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

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Books Read in 2009 (after I started blogging, that is)

Here's a list of the 50 books I blogged about in 2009, alphabetically by title:

The Aeneid by Virgil
All He Ever Wanted by Anita Shreve
The Amnesiac by Sam Taylor
Amsterdam by Ian McEwan
Atonement by Ian McEwan
Being Dead by Vivian Vande Velde
The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant
Bloodsucking Fiends by Christopher Moore
The Book of Nonsense by David Michael Slater
The Bourne Deception by Eric van Lustbader
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
Darkwood by M.E. Breen
Dead on Town Line by Leslie Connor
Distant Waves by Suzanne Weyn
Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss
Enna Burning by Shannon Hale
Flowers in the Attic by V.C. Andrews
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson
Given by Wendell Berry
The Girl Who Could Fly by Victoria Forester
The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
Handle With Care by Jodi Picoult
Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
An Incomplete Education by Judy Jones and William Wilson
James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl
The Janissary Tree by Jason Goodwin
The Lacemaker and the Princess by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
The Magician's Elephant by Kate DiCamillo
The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff
Nightmare at the Book Fair by Dan Gutman
People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks
The Princess Academy by Shannon Hale
The Red Tent by Anita Diamant
Returning to Earth by Jim Harrison
Rhino Ranch by Larry McMurtry
The Shape Shifter by Tony Hillerman
The Snake Stone by Jason Goodwin
The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
The Starter Wife by Gigi Levangie Grazer
Talk to the Hand by Lynne Truss
Thura's Diary by Thura al-Windawi
The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
Tomcat in Love by Tim O'Brien
The Twin in the Tavern by Barbara Brooks Wallace
The White Queen by Philippa Gregory
You Suck by Christopher Moore

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

"James and the Giant Peach" by Roald Dahl

I should have read this book thirty years ago but somehow never got around to it. In fact, the only Dahl book I recall reading in my childhood is The Fantastic Mr. Fox, which I enjoyed even though the three farmers were so disgusting. (I have since remedied this situation by reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, so you can stop feeling sorry for me.)

The kids and I watched the "James" movie sometime in the past few years, and I thought it would be fun to read the book to them as a bedtime story, but my local library didn't have a copy of it. Every library should have a copy of James and the Giant Peach! I had to take care of that.

However, even though we now have a copy of the book available to us, I think I'm not going to bother reading this to the kids. My reader snatched it up as soon as it arrived and has already finished with it, my son only wants to hear Peter and the Starcatchers at bedtime, and my youngest is only interested in books about Barbie, princesses, or Angelina Ballerina. So I read it to myself.

It was a romp! I suppose as with most children's books there's not a whole lot of deep thinking or hidden meaning involved, but the story was fantastic (and I'm going with all three of Webster's definitions here). I think Dahl himself put it better than I ever could in the interview included at the end of the book:
"My lucky thing is I laugh at exactly the same jokes that children laugh at . . . you have wonderful inside jokes all the time and it's got to be exciting, it's got to be fast, it's got to have a good plot, but it's got to be funny . . . the line between roaring with laughter and crying because it's a disaster is a very, very fine one . . . you just have to try to find it."
He found it!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

"The Red Tent" by Anita Diamant

I was simultaneously eager to read this book and dreading it. It came very highly recommended to me, but the person who pushed it on me the most won't heat her food in a microwave because of the "bad waves," talks to her viruses so they understand it's nothing personal when she fights them off and kills them, and grew up as a Catholic but is now more of a Buddhist. So I wasn't quite certain what to expect of a Biblically-based historical fiction account of Jacob's wives and children that was enjoyed by someone who is quite possibly the weirdest person I know.

As it turns out, I had nothing to be scared of. Diamant presents a finely crafted story that left nothing to be desired. Yes, there were many points in which the novel differs from the Biblical account (I won't bore you with every single instance, but here are a few examples: the Bible says Jacob worked a total of 14 years for Laban before being able to marry both Leah and Rachel, not just 7 months for each; Dinah's first husband, named Shalem in the book, is Shechem in the Bible; and the Bible describes Leah's eyes as weak, whereas Diamant explains that there was nothing wrong with her eyesight, but Leah had the disconcerting trait of one blue eye and one green, combined with a piercing gaze that many found difficult to meet).

The differences bothered me a bit at first, but with a little thought I could see that each change had a very good reason. Fourteen years was changed to 14 months to keep the story going at a good pace; Dina's husband was renamed Shalem to avoid confusion, since the town his father ruled over was also named Shechem; and the description of Leah's eyes made her a stronger woman and more interesting character, instead of the pitiful, nearsighted and unwanted wife the Bible shows us. Diamant herself gives a good account of the changes she made in the "reading group guide" found at the end of my copy of the book:

"The Red Tent is not a translation but a work of fiction. Its perspective and focus--by and about the female characters--distinguishes it from the biblical account in which women are usually peripheral and often totally silent. By giving Dinah a voice and by providing texture and content to the sketchy biblical descriptions, my book is a radical departure from the historical text."

I probably wouldn't have used the word "radical" to describe the differences between the Bible and this novel. After all, it's not as if Diamant includes an alien invasion, or Nikola Tesla attempting time travel. She follows the general framework of the story given in the Bible, and fleshes it out in a marvelous way by "providing texture and content" out the wazoo. Every addition she made to the Bible story falls somewhere on the spectrum of "likely" to "probable." The end result is an abundantly engaging novel.

I love Diamant's idea that people who are loved never die, instead living on in our memories, just as Dinah lives on because we remember her name and her story. I also admired Dinah's "great joy in keeping [her] own house" that she found after her second marriage, and her "reverence for ordinary pleasures" that she gained after her short journey away from Benia to deliver Joseph's first child. It was refreshing to see the joy Dinah could gather just from her daily chores or watching her husband sleep. Not that I feel a shortage of joy in my life, but I don't think I've ever even bothered to try to derive any of it from my housework. But, as Dinah says,

"There was such sweetness in deciding where to place a chair, and in choosing what to plant in the garden. I relished creating my own order and hummed whenever I swept the floor or folded blankets."

I have those same opportunities for joy and I don't recognize them as such. I need to.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

"Distant Waves: A Novel of the Titanic" by Suzanne Weyn

Ever since Bob Ballard found the final resting place of the Titanic and I breathlessly read the details in the December 1985 issue of National Geographic, I have been fascinated by the story of this ill-fated ship. Of course the 1997 movie with Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio just whetted my appetite for more. So how could I pass up this book I found at my son's Scholastic Book Fair?

Unfortunately after reading this book I find I'm kind of annoyed that it was subtitled "a novel of the Titanic." This was false advertising. Other than a few brief mentions and some foreshadowing, the entire first half of the book has nothing to do with the Titanic. In fact, the entire book is more of an exploration of spiritualism.

Not only that, but though I had expected this to be historical fiction, far too many liberties were taken for me to apply this label. My definition of historical fiction is a novel in which true historical events are seamlessly interwoven with conversations and situations that very likely could have happened. It was hard enough to swallow that the narrator came into contact with so many famous historical figures (and not just on the Titanic itself, which may have been more believable); but when Nikola Tesla sneaks onto the ship, inadvertently causes initial damage to it with his "earthquake machine" before the iceberg finished it off, then tries to save everyone through time travel . . . well, let's just say my disbelief was too heavy to be suspended by such a thin thread.

The book did have a very sweet love story (between Thad and Jane) which I found myself rooting for, and a very satisfyingly happy ending (though, in a book filled with unbelievable coincidence, this was probaby the most improbable of all), and I give props to the author for the "Author's Note: What's Real in Distant Waves" addendum. If my expectations hadn't varied widely from the reality I might have enjoyed this book more. I think the back of the book should have given more of a warning that this book is more of an alternate history than historical fiction. Now that I know the story, I understand the last sentence of the blurb which ends by saying, "at least one of [the sisters] will find herself out of time." I thought that meant she would die, but I guess this actually refers to Tesla's time machine. Ack.

Monday, December 21, 2009

"Being Dead" by Vivian Vande Velde

I must preface this post by saying that the Mesa Public Library Friends' Bookstore in Los Alamos ROCKS. I have found buried treasure and I didn't even have to dig. I brought home eighteen, count 'em, eighteen books today, half of which were on my list of books I want to read, the other half just looking too intriguing to pass up, and most of which were only 50 cents each (and only slightly used)! An even better deal than! Now my stack of books to read is so tall that it threatens to topple over on me in my sleep, but that's a good problem to have. (Not falling books waking me in the night, but having a plethora of good and as-yet-unread books on hand).

The first of the eighteen books I chose to read is a collection of 7 ghost stories. I love a good scare! These stories were deliciously and satisfyingly creepy. The book was written for "ages 12 and up," and through most of the first story I thought about passing this on to my book-loving daughter next (as long as she could get past the cover art), but the story turned out to be just a little too creeptastic. And if I wasn't yet convinced, when the protagonist of the sixth story called her boss an anal sphincter (in the vernacular), that sealed the deal. My daughter can wait a few years before reading this book.

I do wish I could find someone who has read this book so I could discuss the story entitled "Shadow Brother" with them. Ambiguity is stalking me again. Kevin was haunting his father, and the narrator (Kevin's sister Sarah) hints at why this might be, but it's not spelled out for me. I want to know the truth! I've been told it's out there.

All in all, this collection of stories is a bunch of shivery fun. I was quite pleased that the book contained no stories with a silly punch line like "Vicks will stop that coffin!" or "inside the ancient box they found the source of the mysterious rapping noise, and it was . . . wrapping paper!" On the other hand, I'm not afraid of the dark or expecting a corpse to creep up behind me after reading it (which is probably a good thing). To me, this means the stories were just spooky enough.

"You Suck: A Love Story" by Christopher Moore

Here's the sequel to Bloodsucking Fiends. Before starting to read, I figured I was better prepared for what to expect, so I thought maybe I'd appreciate this book moore than the first. (Just checking to see if you're paying attention).

Either I was right, or this book was better than the first one. It seemed less cartoonish, but still funny; less silly, but still lighthearted and tongue-in-cheek; still completely unrealistic, but acceptably so. Once again, almost every sentence was a joke, but this time around I was down with it. (In case you were wondering, I put that in italics because that sort of hip-hop phrase is pretty much a foreign language to me).

The star of this book (in my opinion) was definitely Abby Normal. Without her, I'm sure I would not have enjoyed the read. Just imagining the book with her Chronicles excised makes me sad. I loved her naive wisdom, her observations that are at once clueless and astute, and her complete irreverance (disguising, of course, an indelible perkiness). She totally reminds me of Abby from the TV show NCIS who, in the words of my mother-in-law, is "just cute as a button." Keep in mind that my mother-in-law is danged near blind.

After finishing this book, I made the mistake of reading the excerpt from Moore's A Dirty Job, a book which explains the odd scene where Jody meets Charlie Asher. I'm embarrassed to admit that I did not even remember that loose thread until I read the excerpt. But now that I've been reminded, I've just gotta know what the deal is with Charlie. Guess I have to read "Dirty" now. And, of course, having been sucked in (no pun intended), I'll have to read Bite Me, too, which is Moore's upcoming third volume in the Jody the Vampire series. And if YOU are interested in reading the first two chapters of Bite Me, you may do so here, with the warnings that #1, chapter 1 is basically just a rehashing of the entire You Suck book (but you get it all from Abby's point of view, so you know that's OK with me!), and #2, there are a fair number of typos in the text, which is not OK with me, but I managed to grit my teeth and bear it with the assumption that corrections will be made before publication.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

"The Lacemaker and the Princess" by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

This book caught my eye at my son's Scholastic Book Fair and I just had to buy it. As if my stack of books to read were not already tall enough. But it looked like an interesting story, it was only $7, and I figured if I didn't care for it I could swap it when I was through.

This is a YA novel of historical fiction set during the French Revolution; the titular princess is Thérèse, the daughter of Marie Antoinette. I picked it up expecting a fun, fast read, and was not disappointed. It served well as a palate-cleanser after Tomcat in Love, and it went by like a breeze.

Throughout the scene where the mob of hungry women stormed into the grounds of the palace at Versailles demanding bread, I had braced myself to hear Marie Antoinette petulantly suggest that they eat cake instead, even though from what I have gathered that would not be historically accurate. So I was quite pleased to find that the author resisted that temptation, never allowing Antoinette to appear as callous and ignorant as she would have to have been in order to speak so thoughtlessly. In fact, Antoinette was never portrayed as anything other than beautiful, gracious, kind-hearted and generous; it just was not enough to please a starving populace.

Although Marie Antoinette may never have said, "Let them eat cake," the book still managed to clearly convey that the royal family was in large part clueless regarding the daily trials their people suffered merely in order to subsist. The royal family in general, and Marie Antoinette in particular, did their best to aid their people whenever they saw a need; however, so comfortably ensconced in their bejeweled palace, they remained oblivious to the amount and degree of need. They had a distinct separation from and ignorance or denial of the poverty that surrounded them. Just one example of how far removed the royal family was from reality is seen in the way Antoinette thought she was raising her daughter like any other child, without the burden of being treated like a princess, while the life of Thérèse was absolutely nothing like that of a common child. The "not a princess" concept was true only in theory, not in practice.

This is a good (if not especially in-depth) review of the history of the French Revolution, with great descriptions of life in 18th century Versailles (both in and out of the palace), and an enjoyable read. I was especially impressed that the author successfully managed to present both sides of the revolution in a balanced manner that keeps the reader from deciding that one side was right and the other side was evil.

I'll probably pass it on to my book-loving daughter and see what she thinks.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

"Tomcat in Love" by Tim O'Brien

I came across this title in a blog link where it was listed as a "favorite book" by an impressive number of people. I had never heard of Tim O'Brien before, but I have since found out that "Tomcat" is somewhat of a departure for this author. Apparently his previous books have all been gritty war stories set in Vietnam.

"Tomcat" is, although narrated by a Vietnam war vet, definitely more lighthearted than I assume O'Brien's other books to be. Although injected with humor and wordplay in varying shades between the subtle and the ridiculous, it is still somewhat horrifying in its own tongue-in-cheek way. The reader is treated to a fascinating, front-row view of the main character's descent into near madness.

Thomas H. Chippering, the "Tomcat" of the title, slowly twists his life into a chaotic shambles because of his unrelenting obsession with his ex-wife, coupled with his opinion of himself as a handsome and attractive ladies' man (an opinion which, unbeknownst to him, is not shared by women in general). Chippering's life has been a series of betrayals, each of which he sees as a personal affront and each of which he feels more keenly than the one before. It is not until he hits rock bottom that he takes the time to look around and see that he is not alone. He is lucky enough to have the opportunity to rebuild his life--perhaps not into the life he thought he wanted, but into something that probably suits him better, anyway.

The book had a promising beginning (with the ridiculous, in 1952, when young Tommy's dad brought home a turtle named Toby rather than the airplane engine Tommy had been hoping for) but the rest of the story didn't turn out to be what I expected based on that first chapter. Nor were any of the characters especially likeable, but this turned out to be acceptable, because somehow the reader is not expected or required to like the characters.

This book does not fit on my usual scale. It belongs in that extra category with Catch-22 and Bloodsucking Fiends. It's not one of my favorites, but at least it wasn't dull.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

"Her Fearful Symmetry" by Audrey Niffenegger

I had heard of this book before, but whatever I'd heard hadn't piqued my interest enough to put it on my list of books to read. It wasn't until Kat read it and blogged about it that I decided I needed to read it. And, lucky me, my local library has a copy!

This book was not nearly as good as Niffenegger's first, The Time Traveler's Wife. Of course, that's been one of my favorite recent reads, and there was a lot to live up to. I wonder if I would have been more appreciative if my expectations hadn't been so high? That being said, this was still a pretty decent book. On the scale from Rhino Ranch to The Amnesiac, this was probably a solid Birth of Venus.

Initially Niffenegger's writing seems much less down-to-earth and much more artificial than in The Time Traveler's Wife, and this book suffers by comparison. The entire book is certainly not as tight, and is less engaging as a result. It took too long for two of the main characters (the twins, Julia and Valentina) to seem like real people. It wasn't until Valentina began attempting to live a separate life from Julia that I got a sense of character development. That may have been intentional on Niffenegger's part, but it didn't work for me. And, speaking of Valentina (and Elspeth, and probably others who aren't coming to mind at the moment), the corny names annoyed me. Nobody named Elspeth is younger than 80 these days. Was this supposed to make them sound more British? (Yes, of course Valentina was American, but her name was chosen by Brits).

Coming to this story with no preconceived notions, I was surprised to find it is a ghost story, although I suppose the supernatural element shouldn't faze me after Niffenegger's first novel involved a very non-science-fiction type of time travel. I was at first kind of disappointed that the ghost element was confirmed so quickly--the possibility introduced in one chapter, and revealed in the chapter immediately following. It would have been interesting to have that drawn out, with a few more clues and suspicions. But I guess I must accept that this is not that kind of ghost story. And, looking back now, had Elspeth's ghost been introduced in the more suspenseful way I'd wished for, that would have bogged the story down and derailed it for a time.

At the beginning of the book, I was strongly and oddly reminded of Ian McEwan's Amsterdam. Both books open (well, this one has 2 other chapters first) with a cold day in an London cemetery (this one is Highgate; I try to remember, but can't, if the location of the crematorium in Amsterdam was named, but the description in my memory firmly matches that of Highgate). Both books also have a Molly (though she is a very minor character in "Symmetry"), and Martin's wife moves to Amsterdam! The similarities ended there, but it was interesting to read that Robert took the twins to Postman's Park, which is where Natalie Portman's character in the movie Closer chose her false name of Alice. (I never knew the name of that place, or even that it was real, until the familiarity I felt upon reading the description in the book encouraged me to google it.)

Robert's thoughts during Elspeth's funeral are poignant: "How will I remember everything about Elspeth? . . . At this moment he knew everything he would ever know of Elspeth, and he urgently needed to stop time so that nothing could escape . . . now he was running past her, losing her. She was already fading. I should write it all down... but nothing would be adequate. Nothing I can write would bring her back." I have known that feeling; the twin sorrows of wanting to write down every memory so I will never forget any of them, and of knowing I can form no new memories with that person. It is peculiar to read what seems to be my own thoughts captured in a book.

Does the fact that I don't quite understand the book's title make me a dummy? I am guessing the "her" is Elspeth, and the "symmetry" refers to the theme of twin-ness running throughout the book, but I'm not sure about that and I wonder if I'm missing something. There are quite a few interesting parallels: Martin, who can't leave his flat due to OCD, and Elspeth as a ghost, who can't leave her flat due to the arbitrary-seeming supernatural rules; Edie, who loses her twin, and Julia, who loses hers; the separation of Edie and Elspeth (or Elspeth and Robert, for that matter), the separation of Martin and Marijke, and the separation Valentina longs for.

Finally, in regard to the ending, I am left wondering: where did Robert go? What did he do? What decision had he made when he "laughed out loud at the obviousness of it"? (Gosh, is it supposed to be obvious to me, too??) Did he have death in mind (because why else would he have left his unfinished manuscript behind)? Was the manuscript actually his thesis or did he rewrite it to explain everything? (And if so, why can't I read that?) He seemed no longer attached either to Valentina or to Elspeth by the end, so I don't believe he left Elspeth in order to try to be with Valentina.

Ambiguity! Sometimes it kills me.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

"Enna Burning" by Shannon Hale

I have been waiting so long for my local library's copy of The Goose Girl to be returned (whoever has it must be a REALLY slow reader!) that I finally gave up and tried one of Hale's other books. As it turns out, Enna Burning is actually a sequel to The Goose Girl, but I don't think it contained any spoilers, so I should still be able to enjoy "Goose" if the library ever gets it back. In fact, I may enjoy it even more now, since I am already familiar with several of the main characters.

Enna Burning was just as well written as The Princess Academy, although I think this one was geared towards slightly older children (perhaps young teenagers as opposed to preteens). Comparatively, this story has more danger, more romance and more angst in general. I was especially captured by the love which was developing between Enna and Sileph, and the sweet and pure relationship that grew between Enna and Finn. While it lasted, it was an engaging love triangle; until Sileph's lies were revealed, I felt just as torn as Enna between Sileph and Finn. Steadfast and unwavering Finn, with his heart of gold, certainly deserved to be the one to win Enna's love.

The story has the same fairytale-like quality as Hale's Princess Academy, although the writing itself doesn't have the same sweetness. "Enna Burning" actually reminded me more of M.E. Breen's Darkwood in tone, though "Enna" was the better book.

I thought it was interesting that this novel was set mainly in a country named Bayern. I wonder if it is common knowledge that Bayern is the German word for Bavaria (a southern region of Germany)? "The Forest" west of Bayern, where Enna was raised, certainly seemed to be modeled after Germany's black forest to the west of Bavaria. Not that this is a problem for me. I just found it interesting.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

"Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation" by Lynne Truss

In reading this book, I expected to be able to get a few good laughs, occasionally smile and nod in agreement with Truss when she finds herself aghast at general punctuation stupidity, and reinforce my already stellar skills. Instead I think I have come away even more confused.

So frequently Truss seems to say that, though each punctuation mark can be correctly used in many different ways, often some of those ways are acceptable to one group of people but rejected by another; some uses were common centuries ago, but no longer apply; and other questionable uses that were once frowned upon are now well-received (or will be soon). It seemed that Truss was promoting the idea that, as long as you are consistent and not an idiot, you can use punctuation however you see fit. Of course, since there is no Punctuation Police Force, I guess in theory this is true; but it doesn't seem like the stance of a true "stickler". After reading Truss's book, the conclusion I have reached is that the only remedy for the punctuation situation is to buy a book that is a good style guide (not this one!) and follow it.

As for giggles, this book was quite humorous, though certainly not a laugh riot. In fact, it made me think of those comedies where, after watching the entire movie, you realize that you'd already seen all the funny parts the first time you watched the preview. The title of this book (with the accompanying explanation on the back) was the funniest part.

I must also add that I can't understand why using the word "enormity" is a problem when referring to the 9/11 tragedy. Truss insists that "magnitude" is the correct descriptive. I even looked both words up in the dictionary and "enormity" seems to fit just right. "Enormity" refers to a grave offense against order, right or decency; a state of being monstrous, especially great wickedness; or huge. "Enormity," to me, has more negative connotations than "magnitude," (which, while conveying size and importance, does not encompass the outrage of 9/11 like the word "enormity" does). I think either word could be used to describe the situation of 9/11, but I disagree with Truss's claim that "enormity" is incorrect.