Monday, September 29, 2008

Isabel's Bed, Elinor Lipman

Posted by lea at 3:25 PM 1 comments Links to this post
I find Elinor Lipman's books interesting, humorous in a low-key kind of way (more English than American) and full of generously portrayed characters, but I can't help the feeling that there's more to them than I'm getting, because so many reviewers seem to rave about them.

My second Lipman book, Isabel's Bed is about wannabe writer Harriet Mahoney, who gets kicked out of her apartment after beind dumped by her live-in lover for a younger woman. She takes a ghost-writing job with glamorous tabloid slut Isabel Krug, famous for being caught in the act with her rich adulterous lover when his wife burst in on them and fatally shot him. Harriet becomes absorbed into Isabel's architect-designed multi-million dollar home and eccentric life while trying to maintain her writer-sensibilities, which tend more towards Remains of the Day than the sensational besteller she's been hired to write.

Isabel's Bed is full of wry egocentric observations by Harriet and a handful of absorbing and well-etched characters. Lipman very successfully positions herself at the more intelligent end of the chicklit spectrum. An enjoyable read.

An excerpt:

There weren't even bubbles in the bath to obscure her private parts from me, her acquaintance of less than twenty-four hours. It was not the lolling soak of Calgon commercials; this was Isabel soaping her wash cloth and scrubbing her armpits and crotch in a manner I hadn't done in front of Kenny after a decade of intimacy. I sat on a wrought iron stool at the foot of the black marble steps, which led to her elevated, sunken tub. She talked and soaked, talked and scrubbed, then talked and rinsed, while I tried to be as casual about her nudity as she was, and while many Isabels bounced off the mirrored walls.

And there was no getting around her breasts, especially in the context of Isabel as tabloid paramour, as the woman Guy VanVleet died for. They were big. Enormous. They drooped from their own weight below the bath water, then surfaced on display, areolas the size of coasters. I wanted to ask if they were real, but decided that no certified plastic surgeon would have built those. Ordinarily I'd feel sorry for a woman with water-balloon breasts, knowing the burdens they imposed, but I could see that Isabel prized them and regarded them as my first research project, as if seeing them would help me write between the lines.

In Bruges

Posted by lea at 12:07 PM 0 comments Links to this post
In Bruges is a film about two hitmen sent to Bruges (a picturesque medieval town in Belgium) by their boss, Harry, after a job goes wrong in London. Bruges is their purgatory - with no idea what they're doing there, Ken (Brendan Gleeson) and Ray (Colin Farrell) await orders from Harry, killing time with sightseeing, offensive behaviour (the scene between Ray and the fat American tourists is hilarious, as are his observations on 'midgets') and conversation with a depth you don't expect.

Much of the enjoyment of In Bruges comes from the dialogue, which is witty and funny and perfectly delivered. The three leads are just immaculate in the portrayal of their characters. Colin Farrell was a pleasant surprise - I honestly didn't like him after his Hollywood movies, but here, as the immature rookie hitman with the moral dilemma, he really shines. Ralph Fiennes also delivered a great performance. For the greater part of the film, you only hear Harry's voice over the phone, and it was a shock to find that that voice (with the accent and potty mouth) belonged to him.

The film, although quite violent at times, portrays the characters in three-dimensions. They're not simply hitmen, but men with consciences and their own code of honour who possess endearing qualities despite their obvious flaws. In Bruges is highly enjoyable, funny, ironic and refreshingly different from the usual Hollywood blockbuster.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Five People You Meet in Heaven, Mitch Albom

Posted by lea at 11:11 AM 0 comments Links to this post
Mitch Albom is most famous for his book Tuesdays with Morrie, but personally, I think The Five People You Meet in Heaven is more enjoyable. The story revolves around the life (or rather, death) of eighty-three year old Eddie, a war veteran and maintenance man for the amusement rides at Ruby's Pier. From the beginning, we are told that Eddie is going to die soon, but that death is only the beginning.

The premise is that upon death, we meet five people in heaven who explain the meaning of our lives - something we often miss in our mundane day-to-day. The first time I read this book (around a year or two ago for my book club) it had quite a profound impact on me and I'm sure I shed a tear or two. This time round it wasn't quite the same (I should've written this review back then) but I still think it's a great little book.

It's an easy and absorbing read that does prompt you to think about the meaning of your life. And I couldn't help but wonder what happens if you go to hell - do you meet five people who tell you what your life could've been, leading to remorse and eternal repentance rather than understanding and acceptance, which is what happens to Eddie in the end?

Overall, it's a lovely and well written story with a fable-like quality that reminded me a little of The Alchemist. In both cases, the stories are profound but written with great simplicity, allowing the meaning to really shine through. There's a touch of the spiritual and eternal in both, a sense of fate and purpose that's quite inspirational. This book would appeal to a wide audience.

PS - I just googled and discovered they made a telemovie out of it with Jon Voight!

Janet Evanovich, Stephanie Plum series

Posted by lea at 10:54 AM 0 comments Links to this post

Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series is utterly enjoyable. After losing her job as a lingerie buyer for a B-grade department store, Stephanie is forced to become a bounty hunter for her cousin Vinnie's bail bonding business in order to pay the rent. With a combination of dumb luck, intuition and a lot of help from the mysterious Ranger and on-again-off-again cop boyfriend Joe Morelli, she manages to catch the bad guy and keep from being blown to bits in some very close calls.

With a plethora of zany characters (lycra spandex-loving, plus-size bestie Lula who's an ex-ho-turned-filing-clerk and overly-curious, adventurous grandma Mazur, to name just two), this series of novels is truly entertaining. It's better than your average chicklit detective novel, full of funny moments, climactic situations and a whole lot of sexual tension. And best of it, each book actually has a really well-thought out plot. Stephanie's a likeable character who's endearing and quite relatable - she's perpetually broke, has a weakness for junk food and occasionally has trouble doing the top button of her jeans - except perhaps for the fact that she tends to blow up cars and tackle bad guys.

It's one of those series that you wish would just keep going - and it does. At the time of writing this review, Evanovich has released 14 Stephanie Plum novels. The upside is that you want more each time you read one and she delivers each time, but the downside is that it gets a bit predictable - we know Stephanie's going to catch the bad guy and we know that she'll never be able to make up her mind between Morelli and Ranger. It's a quandary because if she DID finally decide to put the holster down and take up with one of the men in her life, you'd be totally disappointed, yet her lack of personal progress can also be frustrating.

The great thing about it is that when you want a quick, enjoyable, laugh-out-loud read, you can go back and pick up any one of the books and it's like a bite-sized piece of chocolate that hits the spot. I've been going back and forth, up and down the line of series for ages now (a few years at least) and was prompted to write this entry only because I found book #1 at St Vinnies (got it second hand for $2 - what a bargain) and read and enjoyed it all over again. It's funny seeing how Ranger has progressed from being a competent commando-style Latino bounty hunter to this laconic dark man of mystery - a cross between Batman and sex on legs.

My only word of advice is don't bother with the other Evanovich novels because they're just not as good - especially not the ones where she collaborates with another author. Stay far away. Stick with Plum.

Series titles:
One for the Money
Two for the Dough
Three to Get Deadly
Four to Score
High Five
Hot Six
Hard Eight
To the Nines
Ten Big Ones
Eleven on Top
Twelve Sharp
Lean Mean Thirteen
Fearleass Fourteen

Holiday Novellas:
Visions of Sugar Plums
Plum Lovin'

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Wall-e movie review

Posted by lea at 12:19 PM 2 comments Links to this post
Wall-e - both the robot character and the movie - is just absolutely endearing. He's a garbage compacter left on Earth after the humans create so much rubbish they decide to hover in space while it gets cleaned up. He falls in love with Eva, a brand-spanking new robot who hails from hundreds of years later, when people have become inactive masses who go from place to place on hover-seats continuously sucking food through a straw.

The story mainly follows Wall-e and his pursuit of Eva, all the way to the great spaceship of humans. Through the gorgeous story (much of it told without dialogue), Wall-e manages to convey a depth of both feeling and communication: that loneliness is heartbreak, that humans aren't the only species that can feel love, that those who are 'broken' also have their own unique redeeming qualities, that humans need to take better care of their Earth home.

A standout moment in the movie for me is when Wall-e, a fan of Guys and Dolls, dances around for Eva in imitation of the musical. The film even manages to make cockroaches look cute and harmless - a feat I never would've expected. Pixar really did an amazing job with this movie and deserves all the box-office laudits it's undoubtedly already raking in.

Anonymous Lawyer

Posted by lea at 11:38 AM 0 comments Links to this post
Anonymous Lawyer is a book adapted from a highly successful fictional blog by Jeremy Blachman, written from the point of view of a fictitious hiring partner at a major law firm. Personally I found the whorish capitalism and cynicism a bit too uncomfortable to fully enjoy at first, but it’s a quick easy read that provides a humorous insight into the world of corporate law in one of America’s major firms.

The blog entries are interspersed with personal emails, which provide great insight into the character of Anonymous Lawyer - particularly those between him and Anonymous Niece and The Musician. In an attempt to keep his anonymity, he describes those around him in broad strokes, like The Suck Up, The Jerk, The Woman Who Missed Her Kid’s Funeral, The Fat One and The Bombshell. The attempts to identify him (and themselves) by lawyers across the country are hilarious at times.

Towards the end I really began to sympathise with him and was hoping for a riding-off-into-the-sunset ending where he wakes up, discovers that there’s more to life than becoming The New Chairman and begins spending more time with Anonymous Wife, Daughter and particularly Anonymous Son. Of course, with the ending being what it is, he will undoubtedly have the time to do that.

Overall, in the words of a member of my book club, it was 'uncomfortably enjoyable'.

Monday, September 22, 2008

The perpetually unfinished Friday Night Knitting Club, Kate Jacobs

Posted by lea at 1:10 PM 0 comments Links to this post
The Friday Night Knitting Club is one of those books that sits on my shelf while I lament the space it's taking and the money I forked out to buy it (even if I did get it with a 3 for 2 deal at Borders). I just can't get past about a quarter way, and I've given it 2 tries already.

It's a debut book by a new author and you can tell. The writing is too heavy, the situation cliched, characters one-dimensional and the plot borders on predictable and couldn't-care-less. The only redeeming feature was the premise - a single mum opens her dream shop selling yarn which attracts women from all walks who share their lives along with their patterns every Friday night. Sounds like the perfect chicklit setup for some light sparkling conversation overlaid by deep insights, but it really fails to deliver.

Apparently they've made a movie out of it with Julia Roberts. I hope it does better than the book, about which I can't comment much further as I haven't finished and don't intend to. I just wanted my two monumental attempts to read it documented.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Michael Chabon

Posted by lea at 12:21 PM 0 comments Links to this post
I finished this weighty book just this minute and the lingering sense is one of pensive melancholy - strange, considering that it started with such jubilance. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is set around the lives of two cousins who create a comic book hero, The Escapist, who becomes a phenomenon. Sammy Clay is a boy whose imagination and brash enthusiasm overcomes the weakness of his polio-infected legs and breathes life into their creation. The artwork is brought to life by his cousin and partner Joe Kavalier, the sole survivor amongst his family since his escape from Prague during the Nazi regime just before World War II.

The story begins with success - two Jewish boys make it against the odds. As the story chronicles their growth during the golden era of 1930-50s New York, it's a case of real life intruding on a fairytale. Sammy struggles with his unspoken and unacceptable (at the time) personal proclivities while Joe joins the army to kill the Germans who have been haunting his dreams. I won't go further into the plot because the discovery of their journeys is central to the enjoyment of this book.

Pulitzer Prize-winning Kavalier and Clay is truly beautifully written - a hefty tome that pays homage not only to the rise of the comic book industry in New York and its accompanying social implications, but also to the fictional two men who contributed towards its popularity. It's what you'd call an 'epic novel' as it spans decades and portrays complex relationships, love, art, loss, dreams and regret with incredible depth, but Chabon's touch has the light and shade of a graphic novel - much like the final creation of Joe Kavalier.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Soon I Will Be Invincible, Austin Grossman

Posted by lea at 5:26 PM 0 comments Links to this post
Told from the point of view of superheroes in a comic-book world, Soon I Will Be Invincible is an interesting read that makes superheroes seem just like the average person - except, of course, for their superhuman powers. They have insecurities, eating disorders, blonde moments, self-doubt and a pecking order.

The story alternates between two first-person narrators - ageing supervillain Dr Impossible and rookie superhero Fatale. Dr Impossible, fresh from his latest incarceration in maximum security super-jail, is out to destroy the world... again. There's a hilarious and heart-breaking moment when he goes to a dingy villain hangout in an abandoned shopping centre to meet some old cronies. The pathos of Grossman's description of the unglamorous side of villainy is at once hilarious and cringe-inducing, as Dr Impossible catches a bus to get there, changes into his costume in the bushes and has to walk back home afterwards.

Fatale is the newest member of the New Champions, a super-league made up of a motley crew of heroes, including recently divorced Damsel and Blackwolf (yes, it appears superheroes get divorced too). Through her eyes we see the competitiveness, insecurities and all-too-humanness of the superheroes as they are forced to work together to find missing CoreFire, the greatest superhero of them all.

In Soon I Will Be Invincible, Austin Grossman takes a comic book idea and makes it accessible to people who may not really be into comic books themselves but are still fascinated by the whole superhero genre, like me. It's particularly interesting because the heroes and villains aren't stereotyped or revered for their inherent qualities, but are rather deconstructed and shown to be normal people whose personal decisions about their abnormal abilities make them what they are. Overall, I found it to be a great read.

Spring cleaning the green way

Posted by lea at 5:26 PM 0 comments Links to this post

With it now being Spring and all (at least in the southern hemisphere), cleaning seems like an appropriate topic to write about at this time. I've been reading a bit about household cleaning chemicals and their long term effects etc, and basically, the outlook's not good. Commercially sold cleaning products often contain chemicals that aren't good for you to breathe in on a daily basis, and are actually toxic to the human body. What's the point of living in a spotless home if it's killing you slowly, eh.

So I did a bit of research and shortlisted my favourite (incidentally the simplest) solutions for a chemical-free, non-toxic, spotless home.

All-purpose cleaner: mix a solution of ½ vinegar and ½ water into a spray bottle

  • this cleaner works on all surfaces including kitchen counters, the bathroom sink, toilets and floors (except stone and marble)
  • also use on windows and mirrors, wiping with a sheet of newspaper for an extra streak-free clean

All-purpose scourer: sprinkle baking soda onto a damp sponge

  • baking soda is a natural scourer that deodorises and scrubs grime including bathtub rings, food deposits in kitchen sinks, inside fridges, etc.
  • for tougher grime, make a paste from baking soda and water, apply to grimy areas and let it sit for 10-20 minutes before cleaning. Even works in grimy ovens – just leave overnight
  • also works on tarnished pots and pans

Furniture polish: mix ½ teaspoon olive oil with ¼ cup vinegar or fresh lemon juice

  • dab on a soft rag and wipe wooden surfaces
  • mixture can be stored indefinitely in a glass jar and shaken before use to blend

Mold and mildew: combine 1tsp tea tree oil with 1 cup of water in a spray bottle

  • shake to blend and spray on problem areas like walls, ceilings, furniture, musty rugs and shower curtains
  • leave and do not rinse – this solution will tackle mold and the eucalyptus smell will dissipate
  • alternatively, simply spray undiluted white vinegar on mold and mildew

Extra tips:

  • to avoid after-shower fog on bathroom mirrors and windows, sprinkle tea tree oil on the surface and wipe with a sheet of newspaper
  • use vinegar instead of commercial fabric softeners in the washing machine – particularly good for sensitive skin
  • leave a container of baking soda in the fridge (open) to absorb smells
  • mint is a natural enemy of ants and mice, so spray distilled spearmint oil or brewed mint tea in nooks, crannies and cracks to keep them away

Bonus for the heavy-duty spring cleaners:

To get rid of mineral deposits clogging your shower head (remember that the water you clean yourself with comes through this metallic fixture after all):

  • place undiluted vinegar in a plastic food storage bag (freezer bag/oven bag etc)
  • place the shower head inside the bag so it's covered by vinegar and secure with a rubber band
  • let it stand for 2hrs or overnight
  • remove bag, rinse the shower head and buff to a shiny finish (and of course, turn your shower on to wash out the vinegar before taking a shower)
Cheers to a clean and healthy season!

On Beauty, Zadie Smith (book review)

Posted by lea at 5:26 PM 0 comments Links to this post
On Beauty, like many truly literary works for me, took a while to get into, and even longer before I figured out that the family was mixed-race, which is kinda important to know in order to understand the specific cultural foundation of the book. It was particularly interesting because I realised this is one of the first books I've read where so many of the characters are black - not that it's particularly important in the scheme of things - but it was a totally different world than I was used to reading about. And fascinating.

Cultural differences aside, the characters are real people, fleshed out and shown in all their flawed natural glory. Howard Belsey, the central character, is an English professor at a Massachusetts university, married to African-American wife Kiki, with whom he has three children. The relationship between Howard and Kiki is the maypole around which most of the threads of the story are wound, particularly Howard's affair with a close friend of the family, and his rivalry with Monty Kipps and its rippling effect on both families.

Ultimately, it's the foibles and flaws of the characters that really bring out the beauty of this book. The characters are etched beautifully - from their son Levi who likes to act like he's from the ghetto when in fact he's from a privileged background, to Carl, who actually is from the ghetto but would like nothing more than to belong to the campus culture of the Belseys and Kipps. Things are not perfect in this world - characters are betrayed, fail to reach their own unspoken expectations, fall into temptation, act without considering their true motives and learn to forgive. It's a book brimming with love for the people we actually are, not the people we want to be. For me, it was Kiki who actually brought the title home. It's through this full-figured, middle-aged woman and her open vulnerability, her love and her huge heart that we understand what real beauty is.

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