Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Snapshot Book Review: Tenth of December

Tenth of DecemberTenth of December by George Saunders
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Not to jinx it, but I've been having really good luck with short story collections lately!

If you keep at all abreast of the buzz in the literary marketplace, you've probably heard of this book. The buzz has been good, the reviews have been good, and the jacket is covered in praise from notable authors like Jennifer Egan, Zadie Smith, David Eggers, and Thomas Pynchon. Usually I give zero credit to any quote displayed on a jacket cover, whether I know the author or not, because frankly, just because I like an author's writing doesn't mean we have the same taste in what we read. However, in this instance, all of the buzz and reviews and plugs are accurate. This is most definitely a Work of Art.

I sincerely enjoyed every story in this book. Each one was unique, with characters I cared about, a distinctive style, and a plot that--in some way or another--included a beginning, middle, and end. The only thing that I would say about these stories as a collection (and the only reason why, if I could, I would give this a 4.9 star rating), is that I am not entirely sure how they relate to one another. While one of my favorite themes--that no one can ever know the "full story"--reveals itself in one of my favorite stories in the collection, "Puppy," it is not pervasive throughout every story. Likewise, the style used in that story--shifting perspective between characters, which is also done in the final story in the collection, "Tenth of December"--is not employed in every story. Some stories, such as two of my favorites ("Escape from Spiderhead" and "The Semplica Girl Diaries") are futuristic; yet others are not. Perhaps a more careful reader could discern the linking factor between these stories, but that lack of connection did not tarnish my reading experience.

All in all, this is most definitely a collection worth reading.

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Monday, January 27, 2014

Snapshot Book Review: The Moth

The MothThe Moth by Catherine Burns
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book of short stories does what I think a great book of short stories should: delivers stories that are truly short (a few pages at most) that offer variety in terms of subject matter, tone, and/or style, while maintaining a singular premise that links them all together. Of course, the singular premise for that serves to link these stories is simple: they were all originally part of the oral tradition that is The Moth. Of course, those oral stories were all told within a time regulated time limit, so that helped to keep them brief. And it's not hard to make the stories different and unique when each one is told by a different author. So the book is, almost by default, the type of collection of short stories I adore.

I would have given this book five stars if it weren't for one glaring flaw: the unnecessary use of "star power." Now, I understand that a lay person who has never heard of The Moth probably won't be enticed by this book at a bookstore until they read "Malcolm Gladwell" or "Darrell 'DMC' McDaniels" or another famous name on the cover. Unfortunately, just because they're famous doesn't mean they can write, and even if they're writers, that doesn't mean they can tell a short story. In my opinion, these "celebrity" authored pieces were the weakest in the collection. However, as a marketer myself, I understand the reasoning behind it--I just don't like it.

My only other gripe is that I had heard at least a third of the stories already, on The Moth podcast. Some of them I reread and enjoyed all over again, but others I skipped, in favor of discovering a new story. This was of course unavoidable--based on how the stories were collected in the first place--but as a reader and a Moth listener, I was slightly put off.

All in all, though, a fantastic book full of stories that were well worth putting to paper.

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Saturday, January 25, 2014

Snapshot Book Review: An Apple a Day

An Apple a Day: A Memoir of Love and Recovery from AnorexiaAn Apple a Day: A Memoir of Love and Recovery from Anorexia by Emma Woolf
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I wanted to like this book, because I think it is brave to tackle something so personal (and yet that affects so many other people) in the public eye. However, frankly, I think she would have done better to compile all of her newspaper column articles between two covers--assuming of course that they weren't written like this: in an overly repetitive, often redundant, severely removed, unemotional, contradictory, and scattered. Oh, and did I mention repetitive. Definitely repetitive. Repetitive to the point of distraction.

Truly, the book repeated so much of itself so often that I began to wonder if Woolf hadn't written the chapters independently and then aggregated them together when someone inevitably approached her about a book deal (because anyone writing a popular newspaper column chronicling a recovery of any kind will, inevitably, get a book deal). However, the repetition was so severe throughout the chapters themselves that I discarded this theory and grudgingly chalked it up to poor writing and worse editing.

Furthermore, Woolf should have determined from the outset what type of book she wanted this to be and stuck with it, because she simply doesn't have the writing skills to integrate scientific research with social commentary, all while writing what attempts to be a personal memoir. Are the facts important? Yes, and educating the public is a noble thing to do. But about three quarters of the way through the book, when she goes off on a tangent about the obesity pandemic, I almost closed the book. I'm ultimately not really sure why I struggled through to the end, seeing as all that was left were a hundred more pages about her 1) (unexplained) desire to have a baby and 2) amazement at her own recovery (which, as any former addict knows, is not Recovery with a capital R, as she would have us think).

I am sad to say that I would not recommend this book. If you're looking for an honest account of an eating disorder, pick up Wasted by Marya Hornbacher.

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Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Boston Buildup Series: Part II

With the black ice behind us and nothing more than a hilly course to conquer, I'll admit: I did have expectations for this race.

GCR Teammates
Based on how my 10-mile run went the previous weekend, where I was averaging 7:20/mile, I decided I would be happy on any pace between 7:00-7:15/mile. Anything slower would be a disappointment. However, I also readily acknowledged that I had just finished my second week of proper training (with hills, speedwork, etc.) since November, so if I somehow ran 8-minute miles, I'd try to brush it off and not let it ruin my day.

The day was crisp, with some sloppy snow on the ground, but nothing that would make running too treacherous. As we geared up in the Ridgefield elementary school gymnasium, Coach Josh gleefully told us that this was his favorite course of the series, because, "it has a lot of hills, especially a killer one right at the end." This didn't sound like very good news to me--the girl who dreads running in her hometown precisely because it has so many hills--but I reminded myself that this race really didn't matter in the scheme of things, and to just wait and see how it went.

From the start, I already knew who would be faster than me. R___, S___, L___, and M___ started right at the front of the pack, and A___--while he started midway back with the rest of us--was out of the gate before I had even taken my first three steps.

I spent the first two miles reminding myself that this was a 15k, not a 10k, and that I had better not take it out too fast, or I'd really be suffering at the end. Nor was it a half marathon, however, so I wasn't quite sure what pace I should be setting for myself. Not that I had any way of checking my literal pace, since I had left my Garmin watch back in my gym bag, opting for the tried and true non-GPS watch that I could at least be sure wouldn't lose battery power halfway through the run. (See my previous posts about the Garmin for a more completely explanation.) I just tried to keep track of how my body felt and how I was breathing, and if it seemed too labored, I backed off.

Of course, going up and down hills gets your heart going like nothing else. The whole course was just one hill after another: a little incline up, a steep drop down, a gradual never-ending up, another downhill. . . . It would have made for a fun roller-coaster ride!

Closing in on the halfway point (or what I assume was the halfway point; since the course wound up seeming like an out-and-back), I started seeing other runners speeding back in my direction. It was at this point I realized we were turning around--stupidly, I hadn't checked the course map before the race--and I started scoping out the runners for my teammates. As expected, R___ was one of the first women I saw speed by, followed by S___ and L___. I kept running along the weirdly squishy dirt trail--it felt sort of like running on a very firm sponge--wondering when I'd see M___ or A___. I must have missed A___ entirely, because by the time I saw M___, I could see the turnaround point, too. Geez, I thought she'd be way ahead of me, I thought to myself. I knew her half marathon pace, and it was much faster than anything I knew I would be running on this course. Nevertheless, I smiled, waved, and headed on toward the end of the dirt road.

A few miles later, after chatting with a man who knew one of my teammates and finally pulling ahead, I recognized M___'s knee-high socks and blue headband a few hundred meters in front of me. Am I going to catch her? I almost wanted to slow down, because I felt like if I was gaining on M___, I was probably going way too fast and would consequently fall to pieces in the last 5k. But I actually felt okay, especially since we were finally heading downhill, and there was simply no way I was running anywhere near 6:30/mile. So I ran behind her, and then with her, and then finally past her.

The HugOver the last 5k, my mind essentially acted bipolar. One moment, I would be desperately wondering when the race would end, and the next I'd be thinking, "Hey, this isn't nearly that bad. You must be in better shape than you thought!" Finally, when I saw a "Slow--School Zone" sign, I knew the end was near. There was one blond ponytail bobbing a few hundred yards in front of me, and I knew now was the time.  If I was going to catch her, I'd have to do it on this final hill. I closed the gap, and on the last turn, up a steep incline into the elementary school parking lot, I made it in front. Sprint to the finish and . . . oh my gosh, was that A___'s red hat still in the finishing corral? He had only finished two people in front of me! Incredible!

What was even more incredible was the enormous hug he gave me when I got out of the corral and onto the sidewalk. "Come here. You killed it!" he said disbelievingly.

That was probably the happiest reaction anyone has ever had for me at the end of a race. I felt like I had won something! And maybe I had. Maybe I had won the right to be on this awesome team of supportive runners. But really, I think that was just luck.

Results of this race:

Race Length
Finishing Time
Average Pace
Overall Place
Age Group Place
(F < 40)
13 / 341
10 / 50

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Boston BuildUp Series: Part I

First off: no, I will not be running the Boston Marathon this April. I qualified this past November, with the NYC Marathon, but that means I can run Boston in 2015--so not this year.

The title of this post, therefore, reflects solely the name of the series of races I am running between January and March. Many people use this series of four races to prepare for Boston in April, hence the name Boston BuildUp Series. The races progress in length, adding 5k each time. The first race--which took place on January 5th--was 10k long, and the last race--which will take place on March 2nd--will consequently be 25k long.

Part I
That first race might have been the shortest, but it was by no means the easiest. In fact, that 10k might be the stupidest, scariest race I've ever run.

What could be so scary about running 6.2 miles, you ask? Were you running away from a pack of lions? Was a man with a gun chasing you? No, the race wasn't scary in that way. I wasn't fearing for my life, but I was fearing for my quality of life, as one does when dealing with black ice.

Black ice is scary enough when you're driving a car: a 4,000-pound instrument that can grind its deeply treaded tires into any remotely friction-inducing surface. At that point, you just drive slowly or pull over, and you should be safe. Conversely, when you're 135 pounds worth of person who has just covered one-third of a 6.2-mile race and the roads turn into sheets of ice . . . well, you stop thinking about your PR, for starters. Then you begin measuring the length of the steps you are taking and realize that your cadence has tripled and yet you are going almost nowhere. Your arms are flailing out to your sides as you dodge this way and that, trying to get your well-worn shoes to grip any little patch of snow in order to avoid the ice rink which the roads have now become.

Never in my life did I think I'd be running a race by weaving between patches of snow. Of course, I also never thought I'd run a race where I cared more about keeping my limbs intact than getting to the finish line ahead of the person in front of me. Or that I'd see people actually move faster when they fell and slid down a paved surface on their butt.

Needless to say, I finished this race in 52:28, which means I somehow averaged 8:26/mile--a shockingly fast race for literally pussy-footing my way through all 6.2 miles of rolling hills. I am proud to say, however, that I did not fall or twist anything beyond repair, and was therefore read to race when the 15k came around on January 19th.

Results of this race:

Race Length
Finishing Time
Average Pace
Overall Place
Age Group Place
(F < 40)
21 / 287
15 / 44

Monday, January 20, 2014

Snapshot Book Review: Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit

Oranges are Not the Only FruitOranges are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was a strange and beautiful book. Quite honestly, I could easily see it being taught in schools (at least schools willing to address religion from an unbiased standpoint), because it explores so many themes in such readily addressed historical and social contexts. I could imagine even potentially reading this for a college course and writing essays on the myriad of symbols and themes woven throughout the book.

However, I was reading this for pleasure, and about halfway through the book, I realized that if I was going to get a full understanding--or even a good partial understanding--of everything this book had to offer, I was going to have to read it again. And I simply didn't love it enough to go straight from the last page back to the first. I think it had to do with being kept at arm's length from the main character, and my inability to decide how I felt about her. Initially, of course, I was rooting for her to break free from her religious oppression, but she seemed so stubbornly determined to have her cake and eat it, too, I ultimately couldn't quite decide what to think.

All in all, the book is very beautifully written, and I think that one day I will return to it and (probably) get a lot more out of it than I did on my first pass. In the meantime, I sincerely hope that a curriculum somewhere picks this up, because I, for one, would love to read the students' resulting essays.

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Saturday, January 4, 2014

Screen Life: A Rambling Exposition

I think my brain might be hard-wired differently.

Differently from my parents' brains, certainly, because while I can zip around Facebook even after it undergoes its umpteenth upgrade, or learn how to use services like Dropbox with little more than my own intuition, my parents continue to pay their bills by writing out paper checks and store photos by slotting them into hard-bound albums.

But my brain is wired differently from this new generation, too--this generation of babies who can find the app they want on an iPhone before they can talk. This generation of teenagers who are turning Snapchat into the new method of "texting" when I can't even remember how to direct-message someone on Twitter. This group of people who go from their smart phones to their smart watches to their smart cars to their smart computers, all perfectly synchronized, and stylized, and plugged in.

These are the screen people. And I am not one of them.

Over the last few glorious weeks of winter vacation, I spent the majority of my time avoiding screens. Instead, I talked, ate, played cards, beat my parents at Boggle, and ran around my unforgivingly hill neighborhood. I baked cookies, went shopping, wrapped presents, visited friends, and talked some more. And let me tell you, it was awesome.

Okay, yes: I watched the Steelers play football and the Penguins play hockey and a movie or two here or there. Yes, I texted various friends on my (basic text-and-call) phone with regularity. Yes, I even checked Facebook and Pinterest and Gmail on my laptop. But the thing about these particular activities is that none of them took--at most--more than an hour or two of my time and attention. Moreover, I could be sitting, lying, or standing in any position I pleased while I engaged with these particular screens. What I did not do was I did not sit in an ergonomically incorrect chair for eight-hour intervals, squinting straight ahead into a fluorescent monitor, moving little more than my right wrist a few centimeters at a time.

Yet, that is my life--my real life. Every day, Monday through Friday, I sit down at a computer and, with the exception of a few trips to the bathroom and a lunch break, I move little more than my wrists, fingers, and eyeballs. Ordinarily, I don't think much of this; after all, it is my routine and has become how I make my living. However, after two-and-a-half weeks of screen-free life, eight straight hours in front of a computer screen did not feel good.

Of course, it seems awfully ironic to be complaining about spending too much time in front of screens when here I am, voluntarily sitting at my laptop in order to type up this post. But that is exactly my point: this is now how I--and many others my ages--spend our lives. Eighty percent of our time is spent in front of a computer or computer-like device, and the other twenty percent is filled with cooking, cleaning, eating, talking, and whatever else we happen to enjoy doing. Frankly, I'm shocked someone hasn't figured out how to insert some sort of screen into our sleeping time.

And I don't think we're any better for it.

Sure, we can do more things faster now. We can stay more easily and immediately connected to one another despite time and distance differences. We can access more information more quickly than ever before. We can produce more sounds and words and calculations and images faster, and store them more compactly, and access them from virtually anywhere.

But we also can't step away.

We're constantly charging our cell phones so we can text and photograph and browse the Internet and play games. We look at our computers more than we look at any natural thing on earth. And when we want to disengage from this constant stream of incoming information, what do we do? We turn on the television. We play a video game. We read a book on our e-reader.

As a result, we sit for longer and longer stretches of time, usually in some sort of convoluted, slouched-down or hunched-over position. Our unblinking eyes dry out. Our hips tighten. Our vocal chords wither away. Okay, our vocal chords might stay intact, but the rest of it pretty accurately describes how I felt when I went from a week-and-a-half of screen-free life back into my regular, electronics-overridden routine. I simply felt less healthy. And less happy.

Have I thought of a solution? No. Or not one I like better, in any case. I could go work as a grocery store checkout clerk or a farmer or a grade school teacher or an abstract painter. But all of those professions come with their own problems. And honestly, the faster technology advances, the less escape there will be for any of us, regardless of our profession.

For now, the best I can do is resist the allure of the smartphone and stick to my paperback books. Maybe, in the meantime, someone else will find my solution for me.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Snapshot Book Review: Let's Pretend This Never Happened

Let's Pretend This Never Happened: A Mostly True MemoirLet's Pretend This Never Happened: A Mostly True Memoir by Jenny Lawson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If I could give this 2.5 stars, I would, but since I'm stuck choosing between 2 and 3 stars, I have to go with three, since it was--at the very least--entertaining. Unfortunately, in spite of many promises by reviewers, I never truly laughed out loud. I think I chuckled two or three times, but that was about it. Most of the time, my internal eyebrows were raised right off of my theoretical forehead.

I will say that I really appreciate the subtitle on this memoir. That "Mostly True" qualifier is really what makes the entire book stick, because whether or not the stories are true, they're all so outrageous and told in such a hyped-up manner that it's almost impossible not to go through the book thinking, "Really? That's how it went?" But since she's not claiming that it's all 100% true, we diligent and skeptical readers can relax a little and try to enjoy the ride.

I can absolutely see why some people love this book. Anyone who enjoys hyperbolic writing--such as that by Augusten Burroughs (i.e. Running With Scissors)--or over-the-top stories told in a slapdash manner--such as those by Chelsea Handler--would certainly also enjoy this book. However, comparing Lawson to David Sedaris is, in my opinion, blasphemy. She is nowhere near the storyteller he is, and apart from writing about their childhoods and families in what is meant to be a comedic style, they have almost nothing in common.

This is not to say that I thought this memoir was all bad. Personally, my favorite parts were--true or not--where she referenced her editor telling her not to write things a certain way and then doing it anyway. Of course, that's because I'm an editor myself, and I most certainly would have made many of those suggestions to her myself, had I edited her book. I wasn't nearly so keen on the arguments between her and her husband; not because they weren't funny or because they were too over exaggerated (although they were), but because they were always so negative and without resolution that I found it hard to understand why they were married at all.

All in all, I completely understand why Putnam chose to publish this book. The market for it is clear, and I'm sure it will--if it hasn't already--sell well. It just wasn't quite my cup of tea. For that, I'll stick with Sedaris.

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