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

Thursday, November 26, 2015

"The Distant Hours" by Kate Morton

The sad day has come. My illusions are dispelled. I officially no longer find Kate Morton magical. Each book I've read since The House at Riverton has speeded my realization. Yes, her books have intricate plots, great stories, and I love the secrets and mysteries, but they no longer float above the regular bookshelf rabble; they have come down with a thud.

I loved The House at Riverton and it made me expect great things from Morton's other books. But I'm not sure I can say Riverton was the best of the four I've read, or even that it's really my favorite. Maybe if I'd read Hours first it would have had the same effect on me as Riverton. I do think, though, that I've found Morton's four books to be too much of the same thing. An older generation with terrible secrets, a younger generation prying their way into the past. Different characters and slightly different settings, and of course different secrets, but somehow nothing new.

That's not to say it wasn't fun! I have read books I've had to force my way through, and this certainly was not one of those. Morton's stories grab me the arm and whirl me into a vortex. Hours mostly takes place in a castle, with three old spinster sisters whose father had penned The True History of the Mud Man years earlier. There is madness, and destroyed love, and death, and betrayal, covered by layers of lies meant as protection of loved ones. And there is a young woman with her own link to the castle who is peeling back those layers. Even so, I was left thinking I probably wouldn't bother reading any more of Morton's books. (Though I would love to read The Mud Man!)

Only I just noticed that Morton had a book out this year called The Lake House, and I feel my resolve beginning to crumble . . . time will tell if I'll be able to resist it.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

"Haunted" by Chuck Palahniuk

What a great title for this month, and how fitting that I am posting about it on Halloween! I was selecting my next read based on the books I could see from my reclining position in bed. I briefly thought I might pick up Children of God by Mary Doria Russell, but when my eye fell on Haunted, I decided that sounded perfect for October. It's just too bad I don't have time to squeeze Christopher Moore's Bite Me into the month as well. Maybe next Halloween.

Anyway. Back to Haunted. Did you know the cover glows in the dark? I'm a sucker for gimmicks like that. And this time I was pleased to find that the cover wasn't the best part of the book.

Haunted is basically a novelized short story collection. There are 23 mostly-unrelated stories linked together by a writer's workshop. (And that summary of the book could be likened to describing Adolf Hitler as the leader of Germany during World War II. It's a true statement, but it leaves a LOT out.) So here are the details.

First, about the title itself. I was kind of expecting ghosts and supernatural phenomena. I was wrong. We're looking at a different type of "haunting"--the kind that comes with unsettling, could-be-true stories that imprint themselves on your mind and stick there forever. So, really, this book wasn't especially Halloweenie. But (despite my misinterpretation of it) the title certainly wasn't false advertising.

Second, the stories. They're definitely Palahniukian. All the way through, I was thinking what a disturbed (but inventive!) mind the author must have. This book is full of the sort of thing you come across on the internet and then wish you hadn't--like that gruesome, sordid, indecent news piece you might, in hopes of attenuating its effect on you, try to tell yourself was made up or exaggerated. And then I read the Afterword, where Palahniuk refers to these as "mostly true stories." Seriously?? That knowledge makes me less fearful of what he might come up with next (or what he might do) and more unsettled by the stories themselves.

Third, the matrix for the stories. I found it the only disappointing part of the book, as it was inferior to the stories themselves. The things that happened during the "writer's workshop" were too obviously present purely for shock value, seeming pointless and impossible to relate to. But it was interesting that this part was written in first person plural. I expected the narrator to eventually be revealed as a specific member of the workshop and was somewhat disappointed that that never happened.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

"Bloodroot" by Amy Greene

This was another excellent book--one that I wish I could still be reading right now. I'm sad that it's over, but I can put a positive spin on it: I feel lucky when I have the opportunity to experience such a good book.

Speaking of good books . . . Why does it often take me so long to get around to reading them? I've had this one for five years, and I'd heard it was great before I bought it. So I've had Expected Awesomeness on my bookshelf for five years without doing anything about it. It probably has something to do with fear of disappointment, and it's also related to Obligation Reads (which was more applicable back when I was in a book club). I think in this particular case it was also because several years ago I suggested to Sam that we should read this together, but he refused because he hated the title. (Now that I've read the book, though, I know it was by far the most fitting title possible.)

Bloodroot is a multi-generational story of a cursed family. Six narrators share their points of view, from the oldest (Byrdie) who is a great-grandmother to the two youngest (Johnny and Laura). All of the characters are tied together by Bloodroot Mountain in eastern Tennessee. We hear how each woman falls in love, and then we watch the tragedy-tinged direction each love takes.

I'm not sure how I feel about the epilogue. In a way it was satisfying--it answered every question--but somehow being left with no ambiguities is disappointing. It's not that the answers themselves were disappointing, but that I was left with nothing to wonder about.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Baudelaire Poems

I've had a cute little "Everyman's Library Pocket Poets" edition of Baudelaire's works as (ahem) my restroom reading for the past few months. (In case you haven't yet discovered this, poetry is a great format for quick visits. It eliminates all the fuss about trying to remember where you were in the plot--since there isn't one--and you rarely end up hanging around longer than necessary in order to see what happens next. I have just realized, by the way, that it's a good thing I didn't start reading The Girl on the Train while I was sitting on the toilet. I wouldn't have gotten up for two days straight, my feet would have gone so numb that they would never have recovered, and I would have been fired for job abandonment. But I digress.)

I've no idea where I got this notion, but I somehow expected Baudelaire's poems to be romantic, albeit in a sort of erotic and edgy way. Well, I got the edgy right. And a lot of them are about love, but I definitely can't call them romantic. Like the one where Baudelaire describes roadkill in detail before addressing his love and basically saying, "My Beauty, someday your lovely body is going to rot just like that!" That poem, by the way, is aptly titled "Carrion".

A word about translation. I'd often wondered what I might be missing by not reading Baudelaire's poems in the original French. (The short answer: not much, because my French isn't good enough. I personally would miss more by trying to read it in French.) But a translation can certainly make a difference. Look here to see four prior English translations of one poem in this collection. It's amazing how varied they are! And Richard Howard's version in my Pocket Poet book gives it yet another individual twist. It's also, I think, more natural-sounding and fluid than any of the other four. The only thing Howard doesn't do is attempt to replicate the rhyme scheme of the original, but I think he was right to abandon the restriction of rhyme in favor of retaining the sense of the original with lyrical expression.

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.