Thursday, May 29, 2008

Chick Lit

In honor of Sex and the City’s opening weekend, I thought I’d post about “chick lit.” While I don’t necessarily agree with naming a genre of books geared toward women, about women in the workplace, in relationships, etc., a semi-insulting name as “chick lit,” it is what it is. The term’s been out there for probably 12-15 years now, and many people understand it to encompass all books with titles similar to: Confessions of a Twenty-Something Woman Looking for Mr. Right in the City While Shopping on Her Lunch Break from Her Menial Job at a Publishing House.

I’ve definitely read my fair share of these types of books, those by the usual suspects of Jane Green, Marian Keyes and Sophie Kinsella. To go along with my Summer Reads post in a way, they’re easy, quick, mindless, entertaining and usually pretty funny. However, many are forgettable. When I thought of the idea for this post, I tried to think of all the chick lit books I’ve read. Impossible. I searched Amazon and saw some familiar covers and titles, but I couldn’t tell you what they were about. I’m sure I could guess, and I wouldn’t be far off—the themes remain the same.

Some great books unfortunately get a reputation as chick lit just because they’re about women for women readers, in turn not getting the credit they deserve. Also, some authors come out with great debuts, yet don’t deliver with their following novels. For example, I really enjoyed The Devil Wears Prada. Unfortunately the response to Lauren Weisberger’s follow-ups has been less than flattering. In the same manner, I also thought The Nanny Diaries was very entertaining, but McLaughlin and Kraus’ Citizen Girl? Well, I made it through two awful chapters and returned it to the library.

Even Helen Fielding’s subsequent attempts seem to be cursed. Love Bridget Jones’s Diary. That’s another book I’m happy to read again; a movie I own. I think this was probably one the groundbreakers when it comes to the swoop in of female-based fiction. Even Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason was a decent, entertaining sequel. However, Cause Celeb? Again, returned to the library because I had no interest in finishing it.

One author who I think falls under chick lit, but continues to put out good books is Jennifer Weiner. I’ve read several of her books—In Her Shoes, Little Earthquakes, Goodnight Nobody—and while they highlight similar themes as the books above, they dig a little deeper into important issues, such as loss of a child, inattentive husbands, meany moms at the playground, infidelity, weight issues, etc. For that reason, Weiner’s books are more memorable than most. Not fabulous, but good reads all around.

A different type of series that may fall under chick lit is Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series (One for the Money, Two for the Dough, Three to Get Deadly and so on), about a female bounty hunter and her goofy shenanigans. I ate up this series several years ago—great books to read while sitting at a slow summer job—but after a while, around To the Nines, they all started sounding the same. However, a fun group of books all the same, especially for newbies to the series.

The other possible groundbreaking chick lit author would have to be Candace Bushnell—the woman who started the franchise many females will be celebrating this weekend, Sex and the City. While I love the show and will be at the theater opening night, I actually never read the book. But I did read 4 Blondes, which I give a big thumbs down to, and which has kept me from cracking open any others of her books.

So, after this long-winded post, I ask: How do you feel about the term “chick lit”? What are your favorite guilty pleasures in the genre? What books in your mind don’t deserve to fall under the genre title? Or, what chick lit books do you just hate?

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Songs Without Words

This story, by Ann Packer, was mostly focused around Liz and Sarabeth, two friends from high school. The book starts with the girls in high school, when Sarabeth lived with Liz and her family after her mother committed suicide. Flash forward to present-day, when Liz is a mother of two and Sarabeth lives alone. They get together often.

When Liz’s 16-year-old daughter Lauren falls into a depression, Liz and Sarabeth’s relationship hits a rough patch. The rest of the book follows the Liz’s family and Sarabeth separately and together as they deal with Lauren’s depression. The book speaks from the perspectives of Liz, Sarabeth, Lauren and Liz’s husband Brody.

I liked the book, but it wasn’t those ones that I couldn’t put down. I wasn’t extremely attached to the characters, so I wasn’t absorbed in how I wanted it to end, or how I didn’t want it to end. However, the issues the book raised did make me think. It focused a lot on depression, particularly teenage depression, but also adult depression. I’ve always felt this is a real illness and it’s so important to treat if possible. So, it was informational to read about these situations, even if it was in a fictional book.

The book also studied Liz and Sarabeth’s relationship deeply. This was interesting to read about because, as a woman, I’ve always been fascinated by the way we manage relationships. Many of us have a hard time telling our good friends if they make us mad, if they hurt our feelings. Then we steam and stir to ourselves, act indifferent, cut off communication, etc. Why do we act this way? It’s hurtful to everyone involved and it really doesn’t solve anything. I even just read an article online the other day about ending friendships – that sometimes giving your friend the cold shoulder is the only way to break off a friendship, even if she never learns the reason why.

The book and the article made me think back to previous friendships I’ve had that didn’t work out in the end. Sometimes my intuition just told me to let it go, sometimes distance did it, sometimes a boy. Oftentimes I ended these relationships by just stopping contact. It just seemed easier – but it never provided closure. Obviously. I still think about them to this day. But, both the book and the article also made me value and thankful for the true friendships I have now.

If for only that reason, it was a good book.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Summer Reads

I read this article on CNN. It features different authors, such as Augusten Burroughs and Jodi Picoult, naming their favorite books to read over the summer. With lazy days of boating, patio sitting or cabin going, books are a great way to pass the time and relax during the warmer months.

As for me, I've picked up several different types of books in the summer time, everything from The Great Gatsby and Pride and Prejudice to The Kite Runner and Harry Potter. Here are some others I've enjoyed or read over and over during the summer:

Summer Sisters, by Judy Blume: Surprising news brings two old friends back together, reliving their times as kids, and rediscovering their friendship as adults. Blume covers the same issues as she does in her teen books, but at a much more adult level.

The Last Summer, of You and Me: Ann Brashares' first adult novel after her Traveling Pants series. Alice and Riley are sisters who travel to their family's summer home each summer. Paul is their next door neighbor and close friend. The book follows the crew during a summer where many changes take place. I loved this story.

Best Friends, by Martha Moody: This was an impulse Target purchase (I can't resist the books!) that turned out to be worth it. This story also follows two old friends from their introduction in college throughout their adult lives. The women are very different, yet can find connections at any point in their lives no matter where they are in physical distance.

Welcome to My Planet, Where English is Sometimes Spoken: My favorite novel of all time. I read it over again every couple of years. See here for my take.

I'm sure there are many others if I took the time to think about it. How about you? What are your favorite summer reads?

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, Series

Three years ago this June, hubby and I went away for a week in northern Minnesota (that's actually the week we became betrothed). Knowing it would be a week of relaxing on the deck of the cabin and the boat, I wanted a mindless, fun book to read. I picked up The Sisterhood of Traveling Pants at Target. I was a bit embarrassed. These were books for pre-teens and teenagers. But, the movie had just come out with America Ferrera and Alexis Bledel, and I loved those actresses from Real Women Have Curves and Gilmore Girls, respectively. Maybe the book would be a good read? Well, it was and I was hooked.

Fortunately for me, the next two books had already been released, too. And I absorbed those two over the summer, too. I had to share the love, so my two best girlfriends and I formed a mini Pants book club, mailing the books to each other (our own version of the Pants, perhaps?). The books made us laugh, cry and gasp. The fourth and final book even made us feel it was a bit too racy for its intended audience.

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants: Four friends are going to spend the summer apart for the first time since they were babies. A pair of thrift store pants - which magically fit these girls of all different shapes and sizes - are what keep them in contact. They send each other the pants - using them when they "need" them, sending them along with a member of the sisterhood needs them. The girls experience love, remarriage, sex and death over that summer.

The Second Summer of the Sisterhood: Bridget heads to Alabama to meet her grandmother, Lena spends time with who she thinks is her true love, only to be surprised by a shocking revelation, Carmen's mom starts dating, and Tibby takes a film course, learning more about herself along the way.

Girls in Pants, The Third Summer of the Sisterhood: Lena takes a controversial art class against her father's wishes, Carmen's mom falls in love, Bridget heads to coach soccer camp with a former flame, and Tibby goes through some family trauma of her own. Once again, the Pants prove comforting for all.

Forever in Blue, The Fourth Summer of the Sisterhood: The girls definitely grow up this summer after their first year of college. Lena has a romantic fling with a fellow art student, Carmen takes up theater and falls in with a very dramatic friend, Bridget takes a trip to Turkey for an archeology dig - meeting a very engaging professor, and Tibby learns what it means to be in an important relationship with her boyfriend. The Pants take them on one last adventure before they're ready to let them go.

Again, I loved these books. Quick, engaging reads. I think author Ann Brashares does a good job of creating strong female characters who are very different - sporty, arty, nerdy, beautiful, skinny, chubby, from broken homes, of blended families, and of different nationalities. They all have strengths and weaknesses, and they all need each other. It's a great series about friendship and acceptance. I don't think we're ever too old to read about such relationships. My girls and I look forward to the movie sequel come August. It won't be one for the Oscars, but it'll make us laugh and cry, I'm sure.

What other books or series out there are written for kids, but adults can enjoy, too? Obviously, Harry. Any other recommendations?

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Jon Hassler

I posted two months ago when Jon Hassler passed away. In the June issue of Minnesota Monthly, author Rebecca Hill remembers one of Minnesota's most classic authors. It's a nice love letter and worth a read.

Monday, May 19, 2008

The Dive From Clausen's Pier

I'm currently reading Ann Packer's second novel, Songs Without Words. Before I post about this book though, I thought I should post about her debut novel, which I thoroughly enjoyed, and which had me anxiously awaiting her next novel. Here is the review from Publisher's Weekly:

Packer's engrossing debut novel begins without ostentation. On Memorial Day, Carrie Bell and her fiance, Mike Mayer, drive out to Clausen's Pier for their annual ritual, a picnic with their friends, a trip they make the way a middle-aged couple might, in grudging silence. Before their resentments can be aired, Mike dives into too shallow water, suffering injuries that change their lives. If Mike survives, he will survive as a quadriplegic, and Carrie faces unexpected responsibilities. Ultimately, Carrie does what is both understandable and unthinkable. She leaves her hometown of Madison, Wis., and shows up on the doorstep of a friend in New York City. There she discovers a different world, different friends and a different self. The hovering question what will Carrie do? Abandon Mike or return to him? generates genuine suspense. Packer portrays her characters both New Yorkers and Madisonites deftly, and her scenes unfold with uncommon clarity. But if Packer has a keen eye, she has an even keener ear. The dialogue is usually witty; more important, it is always surprising, as if the characters were actually thinking one of the reasons they become as familiar to the reader as childhood friends. The recipient of several awards, Packer is also the author of Mendocino and Other Stories. Clearly, she has honed her skills writing short fiction. What is unexpected is the assurance she brings to a larger canvas. In quiet but beautiful prose, Packer tells a complex and subtly constructed story of friendship, love and the hold the past has on the present. This is the sort of book one reads dying to know what happens to the characters, but loves for its wisdom: it sees the world with more clarity than you do.

Can you imagine the dilemma? She's feeling restless in her relationship and thinking about leaving and then - wham - he's in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. I think it's very brave of her to move on without him. So many people had to think she was hugely selfish for making that move, but seriously, if she stayed with him, that could've meant a lifetime of unhappiness. It's a wonderful story - not a necessarily happy one - and it's written well and studies interesting issues.

Fun Fact:
It took Packer 10 years to complete this novel, and it's partly autobiographical, for her father suffered a paralyzing stroke when she was young.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Change of Heart, The End

I finished Change of Heart last night. I was right about the ending, which is disappointing. I was still holding out hope that Picoult would surprise me in the end. However, the way she wrapped things up in a pretty little bow, well, I still have questions. I won't go into detail so I don't spoil it for anyone who wants to read the book, but I think there could've been a bit more detail in the epilogue. After the way things played out, I think there should've been a bit more of an aftermath.

Would I recommend it? If you don't already read Picoult's books, then no. I would suggest reading My Sister's Keeper first. If you're already a faithful reader, then it's hard not to read her latest books. This I know. Plus, as with any author I like, I always want to find out for myself if I agree with the reviews I read. And, I usually don't.

Like I said in my previous post, I did appreciate the discussions of capital punishment and religion. Some of the characters would go on these long rants about one view or the other, and it got me thinking: Do you ever think the views expressed by characters in fiction actually reflect how the author feels in real life? One protagonist openly detests capital punishment, while a few others question organized religion. It makes me wonder if Picoult has these feelings as well, or if she's just able to write from different points of view.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Change of Heart

I’m reading Jodi Picoult’s latest novel. Once again she dives into controversial issues, this time capital punishment and organ donation. When she was pregnant with Claire, June’s husband and daughter were allegedly murdered by Shay Bourne. Now 11, Claire needs a heart transplant, and Shay, on death row, wants to give her his heart after he’s put to death.

As with several of her other books, the story is told from many different perspectives: June, Lucius (Shay’s cell neighbor), Michael (Shay’s priest), and Maggie (Shay’s lawyer). While on death row, miracles start to happen: water turns to wine, a bird is raised from the dead, a piece of gum becomes never-ending and a disease is cured. The cell occupiers, as well as the public, believe Shay is the next Messiah.

Sound a little familiar? Didn’t someone already write this story? Change the bird to a mouse and make the illness a major UTI and I think Stephen King covered it the first time in “The Green Mile.” So, that’s been throwing me off a little bit. Why copy – and so blatantly? And of course, as with any Picoult books, there will be a twist. I’m 90 percent sure I already know what it is.

Picoult’s book are always engaging, so this one isn’t any different. The arguments for and against capital punishment are definitely interesting to think about, as are the thoughts about religion and what people believe in. However, even though I’m only halfway through, I’m disappointed. I expected a little more. It’s too similar to someone else’s work. Some of the questions get answered a bit too conveniently. I didn’t want to figure out the ending 20 pages in. (Though, since I’m not done yet, I could still be wrong.)

However, the book raises an interesting question: If your child needed a heart, would you accept one from a murderer? Even if he was the man who murdered your family? If you were Claire, would you take the heart? Pretty sure I would.

My favorite quote mentioned in the book: “I know God will not give me anything I can’t handle. I just wish He didn’t trust me so much.” Mother Teresa.

Somedays that just says it all.

Monday, May 12, 2008

The Best of Blogs: Vote for me

Hi everyone,

I'm a finalist for a Best of Blogs Award, for Best Book/Literary Blog, so please head to the Web site to cast your vote in my favor. To vote: click here.

The Best of Blogs awards are given only to blogs with 250 or less hits each week, which I think is pretty cool. It's a great way for little blogs, or new blogs, to gain some exposure.

Thanks for your support!

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Unaccustomed Earth, Finale

The second half of the book comprised three short stories that involved Hema and Kaushik, two acquaintances throughout life. Both Hema and Kaushik are second-generation children, however while Hema stays in the United States for much of her life, Kaushik's parents move back to India for awhile, and then return again.

The first story takes place when Kaushik and his family move back to the U.S. when he's 16 and stay with Hema's family until they find a new home. It's told from Hema's point of view. The second story, "Year's End," is told by a 21-year-old Kaushik about his struggles with his current family situation. The third story jumps 20 years ahead when, by happenstance, the two meet again.

In the podcast interview with Lahiri that I listened to this week, she talks about how Hema and Kaushik have been with her for at least 10 years. She had them in her head, but was unsure how to tell their story. She knew she wanted to tell a story of a family moving back to India, then back to the U.S. She also wanted to tell a story that took a similar form as letter-writing, which these three stories do. After she wrote her first story about Hema and Kaushik, she said it was the only time she felt there could be a sequel - that she wasn't done telling their story. This is how she ended up with a trilogy at the end of Unaccustomed Earth. Each is a story in its own right - but together, they're beautiful.

As Lahiri was talking about Hema and Kaushik, I could tell she loved them. More so, maybe, than any of her other characters. Perhaps because they'd been with her for so long. This definitely came out in her writing. I loved these stories - I was moved once again. Why did I read this book so fast? For one, I couldn't put it down. But now I wish I could read it all over again.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Unaccustomed Earth, Part II

Many of Lahiri's stories have similar themes. Interpreter of Maladies encompassed many stories about first-generation Bengali immigrants. The Namesake also started out as a story about first-generation immigrants, but then became a story about their children. Unaccustomed Earth focuses more on the second generation. But, no matter what generation Lahiri focuses on, some of the struggles remain the same.

In many situations, it's the husband who comes to the United States for work (most often in New England). Either he marries (often arranged) before he comes, or his parents arrange a marriage for him while he's away, he comes back to India to marry, and then moves the woman to the U.S. With the woman so far from her family, not working, not being able to drive, she's often lonely and relies heavily on this new stranger. Most often, the man can't figure out why his wife is sad all the time. In several of Lahiri's stories, the women feel resentment toward their husbands for taking them away from India. When they have children, things change a bit, get better. However, as their children grow up, they become more and more American, leaving behind their parents who may still struggle with English and new American customs.

Lahiri was born in India, but moved to America when she was two years old. I listened to a podcast interview with her recently, and she said she feels more American than anything else, yet she still struggles with her identity sometimes. I've always wondered if her stories came from something real deep inside of her, and now I believe that to be true.

In the podcast (if you're interested, head to B&N Studio and click on Meet the Writers), she also talks about why this most recent book speaks more toward second-generation immigrants. In her personal life, Lahiri is second generation (out of three). This is the first book she wrote as a mother - and when you read it you can tell, especially compared to Interpreter. It's also come to the time in many second-generation children's lives when their parents are aging, perhaps dying. That is also a big theme throughout the book.

It was a very interesting interview. Lahiri seems soft-spoken and humble, not realizing the talent she possesses. She believes success is arbitrary - who knows what book people are going to like? It's so true. She also seemed a bit "above" the interview, but not in a bad way. Just that she expected more of the interviewer. I felt she wanted to be asked something she's never been asked before. As a journalist, I know how hard it is to ask new questions, but I think that also makes me in tune to an interviewee who's looking for more from her interviewer.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Unaccustomed Earth

I've been breezing through Unaccustomed Earth, by Jhumpa Lahiri. As with Interpreter of Maladies and The Namesake, I'm in love. Each story is so completely different from one another, yet they're based along the same themes.

The book opens with the title story, probably my favorite so far. Unaccustomed Earth is about a young Bengali woman who's married to an American. Her widowed father comes to visit. The story studies their relationship from both points of view (POV), so the reader can see all the miscues each person gets from the other. It was so moving.

Hell-Heaven explores a friendship between a married woman and a brother-like friend. It's told from the POV of the woman's young daughter.

A man and his American wife return to his high school alma mater for a wedding of a friend in A Choice of Accommodations. The man deals with many emotions during the weekend, including abandonment, resentment, love and loneliness. This was particularly interesting to read from the male perspective. Also impressive how Lahiri could write from that perspective as well.

I was most surprised (for reasons I won't say) by Only Goodness, a story about a brother and sister and how they grow up, sometimes close, sometimes not. The family dynamics in this story were very intriguing - parents feeling shame, the sister (the most Americanized) having to grow up so much quicker to help her parents, etc.

Nobody's Business actually takes the POV of an American watching the comings and goings of his female Bengali roommate. This was also an interesting perspective, though I would've liked to know more about what was going on in the roommate's mind during her time at his apartment.

I've now moved on to the second half of the book, which comprises three stories about the same family. I'd rather read all of them first, before sharing my thoughts. The stories are so good, it's nearly impossible to put the book down without at least finishing each story.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Interpreter of Maladies & The Namesake

I've just started Jhumpa Lahiri's latest collection, Unaccustomed Earth, but I thought I'd precursor my thoughts on that with my feelings of her first two books. Lahiri won a Pulitzer for her debut collection of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies. Her stories revolve around Indian Americans, those who have either moved here from India and must face adjustment, or those who were born here, yet feel somewhat out of place at home, within their own culture, or out in the world. I was moved by each and every one of these stories, especially the title story. Lahiri's talent is so true and so great, I'm in love (and a bit jealous). I went through a phase a couple years ago where I read as many novels about India that I could get my hands on (see here and here for examples). This book fell in the midst of that phase, and after just posting about it, I want to pick it up again.

Many people are probably familiar with The Namesake because it was a recent Hollywood movie, starring Kal Penn. While the movie was good, as in most cases, it doesn't do the book justice. The Namesake was Lahiri's second book, but instead of a collection of stories, this is a full-length novel about an Indian couple who get married, move to the United States and have children. The book spends much time on both the mother's struggles with her new American life (I love the passages about her driving) and Gogol's, the son, struggle with his identity as well. It's a beautiful story. While I preferred Interpreter of Maladies just a bit more, The Namesake is also extremely good.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Middlesex: Finale

I finished Middlesex this week. The book was very engaging. As I previously stated, the language was rather beautiful and descriptive, but not so overdone that you're like, "C'mon already, get to the dialogue," like some books can be. I enjoyed reading about the family over the generations - it was an interesting way to tell the story.

Now, the ending. Particularly the last 50 pages. A little bit of a disappointment. I won't go into great detail, and I don't know what I was really expecting or hoping for, but those last pages just didn't do it for me. It seemed overdone. It felt like the author took it one or two steps too far. It was too dramatic. Again, I know it's fiction, but part of me thought it really could've been a true story. Until the end.

Despite this, the final five pages redeemed the previous 45, and I closed the book satisfied. So, check it out.

For those who've read it - do you agree about the ending, or am I off track?