Thursday, August 25, 2011

Why that book changed your life

When people ask me what my favourite book is, I'm a little proud not to have an answer. There are a lot of books that I reread annually, and there are many more that greatly affected me while I was reading them, and continued to afterwards. I like to think I'm lucky that no one specific book stood out. The question, though, of our favourite book(s) is implicitly tied to the bigger idea that a book can change you somehow. I looked into that question for the National Post and here's what I found:
The claim that a book can change someone’s life is one that’s made over and over again. Usually, we brush it aside as a cliché, but what if it was actually possible?

“The idea was to say, ‘OK, now what really are the psychological effects of reading?’ ” Oatley says. To try and work out an answer, he and Maja Djikic put together a study to measure how personalities can be changed by literature. Participants were given either Anton Chekhov’s story “The Lady with the Little Dog” or a version of the story rewritten in a nonfiction style by Djikic, which included all the same information, was the same length and at the same reading level. Participants did personality tests before and after reading. 

The question of the psychology of fiction is one that Keith Oatley, professor emeritus in the department of human development and applied psychology at the University of Toronto, has been working on for 20 years. He and some colleagues started the website On Fiction in 2008 to track work related to the psychology of fiction.

“The people who read the Chekhov story, their personalities all changed a bit,” Oatley says.
Read the rest on The Afterword...

Girls in White Dresses

I have been lucky, this summer, to have a job that requires me to read all kinds of books I might now have picked up on my own. Oh sure, some of them are books I won't look at again, but there have been some gems in there, and one of them was Jennifer Close's Girls in White Dresses, a collection of related short stories about girls in their twenties. It sounds like the setup for a romantic comedy, or yet another summer book about weddings, but I must say I was pleasantly surprised to discover it's much more than that.

The first story centers on Isabella, who feels like the book's main character even though Close also writes about her friends Mary and Lauren quite a bit as well. "The Rules of Life" is about Isabella's sister's wedding, which must have been in the late '80s or early '90s based on the description of the bright blue bridesmaids dresses. Isabella was just a little girl, and the story is her memory of the wedding and all the work it required. In real-time, Isabella has just finished her undergrad and is packing up to move to New York with her friend Mary when she finds her own blue dress in the back of the closet and decides to put it in the dress-up bin. 

That first story really sets the tone for the book, with its funny but not too sentimental look back at a wedding, as well as its explanation of where these girls are in their lives. Isabella doesn't take memories of her sister's wedding and use them to fantasize about her own; she's excited about moving to New York for reasons besides trying to find a boyfriend; there's no pining or whining or find-a-man pacts, it's just a 21- or 22-year-old girl getting ready to leave home.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Jennifer Close on Girls in White Dresses

I plan to write about Girls in White Dresses tomorrow, so I won't say too much now. I interviewed Jennifer Close last week and my profile ran in yesterday's National Post – if you missed it, it's on The Afterword. Here's a teaser:
When it comes to books about weddings, there tends to be three basic categories: sappy, catty and desperate. Girls in White Dresses manages to be none of those things, but maybe that’s because, despite its title, it isn’t really a book about weddings. 

“It’s funny when people say, ‘Oh, you wrote a book about weddings,’” says author Jennifer Close of her debut collection. “And I’m like, ‘I guess, but I think I wrote a book about your twenties, and weddings just happen to you.’” 

It’s really the most transformational time in your life, Close says, because in 10 years you go from being looked after to having a career, and bills, and go from casual relationships to ones that might actually go somewhere. Along with all those transitions, she adds, comes weddings. 

Girls in White Dresses is a mostly chronological collection of related short stories about friends Isabella, Lauren and Mary, and some of their mutual friends. The book starts when the women are in their early twenties, fresh out of university, and leaves them on the cusp of 30. Although some of the stories deal with weddings and related events, the majority of the tales are about friendship and the way life changes during the first adult decade.
Read the rest on The Afterword.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Sex on the Moon

We often ooh and ahh over novels that ring so true we can't believe they're fiction. The characters are so perfect, the (often) period is rendered just so, and we get caught up in everything that happens. That's as close to non-fiction as a lot of readers get. But, for all our admiration of these hyper-realistic novels, we rarely talk about the non-fiction that reads like fiction – stories so crazy with such a strange cast of characters that we think it must be made up. Of course, it isn't (usually, anyway), and that just seems to heighten how surreal the story it. Sex on the Moon, Ben Mezrich's latest non-fiction thriller, is just like that.

On the surface, Sex on the Moon is the story of a heist, specifically, the theft of a 600-pound safe filled with moon rocks from NASA. But, because that crime is so huge and so ridiculous, as much as this is a book that came about because of the crime, it is really the story of the man who committed it. Thad Roberts was a co-op student at NASA on his third of three tours when he carried out the audacious plan he'd been formulating in his head for months. He was on his way to becoming an astronaut – his dream – and he decided to steal from NASA. For a smart guy, Thad spends a lot of the book being incredibly stupid.

But we should back-up, as Mezrich does, and look at who Thad is. To be honest, I spent the majority of the book really frustrated by him. Thad is a strong central character, and it's clear that Mezrich had lots of access to him while he was putting the book together, but he's a hard guy to like. Early in the book we learn that Thad has been disowned by his Mormon parents for having premarital sex with his girlfriend, who he later marries. They're a very young couple and without financial support from home, Thad ends up dropping out of college for a while to help make ends meet. It's unfulfilling, though, and when he decides to go back to school and is casting around for a goal, he settles on astronaut.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Sex on the Moon: Ben Mezrich goes from Facebook to NASA crook

It's funny how the print cycle works. I read Sex on the Moon three weeks ago, interviewed Ben Mezrich two weeks ago, and it's all coming together this week. I'm going to write about the book on Thursday, but in the meantime, here's the beginning of my National Post feature about the author – you can read the whole thing in either today's paper, or over at The Afterword.
How do you move your career forward after writing a bestselling book about Facebook that went on to be an Oscar-winning movie? Well, you write about the kid who robbed NASA. 

“The guy stole a 600-pound safe full of moon rocks; how do you beat that?” says Ben Mezrich, author of Accidental Billionaires, the book that became The Social Network, and Bringing Down the House, which was made into the 2008 film 21. Mezrich’s latest book, out this month, is Sex on the Moon: The Amazing Story behind the Most Audacious Heist in History, and it’s another completely improbable-but-true story about a super-smart guy who sets out to do something crazy. 

Sex on the Moon is the story of Thad Roberts, a NASA co-op student who was on his way to entering the space program when he decided to steal a safe of moon rocks. But Roberts’ story begins long before he gets to NASA, and Mezrich takes his time explaining, in a way, what kind of man would attempt such an audacious theft.
Read the rest...

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Help

For some reason, whenever a book gets too popular, I become less interested in it. It's contrary and weird and I'm not sure why it happens, but it does: the more people who recommend a book to me, the more wary I am about reading it. At least partly, I think it's because I like to come to books in my own time and at my own pace, and I think I've been caught up in the hype before and then been really let down by the book. All this typically changes, though, when said book is being made into a movie that I'm going to see (either for work or by choice, or some lucky combination of the two). That was the case with Kathryn Stockett's The Help: it was on the bestseller list almost immediately after its release and everyone talked about it, and then out came the movie (which opened last night), so I cracked and read it. Then I couldn't put it down.

The Help is set in Jackson, Mississippi, during the early '60s and is told from the perspectives of three women: Aibileen and Minny, who are both black maids, and Skeeter Phelan, a white woman who has just returned to town after finishing her undergraduate degree. Skeeter is the only one of her friends to finish university – all the others left to get married – and her return to Jackson sees her catching up with old friends Hilly and Elizabeth, both of whom are married with children and running households of their own. Hilly is the queen bee of Jackson society ladies, and her role as Junior League president ensures her influence. So, when she decides that white homes with black maids need to build separate bathrooms for the help, she expects that to happen, starting at her friend Elizabeth's house.

Aibileen is Elizabeth's maid, and besides all the cooking and cleaning, Aibileen is also basically raising Elizabeth's daughter Mae Mobely. Aibileen has spent her entire working life raising white children for their parents, but she always leaves before they get too old. Minny, Aibileen's best friend, worked for Hilly's mother until Hilly had her fired and then spread rumours that she was a thief. Minny, in a fit of anger, does the 'Terrible Awful" (which I won't give away) and then fears for her life. She ends up getting a job cleaning for Celia Foote way out in the country. Celia is a "white trash" country girl who married Hilly's ex-boyfriend. She has therefore be banned from Jackson society (although she doesn't know it, and her attempts to make friends are heartbreaking) and has no idea Minny is supposed to be a thief.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Up Up Up

I don't know why I don't read more short story collections. I always enjoy them, but I think I'm sometimes wary of starting a book that may be choppy; I'm not always willing to put in the work to start and stop as I go through a book – I'd rather just have a smooth read. But, that's ridiculous really, because I always enjoy short stories once I start them and often move through a collection quite quickly, marveling at all the interesting and distinct characters and situations I get to experience. When those experiences are somewhat linked, thematically, all the better, which is one of the reasons I enjoyed Julie Booker's Up Up Up so much.

The stories in Up Up Up take you all over the place – from kayaking in Alaska to jeeps touring in Tibet – and with very few words Booker's settings come alive without you even realizing it. That's perhaps one of the most incredible things about this collection, actually, that she is able to write vividly without telling spending pages on description. The result is stories that instantly take you from one place to another, across continents and down rivers, without leaving you muddled about where you and the characters are. Even read back to back, her stories are crisp and distinct.

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