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

Thursday, December 31, 2009

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

"James and the Giant Peach" by Roald Dahl

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

"The Red Tent" by Anita Diamant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 21, 2009

"Being Dead" by Vivian Vande Velde

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

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

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

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

"You Suck: A Love Story" by Christopher Moore

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 17, 2009

"The Lacemaker and the Princess" by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

"Tomcat in Love" by Tim O'Brien

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 12, 2009

"Her Fearful Symmetry" by Audrey Niffenegger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ambiguity! Sometimes it kills me.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

"Enna Burning" by Shannon Hale

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 28, 2009

"The Shape Shifter" by Tony Hillerman

My mom has been after me to read a book by Tony Hillerman (she even gave me one for Christmas last year and I haven't managed to read it yet) but I've not been impressed with her other book recommendations in the past, so it has taken me a while.

I found this book kind of dry and hard to get into. The writing was too much like Rhino Ranch, although perhaps not quite as awful. I think Hillerman probably tried harder than McMurtry, and may have even had an editor glance at his final draft. At least this one did get more interesting as it went on. By page 200 I was both curious as to the way it would end, and wondering how exactly Hillerman planned to fill 70 more pages.

Unfortunately, this book didn't have any twists and turns, which could have made the ride much more fun. The story was like a long, straight, and lonely highway across the country we see described through Vang's eyes: "The dusty wind, the desiccated landscape of high country desert with winter coming on... dead rock, cliffs with snow on them. And the sand."

Without any surprises, it was disappointingly obvious that Delos was also Shewnack and Totter; what made it even worse was that I found this fact hard to swallow, maybe because I pictured Delos as George Clooney, suave and clean-cut and handsome, and Shewnack as Brad Pitt in Kalifornia--a dirty, grimy criminal who could kill in cold blood while robbing a service station, but who could also be described as the prettiest man ever--and there's no way to reconcile two such characters in my mind.

I was really hoping for a big shock at the end to make up for the lack of such in the rest of the book, but alas, it was not to be. At least Hillerman didn't pull that old B-movie trick and have Delos start up out of his puddle of blood and snatch someone's ankle at the end, but I was almost afraid he was going to try it (and fail, of course).

I did find one very important and thought-provoking tidbit in this book--an idea that had never even crossed my mind before. Lieutenant Leaphorn makes the point that "the assimilation program had cost much of this generation the heart and soul of the Navajo system of values." Robbed of the chance to learn from their own elders and instead placed in mainstream public school classrooms, it was much easier for the Native Americans of that generation to fall into vices like alcoholism.

Eventually I will get around to reading the Hillerman book I got for Christmas last year (Finding Moon), but reading The Shape Shifter did not encourage me to move that one any closer to the top of my stack.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

"Talk to the Hand: The Utter Bloody Rudeness of the World Today, or Six Good Reasons to Stay Home and Bolt the Door" by Lynne Truss

I came across this book while searching for Truss's Eats, Shoots & Leaves on the awesome book-trading website It sounded interesting enough (and, as a bonus, funny as well) so I decided to give it a try.

It turned out to be different from the fast and hilarious read I had expected. Although I did get through it quite quickly, it was not especially light; and though it did have its funny parts, it was much more of a rant than I was looking for. Maybe if I were British (as is Truss) I would have laughed more. As it was, I found myself unfortunately reminded of Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death, a book I came away from with the idea that amusing myself to death is not so bad when compared with the alternative--boring myself to death--which is what what would have happened if Postman's book had been much longer.

There were a few key points of Truss's that I disagreed with. One of her major ideas was that "everyone" thinks their own manners are impeccable, while simultaneously finding that everyone else in the world is a complete boor. I can't speak for "everyone," but for me, at least, this is not true. Yes, I've run across some rude people in my time--even the occasional boor--but I know my own manners are not impeccable. Half of the time I don't even realize until after the fact that what I was doing or saying might be construed as rude. The other half of the time I am uncertain as to what I should do or say to be polite. Throw in the times where I am grumpy and feeling selfish, and I have the makings of a boor right here. Where manners are concerned, so often I feel I fall short in others' eyes (especially my mother-in-law's).

Truss also seemed to say that people need to speak up when they see rudeness occurring. Tell the litterbugs they've dropped their trash and that sort of thing. I disagree with Truss in this area. I have always thought that pointing out someone's lack of manners is just as rude as the original lapse in courtesy.

Something interesting I noticed, which is not something that Truss voiced in her book, is that everyone is going to have their own, slightly different ideas of what constitutes "good manners." For example, Truss rails against saying "no problem" in place of "you're welcome." I say "no problem" all the time!! This whole social interaction thing is like a minefield!

I do agree with a major theme of the book. Truss doesn't actually come out and say this, but the only solution that makes sense is this: Start with yourself, and be the polite, considerate, and respectful one. At the risk of sounding trite, you could apply the oft-heard "Be the change you wish to see in the world" here. I certainly applaud Truss's main suggestions: Use courtesy words! (Please, thank you, you're welcome, sorry). Take responsibility for cleaning up your own mess. Understand that you're not alone in the world, and your words and actions have an impact on those around you--you should care about this even if you are surrounded by strangers. Have respect for those who deserve it (which would be the majority of people you come into contact with). Be more thoughtful and less selfish.

I didn't enjoy this book as much as I wanted to. It makes me look forward to "Eats, Shoots & Leaves" much less... but that one is already on its way here. Oh well. Maybe I'll like it.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

"People of the Book" by Geraldine Brooks

I liked this one right from the start! First of all, I nearly always love books about people who love books. I automatically identify with those characters. Second of all, the stage was set for a mystery to be woven into the story. Mystery is good! Of course it wasn't your garden-variety murder mystery, but it began with clues (the tiny artifacts found in the binding of the Haggadah, the book of the title), each of which developed into its own story. This book actually encompassed several beautiful, fully-realized tales within the framework of the main narrative.

I will admit I was somewhat put off by how quickly the main character, Hanna, jumped into bed with Ozren. It seemed like five seconds after the thought crossed her mind, she went for it. But once I remembered that I'm not Hanna, and a little more about her character was revealed, I decided I could handle it.

I actually felt bad for Hanna when I got to the part where she was grumpy and complaining to Raz over dinner. She was frustrated by the fact that she probably would never know much detail about who had handled or owned the book. I felt kind of guilty because I got to hear all about the book's backstory and Hanna only knew the bare-bones version!

The one part of the book that annoyed me was the half-page episode near the end when Hanna and Ozren realize they have left the fake Haggadah on the floor of the display room, and they must hurry to retrieve it before the guards return. That seemed like an unnecessary bit of fluff used to try to add excitement--something that belongs in a screenplay, and not in this otherwise well-written book. Had I the good fortune to be an editor, I would certainly have excised that part.

Now I'm almost even more excited to read two other books by Brooks: One, called Year of Wonders, mainly because now I know I like the author's style, and the friend who loaned this Brooks book to me assured me the other was even better (I just couldn't have it yet because she was in the middle of re-reading it). The other is called March and has the most interesting premise for a novel that I've come across in a long while: It is all about what happened to the father of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women while they were sitting at home waiting for letters from him!

Friday, November 13, 2009

"Flowers in the Attic" by V.C. Andrews

I am not impressed. I should have read this back in 7th grade like everyone else did--I'm sure I would have appreciated it more then. It is narrated by a young girl (who, at the point in the book where the titular attic becomes involved, is twelve years old), and admittedly the author does a good job of writing the book as if it were really being dictated by a preteen; however, all of the other characters--not to mention the entire situation they find themselves in--seem so false that they could only have come from this young girl's imagination. Their words, actions, attitudes and motivations are unrealistic and fanciful, born of a mind with no experience in life. Not only that, but it's all just so melodramatic. I'm pretty sure if you look up "purple prose" in the dictionary, this book is given as a definition.

I'm so glad it's over. I got to the point where I was embarrassed to be seen reading this book. I could just feel accusatory eyes boring into the back of my skull, full of the knowledge that what I was reading was beyond squicky. At least I have assuaged the curiosity that I'd carried with me for the past few decades. I do wonder, however, who was the intended audience for this book? I have to say I don't feel the subject matter is appropriate for children, and yet the terrible writing isn't appropriate for adults.

All that remains is to add my heartfelt thanks to, whose synopses of the sequels assured me there was nothing better to come. What a relief! Because I must admit, I did retain the slightest shade of curiosity about what happened in Chris, Cathy and Carrie's future. (I even briefly wondered if Carrie ended up in a bloodbath at prom, because I was pretty sure she wouldn't turn out normal). But now that I know what happens in the sequels (basically, the squickiness continues), I can move on to better things.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

"Returning to Earth" by Jim Harrison

I am laughing at myself because I thought this was the book mentioned to me by a friend several weeks ago, so when a coworker offered to loan me a copy just this past weekend, I figured it had two stamps of approval. When I began to read, though, and found that the initial narrator is dying of Lou Gehrig's disease, I was confused. From what I remembered my first friend saying, the main character has a near death experience and comes back (which would make sense, considering the title). But after further thought and reading I wondered if it wasn't more of a "dust to dust" sort of reference. So I asked my first friend, and found out that the book she had recommended was Return from Tomorrow by George Ritchie and Elizabeth Sherrill. Oops!

Anyway, I enjoyed this not-a-near-death-experience-but-just-a-death-experience book, and I think I was better able to understand it after I removed the idea that Donald was going to come back to life.

The story is told in a stream-of-consciousness style by four different narrators which reminds me of my recent reading of The Sound and The Fury, although none of the narrations in this book are anywhere near as garbled as the first two in Faulkner's novel. Also, I noticed several times that an incident would be mentioned as if the reader already had full knowledge of it, and then later in the narrative the details would be filled in and the questions answered, with the exception of one large point which was left ambiguous. It is hinted that David killed his father, and perhaps even cut off his hands, but this is never explained clearly.

It appears that this book is a sequel to Harrison's True North, and I almost wish I'd read that one first, but all I can do now is add it to my list of books to read. Along with Legends of the Fall, which I didn't even realize started as a novel. It would be most interesting to read that one, especially because the movie seems quite a bit more plot-driven than Returning to Earth. I'd like to see whether Harrison's style of writing varies significantly between the two works, or if the difference lies with wild changes made in the movie adaptation.

A few brief notes: Donald's death comes with shocking rapidity. I really expected it to be quite a bit more drawn out, but all of a sudden there he was dead. However, I'm pretty sure I respect this portrayal more than I would have a detailed and sappy death scene.

I was slightly insulted by a review excerpt I read at the beginning of this book which claimed that "anyone who emerges dry-eyed...isn't paying attention." This book didn't make me cry, but it wasn't because I wasn't paying attention. It was just because I am heartless and cold.

"Handle With Care" by Jodi Picoult

I've seen Jodi Picoult's books all over the place but I'd never read one before. For some reason I figured her novels were in the same league as Sophie Kinsella and Lauren Weisberger, authors of "chick lit" books which tend to make me feel guilty for wasting time and killing brain cells by reading them. But my friend who loaned this book to me promised Picoult's books were not shallow like I'd assumed. She told me a little bit about the plot, mentioning that it was about a little girl with osteogenesis imperfecta, the "brittle bone disease" that Samuel L. Jackson had in the movie Unbreakable.

The very day I started reading this book I found myself in its grip. It didn't take long to reach "critical mass." My heart went out to this family (until I would think, they're not even real... but then I would think, there are real families out there just like this). It was like they were stuck in a nightmare, and every time I thought it couldn't get any worse, it did. And I was stuck right there with them.

For some reason, out of the mix of narrators, I identified the most with Charlotte, which was somewhat difficult for me because she was the character I sympathized with the least. No, that may be the wrong choice of words. I felt great sympathy for what she had to deal with as the mother of a severely physically disabled child, but I disagreed with her method of dealing with her situation (which amounted to sacrificing every important relationship in her life, some irreparably, for financial security).

Speaking of how I felt about the way Charlotte dealt with her situation as the mother of a child with a physical disability (the lawsuit), I must say that I scorned all three lawsuits that were part of the plot (Sean suing Ford for his back problems, Sean attempting to sue multiple parties because of the embarrassment they suffered in Florida, and Charlotte suing for "wrongful birth"). I can understand a lawsuit as a means to recoup financial losses, but it rankles with me when monetary damages are paid for amorphous ideas like "pain and suffering." Sure, this may be a case where my tune would quickly change if I became a victim, but that's just my point. In America these days people are far too quick to see themselves as a victim, far too slow to take any personal responsibility, and far too litigious.

Only in Marin's closing argument did Charlotte's lawsuit seem slightly acceptable. It was the way she ended her statement to the jury by telling them, "Today you have the opportunity to make a choice the way Charlotte O'Keefe never did." It still didn't change my belief that everyone in the book would have been better off if the O'Keefes had never set foot in a lawyer's office, but at least it made the wrongful birth lawsuit a little bit palatable.

I can't explain why, but I regained respect for Charlotte because she did not cash the settlement check. This was heartbreaking, because she lost so much to get that check, and then she didn't even use it. But somehow it seemed to show that she had learned her lesson, had learned what was truly important to her in life, and had rearranged her priorities to reflect that.

As I read, I also thought the kiss between Piper and Sean didn't belong in the story. I couldn't see what it added to the plot, what I was supposed to learn from it, or how it developed either of their characters. Looking back, though, it was obviously the catalyst for Sean to realize how much he loved Charlotte and wanted to repair their marriage. I can't come up with a scenario that would work any better. Maybe that's why I just read the books instead of writing them.

I am still SO MAD about the end. I can't believe the author killed off Willow. I really feel like that was completely unnecessary. About halfway through the book, for some inexplicable reason I felt certain Picoult would pull off a happy ending, though I had no idea how she would manage it and make it believable. But she didn't.

Of course, hindsight is 20/20 but the front cover of this book seems like a spoiler. Not the little girl half seen, but the dark blot which is probably a partially submerged branch but that made me think, when Charlotte took Willow out on the ice on the computer desk chair, something bad was going to happen, though it didn't... that time.

Will I read another Picoult book? I don't know. Right up until Willow's chapter at the end I would have said a resounding yes. Picoult is definitely a skilled writer. But the entire book was harrowing enough. Willow's death at the end was just too much for me.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

"Darkwood" by M. E. Breen

Here is another children's novel that caught my eye at the library. Ostensibly I select books like these with my children in mind, but none of them seemed interested in reading it (though I can't imagine why).

While reading I was delightfully reminded of a handful of other books and movies, although I should have written them down as I thought of them, because now the only ones that come to mind are the Wizard of Oz novels, and even--somewhat inexplicably--the movie The Postman.

This book is a little bit uneven. It has a strong start, but when Annie reaches the castle gates in Magnifica the story seems to lose its grip on reality. I suppose that is forgivable, as Annie herself loses her grip on consciousness. Once outside the castle walls again, the story seems to get back on track. However, when Annie sneaks into the enemy camp and struggles with The Apothecary, the style of writing seems to change, and the story begins to read like a movie, with no thought or feeling evident--just action.

I thought Annie's two pet cats must actually be Kinderstalk, but I was wrong about that, although they were sent by the Kinderstalk to protect her. What threw me off was the section early on when one of her cats disappeared, and "in her place stood a Kinderstalk." Also, there were a couple of plot holes that annoyed me. First, once it was revealed that Uncle Jock and Aunt Prim were no relation to Annie and her family, I could not understand the connection between the two families. The tenuous relationship between Aunt Prim and Annie's mother ("Was she your friend?" "I guess so") doesn't seem to be significant enough for the expense of keeping Annie and Page safe in their home, and Prim doesn't seem to have enough control over Jock to bend him to her will. Second, unless I misunderstood, Phoebe Tamburlaine was taken by the Kinderstalk from her home in Dour County, where Uncle Jock and Aunt Prim lived. When Phoebe was raised as Page, first by Shar and Helen and then by Jock and Prim, why did no one recognize Page as Phoebe? Prim knew about Phoebe's disappearance from "a farm close to town," and she was described as "all white and gold" which sounds just like Page's appearance. I suppose drinking the witch's potion changed her enough that she no longer looked like Phoebe, but from their descriptions this is not clear.

I also had trouble understanding Bea and Serena's position. For a little while I even suspected them of not being as they appeared, but if this is true, it never came up. They remained good and helpful and kind. I understand the presence of the little clockwork man made by Serena, as its heart ended up replacing the king's; but I don't understand why, as she held the little man, Annie felt fear and Serena looked at her oddly. This scene was a big part of the reason I didn't trust Serena and Bea, and it was never explained to my satisfaction.

The story was left wide open for a sequel, if only because Annie was unable to find Gregor, and because she did not fulfill the prophecy and "devour the witch." These are loose ends which I am sure will be tied up in future novels.

Friday, October 23, 2009

"The Snake Stone" by Jason Goodwin

This is the second book in the "Yashim the Eunuch" series. It was a good read, and I think I may have enjoyed it a little more than The Janissary Tree, if only because I had a better idea of what to expect. In comparing the stories, however, I think The Janissary Tree has a more cohesive plot. In fact, I only finished The Snake Stone yesterday and already I can't remember why George the vegetable seller was beaten half to death in the first few pages, or why Xani the water man was killed. Maybe I didn't pay enough attention. Maybe I wasn't interested enough to pay enough attention.

Right or wrong, I tend to compare all murder mysteries to those of Agatha Christie. Her stories never fail to engage me, and generally keep me guessing until the very end by casting suspicion on just about every character in the book. If I look at Jason Goodwin's two Yashim novels as pure murder mysteries, they don't measure up on my Agatha Christie scale. One reason may be that in both of these Yashim books the murders all seem to be politically motivated rather than for personal gain or revenge. This keeps me at arms' length, making it difficult to invest myself in the story.

However, these are not pure murder mysteries. The treasure in these books lies with the vivid descriptions of Istanbul which involve all my senses. I still don't have much of an urge to visit that city, partly because I assume it has changed a lot since the setting of this book and partly because I think of it about the same way as I think of Africa: I would relish looking at a good coffee table book full of beautiful photos of the place, but I have no desire to go there in real life. But this attitude didn't keep me from enjoying reading about 19th century Istanbul. I just wish Goodwin had taken it one step further--I would love it if these books gave an actual recipe for each of the meals Yashim cooked and delighted in, rather than just giving me an enticing hint by tossing out a mouthwatering combination of ingredients.

Monday, October 19, 2009

"The Janissary Tree" by Jason Goodwin

This book was loaned to me by a friend who probably owns even more books than I do (which may partly be because she has a couple of years on me... but only partly) and who usually has similar taste in selections. In fact, she's the one who loaned After You'd Gone to me as mentioned in a previous blog entry. AND I have currently loaned The Time Traveler's Wife and The Amnesiac to her and can't wait to hear her opinion on those! But, once again, I digress... though if you've read any of my other posts that shouldn't surprise you.

This is a murder mystery set in 19th century Istanbul, and it was a good solid read, but for me it never reached "critical mass." I'm sure it's a massacre of physics to use this term the way I do, but that's the phrase I use in my mind to refer to the point I reach in a story where I can't stand to put the book down, every time I'm away from it I'm thinking about it anyway, and I'll stay up until 3 in the morning because, "I only have 100 more pages to go!"

The choice of a eunuch as a main character is a surprising one. I have wondered why the author made this decision, and I have come up with several possible explanations. Perhaps it is just because it is surprising and unique. I'm fairly certain I've never read a book narrated by a eunuch. There is also the fact expressed in the book that, as a eunuch, Yashim is allowed to move in circles that would be forbidden to him otherwise (such as the sultan's harem), an important advantage as a private investigator. I had also wondered if this was a way to simplify the story by avoiding romantic entanglements . . . until Yashim met Eugenia, the Russian ambassador's wife, and that theory flew out the window.

Beyond Yashim's own situation, though, it is almost more surprising that so many other eunuchs are mentioned. The harem guards, Ibou the Library Angel, and Preen the köçek dancer (or was she just a transvestite?), to name the ones that come to mind right away. Maybe Yashim identifies more with these characters because of what he has (or doesn't have, actually) in common with them; maybe eunuchs were much more common in the Ottoman Empire than I realized (although the book itself says eunuchs were "rare even in 19th century Istanbul); or maybe it's even that Goodwin has some sort of unnatural fascination with castration. (I'll give him the benefit of the doubt, though, and say it's not that last option).

It bears mentioning that my friend who owns this book first heard about it on NPR (which I have found in the past to be a wonderful source for interesting suggestions on what to read, watch and listen to). She said that reading it made her very interested in traveling to Istanbul, though I must admit it didn't do that to me. On the other hand, I would love to have sampled some of those meals that Yashim cooked!

My friend has also loaned to me the sequel, The Snake Stone, so expect an entry on that one next!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

"The Magician's Elephant" by Kate DiCamillo

This book caught my eye because of the interesting title and cover art, but seeing the author's name sealed the deal. I read her book The Tale of Despereaux a couple of years ago and thought it was so cute and sweet, and then when I saw that it was being made into a movie I re-read it, this time to my kids. (When I finally got a chance to see the movie I was actually somewhat disappointed in it, but that's another story for another time). This one looked like another perfect bedtime story book for the kids.

The Magician's Elephant has the same sweet and dreamy quality as "Despereaux", and it was a nice little story, but I wish I had borrowed it from the library instead of buying a copy. It's not one of those books I feel like I HAVe to own. And honestly, when you get to the end of the book and look back, you find that not much happened. I feel like I could sum up the entire story in two sentences. It may have made a better picture book than a novel. But perhaps DiCamillo "intended only lilies," as the magician claimed, and that is what this book is--though a bundle of sweet white calla lilies, not a bouquet of flashy and bright stargazers.

I have flipped through another of DiCamillo's books, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, several times with the thought of buying it, but for one reason or another have always decided against it. The cover is cute (a bunny in pajamas walking upright down a street at night, casting a long shadow) but after reading The Magician's Elephant I'm pretty sure I'll just look for "Edward Tulane" at the library instead of buying it.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

"Princess Academy" by Shannon Hale

I have had my eye on books by this author for some time (she also wrote The Goose Girl, among other interesting-looking titles), but I have never seen fit to actually borrow one of them from the library until now. I think I originally intended to use her books for story time with my kids at night and we always had something else to read, but this week I gave up on that notion and decided to read it for myself.

I really like the author's style of writing. It is sweetly old-fashioned (in a good way). Do I contradict myself if I also say that it is timeless? Even though this book was published in 2005, it has the patina of an age-old fairy tale. Some of the new children's books have a sort of jarring quality to them, even if they are enjoyable, but this book avoids that pitfall. I slipped into it like a comfortable old fuzzy bath robe with matching slippers.

At times as I read I tried to decide what country Danland was modeled after. The mountains where Mount Eskel was situated made me think of Switzerland, but names like Peder (and their tradition with surnames) sounded more like Sweden.

I loved reading about the sweet relationship that develops between Miri and her childhood friend Peder. I was impressed with the character development throughout the book--even most of the minor characters seemed to have multiple facets rather than being two-dimensional. The Britta/Prince Steffan resolution seemed a little bit contrived in order to make a happy ending, and the bandit attack almost sounded like it was thrown in at the insistence of an editor hoping to add some action and excitement, but those are minor complaints as even these contributed to a most satisfying story that ended in the best way it could have. For once, I totally agree with a quote on the back of a book, this one reading, "Enchanting... In layer upon layer of detail a beautiful coming-of-age story emerges." I have only high praise for Hale's skill in crafting a story, and I am looking forward to reading more of her books.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

"The Sound and the Fury" by William Faulkner

I came to this book with absolutely no preconceived notions. Of course I have heard of the title and author before, but I had no clue what the book might contain. In fact, the copy I have borrowed from the library for once doesn't match the cover you see here, because I couldn't find a photo of the plain red cover with gold lettering of the book I have in hand; with the copy I read, I didn't even have the benefit of a blurb on the back cover.

Before I even made it through the first of the four chapters I found this book a challenging read. I was really hoping this would be one of those books whose narrator changes with each chapter, because the first chapter is narrated by a mentally handicapped man named Benjy (or Maury? as it turns out, his family changed his name after they found out he was handicapped), and it's very garbled. It was difficult to be certain, but it appeared to be jumping between settings (in the cold before Christmas, in the spring after a funeral, the narrator's 33rd birthday, and possibly the narrator as a small child), and although many other characters are named, it was difficult to figure out who was who. (It didn't help that there are two Jasons, two Quentins, two Maurys until the aforementioned name change, and Caddy is short for Candace). I was up for the challenge, but I did hope the entire book wasn't written like the first chapter. It sure made me appreciate the organization and precision of the autistic narrator in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.

I got my wish about varying narrators, but the second chapter was hardly better than the first. It is narrated by Benjy's older brother Quentin, and while he doesn't jump around quite as much chronologically, it is all very stream-of-consciousness, complete with tangents and digressions and general confusion. It is evident that although Quentin is not handicapped like Benjy, he is disturbed in his own way. And, not that I have any experience with editing, but I guarantee it would have driven me absolutely bonkers to have tried to edit this book. I would have wanted to fix all of the missing punctuation.

The third chapter was easier to read and more plot-driven, narrated by the third Compson brother, Jason. What stood out to me the most in this chapter was the off-hand way in which it is revealed that Quentin had committed suicide. I had gotten the idea in the second chapter that Quentin was contemplating something of the sort, but that chapter ended with Quentin still alive, and his death was merely mentioned in passing in Jason's chapter.

The end of the book reminded me of a short story. Jason is chasing after Miss Quentin (his niece, not his brother) and the plot is fraught with tension. We gather from Dilsey that Benjy smells something he doesn't like, and I assumed this meant someone was going to die. Luster drives Benjy the wrong way around the monument and I thought he must have seen something terrible in Jason's car (like Caddy's or Miss Quentin's body? but that would have made too much sense). There seemed to me to be quite a build-up of anxiety but it turns out to be all for nothing. Nobody dies, Jason doesn't catch his niece or get his money back, and Benjy settles down when he goes the right way around the monument. I guess it fits right in with the quote from Macbeth (once again, Google is my friend): "Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

Monday, October 5, 2009

"The Gargoyle" by Andrew Davidson

I didn't really like this book very much. It wasn't boring, and it wasn't poorly written, but it just wasn't a favorite. My biggest problem was the main character. The title, of course, refers to him. He was a horrible person on the inside even before he became a misshapen burn victim. And, beyond abandoning his suicide plans and opening himself up enough to fall in love for the first time, his misfortunes didn't do much in the way of improving his values. The back cover promised me that this novel "manages, against all odds, to be redemptive," so I kept reading, but I ended up disappointed.

I did like the love stories that Marianne Engel told to the narrator. (When I first started writing this entry I was halfway through the book, and when I wanted to type the narrator's name here I didn't know if I was having a brain fart or if I really did not know the main character's name. And then, in flipping through the book to try to remember his name I happened to glimpse on the last page the sentence fragment "after Marianne's disappearance..." Ugh. Way to ruin the story for myself. Only to find that the narrator is never named). SO, back to my original point. I like the stories Marianne tells to The Burned Man--the four he wrote out and bound for her with the title "The Lovers' Tales, as told by Marianne Engel" and gave to her for Christmas--but that's about all I really liked of the book.

Another complaint: the Marianne Engel of present day and the 14th century nun Marianne don't seem like the same person to me. They don't have the same personality, there is nothing of the manic or schizophrenic in Original Marianne, and I don't even picture them looking the same. (Marianne Engel has that crazy wild dark hair; I don't recall whether Original Marianne was ever described, but in my mind she is mousy and slight).

My favorite line: "Leave it to a Viking to disarm you with eloquence when you least expect it." Ever since I read that I've been scheming to work that into conversation....

Saturday, October 3, 2009

"The Twin in the Tavern" by Barbara Brooks Wallace

This is a library book I picked out for my kids. We have renewed it several times and no one seemed interested in reading it, but I just couldn't let it go back to the library without reading it myself. Since we've had it more than a month I can't remember exactly why I picked it out; certainly not because of the cover, which isn't very inviting. I am not sure if I thought I recognized the author's name, or if at the time I realized what other books she had written. I know if I had opened the book up and seen on one of the first few pages that Wallace also wrote Peppermints in the Parlor, that would have sealed the deal right there and I would have checked this book out from the library no matter what.

I read Peppermints in the Parlor when I was little and it was deliciously frightening. So much so, that I purchased a copy for myself several years back. Reading it as an adult wasn't quite the same--not nearly as scary--but it was still a fun read. The Twin in the Tavern, though a very different story, had the same elements of frightened children under the thumb of cruel, bullying adults, and if I'd known of this book as a child I bet it would have had just the same effect on me, and I would have enjoyed it just as much.

Friday, October 2, 2009

"Nightmare at the Book Fair" by Dan Gutman

Another children's book. My middle child read it and really enjoyed it so I picked it up to see what it was all about. It was a quick fun read, if a little bit disjointed. The basic premise: Fifth-grader Trip Dinkleman, the main character (who, by the way, doesn't like to read), gets roped into helping set up for the book fair while on his way to lacrosse tryouts. Somehow a stack of books falls on his head and knocks him out. He then has what seems to be a series of strange dreams, each one chapter long, and each from a different genre of children's literature (historical fiction, horror, mystery, adventure...) At the end you find that he's really just been reading the books and has been so enthralled by the stories that he felt like the events were actually happening to him (as anyone who loves to read has experienced).

The writing in some of the chapters has that odd dreamlike quality that I can't put my finger on. I remember my creative writing in grade school had this quality (which I looked on as more of a flaw). Something about it seems unrealistic and mutable, the way one person can morph into another in a dream, the way a dream doesn't always follow a logical thread of reality. But I suppose in a book that is basically one long dream, this isn't such a bad thing.

I had to wonder how many of the corny jokes flew right over my child's head as she read. I'll just give one section as an example: in the fantasy chapter, Trip goes on a quest and journeys through the "Gates of Bill... the Woods of Tiger... the Rivers of Joan and... the Forest of Whitaker." (All with the accompaniment of "Stairway to Heaven" being merrily played on a lute, of course. Is it even possible for that song to be played merrily?)

Best thing about this book: A recipe for funnel cake!

4 large eggs
1 Tbsp sugar
1 cup milk
6 Tbsp butter
1 cup flour
1/8 tsp salt
2 tsp baking powder
Vegetable oil
Powdered sugar

I may have to make some for breakfast!!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

"The White Queen" by Philippa Gregory

When I first started reading this book, it didn't take me very long to decide that it was a romance novel thinly disguised as historical fiction. I hope I am not talking about you, but I scorn romance novels and their readers. But since I'd started it, I had to finish it. Plus, even with all the lustful heavy breathing and yearning, it was apparent that this book is actually steeped in history, judging by what it says on the back cover and the relatively long list of sources at the end. I just wished the story could have been written by an author who wasn't so prone to bodice-ripping.

Now that I'm finished reading, I take back all the mean things I said and thought about this book. I really enjoyed reading it! It was not one of the more thought-provoking novels, but it was suspenseful and exciting. As I read I wished I knew more about the history of the kings of England. On the other hand, if I did, I might not have found this story as suspenseful and exciting, since I would know what was coming. Even if I knew what was going to happen, though, I still might not have known the route taken to arrive at that result.

Even back when I viewed this as a romance novel, I found that at least the book had some humor in it, which I appreciated. The main character, Lady Elizabeth Grey, manages to marry Edward, Duke of York and King of England by battle, and herself becomes the queen. When she first sees her father and brothers after her marriage has been announced, she is horrified when her father bows to her; however, when her brother Anthony, who had doubted her marriage and called her names, genuflects to her, Elizabeth says, "You can stay down there." Another part that made me laugh, although only because it is just so silly, is when Elizabeth tells her husband Edward, "I cannot think how to sate my desire for you. I think I will have to keep you prisoner here and eat you up in little cutlets, day after day." Gag!

As I read, I dreaded finding out what was going to happen to Elizabeth's two young sons by her first marriage. She had fears of leaving her boys with strangers because she had a sort of premonition that this would be dangerous for them. This was compounded during the first night that Elizabeth spent in the Tower of London (as a guest, not a prisoner). The back of the book gives a kind of spoiler about this, saying, "her two sons become central figures in a mystery that has confounded historians for centuries: the missing princes in the Tower of London whose fate is still unknown." But this turns out to be her two younger sons who she has by King Edward, not her sons from her first marriage.

This book ended far before I expected it to. England was gearing up for battle again and all of a sudden, pop, story's over. I don't even know who won. However, in the Author's Note at the end I see that this is to be the first in a series, so I guess I need to start looking for the sequel now.

This author also penned The Other Boleyn Girl, which I've seen in movie form but have not read. I enjoyed the movie; when I first saw on the cover of The White Queen that Gregory also authored The Other Boleyn Girl, I was very interested in reading that book. Then, as I read and discovered that I thought this book was a romance novel, I was less interested in reading other books by this author, though I was hoping The Other Boleyn Girl might be a little more realistic and less silly. Now that I have finished this book, I'm back to where I started--eager to read the other.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

"Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus" by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

I tried to read this book when I was a little kid but it just didn't work out. I can't remember what the problem was--looking back, I thought I must have found it kind of boring--all I could remember was somebody stumbling over the snowy tundra towards a village, which now, having actually read it, I see was not quite right; and now I wonder if my problem wasn't the fact that this book contains a pretty advanced vocabulary which was probably difficult for me to contend with at that age. I mean, I even learned some new words from reading this book as an adult! The only example I can remember is "tyro" (which means novice) but I got the dictionary out several times while reading this book.

This book is nothing like the movie scenes everyone pictures. There is no hunchback, there is no lightning strike, there is no maniacal scream of "IT'S ALIVE!!!" In fact, the book dwells more on the formation of the monster's body than its coming alive (the length of perhaps a chapter as compared to one paragraph) but of course none of that is very cinematic in the book, so it's not surprising that the movie doesn't adhere very closely to the book in that respect. Another reason the lightning strike wouldn't have been mentioned in the book is because, as Victor Frankenstein explains, he doesn't want to give away the secret of reanimation and have someone else duplicate his horrible experiment. (Of course this is also a useful device to keep the author from having to think up a plausible method of reanimation). By the way, I think the only Frankenstein movie I've actually watched is Young Frankenstein (snort), but I have ordered the 1931 original (and the sequel!) on netflix.

Another big surprise to me was the fact that Frankenstein's monster turned out to be highly intelligent and quite eloquent! I always assumed that the monster couldn't do much more than lurch around with his arms out in front of him, moaning and groaning. I guess this is what he was like when he first came to life, but I never knew that Frankenstein bestowed intelligence and self-awareness on his monster as well as life. And speaking of when he first came to life, I found it interesting that the monster's description of being assailed by his senses sounds like what it must be like for a newborn baby--which is basically what he was, in all but form.

When Frankenstein's monster first opened his mouth to speak it required a huge shift in perspective for me in relation to my knowledge of this story. It was like the first time I got glasses, when I'd had no idea I needed them. Unfortunately at this point, when the monster tells his story, the momentum of the book slows quite a bit. I had been expecting more nail-biting, heart-pounding action throughout the book, especially based on the back cover which claimed the book "has never been equalled for its masterful manipulation of the elements of horror and suspense." (I must disagree and say that Edgar Allan Poe is far superior with both horror and suspense in multiple stories!) You get some tension in the first third and some in the last third but not so much in the middle. In fact, the monster's story almost reads more like a fairy tale, although in a sort of Through the Looking Glass way, like it's inside out or backwards. If you imagine the story from the point of view of the small family in the cottage (chores mysteriously completed for them à la "The Shoemaker and the Elves") you'll understand what I mean. Although it is rather creepy when you add the element that they are continually spied on without their knowledge.

I lost respect for Victor Frankenstein when he didn't come forward in defense of Justine and instead allowed the innocent girl to be executed for a crime he knew she didn't commit. Of course Frankenstein explained that this was because he was afraid his story would not be believed and he would be locked up in the looney bin, but I say an honorable man would have tried anyway. As it was, I really felt no pity for his despair and remorse.

About halfway through the book I started to think about how interesting it would be if the creator-monster relationship was revealed to be a Jekyll-Hyde thing and it was actually a split personality within Victor Frankenstein rather than two separate beings. I was pretty sure that wasn't the case (and it wasn't), but that would have made for a pretty good story. I like it when a book is a little less straightforward and has a few unforeseen twists and turns.

One more interesting thing I never knew: Victor Frankenstein created his monster in Ingolstadt, Germany. My sister used to live near there! I wonder why this never came up as one of Ingolstadt's claims to fame.

Friday, September 25, 2009

"Amsterdam" by Ian McEwan

I was so excited to find this book at my local library, which in the past I have frequently found to be sadly lacking. This wasn't one of the Ian McEwan books I was looking for, but only because I didn't know about it.

I'm not sure why (maybe because the title of this book and the setting of the beginning of The Amnesiac are one and the same?) but for about the first half of this book my mind kept trying to tell me it was authored by Sam Taylor rather than McEwan. Or maybe it's because it is set in the present instead of the past. Or maybe because the length of this novel is more similar to The Amnesiac than Atonement. Anyway, once I was sufficiently sucked in by the story I gave up comparisions.

It bears noting that all major characters in this book are obscenely narcissistic and slightly insane. Brazen narcissism and slight insanity may be more common than I realize, but I think it was a little overdone in this novel. At least in real life people tend to hide these flaws better. But even though I found the novel somewhat unrealistic in this aspect, this was not a major failing when taking the entire novel into account. It was well written, and a very interesting glimpse into the psyches of a few privileged and elite Brits. Who knows, maybe among the Masters of the Universe such narcissistic insanity really is the norm.

I absolutely loved the way McEwan introduced the fact that Vernon Halliday was no longer the editor of The Judge. You read an account of the next staff meeting, not even really noticing that the editor isn't mentioned by name. It isn't until the very end of the passage, when you know the editor is speaking and you read "Frank said" rather than "Vernon said," that you realize what has happened. It's a sudden, eye-opening revelation. First you have to go back and re-read the passage in light of the new information. Then you realize that Frank's aspirations were higher than you were led to believe. It never really comes right out and says so, but I bet Frank is the one who leaked the incriminating photos to the Garmonys. Then you have to go back to the previous chapter and see that George Lane is the one who came up with the way for The Judge to lay all the blame on Halliday while itself emerging relatively unscathed. (Because maybe the first time you read that part you mistakenly assumed that Lane was speaking up in support of Halliday). Then you wonder if it's possible that this was all part of Lane's plan--that he had the foresight to not only assure Garmony's political demise, but that he could also take down Halliday on the way. No matter how premeditated the results were on Lane's part, it is clear that he was vastly underestimated when Vernon and Clive saw him as weak. Oh, the convoluted intrigue!

Though the idea of the "mutual homicide" at the end was somewhat maudlin, and I saw it coming from the moment Clive boarded the airplane with 10 grand in his carryon, it definitely added suspense and increased the tempo to, if not a frantic pace, then at least to an enjoyable level of tension. I almost expected George Lane to kill off his last remaining rival when they arrived in Amsterdam, but it's good that he didn't; that would have stretched my suspension of disbelief to its breaking point. It was hard enough to make the leap from Clive and Vernon both being hurt and desiring revenge to plotting each other's murder, though I managed it.

I don't understand the reference on the back cover saying this book is "a comic novel". Maybe I misunderstand the definition of that phrase, but to me, this means the novel is supposed to be amusing. I didn't notice any funny parts in this book--not even any parts where it appeared that the author attempted humor and failed--not even if I extend the definition to include comedy so dark that it's darker than an underground cavern when your flashlight batteries die. I do, however, agree with another part of the same sentence calling the novel "a sharp contemporary morality tale." It was very interesting to see each of several characters denouncing another for their lack of principles, thinking they themselves were taking the high moral ground, while completely failing to meet commonly accepted standards in another area of their life.

Good book. Glad I didn't buy it, but nice to know my local library has at least a few obscure and perhaps flawed but still brilliant gems.