30 Day Dress Challenge 2014

Tomorrow is June and I (still) have a lot of dresses. I did this challenge last June and had a lot of fun with it so I’m trying it again. Here’s the deal:

I own a lot (maybe too many, who’s to say?) of dresses. As of today, the count is at 30 dresses. My challenge to myself is to wear as many of those 30 dresses as possible. At the end of the month, I’ll have a better idea of what I actually wear and what I can let go of. Last year I sent five dresses to the thrift store at the end of June.

I’m hoping to do things a little differently this year and post a picture every day. (Possibly not on weekends.)

What would your 30 day challenge be? What article of clothing do you have a lot of? Feel like wearing that every day for the month of June?

Book Review – The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein

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I did not like this book.

I remember when it was released and when it was selling out in stores and was at its height of popularity. Even now, people ask for it and seem to enjoy it. I just don’t understand the appeal.

The Art of Racing in the Rain (Harper Perennial, 2008) is told from the perspective of Enzo. Enzo is a dog. The idea of this didn’t bother me. As a kid, I read a lot of books from the perspectives of dogs and I loved them. An adult-level book from this perspective is more unusual and so I was definitely curious. It’s harder to make this work and I can’t say that Stein succeeds.

To work around the narrative problem (namely that dogs most definitely think differently than humans), Stein endows Enzo with a sort of highly evolved intelligence that edges on the mystical. An ongoing theme throughout the novel is that Enzo believes that his next step of reincarnation after dying will be that he gets to be reborn as a human. At the end of the novel, we are given hints that he achieves this desire. (Usually I try to avoid spoiling endings but I don’t think you should bother reading this book.)

I’m a dog lover. And I’m someone who has no trouble anthropomorphizing non-human objects. I get attached to things and I felt sorry for the lamp in that IKEA commercial. I think dogs are smart and loving and loyal and all kinds of wonderful things. They are not humans though and they never will be.

As Enzo tells his own story he also tells the story of his master, Denny Swift. The novel encompasses the whole of Enzo’s life, which includes major events in Denny’s life – his marriage, the birth of his daughter, and a lot of subsequent disasters. Denny is an amateur race car driver. (And his last name is Swift. This novel is not subtle.) Enzo, being on such a higher plane than most dogs, also loves racing and there are chapters devoted to the finer details of car racing. I’ll admit, I have no interest in such things and skimmed most of the passages that talked about racing.

The big problem here is that the interesting story belongs to Denny. Within the space of a couple of years, his life is turned upside down. He’s a likeable guy who has some horrible things happen to him. Well told, that could have been enough for the novel. It doesn’t need this cutesy narrative conceit that adds nothing. We don’t need a dog telling us what he thinks happened inside a courtroom – just tell us what actually happened. It ends up feeling like Stein lacked confidence in his story and added in a “grab factor”.

If you are looking for a book from the perspective of a dog, try Lassie Come Home or The Incredible Journey.

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Book Review – Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

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Gilead (HarperCollins, 2004) is a novel that shouldn’t work but does. And masterfully so. There’s not much action and there’s even less dialogue and yet Robinson keeps the tension tight and the reader engaged.

John Ames is in his late seventies and he knows he will die soon. He doesn’t have much in the way of worldly possessions to leave behind and so he begins a journal for his seven-year-old son. Something to impart the wisdom he has and the stories he knows. In the midst of this, his best friend’s prodigal son returns to their small town after many years away. This is John Ames Boughton, commonly called Jack, named for John Ames himself. His return is unsettling to Ames and he slowly reveals why.

The first half of the book focuses more heavily on Ames’ childhood and the relationship between his father and grandfather. Ames is the third in a line of preachers but that doesn’t necessarily translate into these men having much in common. His grandfather was an eccentric and passionate reverend who joined up in the cause of the abolitionists during the Civil War. His father, a more staid character, took a pacifist side and tension existed between the two men until the disappearance and then death of Ames’ grandfather. Ames’s childhood, his ideology, and his theology exist between these two men.

Ames’ adulthood has been marked by the tragic early death of his wife – his childhood sweetheart – and his child. Then, the miracle of love for a second time with his second wife and his son. This is where Robinson really shines. Ames isn’t excitable or effusive but the delight and shock he demonstrates continually that such happiness could be his again is truly beautiful.

Writing to his son as an adult, Ames slowly unfolds the story of his own life, not shying away from the pain and loneliness of the years before he met his wife. He lays down on paper his struggles, his delights, and his questions regarding faith and his vocation as a preacher.

And then, finally, we come to the question of Jack Boughton. The infant baptised long ago by Ames and named in his honour. A child loved beyond reason by his father but one that Ames never cared for. At first glance, Jack’s story is any other semi-sordid tale of a young man’s mistakes. But Robinson teases the story open and uses it to reveal another side to Jack, as well as a deeper understanding for Ames. Redemption may not arrive in the ways we hope or expect but it can find us nevertheless.

Book Review – The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

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I’m about twenty years too young to feel much nostalgia over the 1960s but I’m exactly the right age to understand that childhood dreams don’t necessarily translate into adult life.

The Interestings (Riverhead Books, 2013) starts out with six teenagers at a summer camp called Spirit-in-the-Woods. It’s a camp for artistically-inclined youth and for each of these six, it’s the best place on earth. Their summers spent at Spirit-in-the-Woods are their escape from parents, pressure, and other pubescent problems. We follow Julie Jacobson as she enters this little group and becomes Jules, the aspiringcomic actress. Each of the six have their own talents and dreams and, initially, each of them are equally determined to become something great.

But what happens among friends who all have artistic dreams but are not all equally gifted? What does it really take to fulfill those initial dreams? Talent, sure, but money, connections, and a bit of straight-up good luck never hurt either. What happens to a friendship when you’re both talented but only one of you is successful?

The Interestings delves into all of these questions as well as several more that dwell outside of the art world. Jules continues to be the main character – although we delve into the thoughts of Ethan, Ash, and Jonah as well. These four – the four who maintain contact into adulthood and beyond – form the core of the novel. Jules, ultimately unsuccessful as an actress, settles down as a therapist and marries Dennis Boyd, a decidedly non-artistic ultrasound technician. Their marriage is mostly a happy one though their financial struggles are a continuing theme throughout the novel. Jonah, a talented and beautiful musician, gives up his music for reasons he can’t reveal even to his best friends. Ethan becomes a hugely successful animator and Ash, who becomes his wife, benefits from his connections, perhaps more than from her own talents.

The tensions and jealousies present in this friend group may seem obvious but Wolitzer doesn’t take any easy ways out. These friendships are real and complicated. These people love and care for each other – they keep each others’ histories and secrets – but that doesn’t mean they don’t envy and covet elements of each others’ lives. Wolitzer doesn’t shy away from any of these tough issues but she delves skillfully into them and creates characters that you love.

One of my favourite relationships in the novel was the marriage of Jules and Dennis. I thought Wolitzer’s treatment of a multi-decade partnership where one member has a sometimes debilitating mental health issue was beautifully done. She really created a team and a story that I could root for.

The Interestings covers a broad expanse of time, both in terms of the characters’ lives, and in late 20th/early 21st century history. Wolitzer handles both masterfully.

 

Book Review – The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

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The cutesy cover and title of The Rosie Project (HarperCollins, 2013) might keep you away from this novel. But if you give it a chance, you’ll likely find yourself hooked pretty quickly. I laughed for the first time on page 3 when the narrator, Don, says this:

“I would have been satisfied with our relationship…but Gene also invited me to dinner at his house and performed other friendship rituals, resulting in a social relationship.”

With a strong and unique voice, the character of Don is quickly established. He’s quirky, logical, and, usually, brutally honest. The comparisons to Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time are apt, yet Don is also his own unique character.

The novel opens with Don preparing to give a lecture on Asperger’s syndrome, stepping in at the last minute to cover for his aforementioned friend, Gene. Although the word Asperger’s is never applied to Don, the reader is obviously supposed to make their own connections, just as Gene and his wife, Claudia, hope Don will connect his own behaviour to his lecture topic. Don knows he’s different, a little socially awkward, has never had a second date. He manages his life down to the minute, including endearing details such as his Standardized Meal Plan. (Ever Tuesday, he eats lobster.)

Although Asperger’s diagnoses – and others on the Autism spectrum – are not uncommon today, Don, being in his late 30s, does not belong to a generation when his behaviours might have been diagnosed. Instead, he’s brilliant in many ways – including a delightful scenario where he becomes an expert bartender in the space of a few days – and uncomfortable in many others.

One of the many spots in Don’s life where things just don’t work is in his romantic relationships. Thinking to apply the logic and efficiency he brings to other aspects of his life, Don creates The Wife Project. A pages long questionnaire to narrow down wifely prospects and to maximize his interactions. Don doesn’t have time to waste on first dates with women who smoke or calculate their BMI incorrectly. Through The Wife Project (sort of), Don meets Rosie, who doesn’t fulfill his requirements at all and pushes his boundaries into uncomfortable areas. Yet Don finds himself inexplicably enjoying Rosie’s company and he helps her with her own project – finding out who her biological father is.

Don and Rosie are both the kind of characters who are wonderful to read about because they’re extremely likeable on paper but you probably wouldn’t care to spend much time with either one of them in real life. It’s not hard to see where the plot will end up and it’s not hard to be happy when it begins to head in the direction of a happy ending.

Where The Rosie Project falls short is perhaps in an oversimplification of Don’s actual problems. We are introduced to a character who structures his life so completely that he panics over minutes wasted with small talk. And yet we are to believe that his desire to be with Rosie can overcome what is likely a real neurodevelopmental disorder. It isn’t something that goes away, even when people want it to and try really hard.

Overall though, The Rosie Project offers a succinct and empathetic look into the mind of a man vastly different than the majority of the population. It isn’t an autism text and it shouldn’t be treated as one but it is a fun, breezy read that you won’t want to put down.You’ll find The Rosie Project worth your time.

Book Review – Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

Asia is a continent of extremes. As countries like China and India grow in global power and importance, I think more people are realizing this. Asia holds extreme wealth and extreme poverty in the same hand. Rich Crazy Asians (Doubleday Canada, 2013) focuses on the extremely wealthy population.

This is a novel. Novels don’t necessarily have the responsibility to teach or to grow minds or to expand ideas. But they can and they can do so beautifully. So when that opportunity is present and an author doesn’t take it, it can be disappointing. Kwan wanted to focus on the wealthy population of Asia, particularly Singapore and China. Does he have a responsibility to also focus on the impoverished of these nations? No. But what if he had? What if he had compared the insanely rich with the insanely poor? What if he had discussed where some of that wealth comes from? Or on whose backs it’s made?

There’s a scene in Rich Crazy Asians where some of the wealthy wives go to the city of Shenzen in China and visit what is essentially a mall full of illegal knock-offs. They can afford the real thing but they buy the fakes. I’ve been to Shenzen. It’s a Chinese city on the border of Hong Kong. For many years, before Hong Kong returned to being part of China, it was where peasants and workers gathered, hoping to make it across to Hong Kong, hoping for a better life in a wealthier land. Today it’s filled with factories where those same people and their children work long hours, for low pay, in conditions that just don’t exist in North America. Rich Crazy Asians treats it like a spa town, a playground for the wealthy. There’s no addressing where those knock-offs come from or who makes them.

Knowing what I know about Shenzen made me hate these women and their lifestyle. It told me something entirely different about who they were and what they held to be important. So why doesn’t Kwan illuminate that aspect for us? Does he expect his readers to already know the truth about the city? No, he’s clearly writing for an audience unfamiliar with Asia. My overwhelming feeling while reading Rich Crazy Asians was that Kwan wanted to show a North America audience that Asians can be wealthy too. That WASPs don’t hold a monopoly on privilege. And this is absolutely true. North Americans can be guilty of believing a lot of stereotypes about Asia and one I hear a lot is that it’s a poor place.

That’s only one side of Asia and Kwan casts a light on the other side, one that many North Aemricans are unfamiliar with. He wants us to see that wealth and power and posh society exist there and he demonstrates that pretty well in this novel.

Let’s be honest – if Rich Crazy Asians were set in the upper echelons of North American society, I probably wouldn’t think that the author owes it to the reader to also focus on the lower classes and the poverty-stricken. Like I said, Kwan doesn’t owe it to anybody to teach his readers the history and economics of Asia. Yet, I’m disappointed that he took the easy route and seemed to pretend that these fabulous lifestyles are normal and that they don’t come at the cost of the majority of the population. Fiction has power and Kwan could have used that power.

Instead, Rich Crazy Asians is nothing but fluff. Granted, fluff set in another part of the world and so it has a newness that might appeal to some. If you’ve never been to Asia, it might seem exotic and that’s not a bad quality.

We follow Rachel Chan – mainland Chinese by birth but American through-and-through – as she travels with her boyfriend Nick to his home country of Singapore. Unbeknownst to Rachel, Nick is heir to one of the wealthiest, most powerful families in the nation. He comes from the sort of upper class family with history and prestige that few of us will ever interact with. And he’s told her nothing about them.

It’s hard not to dislike Nick for being so ignorant of his own privilege and for doing so little throughout the novel to make Rachel comfortable in his very different world. We’re supposed to root for them as a couple (I think) but Nick is so thoughtless that I spent most of the book hoping Rachel would simply take off and backpack through Asia on her own.

Mostly, this novel felt like a way for Kwan to name drop his own prestigious upbringing. At one point, he includes a footnote with an anecdote from his own childhood, which tells us that he went to the fancy boys’ prep school he’s describing. The plot felt like it came second to his attempts to recreate this world and its characters and the book suffers for that.