraldine Brooks.

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