4

Sarah Zuckerman, Amateur Defective

Last week, I finished a book that I’d encountered after reading an article on the Internet. More on that article later, but for now, a brief review of said book, You Are One of Them by Elliott Holt.

You Are One of Them is told from the point of view of Sarah Zuckerman. As a young girl in 1982, at the height of the Cold War, Sarah made friends with a girl called Jennifer Jones who moved onto her block. They decided to write letters to the Premier of the Soviet Union, and though Sarah never heard back, Jenny’s letter received international fanfare and resulted in an invitation to go to the USSR. Some time after, Jenny and her parents perished in a plane crash, resulting in Sarah and her mother creating a foundation in Jenny’s name. One day in 1996, Sarah receives a mysterious email from a woman called Svetlana, who hints that Jenny might still be alive and living in Russia. Sarah follows the trail, tracks down Svetlana, and suffice it to say, has quite an interesting adventure with an unexpected outcome.

That’s all I’m going to say because you should definitely get your hands on this book.

However fictional the book might be, it is based on the short life and tragic death of Samantha Smith, a girl from Maine who exchanged letters with Russian premier Yuri Andropov, and traveled to the Soviet Union as “America’s Youngest Ambassador.”

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6

I Think…No, I Know I Have A Problem

Well, so many.

Including never managing to post here at a reasonable hour of the day and resorting to between 11-12, never updating my iPhone/computer OS, and sticking to a good diet.

This post, however, is about my reading and book-acquiring habits.

I, That’s So Jacob, fully admit to being a reading addict and a book hoarder.

Allow me to explain.

First, reading addict. Some people say “oh, I read anything,” but I’ll literally read anything. No genre or era is safe; if it’s in a language I can read, I’ll read it. Sometimes I won’t even take the book out of the store, I’ll read the whole thing, then buy it. My reading addiction got me almost accidentally left behind on a family trip to Canada.

Furthermore, once I start a book, I can’t abandon it. Even if it’s a thousand pages, or completely boring, if I’ve gotten more than a page or two into the book, I have to finish it. Some rare cases have included books when I’ve accidentally skipped a chapter/section and not realized it (then I know there’s something wrong with the book…or me), and A Commonwealth of Thieves. It took me a week to read 10 pages without falling asleep mid-sentence. According to my calculations, had I continued reading, it would have taken me about a whole year to read it, upon which point I never looked at the book again. And then again, there was the mistake of picking up Ulysses in high school and feeling like a failure because I had no clue what to make of it, and couldn’t get the first chapter or so.

The last few books I’ve read have been, well…not so great. But not enough to abandon. I have no shame in saying their titles, if only to remind me not to do that again; with so many books and so little time, I need to find out what happens at the ends of the good ones. First, Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman. The back cover blurb sounded interesting, but the Ghanaian-British slang made it very confusing as well as the lack of a clear plot. Next came Andorra by Peter Cameron, a book which has nothing to do with the actual nation of Andorra, as it takes place in a coastal Mediterranean town. It also features two characters with the same first and last name (a husband and wife), and too many characters referred to by their common last names. The ending took me by surprise, but it was predictable and honestly at that point I didn’t care anymore. Finally, Red Dust by Ma Jian – a book that has been on my list for years – wound up being as dry as…red dust. After that string of mindless page-skimming, it’s clear that I need to read books I actually care about.

My second confession is to being a book hoarder. I’ve gotten a little better at it actually, I must say; while I still hoard plays/theatre texts (they’re for RESEARCH!) I’ve started to part with some of the books I’ve had around for awhile, and I’m down to a five-shelf bookshelf, two shelves in the bathroom, and two drawers full of mysteries and trade-sized paperbacks. It’s definitely not as bad as it was in Houston. But lately, the book-acquiring bug bit me again. I saw that someone on PaperBackSwap was wishing for a copy of a book in a mystery series that was the next one in series order from where I had left the series, so I actually bought a copy on Amazon mostly for the sole purpose of offering it on PBS (but reading it first, of course).

I also don’t seem to understand the concept of “rewarding myself,” since today I did so preemptively – I promised myself I would work on research for a few hours (which I did end up doing!), in exchange for a trip to a used bookstore where I promptly bought 7 books I likely didn’t need and already have one packaged to send out to a PBS user tomorrow.

Not saying that this addiction is a bad problem, or an expensive one, just one that I can’t seem to break. Will I ever not have the need to read?

1

Ex’s And Y’s

I’ve actually been getting quite a lot of reading done lately, and the two latest books I’ve finished, I’ve realized, have quite a few similarities other than the facts that they both have letters in their names. They are Generation X by Douglas Coupland and The End of Mr. Y by Scarlett Thomas. So, it’s a double book review!

Image result for generation x coupland

The End Of Mr. Y

Generation X by Douglas Coupland is kind of about nothing. It centers on the lives of Gen-X twenty-somethings Andy, Dag, and Claire, who spend their days flitting between occupations and locations in southern California, and telling long personal stories with convoluted meanings. Overall, I felt like it didn’t have too much in the way of meaning, possibly because I’m technically a Millennial, but some of Coupland’s self-coined terms made quite a lot of sense. And – fun fact – this novel popularized the term McJob, referring to a low-wage job with little prospect for advancement and skill-learning, as well as the titular Generation X, or those born in the 1970s and early 1980s. The End of Mr. Y by Scarlett Thomas is the polar opposite, in that it almost has too much meaning. The book takes place in England, where protagonist Ariel Manto is searching for answers about an extremely rare book, also entitled The End of Mr. Y, which is believed to have caused the deaths/disappearances of all who have read it, including Manto’s Ph.D. advisor. Eventually, Ariel learns about the Troposphere, a location within the mind, sort of everywhere and nowhere, a parallel universe where you can jump backwards and forwards in time through inhabiting peoples’ consciousness. I liked this book, but it also kind of scared me with its extremely existential nature.

It is interesting that I read these books in succession. They have a lot in common, despite their stark differences; one is America, the other in England; one is about pointlessness, the other is about possibility. Both, however deal with the importance of the meta-narrative, and how it gives the characters dimension as they learn along with the reader. True, sometimes the reader gets lost in the universe; for example, at some points in Mr. Y I had no idea whether Ariel was in the dreamlike Troposphere or her real existence, and in Generation X I was sometimes unsure of who was narrating and who the story was actually supposed to be about.

Overall, though, both books are quite a trip for the curious mind to embark upon. I think I need some lighter reading for the next few books on my list.

0

A Bicycle Trip For Two

Not so much about the song, but about a book I finished today. Maybe it’s all the stress, but I’m burning through books these days.

But I ain’t complaining.

Today’s adventure was Across America by Bicycle: Alice and Bobbi’s Summer on Wheels by Alice Honeywell and Bobbi Montgomery.

This book is one of my favorite types to read; travelogues, complete with maps (hand-drawn) and mileage counts. This book details Midwestern grandmothers Alice and Bobbi’s journey across the USA on their bicycles in just 13 weeks, from Astoria, Oregon, to Bar Harbor, Maine. In about 250 pages, the two travel through Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine, and have lots of fun adventures along the way. They (or I should say she, since the book is written from Bobbi’s point of view) focus on the hidden gems of America, from the cinnamon rolls they ate in Montana to the many “road angels” who stopped them and helped along the way.

But the trip isn’t all just a grand old time; they face a lot of serious issues, both on the road and at home. Each state brings its challenges, from closed campgrounds to aggressive drivers to unkempt roads (they do mention how nice the roads are in Wisconsin, but then again, Alice lives here in Madison, according to the book). Their bikes and bodies get worn down, but it strengthens them in the end. Though both of them contemplate quitting at different points – Alice due to family drama and her husband’s poor health, Bobbi due to an injury and other reasons – they stay steadfast and remain best friends. A lot of the book is repetitive, describing this little boy and that group of ladies asking them the same questions, over and over, but I guess that’s part of a trip across America, especially the more rural parts where it’s just hill after hill, tree after tree. And though they compliment most of the people they meet, there’s more than a fair share of complaining, mostly about dingy old hotels and bad food, but they paint an interesting picture of America on the whole, a mix of small towns and even smaller towns.

Overall, the story flows along really nicely without dwelling too much on insignificant or uninteresting details. And aside from their references to it, you wouldn’t be able to tell that the protagonists are two older ladies crossing America from coast to coast. Plus, they don’t make any Odyssey Expedition-esque attempts at purism, accepting rides when necessary or when they just don’t want to ride with all their gear anymore.

That is, though, quite the accomplishment in and of itself. If you’re thinking “hey, I could do that,” let me tell you about the last time I rode a bike.

On my second Summer Odyssey, when I was staying with Dan in Boston, we decided to spend a day on Martha’s Vineyard, a place I’ve always wanted to see. So, we drove to Woods Hole, left the car there, and took a ferry. One we landed in Oak Bluffs, and had lunch, Dan suggested we see the rest of the island, and rather than taking a bus or hitching rides, we could…rent bikes. Now, even though Dan bikes to work every day, I haven’t ridden a bike since elementary school. I don’t feel comfortable on a bike, and I don’t know what exactly got into me that it would be a good idea to try one out, and especially in a place I’d never been before.

Martha’s Vineyard is cut in half, with Oak Bluffs at the center, so we rode west along the southern edge of the island, stopping off for ice cream or window shopping in the island’s small towns. For the first hour or so, I was terrified, and by the end of the day, I was exhausted, but…slightly less terrified. It ended up being fun and I didn’t fall or die, but I’m not in a rush to get back on a bike anytime soon.

So the fact that these two ladies spent four months crossing unknown territory on bikes means that they’re probably more hardcore than I’ll ever be.

0

Jodi Picoult Convinced Me That Parents Are Gross

I always knew that fact, but after finishing reading The Pact today at work, I’m even more convinced that the core message of the book is that parents are, in fact, gross.

Briefly, The Pact in the title refers to the suicide pact made between protagonist Chris Harte and his close-enough-to-be-a-sister girlfriend, Emily Gold. They live in perfect America, AKA Bainbridge, New Hampshire, where they live normal, happy lives and have basically sprung from the same acorn, born three months apart and progressing from best friends to lovers. Even their parents consider the other child to be like their own, and are not at all grossed out by the fact that they are dating, in fact they encourage it. That is, until one night when Emily and Chris are found at a carousel; Emily shot in the head, and Chris wounded and holding a smoking gun. Naturally, the idyllic lives of the two families are shattered, as the Golds bury Emily, and Chris is faced with a lifetime prison sentence for murder, which his parents (or at least his mother, Gus – short for Augusta) think is not the solution. The book goes back and forth between then (the murder) and now (the murder trial of Chris Harte), where Jordan McAfee, Chris’s kind of scumbaggy (at least to me) defense attorney is trying to prove his client’s innocence. It ends kind of how you’d expect, a little on the mushy side but not too unrealistic, as far as the Golds’ reaction to the verdict.

Okay, first, the bad. Well, not so much bad, but blah. Let’s start with Chris and Emily. They are in high school. She’s Jewish, he’s some unspecified Christian. He’s a star swimmer, she’s a gifted artist with her eyes on the Sorbonne, they’re both extremely intelligent and unspoken, and of course, (spoiler alert), she gets pregnant with Chris’s baby, which spurs the whole suicide pact theme of the book. That’s what drives the plot forward and gives the characters “depth.” The reason I put it in quotation marks is because Picoult herself says in the author’s notes that she meant for it to be an opposite Romeo and Juliet story, with Montagues and Capulets who are neighbors and best friends and everything’s peachy keen between them up until the death. Especially because Chris doesn’t die, so of course he’s immediately blamed for Emily’s death by her mom, Melanie. I didn’t find Chris or Emily to be particularly likeable, so that kind of hurt the story a little for me.

Also, there is way too much background info on the lives of Jordan, the defense attorney, and Barrie, the state attorney. They also came off kind of badly, which I think was the opposite of Picoult’s intention, but they sure sounded bossy.

Then, there’s the good, which are the parents. At the beginning of the book, I liked Chris and Emily but not the parents. Over time, however, they grew on me. I was rolling my eyes when they were introduced. Both men are doctors and obviously the family breadwinners so Melanie (Emily’s mom) can be a librarian, and Gus (Chris’s mom) can fulfill her dream of…being a professional line-sitter. Yep, she sits in lines for people for a living. Though it takes a murder, they become a lot more dimensional over the story. Melanie spins into a raging bitch, wanting nothing to do with the Hartes and blaming Chris for everything despite finding Emily’s journal, which says otherwise, and James (Gus’s husband and Chris’s dad) refuses to take part in any of this business until the very end because it might damage his high-flying career. In the wake of their spouses going bananas, Michael and Gus create an alliance of grieving parenthood, with Gus appropriately sad at Emily’s death and believing that her son is innocent, and Michael feeling sorry that Chris is in this mess in the first place, which leads him to testify for the defense instead of the prosecution, which of course thrills his wife. There are hints of it possibly turning romantic, but Picoult does a good job of not letting it get too gauche and mushy.

But finally, going back to the title of this post and why I felt compelled to write it today rather than catch up on a review of one of the books I’ve read in the past few weeks, this book taught me that parents are gross. Not only can they behave like dicks (for example, Gus and James also have a daughter named Kate who is crazy underutilized), but they are also surprisingly sexual at odd times. It’s not erotic, but Jodi Picoult just gives a little TMI when describing the two sets of couples in their bedrooms. Yes, I know that parents have sex, and in the book they don’t have it excessively or weirdly or anything, but the author paints quite the mental picture of parents who have young adult children, especially in a book about murder and not a romance novel. I found myself cringing and trying to speed-read through the few scenes where they’re in bed. I don’t know why, but when your kids have had sex, conceived, and then made a suicide pact, I don’ think it would get me in the mood.

Anyway, it was a page-turning read, otherwise I wouldn’t have written 900 words on it. I still like Jodi Picoult even if her characters are paper dolls.