Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein

Every year Graham picks me out a book for my Christmas stocking. He usually picks a winner, and this year it was too.
This story is about a family, but it is told by their dog. Sound like it's going to be cheesy? I have to admit it doesn't sound like my kind of book. But Garth Stein has an effortless writing style that I liked from the beginning. Even sweet Enzo the loyal dog was believable and not talking-dog goofy.
Denny is the main character and he has raised Enzo since he was a puppy. Denny gets married, has a baby daughter, and struggles to advance his race car driving career while being a responsible husband and father. The characters are all endearing. Well, except the awful in-laws.
Sprinkled in between the story chapters are short metaphoric references to racing. I know nothing about racing, but it all makes sense in the book. Refernces like "Racing is about discipline and intelligence, not about who has the heavier foot. The one who drives smart will always win in the end." Good stuff, huh?
This story is sad, but I promise the ending is happy, all things considered. The title is great. Denny's specialty as a driver is his ability to race well in the rain. Denny faces a lot of adversity and sadness in this story, but he stays in control and wins. I feel like that theme carries the story well.
"The true hero is flawed. The true test of a champion is not whether he can triumph, but whether he can overcome obstacles--preferable of his own making--in order to triumph." I usually like my heroes to be very, very good, but I think this is a good point. Maybe we want heroes to be more like us.
"Denny and I worked at slowing the breathing of our hearts so we wouldn't feel so much pain." Isn't that well said, and so sad?
I enjoyed the Seattle references. Especially when they go to Denny Creek that I hiked with my kids this summer. I also liked the references of the rain, and the beauty. If you grew up here like me, you'll like them too.
I saw a question posed as to whether having the family pet narrate this book added anything to the story. I've been thinking about it. I liked the point of view, and I definitely think it allowed for a unique perspective. I think the coolest aspect was that as a reader, you feel helpless like the dog. You see what is happening, sometimes with more insight than the characters, but you can't do anything to help. You can't warn anyone, you can't speak as a witness, but you still feel the anxiety. SO I do like the chosen perspective, and I look forward to reading more of Garth Stein.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Made By Hand by Mark Frauenfelder

This is a book about Mark Frauenfelder's attempts to make things by hand. He refers to this at DIY, but includes everything from home repairs to raising chickens to building musical instruments just for fun.

At the beginning he tells about moving his small family to a tropical island in an attempt to live a more authentic life. I absolutely loved this set up and his explanation of making coconut milk (which I saw beautifully demonstrated at the Polynesian Culture Center this fall), and how it changed his life. He writes, "I promised myself I'd come up with a "coconut-day" equivalent in Los Angeles-something that would allow me to slow down, use my hands, and become more engaged with the world around me in a meaningful way." I like to make things, but I also see the value of when it's better just to purchase something at Target. So I was really intrigued by his philosophy.
"The purpose of DIY is learning to take back control of your life from outside parties." The way he used DIY as a noun kind of bugged me, but he really is approaching it as a way of life, so it makes sense. He kind of uses DIY as an attitude and approach to problem solving. I found the part where he was building an instrument and went "scurrying" around his house looking for things he had lying around that might work very relatable. There's another part where he doesn't want to have to go back to Home Depot to get the right parts, and looks around his yard for something he can use to make shift. I love moments like that when I can use stuff I have to make something new. I love it.
Now when he starts explaining all the reasons to keep chickens, I could feel myself getting sucked in. Like it was all so reasonable and responsible. I know a few families that raise chickens. But when he says, "Now that we have chickens in our life, we don't want to go back to living without them," it is not as relatable to me.
Later Mark quotes a cartoonist explaining that some tasks require that we only use half our brain, and so the other half is free to wander. He talks about how people may garden or knit to reach a kind of "unusual state of consciousness. Some people might be able to achieve it by meditating, but using your hands seems to do the trick too." This made me think of those moms who knit during their kids' baseball games, but there is absolutely truth to it in my life. I like to have a project to work on with my hands while I watch TV. I used to think out college papers while I mopped the bakery at BYU, so I really think there is something to having something to do with your hands while you are thinking about something else.
Because of his job, Mark meets all different types of people that make things by hand for all different reasons. I thought these introductions were really interesting. I especially liked his mention of Anil Dash who encourages people to use cast-off technology. Not to throw things away just because a faster or better model exists. This makes perfect sense to me, and while I do buy new things, I refuse to just upgrade just because I can. Don't you see that kind of wastefulness all the time?
Some of his ideas and attempts make sense to me, and some don't. But one of the families he meets with was particularly disturbing to me. They embrace the philosophy of "Unschooling," the philosophy of not sending your kids to school, and not homeschooling them either. It's the idea that kids are learning before they go to school, and you just keep that up. Living and learning together. The founders believe fundamentally that school is a wrong idea, and that learning shouldn't take place in a contrived space. So I kind of get those ideas, it reminded me of Whole Language. But here's where they lose me BIG TIME. The family says that their son didn't learn to read until he was 10 1/2, and only then because he was playing Super Mario 64 all the time and wanted to know what the characters were saying when their dialogue appeared on the screen. When he wanted his parents to read the words, they told him he needed to figure it out on his own, so he did. Seriously? Two things here. One, I might buy into unschooling if your child was spending their day working on the farm, building your home, or even walking through museums. But I think you are doing a grave disservice to your kids if you let them play video games all day. Believe me, mine would do just that if I let them, and sometimes I do. The author of the book mentioned that his kids might watch TV or sit in front of the computer all day if he didn't send them to school. The parents said it would happen, but then your kids would get bored and move onto something new. And Two, I couldn't help but think of all the good reading your kids would miss out on if they didn't choose to learn to read until they were 10 1/2. I think of all the things outside of books that my kids love to read. Signs, maps, instruction booklets, newspaper, advertisements. On a road trip this spring my 5 year old daughter was ecstatic when she spotted "Entering ....." signs when we crossed the border into new states. All of my kids love to read maps when we are travelling or just navigating through the zoo or Disneyland. And of course books. Think of all the fun books you would probably never read if you didn't learn to read until you were 10 1/2.
Overall I enjoyed this book. I didn't change my life, or even convince me to make changes in my life. But it did reconfirm things that I already believe. Like, there is value in making something yourself: both in the process and the end result. And we should be thoughtful in our purchasing, and not throw things away just because we can afford a new one. And educating our children goes far beyond sending them to school. I like to read books that make me think.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Half Broke Horses by Jeannette Walls

Actually it has a subtitle, A True-Life Novel.

I read The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls just before I started this blog, so I didn't do a review of it, but I thought it was a really good book. That was a while ago, and I had forgotten how much I like her writing style. Walls writes in a straight forward honest way that I love.

The Glass Castle was a memoir of Jeannette Walls' life growing up with parents who often chose to be homeless. Half Broke Horses is a memoir of her mom's mom, Lily Casey Smith. She acknowledges in the back that she calls the book a novel because she had to use her imagination to fill in details, and changed somethings to protect other's privacy. But the stories are real, and they are good.

Lily grows on you. She was a good woman who was humble, honest and worked hard. She made her way through trials without feeling sorry for herself. There are decisions that she makes that seem hard, but you can see how she ultimately trying to do what was best. I love that Walls wrote this book in the first person. It feels like you are listening to your grandma tell you the stories of her life.

As a teacher in one room school houses in rural areas, there are several mentions of beating and punishing kids. I hate that kind of stuff. It isn't a focus, and I know that given the time period it's realistic. But I thought I'd give you a heads up. In that same vein, there is a heartbreaking scene where Rosemary defies Lily and sneaks out to swim with boys. Lily loses control in her anger, but you feel for her as you read, "I was also plain furious with Rosemary. I'd slept next to that girl every night to protect her. I thought that I had taught her to be smarter than this." There is heartache and sadness, but also so much love. The characters are trying to do what is best.
I loved when Lily met Big Jim. I loved their marriage and how they approached problems together. There are so many great moments between them in this story.

I also loved how Lily broke horses, worked hard on her ranch, but embraced progress. She loved to drive fast in cars, learned how to fly airplanes, and loved indoor plumbing. When they had some savings, she and her husband invested in new "chompers." She wasn't vain, but she wanted to have nice teeth. I loved that. She went to a premier of Gone with the Wind, and made herself a gown out of her red velvet curtains! There's also a magical night where she hooks up electric Christmas lights to their car battery for her kids. (They didn't have electricity at the ranch.) Another example of how she wasn't afraid of modernization even though they lived without most conveniences.

Here are some quotes from the book that were my favorites:

"There was nothing finer than the feeling that came rushing trough you when it clicked and you suddenly understood something that had puzzled you. It made you think it just might be possible to get a handle on this old world after all."

"Working in those little desert towns during the war years--teaching illiterate ragamuffins how to read--I had felt needed in a way that I never had in Chicago. That was how I wanted to feel again."

"Sometimes after I finished a particularly good book, I had the urge to get the library card, find out who else had read the book, and track them down to talk about it."

"We found a beautiful site at the top of a rise overlooking a shallow forested valley--so beautiful that I knew in God's eyes it must be sacred--"

"When people kill themselves, they think they're ending the pain, but all they're doing is passing it on to those they leave behind."

These next two are quotes from Jim to Lily about Rosemary when she decides to marry Rex.
(If you read The Glass Castle, you can imagine why her mother was wary of Rex.....)

"She might not have turned out like you planned, but that don't mean she turned out wrong."

and, "Our daughter's found something she likes, this painting, and someone she wants to be with, this Rex fellow, so she's way ahead of a lot of folks."

I am planning to re-read The Glass Castle with this new perspective on Jeannette's family history. I remember Lily being in it, but I don't remember much about her.

I recommend this book!

Monday, December 6, 2010

Greetings from Somewhere Else by Monica McInerney

Why the crazy spacing issues blogger? I've re-done my paragraphs over and over.

This is another "Staff Pick" from my library. I'm guessing it might be the same staff person that picked Table Manners.

Lainey is the main character, and she has to leave her friends, family, and career in Australia to run a bed and breakfast in her native Ireland for one year.

This was an OK book. Again, I would watch it as a movie on TV. But the writing is only so, so. Especially the dialogue. For example, Lainey is thinking about a character in one of the Celtic legends and I quote, "Poor Grainne, Lainey thought. And she thought she had relationship problems." UGH, so trite.

I did find it interesting that families migrate from Ireland to Australia and vice versa. I had no idea and wouldn't have expected that this is fairly common.

What I liked best in this book is the personal growth of the protagonist, Lainey. Not in the gradual ways, like how she learned to be more domestic or recognized her romantic feelings. But she actually has this painful moment when a close friend criticises her during a dramatic scene. AND she takes it to heart, asks more people about their honest feelings, then she tries hard to improve that element of her personality. Even though I found the early development of Lainey kind of painful, full of stereotypes and unrealistic reactions, I liked the idea of someone consciously trying to improve their personality. I hope we can change what seems innately part of us.