I actually heard this book being recommended by Dr. Phil (not that I’m not a regular viewer). How ironic and fortunate that myself and a coworker were able to attend and hear University of Iowa professor Dr. Durham speak about her book this past February to The Women’s Connection.

The Lolita Effect, as the subtitle states, addresses the media sexualization of young girls. Dr. Durham provides many illustrations of how our culture is obsessed with these very detrimental representations (one of my favorites: major chain stores that sell junior panties that read “who needs credit cards…”). The Lolita Effect identifies and evaluates several harmful myths such as: “if you’ve got it flaunt it” and that “violence is sexy”.  Dr. Durham  presents realistic strategies for dealing with these media myths and depictions. As one reviewer stated she approaches her topic without being too “puritanical or permissive”.lolita4

While reading the Lolita Effect, I began to wonder when and how the term “Lolita” became  equivalent to the “sexy girl”. I certainly tried my best to read Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 complete and unabridged novel, Lolita. Those Russian poets are a challenge. Middle aged Paris born Humbert Humbert (yes there are two) tells the story of his obsession with a particular type of young girl that he refers to as “nymphets”. In today’s world we call folks like this pedophiles. H.H. becomes fixated on his twelve year old stepdaughter Lolita. A very intense relationship ensues. The book was met with much controversy and has been critiqued both as –  “Old Europe debauching young America, and as Young America debauching Old Europe”.

Although the namesake and topic of “sexy young girl” is the subject in both books, they are worlds apart. Durham’s book is fresh scholarly research while  Nabokov’s  is a tragicomedy still possessing classic literary status. I should get class credit!

snowflowermedIn today’s  world the main character in Snow Flower and the Secret Fan would perhaps be categorized simply as a “senior citizen”. In Lily’s unforgiving world at 80 she is known as “the one who has not yet died”. Pretty telling about how the elderly and or women are portrayed in this story. Lily tells her challenging life story and what it was like growing up female in a 19th century Chinese village. Women in particular at this time lived excruciatingly difficult lives. Their feet were bound rendering them all but crippled yet was neccessary to procure a husband. They were married off and forced to take the position of lowliest person in the household. Essentially, women were deemed responsible for anything that was bad or went wrong in their culture. Although their customs, folklore and traditions were fascinating, this was a difficult read at times.

I was amazed at how these women managed to survive such physical and emotional hardships. A beautiful way in which they escaped was through the ancient art of women’s writing called nu shu. Some young girls participated in a sort of arranged friendship called laotongs through which they communicated in this secretive fashion – writing on fans, in letters or embroidering handkerchiefs. Snow Flower and Lily had just  such a relationship in which their remarkable lives are chronicled through their nu shu correspondence.

Finally! I’ve been waiting 10 years for Wally Lamb to write anther book. He has been busy with his Women of York Prison writer’s workshop compiling collections of their work in two published books (Couldn’t Keep it to Myself and I’ll Fly Away). Similar in terms of pace to his previous novels, The Hour I First Believed is a journey to say the least. This would indeed be a very long blog if I tried to summarize the whole story so I will focus briefly on only one of his heavy themes.

Caelum Quirk is an English teacher and his wife Maureen a school nurse, both working at Columbine High School. Although this is fiction, Lamb does incorporate the real people and events from the massacre in April of 1999 into his story. Maureen is hidden in a cabinet in the school library and listens as students are systematically shot and killed by two fellow classmates. Lamb then sheds huge light into the world of PTSD. The damage that Maureen is left with is severe, complicated and the catalyst to much more trauma.

Once again Wally Lamb writes an amazing story. If you’ve read either of his other two books (She’s Come Undone and I Know This Much Is True) I would love to know what you think of them in comparison to this, his new one.

geek-loveGeek Love by Katherine Dunn is by far the weirdest book I have ever read. My good friend who read this for his book group described it which immediately appealed to my fondness for the extreme and freaky.

Geek Love is about the Binewski family of sideshow carnival freaks. The parents decided it would be truly special (and lucrative) to produce their own freaks. Lil, the mom ingests different toxic substances (ie. arsenic) during pregnancy to get the best all around results. The first Binewski child came in the form of Arturo the Aqua Boy who was born with flippers instead of limbs. Second and or third in the birth order is/are the Siamese piano playing twins Electra and Iphigenia. Next comes our narrator, Olympia who is a bald albino humpback dwarf. Lastly, is Furtunato aka “Chick” who at first appeares devastatingly normal. Chick eventually exhibits extraordinary telekinetic abilities and is wonderfully good hearted. Need I say more?

Only that the plot and story lines are as weird and compelling as the characters. Oh, and amazingly very well written.

soloist1This is an unusual true story of a Los Angeles Times columnist who one day takes notice of a violin playing homeless man. Unusual is the music this homeless person manages to produce from a beat up violin with two strings missing. Even the columnist, who has little music knowledge, can tell that this raggedy seemingly eccentric individual must have had some classical training and education. Shortly after approaching Nathaniel, Lopez discovers that he is a former Juilliard student, living on the streets suffering from untreated schizophrenia. The homeless musician stirs something unshakable in the columnist. As Lopez begins to try and improve Nathaniel’s life -by getting him off the streets and back on medication – he finds that Nathaniel has irrevocably changed his.

I was listening to Yo-Yo Ma who was a guest on Garrison Keillor’s radio show last week. I stopped to really listen to this world renowned cellist and was able to imagine Nathaniel Ayers playing in the same orchestra with him over 30 years ago. The Soloist had the potential to be a very depressing read. Instead, it was a hugely wonderful story.

If the name Sherman Alexie sounds familiar, you’ve probably seen his name attached to the 2007 national book award winner for his young adult novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. This was such a fantastic book I was prompted to read one of his adult novels. Flight by Sherman Alexie did not disappoint. It was in fact even more thought provoking than True Diary.

Michael, aka Zits, is a delinquent foster youth filled with anger – mostly at his father for abandoning him the day he was born. As Zits is about to open fire upon innocent people in a bank, he blacks out only to awaken in the form of a white (Zits is half Indian) FBI agent during the civil rights era. After passing out again Zits wakes several more times in different periods as various people. He finds himself as an Indian child in 1876, an Indian tracker in the Old West, a modern day pilot, and as his own father. Each conflict subtly revolves around a time travel pursuit for the meaning of life. It would seem that looking for the answer to this type of complex question would require lengthy writing and heavy thought processes. Not so. Short and simple, only 180 pages, yet compelling. Fabulous journey with… a great ending.

Although I enjoy James Patterson and Harlan Coben it’s nice to come across a solid suspense novel by someone else. City of the Sun grabs you from the beginning as 12 year old Jamie Gabriel disappears while on his morning paper route. We come to understand his parents desperation as month after month passes with one dead end after another. As all hope of finding Jamie is essentially lost, the Gabriels’ last plea for some closure comes from a former police officer turned private detective, Frank Behr. This colorful character adds his own tortured subplot to the story. We finally learn that Jamie’s disappearance is related to the youth slave trade. With renewed hope Frank and Jamie’s father track down the ring in Cuidad del Sol – the City of the Sun. The ending is climactic to say the least.

David Levien writes concisely yet allows you to feel the overwhelming emotions of the characters involved. The story is tense and exciting; well worth reading!

I’m amazed how many folks haven’t read this yet. I guarantee you will not be anything but fascinated and thoroughly entertained by Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants.

This story is about young Jacob’s interlude with the circus during the Depression and Prohibition. Fascinating are the circus days of old – truly a culture in and of itself. Entertaining are the diverse characters – from ringmasters and those in the side shows to the roustabouts and the star of the circus – Rosie the elephant. The story is reminisced by Jacob in his elder years. Gruen’s descriptions and story developments are fantastic. You can feel Jacob’s passion in youth and fearful frustration in old age. There is romance and murder; tragedy and hope. Best of all, it has a great ending.

This great crime novel is translated from Swedish which adds a different flavor to the story. Certain things get added during translation or become more interesting when taken from slang. Sibylla the main character in Missing comes from a privleged background yet has chosen a life of the homeless in Stockholm. Brief snippets from Sibylla’s disturbing past help explain her modern day predicament. Her everyday struggle becomes almost unbearable after she is unjustly accused of a brutal murder. The story continues to pick up speed as Sibylla struggles to stay alive and hidden all the while trying to find the real killer with the help of a high school misfit. Great writer – I was easily transported into Sibylla’s world. The murder plot is well developed and unexpected.

Karin Alvtegen has received and been nominated for several literary awards. Interestingly she is the great-grand niece of the “Pippi Longstocking” series author, Astrid Lindgren.

Although Marya experienced strong signs of manic behavior at age four it wasn’t until age 24 that she was finally diagnosed with the most severe type of bipolar disorder. Marya takes you through her “crazy” life up until her diagnosis. The tales of her episodes are surreal but the stories of how she copes with them are even more so. She stabilizes her moods with massive amounts of alcohol (starting at age 10) and other drugs. She distracts herself from her mania by focusing on food obsessions (anorexia and bulimia) as well as “cutting”.

Madness was very insightful, clearing up some of the stereotypes of mental illness and being institutionalized (nothing like Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). This was a fascinating and fairly fluid book considering the disorganized nature of the topic. Marya Hornbacher is also the author of the best selling novel Wasted chronicling her struggle with anorexia and bulimia.