Friday, September 29, 2006

One Book, One Chicago

Someone in Chicago came up with a very cool concept - One Book, One Chicago. It's a great idea that unfortunately absolutely no one knows about and for which they pick terrible books. It's (poorly) promoted by the Chicago Public Library. This fall the book is Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies, which came out in 1999. I read it then, and didn't love it. I think I'll give it another go, just to see if it strikes up any conversation on the train. Lahiri is a competent writer, but a little distant. I don't think she's a good choice for One Book, One Chicago, but then again, it's a sight better than One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (spring 2006).

The program began in 2001 with To Kill a Mockingbird (I suppose you can't go wrong with that) and was followed with some odd choices like The Things they Carried and Pride and Prejudice. To me, the key to a program like this, which according to their website, is meant to "cultivate a culture of reading and discussion in Chicago by bringing our diverse city together around one great book" is to choose books that appeal to a wide audience of all ages and cultural backgrounds, and also, essentially, to choose a book that has something to to do with Chicago! Not like, a friggin' Russian prison camp. That why Hansberry's Raisin in the Sun is really the only choice so far that's made any sense, although I don't think most people are very adept at reading plays.

Here are some books I would choose:
Chasing Vermeer, by Blue Balliett and Brett Helquist
The House on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros
The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair
The Hatbox Baby, by Carrie Brown (somebody told me it was good, and anyway it's a nice alternative to the awful Devil in the White City.)
Middlesex: A Novel by Jeffrey Eugenides
American Gothic: A Life of America's Most Famous Painting, by Steven Biel

In other Chicago book news, last night I saw local fave and Check, Please host, Alpana Signh reading from her new book at Women and Children First bookstore. That was a good time. They had a wine tasting from the new wine shop in the neighborhood. Alpana was very charming.


Prep, Curtis Sittenfeld's 2005 book about a young girl from Indiana who goes to a high school at a Northeast boarding school. Although the book is supposedly fictional, the first person account reads like an autobiography. Indeed, Sittenfeld herself is from Cincinnati and attended a prep school outside Boston like the one in the book.

Lee is an unlikable character; she's shy, so she rarely reaches out to people, but she has an expectation that they should reach out to her. She broods and sulks; she develops a crush on a schoolmate and then never speaks to him. She finally makes a friend and then ditches her for the friend's friend. She doesn't even do well in school and is continually scraping by with a C average. She's agonizingly self-conscious, like I admit I was in middle school and high school. I remember it's crippling effects and it's not pretty, just as it isn't in Prep. So I was willing to give Lee a wide path. I gave her a generous space to come into her own. But, ultimately, following Lee though four years of high school becomes onerous – she doesn't grow or learn from her mistakes, she never comes out of her judgmental stage, and she continues to brood in her room, never taking a chance or expanding her little world. Of course, most teenagers eek out their existence for at least a few years, and I think that's what makes the first half of Prep (and books like The Half-Blood Prince, or The Catcher in the Rye) so interesting, that nearly everyone can relate to this type of character. But also, nearly everyone (including Harry and Holden) eventually grows out of it! The sheer drudgery of Lee's existence becomes burdensome. Like Dawn Wiener in Todd Solondz's Welcome to the Dollhouse, observing Lee's miserable life becomes painful and embarrassing.

Whether that aspect overwhelms the book's positive characteristics or not may be a matter of choice. Sittenfeld's writing style is appealing and often beautiful and insightful. Even if you find yourself loathing Lee (as I did) you must admit that Sittenfeld perfectly captures the pre-teen and teenage girl. The few interactions of Lee with her Indiana parents provide much needed access into Lee's personality – her quick-tempered father and passive mother are briefly seen but well-developed characters. I wish that we had been treated to what it was like for Lee on summer breaks and holidays as she inevitably became alienated from her family.

I recently read Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities, by Alexandra Robbins – another book about isolated societies and mostly-wealthy people living together at school. Prep carries a feeling of authenticity that Pledged (non-fiction) reinforces. Neither a recommendation for or against this type of life-style, Prep makes boarding school seem, for the most part, very attractive, it's only the main character whom I'm not interested in knowing.

I haven't really read any Burgess

I decided to start a new blog just for book reviews. I was having a hard time coming up with a title, and finally settled on this semi-pretentious one after taking a quiz, "How well read are you?" on I think it's pretty cool that they included more than one question about children's books, a genre I enjoy very much. I got 10 out of 10, so I figured I'm entitled. I hope you enjoy this blog; please post comments to let me know if you agree or disagree with my reviews - I love nothing better than talking about a book!