Friday, May 27, 2011

Book #24: Swim the Fly

I saw Don Calame's Swim the Fly mentioned in an article about books for reluctant male YA readers a few weeks ago and thought I'd give it a try. The teacher who reviewed it mentioned that all of her male students who humored her by picking up the book in the first place would, within the first three pages of the book, raise their eyes and look almost nervously around the room to determine if they were really allowed to read this book. It's all about the tone and subject matter, you see. And it gets young adult readers, both male and female, hooked.

The story focused on three male fifteen-year-old best friends. Their summer vacation has just started, and in addition to the time they spend on the local swim team, the three are trying to work out a way to achieve their summer goal. The summer goal is a tradition for Matt, Sean, and Cooper--every year they choose some new feat to achieve, from playing 1000 games of ping pong when they were younger to their latest goal, to see a live naked girl. Several amusing mishaps naturally ensue in the pursuit of this goal, and things get even more hilarious after Matt volunteers to swim the 100 meter butterfly race for the swim team in order to impress a girl.

Swim the Fly moves at a quick pace, has well-developed characters, and perhaps most importantly uses the same sort of language that young adults use. I can see why reluctant male readers would get hooked on this book--the seemingly risque goal of seeing a live naked girl reels them in, and pretty soon they just need to find out how the various mishaps can possibly resolve in favor of the three best friends. Add in the fact that it reads like hanging out and telling true stories with your best friends and you've got a very enjoyable book. I'd suggest it to folks looking to get young adult males interested in reading something, to readers who enjoyed The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian but might want something a bit more light-hearted, and to anyone looking to read some YA stuff from a strong male perspective.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Book #23: Brideshead Revisited

My friend who now has super powers recently received a copy of Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited. After getting over the slightly squidgey circumstances under which he was gifted the book, I suggested that we use the book as an opportunity for an informal book club. And thus Bookclub Revisited was born.

It would turn out that applying for jobs takes up more time that one initially imagines, and as a result, I was the only one of the three book club members reading the book for the first time to actually finish it. One made it almost all the way through Book 1; the other just a few pages in. So we talked primarily about the prologue and the initial confusion that results from the framing of the narrative. Lots of interesting discussion can result from such a small premise.

I also talked about some of the characters as they appear in Book 1 with said super-powered friend. Primarily, we chatted about who we liked, who we didn't, and why. I have an incredibly well-read friend who, upon reading Brideshead Revisited back in her school years, hated everyone but the character Sebastian. I find that really interesting because, while I find Sebastian amusing in an outside observer sort of way, I don't really like him as a human being. I always find it intriguing to read books that involve characters that different people relate to so differently.

I don't want to go too much into details of the book since Bookclub Revisited hasn't had our complete discussion yet, but I'll give you a few snippets. The book is narrated by Captain Charles Ryder during the year 1944; while an officer in the British Army, Charles finds himself and his men temporarily housed on the grounds of the Brideshead estate, a place he knew well at two times in his life. That's the basis for the prologue and epilogue--the two books, the meat of the novel, contain Charles's remembrances of Brideshead from when he first went there in the 1920s and then when he was involved with it for different reasons ten years later. The framing is definitely confusing, but it works well. I was so intrigued by the characters--and their remarkable capacity to say absolutely nothing while talking without break for pages and pages and pages. On more than a few occasions, Book 1 in particular really put me in mind of the movie Metropolitan, wherein people talk about themselves only under the guise of discussing the human condition. Such interesting characters!

Also making appearances are an age-innapropriate teddy bear and a bedazzled tortoise. To see how they figure into the story is good enough reason to pick up Brideshead Revisited. I'd suggest this book to anyone who enjoys delving into that quintessentially odd between-the-wars period in England, Waugh's own brand of off-kilter characters, and general indulgence in literary characters.

Note: This was the first book I read entirely on my new Kindle. I approve! Also, if you want to read and/or discuss Brideshead Revisited with me, feel free to e-mail or tweet (@amyeileenk)! Use the hashtag #bookclubrevisited on Twitter.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Wedding cupcakes!

The lovely Holly Campbell Gibson got married today! I made all of her wedding cupcakes:

  • Irish Coffee Cupcakes with Whisky Icing
  • Champagne White Cupcakes with Creamy White Icing
  • Devil's Food Chocolate Cupcakes with Hershey's Chocolate Icing
  • Sour Cream Yellow Cupcakes with Hershey's Chocolate and Creamy White Icings

The bride looked beautiful, and the amount of color and charm that covered the lower shelter at Brown County State Park really made for a lovely wedding. The drizzling rain stopped long enough to have the ceremony outside, too!

Congratulations to Holly and Jonathan!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Book #22: Ms. Hempel Chronicles

Ms. Hempel Chronicles was written by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, a recent National Book Award finalist and a new master of the short story. Ms. Hempel Chronicles fits neatly into that oeuvre: all of the chapters in the book could be (and many have been) stand-alone short stories, all featuring the enigmatically mediocre Ms. Hempel, seventh grade teacher. Each chapter offers Ms. Hempel's musings on a particular topic or event that she is confronting: a school trip to the beach, a school talent show, visiting her childhood home. And Ms. Hempel always has interesting observations of and insights on these mundane goings-on, making the book a joy to read at a leisurely pace.

I was really drawn to the character Beatrice Hempel; while I don't necessarily agree with her, I found her strong perspective on the world around her very stimulating. The whole book was really like an opportunity to get inside someone else's head for a few days and really immerse oneself in that other person's thoughts. The writing, too, is exquisite, with a plethora of extremely well-turned phrases. Perhaps my favorite parts of the book, however, were the glimpses Ms. Hempel gives of her students through her own eyes--their quirks, their potential, and their burdens alike, all remarkable and unique. I'd suggest this book to anyone who enjoys short stories or realistic fiction about teachers.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Book #21: The Pioneer Woman: Black Heels to Tractor Wheels

It seems as though everyone would know who Ree Drummond, alias The Pioneer Woman, is by now. She started out as a cattle rancher's wife turned mother turned blogger, but in recent years as her blog's popularity has expanded she's added author to her list of things she does. She first wrote a cookbook, and most recently she wrote a children's book. Somewhere in the middle, though, comes The Pioneer Woman: Black Heels to Tractor Wheels.

Black Heels is the story of how Drummond came to be the pioneer woman she is today. The story started out on her website where she began recounting how she and her husband met and got together, and the book develops and adds to that memoir account. It is a funny story; after all, Drummond was only meant to be stop briefly in her Oklahoma hometown en route to a new, chic life in Chicago when she met her man and, well, things changed. Funny things seem to happen to Dummond all the time as well; she apparently has impeccable memory for all of these mishaps.

I was afraid the story would have too much of a romance novel feel to it, but I can happily report that there are no heaving bosoms or ridiculously-worded sex scenes to be found anywhere in the book. Overall I found it quite genuine and, because everything does seem to happen to Drummond, I found it compelling to read as well. The book might not be quite as accessible to readers unfamiliar with Drummond's Pioneer Woman, since she doesn't develop her characters (mostly family members) particularly strongly (readers of her blog already know about her siblings, her brother-in-law, and all the other cast of characters). But it was a fun story, a quick read that would be great for the beach or a vacation. I'd suggest it to readers who enjoy true life love stories, memoirs centered on positive relationships (do people still write those?), and, of course, fans of the Pioneer Woman.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Book #20: A Month in the Country

I follow a British book club from afar, and one of the current books for discussion is J. L. Carr's A Month in the Country. I tend to enjoy about half of what this book club chooses, and after reading the synopsis for Carr's short novel, I decided to give it a try.

Tom Birkin is the main character, and he tells the reader the story of the summer he spent in Northern England in 1920. Having been heavily affected by WWI, Birkin went up to the small town of Oxgodby to uncover a wall painting in the town's church. A limited premise for a book, I'm sure you think. But in actuality, the book is so lush. Birkin is a phenomenally interesting narrator; he has such interesting thoughts on professionalism (his own, his new friend Moon's, what it means to be a professional at anything), on life in a small country town, and on religion and art. The main action and driving force of the novel may be Birkin's uncovering a religious wall painting, but so much more is uncovered in the process. Before I knew it, I felt as though I had had actual conversations with Birkin--his thoughts are made that plain and conversant to the reader.

Carr's use of language is also extremely interesting. On the one hand, it has moments of seeming a throwback to John Buchan; but at other times, beautiful phrases and profound thoughts seem almost accidentally peppered in otherwise simple scenes and reflections. The whole short novel was a joy to read, but those moments of true mastery make it a gem. I'd suggest this novel to readers who enjoy first-person fictional rememberances, who like stories set in the pre-WWII English countryside, and who may be looking for philosophical ideas to ponder quietly.