Thursday, September 21, 2006

Night Swimming by Robin Schwarz

I picked up "Night Swimming" at my son's elementary school book fair, mostly out of self defense. My son had managed, like a lot of kids in that small room stacked to the rafters with books, to grab a whole pile of books he wanted to read and to have read to him, and most of them were, regretably, SpongeBob Squarepants stories. Spongebob is an innocuous, silly cartoon character who also happens to be very naive and stupid. I find that in watching the show, I get bored rather quickly, and the books are similar, in that I can only read one or two before wanting to feed them to a paper shredder out of irritation. So I happened to see that Scholastic had this mass market paperback, Night Swimming, for sale, along with some titles by well-known authors, and I grabbed it, thinking it couldn't be too bad if it was published by the same pub house that produced Harry Potter novels for the US market. I have to admit that I was also attracted by the theme of a larger woman breaking out of her routine to create a new life, as that's something that is on my mind a great deal lately. I was surprised and dismayed to discover that the novel wasn't empowering in its view of larger people, but denigrating, in somewhat the same way Wally Lamb treated fat as some kind of hideous disease in "Shes Come Undone," one of the novels high on my Most Despicable list. Schwarz creates an interesting, if naive and stupid character in Charlotte, a woman who weighs over 250, and is therefore described as being disgusting and grotesque, and only fit to wear mumuus and tent dresses. As if there isn't any fashionable clothing over size 8. Ha. That may have been true when I was a teenager, but it certainly isn't true today. Charlotte is told that she has a year to live, and in response, she quits her dull job at the bank and later robs the place of 2 million, and sets out to find love and happiness in Hollywood. She stops at several memorable places along the way, and has predictable encounters with "Deliverance" type of Southerners and an old wise granny (cliches! Arg!) and meets up with a rich Jewish woman (another cliche!) in Hollywood who, of course, takes her under her wing and teaches her how to give to poor sick children and learn to love someone without stalking them. Inevitably, Charlotte, who changes her name to Blossom, falls for a handsome lawyer turned pool boy (and that happens so often, of course...ha) and ends up throwing all her money away in Las Vegas out of sheer ignorance and there really anyone who doesn't know that the odds are always with the house in Las Vegas? Is there anyone who doesn't know that the city is nicknamed "lost wages" for a reason? Sometimes, ignorance can be charming, as it was with Bridget Jones, the first chick lit heroine. Schwarz didn't really manage to make Charlotte/Blossom that charming, as she was always spouting cliches and always doing ridiculous romance-novel-heroine things to gain the love of her pool boy. The trial at the end of the book is laughably unrealistic, as Charlotte is exonerated of all charges and allowed to go free and marry the shallow pool boy, who wants to become an architect. Oh PULLLLEASE! No one just gets off scott free after robbing a bank! Doesn't happen! The cover blurbs said this book would make me want to cheer. It made me want to contact the author and tell her to take some classes and learn to write fiction that isn't cliche ridden and create characters that aren't perfect stereotypes and one-dimensional. It's obvious that she is a new author, too, in the way her prose goes from decent to awkward and embarrassing, almost formulaic. I felt as if the author had purchased a book on writing chick lit and followed the instructions to the letter, thereby satisfying the form, but not the spirit of the genre. It is clear that Schwarz has talent, but not enough skill to pull off a great work. This is an average book, an okay read and a nice little distraction full of the cliches and shortcuts we've all come to expect from modern novels. However, I think Schwarz is capable of something much more original, fun and juicy. All she needs is a bit more work honing her writing, and a good editor to ride herd on her penchant for cliches (and typos...come on Scholastic, there is no excuse for publishing a book with 5 blatant typos!) I would recommend, too, that Schwarz spend time talking to larger women who have been that way most of their lives, and learn that you can be a larger person and still get a man, a good job, have a family and lead a decent life. You don't have to lose weight to be attractive, intelligent or valuable as a human being. Free your mind, Ms Schwarz, and the rest will follow, as the song says.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Rise and Shine by Anna Quindlen

Rise and Shine is a brilliant and often discomfeting look at the life of a television morning show celebrity and her twin sister, who works in the Bronx as a social worker. I've read Quindlans work before, mainly in big newspapers and magazines, and I've admired her no-nonsense take on almost every aspect of American society. She's a journalist in the old fashioned sense of the word, a real news hound with a "dame" perspective. I can only relate to her as a lowly community journalist relates to someone like Ted Turner or William Randolf Hearst. Quindlan, like Susan Orlean, can create long-form journalism pieces that are so acute and fascinating that they yearn to become non fiction books. I've not read her fiction mainly because I'd heard bad things about Black and Blue. I shouldn't have listened to those whispers of warning, because this book was very well written, paced beautifully and full of unforgettable characters. The sisters, Meghan and Bridget, are somewhat hard to empathize with, because both live in such rarified worlds, as twins and as professionals. Yet I found it hard not to want to comfort them when they were sad, or call them on the phone when in crisis, as if they were real people. Writers who draw such vivid characters are rare, and rarer still is the author who can sustain a sense of reality throughout a book filled with things that don't happen to "regular" people, for the most part. The story is told through the eyes of Bridget, the submissive, almost masochistic sister, while we hear of all manner of trauma and tragedy in the life of Meghan, the dominant, wealthy and very selfish twin. You find yourself not liking her decision to drop out of sight, but you admire her guts in taking a stand anyway. From what I know about the world of television (from the time my husband worked at a local TV station), Quindlans account of the backstabbing and ridiculous machinations of the suits in the offices is right on. I'd imagine she has had similar experiences in TV, or dealt with someone who has, and knows of what she speaks. Other than an ending that is saved from being happily ever after by a crippling accident and a cop who refuses to get married to his pregnant girlfriend, this book is nearly perfect, as modern novels go. I recommend it for all those who wonder what life as a celebrity is really like.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Night and other tragic tales

First, a quote from one of my favorite authors:

"You've got to love libraries. You've got to love books. You've got to love poetry. You've got to love everything about literature. Then, you can pick the one thing you love most and write about it."
~ Ray Bradbury

So true! I love libraries, and always have. Maple Valley has a great library, and I joined their library guild to try and help the place stay great.
Our next book club selection is "Night" by Elie Wiesel, which I read in high school, 30 years ago. I thought it was the book about the holocaust that I really loved and felt had an important message, but it turns out that it was Victor Frankels "Mans Search for Meaning" that was the book I remember enjoying, because it was so uplifting. "Night, on the other hand, is a searing, horrifying account of Weisels time in the Nazi death camps during WWII. We are not spared any of the ugliness, any of the pain that Weisel experienced, from being dragged from their homes in Transylvania/Hungary and transported in cattle cars on a train to Auschwitz. One hears about mans inhumanity to man, but here is proof positive of the depths to which men will sink, morally and physically, to harm one another for no better reason than one madmans idea of making a perfect world.
If you are a student of history, you know that the Jewish people have been persecuted for centuries. Every time some plague or political problem sprouted up, the Jews were blamed (even if it had nothing to do with them) and inevitably there was a pogrom and entire villages of Jewish people were wiped out. The knowledge that Hitler came close to wiping out all the Jews in Europe and surrounding countries makes me ill. That level of cruelty and depravity is just mind-numbing, disgusting and horrifying. All because there was a belief by some that the Jewish religion was offensive, and created a people who were lesser human beings. By making the Jewish people seem too different, fascists encouraged peoples fears, and this allowed them to somehow justify killing millions of men, women and children. What a tragedy. There is no apology appropriate enough, or any restitution that gives enough value to recompense the Jewish people for the holocaust. At any rate, I found "Night" to be a painful, but necessary read, and I hope that I can find a copy of "Mans Search for Meaning" and re-read that as well, as I read both of these books together 30 years ago, and they made an impression on me then, just as they will make a different impression now. I found evil astonishing and repulsive back when I was 16, and I still find it so today. Now I just have more of a context for it because I have a family, and I can imagine the pain of losing family members to Nazi butchery.
I have an ARC of "This Is Not Chick Lit," (edited by Elizabeth Merrick) which is a great compendium of short stories by women authors that I am starting today, and a book by Anna Quindlan that I am going to read. I hope to be able to post about them within the next week.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Spouse Survival by Ray Weinrub

Ray Weinrub's "Spouse Survival" handbook is the first POD book that I've read in a long time that actually lives up to its subtitle, "What to do before or after a death occurs; personal and financial organization." Between the covers of this slender volume lies an incredible wealth of information about handling a spouses demise, and the financial/legal aftermath. There are chapters on everything from estate planning to medicare/social security and even funeral arrangements and obituaries. There is space within the book to take notes and fill in the blanks on your financial information, such as your home expenses and monthly cash flow. The book is written in very plain English, with easy to understand explanations of complex subjects such as social security disability. The chapters are laid out in a logical manner, with important notes in boldface type. Weinrub is even smart enough to know that he can't cover every contingency in one book, so he often refers the reader to a professional attorney or other individual who can help the reader. I found the information on probate court after reading the will particularly enligthtening, as this is an area that has been thorny in my family for decades. I believe this is a resource book that should be owned by everyone over the age of 18, because you never know when a family member is going to pass on, and leave relatives with lots of questions and concerns. It's like having a sturdy umbrella; you may not need it everyday, but when you do need it, having it is a godsend.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Sick Mick Whines Again

Poor Sick Mick, she must be fatigued from jumping to conclusions in a sad rant that she tried to post to my blog review of her book. Here's what she had to say (I'm posting it instead of allowing it as a comment, as I wanted to respond.) "My book was specifically written for people who can relate to the hardship of falling ill, falling from grace and struggling to survive. There are many of us and we are an invisible subset of society. Hopefully you will be blessed and illness and hardship will never find you. As I so clearly state within the book ... and as you so clearly demonstrate in your "review" ... people who have their health "just don't get it." You should probably consider who the intended audience is before assuming you are qualified to write a review with understanding and intelligence. I suggest you continue reviewing fiction; you seem to like it and the real world isn't nearly as pretty." I must reply to this because Micki Suzanne's rant doesn't take into account the fact that I DO have a very complete understanding of falling ill and struggling to survive. I have had Crohns Disease for the past 7 years, and have had to deal with the pain of the disease, trying to work at a newspaper when you are in pain and have to be in the bathroom for long periods of time, having to raise a child and keep a household running when you have pain, etc. Prior to being diagnosed with Crohns Disease, I had severe asthma and allergies from age 5 on, in a state where I was allergic to everything growing there. I was told, when I was 12, that I probably wouldn't live to adulthood. Yet I continued to go to school, work hard, read continually and build a life for myself. I didn't fall into the trap of self-pity. I didn't have the luxury of having parents with money, or husbands with money, I've worked my way through college and graduate school, and I worked all through my pregnancy. Six weeks after delivery of a premature baby, I was back at work, and struggling with Crohns Disease, though I was misdiagnosed and didn't know it. So I am more than qualified to write a review of Sick Micks book, unless she is only marketing it to those who have Lyme Disease. My review made many important points on the validity of the book, which is neither fully a memoir or a guidebook, just a badly rendered hodgepodge of the two. If you want to explain your life and your trials and tribulations in a memoir, then do so, but don't try to tag an incomplete guidebook onto it. Or better yet, just write a guidebook, which is useful for others to read. And as a person who has made her living writing non fiction, I know what the world is like, Ms Suzanne. I would hazard that I've seen more horrors and more nobility working as a nurse in the projects of Boston, working with hospice patients and working with disabled children than you have in your lifetime. I've also published at least a thousand articles in the past 20 years, and I've won 12 awards for my work. I've reviewed both fiction and non fiction on my blog because I read a great deal of both, and because, as a former editor, I know good writing when I read it. I asked Angela and Richard Hoy before I began writing reviews for the POD books they sent to me if they wanted real reviews, or if they were looking for someone who would just say nice things about the books, regardless of the quality. They told me that they were looking for honest reviews, both good and bad. I've done that, honestly reviewed your book. It looks to me like Sick Mick is the one who just doesn't get it.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Sick Mick's Guide to Selling Antiques and Collectibles

Sick Mick's Guide to Selling Antiques and Collectibles by Micki Suzanne suffers from an identity crisis. Is it really a guidebook for "creating a store on Ebay; moneymaking ideas for hoaders with energy issues" as Suzanne says on the cover, or is it just an excuse for Suzanne to complain bitterly about her illness, Lyme Disease? If it is supposed to actually be a helpful "how-to" guidebook, then the reader must skip the first 58 pages, in which Suzanne not only chronicles her disease process, in detail and ad nauseum, but she actually adds the case histories of several friends from an online support group (from message boards like Yahoo Groups) so we have to read about their ailments as well. I imagine most of us have been cornered at the family reunion by some dreaded relative who spends hours boring everyone with their symptoms and aches and pains, but at least we can get up and walk away, eventually, or have someone rescue us from the family bore. There simply is no way to avoid Suzanne's penchant for whining and grousing and bemoaning her fate in this book, however, which makes its value as a "how-to" guide go right into the toilet. Suzanne peppers us with a variety of language that also belongs in the toilet, as she somehow concludes that being "real" means being crude and swearing like a sailor, or having photos of herself "flipping the bird." All it really does is make Suzanne look ignorant, or too lazy to pick up the dictionary to look up a better word. One of the first things journalists learn is the "Who, What,When, Where, Why and How" questions to answer in writing an article. Chip Scanlan of the famed Poynter Institute (which owns the St Petersburg Times) made a point of telling journalists at the National Writers Workshop that, "The most important question to ask yourself about the article is WHY DO I CARE? If you're writing an article and you can't figure out who cares about this issue, then you have to stop writing and go back to the begining." Until Suzanne starts telling the reader about collecting items for sale, where to sell them, etc, she has not answered that important question. Most people who read guidebooks don't want to read about the authors ailments or altered life, no matter how tragic. They're looking for guidance and expertise in selling antiques, not a bitter diatribe against former employers and social security disability. Then, in the midst of advising on selling antiques, the reader is shocked yet again by a totally unnecessary chapter on "Gimmicks and Icebreakers" that's really just an excuse for the author to put in a photo of her little lap dog, Bodhi, and rhapsodize about how "cute" she is. Phrases like "OMIGOD! HOW CUTE IS SHE!!?!" abound. If Suzanne wanted to make the point that having a shop dog or cat can help break the ice with customers and increase sales, she could have done it in two sentences or less. This kind of chapter marks her as an amateur, and looks completely ridiculous to the reader. There is a great deal of redundant information on buying and selling on Ebay, without specific instructions for the newcomer. There is also some awful, biased and ridiculous information on garage sales, in which Suzanne claims that all children attending sales have "boogery hands" (nice made-up word there) and that all parents are shop-lifting rubes who make "insulting" offers on her junk. I'm a veteran of garage sales, and my son never lays a hand on anything he shouldn't, and his hands are not "boogery," nor do my husband and I steal from those having a sale. Bargaining for a lower price is part of the fun of garage sales, and most people who attend garage sales do so because they can't afford to shop for items in a retail environment. Poverty doesn't equal theft, however, but it does make one thrifty, and garage sales are one of the few places left where people can get necessary items like clothing and household goods at a fraction of the usual price. The final problem with this book is that Suzanne doesn't define her terms, though that's the first thing you should read in a guidebook. What defines an antique? How old does it have to be? What defines a collectible? She also neglects to mention that Ebay is not always a good source for pricing, as Ebay is comprised of so many millions of sellers, that it is inevitable that many of them have no clue how much any given item is worth. Most Ebay sellers do not do research at a library to find the value of what they are selling, they just want to get rid of something and make a profit. Other than a dire need for an editor and a good rewrite, this book does have some good advice on starting a business and keeping it running on limited energy. You just have to plow through a lot of whining to get to it.

Jep's Place, a Memoir by Joseph Parzych

Jep's Place is subtitled "Hope, Faith and Other Disasters" and should have been subtitled "A Memoir of Horrible Child Abuse." Joe Parzych grew up during the depression and WWII in dire povertry in Gill, Mass, among 14 brothers and sisters (some step siblings). His parents, Polish immigrants, were harsh and uncaring people, particularly his father, who beat his children mercilessly, often with a leather stropping belt with a buckle. This vile man also refused to take his children to see the doctor when they were ill, and would spend food money on alcohol.He killed and butchered animals in front of his children, picking on Joe in particular, because Joe had a soft spot for animals and would name them and make pets of them. Verbal abuse was also common with both Joes parents, and Joes mother does nothing to stop her husband from harming her children, making her, at best, a coward. One of the main problems with this book is that it is redundant. Joe treats the reader to repeated tellings of his beatings with the leather strop, and every taunt or harmful thing done to him by his family or school mates is chronicled here. While I understand the authors need to write about his awful childhood, I resent having to read the same anecdotes over and over again. I also found 10 obvious typos on my first read-through, which leads me to believe the copy editor that Joe thanks in the "Author's Note" doesn't deserve the recognition. Other than that, I found the "slice of life" descriptions of conditions and wages, costs and cheaters during the depression fascinating. When he wasn't whining or wimpering about not being loved, being beaten, or his sibling's dire plights, Joe has an interesting view of life in an era that seems like ancient history to many of us. And the fact that Joe survived near starvation, hypothermia, severe physical and emotional abuse to enter the Army and have a family of his own makes reading the book all the more miraculous. Many victims of abuse prefer to wallow in bitterness and continue the cycle of abuse by harming their own children. The reader has to assume that Joe did not, in fact, abuse his children, because Joe ends the book with a quick summation of his life after entering the Army, his education, career and his marriage to Edna Carleton, with whom he had four children.He doesn't mention if he was able to parent better than his own father and mother, nor does he explain fully what happened to the 12 siblings who all died, other than one tantalizing mention of his sister Emaline being murdered. I found it amusing that Joe didn't understand his mother's joy at menopause, when she could no longer get pregnant. Yet previously in the book, he discusses her lack of caring, compassion and her lament at having so little money and too many mouths to feed. I am surprised Joe doesn't understand why such a woman, who probably would never have had children at all had she known she would be widowed and then forced to marrry a brute like Pa, would not want to have more children to worry about, to try and struggle to feed, and to clothe,house and care for. One child is difficult, I find, let alone over a dozen. And pregnancy is hard on most women, so I completely understood Joes mother's joy. I would only recommend this book to those who find memoirs of surviving abuse uplifting. I found the book to be a bit too detailed (beatings, blood, gore, etc) and depressing.