Thursday, November 20, 2014

What I'm Reading - Five Minute Book Review: A Confederacy of Dunces



I would describe A Confederacy of Dunces as the adult version of Amelia Bedelia.  It centers around a larger-than-life character (Ignatius Reilly) and the barrage of crazy episodes that he gets himself into and the strange people he meets from different walks of life.  The plot doesn't really matter, which is at once annoying (a more nuanced and developed plot could have made this a tighter and more satisfying book), but also really freeing.  A Confederacy of Dunces invites you to step into its world, to be absorbed into 1960s New Orleans life, and to simply enjoy the series of ridiculous events as they unfold.

A Confederacy of Dunces definitely tickled my funny bone, and it is one of the best truly funny books that I have read.  As annoying and over-the-top as Ignatius is, he is such a well-drawn, fully flushed out, and ridiculous character that I couldn't help but laugh at him.  I loved his pseudo academic/philosophical musings, his rigid sense of justice and firm belief in his own infallibility, and his seemingly utter detachment from reality.  I particularly loved moments when he got close to something approximating rationality, but would then run in the opposite direction, looking for subtler (read: implausible) explanations for simple and obvious predicaments.  His writings, both to others and those he eventually intended to publish, were hilarious, with their frequent tangents, verbose tone, delusional quality, and snide remarks.  I would never want to meet Ignatius, but reading about him was pretty funny. 

I particularly enjoyed how A Confederacy of Dunces brought together such a wide range of  characters, each a fully realized individual with a hilarious personality.  Some of my favorites include Miss Trixie, Ignatius' elderly, feisty, and clearly senile one-time coworker, Mancuso, the downtrodden police officer who is forced to dress in costume while on duty, Dorian Greene, a gay man who finds Ignatius equally fascinating and ridicule-inducing, Mr. and Mrs. Levy, a husband and wife who are always at each other's throats and trying to blackmail one another, and Dr. Talc, a professor at Tulane who inspires Ignatius' ire and prompts him to draft a series of disapproving letters, all signed by "Zorro" and delivered as paper airplanes through Dr. Talc's office window.  A Confederacy of Dunces is kind of like a sitcom, with characters who feel completely real but also totally ridiculous, some boarding on insane.

If you are looking for an engaging and silly read, A Confederacy of Dunces is a solid choice.  I'd recommend checking out the audiobook because the narrator does an excellent job capturing each character's particular accent.

Four out of five stars.      

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

What I'm Reading - Five Minute Book Review: Quiet



As a textbook introvert, I was really excited to read Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain.  Ultimately, I think the book was less exciting and informative than I would have liked.  Throughout most of the book, Cain spends a few paragraph describing a scientific study, another few paragraphs unpacking the real-world implications of that study, and then moves onto a different facet of research and repeats the process.  This approach felt a bit too broad, and I wish that Cain had focused on the most meaningful scientific research, offering deeper and more thoughtful analysis and applications for real-world situations. 

That said, I read Quiet for a book club that I'm part of, and we had one of our most lively discussions about this book.  While reading Quiet wasn't particularly enlightening, it did illuminate topics that a most us hadn't thought about too much and generated conversations that were incredibly rich and meaningful.  We talked how different personality types function in different situations and how things like education, work environments, and interpersonal relationships can and should be shifted to better maximize each individual's potential and help them feel most comfortable.  We discussed the overly narrow notion of success that has come to define what it means to do well in business and how the talents and abilities that introverts bring to the table are too often overlooked.  We talked about imposter syndrome, the different hats that many introverts wear in order to better fit in, and how self-conscious many introverts feel living in fast-paced urban environments that affirm going out with friends and having a busy social life as good while casting a dubious eye on quiet Saturday mornings spent at home with a spouse or a close friend or no one at all.  It was so nice to learn that I'm not the only one who values and sincerely enjoys time spent completely alone. 

While I don't think that Quiet is a great book, I appreciate that it sheds light on a topic that not many people have thought about, questions many of the notions and premises that we have come to accept as universal, and generates lively discussions among today's working professionals, many of whom have struggled with feeling like an outsider for not conforming to the expectations of the world.  This book is a great starting point for self-exploration, creating a safe space for individuals to look at who they are, what makes them tick, and what they want out of life.  Quiet encourages readers to explore and embrace their own unique gifts, highlighting that our diverse talents and abilities are valuable in different ways and that we are our best selves when we utilize these talents.

Three and a half out of five stars. 

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

What I'm Reading - Five Minute Book Review: Not That Kind of Girl



Like most people, I have a complicated relationship with Lena Dunham, and Not That Kind of Girl didn’t change that.  My main problem with Dunham’s work is that while she attempts to reveal universal truths and experiences through her stories, she refuses to acknowledge her own privilege, which makes much of her work feel completely out of touch and a little off-putting.  This is especially true when she tries to capture the struggles that young people, particularly women, face when growing up, graduating college, pursuing their passions, and finding professional, artistic, and personal contentment.  Dunham taps into the apathy, fear, and discouragement that many of us twenty-somethings have struggled with, but her experiences often feel foreign because of the privilege that separates rather than brings her closer to her audience. 

I don’t blame Dunham for her privilege.  It’s not her fault that she was born into a family of successful New York artists who have the sort of money and connections that most of us never will.  But her refusal to acknowledge this privilege is a problem for me.  In fact, her naïveté feels unbelievable at times, as if she doesn’t know that most 17-year-olds don’t have their vegan dinner parties featured in The New York Times.     

I was particularly irked by the chapter “Little Leather Gloves: The Joy of Wasting Time,” in which Dunham details her experience of feeling lost in a post-graduation malaise, moving back in with her parents, and taking a job at an up-scale children’s clothing store.  She describes feeling young and free, but also lost, especially in terms of her artistry, so she and her friends create an internet television show that receives much critical attention and lands them a gig hosting the First Annual Art Awards at the Guggenheim Museum.  When telling this story, Dunham seems completely unaware of how unusual this sort of almost-instant success is for a 22-year-old who creates something during a night of drunken frivolity with a couple of friends.  She doesn’t acknowledge how she benefitted from having the time, financial resources, and connections to create something that immediately found its way to an audience.  For her, becoming an artist is as easy as simply deciding to do so.  There is no struggle, no years of saving or raising money, making connections, calling in favors, facing rejection.  Dunham becomes an artist when she grows bored of her aimless twenty-something existence, and while her story might be meant to inspire, it only serves to alienate.

The rest of the book was just so-so for me.  I found Dunham’s section about her body and weight to be one of the least interesting and developed.  While her body and weight come up frequently in regard to her work, they don’t seem to cause Dunham much mental stress, so I could have done without the 10 pages from her food diary.  The stuff about sex, love, and relationships is the usual Dunham fare, with plenty of oversharing, awkward encounters, and poor decision-making. 

By the end, like much of her other work, Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl left me feeling kind of gross and sad, in part because she is so committed to a brutally honest portrayal of life with all of its messiness and complications.  But more than that, I found the book to be off-putting because it is so narcissistic.  Dunham is clearly the most interesting thing to happen to Dunham, and while she talks about many others, particularly her parents and sister, her stories about them are deeply rooted in her own experiences and always come back to her.  It’s almost as if Dunham collects people not because she desires to know them, but because she desires to make herself more interesting, more rich in experience through them.  I read one review that describes Dunham’s book as inward looking, taking others and their experiences and bringing it back to herself, and I think this is spot on.  It’s also why, an indie film, three television seasons, and a book later, Dunham’s shtick is wearing thin.  By constantly drawing from her own life, Dunham’s work keeps retreading the same territory, and it makes me question how many different artistic mediums one 28-year-old woman actually needs to tell her story.      

Two and a half out of five stars.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

What I'm Reading - Five Minute Book Review: Life After Life


Hello!  It's been a while since I've posted on this blog, and I wanted to resurrect it for an experiment.  I miss reviewing all of the books that I read, but those of you who have read some of my previous reviews know that they can be pretty long.  The original drafts are much longer and take me quite a while to edit.  Blame my penchant for perfectionism and desire to detail every thought that I have about a book.  

In order to make reviewing easier and less time consuming, thereby encouraging me to actually do it, I want to try an approach that I'm calling the "Five Minute Book Review."  It's pretty self-explanatory: I set a timer for five minutes, write everything I can about the book in that five minutes, and then post it.  Pretty easy, right?  I think the struggle for me will be actually sticking to the five minutes. 

Here's my first attempt.  It probably took me closer to 10 minutes (or maybe 15).  

 
If I had to choose one word to describe Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, it would be stunning.  This is truly a masterpiece, one of the greatest works of literature that I have read in recent memory.  Life After Life was my first introduction to Kate Atkinson’s work, and as I was reading the book, I was simultaneously completely immersed in the story and totally awe-struck by just how stunning the writing is. 

The premise is unique: Ursula Todd continually dies and is reborn.  The circumstances of her lives and deaths are different, but her family is always the same, as is the historical context that comes to shape and define her lives: World War I and World War II.  Atkinson doesn’t get bogged down in the specifics of her premise, choosing to explore similar themes (family, gender, patriotism, war and its effects at both the national and individual level, morality, and death, among many other topics) through Ursula’s different lives rather than attempting to explain how the reincarnation premise works. 

The result is a novel that effortlessly interweaves countless threads and stories, showing how the subtlest of changes can make all the difference in the world, or sometimes none at all.  The characters are memorable and relatable, fully realized individuals who are able to captivate readers even in spite of their often significant flaws.  Above all else, they are achingly human. 

Atkinson’s writing is brilliant, and she has truly mastered the art of the parenthetical aside and tangent.  Where other asides feel choppy or intrusive, Atkinson is able to artfully weave her tangents into the story in a way that enriches the narrative and never feels distracting. 

An absolute must read.  Five out of five stars.