Three in one!

I feel like I open every blog post now with some sort of “sorry for not blogging in a long time, my life has been super busy” explanation. It’s still more or less true, even now that I’m out of school. Despite being something of a lousy blogger, I’ve still been reading though! And while I am still hoping to keep to my goal of 50 books by the end of 2013, I’m going to cheat a little and blog about the last three books I read all in the same post. After all, I never technically said I would write 50 posts too, right?

Book 1: “A Winter’s Dream” by Richard Paul Evans

From the author that brought you the overly-sentimental, yet heartwarming and cheesy “Christmas Box” series comes another feel good, but first cry a lot type of book. A spin on the biblical story of Joseph and the dream coat, this modern day marketing salesman takes the fall for one of his brother’s mistakes in the ad company. To ensure that no one knows, Joseph is forced to promise his brothers that he will leave the company and the family, leaving the other brothers free to absorb their father’s attention. Exiled from his home, job and family, Joseph finds a new job at a different ad company, and learns to live on his own, finding love and happiness, etc etc. Eventually his family’s ad company is in trouble, and his brothers come to him explaining their plight and how sorry they are, although they don’t recognize that it’s him at first. Then Joseph forgives them and the brothers learn their lesson and everything is some Don Draper advertising version of peaches and cream.

Maybe I was just not in the right mood for this sort of “feel good” family tale, but I liked the idea a lot better than the actual book. A modern day spin on a famous biblical tale: pretty cool. But then I remember that I already know how it ends, and basically everything in-between, and it gets a little less exciting. Perhaps if it was a bit more of a departure from the original, I would have been more of a fan. 

Book 2: “Franny and Zooey” by J.D. Salinger

Let me preface this by saying that I love love love “Catcher in the Rye.” It took me a little time after reading it in high school, but I realized after reading it how crafty and wonderfully ironic and amazing it is. So maybe the same thing will happen with this book, but for now, I’m still in the “not quite to realizing how great this book is” phase. Also known as, “wow, that book sucked.”

Honestly, the entire time I was reading, I kept waiting for some deeper meaning to pop out at me, because clearly this sort of snobbish dialogue between a brother and sister about a book about religion for an entire 200 pages has a much more complex meaning, right? I would think so…Maybe I’m just not getting it, but considering that I read “Catcher in the Rye” at 16, I would hope that by 22 I would have evolved mentally enough to grasp this one. 

All this complaining aside, don’t let me discourage you. Maybe in a few weeks, this epiphany will hit me and I’ll have a whole new perspective on the trials and tribulations of Franny and Zooey. I’ll let you know if that happens.

Book 3: “The Urban Hermit” Sam MacDonald

Unlike the previous two works of fiction, this was not a book I would normally pick up. But surprisingly, I liked it the best of the three. The autobiographical memoir of a 300-pound post-college bum who owes a ton of money and needs to stop spending all his money at the bar, this once social butterfly becomes “the urban hermit.” Living on about $8 and 800 calories a day is his plan to survive for a month, but soon turns into a year as he learns about financial responsibility, the importance of physical health and finds a job as a journalist. Sure he screws up once or twice along the way, but 160 pounds less and a lot of money saved later, it definitely seems like a success.

Most of the book involves MacDonald talking about how hungry he is or how he wants a beer, so it may not seem like an awe-inspiring tale. However, his voice is one you can relate to, his problems are real, and though his solution may be a bit drastic, it makes for an interesting read. Definitely makes you lose your appetite for dried lentils and canned tuna. 

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On the road again

I was just discussing with some high school friends last week how going on a road trip is probably one of my least desired vacations ever. Mostly because I really hate driving. I have discovered I actually clench my jaw whilst driving, because it stresses me out. (I discovered this after going on a mini-vacation to Cape Cod this spring where I did all of the driving and my jaw hurt for days after.)

But, a road trip story on the other hand, is something that I really love. I have, for whatever reason, read a lot of road trip books over the years, and have never found one I didn’t like.  I can sit at home on a couch and read while the characters stress out and experience the inevitable self-realizations that accompany cross-country trips, and my jaw remains relaxed; it’s the best of both worlds.

“Calling Me Home,” by Julie Kibler, is a bit of a twist on the typical road trip story, since half the story focuses on the road trip of an elderly old woman, Miss Isabelle, and her young hairdresser in southern U.S., while the other part is told in flashbacks to the woman’s youth as a white teen in the pre-civil rights movement south and her love affair with a black boy, Robert, who works for her family. Think of it as sort of a road trip meets “The Help” meets typical forbidden love story. That may seem like an overwhelming combination, but it works, and it works really well.

The actual road trip is not the center of the story, but rather Miss Isabelle’s recollections of her past which she is forced to confront as she and her hairdresser, Dorrie, drive to the funeral of the baby she never knew she had with Robert. (Her supremely racist mother told her the baby died in childbirth and gave the baby to Robert’s family to destroy the evidence of her daughter’s relationship with a black man.)

I am sort of realizing as I write this that the complicated nature of this plot does not lend itself well to a blog-style summary, but to sum it up, I loved it. The story makes cliche plot lines into original writing, and the characters are genuine and sympathetic. The writing is vivid, and the issues, though dated, still have relevance today.

Bottom line: get this book. I stumbled across it in the “new fiction” section of my local library, so you can even get it for free (plus the $1 cost of a library card if you don’t have one). It will fulfill all your road trip longings, appeal to your romantic side and renew your sense of social justice all at once.

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“the genius of Einstein leads to Hiroshima” -Pablo Picasso

After almost a month-long hiatus, I’m back! Don’t worry, I’ve still been reading, just not blogging. Unfortunately, my idea that I would have more time to read and blog during the summer has proved something of a misconception, since working three part-time jobs and moving to a summer house took up most of my time.

I am still gravely behind on my one book per week average, but I am confident I can get to 50 by the end of 50 weeks, which is the ultimate goal here.

This week’s book, which was really one I read almost a month ago and never wrote about, was recommended to me by one of my most favorite professors/advisers in college.

“Hiroshima,” written by Pulitzer Prize-winning author John Hersey, explores the lives of six different people living in Hiroshima when the atomic bomb was dropped, and the effects of this historic and horrible moment in history on the rest of their lives. Based on the front-cover description, I was very excited to read this book, being a huge history buff and also thinking that an award-winning journalist would probably write a damn good book.

For the most part, I was right, but it took me a lot longer to really “get into” the book than I anticipated. The narrative about the lives of the six characters was constantly switching from one to the next, and most of their names were pretty similar to each other, at least based on my unfamiliarity with Japanese names. And two of the people actually had the same last name, though they were not related, so that didn’t help.

It was only probably halfway through the book that I really began to realize the severity of the effect the a-bomb had on the people of Hiroshima.  It was at this point that Hersey began to chronicle the lives of the six survivors after the bomb went off, including the strange illnesses and immune problems most of them suffered as a  result of exposure to the radiation.

Before this moment in the book, it had read something like a novel to me; obviously I know the bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki really happened, but the distant, unfamiliar world being described seemed like fiction. Then I arrived at the sometimes gruesome descriptions of burns and radiation sickness, at the sadness and depression the people of the book experienced, and it hit me just how real this experience was.

It is because of this realization that I found Hersey to be such an excellent writer, as journalists generally are in my very biased opinion. He was able to capture in what I am imagining are pretty accurate terms the culture and emotions of the people of Hiroshima before and after the bomb, making someone like me who has little knowledge of Japanese culture feel like I have gained a real understanding of said culture, at least through the eyes of the six people’s stories he documents.

While it seems a bit indelicate to give a book about a city and a people devastated by atomic bombs a “two thumbs up,” I would definitely recommend this book to those interested in history and culture. Even if, like me, you don’t have a lot of prior knowledge going in, this book educates and instills true empathy for the Japanese people in Hiroshima.

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The man who cried wolf

Let me preface this post by saying that Jodi Picoult (best known for “My Sister’s Keeper,” which also became a slightly terrible movie) is one of my favorite authors. Her ability to stretch reality just enough to create mystifying legal and ethical situations that show the gray area of life and law with dynamic characters is so awesome, there’s not even a word to describe it. Her books are like none other I’ve read, and each covers a completely different area or topic than the rest. It’s impossible for me to pick a favorite, and the stories are so complex I’ve re-read pretty much all of them and understood them better each time. 

“Lone Wolf” is Picoult’s newest book, and explores the broken relations of a family in which the father lives with wolf-packs to better understand them, at the cost of losing ties with his wife and children. Of course, in typical Picoult fashion, while that would be a story in itself, but add in that the father, back in the human world but still raising wolves, gets in a car accident with his daughter. Both survive with severe injuries, but the father ends up in a coma. The brother, who has lived in Asia for the past six years after a disagreement with his father, flies back to the U.S. and, as the only legal-age next of kin (the mom is divorced and remarried) wants to end the life support. The daughter does not, but is only 17, and takes her brother to court for the guardianship of the father, still in a coma. With alternating first-person narrative between the mother, daughter, brother and various other characters, with a prologue before each chapter by the father, the book is very involved. There are plot twists, which I won’t reveal here, but ultimately, it ends well. 

Maybe it’s because I’m not a nature person, but I really struggled to like the 1-2 page intros before each chapter written by the father as memories of his time living with a wolf pack in Canada (the idea is that since he is in a coma and can’t function as an “active” character, he shares his thoughts through these diary-style entries). However, the chapters, especially those written by the mother and daughter, came alive for me and had me up till 2 a.m. last night turning the pages to find out the father’s fate.

Of course, I would absolutely recommend this book to Picoult fans. To those who haven’t read any of her work, I might advise you to start with a different book, since this one is a bit more animal/nature-oriented than most (unless you’re into that). “My Sister’s Keeper” is her most famous one, and probably a good one to test out as a Picoult virgin. Either way, definitely check this out; now that it’s been out for a bit, it’s in local libraries so you can borrow it for free! (as an almost college grad with no full-time employment, this is one of my main book priorities). 

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“Time” to get busy

Sorry for my 2-week leave of absence, blogosphere! While I would like to think you were all eagerly awaiting my return, considering my viewing stats thus far that seems improbable. The basic reason I’ve been m.i.a. is finals/end of the school year. Not very exciting, but now I’m done!!!!!!! forever!!! [or at least until possibly grad school in the distant future].

As you can tell, I’m pretty excited to be graduating this Sunday and becoming a “real person,” as I call it. It would be better if I had a job in my field, but for now, I’ve cobbled together a few things to make ends meet. What that also means is I have lots of time for reading! Since I will be 3 weeks behind schedule once I post this review and one more for another book I’ve also finished, I am planning to have a reading (and wine drinking) marathon this week. And yes, that actually does excite me. Nerd status. (but nearly-graduated nerd. if that makes it better, which I’m not sure it does).

Now back to what I actually did read. Acclaimed author Mitch Albom, of “Tuesdays with Morrie” and “The Five People You Meet in Heaven,” is back at it with 2012’s “The Time Keeper.” The book is told through the eyes of three characters: “Father Time,” the man who first started counting time and is now exiled in a cave to live forever and learn about how his inventions have cursed humanity; a teenage girl dealing with typical teenager drama/boys and an old man with cancer near the end of his life looking to freeze his body to prolong his life until a cure can be found for his disease. With alternating chapters told in first-person narrative among the three characters, Albom plays with more than the idea of time by also using flashbacks to Father Time’s past, and flipping forward to the lives of present day Sarah (the teenager) and Victor (the dying man). Eventually, past and present meet as modern time freezes and Father Time rescues both Sarah and Victor from their own self-destructive paths. As with all Mitch Albom books, the writing style is descriptive, yet sparse, and the series of somewhat depressing events that unfold concludes with a happy ending. 

Honestly, this book was a little too much fantasy for me. I absolutely loved Albom’s other works, but the whole “Father Time” deal was a little strange to me. I think part of the problem was just that I was trying to power through the book while also studying for finals/correcting papers, so I couldn’t become completely absorbed in the fairy-tale gone wrong scenario. And while Albom’s writing usually inspires me, this felt a bit contrived, which again could be that I just wasn’t as focused on it as I should have been.

I would nevertheless recommend this book to Albom fans, since it is definitely a bit of a departure, plot-wise, from his usual stuff, but still rests on the foundation of great writing and vivid characters that he always employs. Perhaps if I wasn’t in need of more time myself to read and study, I would have better enjoyed “The Time Keeper.”


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The grumpy penguin



That’s pretty much how I feel today.  

No, this is not a blog post about last week’s book, because I didn’t read any books last week. Between papers, articles and my senior portfolio, I was just so swamped. So I didn’t read.

The plan was to read two books this week, but given that it’s Wednesday and I haven’t started book one, that seems questionable.

So instead of writing a book review for the week, I am just going to vent about why today sucked.

Actually, to be fair, it started out okay. I got in time to shower before class and the weather was beautiful. 

But then, life happened. As chronicled numerically below.

1. This one is my own fault, I guess. Not that that makes me feel any better. I got my book review (excerpts of which are in a previous post) back today. Eight points off for making a stupid, idiotic, moronic, obvious, foolish mistake. I’m not going to say what it is because it’s too embarrassing. Even though I ended up with an 89 overall, I could have gotten a 97. 

2. Tacos. Normally, these aren’t bad. But the cook at my house must put some crazy thing in the beef because I had the worst stomachache all afternoon. Which lead to…

3. My boyfriend is going back to Spain for three weeks on Friday. Not forever, but I am going to miss him, and thinking about that while lying in bed with a stomachache make my funk get funkier.

4. Some bitch (who will remain anonymous ) who I am not at all friends with but know her vaguely because we live in the same location (which is a 60+-person house, so that doesn’t narrow it down so much, don’t get excited) remarked to me that “chunky girls really just shouldn’t wear maxi dresses.” I was wearing a maxi dress. Now on a normal day, this might not have bothered me. But I was already having a bad day, remember? Plus I was kind of having an “I feel fat” day too, which I thought the maxi dress hid pretty well. 

5. Thanks to above comment, I decided to stop wallowing in my sadness about my boyfriend leaving and taco stomachache and go to the gym. Which is good, healthy, blah blah. Unfortunately, I landed kind of funny on my ankle when I started running. I kept going, but now my ankle super hurts. 

6. I spent a solid hour reading over a paper for a guy on the basketball team, for which I tutor at study halls. It needed a fair amount of work, and I did a lot of track changes, etc. Then, when I went to go over it with him, he wasn’t paying attention at all. Like, not even pretending to look in my direction. Just because you’re on a going-downhill basketball team doesn’t mean I’m going to do the work for you. Or that you can be rude to me. But that’s a whole other rant on sports culture at universities.

And there you have it. Six simple steps. They may seem small and underwhelming, but somehow added up to a crappy day.

Though my journalism professor would hate me for doing this, I’m going to end with a quote I found on tumblr. He also took eight points off my paper, so who cares. Although in journalism stories at least, he’s probably right.

“If you’re having a bad day, just remember: at least you don’t look like you did in middle school.” Amen.

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The Hard Truth on “Hard News”

On a more serious note, the week before I read “Bossypants” (I know, I know, I’m behind on posting), I cheated a little bit and read a book that I need to read and write a book review on for my journalism ethics class.

Here are a few excerpts of what I wrote in my review:

The New York Times is a name that has come to be associated with all things media and journalism. As Seth Mnookin, author of “Hard News,” notes, “more than any other single source, the Times would come to represent the closest journalism could get to unvarnished truth,” (xii). In his book, Mnookin explores how this pillar of journalistic style and integrity fell by chronicling what he believes to be the key factor in the Times’ demise: the leadership of former executive editor Howell Raines.

According to Mnookin, “The New York Times’s struggle—with the electronic age, with race, with the increasingly porous wall between editorial and business operations – have come to illustrate the challenges facing all news organizations” (xx). When Howell Raines became executive editor in September 2001, he was unable to rise to meet these challenges, instead focusing on how to better his own name and push his own agenda, creating a disjointed news environment where reporters like Blair could get away with egregious departures from journalism ethics.  

Through a narrative-style examination of the Times under Raines’ leadership, specifically with regard to the Jayson Blair case, Mnookin weaves together a cautionary tale of the dire consequences that even an upstanding organization can face under the wrong leadership. I found Mnookin’s use of the Times struggles through the last 10 years to be a perfect venue for discussing the modern-day challenges faced by all media outlets. He astutely recognizes the issues at stake in contemporary media ethics, and presents them through the specific case study of the Times. His writing is engaging for the reader, and he expresses his opinion with strength and clarity.

Though Mnookin uses the Times to present a multifaceted discussion on journalistic ethics and issues, one major criticism I found within the work is that he fails to offer a solution to the problem. He is quick to blame Raines for the paper’s fall from grace, but offers little in the way of concrete recommendations to prevent these types of disasters in the future.  Like the leader he so criticizes, Mnookin allows his own assumptions and bias to dictate his writing.

Now, for my “off the record” opinion (note the change in color corresponds with the end of the excerpts from my review for class. Clever, am I right? Say yes!)

Based on past experience, I was not necessarily expecting a book assigned for class to be a real “page turner.” But this was. Maybe it’s just because I’m a journalism major and if I wasn’t interested in this stuff, I would have been bored out of my mind for the past four years. But more realistically, I think anyone who followed or even heard of the Jayson Blair case, or has an opinion to share about the morality of the media– between these two options, I think I’ve covered everyone– would actually enjoy and learn from this book. I know, learning, who wants that? But really, NYT took a lot of heat following Blair, and this book does a pretty damn good job of lifting the shroud on the daily life and decisions behind a major news organization. 

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