Monthly Archives: July 2012

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

Hemingway is a divisive figure in literature. Some people love his style and try hard to emulate his unique way of writing, while others are turned off by the seemingly mundane details included in each chapter.  But, whether you love the man or hate the man, Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife is a book worth picking up, as it shows an earlier side to the man who would change American literature forever.

Hadley robs the cradle when she marries Ernest, a man eight years younger than her. But, after living a life of coddling and seclusion, and one where she was staring old-maidhood in the face, Hemingway paints a picture of a future filled with adventure and society and excitement. Against the judgment of their families, the two marry and soon decide to move to Paris, where Hemingway can work on his craft in the midst of other artists. While they are portrayed as being deeply in love, I have to admit that the dialog expressing this love tended to be a bit over the top and stereotype-ridden. At one point Hadley says, “Did you ever think it could be like this?” I felt like I had been thrown into the cinematic debut of Nicholas Sparks’ latest romance.

Paris in the 1920s was a place where traditional marriage was no longer looked upon as sacred, at least the Paris of the Hemingway coterie. Within their circle of friends, extra-marital trysts were common and ignored. Apparently, if they were not openly discussed, they were not an issue. The Hemingways fare well for a while, but after the birth of their son, as pressure mounts on Ernest to become the published writer he has always dreamed of being, a woman Hadley considers her friend wedges her way in to their relationship, soon making a mess out of what had been so strong. The book actually begins with Hadley discussing the disintegration of her marriage, so there is no spoiler alert needed in saying that what started as roses and kisses and long letters morphed in to angry words and late-night fights and a parting of ways forever.

Getting an inside look at Hemingway’s early days is fascinating and was enough to have me hooked throughout the length of the novel. There were times where I thought that if the book had not been based upon a writer whom I enjoy reading and had not been as well-researched as it was, I would never have made it through as a simple novel. Hadley as a character is insufferable when it comes to motherhood. I couldn’t believe how many times she left her child with a nanny so that she could go on a ski-vacation in the Alps or attend the running of the bulls in Spain. The worst was when the boy had whopping cough and had to be quarantined, rather than stay with him through the difficult time, she called on the nanny to come and nurse him better so she could go out in the evening for drinks with their group. Maybe that was the norm for their set in Paris in the 20s, but it did not make her a sympathetic character.

While name-dropping is not normally looked upon as a social grace, in Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife it is a compelling aspect of the Hemingway-centered narrative. Cameos are made by Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce and Gertrude Stein, just to name a few. Reading this book was like watching an ensemble cast movie, with all the top names of the day signing on to a single project. But unlike many of these Hollywood heavy-hitter filled movies where a lot of A-list names aren’t enough to satisfy the viewer, readers of this book walk away intrigued and ready to read more about each character. At times, both Hadley and Hemingway are hard to stomach, and the whole book leaves me feeling a bit more negative towards Hemingway as a person, the book is an entertaining read, both historical and literary points of view. McLain’s The Paris Wife earns:

 

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Surviving as a Supertaster in China

I have the taste-buds of a five-year old. I’ll admit it, not because I’m dying to let the world in on my terrible eating habits, but because there is no point in trying to conceal the fact that when refined palates were being handed out in Heaven, I must have been trying to decide which pair of heels would look the best in my celestial yearbook photo, posing by the Pearly Gates. (Do I go with something pearlescent, to bring out the shine of the entrance to eternity or would a bold, jewel color be better? These are the questions I imagine I was pondering while others were given a love for expensive liquor and well-marinated meats.)

Each morning, I happily pack a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, an apple (or banana if I’m feeling wild!) and some type of treat, whether it be a precious Jell-o pudding cup or just a cookie, for my lunch. This is the same mid-day meal I have been eating since I was a fourth grader. (First through third grade lunches consisted of a Tupperware bowl of Lucky Charms and a twenty-five cent carton of milk, deftly combined in my elementary school lunchroom to put some calories in my scrawny stick-bug-like body before running out to swing upside down on the monkey bars.)  I’m more than content with the contents of this possibly juvenile lunch, not only because it is super yummy, but because the mere fact that I have the peanut butter to make a sandwich each day for lunch in the smack middle of China still amazes me!

My extremely unsophisticated sense of taste is both a slight bane and a helpful quirk for Thad. As someone willing to give any food a shot and as a particular fan of the spicy treats, my overactive taste buds often lead us away from some of the choices he might make if he were on his own. Hotpot always has to be the half-and-half bowls, on the exciting nights we go for pizza, pepperoni as about as crazy as it gets and my cooking repertoire consist of a lot of simple pasta dishes, sauce on the side.  However, the very thick silver-lining on the supertaster cloud is that I am a cheap date! There is no need to take me out to a posh restaurant for an expensive cut of steak or search Chengdu for a slice of fancy-pants cheese. I’m just as content with a plain hamburger (and by plain, I mean plain- just the burger and the bun) and a fountain drink Pepsi.

They Might Be Giants may consider super tasting to be a super power, but in the bi-yearly nomadic lifestyle we have undertaken, it does cause some problems.  One of the most outstanding of these rears its ugly head first thing every morning, when breakfast is to be served. Where’s the cereal? Of all the “American” foods I missed the most when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer, my morning bowl of cereal was right there at the top of the list. There is no better way to start a morning than with a nice big bowl of some crunchy flakes or rings or stars, drenched in low-fat milk, being consumed as I catch up on the latest world news via CNN.com and the latest fashion faux pas via People.com.

While we were over the moon about Thad’s placement in Chengdu on his Flag Day, I knew instantly that the cereal issue was one I must remedy before returning to the Land of Pandas. With this in mind, I hit up Costco and bought what felt like a whole lot (but now I question the amount) of Cheerios in “family-sized” boxes.  Those crates are still in transit (I’m told they may hit Shanghai on August 11th, and then have to come overland to Chengdu, so, I’m mentally shooting for a Labor Day delivery.) To bridge the gap between our China arrival in May and my much needed cereal fix’s arrival in September, I’ve supplemented whenever the occasion has arisen.

Cornflakes are the most ubiquitous and cheapest cereal in town. (There are a few other options of imported cereal available but they tend to come in very small, very smashed boxes that cost anywhere from $5-10USD.) I can do cornflakes. So, whenever I was in a store that had them, I was buying a box or two.

Then, I had a few things I needed to order from Amazon.com, like scooter helmets, so with each order, I just added on a couple boxes of sugary goodness. I figured I’d already hit the $25 free shipping amount, so I may as well take advantage of the savings!  Here some Corn Pops, there some Lucky Charms, everywhere a little Fruit Loops…You get the idea.

Early July rolled around and an anniversary package from my parents arrived, which included a bag of Marshmallow Mateys. What a great addition to the cereal stash.

Oh, and then, as part of my job at the consulate, I submitted an order to the Beijing Commissary for our officers, so I figured along with Thad’s desired pickles and Cheetos, I may as well order a couple of boxes of Wheat Chex.

And then, knowing I have this underlying need for a daily breakfast cereal fix, but not knowing the extent of our current stockpile, my dear husband ordered me sixty-four (!!) miniature boxes of cereal for our anniversary last week. (According to the all-knowing Google, a traditional fourteenth wedding anniversary gift would include ivory and orchids, but I’m quite content with Apple Jacks and Frosted Flakes!)

So, there is a cupboard in my kitchen. It is the cereal cupboard. It is full. I swear, I don’t have a problem! I am just prepared for a possible cereal shortage. A cereal apocalypse could be just around the corner. Are you prepared? I certainly am!

It’s not hoarding. Hoarding would mean I saved the boxes and made a special fort out of them in my spare bedroom. Hoarding would be piling the boxes haphazardly along the hallway, creating an impassable maze to the bathroom or the laundry room.  Hoarding would be not eating the cereal, but rather lining the boxes up neatly in alphabetical order, to enjoy their bright colors and feel a bit like I lived in Jerry Seinfeld’s apartment. But I do! I eat it every morning for breakfast. I eat it with a smile on my face as I sit cross-legged on my living room floor, stalking former students on Facebook and catching up on my favorite blogs. (Thank you StrongVPN!)

I’ve heard people snidely referred to as having a champagne taste on a beer budget, but I’m happily the girl with Malt-o-Meal bagged cereal taste on a Kellogg’s boxed cereal budget! So, while the rest of you are contemplating which variety of spices to add to your expensive Kobe beef burger, I will be safe in my knowledge that emerald green creates a divine contrast with the Pearly Gates.

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This is the current stash, but additions are always welcome.

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The Unquiet by Jeannine Garsee

The Unquiet by Jeannine Garsee

If you are one to skip to the “shell rating” at the bottom before reading the review itself, I think it is only fair for me to include a bit of a disclaimer on this one. There is no gentle way to put this, no beating around the bush, no softening of the harsh reality. I am a chicken. I can’t watch scary movies; heck, I can’t even watch the commercials/trailers for scary movies. I hate being the last one awake at night, which works out well since my husband is a total night owl. And I can’t handle creepy books. I read James and the Giant Peach when I was in elementary school and woke up to nightmares about gargantuan bugs having a tea party in my bedroom.  That is the extent of my wimpy-ness. So, while the shell-rating isn’t as high as one might hope for in a book review, keep in mind much of that designation has its foundation in the fact that for many years, I considered Roald Dahl’s writing to fall firmly in the horror genre.

The Unquiet is creepy. That is the first and most important thing a reader should know. The tale centers on Rinn, a teenage girl who has recently moved back to her mom’s hometown in middle America from a sunny southern California upbringing. The move is precipitated by the fact that her mother and adopted father are having some marital problems, stemming from the fact that Rinn, a bipolar teenager who has experienced psychotic episodes, accidentally started a fire that killed her grandmother. After the death of her grandmother, Rinn tries to kill herself. Once she is released from the care of the mental ward of a hospital, her parents decide some time apart and away would be best for everyone.

Rinn, while not thrilled with the move, soon makes friends at her new high school, which is odd in itself, as she was never the stereotypical social butterfly. But, not long after moving in, she learns that the school is haunted by a girl who died in the pool. That doesn’t necessarily set off any alarms for Rinn, but when she learns that the dead girl’s grandmother hanged herself in the bedroom Rinn now sleeps in, things start to spiral out of control.

The sleep Midwestern town is suddenly plagued by inexplicable accidents and deaths and Rinn is tied up in the middle of all of them.  She and her new friends (who as characters are rather flat and underdeveloped, but that is a whole different discussion) seem to be the epicenter for the evil that emanates from the pool room.

Some will love the creep factor that this book offers. It kept me awake more than one night this last week. But, that isn’t all Garsee’s novel has to offer. Instead of just being your run of the mill horror story, it tackles the issue of mental illness in teenagers, a tough subject, but one that is a reality for some young adults. Watching Rinn struggle with her perceptions of reality and the side effects of her medication create a deeper story than if the author just stuck with a teenage ghost story. This element of the novel creates some redeeming moments that make me more apt to recommend it to students.

In the end, Jeannine Garsee’s The Unquiet, is a more than a bit spine-chilling, but that is the point, after all. If a few nights of curled up under the blankets covered in goose bumps and jumping at every creak of the house sounds like a good read to you, this is your book. While I understand the draw, it is not my cup of tea, so The Unquiet earns:

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Fourteen and Counting…

While last weekend may have marked our two month anniversary in Chengdu (click here for that commemorative post), this Wednesday marks yet another anniversary- the fourteenth of our marriage. Fourteen years ago, at the tender age of nineteen, I married an older man. (Okay, he was all of twenty-one. We were babies. I admit it.)

In honor of this annual event, I received a care-package from Idaho a few weeks ago. (It was the first package to be shipped our way, so without knowing how long that process would take, said package joined the rank and file of boxes heading from the US to every corner of the world at an early date. The early bird may get the worm, but the early package gets a skip and a hop and a little squeal of joy in the mail room. It’s the trifecta of excitement!) When the box arrived two weeks before our actual anniversary, I originally planned to set it on a shelf and wait for the big day to roll around, but I quickly found an excuse to not be patient! After picking the box up from the consulate mail area, in order to get it back to my office inside the consulate, I had to open the box as a security measure. Sheryl Crow wisely informed us that the first cut is always the deepest, which holds true not only in the world of heartbreak, but also when it comes to opening presents. Once that initial slice through the packing tape created a peak into the recesses of the cardboard box, it was all over. Package open.

This year’s anniversary goody package included beef jerky for Thad (not my idea of a treat, but he was quite pleased with it), tasty Idaho Spuds for us to share (four out of four of which I ate), fabulous summer plastic plates for our house (very much appreciated, as we are still living off of the welcome kit provided by the consulate, which means we have a veritable Noah’s ark of kitchen goods-two plates, two bowls, two cups, two forks, two spoons…you get the idea) and a couple of new shirts for me (desperately needed, as the few work clothes I bought are quickly getting tiresome, evident in that when I wore the new black and green shirt to work, I had no less than three people comment on the fact that I had something different on!)

But, as super-de-dooper as all of those goodies were, it wasn’t what was in the package that was important, nor even the fact that a package came, but the sentiment behind it. The fact that my parents, each year, acknowledge the anniversaries of the wedding dates of each of their three children and their spouses shows what a high premium they place on those unions.

As of September, my parents will have been married for forty-two years, so there is no doubt they understand what it takes to make a marriage last. In their four plus decades together, they’ve both worked to put the other one through undergraduate and graduate programs, they’ve raised three kids who turned out okay if I do say so myself (!!) and they have served their community through a variety of church callings and volunteer positions.  They’ve done all of this side-by-side, as each other’s best friends.

If one went looking for a role model when it comes to marriage, the search could stop at the home I grew up in.

The fact that my parents have spent more than forty years together and are happy is a testament to the value they place on their relationship. The fact that they now recognize that same united spirit in their children’s marriages with dried and cured meat products and puffed marshmallow goo covered in a thin layer of chocolate-goodness, sprinkled with coconut flakes is just an added bonus!

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Chengdu Redo!

We’ve reached the two month mark in Chengdu. That means we’ve got two months of hotpot and Sichuan-style dishes in our bellies, but also two months of polluted air in our lungs. On a cosmic triple-beam balance, those may come out dead even. (Really though, I can’t say I’ve seen any negative effects from the air. Some days I can see farther through the haze than others, but as far as how I feel, so far there have been no noticeable side effects. Let’s wait until winter and see if this little bird is singing a different song…)

In the last eight weeks I’ve gone from being unemployed and living in what was basically a hotel (that makes me sound much more vagrant than the reality of the situation!) to fully-employed and living in a three-bedroom, two bath 24th floor apartment with a housekeeper that comes twice a week (which makes me sound a lot more fancy-pants than the reality of the situation!)

I’ve also joined the ranks of the scooting folks in China, (click here for that story) with just one mishap of note. Last Thursday, coming home from work, I was gleefully riding along, actually contemplating what a great, problem free trip is was turning out to be, when a, let’s say “jerk” in case there are any younger readers of this blog, comes up the scooter lane going the wrong direction. Not only was he a fish swimming upstream, but he decided that he didn’t need to yield to the traffic coming in the correct direction. He threaded his scooter in the space between my fabulous fuchsia one and another woman’s less awesomely colored one, clipping mine in the process. This put me into a reverse-fishtail, making the front end of my scooter skid all over the place. To get it back under control, I put my foot out to steady the twisting, at which point I kicked the metal guard railing, smacking it with the top of my foot. My first reaction was thinking I had broken my foot, but the shooting pain soon lessened to a slight throbbing, and with both self and scooter under control (under control doesn’t count what I was murmuring under my breath the rest of the ride home) I made it over the bridge and to my apartment complex. Once in the scooter parking garage, I checked my bike for damage, and finding none, checked my foot, which was a bit swollen and had a few scratches, but was none the worse for the wear.  Just another reminder to always be aware when scooting in China!

A nice apartment furnished with an actual dishwasher and a clothes dryer, plus a bathtub and several air purifiers were not a part of my life when I was living in Gansu. Neither was a the hot-pink scooter, as volunteers, even helmeted ones, were banned from riding them.  Now, these things are just normal parts of my daily routines. I’m movin’ up in the world!

But, while being here with the State Department is definitely a different experience than being here with Peace Corps, some things never change. We’ve been doing a lot of rediscovering things/places we knew when we were in Chengdu for training with the Peace Corps.

Peter’s Tex-Mex is back on the dinner options list, where I semi-regularly enjoy a plate of macaroni and cheese. (Yes Kristen, I always say it in my head with your quirky emphasis! It will never just be regular mac and cheese again.)

We’ve hit up Sabrina’s Country Store for our extravagantly over-priced import needs, such as Cheetos and Pop-tarts and the brownies that I made for my CLO-sponsored New Spouses Welcome Coffee last week. (As I am still learning the quirks of the Chinese oven, as elucidated in “Betty Crocker, I Am Not,” the brownies did not turn out beautifully. They tasted yummy, but they could have used another two or three minutes in the oven, meaning when they came out of the pan, they were a bit on the soft side and ended up squished by the spatula. Then it didn’t help that I had to put them in a Tupperware container in the “trunk” of my scooter! Needless to say, they were tasty but definitely not pretty.)

Since we’ve been back, we’ve also re visited the pandas (click here to read about their fuzzy fabulous-ness), JinLi Street’s tourist shops, where I bought my first round of postcards to send home to family, the Wide and Narrow Alleys and a couple of “antique” markets.

It has been a clichéd blink of an eye. Maybe it is because we lived here before, or hopefully because we are just so dang adaptable, but we’ve quickly created routines and habits to help us make Chengdu home.

Two months. Eight weeks. Fifty-six days. One thousand three hundred forty-four hours. Eighty thousand six hundred forty minutes. Four million eight hundred thirty-eight thousand four hundred seconds. It may not quite be the lyrics from Rent, but it is how I currently measure the life of this woman in my season of Chengdu love.

 

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Jake and Lily by Jerry Spinelli

Jake and Lily by Jerry Spinelli

Twins. It is not a new topic for fiction, especially not  for young adult fiction, so Jerry Spinelli breaks no ground with his newly released novel, and yet,  even knowing that the same-birthday sibling world has been explored numerous times, if you are going to go there again as an author, you need to create something new. Spinelli attempts to make his mark in the twins-literature world by having pre-teen, differing-sex, opposite ends of the personality-spectrum kids tell their story in a first-person point of view through alternating chapters.

It’s a shtick.

A shtick I could get behind in other circumstances, if it was done well. (My going-into-sixth-grade niece was working on a book this summer and she was considering narrating the story from two points of view-one human and one animal-in an alternating chapter format. She was on to something. She’s also eleven years old.) But really, the format isn’t the problem as much as the stereotypical portrayal of twins.

I’ve known twins, not ever been super close friends with any, but I’ve been around them growing up and through my adult life. I realize they have a special connection, but the story told by Jake and Lily is one made for Maury Povich! They can read each other’s minds, they sleepwalk to the same destinations and they can never, ever play a game of hide-and-go-seek.

Outside of its stereotypical twin-ness, the tale is a great one that will be relatable for many middle school kids. Jake and Lily are siblings, and also best friends, but as they get older, their interests differ and they begin to grow apart, which Jake is fine with, but the transition becomes a painful one for Lily, who feels deserted and left behind. This type of relationship transition is as common as pimples amongst the middle-school demographic. As kids expand beyond the world of elementary school, their personalities evolve and old friendships don’t quite fit like gloves anymore.  The twin-part is irrelevant.

On top of the expansion and evolution of friendships, Spinelli digs into the ever-more-talked-about world of bullying. His presentation of the bullies is one that rings true. The boys don’t start out trying to be mean, but a small comment from one, which garners a laugh from the others, grows into ever bigger words and actions that quickly become hurtful to others. The group of boys being bullies didn’t start out with that as their intention, but though a single leader, with a strong personality, the boys all soon fall into his patterns, accepting his actions until property destruction brings their behavior into a new light.

Jake and Lily is a great young adult novel that explores themes near and dear to the hearts of those entering the scary world of middle school. Most kids pushing the boundaries of adolescence will feel the pain of changing friendships, will experience the sting of bullying (on one or, more likely, both ends) and will be forced to expand their own horizons. Jerry Spinelli does a great job of illuminating what could be considered rather mundane, day-to-day growing pains, giving them the spotlight to shine in the eyes of the readers.

If only he would do it without the twin-gimmick…

Jerry Spinelli’s newest publication, Jake and Lily earns:

 

 

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Water for Elephants by Sarah Gruen

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

I feel like a late-blooming middle schooler on this review. The new kid came to school, was a hit, so popular it made the A-team of actors/actresses in its movie form; all the while I was sitting on the bleachers, engrossed in pursuits that fully ignored the cool kid. Coming to Water for Elephants late, I was wary- it became too big, too popular and too commercial- was it really any good?

The answer is an unequivocal, yes!

If, like me, you ignored this book when it first came out (although judging from it sales, I may have been the only one) it is not too late to run away with the circus.

Water for Elephants is a beautifully written tale, told by Jacob Jankowski,  an old man (either ninety or ninety-three) sitting in a retirement home in the twilight of his life, watching a big top go up in the parking lot across the street, reminiscing about his days with a traveling circus. The story jumps from his present situation of declining mental capacity and depression to the beginning of the end of the heyday of the traveling menageries, where our narrator worked as a vet, fell in love with a performer and watched the demise of the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth.

Jacob’s personal tragedy leads him away from the Ivy League school where he was about to graduate with a veterinarian’s degree and to the Benzini Brothers’ show, where he joins first the ranks of the working men, but soon is embroiled in a web of intrigue with the Marlena, her husband August, and the newest addition to the menagerie, Rosie, an Polish-understanding elephant.

What I loved about this book was the depth of the connections between characters. When Jacob’s world crumbled around him after the sudden death of his parents, his despair is palpable. When Marlena and August’s relationship comes to a tipping point, there is no denying the hurt and betrayal, but also the relief and freedom she feels after making her decision.  When Camel must be protected from Big Al’s ruthless “red-lighting” of unwanted workers, compassion and subterfuge take over.

Rosie, the circus elephant, is every bit as much a character in this book as Jacob, Marlena, August or Uncle Al. We feel her deep connections to the various human characters and her pain when she is treated treacherously and abusively. The wheels turning in her head are as obvious as if she were a person placed in similar circumstances. As the pain builds, there is no denying the emotional pain that goes in to her eventual resolution of the situation at hand.

Sarah Gruen’s novel’s sensational popularity is not unearned. It is a tale of romance and mystery, of the happiest place on Earth turned abusive and lethal, and of an old man reconnecting with his roots before it is too late.  As I read this tale, I was enraptured, just a like a child would be sitting next to the center ring under the big top, eating pink flossy cotton candy off of a paper stick and slurping lemonade from a plastic cup, and for this, the Water for Elephants earns:

 

 

 

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