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

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 26, 2015

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

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

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

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

"The Girl on the Train" by Paula Hawkins

YES. This is why I read books.

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 20, 2015

"Notes on a Scandal" by Zoë Heller

What was she thinking?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 11, 2015

"Transgressions" by Sarah Dunant

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

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

And yet I could not stop reading. 

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

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

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


Saturday, September 5, 2015

"Affinity" by Sarah Waters

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

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

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

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

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

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