4 stars

Week 22: One More Theory About Happiness – Paul Guest

Paul Guest is just 12 years old when a biking accident indelibly changes his life forever. Now 27, ONE MORE THEORY ABOUT HAPPINESS is Guest’s account of the events that resulted in his broken neck and adjustment to life as a quadriplegic. In a word, this memoir is stunning. In a few more words, it’s more than I expected–even in its mere 208 pages–and one that I think everyone should read.

It’s easy to tell in the first few pages of ONE MORE THEORY ABOUT HAPPINESS that Guest is a bright, mindful and considerate person. Wrapping up his sixth grade year at a barbeque hosted by his teacher, Guest and his best friend take off on a pair of old bikes while the food is still being prepared. The bikes are dilapidated at best and leave Guest wondering if a ride is the best thing to do; but once the tires are filled with air, the two take to the hilly streets of the neighborhood. Guest couldn’t have anticipated that the bike’s brakes were out of commission, nor could he have seen the drainage ditch lying in hiding under overgrown foliage. But when his speed picked up and he hit the ditch, he “was thrown from the bike, over the handlebars, catapulted, tossed like a human dart into the earth.”

What follows, in beautiful and lyrical prose, is Guest’s journey to find himself in this new body and to connect with others in real and meaningful ways. Understandably, he struggled with the forced intimacy that must be shared with a caregiver that sees you at your most vulnerable, when in need of help with basic life skills like eating, bathing and using the bathroom. And yet, I wonder if this exposure helped him create such an intimate account of his life, one that I felt fully welcomed to enter.

 

Despite what may seem like a grim story, Guest’s eloquence, insightfulness and humor convey a life that is not to be pitied. In fact, I found his story to be a reminder that, while life is fragile, we are all so very capable of greatness… whatever greatness is for us. Guest most certainly could have become embittered and resigned, yet he always worked through his therapies and sought his passion and is now not only a memoirist, but an award-winnng poet. I kind of wonder if he would have become a writer were it not for his accident. We may never know.

 

What I do know is that he has immense gifts and significant talent. I know that the words I write here don’t do any justice to the words he placed on the page for us all to experience. I know, or was reminded, that happiness is a choice no matter what your circumstances. I also know that I wanted just a little bit more from this otherwise perfect book. He is still so young with such a promising career that is just beginning to unfold.


Rating: 4 stars
Pages: 208
Genre: Memoir

Week 21: Where You Once Belonged – Kent Haruf

I think I have an author crush. My first experience with Kent Haruf was a number of years ago when I picked up PLAINSONG, a simple and graceful story of discordant lives colliding and intersecting in the small prairie town of Holt, Colorado. He drew me in with his carefully crafted prose and did it in such a way that made beautiful writing seem effortless.


You should know that when I have a literary crush and a penchant for buying books, it’s all I can do to not scoop up all of the works I can by the object of my affection. Such was the case after reading PLAINSONG. I actually got to meet Mr. Haruf at a local book fair sometime back and picked up his two other novels and got all of them signed, PLAINSONG included. Yes, I was hearts all a flutter.


And while I am loyal to the end in my real life, in my literary world, I kinda play the field. Yeah, I get around. I get all enamored with so many different ones and they all just swirl around and come in and out of my life while so many are relegated to patiently wait in the wings and on the shelves, waiting for a chance with me. For what it’s worth, in my heart of hearts I know I will come back for them.


And this week I did just that with Haruf’s WHERE YOU ONCE BELONGED. Let me say, after years of being away, he did not disappoint. Let me also say I am a sucker for a story of art imitating life that seems so real you feel like you are sitting just on the fringes of the action watching the events unfold in front of you.


WHERE YOU ONCE BELONGED centers on Jack Burdette, an arrogant, impetuous hometown hero whose frequent missteps are brushed aside. But as he grows up under the microscope of small-town living, his life takes turns with effects that are both far-reaching and impossible to imagine. The book opens with Burdette returning to Holt (the same setting as PLAINSONG) after an eight-year absence. The Holt community is angry, resentful and wanting revenge. As a childhood friend and foil narrates the story, the events that take place after Burdette’s unexpected arrival result in a climax that was both shocking and frustrating… and totally believable.


I don’t want to tell too much of the story or give away any more details than just enough that would encourage someone to pick it up. WHERE YOU ONCE BELONGED is very different from PLAINSONG and just as engaging. I loved this somber story and all its mess and complication, much the way real life can be. And I also liked that in the end, it was just a story. One that I could safely tuck back on the shelves, or better yet, pass on to another book lover that can appreciate a perfectly constructed, hauntingly told story.

Rating: 4 stars
Genre: Fiction
Pages: 176

Week 20: When You Are Engulfed in Flames – David Sedaris

So y’all know that I am not big on picking up a book again once I have read it. I am, however, a fan of certain authors and if I love them, I want to read all of their work. Yep. If you’ve wowed me once, I want to be wowed again; and such is the case with David Sedaris. I have read just about everything he’s written and was shocked and awed when I saw him earlier this month and realized that I didn’t have his latest effort, WHEN YOU ARE ENGULFED IN FLAMES. So, I grabbed a soft cover, got it signed, and tucked it away for a week I wanted to be engulfed in laughter.

WHEN YOU ARE ENGULFED IN FLAMES is a solid collection of essays, 22 in fact, that cover a wide range of adult-themed topics, with the most pervasive theme being death. (Note: That’s the only parental advisory warning I will provide; any future reading and laughing is done at your own risk). For those familiar with Sedaris, there are the definite moments where it’s crucial you set your beverage down while reading or the liquid will spew from your lips (and maybe your nose), but there are more moments of humility, sensitivity and reflection than I have seen in his other works… and it actually works.

 

I laughed out loud during “What I Learned” when he recounted the story of going to Princeton and studying literature only to have his father say,
[blockquote]You’re going to study literature and get a job doing what? Literaturizing?[/blockquote]






“Solution to Saturday’s Puzzle” is a hilarious account of a plane ride in which he found himself next to Becky, a woman who becomes engulfed in anger when he won’t trade seats so that her husband can sit by her. Mind you, it’s a 90-minute flight and the hubs is sitting in the bulkhead. When Becky’s beloved quietly mouths “How come? [he won’t change seats]” Becky yells across the plane, “Cause he’s an asshole, that’s why.” At that moment the game is on and, Sedaris takes on his nemesis through the Saturday Times’ crossword puzzle:

[blockquote] An elderly woman in aisle A turned to look at me, and I pulled a Times crossword puzzle from the bag beneath my seat. That always makes you look reasonable, especially on a Saturday, when the words are long and the clues are exceptionally tough. The problem is that you have to concentrate, and all I could think of was this Becky person.
Seventeen across: a fifteen letter word for enlightenment: “I am not an asshole,” I wrote, and it fit.
Five down: six letter Indian tribe: “You are.”
Look at that smart man, breezing through the puzzle, I imagined everyone thinking. He must be a genius. That’s why he wouldn’t swap seats for that poor married woman. He knows something we don’t.[/blockquote]
There were cringe-worthy moments, like when he was repeatedly (and rudely) propositioned by a surly truck driver that offered him a ride in “Road Trip” and the realization that his friendship with a neighboring man would have to change when that man was proven to be a child molester, in “The Man in the Hut”.

But there were also moments of humility and maturity, such as when reflecting on his mother’s death and father’s mortality, as well as his own efforts to break a decades long smoking habit, that suited Sedaris’ writing style just fine. For those brand new to Sedaris, I would recommend my all-time favorite, NAKED followed by everyone else’s favorite, ME TALK PRETTY ONE DAY, and then hit the holidays with either THE SANTALAND DIARIES or HOLIDAYS ON ICE. But for those looking for a balance of the rollicking good humor and little kinder, softer Sedaris WHEN YOU ARE ENGULFED IN FLAMES is the perfect fit.

Rating: 4 stars
Genre: Essays
Pages: 336

Week 14: Official Book Club Selection – A Memoir According to Kathy Griffin

Disclaimer

If you don’t like Kathy Griffin, you aren’t going to like this book. It doesn’t matter how many stars I give it or what I say about it, although, how flattering if it would! If you are reading this and don’t know who she is, I will just say she’s hysterically crass (that’s Rated-R) and most celebrities fear her. Or should.

I saw Kathy Griffin perform on tour this past January and her show, a 2-hour rant against celebrities and their crazy antics, had the audience roaring from start to finish. My sides were actually hurting so much that I counted the outing as my ab workout for the day. I definitely had a blast at her show; yet I am not a big celebrity memoir person. I did not rush out to buy the book that Kathy herself said she named OFFICIAL BOOK CLUB SELECTION in hopes that consumers would think Oprah had chosen it. Imagine my delight, however, when my gal pal Cynthia loaned me her copy and said, “You will cruise through this. I bet you can knock it out in four hours.” Confession time: I don’t read as fast as Cynthia thinks I do, but it was definitely a cruiser and I cleared it within the week.


OFFICIAL BOOK CLUB SELECTION chronicles Griffin’s upbringing as the youngest of four children to John and Mary Griffin of Oak Park, Illinois. A self-proclaimed “… kid who needed to talk. All the time.”, Griffin loved television and storytelling more than anything else (maybe not as much as cake, but they surely ran a close second). After high school she decided to take her gift of gab and love of Hollywood to the City of Angels with dreams of breaking into the biz.


Griffin does a great job detailing the road to stardom – it’s full of hard work, paying dues (unless you are John Corbett or Heidi Montag, one of whom she loves and the other she loathes), lots of rejection and definite double standards. She maintains a highly conversational tone and I felt as if I was following her around to auditions and growing up with her as she struggled to find her niche. As a member of the Groundlings (picture LA’s version of Second City) she worked day in and day out attempting to perfect her craft but had her share of failures, like when she blew the audition with Lorne Michaels to secure a spot on Saturday Night Live (Groundlings member Julia Sweeney nabbed it).


While the book is certainly funny, Griffin does a good job covering the not so funny stuff: a brother with many secrets, her volatile friendship with Andy Dick, and her failed marriage. I admit that prior to reading OFFICIAL BOOK CLUB SELECTION, I thought anyone was fair game for her, yet she does have boundaries. Also revelatory, she hasn’t pissed off everyone in Hollywood (and there’s even a key group of folks with whom she strives to stay in the best of graces). I thought she handled the serious sections well and they exposed a side of Kathy Griffin outside of the brash and off-color that most don’t ever get to see.


But let’s face it. Griffin’s job is to find the funny and make people laugh at almost anyone’s expense. And, laugh I did. The most, in fact, during the last two pages of the book. It was her hilariously written Reading Group Guide Questions that had me bump my final rating up a star. Yes, the questions are that funny.


Rating: 4 stars
Genre: Memoir
Pages: 357

Week 11: She Got Up Off the Couch – Haven Kimmel

I read Kimmel’s first memoir, A Girl Named Zippy: Growing Up Small in Mooreland, Indiana during one of my annual girls’ trips to Mexico a couple years back. While taking in the sun, tasty margaritas and enjoying the simple things, I was enamored with this quirky small-town girl and her cleverly down-home way with words. She made childhood in a town of just 300 (THAT’S small!) a bit romantic. Living where everyone knows your name (forget that they all know your business, too) and where life seems less complicated or harried than that of the big city. I found her book utterly delightful, as did the friends with whom I shared it.

After that first book, Kimmel’s mother, Delonda, became as popular or intriguing as Zippy herself. One to sit firmly planted on the family couch, surrounded by books or knitting, Delonda did nothing much more than that – parenting from old, upholstered sofa cushions. Kimmel was repeatedly asked, “So did your mother ever get up off the couch?” And, so, a follow up was born.


SHE GOT UP OFF THE COUCH is really a story of Delonda Jarvis and her transformation from couch potato to college graduate at 40 (much to her husband’s disbelief), told from Zippy’s childhood perspective. It covers a time of significant change in the Jarvis household, when Zippy’s beloved brother marries and moves away, her sister starts her own family, and Delonda steps out of her comfort zone to go after her own dreams. It’s a time when Zippy begins to see her parents no longer as superheroes, but human and just as capable of achieving greatness as they are of falling from it.


Kimmel weaves her stories with both compassion and humor that left me laughing out loud and pausing for reflection. One of my favorite passages involved Delonda’s recent acquaintance with a foul-mouthed friend, “Big Fat Bonnie” a woman who would play a small but significant part in Delonda’s newfound independence:
“Well, I’ll be &*@! if I can’t teach you how to drive, and I will, too, you can bet your &*@!” Bonnie was saying. “No man would keep ME from driving a car, forget it! What is this, a Turkish prison? What do you do all day, just sit around watching the %*#^TV?!”
 
Mom blushed, but also looked a bit sheepish, then noticed me. “Bonnie, this is my daughter.”
 
I just continued to stand frozen in the doorway. I wanted to raise my hand and wave, but I was afraid I’d break the spell and miss a whole stream of good swears.
It’s clear that Kimmel has immense respect for her mother and the journey she took off the couch and into the classroom. Following her dreams, however late in life she did, largely influenced Kimmel herself to go after her own as a writer. Interestingly enough, her memoirs were never intended to be published, just documentation of her family for her family.


Fortunately, she too did what may not have been expected of her and shared them with all of us.



Rating: 4 stars
Genre: Memoir
Pages: 336

Week 9: The Complete Persepolis – Marjane Satrapi

Week 9 was finished just time with Marjane Satrapi’s coming-of-age memoir, THE COMPLETE PERSEPOLIS, about growing up in Iran in the early 80s, at the height of social change, opression and war. What’s unique about her story, aside from the fact her story is in itself very unique, is the medium through which it’s told–graphically.

A graphic novel was a first for me. My knowledge of graphic novels was limited and had me thinking of superhero stories geared at teenaged boys. Never would I have guessed that the same technique could so effectively tell a story of a young girl navigating her way through a world where freedoms are being stripped from everyone and newer, harsher rules are being placed on Iranian women, simply because they are women. Satrapi was a rebellious, spitfire of a young woman. Raised by parents who questioned the world around them and bucked convention, they helped raise a woman who did the same, all the while respecting herself and others in the process. But the world they live in, under conservative and opressive religious fanatacism, proves to be too much, Satrapi’s family must decide whether the teenaged Marjane should stay in Iran or continue her education in another country.

In addition to telling a compelling story, Satrapi is a talented graphic artist. Her “comic book” drawings were exceptional and able to convey the moments of fear, anger, sadness and true happiness that she, her family and her friends felt and, in turn, I felt when reading it. Her personal story resulted in the making of a motion picture that has garnered much critical acclaim, and one I am looking forward to adding to my Netflix queue. I am also looking forward to another turn at this emerging genre.

Rating: 4 stars
Genre: Graphic Novel
Pages: 352

Week 7: August: Osage County – Tracy Letts

[blockquote]”I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I ended up where I intended to be.” Douglas Adams[/blockquote]

Week 7 started out very strong. With the President’s Day holiday on Monday, I got a solid start on this week’s book. However, it quickly got blown out of the water with the busy-ness of life and work. Complicating matters was that by Thursday night, I knew there was no way I could possibly finish the 360+ pages I still had to read (and that was with my having already knocked out 130 pages). Furthermore, I was enjoying this book so much that I didn’t want to jam it into two days–too reminiscent of the college cram and not the goal of this project at all.

 

So I made an executive decision: I put the book on hold so that I could keep reading it at an enjoyable pace at a later date, and so I picked up something smaller. More to come on the on-hold book in a future post.

 

The something smaller book was an amazon.com recommendation that was a slim and interesting 240 pages that I was certain I could read in a couple of days.

 

WRONG.

 

There’s something very special about the amazon-recommended book that I had downloaded in just a few moments to my Kindle. It was also one that needed time for focused reading and reflection.

 

CRAP.

 

This challenge is not getting the best of me in week 7!

 

Executive decision number 2: I scanned my bookshelves and picked up an even smaller book (a play, actually) August: Osage County by Tracy Letts.

 

Letts is the son of novelist Billie Letts (Where the Heart is and The Honk and Holler Opening Soon) and a native of Oklahoma. His play, which in addition to winning the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, ran on Broadway from 2007-2009 and picked up a Tony in the process.

 

I haven’t read a play since my high school acting days; and never before have I read a play like this. Letts pulls together in three acts a multi-layered tragicomedy with dialogue that is so spot on I felt like I was overhearing a real-life conversation unfolding. The play centers around the Westons, a family forced back together by the death of one of their own. As is common with these types of reunions, when families have been separated for some time, old wounds are opened and new ones form as the family struggles with funeral arrangements and the getting on of getting on. It’s like family dysfunction on overdrive and Letts deftly balances the awkward silences and vicious verbal spars with moments of comic relief and clarity that propel both the story and the reader forward.

 

This was another gift from my folks, and having been signed by the playwright himself it’s a bit extra special. I never would have heard of this or thought to pick it up, but his talents are obvious and his words worth reading. Especially after two extremely worthy but ultimately false starts that will have to join this reading challenge later in the process.


Rating: 4 stars
Pages: 138
Genre: Play