Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Snapshot Book Review: American Wife

American Wife: A Novel American Wife: A Novel by Curtis Sittenfeld

My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is certainly Curtis Sittenfeld’s most mature novel to date. Prep is probably still my favorite, for its absolute realism and perfect glimpse into the adolescent mind and emotions. Ironically, Many of My Dreams followed chronologically—it showed the life of a woman as she grew out of adolescence, through her twenties and thirties and into “womanhood.” Now, with “American Wife,” Sittenfeld continues this chronology, structuring the tone and “telling” of the book around the later, middle-aged years of the novel’s female protagonist, Alice Blackwell. (I am curious to see if her next book will be about the life of a senior citizen!)

American Wife is beautifully crafted. Sittenfeld uses the thoughtful introspection of her second novel while retaining the cohesive “plot drive” of her first as she moves the story through Alice’s life. Sittenfeld manages to link each event that Alice lives through to both the preceeding events and the events to come without slamming the reader over the head with these revelations—a feat that is certainly no small task. However, this praise does not come without its own criticism, however, because Sittenfeld clearly felt that this in-and-of-itself was not enough. When she went and began to narrate Alice’s life as the wife of President Charlie, that was when I felt the novel began to fall apart.

First of all, with all of the contemporary references to Iraq, 9/11, abortion, and the like, how are readers not supposed to identify these characters with the Bush family and administration? Living in the present and trying to fill real, speculated-upon roles with fictional characters is just not something that is feasible, never mind enjoyable, to do. If Sittenfeld wanted to write a book about what she thought Laura Bush was like without doing any actual research, then she should have done that. Likewise, if she wanted to write a generic novel about “a first lady” of “an administration,” then perhaps she could have set her novel in the future, or she could have timed her novel to come out pre-election, before any votes had even been cast for who would run for president. However, writing about a real role filled by a very public figure and casting in it a fictional character—this was the point in the novel at which I actually became disinterested. It was decidedly too much work for me to suspend my disbelief, and my mind kept trying to make connections and to determine what she was “really saying.” However, having read reviews and the forward and afterward in the book, I knew this was not the intent. It was overall a frustrating final quarter of the book for me, and I would have been quite pleased had Sittenfeld finished the novel some entirely other way—perhaps with Charlie losing the Wisconsin governor election and following some other life path entirely, thus taking Alice along with him.

All of this being said, I am intrigued to see what Sittenfeld writes next. Her novels have all followed an eerily similar arc, yet they have been very disparate, as well. I will always recommend Prep first, to those who have never read her, but American Wife will remain on my list of recommendations, if merely for a conversation piece, because I am sure many other readers will disagree with me about the last fourth of the book.

View all my reviews.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Seconds of Space in a Subway Station

I know of a moment. It’s a moment lived on a precipice. It’s a moment composed of space: a few inches containing a few seconds between safety and destruction, between normal mundane life and pain, mutilation, and chaos.

This moment occurs every day, sometimes more than once a day. I stand on the edge of the platform, my toes overlapping the yellow “warning” stripe intended to keep patrons out of harm’s way. The paint is so worn that only a vague flecked outline indicates there ever was a stripe at all. The light underground is dingy, causing the subway’s white headlights to glare even more brightly as it approaches. From far away, the train seems to barely move, and people on the platform shuffle impatiently, craning their necks to look and then hustling back toward the middle of the platform. Then it is zooming by, air whooshing in my face, metal cars flashing by me with the speed of playing cards being shuffled. It roars and squeals like a metal beast, and as I watch the cars whiz past, I have a fleeting impulse to close that six-inch gap.

What would it feel like, to throw yourself against a moving subway train? Would you be instantly repelled, thrown back into the crowd of passengers with your clothing ripped and blood pouring from a gash on your forehead? Or would you somehow adhere to the car and be pulled along at that breakneck speed, even for just a moment? What if you were to merely extend an arm? Would it be snapped like a toothpick? Would it be yanked out of the socket, like yanking a drumstick out of your turkey on Thanksgiving? Would the pain be immediate, or would shock initially replace pain—would you be so surprised at your own bravery, your impulsiveness, that you would be suspended in time and feeling?

It’s the speed that gets me thinking this way, I think. And the proximity. And the possibility.

Friday, January 23, 2009

A Time and Place for Religion

I was shocked and, I will admit, a bit appalled that a pastor was allowed to say The Lord’s Prayer at Barack Obama’s inauguration. After a wrenching initial gut reaction, I wanted to know, “What happened to the separation of church and state?” So I decided to do a little research, and what I found was the same journalistic bewilderment as I felt. Essentially, while we have become a more diverse and allegedly accepting country—considering that we did just elect an African-American president—our ceremonial religious displays have grown more and more religiously conservative over the years.

The very first inaugural prayer was given in 1937, and until 1985, every prayer (except one, made in 1981) happened with clergy of several different faiths and/or denominations represented on the podium. Thus, the spirit of the Constitution was upheld, because no one faith was being promoted above another and, consequently, no single faith was being promoted by the state. The “American pastor” model began in 1989, and the next two inaugurations featured prayers that used very broad, inclusive language, referring to “God” generally. After that came the Protestant-only model, with a reference to the trinity in 1997 and an appeal to “Jesus Christ our savior” in 2001. Now, here we are in 2009, professing the full Lord’s Prayer in front of the entire world. Honestly, I am embarrassed for our country. We criticize other countries for having leaders who rule by their religious convictions, and then we start a new administration by allowing a pastor to give a longer speech than the new president. It doesn’t seem right.

For more news and information on the history of inauguration prayers, check out these articles:

  • The Power of Prayer
  • Pastor Warren Sets Inclusive Tone at Inaugural
  • Wednesday, January 21, 2009

    Warm Fuzzies #7: A Hard Worker

    My aunt recently revised her catering menu (she is a registered dietician and cooks meals in people's homes for them). Each time she does this, she sends it out to our family and a few friends, to get our feedback. In the past, I haven't either had the time or the desire to write much in response, but this time around, I drafted a summary what I thought were the strengths and weaknesses of the menu, along with my suggestions, and sent them back to her. I basically just did what I had always done for my friends, and then for Write-On (the online version of Writing Fellows); it wasn't anything special. Or at least it didn't feel like anything special until I received her enthusiastic response.


    Wow! thank you so much for your very insightful and specific comments. And such discreet manner, also--you are either a natural at editing, or you've been working at your style. I'm going to pass this compliment onto your parents. We are all so proud of you!

    It is indescribably gratifying to be told you are good at something you enjoy doing. I enjoy reviewing documents and providing that sort of critical feedback. Now all I need to do is find someone who is equally enthusiastic about my capabilities and is willing to pay me for them....

    Sunday, January 18, 2009

    Life Plans…at 17? At 23?

    Over Christmas, I went back to Pittsburgh to spend the holiday with my family. During those short five days, I managed to spend a few hours going through boxes of old high school and college material I had, for some ridiculous reason, saved: binders, notebooks, folders, etc. As I rooted through these materials, I came across one particularly hefty binder marked “11th Grade Portfolio.” I remember this project well. In Mrs. Seiffert’s junior-year AP English class, each student compiled his/her writings for that year and reflected upon them. Of course, I had taken the project beyond the course requirements and included writing from previous years and from other classes, making my binder by far the largest of anyone in the class.

    Now, nearly six years later, I opened the cover of the binder and came upon the opening pages of this project: a grand “Mission Statement” and “Five-Year Plan” that we were to write as part of our preparation for prosperity and success. Of course, very few 17-year-old high school juniors have any idea what they want to eat for lunch next period, never mind what they want to do with the rest of their life. Still, in neat bulleted items, I had diligently my various aspiratios of what I hoped to own, do, and become.

    Here are a few of the items I listed:

    • (I aspire to become) Well-respected: earn and maintain the respect of my peers both in school, in my future career, and in social situations that I will encounter
    • (I aspire to [do]) Travel
    • (I aspire to have) a consistent exercise routine
    • (I aspire to have) enough money to be comfortable
      (I aspire to have) loving, loyal, lifelong friends
    • (I expect to become) a friend
    • (I expect to become) an editor
    • (I expect to become) a writer

    How on earth was I so prescient at 17 years of age? It is eerie to think that these are goals I have either already obtained or am currently working to obtain.

    Likewise, we had to draft a five-year plan that same year: a plan for the next and last year of high school, and then for the first four years after that. Again, I somehow had magical predictive powers back when I was 17. My senior year plan went almost exactly according to plan: I earned straight A’s, I decided what friendships I should work to maintain, I narrowed down the subjects I would want to pursue in college, I found and applied to colleges that matched my interests, and I won scholarships that enabled me to attend the college of my choice.

    The next year did not follow my “plan;” according to what I wrote, I was supposed to take a gap year to travel to South America to become fluent in Spanish. Instead, I jumped straight into the third year of my plan and carried out my own self-directions: earn high academic status, “establish a regular exercise regimen,” create a plan to take numerous writing courses, and make new friends while keeping in touch with the old ones. Sophomore year stayed true to form as well, as I “gained work experiene through an internship,” upheld my academic status, mapped out my major, and worked on renewing my scholarships.

    Ironically enough, I even factored I the possibility that I would study abroad my junior year—which I ended up doing. How could I have predicted myself so well? It’s not as though I had posted this plan on a wall somewhere and consulted it every time I made a decision. I only wrote it to fulfill an assignment…in 11th grade!

    Incredible, that I might actually know myself so well.

    Thursday, January 15, 2009

    Apartment Woes

    First there was the issue of spotty internet. For whatever reason, my landlord (plus his mother—the unofficial handywoman, and his fiancĂ©e—the unofficial tech consultant) believes that the first floor should use wireless internet and the second floor should use cables. Therefore, while a perfectly functional router sits in our basement, there are still cords sticking out of our walls. His reasoning was that “cables are more secure than wireless.” However, after my first few months of residency, the internet began to hiccup. Sometimes it would quit in the middle of a YouTube stream; sometimes it would sign off while I was chatting online; and sometimes it simply wouldn’t connect at all, wireless and wired connections alike. Of course, this was one of those infuriating technical issues where, as soon as anyone came to check on it, it would work, so the landlord never wanted to have a real professional come to investigate. Eventually, the issue was resolved (although I do not know if my landlord had a hand in that, or if my roommate just restarted the router in the basement so many times it surrendered), and the wireless connection has worked ever since. (Knock on wood….)

    Then there was the issue of my room leaking. “Gushing” would perhaps be a more apt term, as the water was flowing down from the roof, dripping inside my windowpane, bouncing off various ledges on the way down, and splattering everywhere. The drips came from various spots in the frame’s sealant, and the window ledge was too narrow to balance cups—never mind a bucket—so I was forced to set up a very unique water-containment system: a narrow-necked soya sauce bottle tilted sideways to collect the drips running down the right-hand corner of the window frame, three pill bottles placed at strategic dripping points on the sill, a plastic Rite Aid bag hanging from the blinds, and five tea towels that I own as well as one that presumably belonged to the landlord all stuffed in and around the window to collect the excess splattering. I then had to readjust my few items of furniture so that now, when I walk into my room, I am either forced to lie directly down onto my bed or to take two steps to the left and sit (or stand, if I feel so inclined) on my filing crate.

    To my landlord’s credit, he and his mother arrived within a few hours of my calling them. They then left to find some sort of “temporary fix” that would stop the leak until all of the snow had melted and the rain had stopped. What remedy did they return with? A plastic shopping bag, which they pulled from under our kitchen counter and wrapped around the top of the window frame. It is supposed to “direct the water outside” according to the mother, although how this functions, I fail to understand. The window is shut. Therefore, if water is leaking inside, it is going to stay inside.

    Either way, the leak happened a little less than a month ago, and the bag is still there. If you’ve ever tried sleeping near plastic bag on a windy night, I’m sure you’ll understand why this vexes me: the sound it creates is not conducive to a good night’s sleep.

    My most recent issue is a burnt-out lightbulb—or at least that’s what I imagine it is. About three weeks ago, the light over our entrance (which is actually on the side of the building, since I live on the 2nd floor) went out. I would have been happy to replace it myself, except that it is encased in some sort of metal grating. Therefore, I asked the landlord to fix it (i.e. to replace the lightbulb). Unfortunately, to no avail. His response was, “I'm not sure when it can be fixed as it goes out quickly these days.” Meanwhile, the light has not gone out once in the 4+ months I have lived there, and the neighbors’ single sensor-activated light, which he claimed would be good enough for us to use, is not only weak, but it only stays lit for approximately fifteen seconds before going out again.

    To get inside my apartment, I have to open three different doors with three different keys, two of which must be inserted upside down, as the locks were installed improperly. The people who own a car and park it behind our apartment (none of “us,” however, because everyone who lives in my building is either a student or a very young professional) do not shovel the driveway; they just drive over the snow so that it turns to ice each time there is a snowfall. Thus, all in all, the conditions when I arrive home at 9 or 10 p.m. are not the safest. All I was asking for was a working light.

    I tried pointing the safety issue, but perhaps I am speaking another language, because my landlord rarely responds to my requests directly. Or perhaps he is the one speaking another language. Everyone else I live with, including the landlords, speaks Mandarin. Which could explain why I don’t understand the leak fix, because when I tried to express my reservations to his mother after she had shut that plastic bag in my window, she just smiled and nodded. “Water to go outside,” she told me, motioning with her hands. “Plastic bag to catch water, make it go outside.”

    I should have paid better attention in Singapore.

    Tuesday, January 13, 2009

    Snapshot Book Review: The Hour I First Believed

    The Hour I First Believed: A Novel The Hour I First Believed: A Novel by Wally Lamb

    My review

    rating: 3 of 5 stars

    The Hour I First Believed definitely contains all the hallmarks of a Wally Lamb novel. It grapples with fierce human emotional struggle, it uses psychiatric counseling as a way of revealing some of that struggle to the reader and to the characters, it wrestles with the idea of “family,” and it attempts to jump between generations when telling stories that are meant to intertwine between past and present in order to create one broad tapestry that is itself the novel.

    Lamb’s I Know This Much Is True accomplished all of these tasks flawlessly. The reader remained engaged all the way through the novel, feeling the protagonists emotions with him, struggling with him, feeling both as frustrated with his own inadequacies as he was and sympathetic for him because of them. The transitions between time in the stories being told were seamless to the point of being nearly imperceptible, and at the end, the reader felt that he or she had accomplished a grand task of assimilating stories of past and present without having put forth nearly any effort at all.

    The Hour I First Believed attempts to do these very same things. This protagonist goes through as many struggles that elicit reader frustration and sympathy as did the other novel’s protagonist. Stories from the past and the present told alternately, so that they can be assembled into one final product. However, The Hour simply does not fit its components together quite effortlessly as Lamb’s previous novel. Also, and perhaps more importantly, it does not provide the reader with the same sense of compulsion. Throughout The Hour, the protagonist is on a quest to find out who he is and who his family truly was. However, this all happens by accident—he only realizes this is his “quest,” two-thirds of the way through the book. Prior to that, his motive had been to save the sanity of his wife which, in my opinion, seemed a much more motivating cause to continue reading. Once the family drama was put into second or third place behind Caelum’s desire to learn “who he was,” I became bored. Lamb imparted all of the history through a master’s thesis, for crying out loud. I wanted to read a novel, not an academic paper!

    For more patient readers than myself, perhaps The Hour I First Believed is as enthralling a book as was I Know This Much Is True. Or perhaps one might argue that it is unfair to judge a book by comparing it to its predecessors. However, I see no other fair basis for comparison, and how else is one to judge a book, when it possesses such similar components? This novel seems cut from the same mold, and in its efforts to include not only the event and effects of Columbine, but commentary on prison life, alcoholism, family structure, and then the actual plot and characterizations of not just the “present-day” story, but also the stories of several families past, I think it fails to live up to its potential. Lamb has proven that he has the skills, but this novel was a slightly disappointing execution of them. His characterization and ability to depict every range of emotion with utmost conviction remains unchallenged. The most gripping parts of the novel were those that showed how Maureen changed, first from being a witness to Columbine and then from her experiences in prison, and the effects of these changes on her and Caelum’s relationship. Likewise, I found myself wishing that the narrator would have paid Velvet more attention in the story, rather than writing her off after he explains to the reader how she wronged him early on in the story. Thus, I wished Lamb would have made her a more integral part of the story. Thus, in trying to tell so many different stories in this new novel, I feel that it strays from Lamb’s best, character-based focus, which, had he stuck to it, would have made the book imminently more powerful.

    View all my reviews.

    Sunday, January 11, 2009

    Expensive Taste

    I am a woman of expensive tastes.

    On one hand, this seems a bit counterintuitive. After all, I in high school, I was the girl who wore sweatpants and T-shirts to school every day. I have never been interested in owning designer handbags—I still carry the same yellow L. L. Bean backpack I had in junior high school—and I don’t tend to like fine dining, particularly because the menu is always too small, and I like my food plain. (No creamy sauces or artichoke stuffing or crumbled Gorgonzola, and the fewer utensils, the better. I spent most of my college dining hall meals in college forging the bacon cheeseburger special, strawberry sponge cake, and metal silverware in favor chickpeas, Lucky Charms, and chopsticks.) I don’t own a car, and I have so little furniture that I don’t even sleep on a real bed. (It’s a very short, very hard futon that happened to be in my bedroom when I arrived.)

    However, when it comes to some things, I am actually forced to buy high-end products. Shoes, for example. Size 11 shoes are generally not sold in the $9.99-19.99 price range, and especially not narrow shoes. (For whatever reason, manufacturers seem to believe the bigger the foot is, the wider it will be.) Therefore, whenever I buy a new pair of sneakers, I return to the tried-and-true Nike collection, because I know that they will be narrow enough for my foot and probably come in a large enough size, even at second-hand retailers. Still though, the cost is nothing to sniff at. My last pair of sneakers were almost $70, and I bought those at Kohl’s.

    The same dilemma applies to pants. Recently—or, more accurately, for the last several months--I have been trying to find a pair of khaki slacks to wear to work. Unfortunately, khaki pants seem to be on the low end of the fashion spectrum right now, which means the style selection is extremely limited. This becomes an especially pressing problem when average sizes are too short, because only the higher end stores carry longs, and even they tend to refer you to their online site for those sizes. Still, even if I am lucky enough to see the cuffs of a “size 10 average” pair of pants reach the ground, they are usually horribly baggy in all the wrong places (as if a woman with a size 10 waist should have a butt the size of two cantaloupes), and I am painfully picky about the material (it has to be the loose, flapping kind that falls around your legs and looks professional, not the stiff must-iron kind that food industry workers wear).

    Needless to say, my long-lived quest for pants recently led me to the 5th Avenue Banana Republic store. I had recently tried on pants in a Banana Republic store in the East Side, but when those didn’t fit, the dressing room attendant told me that they only carried long sizes online and at their 5th Avenue store. It is impossible to try on clothing online, so I headed over to 5th Avenue one day after work.

    Alas, none of the pants I tried on fit. However, because I had made such a long trek and was browsing the sale rack, I picked up a dress and a sweater to try on, as well. I wasn’t looking for either of these clothing items, of course, but I needed a decent top to try on with the pants, and the dress was just pretty. Plus, I had tried on crew-neck sweaters in other stores (Target, Marshalls, Old Navy) and thought they all looked dumpy. I wanted to see if the quality of the store made a difference.

    Short answer? It does. The sweater looked great. Unfortunately, even at 50% off, it was still more than I was willing to pay ($40 instead of $80), and I really didn’t need another sweater. The dress, of course, also looked fabulous. And the price? Originally $150. Marked down to $45.99. It was a beautiful shade of purple and 92% silk. When else would I ever buy a silk dress? So I bought it. My justification was that I can wear it for weddings. All my friends are getting to that marriageable age, right?

    Now, I was quite happy with my purchase, but I also knew that to complete it, it would need shoes and earrings. I knew the shoes would be the more difficult item to find, so I decided to start there. I went online and began browsing. Let me tell you, purple shoes may as well not exist. Consequently, I got distracted and began looking at black sandals that I need in order to wear with my dress to my cousin’s wedding in February. When I found something I liked, I would click to get a better look at the “closer image” (because they must have a buckle; otherwise they will fall off my foot—note the aforementioned “larger feet are wider” assumption), and only after I had deemed the shoe acceptable would I note its price. The first pair I looked at? $700. A fluke I told myself. 99% of the other shoes on that site posted prices of $70 or less. So I kept browsing. The next pair that met with my approval? $500. At least the price had come down by $200, right? After looking at 36 of 48 pages of shoes, the cheapest shoe that I had seriously considered had been $172.99.

    Clearly I need to get a higher-paying job than what publishing is going to allot me. I remember my 7th grade History teacher telling me that she would vote for me “when I ran for president.” So long as I don’t show at Saks before the election….

    Tuesday, January 6, 2009

    Snapshot Book Review: Diary

    Diary Diary by Chuck Palahniuk

    My review

    rating: 3 of 5 stars

    Like all of Palahniuk’s other work, Diary is vivid, disturbing, grotesque, and a bit supernatural. If his descriptions don’t leave you feeling at least somewhat squeamish, then you must have no imagination whatsoever. He is like a painter who makes the simplest object look hideously grotesque, who can look at a common scene and envision it in the twisted way only a serial killer might. Only, the serial killers in his novels don’t kill for pleasure; they kill for reasons much more creative than that.

    Palahniuk is nothing if not creative. Diary is written as a diary from the point of view of the protagonist, Misty, in the fashion of a long letter written to her comatose husband Peter. However, because she is writing to him directly, she refers to “you,” who also happens to be the reader, creating a number of identity overlaps. Moreover, the narrative habit of referring to oneself as “you” when writing in a diary comes up a number of times, because it would be equally applicable as referring to Peter or the reader as “you.” And none of this even begins to brush the surface of the story, which involves Misty’s allegedly supernatural artistic abilities, her inexplicable attraction to Peter’s shiny junk jewelry (which he pinned through his own scabby skin), and the creepy warnings she finds inside sealed-off rooms of buildings Peter remodeled before he tried to kill himself.

    Invisible Monsters will always be my favorite Palahniuk novel, and Fight Club will always be the most famous. Haunted might very well be the most disturbing. But Diary pays homage to what Palahniuk does best: turn a common story and a common story form into a extraordinary and very unsettling tale.

    View all my reviews.

    Snapshot Book Review: What Was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandal

    What Was She Thinking?: Notes on a Scandal: A Novel What Was She Thinking?: Notes on a Scandal: A Novel by Zoe Heller

    My review

    rating: 4 of 5 stars

    If there is one book a single woman in her 30s should not read, it’s this one. Not that I’m in my 30s, of course, but I have always been told my maturity exceeds my age, so for all intents and purposes, I may as well be 30. I hang out with people in their 30s. Who have husbands. And ex-husbands. And children.

    In any case, the reason no single middle-aged woman should read this book is because it so poignantly depicts the lonely, solitary life of its protagonist. Yet the novel itself is not depressing, primarily because it is not telling the story of the protagonist. Instead, the protagonist—also the narrator—is Barbara, a retirement-aged schoolteacher, telling the story of an affair between a much younger coworker, Sheba, and one fifteen-year-old student, Conley. The story of this affair, ultimately, is what drives the novel. However, what the core of this novel is truly about is Barbara: how attached she grows to Sheba, the reasons for her attachment, her abilities to observe and live in a world where she feels she is no longer deemed a participant.

    This prospect—to be “already done with life” at age sixty, with no children to occupy your time, no husband to take up your attention, no family to give you a social life and connect you to the community—is horrifying. It is particularly horrifying to a young-ish single woman who is living on her own, with no dating prospects, who is watching her friends one-by-one get married, move into houses, have children. The terror this book invokes, however, is only so real because the book is so well-written. So if you are at a different place in life, or if you think you can weather the self-imposed depression such narration might incite, then I encourage you to pick up this book. It is full of thought-provoking moral ambiguities, in part due to the ages of the characters (15, 30, 60), in part due to the roles they play (wily, heartless young suitor; accused seductress/ spurned lover; cynical, ambivalent, self-pitying storyteller), but primarily because the affair is documented from a third-person point of view, and a subjective point of view that insists it is trying to be objective, at that.

    What Was She Thinking has many levels, which is what give me such respect for it. That I felt such a strong reaction makes me respect it even more, regardless of if my reaction was depression, as opposed to elation. The bottom line is, Heller writes well, and this is probably one of the few novels that demonstrates a new way of treating the tired topic of love affairs.

    View all my reviews.

    Monday, January 5, 2009

    Snapshot Book Review: Are you there Vodka? It's me, Chelsea

    Are You There Vodka? It's Me, Chelsea Are You There Vodka? It's Me, Chelsea by Chelsea Handler

    My review

    rating: 3 of 5 stars

    Everything about this book is clever, starting with the title. To any Judy Blume fan, the parody is obvious, but even the less-informed reader (to whom I will now impart the title of Blume’s novel, Are you there God? It’s me, Margaret) would find this title an apt one. Are you there Vodka? chronicles Chelsea Handler’s sexual antics across all realms, from weddings, to summer flings, to family vacations, and while the men (and midgets…) vary widely, one factor remains constant: her drink of choice, vodka.

    Handler’s writing is self-mocking, but in a comically arrogant sort of way. Her manner reminds me of the way men boast to one another in such hyperbolic terms that each man knows the other cannot be serious and probably, in fact, believe the exact opposite about themselves, compared to what they are saying. Still, their claims become increasingly more broad and bombastic, as if needing to declare, “yes I did!” and “yes I am!”

    Dry humor is the saving grace of this sort of comedic writing, because without it, Handler’s tales would come off as absurd and callous. Readers would feel inclined to chastise her reprehensible behavior, because superficially, it truly is the way mothers most fear their daughters will act in their teens and twenties and even early thirties. Instead, Handler is witty and self-mocking enough to make you spend most of the book wondering how much of each story is true and how much she is over exaggerating for effect. This guessing game turns into the compounding “oh my god, no she didn’t!” reaction you experience when your girlfriend tells you about “what a wild weekend she had.” Except according to this book, Handler doesn’t have wild weekends; she has a wild life.

    Blume fans, don’t try this book unless you transitioned to at least the level of the Sweet Valley Twins series in later adolescence. Otherwise, you may suffer from painful finger-wagging and irrepressible groaning.

    Bridget Jones’s Diary fans, read on. And try Handler’s My Horizontal Life, too.

    Those in between…read at your own risk. If you believe you may harbor puritan strains deep in your heart, I will warn you that you may not find Handler’s humor funny. But if you have a repressed wild side, following Handler’s antics is one of the best ways to live vicariously.

    View all my reviews.

    Sunday, January 4, 2009

    Little Things, Big Things, that Matter

    Whoever said that the little things matter most was 100% dead-on. If you get a brand new Lexus IS convertible for Christmas, but all you really asked for was a 10-speed bike (because perhaps you live in New York City, or Boston, or another city where parking excruciatingly expensive—if it exists at all—traffic is horrendous, and travelling by non-motorized means is simply more efficient), you’re likely to be impressed and perhaps grateful, but not elated. It means the buyers wasn’t paying attention to your hints, or doesn’t bother to notice what sort of lifestyle you lead. If your rich aunt Gertrude buys you dinner when you are home for the holidays, you will be sure to thank her profusely, but your thanks will probably be truly more heartfelt when you’re in line at Starbucks and, when you cannot for the life of you seem to locate your wallet, the guy standing behind you offers to pay for your drink.

    I have found myself recently appreciating the smallest of gestures. A friend saying that he missed how I smelled meant eons more to me (as weird as that sounds) than his overtures about how long it has been since we have seen each other. When I went out to a bar with several other high school friends at Christmastime, it did not escape my notice that two of them offered to pay for my drink, in spite of the fact that I was the only one of us currently working a salaried job. And just the other night, on the subway, a young Hispanic man with long shiny hair and shredded jeans got up from his seat to offer it to me on our way back to Queens. He was a complete stranger, and I was clearly not an invalid, or a senior citizen, or pregnant. That kind act literally made my night.

    What has surprised me most is that in the same way small kindnesses can become magnified to take on large significances, great offenses can actually become minimized in the same way. It truly is a matter of perception and, perhaps more importantly, of what one values.

    Recently, I had my iPod stolen. It was not stolen in the traditional reach-into-your-pocket-and-snatch way; in a sense, I gave it away unknowingly. Basically, I attempted to sell my unused iPod touch, which I had purchased for $50 with my new Mac this past fall, via craigslist. A buyer asked me to ship the iPod to a colleague for him and proposed using PayPal to transact the money. Knowing that PayPal is used as a “safe money transfer” for eBay and other merchant sites, I agreed. I received an email from PayPal saying that they money had been transferred into my account and that I only needed to reply with the package tracking number in order for the transaction to be completed. So, I packaged up the iPod, shipped it out, and waited for finalization from PayPal. No response ever came.

    As it turns out, it wasn’t PayPal who had contacted me at all. The whole thing was a scam, and I would never be receiving any money from the fraudulent craigslist buyer. The iPod had already been picked up by the person I had mailed it to in Idaho, and it was probably on its way to Nigeria or some such place. Effectively, I had just lost $240.

    Now, $240 is no drop in the bucket. I was counting on it to be a substantial deposit toward the bed that I desperately need to buy, as well as to take care of several outstanding bills that I need to pay (many of which concern credit card-purchased Christmas gifts). Therefore, when I initially determined that “all was lost” in the case of this sale, I was understandably upset. Surprisingly, though, the intensity of my outrage and dismay was not what I expected it to be. I knew it was upsetting to lose money, and it was even more upsetting to have been swindled by dishonest people. However, I was simply not that worked up over the matter for very long. After a day or two, I accepted that both the money an the iPod were lost, that I would have to pay my bills with other funds, and that there are evil people in the world. For once, I actually ascribed to the “there is nothing I can do, what’s done is done, so why worry about it” mantra successfully and moved on.

    This is how great offenses can be minimized: when you get on the subway the next day, and a man offers you his seat. You smile and thank him, and marvel for the rest of the ride at how, in spite of evil and dishonestly in the world, a stranger can offer the simplest kindness, and it can mean so much.

    Friday, January 2, 2009

    Heavy Suitcases, Kind Hearts

    It was like a flashback to my first day in England. Same overabundance of baggage, same kind stranger….

    Okay, so perhaps it was a bit different. In England, it was the middle of the day, and I was boarding a train to go from London to Brighton. Here in New York, it was eleven-thirty at night, and I was getting off the subway at my stop. In both instances, however, I had way too much baggage, all of which was very clearly too heavy for me to handle. In England, I have no idea how I even made it to the train station with my two suitcases, my laptop bag, and my backpack all full-to-bursting. All I know is that when the train arrived and I started trying to drag my suitcases over the uneven gap (which I was continually told to “mind”) and up onto the train, a man walking past the train paused beside me and lifted my second suitcase onto the train beside me. I have never felt such an immense rush of gratitude.

    This time around, the only reason I made it all the way to onto the NY subway in the first place with my overstuffed suitcase, overflowing shopping bag, and two-ton backpack was because the Port Authority bus terminal has a direct entrance to the subway system that includes no staircases. Unfortunately, 65th Street Woodside did not provide that same luxury.

    So the scene went as follows: there I was, hefting my wheeled duffle-bag suitcase over the space between the subway car and the platform, trying to keep various packages from spilling out of my shopping bag and making sure not to lean too far backward as I yanked at my suitcase, lest the weight of my backpack cause me to topple backward. Eventually (right before the doors closed), I made it off the subway car and began to pull my suitcase in the direction of the steps. Mentally, I began surveying where I should place my bag and backpack that they would still be safely in eyesight while I wrestled the suitcase up the stairs. I had reached the base of the staircase and decided to put my things at the top of the stairs—since, hopefully, that would be the direction I would be facing as I lugged the suitcase up after me—when a gentleman who had been about to ascend the stairs stopped at my side.

    “You need help?”

    Ordinarily this would seem an informal, almost rude way of asking a very obviously struggling young lady if she needed assistance. However, the omitted “do” at the front of his question was most likely due to limited English rather than linguistic laziness, judging from his thick accent. He was a portly, older Hispanic man, probably in his late sixties, with the enormous pear-shaped body of a line cook or a chef. He had kind, crinkly eyes, and although he did not smile when he asked offered his assistance, he immediately reached for the handle of my suitcase. I experienced the fleeting, instinctual “don’t touch my stuff!” reaction but immediately crushed it, grateful for the help at this time of night. Thus, I protested only weakly.

    “It’s really all right…it’s pretty heavy….”

    “No no,” he insisted as he let out a huff of ill-concealed surprise, having made a first attempt to lift my suitcase. “Much too heavy for you.” He gripped the handle more tightly than before and began to lurch up the steps.

    “Well, thank you.” I followed after him, incredulous that I had found one of the few kind-hearted New Yorkers in the city. We made it up from the train platform and through the turnstiles, only to be confronted with two more sets of stairs—one to the north and one to the south.

    “Which way you go?”

    “This way. But really, you don’t have to….”

    “Not a problem,” he said, mounting the first stair. “This is very heavy. Too heavy for you.”

    I could tell he was losing his breath as we continued up the stairs, and part of me felt guilty, but at the same time, this man’s kindness was making my night unimaginably easier, not to mention shorter. Watching him struggle, I envisioned myself trying to maneuver the suitcase alone. It would have taken me a long while to make it out of the subway station.

    When we got outside, he waited for me to take the lead.

    “Thank you so much,” I gushed, reaching again for my suitcase.

    “You live near here?” he asked, still not relinquishing the handle. Suddenly, my initial hesitation at allowing him to help me carry my belongings returned in full force.

    “Yes, not far. Just a block. I can take it….”

    “Much too heavy,” he objected with a frown. I could see he was wondering how I ever got on the subway to begin with, carrying all of my things. I would have explained, had I not been so worried about how to tactfully get rid of him before we reached my apartment.

    “Well thank you,” I said again, taking a few hesitant steps down the block. He followed diligently, dragging the suitcase after him. As we walked, the man proceeded to tell me, in halting English, how he had worked all day—a double shift—and proceeded to confirm my guess, that he did work in the restaurant business. When we reached the corner of my street, I stopped again and attempted to tell him how much I appreciated his help. I was only a few houses away, I told him, so I could take it from here. He wouldn’t think of it. Where did I live? He would bring it to my apartment.

    Now I was confronted with a decision. Should I trust this man, who looked so kind and grandfatherly? Should I believe he was truly doing me a favor out of the kindness of his heart? Or should I follow the “practical fear” instinct that told me, objectively, that I was a single young woman out in the middle of the night in Queens, letting a stranger know exactly where she lived?

    In the end, because I was sure one of my roommates would be home (they almost never leave the apartment, particularly at night), I allowed him to bring my suitcase all the way up to my doorstep. He wanted to carry it up into my apartment for me, but I lied and told him I lived on the first floor, so it was unnecessary.

    “I help someone today and hope someday somebody help me,” he pronounced as I unlocked the door. We shook hands, and as I maneuvered my things inside, he stuck his head around the door to remind me to lock it after myself.

    I wish we could believe in the good intentions of all our fellow human acquaintances. This man did me a very kind favor, and I am appreciative. Still, I am saddened to think that I was forced to doubt his kind intentions, even momentarily, out of a concern for my own safety and well-being. I have to wonder if I would have harbored the same doubts had I been in Pittsburgh rather than New York. Our concept of safety is such a capricious thing.