Thursday, February 26, 2009

Fiction Review: A Dirty Job

Christopher Moore is known for writing funny and irreverent novels about strange topics, and A Dirty Job is no exception.

Charlie Asher is an average guy who loves his wife, Rachel, and is looking forward to the birth of his first child. Moore describes Charlie as a Beta Male: the sort of average, slightly neurotic, careful and steady guy who is always coming in second to the Alpha Males. Charlie owns and runs a second-hand store in San Francisco that his father left him. The story begins with the birth of his daughter, Sophie, and Charlie’s typical terrified Beta Male reaction as he drives the nurses crazy with his suspicion that Sophie was born with a tail because he’s sure he saw one on the sonogram:
“”You could have removed her tail in the delivery room, and we’d never know.” He didn’t know. He’d been asked to leave the delivery room, first by the ob-gyn and finally by Rachel. (“Him or me,” Rachel said. “One of us has to go.”)
In Rachel’s room, Charlie said: “If they removed her tail, I want it. She’ll want it when she gets older.”
“Sophie, your Papa isn’t really insane. He just hasn’t slept for a couple of days.”
“She’s looking at me,” Charlie said. “She’s looking at me like I blew her college money at the track and now she’s going to have to turn tricks to get her MBA.””

Soon, Charlie begins to notice strange things happening around him – giant ravens perched on buildings, eerie voices calling to him from the sewers, a strange man dressed in green that no one can see except Charlie, and people dying everywhere Charlie goes.

Charlie has been recruited for a new job he never wanted but can’t turn down: Death. Adventure and mayhem follow as Charlie tries to figure out exactly what his role is in this new job, while also bringing up and trying to protect Sophie.

Moore’s wacky sense of humor pervades the entire book, with plenty of laugh-out-loud moments that compel you to read sections out loud to whoever happens to be sitting near you. Best of all, A Dirty Job is populated with an unusual and very amusing cast of supporting characters, including the young Goth girl, Lily, who works in Charlie’s store; Charlie’s lesbian sister who is constantly borrowing his suits; and two older women – one from China and one from Russia – who help to take care of Sophie.

If sexual references and the “f” word offend you, you might want to steer clear of Moore’s book, but otherwise, A Dirty Job is a hilarious, silly, and oddly heart-warming book about the age-old battle of good versus evil, as fought by a Beta Male. I read this book for one of my book groups, and everyone enjoyed its light-hearted humor and original story (the people who listened to it said the audio version was great). After I finished it, my husband immediately started to read it because he had to find out what all my laughing was about!

Friday, February 20, 2009

Book Giveaway at J. Kaye's Blog

Another book blogger, J. Kaye, has recently posted a review of the book Nine Lives: Death and Life in New Orleans. She is also giving away a copy of the book to one winner. Just leave a comment on her review to be entered in the give-away.

I used to live in New Orleans, and the city holds a special place in my heart (as it seems to for everyone who has ever lived there). The book sounds wonderful to me, and I definitely want to read it - even if I don't win the give-away. What a perfect book to read for this last week of Mardi Gras season!

P.S. Check out for full coverage of Mardi Gras and live web cams of the Mardi Gras parades this weekend through Tuesday!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Memoir Review: Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life

Anytime I have happened to come across Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s writing (often in her past columns in Parenting magazine while waiting in a doctor’s office), I have always ended up laughing out loud, so when I heard that she’d written a memoir, I knew I’d enjoy it.
“I was not abused, abandoned, or locked up as a child. My parents were not alcoholics, nor were they ever divorced or dead. We did not live in poverty, or in misery, or in an exotic country. I am not a misunderstood genius, a former child celebrity, or the child of a celebrity. I am not a drug addict, sex addict, food addict, or recovered anything. If I indeed had a past life, I have no recollection of who I was.

I have not survived against all odds.
I have not lived to tell.
I have not witnessed the extraordinary.

This is my story.”
Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life is not an ordinary memoir; in fact, it’s quite unique. By her own admission at the start of her memoir, Amy writes in a “choppy, random, segue-free” style. Her memoir, as the title suggests, is written in the format of an encyclopedia, with alphabetical entries about…well, everything. From Anxious, Things That Make Me to Crossing Guard to Wordplays, Amy includes a bunch of random musings that add up to a fairly complete picture of who she is and what her life is like.

This sort of haphazard style might not appeal to everyone, but I really enjoyed her book. As I expected, Amy’s writing often made me laugh, and I enjoyed getting to know her. It probably helps that she and I have had similar lives – both born in 1965, both grew up in the suburbs in the 70’s with a younger sister named Beth, both now writers and mothers.

The memoir begins with an overview of American life in the early twenty-first century, including facts like the top CNN stories from 2000 – 2005, highest-rated TV shows, childhood rhymes, common slang, colors of the rainbow, and colors of the J. Crew catalog. You know right away that Amy has a unique and humorous way of looking at life.

As for her encyclopedia entries, they range from observations of the world around her to facts about herself and thoughts and feelings on a wide variety of subjects. I especially enjoyed her fascination with coincidences and wordplay. Some entries are a single line and some go on for pages. Many are accompanied by illustrations. A few of my favorites among the shorter entries:

“Amy Rosenthal:
My father-in-law informed me that my married name could produce these two anagrams: Hearty Salmon. Nasty Armhole. I cannot tell you how much I love that.

It would be difficult to convince me that leaning has no effect whatsoever on the outcome of my bowling.

I love butterscotch but rarely think to seek it out.”

As with the Butterscotch entry, I often found myself thinking, “Yes! Me, too!” as I read. As a bonus, this was the perfect book to read on a sick day, requiring little sustained concentration and producing plenty of laughs. I felt like I had made a new friend by the end of the book.

If you want to know more about Amy and her books (she has also written many children's books), visit her website. There are some wonderful videos there, as well, including her award-winning Kindness Thought Bubble.

 240 pages, Broadway Books


Thursday, February 12, 2009

Great Books for Kids and Teens

I'm pleased to announce that I have just launched my new book review blog, especially for kids and teens: Great Books for Kids and Teens.

From now on, I'll post reviews of all kinds of books for kids, teens, and young adults (mostly for middle grades and up, but I'll include some for younger kids as well) at the new blog, and will use this blog for grown-up book reviews, though I may occasionally include a teen/YA book here if I think adults will like it, too.

So, take a look and let me know what you think! I plan to add new reviews at least once or twice a week, so check back often.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Memoir Review: Waiting for Snow in Havana

“The world changed while I slept, and much to my surprise, no one had consulted me. That’s how it would always be from that day forward. Of course, that’s the way it had been all along. I just didn’t know it until that morning. Surprise upon surprise: some good, some evil, most somewhere in between. And always without my consent.”

That’s the beginning of Carlos Eire’s remarkable memoir, Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy, a National Book Award winner. His story begins on January 1, 1959, when President Batista fled from Cuba and a new leader, Fidel Castro, was suddenly in charge. With plenty of flash-backs and flash-forwards, Eire writes of his childhood in Cuba, both before and after the revolution.

Although the historical context is critical to the story, the first part of the book focuses on Carlos’ childhood before the revolution: the memories of a little boy (he was eight in 1959) running around the neighborhood with his brother and friends. He shares stories of their adventures – stories much like those of any young boy – against the backdrop of a tropical paradise. There are tales of ultra-rich friends who live in mansions; stories of flying kites, swimming at the beach, and setting off firecrackers with his friends; and admissions of a terrible fear and loathing of the ever-present lizards.

In some ways, though, Carlos’ childhood was unusual. His father, a judge, firmly believed that he had been Louis XVI in a past life and that his wife was Marie Antionette. He is sometimes full of fun, taking the boys on exciting outings around Havana, and other times absent and uncaring, obsessed with his collection of arts and antiques.

While I enjoyed the tales of childhood joys and struggles, the book becomes much more fascinating as the revolution unfolds. Eire describes the changes that occur in his neighborhood, his school, and his country from a child’s perspective, sometimes flashing forward to relate to what happened from his adult point of view. Eventually, when it becomes apparent that Cuba is changing in dramatic and dangerous ways, Carlos’ mother makes arrangements for he and his brother to flee to the United States (it was easier for children to leave than adults). So, in 1962, eleven-year old Carlos sees Cuba for the last time from his airplane seat, leaving behind everything and everyone he knows, except for his brother.

We also learn, in bits and pieces, about what happened to Carlos and his brother after they arrived in the United States and how the author grew up to be the man he is today, but the focus of the book is on those first eleven years in Cuba, how they helped form his view of the world and of himself.

I enjoyed this book very much and passed it along to my husband, who’s reading it now. Not everyone in my book group liked it as much as I did, but we all agreed that we learned a lot, and we certainly had plenty to talk about during our discussion of the book. Some felt that the first part of the book was too much like any childhood memoir, but I happen to like childhood memoirs, so I enjoyed that, as well as the second half of the book. I learned a lot about Cuba and Castro’s revolution – I had no idea that 14,000 Cuban children had been airlifted out of Cuba to the United States at that time – but I also enjoyed the author’s reflections on how his boyhood shaped the adult he is now.

If you’re interested in learning more about Cuba’s revolution after reading this book, you might also enjoy the movie, The Lost City, set during the same time period.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Young Adult Review: Go Ask Alice

I must be the only the person on earth who was a teen in the 70's and never read Go Ask Alice, the anonymous account of a teen girl who becomes addicted to drugs, but it's true. I recently picked up the audio version of the famous book at the library and listened to it for the first time during several car trips.

I was stunned by the power and emotional impact of this story, as I suppose many people have responded to it since it was first published in 1971. So, I was equally stunned and sorely disappointed to discover that it is now widely assumed to be a work of fiction. I just finished reading a summary of Go Ask Alice on, the go-to place on the web for debunking urban legends. I was crushed to find out that the book is not the real-life diary of a teen, as it is presented.

I do tend to be gullible in these sorts of things, mainly because I'm an optimist and idealist; I just want to believe that people are incapable of deception, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary! I tend to take things at face value.

However, while this particular deception is disappointing to me, it doesn't change my opinion of the book overall. I found much of the "diary" to be quite realistic, even reminiscent of my own high school journals, especially in the way that the narrator vacillated between cheerful optimism and dark despondency. Isn't that the essence of being a teen?

Perhaps the format I chose impacted my experience as well. Maybe the diary entries would have seemed less real if I were reading them rather than listening. The young narrator of the audio book did a great job expressing the highs and lows of the teen's high school life and her shame at her descent into drug addiction. When she talked, in a low monotone, about the horrible things that happened to her while she was high and living on the streets, my heart broke for her, and when she was back with her family and happily trying to put her life together, I cheered for her.

Despite its controversies and deception, Go Ask Alice remains a touching and disturbing portrait of how drug addiction can destroy the life of a smart, sweet young girl. Certainly, even if this account is fiction, the things that happen in the book do indeed happen to real people. I think all teens (and all parents) should read this book. It affected me deeply.