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

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.