CBR-V Review #52: Crazy Salad by Nora Ephron

And just like that–I’ve completed my Cannonball Read 5!!!! And two months ahead of schedule, to boot. 52 books in 10 months; that ain’t too shabby. I’ll still be reading/reviewing until December 31st, though, just to see how many books I can finish before then.

This is a fitting book to complete my goal with, because Nora Ephron is something of a personal hero of mine. She’s witty and smart and a brilliant writer, and if I were going to pick a person to emulate, it would probably be her. This was actually the first full book of hers that I’ve read (well, it’s actually a collection of pieces) but I loved it and absolutely plan on reading more. As a note: I believe that the edition I read is out of print, but has been republished in a single volume with Scribble, Scribble. There is a version of Crazy Salad out there with an introduction by Steve Martin, but this is not the original, as it cuts out a few of the pieces included.

Crazy Salad is a compilation of pieces written by Ephron for Esquire magazine in the 1970s, all of them dealing with, in one way or another, women. Ephron was an outspoken feminist with a wicked sense of humor, and so most of these columns are as entertaining as they are informative. She covers a huge range of topics, from Linda Lovelace and Deepthroat to the Pillsbury Bake-Off to meditations on breasts to reflections on the women associated with Nixon and the Watergate scandal (and many, many other things). Some of the pieces are more traditionally journalistic and others are just variations on the personal essay, and this variety just serves to highlight Ephron’s skill as a writer.

This collection was a bit uneven, I have to admit. There were some absolutely killer pieces in here–the aforementioned piece on breasts was the clear standout, but I also really enjoyed pieces on feminine hygiene products and the conflicts between the major players of the feminist movement (I had no idea that Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem hated each other), among others. Overall, the pieces were very strong, but there were definitely a few week links that I had to kind of skim through because they just weren’t engaging enough. I typically found those to be the ones where Ephron tried to be a bit more serious and objective–I think she’s most successful when she’s letting herself express her opinions freely and taking hilarious jabs at the bizarreness and superficiality of the world she lives in.

If you’re new to Ephron, this is as good a place as any to start (and it’s a great way to separate Ephron the screenwriter from Ephron the columnist–she was a very diverse and talented writer beyond scripts for admittedly great romantic comedies!). I definitely recommend checking this out or, at the very least, tracking down “A Few Words About Breasts,” because it’s just so, so good. 

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CBR-V Review #51: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling

I listed to this on audiobook over the last few months–I’ve done a lot of driving recently and I just finished it yesterday, on a drive from Vermont to Massachusetts. This is the only Harry Potter book I own on CD, so I’ve probably “read” it more times than any other in the series (besides #1 and #2, which I re-read obsessively when I was younger, waiting for the rest of the series to come out). I haven’t listened or read it all the way through in a long time, though.

I’m just going to go ahead and flag this review with a SPOILER ALERT for the first four books, although I kind of feel like the statute of limitations on spoilers should run out at some point…it’s been like 10+  years, folks!

Order of the Phoenix picks up a few weeks after the events of the fourth book, and Harry is in a bad place. He’s still traumatized after witnessing the murder of his Tri-Wizard tournament competitor, Cedric Diggory, and he’s being painted as a liar and attention-seeker by the wizarding media, who don’t believe his statement that Lord Voldemort has returned. To make matters worse, once he returns to Hogwarts, he finds that Dumbledore is acting very strangely around him, and the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, Professor Umbridge, is perhaps the worst one yet.

Order of the Phoenix is underrated, I think–a lot of people dislike it because “nothing happens” and there’s a lot of teen angst mixed in with the usual adventure and danger and magic, much more so than in any other book in the series. I like it a lot though, because it’s the book that best demonstrates how Harry is actually a pretty flawed character, and has some pretty bad traits (like any real person) that have, ultimately, huge consequences. This book is also a turning point in the series, in that it’s the first that doesn’t have a book-specific, self-contained adventure or mystery to solve (like discovering the wizarding world in #1, the Tri-Wizard tournament in #4).  There’s the problem of Umbridge, of course, but her presence serves more to show that the world Harry lives in is an extremely dark one, and this is the first book in the series that kind of makes you realize that the series is not going to end without a whole lot of trauma. It’s also the first where Harry is disparaged and perceived, overall, in a very negative way, which is an interesting change from the first few books. I love it because it really does mark a shift in the series towards extremely serious and intense, more adult themes, and sets the stage for the last two books very well. It also is very important for the backstory it gives us, and for the fleshing out of the Harry Potter mythology.

I also think that Umbridge is a really fantastic villain, and I liked having a diversion from the typical Malfoy-Snape-Voldemort trifecta of evil in the books. She’s truly loathsome, and brilliantly portrayed–one of the most vivid characters in an incredible cast, which is saying something. I also loved the new character of Luna Lovegood–she’s one of my all-time favorites.

As for the teen angst complaint, I truly didn’t mind this aspect of the novel. It never overshadows the actual plot, and I think it was important for Rowling to introduce crushes and moodiness to establish a sense of reality among the fantastic and the magical. I honestly think it would have been weirder for her to continue writing about a teenage boy without delving into any kind of mention of sexuality and crazy hormones, and by bringing this side of things in, Rowling gets to play with humor (which is one of her biggest strengths–I don’t think she gets enough credit for being very, very funny).

Anyway, this is a really great book on its own, and a very solid entry into the series. Read them all!

CBR-V Review #50: Ozma of Oz by L. Frank Baum

So, my grandmother passed away last week, and I was having trouble reading–my head was in a weird place and I was having trouble focusing. When I got back into a reading kind of mood, I decided to read something that reminded me of her. She read a lot of the Oz books to me when I was younger, and Ozma of Oz was always one of our favorites. I have vivid memories of her reading it to me in the kid’s room at her old house when I was around seven and staying with her for a week while I went to camp. It was a really great way to honor her memory, and also to rediscover my love of this series.

For those of you who love The Wizard of Oz (the movie) but have never read any of the books in the series–you need to go out and pick one of them up ASAP. The book on which its based, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, isn’t even the best in the series, and Baum has created an extensive, fully-formed universe with all sorts of bizarre and beautiful characters who never appear in the movie. There are fourteen books in the series, some of which focus on Dorothy, some of which don’t. I’d forgotten how captivating they are, and was seriously impressed by a) how well they hold up over a century after they were written and b) how much I enjoyed this one, even as an adult. I’m definitely planning on re-reading the rest of the series now.

Ozma of Oz is the third in the series, but, as is generally the case with the Oz books, it’s not that important to read them in order, especially when it comes to the first few. This one harkens back to some earlier events and brings up characters who are introduced in the second book in the series (The Marvelous Land of Oz) but if you’re familiar with the Wizard of Oz, you’ll have no problem picking up on the plot. Dorothy Gale has returned to Kansas and is headed on a voyage to Australia with her ailing uncle. As befits our disaster-prone heroine, the ship hits a storm and Dorothy is swept overboard. When she wakes up, she finds herself in a strange land with a talking hen named Bill, and is quickly caught up in an adventure to rescue the kidnapped royalty of this new world (the land of Ev) that involves some familiar faces (the Scarecrow, the Tinman, the Lion) and some new ones (a thinking/talking/walking robot, Queen Ozma of Oz, and the evil Nome King, among others).

Honestly, this book is just so wonderful. Baum’s imagination is astounding, and his ability to create fantastical characters with enough humanity to remain believable is commendable. Dorothy is a great protagonist, representing the skepticism and groundedness of the “real” world, despite her being somewhat prissy and self-important. The supporting characters are, as always, enchanting and completely lovable (my favorite is the hungry Tiger, whose appetite is enormous but whose equally large conscience prevents him from indulging in what he really wants–fat, juicy babies). The story is charming and funny and the adventure is engaging yet comfortable–the stakes aren’t too high and the villains are never too scary. It’s almost cozy to read a novel that you know is going to come together neatly and have a happy ending.

This has always been one of my favorites in the series (I also adore Rinkitink of Oz) and I was happy to rediscover it. I’m looking forward to revisiting the others, too! If you and/or a young person in your life likes fantastical adventure filled with heart and humor, you should definitely check out this book and the others in the series as well.

CBR-V Review #49: Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

I read Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl last winter and loved it—I basically devoured it, and read it in just a few hours. I’ve been trying to get ahold of her earlier books since then but it took me until now to get my hands on this one because they’re pretty much always checked out at the library.

Dark Places is about Libby Day, a woman in her late twenties whose family was brutally murdered when she was only seven. Her older brother, Ben, then only fifteen, is serving a life sentence for the crime, based largely on Libby’s testimony. Libby’s life is filled with anxiety and depression  and loneliness—she has nothing left, having driven away her remaining extended family and having used up almost all of the money she received from well-meaning strangers who heard of her story. Things are shaken up when Libby gets contacted by a member of “the Kill Club,” a group that meets to discuss and solve old mysteries. They think that her brother, Ben, is innocent—and they’re willing to pay Libby a lot of money to help them figure out what really happened on that night.

I, unfortunately, did not like this book anywhere near as much as Gone Girl. It’s definitely not a bad book—it’s actually a pretty good one—but it’s (aptly, given the title) so unrelentingly dark that I couldn’t really stomach it. Gone Girl was dark too, for sure, but it had a wicked sense of humor and a campiness that made it fun and full of twisty, shocking goodness. Dark Places is missing that quality—it’s all of the horror and disturbing detail (and, quite frankly, significantly more) without anything to balance it out. Before I read this, I read a review of it on Goodreads or someplace similar that said that the reader didn’t like Flynn because she was too misanthropic. I totally get that now, and I really feel the same way. It might just be a personal preference thing, but I really feel that books dealing with really heavy and scary subject matters (so, most thrillers/mysteries/crime novels/horror books) need to have some kind of balance to them. Humor, or a sense of camp, or some glimpse of hope and light–something to cut through the bleakness. There needs to be some humanity, I think, which is what it really comes down to. That was totally missing here, and it left me just feeling completely depressed and in a really weird mental place. Again, this could be just a personal thing, and like I said, it’s an objectively good mystery in a lot of ways, but I couldn’t get past it.

Also, the actual plot is a little bit convoluted and I felt like the ending was sort of out of nowhere and convoluted. And again, not in a shock-and-awe campy way like Gone Girlthis just sort of felt like Flynn was taking an easy way out.

So, overall, I’d just stick with Gone Girl. I’ve sort of lost interest in Flynn as an author after reading this, and I’m guessing that was definitely not what she was going for.

CBR-V Review #48: Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed

It’s pretty unusual, I think, for books with a lot of buzz to live up to the hype. Or really, for books that are more literary to gain mainstream popularity. There are some, of course–books like Freedom by Jonathan Franzen come to mind–but generally I find that the books that everyone seems to be reading aren’t that appealing to me. Wild is absolutely one of those books–it’s popular for a reason, because it’s spectacular. 

I was actually pretty apprehensive about reading this, initially, because I have a hard time reading sad books. I know that’s silly, but I read a piece by Strayed in one of my college classes about the death of her mother (a piece that was actually expanded and reformatted to become one chapter of Wild) and it was so devastating and raw that I was actually kind of traumatized by it. I knew Wild was about (among other things) her mother’s death, and I really didn’t feel like I could handle 300+ pages of that level of pain and sorrow. After reading and loving Tiny Beautiful Things, though, I couldn’t resist giving this a go–and I’m so glad I did.

Wild is about Strayed’s time spent hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in California and Oregon as a twenty-something following the death of her mother and her subsequent descent into depression, drug abuse, and general self-destruction. After serendipitously finding a guidebook for the PCT, she impulsively sets out on her journey, determined to change her life and leave her old world behind. It’s part coming-of-age story, part catharsis, part travel/nature narrative.

I LOVED this memoir. One of Strayed’s biggest strengths as a writer (and, especially, a writer of nonfiction) is that she is incredibly honest and doesn’t hold back in the things she reveals. And the things she reveals aren’t pretty. She lays it all out there and I think that really makes this book so special–you’re getting a true insight into who she is and who she was. I also appreciated how she presents her experiences and actions in hindsight–she has had twenty years, give or take, to reflect on everything that has happened to her, and although she acknowledges that she was kind of a dumb twenty-something the way all twenty-somethings are kind of dumb (and I say this as a twenty-something myself), she doesn’t judge or condemn herself. I’ve heard complaints that Strayed is self-absorbed and selfish, naïve and laughably clueless. I don’t disagree with those assessments, but I think there is, very clearly, a distinction between the Strayed hiking the trail and the Strayed writing this book. Strayed the author is older and wiser and able to recognize–and even point out and laugh at–her flaws. That perspective really helped offset any irritation I may have felt with Strayed and her choices as a character.Although my experiences and circumstances are very different from hers, I think she does an amazing job of capturing the sense of confusion and loss and dislocation that is so common at this point in people’s lives (hers, of course, being complicated by the extreme trauma she experiences).

Beyond that, it’s just an amazing story of someone doing something that seems impossible. I hate to use the word inspiring, because this is so far from the fluffiness that word usually brings to mind when talking about memoirs, but it is inspiring. It’s pretty amazing to read about an average woman doing the seemingly impossible, pushing herself to her physical, mental, and emotional limits. I don’t want to hike the PCT myself, but the memoir did make me think about my ability to take on challenges and do things I didn’t think were possible.

Seriously, go read this book–it’s just as good as everyone says.