Monday, September 21, 2015

August 2015 Book Reports

I know. It's almost October and I'm just getting around to the August books. As I write this post, my sweet boys are vacuuming the family room. It has taken me 10 minutes to write these sentences because I have been constantly interrupted. At this very moment I'm getting poked and the phrase, "He's taking all of it" is being chanted into my ear. Blogging is the hardest right now, you guys.

1. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey
I've seen bits and pieces of the movie with Jack Nicholson, but I can't remember anything. I got about 100 pages into the book and I had to stop. It's well written, the style is different and interesting, but I just couldn't do the subject matter. I guess I assumed, based on the little I knew of the movie, that the story would be from Jack Nicholson's character's point of view. Instead, we see the psych ward from the big, mute, American Indian's point of view. He's rarely grammatically correct, which I'm fascinated by - I would think it would be difficult to write that way when your job is to write. Sometimes Chief Bromden describes events that couldn't possibly be real, but to him they are real. Very unsettling. It left me wondering what was happening really underneath all the hallucinations. 

I couldn't finish it because of the abuse and apparent hatred the staff felt and showed toward the mental patients. I really don't want any of that to be true. No humanity. I don't want to visit that world.

2. Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
I've read at least one other book by Kate Atkinson and I remembered liking it. Also, the concept of this book intrigued me. The main character, Ursula, starts life over again after dying. She has deja vu, premonitions, echos of the events she's already experienced, so she's able to avoid getting killed and other tragedies the second time around.

Ursula is born in England in December 1910 on a snowy, cold night. The umbilical cord is wrapped around her neck and in most versions of her first moments of life, the doctor is able to save her. When Ursula is four years old, her family is having a holiday by the sea. She and her sister Pamela swim in the ocean and Ursula drowns sometimes. In the versions where Ursula makes it to her 16th birthday, she is always sitting under an apple tree on a perfect September day, reading a good book. Her mother comments to her that she has very few days like this left. That we always think we'll have time to lounge outside under a tree and read, but the older we get the less time we have to do that. 

One of the versions of Ursula's life was unbearable. She's raped by one of her brother's school friends, gets pregnant as a result, has an abortion without knowing what was happening (she's very naive - didn't even realize she was pregnant), marries a psychopath who ends up murdering her. YIKES. It was such a relief that she could start over and avoid all that stuff the next time around. When we got to the World War II years I found less and less to enjoy about the book. A bomb takes out the building in London where Ursula lives half a dozen times. BAH. In one version where she doesn't even live there, she's still there when the bomb goes off. One of the times, though, Ursula marries a German boy and knows Hitler's girlfriend. When Ursula has gone through enough World War IIs to see that Hitler's got to go, she decides that the reason she keeps starting over is to kill Hitler and prevent World War II. I was so excited to see what would happen if World War II never happened! What would that look like? But she shot him and was immediately killed and the book just went back to her birth in December 1910. Bother.

So, we never get to know why this is happening to Ursula. I didn't care for that, not getting an explanation. And this book was too light on Kate Atkinson's special brand of humor that I liked so much in Behind the Scenes at the Museum. I'd still read her stuff again, though.

3. Poking a Dead Frog: Conversations with Today's Top Comedy Writers by Mike Sacks
I enjoyed learning about Mindy Kaling's process for becoming a writer when I read her book, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? and this book by Mike Sacks had some nice reviews. Sacks truly asks the best questions and he's talking to people who make me laugh. I didn't realize they were the ones making me laugh, but it's writers from my favorite TV shows (Seinfeld, Parks and Recreation, Cheers) as well as other comedy genres like radio, print, books. My take-away is that to be good at anything, you have to do that thing A LOT. There were so many great nuggets of wisdom, I think I'll just quote the book. 

Mike Schur (writer for Saturday Night Live, The Office, and creator/writer of Parks and Recreation): "This is just personal preference, but I find the world so tumultuous and hardscrabble and generally terrifying that I will never tire of stories about people caring for each other, and doing nice things for each other, and in a very basic way trying to make each other feel less alone on Earth. All stories need conflict, but conflict can come from anywhere."

George Saunders: "What I've come to realize is that, for me, the serious and the comic are one and the same. I don't see humor as some sort of shrunken or deficient cousin of 'real' writing. Being funny is about as deep and truthful as I can be. When I am really feeling life and being truthful, the resulting prose is comic."

Dave Hill: "Do your best to entertain yourself. Or entertaining the fifteen-year-old in you. Or just creating something that you want to see exist."

Amy Poehler: "Read your stuff out loud. Sometimes the way it reads in your head sounds different when someone says it."

Also, Carol Kolb, a writer for the fake newspaper, The Onion, is my ultimate kindred spirit. The chapter with her interview had me in tears I was laughing so hard. What a strange animal humor is - I didn't realize before that what I think is hilarious may be just a chuckle for someone else. The interview with Glen Charles got me hooked on "Cheers" on Netflix. That show is brilliant. Of course I watched it when I was in junior high and high school, but watching it now is so different. Funny, funny stuff.

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