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

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Other Book Blogs to Check Out

Two weeks ago I joined Jennifer's Crazy-for-Books Blog Hop and found some really fun book blogs. Some of my favorites:

The Plum Bean Project. Priya's writing is delicious. Like cheesecake! Rich, filling, and sweet.

Media Molly. Books and movies!

Lesa's Cozy Book Nook. You've got to read about Mrs. Baja Greenawalt.

She Is Too Fond Of Books. Whitney is starting a book club at her local coffee house and I wish I could join.

OK, I'm cheating for this last one, because I don't think she's been a participant of the hop, but I can't get enough of Raych.

Check it out!

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

"Thirteen Reasons Why" by Jay Asher

I have no business taking books out of the library when I already have so many books at home begging me to read them. But I heard about this book here, and when I found that my local library had a copy, I couldn't resist.

The premise is an interesting one, and quite unique. The narrator is one of thirteen people who Hannah Baker blames for her suicide. Just before overdosing on pills, she related her reasoning on audio tapes, which she then mailed to the first person on her list with instructions for them to successively pass the box of tapes on to each of the twelve subsequent people.

The writing isn't stellar, and I found myself not really believing that, #1, Hannah was actually depressed enough to kill herself (just judging by her tone on the tapes which, while perhaps bitter and alienated, didn't really sound suicidal), and #2, that her thirteen reasons were adequate to put her in that frame of mind. Ok, at least two of the thirteen were pretty harsh, but the other eleven . . . not so much. (Ironic thing is, I bet that is exactly what all thirteen people would have thought, too.) But neither of these things kept me from breathlessly flipping the pages. It's definitely an absorbing story.

The book does have a good message, too, which I hope that any teen reading it can recognize: be vigilant, and be kind.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

"Coyote Blue" by Christopher Moore

I needed something silly and quick after that last book. Nothing better for silly and quick than Christopher Moore. This is Moore's second novel (from 1994) and I think it's a better story than the first of his that I read (which was his third, Bloodsucking Fiends, from 1995).

It was fun to find the appearance of an "old friend" from A Dirty Job. Never thought I would meet Minty Fresh again. I was impressed that Moore was able to make his main character, Sam, into a likable and sympathetic character, especially since Sam doesn't have many likable qualities. I also wondered if Moore was looking at a photo of Britney Spears (pre-head-shaving-meltdown, of course) when he first described Calliope. (The similarities soon dropped by the wayside, though. Calliope had more of Jessica Simpson's airheadedness and Shirley MacLaine's weird spirituality).

I find I don't have much to say about this book, other than that it was a fun diversion. It hasn't helped that I didn't post about it right away. I guess I thought maybe something profound would come to me, but this isn't the sort of book that induces much introspection. That's fine, though. Everybody can't be Kafka. (See, now I sound all literary, right? I actually have never read anything by Kafka. I should probably put him on my list but I'm kind of scared to. I don't know, maybe I can handle Metamorphosis. Guy turns into giant bug, and it's just a novella? Yeah, I need to put it on my list. That way I can stop saying "I actually have never read anything by Kafka.")

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

"The Woman in White" by Wilkie Collins

Here's another one from the list of the 100 Best Loved Books. It was first published in 1860. The author was a contemporary and friend of Charles Dickens, and almost as wordy. (But not quite, because who is?)

I must admit that I was daunted by the 504 pages of this book. I mean, I've read longer books. It wasn't that I didn't think I could finish it, but that I was afraid I would spend too long reading each day and shirk my responsibilities like I did with the previous book, except 2.5 times as much. I decided to limit myself to 100 pages a day so that I might also manage to feed my kids with some regularity.

However, this quickly became more of a goal or a challenge than a limit. A hundred pages was easy the first day because I spent the morning in a doctor's waiting room (without any of the kids, I might add). But I only managed about 14 pages the second day! Then 37 the next. Then I managed to catch a bug that my older kids so graciously brought home to me from school. I contrived to stay in bed for the next two days, and made up for lost time between naps. I don't recommend this method, but it helped by giving me more time to read than I would have had otherwise.

Judging by the back of the book, which claimed that the author's aim was "the 'creepy' effect," I was expecting shivers. I am sad to report that the story is not especially chilling. (OK, this might be a spoiler, so close your eyes for a moment): Once again I was disappointed by the lack of a ghost; I was just sure the titular woman in white was a ghostly figure. (You can open your eyes again now).

That's not to say, however, that I didn't like the book. I thoroughly enjoyed it (even though I did not enjoy my circumstances these past two days). It is Very Victorian, and reminded me of other great books like Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights. It was very well-written and left no plot holes that I could detect. I was afraid that I would be left without ever knowing the Secret that Sir Percival was so anxious to keep hidden, or that the amazing likeness between Anne Catherick and Laura Fairlie would remain brushed aside as a simple coincidence, but I should not have allowed myself to fret. Collins covered all ground sufficiently . . . some areas, it seemed to me, multiple times.

In fact, that may be my one complaint about the book (other than the fact that it wasn't very creepy, which wouldn't have even been a complaint if the back cover hadn't raised my expectations in that direction). Towards the end (especially during Count Fosco's superfluous narrative in which I didn't learn anything new) a satisfactory resolution could have been reached in a much smaller number of pages. I began to feel as if I was being beaten over the head with details that were already, for the most part, clear enough to me. But this was a small price to pay for an absorbing Victorian mystery.

Be forewarned that reading 100 pages of this book is about like reading 200 pages of any other. If you have any sort of life or responsibilities outside of reading, give yourself at least a week (maybe even two) to get through it.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

"I'm Not Scared" by Niccolò Ammaniti

I heard about this one from another book blogger (I think . . . but then I looked for the review so I could link to it, and couldn't find whose it was). The book jacket tells me that the main character, nine-year-old Michele, lives in a tiny village in southern Italy and "discovers a secret so momentous, so terrible, that he dare not tell anyone about it." I just had to know what this terrible secret was. Just after I started reading it, I remembered I'd heard that a movie was made from this book, so I went to order it on netflix, and found that the synopsis there was not so kind and spoiler-free. Dang it, I kind of ruined it for myself. And I had been so excited about the book until then.

Even though netflix told me more about the book than I wanted to know (and it was really only two tidbits, but they were big huge major main tidbits), it was still a very gripping read. A potboiler, maybe, but well-written and never boring. I truly enjoyed every minute, and it went by quickly. Being quite a plot-driven book, I wasn't inclined to gather many profound thoughts while reading (not that my thoughts are especially profound in general), but I will mention that I was just sure someone was going to get eaten by pigs.

Knowing how it felt to read the spoilers on netflix, I'm not going to reveal any more of the plot here, so those of you who haven't read it can thank me later. But if you have read this book, I want to ask you some questions. First, do you think Melichetti knew what was going on, especially at the end? I wasn't sure if he usually sat on his porch with a shotgun on his knees, or if he was doing this because he knew what was behind his house. Second, and more importantly, what do you think happened to Filippo? I prefer to think that he managed to get away in all the confusion, and lived happily ever after. But apparently your guess is as good as mine.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

"Dork Diaries: Tales From a Not-So-Fabulous Life" by Rachel Renee Russell

I mostly just read this book to make sure it was appropriate for my 6-year-old to read. (When a first-grader reads on a higher-than-average level, sometimes you have to be careful about what they get their hands on.) I figure it's pretty safe. The main character, Nikki, is no Pollyanna (though she's not Kathryn Merteuil--the coke-snorting bad girl from Cruel Intentions--either), and she's a little too concerned with becoming popular . . . but weren't we all, in middle school?

Here's the inevitable comparison to the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books. Just by looking at the cover you can see there's no doubt that this book is basically "Diary of a Wimpy Kid For Girls." The book is cute and fun, but Jeff Kinney did it first and better and slightly more cleverly. Kinney's illustrations are more believably drawn by the Wimpy Kid, whereas the Dork obviously had a professional artist trying to simplify the drawings enough to look like an 8th-grader did them. (Not only that, but Kinney's illustrations are more consistent; the Dork's illustrations vary between stick figures and actual people-looking people.) And whereas Wimpy Kid can be enjoyed by girls just as much as boys, I'm afraid the Dork's hot pink cover and the number of times Nikki says "like" just scream "NO BOYS ALLOWED."

I thought this was a brand new book, but it was actually first published last June, and there is already another one out (something about a Party Girl . . . definitely will have to check that one out and make sure it's OK). I don't think there's any need for an adult to get excited about reading this, but I bet just about any young girl would love it.

Monday, April 12, 2010

"The Alchemist" by Paulo Coelho

I had alternately heard that this book was amazing and that it was boring. I was relieved when I received it and saw that it's not especially thick (because the only thing worse than a boring book is a really, really thick boring book).

I'm happy to report I didn't find it boring, anyway. It's a simple story, told in the manner of a fairytale or morality tale. The writing is not adorned with much detail. It doesn't seem to be lacking due to its simplicity; rather, the story has buoyancy and flow as a result. What is written seems to skim across the surface, suggesting great depths beneath, and the author does throw out profound-sounding statements with regularity. The only problem is, nearly every time I catch one of these nuggets and examine it, I find I disagree.

For example, Coelho writes, "When we strive to become better than we are, everything around us becomes better too." I've never thought of myself as a pessimist--I'm too happy for that!--but maybe I read this with a great big dose of realism. I agree that "bettering yourself" is an admirable pursuit which should not be abandoned just because your sphere of influence may not reach farther than yourself. However, life just doesn't work out that way. Sure, some things around you will become better--but others will become worse. I'm smart enough to know that no matter how hard we try, no matter how much better I become, we will never succeed in creating a utopia.

Following what Coelho terms your "Personal Legend," which could be defined as realizing your destiny, is supposedly "a person's only real obligation." I think this is oversimplified. Everyone has many real obligations (to follow laws, to pay your bills, to feed and clothe your children and raise them to the best of your ability). Unless everyone's Personal Legend is all-encompassing, weighty, and (for the most part) very similar to everyone else's, following it is certainly not anyone's "only real obligation." I guess I could have allowed it to be "a person's most important obligation." I do like the idea of having a Personal Legend, or, as Coelho puts it in the Introduction, a "personal calling." He explains this as "God's blessing . . . the path that God chose for you here on Earth. Whenever we do something that fills us with enthusiasm, we are following our legend." In my mind, Coelho is talking about passion. Everyone should be passionate about something(s) in their life.

I also disagreed with Coelho's claim that "when you want something [in other words, when you are following your Personal Legend], all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it." Huh? This makes it sound as if your truest desire will be handed to you on a silver platter, or at the very least, that reaching it will be an easy task. Fortunately, this idea was given a more realistic spin later in the book when the shepherd learns that "before a dream is realized, the Soul of the World tests everything that was learned along the way," referring to the trials and tribulations that I would expect one to surmount in trying to attain a goal.

I don't want to give you the idea that I took issue with everything in the book. Here's one of the quotes that I agreed with: "Everyone seems to have a clear idea of how other people should lead their lives, but none about his or her own." Once again that may not work as a blanket statement, but (without mentioning any names) I sure know at least one person who is that way. *cough mysisterinlaw cough* AHEM. Excuse me. I also appreciated the statement that "when each day is the same as the next, it's because people fail to recognize the good things that happen in their lives every day that the sun rises."

Even though I didn't agree with all the Deep Thoughts, I loved giving them consideration. I think it's rare to find a book with an engaging story that simultaneously induces me to think beyond the plot.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

"The Bellini Card: Inspector Yashim Goes to Venice" by Jason Goodwin

I was not especially wanting to read this book. I'm not sure why I bothered to borrow it from Joyce, because although the first two Yashim the Eunuch books were decent reads, I wasn't so wild about them that I wanted to read every one that Goodwin ended up writing. On the other hand, I'm a sucker for a book set in Italy.

Even with an Italian setting, though, it took me a long time to pick up this book. And not just the first time. You would think I'm trying to say the book is boring, but it wasn't. It was, like the others, a decent story with a few tasty-sounding meals thrown in and standing out like jewels. Once again I wish Goodwin had included a more specific recipe for those meals (or that I was a more adventurous cook and could just wing it and end up with a scrumptious meal instead of something to feed to the dogs). Anyway, my main problem in picking up the book probably had more to do with the fact that all of a sudden spring has sprung, and I'm finding more often I'd rather be outside digging in the dirt than reading.

I think I have found a fault in Goodwin's writing. I frequently have trouble picturing the scene he is describing. OK, so I admit, the fault might possibly lie with the reader rather than the author, but somewhere between his descriptions and my brain there is what sometimes seemed like an unbridgeable gulf. This was especially evident during the "fight scenes," where all Goodwin's careful choreography was lost on me. He might as well have just said, "they fought, and he won," because that's about all I got out of it. I also had no idea what the "Sand-Reckoner's Diagram" might look like, so thank goodness for google (again).

Yashim's Polish friend Palewski gets a much larger part in this book, although it is funny that from the other two books I got the idea that Palewski was a friendly, heavy-set, older drunk; in this book he is described as younger, slimmer, and more handsome than I realized. Yashim and Palewski fall into what seemed to me to be Sherlock-and-Watson roles for the first time, probably because Palewski is more involved in the investigation this time.

This time, instead of loaning me more books, Joyce gave me some amaryllis bulbs to plant. I'm heading out to dig in the dirt again.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

"Last Laughs: Funny Tombstone Quotes and Famous Last Words" by Kathleen E. Miller

I found this book at the library today. I mean, I literally found it at the library. It wasn't a library book, and it was just sitting on a lonely shelf with maybe a dozen other not-library books, so the librarian sold it to me for 50 cents. I read it with half a mind toward the morbid thought that I might find an interesting (if not unique) idea for my own epitaph.

I am curious as to how this book was researched. The epitaphs were certainly not completely (if even partially) collected by the author's own wanderings through graveyards, first of all since they cover such a variety of locations (though mostly in Great Britain and the U.S.) and second of all because many of the locations are listed as "unknown." There is a bibliography of 21 books (and one web site!) that are all on the same topic--I would never have thought there were so many other books of this sort--so I would have to guess that this book is almost completely derived from other books. Which is OK, except that I have to wonder why it was necessary to have another such book, or what this one accomplished that the other 21 didn't.

Some of the epitaphs were so long that I had to wonder how large the headstone was, or how small the font. Some of them were quite humorous, but not all of them; some of them just made me sad. One mentioned the weight of the deceased, which was notable at 635 pounds. There were a few that were quite audacious, and even a couple that doubled as advertisements, if you can believe it. (One, of course, for marble-cutting services; one for the pub that the gravestone owner's son continued to run).

I suppose I would be remiss if I did not leave you with a few samples.

From Ruidoso, New Mexico (try to stifle your groan):

Here lies
Johnny Yeast
Pardon me
For not rising

Then there's the depressingly forlorn Gussie in Ocanto, Wisconsin:

Here lies the body of a girl who died
Nobody mourned, nobody cried
How she lived and how she fared
Nobody knew and nobody cared

and a head-scratcher from Snow Camp, North Carolina:

Here lies a virgin
with her babe
resting in her arms.

That one is listed as Anonymous, but surely her name was Mary. (Look! I can make corny jokes too! Though perhaps mine aren't quite as indelible.)

And perhaps my favorite, though "unverified," from Thurmont, Maryland:

Here lies an athiest
All dressed up
And no place to go

So that was a quick, fun, and different way to spend fifty cents. Now I'll see if I can get rid of it on paperbackswap.

"What French Women Know: About Love, Sex, and Other Matters of the Heart and Mind" by Debra Ollivier

This book caught my eye in the author endorsements at the beginning of Sarah's Key. It made me wonder: What do French women know? Do they know something that I don't know? And so, here is a breakdown of each chapeter.

Chapter 1: Men. French women love men. A lot. And they don't really like women very much. There is no struggle between the sexes in France, just a mutual love (and, apparently, lots of it). As they are simultaneously feminists and feminine, French women live in le juste milieu.

Chapter 2: Mystery. French women are secretive. They value privacy and discretion. They don't tell everything they know. They have no problem with ambiguity and maybe even prefer it. They play their cards close to their vest, and sometimes it seems the more interested you are in getting a peek at their hand, the harder they try to hide it. The book didn't say this, but it sure sounded like what it boiled down to was a little bit of game playing, which definitely isn't for me. In general, however, French women abide by the idea that Less is More. Which I suppose would be moins est plus, although I have no idea whether this is a commonly used French idiom--I'm thinking it's not, since the author didn't apply it.

Chapter 3: Rules. The French don't like rules. French women are "aware of the brevity of time and the immediacy of pleasure." They value the individual rights of people to behave as they like, and they figure they "might as well make the most of the moment instead of anxiously preparing for (or bracing against) the future." They don't challenge rules merely for the sake of rebellion, but they will scorn any rules that "get in the way of their sense of pleasure and personal freedom." On the other hand, the French are big fans of protocol or tradition involving etiquette. This is how they manage to have perfect, and rather rigid, manners in a social setting. But their indifference towards rule-following is where they get their joie de vivre.

Chapter 4: Perfection. The French woman knows perfection is not all it is cracked up to be. Perfection equals conforming to everyone else equals boring. Agreeing to disagree is much more agreeable than always being right (and thus perfect). Their idea of perfection differs from ours; being part of a perfect American couple might mean always being kind and in agreement with one another, whereas in a perfect French marriage, differing opinions are celebrated; disputes are not feared, and are even looked at as natural, helpful ways to relieve pressure in a relationship. Not only that, but their "more tolerant and elastic view of marriage" gives rise to a preference for cohabitation over marriage. French women realistically accept imperfections as natural, and even derive pleasure from them. They don't give a crap what others think about them; they know who they are and are happy with that, and they are not worried whether anyone else agrees with them. Vive la difference!

Chapter 5: Nature. The French are more accepting of what is natural--like aging, armpit hair, the fact that we humans are basically just animals, and stinky cheese. Freud was right in saying that any human emotion leads back to the sphere of sex. Rather than claiming "the devil made me do it," French women have no problem admitting they just couldn't resist, or, in other words, ça m'a pris.

Chapter 6: Art de Vivre. Neatly summed up in a quote from Jeanne Moreau saying, "I don't feel guilt. Whatever I wish to do, I do." The French set aside self-improvement and ambition in favor of enjoying life, which is better done when keeping it simple (though not in the sense of organization or efficiency). Feeling anxiety over concepts like "getting ahead" or "staying ahead" are foreign to the French.

Chapter 7: Body. A French woman know how to feel bien dans sa peau. French children "grow up with the realities of the body" and thus "are primed to be less childlike and more matter-of-fact about sexuality as adults." The French do not "conform to a single standard of beauty," and "personal iconoclasm" is celebrated; however, if there is one thing they do conform to, it is the pressure to Not Get Fat. Their secret is rigid self-control. They certainly do not forego all indulgence, but neither do they indulge themselves constantly. It also "helps that French culture is not a snack culture."

Why was there no chapter on sex? I probably shouldn't be surprised, as apparently the French don't do "tips" or "how-tos," but I was hoping I would pick up some fun and nasty ideas I could use in my happy marriage. I guess the reason there wasn't a chapter on sex is because their attitudes towards it were sprinkled throughout the book (and perhaps partly because of that innate discretion mentioned in Chapter 2). In a nutshell, French women enjoy sex (just like every other aspect of their lives), especially when it is frequent and passionate.

I found it interesting to note that the author took a lot of examples from literature and film. I never assumed movies were that realistic, but perhaps she used good examples of art imitating life. I don't know, as I'd never even heard of many of the movies she mentioned. There were two, though, that I've even watched before!

So to wrap up the entire book in one sentence, I would have to say that the French enjoy life with the abandon of hedonists and moral relativists, steeped in existentialism with the attitude that Que sera, sera. It was definitely a fun and interesting glimpse at the women of an alluring and intriguing culture, though I don't think I gleaned much from it that I can use in my own life. I'm too American, and too happy about that fact, although I could do better about living in the moment. I enjoy the heck out of my life, but I am not always as fully present in the present as it appears the French are. And, now that I think about it, I know a few people who could use a good dose of that mysterious French reticence and close their mouths every now and then.

I did have to wonder what the majority of French women would think of this book. I mean, does it hit the nail on the head for most of them? Does it describe only a minority? Or is it way off the mark? I know one thing about the type of French woman who is portrayed in this book, though; they wouldn't give a crap about what I thought of it.