Book Review ~ Loose Girl by Kerry Cohen

Summary ~ Loose Girl: A Memoir of Promiscuity

For everyone who was that girl.
For everyone who knew that girl.
For everyone who wondered who that girl was.

Kerry Cohen is eleven years old when she recognizes the power of her body in the leer of a grown man. Her parents are recently divorced and it doesn’t take long before their lassitude and Kerry’s desire to stand out—to be memorable in some way—combine to lead her down a path she knows she shouldn’t take. Kerry wanted attention. She wanted love. But not really understanding what love was, not really knowing how to get it, she reached for sex instead.

Loose Girl is Kerry Cohen’s captivating memoir about her descent into promiscuity and how she gradually found her way toward real intimacy. The story of addiction—not just to sex, but to male attention—Loose Girl is also the story of a young girl who came to believe that boys and men could give her life meaning. It didn’t matter who he was. It was their movement that mattered, their being together. And for a while, that was enough.

From the early rush of exploration to the day she learned to quiet the desperation and allow herself to love and be loved, Kerry’s story is never less than riveting. In rich and immediate detail, Loose Girl re-creates what it feels like to be in that desperate moment, when a girl tries to control a boy by handing over her body, when the touch of that boy seems to offer proof of something, but ultimately delivers little more than emptiness.

Kerry Cohen’s journey from that hopeless place to her current confident and fulfilled existence is a cautionary tale and a revelation for girls young and old. The unforgettable memoir of one young woman who desperately wanted to matter, Loose Girl will speak to countless others with its compassion, understanding, and love.

Loose Girl by Kerry Cohen is a stumbling trip down memory lane for this author/psychotherapist.  Kerry was a girl, like myself and millions of others, who grew up in the pop culture world that depicts sexual behavior as love which lends to confusing thoughts and misdirected actions that lead to more trouble. 

Am I good enough?  Everything I do is not for me but for that boy or that friend who’s opinion means more than anything.  Those are the thoughts that are constantly tormenting Kerry starting at a terribly young age (eleven) and make her teen years and early adult life a heart wrenching, abyss filling period, full of the same mistakes made time after time. 

Sex, looks, how we act for the opposite sex and what he thinks about me are the common themes in Loose Girl.  Kerry grew up in a broken family.  The victim of a mother who left the family she doesn’t really want to follow her dreams and the daughter of a father who reluctantly takes Kerry and her older sister Tyler in but doesn’t quite grasp the sense of what his responsibilities require of him.  Buying the girls love and (he thinks) respect with clothes, expensive private schools and a rule-less home life leads to a life that any teenager thinks is the best but underneath it all is the worst thing for her development. 

Loose Girl was a tough read for the most part.  Some parts of Kerry’s story echoed my own “dating years” but the drugs, drinking and constant repetitive behavior became tedious at times.  The point of the problem carried across to me, the reader, very well and was extremely effective though.  I found myself very frustrated with Kerry and the same “mistakes” she made over and over again but I understand that that was and is the “illness” she deals with and dealt with while growing up without even being aware of it.  Sleeping with a guy on the first date or just for the sake of a one night stand isn’t the best thing to do and usually doesn’t get one anywhere one wants to go in the end. 

I think that some young girls might benefit from reading Loose Girl if it’s taken as a cautionary tale but after much editing.  Drugs and alcohol play a significant role in Kerry’s misadventures.  Actually, maybe it doesn’t need editing for the young reader.  Maybe it could shed a long lasting light on what can happen if you don’t put yourself first in your life and succumb to peer pressures and the role society tries to place the young and influential female in. 

{Rating 3.5 out of 5}

Book Review ~ The Summer of Naked Swim Parties by Jessica Anya Blau

Summary: The Summer of Naked Swim Parties ~ Fourteen-year-old Jamie will never forget the summer of 1976.  It’s the summer when she has her first boyfriend, cute surfer Flip Jenkins; it’s the summer when her two best friends get serious about sex, cigarettes, and tanning; it’s the summer when her parents throw, yes, naked swim parties, leaving Jamie flushed with embarrassment.  And it’s the summer that forever changes the way Jamie sees the things that matter: family, friendship, love and herself.

The Summer of Naked Swim Parties by Jessica Anya Blau is a time capsule from the summer of 1976, our country’s bicentennial year.  So many parts of this book are familiar yet alien to me.  Some a reflection of my life as a fourteen year old in 1989 but for the most part a fun read with subtle reminders of what being a teenager is all about. 

Daughter of semi-nudist, pot-smoking, party hosting, over-involved parents, Jamie finds being fourteen challenging.  She is the youngest of two daughters and though Rene and Jamie are no longer close, with different and conflicting views on life, they were before the hormonal teen years hit.  Rene goes off to “Outward Bound” summer camp and Jamie begins her very educational summer at home.   

Jamie’s summer schedule consists of waking, watching her topless mother bounce around the kitchen while making breakfast and spending her afternoons and evenings hanging out with her two best girlfriends.  The three of them soon begin having adventures with town boys and the dramas that come with lust/love, sex, drugs and drinking take over. 

Jamie learns about sex, already knows about pot, thanks to her parents but she’s not really interested.  She learns more about beer, discovers that just because they hang out with you it doesn’t mean that your friends will have your back forever.

One of my favorite parts in The Summer of Naked Swim Parties is when Jamie looses her virginity to her boyfriend Flip.  Though the location is a romantic, secluded beach spot with the boyfriend she knows every girl at school wants, things don’t always go as planned.  When does it really?

Blau’s dialogue flows smoothly and is clever, funny and quick.  My favorite character has to be Janie’s mother, Betty.  She is beautiful, fun loving, cooks, the glue that holds the family together and loves to make everyone happy as well as keep a high level of happiness in her life.  She concerns herself with Jamie’s newly discovered sexuality that is outed by a strange house guest.  She just wants her daughter to experience the pleasures she is entitled to, to Jamie’s horror.  Who really wants to talk about masturbation with their mom anyway?  Who’s mom actually tried to give tips on the subject? 

After a tragic accident plaques the house’s energy, Betty brings in an exorcist, the family visits a crazy family therapy session.  Then so-called friends come out of the woodwork when a (I believe) fictionalized Jane Fonda and her Senate-running husband are thrown a fund-raising party that becomes a bore-fest because there aren’t jiggling breasts and “wagging penises” diving into the pool or jumping on the trampoline in the back yard. 

Antagonists appear in many forms throughout The Summer of Naked Swim Parties.  Be it a penis, a mooching “Native American”, a disgruntled sister or a box of Nutter Butter cookies disguised as a friend, Jamie is constantly at battle with herself and her surroundings.  What fourteen year-old girl isn’t?  The Summer of Naked Swim Parties is a great book taking us back to our own summers when we were teenagers and had questions and worries about everything.  Some things never change though.  I’m still a worrier, still love to have fun and still love to make out.

{Rating ~ 4 out of 5}

Be sure to check out Jessica Anya Blau’s guest post titled “Motherhood and Celebrity Penises” HERE.

The Summer of Naked Swim Parties book trailer:

Book Review & Book Club Discussion ~ The Great Man by Kate Christensen

The Great Man by the Pen/Faulkner Award Winning author Kate Christensen was the July/August Planet Books reading club selection.  It is the story of one man, deceased, and the amazing, complicated and loving women he surrounded himself with in life.  Oscar Feldman was a “renowned figurative painter” who led multiple lives.  One as a husband, another as a lover and a third as the famous painter who seduced his models with his hands and his paint brush. 

“Oscar, Oscar, Oscar,” said Maxine.  “Look at us, four smart old bags with plenty to think about, fixated on my putz of a brother, who’s been dead for five years and wasn’t especially nice to any of us.”

At first glance I wasn’t really enjoying this book but once I got to know the women in Oscar’s life, I was intrigued by the idea of forgiveness and tolerance that his wife, lover and even sister had for this unlikeable man who was nothing but a selfish painter who bucked the system on all levels.  As I finally got over the hump and got into the book, I discovered that the characters where written so well that I felt they may be real people and that this was actually a biography of Oscar Feldman but in reality it is the event of two biographies being written about the painter that brings Abigail (wife), Teddy (the mistress), Lila (Teddy’s best friend),  Maxine (sister), and numerous secondary characters together.  In their golden years, these women dredge up the past as they tell not one but two individual biographers about their lives with Oscar.  They discuss his work and I must say that I thoroughly enjoyed the detailed descriptions of his approach to painting and the paintings themselves. 

We meet Teddy first.  The woman who Oscar carried on a forty plus year affair with that produced twin daughters.  She at first is rough around the edges but once I got past some personal dislike for the writing style in the book, I was able to submerge myself into the New York City boroughs where the characters live and listen to their stories.  At one point I felt that I related to Teddy the most out of all the female characters Christensen created.  She is strong but was in total love with Oscar and supported him the best she could though she was never able to do so as the official women in Oscar’s life.  Since Oscar’s death five years before this book begins, Teddy has moved from the large house she shared with Oscar and raised their daughters in to a small apartment that with time got away from her.  Things piled up and the idea of taking care of business overwhelms in her old age.  Two biographers have started calling to do research on the famous portrait artist, Oscar Feldman and Teddy finds herself entertaining both men over lunches at her residence and telling stories of life with Oscar, on the inside and on the outside. 

The same goes for Maxine Fledman, Oscar’s sister and a successful painter in her own right but part of the abstract art world.  She is a bitter old lesbian with many regrets and leftover feelings for two women in her life.  Her ex-lover from thirty years ago and her present day assistant.  Christensen wrote all the characters very well but Maxine was especially memorable.  A perfectly described lesbian, full of masculinity and lust.  Maxine was a tough woman with an even tougher personality that hid the tenderness and vulnerability at her core.  The relationships she has with Teddy and Oscar’s widow, Abigail are very different.  Maxine never cared for Teddy and always looked down on her for accepting the role of Oscar’s mistress.  She doesn’t acknowledge Teddy and Oscar’s twin daughters, her nieces, but does steal quick glances of Ruby who happens to take her dog to the same dog park that Maxine frequents with her faithful companion, Frago. 

Abigail was Oscar’s life long best friend and wife who cared for their autistic son Ethan.  The relationship between mother and son drove Oscar to jealousy because it was Abigail’s attention he desired so to spite Ethan he would just ignore the boy when he actually spent time with his first family.  Abigail is a lovely but timid character.  At first I didn’t think much of her myself but I soon realized that she was able to tolerate the situation that had entered her life instead of interrupt the smooth waters that had become her life. 

I asked my friend Nicole what her favorite points of the book were and I have to agree with what she said.  “I thought it was neat to get each woman’s perspective and that they were told as parts of the book.  It was the first time I read the first person perspective from such an older character and I felt that Kate Christensen did a really wonderful job with this book.  Also, I thought it was interesting that after hearing the story being told through Teddy, Maxine and then Teddy’s eyes to end the book from the perspective of a complete outsider looking in and observing Oscar’s women.  Henry, one of the two biographers who began to suffer form the same weaknesses that plagued the ‘great man’ himself.  One last thing I really enjoyed about The Great Man was how Christensen compared her analysis between cooking and painting.”  (You can listen to an interview with Kate Christensen on NPR HERE.  She shares the fact that she actually tried the recipes she described in her book and that they were pretty good.)

As the story moves along the interviews between biographers and women creates a fear in Maxine that a huge secret may be unveiled.  It is a major twist and with it the book took off and I finished it rather quickly.  The Great Man surprised me after all and I enjoyed it after all.  It gave great insight into the world of painters and the stresses they face in their line of work.  Insecurities that plague them just like any professional. 

What did you think of the book?  Were you able to enjoy it?  Which woman was your favorite, least favorite?

Book Review ~ I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone by Stephanie Kuehnert

Summary ~ “The Clash.  Social Distortion.  Dead Kennedy’s.  Patti Smith.  The Ramones.  Punk rock is in Emily Black’s blood.  Her mother, Louisa, hit the road to follow the incendiary music scene when Emily was four months old and never came back. 

Now Emily’s all grown up with a punk band of her own, determined to find the tune that will bring her mother home.  Because if Louisa really is following the music, shouldn’t it lead her right back to Emily?”

 

Stephanie Kuehnert’s I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone was able to do what no other novel has done for me.  It took me to a place in my memory that I haven’t visited in a very long time.  The story is set in the musically historical time of the early to mid 90’s (including flashbacks to the 70’s and 80’s) and the music scene that erupted when Punk fell and Grunge raised it’s mighty guitar pick and rocked the country.  Unlike the main character, Emily Black, I was not a big fan of Punk music but when Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Soundgarden, Temple of the Dog (A hybrid band mixing Soundgarden and Pearl Jam members for a memorable album), Stone Temple Pilots and Alice In Chains swept the airwaves like a wild fire, not to be contained, I knew I would never be the same.

Emily Black grew up in Carlisle, Wisconsin.  A small, gossip filled town that is the last place this spirited teen wants to be.  Just like her mother before her, she longs for the open road that Rock ‘n Roll seductively offers.  Her mother left Emily and her devoted (best written father in a long while) and music loving dad to “follow the music” when Emily was just four months old.  This selfish act will haunt Emily for the rest of her life but it’s what Emily does with her life that makes for entertaining, moving and music filled reading.  Yes, I could hear the music as I read Kuehnert’s vivid descriptions of writing music and playing for pulsing, sweaty crowds in bars and clubs all over the country.  I found that listening to Nirvana, the Singles soundtrack, Pearl Jam’s Surfer Eddie Live album and one of my personal favorites, NIN (Nine Inch Nails) Pretty Hate Machine was imperative background music to read I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone by. 

Though some flashbacks left me confused about where in Emily’s life I was, Kuehnert takes such care with character and plot development that it wasn’t too distracting.  Emily’s relationship with her father and her best friend Regan made for emotional reading and there were numerous points throughout the book when I had to wipe away my tears in order to see the pages.  The relationship between Emily and her best friend, Regan, was so realistic and true that at times I was brought back to the time between 1992 and 1995 and my best friend, Ellen (names were changed to protect the real person).  Ellen had a huge influence on my life musically.  She was music.  Her love of Rock ‘n’ Roll, musicians, lyrics and all the back stories that make up the gaps between songs on CD’s helped me develop my love and knowledge of music.  Ellen’s Honda Prelude was named Eddie after Eddie Vedder and her black dog was named Zeppelin.  We were together when we learned of Kurt Cobain’s suicide and we spent endless hours listening to music, discussing it, singing and soaking it in.  Emily is faced with a very scary situation regarding Regan’s health in I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone which reminded me of Ellen’s 19th birthday when she tried to kill herself.  Thank God she wasn’t successful.  It was more a plea for help and a cry for attention from her estranged father but it was a heartbreaking and terrifying time for me that I will never forget.  Like Emily, I loved my best friend so much and would have done and did do anything for her.  We have since lost touch but this book has brought back tons of fond memories of endless days spent together listening to music and being each other’s best friend during a strange and exciting time.

Emily and Regan have known each other since birth practically and that is because their mom’s Louisa and Molly were childhood best friends.  Their friendship begins to focus on music and the idea of starting a band when they enter high school.  Emily’s dad has been teaching her how to play the guitar since she was a toddler and she begins to realize that she is a pretty damn good guitarist.  She can also sing and write lyrics so with Regan on drums they just need a bass player.  Regan has been eyeing a boy at school who she knows is a musician and she wants for her boyfriend.  Tom becomes the glue that holds the band together and helps Emily create music and a sound that they find success with.  Kuehnert creates a world of underground music and the elements of a band that is believable, gritty and wonderful.  I managed a Ska band in college, just when the Punk Ska movement was getting huge attention in 1995-1996 and the sacrifices and rehearsal hours put into a band are monumental.  Yet another time in my life that this book brought to the fore front of my memory. 

The band, She Laughs, finds different levels of success but Emily”s mother always haunts her and she feels like everything she does is because of Louisa.  I liked the way that Emily’s life was a reflection at times of her mother’s life.  Sometimes the apple really doesn’t fall far from the tree even when the daughter never knew her mother personally but only through stories, few pictures and the albums she had left behind all those years ago.

Emily’s story line is like the versus of a song and her mother’s, Louisa, story is the chorus, the backbone of the book that leads all other characters down the road of fate. I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone reads like a great album plays.  Full of songs that need each other to create an amazing effect on the whole.  Showing a progression but having a common sound or style like the characters that move through the story. 

I enjoyed the mental journey Kuehnert took me on with her debut novel and I look forward to seeing what she has up her sleeve for us in the future.  You can check out Stephanie’s web site HEREand her MySpace page HERE

{Rating ~ 4 out of 5}

Book Review ~ Schooled by Anisha Lakhani

Summary ~ “When Anna Taggert lands a teaching job at an elite private school on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, her dreams of chalk boards and lesson plans are quickly dashed by the grim realities of her small paycheck. It’s not easy to overlook the fact that tuition for each of your students exceeds your annual salary or that your students dress better than you do, but this earnest young Ivy League graduate does her best. And then comes the discovery that the papers she grades are not the work of her seventh graders, but of their high-priced tutors. Before long, Anna too is lured into a world where paying for the best that money can buy takes on a whole new meaning. Enticed by the prospect of earning more in an hour than she takes home in a day, Anna becomes a teacher by day and a tutor by night, joining the ranks of those who secretly do the homework of the children of affluence. A delicious debut based on the author’s experiences as a tutor while teaching at one of Manhattan’s top private schools, Schooled presents a shocking picture of an underground economy that is altering the landscape of education in every way. This dazzling exposé lays bare the tutoring industry in a way only an insider can. Welcome to Schooled, where even homework has a price.”

Schooled is a fun, light and enjoyable novel by debut author, Anisha Lakhani.  At the fictional Landon School, Anna Taggart is the newest and youngest member of the teaching faculty, in more ways than one.  Anna is the embodiment of a young Columbia University grad who actually gets a job right out of college as an English teacher at the most coveted private school in Manhattan’s Upper East Side.  The hopeful and optimistic Anna enters the world of private school as a driven and idealistic first year teacher full of dreams of happy hours with co-workers and inspiring her young students. 

She starts out the new semester with clever class assignments and a drive to teach and mold the minds of her young students.  The lesson plans are creative and compelling and made for some of my favorite scenes in the book.  The students, who on most days would sit bored out of their minds around the conference table (there aren’t desks in this progressiveschool), really respond to Anna’s assignments.  Especially two in particular.  One being an assignment to rewrite some of Romeo’s lines as a rap song and the second, to direct a scene from Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet.  They have to create story boards, blocking and put together the staples of a play. 

I learned more about Shakespeare while reading Schooled than I did while studying his work in high school.  I chalk it up to the fact that I may not have really been interested in learning about Shakespeare and his significance but I also blame the unenthusiastic teachers who saw the sea of faces before them as a group of uninterested, carefree, hormone driven kids who didn’t care.  I have no recollection of ever learning or at least retaining the magic of iambic pentameter.  I will admit that thanks to the character, Anna Taggart, I now understand it.

After some students, God forbid, seriously do the homework themselves and whine when asked by parents to go to bed, go out for the weekend or be on the computer working instead of the rumored hours of IM’ing, complaints come in over the phones to the administration and Anna is reminded that her job as a teacher does not require assigning homework.  Langdon School prides itself in it’s progressive ways of teaching and handling its students. 

As the semester continues, Anna learns that the papers she has been grading are too perfect to have been written by her seventh graders and are actually the work of overpriced and overpaid tutors who work for the families of Langdon.  Not only is she learning about the tutoring underworld that parents blindly believe is best for their children but these tutors are private school teachers just like herself.  

The plot thickens when Anna finds herself seduced by parents and their money to tutor their children.  She soon acquires a whole new schedule full of students from other private schools after finding out that she could make more in one hour of tutoring than she does in one day of teaching.  Soon Anna is caught up in the crazy world of writing papers for students all over the Upper East Side as well as for college students over Christmas break, being able to move from her fifth floor walk-up to a luxurious apartment between Park and Madison Avenue, to shopping and dining at all the tres chic boutiques and the coveted shopping mecca that is Barney’s. 

Schooled is full of moral issues, big money and spoiled rich kids and their parents taking advantage of the school system to their own detriment.  One of the most refreshing things I found about this book was the fact that the protagonist, Anna Taggart, does not have a love interest to busy herself with but instead devotes her time to starting her career as a private school English teacher and learning, and consequently becoming a part of, of the tutoring underworld that haunts her school and other private schools on the Upper East Side.  The idea of a relationship brimming between Anna and a fellow teacher hit me while reading and I later found out from my correspondence with Anisha Lakhani that she had toyed with the idea of pairing Anna up with this other character but decided against it.

I enjoyed every part of this book, from the classroom scenes to the shopping sprees to the tutoring lessons.  Schooled has a flair about it that transports the reader to Manhattan’s Upper East Side and makes it easy to visualize the life of the filthy rich and the people they take advantage of.  It offers up a great heroine named Anna Taggert who has decided to go into the thankless and difficult career of teaching.  She is a great character whom I will not soon forget.

{Rating ~ 4 out of 5}

Schooled will be available for purchase Tuesday, August 5th.  You can visit Anisha Lakhani’s website HERE.  It is a very cool site.  You can see Anisha’s book tour schedule under the Field Trip ‘pencil’ and be sure to check out her adorable Shih Tzu, Harold Moskowitz, under the Class Mascot ‘pencil’.  Anisha will also be over at The Debutante Ball grog (group blog) on August 9th.   

Book Review & Giveaway ~ Keeping the House by Ellen Baker

Summary ~ “When Dolly Magnuson moves to Pine Rapids, Wisconsin, in 1950, she discovers that making marriage work is harder than it looks in the pages of the Ladies’ Home Journal.  Dolly tries to adapt to her new life by keeping the house, supporting her husband’s career, and joining the Ladies Aid quilting circle.  Soon her loneliness and restless imagination are seized by a vacant house, owned by the once-prominent Mickelson family.  As Dolly’s life and marriage become increasingly difficult, she begins to lose herself in piecing together the story of the Mickelson men and women – and unravels dark secrets woven through the generations of a family.  As Keeping the House moves back and forth in time, it eloquently explores themes of heroism and passion, of men’s struggles with fatherhood and war, and of women’s conflicts with issues of conformity, identity, forbidden dreams, and love.” 
                             

A Novel

Keeping the House by Ellen Baker is much more than it seems when you first look at the cover.  The new paperback version, released last Tuesday, July 15, 2008, is very retro with the simple picture of a red and cream checkered apron and a weathered look to the ink, as if this copy had been collecting dust on a shelf for the last sixty years.  But what this book holds inside is an epic story about three generations of the Mickelson Family of Pine Rapids, Wisconsin, the effect of two world wars on a family and the people surrounding them as well as a curse placed on the gorgeous, imposing, massive family house that overlooks the town as if looking down its nose.  At least that is what the towns people, especially members of the Ladies Aid, think of the Mickelsons and their house on the hill.  Little does the town know that this family of wealth and apparent great fortune in all they touch really suffers from heartbreak, deceit, family secrets and gut wrenching sadness.
 
The matriarch of the Mickelson family is Wilma.  She first arrives in Pine Rapids as a new bride in the summer of 1896.  She has left her family and her beloved piano studies behind and is now the newest member of the successful Mickelsons and their lumber mill.  Wilma escapes the doldrums of everyday married life with the help of her piano and the sonatas and waltzes she plays all day long.  As I was reading I was curious what the pieces she was playing actually sounded like so I checked them out.  I wasn’t surprised to discover that the three pieces that Baker wrote into Wilma’s repertoire are all devastatingly sad and melancholy in sound.  Chopin’s Waltz in B Minor and Nocturne in B-flat Minor are both utterly beautiful pieces of piano music that sweep around the room.  As I listen to them now, I can easily see Wilma Mickelson playing these pieces with such emotion.  That these pieces of music were some of the only friends this character had in this strange town is heartbreaking.  The third piece of music which filled the house on the hill when Wilma still played was Beethoven’s Sonata Pathetique.  A popular and well known Beethoven movement, the notes create a sound that represents hopes and dreams but then reminds the listener that reality is not always what you hope it will be.
 
Wilma’s husband John is a man of drive and power.  He wishes only the best for his new bride but knows that her life may not be what she wanted.  They have four children but we only really get to know two of them; Jack & Harry Michelson.  Their stories span both The Great War and World War II.  The segments when the voice of Jack and his son J.J. share stories of being Marines at war are so vivid and full of the terrors of war, it’s hard for me to believe that even an author with as much knowledge of this period of history as Ellen Baker has could write of the experience of war with such vivid imagery and emotion.  It blew me away!  Keeping the House shows the spoils of war and when these troops return to the real world, they are not what their families remember them to be.  Unfortunately this book can give insight to what our present day troops are going through mentally when they return home to their loved ones but are haunted by destruction, death, brutality and unwhole bodies, both physically and spiritually. 
 
This book holds some of the most memorable female characters I have ever read too.  Besides Wilma Mickelson there is Dolly Magnuson, the newlywed who is the present day (1950) reflection of Wilma.  She is uninspired and bored in her role as wife and housekeeper to her husband Byron.  She wishes for adventure but settles for a seat in the Ladies Aid quilting circle.  After learning that these ladies know of the Mickelson family and what they believe to be true of the family members’ business, Dolly becomes obsessed with the idea of asking Byron to buy her the old, forgotten and apparently deserted Mickelson house.  Dolly starts to piece together the history of the family when she breaks into the house on the hill and begins cleaning it up, in hopes of living there one day with her husband and having a perfect marriage with him.  She comes across pictures and Wilma’s old piano but also discovers that not everything is as the town gossips think it was.  One of my favorite quotes from the book is Dolly imagining what the town gossips might say about her.
 
“Maybe Pine Rapids wouldn’t be so bad.  Even if she was going to stay married, that didn’t mean she had to care what the town thought of her.  Let them talk!  Starting with tonight, when they would comment on how shocking is was that her husband had had to take her out for supper on a Tuesday.  She could hear them now: ‘I’ll bet she was reading a novel all day, instead of fulfilling her obligation to the household!  She’s just spoiled, expects dinner out like it was her due!'”
 
Just when you suspect that the story will continue down one road, a twist comes out of nowhere and makes you second guess the characters’ motives and this continues through to the end.  As is life!  I absolutely loved Keeping the House and will say that it has become one of my favorite books I have ever read.  I loved the character and plot development and the periods in which the story was set.  Ellen Baker succeeded in creating a book rich in detail, that is thought provoking and moving.  An edge-of-your-seat gripping tale of family secrets and love lost and won.  At the front of my copy of Keeping the House, there is a list of reviews from newspapers and authors.  The Booklist review shares my feelings about this book.
 
“Brimming with luscious detail that authenticate the story’s various time periods, from early to mid-twentieth century, Baker’s accomplished, ambitious debut novel is a majestic, vibrant multigenerational saga in the finest tradition of the genre.”     – Booklist
{Rating ~ 5 out of 5}
Author, Ellen Baker, will be joining us in the coming weeks with a guest post.  She has also graciously agreed to provide a signed copy of Keeping The House for a giveaway contest here at Planet Books.  To qualify for a chance to win a signed copy of this wonderful book, please leave your name in the comment section of this post by Midnight EST on Friday, August 1st, 2008.  To get an extra chance to win, please write a post on your own blog about this contest and link it back to my review.  Check back here on Saturday, August 2nd to see who wins.  Good Luck!! 

You can learn more about Ellen Baker at her website
http://www.ellenbakernovels.com/ and her MySpace page http://www.myspace.com/authorellenbaker.

Book Review ~ House & Home by Kathleen McCleary

                              House and Home
Summary ~ “Ellen Flanagan has two precious girls to raise, a cozy neighborhood coffee shop to run, terrific friends, and a sexy husband.  She adores her house, a yellow Cape Cod filled with quirky antiques, beloved nooks and dents, and a million memories.  But now, at forty-four, she’s about to lose it all. 
     After eighteen roller-coaster years of marriage, Ellen’s husband, Sam – who’s charismatic, spontaneous, and utterly irresponsible – has disappointed her in more ways than she can live with, and they’re getting divorced.  Her daughters are miserable about losing their daddy.  Worst of all, the house that Ellen loves with all her heart must now be sold.
     Ellen’s life is further complicated by an unexpected relationship with the husband of the shrewish, social-climbing woman who has purchased the house.  Add to that the confusion over how she really feels about her almost-ex-husband, and you have the makings of a delicious novel about what matters most in the end…”

“House & Home” is the rich, beautifully detailed and heart-filled debut novel by author Kathleen McCleary.  It’s a story about a woman named Ellen Flanagan, her daughters Sara and Louise, her husband Sam and their beloved yellow house in the suburbs of Portland, Oregon.  We meet the Flanagan family during a very tumultuous time in their lives.  Ellen is the owner of an eclectic neighborhood furniture and coffee shop.  She has decided to file for divorce from her want-to-be-successful inventor of a husband, Sam, not for the typical reason of adultery but because of an inventor’s dream that just ended up costing too much financially and emotionally.  She agreed to allow a second mortgage to be taken out on her treasure of a house in order to put more money into the experimental stages of Sam’s latest invention.  After Sam says that another move is necessary for his plan to take off, Ellen decides she can’t take a lifestyle of uncertainties anymore and makes the decision to end her eighteen year marriage.  Unfortunately because of the financial situation she is in she will have to sell her house.  

Cue the up-tight, perfectly groomed East Coaster and her team of contractors who has bought Ellen’s Cape Cod.  This woman is the antithesis of Ellen.  She proceeds in making Ellen’s life hell by renting back the house to her for one last month so Ellen can pack up ten years worth of memories and move them and her two daughters into a house across town that she doesn’t care about.  The new owner is the thorn in Ellen’s side while dealing with the move and how it is effecting her and her daughters, especially her eldest Sara. At the beginning of the book Ellen believes that if it isn’t her living in the house than no one should. 

“The house was yellow, a clapboard Cape Cod with a white picket fence and a big bay window on one side, and Ellen loved it with all her heart.  She loved the way the wind from the Gorge stirred the trees to constant motion outside the windows, the cozy arc of the dormers in the girls’ bedroom, the cherry-red mantel with the cleanly carved dentil molding over the fireplace in the living room.  She had conceived children in that house, suffered miscarriages in that house, brought her babies home there, argued with her husband there, made love, rejoiced, despaired, sipped tea, and gossiped and sobbed and counseled and blessed her friends there, walked the halls with sick children there, and scrubbed the worn brick of the kitchen floor there at least a thousand times on her hands and knees.  And it was because of all this history with the house, all the parts of her life unfolding there day after day for so many years, that Ellen decided to burn it down.”

As I read “House & Home” I was struck with the feeling the book physically has.  The cover is warm and inviting with warm yellows and gold tones in the bedroom picture and the lush greenery just beyond the windowsill.  The characters who live inside “House & Home” are very realistic and while reading, I am immersed in Portland, Oregon, enjoying a vanilla latte at Ellen’s shop “Coffee @ Home”.  Then I am hanging out in the yard between her house and her neighbor and best friend Jo’s house.  I became emotionally invested in what happened to these people; Ellen, Sam, their relationship, the girls and the family buying Ellen’s pride and joy, her house. 

Just when you suspect that the story will continue down one road, twists comes out of nowhere and make you second guess the characters motives.  As is life.  I loved “House & Home” and the familiar voice that came from the author’s story telling.  The characters could be real people facing these challenges today, especially with the way the housing market is panning out.  I enjoyed the imagery McCleary used to set the mood and setting for her characters.  The author’s own time spent living in her beloved Portland, Oregon came through on the pages of her novel about what happens when you think that the one thing you can’t live without is actually not at the top of the list like you thought it was.

{Rating ~ 4 out of 5}

I have included the book trailer for “House & Home” to help peak your interest in reading it even more.

Book blogger friend Lisa over at Books On The Brain  also enjoyed HOUSE & HOME.  You can read her review HERE.

Book Review ~ My Horizontal Life by Chelsea Handler

A Collection of One-Night Stands

Summary ~ Meet Chelsea Handler.  Gorgeous, sharp, and anything but shy.  Chelsea loves men… lots of them.  In this raucous collection of true-life stories, she chronicles her romp through the bedroom of a variety of suitors.  MY HORIZONTAL LIFE is a fearless account of what can happen between a man and a sometimes very intoxicated, outgoing woman during one night of passion.
From her short fling with a Vegas stripper to her even shorter dalliance with a well-endowed little person, from her uncomfortable tryst with a cruise ship performer to her misguided rebound with a man who likes to play leather dress-up, Chelsea recalls the highs and lows of her one-night stands with hilarious honesty.  MY HORIZONTAL LIFE is one guilty pleasure you won’t be ashamed to talk about in the morning.

It’s the morning after finishing MY HORIZONTAL LIFE and I feel like I’ve got a hangover from all the drinking stand-up comedienne Chelsea Handler wrote about.  MY HORIZONTAL LIFE is a collection of stories about Handler’s adventures in the art of the one-night stand.  Though laugh out loud funny at moments, most of the time I just felt sorry for Handler and the poor decisions she made during her late teens and twenties.  She comes across as a miserable drunk in most stories and if she isn’t drunk she fixes that quickly with a bottle of Kettle One Vodka. 

“After I regained my composure, I realized it was time to formulate a plan.  Step one was to start drinking immediately.  I was always more logical when I drank.” 

I was never a big drinker during my partying years and still am not but I admit, I like to tie one on once in a blue moon.  A good night of drinking just reminds me that I’m not that tough and I can be annoying and funny all at once.  It also reminds me that I’m not getting any younger.   Reading this book made me feel really good about the misadventures I had in my twenties, though no one-night stands.  I am able to look back on my twenties as one of the most fun times in my life and I am grateful for those memories. 

I counted up how many men Handler wrote about (slept with) in MY HORIZONTAL LIFE and after all is said and done the tally only came to fifteen.  The characters that she finds herself in bed or close to bed with aren’t too interesting really.  They just come across as lonely as she does.

“I sat on my kitchen floor wondering what kind of people I was friends with.  I also wondered if I was ever going to get married.  After about an hour, I decided to stop feeling sorry for myself.”

I hope there is more to Chelsea Handler than just misadventures in the world of sleeping around, dating and drinking till she can’t drink anymore.  Which seems to take forever. 

 “This could definitely turn into a relationship.  I knew because I didn’t want to sleep with him right away, and I’ve felt that way only a couple of times.”

“The thought occurred to me that the one-night stand was not nearly as much fun as it used to be.  I felt disgusted with myself for being so disappointed in a complete stranger not being able to perform.  I felt like a man must feel after using and abusing women for ages.”

If you didn’t have a very adventurous time in your twenties then MY HORIZONTAL LIFE will help you live vicariously through Chelsea Handler and her very colorful times.  If you were wild and crazy and the queen of doing stupid things in your twenties then MY HORIZONTAL LIFE will assure you you really weren’t that bad.

{Rating ~ 2.5 out of 5}

Book Review ~ The Art Of Racing In The Rain by Garth Stein

Summary ~ “Enzo knows he is different from other dogs: a philosopher with a nearly human soul (and obsession with opposable thumbs), he has educated himself by watching television extensively, and by listening very closely to the words of his master, Denny Swift, an up-and-coming race car driver.  Through Denny, Enzo has gained tremendous insight into the human condition, and he sees that life, like racing, isn’t simply about going fast.  USing the techniques needed on the race track, one can successful navigate all of life’s ordeals.”

I have to stop reading books that make me cry.  The Art of Racing In The Rain was an amazing book that has brought my relationship with my dog, Rocky, to a new level.  I think he knew what I was reading about over the last few days because he has been even more affectionate and loving towards me.  This book is such a cozy, wonderful, infuriating, and heart warming story, I didn’t want it to end but I couldn’t make myself read any slower because I had to know what would happen.

In the beginning we meet Enzo, the wonderful dog/narrator at the heart of this book.  He shares the story of his life with us and the events, big and small, that filled his days.  This book holds the story of a family, happy at times and wrecked at others, but never giving up on the love and hope that they have for each other.  Denny Swift is Enzo’s Master and he is a great guy.  An up-and-coming race car driver who loves to watch tapes of his races on the T.V. with Enzo and speak to him like he’s just one of the guys.  A guy’s guy who loves his family and will do anything in his power to make things safe, happy and wonderful for them.  Tragedy of course strikes this ideal family but not without humor told from the point of view of the family dog.

At times I wanted to put this book in the freezer like Joey on Friends did while reading both The Shining and Little Women.  Not because I was scared but because I was mad and needed a cooling off period from the story and the people in Enzo’s life. 

Enzo’s retelling of his life as a member of the Swift family was a joy to read.  Though twists and turns in the lives of his family made for sad reading at times, the fact that everything effected Enzo in similar ways was amazing.  Dogs are extremely perceptive and though this is a work of fiction, I believe that Stein must have quite a dog (Comet is her name) in his own life to draw inspiration from.

On a personal note, one of my favorite bands is Edie Brickell & The New Bohemians and one of my favorite songs by them is “What I Am.”  The lyric that comes to mind here is:

I’m not aware of too many things
I know what I know, if you know what I mean
Philosophy is the talk on a cereal box
Religion is the smile on a dog
I’m not aware of too many things
I know what I know, if you know what I mean, d-doo yeah

 {Rating ~ 4.5 out of 5}

Sunday Salon ~ June 29th, 2008

As I wait patiently (yeah right) for the July Book Blowout to start over at Blue Archipelago, I wanted to read something short.  I’m reading Elie Wiesel’s “NIGHT“.  I didn’t say I was reading anything light and short now did I. 
                                   Night (Oprah's Book Club)
My mother-in-law had left this book here for me to read after her and my father-in-law’s visit to Okinawa in 2006 and I am reading it now.  Like I have said before, I believe that books find you.  I think it is important to be reminded of the horrors of the past so as not to repeat them in the future.  The Holocost was a horrific hell and injustice against a people, religion and the world.  I am about half way through “NIGHT” and though I find it effecting my mind’s eye even when the book is waiting for me to pick it up again, I feel it important to be reading it and will be finishing it tomorrow.