Sunday, January 18, 2015

Book Review: Ten Days in the Hills by Jane Smiley

Maybe I just have High Expectations for Authors that I have already Read?

Oh Jane Smiley, you have disappointed me. . . 

As you may know I recently reviewed Tell All by Chuck Palahniuk and was thoroughly disappointed because usually I love his books. Well I have also read Jane Smiley before and really enjoyed Private Life by her so maybe that is why this one really didn't do anything for me. I really don't try to compare previous books and in this case, I didn't even recognize the author's name until after I decided to quit.

Because I am reading on a Kindle these days, I can't tell you exactly how many pages I had dragged through but my gauge said I was at about 6%. I can tell you if felt like forever but in using to figure out how many pages that might be I have calculated I read about 33 pages.

Often after I read a book I will think about my review and then after I post it I will go and read other ones. In this case, I did a sneak preview and I can tell you I'm not the only one who feels this way and many agree that this is not like most of Smiley's books so I know it's not just me.

This book starts with a long drawn out conversation between Max and Elana and I never got past it. I gave up. Max is a former Oscar winner for directing films. Elana is his lover who writes self help books. This takes place the morning after the Oscars which dazzles her. The conversation meanders back and forth from Max's desire to direct an indie film that will be called "Lovemaking with Elana" and Elana's fear/repulsion for the anticipated war in Iraq and the "weapons of mass destruction". Max verbally visualizes the scenes in the movie he imagines, picking out the stars to play both himself and Elana, and spends an inordinate amount of time focused on how the skin on her arm contrasts with the skin on her belly. I was not at all interested in hearing about Max's member and how it had a little birthmark only visible in full sunlight and how he couldn't get it up because of the conversation. I had little patience for Elana lamenting over and over again about the war.

The truth is that these people lived in another world and it was hard to really sympathize with them when they went on and on about their problems. I really wasn't interested in learning anymore about their friends that would be naturally be introduced further on in this book. Done. Do not recommend.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Keurig Coffee - Adventures on a Budget

For years I was addicted to Starbuck's Coffee. I called it my "crack" and it truly was.

If I'm going to be completely honest I should tell you that probably is not the exaggeration that you might think it is, and at the expense of being looked at as a complete idiot, I will give you a couple of examples of how bad it really was.

Mine has my name on it.
  1.  Everyone at my local Starbuck's knew my name. Hell, they knew my kids names!
  2.  The staff at said Starbuck's would often have my drink ready by the time I got to the window. See, I have a bright orange Jeep Wrangler and they could see me in the line. You don't want to keep one of your best customers waiting. . .
  3.  I have a gold card. I didn't know they existed for years but once I found out, I made it my goal to get one. It's pretty easy to do when you just start purchasing with a registered card rather than cash, especially when you get an average of a drink per day.
  4. My kids often got special treats as they had to sit in the back of the car on these daily excursions. A few years back Starbuck's had big plans to reveal a new flavor for Christmas called Chestnut Praline. My kids tried it in a Frappacino early - before the official premiere - and declared it tasted like Lucky Charms.
  5. I used to go through a sort of withdrawal, complete with a pounding headache and single minded mission to find a Starbuck's if I needed one. This was evident on trips cross country and in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I have been known to reroute a drive. When were in Munising for a few days to see Pictured Rock we drove to Marquette which was 45 minutes away, location of the nearest Starbuck's

I could probably go on but I won't. We also do not want to figure out what a Venti Starbuck's Iced Latte with Two Raw Sugars costs per day, per week, per year, and for 10 years. I'm not going to say it but I do happen to know how much that is and I'm trying to put it out of my mind. Because honestly, you can't cry over spilled milk and at this point I'm not doing it anymore anyways. I can justify it in my mind if I want . . . I can tell you that I don't smoke and I don't have many other vices unless you want to count my obsession with food in general. I can tell you it's not unhealthy and it could be worse. I could come up with a million excuses but at the end of the day I stopped and haven't really looked back. I occasionally get one in social situations or if I'm away from home but daily it isn't done anymore. Starbuck's must be seriously trying to figure out where I went.

Why you may ask? Well it's really due to the Keurig. While I write this I have a mug full of 8 O'Clock Colombian with some 1/2 and 1/2 and Trader Joe's Sweetened Condensed Milk (yes I put both in and it's delicious) by my side and I was thinking that there may be a few naysayers or purists that can't understand how you can forgo the coffee from a place that makes it for you. Yes, I miss the social aspect of speaking to the Barista every morning and the banter but I also save time and money and I can stay home on a Sunday morning and not even leave to get my caffeine fix.

The change? A Keurig machine. Yes, those little plastic cups filled with goodness. Once I got one in November of 2013 I was able to forgo my daily trip to Starbuck's. At first I only would drink Pike's Place but in the past year I have tried all kinds of new things. Flavored coffees are not my thing - i Like real honest to goodness coffee without any frills. with the exception of Gloria Jean's German Chocolate Cake I haven't found any I really like that are flavored, most of them taste artificial to me. But I now love other things such as Holiday Blend from Starbuck's and San Francisco Bay French Roast (thank you to my dear friends that got this for me Christmas last year).

I'm now on a new quest, and it's because of an article we recently read. 23 K-Cups, ranked by a world class barista  takes the work out of experimenting a little bit. I'm still looking to locate the #1 flavor (Green Mountain Kenyan AA) but have tried and purchased #2 and #3. So far #3 is my favorite (8 O'Clock Colombian)

Some people would say that I pay entirely too much for K-Cups. Sure there are cheaper ones than what I purchase but at 79 cents vs. $4.19 ( Venti Iced Latte with Two Raw Sugars) I'm okay with it. I'm really a frugal coffee drinker now. Oh yes, I did have to make a couple of investments. I like a huge mug and have a thing for Fiestaware but those were bought with Kohl's Cash after a Black Friday and cost about 20 cents each. I also routinely use Bed Bath and Beyond 20% off coupons for my coffee purchases. So there!

Update 1/19/2015: So 100% Columbian is no longer available from 8 O'Clock Coffee. It's been repackaged at Colombian Peaks which I tried last night. Depending on what you read, some say it's the exact same item but with new packaging due to a change in ownership but others agree with me that it's not the same thing. I'm no expert on coffee but I will say it's a lot weaker. I also found out that Green Mountain now owns 8 O'Clock. . . It could also be to a change in the climate conditions when they coffee beans were grown or harvested but I will keep on the quest. Still looking for the Green Mountain Kenyan. I found it online but I don't want to invest 40 dollars before I try one K-Cup.

Book Review: Tell All by Chuck Palahniuk

Mr. Palahniuk, You let me down

It probably is not a good marketing ploy to let all of you know right from the beginning that I did not like this book but I'm not good at keeping secrets apparently. I should leave you in suspense but I won't. To summarize, don't bother with this book.

Now, I should tell you that I know authors experiment with new ideas, attempt a new voice, and may look at things with a new perspective. Chuck Palahniuk is always on the cutting edge but in this case it didn't work.

I love Chuck Palahniuk books and looked forward to reading a new one. The most recent one I read prior to this was Survivor which I loved. I have also reviewed and loved Choke and Invisible Monsters. Perhaps I just expected more from Mr. Palahniuk but I don't think that is it.

Sometimes I limit reviews of books that I recommend "not reading" to only the ones that I have really invested a lot of time in or that I finished I was so horrified about the conclusion that I wouldn't want to waste anyone else's time. If I only read a few pages of a book and it doesn't interest me it doesn't make the list. I really gave this book a solid try, reading about ten chapters (that are headed by Acts and Scenes) but it wasn't going anywhere.

I didn't like any of the characters and the voice/perspective/cadence was confusing and weird. The book was almost set up like a script with stage directions but also was a first person account. The premise is that the housekeeper (and based on how she describes herself she would not categorize herself that way) of an aging movie starlet is telling the story. It seems that she is trying to protect Kathie Kenton from a variety of mishaps such as botched surgeries, loves lost, bad career decisions but is in a frenzy when Kathie falls for a young admirer. That's as far as I got, watching as Hazie sabotages the greetings and wishes from others and tries to isolate Katie from communication.

Don't bother. I didn't and I wish I hadn't started.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Book Review: Survivor by Chuck Palahniuk

Any Book that Starts with a Hijacker Narrating into a Black Box is Going to be an Exciting Ride

More so when you know it's a book by Chuck Palahniuk

Tender Branson recounts his life on to the blackbox as he sits in the cockpit of the abandoned plane while the jet fuel is diminishing, knowing that one by one, each of four jets will burn out. So begins the story of Survivor and Tender has a lot to tell about his life.

Tender is the sole survivor of a church cult where only the first born sons and chosen daughters really hold any worth in the community. From a young age Tender was trained for a menial job in the outside world that he was to assume at the age of 17, never to go back to the only world he knew. Tender isn't really even a name as all boys that are not the first born assume this title, along with all of the girls being Biddys.

Tender's journey through the book is very interesting as he starts as a housekeeper in a home where the owners/bosses just yell orders on the speakerphone, never really connecting with Tender, or leaving him lists of the tasks he must accomplish in a planner for him. His days are structured with all that he learned in preparation for the outside world. Tender knows how to get blood out of a garment, how to clean scum off of bathroom tile, and all the important pieces of etiquette that his bosses want to know.

His nights hold a different kind of skill, and reflect his desire to have some kind of power in his life. Tender has his own sort of crisis line, where he is more apt to encourage the person to kill themselves than to try to save them.

Tender comes in contact with a host of characters in this book as he begins his journey that ultimately leads him to his place on that plane that is destined to nose dive in its final trajectory. Throughout this story Tender is along for the ride, conditioned to follow orders as he has done from a very young age, but glimmers of the person he could be are always there, and we watch a sort of slow metamorphosis throughout the story.

Like always, Palahniuk takes the reader on a wild ride, writing in a cadence that often feels like free association, and always has more than a little bit of dark humor embedded in it. And as always, the story is not always what I initially think it will be. Fun read!

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Book Review: Sunset Park by Paul Auster

Homeless and Rudderless

That would be the best way to describe the main character of this novel. 

Miles Heller is really the central character in a book that often turns to other characters to tell the story. Miles is a young man (boy I feel old using that term, I sound like I'm about 85 years old) who has fled from a life that certainly held privileges in New York after an accident claimed his stepbrother. The guilt and feelings of responsibility forced him to leave everything behind, including a concrete plan for the future, his parents, and his friends. Life as he knew it was over, and he puts himself in a self proclaimed exile, wandering across the United States while he holds down small jobs.

We soon learn that there is a little more to Miles that we thought. He is intelligent and in many ways, very rational and practical, as he learns to survive with more menial jobs in a world that really contrasts with from where he came. At the start of the novel, he is in Florida, "trashing out" houses which have been foreclosed. While for most of his coworkers this is an opportunity to collect treasures from the wreckage, Miles has a sentimentality that leads him to photograph this former homes and wonder about the inhabitants that fled. This is the first factor that interested me about this main character.

We find out that he is anchored to Florida, and staying in this job beyond his usual span of time because of a girl. It seems that Miles has fallen in love and fallen hard. But there are challenges and barriers to this relationship that I won't share as it could ruin the book. Because of a series of events, Miles is forced to reconsider his decisions and life in Florida and actually runs back to New York when an opportunity arises. Miles views this as temporary and takes his old friend up on the offer to squat in a home owned by the city, located in Sunset Park. He joins a group of three to squat there, each having their own reasons for living in a house rent free. Each knows that this is a temporary way station in their life and each individual comes with their own baggage.

We watch as Miles has the opportunity for reconciliation and redemption. We watch each of the homes inhabitants struggle with their own personal demons and the struggle to challenge those things. Will their temporary home provide them with more than shelter? Again, I don't want to ruin the book for anyone by giving too much away.

In the end, we will come to see if Miles can rise past his past and if he is really more passionate than we originally thought he was. Does history repeat itself or is he able to truly move back to continue his original trajectory.

This is a well written book and I really enjoyed the variety of voices which provided the framework for the story. Very interesting.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Book Review: Stoner by John Williams

This Story Begins at the Protagonist's Death and then Takes Us Back

A Journey with a Man in Academia

My goal is to finish as many books in one calendar year as I can and this year I did not live up to previous years. I think a lot of things got in the way - including some very positive things like exercising outside more (which meant less time on a treadmill) and more time with family. Additionally in the last few months I have had a smart phone for the first time and I think that becomes a huge time waster. I haven't had to carry a book around to occupy myself in those unanticipated moments of down time so my resolution for this year is to go back to that, even if I can play Boggle for hours on my phone.

All that being said, I finished the last few pages (about 10) so this book is going to be the first one completed for 2015. I completed 33 books that I would recommend this past year and a few other that I did not recommend.

Stoner is not the most cheerful of subjects but it is well written, starting with the death of William Stoner, the central character, that was a professor of literature at the University. The introduction of him as a character is that of a mild mannered instructor who will be forgotten almost as soon as he passed and without much contribution beyond the impact he made directly with his students. We then go back in time to almost the beginning, where Stoner came from; a small farm to very poor parents, who struggle more each year to pull from the ground. Stoner believes he is destined to this same life, where every day is the same and the toil of hard work prematurely ages you but his father comes up with the idea to have his son go the university to study agriculture. While Stoner never visualized this for himself he obeys and make the journey to the university, staying with relatives and helping with their farm for his room and board.

So begins the transformation of William Stoner, who dutifully begins his academic career taking the mandatory courses along with his pursuit of agriculture, until he is stimied by a sophmore level english literature course and an instructor who challenges him to think very differently. This begins the journey to a new course of study and a new life that ultimately leads to Stoner becoming a professor much like this original instructure who challenged him.

While this life is very different than what he and his parents had originally conceived, it's not necessarily any happier or less isolating. We watch as Stoner goes though the natural conventions of life, climbing the academic ladder, choosing a wife, standing up when his ethics call to him, teaching students to love literature, watching his loved ones pass on from the older generation, and falling in love. Through his life Stoner holds on to a quiet dignity, but is often restrained in ways that end up constricting his ability to be happy. He is a man who cares and holds a passion deep inside of him but is more like his parents even if he has moved a different sort of life.

This book is beautifully written and I highly recommend it.