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

Saturday, October 3, 2015

"Tattercoats and Other Folk Tales" by Winifred Finlay

I saw this old book in the children's section at the library a few years back, standing on a special display shelf, but I did not borrow it at the time. I can't remember why--maybe I was already in the middle of reading something else? But it obviously stuck in my mind, because I later made a note to get it next time we were there. However, when I looked it up the next few times, the card catalog always showed it was checked out. The perils of having had a spot on the special display shelf, I suppose. Then I forgot to look for it for a long time . . . until last week. First I looked for it under FIN on the fiction shelves, but it wasn't there. Then I checked the card catalog and saw that the library doesn't categorize this book as fiction! It was in the non-fiction section! What's that about? I'm not sure whether to chalk that up to wishful thinking, stupidity, not paying enough attention, or a librarian with a sense of humor.

I may have mentioned [many times] before that I enjoy a good children's book on occasion, with an emphasis on fairy tales and magic. This one was no exception. In fact I loved it so much that I began to consider buying my own copy. I want to read it to my kids at bedtime, even though the majority of them are too old for it and the youngest one is probably too young to appreciate it. I don't care--I'll read it to anyone willing to sit relatively still in my general vicinity. I'm not a fan of the cover art (the library book is dust-jacketless, so it's just a plain green binding, and I much prefer that) but the stories inside are lovely. And all the better because they are neither retellings of the most common fairy tales, nor are they the jarring modern-style updated versions; these are actually new stories that I'd never heard before. They have a lot of familiar elements, but they're just different enough to feel unique. And they're told in the gentle old-fashioned language with repetition of details that one would expect from these sorts of stories.

Now I just have to decide whether to go ahead and buy a copy now, or hope someone gives it to me as a Christmas gift . . .

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

"How to Behave So Your Children Will Too" by Sal Severe, PhD

This book wasn't quite what I expected. Based on the title, I really thought the book would focus on my own behavior. I thought there was some kind of system of words and actions I hadn't yet discovered in almost sixteen years as a parent--a way of behavior that my children would see (or maybe even just absorb subconsciously) and then magically mirror in their own lives--and this book would reveal the essentials.

Unfortunately, this book is not magical. It's not even very unique. It's just another child-rearing book full of discipline suggestions. It doesn't really address a parent's behavior in general; the only recommendations it makes for the parents relate to the way they handle their children rather than the way they handle themselves.

Can I set aside my unrealistic expectations and judge this book more objectively? Seeing it for what it is, I am still disappointed. Most of the ideas in this book are either common knowledge (never give in to a tantrum) or suggestions for complicated charts and systems I can't be bothered to try (partly because it would take too much effort, partly because I'm too doubtful concerning the likelihood of success). I do wonder whether Dr Severe (who isn't as harsh as his name sounds) was merely spouting all of the well-known parenting lore, or whether this book (unbeknownst to me) is actually some sort of nationwide parenting Bible and all of the current parenting lore originated here? (It's plausible. The book is nearly 20 years old.)

I won't call this book a complete waste of time. I satisfied my curiosity (even if the satisfaction came in the form of disappointment), and I am renewing my imperative to be consistent with my children (a helpful parenting tool I was already aware of and did not learn from this book, but one I must admit I've been a bit lazy about). It's just unfortunate that my ego is telling my superego, "Yeah, good luck with that."

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Wait . . . I wasn't finished . . .

I found this kitty on Pinterest.
Originally from
. . . Or, How I Wish I Hadn't Finished.

I am now suffering from Reader's Remorse. I knew it was going to happen before I'd even gotten anywhere near the end of The Girl on the Train. I knew that once I reached the end I would wish I hadn't . . . I would wish I could still be reading it. I tried to slow down, I really did. But TGOTT is the sort of book that would not allow me to slow down.

And now I'm left with the depressing feeling that my next book can't possibly compare to my last one.

"The Girl on the Train" by Paula Hawkins

YES. This is why I read books.

I know this isn't news--you've probably heard this an infinite number of times since January--but this book is riveting. I first heard about it when my husband read a review calling it the new Gone Girl (which I loved reading). Further reviews made it sound like maybe it wasn't *that* great, hence my delay in reading it, but finally my curiosity got the better of me and I bought a copy for, um, my husband's birthday. (That was my excuse, anyway.)

This is basically a murder mystery/thriller where both the past and the present are revealed in a tantalizing strip-tease of words. There's a disappearance (or maybe a murder?), more than one unreliable narrator, and a torrent of jealousy and affairs and duplicity and alcoholic amnesia. And (unless the brilliance of critical mass has blinded me to its flaws), the plot was fitted together so tightly and cleverly. Well, OK, maybe I guessed the truth before I was even halfway through the book, but I wasn't sure until much later, and I was more impressed with my powers of deduction than disappointed by the guessable solution.

If I try to look at it objectively, I can't convince myself that this book was actually amazing. I can't point to anything about the writing or the ideas or the characters that causes this book to stand head and shoulders above the rest. But it completely SUCKED ME IN and I LOVE that.

It does make me wonder, though. What makes this or Gone Girl so appealing when I was so negative about Transgressions? I don't think I've had enough time to put my finger on the difference.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

"Notes on a Scandal" by Zoë Heller

What was she thinking?

That's actually the original title of this book; Notes on a Scandal was initially just the subtitle. But once the story was made into a Major Motion Picture, the title of the movie became the title of later editions of the book. (I hear that's often the case.) As much as I hate the thought of a book changing as a result of its movie adaptation, I think this change was a good one.

Throughout the story, the titular notes are recorded by Barbara, a lonely, obsessive older woman who teaches at the same school as the perpetrator of the scandal: attractive 40-something Sheba who is pursued by a 15-year old student and eventually ends up having an affair with him. And, since all of the information we receive is filtered through Barbara, do we ever really know what Sheba was thinking?

Even if all we get is Barbara's spin on the situation, I think hearing it through a third party was important in allowing the reader to sympathize with Sheba. Barbara was able to humanize the "how could she" element of the teacher/student story that comes up in the news every now and then. I was grudgingly forced to see how she could have finally ended up in a mess, and how it wasn't a simple, cut-and-dried, snap decision. Even so, I never did get rid of the "she shouldn't have" attitude. As the adult in the equation, it was Sheba's job to realize where to draw the line.

I enjoyed reading the book (even if Sheba was a bit squicky and Barbara was a bit creepy) and have enjoyed mulling it all over since I finished reading. Why, exactly, was Barbara recording all of the details of the scandal? Her claim was that she thought it would help in court; however, she either didn't realize her notes would only serve to incriminate her (as an accessory), or that wasn't her true reason. And how, exactly, did Sheba feel about Barbara? Perhaps she initially allowed her friendship with Barbara to develop because Barbara seemed to offer support rather than judgment . . . but by the end it's difficult to tell if Barbara is still around because Sheba doesn't have the energy to end the friendship, or if Sheba actually appreciates Barbara's presence.

I was a bit disappointed in the ending; I guess I wanted something to happen. But when I mull over possible conclusions, I can only come up with what seems to be the inevitable trial and prison sentence, which I can't see adding anything to the book.

I know this may be the most boring blog post I've ever written, but at least it's done now, so I can start reading something new . . .

Friday, September 11, 2015

"Transgressions" by Sarah Dunant

TRAIN WRECK. That's my two-word review of this book. You know, the sort of thing that is horrible and disgusting but you just can't look away from it.

I find it odd that I should have enjoyed Dunant's Birth of Venus so much (though admittedly I didn't love it) but couldn't get on board with this one. It started well enough, at least maintaining my interest if not knocking my socks off. However, when what seemed intriguing (a possible poltergeist--hey, I didn't say it was realistic) turned out to be merely sordid (a stalker--sorry, was that a spoiler?), and then I found it impossible to identify with Elizabeth's reaction to said stalker, I knew this book was not for me. The promise of the synopsis on the back cover was not being fulfilled. 

And yet I could not stop reading. 

The story starts with a young-ish woman who lives alone in a posh old London house which she used to share with her long-term boyfriend. It's been several months since she kicked him out after finally admitting to herself that things weren't working out between them. She has become a bit reclusive, throwing herself into her work as a translator of Czech novels and forgetting the world around her. When odd things start to happen in her kitchen, at first it's not clear whether Elizabeth has maybe just gone a bit crazy through loneliness, or whether something more sinister is afoot. So of course I had to keep reading until it was revealed that the latter was the case (although the possibility of the former was never really fully dispelled). I'm not sure what my excuse was beyond that point.

I couldn't help but wonder why the title wasn't Trespasses insteadThe two words can be nearly synonymous, and it seemed a better fit, given the stalker-y theme. Or maybe it would have been too obvious a choice? The author certainly didn't go for the typical cliches here. I guess I can applaud the avoidance of the expected, but that wasn't enough for me. 

Coda: this book did not completely turn me off to Sarah Dunant. I'm willing to give her another chance by reading this, if only for the subject matter. 

Saturday, September 5, 2015

"Affinity" by Sarah Waters

You know you're really on vacation when you read an entire book in 24 hours. In regular non-holiday life, I think the only way I could read a whole book in one day is if it were very very short. Or maybe if I cut out sleeping altogether.

Anyhow. Affinity was a good read! It was very reminiscent of Fingersmith (in terms of Victorian lesbian love and betrayal) but was a fun and compelling read in its own right. And though some of it was a bit predictable (possibly only due to my previous Waters experience), I also made a few wrong guesses, and found a surprise or two as well.

I would like to take a moment here to digress about interpretation. Some stories are not open to it whatsoever, being laid out in an obviously plain and straightforward manner. Others, however, are less direct, hinting rather than explaining clearly, giving the reader the opportunity to draw his or her own conclusions. (Books like that are awesome, by the way.) Not for the first time (I definitely had this same experience with Anita Shreve's The Last Time They Met, and surely other times that are not coming to mind at the moment), I became aware that my conclusions, though they seemed solid, were not necessarily the ones that every reader would reach. If you've read this book and you want more details, read here to the part at the end (about Peter Quick) and know that the understanding expressed there is not the understanding I reached in my own reading experience. (If you haven't read the book, though, don't follow that link unless you relish spoilers.)

So, back to Affinity. It's the story of a repressed Victorian spinster (the young-ish kind, not an old lady) named Margaret who has suffered from depression, suicidal tendencies, the death of her father, and unrequited love for Helen, who overthrew their budding relationship for a more conventional life; Helen has married none other than Margaret's own brother. Margaret's psyche is in a state of healing, and a wrong-headed but well-intentioned family friend has suggested that a good method for helping her along would be for her to volunteer as a Lady Visitor at the dank and oppressive local women's prison. Margaret is meant to be a role model for the imprisoned women, and perhaps to see that her own life isn't so bad after all, but instead she develops an affinity for the beautiful young medium Selina Dawes, who was convicted (wrongly?) of fraud and assault after a seance gone wrong.

The first chapter of this book did an amazing job of drawing me in. I was trying to choose one of five books, and during my selection process I read the first few lines of each; once I did that with this one, I was sucked in. I knew I had to read the rest of this book. If the first chapter hadn't been so great I think I might have found the next few a bit slow, but I weathered the slightly sluggish pace with alacrity, knowing I was working towards discovering the answers to the questions whirling in my mind.

Now that those questions are laid to rest (to my satisfaction, even if my understanding of the ending is not the same as yours) . . . that mention of cutting out sleep altogether has been bothering me. I think it's time to reassure myself with a nap. 

Friday, August 28, 2015

"Waterland" by Graham Swift

Waterland was my first introduction to Graham Swift. My sweet and thoughtful husband bought a copy for me about six months ago when he saw it at a secondhand bookstore (and I believe him, even if I have no memory of this) because, having read it about fifteen years ago, he knew I would like it. And, as usual, he was right.

This story takes place in the Fenlands (basically reclaimed swamps) of England. It is full of secrets and mysteries (just my thing!), both from the present and from various times past. It's as if everything is hidden under a heavy cloth. As the story unfolds, the narrator gives us glimpses under this corner and that, gradually allowing the outline of what's hidden to be seen. (Have I used that analogy before, in describing another book? I feel like I must have. But I don't care, because it works nicely, and preserves the effect of reading this novel.)

The narrator is a history teacher who finds himself following tangents during his lectures. He ends up relating his personal history rather than what would be expected from the syllabus. There's death (or murder?), war, kidnapping, insanity, really strong ale, incest, a potatohead, and emerging sexuality. And eels. Can't forget the eels. But it's not at all maudlin or melodramatic, as such a list might suggest; it's all treated with subtlety and suspense.

I'm somewhat surprised I was previously unfamiliar with Swift, who has had nine novels published over the past 3 1/2 decades. I'll definitely want to try another one of his books at some point. And I think I know which one will be next: Last Orders. Not only did it win the Booker Prize in 1996, but my copy of Waterland includes it in the same volume. Can't beat that kind of convenience.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

"The Scapegoat" by Daphne du Maurier

I feel like I've been on a bit of a Daphne du Maurier binge recently. Though I guess it hasn't been as excessive as all that, encompassing only two books: The Scapegoat and a (not very short) story collection entitled Don't Look Now. (I'm actually not even finished with the stories yet--it's our current bedtime read.)

It's been an enjoyable time, as binges go. I have loved du Maurier ever since reading Rebecca in high school, though I haven't made it very far through her body of work. I find her writing suspenseful in an understated and subtle way. In general.

The Scapegoat is the story of an English man--a perfect French speaker--who happens to run into his exact double in France (one of a small handful of unlikely plot devices, but I was able to forgive it with a little effort). John and Jean spend a drunken evening discussing their shock and amazement and joking about the possibility of switching lives . . . or, John thought they were joking, anyway. He wakes the next morning with a hangover, all of Jean's belongings, and none of his own. Half bewildered and half outraged, John slides into Jean's life, missing every opportunity to rectify the situation.

Don't Look Now includes one of du Maurier's more famous short stories, "The Birds." Having read it, I'm now almost certain that I've never seen the Hitchcock movie based on the story, and I have no idea how that happened. Hasn't everyone seen it? On the other hand, as the owner of two parakeets, I'm not sure I want to see it . . .

So, everything considered, good times were had by all. My only problem with du Maurier is that I feel like she can't always pull off the ending. I'm not sure I was on board with the way things were left between Jean and John. The end of the eponymous story in Don't Look Now was almost silly. And "The Birds" left things completely unresolved . . . although I suppose that gives the reader the ability to ponder what might happen next, and why it happened at all.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

"The House of Velvet and Glass" by Katherine Howe

Here's a book that looked as if it ought to have reached critical mass but sadly never did. Several things on the back cover grabbed my attention: the way the Titanic is woven into the story without being its main focus (that ship captured my imagination from the first time I heard about it, long before Jack and Rose); the mention of a medium's scrying glass (how would this sort of thing be treated outside of Harry Potter?); and the reference to "a final shocking twist that will leave readers breathless."

Well, there was nothing wrong with this book. I don't have complaints about the writing, or the characters, or the plot. It wasn't boring, and I didn't have to force myself to read it (although I was never especially eager to read it, either). All the same, it was disappointing.

This is the story of grieving Sibyl Allston of Boston. I'm not sure if her age is ever mentioned but I would guess she was in her early 20s when her mother and younger sister were lost on the Titanic. Her father is remote and seems emotionless; her younger brother has made a mess of his life, as is evident when Harvard kicks him out just before graduation. Sibyl feels guilty (she'd been jealous about her sister's trip; now she can't help but feel relieved that she didn't get to go) and deals with this by trying to contact her dearly departed with the help of a medium.

I enjoyed reading the scenes that took place on the Titanic (although I couldn't help but picture the movie instead of being guided through my own imagination) and the treatment of the occult satisfied my curiosity. But I'm oddly left wondering what the "shocking twist" was supposed to be. I can think of a few small surprises at the end, but not one major one. And none of them affected my breathing in the least.

I feel like there are people out there who must have loved this book, and I wish I were one of them. Instead, because it was lukewarm--neither hot nor cold--I will spit it out of my mouth.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Two books by Janet DeLee

I hardly ever accept review requests. This is partly because I prefer to spend my limited time reading books of my own choosing, but mainly because I'm rarely sent a synopsis that piques my interest. And of course there's always the sad but true point that an unknown book carries a higher risk of increased suck factor.

However, for once, a review request caught my eye: the story of a group of dreamers in an Ideal Life Club, meeting to encourage each other towards their goals, with a few ghosts thrown in. I liked the cover photo (if not the title font), too. So I decided to take a leap and accept the request. AND just after replying in the affirmative, I looked DeLee up on Amazon and found she lives 3 hours away from me, she loves Italy and gardening, and this book is her second with the same main character. So I quickly emailed again and greedily requested a copy of her first book too. She replied and said she would send both as long as I read the new one first.

As promised, I read Taking Leaps & Finding Ghosts before Creating an Ideal Life. Though the writing style of TL&FG did not jive with my preferences, I still found myself engaged by the experiences of the characters. And I liked the suggested method of working towards making dreams reality:
1. Write a visualization of your goal. 
2. Write a statement of affirmation. 
3. Write at least one step towards actualization. (And, of course, take the steps you commit to.)

I almost didn't read Creating an Ideal Life immediately afterwards, but we're on vacation and I only brought one other book with me. I picked up the other book (du Maurier short stories) and had only read a few pages before Sam reminded me that I'd promised to read that one with him. So Creating an Ideal Life it was! The writing style was slightly more in line with my tastes, but the best thing about the book was that most of it detailed the main character's solitary travels in Italy, mirroring my own experience of six years ago. Though our trips were not identical (we did not visit all of the same places, and my trip was much shorter than the one in the book), it was similar enough to bring back great memories. But I think I would have enjoyed the vicarious armchair trip even if I hadn't had a similar holiday of my own. 

Thursday, June 25, 2015

"Gut" by Giulia Enders

For this book, I should get the "Why Are You Surprised?" award. It's a book about the workings of the gastrointestinal system, and I didn't really enjoy it. (I was tempted to say it was crap, but it wasn't that bad.)

Part of my problem with this book was its tone. I wasn't prepared for the silliness. A bit of irreverence, sure--that's to be expected in a book about the production of poop--but this was something other than irreverence. I assume the goal was humor and clarity for the layman; the result was a book crowded with euphemisms, the entire thing seeming more suited for children than directed at adults. Of course I'm not suggesting it would be improved if it were more dry and dull (I'm not that old and boring), but perhaps my slightly scientific mind was a bit insulted by passages like this, regarding food poisoning by Salmonella:

"...It is better for the gut to flatly refuse entry to Salmonella, however rude that may seem. After a visit to the toilet or a retching session into a sick bag, you should not take them by the hand and show them what life is like in the outside world. They should be given the cold shoulder by washing with very hot water and soap to let them know: it's not you, it's me--I just can't deal with your clinging personality." 

I don't know. Maybe I just don't have a sense of humor. 

It's not like reading it was a complete waste of time, though. I did learn a few things, my favorites of which I have noted below:

1. Olive oil should be kept in the fridge. What?? I've never done that, and my olive oil has never gone bad. I even checked our current bottle in use and the label doesn't say a thing about refrigeration after opening. However, refrigeration of olive oil isn't to keep it from going bad: according to this book, it's to limit the number of free radicals it captures. (A side note: I also need a "You're Doing It Wrong" award. Olive oil should not be used for frying! Fine oils are too sensitive and are chemically altered by high heat.) No plans to change my beloved olive oil habits at this point but I am filing this info away just in case.

2. When you vomit, you might not only be expelling the contents of your stomach; the emesis could be composed of slush from the small intestine as well.  Too gross for you? Come on, you had to expect to hear a few disgusting things, given the subject matter.

3. Speaking of disgusting things: fish and birds can vomit (there's a pretty picture), mice and horses can't.

And that's it... the end.

The final illustration of the book.
THIS is the type of irreverence I can get on board with.