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

Saturday, February 27, 2010

"Three Weeks" by Elinor Glyn

I can't remember where I first heard about this book, but I do recall that it was introduced to me as erotica. I've long been curious about Victorian erotic novels. The phrase sounded like an oxymoron to me. I didn't know if I should expect something like the movie Nine 1/2 Weeks (which is something I would consider erotica), or if the era kept even scandalous literature much more tame than that. I was pretty confident that, given the publication date of 1907, it wouldn't be completely pornographic.

Of course I don't have any way of knowing whether this book is typical of Victorian erotic fiction, but this one left everything up to the imagination. Not that this is a bad thing. Reading explicit love scenes kind of embarrasses me, as if someone is going to sneak up behind me, read over my shoulder, and be shocked.

More than once while reading, I thought how this book reminded me of the Twilight Saga (without the vampires, of course). The two stories had much in common: obsession, "fade to black" love scenes, gut-wrenching heartbreak, an all-consuming reunion (or so I thought), and even a kid. I couldn't help but wonder if Stephenie Meyer has ever read Three Weeks.

I didn't sink into this book like I did with Twilight, though. I found myself doubting the "consuming emotion" between Paul and his queen. They convinced themselves that theirs was a love like none other, but I didn't see much evidence to prove it wasn't merely lust.

At least the writing wasn't completely gag-inducing. It wasn't so bad that I would call it a precursor to the modern romance novel. Take the following excerpt, for example. The first bit might have started my eyes rolling, but the cuckoo counteracted that.
"Good-bye, darling," he whispered with a suspicion of tremble in his charming voice. "I shall never love any woman but you--never, never in my life."

Cuckoo! screamed the bird in the tree.
Then there's the cover. I probably examined it much more closely than the publisher intended, but other than the fact that there is snow in the photograph and the two lovers met in the Swiss Alps (where I assume there was some snow, even in May), the cover art, while striking, doesn't seem to apply to the story. That cathedral in the fog has no meaning for the book (unless we see it as a castle and decide that's where the queen probably lived), but even more inexplicable is the man who has discarded his crutches and is propped against the snow-covered rock at the foot of a statue of Christ on the cross which is nestled among the trees. I probably wasn't supposed to notice all of that.

The cover art is Caspar David Friedrich's painting entitled Winter Landscape, possibly from 1811, which can be found in the National Gallery in London. Today I noticed that was recommending that I buy a print of this painting! Funny coincidence or scary example of how invasive the internet is when trying to convince people to spend money??

I'm including a portrait of the author here, which I found while reading about her online. Isn't this a beautiful photo?

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

"The Golden Compass" by Philip Pullman

I just had to see what the fuss was all about. Was this book really such a horrible anti-God diatribe that would subtly (or even overtly) brainwash my children, or was it as harmless as Harry Potter? As I first started reading, I was uncomfortable about the idea of every human in this alternate universe having their own personal "daemon," which sure sounded a whole lot like a "demon" to me, but it quickly became clear that a "daemon" is like an external soul with nothing evil about it, so I could accept "daemons" as no big deal.

Surprisingly, for most of the book it was slow going. In the first two sections I didn't find myself caring about any of the characters or even compelled to pick the book up beyond trying to get it over with so I could move on to something else. I didn't really become interested until page 337 (painfully close to the book's conclusion on page 399) when Lyra cleverly tricked Iofur in a way that hadn't even crossed my mind. From there until the end there was plenty of suspense to sustain my interest.

Because of the way most of the story dragged for me, I can't imagine a child sticking with this book (although I am sure there are many that must have). Not only that, but even I didn't see that anyone was trying to "kill God" like I'd heard. (Or will that come in one of the other two books of the trilogy?) One of the main characters was trying to destroy death, but no one said anything about killing God. Even if the author intended this story to be about killing God and somehow masked that idea with some sort of symbolism, I didn't pick up on it, and surely a child wouldn't either. For those two reasons, I have no fear of allowing my own children to read the story, although I won't push it on them any more than I would suggest any other book I didn't especially enjoy. My opinion is that this book is indeed as harmless as Harry Potter. (And, in case you were wondering, my opinion is that reading Harry Potter books won't make your child interested in practicing witchcraft any more than playing cops and robbers will make him grow up to be a burglar).

I haven't seen the movie (although I plan to), but I can totally picture Nicole Kidman in the role of the kidnapping lady, Mrs. Coulter. (Is this her role? It must be, as there is really no other significant adult female role.) Yet again, I can imagine the movie might be better than this book, but I guess I will have to watch it and see.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

"Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague" by Geraldine Brooks

This book was loaned to me by Joyce, who said it was even better than People of the Book. (She's right, by the way). Kate wants to know what I think of it, too, since it's on her TBR list and she has enjoyed other books by Brooks.

Although this book was very well written from cover to cover, it starts in quite a depressing manner. It begins at what seems like the ending, after the plague has ravaged the town and the narrator has lost just about everyone she cared about; then it takes us back to the previous year so we can live through all of the grief with Anna Frith.

It has been a long time since I last cried over a book--so long that I can't even remember which book I might have cried over most recently. (Surely I have been brought to tears by something more recent than Where the Red Fern Grows when I was in grade school.) I don't believe I've shed a tear over any of the books I've blogged about here. But it was heartbreaking to read about the last hours of Baby Tom. Even though I expected his death (and dreaded it every moment, figuratively dragging my feet as I read) I was unprepared for the powerful grief of it. Then little Jamie quickly followed. Do yourself a favor and don't read the chapters "Rat-fall" or "Sign of a Witch" until you have some time alone. You don't want to be, say, in your doctor's waiting room and sobbing into your book.

Somehow in the midst of all the sorrow the author still manages to craft a beautiful story. I have come to the solid opinion that Geraldine Brooks is an incredibly gifted writer. I love how she makes the story all the more authentic by using period vocabulary, but that is merely one small example of what makes her writing excellent. For more evidence, just listen to the beauty of this passage:
"It was one of those rare days in early April when Nature lets us taste the sweet spring that is coming. It was so unexpectedly mild that I lingered in the garth, breathing the soft scents of the slowly warming earth. The sky was beautiful that morning. A tumble of fluffy, tufted clouds covered the whole from horizon to dome, as if a shearer had flung a new-shorn fleece high into the air. As I watched, the rays of the rising sun lit the edge of each cloud, turning it silver, until suddenly the fleece became instead a mesh of shining metal. Then, the light changed again, and the silvery gray turned deep rose-red."
When I read this, not only could I see clearly how lovely it must look, but I felt I had been there at that precise moment; even that I am there right now.

As the book reached its conclusion, there were several moments in which I felt like I turned a corner and received a whole new perspective. Kudos to Brooks for not taking the easy way out. I was sure I could not be happy with an ending that differed in any way from the one I had planned out in my head, but time and again Brooks opened my eyes to a wider world with just as much peace and joy (if not more) than I would have had in a book with my chosen ending and my narrow view. I know in my blog I claim that spoilers abound, but I absolutely refuse to ruin the story for you. I want you to come upon these discoveries in the same way that I did, with no prior knowledge of them to taint your perspective.

If you can get past the depressing and seemingly hopeless first chapter, and if you can accept an ending that is probably not what you would wish or expect, I think you will love this book as much as I did.

Friday, February 12, 2010

"The Lightning Thief" (Percy Jackson & the Olympians Book One) by Rick Riordan

I had heard of these books before but really didn't pay any attention until I saw a preview for the upcoming movie, which looked to be every bit as good as the Harry Potter movies. This is a wonderful thing, since I know there are only two Harry Potter movies remaining, and I wondered what would take their place.

I had heard that the Percy Jackson books are not as good as the Harry Potter books but that they are still enjoyable. Well, I would say that I concur. The story itself is imaginative and entertaining. I'm interested enough in the characters and their situations that I would like to read Book Two: The Sea of Monsters. However, the writing is choppy, with lots of one-sentence paragraphs.

Kind of like this.

Pretty annoying, huh?

I thought so, anyway.

The name Rick Riordan sounded familiar to me, but it wasn't until I was about halfway through the book and I flipped to the back to read about the author that I figured it out. As soon as I saw that Riordan lives in San Antonio, I thought, Big Red Tequila. Sure enough, that's how I recognized his name. We read BRT years ago in Book Club, and it was not one of my favorites. My biggest complaint was about the main character. He seemed amorphous and vague rather than solid and believable, almost as if the author couldn't decide how to write the character and ended up with a mess of contradictions that were not cohesive. I digress, of course, especially since I didn't see a similar problem in this Percy Jackson book.

I will say that this might possibly be one of the only books where the movie version is better. (Oh, wait, I forgot about Under the Tuscan Sun, where the movie had a plot and the book didn't). I can't say for sure until I've actually seen the movie (which I do plan to do, though I'm not sure if I'll go to the theater or wait for the DVD), but action outweighs thought in this book and, judging by the preview, they've done a decent job making a good movie out of the story.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

"A Dirty Job" by Christopher Moore

I have come to the conclusion that Christopher Moore is an acquired taste. I have gone from not especially caring about Moore's books after reading my first of his (Bloodsucking Fiends) to being grudgingly sucked in (no pun intended) and driven to continue reading just to see what happens. And maybe to catch a few laughs on the way.

This book is not a sequel to Moore's vampire books, but is instead a sort of spin-off of a minor character, Charlie Asher, introduced in Moore's second vampire book, You Suck. (Actually A Dirty Job was published before You Suck, but I read Suck first, so Dirty seems like a spin-off to me.)

The first thing I noticed when I got this book is that the cover is glow-in-the-dark! I love stuff like that. (But wouldn't it have been something if they could have managed to infuse it with a pulsating red glow!) Although really, I suppose that the "don't judge a book by its cover" adage applies to covers you like as well as covers you don't. So it was nice to find out that I enjoyed the book's content as much as I enjoyed the cover. In fact, of the 3 Moore books I have read so far, I'm pretty sure this one is my favorite. Whether this is because it's the best of the three, or if it's because I have come to appreciate Moore's writing, I can't say. I do think this book has a little more depth of feeling than the other two, while somehow still maintaining that air of general hilarity, along with more than a few eye-rolls (one example being the name of Charlie's co-"Death Merchant": Minty Fresh).

None of the one-liners stuck in my mind like the neon fart one from Bloodsucking Fiends, but this book certainly had its fair share of giggles. One of my favorite lines was when Charlie's sister Jane, after first meeting Sophie's hellhounds, said, "I'm going to go call in freaked out to work." I'll have to try that sometime. Although maybe that only works if you live in San Francisco.

To me, the biggest flaw in the book is Charlie's second-hand-store employee, Lily. I mean, I liked her a lot, but she constantly reminded me of Abby from the related vampire books. At first I thought Lily was pretty much just Abby remade (and not quite making the grade) and I wished somehow the real Abby could have fit into that slot instead, but then I found out that Abby and Lily were friends. (Was Lily mentioned in the other books? I can't remember.) Anyway, I thought Lily either needed to be Abby, or be someone entirely different.

If nothing else, I'm thankful for the reminder to experience all the glorious cheese of life.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

"March" by Geraldine Brooks

I finally settled on reading this one next, partly because I had been so looking forward to it ever since hearing about it, and partly because I thought my friend Joyce (who has loaned me 2 other Brooks books) might enjoy reading it after me.

For those of you who have not had the good fortune to hear about this book before, it is about the father of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women (who, if you recall, had the surname March). The story follows Mr. March during his time away from his little women during the Civil War.

The first chapter kind of threw me off a bit. As I've said before, I generally prefer not to read books (or watch movies) about war. I don't like to read about the horrors of combat, and hearing about strategy tends to bore me. I had sort of expected this book to have a tone more similar to "Little Women," with its naive hopefulness, but "March" starts off with a vivid description of Mr. March's regiment (of which he is chaplain) retreating before the enemy, and I was beginning to dread reading the rest.

Until I came to the last two sentences of Chapter One. They may not hold the same magic for you as they did for me, but when I read, "Whatever the case, I was halfway up the wide stone steps before I recognized the house. I had been there before," I perked up and thought, Aha! Perhaps I'll enjoy this book after all.

If you read this book you must also read the afterword. I had initially struggled with the idea of labeling this post as "historical fiction," since this is a book about a fictional character from another work of fiction, but after reading the book and realizing its treatment of subjects such as the Civil War, slavery, and the Underground Railroad, I felt pretty comfortable calling it historical fiction. And after reading the afterword, all remaining doubts were dispelled. I was amazed to find the amount of research used in the writing of this book far more extensive than I had theorized. In fact, the character of Mr. March in this novel was heavily modeled after Louisa May Alcott's own father, Bronson Alcott, just as Little Women was modeled after Alcott's own family. Some of the aspects of March's character that I found most questionable came directly from Bronson Alcott's life: the extremity of his vegan commitment, to the extent that he considered a cow's milk to rightfully belong to its calf; his friendship with both Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, which I found a little far-fetched until I read the afterword; and his staunch abolitionist stance and involvement with the Underground Railroad, which (according to my memory) was not even touched upon in Little Women.

I was so glad that this book did not cover the death of Beth March, although it does refer to her frighteningly serious illness with scarlet fever. There was too much awful sadness in this book already. I don't know if I could have handled watching Mr. March deal with the loss of his beloved Mouse during the slow regeneration of his body and spirit.

One minor consideration that I disagree with: I don't think that Mrs. March would have gone by the name of Marmee since her childhood. I always thought that "Marmee" was a variation on "Mommy" and was devised by her daughters. (Of course, it has been many years since I have read Little Women, so it's entirely possible that was written into the story by Louisa May Alcott and I have simply forgotten that fact).

All in all, this book contains more war, cruelty, and horror than I prefer, but (as I have come to expect of Brooks) it is extremely well written and probably an even better read than People of the Book. I must say I have even higher expectations for Year of Wonders now, and I hope I'm not disappointed.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

"Peter and the Starcatchers" by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson

This Peter Pan story would have been better if I'd read it to myself straight through. As it was, I read it to the kids bit by bit at bedtime, and it took us months to finish. This definitely interrupted the flow. It didn't help that in the second half there was too much back-and-forth with the trunk. Peter has the trunk. No, Slank has the trunk. Now Peter has it again. Now Black Stache. No, it's Slank. It was like watching a ping-pong match, and that's never fun for very long, even if the players are the really good Chinese guys who jump up on the table every now and then. Oh, I don't know, maybe ping-pong is too entertaining to be a fair comparison. Maybe it was more like listening to a baseball game on the radio. The book could have been much shorter than its too-long 451 pages if they had cut some of that out.

I did enjoy the prequel aspect of the book. It was fun to hear the back story about things like how Black Stache (who evidently turns out to be Captain Hook) lost his hand. I mean, I already knew Peter fed it to the crocodile (whose name, by the way, is Mister Grin, in case you didn't know), but here I got to read all the gory details. Speaking of gory, even my 9-year-old son commented that the book was a little bloody. My 6-year-old daughter really wasn't very interested in the story and would usually play by herself in her room when it came time for me to read it, which is really odd because she's the one who loves books and usually can't get enough of them. My 3-year-old daughter almost always joined us for Peter storytime, but I think that was mostly just so she could snuggle in my lap as I read.

This book tells us how Tinkerbell came to be (although it doesn't mesh with the story in Disney's Tinkerbell movie, which is surprising as this book is labeled as a "Disney Edition"). It also explains how Peter and his Lost Boys ended up on the island, although I really thought you had to fly--and not in an airplane!--to get there (past the first star to the right and straight on 'til morning), but Peter got there by boat. That aspect made "Neverland" seem a bit too common, even with the mermaids (which also were explained).

I feel like all I have done is complain about this book, which is misleading because it's really not all that bad a read. I did like Greg Call's illustrations, although it kind of annoyed me that Tinkerbell's wings had feathers. They're supposed to look like dragonfly wings. (There I go complaining again). And, ugh, there are already 3 other books in this series, and my son is expecting me to read them all to him. It's going to be a year before we're finished with all of them. I guess I just need to sit back and enjoy the ride. My 3-year-old is not going to want to sit in my lap forever.