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

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Reading in Retrospect: What was the name of that book?

When Chris and Jess posted last week about a favorite childhood book, my mind skipped right over all seven Chronicles of Narnia, my kindred spirit Anne of Green Gables, Edward Eager's books about magic, Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, Ramona Quimby and her comical misunderstandings, and Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle's amazing problem-solving abilities, and went directly to That Book. The magical book I read more than a quarter of a century ago whose mysterious plot, though vaguely remembered, had been so enchanting.

In my memory of the story, four siblings were vacationing (or perhaps sent to live) near the ruins of an old castle. The children enjoyed picnicking and playing among the fallen stones. One cloudy day, the courtyard of the castle was full of mist. The children climbed to the top of the winding staircase within the castle walls, where the top floor was all rotted through, and suddenly the youngest (maybe a boy, maybe blond-haired, but maybe not) fell down through the mist towards the ground far below. The other children rushed back down the stairs, afraid the boy was hurt or maybe even dead, but when they reached the bottom he was nowhere to be found . . . because he had traveled back in time! Now, who wouldn't want to read that story?

I spent years looking for this book because I wanted to read it again. I knew I was taking a risk, as my memory of the book might have been better than the book itself, and why ruin a wonderful childhood memory? But my desire to re-read it outweighed my fear of disappointment, and the hunt was on. My search was made much more difficult by the fact that I could remember neither the title nor the author of the book.

I knew my sister had read the same book, so I asked her about it. She remembered the story, but not the title or author. I scoured the Internet, googling for books about castles and children and time travel and mist. (In the meantime, I found a delightful little 1890 edition of The Children of the Castle by Mrs. Molesworth, with beautiful pen-and-ink illustrations by Walter Crane. Lovely, but not the book I was looking for.) I recalled writing a book report on this book in third grade, and dug through dusty old boxes at my parents' house, hoping to find that book report. All to no avail.

At some point during my quest I came across a website called "Stump the Bookseller," where for a measly little $2 I posted a synopsis of that long-lost favorite book from my childhood, and Harriet Logan of Loganberry Books came through for me. Here is the book I was looking for: In the Keep of Time, by Margaret J. Anderson. What a feeling of triumph, to finally succeed in my search! I bought a gently used copy to add to my library.

Of course, as I suspected, the story wasn't quite as magical when I revisited it, but I don't regret finding it and re-reading it. Now I can share it with my children. Not only that, but imagine my thrill when I realized that the setting for this book exists in real life! The "castle" that the children played in was Smailholm Tower, which still stands in Scotland. These days it houses a museum, so obviously the old rotten wooden floors have been replaced, but I would love to see it in person some day. Even if it only figuratively transports me back in time.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Words of the Day

I have a confession to make. Although I did start Anna Karenina and made it all the way to page 26, I haven't picked it up since Monday. Did you know it takes a really long time to read a really long book if you never actually read it? I do have the excuse of a side project which I hope to tell you about someday soon, but meanwhile I think it's time to whittle away at my "List of Words to Look Up" once again.

1. Fuliginous. I'm so excited to tell you that I figured out where I found this word. I had it marked with "HJ 14," and the most likely match I could think of for that abbreviation is "Henry James." Knowing that five or six years ago when I wrote my list I was probably reading The Ambassadors, I pulled that book out and read page fourteen and there sat fuliginous. It appears in a quite long sentence during which James is describing Waymarsh through Strether's eyes. "He had a large handsome head and a large sallow seamed face--a striking significant physiognomic total, the upper range of which, the great political brow, the thick loose hair, the dark fuliginous eyes, recalled even to a generation whose standard had dreadfully deviated the impressive image, familiar by engravings and busts, of some great national worthy of the earlier part of the mid-century." Gosh, couldn't he have just said, "He looked like Abraham Lincoln"? Anyway, even in context, I still don't know what "fuliginous" means, but I can guess that it does not mean "full of genius," even if I can make it sound like it might. Webster says: Sooty, obscure, murky, having a dark or dusky color. OK, so what James was saying was that Waymarsh's eyes were dark and . . . dark. Got it. I ought to throw this one out on principle, but I won't. Zero points.

2. Saleratus. This one is from the same book, on page 35 (even though I had written down page 36 and stressed out slightly when it wasn't there) in which Miss Gostrey is trying to pry from Strether what vulgar objects are made in the workshop by which Mrs. Newsome has made her fortune. "It made between them a pause, which she, however, still fascinated by the mystery of the production at Wollett, presently broke. ' "Rather ridiculous"? Clothes-pins? Saleratus? Shoe polish?' " What fit in between clothes-pins and shoe polish back in 1903? Maybe saleratus is a variant of snake oil. Webster says: A leavening agent consisting of potassium or sodium bicarbonate. So it's baking soda, not snake oil. Still no points, even though I am having to resist giving myself partial points because I think that was an especially good guess.

3. Laudanum. I kind of know what this is but I suppose I put it on my list because I'm not exactly sure. I don't have a reference sentence for you, but you can surely imagine Agatha Christie directing the doctor to give laudanum to an elderly matron who has just experienced the shock of a murder in her family. I think it's a opiate given to calm or to aid in sleeping. Webster says: Any of various formerly used preparations of opium; a tincture of opium. Since it doesn't say what it was used for, I'm heading to wikipedia. Here I find that laudanum was used to relieve pain, to produce sleep, to allay irritation, to check excessive secretions, and to, um, "support the system"? OK, then! Even though I feel like I cheated by including such an easy one, I finally get a point!

4. High dudgeon. I don't know where I heard this phrase, but the word "dudgeon" makes me think of a combination of "dungeon" and "drudgery." So, maybe it's a really boring prison. And I have to wonder . . . is there also "low dudgeon"? Webster says: Dudgeon is a fit or state of indignation or offense. Zero points for this one too (as if we didn't already know that).

5. Laconic. Yet again I have no context for you other than that I'm sure this word can be used to describe a manner of speaking. I think it means lazy or slow. Webster says: Using or involving the use of a minimum of words. Concise to the point of seeming rude or mysterious. I'm going to have to take a quarter of a point for knowing that it refers to speech.

1.25 points out of five? Let's do a bonus round, in case I haven't embarrassed myself enough for one day. I first read the word git in one of the Harry Potter books. It was pretty clear that it meant something of a cross between "dimwit" and "stupid jerk," but I wasn't sure of the pronunciation. Does it sound the way it would in the sentence, "What did you git at the store?" (which may be the only way of using the phrase you git without giving offense). The other option, of course, is the sound in the second half of the word "idjit."

If you go here you can hear the pronunciation of git for yourself. Or if you are British and laughing at my ignorance, go here and laugh harder when you see my favorite pronunciation suggestion:
Gee-HAAAA-ga-BLOOOO-mup-mup-mup-PAH-TANG-pickle. (And remember, the third one is an acute "mup.")
Consider this a community service announcement to help you avoid sounding like a git the next time you get a pint at the pub.

Monday, July 26, 2010

"Whistling in the Dark" by Lesley Kagen

When I first started reading this book, I had the slightly deflated feeling of, "oh . . . again?" At the beginning, this book seemed like it was going to be just another my-childhood-was-worse-than-yours-and-oh-did-I-mention-there's-a-serial-killer-on-the-loose? books. Not that there is anything wrong with that sort of book. I have enjoyed the heck out of a few of those. But a few too many, perhaps?

I bought this book almost a year ago at my last big Books-A-Million shopping spree, which was before I discovered paperbackswap. I suppose I was attracted to the cover and the $3.97 price tag, because it just doesn't get any better than that for a brand new book. (Or, if it does, you need to tell me where.) I must have picked it up before I got burned out on this sub-genre.

Well, if you're feeling sorry about my disappointment, you can stop right now, because I wasn't very far into the book before it didn't matter anymore. I suppose each book has its own unique story and this one is no different. Or do I mean that this one is different? Either way, it didn't take long before I was caught up in the lives of Troo and Sally O'Malley as they navigated the rough waters of childhood on Milwaukee's Vliet Street in the summer of 1959. It was all I could do to resist reading this book while I was driving.

One thing I liked about this book was seeing Sally's childish observations through my own adult eyes. I could easily see when she was mistaken or led astray by her overactive imagination. Even better, Kagen used this against me. She knew I would become complacent about my omniscience. I thought I had it all figured out, and (although I did correctly guess most of the surprises and rule out most of the red herrings) she had me fooled about the identity of the squishy-shoed killer. I definitely had someone else pegged, and I was so sure I was right! While I love guessing correctly in a mystery, I think I like it even more when I find I've been deluded.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Bloggy Connections

This is a long-overdue (if slightly off-topic) post about some fun I had last month. I hope you all know Lesa of Mrs. Baja Greenawalt's Cozy Book Nook. If you don't, you need to meet her. I did! In real life! When we realized that we were both going to be at Silver Dollar City for the same two days one week in June, I crossed my fingers in hopes that she wouldn't think I was a serial killer, then sent her an email suggesting that we meet up during our trip. Evidently she wasn't a bit scared of me because it sounded like a good idea to her, too. You can read everything she had to say about our meeting here.

This was my family's first trip to Silver Dollar City, but Lesa knows the park pretty well and had all kinds of good information for us. I highly recommend her as a tour guide if the scheduling works out for you the way it did for us. If only I had paid more attention I might have avoided riding Wildfire, which looped upside-down so many times that I lost count and afterwards made me feel like I was exiting the Space Shuttle after a week on the moon. And I probably would not have taken my poor little seven-year-old on Powderkeg, which made her cry and made me feel like a bad mommy. Evidently being tall enough to ride a particular roller coaster is not a good enough excuse to get on it.

But back to my meeting with Lesa. Not only did she have a ton of theme park tips for us, but it was a lot of fun to talk with her and get to know her better. On our second day we managed to find a shady spot where we could sit and gab while our other family members chased after our kids and her boy chased after my youngest girl. (I think we may have sparked young love.) I guess it's true what they say about time flying when you're having fun, because what seemed like a conversation of only a few minutes was, according to my kid-chasing mom, "at least an hour." And it wasn't long enough! I hope we get to meet again some day.

I also need to tell you about the super-sweet Kay at My Random Acts of Reading. She was giving away a few books on her blog, and I happened to mention that I never win anything. Of course, I didn't win her drawing either, BUT she took pity on me and sent me a book anyway!! Note to self: that line will probably not work on Kay again. But thank you for the book, Kay! That was very sweet of you.

"The House at Riverton" by Kate Morton

My friend Nevada recommended this book to me when I mentioned how much I enjoyed The Thirteenth Tale. (Not a book by the same author, but a book that reminded Nevada of this one.) I'd heard of Kate Morton before, as I have The Forgotten Garden on my wish list at paperbackswap (where it has been, and will probably continue to be, for months, as evidently its readers don't want to turn it loose). After reading Riverton I am all the more excited about reading Morton's debut novel. But I will have to wait to read it, just as you will have to wait to hear what I think of it. Sigh.

But about The House at Riverton. What an enthralling story! I was about to tell you it was certainly the most engrossing book I've read all month, but then I realized I read What Dies in Summer this month. Oh well, I suppose we'll have to settle for calling this one of the most engrossing books I've read all month.

My one complaint about the book: I figured out on page 50 who Grace's father was. Grace didn't figure it out herself until page 351. At least she didn't spend all 301 pages contemplating her parentage. That would have been annoying, and I would have wanted to throw this book at her head if I could have figured out some way to do that.

I would be remiss if I did not make it clear that the entire book was certainly not so predictable. In fact, the main mystery--the one that is first introduced on page 14 as a secret that is "still safe"--was not clear to me until the very last chapter. And along the way there were plenty of minor considerations that kept me guessing. All without being fluffy!

My friend Nevada was right--this book was similar to The Thirteenth Tale, but not in a way that would bore the heck out of you if you read one right after the other. It just had the same sense of mystery interweaving past and present in an old English country manor. I was reminded of Atonement just as much, and even a little bit of Romeo and Juliet (because of the whole star-crossed lovers thing, minus the annoying misunderstandings that result in double suicide). My only problem with labeling this as one of my Must Reads is because I wonder if only girls would like it. I had the same feeling about The Thirteenth Tale. Some boys (and not my zombie-loving husband) need to read these books and tell me what they think.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Reading in Retrospect: "I, Richard" by Elizabeth George

Elizabeth George is a favorite author of my sister's. Several years ago my mom borrowed this book of five short stories from her, read it, and then loaned it to me, which is unusual since my mom generally can't handle short stories. I'm not saying she's stupid, but I will say she is far too literal-minded and often can't follow a story that leaves too much to the imagination, as short stories so often do. J.D. Salinger's Nine Stories? "They're just weird." But I digress.

Four of these stories are “murder mysteries” (or at least mysteries involving a death). The first three seemed relatively predictable to me, so I was surprised and pleased to be caught unawares by a few twists in the last two stories. I'm so glad I wrote down what each story was about, because although I do have a vague memory of reading the book, I never would have remembered what was in it otherwise. I wrote down more than I'm giving you here, because of course I included "whodunit" where applicable, but I'm doing my best to avoid spoilers for you.

1. Exposure: A group of mostly American, mostly wealthy people take a summer course entitled “History of British Architecture” at Cambridge University. Murder is foreshadowed, but the killer and the victim don’t turn out to be who you might at first expect. I guessed the killer based on access but I was surprised by the thief (in fact, I wrongly thought nothing was actually stolen).

2. The Surprise of His Life: An older man suspects his younger, beautiful wife of cheating on him--and with his brother, no less. This story involves quite a bit of irony of the O. Henry variety, although perhaps less poignant and more horrifying.

3. Good Fences Aren’t Always Enough: A strange old Russian woman moves into a previously perfect little neighborhood and immediately plants English ivy all over her yard, which causes a rat problem that the neighbors take care of. No murders in this one, unless you count the rats.

4. Remember, I’ll Always Love You: A recent widow finds out that she really didn’t know her husband as well as she’d thought, and digs into his past to discover more about him. This one threw me. I thought the husband may have faked his death and moved to the Caribbean. I was way off.

5. I, Richard: Involves quite a bit of history about Richard III of England. A Ricardian apologetic historian (one who believes King Richard III was innocent of his nephews' deaths) has his own devious plot afoot to catapult himself to celebrity using the book he's writing about Richard III in conjunction with a 500-year-old document as proof.

I'm pretty sure this is the only Elizabeth George book I've ever read. Which of hers have you read? Which do I need to put on my TBR list? If is to be believed, most fans of George's novels were disappointed in this book of short stories, so keep that in mind if you're thinking about looking for a copy of I, Richard, but I had no problem with it.

Friday, July 16, 2010

"Damage" by Josephine Hart

Here's a book that was published nearly 20 years ago. Since then, for all I know, it's been forgotten. I'd never heard of it, nor did I know a thing about its author, so I had absolutely no preconceived notions about this book. I took a risk in buying it, as it could have been a suckfest. On the other hand, it only cost 50 cents, so what the heck.

The book starts by asking a lot of questions to which I do not know the answers, but I knew by their nature that reading further would not resolve them. The first chapter may be the most thought-provoking and introspective chapter of the book. Not only that, but its last sentence invoked tragedy. There may be nothing more likely to hold my interest against my will.

Unfortunately, after the first few chapters I was just not very excited about reading this book. I think it's because no one had ever told me, "Wow, I loved this book, you've GOT to read it, you won't regret it." I never realized before how important that was to me. But the chapters went by so quickly, and the book itself was so short, and five minutes later when I was half finished I had to keep going.

What unfolded was a tale of obsession told by the narrator, a man who suddenly realizes that, until now, he has never really lived. Of course, that's pretty much just a euphemism for having an affair. But, euphemism or not, with a strange detachment he allows this passion to sweep away everything else in his life. And, would you have ever guessed it? Damage is done.

I had trouble deciding whether this book was well-written. Sometimes it just seemed SO melodramatic, which almost made me think of VC Andrews, but I pushed that thought from my mind. It never descended into romance novel territory, and though there was certainly sex in the book (because what would an affair be without it?), it wasn't of the highly-detailed and embarrassing variety. The book had a certain timeless quality that didn't tie it down to a specific decade. It was not vapid, nor did it cause me to fear I was losing brain cells as I read.

On the contrary, the book invited interesting comparisions. Anna reminded me of Dominique Francon from The Fountainhead--not at all because of her physical description or her way of thinking, but because of her effortless control over men. The narrator could have been a cross between an older Paul Verdayne and a less squicky but no less single-minded Humbert Humbert.

My final reaction is rather similar to that of my previous read. It's not one of my Must Reads, nor was it a waste of time. Don't kill yourself trying to find a copy of this book, but if you happen to come across it and you'd like to stray from the beaten path when everyone and their mother is reading The Help or The Passage, you might give it a whirl.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

"Skin and Other Stories" by Roald Dahl

I first heard about this book from Elle at Media Molly. Roald Dahl with a dark side? I knew he had a gross side, and though Elle's description of this collection of stories as "strangely bizarre yet wildly entertaining" doesn't sound far off from what I know of Dahl, the phrase certainly piqued my interest.

Here is my brief note on each of the eleven stories.

Skin: This first one just doesn't pack the punch that it could have. It held more promise than it delivered.

Lamb to the Slaughter: clichéd. I had the vague feeling that I'd read this story once before, long ago. Or maybe I just read something very similar.

The Sound Machine: Made me think of one of my more unusual acquaintances who recently told me that, when you pull up a plant, it has a biochemical reaction that could be equated with pain or fear. I guess she didn't just pull that idea out of her butt.

An African Story: Do black mambas really get that big? (I looked it up. They do.) And why am I questioning that, rather than the idea of a snake suckling a cow?

Galloping Foxley: Talk about a tale full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. All that buildup, then it ends with a little *blip*.

The Wish: Kind of reminds me of Silent Snow, Secret Snow. But not exactly.

The Surgeon: Unlike the usual short story, because it ends well (for everyone but the thieves, I suppose). On the other hand, I didn't expect it to, so that was nice.

Dip in the Pool: My favorite, due to the tension, the surprise and the resultant unfortunate ending. You know it's going to end badly; it's just a matter of finding out why.

The Champion of the World: Brings a new meaning to "chickens coming home to roost." I got a good laugh out of picturing the ridiculous situation at the end. And yes, this story is related to Danny.

Beware of the Dog: This one was excellent. Even if it was about war.

My Lady Love, My Dove: I thought I had this one pegged, but it took me by surprise once, and then again.

These stories are well-written and evocative, but this book seems to exist in a netherworld between adult and young adult fiction. It is not as stark and surprising as most short stories written for adults, but neither is it as safe and innocuous as most short stories for young adults. My verdict? No need to run to the bookstore for a copy, but if you find one lying in the gutter, you might as well dust it off and give it a chance.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Words of the Day

Instead of getting anything important accomplished, once again I find myself sitting amidst relative filth and squalor while communing with my dictionary. It's okay, because I had brownies for breakfast, so I might as well continue the irresponsibility for the remainder of the day. I'll do better tomorrow.

1. Pendulous. This word was found on page 99 of some book whose title I did not mark down. I wish I knew which book it was, because I wonder why this word is on my list. Pendulous means heavy and swinging, right? It must have been used in some unexpected way, and it sure would be interesting to recall how. Oh well. As it is, I am embarrassed to admit that the only noun I can think of to use in relation to this adjective is "breasts" (and not mine, unfortunately). Webster says: Poised without visible support; suspended so as to swing freely; inclined or hanging downward; marked by vascillation, indecision or uncertainty. That last part of the definition is new to me, and I'm guessing that's the way it was used on page 99. Also, it sounds like breasts are only pendulous when they're unfettered, which would be why mine aren't. (Too much information? Let's move on. After I take my 0.62 of a point: one for swinging, minus 1/4 for not knowing it could be used to refer to indecision, then taking away another 0.13 for throwing in "heavy.")

2. Gracile. My note alongside this word is "Nefertiti's skeleton," which means I must have gotten it from National Geographic. (Come to think of it--you never know--word #1 might have come from that magazine too.) I am pretty sure this word means delicate and graceful, perhaps even elegant. Webster says: Slender, slight, graceful. Kind of makes you wonder . . . have you ever seen a fat skeleton? Anyway, that's worth a full point.

3. Excoriating. Once again I have a page number but no title. (It's from page 144, if that helps you, but it obviously does not help me). The sound of the word makes me think of something that is harsh and grating. But maybe I am mixing it up with "exfoliating." Webster says: To wear off the skin of; abrade; to censure scathingly. Wow, so it is like exfoliating, except in a really harsh and grating way. I'm good! Glad I didn't guess the definition was "to remove the core of an apple." One point!

4. Swarthy. I always thought this meant dark-complected, or perhaps even a dark facial expression, but in my vague memory it seems I've also seen it used to describe a man who is thick-set or strongly built. We shall see. Webster says: being of a dark color, complexion or cast. So, I will throw out the strongly-built thing and give myself another point.

5. Lachrymose. I am almost certain I got this word from Lemony Snicket. Have you read his Series of Unfortunate Events? I read the first few (until I got bored with the repetition of the Baudelaire siblings continually finding themselves in danger from Count Olaf). In the third book the children find themselves with their Aunt Josephine, hanging precariously over Lake Lachrymose. I am surprised that Snicket did not define lachrymose for his readers, as he is generally in the habit of doing. This leaves me having to guess at the definition. The word makes me think of a languid sadness. Webster says: given to tears or weeping; tearful; mournful. Sad, right? Another point!

The words must have been too easy this week (or I was too easy on myself in my grading scale). 4.62 out of 5!

Monday, July 12, 2010

Reading in Retrospect: "Some Enchanted Evening" by Christina Dodd

I was duped into reading a romance novel. It was an “impulse borrow” from the library a few years back. I found it right up there on the display shelf by the front desk, and I grabbed it in a moment of reckless spontaneity just before the librarian finished checking out my kids' stack of picture books. I must admit that, in this case, my literary amnesia has served me well and I have absolutely no recollection of this book beyond what I wrote about it at the time. I think maybe my subconscious has done me the favor of blocking an unsavory memory.

The front cover showed a castle against a sky pink and purple with the setting sun. (Obviously the cover pictured here is not the one I'm talking about, but it's the closest one I could find). I was thinking the story might be a fairy tale, or perhaps historical fiction. Yeah, maybe the title should have warned me, but the front cover did not show a shirtless, long-haired man ripping the bodice from a beautiful beskirted heroine like this. Nor did it depict a wistful, winsome lass gazing with yearning from her achingly romantic perch on her castle's balcony, as does the front of the current edition. If it had, I would have known better.

The author was described as a “New York Times Bestselling Author.” The book was in hardcover, for Pete’s sake! And it looked brand new. I would never have guessed that our local library was spending its meager supply of book money on brand new trash.

That said, I did read the entire book. But only because I had nothing better to read at the time, and because I'm one of those people--I have to finish every book I start, no matter how painful the process. The plot was somewhat interesting, and the love scenes were not completely embarrassing, although I could have done without them.

If you must know a bit about the plot, here's what I wrote about it back when I read it: Three princess sisters are exiled from their tiny country during the turmoil of war. The eldest sister has disappeared, but the younger two, Clarice and Amy, are traveling incognito from town to town in the English countryside, selling their “royal secret” face creams in order to make enough money to stay alive while trying to remain hidden from those who hunt them and want them assassinated. They make their way into Scotland where they become embroiled in a scheme with Robert MacKenzie, Earl of Hepburn. Of course Clarice and Robert fall in love against their will, have really hot sex, and in the end are married and become “with child”, although this is against the wishes of the martinet Dowager Queen Grandmama back in Beaumontagne. Eeesh.

Bottom Line: Not Enchanting. I won’t make the mistake of wasting my time on this one again. And next time maybe I won’t judge a book by its cover. (Ha! Good luck with that one.) But at least the newer editions are no longer printed with a trickster cover.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

"One of Ours" by Willa Cather

It's about time I got around to picking up this book, though I do have some excuses regarding my resistance. First, it's about war, and you know how I feel about war books. (And if you don't, you should. I don't like them.) Second, Hud read it before me and told me it was reeeeaaallllly slow. More specifically, he described the book as such--and, by the way, his description ends with a fairly big spoiler, so squint your eyes really hard while you're reading this: "He's farming, he's farming, he's farming, there's a war, he dies." (Don't be mad. I was actually really glad I knew this ahead of time. I would not have been prepared enough otherwise). Third, the cover of my copy isn't as nice as the one pictured here. I might have picked it up sooner if I'd liked the cover better, because I will judge a book by its cover no matter how adamantly you tell me I shouldn't.

On the bright side, I had three reasons that prodded me to finally pick up the book. First, it was the Pulitzer prize-winning novel in 1923, so somebody must have liked it at some point, unless that was just a really bad year for literature. Second, it was on my TBR list, and the only way to get a book off the list is to read it. Third, I used a paperbackswap credit to get this copy. You don't want to waste those. They're like gold.

I brought this book with me on our road trip last month and I still didn't manage to read it. But finally this week I decided: It's Time. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I didn't find the novel slow to start at all. Of course I suppose this shouldn't have been unexpected, considering how my tastes in reading differ from Hud's. He'll read the heck out of books about mech warriors or zombies, if that tells you anything.

This is the story of Claude Wheeler, a young Nebraska farm boy whose entire life is a disappointment (to himself, if not to anyone else). He is unfulfilled by every aspect of his existence, and his only passion is for the road not taken. This is not as annoying as it might sound. Claude isn't the sort of person who pessimistically disparages every possible situation; rather, he has been fettered by responsibilities that keep him from the life he was meant to lead--until America joins the Great War. Claude signs up at his first opportunity, and even through the horrors of war he finds meaning and purpose that he could never grasp in the wheat fields back home.

Not only did I find Hud was wrong about the novel's pace, but Cather's writing really shines, and certain parts are stuck in my mind. I was taken with the romantic description of the ocean as Claude travels the Atlantic in those halcyon days before true hardship strikes: " . . . the yellow sky came down evenly, like a gold curtain, on the still sea that seemed to have solidified into a slab of dark blue stone,--not a twinkle on its immobile surface. Across its dusky smoothness were two long smears of pale green, like a robin's egg." Then, again, after the troops are decimated by an influenza epidemic before they reach France, the ocean has changed: "The sun poured over them like flame, without any comfort in it. The strong, curling, foam-crested waves threw off the light like millions of mirrors, and their color was almost more than the eye could bear. The water seemed denser than before, like heavy melted glass, and the foam on the edges of each blue ridge looked sharp as crystals. If a man should fall into them, he would be cut to pieces."

Another poignant portion I feel I will long remember is when Claude comes across a grave marked Soldat Inconnu. His following thoughts are telling: "Most of the boys who fell in this war were unknown, even to themselves. They were too young. They died and took their secret with them,--what they were and what they might have been." Of course, that very same idea applies to anyone who dies before they've really had a chance to live, but in times of war that tragedy is heartbreakingly frequent.

This was my first Willa Cather book, though even before I picked this one up I fully intended to read My Antonia at some point. Now that I know how well-written and un-boring One of Ours is (and I'm talking about a war novel here!), I'm all the more interested in reading her other works.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

"What Dies in Summer" by Tom Wright

Dr. Wright has done it again. Wait, that's a bit of an understatement. What I should say is that Dr. Wright has done it even better. I still think that Blue Falling is a good, tight, well-written story, but it pales in comparison with What Dies in Summer.

In this novel, Wright takes two of the main characters from Blue Falling back to their adolescence. I pity the fool who has to write a synopsis for the back cover of this book without giving too much away. I was grabbed and drawn in to the story from the very first sentence: "I did what I did, and that's on me." From that moment on, with the reader wondering, "But, what did you do, Jim??" the facts are revealed in such a tantalizing manner as Wright spins a story that sustains a delightfully unbearable level of tension. There were times when I could hardly resist jumping up and down, waving my arms around in the air like a frantic monkey, and yelling at the narrator because he knew something and why didn't I know it too?!

Whereas Blue Falling can be simply described as a mystery, What Dies in Summer takes that element of mystery and adds more suspense to become what could be called a thriller. Even better, the book is given additional depth as it is written from the perspective of a boy who teeters on the brink between youth and adulthood. I came to appreciate Jim's astute (and sometimes surprisingly mature) observation of details that might only be noticed by a child.

Each character in this novel is brilliantly crafted and realistic, whether minor or not. Wright's masterful writing propels the reader through the novel with lightning speed, but does not sacrifice depth or meaning. It is without reservation that I label this book as a must-read. (I know. I'm cruel. But surely you will get a chance to read it some day). This is one of the best books I have read in the past year.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

"Blue Falling" by Tom Wright

It may be unfair of me to blog about a book that you have no chance of reading (yet), but I’m too excited about this opportunity I’ve been given to keep from telling you all about it. Through my Super Secret VIP Connections, I have been allowed the chance to preview novels by an as-yet-unpublished author, Dr. Tom Wright, PhD. (Remember that name, folks! If I’m any judge, one of these days you’ll be seeing it at a bookstore near you.)

Out of Wright’s four completed novels, the first that was sent to me is called Blue Falling. It’s a mystery set in the fictional town of Traverton, Texas, which just happens to be found smack-dab in the middle of the non-fictional part of the US where I live. If you could pick up this book and turn it over, you would probably read something like this on the back cover:
"On what at first appears to be just another beautiful country afternoon, retired Texas Ranger O.Z. Royal and ex-cop Jim Bonham are riding fence through the crimson clover on their jointly-owned ranch. Suddenly, their familiar surroundings are disturbed by a small plane that comes in low and crashes in the pasture not far from where they stand. Though their immediate instinct is to aid any survivors, the wreckage quickly blossoms into a fireball that keeps the two men at bay until it is too late. Soon it becomes clear that unexpected clues have been uncovered during the examination of the broken remains. Despite the resistance of his loving and determined wife Jana, Bonham can’t help but be sucked into the whirlwind of an unofficial investigation that becomes more extensive and tangled at every turn."

Blue Falling is tight, well-written, and nicely paced throughout. My connection with the book was not deeply emotional, but that is not what I expect from a mystery novel, anyway. It certainly retained my attention, and the plot was never stagnant. It’s written in a straightforward and chronological manner, with the added interest of believable psychological insight; the author is not only a talented writer--he is also a well-established psychologist.

I think Dr. Wright could easily make Blue Falling the first in a series of books. It has a good cast of strong characters. Sequels could show Bonham as sheriff and O.Z. still working in an unofficial capacity. Even a prequel would work, covering several plot points that are mentioned in this book as having happened previously. This story would also translate well to cinema, although (as usual) quite a few details would likely be left out.

I have no information for you regarding when this novel might become available for your reading pleasure, but I will do my best to keep you updated when I get the scoop. And remember . . . you heard it here first!

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Reading in Retrospect: "Me & Emma" by Elizabeth Flock

Here's a book I read in my pre-blogging days. I picked it up in the library two years ago because the cover was so striking, with such a pretty color of blue in the background. Yup, shiny stuff catches my eye just as you'd expect of a magpie, and I'm not ashamed to admit it.

But there is more to this book than a pretty cover. It's obvious that there is something to a book when a self-professed literary amnesiac can remember it so vividly two years later. In fact, if I had to describe this book in one word, I would say, "WOW."

For the first half of the book I was somewhat horrified--who wants to read about an 8-year-old girl who is sexually and physically abused by her stepfather? But by about halfway through the book I was tangled up in the story and couldn’t put it down. AND THEN there was an explosive surprise towards the end which completely caught me unawares. I never saw it coming. This caused a huge shift in perspective, very similar to what I experienced in watching the ghost-story movie The Others. Once I was given the big revelation in that movie I had to immediately watch the entire thing again, and I saw the whole story in a completely different light. I was tempted to do the same with this book. All day long, after finishing the book, I went over different passages in my mind, realizing what it really meant now that I knew the truth.

Here's a quick summary of the plot that doesn't give anything away: Eight-year-old Caroline “Carrie” Parker lives in poverty in Toast, North Carolina with her distant and somewhat abusive mother, her alcoholic and distinctly abusive stepfather Richard, and her 6-year-old sister named Emma. Carrie’s real father died perhaps 2 years previously at the hands of two men trying to rob their house, as witnessed by Emma. Carrie is having a hard time at school, finding she speaks out loud the thoughts she thinks are only in her head, embarrassing herself often, getting in many fights, and acquiring the nickname “Scary Carrie.”

Carrie's childhood reminds me of that of Jeannette Walls in The Glass Castle. In fact, for anyone who says they liked that book, I always recommend Me & Emma. Likewise, if you couldn't stomach Walls' book, don't bother with Flock's. But, oh, I hope you bother with it.