Give me books, fruit, french wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors. --John Keats

Thursday, July 17, 2014

"This Thing of Darkness" by Harry Thompson

This Thing of Darkness was given to me by my sweet mother-in-law over a year ago, but (probably more due to its sheer bulk than anything else) I kept pushing it aside in favor of other books. (Seriously. This one is SUPER long. It's almost thicker than it is wide. So maybe I'm exaggerating for effect . . . but just a bit.)

I'm glad I finally hefted it and dove in, though. It is what one surely could describe as a cracking good read. I took it slowly--savored it, if you will--and it was kind of a relief to relax my usual breakneck reading pace and focus on one book over the course of several weeks.

It's historical fiction (emphasis on the former), telling the story of Charles Darwin's voyages on the Beagle, though it focuses more on the lesser-known personage of the ship's captain, Robert FitzRoy. It is full of swash and buckle, adventure and misadventure, advancement of science and resistance to that advancement, noble sacrifice and its attempts to overcome ignoble greed in its various guises.

FitzRoy (at least as portrayed in this book) was quite an admirable man; as for Darwin, however, I just can't forget the ridiculous fact that one of the things his mule train carried into the Andes for him was a full bed, so that he wouldn't have to sleep on the ground. Come on, man! Grow some balls! Your monkey ancestors didn't need beds! (To be fair, though--beds in the wilderness aside--Darwin was not generally portrayed in a negative light.)

This was Thompson's only novel of note (his only other published works include a few biographies and one semi-autobiographical book) and there won't be another one, as he passed away at the young age of 45--the same year this book was published. But he should be proud of this swan song, because it's a really great book. And--judging by the author's note at the end--an amazing amount of research went into it, which was very evident to me as I read--the story has an indelible aura of authenticity.

This book would make a great TV miniseries. (BBC, are you listening?)




Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Book Club Report, Part III

Only 30 books to go until I'm all caught up on blogging (I think)! As I was looking at this list and trying to figure out how I can knock out several posts in one go, I realized I'd missed blogging about three Old Book Club selections in my previous two Book Club Reports. So, Book Club Report Part III it is! And because posting about three books isn't enough to make a satisfying dent in my backlog, I will add a special surprise at the end. Just you wait!

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon. My first book by this author, and it won't be my last. Anyone who can get me interested in the birth of the comic book superhero has got to be good. Lucky for me, though comic books were definitely the main theme of the book, there's so much more to it. The writing is excellent, the characters are vivid, the plot flows swiftly, and it's a memorable and believable portrayal of 1940s New York City. I'm looking forward to reading Chabon's The Wonder Boys one of these days. 

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. This is the story of a small gang of young thugs who wreak havoc to their hearts' content until the authorities decide to do something about it. I'd seen the movie years ago, but only vaguely remembered the general idea (as well as a few indelible moments that I wouldn't have minded forgetting). What stands out most in my memory from reading the book is Nadsat, the slang vocabulary spoken by the main characters. I'd been forewarned about it, and (maybe largely because I was prepared?) I found it relatively painless to grow accustomed to. The version I read had a weirdly didactic final chapter. I think the book would be better without it.

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. Surely it's not a spoiler to tell you that this book is about two teenagers who fall in love . . . after they meet at their cancer survivor's support group. (After all, the huge movie adaptation just came out two weeks ago, and even I've seen ads for it everywhere I've looked. If you don't already know the premise, it's your own problem.) I never, ever would have chosen to read this book if not under duress from Book Club. Love? And cancer?? I smell horrifying tearjerker. Not My Thing. But, you know, John Green can do things I never would put up with from the likes of Nicholas Sparks (I'm looking at YOU, A Walk to Remember). And--not that I'm calling him Shakespeare or anything--I have a bit more respect for teenage lovers dealing with cancer than those who end up killing themselves over a big, stupid misunderstanding. 

So, as far as I can remember, that's it for books read with my sad old defunct book club. Your special surprise? Two books that were rejected by said book club--but I read them anyway.

A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel. This is an incredibly detailed account of the French Revolution and its three major leaders (Danton, Robespierre and Desmoulins). It's an extraordinary work, more history than fiction, about a fascinating time and place. I wish I could have retained more of what I learned from it. 

Despite the fact that this one is definitely worth reading, I think Old Book Club was right to turn it down. I imagine they would have hated it. 

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters. It's Victorian, it's gothic, it's naughty, it's full of mysteries and secrets, and deception is heaped upon deception. It's the story of a pickpocket (hence the title) who agrees to trick an heiress out of her inheritance. If Book Club could have overlooked the naughty bits, I think they would have had just as much fun with this one as anything by Kate Morton. 

Five down, 25 to go!

Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Book Club Report, Part II

Here's the wrap-up of Old Book Club books that I promised you a few weeks ago. It's kind of sad--in looking over these seven books, I don't see a single one that I loved. Most of them were at least worth reading, though. Except maybe . . .

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer. This is one of those stories told from multiple points of view. The main character is a deep-thinking young boy who seems out of place--Oskar doesn't fit in with any kids his age, but adults can't see him as a peer. His father died in the 9/11 attacks, and Oskar is obsessively searching for the lock that will be opened by a key that belonged to his father. I vaguely remember this book was somewhat disappointing, and I didn't care at all about some of the narrators. I also feel like it was sold to me under false pretenses--the idea of the mysterious key seemed much more intriguing than the reality of it. This book was more about Oskar's grief and the ways he dealt with it than it was about the mystery of the key.

Before I Go To Sleep by SJ Watson. This book was probably my favorite of those I'm posting about today, but I still didn't love it. It's the story of a woman who suffers from amnesia. Every morning when she wakes up she has no idea who she is, where she is, or why she is in bed with a man. The man, of course, is her husband, and every day he has the task of reminding her of their history. She has begun keeping a journal (probably either in hopes of recovering some of her memory, or as a way to cope with its loss--I can't remember for sure . . . ha ha) and is starting to realize Something is Not Right. Here are the vague perceptions I recall about the book: it seemed like a really clever premise, but I was slightly disappointed; reading it was oddly like walking through a dense fog; and it had elements of the movie Groundhog Day (which seriously annoyed me with its repetitiveness). But I think it was also somewhat suspenseful and intriguing.

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. This is the story of a tribal leader in Africa whose life (as you might guess from the title) takes a bad turn. I must admit I was not looking forward to reading this book (not least because of its awful cover art-- not the same as the cover shown here, but I couldn't find a photo of the copy I read, and I was kind of glad about that) and I actually ended up pleasantly surprised. Not because this is a particularly pleasant read--it's actually a bit depressing and frustrating--but it is a strong story and it definitely held my attention. And I know as I read I had some interesting thoughts about the effect of missionaries on native cultures and their ingrained belief systems and traditions, but unfortunately I can't share those interesting thoughts with you, because I can't remember them.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. Here's a curious tidbit: this novel had its beginnings as a short story. And that may be the best thing I can come up with to say about this book because it's been too long since I read it. My hazy memory tells me it's a sort of character study of a fat Dominican teenager and his assorted friends and family members, all of which is overshadowed by a faint sense of impending doom.

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. This is a medieval monastic murder mystery, which sounds pretty good until you apply the adjectives "dense" and "glacial". I remember appreciating it more than my other book club members, and it was worth reading once, but I doubt I would wade through it again.

Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card. A futuristic novel about a society that selects children for military training at a young age. Also started as a short story. Good sci-fi, though I have no interest in continuing with the series. My strongest memory of this one isn't even about the book itself--it's how disappointing the movie was.

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs. This book is peppered with a double handful of weird old photos which are worked into a story about an orphanage for kids with strange powers. I loved the creepy photos, but the ones I was most curious about were merely glossed over, and some of the ones described in great detail seemed to be unnecessarily stretched to fit the story. I enjoyed the read but it didn't meet my expectations.

And now I am seven books closer to being caught up!

Friday, June 6, 2014

"Matched" by Ally Condie

I bought this for Bookworm Child a while back. I think I chose it mostly because I liked the cover, and I'd heard about the story from one of my two main YA-reading friends--the concept sounded interesting when she described it to me. Bookworm Child has read all but the last two and a half chapters (I can't imagine getting that close to the end and not following through!!) and I was curious enough to pick it up myself.

Matched is the story of a rigidly controlled society, ostensibly restrained by the government for the good of all, rendering free will extremely limited. The government controls the populace by dividing it into a handful of factions based on their members' predominant character traits . . . no, wait, that's Divergent. Let's see, in this one the people of the society have underlying doubts and questions about their government, but everyone is afraid to express those thoughts publicly, especially because they fear official retribution. Most of those fears stem from the fact that every year, two children from each district are chosen to fight . . . oops, no, that's The Hunger Games. So, in Matched, everyone has everything decided for them. The government chooses each person's career path, their food and clothes, even their spouse. And some people don't like this.

Just in case I haven't beaten you over the head with it enough, my point is that Matched doesn't seem especially unique. It has its own take on the supposed-utopia-that's-actually-more-dystopian, but it doesn't feel new. (Thought I suppose it might have if I'd read it before reading Divergent and The Hunger Games.) But it was still a fun read, and I'm going to see if I can get Bookworm Child to finish it.

Friday, May 30, 2014

"Tony and Susan" by Austin Wright

Here's our newest Book Club of Two selection. My husband was frustrated because I started this book just a little bit before he did, and I kept sneaking in a few more pages whenever possible. He was sure he would never catch up. But I couldn't help it! Not only was it well written, full of tension and suspense. Not only did I not want to put it down. It seemed to go even further than that--it was more as if the book wouldn't let me go.

The story is a clever work of metafiction. The main character, Susan, is reading a manuscript (written by her ex-husband) in which the main character is Tony. Tony's story is the more compelling of the two, but Susan's reading of it doesn't dilute the tension of Tony's story. Rather than making us feel removed from Tony's story, Susan's reading of it adds another dimension to it. Susan's reactions, as well as her pauses to ruminate on her reading, intensify the dread of what is coming in Tony's story. 

At first I wanted to call this a mystery, but it's really not. There are no real twists and turns, no need to figure out whodunit, no red herrings (although I kept looking for them, and even thought I'd found a few . . . but I hadn't). It's just a dark trail toward the inevitable, beset with dread. I guess the genre would be considered horror, but Wright seems to dig deeper than King or Koontz usually would. 

This book is a gem, even if the ending left things feeling unresolved. I don't know why I'd never heard of it before. It was well worth the read, though I do have to wonder if it would stand up to a re-read; surely it couldn't have the same effect the second time around. But maybe for a literary amnesiac it would . . .

Monday, May 26, 2014

"The Visible Man" by Chuck Klosterman

This is the story of an Austin, Texas therapist and her treatment of one specific patient: a man who can make himself become invisible. Not a man who thinks he can make himself invisible, or who has delusions of invisibility, but a former scientist who had been part of a now-scrapped government project, and who secretly and unofficially completed the work after the project was discontinued.

Chuck Klosterman comes up with great what-if questions. (Seriously. You should check this out--we've had a lot of fun with it.) So, what would you do if you could become invisible? Would you use your powers for good or evil? The "visible man" strongly believes that no human can honestly and purely behave according to their true personality unless completely alone, and he feels compelled to study people being themselves... by quietly breaking into their houses and observing them in their (supposed) solitude. Somehow he believes this is a good use of his power, but not everyone would be able to see his point of view.

The story intertwines the evolution of an odd patient/therapist relationship with the stories the man tells of situations he has witnessed during his surreptitious "research". He was privy to some unusual scenarios, which seemed only too limited--certainly not in scope, but in number. I wished there had been more! I wouldn't mind reading more Klosterman books, if I can assume his others measure up.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

"This is How: Help for the Self" by Augusten Burroughs

My no-fail book selection method has failed me.

When I'm browsing for books (not looking for a specific title or author, but just wandering the bookshop aisles rapturously), first it's up to the cover to catch my eye. It may be the colors, or the artwork, or the words, or all of it together. Next I look at the price. I'm a sucker for a cheap book, and it's pretty unusual for me to pay full price. Then I read the back cover (or the inside flap--wherever the blurb is to be found).

If the book has passed all of these tests to my satisfaction, the last challenge is the Random Text Selection. I open the book to a page decided by fate (though I assiduously avoid the ending--even endings of chapters--in hopes of dodging spoilers) and sample the prose style.  This is mainly to ensure that the writing doesn't suck. I've ruled out book purchases thanks to this sucky-writing-avoidance technique, and in the best cases I am then even more eager to read the book so I can put what I've just read into context. 

Once I've made my choice to buy a book, I feel like I generally have a pretty good idea about what sort of book it is, even if I don't know much about the story or what direction it will go.

I applied all of my usual methods to This is How. And somehow I came away from Books-A-Million with this book and the idea that it was comedy. I thought it was a parody of a self-help book. I thought it mocked the dire situations people can find themselves in.

was wrong. 

This is really and truly a self-help book. I'm sure the cover should have revealed that fact to me--it's pretty plain there--but I thought it was a sarcastic representation. 

It's not. 

So, expectations aside, what did I think of this book? I tend not to appreciate self-help books. I may have an unnecessarily negative view of them, but it seems to me that the majority are very repetitive (to the point that they could easily be distilled into a motivational poster) with an annoyingly and cloyingly perky attitude. Not to mention that they often seem to be full of crap.

This is How is neither easily distilled nor perky. What it has to say is varied and unique. It actually seems to contain some fairly good advice. AND it is humorous in bits, in that dry sarcastic sense that I remember from Running With Scissors. Only problem is that I'm not in any of the horrible situations described in it, and by the time that I am, I won't be able to remember the advice. 

I don't necessarily regret reading this book; it was interesting, and it went by quickly. But, had I recognized it for what it was, I probably never would have bought it, despite its low price and old-West-snake-oil-salesman title font. I should have listened to my husband, who frowned and said, "That's for people who aren't happy." Maybe I would have listened to him if the edition I held had this cover, which looks much more faithful to its contents, if you ask me:

Monday, May 19, 2014

"The Night Circus" by Erin Morgenstern

This is the story of an incredible traveling circus, only open at night, which appears as if by magic and disappears again just as unpredictably. Rather than the usual three-ring spectacle under the big top, full of noise and color, the Night Circus is a more individual experience: an endless-seeming maze of tents which encourage exploration and discovery in shades of black, white and grey. And it is filled with marvels one would never have thought possible.

It was great fun to imagine attending the circus as it was described. I was just barely able to overlook the impossibility of it all in favor of amazement. If the Night Circus could really exist I would certainly be in line to experience it, and I think I might first head to Widget's tent where I could "open what is closed"--at least, that's the tent that sticks in my mind the most. It's full of bottles and jars, each one containing the essence of a different story or memory. Opening one releases specific and distinct sounds and smells and sensations.

Apart from imagining the circus itself (which is truly brought to life in beautiful detail), I'm afraid I don't have much to say about this book. I really love the cover; I bought it for my husband for Christmas, though I didn't have any particular reason for choosing this title; and I enjoyed reading it (though I didn't love it).

Friday, May 2, 2014

"The Magus" by John Fowles

This book was incredible (positive and negative connotations applying simultaneously). It's huge and long and, though I did spend over two weeks reading it, I was riveted. I don't remember exactly when it reached critical mass but it was very likely on page 63, with the words, "But then the mysteries began."

The Magus tells the story of Nicholas Urfe, a cynical and directionless young Englishman who takes a teaching post at a boys' school on a Greek island. His surroundings, his job, his very life--all seems barren and dull, and Nicholas is utterly alone even when surrounded by others, until he meets the enigmatic Maurice Conchis.

His new acquaintance draws Urfe's curiosity immediately, but it seems no one question is answered without raising two more; then, more often than not, the new answers disprove the previous one. Intrigue is heaped upon intrigue with increasing intensity, and the reader is trained--along with Nicholas--to accept nothing at face value. The story is like a kaleidoscope: with each turn there is a dazzling display, but just as a recognizable pattern begins to emerge, everything shifts and nothing is as it was.

One might think there could only be two possible literary outcomes when such a tangled web is woven: either what once seemed mystical is revealed to be mundane, or the key to the mystery remains hidden in ambiguity. Fowles hits upon a third outcome: the source of the subterfuge is somewhat absurd.

But if the solution did not live up to the mysteries, neither was it a disappointment. The only part of this book that was disappointing to me was the unforgivable spoiler found on the back of my copy--something that would otherwise only have been made plain quite close to the end of the book--and I'm convinced I never would have guessed it without that blatant hint in the blurb.

Unfortunately I'm afraid whichever book I choose next will be disappointing in comparison, but I suppose they can't all be great.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

The Book Club Report, Part I

I have watched another book club die. We finally took this one off life support last month and it slipped away unnoticed. Surely someday we'll be part of a bigger book club again, but for now, my husband and I are in a book club of two. We are currently reading The Magus (which is AWESOME). I'm enjoying the new format, because we end up having tons of mini book-club-moments before we even finish the book.

Speaking of mini-book-club moments, while looking over my Must Blog list, I noticed that at least ten of those books were selections for the recently deceased book club. I'm not sure I could write an entire post on any of them, considering how long it's been since I read each one, so get ready for me to knock out a bunch of reviews at once.

I'll start with the most recent: The Cement Garden, by Ian McEwan. This was my second book by this author (see Atonement), unless I'm forgetting another, but it won't be my last; I find McEwan's writing pretty unimpeachable. (Maybe not as perfect as Kazuo Ishiguro's, but whose is?) This rounded out an unexpected trio of recently-read books set in England's heatwave of 1976 (see here and here), and it was easily the most controversial of the three: the story of four recently-orphaned siblings (without any of the romantic Victorian notions implied in that phrase) and their decisions and behaviors upon finding themselves suddenly autonomous before their concepts of morality were fully formed. It was unnerving how McEwan made me complicit in the siblings' conduct. Things that should have horrified me were made to seem reasonable through these children's eyes.

Under the Skin by Michel Faber. This story was interesting and unique (a female driver preys on male hitchhikers), although I think Faber revealed the mystery behind the main character's actions too soon. If just one line had been cut (the one about the chef), leaving the word "vodsel" enigmatic for a bit longer, I think it would have been a vast improvement. I couldn't really picture what Isserley looked like, either. Somehow her description didn't sound anything like Scarlett Johansson, but I'm still interested in seeing the movie anyway.

The Melting Season by Jami Attenberg, in which a not-so-bright Nebraska girl leaves her crumbling life behind her and makes a run for Las Vegas. I think I first heard of this book in one of those single-paragraph book reviews in a magazine . . . and I think that magazine was Glamour, if that tells you anything. I wish I could re-read that review now, so I could see what drew me to this book. I'm fairly certain it wasn't anything about penile enlargement surgery, anyway.

The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton.  Unfortunately I found this one disappointing when compared to Morton's The House at Riverton. It's the story of a girl who was raised in Australia; on her twenty-first birthday she's told that she had an unremembered childhood in England. There were plenty of secrets and mysteries, but I think the book suffered from my excessively high expectations (the ones that had me thinking Kate Morton's books are great big thick bundles of awesomeness). That's not to say I didn't enjoy it--it was still pretty great--but I didn't love it the way I thought I would.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. LOVED IT. It's the story of a cad whose wife disappears under suspicious circumstances, and it's really just a thriller without any especially literary characteristics (though I have no complaints about the writing), but it was full of twists and turns and suspense. I still remember with startling clarity the shock of the text message Nick receives four days after Amy vanishes. And there was just NO good place to stop reading this book. No doubt about it--this one reached critical mass, and early on. I've since read (and loved) Flynn's other two books, though this remains my favorite of the three. I'm looking forward to the movie adaptation out in September. Ben Affleck will make a perfect Nick Dunne, if I can get over the way he always seems to be spitting while he's talking.

Stay tuned for Part II of The Book Club Report . . .

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

"Divergent" by Veronica Roth

This book wasn't even on my radar until I started hearing about the movie. That's not especially surprising, since I'm not one of those devours-everything-YA readers. I don't generally seek out YA novels, but when one comes after me I don't kick it out of bed.

We went to see the movie knowing nothing about it, though we had the vague idea that it was in the same vein as The Hunger Games (which, in my opinion, is a complimentary way of describing a book or movie). And it was exactly like The Hunger Games, except completely different. If you know what I mean.

I really enjoyed the movie--it was exciting and clever and engaging--which made me want to read the book. This was partly to savor bits of the movie without committing another two-hour block of time to it, and partly because I thought it might answer a few lingering questions. (Like, was there any significance to Tris's bird tattoo? Yes, there was!)

It also invites a fun new party game. Which faction would you choose? As the author notes in the interview found at the end of my copy of the book, there are actually two questions there: which faction do you have an aptitude for, and which faction would you like to be in? Well, as much as I like the idea of Dauntless (Four's version, not Eric's), I'm pretty sure I would be the girl to splat to my death before the end of the first day. I suppose, being a reader by choice and a science-y person by trade, I have an aptitude for Erudite. But which faction would I like to be in? NONE!! And by this I certainly don't mean I'd like to be factionless. I mean that, as flawed as the real world might be, I'm so glad I don't live in a dystopian novel instead.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

"The Mathematics of Love" by Emma Darwin

I didn't expect much from this book. I'd never heard of it, or its author, but there must have been something that drew me beyond its bargain basement price at the Friends of the Library bookstore. Maybe it was the title . . . though it certainly couldn't have been the reference to mathematics. (Math? I hate math. They put me in a room with math once. It drove me crazy.) And love? You know how love stories can make me gag. But the two together? They have some kind of weird synergy.

I meandered languidly through this book over the past three weeks. It tells two stories which are barely more than tangentially related; one is the story of Anna Ware, a teenage English girl sent to live with her uncle at his failed school during the sweltering summer of 1976. (Yes, same summer as Instructions for a Heatwave . . . AND, I think, The Cement Garden which I read in February but haven't had a chance to blog about yet.) The other is the story of Stephen Fairhurst, owner of Kersey Hall and veteran of Waterloo, more than a century and a half earlier.

At first I found myself more interested in Anna's story than in Stephen's. And, though I was enjoying reading, I didn't find the book compelling. Until just a day or so ago. Suddenly, surprisingly, the book reached critical mass, and I realized that both stories (and their tenuous, mysterious links) had quietly and stealthily become fascinating. I finally had the time to finish the book this afternoon . . . but even after I finished reading, I didn't feel like I'd reached the end of the story. It's not that the plot felt unresolved, but I was left with so many unanswered questions.

As I mentally enumerated the remaining mysteries, I tried to convince myself that further elucidation didn't matter (because it would be so freeing if I could just let it go), but the longer I spent in this tally, the more I fretted and wondered, like a dog worrying a bone (or something less clichéd).

My biggest question: What was the deal with Cecil living in Anna's time and yet being seen in by Stephen? Was this just some sort of contrivance added after the book was mostly completed in hopes of making the link between Stephen and Anna seem slightly more substantial and/or interesting? (If so, mission accomplished.) If I knew this was all it was, I could let it go. But I am unable to know and unable to let it go and thus my mind won't stop digging for a deeper meaning.

Another, slightly less captivating question: Who was Anna's father? It is hinted that Idoia is an ancestor on her father's side (she would have been far too old to be Anna's grandmother, but perhaps add a few greats and it might have worked) but it's never made plain, and this is the closest we get to discovering Anna's father's identity. I can see, however, that the fact that Anna doesn't learn more about her father is the less artificial route.

There were many other unanswered questions that aren't quite as niggling, partly because the answers aren't even hinted at and partly because knowing the answers really wouldn't have much bearing on the story. (Consequently--thank goodness!--I feel more able to let these go.) Like: What happened to the school to make it close? Where had Belle been all those years? (I couldn't help but wonder if she'd been in prison for something. But if so, what for?) Who was Cecil's mother, and where was she?

Enigmas aside, I was drawn in to the relationships described in this book. There is something undefined that holds me back from naming this a Must Read, but I can definitely say my expectations were exceeded (and not just because they were low in the first place).