Tag Archives: CBRV

A Fancy Title About the Books of 2013

I did not meet my full-Cannonball of 52 books, but I knew that was going to happen.  This year had some challenges and at times reading was just too much.  When your brain isn’t happy, sometimes books just don’t work.  When you’re a reader, this sucks.  You already feel bad and you can’t even escape in a good book.

Happily, the last few weeks of 2013 were awesome and the year ended on some lovely and incredibly well needed high notes.  Here’s hoping that 2014 continues on this positive path, and this includes lots of good books.

My three favorite books from this year, in no particular order:

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson  OK, I lied.  This one is in particular order because it was my absolute favorite this year.  The plot and structure of this book kills me because it’s so good.  The entire thing is a puzzle and I wanted to know why things kept happening.  It is completely deserving of all the praise that was heaped on it this year.

Jim Henson: The Biography by Brian Jay Jones  This one made my favorite list because of how lovingly and respectfully it was written.  I already loved the subject, but Jones’ skill as a writer made me love the book.  His research and care come across on every page and I felt like this book was a gift.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews My favorite YA book this year.  It was hysterical and sad and I loved the narrator’s voice.

Three books I wish I hadn’t read this year:

Digital Fortress by Dan Brown  I will NEVER forgive my book group for this choice.

Clown Girl by Monica Drake What the fuck, I don’t even.

Canada by Richard Ford A book about…  is this book about anything?

 

OK readers, we’re already in 2014!  I’ll be posting soon.  And who knows?  I might end up doing a full-Cannonball after all!

#37: Love Him or Leave Him, But Don’t Get Stuck With the Tab: Hilarious Advice for Real Women by Loni Love

Love Him or Leave HimThis was a really nice way to end 2013.

I discovered Loni Love on Chelsea Lately.  I loved how she doesn’t put up with any of Chelsea’s shit and her stories always make me laugh.  She seems like a hot mess, and yet she totally has it together.  She always comes across as super confident and you can tell that she has too many important things to do than deal with stupid people.  She’s the friend you’d go to when you want to know the truth, not get complimented.

Apparently women approach her all the time like they are BFFs.  There’s something about her that makes people think they know each other.  After standup shows, they wait for her in the bathroom or hang out at the meet and greet and then ask really personal questions.  Lots of TMI.  But they know Love isn’t going to bullshit them, so if they spill the details, she’s going to speak the truth.

When you have this much power, you write a book.

I for real lol’d several times when reading this.  She covers all aspects of dating and love.  First dates to throwing a man out of your house.  Recovering from dating disasters to dealing with his baby momma.  Figuring out how to handle an unexpected hook up to dealing with your man’s stupid friends.  It’s all in here.  The best part is that there are seriously out there questions, like can I sleep with my mom’s ex-husband (No.  Unless you trade her one of your exes.) and then there are things just about all women deal with like what to do when you don’t think you want to get married.  Or do want to get married.

The absolutely best part of this book is that Love has a story for everything.  Either she’s dealt with it herself or has a friend or family member who has been through it.  She details her own disasters and lays everything on the table.  You really do feel like you’re BFFs.  This book feels like you’re hanging out with a hysterical and honest friend.  Yeah, she’s going to tell you to stop fucking around, but she’s going to help you get drunk while you discuss it.  Also, there will probably be pancakes.

If you’re looking for a quick and fun read, grab this book.  If you’re a fan of Loni Love and haven’t read this yet, you will not be disappointed.  Although she had help writing it, it is 100% her voice.  I didn’t need the audio version to feel like she was reading it to me.

I couldn’t be happier with this being the last book I read in 2013!

#36: In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

Cold BloodBook groups are the best because not only do you get to pick books that have been on your To Be Read list since forever, but you also get to read books that you wouldn’t have otherwise picked up on your own.  In Cold Blood is the latter.  It’s one of those books that I’ve probably thought “Huh.  I should read that some day.”  Happily, a book group member had access to a ton of copies, so here we are.

I had very little background knowledge of this story.  I know the book itself is considered a great work and is often found on Books You Must Read list.  It also helped create a genre of fictionalized journalism where Capote took nonfiction and added in the details.  We don’t know what really happened, but Capote interviewed people and filled in the blanks with his own details.  This, of course, bothers some people who think it creates fiction.  Once you muddy the waters, it’s no longer a truthful account.

In November 1959 in a town in Kansas, four members of the Cutter family were murdered.  This was a place where things like this don’t happen.  There was no motive, no reason for the family to have been targeted and it looked like whoever had done it was going to get away with it.

Dick Hickock and Perry Smith didn’t choose the Cutter family randomly, but they should have gotten away with the murders.  They were careful and left only one clue behind – a bloody boot print.  The two planned to disappear from the States and live a rich life where they’d never have to work again.  Hickock had learned about the Cutter family from a fellow prisoner who had worked for Mr. Cutter.  He told Hickock that Mr. Cutter kept a safe filled with money and the house was isolated.  Hickock held on to this information for years, and when he hooked up with Smith he decided it was time to create a plan.  From the beginning, they both knew they were going to murder anyone involved.  They kept repeating that they would leave no witnesses.

The problem was that Mr. Cutter kept no cash in the house.  He rarely kept cash on his person, making a point of writing checks for everything so he’d have a record of what he had spent.  When Hickock and Smith arrived, they tied up Mrs. Cutter and Kenyon and Nancy, the two youngest Cutter children.  Mr. Cutter tried to tell them that there was no money and convince them to leave.  Frustrated, the men took a few things from the house and shot and killed all four family members.

The police were stuck.  No one could figure out a motive.  The entire family was well respected.  There were only a few incidents where someone came against Mr. Cutter, and these men were quickly dismissed as potential  suspects.  Mrs. Cutter had been mentally unstable for years, so there was some talk in the community that she finally snapped and killed everyone, but once details came out about how she was tied up, people let this trail off.  The community quickly turned on each other, and this was one of the most fascinating parts of the book for me.  Rumors  were everywhere and people found themselves suddenly suspicious of people they had known their entire lives.  If the Cutters could be murdered, then anyone could be.  Locks were changed on doors and people shut themselves off from people they didn’t know well.  Everyone was desperate for a reason so that they could convince themselves that it couldn’t happen to them, and if that meant quietly supposing that maybe a certain person should possibly be watched, then so be it.  It’s human nature to want a reason and to feel safe.

Hickock and Smith were not criminal masterminds.  The two had a strange relationship.  Smith at times was besotted with Hickock and his ability to make plans and take charge.  Hickock liked Smith’s nonchalant attitude about crime.  He thought Smith would be a great accomplice because he had gotten away with murder before and liked the idea of cashing in and starting a new life.  The problem was that Hickock was never content in the moment and was constantly looking for the next thing.  He also spent money faster than he could take it in and Smith watched him quickly lose what little they had.  Smith began to suspect that Hickock wasn’t interested in spending his life with Smith as a treasure hunter and Hickock began to resent that he had chained his life to Smith by committing the crime together.

Hickock’s boredom and greed was their downfall.  He convinced Smith that they needed more money and it would be simple for them to return to Hickock’s hometown where he could pass a series of bad checks.  They’d leave with piles of money and be on to the next thing, and this would be a permanent place.  Smith disagreed, but went along with it.

By this time, Hickock and Smith were suspects in the murders.  The prisoner who had told Hickock about the Cutter family was able to pass the information on to the warden.  He remembered Hickock asking lots of questions about the family and the house and he realized that he must have been the one that killed them.

When Hickock and Smith were in Mexico, Smith realized he was going to have to get rid of some of his things.  He was a collector and hoarded things that were important to him.  He chose a few things he couldn’t part with and sent them to Las Vegas to be held at the post office until he could pick them up.  He figured at some point they’d be able to slip over the border, once they were set up for good in Mexico.  This was before Hickock decided to go home to make money from his bad checks.  The detectives on the case were quickly notified that the men were back in the area, almost on the other end of the state from the Cutter’s town.  Hickock passed all the checks in his own name and would have been easy to pick up, except they somehow left town before the police in the area realized it.  Once again, they could have gotten away with the entire thing.

When they got to Las Vegas, they didn’t change cars.  The local police quickly noticed the car and followed them to the post office.  The picked up the two men as Smith was walking out with his box of belongings that he had sent from Mexico.  In the box were the boots he wore to the Cutters – the ones that left the bloody boot print.

It was almost like they were trying to get caught.

They were tried and convicted in the Cutter’s town.  There was talk of moving the trial, but the lawyers for both men decided they had a good chance of avoiding the death penalty if they kept it there.  There were a lot of churches in town and informal polls showed that many were against the death penalty.  The case had gotten a lot of media attention, so moving the trial would have been difficult.

Both men were sentenced to death by hanging.

Capote spent six years working on this book.  Once the men were convicted, he realized the only way his book could end was when they died.  He started his research about two weeks after the murders were committed.  He had been friends with Harper Lee since they were kids, and she came with him.  She was able to convince the women in town to persuade their husbands to talk to Capote.

When the men were in jail, Capote spent a great deal of time with them.  He wanted to know who they were and how their life led to this moment.  Smith comes across more sympathetically in the book and a few people in my book group thought that he was gay and he and Capote had some sort of relationship.  Smith had been violently sexually abused as a boy and was disgusted by any type of deviant sexual activity.  Hickock planned on raping the Cutter daughter, but Smith stopped him.  I thought he was completely nonsexual, but others do think the two men had a relationship.

Hickock, on the other hand, comes across as cold and uncaring.  He wants what he wants and he will take it.  However, he had a good childhood and a loving family.  His father tried to convince the jurors that the only reason he was in trouble was because of a bad car accident.  He said his son was a decent boy until something happened to his brain.  The prosecution pointed out that Hickock started committing crimes before his accident and the jury dismissed the car accident.

There were several years of stays and they spent five years on death row.  Capote spent massive amounts of time with the men.  Between their stories and the research done in the Cutter’s town, he amassed some 8,000 pages of notes.  This was no longer just an article to him and the two men had become people, not just names in a newspaper.

The genre of nonfiction novel is tricky.  There were several times when I forgot I was reading about something that actually happened because Capote’s writing is so strong.  He described the farm and Mr. Cutter’s last day in vivid detail and it read like a novel.  I wanted to know more about the family, and then I’d realize that it’s possible he tried to interview the surviving members and they didn’t want to have anything to do with it.  I had to keep reminding myself that he wasn’t making things up and if someone didn’t want to talk to him, he couldn’t put them in the book.

He of course drew criticism because of this.  When people read the book, they denied certain parts.  Follow up visits from other writers led to accusations that Capote should not have published the book as a true account.  Still, it remains a celebrated book in the true crime genre.

I saw the movie Capote many years ago and I don’t remember much about it.  I do remember talking to my stepmom about it and saying that I was really uncomfortable with how Capote “befriended” the men in order to get their stories to write his book.  I understood why he had to do it, but it made me feel icky.  Capote knew he had the subject to write something amazing, and of course he was going to do what he had to in order to get their stories.  At the same time, the way he did it made me almost feel bad for these guys.  I knew they had murdered the Clutter family, but it felt like Capote was then taking advantage of them for his own gain.  I want to watch the movie again now that I’ve read the book to see how my opinion has changed, or if it has changed.

Capote was an incredibly gifted writer and this book is a great mix of beautiful descriptions and simple and cold fact.  Parts read like interviews and parts read like a novel.  It was not a quick read, but I enjoyed it.

#35: Self-Inflicted Wounds: Heartwarming Tales of Epic Humiliation by Aisha Tyler

WoundsI like Aisha Tyler.  I liked her on Talk Soup.  I liked when they brought her in to Friends so they could have a black friend.  I like her on Archer, which I don’t watch enough of.  I love love love her podcast, Girl on Guy.  I was super excited when she announced that she’d be hosing the return of Whose Line Is It Anyway?.  She’s super funny, and even better, she’s really smart and geeky.  She’d been talking about her book for a while on Girl on Guy and I was really looking forward to reading it.  I wish I had gotten the audio version though.

Tyler ends Girl on Guy by asking her guest to share a self-inflicted wound.  These are stories of things that are just bad and you have no one to blame but yourself.  Wrecked credit, getting an STD twice from the same girl when you know it’s going to happen the second time, punched in the face by a jealous boyfriend… usually these are super embarrassing stories and the most cringe inducing part is that you can’t blame it on anyone else but yourself.  These are the moments where you look back and wonder “What did I think was going to happen???”  But hopefully they’ve made you a better person.  Or not.  Who cares, as long as it’s a good story.

Tyler turns her question on to herself for this book and creates a memoir of sorts where she retells her own self-inflicted wounds.  Some are hysterical, some are learning experiences, some show her path to success.  It’s a good mix, like anyone’s life should be.  There are some that I sort of flipped through and others that I completely related to and took my time with.  I think most people will find at least one story that they will cringe along with and think “Oh god… me too.  I did this.”

One of my favorite stories is The Time I Almost Seared My Flesh to My Dad’s Motorcycle.  When she was ten, she decided that the best way to distinguish herself from her classmates was to dress like a ballerina all the time.  Not a frilly pink tu-tu’ed ballerina, but a girl who was serious about art.  She decided she needed leotards and tights with ankle length wrap skirts.  Everything had to match.  She decided that brown tones would convey this serious vibe, so there she was: ten years old, draped in shapeless brown.  No matter where she went, this was her outfit.  People had to take her seriously because she was committed.  This was a girl who thought deep thoughts and she had clothing to match.  Of course, she was also a girl who was ten and wanted to be able to walk.  Or play, climb trees, run, and participate in other activities that ten year olds do.  Apparently when you have a skirt wrapped tightly around your legs, you fall down a lot.  But she managed to keep it together until her dad’s motorcycle ended the look.

She loved her dad and loved that he loved motorcycles.  The problem was that when she was on the back she wanted to read or sleep.  Her dad finally figured out a way to strap her in so she wouldn’t pitch backwards into oncoming traffic.  However, there was no way to construct a harness to strap down a ten year old’s mind or skirt.  Paying such serious attention to how her skirt moved and how a true artist must hold her body, she forgot about the exhaust pipe.  Climbing behind her dad, her skirt melted to the pipe and there was immediate burning and freaking-the-fuck out.  Happily, only her skirt was burned, but she realized that maybe ballerina skirts weren’t the best idea.

This story killed me because I remember being in elementary school and wanting to Be Serious.  I was convinced that if you carried a notebook around all the time to write in, people would marvel at how advanced you were.  Surely cameras would show up at some point and you’d find yourself famous with a TV show or a movie career or something.  You don’t see a ten year old with a notebook and think they won’t become famous!  I mean, come on!  That ten year old has a notebook!  There is no commitment like an elementary school kid with something to prove.  Well, until something happens where you realize it’s a total pain in the ass to carry around a notebook and pencil all the damn time and it’s taking way too long for your famous career to kick off.  Or, you know, you almost set yourself on fire on the back of your dad’s bike.

Tyler continues with stories of growing up, dealing with boobs, then starting her standup career.  There was a huge time span in between those two things.  Her college years, while cringe worthy, also show that she was headed for greatness.  This was a woman who was going to create a space for herself, no matter how much it was going to hurt.

Her adult tales are just as good.  She finds herself not feeling funny anymore and questioning her career.  She accidentally spits on an audience member.  She falls asleep at a party.  She’s older, but still self-inflicting.

I will argue that not all of these tales are actual wounds, but the are definitely self-inflicted.  Tyler is someone who makes decisions and follows through, no matter what.  Sometimes there are tragic endings, but overall, she’s had amazing payoffs.  Sure, she’s performed in front of a crowd with her fly down and she once wore a see through dress to an event, but she also was named the 2011 best new comedy podcast on iTunes, she has amazing fans, she’s got a book and a talk show and she gets to perform all over the place.  She get to rock her nerd self while playing video games and greeting fans at various cons.  She swears more than I do.  I totally want to hang out with her.

#34: The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black

I feel like the jerkiest jerk because I haven’t returned this book to the library.  I checked it out in OCTOBER and finished it within two weeks in between other books.  It’s been sitting next to my computer for me to review and there’s a wait list for it.  People have been waiting for me since October to get this done!  I am so sorry.

I love love love Holly Black.  When I read Tithe for the first time, I found a kindred spirit.  I’ve read all of her YA and dug up a lot of her short stories in various anthologies.  I’ve been lucky to see her on a few different panels at different book events.  Even better, she lives a few towns over from me, so sometimes I’ll see her when I’m out.  And then I embarrass myself by trying to tell her how much I like her writing.  Seriously, it’s bad.  I once walked past her in a restaurant and didn’t want to interrupt her, so I planned on tossing out a quick “Thank you for writing” but instead I sang it.  I sang it.  “Thank yooooooooo… for wriiiiiiiiitinggggggg…..”  Think of the scene from Elf where they think Buddy is a sing-o-gram except make it horrific.  I don’t know what happened in my brain.  I then followed up with “I donnnnnn’t knowwwwww… why I am sinnnnnnngingggggg….”  She laughed and thanked me.  I went to the bathroom and realized I was going to have to walk by her table again on the way back to mine.  I’m in my thirties and I had just awkwardly and painfully serenaded a favorite author.  I think I managed to save it on the way back with a casual “I really love your books” as I passed by.  Smooth.

Coldtowns are where the vampires live.  And those who might become vampires.Coldtown  And those who are obsessed and enthralled with vampires and want to serve them in any way.  It’s also where people are sent who are infected and if you can prove you’ve made it through your quarantine without turning, you can leave.  But no one ever seems to leave.

When you’re bit by a vampire, you get cold.  And hungry.  If you go Cold and then drink human blood, you’re done.  You get sicker, then you die, and then you come back to life, or whatever the category is for vampires.  The guideline for quarantine is eight-eight days.  If you can make it that long without taking human blood, you’ll be OK.  The problem is that when you’re craving blood, you will do anything to get it, including trying to kill your own daughter.

When Tana was ten, her mom went Cold.  Terrified of being sent to the nearest Coldtown, she agreed to be locked in the basement until it passed.  Within weeks, the screaming was nonstop.    It took a little over a month for Tana to give in, sneaking the door open to let her mother out.  A moment, and then teeth tearing into her arm.  Her mother wasn’t a vampire yet so couldn’t infect her daughter, but she was going to kill her.  Her father saved her by killing her mother.  Tana is now seventeen with a silver scar.

She wakes up at a party where she’d passed out in a bathtub with the curtain drawn.  A sundown party, where garlic hangs from the windows and holy water is sprinkled over the doorways.  Only something happened.  A window left open and the house is filled with dead friends.  Somehow they missed Tana, but she has to get out before they realize she’s there.  She knows they would have gone to the darkest part of the house to rest, their blood filled bodies waiting for darkness.  Terrified, she creeps to get her car keys and finds her ex-boyfriend alive, gagged and tied to a bed.  Just out of his reach is a young vampire, chained to the furniture.  He’s being tortured, having to look at this living boy but not being able to feed.

Tana starts to untie Aiden and he lunges for her, trying to bite.  Horrified, she realizes he’s been infected.  She’s in a room with someone going Cold and a full vampire sitting and watching.  He seems to be panicking too, straining at the chains around his neck and frantically looking back and forth between her and the door.  Someone is coming.  Someone who will love to drain her life.

Without fully understanding why, Tana saves them both.  Wrapping the vampire in as many blankets as she can find, she shoves him in her trunk.  Trying to figure out a way to keep Aiden from attacking her, she gets him in the car.  As she desperately claws her way out the window, the sun sets, the door is kicked open and she feels the scratch of something on the back of her leg.  Was she bitten?

And that’s the first three chapters.

The rest of the book is Tana trying to figure out what she’s going to do.  She wants to save Aiden but he doesn’t seem to want to be saved.  She’s waiting to see if she’ll turn Cold and turn on him first.  She’s either holding a vampire captive or being held captive by a vampire.  And he’s cute and mesmerizing and dangerous but also seems hesitant to hurt her.  None of this is normal, and she lives surrounded by things that aren’t normal.

Knowing her father won’t help, he’s been drinking nearly nonstop since her mother first went Cold, and terrified she’ll hurt her little sister, Tana decides the best thing she can do is get herself to the nearest Coldtown and wait it out.  Somehow she’ll figure out something to get herself out after her eighty-eight days have passed.  She’ll also somehow drag Aiden along with her, forcing him to wait it out, even though he’s looking at her, waiting for her to slip up so he can feed.  She was in love with him once and he broke her heart.  He knows what to say to her and how to say it and she hates herself for wanting him to be safe.

Then there’s Gavriel.  He seems to simply be waiting.  Why was he being tortured by the pack of vampires in the party house?  It makes sense that they’re coming for Tana and Aiden, but what do they want with one of their own?  And why isn’t Gavriel attacking his human saviors?

Tana just wants to come up with a plan.  Coldtown seems to be the safest bet.  If you turn in a vampire, you’re given a marker.  Get out of jail, free.  She can betray Gavriel, get herself locked in until her Coldness passes, then leave.  She’ll have to figure out something for Aiden once she’s there.  And she might not even be going Cold.  She’s still not sure she’s been bit.

The Coldtowns have become the center of reality TV.  Blogs, live feeds, 24 hour programming… the vampire followers are intense.  Many kids fall in love with the idea of forever.  They change their names and dye their hair.  The set up elaborate websites while they are on the outside, making connections and families on the inside.  When they are ready, they lie and tell the guards they have gone Cold so they can start their real lives inside of Coldtown.  Not surprisingly, not all of them do well.  They are often robbed as soon as they get there.  No one quite knows who to trust.  Some vampires don’t care where or how they feed.  There are plenty of people who will hook up IVs for them to sip from, but if you find a human wandering about…  Other vampires hate themselves and when the sun comes up, they stand in it, begging for an ending to what they’ve become.

It’s a party and anyone can come.  While Tana isn’t the only one who is afraid, she’s the only one in her group who doesn’t want to stay locked up.  Aiden is eager to see what happens next.  Maybe he’ll stay Cold without completely turning.  Maybe he’ll give in to his hunger.  Maybe he’ll kill Tana before they even arrive.

And Gavriel?  He seems to have business behind the locked gates.  Tana still doesn’t know why the other vampires want him, but he has a plan no one needs to know about.

Get him there, get her marker, get out with Aiden.  That’s all she needs to do.

And of course, everything goes to shit.  People die, people disappear, friends betray each other, people get bit.  Tana makes mistakes.  She figures things out too late.  She makes powerful enemies and traps herself.  She tries to get help from people who don’t want to leave and worship the vampires as gods.  She is completely alone, lost in Coldtown without any backup plan.

Well, maybe Gavriel?  But she doesn’t even know where he is.  Or who he is.

This is another solid book from Holly Black.  Her writing is wonderful, her story telling is skilled and she once again captures than unnamed longing that you have when you’re a teenager.  You feel like you own the world while at the same time feeling completely out of control.  You want someone to be in charge while knowing that no one can understand what’s happening.  Things seem so simple but plans become complicated.  You feel like you’re in a huge group of friends while feeling completely alone.  Black has a fantastic ability to pull from this turmoil and create characters who are completely relateable.   Sure, as an adult I can roll my eyes at a seventeen year old falling in love with a vampire.  But my inner seventeen year old is thinking “Yeah.  Go for it.”  And this happens because of Black.  She doesn’t write weak, easy characters.  Tana struggles and makes mistakes and you want her to win, even though you have no clue what winning is going to look like.

I highly recommend Holly Black to any fans of fantasy, urban fantasy and to people who just want to get their hands on smart, well-written YA.  She is extremely talented and she’s also really nice if you sing at her in public.

 

 

 

#33: Jim Henson: The Biography by Brian Jay Jones

Jim HensonWhen I heard there was a massive biography of Jim Henson coming out, I was excited and worried.  I wanted to know more about the man who created so many things that I’ve enjoyed throughout my life, but I knew I was going to cry when they talked about his funeral.  I was also worried that he might turn out to be a jerk, even though I had no reason to worry about this.  But still, what if the guy who brought Kermit to life ended up being kind of a dick?  I don’t want that knowledge in my head.

Happily and not surprisingly, Jim Henson was lovely.

Brian Jay Jones spent several years with those close to Jim and the result is a wonderful book.  Reading it was pure pleasure because of Jones’ writing style.  It’s conversational, emotional, smart and incredibly informative and was extremely satisfying.  The combination of Jim Henson and Jones is magic and I’m so glad that Jim’s life was handed to Jones to be documented and told so carefully.

Reading Jim’s life and watching him grow from a creative child into a creative powerhouse is exhausting and impressive.  The man never stopped making things.  While he was in the middle of a massive project, he’d start thinking about how to do things better and how to improve the technology and techniques that they were currently using.  He was often a few steps ahead of what hadn’t even been made yet.  He knew that things could be done and had to wait for the technology to catch up.  He was fascinated by television and how it could be used, and later when hand held cameras began appearing, he knew it would change everything.  He didn’t live to see it, but he predicted YouTube some twenty years before it became popular.

Jim’s goal was to improve the world by learning and teaching.  He was constantly seeing what could be and was rarely satisfied with what currently was.  Pages and pages of notes were waiting to be realized.  He would have to shelve projects that proved too massive for his current budget and schedule.  He would exhaust and inspire his crew into performances and creations that no one had dreamed could be possible.  Simply by being, he created.  His employees were committed to his projects, even if they didn’t fully understand them, because they were Jim’s ideas.  They’d go on crazy journeys with him through the workshop to put together new creatures.  Even if they weren’t designing for a specific project, they’d work on the art and development because at some point, Jim would want it.  By then, they’d need to make it better, always trying to catch up to him.

Out of the workshop, Jim was quite the man.  Men wanted to be his friend and women wanted to be in his bed.  When his attention was turned to you, it made everything amazing.  Of course when you felt ignored or snubbed, it made for a difficult work environment.  Also, Jim was married with five kids.  Family was the most important thing to him and the love he had for his children was nearly tangible on the page.  He was fascinated by how they learned and interacted with their environment and would test things out on them for approval.  If it didn’t work for his kids, he wouldn’t use it.  He respected their ideas and desires, and even from a very young age incorporated them into his work.

But for Jim, it wasn’t work.  He loved what he did and couldn’t comprehend why people wanted to stop.  When you’re working on something that’s inspiring and has the potential to teach, why would you stop?  When he would go on vacation, he’d still be creating and planning, eager to get back into the workshop or studio or office to share new ideas and find out how to make them come true.

Some of them were way out there.  He dreamed of opening a night club where images were projected onto women’s bodies.  While he didn’t do drugs, except for maybe some occasional marijuana, he was always pulled in to visual effects.  He wanted this massive performance space where music and film would combine for a seamless experience.  It was crazy and people would have probably eaten every drug they could find and pack the room, but once again, the technology wasn’t there.

When it came to the business side of the Muppets, the Creature Workshop, movies and TV, Jim struggled.  He hated having to make decisions.  It was agony for him to sit through meetings or talk to lawyers when he could be working on something meaningful.  He often let things slide to other people and work was delegated over and over until it again wound up with Jim having to make a decision.  Even then, he’d often slide it to another person to take care of.  This caused a lot of hurt feelings, confusion and management struggles when he split his time between the crew in New York and his Creature Shop in England.  No one knew what the other was working on, but for Jim, this didn’t matter.  If he needed new puppets or animatronics, he’d fly to England to talk to those in the Creature Shop.  When it was time to discuss what they’d film for Sesame Street, he’d head back to New York and work with that crew.  Coming back in to the New York office, he’d run through more ideas for shows and have people get to work.  It never occurred to him that someone really needed to be in charge, and that this person was him.  He’d call in with instructions and whoever answered the phone would be the person with the information.  There were times when no one knew what the most important goals were because he had talked to several different people that week.  Still, everyone was so dedicated to him that they’d work through it and do their best to figure it out.

Jim finally became so frustrated with overhead costs and constantly trying to find funding for his work that he decided it was time to sell.  He’d been in love with Disney since he was a child and the thought of his Muppets becoming part of this magical world was comforting and practical.  They’d get the characters, and more importantly they’d get Jim, and he’d get the freedom to create and not have to run the business side.

Turns out this was a deal that took fifteen years to seal and he wasn’t alive to see it done.  Once again, the business side of his work infuriated him.  The Disney lawyers went through every line word by word.  Jim’s lawyers did what they could, but had to bring information back to Jim for approval.  Disney repeatedly tried to get their hands on the Sesame Street characters even though Jim made it clear from the beginning that they were off limits.  Several times everything almost fell apart completely, but Michael Eisner single handedly kept everyone at the table.  His sheer will and desire on getting Jim into the Disney family was powerful and Jim trusted him.

When it was announced the Jim was selling the Muppets to Disney, I was really disappointed.  I thought he was selling out and going for money.  Reading the background before I even got to the deal, I realized that it was never about money.  He wanted to continue to create and improve and by giving over the business side to a company that he loved, he’d be able to.  I’m pleased to know that I was wrong.  Jim would join Disney, he’d finish creating the Muppet Section of MGM Studios, he’d make movies and TV shows for them and he’d join the company exclusively for the next fifteen years.

And then he got sick.

Jim never got sick.  He was too busy loving life and working and it almost never happened.  On the rare occasions he’d get a cold or a flu, it wouldn’t last long.  He’d retreat to one of his homes and have comfort food until he felt better.  He rarely took any medicine, and when he did, it was nothing stronger than an aspirin.  He simply didn’t have time to get sick, and his body seemed to know it.  He ignored what was happening and brushed off people’s concerns.  He didn’t want to have attention over something like this, so he went to his New York apartment to wait it out.

His wife Jane joined him.  Although they had been separated for many years, Jane and Jim always had a special relationship.  They had children together that they both loved.  Jane was part creator of the Muppets when Jim was just getting started with his five minute shows in between the news and whatever show came next.  She filmed commercials with him.  She was the company before there was a company.  However, they were two completely different people and all the love and respect couldn’t keep them together.  Jim hated confrontation and in his personal life hated making decisions the way he did in his business life.  Jane wore her emotions in the open and would fight with him, begging him to share what he was thinking.  The angrier and sadder she got, the quieter and more closed off he became.  With two conflicting communication styles, it could not work.  However, Jim worked very hard to keep his girlfriends private.  Jane knew what was happening, but Jim would never make a relationship public.  He respected her too much.  He didn’t want to get divorced, but he realized he couldn’t be her husband.  However, she was who he would go to when it came to major decisions.  Even though she had been phased out of the company, she knew how he thought and truly knew who he was, and he trusted her completely.  When she showed up to take care of him, he let her stay.

Public opinion wonders why he didn’t just go to the hospital.  People have said that if he had just gone in that morning the doctors would have caught the pneumonia, but it never occurred to him that he was really sick.  He finally told Jane that it was time to go, but even then he insisted on walking to the car and when they were dropped off in the wrong place, he walked the blocks to the emergency room.  It was too late.  He had severe pneumonia and kidney failure.  His body was infected with a powerful strain of strep.  His lungs were shutting down.  Maybe the doctors could have caught it, but even with drugs,  it might not have worked.  He was too sick.  He died from organ failure resulting from streptococcal toxic shock syndrome caused by Streptococcus pyogenes.

Jim’s death was brutal.  Word traveled fast and his employees gathered in shock.  It was unbelievable.  Jim never got sick.  Jim couldn’t be dead.  It was incomprehensible that a man that powerful could die, and could die so young.  He was fifty-three and he had too  much to do.  The intensity of the shock that his friends, family and coworkers felt is heartbreaking.  I was already in tears and they hadn’t gotten to his memorial service yet.

But even in his death, he was still inspiring his family.  He had written letters to his children to be delivered soon after he died.  He told them he wasn’t scared of death and was looking forward to the next adventure.  He told them what kind of service he’d like to have and not to waste money on a casket.  He promised that if he could, he’d guide them from where ever it was he’d be.  His love continued to pour over his children even though he was gone.

I so enjoyed this book.  I think for many of us, Jim Henson is part of who we are.  We have different memories of his work and it has become pieces of our history.  Watching the Muppets can make me incredibly emotional because I remember being four or five years old and watching with my dad.  I remember sitting with my mom and laughing at Bert.  I don’t know how many times she read me The Monster at the End of This Book, but every time she did, I’d laugh at Grover and how silly he was.  Later I fell in love with the Dark Crystal and Labyrinth.  The sections about these movies were painful because Jim fully loved the work and was heartbroken that the movies didn’t do well and critics did not like them.  Labyrinth especially was one of his all time favorite projects and it must have broken him a little bit that it didn’t succeed.  It is a huge cosmic ripoff that he didn’t live to see it become a favorite.  He would have been delighted to see the cosplay.

I could write so much more about this book.  It was exciting to see how characters came to be.  I liked watching his performers come together.  Knowing the background story of shows and the movies made me appreciate the work even more.  Depending on what aspect of Jim’s life is interesting to you, this book will have it.

I cannot stress enough the talent and respect that Brian Jay Jones brought to this work.  The amount of time he spent with Jim’s friends, family and business associates is nearly unimaginable.  This book felt like a gift because of how carefully he wrote it and the love he put into it.  I hope Jim’s loved ones are proud of the work Jones did.

#32: Autobiography of Red: A Novel in Verse by Anne Carson

RedOh, how I loved this book.  This was another book club pick that I had no prior knowledge of.  I am so glad it was chosen, even if it wasn’t a huge hit with everyone.

I haven’t read a long piece of verse in a while but I love getting back into that brain space.  I’ve got a BA and M.Ed in English, so it doesn’t take me too long to find that sweet spot of feeling the rhythm of the language, not getting distracted by the line breaks, and getting pulled into the story.  For me, it feels like accessing a slightly different part of my brain than when I’m reading normal text.

Geryon is Red.  He’s a monster.  He hides his wings and tries to follow his older brother.  He’s an odd child, monster or not.  He speaks little but is always learning.  His mother is his solace and her unconditional love and guidance helps him find art.  He’s able to create a space for himself while being abused by his brother.  He grows, discovers photography and “somehow Geryon made it to adolescence.”

We know from Stesichoros that Geryon will be killed by Herakles.  He is the tenth labor and has fate is sealed when both are born.

But in this version of Geryon’s life, how will this death happen?  He and Herakles meet as teenagers.  He’s fourteen, Herakles is sixteen and Geryon  is doomed.  He spends as much time with Herakles as he can, wanting to love him completely, but at a complete loss when it comes to approaching the unnamed and unknown.  Herakles is all confidence and sexuality, and yet he seems to wait for Geryon to stumble into admitting something, or waiting for him to simply give up and give in.  Geryon’s longing and frustration is tangible and Herakles’ refusal to help soon starts to feel cruel.

But eventually Herakles possess him completely.  He is charming and only wants to journey and discover and find fun.  When Geryon amuses him, it as if they are the only two in the world.  Geryon feels unworthy and knows this attention is fleeting.  He’s desperate to keep Herakles interested.  He withdraws from his mother, both of them unsure how to approach each other now.

And then Herakles leaves Geryon behind.  He’s bored, or Geryon is boring.  Broken and sick, Geryon peers into his camera and waits.  Perhaps he’ll find something interesting, or become interesting.

Later, Herakles calls to hear his voice.  Geryon feels the love, still as fresh as it was when he was fourteen.  Herakles chatters on about dreams and Geryon is horrified to realize that Herakles doesn’t know him at all, and yet he knows he would still give up everything to be owned by Herakles again.

Years later he’s traveling.  He has his camera.  His wings are strapped tight to his back.  He falls in with scholars.  He listens and learns, like the little boy he was.

A sudden a punch to take the breath from his lungs, Herakles appears.  The two happen to be in the same place at the same time.  Herakles has Ancash now.  The two are traveling around South America.  Ancash is recording the sounds of volcanoes.  The redness Geryon  understands.  He hates Ancash.  He hates himself for drowning in Herakles so quickly.  The three travel together.  Ancash is furious.  Herakles continues to be oblivious and hurtful and wonderful and lovely.  Life is not hard for him.  He is a chosen one.

The three travel.  Geryon takes pictures.  The story’s path is obvious, but what will the ending be?  We know Herakles must kill him.  But how and when and will Geryon embrace him while he dies, or will he finally try to break free?

Geryon flies for Ancash.  He cries for Herakles, or because of him.  Ancash watches Herakles slip away while Geryon knows he’s not going to be the one to tame him.  Neither he or Ancash can keep Herakles.  The two become friends of sort because of this.  Perhaps Herakles will kill Ancash too.

Carson’s verse is red and fire and pain and wistfulness.  Geryon is almost always lost, and it’s heartbreaking because he knows he’s lost.  He is able to find himself in moments behind his camera.  He’s red and he’s surrounded by red and life is red, and he cannot live without Herakles.  Herakles will kill him and he is helpless.

Carson’s writing is beautiful.  The imagery and repetition creates a pacing and rhythm that was satisfying.  At times Geryon pauses and creeps towards his end, but other times there is quick movement, spread wings and soaring moments.  The imagery is skillfully crafted and even though Herakles does not notice, we see every drop of color in Geryon’s world.

I highly recommend this to anyone who enjoys poetry.  Having a retelling of a Greek myth with confusing conversations with Stesichoros the author makes it difficult to walk away from.  Was it truth?  Did he have to rewrite to appease Helen and regain his sight?  When he was blind, did he actually see everything at once?  Which story is the real story?

#31: Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady by Florence King

ConfessionsI love book group.  Not only do I get to hang out with a bunch of people I like and talk about books, I get to read books that I never would have picked up on my own.  Welcome to Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady.  I read a lot of memoirs, but this one never would have stood out for me.  I didn’t know anything about Florence King, so when this was chosen for our September meeting, I was looking forward to something new.  (Yes, September book group.  If you’re also behind on book reviews, let’s hold hands in solidarity.  Or just nod at each other while working on something else that’s not a book review.)

King grew up in an amazing family.  If someone pitched these people for a movie or a sitcom, they’d be thrown out of the room.  Her grandmother is Southern and proud.  She lives for the South.  She worships all things Ladylike and Proper.  She is happiest when grooming young girls to step in to the roles of Southern Ladies, knowing their impeccable breeding and poise will bring honor to the family.  The only thing that will make her happier is if her Southern Lady In Training has women’s problems that incapacitate her.  Cramps so bad that you miss the ambulance that’s there to take you to the insane asylum?  Oh bless, child.  You’re perfect.

King’s mother didn’t stand a chance, or so you’d think.  Turns out Granny lost the Lady Lottery when Louise was born.  King’s mother had no interest in being a lady and spent her time smoking, boxing, drinking and fighting.  The more Granny tried to shove her into dresses, the more badass Mama became.  It’s amazing.

King’s father somehow fell into this family and remained a dignified gentleman.  An Englishman with a lovely accent who rendered Granny helpless with glee.  She would trace his lineage to kings to impress her Southern friends.  Of course these lines weren’t accurate, but who cares?  He’s English!  Herb and Mama married, moved in together, she got pregnant, had nothing in common, and once Granny moved in, it was perfect.  This is a relationship that made no sense, and yet it did.  Granny is worried and ecstatic that Mama might finally have women troubles when she’s pregnant and moves in for just a little while, never to leave.  She and Herb get along so well that people think she’s his mother, not his in-law.

Along comes Florence, and the family is complete.

King is an incredible mix of crazy from all of this.  Her father loved learning and education and she learned and read with him constantly.  Other children were useless to her and when she started school she was quickly moved up to higher grades because she knew so much more than the unformed blobs that were in her way.

Granny was worried that this was going to lead her to spinsterhood, but Mama swore and told her it was fine.

And that’s pretty much how King’s life was.  She’d do her thing, her father supported her, her mother was sometimes indifferent but would fight for her if needed and her grandmother adored and tried to lady-ify her.

I don’t know how she didn’t wind up in the insane asylum.  Sometimes the power of love really does conquer all.

I enjoyed the final third of the book the most, when King leaves home to go to college.  She arrives at school at a time when women are there to catch husbands and earn their Mrs. before a BA and absolutely before an MA.  King is having none of it.  She’s there to learn and work.  She is destroyed when her female professors insist on being called Mrs. and not Professor.  She finds out she can’t major in French.  For the first time in her life, she finds herself restricted because of her gender.  Sure, there’s been times when she’s had to be stubborn, but this is an entire institution determining her self-worth.  It was frustrating and agonizing to read.

She pushes through, takes up with a married professor after realizing she can’t get laid because boys her age are too uptight and finishes her degree.  She winds up in the deep South to get her grad work done.  There, she meets and falls hopelessly in love with Bres.  Bres is a known lesbian and suddenly King realizes she’s one herself.  King is a big fan of sex and loved the boys who put out, and willingly lets Bres overwhelm her.  Why take up with boys when it’s really a girl you want?  Sadly, Bres is not a fantastic girlfriend and the relationship is painful and one sided.  Still, it lets King become who she is.

She returns to Granny at the end of the book.  It’s no surprise that Granny’s life is coming to an end.  While there isn’t a lot of foreshadowing, when a book starts before King is born and spends so much time on Granny’s life, it’s easy for the reader to know that Granny probably isn’t going to make it to the end.  King loves her family completely, and returning to them as a young adult was beautiful and heartbreaking.  It was one of those moments where I was able to relate completely to someone I had so very little in common with.

This was a fun read.  I enjoy reading about Southern life because it’s so at odds with my Yankee self.  Granny was a study in what it means to be a Lady, and it’s always hysterical and sweet to see how strength and Southern manners play out together.  King’s mother is incredible and reminded me of Idgie Threadgoode from Fried Green Tomatoes and I was so happy when she was on the page.  King’s father was unconditional love and delighted in his daughter, even though it meant living and loving a wife and mother-in-law that were completely alien to him.  This story could have been heartbreaking and violent and a cautionary tale about choosing your husband carefully, but it wasn’t, and it’s wonderful and lovely.

#30: Self-Made Man: One Woman’s Journey Into Manhood and Back Again by Norah Vincent

Self-Made Man

I’ve sat down and edited this review several times and almost threw the entire thing out to rewrite it to try and keep it short.  I have accepted that  I have a lot of things to say.  Get comfortable.

I first read Self-Made Man in 2008 and loved it.  I’ve thought about it a lot since then and have become more and more uncomfortable with it.  After several easy book club discussions where we all liked the book, I chose this one for our August meeting (yes, this is how far behind I am in writing reviews) because I knew it would be a lively conversation and would possibly involve angry punches.  Not at each other of course…  Just, you know, in general angry punches at the world.

It could not have gone any better.  Is it weird that I’m really happy I pissed off my entire group?

Norah Vincent decided to spend over a year and a half as a man named Ned, although not 24/7.  She wanted to see firsthand what the male experience was like and chose several male specific situations to infiltrate for her research.  She spent eight months on an all male bowling team.  She went to strip clubs.  She went on dates.  She worked in the testosterone fueled cold-call sales world.  She spent a few weeks in a monastery living with monks.  She joined a men’s movement group and traveled with them on their weekend retreat.  As a lesbian woman, she wanted to experience the male life.  

The idea came from an evening out when she was younger.  She dressed as a man, although she never would have passed if anyone had looked closely, and was shocked at how different it was.  Living in NYC, she never felt invisible.  Men constantly look at you, either to leer or harass or just acknowledge that you are female.  As a man, however, no one paid any attention to her.  “It was astounding, the difference, the respect [the men in her neighborhood] showed me by not looking at me, by purposely not staring.”  That sentence is what hooked me in when I flipped through the book the first time.  I was fascinated by this idea of experiencing the familiar as a man to see how things change.  I wanted to know if this would be a study in sexism and bias or if it would show acceptance and understanding.  I thought Vincent would interact with people first as Ned and then as Nora, or the other way around, to see how she was treated differently.

But that’s not how this book works.

Vincent came to this project with very clear intentions and overwhelming assumptions and bias.  She decided before changing her body and clothes that all the men she interacts with are going to be disgusting caveman pigs.  She is astounded when men show feelings.  My book club wondered if she had any male friends or if she had interacted with any males for any long periods of time.  Two members of my club in particular hated her so much that they had physical reactions.  Since I had loved the book when I first read it (I gave it five stars and labeled it “favorite” on GoodReads), I found myself wanting to defend Vincent, but the more I reread and the more passages I highlighted, the angrier and sadder I got.

I still recommend that people read this because it is fascinating to see her journey, but do know that this isn’t a controlled psychological or scientific study.  This is one woman’s experience and she went into it without examining her own feelings ahead of time or coming up with any sort of thesis.  Really bad things happen, morally and ethically.

At the end she checks herself into a mental institution.

It’s interesting to note how women come across in this book.  When she joins the men’s bowling league, she is astounded that men from her team and competing teams want her to get better.  Ned is the worst bowler in the league.  When she isn’t bowling, several men will offer to work with her in an empty lane.  Her teammates will yell tips and encouragement when it’s her turn to bowl.  When one of the men is getting closer to bowling a perfect game, everyone sits down and silently watches.  She feels like there was some unspoken primal rule that tells men to wait and watch when another man is about to succeed.  She is surprised by this because in her experience, women love to see other women fail.  As a teenager at tennis camp, she was lethal on the court, but wasn’t pretty.  When the coach uses her example for how to properly serve, another girl remarks that she’d rather be pretty and bad at tennis than ugly with a good serve.  Girls don’t care about girls.  You are competition and if you’re better than they are, they will attack your body, personality, morals, whatever and if you are weaker than they are, then they will enjoy your failure.

It gets worse when Ned starts to date.

This is the part of the book that has made me more and more uncomfortable as I’ve thought about it.  Even when reading it the first time, I found myself cringing at both the ethics and her tone.  She comes across as really hating women, which was curious to me because she’s a lesbian.  I wanted to know what Nora’s dating life was like that made her react and compare it to Ned’s.  One of the things I found interesting was that she’s been passing as Ned for at least six months before she starts to date and I wonder if she would have felt differently if she had dated earlier or later as Ned.  [I’m guessing this based on Vincent’s comments at the beginning of the book.  She said she wrote it fairly in time order and the chapter about dating comes two after bowling.  Since bowling lasted eight months and there was overlap with the next chapter, I’m guessing six months.  Total guess.  No proof.]  This was one of those moments where I wished it was a psychological experiment to see how Ned would have felt if this was the first thing he did as a man or the last thing.  Coming off his stint with the bowling league and spending lots of time in strip clubs (more on that later), I have to wonder where his head was.

Ned tries picking girls up in bars.  Nora is shocked at how hard it is and how bad it feels to be rejected again and again and again.  This part was really interesting to me because I don’t know what she was comparing it to.  Vincent is a lesbian, but dated boys in high school.  I don’t know what her own experience is with being hit on by straight men, so it wasn’t clear how she was relating to Ned’s experiences.

Ned is able to go on dates and Nora realizes that she is in a bad place.  She decides that if she has two dates with a woman, she will out herself.  With the rest, she will lie, but will keep their interactions brief so she doesn’t get their hopes up.

Before going into details, she explains that it is “hardly surprising…that in this atmosphere…as a single man dating women, I often felt attacked, judged, on the defensive.  Whereas with the men I met and befriended as Ned there was a presumption of innocence – that is, you’re a good guy until you prove otherwise – with women there was quite often a presumption of guilt: you’re a cad like every other guy until you prove otherwise.”  I don’t think I can’t argue much with this.  She and her dates are in their mid-thirties and a lot of these women have had bad experiences.  In my own life, I’ve seen friends go on and on about how all men are assholes and will often leave for a date with the thought of “Let’s see how fucked up this one is.”  Still… she really found a few women that are horrible representatives of their gender.  I don’t know if it happened by accident or what, but hell… these women are very unpleasant.  She meets a few women, talks about how horrible they are and has sex with one of them.

Throughout the book there were moments where I responded “Yes!  This is what I want to know!  Talk more about this.  Explore this more.”  An example of this is the physical attractiveness and male dominance requirements in dating.  Ned emails a lot of his dates and the women all respond to his writing.  They appreciate his tone and the lengths of his emails.  He is attentive and interested and they are attracted to this person.  And then they meet him.  Ned is not a big guy.  Norah sometimes feels small when she’s dating as Ned.  She thinks these women want a big strong guy who can take charge and throw a punch if needed, but at the same time be that sweet and caring guy from the email.  I totally agree with this.  Men are supposed to be strong, but not violent.  They’re supposed to be in touch with their emotions, but not weak.  They’re only allowed to cry under very specific circumstances.   They are supposed to ask for help, but not appear feeble.  It’s total bullshit, and I’m not a guy.  I don’t know how guys deal with this.

The strip clubs she went to were really depressing.  Again, she doesn’t talk about what her intentions were.  Maybe she wanted to see if she could continue to pass as a man, maybe she liked the idea of being able to see naked women, maybe she wanted to study the men there.  While I personally don’t think strip clubs are super amazing, I felt like she picked the worst one she could find.  She even refers to it as a “hellhole”.  She seems happy that the women are angry and intrigued by one woman who isn’t the prettiest or youngest, but makes a lot of money because she makes you feel like she likes you.  This woman pays attention to Ned and is always putting on a show.  The entire experience fills her with shame and embarrassment as well as guilt that her life didn’t lead her to the pole.  It’s an uncomfortable chapter where neither the men or the women are redeemable.  The men wallow in a helpless cry of having to give into their base desires and explain that it’s not their fault that they need to see tits.  The women aren’t people and interact with the men as little as possible, barely hiding their hostility.  It seems like no one is having fun.

I’m not going to write much about her time with the monks, but interestingly enough, this is where she learned a lot about the rules of what makes a man a man.  Any time she showed the slightest hint of femininity, it was immediately noticed and judged.  These men were adamant about crushing all sense of sexuality, especially homosexuality, while maintaining a sense of pure masculinity.  There was friendship, but there was a lot of distance and distrust.  One thing that was interesting to me personally was how older monks and priests struggled with their relationships because they were taught to put God before anyone else.  Having a friend meant distancing yourself from God.  This completely isolates them and they find it difficult and probably at times intolerable living with others.  This has nothing to do with the book’s experiment, but I found it fascinating.

The final infiltration was the most unethical to me, barely edging out Ned’s dating life.  Ned joins a men’s group.  She is surrounded by different types of men in different stages of fragility and mental anguish.  There are men who appear to be on the edge of a violent rage with each breath.  Other men are desperate for friends, father figures or brother substitutes.

Nora is astonished at how difficult it is for these men to talk about their feelings.  Some of them struggle with the idea that they even have feelings, and watching them try to articulate this is pure amazement to her.

She is also terrified.  This is a group of MEN and she feels that if she will be discovered and outed, this is the group that will do it.  She’s entered into a sanctified world where men are able to first realize they have feelings, acknowledge and articulate the feelings they have about women, and painfully work though the confusion, fear and anger that the women in their lives have caused.  For a woman to lie to them and join their group?  This could cause mental harm beyond repair and I hated Nora for being part of this.  For her, it was an experiment.  Observe the men in a habitat.  Try and stay uninvolved, but also pick them apart to see how they work.  For some of these men, this group was forcing them to do things that defied every instruction they had received in their lives about what it means to be a man.  While some of the men were eager to make changes because they wanted something different and better, others seemed in a panic that they might uncover something too painful to manage.  And here is a woman in disguise watching and making notes.  I hated it.  My book group was furious.

At a weekend retreat, Nora ends up completely caught up in the symbolism and emotions of the group and finds herself having her own psychological crisis.  While she continues to observe these men trying to define themselves, she realizes that she needs to define who she is and how Ned fits in.

The weekend ends, she lets Ned go and soon checks herself into a mental institution.  This leads to her second book Voluntary Madness, a book that filled me with such rage that I almost didn’t finish it.  If you thought she made poor choices in this book, wait until she talks about how people should go off their meds.

Anyway…

I’m glad I read and then reread this book.  There is a lot that happens and she does make many valid points and observations.  The problem is that she assumes Nora’s version of reality is correct and when things don’t mesh, she doesn’t always continue to find out why.  Men are kind to Ned but Nora doesn’t stop to wonder why she thinks men are cruel.  Women are indifferent to Ned, but Nora doesn’t ask herself what kind of women she’s finding for him.  I think this could have been a very different book if she had laid out her intentions and predictions before each experiment.  I understand that she wanted to be Ned and watch what happens, but without untangling her expectations, she doesn’t always come across well.  Again, I wanted to defend her to my book club, but there were too many times when I hated what she had done and they way she wrote about it.

I have to keep remembering that this is a real person who interacted with other real people.  This is her own personal account of what happened.  She experienced and wrote the book she wanted, not what a psychological experiment would have called for.  There are many enlightening and fascinating moments that did make me pause and think about how I define myself as a woman and how I see men.  It’s a thought provoking read and it forces the reader to examine their own thoughts.

If you have a book group, I 100% recommend this as a pick!

#29: Canada by Richard Ford

CanadaI don’t know what I just read.  I didn’t hate it.  I just sort of… read it.

Dell’s parents rob a bank.  Then there are murders, but not until later.  Things happen to Dell and he watches.  He was fifteen when the bank robbery happened and he’s an adult now and here’s what happened to him.

It’s 1960.  Dell, his twin sister Berner, his mom Neeva and his dad Bev have moved to a small town in Montana.  They are an Air Force family and have moved from base to base.  But Bev is out of the Air Force now and Dell thinks things will be become permanent.  Perhaps this new place will be the first time something feels like “home”.

Bev is heartbreaking.  His entire life seems to be pieces and pieces of “almost, but not quite”.  He joined the Air Force in 1939, wanting to be a fighter pilot but he wasn’t good enough and had to settle for being a bombardier.  He’s tall and good looking with Southern charm and openness.  He knows everyone likes him because he likes everyone.  Years later while working on the base, he gets involved with a bit of illegal trading, but it’s a scam that’s been running for a while so everyone looks the other way.  Only some how Bev fucks it up just enough that the higher ups are forced to take notice and he no longer has a job on the base.  He takes a job selling new cars, but doesn’t have the knack for making sales.  A month later he switches to used car sales, knowing people will see he’s trustworthy and the guy to go to when it’s time to spend money.  Only people don’t come to him and he quits fairly soon.  He then decides to get into real estate, selling farms and ranch land.  He knows nothing about farms and ranch land, but insists that this is the one.  This is the thing that’s going to make money.  He’s convinced that because he’s a good person, good things will happen to him, and when they don’t, well, you simply jump to the next thing because clearly that’s where all the answers are.

It’s really depressing.

Bev honestly seems like a good guy.  You want him to succeed.  You want him to find something he’s good at, but at the same time, you know it’s not going to happen, even if you didn’t already know he robbed a bank, got caught, and is in jail.  He’s like someone’s little brother trying to play with the older boys.  He constantly gets shoved down, but he picks himself up and comes trotting back with a big smile.  It’s just so sad.

Neeva, on the other hand, knows life is shit and you might as well wallow in it.  She is the daughter of Jewish immigrants, well educated and with dreams for their daughter.  When she gets knocked up by a smiling, constantly talking Southerner, their dreams die, and so do hers.  She gave up everything to be with Bev and be the mother of his children and it’s obvious she regrets it.  Still, you don’t hate her.  She’s protecting herself and her children from the world.  She’s seen how fast things can change and wants Dell and Berner to be strong enough to face disappointments and fight back.  She reads and writes and has no business being in Montana with a Southern Air Force husband and twins.

It’s really depressing.

But this book is Dell’s story.  He’s the one telling it.  Right at the start we know his parents robbed a bank and we know that murder is coming.  He slowly reveals the story and puts major spoilers in along the way.  He’s describing a guy and then in the next sentence explaining what he looked like later when he was dead on the floor.

His voice is weird.  At times it was like he, or Dell in the future talking about his fifteen year old self, or Ford writing the book, couldn’t decide who he was.  He’d talk like a fifteen year old boy, but then when he added an aside about what he knew later, it was sort of like that part was coming from his future self, but at the same time sort of sounded like the main voice the whole time.  It didn’t read well for me.  I think a big part of it was that I never felt an emotional connection to Dell because I felt like he didn’t have emotions.

And that’s why I don’t know what I read.  Things happen in this book, but they happen to him and around him.  When he makes choices, he does it in a flatline way.  There are a few times when he is mad, but I didn’t feel mad.  There were a few times when I did feel scared when he felt scared, and I did feel his confusion, but overall it was like he was completely dissociated from the whole thing and trying to find empathy was impossible.  It was like he didn’t care, so why should I?

So, Bev and Neeva rob a bank, get caught and go to jail.  Bev again comes up with a brilliant plan to make money by selling stolen beef, only things go wrong and he ends up owing money to people who have no problem hurting him or the family.  The obvious solution is to rob a bank.

Yeah.

Neeva is of course against the idea, but then she gets caught up in the fantasy of having enough money to finally take the kids and leave.  The two of them make wild plans about what they’ll do with all this cash and how amazing it’ll be.

Bev walks out of the bank with $2500.  $2000 of it is going to the men who keep driving by the house.

The cops come and take them both, leaving the kids behind.  And then no one comes for them.

Berner, who takes after her mother when it comes to life being a huge disappointment, decides she’s going to do better on her own, so she gets the hell out.  Dell just sort of wanders around until a friend of his mom’s picks him up and takes him to Canada.  Neeva had made plans for both Berner and Dell so they’d be kept out of an orphanage or juvenile home so now Dell is in Canada with strangers.

Again, it’s told in this total disassociated way.  Dell has no control over his life and that’s what he seems to grab on to.  He doesn’t have much of a personality.  He does what he’s told, thinks about his parents, and things continue to happen to him.  I wondered what he would have done if nothing happened.  I could picture him just sitting in his shack, eating some food and then just sitting there some more, waiting for someone to tell him what he’s supposed to be doing.  I had no empathy or curiosity about him.  I didn’t really care, other than to hope he’d have some sort of good luck since everything that had happened to him up to this point was completely out of his control.

And then more things happen to him and around him and he watches and doesn’t react or respond.

And now he’s an adult telling his story and talking a little bit about what his life is like now.

I finished the book and thought to myself “Why did he tell this story?”  It wasn’t like he was guilty and wanted to get this secret out.  He already told his wife.  He wasn’t trying to blame his parents.  He didn’t seem to want to explain anything.  It was like he was saying “I was driving home yesterday and saw a guy walking two big dogs.”

I don’t get it.

Maybe something went over my head.  Maybe this isn’t my kind of writing.  Maybe I’m completely missing something.  I just don’t understand this book.  It wasn’t a coming of age story because Dell never has that big revelation.  There’s no personality shift.  He’s a static character throughout.

Again, I don’t hate this book, but I just don’t get it.  Clearly this one was not written for me.