Saturday, October 30, 2010

Little Bee

LITTLE BEE: A Novel -- Chris Cleave


I had a bad day on Wednesday.  Someone was mean to me and it hurt my feelings.  I wanted to wallow in self-pity and self-doubt and lament over how terrible life was.  I climbed into bed early that evening and picked up my new book, Little Bee.  I decided a story about a Nigerian girl and the British couple she met on the beach would be a nice escape for the misery that was my life.

Two days later, I am ashamed at how selfish and self-centered I am.  After reading Little Bee's story, I am reminded about the real horrors of life and, more importantly, the true heros whose stories we may never know.  We've been taught to believe that a hero must be larger than life; he must save the world in some outrageous gesture that lands him on the cover of People Magazine.  To us, heros are people who end up with book deals, Dateline specials and a reality show (not to mention a Lifetime movie...)  We reward heros, we laud their moment of action and grace, we place them on pedestals as an example of what we all should aspire to be.

Little Bee will never be a cover model.  She will never be the Emcee of an awards show, she'll never walk the Red Carpet at the Espys.  (I should probably point out that, yes, I realize that she is a fictional character.  But, she represents so many nameless refugees whose stories have yet to be discovered.)  Yet, Little Bee is a heroine.  I don't want to give you any details of the story because I really want you to read the book with an open mind, as I did.  But, I will say this- there are those who look at their situation and become overwhelmed.  They turn in on themselves and allow whatever hardships face them to defeat them.  Then there are those who accept the challenge their struggles present, who rise to face them head on, who survive.  Little Bee survives.

If Little Bee and I were to trade places, I know I would not survive.  And, I know, too, that Little Bee would look at my Wednesday and be grateful for all that she has- a wonderful husband who loves her, great friends, the world's best dog.  It's so easy to look at all the negative in life, to focus on the mean people and the rainy weather.  Little Bee doesn't ignore these facets of life, she simply chooses to accept them for what they are and to move on.  Her strength comes from this acceptance and from her ability to make her own choices.  Little Bee creates her fate instead of allowing others to do so.  In that way, she teaches us what it truly means to live.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Book That Changed My Life-- GREEN CHIC

GREEN CHIC: Saving the Earth in Style -- Christie Matheson


Nobody wakes up in the morning and says “I think I’ll harm the environment.”  But, for most of us, it’s enough just to get out the door in the morning without factoring in how our actions affect the earth.  Plus, let’s face it, until recently, eco-friendly was synonymous with hideous or tasteless. Of course, we’ve all heard enough about Global Warming that it really would be nice to become eco-friendly, but not at the expense of fashion or ease.  Thus, Christie Matheson’s book was a Godsend for me—she taught me how to be green and fabulous at the same time.

Green Chic is a really fun book.  Matheson doesn’t lecture, she talks to her readers like a friend.  Her writing style makes me want to call her up and ask her to take me shopping, which we can because she helps her readers learn where they can shop and how to find chic stuff and even provides brands and websites to help make the search easier. 

Matheson filled 212 pages with lessons about how to be green easily.  But, more than that, she illustrated how to be healthier and happier without harming the planet.  She changed my entire mindset simply by pointing out what exists all around me.  I don’t want to ingest harsh chemicals or dyes if I don’t have to.  I don’t want to breathe in pollutants that can make me sick.  Ignoring the environmental effects our everyday actions can have, the physical effects they have on our bodies are quite astonishing.

Of course, you may be thinking “whatever, I don’t care whether my food comes from a farm locally or some mega-farm.  Seriously, you’re just making a big deal out of nothing.”  There was a time I’d have agreed with you.  But, look, the fact is, we don’t know why someone gets cancer without any precipitating genetic factors.  If aluminum soda cans or PVC are known carcinogens, do I really want to put those in or near my body?  If eating meat from mega-farms increases my risk of ingesting diseases from the by-products the animal ingested, why would I subject myself to that? 

Today I went to Whole Foods.  I spent the majority of my visit in the fruits and veggies section and purchased only organic and/or locally grown items.  Before I read Matheson’s book, my main fruit source was the cherry flavoring in a lollypop!

Shopping has taken on a whole new meaning for me.  I consider each item I purchase and ask myself “do I need this and what effect will it have on my health and the environment?”  It’s a quick question and it’s helped me save a ton of money.  Now, that’s a green movement I can get behind.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

What Street Do I Live On? -- THE BIG SHORT, Michael Lewis

THE BIG SHORT -- Michael Lewis

Everyone is looking for a villain to blame for the recent financial crisis.  The banks, who held the mortgages and traded them as fictitious assets, are a good target.  We, the innocent mortgage holders, can then assume the role of David to the fat cat bankers' Goliath.  

I won't deny that many people were taken advantage of.  But, my very handsome husband works for one of those supposedly greedy banks so it's hard for me to consider him to be Goliath.  Though he works in Commercial Finance, not mortgages or bonds trading, I can say with certainty that Husband works hard and ensures fair deals that will help both his company and the company receiving the loan.  

Thus, I've found myself torn these past few years; I feel almost as if I live at the intersection of "Main Street" and "Wall Street."  I wanted to learn more about the financial systems and what the heck happened  so I turned to Michael Lewis' The Big Short.   Who better to parse out the details of the banking industry than the man who took us behind the scenes of Major League Baseball in Moneyball

I was curious about the people who foresaw the collapse.  What did they know and how did they know it?  More importantly, I couldn't figure out why they didn't warn the authorities, even though I couldn't say with certainty who those authorities were.  The financial world, one that affects every person on this earth, is very closed and confusing.  I was counting on Lewis to break it down for me.

In the book, Lewis profiled several investors who realized early on that the rising housing prices were bound to level off.  These men realized that the system was broken and that there was a major loophole to be exploited.  What I found most interesting was the reaction they received from friends and colleagues.  One investor, who is now a multi-millionaire as a result of his foresight, lost the majority of his clients long before the market turned.  I'd say he's laughing all the way to the bank, but I'd really not be surprised if he keeps his money in the mattress!

What was most astonishing to me, though, wasn't the small number of people who predicted the bursting housing bubble, but rather the lack of attention they received when they tried to alert others. They were laughed at and belittled for mistrusting the system which was, in the end, proven to be broken.  That said, I'd like to believe that the majority of those involved in the banking crisis did not maliciously look to exploit the so-called "residents of Main Street."  (Ugh, how I hate that phrase!)  Rather, I believe they were simply so caught up in the pressure to move the financial markets forward that they didn't take the time to review all the facts.

Even after reading the book, there's still a lot I don't understand.  The whole Lehmann Brothers issue, the AIG stuff, and the intricacies of the financial system still confuse me.  But, what The Big Short did succeed in teaching me is that Goliath and David aren't at war in this crisis.  Rather, myriad mistakes were made by the various stakeholders involved.  Globally, we are all forced to put our faith in the financial systems because the very nature of our survival is tied into the success of the banking industry.  But, we also need to rely on ourselves.  We need to understand the systems in which we are involved.  We, as the consumer, need the Gordon Gekkos of the world to stay greedy.  But, we also have a responsibility to keep Gordon ethical. 

So, after all that, do I still live on the corner of two streets?  Honestly, I've come to believe there isn't a corner at all.  Rather, I see it more as one of those horribly confusing rotaries; the two worlds are much too interrelated.  We need to just find a way to peacefully merge together.

Monday, October 18, 2010


The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society -- Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows


"Be Satisfied With What You Already Have." -- Chinese Fortune Cookie

It's easy to forget just how lucky we are.  We have so much that we take for granted.  I sometimes get caught up in minute details that seem so important, though later it seems silly that I even cared.  Did I really need to have a Carolina Herrara wedding dress?  Was it really that important?  (Ok, well, that's a bad example because that really was a great dress...)  The point is, I often forget how truly blessed I am and how fortunate I am to have a home, a wonderful husband, the bestest dog in the world, and family and friends whom I love.  Not everyone is so lucky.

The characters in the wonderful novel The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society have far less than I.  Guernsey,  a small British island dividing the channel between France and England, was occupied by the Germans during WWII. The book brings us the stories of residents of both London and Guernsey in the aftermath of the war.  

What makes the novel so delightful is the style in which it was written.  Rather than prose, the book is a series of letters written between the characters.  It's such a personal way to tell a story; we learn about each character in an intimate setting, in their own words, and in their own voice.  These letters remove the facade that can sometimes accompany stories told in the third person.  We're offered many perspectives with one common thread-- we, as the reader, are invited to be a part of personal conversations that we'd normally never hear.  As a result, we're involved in the story.  We begin to look forward to the next letter almost as much as the characters seem to.

I won't give away details of the story, but I will reveal a bit about the book's title.  The Germans instituted a nightly curfew for island residents during the war.  A group of residents was caught out past curfew and stated that they were part of the Guernsey Literary Society.  To prove that such a group existed, the residents held another meeting and invited the Germans along.  As a desert, Potato Peel Pie was served.

I'll admit, I was leery of reading the book because it had such a strange title and I was initially off-put by the letters.  But, the Guernsey residents taught me something about the values of life.  They showed me that it is possible to be satisfied in the face of monotony, rations and occupations.  They showed me that life isn't about who has the latest Iphone or big tv, but rather about making the most of what you already have.  I learned that creativity goes a long way-- it turns mundane potato skins into pie.  And, most of all, I learned that nothing is more important than friendship.  

When I think about the Guernsey residents from WWII, I think first about the occupation and the hardships.  I think "there but for the grace of God go I."  But, the truth is, even with all their hardships, it's clear that they were blessed.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

The story of "THAT" couple - ONE DAY

ONE DAY -- David Nicholls


Not to name names, but didn't we all have that friend in college who had a "Just friends! No, lovers! No, enemies! No, lovers! No, friends!" relationship  in college?  You know the kind I mean, where you feel like you're on a roller coaster just by watching them go through their own personal soap opera?  I was always frustrated because she's such a fantastic girl and he's usually a pretty cool guy, but together they confuse and disappoint...

David Nicholl's newest book looks at that couple over a 20 year span.  What makes his book so unique is his choice to return to the couple every year on the same date.  We meet Emma and Dexter on the day after they graduate college and we continue to meet up with them each year on that anniversary.  At first, I was concerned that the book would feel jumpy or that I'd have to piece together what they'd done during the year, but Nicholls is a gifted writer and the story flows really well.

Nicholls is British and I often find that current British writers present fairly depressing or despicable characters.  Take, for example, Nick Hornby's novel About a Boy.  Will is a fairly challenging character to like, what with his lying and cheating his way through life.  (Good book,though.  You should read it, but then watch a happy movie afterwards! I recommend Up!)  Even Nicholls' other two books focus on the lives of really challenging characters; one is smarmy while the other is, well, smarmy!

But, Emma and Dexter are wonderful!  They're the British version of us.  They're fun, funny, smart and great people.  They have insecurities and problems, sure, but they deal with them in the same ways that I would. In fact, I'm pretty sure that Nicholls actually snuck onto the Union College campus to get his inspiration!  Dexter's an awful lot like a certain guy I know, who will remain nameless.  And, Emma?  I think she was in my sorority...

If reading a book about the lives of your friends isn't enough of a selling point, here's another for you:  production has already begun on the film version of this story.  And, of course, the wonderful Anne Hathaway is playing Emma.  I'm confident it'll be a great movie, but it likely won't come close to the book. So, grab the book, dive in and head back to discover whatever happened to that crazy roller coaster couple you used to know...

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Unbroken Bonds-- SARAH'S KEY

SARAH'S KEY by Tatiana De Ronsay


My husband teases me because he says I'm always reading books that make me cry. I told him that some stories are just too powerful; it's impossible not to have a visceral reaction. Sarah's Key is so immensely moving that I am still affected by the story, more than two months after finishing the book.

I don't like to give much away when I review a book, especially if I didn't know the story ahead of time. But, I'll give you a basic premise- Sarah and her brother live with their family in Paris during World War Two. They are Jewish and the story follows Sarah throughout the war. We learn about Sarah's family through an American reporter living in present-day Paris. While I typically get frustrated when stories flip back and forth from past to present, I appreciated de Rosnay's use of this technique here. Sarah's story is so heavy that readers need the breaks provided by Modern Paris. At the same time, it's fascinating to learn about the context in which today's Paris looks back upon the Paris of 1940. It's obvious that memory can be manipulated.

In my last post, I mentioned that the characters in good books stay with you long after the final page. After reading her story, I've chosen to lay Sarah to rest in my mind. I needed to say a proper goodbye to her because her story is so moving. At the same time, I carry with me the knowledge that Sarah represents so many real people who suffered during the war. I can only be grateful that de Rosnay created such a moving tribute to the victims.

Not Your Ordinary Family-- THE SPELLMAN BOOKS



The best books are the ones you can't stop reading. The ones that make you go to bed at 8 o'clock on Saturday night just so you can find out what happens next. The best books have characters that stay with you long after you finish reading. You wonder what happened to them next and you realize that they've actually become real to you. The best books come alive.

Lisa Lutz's series of books about the Spellman family have etched themselves into my mind. My mother-in-law gave me the first book, The Spellman Files, almost a year ago. I read it in 3 days, falling in love with the characters and the story! The protagonist is Isabel Spellman, the 28-year-old rebellious middle-child of the Spellman clan, a family whose private investigation business allows for many a hilarious situation. The book is a comedy of errors but with a heart. You learn early on that, as wacky as the Spellmans are, they clearly love each other and want to see each member happy.

Last week, I discovered The Curse of the Spellmans at my favorite bookstore. I then spent the next five days reading. I devoured this book in 2 days and then downloaded both The Revenge of the Spellmans and The Spellmans Strike Again to my Kindle. By Monday, I had finished the series.

My point is, these books are Fantastic!! They're funny, smart, charming and super quick reads. They're also great for book clubs or for a Saturday night. Forget about meeting people in bars; if you want to meet some real characters, read The Spellman Books!!