Year 10, Book 13

13. Shooting Stars: My Unexpected Life Photographing Hollywood’s Most Famous by Jennifer Buhl

This is not the kind of book I would normally pick up. I’m not super into celeb culture and have never been the kind of person who was into reading things like People and US Weekly and any other magazine or website that deals in the photographs that the paparazzi are selling to. I wound up reading it because Trey Graham, formally of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast, was mailing interested people books from his bookshelf in order to help clear it out. This is the book that I wound up with, so I felt like I should read it.

Although it’s not a world I care much about, I must say that Buhl is a decent writer as she had me engaged in reading a book on a subject I’m not really interested in. Buhl spent a little over two years as a paparazza. She recounts her experiences getting involved in it and how the business actually works. She also spends a lot of time justifying the existence of the paparazzi. It all felt a lot like someone making excuses and trying to justify what they’re doing even though they know it’s not right.

She even completely contradicts herself in the book on the matter. She sort of smugly provides a list of things that celebrities can do to keep themselves away from the paparazzi and to have the paparazzi lose interest in them if they really don’t want to be bothered. Then she spends chapters recounting stalking Kate Bosworth and Jennifer Aniston pointing out that they hate paparazzi and do everything they can to avoid them. There is no doubt that some celebrities and pseudo-celebrities want the attention, and I don’t disagree with her on that point. It is very obvious to that there are a lot of people who don’t want the attention or at least not in the way that they’re getting it, and the paparazzi is very intrusive and invasive.

As I mentioned I never really cared that much about celebrity culture and never bought any of those types of magazines or sought out some of the websites that traffic in this kind of stuff. However, I do very much like spoilers and casting info and news about all the television shows I love. Some sites I like to get that information from deal in both kinds of “news” and I would click on headlines in my RSS feed sometimes. Over a year ago I made a personal decision to not give any clicks to those types of photos if I could help it. I will only look at celebrity photos if they’re things they have posted online themselves or when they’re being photographed at an official event where they’re expecting it. After reading this book I feel even better about that decision.

I give this book a 7 out of 10.

Year 10, Book 12

12. The Theft of Memory by Jonathan Kozol

I’ve always been a big fan of the books Jonathan Kozol has written about his experiences with the American education system, so I was interested to read this book about his experiences dealing with his father’s descent into Alzheimer’s disease. He says at some point in the book that he wrote it in the immediate aftermath of his father’s death as a way to deal with his grief and then pulled it out many years later and attempted to publish it.

That pretty much is exactly what this book felt like to me, and it necessarily in a good way. It felt like a vanity project of sorts in that it felt he did in fact write it for his own purposes and not really for a reader. His father was a prominent neurologist and psychiatrist who treated a number of well-known people. Kozol found many stories about these experiences when going through his father’s papers and weaves them into this book. I didn’t find it to be a very effective technique. In some ways it felt like he was trying to say look my father was an important man this is why you should care about him. I would rather have just cared about him as Kozol’s father and thus in a way as everyone who goes through this whose parents are important to them even if they weren’t well known.

I get why Kozol wanting to write something like this for himself, but I’m not sure that in the form that it’s in that it was something that should have been published for the world at large. I give it a 5 out of 10.

Year 10, Book 11

11. Emmy & Oliver by Robin Benway

Emmy and Oliver were next door neighbors and best friends until at the age of 7 he disappeared when his father kidnapped him. Now 10 years later Oliver is found and has returned to live with his mother, her new husband, and their twin 4 year old daughters. His disappearance affected everyone around them. Emmy’s parents became overly protective and she has secretly been rebelling against them. Oliver must learn how to return to a family and a school where he is a stranger, but not and where everyone hates his father who he loves.

This is a young adult book and does have a love story between Emmy and Oliver, but ultimately I thought that the book did an excellent job at describing what it would be like for someone like Oliver to return to a life he was taken from. Things are not easy for anyone just because he returns. There felt like such truth in how he would feel about his father who he didn’t know had done anything wrong and who raised him. I loved this book. I give it a 9 out of 10.

Year 10, Book 10

10. Not My Father’s Son by Alan Cumming

After agreeing to appear on the UK version of the TV show Who Do You Think You Are? in hopes of finding out more about his maternal grandfather, Alan Cumming instead finds out a lot more than he anticipated about his own father. He recounts his extremely difficult childhood growing up with a father who was both physically and mentally abusive to Alan, his brother, and their mother. He alternates the stories from his childhood with his experiences in the present.

I had no idea that Alan Cumming suffered so much in his childhood, and I’m glad he had the opportunity find as much closure as he probably can with his father. I’m not sure however how interested I was in reading about it. It’s a sad, horrible story, but I didn’t find the book all that compelling to read. I give it a 6 out of 10.

Year 10, Book 9

9. God Help the Child by Toni Morrison

Another short novella from Toni Morrison, which seems to be what she is up to writing these days. I enjoyed this one better than the last few but this book still didn’t hold a candle to her earlier works, which I count among my favorite books. The central focus of the book is that how we treat children has long lasting consequences on who they become and how they interact with the world. Bride is a dark blue-black woman who was rejected as a child by her light-skinned mother Sweetness because of her dark skin. Bride’s attempts to earn her mother’s love affecting the outcome of other’s lives as well. I give it a 7 out of 10.

Year 10, Book 8

8. At the Water’s Edge by Sara Gruen

I feel like I am one of the only people on the planet who didn’t really care for Gruen’s previous book Water for Elephants, so I’m not sure what inspired me to actually read this book. While I did enjoy this book better, it still suffered from some of the things I hated about Water for Elephants. It had a similar dynamic with an abusive husband that I just don’t care to read about. I think I’m done with Gruen’s books for good after this no matter how much praise they get.

This particular book is set during World War II. Maddie and Ellis and their friend Hank are part of the rich Philadelphia society set, but after Ellis is cut off from his father after some very bad behavior at a party they set off to Scotland in search of the Loch Ness monster. Ellis’s father had years ago himself claimed to have found the monster and captured it on film until it was all proved to be staged. Now Ellis hopes to accomplish what his father never could.

One they arrive in the small Scottish town to and discover the austere lifestyle war has inflicted on the country, they realize that things are not going to be as easy as they had hoped. Furthermore Maddie begins to discover that Ellis may not be the man that she thought he was and begins to try and extricate herself from their relationship while befriending the town locals.

I was intrigued at the beginning of the book and was enjoying it until as I mentioned previously it once again became the story of a horribly abusive husband. It sort of came back around for me at the end, but ultimately it’s not just the kind of character I care to read about. I give it a 6 out of 10.

Year 10, Book 7

7. Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

Brown Girl Dreaming is a lovely, lovely book. It’s the Woodson’s memoir about growing up in both New York and South Carolina during the 1960s and 1970s still facing the remnants of Jim Crow laws. The book is written in verse, so each chapter is a self-contained little poem as well as part of the larger story of her life. The language is absolutely beautiful. The way she uses words and turns of phrase to describe certain things gave me shivers.

I know that the way the book is written will turn some people off of it, but I thought it was beautifully written and as I have already said just lovely. I can’t recommend it highly enough. I give it 9 out of 10.

Year 10, Book 6

6. A Fork in the Road: Tales of Food, Pleasure, and Discovery on the Road by Lonely Planet

A Fork in the Road is a book full of travel writing/food essays. Each writer shares a story about food most often though not always related to a travel experience. As is usually the case with these types of compilations I enjoyed some of the stories more than others. I liked the ones where people wove their experiences in with the food more than those that seemed to just concentrate on the food itself. I read this for a book club, so I’ll be interested to hear what everyone else had to say about it. I give it a 6 out of 10.

Year 10, Book 5

5. A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler

As someone who lives in Baltimore, Anne Tyler’s books are a bit like catnip for me as I always enjoy reading about characters set in the place where I live. As usual I did enjoy that about this book. The story is about the Whitshank family, Abby and Red who are getting older and questioning their capacity to continue to live in the family house Red’s father lovingly built, and their relationship with their 4 children.

i was really on board with this book for the first half. At some point though the story starts to go backwards in time to fully tell some of the stories that were alluded to in the Whitshank’s story during the first half of the book. That didn’t do anything for me at all. I already felt like I knew everything I needed to know from how things were mentioned in the first part of the story. I didn’t need to see these things fully borne out later in the book. I definitely found the end of the book a let down because of that. I give it a 5 out of 10.

Year 10, Book 4

4. How to Be Both by Ali Smith

I saw this book on a lot of year end best of lists and was intrigued by the idea of there being two versions of it sold. There are two stories in the book and supposedly you can read them in either order. I gather the physical books were printed such that in some one story appeared first and in others they were reversed. One story takes place in 1460s and the other in the 1960s. I read the 1460s story first. I gather the two stories are connected in some way around a piece of art, but honestly i am hard pressed to say what in the world the book was even about. I certainly was entirely confused by the first story. The actual language, way it’s written, and lack of proper punctuation made it difficult to read and I honestly had a hard time even following what was happening. The second story was written in a more conventional matter, but I kept trying to figure out how it related to the first one and hoping to it would reveal to me what I felt like I never got from it. It never really did though. I can see why stylistically the book impressed critics and extremely literary people, but for someone like me who mostly reads literary fiction but as a casual reader I did not get it. It was just not for me. I may have been able to glean more out of this if I wanted to put work into it, but I did not. There was a reason I wasn’t an English major. I give it a 3 out of 10.