Book Review: Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules

sedaris

Book Review of David Sedaris’ Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules

The first time I read David Sedaris I instantly fell in love with his writing.  I was reading Me Talk Pretty One Day, and when I finished, I could not wait to get my hands on another one of his books.  Next was Naked, and then When Engulfed in Flames, and I didn’t stop until I read everything he’s written.  Those three collections of his short stories are my favorites, and they make me laugh out loud imagining his life experiences.  I love his wit and humor, and his ability to tell stories so incredibly well.  This book, Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules, isn’t written by David Sedaris; instead, it is a collection of his favorite short stories by his favorite writers (authors who influenced him to become a short story writer himself).  Since I love his style, I knew I would love his taste.  This collection is so rich and wonderful, and I felt like every story was a treat.  It ranges in emotional appeal from humorous to morbid, and a story or two definitely brought me to tears.  It is a wonderful variety of excellent writing – and the great thing about short stories is that they are easy to read in a sitting, and if you don’t like one, you can skip it and move on to the next.  However, I felt that all of David’s picks were thoroughly entertaining, if only because of how well written they are.  I strongly suggest reading it if you’re looking for something really interesting and diverse.

A special note about purchasing this collection is that the proceeds go to a nonprofit organization called 826NYC, which is dedicated to helping young students ages 6 to 18 develop writing skills.  The book’s epilogue, written by Sarah Vowell, discusses 826NYC’s efforts including tutoring, writing workshops, assistance with school publications and with homework, and other free, educational events.  The organization is hidden behind the storefront of Brooklyn Superhero Supply Co., which draws in many of the students that end up seeking help from 826.  In addition, every cape and utility belt bought at the Superhero Supply Co. directly supports 826NYC, and the coolest part about it is that a secret door separates the store from the writing lab (very Scooby Doo bookshelf trap door if you ask me).  How much better does it get when you buy a book?  Amazing stories AND the benefit of helping kids.  Buy this book.  Have I convinced you?

Stories included in Children Playing:

  • Introduction by David Sedaris
  • “Oh, Joseph, I’m So Tired” by Richard Yates
  • “Gryphon” by Charles Baxter
  • “Interpreter of Maladies” by Jhumpa Lahiri
  • “The Garden Party” by Katherine Mansfield
  • “Half A Grapefruit” by Alice Munro
  • “Applause, Applause” by Jean Thompson
  • “I Know What I’m Doing About All the Attention I’ve Been Getting” by Frank Gannon
  • “Where the Door Is Always Open and the Welcome Mat Is Out” by Patricia Highsmith
  • “The Best of Betty” by Jincy Willett
  • “Song of the Shirt, 1941” by Dorothy Parker
  • “The Girl with the Blackened Eye” by Joyce Carol Oates
  • “People Like That Are the Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk” by Lorrie Moore
  • “Revelation” by Flannery O’Connor
  • “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried” by Amy Hempel
  • “Cosmopolitan” by Akhil Sharma
  • “Irish Girl” by Tim Johnston
  • “Bullet in the Brain” by Tobias Wolff
  • Epilogue by Sarah Vowell

If you’re wondering about the name of this collection, David was inspired by a painting of the same name by Adriaen van der Werff in 1687.  He said he felt like a small speck at the foot of his awesome writing heroes, trying to accomplish a fraction of what they have done.  Here’s what the painting looks like, and you can see the same statue on the cover of the book:

children

Excerpt from David Sedaris’ Introduction: “When apple-picking season ended, I got a job in a packing plant and gravitated toward short stories, which I could read during my break and reflect upon for the remainder of my shift.  A good one would take me out of myself and then stuff me back in, outsized, now, and uneasy with the fit.  This led to a kind of trance that made the dullest work, the dullest life, bearable.”  He also states his belief that “stories can save you.”  I think David Sedaris is one of the best modern writers of the most up-and-coming genre of literature, the short story cycle.  I hope to meet him some day; I like to imagine that we could be great friends, talking over coffee and laughing at each other’s anecdotes.  For now, I am the child bowing at his feet and raving about his work, spreading the love of one my favorite authors.

Chelsea

Picture of Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules

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From Lost To Found

wild

A Book Review of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild

Plot Summary:

A national bestseller and a memoir of Cheryl Strayed’s experience hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, this nonfiction book is a gripping and emotional story of a woman rediscovering herself and finding salvation in nature.  Cheryl lost her mom to cancer when she was only twenty-two and it was a deeply heart-breaking time in her life.  The book begins with her detailing her close relationship with her mom and her experience growing up with a loving, devoted single mother.  She describes how stricken she was when doctors discovered that her mom had lung cancer and very little time left to live.  Cheryl took care of her mom until the day she died, and continuously felt the tragic loss for years after.  In the wake of that loss and without a father figure or a close relationship to her brother or sister, Cheryl self-destructed in many ways, including sleeping around and cheating on her husband and succumbing to a heroin addiction.  One day while shopping in REI she noticed a book called The Pacific Crest Trail, Volume 1: California.  She looked the book over and returned it to it’s shelf.  However, the idea of hiking the PCT on a solo adventure returned to her, and she made the impulsive decision, despite her lack of hiking experience, to make the trek.  The PCT is an extensive trail that travels across the country from the Mexican border in California to just north of the Canadian border, and it traces through 9 mountain ranges – the Laguna, San Jacinto, San Bernardino, San Gabriel, Liebre, Tehachapi, Sierra Nevada, Klamath, and Cascades.  Cheryl started in the Mojave Desert where she ripped the tags off of her new hiking equipment for the first time and was barely able to lift her massive backpack.  Without much preparation, Cheryl embarked on her three month long and 1,100 mile journey, and she narrates her experience with great detail.  After completing the hike, she felt much more than the physical accomplishment of what she completed; Cheryl felt like she was finally able to come to terms with her mother’s death and her divorce, and to find peace in her life.

cheryl

My Critical Opinion and Rating (3.5/5 stars):

Cheryl’s memoir of strength, of reclaiming her identity, and of finding peace in the great outdoors is a story of catharsis.  Her narration of her journey includes so many endearing details, my favorite of which is her nicknaming her giant backpack Monster and addressing it by that name.  She talks to animals during her hike, keeps score of how many toenails the PCT takes from her, and describes all of the intriguing people she meets while hiking.  She struggles to overcome boots which were a size to small, a surprising shortage of funds for food, and a threatening encounter on the trail.  I love the depictions of the beautiful landscapes throughout her hike as well as the details about the PCT.  I also love how she intertwines memories as she copes with and overcomes her past in the beauty and solitude she finds on the trail.  As a writer, she valued having books to read on her hike, so each resupply box had another book packed into it.  To relieve the weight she had to carry, she would burn pages of the books each night after reading them until they disappeared completely into the ashes.  I liked how reading in her tent after a challenging day on the trail was her requiescence because that is something I can relate to.

I have only a few qualms about the book, which lead me to give it a rating of 3.5 stars out of 5.  My first critique about the book is that I was not instantly grabbed by the language in the beginning and felt hesitant about committing to the read; however, I was delightfully captivated and I thoroughly enjoyed Cheryl’s memoir.  Another problem I have with her story is that I disagree with the extremely escapist viewpoint she possesses.  Her method of finding herself and rebuilding her life revolves around running away from her problems, hurting those around her, such as her husband, and giving up everything to camp for three months.  Many people face tragedy in their lives without cheating, doing hard drugs, having an abortion, and running away to the wilderness.  Along with that, she also bears the mentality that she is exceptional; this comes from the generosity she receives from strangers on the trail and from her ability to do it without training.  She is proud of her nickname as Queen of the PCT to say the least.

Overall, it was a beautifully recollected story of self-discovery and I would recommend the book as an excellent summer read, and I hope you enjoy it!  Also, I hear there is a movie coming out soon with Reese Witherspoon producing and playing Cheryl’s role.  It may be fun to read before seeing the film.

Happy reading,

Chelsea

For an excerpt from the book and for more info. go to Cheryl Strayed’s Website

Picture of Cheryl

Caught in the Rain

a farewell to arms

A Book Review of Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms

Plot Summary:

The novel takes place in Italy during World War I, and it tells the story of an American named Frederic Henry who worked as an ambulance driver and lieutenant for the Italian Army.  Lieutenant Henry gets injured by a trench mortar shell while eating macaroni and cheese in a trench with three Italian soldiers.  His legs are harmed and one of his knees is badly injured.  While recovering in a hospital in Milan, he falls in love with an English nurse named Catherine Barkley.  Their romance develops throughout the time Lieutenant Henry recovers, returns to the war, and finally escapes it.  The couple moves to Switzerland and Henry seems to have moved past the war (which is still waging without him) to live a happy life with his wife, whom he calls Cat, and their soon-to-be-born child.  The word “seems” gives the ending away, but I won’t spoil it completely (yet)…I’ll just tell you to have a box of tissues at hand.

My Critical Opinion:

I loved reading this wonderful novel for many reasons.  Hemingway’s prose beautifully describe the environment and the setting so that the reader can produce imagery of it in their imaginations.  You feel like you are seeing the mountains and villages of the Italian countryside that Henry sees, or watching the long caravan of soldiers marching, or feeling the rain drench through your clothes.  Hemingway shows Henry’s experience with narration while seamlessly integrating dialogue between characters.  The cool thing about this novel is that it contains certain plot points which really occurred in Hemingway’s life: he worked as an ambulance driver for the Italian Army, he was injured by a trench mortar shell, and he fell in love with a nurse while recovering.  As an author, he used biographical material from his life and created works of fiction, like this one, to tell a story about something that mattered to him.  A Farewell to Arms is a story about the duty of a soldier; it’s about the senselessness, yet inevitability of war, as well as the inevitability of death; and it is also a story about finding and losing love.

Extra:

So in giving plot summary I mentioned that Lt. Henry gets injured while eating mac ‘n cheese…it is not essential to the plot, but it’s funny.  When the offensive attack started, Henry was sheltered in the Major’s lodgings trying to get food for his drivers who were waiting in a trench, hungry.  Lt. Henry got the macaroni and some cheese to put on top and ran out during the bombing to bring his men the food, against the Major’s advice.  So Hemingway paints a picture of Henry and his three Italian soldiers sitting in a trench, all eating mac ‘n cheese out of the same pan with their hands and mouths during the attack.  I think I actually laughed out loud while reading it.  It amazes me that Hem was so skilled he could make something funny out of a violent act of war in one, ironic scene.  Oh, and did I mention wine? They were also drinking wine while eating their mac ‘n cheese.  Henry has a great love for alcohol (not coincidentally so did Hemingway) and drinks himself into jaundice after his surgery.  He drinks from the beginning to the end of this novel.  Even while Catherine is having a caesarian section he has a few drinks at a café across from the hospital.  The hospital is located at the bottom of the mountain that Henry and Catherine had been living on, and Hemingway symbolically illustrates good things happening while up in the mountains and bad things happening down on the plain.  Rain is a reoccurring symbol throughout the novel which also indicates something bad stirring.  Spoiler Alert: It’s raining when Catherine goes into labor and it continues to rain through the end when Henry walks back to the hotel in the rain, alone.  The tragedy occurs at the end when both Catherine and the baby die during childbirth.  I instantly and uncontrollably burst into sobs…not just a few tears rolling down my cheeks, but the loud, heaving, sobbing type of crying when I reacted to the loss in the story.  I think Hemingway built up the romance between Henry and Catherine so strongly and emotionally, showing them overcome obstacles to be together, only for Henry to be left completely alone in the end.  No one escapes death; it takes everyone in time.  Though tragic, the end is captivating and moving.

Overall, I enjoyed the novel so much so that I think I’m warranted in suggesting it to anyone who likes to read.  I’ve been mentioning it in daily conversation and randomly informing friends and colleagues of little bits of Hemingway trivia.  What can I say? I’m a book-nerd.  I hope you read it and I hope you like it as much as I did.

Chelsea

A passage from the novel, my favorite passage, and one that reveals the essence of it:

“Often a man wishes to be alone and a girl wishes to be alone too and if they love each other they are jealous of that in each other, but I can truly say we never felt that.  We could feel alone when we were alone together, alone against the others.  It has only happened to me like that once.  I have been alone while I was with many girls and that is the way that you can be most lonely.  But we were never lonely and never afraid when we were together.  I know that the night is not the same as the day: that all things are different, that the things of the night cannot be explained in the day, because they do not then exist, and the night can be a dreadful time for lonely people once their loneliness has started.  But with Catherine there was almost no difference in the night except that it was an even better time.  People bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them.  The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places.  But those that will not break it kills.  It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially.  If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry” (Hemingway, pg 249).

 

Photo taken from http://www.powells.com/biblio/17-9780684801469-1