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

Friday, January 29, 2010

"The Thirteenth Tale" by Diane Setterfield

I considered this book on my last big trip to Books-A-Million and almost bought it. Later a friend recommended it to me. (That's you, Linda!) Then I was introduced to (Thank you, Lydia!) Now here I am.

When I first started reading I kept thinking the author was Geraldine Brooks. This is partly because March arrived just after I had started reading this one, and I couldn't help but read the first few pages of it; but also because the main character of this book is written as a bibliophile with the same reverence for and love of books as Hanna from People of the Book.

One thing I loved about this book was the insightfulness of its writing. Take, for example, this quote about death, immortality and books:
"People disappear when they die. Their voice, their laughter, the warmth of their breath. Their flesh. Eventually their bones. All living memory of them ceases. This is both dreadful and natural. Yet for some there is an exception to this annihilation. For in the books they write they continue to exist. We can rediscover them. Their humor, their tone of voice, their moods. Through the written word they can anger you or make you happy. They can comfort you. They can perplex you. They can alter you. All this, even though they are dead. Like flies in amber, like corpses frozen in ice, that which according to the laws of nature should pass away is, by the miracle of ink on paper, preserved. It is a kind of magic."
Or this brief mention, also on books: "For someone now dead once thought these words significant enough to write them down."

And who among us readers has not known the following feeling?
"All morning I struggled with the sensation of stray wisps of one world seeping through the cracks of another. Do you know the feeling when you start reading a new book before the membrane of the last one has had time to close behind you? You leave the previous book with ideas and themes--characters even--caught in the fibers of your clothes, and when you open the new book, they are still with you."
Thoughts like these, that seem at once profound and an expression of my own ideas, were interwoven with a very intriguing and mysterious story. These are ingredients that go a long way towards making a great book.

Of course, the book wasn't perfect. As I read, I was afraid the actual thirteenth tale that everyone was so curious about would not be revealed any more than what was in Marcellus Wallace's case. I also considered the possibility that the thirteenth tale was merely the history Miss Winter was relating to Margaret, which really would not have fit in the original book, either in style or in length. Of course, the thirteenth tale did turn out to be Miss Winter's story, though it was stylized and shortened. It would have fit perfectly in the original book, though I can see why it was left out.

I didn't like the chapter where Margaret met Aurelius. It seemed somehow vague and unrealistic, and the man himself didn't seem to fit in the story. But as I read on, it became clear that Aurelius belonged right where he was. It was a relief to find that the chapter in question was not as purposeless as it seemed at first. Similarly, I had trouble believing Adeline could have changed so much. How could such a wild, wicked, and soulless child, obviously not right in the head, suddenly become a level-headed and intelligent young woman? It made me feel much better when I found out she hadn't, as that revelation closed up what I had perceived to be an annoying plot hole.

I have debated with myself over whether to label this book as a "must read," as it doesn't quite measure up to The Amnesiac or The Time Traveler's Wife in my mind, but it is still excellent and I can't imagine any avid reader not enjoying it. I am also having trouble deciding whether to re-post it on paperbackswap. My usual criteria is whether I would want to read the book again someday, and I probably would want to, except that right now I have so many other books I want to read that I feel like I just don't have time to re-read one. On the other hand, this is a nice hardcover copy . . . I think I'll hang onto it.

Monday, January 25, 2010

"Naked" by David Sedaris

I had no idea what I was getting myself into with this book. I had been curious about books by Sedaris for a while (and I had planned to read several others of his if I liked this one), and it didn't hurt that the New York Times Book Review promised me this one was "sidesplitting." The blurb on the back cover made it sound quirky and irreverent. Well, that description certainly didn't miss the mark. A prime example: In college, Sedaris is "assigned to a dormitory largely reserved for handicapped students" and thus "came to think of Kent State as something of an I.V. League university." If that's not quirky and irreverent, I don't know what is.

This entire book was like a train wreck! I just can't help but think what a marked contrast it is to the syrupy innocence of The Magic Faraway Tree. I am still not sure if I will read any other books by Sedaris. From what I have gathered, all of his books are memoirs or are about himself in some way. I just can't imagine the craziness it must have taken to fill up a half-dozen or so more books. Perhaps I won't take his others off my list, but I might move them to the bottom of it.

I liked the format of the book. It was really more of a collection of essays or vignettes from the author's life, which made it easy to pick up and read one chapter and then put it down and get something done. I assume everything he wrote about was true (as it's described as a memoir), although I was amazed by the number of odd ducks Sedaris has come into contact with. Of course, with matters like his OCD and his lisp combined with the somewhat unconventional parenting during his upbringing, Sedaris himself is far from normal. I just found it hard to believe that so many weird people convened in his life. On the other hand, I'm sure he is prone to exaggeration in his writing (for instance, there's no way he didn't have a bowel movement over his entire 4 weeks at summer camp in Greece).

The book is interesting, to say the least. It's definitely funny, and although I may have never laughed out loud while reading, I'm sure I giggled quietly to myself more than once. Step right up and enjoy the freak show.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

"Swallow This" by Mark Phillips

It was just a week or two ago that I first noticed this book in one of those quirky catalogs I seem to get in the mail every day. The catalog's description of the book included the questions, "What can you say to a wine store clerk to get good wine every time? Why is buying pricey wine a waste of money? When can you add ice cubes to wine--or microwave it?" This sounded like a book that was right up my alley, and finding a cheap copy of it was a bonus.

It just arrived yesterday and I have already devoured it. The book is a fun read as well as being informative, albeit in an off-beat and irreverent way. I think that someone who already knows a lot about wine may not really appreciate it, but for people (like me!) whose extent of wine knowledge is "I like it," I definitely recommend this book. Most books I get from paperbackswap I repost when I'm finished reading, but I plan to keep this one as a reference guide.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

"The Magic Faraway Tree" by Enid Blyton

I got this title from some sort of unofficial "100 greatest books" list, or perhaps it was a "100 most-read books" list. I don't think I'd ever read anything by Blyton. This is actually a sequel to The Enchanted Wood, and the next in the series is The Folk of the Faraway Tree. I kind of wish I'd read the first of the three books instead, but I guess it doesn't much matter.

To start with, I was not impressed with the cover art. But having been told many a time to not judge a book by its cover, I forged ahead. I chose this one to read for two reasons: first, as a nice light break from the previous book; second, because I knew I could get rid of it quickly and replace it with yet another book.

I'm sure I will anger Blyton fans who have known and loved her work since childhood, but I must say I couldn't get rid of this book fast enough. Reading it was like torture. The story itself was like one of those candy necklaces: a single thread with just one chalky and overly sweet candy after another. The strangeness of the different "lands" at the top of the tree reminded me very much of some of the lands surrounding Oz in Baum's various stories, which wouldn't necessarily have been such a bad thing except for the fact that it sounded like it was written by and for Care Bears. I'd say it would be best read aloud to a five-year-old. I bet if I had read this book as a child I would have enjoyed it then, and could enjoy the nostalgia as an adult; but coming to it for the first time as an adult didn't work out too well.

The best thing about this book is its illustrations. Not the cover art, which is mediocre and uninviting, but the sweet, old-fashioned, dozen or so black-and-white drawings found inside the book. I searched high and low to figure out who drew them, because my copy of the book doesn't seem to say (which is odd, since credit is given to the distinctly less-talented cover illustrator). I couldn't find any examples on the Internet to compare these to, but from a list I found, it looks like the illustrations from the 2nd edition (1971) by Rene Cloke were used in this 1991 edition. Here is a sampling from my copy:

Even though this book is not a big favorite of mine, whenever I hear the wind in the trees from now on they'll probably be saying, "Wisha, wisha, wisha." And I really am a little bit sad that I'll never get to try a Pop Biscuit or a Google Bun.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

"War in Val d'Orcia: An Italian War Diary, 1943-1944" by Iris Origo

This book was highly recommended by the tour guide at La Foce (who happens to be Welsh. Which is neither here nor there; I just thought that was an interesting tidbit of information). For the most part, I don't like books about war, but this title stuck in my mind. I put it on my wish list (I was requestor #2 of 2) and waited for weeks for someone to post a copy, and then got impatient and ordered a used one through amazon. I assume that, since I've finished reading this, the requestor who is now #1 of 1 will be very happy to get it.

The cover you see here is not the same as that of the copy I read. I couldn't find cover art to match my super-awesome library-binding large-print edition, so I chose one that I think looks much nicer (and shows an actual photo of La Foce, rather than a drawing that could be of anywhere in the Italian countryside).

This book (for me) started off slowly, and for a while I only stuck with it as if it were an assignment I had to complete. Most of the "1943" part of the book was a lot of flitting around and discussing rumors of war. Once 1944 hit, however, the intensity ramped up as the fighting drew nearer. For the Origos and those living nearby, life was distilled to its simplest and most basic elements. Many of the things once thought important were left by the wayside, and the most valuable quality (along with quite a bit of patience, steadfastness and courage) was the tenacity needed to persevere until they could reach the other side of the dreadful war that had been thrust upon them. At their lowest point, Iris writes, "We have left behind everything that we possess, but never in my life have I felt so rich and thankful as looking down on all the children as they lay asleep. Whatever may happen tomorrow, tonight they are safe and sound!"

It was amazing to see how quickly one's worldview can change in such a situation. At one point, Origo and a companion make a risky pony-cart drive to Montepulciano for medicine, and were happy in their success, as they "only had to jump down into a ditch twice, as the fighter planes swooped down over our heads." Of course this could have been written in irony, but judging by the straightforward manner in which the rest of the book was written, I don't believe Iris Origo was given to sarcasm. At another point, Origo mentions that the electricity and telephone wires were both cut, "so we get no news, which matters the less, in that the news is now happening here . . . I ask [a German medical officer]: 'Are you going to the front?' [To which he] laughs and replies: 'And where do you think you are?' " And then, during the frightening walk to Montepulciano on June 22, 1944, the Origos and those under their care hid in a cornfield as planes flew overhead. Iris lay thinking, "This can't be real--this isn't really happening."

I think that, not only was this sort of mental disconnect necessary for her to be able to handle the situation and go on, but that that would probably have been my own method of coping (assuming I were capable). I am just glad that I have not had to prove this. It has never been more clear to me that Americans are very lucky to have not, in many generations, experienced war on our own turf. The worst that any of us still living have experienced at home is 9/11, which of course was bad enough, but thankfully was not sustained over the long period of time that wars tend to cover.

There were many poignant moments in the book, among which was the first birthday party of Origo's daughter Donata, on June 9, 1944. "While planes drone overhead and swoop down on the valley roads, we have a children's party in the garden. (The children have, by now, completely lost their original nervousness . . . )" It is just so odd to think of growing accustomed to the sight and sound of war planes flying overhead.

Equally odd is how small a mention D-Day receives in this book. On the one hand this shouldn't surprise me, as this woman's diary mostly just covers her own little universe, and Normandy was not a part of it; but on the other hand, that Allied invasion is (in my mind, anyway) one of the most widely-known events of WWII among Americans (along with the Pearl Harbor attack and the atomic bombs in Japan; those three things probably mark the beginning, turning point, and ending of the war, as far as the U.S. was concerned). But perhaps I should be impressed that the Origos heard the news that very same day. Iris writes, "Hear at eleven-thirty that the Allied troops have landed this morning on the coast of France. Proclamation of Eisenhower to the people of France."

Another thing that surprised me was Origo's observation that the German Field Hospital Units were curiously inefficient and apathetic. She says, "They hang about interminably with nothing to do, and never seem to be where they are really wanted, nor do any of the German troops show the slightest interest in, or helpfulness towards, members of other units than their own." This mainly surprises me because I have always thought of the German people as very efficient and disciplined, and I had always assumed their military fought WWII with great order, structure, and effectiveness. I wonder if this inefficiency that Origo noticed was common throughout the German military of the time, or if it came on along with low morale when the troops began to see that they might lose the war.

I think perhaps the opinion of Americans regarding the German soldiers of WWII is that they were all either monsters or mindless grunts. Although the Origos were certainly not on the side of the Germans, at least Iris portrays them in a very fair and even-handed manner. The Origos came in contact with any number of very polite and understanding Germans (most of whom Iris described as "correct"), like the officer charged with conserving the priceless artwork in Florence.

This is most evident in the footnote regarding a German soldier the Origos probably never even met. When the Origos were finally forced out of their home at La Foce, they were unable to bury the body of Giorgio, the consumptive partisan they had been nursing. When they returned to their home, they found that someone had buried the body and marked the grave with a cross labeled Unknown Italian (in German). For a German to have had the decency and respect, not only to bury the body of his likely enemy but even to mark the grave, clearly shows they were not all heartless.

I think the entire book, and my view of WWII (and wars in general), is summed up at the end of Origo's entry from June 22, 1944. She writes, "This glimpse of a tiny segment of the front increases my conviction of the wastefulness of this kind of warfare, the disproportion between the human suffering involved and the military results achieved . . . the events of the last week have had little enough effect upon either side: it is the civilians who have suffered."

I can't wrap up my post about this book without admitting that, during the several mentions in Origo's writing of Allied planes mistakenly machine-gunning innocent Italian peasants, it popped into my head that it must have been Yossarian . . .

Now I want to read Iris Origo's memoirs, entitled Images and Shadows. I would love to read more about La Foce and hear about life in the Val d'Orcia in happier times.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

A Goodbye

A fond adieu to Lyn and Barry Blackmon, founding members of the First Saturday Book Club. The world has lost two wonderful people. You are remembered and you will be missed.

I wish I had a picture of Lyn and Barry together. All I could find was this one of Lyn (in the white shirt), but at least she's in her "natural environment," surrounded by books.

I'll never know what Lyn was actually saying when this photo was snapped, but judging by the book she's holding, I might have to guess that she was saying something about how handsome JFK Jr was, and what a shame it was that he had to die so young. (That's what I would have been saying, anyway).

Friday, January 15, 2010

"The Goose Girl" by Shannon Hale

Finally the long-awaited book was returned to the library, and this time I was lucky enough to be the one to check it out. I interrupted my reading about war in the Val d'Orcia for a breath of fresh air, and did not regret it for a moment. This book was every bit as magical as I expected it to be.

Once again throughout this book Hale exhibits her prowess with words. In one example of many, when the Crown Princess was sitting at her father's deathbed, a lesser writer would have said her chest felt hollow, or perhaps empty. Hale, however, describes Ani's chest as "an abandoned snail shell," making a clear point about her empty feeling while at once adding depth to the idea by letting the reader know Ani also felt wrenched and contorted inside, worthless and discarded.

I knew well the original fairy tale of The Goose Girl. This was good and bad. Good, because it is often quite enjoyable to read a familiar old story that has been fleshed out and given beautiful color and texture; bad, because the book held few surprises for me. It was obvious that Selia would be the maid to usurp the identity of the princess, and I knew the general direction the plot was headed at each turn. Also, a disappointing result of having read the sequel first was that I knew Geric was the prince to whom Ani was betrothed, so there was no surprise for me there, although I do wonder if I might have suspected his identity even without that foreknowledge.

As much as I have enjoyed Hale's writing, I am not sure that I will seek out any of her other novels. The third in the Books of Bayern series, River Secrets, follows a minor character named Razzo who was never especially compelling for me, although he does play a larger part in the second book than in this one. The fourth book, Forest Born, follows a character not even introduced (that I recall) in the first two books, Razzo's sister Rin. And Bayern is not like Narnia, constantly calling me back even after all these years. I am even more resistant to reading either of Hale's two books written for adults, as they both seem to be of the "chick lit" variety and I don't want them to ruin my opinion of her as an author. However, I will make my official excuse by pointing to my overlarge stack of books I already have waiting to be read.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

"The Graveyard Book" By Neil Gaiman

I picked this book up at the library because I enjoyed the movie Coraline (adapted from a book by Gaiman) and have been wanting to read that one, so this is kind of a substitute.

Fortunately for me, this book more than made up for my most recent foray into so-called ghost stories (The Ghost of Windy Hill, which would more accurately have been called "Sorry, Kathy, There's No Ghost on Windy Hill, So I Hope You're Not Too Disappointed"). This book was packed full of more ghosts than I could count, and it had a much more complex combination of story arcs.

Still, this book was a little different from your usual ghost story book. It didn't have the same creep factor. This was mainly because all of the ghosts were friendly and obliging. The tension and trouble came from the world of the living rather than the spirit world. It did have wonderful and nearly tangible atmosphere, however, especially at the beginning, as well as during the Danse Macabre (although I wasn't sure quite why that was a part of the book otherwise).

I loved that Mr. Frost turned out to be the man Jack. I didn't see that coming until the last minute. It's funny that I was thinking more along the lines of him being related to Robert Frost, and it never crossed my mind that he could be Jack Frost until he "put his hand down into the empty space where the floorboard had been," which is mere sentences before he pulls a knife and tries to kill Bod.

I was also pleased that, although Silas was pretty plainly a vampire, we are never specifically told this. I appreciate the author's assumption that I was smart enough to figure it out for myself.

I enjoyed this book like Nobody's business! (Get it?) I agree with one of the reviews on the back that says, "I want to see more of the adventures of Nobody Owens." I think in the next book some of the other Jacks may return as ghouls . . . and surely Scarlett will show up again.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

"The Monster of Florence: A True Story" by Douglas Preston with Mario Spezi

I first noticed this book while browsing at my beloved home away from home, Target. References to Florence always get my attention, and I recognized the scuplture on the cover as Giambologna's Rape of the Sabine Women. In reading the blurb on the back of the book, I at first assumed this would be a novel about a centuries-old crime, but this idea was dispelled when I came to the end of the synopsis and saw that the authors "themselves became targets of a bizarre police investigation," which to me (correctly) suggested that the crimes involved must have been much more recent.

I found it surprising that other countries have serial killers. I kind of assumed (though regrettably, and with embarrassment) that that sort of evil is limited to Americans. It was funny (in an odd, not humorous, way) that this idea is echoed in the book. In fact, many Italians were surprised at having a serial killer in their midst. This, to them, seemed like a British or German thing, or especially American.

The details of the murders were certainly gruesome. Whenever I've read fiction that contains such lurid information, I wonder to myself, Now, was it really necessary to include that? But here it is just the truth. Not that being true makes it any less horrifying, but it at least seems much more excusable to include the horrifying truth in a book as opposed to horrifying fiction.

On a lighter note, I loved how the novel was interspersed with depictions of the beautiful countryside, or rare brief descriptions of delicious Italian meals. It made this novel seem, at times, to be kind of like Under the Tuscan Sun, but interesting. And it was always nice to actually recognize a location as I place I've had the good fortune to see for myself.

It was somewhat frustrating to come to the end and find, although I am as convinced of Antonio Vinci's guilt as Preston and Spezi are, it seems this will never be proven. On the other hand, I do kind of wonder if the Monster might not have been the drowned doctor, Narducci. No Monster killings occurred after his death. I just don't believe such a Monster would have ever quit killing except at his own death or incarceration. It seems pretty likely that Narducci may have committed suicide at the threat of being exposed. I can't explain how he could have gotten ahold of the Sardinians' gun, but neither can I explain how Antonio Vinci could suddenly stop killing more than two decades ago.

Apparently quite a few books have been written on the subject of the Monster of Florence. It would be interesting to see how logical and straightforward the others seem (this book has convinced me--would the others, in turn, also convince me?) but I'm not quite interested enough to actually search out these other books. I do wonder if Mignini is really as misguided as he is portrayed in this book. He seemed to be painted black with such broad strokes that I wondered if he is really such an idiot or if Preston exaggerated as a means of revenge.

Part two was all about the justified outrage concerning the restriction of journalistic freedom and abuses of Italy's justice system, and the very interesting Afterword extended this idea, dealing with the trial for the murder of Meredith Kercher in Perugia, Italy. I actually remember reading about that case in some magazine (probably People) in my husband's chiropractor's waiting room. From the magazine article, I was convinced of Amanda Knox's guilt, but in reading what Preston has to say about it, it's pretty clear that she had nothing to do with the murder. Apparently she couldn't prove this, however, because I looked it up on the Internet just now, and I see she was just recently sentenced to 26 years in prison.

A final note on the sculputure shown on the book's cover: you can see the loggia where it is housed here, (about halfway down the page). Although you won't see a photo of this specific sculpture on that blog, I did take my own picture of it:

Pretty cool, huh? I mean, not the photography so much, but that I had the opportunity to be right there. Of course, I don't mean to brag or anything. I'm just sayin'.

Monday, January 4, 2010

"The Ghost of Windy Hill" by Clyde Robert Bulla

This book caught my eye at the library. I just can't pass up a ghost story! But now that I've read it, I question even labeling this post as such, since there was no ghost in it. (How disappointing!) The story is transparent, simple, straightforward and brief. There are no surprises and only a thimbleful of very slightly scary parts. If only the lady in white, Miss Miggie, had turned out to be a ghost--especially if Lorna and Jamie hadn't realized that fact until later--that might have salvaged the story for me. But, sadly, this was not to be. The story wouldn't even make a good campfire tale. It didn't help that the reading level was well below that of the usual young adult fare (I would guess this was written at about a third grade level). At least it went by quickly, and it's not as if it was as bad as Rhino Ranch!

"Lolita" by Vladimir Nabokov

I have wanted to read this book ever since I first heard about it, which happened to be in 1992 when Joey Buttafuoco's Amy Fisher was dubbed the "Long Island Lolita." And it goes downhill from there.

I am disgusted by Humbert Humbert. Am I supposed to sympathize with him? Because I never could see him as anything more than a creepy perv. I guess maybe I managed to pity him a time or two during "Part Two," but his excuses and rationalizations did not work for me.

At least this book doesn't exist solely on the basis of Humbert's disgusting perversion. In fact, it's not especially explicit. There is actually a story arc which includes some suspense and tension, accompanied by an increasingly obvious paranoia on the part of the narrator. It was sometimes difficult for me to distinguish between reality and his delusions.

The Author's Note at the end of the book was enlightening. Nabokov dreads the thought of readers of Lolita trying to determine "what was the author's purpose?" It sounds as if Nabokov is the type of artist who writes because he has a book inside him and he wants to get it out so it will leave him alone. He makes it clear that he is not "a writer of didactic fiction, and . . . Lolita has no moral in tow. For me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss . . ." It was also interesting to see that Nabokov "detests symbols and allegories (which is due partly to my old feud with Freudian voodooism...)," especially because I thought I detected a theme of moths throughout the book, but I now suppose that was just a spurious pattern.

Lolita is Nabokov's only novel I recall hearing of before. Althought it is beautifully written, I don't feel compelled to read any of his other books at this point. I do hope that I manage to come across someone who has read his other titles so they can tell me if I should look into them.

At least I have now satisfied 18 years worth of curiosity.