Saturday, September 25, 2010

Wishful Drinking by Carrie Fisher

In my opinion, living with manic depression takes a tremendous amount of balls.-Carrie Fisher

Like any red-blooded American male, I became instantly aware of Carrie Fisher at the tender age of 10 after seeing her in the infamous metal bikini  she wore in Star Wars: Return of the Jedi.  I even had a cardboard cutout of her in my room during my adolescence.  Kicks the creep factor up a notch, doesn't it? Anyway, in 2008 I discovered that Carrie Fisher was more than just Princess Leia.  She is in fact an incredible writer with four novels (Postcards from the Edge, Surrender the Pink, Delusions of Grandma, The Best Awful) and now this autobiography which documents her all too eventful life.

Wishful Drinking started off as a stage show starring the manic Fisher in which she entertained fans with stories of her celebrity parents (Debbie Reynolds and the late Eddie Fisher), a gay husband who forgot to tell her he was gay--she forgot to notice, and the effects of drug addiction and manic depression. The show and book are an attempt to recapture events of her life she forgot after undergoing Electro Convulsive Therapy (ECT) which she has partaken of repeatedly in order to control her manic depression.  Fisher considers herself more or less cured now, but the initial round of treatments wiped three months of her life from her memory.

There is nothing off limits in this book.  Fisher opens up about failed marriages, a daughter she fears she has scarred for life, a larger than life mother, and an absent father.  Fisher describes stints in rehab and waking up with a dead man in her bed.  No really, it happened.  One of the scariest/funniest stories in the book is when she recalls being put in the psych ward of a hospital after being taken off all her medication.  It caused her to stay awake for six days and by the end of the sixth day Fisher believed that everything she saw on television was happening to her in real life.  At least, as real as you can get when you're Carrie Fisher.

Over the years, Fisher has been criticized for her acting abilities, or lack thereof, which she addresses frankly in the book.  However, whatever she didn't get in the acting department she more than makes up for in her incredible storytelling ability.  There is nothing forced, trite, or boring to be found here.  The book is funny yet insightful and Fisher is painfully honest about her addictions and mental illness.

I liked this book so much that I also listened to the audiobook which is read by Fisher.  Honestly, it's better with Fisher reading than doing it yourself.  It's obvious why Wishful Drinking was so successful as a stage show.  Fisher tells the story as if she's having a conversation with you over cigarettes and oxycontin.

Anyone looking for good writing, a laugh, or a better understanding of addiction and mental health issues will enjoy this book.  You don't have to be a Star Wars fan to enjoy this book.  Just a fan of the emotionally disturbed--which, if you're friends with me, then you already are.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

"Do you ever wish you could...change things?" she asks.
And I can't help myself.  I look at her head on.  Cause that's one a the stupidest questions I ever heard."-A conversation between Skeeter and Aibileen, The Help

Let's be frank shall we?  This book is exactly the opposite of what I usually read.  I'm much more likely to journey into the world of crime with Kinsey Millhone and Kay Scarpetta than I am to take a bivouack in the deep south.  However, I could not escape the buzz surrounding The Help and like a cat being dragged to a bath, I decided to try and read it...I couldn't put it down.

The novel is set in Jackson, Mississippi (I still sing "M I double S I double S I double P P I to remember the state's spelling) during the early 1960s and encompasses the lives of African American maids and the women they work for.  There are three narrators.  The first is Aibileen, a middle aged maid who acts as mother to her employer's children.  Then there is Minny, a maid who has been fired from every job she's ever had.  Finally, there is Skeeter, a 23 year old white girl who doesn't know what to do with her life.  I have read books with multiple narrators before, but never seen it done well.  Luckily, Stockett is able to find three unique voices in her protagonists and effortlessly keeps the book running like a well-oiled machine.

Basically, the book addresses the racial tensions in Jackson and Skeeter's attempt to give the maids of the city a voice in a world that has gone deaf.  Stockett shows the ugliness of racism without being preachy or self-righteous.  In her notes on the text, Stockett reveals that her own family had a black maid when she was growing up.  The tales of what happens to the maids of Jackson are a far cry from the jovial slaves of "Gone with the Wind" who couldn't have been more pleased to be the property of whites.  The women are treated like trash and they rarely like their employers.  Fortunately, Skeeter helps give the maids justice and their white employers what's been coming to them for a long time.

Of all the characters, I associated the most with Skeeter.  A year apart in age, Skeeter and I both live with our parents, are single, and hope to be writers.  We're also trying to find ourselves.  I hope I'm half as lucky as Skeeter is in pursuing her goals.

There were numerous times, especially during the Minny sections, where I had to put down the book and laugh out loud.  Then there were times I was so angry I could scream and so sad I could cry.  It all sounds cliche here, but the book truly moved me.  The last sentence of the book, which I won't spoil here, really resonated with me and I find myself running the line through my head often.  Hopefully you'll keep it in mind as well.

There's no word yet if there will be a sequel to The Help.  Stockett says she will write another book, but considering it took her four years to write this one, we will all have to be patient.  In the mean time, grab a copy of The Help, and pour yourself a glass of sweet tea.  Just be sure to inspect your chocolate pie closely before eating.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

City of Dragons

"She'd be alone, but Miranda was used to that."-Kelli Stanley, City of Dragons

I've spent a lot of time thinking about which book I would choose for my first review.  Authors all over the world waited with bated breath to see just who the lucky winner would be.  I mean, considering I already have three followers, a review by me could make or break a writer's career.  But I digress.

The book I chose is City of Dragons by Kelli Stanley.  The book, set in San Francisco 1940 is a PI Noir novel.  Unlike classics such as The Maltese Falcon, the protagonist and femme fatale are one and the same in heroine Miranda Corbie. Miranda is a private investigator and a former escort with a past riddled with loss and disappointment. Despite her hardships, Miranda dusts herself off and manages to rise above her misfortunes albeit with a hardened view of the world.

I became aware of City of Dragons by pure coincidence.  My parents were vacationing in Arizona and were visiting the Poisoned Pen bookstore in Scottsdale on the same day Stanley was signing the newly released novel.  My love for the Golden Era prompted my parents to buy me a signed copy and Stanley was incredibly gracious to my mom and dad and expressed an interest in me writing to her should I ever need advice about writing myself.

I tore through the book in about three days and quickly set about contacting Ms. Stanley to tell her how much I enjoyed the book.  She is a truly wonderful person and was so humble about being praised for her writing.  The two of us correspond every now and then and she is someone who I think is going to be very successful in this business.

OK, onto the review.  City of Dragons opens amidst a Rice Bowl Party celebrating the Chinese New Year.  Miranda, who has been observing the festivities, soon finds herself cradling the wounded body of Eddie Takahashi, a Japanese teenager.  A gunshot wound proves fatal to the young Takahashi and Miranda will be damned if she's going to let the murder go unsolved.  You have to remember that at this time Americans weren't looking too kindly on the immigrants arriving from the Land of the Rising Sun.  San Francisco police would have been all to eager to sweep the murder under the rug.  Unfortunately for them, they have Miranda to deal with.

What made me fall in love with this book is Miranda herself.  Despite a somewhat questionable past, she's a good and moral person who seeks justice and works to break down racial barriers.  She comes across as a hard-boiled individual with a Chesterfield hanging from her lips, rye on her breath, and a pistol in her purse.  But you can't help but be mesmerized by her.  Stanley creates such a vivid character in Miranda that I found myself thinking about her even when I wasn't reading the book.

Not only is Stanley a terrific writer in terms of character development, the language of City of Dragons is every bit as beautiful as Miranda herself.  The prose are poetic and the careful attention to detail sends me back into a world I will never know...but would give anything to experience.

Anyone interested in detective novels, the 1940s, or sexy redheads with guns should pick up a copy of City of Dragons.  The book has been successful enough that Stanley recently finished writing a sequel.  A prequel to City of Dragons titled Children's Day can be found in the book First Thrills which features a number of short stories by mystery writers.  In addition, Stanley has another novel, Nox Dormienda, which will be getting its own sequel in February of next year.  The books are set in London 83 A.D. and have been dubbed as "Roman Noir" novels.  The unusual eras Stanely writes about not only speak to her creativity but also to her intelligence.

Well, that's all for now.  Be sure to check out City of Dragons and have the makings for a Singapore Sling on hand when you do.  I know I'm looking forward to more adventures with Miranda in San Francisco 1940.

The Blog Post Jitters

So how do you write a blog that's unique, engaging, funny, and informative when there are so many millions of blogs out there in the internet Bermuda Triangle?  I'm not sure you can.  Fortunately for you that's not going to stop me from rambling on about my own thoughts and musings regarding books, writing, and the literary world at large.

Now why write a blog about books?  Does anyone even read anymore?  Of course.  It might not always be a traditional hard-bound book, but any reading is good.  Although I do go into full book-collector-snob mode when I see someone with a Kindle.  I'm trying not to do that though.

I can remember the Midwest summers of my childhood reading under the covers with a flashlight.  I really did this more for theatricality than anything else.  I'm sure my mom would have encouraged my nocturnal reading sessions since she has been pushing books on me my entire life.  A good book, glasses, and a book light are to her what a spoon, lighter, and meth are to an addict.  Hey, I just used a simile!  That college education really did pay off.  Anyway, my mom made me love books.  I remember learning the alphabet (or at least part of it) by reading the spines of Sue Grafton's "alphabet mysteries."  Doesn't everyone?

Now, I actually read what's inside Sue Grafton's books along with dozens of other writers.  I hope to do weekly reviews of some of my favorite books along with giving some background info about their creators.  My ramblings will probably veer off in a hundred different directions like some ill-fated Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, but I'll try to keep my thoughts on track.  So here's to me writing something worth reading and hoping you'll enjoy it too.