Book Review: the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

>> 31 January 2010

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
We got this book to give as a gift, but a few unfortunate kitchen spills meant that I had to keep it. After reading this book, I think that the best way to describe its cumulative effect is to say that it's like eating at the Cheesecake Factory: it won't be the best food (or novel) you've ever experienced, but by virtue of having so much on the menu (this metaphor isn't going well) you're basically assured of finding at least something that you like.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Marry Ann Schaffer and Annie Barrows, tells the story of a writer named Juliet Ashton who travels to the island of Guernsey in the wake of World War II to write a book about the Nazi occupation of the island and the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, which met in secret during the occupation. The novel is presented as a series of letters, telegrams, and other correspondences between Juliet Ashton and her various cohorts: the members of the GL&PPPS (I can't write out the whole name any more!), her publisher in London, her friend in Scotland, her boyfriend, etc.

If you're in the mood for a story of courageous resistance to the Nazis, you can get it in this novel. If you're in the mood for a story of forbidden love, you can read about Elizabeth's romance with a Nazi officer. If you're in the mood for some comic relief there's Isola, a batty old woman who makes potions and casts hexes on people (and who lacks any and all social understanding. If you want to read about a woman who must choose between two suitors - one wealthy and flamboyant, the other humble and brooding - then you can read about Juliet. And so on. This book will probably please just about any one who reads it. Some of the characters are just cut-and-paste stereotypes, like the prudish and condescending neighbor, Adelaide Addison. Others are very compelling, like the deceased Elizabeth McKenna, whose influence over the island continues even after her death. Many of the others feel like mannequins - draped and spangled with eccentricities and personality quirks - but without any compelling motivations or desires. In some ways, this is a positive; anyone seeking to identify with a character will be able to do so, because the characters don't always go much deeper than their quirks. The downside is that the novel doesn't have any urgency, any sense that the things that are happening really matter to the characters.

My main complaint is that nothing in the novel feels very surprising at all. I was probably about 1/3 of the way through the novel when I saw how everything would end. SPOILER ALERT: periodically ask yourself 'what is the best (i.e. happiest) outcome possible?' and that is what happens. I like a story with a happy ending as much as the next, but there was never any suspense in this novel. In fact, I never really felt that the characters had anything to lose. Juliet, the main character, is a wealthy and successful writer with lots of good friends and a promising career. In other words, she has a good life. She never has to put it at stake, or take a major chance - she just goes to Guernsey and things get even better for her, almost by magic.

TGL&PPPS is a quick read, and a fairly enjoyable one. In fact, it occurs to me that my criticism of the book might be a little too harsh, but after reading the glowing reviews printed all over the cover (and the first few pages of the book) I had high hopes, which weren't quite met.

View all my reviews >>



>> 25 January 2010

Fans of Lost, take heed! Beginning on Tuesday, February 2nd, Lost will return to the airwaves for its final season. Fans across the country will be watching with great anticipation - wondering if, after five long years, their questions about the show will finally be answered.

According to the internet, this season is primed to make Lost fans even more obsessive than before. Check out this video, reporting on the upcoming pandemic of frame-by-frame video analysis, frantic wikipedia searches to investigate any in-show references, and ceaseless refreshing of the message-boards that Lost fans are sure to participate in.

Final Season Of 'Lost' Promises To Make Fans More Annoying Than Ever

Questions for Discussion:

  1. Do you watch Lost? Excited for the final season to start?
  2. Do you think they will actually be able to tie up all the loose ends and give us a satisfying finale?
  3. Locke or Jack? Discuss.


Book Review: Olive Kitteridge.

>> 22 January 2010

Olive Kitteridge: A Novel in Stories Olive Kitteridge: A Novel in Stories by Elizabeth Strout

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Let me begin by saying that a score of three out of five stars might be lower than Olive Kitteridge actually deserves, but as a winner of the Pulitzer, I might be holding it to a higher standard than I would most other books. The past few Pulitzer Prize-winners that I have read (The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, The Known World, The Amazing Adventures of Kavelier and Clay, The Road and others) have all been excellent. Olive Kitteridge was, in my estimation, a cut below those others.

The "novel" is actually a series of stories involving the denizens of a small town in Maine. The main character, Olive Kitteridge, appears in each story. In some, she is the central character, in others, she appears only briefly, as is the case with "The Piano Player," in which she enters a restaurant, waves to the pianist, and then disappears from the story.

The writing is - as you would expect - excellent. The prose is clear and the details and observations are astute. The characters, likewise, are believable and expertly drawn.

Throughout the course of the novel, we see Olive suffer personal loss: a son who fails to meet her (unreasonable) expectations for him, a husband who she treats cruelly for decades only to realize how much she cares about him after he suffers a stroke which leaves him in a vegetative condition, as well as numerous personal feuds. She is sometimes petty, sometimes kind and noble-spirited. She is brutal in her honesty with others and in complete denial with herself. In fact, the picture painted is fairly bleak. In the final chapter, Olive seems to experience some sort of hope for the future; however, it is implied that she will die soon and will have, in the end, lived a largely joyless and petty life.

My problem with this novel is largely an ideological one. This novel seems to paint a picture of a world in which every smile is actually a mask to cover some unrelenting sadness and every promise is insincere. Literally every married couple in the novel is involved in an affair and every parent is a petty and manipulative puppet-master, pulling the strings of their children's lives. While I understand that these things happen and that every person alive experiences sorrow - it may even be the case that the sorrows outnumber the joys - the tone of this book amounts to little more than a bromide: bad things can happen to anyone at any time. To convince people that life is hard is a trivial task; everyone knows that this is the case. The central thematic idea of the novel is simply not one which merits a novel's-worth of exploration.

So, read this book for the wonderfully-crafted characters and for the pitch-perfect prose. But thematically, expect to get hammered over the head with bad-things-happen-and-it-is-very-literary-when-they-do.

View all my reviews >>

Questions for Discussion:

  1. Have you read the book? If so, what did you think of it?
  2. Are you getting tired of book reviews? (I hope not, because I have a few more books to review, and I'm reading them faster than I'm writing reviews for them!)


In Which We Get Personal

>> 20 January 2010

From time to time, it is brought to my attention that the contents of my e-blog are not very personal. Rather than detailing the events of my life, I instead choose unleash upon the unwary internet a deluge of inane twaddle. So today, I've decided to get personal. I feel like I have reached a watershed moment in my life, a sign-post on the road to maturity and wisdom, a momentous point from which there is no return.

I have reached a point where I no longer pay for sandwiches.

This should not imply that I steal sandwiches, which I don't (besides, there isn't much of a market for stolen sandwiches so the resale value would be terrible), but rather that I try to avoid purchasing sandwiches in the first place.

The virtues of a sandwich - the reasons that they ever became popular in the first place - are:

  1. Deliciousness
  2. Ease of preparation
In fact, ease of preparation might be the most important factor behind the ubiquity of sandwiches. There are plenty of foods that taste better than sandwiches; however, the sandwich maintains its popularity because it is so easy to make. A sandwich is really only a small step above hot pockets in terms of ease of preparation. If you can follow two steps - 1) take two pieces of bread, 2) put stuff between them - then you can make your own delicious sandwich.

The last time I purchased a sandwich, I began thinking about what I was actually getting for my $7.50 + tax. What was it that made that sandwich so much more valuable than the sandwiches I make at home? Was it the toasted bread? No. I can toast bread. Was it the pickle wedge served on the side? No. I have pickles in the refrigerator. Was it the deli paper? Maybe. I don't have deli paper at home, although I don't think I would be willing to pay $7.50 + tax just to have a sheet of deli paper wrapped around my turkey club. Then it hit me: I was not buying a sandwich; I was buying laziness. I was paying $7.50 + tax because I didn't want to 1) take two pieces of bread, 2) put stuff between them. And that was it for me. I turned the corner.

I'm sure that I will buy a sandwich again at some point. There are some sandwiches out there that I cannot make conveniently: hamburgers, sandwiches with exotic ingredients which I am unlikely to purchase or have, etc. I might even buy a deli sandwich while on a road trip or something. But my days of buying sandwiches are dwindling.

Questions for Discussion:
  1. What is your favorite kind of sandwich?
  2. Have you ever had pastrami on rye?
  3. Keeping that pastrami on rye sandwich in mind, would you like to change your answer to question #1?


Apples, Ranked From Best to Worst

>> 16 January 2010

  1. Fuji - The Fuji apple (pictured) has it all: sweetness, crispiness, and a good firm flesh. This is the undisputed champ.
  2. Honeycrisp - The only apple that really stood a chance against the Fuji, the Honeycrisp is - the name gives it away - crisp and has good density. The flavor is sweet with a bit of tartness. I am VERY excited about this apple, and in a few years, it could be on the top of this list. Currently, it sits in second place primarily because it is 1) more expensive than other apples and 2) I have had a bad Honeycrisp, while I cannot recall ever having a bad Fuji. Could we say that this apple is Rocky Balboa to Fuji's Apollo Creed?
  3. Gala - This apple boasts function over form - outstanding sweetness and flavor with a disappointing texture. When I bite into an apple, I want to hear it crunch, not squish. Hit the gym, Gala.
  4. Braeburn - Honeycrisp's kid brother. Good sweetness and tartness, but it gets K.O.'d in the first round with the big three.
  5. Golden Delicious - The Golden Delicious apple has excellent flavor and decent texture, but it bruises like a welterweight (I'm getting my mileage out of this boxing metaphor). Don't set your Golden Delicious down, because when you pick it up, it will be covered in unsightly and unappetizing bruises.
  6. Pink Lady - Pinkish flesh feels like a gimmick, but it's a pretty tasty apple. It is a cross between a Golden Delicious and some other apple that no one cares about. Still, it's a pretty impressive pedigree. (The metaphor has changed to horse racing).
  7. McIntosh - Come on, let's be honest. Does anyone really eat these things? Who goes into a grocery store, passes by the Fuji, Honeycrisp, Gala, Braeburn, Golden Delicious, and Pink Lady apples and fills up a grocery bag with McIntosh? Maybe the hardcore Apple Computer fans do, because they can't overcome the marketing associations. "I can't explain why, but it's just better than other fruits. It's just really well designed, you know? It comes with a skin around it, but rather than peeling it, you can just bite right through it. You know? It's that attention to detail. Also, my MacBook Pro really helps me be creative while I check Facebook on the free wireless at the coffee shop."
  8. Granny Smith - Good for pies, but if you eat one of these things, you are out of your mind. (Pictured)
  9. Red Delicious - The name is not a complete lie because they are, in fact, red. But calling these things delicious is a stretch. If you are ever tempted to eat a Red Delicious apple, do yourself a favor by drinking a glass of ice-water and taking a vitamin instead. It will taste the same, and this way you are at least getting some zinc. It's good for the immune system. I hear.
Questions for Discussion:
  1. What are your top three apples?
  2. Did I leave any good ones off the list?
  3. Which new apple cultivars are you most looking forward to trying in 2010?


Book Review: Strength in What Remains

>> 12 January 2010

Strength in What Remains: A Journey of Remembrance and Forgiveness Strength in What Remains: A Journey of Remembrance and Forgiveness by Tracy Kidder

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Strength in What Remains tells the true story of a young man named Deo, who flees from his home country and tries to re-establish his life as a refugee in New York City. Burundi, a tiny African nation bordering Rwanda, was engulfed in violence in the 1990s when a Hutu politician was murdered by members of the Tutsi-controlled military, setting off a chain reaction of mob violence and brutal military crackdowns that eventually spilled over into Rwanda.

Deo was a medical student in Burundi's only medical school when the violence broke out. He traveled for weeks on foot with nothing to eat, while militias armed with machetes and hand-grenades massacred entire villages. When he finally escaped the country - with the help of a well-connected friend of Belgian descent - he found himself struggling to start a new life in which he was no longer a promising medical student, but instead, a homeless refugee who spoke no English and couldn't sleep for fear of the terrible dreams about what he had seen in Burundi and Rwanda.

Long story short: things turn out all right for Deo. He ends up getting an education and returning to Burundi to try to make the war-torn nation a better place. Hurray!

I thought that the portions of the book that took place in New York City were substantially better than the portions that took place in Burundi. I can't put my finger on exactly why this is the case, but the portions that occur in Burundi - the portions that are supposed to be the most riveting and the most disturbing, don't really come across that way. While the causes of the genocide are interesting, the question that most interested me was: how can a person continue to live a normal life after witnessing such atrocities? Whether it's the tribal massacres in Burundi and Rwanda, the mass executions in Cambodia or in the Soviet Union, ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, or the gas chambers of Bergen-Belsen - how can a person witness these things and feel anything but bitterness and rage? How could anyone live through these things and still believe that human beings are good and worth trusting? These are the questions that arise after Deo has escaped the genocide, as he tries to adjust to a new culture, a new language, and a new life in which he must accommodate the memory of the things he has seen.

Deo's story turns out far better than those of most of his compatriots. Nevertheless, it isn't exactly a happy ending; the fact that he managed to salvage a life from the wreckage of the genocide is tempered by the fact that the genocide occurred at all. Strength in What Remains is equally the inspirational story of man who overcomes tremendous odds and the tragic story of what could have been - for Deo and for Burundi - if the violence had never occurred.

View all my review 

Questions for Discussion:

  1. Have you read this book?
  2. What is your favorite non-fiction?


New Year's Resolutions

>> 08 January 2010

The beginning of a new year is the perfect opportunity to reflect on the past year in order to evaluate what you have accomplished and what you would like to improve about yourself. Often, in an effort to make the coming year better than the previous, we make New Year's Resolutions - goals and objectives which will help transform us into the people that we want to be.

This year, I have come up with many New Year's Resolutions. Two of them apply to me, and the rest are resolutions that I have for other people - things which I believe will make 2010 the best year yet. So, without any further delay, here are my New Year's Resolutions:

  • Keep the novel-in-progress on track by writing every weekday, even if only for a few minutes. (Me)
  • Exercise for 30 minutes, three times per week. (Me)
  • Perform a concert in Raleigh, NC. (Radiohead)
  • Begin prototype development for Terra-formed moon colony. (NASA)
  • Amazon Kindle price drops to $150. (Amazon)
  • Remind us what it felt like to laugh! (30 Rock)
  • DIE! (sharks, mosquitos)
  • Keep on working your burrito magic! (Dos Taquitos, Baja Burrito, Chipotle)
  • Don't disappoint me. (LOST!)
  • Unscheduled pay raise (My Employer)
  • Release another album (Grizzly Bear)
  • Win the World Cup (US Men's National Team)
  • Write another book (Michael Chabon, Cormac McCarthy, Jonathan Safran Foer)
  • Use more semi-colons; they are a great punctuation mark! (Everyone)
I will likely add to this list as the year goes on; however, I think this list represents a pretty good start. I hope that I will be able to accomplish all of my goals; I know it will be a challenge!

Questions for Discussion:
  1. What are your New Year's Resolutions?
  2. Do you have New Year's Resolutions for someone other than yourself? If so, what is the resolution and who is it for?
  3. Can you dunk a basketball?


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