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

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.