Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Book Nook -- A Strange Complex Trip Into a Culture and a Cult (You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine) + an In-Depth Look at a Much Simpler Topic (Cat Sense)

And so she continues on her reading and reviewing spree....and struggles with both sleep and the adjustment to a VERY gentle course of physical therapy and trial run at the pool (i.e. first one day of simple float time, then trying to participate as a member of the class as much as feels "right" until my scheduled return to the front 9/1)...

While I can manage my rambling in my professional writing, when it comes to my own blog and my book reviews I can earn my self-imposed "Rambling Blogger" moniker.  That's a warning as I try to provide a bit of context...  I usually summarize the book and then review, but this one seemed to lend itself to a more incorporated style....

Just about 11 months ago, we inherited a cat when my mother-in-law passed.  It was a sad way to get her, but Smoky has brought us much joy and she has our hearts.  I've never been around cats much, but my husband has and we've determined she's often more dog-like than cat-like.  At the very end of May, we agreed to cat-sit for a man being deployed (his brother backed out last minute).  I've watched them interact and move from animosity  to grudging acceptance and sometimes peeks of friendship. After some missteps (Lesson 1, learned after the fact: Don't hold two cats face to face as a means of forced introduction), I read up on cat behavior online and between that and simple observation I become quite fascinated.  I still maintain that "I'm not a cat person, just a Smoky person" but suppose I'll leave room for our "boarder kitty" (as in "room and board" even though she is a passport-carrying gal from Mexico) and they are interesting creatures.  NOT brief!!!  But it could have been MUCH worse!!!

This is how I came to order Cat Sense from a Bas Bleu listing (love the tee's not currently offered so glad I got a regular-wear one and a sleep-friendly larger size when they were on sale!).  Bradshaw is both a cat lover and an animal scientist.  He notes that there is relatively little research on cats and cat behavior, particularly in contrast to the volumes on dogs.  Seeking to help remedy this and using the research of others, his own scientific studies, and his experience as a pet owner, Bradshaw attempts to provide a pretty broad look at cats that basically involves three sections:
  1. Cat Evolution - This part looks at the evolutionary path (or paths) that led to the domestic cat.  He often contrasts the evolution of cats with the evolution of dogs which is helpful at times but also seems to me a bit off since the book looks to focus on cats and get away from the over-attention paid to dogs in scientific literature.  Honestly, while there are interesting moments/facts/theories/observations, this section drags and I got hopelessly lost along the way from wildcats to Smoky.  
  2.  Cat Behavior --This part is what drew me to the book and what I enjoyed the most.  I think he achieved a good mix between his perspective as a researcher and as a cat-owner.  Perhaps because of my personal situation, I found the stuff on cats interacting with other cats particularly interesting (in brief, they prefer not to...though females will collectively rear kittens in some cases).  I had to repeatedly remind myself that a lot of this is really theory and not fact.  In some cases, my own experience differed from the book's statements (I started crying once and suddenly Smoky appeared "dancing" in a circle on her hind legs somethingshe never did before and suggests some level of emotional/relational sensitivity).   
  3. The Future -- How will cats continue to evolve?  This section contained a point I'm sill pondering.  Currently, we neuter and spay most pet cats which means the ones that breed are generally feral (and they provide more kittens than will ever finds home).  This interrupts the evolutionary chain a bit since those with the most pet-like dispositions (which mix well-timed nurturing with the "nature" side of genetics) don't pass on their genes and those who are more aggressive do pass on their genes.  Bradshaw proposes letting cats have a single litter before getting them fixed...I'm mixed on it, but I had ever really pondered the genetic implications of listening to Bob Barker.  
Some general observations:  More than once, I was bothered by logical fallacies like "If not X, then Y" and "If we can't prove 'Not Y,' then Y."  There was a LOT of repetition, yet I still got forgetful and the book would benefit from some charts or other graphics and maybe a glossary of some sort.  Overall, the book was held my interest once I passed the first part, but I don't know that I'd recommend it unless specifically asked about cat history.  Three stars.  And an apology for the crazy length of the review!

This one is tough to explain.

The main character is simply known as A.  She has a roommate, B, who seems determined to become A's double, even cutting off her long braid and then handing it to A to keep. A tells us B has food issues, yet we rarely see A eat a bite. A is dating C.  She likes him because he feels simple.

The world they live in is similar to ours but also more extreme.  Consumerism is even more rampant in their land than ours.  In their world, one of the most popular tv shows tests a couple's relationship including a round that involves trying to pick the other out of a crowd of naked people in the dark.  The couple agree to a complete dissolution of the relationship if they don't succeed in all the tests.  A man becomes famous for buying veal.  And there's a phenomenon involving disappearing fathers who pop back up utterly befuddled, sometimes having managed to construct a new family. Wally's World is a store that sort of resembles our megastores but they rearrange the contents constantly so you can't find things without a hunt (workers wear crazy masks and don't really help).  Oh, and there's a strange snack cake known mostly for its ads that resemble an old-school Roadrunner cartoon.

And then it gets weird....or, more accurately, weirder...One day, A watches as the family across the street disappears one day, all three dressed in white sheets (think ghost costume, not KKK).  There's only so much one can say here without saying too much, but much of the book revolves around a cult-like group that attempts to live in opposition to most of the world around them.  Food is a big issue, as are bodies, but the cult also helps raise much more general questions of identity, culture, and alienation.

There's not a ton I can say in the "review" part of this review.  I feel like I probably missed a lot, although the lack of clear ideas/ideals is probably part of the point.  I simply didn't enjoy this book.  I kept hoping it would turn a corner but it never did.  I managed to finish, but I feel like it took more out of me than it gave back.  I felt like I should be thinking and feeling and reflecting and more, but I was just waiting to be done.

Two stars....there are some amazing sentences and some impressive word-craft.  It'll be taught in some class that mixed sociology, philosophy, and literature someday.  And a few will love it, but I suspect most will be hunting for Cliff Notes.  I got my copy from the publisher (and appreciate it even if it wasn't a win!) is probably quite apparent that they put no constraints on my review and that this is an honest and unbiased review.

On another note, I have a regular-wear and a sleep-wear version of this tee.  Super soft and totally on-point for me...Bas Bleu seems to have it shelved at the moment, but I suspect it'll reappear in time.

(Note: if they do restock and you want one, buy a size up from what you suspect you need.)

(Also Note:  She's from the Bas Bleu site.  It's not me.)

Books Are Better Tee

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Uncomfortable and Unproductive vs. Ambiguously Imperfect but Utterly Charming: Reviews on You Don't Have to Live Like This (Markovitz) and Crooked Heart (Evans)

I'm plowing through them lately.  Here's one I loved, presented (and read) after one I struggled to complete:
Greg, or Marny to his old college friends is a bit lost.  After graduating from Yale and earning a PhD in literature at Oxford, he fell into a non-tenure track job teaching at a college in England.  A brief meeting at a reunion leads to Greg quitting his job and returning to his parents' home in Louisiana.  He decides to move to Detroit to be part of something akin to a social/economic (somehow that sounds more accurate than 'socioeconomic') experiment.  A college friend is trying to get people to apply for and join a planned community, buying cheap abandoned and often dilapidated homes.  The back cover references a line calling it "the Groupon model for gentrification."  In Detroit, Marny navigates a social life while also confronting issues of race and class that develop as the participants in "New Jamestown" face animosity from some long-time residents who refuse to sell.  

This seemed like an interesting topic, but it never really flew for me.  It seems pretty clear the author doesn't want us to like Marny and the lack of sympathy for his own lead character made it hard to feel invested in his fate.  I'm not sure if he's an "everyman" or simply a loser...or maybe both.  The author provides brief sketches of far too many characters and I was often a little lost because I knew a name was familiar but I hadn't been invested enough to remember which of many characters was in action.  

I can't complete this review without turning to the topic of racism, class-ism, and other -isms.  There are a number of times when Marny's words and/or actions contain outright racism.  I do believe that there's a place for literature that contains more-than-uncomfortable lines but it needs to be done right (see Huck Finn).  Sometimes the best works of art make you uncomfortable.  Here, it doesn't really enhance the context, the plot, or the point (if he has one) which mean every time Marny recorded a racially charged thought (and that's pretty often....he dates a woman seemingly just to be able to say he is dating a black woman from the other side of the tracks) I wanted to throw the book at the wall and give up.
I give this book 2 of 5 stars.  I read it quickly not because I enjoyed it and was propelled along, but because I wanted it to end.  I might have initially gone for 3, but the more I think about the book the less I like it.  This review is based on an advance reader copy of the novel supplied to me by Harper Collins in exchange for an honest review.

Noel has had something of an unusual childhood but then again he's an unusual child.   He has been raised by godmother Mattie, a former suffragette who teaches her own lessons and who is truly the boy's kindred soul.  As WWII settles in, Mattie begins to show signs of dementia and eventually passes on leaving Noel to the care of a much-hated tangential family member.  The family is all too happy to send Noel to the suburbs along with the rest of London's children during the Blitz and the meat of the story comes when Noel finds his way into Vee's care.  Vee lives by her own moral code, bending (okay, breaking) the law to support her mother and her son, Donald.  Vee and Noel clash at first but eventually team up in their own little scheme.  Of course, that can't go well...

I really enjoyed the vast majority of this book.   I loved Mattie and mourned her right alongside Noel, hoping with him that things might somehow take a different turn. The characters of Vee and Noel were beautifully rendered, perfectly imperfect. Noel is not your typical 10-year-old, but he's also very much 10 as is best displayed when he's complaining about perceived injustices (I was reminded of Snow White as a child in Once Upon a Time....moral, but young).  The language is lovely.  

Where this book lost me and where it lost that elusive fifth star was with the story of Vee's lazy lump of a son, Donald.  I disliked him from the start, as we are meant to, but I also disliked having to read about him.  In particular, the story involving Donald near the end of the book just felt wholly out-of-place in a novel that otherwise felt quite genuine.  

Still, highly recommend. I all-but-devoured this one.  It isn't complex and probably fits a mass-market fiction audience (vs a more literary fiction that has a narrower audience), but a good solid read nonetheless with enough moral ambiguity to ring true.  I loved visiting with Noel and, ultimately, Vee as well.  Might have hit 5-stars if it hadn't wasted time on a side-note.  This was provided to me by Harper Collins in exchange for an honest review.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Two Pieces of Literary Art About Art..and More: The Small Backs of Children (Yuknavitch; 4.5 stars) & What I Loved (Hustvedt 3.5-4 stars)

It's time for a couple of book reviews, along with a rambly Rambler aside...

First, a "warning" --  This book incredibly intense and readers should be aware that there is violence and graphic sex, often intertwined.  I think these scenes are meant to disturb/disrupt but I know these scenes are simply not something every reader is comfortable with.  Okay, again I'm caught in my own language a bit, few will be "comfortable" with these scenes, but it does limit the audience substantially.  I'd skip this book if you have any distaste for the use of graphic depictions of sex (including consensual BDSM-ish sex as well as child rape) violence (sexual and non-sexual) in fiction.

Moving on -- The characters in TSBOC are labeled but not named and the narrator/protagonist shifts from chapter to chapter.  In many ways this is a book about characters and intangibles, but there is an underlying plot that begins with the picture of  young girl running away as her home explodes with her family inside.  The moment occurs in an unnamed country plagued by violence that has been largely ignored in the "first world."  The photograph wins acclaim.  It also has a deep impact on "the writer" who shares much of her history with the book's author herself; both are survivors of childhood sexual abuse and both have experienced the anguish of a stillborn child.  As the writer falls into a suicidal depression and is hospitalized at the cusp between life and death, a group of artists gather.  They decide to go get the girl in the photo and bring her to the writer.

There's a lot to say.   This is art, not "just" words.  This is the type of book that you truly experience rather than simply read.  Some chapters felt like a long exhalation and I felt compelled to read quickly, like I was speeding through breath.  I could definitely see plowing through in one seating, in fact that may be the ideal way to experience TSBOC.  There are an incredible number of themes including the nature of art, the construction of meaning, and the struggle to own one's own (female) body.  One interesting element is the fact that the few men who play major roles in the book are largely defined by their relationship to women.  They are called "the playwright", "the artist", and "the filmmaker" but they are really the brother, the ex, and the husband.  A reversal of cultural norms, this is particularly interesting for those who've pondered things like the Bechdel test (and its limitations..and I do link Wikipedia often, it is far from an ideal source but sometimes gives more detail than, say, this basic Bechdel test page) that draw attention to how we define women.

I'm giving this four-and-a-half stars.  I'll even round up to five.  This is NOT for everyone.  It was a quick read but by no means an easy read.  This is the polar opposite of an airplane book (both poles have merit); I'd recommend reading alone when you have energy and emotion to invest.  Elements may be VERY triggering for survivors of abuse.

Note: An advance copy of TSBOC was given to me by the publisher in exchange for my honest review.  Harper in no way constrains the contents of this review.
This is a story in three parts defined, in large measure, by various forms/stages of love and loss.  It would tell too much to lay out the plot points of each part.  The story is narrated by Leo, an art historian.  Leo discovers a painting by Bill and the two become close friends...actually, those two words fail to encompass the deep connection and affection between the pair.  Leo is married to Erica and there are two women in Bill's life, Lucille and Violet.  These four characters and the families they form are the backbone of the story.

Although a few other key players do emerge, these four are all intensely/intimately connected and all are also, in various forms, artists.  Art is, in fact, probably another main character and there are discussions about real artists and about fictional artistic works "by" the main characters. There's a good deal of discussion about art more broadly including the role of women & women's bodies* in art, the dichotomy of seeing & being seen, and the interplay between how art defines us & how we define art.  Ultimately, however, while art matters deeply, this is a story about relationships and, more specifically, love.  To use more paired descriptions, it is about what love does to us & what we do for it and also about what love cannot do & what love cannot save.  Elsewhere, I titled this review: "Gorgeously Written Story of Loving/Being Loved/Loss, of Seeing/Being Seen, and of Making Art/Being Art/Viewing Art.

Overall -- I very much enjoyed the first two parts.  I truly disliked the third part.  this book is very literary and very concerned with what some might call "academic" matters.  In truth, calling this book pretentious may understate the case; somehow, though, this didn't really turn me off, perhaps because it fit the characters.  Overall, the language is quite beautiful. I'm torn between three-and-a-half and four stars and suppose this time I'm lucky many review sites don't allow for half-stars.  The rating reflects the fact that my enjoyment of the language overall.  Ultimately, it also reflect the fact that my interest in parts one & two overshadow my dislike for part three, especially since I've had a little time to remove myself from the immediacy of the concluding section.

Honestly, I can't tell you how long this one has been sitting on my "to read" shelf...well, I couldn't until I checked Amazon and saw I bought a used copy for a penny ($4 with shipping) on 12/7/11.  I'm glad it finally surfaced.  It calls for a reader who will admit to enjoying the literary and artistic.  This reader is probably comfortable admitting to enjoying the pursuit of learning, a philosopher in the true sense of one who loves wisdom (and talking, or at least reading about it!)....okay, the ideal reader is used to hearing terms like "dork" and "nerd."  It is, as I say above, pretentious and you need to accept that about the book and about the characters.  

*Random Aside (more a personal experience given context by the book than a reaction to the text itself, though the word "reaction" is quite on point)-- The book mentions women who used their bodies as art, "drawing" on their skin by scratching it lightly to make red marks appear.  This caught the narrator off-guard a bit and sent me on a bit of a search.  I remember many a doctor over the years running a dull edge along my skin and noticing that a red mark arose a few moments later.  I can't recall any ever mentioning it though until this year when my dermatologist was looking at an intense allergic reaction.  I didn't catch the word she used but offered to demonstrate on her own since she didn't want to irritate me further and as soon as she mentioned scratching her skin I responded by saying "and a red line appears."

Anyway, apparently the term is dermographism.   Honestly, I don't know if there are degrees of severity, but it is nothing I've ever found really troublesome.  But it surprised me to learn that only 4-5% of people have it.  I knew it wasn't something that happened to everyone, but it was always my normal so I guess I assumed it was pretty common.  It does explain a bit though....whenever something has been itching and I've inevitably given in and scratched. the area becomes very red and angry.  Again, normal to me (and I assume anyone could irritate an already itchy area by scratching, but probably not to this extent) but sometimes concerned onlooker and I never understood why until I dug into it because of the book. 

It is a really interesting condition and there are indeed people who've turned it into art.  There are also a lot of people who go online looking for a cure (there isn't one though antihistamines can help) but it isn't something I feel any need to treat given other maladies.  It has also made me think a lot about how we construct our concept of "normal" and how intensely personal that term truly is.