Summerland (part the first), Michael Chabon

The last two summers have been the first that I haven’t been either teaching school or a student, and I’ve discovered that I hate the rhythm (or complete lack thereof) of non-educational adult pursuits. It’s June. Summer is here. I want nothing more than to go swimming (even though I hate bathing suits), eat ice cream (so I’m lactose intolerant, who cares!), and laze around yelling out things like “I’m bored” (actually, that one, I’ve totally been doing). I don’t want my vacation portioned out to me one or two weeks at a time. I want two and a half glorious months of sitting in air-conditioned movie theatres, struggling to find a parking spot at the beach, and eating food someone else has cooked for me on the grill while being fanned with palm leaves. I don’t think that’s too much to ask, but until the Flip Flop Uprising (copyright pending), I have to keep sitting at my computer at least pretending to work.

This would probably turn out a lot better if I wasn’t self-employed, since it turns out that doing no work means receiving no pay. Of course, it also means that technically (as my annoyed friends point out to me all the time), this means I can take “vacation days” whenever I want. So it’s a Tuesday and you’re uninspired? Watch an NCIS marathon and paint each one of your nails a different color! And I can’t completely argue with this logic because it’s true, I do have a lot more freedom than I used to, and trust me, I appreciate that.

The problem is, if I take Tuesday off, I don’t get paid. And if on Wednesday, I wake up still wishing it were vacation, I can goof off, but I still won’t get paid, and my deadlines will be that much stickier. So the problem is not that I have no freedom, it’s that at the moment, I lack the discipline necessary to ignore it.

It’s rare for me to be in such a long slump because I usually like getting things done ahead of time. I get a rush from…what’s the opposite of procrastination? Whatever it is, I love it because it means I can kick back and taunt all of my friends, who, collectively, have the procrastination powers of a demigod (at least). So at times like this, when, say, I haven’t finished the novel I want to review, I don’t feel the rush I’ve heard procrastinators get nearing a deadline. Nope. Instead I feel distracted, irritable, and disappointed that I let you guys down with my lack of focus.

Because Summerland, so far, is a great book. I mean, it’s Michael Chabon, so that goes without saying. His writing is the kind I just sink into until my living room falls away and suddenly I’m surrounded by summer on a little island off the coast in the Pacific Northwest. It’s lovely there, cool and damp, and the children are playing baseball – a game I hated with a vengeance as a child but which I dearly love now – although it’s not my skills that have improved, just my perspective.

It was here, playing for the Snake Island Wapatos amid the cottonwoods and wildflower glades of the seventy-two-team Flathead League, that he had first begun, in his words, “to grasp the fundamental truth: a baseball game is nothing but a great slow contraption for getting you to pay attention to the cadence of a summer day.” (pg 63)

See what I’m dealing with here?! Chabon is such a poetic novelist that he makes it impossible for me to want to read when instead I could be out enjoying long-lit summer days. It makes no difference that his characters are nicely rounded, that his plot is well-paced, that his writing in general makes me want to rend my garments in jealousy – none of that means a thing when held up against the possibility of disappearing into summer.

Because we all deserve that chance, even if we’ve long out-grown true summer vacations (the kind that go on long enough for us to get thoroughly bored with doing nothing). So I’m going to take the rest of this book to the lake nearby, and I’m going to try to finish it for you by Monday, but if I get distracted out there by frisbees and baby ducks and fresh squeezed lemonade, well, we’ve only the summer to blame…

To find our more about Michael Chabon, check out his excellent site here.

Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal, Christopher Moore

God is a comedian playing to an audience that is afraid to laugh.  Voltaire (p. 6)

Mostly, you all seem a little shy to send recommendations for books my way, and that’s not a big deal because I have roughly thirty books on my ever-growing list, but at the end of May, Caitlin Stern suggested I check out something by Christopher Moore (and more specifically, she thought Lamb would be a good fit for my sense of humor and my healthy appreciation for blasphemy). So I put it on my list, and when, this past week, it came up to the top of the queue, I thought “Perfect! I need something absurd to balance out all the heartwarming books that have been coming around here! Irreverent retelling of Jesus’ life – get at me!”

Well, Caitlin, I call foul. Because that book made me cry. Twice. And it provoked a deeply satisfying intellectual debate with one of my best friends about the nature of the Messiah for Christians and Jews. It made me reconsider my own approach to faith, renewed my appreciation for the teachings of both Taoism and Buddhism, and reminded me of why I’ve always loved following the teachings of Christianity while remaining open to ideas from religions practiced all over the world. Also, did I mention it made me cry?

It’s a love story. I’m talking the kind of love that comes from a friendship so dear that it breaks the heart a million times over to witness something as precious as it is ending the way it does. The book is basically a tragedy with punch lines. And I stupidly assumed that since I already knew the basic story, I wouldn’t be affected by the ending. I was wrong (as I so often am).

What I don’t understand after reading it, though, is how Lamb has been pigeon-holed the way it has. To me, while it is a novel about what one man imagined might have happened to Jesus during his thirty years on earth, it was also a profoundly insightful look into the similarities of many religious tenets. (Hint: It’s love. There are specifics, of course, but if you want the Cliffs notes version – love.) It also was wonderful to imagine Jesus with a best friend so much like of one of my own – at times completely ridiculous but always unfailingly protective and supportive – maybe because my whole life, I’ve been the kind of person who liked the idea of a God I can talk and joke with.

I get that it’s not that way for everyone, but I’m not about the mystery so much as I am about getting to the bottom of being the best person I can be. This book covers that for me. In between laughing myself silly or rolling my eyes (teenage boys were invented so that adults could roll their eyes at them, right?), I was profoundly touched by Moore’s ideas about how Jesus became the man he did. (Note: Joshua, in the quote below, is Jesus. The name change makes sense if you read the book, I promise.)

“Compassion is the same way,” said Joshua. “That’s what the yeti knew. He loved constantly, instantly, spontaneously, without thought or words. That’s what he taught me. Love is not is not something you think about, it is a state in which you dwell. That was his gift.”

“Wow,” I said.

“I came here to learn that,” said Josh.“You taught it to me as much as the yeti.”

“Me?” Gaspar had been pouring the tea as Joshua spoke and now he noticed that he’d overfilled his cup and the tea was running all over the table.

“Who took care of him? Fed him? Looked after him? Did you have to think about that before you did it?”

“No,” said Gaspar.  (p. 253)

Moore has a way of breaking religion down into its base parts; he makes it accessible through humor, but I don’t believe for a second that he doesn’t have faith just because he makes me laugh at my own assumptions (and his). He may or may not follow a particular religion, but he understands that the simplicity of leading compassionate lives is available to every one of us, fools that we are. It’s just that mostly, we don’t bother to think. It doesn’t come naturally to us, and it certainly doesn’t come naturally to his protagonist Biff (Jesus’ best friend), but that makes him all the more lovable.

Biff is an unremarkable kid who would have led a completely unexceptional life but for the fact that he met his best friend, who sort of just happened to be the Son of God, and recognized that his greatest desire was to follow him to the ends of the earth. This, without any promise of greatness or an easy life. I think most of us, spiritual or not, would love to find one person or idea we believe in even half as much because we want our lives to be that difficult-to-attain mixture of joy and purpose. Even when we know things can’t go on the way they’ve always been, and that people we hope will stick around sometimes don’t…even then, we want to create something special, something that will be remembered, if only by the people who love us.

Moore gets that. I dare you to read his book and not get it too.

For more information about Christopher Moore, look here.

Bonus Friday post

It’s Friday, I’m behind on, well, basically everything, and the whole morning is gone because I went to hear Ernie Cline speak about Ready, Player One (Remember that? Way back in March?). Then I had to wait in line for his autograph. And my husband wanted a picture in the DeLorean Cline’s traveling around with (you could win said car if you find enter his contest, inspired by the book – more info about that here).

Now I’m back home, and productivity should be within reach, but instead I’m agonizing over the fact that when I met him, instead of saying something clever (or even something sincere like, I don’t know, “I really loved your book”) I said, “Um, hi.” Then I stared at him awkwardly until he signed my poster.

What I really wanted was to be awesome (and maybe get a picture with him), but as always, on those rare opportunities when I get a chance to meet somebody that I admire, I completely freeze up. I’m not normally a particularly shy person, so I don’t know where it comes from, but even my husband made fun of me for it today. He was all, “you could have mentioned the blog. Or, you know, told him that you liked his book.” Obviously. Obviously I should have done that. But I didn’t, and now I’m tortured by the lost opportunity.

Cline, with the DeLorean

He doesn’t look intimidating, does he? Nope. It’s just me. Oh well. At least this missed connection gives me the opportunity to remind you of this amazing book. I’m planning to download the audiobook just to hear Wil Wheaton read it to me this summer…

Swimming to Antarctica, Lynne Cox

There’s something you should know about me going into the summer of 2012. I look forward to the Olympic games (and in particular, the Summer Games) with a fervor bordering on fanaticism. (Usually I’m on the wrong side of that border too.) An energy that rarely possesses me takes over, and for two weeks, I’m glued to the television set, grateful for the technology that allows me to watch athletes from all over the world compete at levels far beyond what my body could ever comprehend.

I unabashedly cry during many of the events, although I can never predict beforehand which of them will have the most affecting stories. It’s the same feeling I get when I happen upon a show filming the return of soldiers to their families; although I’m adamantly against unnecessary violence, I can’t help but be swept away by the sheer joy of the reunion. The human spirit can endure so much for so long, and when, all at once, something truly great happens, the flood of joy and release is unbelievable.

When I watch athletes competing in the Olympics, I can’t help but think of the history that has brought us to this point – of the conflict, the bloodshed, the disregard for how similar we all, as human beings, are – and be amazed. Every two years, for a few weeks, the whole world watches together, and I love it with my whole being. The only trouble with something like the Olympics is that it’s hard to completely put aside that while some people win, many do not. It’s a competition that brings countries together, but at its heart, it is, still, a competition.

Maybe that’s why I fell so completely for Lynne Cox. In her memoir, Swimming to Antarctica, she embraces her tenacity and talent as a world-class open water swimmer with her desire to act as symbol of peace and partnership between feuding countries. She does it almost entirely without corporate sponsorship, instead relying on a network of friends and colleagues who believe, like her, that it is possible, nay – essential – to push the boundaries of human endurance. She doesn’t swim to get rich or famous; in fact, she has to bankrupt herself multiple times in order to do what she believes is possible. She does it because she has the drive, not only to perform at an elite level, but also to use her swims as gestures of goodwill.

When I picked up this book, Cox immediately won me over with her warmth and gift for storytelling. She begins the book by describing herself as a chubby nine-year old who loved to swim despite being slow, and as she discovers the world of open water swimming, I was swept up by her adventures. By the time I got to the black and white photographs in the middle of the book and realized she was still a well-padded swimmer even as an adult, I just about fell over with gratitude. Here was an athlete breaking boundaries no one in the world had dreamed of crossing and she wasn’t even a size 2! In fact, on one of her swims, a taxi cab driver points out she doesn’t look like a record-breaking swimmer and she just shakes it off.

If you’re gifted with a traditionally athletic body, it might not mean as much to you to discover a role model like this one as it does for me, but most of us do have something that sets us apart, a trait we desperately search for in our mentors. It may be some combination of race, culture, sexual preference, and religion, or it might be something as simple as meeting a person who does impossible things with a sense of humor (see my entry on John “The Penguin” Bingham).

No hero is the right fit for everyone, but Lynne Cox really checks a lot of boxes for me. She’s a woman. She started swimming mind-blowing distances in open water as a young teenager. She’s persevered without much money. She has respect for the planet and for the people she meets in different cultures. She sets insane goals for herself and manages to follow through even if it takes years. She is passionate about what she does. She has broken records all over the world. I tell you, it’s hard not to cheer on a person like this:

More than anything I now understood that no one achieves great goals alone. It didn’t matter to New Zealanders that I wasn’t from their country. It only mattered that I was trying to swim their strait. They had cheered me on for hours, and in doing so, they had cheered the same human spirit within themselves. Through the Cook Strait crossing, I realized that a swim can be far more than an athletic adventure. It can become a way to bridge the distance between people and nations. During the Cook Strait swim, we were united in a human endurance struggle that surpassed national borders. (pg 145)

My favorite site for more information on Lynne Cox is here.

Silence, Michelle Sagara

On Thursday, I talked about John Scalzi’s new book Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas, but what I didn’t mention in that particular post is that many (many) of the books I review here are found at his site in a section called “The Big Idea.” I usually remember to link over there whenever I’m talking about one of “his” books, but I thought I would mention it again so that those of you who have only recently started following me have the opportunity to make the connection between John Scalzi, the sci-fi author, and John Scalzi, the extremely popular blogger.

I’m not obsessed (and after this post, you’ll get a break from my incessant nattering about him, I swear), but I am a cult-like follower of The Big Idea posts. He gives authors an opportunity to write about what has motivated them to create the book they’ve recently had published, and after reading those posts, I’m usually 80 percent sold already. I wouldn’t say that I click-through and buy every single one of the titles, but it’s close. Even if I don’t end up purchasing a book I’ve read about there, I always enjoy finding out what the authors have to say, and I suspect that many of you, as writers yourself, would love to be asked to do such a thing when promoting your book. There’s always so much to say that doesn’t fit into the story itself, amiright? What I’m trying to point out here is that while Scalzi does these authors a great favor by giving them the space to talk about their books, he also does his readers a service by showcasing the story behind the story.

And I’m a sucker for what’s happening behind the scenes. I not only like to watch novels come alive, I like to know who’s pulling the strings and why. I tried to find a way to sum up for you why Michelle Sagara (you may also know her as Michelle West or Michelle Sagara West) has written this wonderful book the way she has, but I’ve failed. Her entire interview is too necessary, too essential to what makes this story take up such a large place in my heart for me not to share it with you. So please, take a minute and go read it. (If you don’t, the rest of the review probably won’t make as much sense as it would if you just clicked through. Just do it!)

Done? Great. Are you teary-eyed yet, because I don’t want to be the only one; I’ve been getting weepy way too often recently and my street cred’s gonna take a hit if I don’t get that under control. But in this case, I can’t help it. One of the hardest and best parts of my job when I taught preschool was working with families whose children were on the Autistic spectrum. The director of the school where I taught in LA used to put as many of those children as she could in my class every year, in fact, because even though I never had formal training for working with them (beyond what the incredible therapists, aides, and parents shared with me), we were like magnets, them and I. (I think she figured they might as well be on my roster since we always seemed to find each other anyway.)

In my life outside the classroom, funny enough, I am not known for my patience. My friends and family would probably say I’m one of the least patient people they know; however, I’m also, against my will, one of the most empathetic (seriously, you trying being an emotional sponge and tell me it isn’t against your will), and that made me a strong match for those children. Even if they couldn’t talk to me, or look me in the eye, or function outside of a routine or in a chaotic environment, I felt like I had the ability to wrap a little piece of myself around them to keep the calm.

It didn’t always work, of course. Nothing always works. But it worked enough. Those children were happier at the end of the year when they left my class than they had been when they entered in the fall, and I still remember every single one of them even when memories of my other students have begun to fade. I just loved them so much – loved how quirky and silly and honest they could be with me. Plus, I got to ease, for a short while at least, some of their parents’ fear, and their grief (oh, the grief that looked out at me like rage and confusion and frustration and exhaustion, depending on the hour or the day). Somehow, Sagara has taken that feeling I used to get when I stared into the naked struggle occurring in both child and family, and she has turned it into a book where both a high functioning Autistic boy and the fiercely kind girls who are his friends are the heroes.

And it’s about more than the challenges of being different – it’s a true adventure, as well as a struggle through the grief of losing too many people far too young. It’s a patient book. It’s compassionate, but it’s also real. The awkwardness of family was so real, in fact, that I wanted to wait outside while her characters had it out. I don’t know quite how she does it (honestly, I was constantly surprised by how deeply in love with this book I was even as I was reading it), but I think a lot of what’s great about her writing is in its pacing. She doesn’t rush through what’s important; instead, she savors the hurt right alongside the reader, and when the characters triumph in some small way, the reader does too.

I’ve never read any of her other books, but I swear, if they are even half as powerful as this one, I’m a fan.

Check out Michelle Sagara here. (Sidenote: her publicity photo is completely adorable and it makes me want to hug her.)

Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas, John Scalzi

I think most of us have realized by this point in the existence of the interwebs that we cannot read or follow every blog we want to or think we should. We all handle this disappointment in different ways. I prefer to follow only as many people as I can reasonably enjoy, while my husband doesn’t mind following so many that he requires fifty hour days to keep caught up – a fundamental difference in our life view being that he loves knowledge for the sake of knowledge while I prefer to know everything within a subset I can control. For me, this means making hard choices about once every six months, when I go through all the blogs I’ve accumulated on Google Reader and weed out those that no longer interest me or have been abandoned by the author.

You might surmise from this, and you would be correct, that I am not a hoarder. In all aspects of my life, I get great pleasure from purging the unnecessary – old yearbooks, pictures of me from junior high, gifts people have given that I no longer need – and yes, I did actually just feel the massive intake of breath from all of you who cannot understand the monster in me I’ve just revealed. I get it. I married into a family of hoarders savers.

The thing is, I don’t have the emotional energy to keep all my old physical possessions because I’m already full up with memories. I don’t need an old beach towel hanging around to remember how much I loved swimming at Walden Pond every summer when I was a kid. I don’t save awards I won for writing in the fifth grade because all I have to do is sit down at a computer to relive the joy they brought me. And I certainly don’t need stacks of photos I cut out of magazines when I was fifteen to remember the crushes I had on Will Riker and Wesley Crusher because nobody (and I mean nobody) forgets being the butt of other Trekkies’ jokes for being in love with those two.

So when John Scalzi, a blogger who always manages to survive my stringent cuts, wrote a book tangentially related to one of my oldest and (until now) most secret loves, I had no choice but to read it. And love it. And weep over it, just a little.

For those of you who aren’t in the know, the term “redshirt” originated with fans of the original Star Trek series to describe a character with little or no back story who dies shortly after being introduced (often before the opening credits); the purpose of such a character was to provide the viewer with a glimpse of what the show’s protagonists were up against. Scalzi takes this premise and turns it into a novel that just about ripped my damn heart out.

Usually with a book this excellent, I have no doubt that the vast majority of my readers could pick it up and experience (at least on some level) the euphoria I have, but for once I’m stumped. I have no idea whether or not this book will resonate with non science-fiction fans (although I would love for those of you who aren’t to read it and report back). When I laughed, many times it was at jokes so ingrained in the person I am, and the person I was when I was thirteen, that I can’t objectively determine whether, say, my father would also laugh if he read the same passage. If I left this book on a train, would the only people tempted to pick it up be those already on the inside?

I don’t know! And it’s killing me! I hate not knowing things! I’m nosy (I consider it to be one of my finer little sister traits, in fact), and I like to be right, so I don’t want to just waltz in here and insist that you read this book if I’m wrong about non-geeks being susceptible to the awesome. (That would be embarrassing, and the only thing worse than being wrong is being embarrassed by how very wrong you are.)

But if you just give it a chance…

I mean, look at me. I’m not into video games or going to any event that ends in the word “con.” I don’t write fanfic (although I think we’ve previously agreed that it’s perfectly acceptable for me to have occasionally dabbled in reading it). I don’t like getting dressed up in costume for any reason whatsoever, and I’ve never made it through Dune (although apparently I have read five of the top ten  most iconic sci-fi books…but let’s ignore that for the sake of argument). I shop at the Gap, for God’s sake! At best, I’m like a junior member geek who’s legitimacy is constantly questioned by how poorly I score on the geek entrance exam.

So if I can love the book this hard, how inaccessible can it really be? I say that if you can name even one character from any of the iterations of Star Trek (and that includes the 2009 movie, which we all know you totally saw, so don’t even pretend like you don’t know what I’m talking about), you’ll enjoy this book on some level. It may not be to the extent that hardcore fans (or even geeks on the fringe) do, but that’s no reason not to give it a try. It’s funny, I promise. And surprisingly touching. In fact, you’ll probably cry, then have to pretend some sand from the beach just got in your eye, which will get you thinking about how we’re all as insignificant as grains of sand, and the philosophy major in you will just explode with this unexpected opportunity to make an appearance while you’re on vacation, so just do us all a favor and stop fighting it. Your inner hoarder needs this.

(I’msorryIjustcan’tstopmyself) Resistance is futile.

Now go give John Scalzi some love here. His blog has been around for like fourteen years, so it’s like, practically a history credit just clicking that link.

Silver Moon, Catherine Lundoff

I have a confession to make, and I hope it won’t make you think less of me. Not every book I enjoy is the world’s most profound read. For some of you (and I know who you are – you are the readers who, like me, were profoundly grateful at the invention of the Kindle because it meant you could henceforth pretend to be reading great literature while actually devouring blush-inducing fantasy novels intended for fifteen year olds), this is not only an obvious statement of fact but also completely acceptable. Maybe you’re a speed reader like me (yes, I’m entitled to have one thing that sets me apart from the masses, and since it is definitely not running, cooking, activism, math comprehension, yoga head stands, wealth, wearing heels, charisma, etc, I will hold up my ability to skim and comprehend with pride!), in which case, you can afford to “waste your time” (gag) on books slower readers deem unworthy.

I suspect this is the case for the vast majority of readers; my husband is a slower reader, and while he gleefully pages through books like Cannery Row and Don Quixote (novels he considers worth the effort exerted), I jump from one book to the next like a man in lost in the desert – a constant flow of words, high quality or low, is what keeps me alive. For those of you who don’t fall into one of those two categories, there is a third, one I call “the powerful sense of self reader” – you are so comfortable in your own skin that regardless of how quickly you read, you feel no pressure whatsoever to care what anyone thinks of your choices. In the long list of things I’m not good at, being comfortable in my own skin is right up there, so while I know such readers exist (and annoyingly, am friends with quite of few of them), I can only envy them from afar. They probably need no excuse to review a book about menopausal women who turn into werewolves, but alas, I feel some justification is called for.

The other night, while my better half and I were curled up reading, he innocently asked, “What book are you finishing up now?” Since the books I’m reviewing are rarely ones he’s familiar with, my response always includes the title (in this case, Silver Moon) with a brief description guaranteed to get a rise out of him (it’s about menopausal women who turn into werewolves!). He stared at me blankly for a moment before saying, “well, my book has Islamic jihadists, Chinese hackers, British spies, unhinged Russian mobsters, special op soldiers, prolific fantasy writers, and an autistic snowboarder.” That’s great honey! But did you hear me?! Menopausal werewolves. When you’re making a list of things that scare me, add the word “menopausal” to any of them, and immediately you take terror to the next level. He really didn’t have much of an argument for that, but I could almost see his brain calculating how this conversation might come back to haunt him in twenty years.

So yes, Silver Moon is an unabashed look at menopausal werewolves, and I’ll be honest, I read it in large part because I thought it was an idea my mother would really get a kick out of. Overall though, I ended up enjoying the concept of the story. The idea of older women becoming werewolves, as well as the more common story-telling subject of teenage boys changing, are both wholly appropriate from a biological perspective. For men, the most significant physical changes occur during adolescence, and while that’s certainly the case for women, we also have an extra-special bonus change later in life, and in some ways, that second change feels even more significant (probably because it is often accompanied by the delightful twin side effects of grief and a feeling of cultural obsolescence).

I love the ideas that Lundoff embraces, of older women being venerated, of being the powerful protectors, of being a long way from death, though I’m not completely crazy about her style. It was a little jumpy for me to fully sink into the story, which I wanted to because it was quick-paced and funny. She creates characters that could have more stories in them, and a town that is split between believing in ancient magic and turning a blind eye to the chaos it creates. Sure, those of you working your way through the list of the 100 Greatest Fiction Books of All Times (I personally know three people doing this right now, and I swear I love them even so!) may not have time for menopausal werewolves, but for the rest of us? Hey, it’s summer! If ever there were a time to dabble in the supernatural, it’s during these long, hot June nights (which I can only imagine simulate, quite effectively, the hell that is hot flashes).

To find out more about Catherine Lundoff, pop over here.