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Friday, March 21, 2014

Crazy-ass Literary Fiction OR Middle C by William H. Gass

Book Type: Crazy-ass literary fiction

Stereotype Alert: Too weird for traditional stereotypes...

Cover Art: Someone stole my keyboard and all they left me was middle C and C#/Db.

Bed/Bride/Bludgeon: Jesus.  You sort of want to put everyone out of their misery at one point or another, but one has to wonder if a lay or two would have made Joseph a bit more normal. 

Character Score: 5.5-6 Mr. Micawbers

What's the Story?: The life of Joseph Skizzen manages to be complete run of the mill and just plain crazy all at once.  

X-Factor: Holocaust reversal

Stereotype Alert: I can't even.  Psychologically there's plenty stereotypical about Joseph.  But in the context of how his story is told... I guess the descriptions of small Midwestern religious colleges are a bit stereotypical.  But they are spot on at the same time.

Cover Art: I actually think this is a really beautiful cover.  It does fool the reader into expecting to read something WAY different, however.

Bed/Bride/Bludgeon: Really.  Not going there.  I feel like there aren't enough characters in this book for me to even cast this properly unless everyone gets a "bludgeon."

Character Score: I really enjoyed Miriam.  And Rudi is so wacky that you can't really help but wonder where Joseph gets his weirdness- even if (especially if???) he did grow up without his father around.  Gass did a great job of creating veeeeery unique characters.

What's the Story?
Middle C is unlike any other novel I have ever read.  The storytelling doesn’t unfold in typical linear fashion and because of this the reader becomes increasingly curious about how our narrator, Joseph Skizzen, gets from point A to point Z.  Joseph’s tale begins before he is even born, with his parents and sister living in their native Graz, Austria just before the dawn of World War II.  Sensing that the Nazis will soon be creating more than their fair share of problems in his homeland, Rudi Skizzen flees to London with his family by pretending that they are Jewish refugees.  Joseph is born shortly after their arrival and the Skizzen (now called Fixel) family manages to survive the Blitz.  Joseph’s father “reinvents” or renames himself several more times and then disappears mysteriously after the war.  After desperately searching for her husband, Joseph’s mother Miriam then manages to relocate herself and her two children to a small town in rural Ohio. 

And here is where Joseph’s story takes off.  We can see the two Skizzen children grow into their new lives as Americans.  Joseph is quiet and not particularly book-smart while his sister Debbie becomes a cheerleader and wants to be a part of all things fashionable.  Joseph begins to enjoy his piano lessons with a local teacher, but it is apparent that he is self-taught in playing popular tunes than anything else.  We are then shown a look at Joseph as an older man, one who has used the entire attic of his large home to house what he calls his “Inhumanity Museum” which is host to countless newspaper clippings spotlighting all manner of man’s terrible acts.  We bounce back and forth in time to see Joseph working as a high schooler in a music store, then as a college professor, then a college student, then as an assistant in a small town library.  Each sector of Joseph’s life creates another layer of lies he tells himself to continue on his way. 

I began this book thinking (due to the title) that it was about music.  And in many ways, music plays a big role in Joseph’s life.  But the result of Gass’s novel is so unlike any story I’ve seen told that it is hard to place my finger on what the biggest point of the narrative truly is.  Middle C  is a fascinating, careening tour through the mind of a seemingly ordinary man who lives a seemingly ordinary life but it is certainly an extraordinary novel.  

X-Factor: Seriously.  How many books have you read about Jewish people pretending to be Christian so that they could escape Germany/Poland/Austria etc. and persecution at the hand of the Nazis?  Now how many books have you read where someone pretends to be Jewish so they could escape the Nazis?  Until now, I had read zero.  God I hope this wasn't an actual thing that happened on a regular basis at the time.  It just seems so... icky.  But in the context of setting up Rudi and his eccentricities, it worked like a charm.

I can't say enough about this book.  I really can't- my grasp of the English language and my own personal feelings cannot fully encompass all that I would like to say about this novel.  If you are generally a reader of literary fiction, I would highly recommend it.  That's all I can really say.  

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Momma Said There'd Be Days Like This OR Glitter and Glue by Kelly Corrigan

Book Type: Coming of age-ish memoir

Stereotype Alert: Nada

Cover Art: Mail Call!

Bed/Bride/Bludgeon: Following my rule about books dealing with cancer, I'm not going there on this one. 

Character Score: 7 out of 10 Mr. Micawbers

What's the Story?: A young woman sets out to see the world and become Interesting.  While nannying for an Australian family who has just lost their mother to cancer, her views on what makes life worth living begin to shift.

X-Factor: Globetrotting

Stereotype Alert: I haven't read a lot of memoirs.  And I really haven't read, well, any memoirs that deal with motherhood.  And while most of this book takes place long before the author has any children of her own, I really identified with her thoughts and feelings.  

Cover Art: I know this book takes place (mostly) in 1992 before the age of email, but I love seeing the big stack of handwritten letters.  And red being my favorite color... an eye-catching book for sure! 

Character Score: Not so much a comment on the characters since this is a work of non fiction, but I really loved Corrigan's writing voice.  

What's the Story?: I originally picked up the advanced copy of this book because I thought it was a funny memoir by a crafty person.  Like Jen Lancaster's Tao of Martha or Amy Sedaris's I Like You. What a misleading title!  But after reading the blurb on the back of the book, I thought it would still be worth a go and I was not disappointed.

Kelly Corrigan is a young woman in her early 20s.  She longs for adventure, for a chance to have interesting new experiences that you can only have when you “leave the house.”   She and her college roommate decide to go on a round-the-world trip beginning in Taipei.  The two are on the road for two months before they run out of cash while in Sydney, Australia.  Corrigan pictured herself working in a bar or restaurant to save up money for the next leg of her trip; not playing nanny to two kids whose mother has recently died of cancer.   And she certainly never expected to travel more than half way around the world to connect with her mother, of all people.  But this book is all about difference between what you imagine and what is.  About what you think is important, and what actually is important.

Corrigan uses a lot of flashbacks to talk about the type of person her mother is.  She makes it very plain that she and her mother have virtually nothing in common.  Her mother is a practical woman.  One who doesn’t spoil her children and makes them follow her rules at all times.  Her father, however, was always a pleasant, outgoing guy who loved to spend time with his kids after work and called his only daughter “Lovie.”  But as her mother liked to remind her daughter, “Your father’s the glitter but I’m the glue.”  Corrigan relishes the opportunity to be living her own adventure away from her mother’s nagging but soon finds that her mother’s voice is the one constantly giving her advice on how to care for the Tanner children.  As the weeks tick by, Corrigan is struck by how the Tanner family learns to survive without a mother.  The harder she tries to help the children, the more she thinks about her own mother and slowly discovers that life’s true adventure is experiencing life within a family. 

Glitter and Glue  is a quick read that is a different type of coming of age memoir.  It begins with a young woman's quest for independence and excitement and ends with her deep feelings about the importance of family.  Maybe it's just because I'm going to be a mother soon, but I really enjoyed this book.  Glitter and Glue is available everywhere February 4th 2014.  

Friday, January 3, 2014

Can't Hardly Wait for Downton Abbey? OR Snobs by Julian Fellowes

OK.  It's been a while.  I really have been reading books since October.  I even wrote a few of them up for the Staff Reads blog at work.  But I have been incredibly lazy about posting on this blog.  A few things I read over the last 3 months that I won't be reviewing here:

  • Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery.  I finally read this!!!  Can you believe that I've seen the Canadian mini-series/movie more times than I can count but never actually read the book???? It has been remedied and I am so pleased to report that the adaptation of the book to screen is so well done as to rival The Princess Bride for "Best Adaptation" in my book.  The second Anne series/movie... I'm not going to go there.
  • Five Days At Memorial by Sheri Fink.  Guys.  This. Book.  It took me almost a month to read because I found it so incredibly stressful.  True story of a bunch of doctors and nurses in the days during the incredible flooding in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.  I can't even imagine what those people went through and I certainly can't imagine having to make the tough decisions that they made.  Very good, very hard to read.
  • Insane City by Dave Barry (audio book version).  Who doesn't love Dave Barry?  Like his previous two novels, this one is full of vivid characters and crazy situations.  Barry is a great narrator and I loved every insane minute of the book.

Many of you probably know that Julian Fellowes writes for the beloved English period drama Downton Abbey.  You may even know that he won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for the film Gosford Park in 2002.  But did you know that he used to be an actor?  And that he's also a novelist?  His 2004 novel simply titled Snobs takes a look into a modern day Downton Abbey-type manor house.  But lest you think this book is all "Upstairs vs. Downstairs," let me assure you that it is not.  It is really about how the class system is very much alive and well in England to this day.  And how the aristocracy treats everyone else.  It is a comedy of manners- or perhaps, a lack-there-of.

Book Type: Modern Day Downton Abbey.  Minus all the "downstairs" stuff.

Stereotype Alert: Not really.

Cover Art: Ring the bell!

Bed/Bride/Bludgeon: Narrator/Charles/Googie

Character Score: 6 out of 10 Mr. Micawbers

What's the Story?: A comedy of manners.  Non-aristocratic Edith meets Charles the Earl, gets married and realizes life married to a rich man is not as simple as she originally thought.

X-Factor: Autobiography-ish

Cover Art: The one with the bells is a reissued paperback version.  The original 2004/2005 edition is bright yellow with sort of art deco people on it.  Funny thing is, this stock bell art on the new cover was also used on the book Servants by Lucy Lethbridge with different cropping etc.  You'd think that folks would be pretty sure to use different cover art for two books that deal with the English aristocracy and their homes but apparently not.

Bed/Bride/Bludgeon: Well, though I know far more about Edith than I'd like and far less about the narrator, he sounds hot.  And is artistic.  And is a born English aristocrat.  *swoon* I love boring old Charles.  If you had to marry for money/station, I could think of a LOT worse people to be stuck with.  Besides, he obviously loves Edith and would do anything for her- why doesn't she teach an old dog a few new tricks?  And Googie.  Ugh.  Fellowes does a great job of painting her as a woman who does what she needs to in order to stay polite within her station.  He also paints her as a sympathetic mother who just wants what is best for her son.  I get it.  She's still annoying.

Character Score: Love most of them, hate a few of them.  Love Fellowes' voice.  The end.

What's the Story?:
Snobs is written mostly from the point of view of an actor who was born an aristocrat, and he tells the tale of Edith Lavery and the Broughtons, who hold the seat as to the Marquess of Uckfield.  Edith, who was brought up in an upper-middle class household by a mother who longed to be debutante, is a very attractive blonde who agrees to go along with her mother's plans for coming out and taking an active roll in London's debutante season.  Nearly nine years later, Edith is working a boring desk job and hasn't landed a rich husband- or any husband at all.  While visiting the friends in Sussex, Edith, our narrator and their host Isabel Easton, decide to take a public tour of the nearby manor house Broughton Hall.  The group run into one of the members of the family while on the tour and Charles Broughton (heir to the Marquess and one of England's most eligible bachelors) takes a shine to Edith.  Months later, the narrator and Edith are both invited to join the Eastons at Ascot in London.  The group run into Charles again and the Earl manages to convince Edith to join him for tea.  The rest, as they say, is history.

Charles eventually proposes to Edith and being the pragmatic individual that she is, Edith accepts.  But life as an Earl's wife is hardly what she imagined it would be.  First, there's Charles mother, Lady Uckfield (known affectionately by the ridiculous nickname "Googie"). Lady Uckfield probably hates Edith with a venomous passion but seeing as manners and decorum dictate that she act as if she love Edith, never shows her true feelings.  Googie knows that Edith is not a true aristocrat and that is the one failing that Edith can never make up no matter how hard she tries.  Edith is, and always will be, an outsider.  Then there's the fact that Charles, while a good, loyal, man is rather...boring.  And though Edith plays her part and immerses herself in running flower shows, working with local charities and enjoying life in a grand house, she finds herself to be very unhappy.

Almost a year into their marriage, the Broughtons decide to let a production company film a period drama on the estate.  Our narrator secures a role in the production and is there to witness Edith finally come off the rails.  Throwing all caution and common sense to the wind, Edith begins an affair with the film's handsome leading man, leaves Charles and sets up shop with her new lover in London.  Our poor narrator is then forced to become a sort of go-between for Edith and the Broughton family.

Snobs is a novel about the less glamorous side of the English elite and can be practically summed up in the following quote:

"The English, of all classes as it happens, are addicted to exclusivity.  Leave three Englishmen in a room and they will invent a rule that prevents a fourth joining them."

A delightful read for any who enjoy English history and culture.

X-Factor: Lots of people assumed that this was an autobiography since Fellowes is also a member of the English aristocracy and an actor.  It is fiction, but he describes that world and its manners so well that I'd love it no matter what it was.

If you are jonesing for more Downton, do not hesitate to pick up this book!