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

Thursday, December 30, 2010

"Madame de Treymes" by Edith Wharton

I love books. (I imagine you're not surprised.) Just about any book will do, but I have a special place in my heart for really old books.

I have a lot of fond childhood memories of my great-uncle Ed's house in Virginia. I could tell you all kinds of stories about our visits to that huge and creaky old place, but of paramount importance is the fact that Uncle Ed and Nancy actually had a library. It was just a smallish side room, but it was completely lined with books, many of which seemed ancient to us.

My sister and I (very carefully, and when Uncle Ed was elsewhere) used to have little unauthorized competitions to see who could find the oldest book on those shelves. I honestly don't recall the title of a single one of them (give me a break, it's been decades) but I can remember the wonderfully musty smell as if it were yesterday. I trace my fascination with old books back to Uncle Ed's library.

For a short while I thought I might become a collector of old books, but sadly it turns out that paying bills and eating are more important. Of the very small collection I amassed during those delusional days, one is this first edition of Madame de Treymes by Edith Wharton, published in 1907. I'd somehow never gotten around to reading it (yeah, I'm one of those heathens who reads them--what else are books for?) but after reading The Age of Innocence I was reminded of this little novel. I finally picked it up this week.

Madame de Treymes is a slim volume (more of a novella, I suppose) about an American in Paris who hopes to wed his love, although there is the complication that she is already married to a very Catholic marquis. The pages are filled with subtle intrigue between family members who are each quietly tending to their own interests, though--no matter the outcome--it will clearly be impossible for everyone to end up happy.

I was once again struck by the similarity of themes between Wharton and Henry James. Both authors wrote about the same class of people during the same general time period, when keeping up appearances was often far more important than what those appearances disguised. James probably would have made a chunkster out of this story rather than keeping it to 147 pages, but I think it would have worked either way; Wharton did a beautiful job in her concise manner, but the framework of the story could likely have supported a James-style fleshing out.

One of the fun things about old books is the mystery of who they once belonged to. More than a century ago, Mary Blair Burgwin inscribed her name on the flyleaf of Madame de Treymes. I can't help but wonder who she was, why she chose this book (or was it a gift?) and what she thought of it after she read it. Mary Blair may not be quite as compelling an enigma as Mrs. Baja Greenawalt, but I'm still curious about her.

I thought I might mention that during my brief foray into collecting, Christine at Walter-Saxena Rare Books was very friendly and helpful, in case you are interested in contacting a book dealer.

Monday, December 27, 2010

"When We Were Orphans" by Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro is freaking BRILLIANT. I may be the last person in the world to have figured that out, but that doesn't make it any less true.

After the last couple of stinkers, I decided it was time to choose a book I'd been promised was excellent. I'm elated to report I was not a bit disappointed. It's about time I came across another Must Read.

Ishiguro writes the story of Christopher Banks, an Englishman who spent much of his childhood in early twentieth century Shanghai but was then sent to England as an orphan at the age of nine. It's been his lifelong dream to become a detective, and once he reaches this goal he travels back to China to determine what really happened to his parents.

Banks is an adult as he tells the story, but important childhood events in Shanghai are woven into the narrative as memories, made all the more real by their elusive and possibly unreliable nature. He readily admits that his perceptions may very well differ from reality, but his perceptions are, after all, what his memories are composed of. After he returns to China, it becomes evident that it's not only his impressions of the past that may be unreliable; his obsessive qualities taint even his grasp of the present.

Ishiguro's choice of words is so precise. Do you ever find yourself mentally editing as you read, thinking you would have used a different word or phrase? I didn't do that with Ishiguro. His prose is subtle but beautifully descriptive, with an elegant simplicity that belies the deft and clever writing. Ishiguro never seems to be trying too hard, but he doesn't have to.

Of course, no part of this book was boring. But the way the tension subtly built, I reached a point where I had to stop my eyes from racing ahead. I tried to force myself to read slowly, to savor the story. When I noticed I only had about thirty pages remaining, I actually put the book down and stopped reading for a bit to prolong the inevitable and avoid finishing the book too soon.

Allow me to pause mid-gush and concede that this novel isn't perfect. The resolution of the mystery was a little bit Scooby Doo. (Maybe there weren't any meddling kids, and no one had a mask pulled off, but there was a sort of "it was you all along!" vibe.) But don't let that deter you in any way from reading this book. You know you thought Scooby was awesome when you were little, too.

Even with my criticism, I was surprised to read on wikipedia that this is "considered one of Ishiguro's weakest works, with Ishiguro himself saying, 'It's not my best book.'" That's actually kind of encouraging for me, though. If this is not his best, I can only imagine how good some of his others must be.

I'm here to tell you it's time to move Kazuo Ishiguro to the top of your TBR pile. I already have The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go on my wish list, but I won't need much of an excuse to add more.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

"Tell-All" by Chuck Palahniuk

One of the girls in my book club is a Palahniuk Evangelist. She sent me home with a loaner last Friday night, which I was really excited about since I thought Palahniuk's Fight Club was pretty great when I read it just last month.

Well, my second foray into Palahniuk-land was not a win. After Fight Club, I expected mind-bending, dark and edgy. I got a predictable, gimmicky cliché. The best part about this book was the cover. Even that should have sent up a warning flare. It's so . . . colorful.

The book is written in the style of a Hollywood tell-all (hence the title) from the point of view of an aging movie star's personal assistant. There's a very annoying device of name-dropping throughout the entire book, with every famous person or expensive brand picked out in boldface type (to make sure the reader notices each one, I suppose). That got old fast. Actually it never wasn't old.

Judging by Fight Club, along with a vague memory of someone mentioning it, Palahniuk is known for his plot twists. Well, this one fell flat. The truth was clear to me, though I can't remember exactly why, when Hazie tossed Terry the "blueprint for Miss Kathie's most recent brush with death." Which was exactly 55 pages before it should have dawned on me.

Fight Club drops hints so subtle that you never realize they're hints until you get to the end and look back. Tell-All bashes you over the head with obvious insinuations in just the loud and insufferable way you'd think something with such a loud and insufferable cover would do. (By the way, you can't tell it in the photo here, but the cover actually sparkles.)

I didn't mean to read this book all in one day, but that's what I did. It was kind of like the way you might sit down with a bag of Oreos and find they're gone before you know it. Afterwards you're left thinking, I sure had better things to do. But at least it wasn't boring. There are lots of ways a book can be bad, but "boring" is the worst of them.

I want to give Palahniuk another chance, since I thought Fight Club was so clever, but I've already got my fingers crossed that the next time I read Palahniuk it will be much more Fight Club than Tell-All.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

"The Resurrections" by Simon Louvish

What if World War II had never happened? What if Rosa Luxemburg had not been executed in 1919, but had seized control of Germany in 1923 and formed a communist German Soviet Republic, forcing Hitler and his National Socialists to flee to Austria?

These changes in history allow for a lot of interesting speculation. Who knows where this new track through the twentieth century might have led? When I saw The Resurrections (on sale for two dollars!) it sounded like a promising premise; it was the application of it that I had a problem with.

This was a difficult book to read. At just over 200 pages, I should have blown through it, but that I definitely did not do. It was written in a sort of stream-of-consciousness style, with maybe a dozen narrators taking turns, but there was nothing to distinguish one from another beyond the label on the chapter. They did not have individual voices. Other than the varying points of view, it could have been the same person narrating the entire book.

Some of the alterations of history were hard to get a handle on. My only other experience with reading "alternate history" is with Harry Turtledove's World War II books. (Aliens attack! Former enemies ally against the invasion! It only makes sense that this would knock history askew.) That series may not be especially well written, but it makes for an interesting story. And, more importantly, there's a clear impetus behind the alteration in history. But with The Resurrections, the reason behind the changes was never explained to my satisfaction.

A few of the changes make sense. If WWII had never occurred, the eldest Kennedy son, Joe Jr, may well have survived to become a successful American politician. A lot of the differences revolve around the idea that many of the Axis "villains" lived well into the 1960s rather than dying at the end of the war: Mussolini, who went on to form an Italian empire; Hitler, who moved from Austria to the US and entered American politics; and Goebbels, who changed his surname to Gable and followed Hitler as a puppetmaster. 

But I found most of the other changes inexplicable. I'm not sure what was supposed to have happened to Stalin, but somehow Trotsky succeeded Lenin and died of natural causes in 1967; Chicago's Mayor Richard J. Daley died in a car wreck in 1956, 20 years before his actual death; King Edward VIII did not abdicate the throne for Wallis Simpson but instead continued to reign until his death, and had three daughters; Chairman Mao died "in a skirmish" in 1942, more than 30 years before his actual death. And Howard Hughes ruled Las Vegas. Most of these purposeless "facts" were just tossed into the book without being tied in at all.

Hitler's character in this book was regrettably undeveloped. He was an ex-Senator from Illinois (the book was written in 1994, so I don't think we're supposed to draw any interesting parallels to Obama) and doesn't come into the book much at all. Even worse, the book ends with Freddy Hitler (Adolf's American-born son, of course!) as President of the United States. Yeah, that's kind of a spoiler, but let's face it--you're never going to read this book.

I was disappointed that there were no actual resurrections in the book--just historical figures who lived a lot longer than they did in real life. I thought, based on the title, that surely somebody (and my money was on Mengele) was bringing villainous historical figures back to life in a diabolical plot to take over the world. Implausible? Sure, but at least maybe then I would have enjoyed the book. As it is, I'm just glad it's over so that I can read something good.

The author's purpose in writing the book wasn't completely worthless. It's made clear by the final narrator who says, "I wanted to show how fragile we all are, in history, blown this way and that in the wind. The only answer we have to all these storms and tumult is that we survive, somehow, with our critical faculties intact." I say, along with the narrator, "I'm sorry if it's not an earthshaking conclusion."

I may soon be won over to Chris's way of thinking: that if a book is this cheap it's for a reason. But I have found a few gems for really low prices, and I will probably keep looking for another.

Friday, December 17, 2010

"Snow Flower and the Secret Fan" by Lisa See

I first heard about this book from Georgia (who is the weirdest person I know, in an I-fried-my-brain-on-acid-in-the-60s kind of way) and then from Kate of Kate's Library. Both Georgia and Kate recommended Snow Flower to me, so I put it on my wish list. And then, if you can believe it, I won a copy from the lovely and generous She! I've been plagued by a lifetime of neverwinanythingness until just this past year. I'm hoping a new precedent has been set. Maybe I should start playing the lottery.

It took me forEVER to finally pick up this book, and I know exactly why. Though I am fascinated by subtle cultural differences, I tend to overlook books that are too different from what I know. I like discovering what I have in common with other people (whether real live ones or literary characters). I'm sure this has much to do with the fact that I can more easily relate when I'm able to draw clear parallels to my own life. Not only is this is unfortunate, but it's probably also a misconception. I think I often underestimate an author's ability to show me how I can relate even to people (or settings or situations) I find foreign. As Lisa See said in her "Note About the Writing of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan,"

Yes, our lives are completely different from those lived by the nu shu writers, but inside we are the same . . . at our cores we still long for love, friendship, happiness, tranquility, and to be heard.

My version of footbinding.

I found the book a bit slow to start, and the vivid descriptions of footbinding were pretty horrifying, but it quickly picked up after that. The author was right--I really can relate to characters whose lives are completely different from mine. And I realized how grateful I am that I can walk and run quite comfortably on my great big feet. The only time I experience painful footbinding, it is temporary and completely voluntary.

The real thing. I prefer my version.
Allow me to display a bit of my ignorance (yeah, like I've never done that before). I always thought that footbinding just kept a child's foot from growing. I had no idea how grotesque and painful the reality was. Did you know that footbinding trained the four smaller toes to curl under the sole of the foot, and that it rotated the calcaneus so that the bottom of the heel met the ball of the foot? Or that it was common, even expected, for bones to break during the process? Or that, if the desired results were achieved, an adult woman might end up with a foot just seven centimeters in length? Anne, you have probably broken out in a cold sweat just reading about this.

But this novel is not about footbinding. That practice is more of a backdrop for the story. It's a constant presence, but ultimately it's only one of the many ways women were constrained in nineteenth century China. The true story lies with the deep friendship between the narrator, Lily, and her laotong, Snow Flower. The two girls were paired at the age of seven, kind of like kindred spirits but with an official contract. Their story, from childhood to maturity, through happiness and hardship, affinity and betrayal, is woven together with the history of China's Taiping Revolution.

It's a good thing I enjoyed this book, because there is more Lisa See in my future. I already have a copy of Shanghai Girls, and am curious about Peony in Love. I wonder if it's about the same Peony mentioned in Snow Flower?

Movie news: they're currently filming this one too. I'm not sure when it will be released, but it looks like it will be some time during 2011. Here's a head-scratcher: Hugh Jackman is in it. For a bit of comic relief on that topic, read this first--but the really funny part is here.

To pass along the good karma (maybe you'll start winning stuff too!) I'm going to give away my copy of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. I'll ship it anywhere in the universe. Just leave a comment with your email address and I will randomly select a winner one week from today.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Words of the Day

I really am almost at the end of my List of Words to Look Up, but who am I kidding? As long as I am still reading living I will continue finding enough new words to do a Dictionary Day post occasionally.

Not my dad
1. Tonsure. From The Tooth Fairy. "Was that unfair of me, laddie? Not warning you about that, I mean. Not telling you not to buy a hairnet for your uncle's tonsure?" It must mean "bald head," but my dad has one of those and I've never heard it called a "tonsure." Webster says: The Roman Catholic or Eastern rite of admission to the clerical state by the clipping or shaving of a portion of the head; the shaven crown or patch worn by monks and other clerics; a bald spot resembling a tonsure. OK, so my dad doesn't have a tonsure; he's more like a cue ball. But I still get a point.

2. Specious. From One Day. "But in the years since leaving college this line of argument had come to seem so abstract and specious that she had finally succumbed to Dexter's nagging and got the damn things, realizing only too late that what she had really been avoiding all those years was that moment in the movies: the librarian removes her spectacles and shakes out her hair." Could it have anything to do with "species"? But how could something be abstract and specific? Webster says: Showy; having deceptive attraction or allure; having a false look of truth or genuineness; sophistic. I was way off! No points.

3. Bespoke. Also from One Day. "Something of an amateur DJ, Dexter had a wallful of CDs and rare vinyl in bespoke pine racks, two turntables and a microphone, all tax-deductible, and could often be spotted in record shops in Soho, wearing an immense pair of headphones like halved coconuts." The only other descriptor for pine I can think of is knotty, but I don't think that's right. Webster says: Custom-made. Well, I was right that I wasn't right, but that's not right enough for any points.

Picaresque?
4. Picaresque. Sorry, I don't remember where I found this one. My mind wants it to be the same as "picturesqe." But . . . it can't be, because why would it be so similar but not exactly the same? Webster says: Of or relating to rogues or rascals; a type of fiction dealing with the episodic adventures of a roguish protagonist. Yeah, not exactly the same. Once again, no points.

5. Metafiction. This wasn't actually in a book--I think I saw it on a book blog. I have the idea that it refers to a book within a book, but since I'm not sure, I'll look it up. Webster says: Nothing. I guess that's what I get for using a dictionary that is more than twenty years old. Google to the rescue: Any work of fiction that takes either itself or some other work of fiction as its subject matter. Yay! I get another point, but I'll take a piece of chocolate instead.  That makes one point out of five, plus a piece of chocolate. I win!

Want to hear something sad? I almost put "fulminating" (from The Tooth Fairy) in this post, until I realized I'd already used that as a Word of the Day here. Obviously it didn't stick with me. I ought to subtract a point for that. But I won't.

Monday, December 13, 2010

"One Day" by David Nicholls

I have been beaten over the head with this book (in a good way). I've seen this cover on so many blogs that I can't imagine there's anyone reading this post who isn't saying, Ah, yes, I've read that one. So, when I saw it at my local library last week, I borrowed it like a good little lemming so that I could go over the cliff with the rest of you.

If you've been beaten over the head with this book as well, you already know the shtick: this is a series of snapshots (or maybe more like video clips) in the lives of Emma Morley and Dexter Mayhew during their lifelong almost-romance. The entire book takes place on the fifteenth day of July, but each chapter is exactly one year after the previous.

You know about my compulsion to read every part of a book except for the copyright page and the barcode. I thought I'd let you board my train of thought as I perused the back cover. First I noticed that some author named Tony Parsons claims this is "the best weird love story since The Time Traveler's Wife." My thought: Oooh! Could it really be? I kind of ignored the "love story" bit but liked the "weird" and loved TTTW.

The next quote that stood out was from Nick Hornby, who I've heard of but haven't read. He says this is "the perfect beach read [and I thought, oh no] for people who are normally repelled by the very idea of beach reads." Oh, OK. He snatched that one from an untimely death.

The last quote I marked left me a bit more ambivalent. BBC Radio Five Live claimed, "I couldn't think of anyone who wouldn't love this book." Hmmmmm. That's ambitious. If I've learned nothing else in reading book blogs over the past year, it's that there is no one-size-fits-all book. People don't always love my favorite books, and I've read some stinkers based on the breathless recommendations of others.

But I did like this book. I really cared about "Em and Dex," even though Dexter was quite vain and self-absorbed, and both characters had somewhat self-destructive tendencies. Dexter during his TV presenter days was the way I imagine Ryan Seacrest would be if he had a soul, but somehow I still wanted to know what was going to happen in his life. All the near-misses were frustrating (as I'm sure they were intended to be), but my favorite part was one of them--the vacation in Greece with all the sexual tension.

The story reminded me a lot of Bridget Jones's Diary, except seriouser. And maybe Emma was less pitiful than Bridget most of the time. Every now and then some Four Weddings and a Funeral was thrown in, along with a bit of Notting Hill for good measure. But this book had more substance than the usual romantic comedy. It teetered precariously over fluffy territory at times, but at least I never had to read about anyone's throbbing manhood or heaving bosoms.

I've had the feeling before of not enough pages remaining in a book for a satisfactory resolution. Here I had the opposite problem. In the middle of chapter sixteen--75 pages from the end--life is simultaneously good for both Emma and Dexter for the first time, and it's such a relief, but with 75 pages to go I knew it was going to sour. When I reached the inevitable sad part, all I could think was, Oh, come ON. The book really kind of lost me at that point. Which is odd, since more than likely Part Five is the place where a true human would be crying buckets. If you have ever questioned my heartlessness, here's the evidence: I didn't cry, nor did I even feel like I was trying to avoid it.

So, my verdict? The book was great up until Part Five. After that it was still good, but I'd lost my connection with it.

Did you know? The movie is coming out next year, with Anne Hathaway as Emma and Jim Sturgess as Dexter. Which reminds me of the book's quote from the Daily Mail: "The feel good film must surely be just around the corner." They were right. And you know what? I think it's going to suck.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

"The Tooth Fairy" by Graham Joyce

What puts a book in the YA category? (Other than a publisher's marketing department, that is.) Is it the fact that the main characters are teenagers? Or that the author wrote with a younger audience in mind? Is it related to the frequency or degree of profanity, sex, or violence in the story? Should a YA book be short, or have short chapters? Does it have anything to do with reading level? (I've heard the depressing claim that the writing in most contemporary books is no higher than an 8th grade level--an eighth grader is usually 13 or 14 years old, for those who are unfamiliar with the American school system--in which case there shouldn't be any difference in reading levels between the average adult and young adult book.)

The line between young adult and adult fiction is more blurred than I thought. I always assumed that a YA book would be toned down as compared to a book for adults (not necessarily devoid of vulgarity--just with less of it). But in poking around online I found that often the definition of YA revolves solely around the age of the main characters. Frequently, the only difference between an adult or young adult book is marketing.

My YAdar would not approve this book. I think there is too much talk of penises to label it as YA. But Elvis defines YA as fiction that appeals to teenagers through subject, characters and writing. He even takes it one step in the opposite direction and says he thinks YA fiction should have more vulgarity than adult fiction because "that's what teenagers like."

Perhaps somewhat paradoxically, the idea of a teenager reading a book meant for adults doesn't really bother me much, but I don't like the idea of YA marketing for a book like this one. Of course, this might be rather a moot point where The Tooth Fairy is concerned. It won the British Fantasy Award in 1997 (which, to my understanding, is not a specifically YA award), and I've seen nothing that indicates it was marketed as YA, although the author has written some other books that were.

Beyond its categorization (or not) as YA, The Tooth Fairy is a dark and intense story of three friends who sometimes call themselves the Heads-Looked-At Boys. Sam, Clive and Terry could be any ordinary British schoolmates (albeit perhaps missing a couple of appendages), until one day when Clive punches Sam and accidentally knocks out a tooth. Sam puts the tooth under his pillow at bedtime, just as you might have done, but the Tooth Fairy who visits him later that night is not the innocuous incisor-collecting creature we all grew up thinking we knew.

Sam's introduction to the Tooth Fairy is the beginning of a turbulent coming-of-age for the three friends. Under the Tooth Fairy's sinister but subtle influence, the boys behave increasingly like little hoodlums, yet in an almost naive way. Sam sees the Tooth Fairy's fingerprints on every aspect of his life as well as the lives of his friends, which results in a mixture of fear and fascination.

Elvis loved the book and thought it was brilliantly written; I liked it a lot and enjoyed the read. It was interesting to speculate about the nature of the Tooth Fairy, as the book leaves the question open for interpretation. Have you read this book? What exactly did you think the Tooth Fairy was?

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

"When the Nines Roll Over & Other Stories" by David Benioff

Here's a collection of short stories I picked up at Books-A-Million probably a year ago. I figured it was about time I read it. It's not the book that has been in my TBR Pile of Doom the longest (I'm thinking that dubious honor would go to Cornelia Funke's Inkdeath) but I'm pretty sure it was second from the bottom.

1. The first story, "When the Nines Roll Over" is about selfishness and opportunism and the music industry. The whole time I was thinking, Something's gonna happen, something's gonna happen, something's gonna happen . . . but by the time I got to the end, nothing had really happened. My first thought was, What was the point of that?

2. "The Devil Comes to Orekhovo" follows a trio of Russian soldiers on a mission through the snowy Chechen countryside. This is the one that EW called "the best Hemingway story Hemingway never wrote," but I forgot to remember that while I was reading. Even so, I was impressed by the tangible and genuine setting (if someone who has never been to Chechnya can be a judge of this) and how the men lived and breathed. It felt as if the author must have been one of the three soldiers, although I'm pretty sure he wasn't.

3. "Zoanthropy." (By the way, this is a mental disorder in which a person believes that he or she is an animal. I looked it up before reading this one.) A bizarre story about an escaped lion in New York City and the Lover of the East Coast.

4. "The Barefoot Girl in Clover." I LOVED this story. It's like the beautiful, nostalgia-ridden song "Kiss Me" stretched in a thin veneer over a rancid pit of slime.

5. "De Composition." A survivor types in solitude in his bomb shelter and is horrified to find his com01puter has a virus. I would have edited out one paragraph that makes it all too obvious. OH HAHAHA I JUST GOT THE TITLE. DECOMPOSITION. GET IT?

6. "Garden of No." An aspiring actress finally gets her big break. I liked this one almost as much as Barefoot Girl. I'm not sure why I so enjoy reading about monstrously selfish people, unless maybe I see myself in them.

7. "Neversink" is about the rise and fall of a relationship, followed by the revelation of deception. It reminded me of the movie Closer. It's amazing how much can be packed into a short story.

8. "Merde for Luck." Kind of a horrible little story about crapping in your airplane seat and dying of AIDS. It's not as funny as it sounds. What's that? You're right, it doesn't sound funny at all. But it's another one that seemed so real I thought it could be autobiographical (though it's not).

Overall, it's a decent book of stories, but I certainly liked some of them better than others. I wish I could keep a few and give the rest away on paperbackswap.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Check it out!


I've made a sort of FAQ page for my blog. You can view it by clicking here, or you can go to the sidebar at the right and click on "In Case You Were Wondering . . . "

Anything else you want to know? Ask and ye shall receive (within reason).

Saturday, December 4, 2010

"The Ask and the Answer" by Patrick Ness

I had to force myself through the first half of this book. I was already strongly invested in the trilogy due to The Knife of Never Letting Go, and I never thought of giving up, but it wasn't until I reached the second half that this book regained some of the breathless momentum of its predecessor.

Spoiler avoidance hampers me from saying much about the plot; not only do I have to worry about spoiling this book, but the first one ended with such a cliffhanger that anything I say could spoil it too. However, I can't imagine anyone coming to this book without having read Knife first, and all you really need to know is that it's a continuation of Todd Hewitt's story.

One thing I really appreciated at the beginning of the book was the way that Patrick Ness managed to remind his reader of all the pertinent details from the first book without seeming like he was doing so. Reintroducing the characters and their situations was not merely a repetition of a list of attributes; Ness managed to seamlessly work this information into the story.

Another little bit of magic that Ness impressed me with was his villain. I can't explain to you why I did not find him completely hateful. I wouldn't say I ever really sympathized with him, but oddly enough, throughout most of this book I almost liked President Prentiss. I'm not usually one to root for the evil oppressor, but there was something fascinating about this one. As the book wore on he sort of lost his sheen, and by the end--as they say in Texas--he "needed shootin'," but for most of the book he was quite intriguing.

While reading, I marked several brief passages that interested me. I'll let you in on a few of them for your own personal edification. Be grateful that I'm sparing you my thoughts on each, though I will say I found more truth in them than in Paulo Coelho's steaming piles of crap. Here you are: We are the choices we make; nothing more, nothing less. How do you know you're alive if you don't hurt. A man is capable of thought; a crowd is not. To see the ocean once is to learn how to miss it. An idea lives on after the death of the person. AND, women don't really fart in their sleep . . . do we?

It's a good thing I was already prepared for the lack of resolution at the end of the story. Whoever warned me that this book was just as ending-less as Knife was definitely right, but since I was ready for it, I was much less frustrated by the fact. Even so, I'm going to take another break from Chaos Walking and read something else. But it won't be long before I wrap things up with Monsters of Men.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Words of the Day

I am coming to the end of my List of Words to Look Up. After these five, I still have three to go. But never fear . . . this is the sort of list that will never truly end. At least until I learn all the words.

1. Deliquescing. Charlie St. Cloud. "Soon, when they were ready to go on to the next level, they would fade away, deliquescing like mist in the sun." It must mean melting or burning off. Seems tediously obvious, just like the rest of that book. Webster says: Becoming liquid by absorbing moisture from the air, as certain salts; melting away. Mmmmhmmm! One point.

2. Coruscated (not corrugated). I didn't write down where I found this word, but I did write down "sounds like scolding." I don't know if this was a guess according to context, or if that guess was really just based on the sound of the word. But it does sound kind of harsh and abrasive. And since I really have no clue what the word might mean, especially with no context, I'll go with harsh, abrasive scolding. Webster says: Gave off or reflected light in bright beams or flashes; sparkled. I don't think I could have been more wrong! No points for this one.

3. Adumbrates. I actually marked down where I found this word! It was in Lolita, on page 36 . . . but I didn't keep the book. OK, I'm going out on a limb here, but I think the prefix ad- means drawing towards, and an "umbra" is kind of like a shadow . . . and I still have no idea what this word might mean. A shadow going towards something? Webster says: Foreshadows vaguely; suggests, discloses, or outlines partially; overshadows, obscures. One tenth of  a point for saying "shadow," which is kind of like "foreshadow" . . .

4. Obdurate. The Age of Innocence. (Can you believe I still have two more Words to Look Up from that book? Go Edith!) "It was the note the family had taken to sounding on the mention of the Countess Olenska's name, since she had surprised and inconvenienced them by remaining obdurate to her husband's advances." Stubborn? I think I am mixing it up with obstinate. Resistant or opposed to? Webster says: stubbornly persistent in wrongdoing; hardened in feelings; resistant to persuasion or softening influences. I say I get a whole point for that one.

5. Probity. The Age of Innocence. "So far there had been no exception to its tacit rule that those who broke the law of probity must pay." Solvency? Webster says: Adherence to the highest principles and ideals. I'm taking a half a point, because someone who adheres to the highest principles and ideals would be solvent, right? Yeah, maybe it's a stretch, but hey--stretching is good for you.

Looks like I got 2.6 out of five. How did you do?

Monday, November 29, 2010

"Fight Club" by Chuck Palahniuk

I was warned away from this book by both Rachel ("the movie was better") and Elvis ("the book is exactly the same as the movie except without Brad Pitt's muscles or the cool Pixies soundtrack") but I've wanted to read it ever since I heard it existed. (I'm not sure how long it's been since I saw the movie--years, anyway--and back then I hadn't realized it was first a book. It's kind of sad, how often that happens.)

When Hud saw what I was reading, he said, "You're reading Fight Club? That just doesn't seem like the kind of movie anyone would want to read. It would be like reading Die Hard." I disagree. There's much more to Fight Club than fighting. And, come to find out, Hud hasn't seen the movie. (How is that possible?) He didn't even know the Big Thing. All he knew was that there was something called Project Mayhem, there were fights, and Brad Pitt wore fur.

I've seen the movie, so I already knew all about the Big Thing. And now Hud knows too, because I told him. (Oops.) But that was just about the only thing I remembered--that, the first rule of Fight Club, and the scene with the big yellow dishwashing glove. (The important parts, right?) I mean, here's how bad my memory is: I couldn't remember what the movie had to do with soap.

It's been long enough since I've seen the movie that I thought the book was really, really good. If you've seen the movie often enough that you can quote every line, or if you just watched it last week, I will warn you away from the book along with Rachel and Elvis. You won't find any extra tidbits in the book that you haven't already learned from the movie. But if it's been close to a decade since you watched it, or if your memory isn't any better than mine, I say go for it and read the book. If you loved the movie but don't remember it very well, you'll love the book too. Even without Brad Pitt's muscles (because, see, you can imagine them).

Reading the book made me want to see the movie again. In fact, even though I heart the book, I think Rachel and Elvis were right about the movie being superior. Whenever I get a craving for Fight Club in the future, I'll probably reach for the movie instead of the book.

What about someone who has neither read the book nor seen the movie and has managed to avoid hearing about the Big Thing? If such a person exists, should they read Fight Club or watch it? To me, the most important factor in this choice is the impact of the Big Thing. I want to say it seemed like a bigger surprise in the movie, although that's probably because I knew it and expected it by the time I read the book. Here's my call: either 1) watch the movie only, 2) watch the movie now and read the book after a few years, or 3) read the book and then watch the movie. Notice that the common denominator is watching the movie . . .

Monday, November 22, 2010

"The Knife of Never Letting Go" by Patrick Ness

This book doesn't have an effing ending and I'm not very happy about it. I mean, sure, it has a final page, and the last sentence even ends with a period, but it's not a ruddy ending. Patrick Ness has unapologetically dragged me into his trilogy and now I couldn't get out even if I wanted to.

The nice thing is that I don't want to. This is not the sort of book where I only have to read the sequels. No, I want to keep reading. I want to know what happens to Todd Hewitt. It doesn't hurt that I can't even imagine what might possibly be coming next.

But I can tell you a little bit about what came before. Todd Hewitt is just one month shy of his thirteenth birthday, which means manhood in the community of Prentisstown. Life may not be exactly as Todd wishes it--he's an orphan, and he's been stuck with a talking dog instead of getting his fissionbike fixed--but he feels secure in what he has known all his life on New World. And what he knows, above all else, is that a germ was responsible for killing all of the women in town, leaving the men awash in each others' Noise--the constant mental barrage of thoughts every resident transmits involuntarily.

Of course it's not long before everything Todd has ever known is turned on its head. He is forced into a journey--one that is metaphorical as well as physical--that opens his eyes along with his mind. His path is beset by tension and danger and askings and answers that cause Todd to mature in a way that he never would have, had he remained at home in his snug cocoon of ignorance.

Too bad the book kind of sounds like it sucks when I describe it. It really doesn't, at all. I promise. Well, except for the non-ending.

Don't let the presence of a talking dog put you off. Manchee is very different from Enzo in The Art of Racing in the Rain, but he's just as appealing. Either you will love him or you are not human. I have it on good authority that even people who don't like dogs (gasp! there really is such a thing) love Manchee. He made me laugh from the very first time he said, "Need a poo, Todd." (Though, of all the New World animals, my favorites were the crickets. I can hear real ones outside my open window as I type, and I giggle because now I know what they're saying.)

Even though the ending of this book just begs me to read The Ask and the Answer right away, I refuse to be manipulated. I'm reading something else first. But I will read the sequels soon. I have heard that the second book ends very much like the first (in that it doesn't), but surely the third book will end with some semblance of finality. If it doesn't, watch out. My wrath will know no bounds.

Friday, November 19, 2010

"The Death and Life of Charlie St. Cloud" by Ben Sherwood

My apologies to Ben Sherwood, but this book made me want to gag.

I must admit I came to it with a bad attitude. As if it weren't ghastly enough that my copy of this book has Zac Efron* on the cover, it's supposed to be "one of the most magical love stories I've ever read." Gaaah. Even worse, there's a quote from Nicholas Sparks, King of Shameless Tearjerkers, on the back. My overriding thought was, do I have to read this?

This is kind of a ghost story with all the good, spooky parts taken out. Charlie "I see dead people" St. Cloud lives and works in a cemetery so he can hang out with his ghost of a little brother (gosh, I wish I had one of those). Charlie's life has been on hold for thirteen years so he can keep his promise to Sam that he'll never leave him, and Sam has spent all those years stuck between "here" and "beyond" in order to keep his end of the bargain.

The story itself wasn't so bad, but I had trouble swallowing it--hence the gagging. I had to think for a while before I figured out the reason behind that. Sure, the book is filled with unlikely premises, but I've read and loved less realistic stories (Harry Potter springs to mind). I believe my problem was with the unrealistic characters and dialogue. (Elvis is probably cackling right now, or at least thinking, "I told you so!" He argued during Bel Ami that the "realness" of its characters was a rare thing; I agreed that the characters were very realistic, but didn't think it was so rare.) Charlie St. Cloud was filled with characters who did and said things that no real person would ever do or say. Not only that, but everyone in Charlie's town of Marblehead was undeniably quirky, and you know what they say--when everyone is quirky, no one is.

I feel bad when I don't like a book written by an author who is still living. No, that's not quite right; it isn't disliking a book that is the problem--it's writing about it here. But since I'm probably one of the only people in the world who read this book and didn't care for it, I don't feel so bad. It was just not my kind of book.

If you're wondering why, once again, I have tortured myself with a book I really didn't want to read, there are a few reasons:

1. It was for book club.
2. I didn't choose it. (Don't worry, Lydia, I won't tell anyone who did.)
3. Reading, for me, is like . . . um, yeah. Pizza. Even when it's bad it's good. (To a certain extent.)

What I did like about the book, and what I think will be fun to discuss at book club, was its interesting take on death, grieving, and the spirit world. There were three specific parts that stood out to me, realistic or not. First, Charlie's admission of what he missed most about Sam. ("The feeling that everything is all right in the world.") Second, the concept of dreamwalking. ("We can go right into people's dreams. We can hang out wherever their unconscious takes them. And we can tell them stuff.") Third, the spirits of your loved ones are reaching out to you. ("We all shine on. You just have to release your hearts, alert your senses, and pay attention . . . Notice the little things, because somebody is reaching out to you.")

If nothing else, maybe we'll tell some good ghost stories tonight.

*It's not that Zac Efron is hard to look at; it's just that he doesn't seem especially indicative of quality literature.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

"Brisingr" by Christopher Paolini

I've had this book since it first came out just over two years ago, but I've never been very eager to read it. Paolini is at best a marginally talented storyteller. Maybe I'm just a tough crowd, since fantasy really isn't my genre (fairy tales, yes; swords and sorcery, not so much). But I'd read the first two Inheritance books and kind of felt obligated to read the third.

I read the first book, Eragon, because I was kind of in awe of the fact that Paolini began writing it at the age of fifteen, much like S.E. Hinton with The Outsiders. I was perhaps even more impressed in this case, as Paolini takes on the likes of  J.R.R. Tolkien with his story. (Of course, Tolkien soundly boxes little Paolini's ears and sends him to bed without any supper, but at least Paolini tried.)

My vague memory of Eragon is that it was OK. Nothing transcendent or life-changing, but not horrible or boring. I read the second book, Eldest, because I'd read the first book. And maybe because I hoped it would be even better than OK. (I think it wasn't, or I would have remembered.) Which leaves me with the third book. I obviously didn't have much hope that it would be better than OK, or I would have read it two years ago.

At least I wasn't disappointed in Brisingr. It met my expectations: it was OK, and it wasn't horrible or boring. I do feel like Paolini went into a whole lot of detail without an excessive amount of plot. I'm also pretty pissed (and this is a huge spoiler here, so consider yourself forewarned) that Galbatorix was not defeated by the end of this book. Nobody won or lost. There was no real resolution. Same with the potential love between Arya and Eragon. Of course, by now I have figured out there will be another book--no wonder it's gone from the "Inheritance Trilogy" to the "Inheritance Cycle"--but I'm dreading it before it's even been published. Do I buy the fourth book or do I leave the set incomplete? There are a few authors who could squeeze out a turd between two covers and I would still buy it (the first time they tried it, anyway), but Paolini isn't one of them. However, Hud seems to enjoy these books more than I do (he's more of the sword-and-sorcery type) so we probably will end up with a copy of book four.

It was a little bit silly of me to listen to the audio version of this book when I own a paper copy, but after this much time I knew if I hadn't started reading it yet I was never going to. I was fairly certain that, given the choice between this book and any other, I was always going to pick the other one. But I refuse to own a book that I will never read (and it's not like I would get rid of my copy just to resolve the issue--that would be giving in!) so my compromise was to listen to it. I haven't yet devised a way to read while I'm ironing or washing dishes or running, but listening to an audio book allows me to be a multitasking maniac.

The audio version was well done, and I was impressed by the reader's range in making each character sound like a different individual. It did take me a bit to get over his voice for the dragon Saphira. At first he sounded like an unfortunate cross between Yoda and Grover whenever he spoke Saphira's lines. But either the reader improved or I got used to the similarity, because I stopped noticing it.

This audio book was really, really long (29.5 hours!) and if I could have listened on fast-forward, I would have. It took me two weeks to get through it, during which I sorely missed listening to music and watching movies. I am glad to get back to those (possibly less-than-admirable but probably more entertaining) pursuits.

Monday, November 15, 2010

"Quite Ugly One Morning" by Christopher Brookmyre

Here's a book for those of you who think Christopher Moore is funny. Moore may have the ability to elicit internal chuckles from me (tempered by an equal number of eye rolls), but Brookmyre actually had me snickering out loud in the first few pages. I figured sooner or later Hud would ask me what was so funny, but he never did. That's probably a good thing, though. How is it that I can hear a perfect Scottish accent in my head but utterly fail at making it come out of my mouth? Hud would have been distracted by the hilarity of my awful attempts to channel Sean Connery.

Of course, any book that takes the Lord's name in vain and drops the f-bomb in the very first sentence has got to be as "thrillingly unpleasant" as Esquire claimed. Though I kind of take issue with the unpleasant part. I actually found it to be quite a lovely read, unless we're talking about the first two chapters which treat the reader to a vivid description of the murder scene with all of its excrement and emesis--oh yeah, and a dead body. Hmmm, lovely may be the wrong word. But fun works.

This was my first Brookmyre book. I heard about him here. It's nice to finally find a mystery that doesn't pale in comparison with Agatha Christie's, although admittedly it's very different from hers. In fact, I think nosy investigative journalist Jack Parlabane may be exactly the sort of person Miss Marple always railed against. Contrary to all her sentiments, I am almost tempted to add the rest of this series to my TBR, but the thought of adding four more books at one whack is too daunting for a Monday morning. Maybe I'll do it later in the week.

I learned a lot of new words in this book. All of them were Scottish. Most of them are synonyms for poop. As such, they won't be appearing in any of my Words of the Day posts, but I will throw out a pair for you here: keech and jobbie. (You put them in the bog, by the way.) A few other "Jock" words that I remembered to write down:

smout (a small person, especially a young child)
glaikit (foolish, flighty, giddy)
baw-faced (that of a person with a large, round head; apparently, "baw" comes from the Scottish pronunciation of "ball")

Now you try to channel Sean Connery and see how well you do.

Friday, November 12, 2010

"Bel Ami" by Guy de Maupassant

Before we discuss Georges Duroy, I want to explain to you about Elvis. You've heard of him, right? Elvis and I have started an online book club, and this is the second book we've read.

I hope you're not too disappointed to hear that the Elvis you're probably thinking of is not the one I'm talking about. For starters, there's no question that my Elvis is still alive. Second, I don't think anyone has ever painted his portrait on a canvas of black velvet. Third, I have a feeling the other Elvis was too busy TCB to do much reading. But my Elvis loves to read (maybe even more than I do? Nah, not possible) and we'll be reading a book together every month until we get bored of each other. I'm not allowed to reveal his secret identity (I think he's embarrassed to be seen with me) but all you need to know is that he is The King.

Now on to Georges Duroy. I've been wanting to read something by Guy de Maupassant for years. I was first introduced to this author during my old book club when one of our members suggested, "We could even read something by Guy de Maupassant. IF YOU WANT." The way he said it made Maupassant's work sound unusual, risky, maybe even naughty. So of course my interest was piqued.

We never did get around to reading Maupassant in book club, but when I heard a new movie adaptation of his novel Bel Ami (first published in 1885) was being filmed, my decision was made. It may have been an odd choice to start with one of Maupassant's novels--and not even his greatest one, a distinction wikipedia states is claimed by Pierre et Jean--as the author is considered one of the "fathers of the modern short story." But I had to begin somewhere, and starting with a seductive Parisian social climber of the late nineteenth century seemed as good a place as any.

Bel Ami is the nickname of Georges Duroy, a handsome and ambitious young man of humble beginnings who finds his surest route to success is through the beds of a series of ever more prestigious mistresses. Without much effort, the nearly destitute ex-military officer of the book's opening scene rises to an impressive position of wealth, influence, and power by the book's denouement.

Elvis couldn't understand it, but I loved Georges Duroy. How could I appreciate such a despicable character? I don't quite understand it myself, beyond the fact that he must have seduced me while he was seducing the ladies in the book . . . plus, in my imagination he doesn't look anything like the portrait on the cover, but instead looks just like Robert Pattinson. (And now you know my dirty little secret.)

It was interesting to learn from the book's introduction that the title character was modeled after the author. Maupassant must have been successful with the ladies, not to mention quite the "cold, vain, selfish, single-minded" person (description courtesy of Elvis. I should have just gotten him to write this post). However, there couldn't have been much of a happy ending for Maupassant, with his world crumbling around his syphilitic ears. This is most evident in the depressing epitaph he wrote for himself: "I have coveted everything and taken pleasure in nothing." I have to say I would hope my life embodies the exact opposite of that sentiment. But perhaps I shouldn't be surprised at so cheerless an outlook from someone who tried to slit his own throat.

Bel Ami was very well-written and, though I can't quite explain this since the story wasn't especially suspenseful, it was a page-turner for me. Every time I came to the end of a chapter I just wanted to keep going. Duroy kind of made me think of Scarlett O'Hara; I just had to see what kind of shenanigans he would be up to next.

Elvis called this book "clear, light, and funny," and found all of the characters very realistic.I had to wonder, as I have occasionally in the past, if such a light and clearly-written book was considered fluff in its day (sort of like the nineteenth century's answer to James Patterson or Danielle Steele). However, I think the fact that people are still reading this book more than a century later--and finding they can still relate to it--places it well above fluff.

I do need to rant about the free Kindle version of this book. In case you haven't noticed, many of the free Kindle ebooks originally written in another language are inferior translations. I'm fairly certain that the free Kindle version of Bel Ami is abridged, although I didn't see anything on the amazon website that made this clear. Once I realized this, I sprung for the Penguin ebook edition, though even that had a surprising number of odd mistakes. Penguin has always stood for quality in my mind (though I was a bit disappointed in them recently . . . Elvis knows why) but evidently that doesn't extend to their ebooks. There were several instances where what should have been a "th" was replaced with the letter "m." Just mink how confusing mat was. But it wasn't significant enough to detract from my pleasure in reading the story.

After reading Bel Ami,  I am interested in checking out some of Maupassant's many short stories. I wonder why I don't hear much about him from my fellow book bloggers? Such an elegantly written and classic story should be read more often. Have you read anything by Guy de Maupassant?

Friday, November 5, 2010

"The Book of Lost Things" by John Connolly

I really wanted to love this book. I expected to love it. I knew it was just my thing. A boy is sucked into a world of all the fairy tales he knows so well, only to find the reality of the stories is darker and more twisted than he ever suspected. What's not to love?

Well, I'm not quite sure, but . . . something. I considered waiting to write about this book until after I'd figured out what my problem was, but procrastination is my archnemesis.

This is not to say that I didn't like the book. I liked the fresh take on the old stories (and such a satisfying number of them were incorporated), the pervasive sense of enchantment and danger, even the comic relief in the form of oppressed communist dwarfs. Some of the stories were new to me, including my favorite--Roland's Second Tale, of Alexander and the Lady. I loved the way the book is written (the choice of words, their timeless quality). The language is perfect fairy tale fare, just like Shannon Hale's (albeit in a decidedly darker manner). But throughout the entire book I remained a spectator. I didn't expect to be literally sucked in, the way the main character was, but I did hope for more absorption of the figurative kind.

Oh, maybe that's why I didn't love it.

I (of course) can't remember where I first heard about this book, beyond the fact that it was from a fellow book blogger. The one thing that stuck in my mind was the blogger's insistence that this book is not for children. I find myself ambivalent about that distinction. While I do agree that it is too grisly for my seven-year-old book lover (worse than the brothers Grimm, by more than mere degrees), it's not aimed at adults as clearly as Gregory Maguire's fairy tale retellings. There is something childish in the feel of the story, and I don't think it would be inappropriate or too frightening for a young teenager.

I've never liked reading more than one book at a time, though I've gotten used to it since the Anna Karenina debacle. But just in the past few days I have decided it's best to stick with wildly different genres. Reading The Book of Lost Things concurrently with Bel Ami? OK. Reading it in conjunction with listening to Brisingr? Not OK. At times I had trouble remembering who was dealing with a castle which is "said to move with the cycles of the moon" and who just rescued Katrina from Helgrind. Throw in bedtime readings of The Neverending Story and I've really gone down the rabbit hole. Next thing I know, Eragon will be riding Falkor to the castle of the old king with the Loups in pursuit.

Parting shot: the book should have ended three pages before it did, with this perfect-for-an-ending paragraph: "David . . . became a writer and he wrote a book. He called it The Book of Lost Things, and the book that you are holding is the book that he wrote. And when children would ask him if it was true, he would tell them that, yes, it was true, or as true as anything in this world can be, for that was how he remembered it." If only the Woodsman hadn't told David that most people return in the end.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Reading in Retrospect: "Hallowe'en Party" by Agatha Christie

This is your average Agatha Christie book. That’s a good thing, of course. In my mind, Christie is the ultimate mystery writer. I weigh all mystery novels against hers, and most suffer by comparison.

I have read this one enough times that I can actually remember who done it. (Most of Christie’s books surprise me every time I read them. You know. That literary amnesia thing again.) Of course there were a lot of details that I did not remember, so I still enjoyed the read.

In this book, Hercules Poirot is called in by his author friend Ariadne Oliver, who has been visiting in the town of Woodleigh Common. Just the night before, Ms. Oliver had attended a children’s Halloween party during which one of the young guests, a girl by the name of Joyce Reynolds, was drowned in an apple-bobbing bucket. The thing that stuck in Ms. Oliver’s mind was the fact that, earlier during the evening of the party, Joyce--a girl given to telling tall tales and generally known as a liar--had been trying to convince the others present that she had once witnessed a murder. Unfortunately for Joyce, the wrong person overheard her claims.

This isn't my absolute favorite Agatha Christie book (I'd say that slot is claimed by And Then There Were None), but I don't think I've ever read a mystery of hers that I didn't like, and this one was no exception.

Here is what I love about Agatha Christie. Her stories are always so logical. Even if the murderer is slightly insane, it's in such a neat, restrained, British way. There's very little gore, and hardly anyone ever gets hacked to pieces. Many of the deaths occur by a nice, civilized poisoning, or at worst an efficient coshing or a single, well-thought-out gunshot. Poirot and Miss Marple are my heroes, with their amazingly astute observations and keen understanding of human nature. And somehow Christie manages to get me suspecting almost every single character in the story at one point or another. See? Perfection.

Happy Halloween! Don't keep your head in the apple-bobbing bucket overlong. 

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Words of the Day: Special Edition

Today's words are some of those which sound nothing like they should. Mandy will just have to live with the fact that I am not giving myself points for these, mainly because I already knew the definitions for most of them.

1. Pulchritude. Might as well mean ugliness instead of beauty. Or at least something like a bad attitude.

2. Bucolic. Sounds like some sort of disease that causes gassy indigestion rather than relating to a rural countryside.

3. Flummery. Should be an adjective used to describe a woman who wears flowing, ankle-length skirts, grows her hair really long, and flings her arms around a lot when she talks. Or maybe it should just describe Stevie Nicks. She seems very flummery. But flummery is actually a noun, and it is a soft jelly or porridge made with flour or meal. Ew. I like my version better.

4. Lacunae. Ought to be a synonym for chrysalis. Don't ask me why. It seems I am coming across it everywhere, and I still don't know what it means. It's the plural of lacuna, which is the title of Barbara Kingsolver's newest novel (I haven't read it). Grushin used it in The Dream Life of Sukhanov. "She had never been easy to understand, and he had long since learned to allow her small pockets of privacy by not dwelling on her manifold silences and not pursuing to its hidden origin her every expression or gesture or even absence, habitually interpreting these mysterious lacunae as evidence of her unique brand of feminine mystique." I am also re-reading The Amnesiac, and in it the main character, James, is trying to recall a song. He can only think of two of its lines, which are followed by, "Ellipsis. Lacuna. And then . . . the chorus." My guess would be something like "empty space." Webster says: Well, would you look at that. Of course it doesn't mean chrysalis, but it does mean a blank space or missing part; gap; a small cavity, pit, or discontinuity in an anatomical structure. 

5. Gred. My first college roommate and I wondered how people began using words like "cool" and "rad" to mean, well, "cool" and "rad." We figured it had to start somewhere, so we decided to make up our own word: Gred. It didn't catch on.

What would you add to the list?

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

"Call a Man Cold" by Tom Wright

Copyright © Celine Chamberlin
Remember how I said Tom Wright could easily use Blue Falling and its strong cast of characters as the beginning of a series of books, and that even a prequel would work well? Evidently Dr. Wright already knew that. Because I have just finished reading the prequel to Blue Falling.

Call a Man Cold is another excellent book, though of course by this point I am not surprised. Dr. Wright takes us back to the fictional town of Traverton, Texas, where we witness the chaotic events that culminate in Lieutenant James Bonham's willingness to finally retire from the police force. Sure, that's how this book ends, but I promise that's not a spoiler; if Blue Falling is to be published first, the reader goes into the prequel knowing that Bonham ends up retired somehow. It's finding out how that's all the fun. And when I say fun, I mean fun in the way that only a gruesome and adrenaline-filled murder mystery can be.

It will be interesting to see how these books are marketed. Of the four books, Call a Man Cold and Blue Falling are a matched pair of Texas murder mysteries. Not to disparage them, because they are excellent, but I would label them as genre fiction. Keep the Devil Dancing and What Dies in Summer, while retaining the air of mystery, suspense, and secrets, add a coming-of-age element and would be classified as literary fiction.

I will let you know as soon as any announcements are made!

Saturday, October 23, 2010

"Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" by Philip K. Dick

As any true fan knows, this book was the basis for the 1982 movie Blade Runner. I am probably not a true fan, though I have seen the movie, but my husband falls in that category (as do lots of other boys, from what I gather). I've been meaning to read this book ever since Hud told me about it.

This is one of those situations where the movie adaptation is just barely related to the book.  Here's what is the same: in a dystopian future, bounty hunter Rick Deckard "retires" androids. (Actually, they're not even called androids in the movie; they're "replicants.") Here's what is different: everything elseImdb.com claims that neither director Ridley Scott nor screenwriter David Webb Peoples actually read this novel. Judging by the resulting film, I am not surprised.

The title of the book doesn't even make sense if you're only familiar with the movie. In fact, for a long time Hud thought the book was called Do Androids Dream of Electric Sleep? which would seem much more logical based on Blade Runner. However, there's a very good reason that the book's title refers to "sheep" rather than "sleep," due to one of two huge and inter-related themes that (to my recollection) are not even hinted at in the movie.

First, most animal populations in the world have been decimated and many species are extinct. The remaining animals are highly prized and very expensive, but owning at least one animal is a necessity due to the second main theme: an empathy-based religion called Mercerism, in which the apathetic androids can't participate. These aspects add a whole new dimension to the story laid out in the movie.

Don't buy this version!
I first got this copy of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and was kind of disappointed in the meager, shallow writing. It was so simple and lacking in detail that it was almost like a children's story. After about three chapters I took a good look at the book and realized it was indeed a re-write for kids. *headdesk* Take this as another public service announcement: don't order that copy of this book.

When I got the real version of the book I was blown away by how much better it was. I mean, I knew it would be an improvement, but I hadn't guessed how amazing the difference would be. What I had at first mistaken for a flat and featureless story was suddenly so enriched. Not to the extent of Olga Grushin's vivid descriptions in my previous read, but the story's world was so much more fully realized. And, like Grushin and Kafka before her, this book gives a good and welcome dose of weird.

I read this book on my Kindle (a fun toy that I've enjoyed so far, except that I can only manage to get my hands on it when my middle child is either at school or asleep; she tends to commandeer it the rest of the time). However, this book did give me one complaint about the Kindle. I understand why there are no page numbers (since you can change the font size, which would alter the pagination), but the end of this book jumped out at me before I was ready for it. The gauge at the bottom of the "page" showed that 2% of the book remained to be read, and then BAM, the end. In a conventional book, I would have been more aware of how close I was to the last page.

I found the following paragraph on imdb and thought it was interesting:
Philip K. Dick first came up with the idea for his novel 'Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?' in 1962, when researching 'The Man in the High Castle' which deals with the Nazis conquering the planet in the 1940s. Dick had been granted access to archived World War II Gestapo documents in the University of California at Berkley, and had come across diaries written by S.S. men stationed in Poland, which he found almost unreadable in their casual cruelty and lack of human empathy. One sentence in particular troubled him: "We are kept awake at night by the cries of starving children." Dick was so horrified by this sentence that he reasoned there was obviously something wrong with the man who wrote it. This led him to hypothesize that Nazism in general was a defective group mind, a mind so emotionally flawed that the word human could not be applied to them; their lack of empathy was so pronounced that Dick reasoned they couldn't be referred to as human beings, even though their outward appearance seemed to indicate that they were human. The novel sprang from this.
In my ridiculous stack of TBR is another novel by Dick that I'd never heard of before entitled Voices from the Street, which I am looking forward to reading. Which other books of his do you recommend?

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Words of the Day

Here I am squeezing just a few more words out of The Age of Innocence. I've had plenty of fiber today, so I'm ready to go!

1. Adipose. "She gave an adipose chuckle and patted his knee with her puff-ball hand." Doesn't "adipose" mean "fat"? As in, "adipose tissue"? Sure, Mrs. Manson Mingott (the owner of the "puff-ball hand") is impressively obese, but who knew even her chuckles could be chunky? Webster says: FAT. One portly point! 

2. Fulminated. "When he fulminated against fashionable society he always spoke of its 'trend'; and to Mrs. Archer it was terrifying and yet fascinating to feel herself part of a community that was trending." My guess is that "fulminate" means "preach" or "rail" (the verb, not the noun). Webster says: Uttered or sent out with denunciation; caused to explode (I'm guessing Wharton wasn't going for this denotation); sent forth censures or invectives; hurled denunciations or menaces. One point for "rail," minus a quarter because "preach" wasn't potent enough and because I didn't think to use "vituperate."

3. Vaticinations. "Archer had been wont to smile at these annual vaticinations of his mother's; but this year even he was obliged to acknowledge, as he listened to an enumeration of the changes, that the 'trend' was visible." Maybe a synonym could be pronouncements? At least I'm pretty sure this doesn't have anything to do with the Vatican, or vaccinations. Webster says: Prophecies or predictions. That's probably worth 85% of a point, even though I didn't grasp the idea that the future was involved.

4. Unwonted. "She looked paler than usual, but sparkling with an unwonted animation." I've often read the phrase "as s/he was wont to do" (see number three!), meaning something a character does regularly or is accustomed to, so I would assume "unwonted" would be the opposite. In other words, going against tendency or acting out of character. Webster says: Being out of the ordinary; rare, unusual; not accustomed by experience. How nice! Another full point. One might even say that was unwonted.

5. Impecunious. "Archer looked with a sort of vicarious envy at this eager impecunious young man who had fared so richly in his poverty." This might mean "poor," but somehow I don't think that's right. Webster says: Having very little or no money; penniless. Ha! Another point. Just ignore the part where I said I didn't think my guess was right. And I believe that makes about 4.6 points out of 5! That's a good Dictionary Day.

Hey Tracy, guess what? Wharton used "valetudinarian" in The Age of Innocence! "His eminence as a valetudinarian now made him an object of engrossing interest, and Mrs. Mingott issued an imperial summons to him to come and compare diets as soon as his temperature permitted." One point for Edith. (If you want, you can have another one too, Tracy.) Plus, Wharton used "sedulously" and "importunate" not once, but twice each in this book! I'm not giving her any more points, though. She should have gone for a little more variety.

Would you believe there are still a few more Age of Innocence Words of the Day words to come? I'm going to make you wait for them, though.


Monday, October 18, 2010

"The Dream Life of Sukhanov" by Olga Grushin

Following on the heels of last week's sampling of Kafka, here's a novel whose moorings to reality have been jolted askew. It accompanies a privileged Russian art critic, sometime darling of the government, as he recalls odd memories and experiences strange dreams which begin a bizarre intrusion upon his life until what is real, what is recollection, and what is nightmare are inseparably tangled.

Beyond the enticing strangeness of the story, I was quite impressed by Grushin's unusually descriptive writing. It was beautifully expressive but never trite. Whereas someone might see it as unnecessarily flashy, I reveled in the unique choices of words which resulted in passages that might be favorably compared to a vivid painting.

It seemed to me that Grushin knew just where to draw the line in relating her rich images. If she'd written the entire book with that same intensity, the result would have seemed overblown, diluting the impact of each scene and sapping much of the strength from the novel. Instead, Grushin's adept depictions heightened the dream-like quality of the story, causing time to slow as the reader was drawn in to peer at a minute detail; at the next moment, with a step back and a broader focus, time snaps back into shape.

I was a little bit disappointed that, other than its surreal and illusive nature, the cover art was not more directly related to the story. I'd been looking forward to hearing about the specific dream it depicts, and discovering the significance of the missing rung on the ladder. However, much weirdness in the book is left unexplained, so even if an incomplete ladder had been mentioned, I still might not know the meaning behind it.

Friday, October 15, 2010

"The Age of Innocence" by Edith Wharton


The Age of Innocence and I got off to a most inauspicious beginning. After several light and easy reads, I thought I was fully recovered from Anna Karenina and ready to tackle some more Real Literature (though I must admit I rejoiced when Wharton's book arrived and I saw it was not even 300 pages).

Well, I'll tell you, I have this odd disease that renders me incapable of leaving any part of a book unread, and my copy of this book has a 21-page introduction that is so very, very dull. I thought I would never get to the book itself.

At least the introduction was not completely horrible. I actually learned a few things from it. Without it I would never have known about Edith Wharton's involvement in the Great War, providing "help and support for civilians and soldiers alike," mainly in Paris. I likewise would have had no idea that the setting for The Age of Innocence (New York just after America's Civil War, though that conflict is never mentioned in the book that I recall) mirrored the era which Wharton lived through after World War I.

Once I got through the introduction, the story itself was like a breath of fresh air. I really enjoyed it. I'd never read anything by Edith Wharton before, but I found her writing very similar to that of Henry James, which I've always loved (well, except for The Ambassadors, although I can't remember why). Both writers deal with the Victorian era and delve into what lies beneath its superficial propriety.

I loved reading what might well be called the subtext of these characters' lives. One good example was an entire unspoken monologue from May Archer to her husband Newland. With a seemingly innocuous statement and a significant look, she conveyed a much deeper meaning which was grasped by Archer with perfect clarity. This tendency was recognized years later by their son Dallas, who said, "You never told each other anything. You just sat and watched each other, and guessed at what was going on underneath . . . I back your generation for knowing more about each other's private thoughts than we ever have time to find out about our own."

Several times the reader is privy to the thoughts that Archer might have spoken aloud had he not been such a product of his environment and its mores. I think my favorite was when May asked him to close the window so he didn't "catch his death," and he thinks, "But I've caught it already. I am dead--I've been dead for months and months." What was left unsaid spoke volumes. I wonder if May was as astute in deciphering Archer's thoughts as he was with hers? She certainly knew more than she ever let on.

The entire book was rife with Victorian repression, which particularly resonates with me as it reminds me of precisely what it was like growing up with parents like mine. (I'm not really kidding very much when I say that.) Almost every character is rigidly constrained by the approval of society, keeping up appearances even if it meant withering and dying inside. Right up until the very end! Which, interestingly enough, stirred in me such a strange sense of déjà vu. I know I haven't read the book before, but I'm almost certain that somewhere, somehow, I'd already read the last two or three pages.

We'll be discussing this book tonight at Book Club. Even more fun, I got a copy of the 1993 movie with Daniel Day-Lewis as Newland Archer and Michelle Pfeiffer as Ellen Olenska. I've never seen the movie before, but I could picture Olenska looking and acting just like Pfeiffer throughout the entire book. 

One final thought: I learned from this book that you should never slice cucumbers with a steel knife, but what I can't figure out is why. And, does this rule apply to stainless steel (which, in the form as we know it today, wasn't produced until the 20th century)?