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

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

"The Phantom Tollbooth" by Norton Juster

How did I ever make it out of American Childhood of the 70s without reading The Phantom Tollbooth? Somehow I'd never even heard of it until my friend BR mentioned it just a few years ago. (It was a favorite book from her schooldays! I missed out.) And then my parents gave a copy to Bookworm Child for her 8th birthday (trying to make up for not giving it to me for my 8th birthday?), so I decided it was time to read it.

Milo leads a ho-hum life. He is never content, and always wants to be somewhere he isn't. Nothing interests him, and he doesn't see the point of learning anything new. But he certainly perks up when he comes home one afternoon to find a strange, enormous package in his room. He opens the package to find ONE GENUINE TURNPIKE TOLLBOOTH: EASILY ASSEMBLED AT HOME, AND FOR USE BY THOSE WHO HAVE NEVER TRAVELED IN LANDS BEYOND.

So Milo sets off in his small electric automobile to explore everything there is to see between the Mountains of Ignorance and the Sea of Knowledge. Along the way, accompanied by a watchdog and a Humbug, he learns all kinds of interesting things and is subjected to loads of great puns and--gasp!--he actually enjoys it. The message of this book can be boiled down to this: See? Learning Can Be Fun! (And Funny!)

Unfortunately, I found it wasn't the right time for me to read this book. You would think that, for someone with a love of language and fun homonyms, any time would be a good time; but apparently I was distracted by the vicissitudes of life and I didn't give Milo the attention he deserved. I feel if I'd taken the time to savor this book (and it's short and swift, so that wouldn't have meant too much time) I might have enjoyed it much more.

Here's something odd: as I read I was thinking this book certainly couldn't be made into a movie (how would it work when Faintly Macabre tells Milo, "I'm not a witch, I'm a which"? and there are so many similar situations), but apparently I was wrong. Surprisingly, there has already been a movie made from this book (though it was a cartoon), AND a remake is in the works for 2013!

Monday, February 27, 2012

"Faces of Evil" by Lois Gibson and Deanie Mills

I was not looking forward to reading this book AT ALL. Not only do I have a (possibly unfair) bias against books with more than one author's name on the cover (it just seems to me that co-writing is never a good sign), but I really hate to hear about people doing horrible things to other people. Unfortunately, there seems to be a lot of that going on in stories of true crime. But this was our March book club selection, so of course I was obliged to read it, negative bias or no.

Faces of Evil is a glimpse into the career of a forensic sketch artist: a woman named Lois Gibson who has spent years drawing the faces of criminals as described by their victims or witnesses. The book starts off just as horribly as I'd worried, as Gibson is called on to draw a reconstruction of a very young girl who was found in a ditch . . . on September 11, 2001. But as I continued reading, either the stories got less horrifying or I became desensitized to them, because I was able to find the book more interesting than awful.

Unfortunately, my unfavorable opinion of co-authors was reinforced by the less-than-impressive writing, but this is not the sort of book you read for the beauty of its prose. In fact, it's not the sort of book one would want to savor in any way. It held my attention solely by the information it conveys.

As far as my assessment of compositry (that is, composing a picture of a criminal's face based on a witness's description), my thoughts drift towards the series of images in the middle of the book. When I compare the artist's drawings with the photographs of the criminals in question, I must admit I am less than impressed by the resemblance between the drawings and the photos. I find myself expecting a much closer likeness. But then, every time I thought about the fact that Gibson drew each portrait based solely upon the description gleaned from a traumatized victim, my mind was blown all over again. Lois Gibson has some sort of gift that goes far beyond artistic talent. I have a bit of drawing ability myself, but I couldn't even depend upon my own memory to sketch a passable likeness of a stranger I've seen with my own eyes, let alone draw a face based on someone else's description.

It didn't take me long to realize this book has given me an annoying habit. I have found myself surreptitiously studying the faces of strangers while, say, eating a chocolate-dipped waffle bowl sundae with brownie bits in Dairy Queen (or, what is left of one after the ice cream vultures known as my children have descended upon it). I try to figure out if I could remember each face I see, and how I would describe it to someone. I can only hope that I get over this new-found fixation quickly, because it stresses me out. I am certain, just as most of Gibson's clients insist, that I could never remember enough detail to be of any help to a forensic sketch artist. (Though I would be remiss if I didn't mention that this attitude perpetrates Myth #7 about compositry, and Gibson insists that any "reasonably talented, fairly well-trained forensic sketch artist will be able, in most cases, to elicit witness descriptions and to produce composite sketches that have at least a one-in-three chance of being effective.")

Interesting book, if not what I would have chosen, but I'm very happy to be moving on. Especially considering the two super-awesome books I have lined up to read next!

Monday, February 20, 2012

"The Pilot's Wife" by Anita Shreve

"Sometimes, she thought, courage was simply a matter of putting one foot in front of another and not stopping."

I first heard of The Pilot's Wife years ago when I bought multiple copies of one of Shreve's other books, The Last Time They Met, for my old book club (a book I selected because it was cheap, and because the bookstore had enough copies for everyone. Plus it had a nicely-colored cover, and the synopsis sounded decent). The dust jacket said "by the author of The Pilot's Wife" across the top. I'd never heard of The Pilot's Wife, but I felt like I should have. So, years later when I found a used copy for 75¢, I figured I would give it a try.

It's the story of (would you have ever guessed?) the wife of a pilot. Kathryn's husband has flown passenger planes on transatlantic routes for years, and she has grown accustomed to the infrequency and irregularity of his time at home with her and their fifteen-year-old daughter, Mattie. But even though she is used to Jack being away often, nothing could have prepared her for the news she receives in the middle of the night: the plane Jack was piloting has gone down.

This book was hard to read. Not in the way that Ulysses is hard to read without a tour guide, or in the way that reading the Ramayana in the original Sanskrit would be hard for me to read (impossible-style, as I can't read Sanskrit). What I really mean is that this book was hard to read without crying. It was uncomfortable, unpleasant, even painful. Reading about grief is difficult. It's too private. Or maybe it's just me? I don't know, but it really brought me down.

Once I got to the second half of the book, however, I found it almost had a dual personality. It was a relief when Kathryn's mourning released its hold on me. It's not as if the book became happy and funny then; far from it. But as Kathryn gradually found she was no longer quite as mired in despair, perhaps even able to take some tiny steps forward, I myself was able to escape from the Slough of Despond. As secrets unfolded and Kathryn learned more about her husband than she'd ever known before, the tension began to stem from suspense rather than sadness. The story became less grief-stricken and more plot-driven.

So, taking both grief and suspense into account, would I recommend this book? I don't know. I don't think I could ever stand to read it again. But it was well-written, and it definitely held my attention all the way through. Make of that what you will, but be forewarned, and maybe (if you're just dying to try Shreve) read The Last Time They Met instead. I really liked that one.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

"Charlotte Sometimes" by Penelope Farmer

The day I read this book was the lovely sort of day I thought only existed in my dreams--or in my childhood. I was sick (well, I could have lived without THAT part of it) and I did absolutely nothing even remotely related to adult responsibilities. Instead, I spent the entire day in bed, drifting between a doze and a book.

That book (which I both began and finished that day) was a sweet little children's story from more than forty years ago that had somehow managed to slip my notice until just recently. (Other people have noticed it, though: The Cure recorded a single based on this book, and Charlotte Sometimes is the stage name of an American singer-songwriter!) Anyway, this was truly the perfect book for a day like mine.

Charlotte Sometimes tells the story of Charlotte Makepeace, who has just arrived in the unfamiliar surroundings of a new boarding school. As strange as its newness feels, it's nothing compared to the peculiar sense she gets the next morning when she awakes to find that, though she is still in the same bed and the same room, she is in a different time. "Somehow, Charlotte has slipped back forty years."

The book touches lightly on questions of identity that could easily be missed by a child but which encourage interesting thinking in an adult. Who are we at our core? What is it that makes each one of us a unique individual, apart from those around us? How much do our surroundings affect our inner selves?

I'm going to encourage Bookworm Child to read Charlotte, although I'm afraid its quiet calm can't match the splash and dazzle of more current children's books like the Harry Potter series.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

"Lady Audley's Secret" by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

I first heard about Lady Audley's Secret (and its author) when Margaret Lea picked it up to re-read it in The Thirteenth Tale. I don't recall exactly what Margaret had to say about the book (and I'm too lazy to go leaf through TTT and find out), but two things stuck in my mind: she enjoyed reading it, and she enjoyed reading it enough that it was worth a re-read. That, to me, seemed high enough praise to add it to my wish list.

And Margaret Lea was right: this is a good read. It's a Victorian sensational novel, and it is full of suspenseful plot twists and unexpected shocks. It's like a nineteenth century soap opera! (But without the guilt, as reading exercises brain cells rather than killing them.)

If you (like me) figure out what you think is The Secret after reading the first two chapters, don't despair. Lady Audley may have more surprises in store for you. I myself did not guess two major plot points, and the revelation of the second of these--a deathbed confession at the end of the novel--was easily the most exciting part of the book for me. The entire story was fun to read, but at this specific point I literally could not put the book down (which was unfortunate timing, as I happened to be at the end of my lunch break at work).

I enjoyed this even more than the two Wilkie Collins books I've read, although I would probably have to say Collins' writing itself is superior to Braddon's. But I have no plans to read further novels by M. E. Braddon. She wrote an overwhelming number of books (more than eighty!), of which Lady Audley's Secret is the best known and most celebrated. I'm guessing her second most famous book is Aurora Floyd, but unless someone tells me I JUST HAVE TO read that one, I'm not putting it on my already-too-long wish list.

Psst! If you have a Kindle you can get this book for free! (Several of her other books are also available.)

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Catching Up

First post of the new year! Never mind the fact that we're already midway through February. I've got to start somewhere.

Contrary to popular belief (or evidence garnered from this blog), I really have been reading over the past eight months. I just haven't gotten around to blogging very frequently. Instead, I've gotten farther and farther behind, leaving me more and more overwhelmed. (And blogging is supposed to be fun. If it's overwhelming, what's the point?)

Because of this, a wise man once told me, "You ought to publish a post of mini-reviews or you'll never blog about all of these books you've been reading," and I am finally taking his advice. So, here you will find a host of worthless mini-reviews of books I've read during the past year but have never blogged about. Yeah, unfortunately this post is more for me than for you. I just like to have a complete record of what I've read, so this won't happen again.

And so it goes:

Astrid & Veronika by Linda Olsson (a Book Club selection: I think it was Christy's)

Here's the story of two lonely Swedish women, one young and one old, who strike up an unexpected but fulfilling and healing friendship by virtue of living in houses next door to each other.

Why is my most vivid memory of this book that of Astrid and Veronika spooning with each other? I'm sure it has nothing to do with Book Club member Claire's odd experience with her college roommate. I do think, though, that it's because it seemed so unlikely and so far from something I would have done and . . . and just plain awkward.

If you read this book and have any questions about it, though, email the author! She is very friendly and will probably actually write back to you and explain whatever it is you're wondering about. She praised me for being such an attentive reader, although once I saw the answer to my question I knew that a truly attentive reader could have answered this question for herself. Oh well.

A favorite quote:
"I think that perhaps there are no such defining moments at all. Beginnings and ends are fluid, long chains of events where some links seem so insignificant and others so very momentous, while in fact all  have the same weight. What may appear as a single dramatic moment is just a link between what was before and what comes after."

The Baron in the Trees by Italo Calvino

This book was given to me by the love of my life, and for this reason alone I'm sure I would have found it fascinating--perhaps even if it had been written by Paulo Coelho. But, lucky me, it was written by Italo Calvino instead. I'm sure I need to read more of his books (If On a Winter's Night a Traveler, for instance), but this one is a great start. It's the story of an 18th century Italian family of noble descent whose older son Cosimo, at age twelve, climbs up into the trees and decides he will never come back down. Contrary to every other such decision by twelve-year-old boys the world over, he sticks with it, never again setting foot on the ground.

Dream Story by Arthur Schnitzler

The inspiration for Stanley Kubrick's film Eyes Wide Shut. The book and the film differ somewhat (of course), but I found the book intriguing and thought-provoking. Unfortunately, as I read it months and months ago, I can't remember what intrigued me about it, or what thoughts it provoked. I will venture to say it was good enough to re-read, and I would like to do that sometime in hopes that it will better stick in my mind. This shouldn't be too difficult, as it is very short.

In the Woods by Tana French (a Book Club selection: Charity's!)

This was an excellent mystery: finally, another that ranks highly on my Agatha Christie scale! The premise alone ought to grab you: Years ago, three young Irish friends went into the woods to play. Only one returned. He had no memory of what had happened that afternoon, and no one ever figured out the fate of his two friends. (That right there would be enough to snag my interest!)  But there's more: the one surviving boy grew up to be Detective Ryan, who is investigating the murder of a twelve-year-old girl whose body was found in those same woods. Is there a link between the two mysteries?

This is a suspenseful thriller with the favorable distinction of also being well-written. It is also the first in the Dublin Murder Squad series, but (although #2 sounded very interesting!) I try to avoid getting mired in a series of books. There are too many individual books waiting for me to read them!

Legends of the Fall by Jim Harrison

This book actually contained a trio of novellas ("Revenge," "The Man Who Gave Up His Name," and "Legends of the Fall"), but I picked it up because I've seen the movie made from the third novella, and I was curious to discover its original manifestation. I found it quite surprising that Legends of the Fall began as only a novella. The movie seems like such an epic! You would think it had been adapted from a thousand-pager.

Harrison has such an odd style of writing. It is rambling, resigned, almost emotionless. His stories are told in an off-hand manner, as if with a sigh. That's not necessarily a criticism, though--merely an observation. I have also read his book Returning to Earth, and I plan to read its prequel, True North.

My Fair Lazy by Jen Lancaster

"Thanks a lot, Miles Davis. You've totally ruined waffles for me."

When I read this book I was in need of something light, and this certainly fit the bill. It's not my kind of book, especially as it was written from the POV of a woman obsessed with reality TV, but I can definitely admit that it was light-hearted and funny.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (a Book Club selection: mine!)

I really, really liked this book and am very disappointed in myself for not writing about it last July when I read it. However (not to mention extenuating circumstances that distracted me) I'm sure I was daunted by the feeling that I had to top my last post about a book of Ishiguro's, a link to which was posted on his official facebook page! (That was an exciting day for me.)

NLMG is a strange sci-fi/coming-of-age novel which thrilled me with its slow reveal of the truth behind the lives of Tommy, Kathy and Ruth. I can't even begin to tell you how much I love books that dole out their secrets so slowly and tantalizingly.

I haven't seen the movie yet, but I plan to.

The Other by Thomas Tryon

This was a good twin/evil twin story that was somehow both banal and engrossing. I found the twins' secret easy to guess, but even so it was an entertaining read. The writing was nothing special, and I don't find it surprising that this book has been largely forgotten, but I don't regret reading it.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

Here's a book that covers nearly every teen-angst-causing issue that you can imagine (except for vampires). Drugs, drinking, homosexuality, suicide, teen sex--Wallflower has it all. But I can overlook this tiny book's attempt at being all-encompassing, because its narrator is so endearing in an awkward and quirky kind of way.

I made a note of some of his statements that were favorites of mine, Napoleon Dynamite style:

“I think it would be great if sledding were always enough, but it isn’t.”

"We accept the love we think we deserve."

"Some people use thoughts to not participate in life." (This is reflected in a review quoted at the beginning of the book: "Passivity, and thinking too much, lead to confusion and anxiety.")

"[To Kill a Mockingbird] is now my favorite book of all time, but then again, I always think that until I read another book." (What reader hasn't felt the same way before?)

"I really think that everyone should have watercolors, magnetic poetry, and a harmonica." Wouldn't it be great if life were that simple? Wait, though. I don't have magnetic poetry OR a harmonica. Maybe that is all I need?

Everyone’s heard the phrase “deer in headlights”, right? And it’s such a cliché. But here we get “My brother looked at my dad like a deer caught by my cousins.” It’s so refreshing. And yet, as immediately understood as its more hackneyed antecedent.

So, yeah, I liked this book.

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon (a Book Club selection: mine!)

This book deserves a complete blog post, as I deemed it a Must Read, but alas. I waited too long to write about it.

I could complain about some things (the sometimes stilted dialogue, I would assume due to the translation; that I guessed on page 66 who the burned man was, although the truth wasn't actually revealed until much closer to the end of the book; and that the ending explained a little too much and wrapped everything up neatly with a bow) but the reading of it was so much fun that I didn't care. Sometimes while I'm reading books like these I start to wonder in the back of my mind . . . do I really like to read? And then a book like Shadow of the Wind comes along and I fall in love with reading all over again. YOU NEED TO READ THIS BOOK. You will love it too.

My favorite quote:
"The pleasure of reading: exploring the recesses of the soul, letting myself be carried away by imagination, beauty, and the mystery of fiction and language . . . by reading, I can live more intensely."
HOW TRUE! I pity anyone who has never realized the accuracy of the preceding statement.

Wait Till Helen Comes by Mary Downing Hahn

A just-barely-surpassing-mediocre YA ghost story that I remember next to nothing about. I saw it at one of my kids' Scholastic book fairs, and you know I can't pass up a tale of a good haunting. Apparently I can completely forget them, though.

What the Birds See by Sonya Hartnett

Here's an appealing story that begins with the tragic disappearance of three siblings, tangentially viewed through the eyes of an unwanted nine-year-old boy. My memory of this book is vague at best, but I found it well-written and arresting. I would read it again.

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

I really enjoyed this unique and subtle YA enigma. I was just sure Bookworm Child would, too, but I don't think she gave it a fair shake. Disappointing. I thought it was great, and another one worthy of a re-read.

The best I can do is to quote the back of the book: "This remarkable novel takes place in the real world but holds a fantastic puzzle at its heart. When You Reach Me is an original, and a brilliant and profound delight."