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

Saturday, December 24, 2011

"The Secret Garden" by Frances Hodgson Burnett

The Secret Garden is a fondly-remembered childhood favorite of mine. At my seventh birthday party, I was given two copies as gifts! I know we returned one of the duplicates, although I don't recall what we exchanged it for, but I would have done well to keep both books, tucking one away for the future; the one I kept is now falling to pieces. But my bookworm child has read that tattered copy. I love it when she not only reads my old favorites, but especially when she reads the very same book I read when I was little.

What's not to love about the story of a young girl, raised in India and recently orphaned, who is shuttled off to her distant uncle's mysterious house at the edge of the English moors? Throw in a sad account about the untimely death of her beautiful aunt, some strange noises blamed on the wind, and a friendly, bright-eyed robin, and my seven-year-old attention was captured.

Sadly, this is another one of those stories that may not hold the same fascination for a reader first coming to it as an adult. If you missed out on reading this when you were young, leaving you unable to nostalgically unearth childhood memories during a re-read, maybe you need to put yourself into the mind of a child as you read it? Otherwise you may find it boring, as Renae (from book club) did. (Oh, yes, I just named you, girl.) But as for me, there are a few passages that can even now elicit a thrill when I read them: one of those would be, of course, when Mary first discovers the forgotten garden.

I'm not sure how many times I've read this book, but it's odd (even for a literary amnesiac) that I didn't remember all the prattle about Magic. How could I so vividly remember the first half of the book while what I recalled of the second half was so vague and shadowy? Maybe because the first half is delectable and the second half is kind of crap. Not that I have a problem with magic. Where would Harry Potter or the Pevensies be without it? Maybe it's just Magic-with-a-capital-M that gives me trouble.

Despite a bit of crap, I love to watch Mary's transformation throughout this story. As the book opens, she is a sour, lonely, and quite contrary little girl; bit by bit, she becomes a kind and thoughtful friend, while still retaining her spunky pride and stubbornness. It's no fun--and not especially believable--when a character begins with nothing but rough edges and ends as a perfect angel, but you won't find that annoying mistake here. Mary's polishing leaves her improved but still undeniably human.

I call this another book to give to all the little girls in your life, so they can love it now and in the years to come!

Monday, October 24, 2011

"World War Z" by Max Brooks

Well, I told you I was going to hate this book. And, what do you know? I was right.

Not only is World War Z (obviously) about war (ugh!) but it is about a zombie war. I don't care for zombies. They're not pretty, they're not witty, they're not fun or clever or admirable. They're not even all that scary when you know how to handle them. So just what good are they, exactly?

Poor Max Brooks was already at a disadvantage with me due to his choice of subject matter, but this was only compounded by the grade-school errors that kept cropping up. Not like I've never made a mistake in my life, but I got annoyed right away by comma abuse (too many in some cases, not enough in others) and a jarring singular/plural mashup in one sentence ("It must have been a heartbreaking irony for those poor peasants, to see their town saved but then only being able to visit it as a tourist." Come on! Either learn to write or get an editor). Stuff like that keeps me from losing myself in the story. By the time I read "that time of the day when it's photovoltaic windows capture the setting sun" I was about ready to put this book out of its misery with one good shot to its brains. If I hadn't already read two thirds of it by that point, I think I would have. (Not to mention the fact that the library probably wouldn't be especially thrilled if I returned this book after an attempted pithing.)

This book is written from the perspective of a journalist conducting interviews with people from all over the world who were involved in fighting off the zombie hordes. In trying to describe every eventuality and cover every facet of the war, Brooks sacrifices the possibility of riveting story arcs that could have made me care about the individual humans involved. There were a few stories that stood out (the blind old Japanese man in the wilderness, the female American pilot lost in Louisiana) but most of the rest of the reports blended together in a nameless, faceless swirl. Even when I knew a character was being revisited, it wasn't often that I remembered where their story left off. And, paradoxically, it was annoying when stories stopped at a cliffhanger and were never picked up again.

In a nutshell: Boy, am I glad that's over. I have quite a feeling of glee as I peruse my TBR shelves, because I have every intention of LOVING the next book I read! Not least because I can assure you it won't have a single zombie in it.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

"Angry Housewives Eating Bon Bons" by Lorna Landvik

"A few years back, when I finally got smart enough to go to a therapist, she asked me how I had held things together all these years. It didn't take long to come up with an answer. 'That's easy. I belong to a book club.'"
This book was loaned to me more than a year ago and has had the misfortune to languish on my shelf ever since, merely due to its cover. The only way it could have looked any less like my kind of book is if they had actually printed "This Book Is Not For Kathy" on the cover. Well, its title wasn't any better. Either the title or the cover alone would say chick lit, but together they screech it like nails on a chalkboard.

But what do you know? I didn't hate this book. It didn't even make me feel like my brains were melting and running out of my ears.

The five housewives in this book weren't really angry (well, not all of the time, anyway) and I don't believe they ever actually ate any bon bons during the story. The name of the book is the same as the tongue-in-cheek name they chose for their book club, which impressively (or perhaps implausibly?) spans three decades. (What do you say, book club girls? Will you all stop talking about moving away so we can still be meeting in 2041?)

I found it disappointing that very little was actually said about the books the Angry Housewives read. The references to each title were unsatisfyingly brief, amounting to little more than name-dropping. But then a lot of the books they read didn't sound that great anyway. And the story was more about the Housewives, their relationships with each other, and the circumstances their families dealt with over the years. The books they read were there as more of a framework instead of the main focus of the story.

Anyway, I guess I've got to (grudgingly) admit that this book wasn't as bad as I expected it to be. I probably wouldn't ever re-read it, but I think I actually enjoyed reading it once. Don't worry about me, though: I'm planning to absolutely hate the next book I read. Because there's only one topic I'm less interested in than chick lit. Can you guess what it is?

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

"This is Where I Leave You" by Jonathan Tropper

I'd heard about this book from several bloggers, though I can't quite recall what it was that convinced me I needed to read it (which is even more true now that I've finished reading). But, though I can't say what first piqued my interest, I found it a good read with (for once) a cast of  characters who aren't quirky just for the sake of being quirky.

Judd Foxman and his siblings are roped into sitting shiva after their father's funeral. ("All seven days? That's hard-core.") Complex family dynamics are rendered comically bizarre by a lack of those emotional filters that aid in smoothing out normal human relationships. It's difficult for the Foxman family members to get along under the best of circumstances, and these aren't the best of circumstances. In their raw emotional state of grief, thrust into close quarters for an extended period of time (which, for this family, is anything longer than five minutes) a variety of eccentric issues bubble to the surface, causing an ever-changing stink worse than Uncle Stan's farts. Oh, and it doesn't help that Judd's wife has just left him. For his boss. And she's pregnant. With Judd's child.

"The past is prelude and the future is a black hole . . . " That's not the most encouraging notion, but if you've ever hurled yourself into the unknown, you know that's exactly what it feels like when all you can do is hope that you won't be stretched out like a mile-long piece of spaghetti, or be compressed into something one-millionth the size of a bedbug's eyeball, or vanish into a singularity. It's much better to think that, though I may not have fourteen grand in a shopping bag, anything can happen.

Monday, October 10, 2011

"All the Sad Young Literary Men" by Keith Gessen

Maybe the title should have clued me in, but this book is kind of depressing. It chronicles vignettes from the lives of Mark, Sam and Keith, three college-educated young men with writerly ambitions. In the first section, the three characters are young and idealistic, their lives ahead of them and the world at their feet, but the reader can somehow sense they are spinning their wheels. The second section finds them feeling like failures, wretched and alone. In the third section, they've all achieved their own blandly homogeneous and hollow happiness because they have . . . settled. I don't think they realized they had settled, but I realized it.

At least each section is depressing for a new reason.

It was too bothersome for me to distinguish between the three main characters. I kept getting their backgrounds and family histories mixed up, and the men themselves seemed to be interchangeable. This made it more difficult for me to invest myself in the story. For example, in Mark's second section, I couldn't for the life of me remember who Leslie was, but I didn't care enough to flip back and find out. (Although, had I been reading this on my Kindle, I think I could have found it in me to expend the effort needed to Search This Book and find where her character was introduced.) Maybe I just didn't pay enough attention, but I began to think this would have been a better book if it had been called "The Sad Young Literary Man" (though maybe that's not quite as catchy a title) and the three main characters had been combined into one.

At the risk of boring you to tears, I will share with you the notes I finally forced myself to take in order to keep the Sad Young Men separate in my mind: Mark Grossman used to be married to Sasha, tried online dating and internet porn, and wants to date Celeste but sleeps with Leslie instead. Sam Mitnick is Jewish, loves Israel, was dating Talia and Arielle at the same time, lost them both, slept with Miss Perfect (Katie) and wrote his name in her book, and is supposed to be writing a great Zionist novel but never does. Keith (Gessen?) idolized a critic named Morris Binkel, spent a summer moving furniture, knows Russian, and roomed with Ferdinand, who dated one of Al Gore's (fictionalized) daughters. Hmmm, they sound fairly different from each other when I list their little bios one after another that way. So maybe it was just me?

Anyway, it's not as if this was a horrible read. I didn't gag on the writing, and it wasn't one of those books I dreaded picking up. It went by quickly enough, and I enjoyed reading it. But I won't be shouting it from the rooftops or pushing my friends to read it. I'm also very glad it only cost $3.97.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Books-A-Million is my Kryptonite . . .

. . . and my kids are fully aware of that fact. One could even say they exploit my weakness. I should know better than to even go in there anymore, especially with my kids.

During my last trip to B-A-M (a post-book-club sortie), I managed to leave without spending any money (a minor miracle!) even though I carried a pair of books around with me for a good long while, fully intending to buy them. I bet the poor things were so disappointed when I put them back on the shelf and left without them.

Tonight, I was not so lucky. Tonight I was not able to resist the inexorable pull of the printed word. Tonight, books were leaping off the shelves left and right, directly into my waiting hands.

First to make the jump: The Railway Children by E. Nesbit. Yes, yes, I know I could have downloaded this onto my Kindle for free. In fact, I probably already have, though I haven't read it yet. But what a cute little Puffin Classic edition, and only $5 (without even being on sale)!

If I'm going to mention E. Nesbit, though, I might as well go on and confess: I don't believe I've ever yet read any of her books. I've been meaning to read something of hers for years, ever since The Magician's Nephew name-dropped the Bastables (though don't ask me how I figured out who the Bastables were. This was long before Google came on the scene). Anyway, I'm planning to LOVE this book, and I might even share it with my children.

The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau quickly followed. I've somehow become convinced that I need to read this entire series, though I can't recall who to credit that notion to. This seems to be an intriguing combination of The Matrix and The Giver. I'd definitely like to engage in a bit of read-the-book/see-the-movie with this one.

THEN I managed to find two books labeled "Buy 1, Get 1 FREE!" and they were both only $2.97! I must admit I selected them with my children in mind (even more so than the previous two), but I have a feeling I will enjoy them as well. First is A Taste for Red by Lewis Harris, a very tongue-in-cheek-sounding story about new sixth-grader Svetlana Grimm, who is afraid she might be a vampire. Yeah, I know, vampires are overdone these days. But an eleven-year-old vampire? That lends a slightly new twist to the trope (if you haven't read Let the Right One In). And I love the cover!

The second book in my BOGO offer was Bad, Bad Darlings: Small but Deadly by Sam Llewellyn. What caught my eye was (yet again!) the cover, not to mention the price tag. But what sold me on the book was the idea of a family of thieves attempting to abandon their old lifestyle. Why on earth shouldn't their first step be to set sail on the good ship Kleptomaniac? Throw in a little bit of a Gilligan's Island situation, and it sounds like something my kids and I can all love.

With four books already in hand, I figured I might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb. So I purposefully tracked down one of the two books I'd narrowly avoided buying a few weeks ago: This is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper. I'm not sure exactly what draws me to this book, but Greg's glowing review didn't hurt. And I'm quite fond of the little tree on the cover.

Too bad I can't remember which other book I'd been planning to buy during my previous B-A-M trip. Actually, it's probably a good thing I couldn't remember, or I would have ended up buying yet another book tonight.

This last book wasn't my selection, but it could have been, based on cover and title alone. Bookworm Child picked out The Last Invisible Boy by Evan Kuhlman. I'm pretty sure I'll be borrowing it when she's through, especially if she gives me her irresistible "You have GOT to read this" line.

I'll spare you the details on the other three books I bought (a HALO book for Oldest Boy and a Scooby Doo zombie book, of all things, for Littlest Girl). I also added a cute little Halloween picture book called The Copycat Costume to the stack.

I did manage to refuse renewal of my B-A-M discount card. I really didn't want to spend $20 to save $5 (though this perspective doesn't take future savings into account). Besides, I probably need to wait long enough for my card to expire again before I go on another book shopping spree!

Monday, October 3, 2011

In which my day is ruined, and then decidedly un-ruined

I have a meandering and slightly bookish story for you. It begins with my friend and fellow book club member Renae, who gave me a card from Starbucks which promised a free download of The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. I have been bombarded by this book (and its beautiful cover!) everywhere I look, so of course I'm curious about it, and hey, free? That's my thing.

So I spent part of Saturday in trying to figure out how to download this book and transfer it to my Kindle so I could (eventually) read it, only to find that, apparently, that won't be possible. If I would join the new decade and buy something from Apple that I could use to read books, I'd be good to go. But for now I'm stuck with a flip phone that thinks I should be impressed because it can take pictures, and I don't see an iPhone or iPad or iPod Touch in my near future. And I gathered that the free download wasn't the entire book anyway--it was just an "extended sample." Not so interested.

MEANWHILE, in the midst of discovering that I won't be able to read The Night Circus (even just part of it) for free after all, I ever-so-gracefully knocked my Kindle off the desk. I keep my Kindle in a great case, but the great case was flapped open, which is a not-so-protective state for it to be in. As it fell, of course my poor Kindle struck the edge of the PC tower, and of course the screen was the part of the Kindle that hit first, and of course this made a weird mark in the (normally amazing and magical) E Ink. And then I found my Kindle was in a coma from which I could not wake it, no matter how many times I tried to slide and release the power switch. I even tried the hold-twenty-seconds-to-reset thing . . . nothing. Just John Steinbeck looking at me accusingly, throat slashed, as if to ask, "What have you done to me?"

Oh dear. What a day. And what now? I mean, other than throwing my former Kindle and current useless trash against the wall? Do I spring for a new Kindle? (At least I timed it well, as the Kindle Touch has just been released.) Or do I do the budget-conscious thing and live a Kindle-less existence, no matter how grudgingly? I must admit I don't use my Kindle that often. Maybe it's just an old habit, but I nearly always reach for a paper book before the Kindle even crosses my mind. But I still have tons of books on my Kindle that I haven't yet read!

Before I gave up on my injured Kindle completely, I had to at least try to google my situation to see if anything could be done. After a bit of research, I came across a forum that recommended calling Amazon to see about a replacement. I'd already noted that their 1-year warranty only covers defects, not damages, so I figured it was a lost cause. Plus, I couldn't remember when I got the thing, but I feared it might have been more than a year ago. But, having nothing to lose, I called anyway.

Lo and behold, I came in just under the wire for the warranty (I'd gotten my Kindle last October 4th!) AND the nice customer service man told me he would send me a replacement! I didn't even have to beg! Amazon saves the day. My replacement Kindle should arrive Wednesday. Kathy is happy.

What have I learned?

  1. The Starbucks free book downloads are only extended samples.
  2. Those samples are DRM-locked .epub files which can't be read on your Kindle. (OR, if they can, tell me how!!)
  3. Don't drop your Kindle face-down on the hard and unyielding edge of a PC tower. (BUT, if you do, call Amazon and tell them your story! As my friend BR says, Amazon has amazing customer service. Use it. Only, don't tell them I sent you, as I'm not sure they would appreciate it.)
  4. Happiness is often merely a matter of perspective.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

"Time Out of Joint" by Philip K. Dick

Here's my second foray into the books of Philip K Dick, author of the novella that served as the basis for the movie Blade Runner. I started to love this book as soon as Vic couldn't find the light cord in the bathroom. Weirdness! It's great! And unexplained weirdness? Even better!

This is the story of semi-loser Ragle Gumm, who lives with his sister Margo and her husband Vic somewhere in 1959 America. Ragle has never accomplished much in life, other than his wildly successful run as winner of a national newspaper contest, but he is content in his lack of ambition. That is, until he begins to find that reality may not be as substantial as he has always assumed.

I truly enjoyed this book. The questions, the fascinatingly illogical hallucinations, the dawning realization that Not Everything Is As It Seems. (Most books with that element tend to be awesome.) The reader is on a quest to discover the truth right alongside Ragle Gumm.

However, the book was not pure awesomeness all the way through. Towards the end, I was distracted by things that rang false. Some elements had changed too much (fashion, speech, money) and others hadn't changed enough (prices, books, computer printouts). I suppose I was too hung up on expecting the world in the book to mirror reality more closely, but why should it?

I also must admit that the very end had me expecting Ragle to make a speech about getting on the spaceship in order to go to Blargon 7 in search of alternative fuels . . . I'm guessing I'm the only one whose mind made that leap, though.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

"Angela's Ashes" by Frank McCourt

"There's nothing like a wake for having a good time." 
That one sentence, for me, sums up the tone of Frank McCourt's entire memoir: optimism, maybe even a bit of wry humor, in the face of depressing needs and desperate situations. Or perhaps it's merely the fact that I've never attended an Irish wake? Maybe they're a whole lot more fun than I can imagine. Whichever it is, this book made me think of a 1940s version of Jeannette Walls' book The Glass Castle, only a whole lot more Irish.

Angela's Ashes is the cure for anyone who thinks their life sucks. If you are reading this, you've got electricity. I'm willing to bet your clothes are relatively clean and decent, and (especially if you're an American like me) you're probably not very hungry. (Yeah, I'm talking to you! Put down the Cheetos!) In fact, Angela would say that we "don't have a notion of not having." But even in their constant state of want, there were still times the McCourt family managed to help those less fortunate, because "there are always people worse off and we can surely spare a little from what we have." It was mind-boggling enough that there were people less fortunate, but even more amazing to see the generosity of those who had so little to begin with.

I appreciated the fact that, even though his childhood was filled with hard times occasionally interrupted by harder times, McCourt doesn't seek to put his readers to shame. (I put myself to shame while reading his book, but that's not the author's fault.) He doesn't beg for sympathy or try to make his readers feel guilty for having too much or not giving enough. He's just telling it like . . . 'tis.

It's also intriguing to watch as McCourt develops his writing skills throughout his childhood. It's evident that he had an innate talent that was strong enough to survive abject poverty, and an imagination untouched by his harsh surroundings: "It's lovely to know the world can't interfere with the inside of your head." I'm not sure I agree with that, as the world seems to be messing with my head on a regular basis, but somehow McCourt made it through a much more difficult life than mine with minimal apparent damage.

Maybe I'm just a dummy, but I couldn't figure out why this book was entitled Angela's Ashes. The entire time I was reading, I was expecting Angela (the author's mother) to die, but she managed to hang on the whole way through. Oh, um, spoiler. So I've looked it up in order to enlighten you. Apparently the follow-up book, 'Tis, which was originally tacked on to the end of this book, concludes with the scattering of Angela's ashes. (Yep, that's another spoiler.) And Angela's Ashes concludes with the word 'tis. So there's a sort of symmetry there . . . although it still doesn't quite make sense to me. Shouldn't it have been the other way around?

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

"Speak" by Laurie Halse Anderson

"When people don't express themselves, they die one piece at a time. You'd be shocked at how many adults are really dead inside--walking through their days with no idea who they are, just waiting for a heart attack or cancer or a Mack truck to come along and finish the job. It's the saddest thing I know."

I'm about to express myself. Madonna, eat your heart out!

I watched the movie version of this story before I even realized it was a book adaptation, but then I started hearing all kinds of good things about the book from other bloggers. I have been known to be a tad, shall we say, disparaging towards YA fiction. But as impressed as I was with the movie, I figured surely the source material couldn't be all bad. And when I saw this in the book section at Target (I was hardly even looking at the books, I swear!) it just sort of leaped off the shelf and into my hands, whispering, "Take me home with you." So I did. (Don't worry, I paid for it first.)

On the surface, Speak is kind of like a cross between the movie Heathers (only with less of its midnight black and razor sharp humor, and with fewer Heathers) and The Perks of Being a Wallflower, with the Angst-Causing Teen Issues whittled down from every single possible traumatic life experience to one or two. In case it's unclear to you, that's not a bad combination. Where Heathers may be a bit silly and unlikely (though still awesome!), Speak is steeped in reality. Melinda Sordino could be any girl in any high school in any state in America. That is, any girl with a Big Secret she finds so shameful that she doesn't feel like she can talk about it to anyone.

At just under 200 pages, of course I zipped through Speak, though the excellent writing and absorbing plot didn't hurt a bit in that respect. The book didn't quite reach critical mass for me, but I bet if I hadn't already learned Melinda's Big Secret while watching the movie, I would have found myself the prisoner of an inexorable Chain Reaction of Curiosity, rendering me incapable of putting the book down. You know how I feel about secrets! They drive me bonkers, and I can not rest until I have ferreted out every detail.

I won't tell you what Melinda's Big Secret was, on the off chance that this will leave you able to enter into your own Chain Reaction of Curiosity as you read, but I will mention that (as a result of the secret) Melinda sinks into a depression that consumes her for most of her freshman year of high school. That's not to say that the book itself is depressing. It can be heartwrenching, but it's not a complete downer. Sometimes it's even funny (though, as I mentioned, not Heathers-funny) in a wry and subdued way. And Anderson nails the teenage voice.

Although I am labeling Speak as "not suitable for children . . . or my mom," I do think my mother could probably handle this one. As could the average high school student. I mainly have my 8-year-old daughter in mind when applying this label. She's not ready for it yet.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

"Dust and Shadow: An Account of the Ripper Killings by Dr. John H. Watson" by Lyndsay Faye

Remember when I told you I'd bought this book? Not surprisingly for a story that stirs together Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper, it managed to leapfrog itself over my insane TBR stack. (Which, by the way, is no longer a stack! My books TBR are now shelved and acting civilized! But I know better.) Dust and Shadow landed in the Top Priority Spot due to high hopes and expectations.

Despite my eager drooling, before I began reading I worried just a bit that the author might have bastardized the immortal duo of Holmes and Watson the way this movie did. (I still haven't recovered from that.) But I'm happy to report I shouldn't have bitten my nails over it. I was quite impressed by the way that Faye managed to replicate the tone and characters of Conan Doyle's stories.

Of course, you should take my pronouncement with a grain of salt (or perhaps a pinch of tobacco from the toe of a Persian slipper). I am no Sherlockian scholar. But (though it's been a while) I have read a few Holmes stories, and this one seemed to fall right in line with my memory of the original Sherlock.

I'm sure it's no shock that my astronomical expectations weren't quite satisfied. I was hoping for greatness and didn't find it, but I can handle the fact that what I got was, instead, a solidly good book. In fact, it rated high on my Agatha Christie scale. (Finally!) However, I must admit I anticipated a slightly greater degree of cleverness from Holmes. He wasn't stupid, of course, but he didn't blow my mind, either. So, nine points out of ten for conforming to the original standard, five out of ten for originality in resolution of the mystery, and fifty-three out of ten for such an enticing story idea!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

"Gone" by Michael Grant

Here's a book that would make a great movie. That's not necessarily an insult, but it's not breathless approval, either. It means Gone has an intriguing premise and plenty of action, but reading it doesn't require deep thought (or even much shallow thought) and it doesn't have much in the way of character development.

This is the idea behind the book: One normal November day in Perdido Beach, California, students at the local school are shocked to see everyone over the age of fourteen disappear in an instant. Gone is the story of how a town full of children deals with a new life of sudden anarchy. Oh, and matters are complicated when some of the kids discover that they have superpowers . . .

So. Nice story idea, but I found myself a bit indifferent to the result. It didn't help that this book never reached critical mass. In fact, I put it down last night with only twenty pages to go, if that tells you anything. But don't start thinking I'm trying to say this book was horrible, because it wasn't. I didn't have to choke it down, and it wasn't boring. I bet those who love YA and dystopian fiction would find this a good one, but I suppose it's just not my thing. I would describe it as fun and superficial. Not that I have anything against fun! I like fun. But while I'm OK with movies that are pure fun, I appreciate a bit more meat when I'm choosing books.

I have a feeling lots of rabid fans (and maybe even the rest of the girls in my book club) will be shocked to hear this, but I'm only minimally interested in what happens throughout the rest of the series. I was curious enough that I read a brief outline of the plots, but not interested enough to buy (or even borrow) the subsequent books and actually *read* them. There are far too many other books that sound more interesting to me. I'll leave the remainder of this series to people who are younger than I am.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

How I happen to have purchased Even More Books

Each of my kids recently lucked into a tidy sum of money. Five whole dollars! I offered them a trip to Books-A-Million, and promised I would make up the difference if they each chose one book to buy. A much better idea than buying $5 toys, don't you think?

I hadn't planned to buy any books for myself (for goodness' sake, I have an embarrassing number of unread books on my shelves already, and I am trying to curb my spending) but then I realized I hadn't purchased my August book club selection yet. And of course book club books are a necessity, so they don't count when there's spending-curbing going on.

When I found a copy of Gone (Charity, it's way fatter than I expected it to be!) it had one of these lovely stickers on it:

So of course I HAD to at least look for two more books with the same sticker. I mean, FREE BOOK! Need I say more?

So. I'd gone from "buying no books for myself" to "looking for more." You know me. The first place I headed was the bargain aisle. Yes, I know they never put the aforementioned stickers on the bargain books. But they do put these stickers on them:

You've got to admit, if you're anything like me, that makes a book awfully tempting. And, surprise surprise, something caught my eye. It was this title:

Which reminded me of this book:

Although, now that I look at it again, I'm not sure why it should have. The only real similarity is that the title is slanted at the same approximate angle. But still! The book had caught my eye.

And what should appear directly below the eye-catching title? These words: An Account of the Ripper Killings by Dr. John H. Watson. Oooh! The Ripper Killings? As in Jack the Ripper? As in one of history's most intriguing mysteries? AND . . . by the Dr. Watson? Of Holmes and Watson fame? It just kept getting better and better. I HAD TO HAVE THIS BOOK.

My bookworm daughter didn't understand. Why was I getting two books for myself when she was getting only one? (Never mind that my two together cost less than her one.) My son told me I shouldn't judge a book by its cover. I said, "I didn't! I judged it by the title and the blurb!" He gave me an odd look, then reminded me, "Those are on the cover." Oops. Busted by an eleven-year-old. It's OK, though, because I quit after two. I know my limits.

I just now realized I did not follow through with my usual book-buying procedure. I didn't crack Dust and Shadow open to a random page to make sure the writing doesn't suck. And now that I've gotten the book home, I'm almost afraid to look. I'd rather hang on to the promise of an amazing story in hopes that I won't be disappointed. Along with the hope that I won't have to make my kids eat their books for dinner any time soon, or burn them for fuel next winter. (Don't worry, it's really not that bad. Yet. At least not until my next trip to Books-A-Million.)

P.S. My youngest, blissfully oblivious to my unfair double purchase and cover-judging, had this to say at the bookstore: "I want to stay here for the rest of my life." Me too, baby! Do you think they would let us?

Thursday, June 2, 2011

"The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare" by G. K. Chesterton

Curses! I read this book weeks ago and I'm just now blogging about it. That's never good. I remember that I enjoyed reading it, but that doesn't help much. I remember thinking it was a (nearly) perfect story for me, which is always nice. (It was only nearly perfect because somewhere about the middle it devolved into a surreal chase scene, which kind of lost my interest, but it picked up again after that.) I remember I was fascinated by the utter strangeness of it.

But beyond that my memory gets a bit sketchy. My vague recollection is that this is the story of two poets: Lucian Gregory, an anarchist hiding in plain sight; and Gabriel Syme, recruited by Scotland Yard to pose as an anarchist and infiltrate the secretive (and oxymoronic) Central Anarchist Council under the code name Thursday.

The story alone is quite entertaining, but Chesterton adds some interesting statements about the nature of the apparent chaos of the universe. Contrary to what anarchists and existentialists would have us believe, Chesterton makes the point that mere chance doesn't have any real bearing on our lives--that all life is dictated by divinely inspired order.

And that's as far as my memory goes (without delving into spoilers, anyway). Not much of a review, I know, but it's the best a literary amnesiac can do. At least I can leave you with a couple of quotes that struck me by their peculiar expressiveness:

"The young man with the long, auburn hair and the impudent face--that young man was not really a poet; but surely he was a poem."

"This particular evening, if it is remembered for nothing else, will be remembered in that place for its strange sunset. It looked like the end of the world."

Monday, May 30, 2011

"Perfume: The Story of a Murderer" by Patrick Süskind

Jean-Baptiste Grenouille begins life as an unwanted baby boy in 18th century Paris. As he grows, he doesn't develop a conscience or an ethical set of values, but he does have the most amazingly well-developed sense of smell, allowing him to parse out thousands of individual scents. Lacking a moral compass along with any sort of body odor, Grenouille's ambition to create the ultimate perfume drives him to the murder of sweet innocent virgins.

Am I the only person in the world who thought this book was just a little bit ridiculous? I could handle the unscented boy with the most sensitive and talented olfactory nerves in the world, but there was a bit too much implausibility heaped on top of that. By the time I got to the (um, spoiler?) scent-induced town-wide orgy, I just had to laugh at how silly it all was. Maybe that's because I've never had the chance to participate in a town-wide orgy myself, scent-induced or no. But maybe that's because the concept is a bit too far-fetched.

In addition to the aforementioned need to suspend more disbelief than I found possible, there was not much in the way of character development. And I just have to mention that adult ticks have eight legs, not six. (Don't most people know this?) But I couldn't fault the writing, and the story itself was interesting (without ever reaching critical mass) and certainly unique.

The best part of this book may be the inscription I found in my used copy. Some poor sap wrote (among other things): "Behind the fascinating murder story is the notion that we are attracted to people not for their physical attributes or for their deep intellect, but for their 'fragrance' which we perceive unconsciously. Maybe I'm odd, but I find this concept somewhat sexy." And then the girl he gave it to sold the book. Guess she didn't like the way he smelled.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

"The Giver" by Lois Lowry

The kids and I read The Giver as a bedtime story over the past few weeks. My oldest child couldn't stand the slow pace and read ahead, finishing the book weeks ago. I love it when that happens! Though it very rarely does. The only problem with that is, as with Holes by Louis Sachar, sometimes I don't end up finishing the book myself. But I finished this one!

The Giver is the story of eleven-year-old Jonas, who lives in a perfect community pervaded by Sameness. Everyone is equal, there is no pain, each person's job is chosen for them--even family members are put together through a selection process!--and there is no music, no color, and no emotion. Jonas is selected to be the community's Receiver of Memory, and the more he learns, the more he realizes that his way of life is far from flawless; it's more dystopian than utopian.

The story left me with a lot of unanswered questions. We never learn how the community came to be, its location (was it on Earth?), how extensive it was, why it was made, who created the rules, how they controlled the weather, whether Elsewhere really existed. Though I wish the book had explained these things, I must admit the story is full and complete even without further elucidation.

Except for the end of the book, which I want to talk about. I will try to be as un-spoilery as possible, but it's going to be difficult, so you may want to skip this paragraph if you plan to read the book. I won't say exactly what happened at the end, but I will say that it is somewhat ambiguous. I asked my kids what they thought had happened. My oldest took it at face value: Jonas reached his destination. Bookworm Child was ambivalent: maybe Jonas reached Elsewhere, or maybe he had gone in a circle and was back at his own community. Neither of them thought what had crossed my mind, though, which was the story of The Little Match Girl.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

"I have just the thing for you!"

As lovely as it is to have a bookworm for a child, it can be a bit frustrating when said child is both a voracious and a very picky reader. The "I don't know what I want to read" dilemma is a problem I love to solve, except when everything that I suggest is rejected.

Last night at bedtime, when the unending What To Read whine started up again, I was thrilled to be able to tell Bookworm Child, "I have just the thing for you!" I pulled a cute pink book out of the middle of my TBR pile and handed it to her: The Princess Diaries by Meg Cabot. I could tell by the gleam in her eye that she was immediately optimistic about this one. She ambled obediently off to bed, new treasure in her hands.

Bookworm Child got up before her alarm went off this morning and came to find me, informing me that she was almost finished with her book. My first question: "Did you SLEEP last night?" With a wry grin she assured me that she had. Of course, I was glad she'd enjoyed the book, but that also meant my book selection success was far too short-lived.

I tried for a longer one this time: I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. I've heard wonderful things about it, though I haven't yet had a chance to read it myself. But no dice. Maybe she'll enjoy it more in a few years.

Meanwhile, BC is busy with the next book in Cabot's series, soon to be followed by #3 and #4. AND I have two other books waiting in the wings for her:

The Penderwicks at Point Mouette by Jeanne Birdsall. We've all read the first two books in the series. They're sweet and timeless stories, though I think I've always been more enthralled by the covers than by what's inside the book. This new cover is no exception.

And, yes, yet another book I chose because of its cover: Horton Halfpott by Tom Angleberger. Well, it was a combination of the cover and the ridiculously long subtitle: The Fiendish Mystery of Smugwick Manor or The Loosening of M'Lady Luggertuck's Corset. Who could resist? Not me, anyway.

Monday, May 23, 2011

"My Name is Memory" by Ann Brashares

I'm going to have to be more careful about what I put on my wish list. This book screams
(I can already picture the movie version. Alex Pettyfer will star.) Not only do I dislike books that scream at me--a whisper is much nicer--but Twilight? What a thing to aspire to. Although I suppose it's relatively easy to understand how an author might want to emulate Stephenie Meyer in hopes of a career that follows the same trajectory as hers.

This is the story of Lucy and Daniel and their eternal looooohgve. (Sorry, I gagged on that.) These two have spent centuries of lifetimes in near misses, with Daniel (and his exceptional memory, hence the title) pursuing Lucy (a.k.a. Sophia, and sometimes Constance) through a series of reincarnations. Which, of course, never quite match up well enough for a romance, until they meet in high school in 2004 and finally Lucy isn't married to Daniel's brother, or 80 years older than he is. I guess this is the sort of book people are talking about when they refer to a "paranormal romance." Romance! Why didn't someone warn me?

I should have known this book might not be for me--the author also wrote the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants books. But this one was supposed to be for grown-ups!  However, a book doesn't become a book for adults just by having one of your characters drink bourbon and say a few rude words. With some not-so-careful editing, this would have been yet another example of the drivel that is being published for teenagers these days.

Especially towards the end, I was ever-more-frequently telling myself THIS IS SO STUPID. And yet . . . I kept reading. I mean, I kind of feel obligated to finish my Book Club books. But I also must admit I had to find out what was going to happen. The story wasn't necessarily compelling, but it was interesting enough. And I literally gasped aloud (I probably even raised my eyebrows) when I figured out why Lucy was so uncomfortable with Daniel after he came back, so I suppose I was invested in the narrative to some extent.

If you plan to read this book, you must be warned that it ends without a resolution, leaving the story wide open for a sequel. Which, as far as I can tell, hasn't been written yet. So if that sort of thing bothers you, step away from the novel.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

"Leave Her to Heaven" by Ben Ames Williams

I first heard about this book from Lesa, who has seen the "creepy suspense film" adaptation from 1945, but hasn't read the book. She asked me to nab a copy for her if I saw it, so . . . I did! And, of course, I read it before sending it to her.

This is the story of an unbelievably possessive and manipulative young woman named Ellen Berent. She sets her sights on author Richard Harland almost as soon as she meets him, contriving to marry him in the space of two weeks. Her destructive jealousy leaves no room for relationships with other people, including Richard's younger brother or Ellen's own adopted sister. The story is suspenseful and steeped in mystery, leading the reader to guess what increasingly cold and calculating steps Ellen will take to keep Richard to herself.

From the beginning, Williams' writing reminded me of Jack London's with its no-frills, straightforward story in an outdoorsy setting (also because it kind of dragged at times); but as the story went on, it made me think of Richard Adams' The Girl in a Swing, only with Americans instead of Brits. And Richard Harland is nowhere near as fey and oblivious as Alan Desland. But Ellen is certainly a mirror image of Käthe (or Karin)--perhaps even more abominable and less plausible.

In all, it was a decent (though certainly not overwhelmingly brilliant) read. I have a feeling the movie may be better than the book.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Hey, want a free book?

Hearts and Minds is a campus novel set in a fictional all-female college at Cambridge University. Rosy Thornton has written a story centered on the conflict experienced (and caused) by St Radegund's first male Head of House, giving a glimpse into the inner workings of the college. From student protests to ethical dilemmas regarding donations, Ms Thornton paints a picture of a setting she knows well as a lecturer and Fellow at Emmanuel College, Cambridge.

I've got a copy of this book that I'd love to give away to YOU. Just leave a comment with your email address and I will choose a random winner on Sunday, May 22. It doesn't matter where you live--anyone is welcome to sign up to win.

If you're feeling extra chatty, you should also tell me about the book that was your most favorite read of the past year.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

"84, Charing Cross Road" by Helene Hanff

This is the charming (and true!) account of the correspondence between an American woman and the staff of a British bookshop, which I heard about here. First published in 1970, it is an epistolary novel that begins in 1949 and spans twenty years.

The majority of the letters focus on the titles of books Helene Hanff (the American) hopes to buy--quite an eclectic selection!--though everything from baseball to royalty is worked in along the way. It may not be the most eventful book I've ever read, but somehow it's still engaging all the way through, managing to draw the reader in easily. And it's really short, so it just flies by.

One of the most interesting things about this book is the difference between the American and the British voice. From the very beginning, Helene writes to Marks & Co with a bold familiarity couched in humor and mild, good-natured castigation, whereas the British writers (most often represented by Frank Doel) are very business-like and proper at the beginning, slowly warming up to Miss Hanff as the book goes on.

In 1973 Hanff published a follow-up memoir entitled The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street. Have you read it?

Monday, April 18, 2011

"A Thousand Splendid Suns" by Khaled Hosseini

I read Hosseini's first novel, The Kite Runner, in February 2005. (Pretty sharp memory for a literary amnesiac, eh? Well, it helps when I have something to tie it to, like my friend CR . . . have I really not seen her for more than six years??)

For me, The Kite Runner was a lot like the movie Saving Private Ryan: very well done, but I never want to see it again. (I really didn't even want to see it the first time but I was forced to.) Too much horribleness for me. So when I heard about A Thousand Splendid Suns, I wasn't especially interested in reading it. I'd had enough of Hosseini's Afghanistan, no matter how good I heard the book was.

Then it was chosen for book club. Oh joy. (It wasn't my month to pick the book, can you tell?)

As it turns out, though, I'm glad to have read Suns. It wasn't as unpleasant as I'd been expecting. It's the story of two Afghan women, Mariam and Laila, and the ties between them. Conflict in their personal lives is set against the backdrop of the constant turmoil in their country.

Sure, the story has its share of nastiness and brutality, but you know what the difference was between this book and Hosseini's first one? In The Kite Runner (as with Saving Private Ryan) so much of the cruelty--during the parts that stand out in my memory, anyway--was intentional. People did awful things to other people, and they did those things on purpose.

But in Suns the majority of the awfulness was just part of the situation in Afghanistan.  It was cloaked, in a way, by the anonymity of modern war. That's not to say there was no personally-directed viciousness, because there's quite a lot of horrifying Taliban-sanctioned oppression and abuse of women. But there was more of a sense of hope, and of the strength that helped these people through terrible situations. At the core of the book is this truth: "Every Afghan story is marked by death and loss and unimaginable grief. And yet people find a way to survive, to go on."

I can't help but wonder what the Taliban have against parakeets.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

"Love in the Time of Cholera" by Gabriel García Márquez

Human beings are not born once and for all on the day their mothers give birth to them, but life obliges them over and over again to give birth to themselves.

That quote could apply quite well to Florentino Ariza's love for Fermina Daza, which he keeps alive through constant rebirth for over half a century. Too bad I didn't like Fermina, and I sure didn't care for Florentino. I didn't even enjoy their love story after its first few years. I ended up rather unimpressed by Florentino's persistence and pseudo-fidelity. But there must be some sort of synergy at work, because it's still a really good book.

One major advantage the book has is its writing, which is absolutely beautiful (and I must give kudos to translator Edith Grossman, who did a brilliant job). García Márquez's lush descriptions are incredibly vivid and expressive, and his characters--though often possessing an almost Dickensian grotesqueness--are somehow also intensely lifelike. This book is meant to be savored, based on the writing alone.

Judging by the book's title, I was sure both love and cholera would play a big role in the story, but cholera is only mentioned around the periphery. It's really all about love. It could have been called Love is a Disease like Cholera, though. García Márquez examines a remarkable array of love relationships with an odd sort of realism and honesty, never idealizing any romance for very long.

The story was not quite what I expected (as I expected the chronicle of a heroic and tragic love story that spans decades . . . well, I got the "spans decades" part right, anyway) but what I discovered instead is  well able to stand on its own merit.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

"The New York Trilogy" by Paul Auster

Between the siren song of my garden during this beautiful spring weather, and unexpectedly finding the wind knocked out of me more than once during the time I was reading it, I fear I've made the mistake of waiting too long to post about Paul Auster's New York Trilogy. If my thoughts were chaotic and disorganized upon completing the book, my literary amnesia has done nothing towards unifying them in the space of a week. It doesn't help that the stories have already begun to fade from my memory.

While my procrastination might be unfortunate in any case, it's quite a shame with this specific book, because it was AMAZING. I do remember that much.

This trilogy contains three novellas, each set in New York City. (Would you ever have guessed?) The stories are not obviously related in the sense of belonging together as a series, but there are tenuous links between the characters from one story to the next, and the similarities in themes are conspicuous.

In each story Auster gives us a sense of a writer who is isolated from those surrounding him, living as a quiet spectator rather than a participant. All three novellas are mysterious, but they can't be considered mysteries in the traditional sense. As Auster himself puts it, “Mystery novels give answers; my work is about asking questions.” Though each of the three stories could stand alone, they are well-matched in theme with a main character in the midst of an investigation, writing down all of his observations as his obsession with his subject grows. Auster examines solitude and the introspection it invites, dissolution of identity, and descent into madness.

This book is definitely a keeper. I certainly will want to re-read it some day. You'll find it lacking if you're a reader who needs all the answers, but for me it was an entirely satisfying read. And if you've read and loved this trilogy, you should really read The Amnesiac. It's a similarly mysterious story with more questions than answers, but it's also more fully developed than these three novellas of Auster's, and its comparably ambiguous ending is carried off more effectively.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Words of the Day

Dictionary Day! It's back by popular demand. (Not really, but I've had some words lying around waiting for me to look them up and I figured now was as good a time as any.) Well, leave it to Edith Wharton to come up with another handful of words I don't know. The first three are all from Madame de Treymes:

1. Escutcheon. "There must be no scandal, no retentissement, nothing which her boy, necessarily brought up in the French tradition of scrupulously preserved appearances, could afterward regard as the faintest blur on his much-quartered escutcheon." It kind of makes me think of "listen" in Spanish, but that doesn't make sense. Maybe it means reputation. Webster says: A defined area on which armorial bearings are displayed and which usually consists of a shield. Um, I was wrong. No points.

2. Propinquity. "Propinquity had not been lacking: he had known Miss Frisbee since his college days." Opportunity? Later, the same word is used again: "Mr. Boykin, at this point, advanced across the wide expanse of Aubusson on which his wife and Durham were islanded in a state of propinquity without privacy." That sounds more like proximity. Webster says: Nearness of blood: kinship; nearness in place or time: proximity. One great big fat shiny point for me!

3. Redoubtable. "Durham identified the slender dark lady loitering negligently in the background, and introduced in a comprehensive murmur to the American group, as the redoubtable sister-in-law to whom he had declared himself ready to throw down his challenge. There was nothing very redoubtable about Madame de Treymes, except perhaps the kindly yet critical observation which she bestowed on her sister-in-law's visitors." Formidable? Webster says: Causing fear or alarm: formidable. Would you look at that. Two in a row!

These last two are from Lucrezia Borgia:

4. Inimical. "'It does not seem to me to be apt to tell him absolutely that we do not wish it: because such a hostile response would make him most inimical towards us . . . '" At first I was thinking "inimitable" (matchless), but this is different. It must mean something similar to hostile. Webster says: Being adverse often by reason of hostility or malevolence. I'm on a roll! That makes three.

5. Tergiversation "But the time for tergiversation was over: by early July, Ercole had lain down his arms and accepted his--and Alfonso's--fate." OK, is it just me or does that word sound totally made up? By context, I think it's like rebellion. Webster says: Evasion of straightforward action or clear-cut statement; equivocation; desertion of a cause, party, or faith. Hm, more subtle than outright rebellion. I would normally try to sneak a fraction of a point here but I already have three good ones and that's enough for today.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

"Coraline" by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman is sick and twisted and I love it.

I've wanted to read this book ever since I watched the flippin' WEIRD Tim Burton-esque movie with my kids. I finally ordered a copy of the book last week. Bookworm Child read it as soon as it arrived, and since it passed her test (and wasn't about rainbows and unicorns) I thought it might be pretty good.

Coraline Jones is the only child of less-than-doting parents. Her mom and dad love her, but they're always so busy that they mostly just ignore her. In fact, no one around Coraline pays her much attention. Her neighbors can't even get her name right, no matter how many times she corrects them.

Left to her own devices, Coraline spends most of the damp and dreary summer exploring in and around the old house they've moved into. Her neighbors are a bit strange, but they're nothing compared to what Coraline finds at the end of a cold and musty hallway: her Other Mother, who wants Coraline to stay with her forever, if only she can sew big shiny black buttons in place of Coraline's eyes.

Just like the other Gaiman book I read, this one is brimful of bizarre atmosphere. I mean, it didn't creep me out or give my seven-year-old nightmares, but some weird stuff goes on, and it's great. The story is very short and simply told--Gaiman could have gone into much more detail and not lost my approval--but the way it's written is perfect for kids. Some kids, anyway. You may want to check it out first, depending on your own child's sensitivity to weirdness.

It's funny--I got the exact same thing from my husband and my son: "Why are you reading that book? We have the movie." Well, you know how it is. Sometimes you're just curious about the source. Or sometimes you'd just prefer to read. Bookworm Child resolutely decided that the book was better than the movie. Either way, it's a fun and unique story. But, having experienced both renderings, I can affirm they've done an excellent job with the movie. They retained the perfect mood, didn't leave out any good bits, and really added to the story with the stunning visuals.

One of these days I'll get around to reading one of Gaiman's books for grown-ups. Which one should I start with?

Monday, March 21, 2011

"Falling Angels" by Tracy Chevalier

Eight months, eight book club meetings, eight books. We finally found one that we all liked! Everything about this one was great--the writing, the story, the characters (even the ones I didn't like very much).

I loved Chevalier's Girl With a Pearl Earring (and, surprisingly, the movie was really good too). Renae started reading Falling Angels before I picked it up, and I was so excited when she said she got hooked really quickly. Although maybe I was just hearing what I wanted to hear, because what Renae had actually said was, "The beginning certainly grabbed my attention--shocking!!" But, you know, shocking can be good too. In books, anyway.

This is the story of two English families making their way into the freshly-hatched Edwardian era in London. At first, the only things the Coleman and Waterhouse families have in common are their adjacent plots in the cemetery (which is never named but was surely modeled after Highgate). Over time, the links between the two families grow more numerous and less tenuous, to the delight of certain family members and the chagrin of others.

About halfway through the story, women's suffrage became a strong theme (which was, oddly, dropped before the end of the book--I thought at least Chevalier might have included a little bit of history in an Afterword to wrap up that part of the plot . . . I guess she figured I ought to know already). Since you won't get it from the book, here's a refresher course for you: In 1918 (eight years after the end of Falling Angels) full voting rights were given to British women aged 30 and above; ten years later, this was extended to women aged 21 and up. This timeline is closely mirrored in the US, as American women were given the vote with the 19th amendment in 1920.

Anyway, I guess I can understand why Chevalier didn't emphasize suffrage more evenly throughout the book. Relating the history of the suffragettes really wasn't the purpose of the story; the cause was merely an outlet for Kitty Coleman's passion and zeal.

Do yourself a favor: if you haven't read anything by Tracy Chevalier yet, pick up something of hers soon. Yeah, I've only read two of her books, but they were two really REALLY good books. Surely that's not just a fluke.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

"The Girl in a Swing" by Richard Adams

You think you don't know Richard Adams, but YOU DO. You've read Watership Down, right? And that was by . . . (I'll wait for it) . . . yes! Richard Adams. See, I knew you knew him. If the fact that he was not a one-hit wonder is news to you, don't feel so bad; I didn't know it either, until Ben told me.

Alan Desland lives a perfectly satisfactory life as a mildly successful ceramics dealer in a quiet English town. His passion--if it can be called that--is for his lovely, fragile figurines and tea sets. What he doesn't realize is that what he's always accepted as happiness is actually equivalent to being chained to the wall in Plato's cave.

Alan's eyes are simultaneously opened and blinded on the day he is released from his cave: the day in Copenhagen when he meets a young German woman named Käthe (or maybe Karin, depending on when your copy of the book was published). She's captivating and alluring and is the most beautiful woman Alan has ever seen. And, what do you know? She actually falls for him, too.

But this is not a sweet, happy, fun love story. (And a good thing, too, or I probably would have hated it.) There's a dark, eerie undercurrent of secrets that slowly becomes clear to the reader, who then watches this realization dawn on Alan through a series of creepy psychic manifestations.

I guessed Käthe's secret long before I think I was supposed to--certainly well before Alan figured it out--but that didn't ruin the story for me at all. Even though, as Elvis put it, "the imagery and omens became almost oppressively obvious" as the story went on, the climactic scene where Alan's fears are confirmed was still spine-chilling enough for me even though it wasn't a surprise. This is a book that definitely reached "critical mass", and that's always welcome.

Between Watership Down and The Girl in a Swing, Richard Adams is now two for two with me. I'm ready to put another of his books on my bloated TBR list, and Ben recommends The Plague Dogs next. There was also a film adaptation of The Girl in 1988, which I probably won't be watching because it's not available through netflix. Have you seen it, or have you read any other books by Adams?

Monday, March 14, 2011

"What-the-Dickens: The Story of a Rogue Tooth Fairy" by Gregory Maguire

My experience with Gregory Maguire has been somewhat hit-or-miss, but as it's been more hit than miss, I was happy to give What-the-Dickens a try when Lydia told me the Kindle version was selling for cheap.

I must say this story couldn't have been more different from the other tooth fairy book I read. It's also quite a departure for Maguire (judging by the three of his that I'm familiar with, anyway). It's a fairy tale without any Grimm elements and, really, a very mild story throughout.

It begins with shades of The Island at the End of the World. A small family group is isolated by an apocalyptic storm, and its effects are slowly revealed throughout the book. But the resemblance doesn't go any further than that.

The tooth fairy bit is worked in as a tale told by Gage, the adult in charge, to keep the minds of the children off of the frightening storm. The story he tells is imaginative, and it leaves the reader with a nice little "could it be true?" feeling. But if you know Maguire and you're looking for the weird, the wild, or the nasty, you won't find it here.

For what it is, it's a sweet little story. I bet Bookworm Child would love it.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

"The Book Thief" by Markus Zusak

"I am haunted by humans."

I've been curious about this book for quite some time. I first noticed it in the book section at Target. I remember I picked it up to glance through it after the title caught my eye, but I don't remember why I decided against buying it at that point; probably because the blurb mentioned World War II. (It's a war book! Get out the garlic and the crucifix!) But I heard such good things about it from other bloggers. When I saw a copy in my local library last week, that sealed the deal. It was fate.

Death tells the story of Liesel Meminger, a young German girl living with foster parents on Himmel Street in Molching. At the age of ten, Liesel should know how to read, but she doesn't. Even so, books are already a treasure to her. It's as if she knows the role they will play in her future. So she steals books to add to her meager collection any time the opportunity presents itself.

During her years on Himmel Street, so many of Liesel's experiences are tainted by the war going on around her. Not surprisingly, her story has its share of sorrow. It's not a manipulative tearjerker, but even the heartless will find their eyes welling up at least once while reading this book. (I should know.) As Liesel slowly learns to read her cherished books, she reaps the understanding that words are powerful. Words can hurt and words can heal.

Speaking of words, Zusak had Death describing things in intriguing ways. He mixed up his senses. Things he saw had a scent, things he heard had a texture. I always like to come across fresh combinations of words, and these seemed fitting for a character who isn't human but spends quite a bit of time observing us.

This was another book that raised the question: is it YA or not? (It was first published in Australia for adults, but it has been marketed to young adults here in the US.) The format and the tone, to me, say it's YA. Not to mention that the main characters are young teenagers. But labeling this book as YA does not mean it's of lower quality, or that it softens the horrible reality of life in Nazi Germany. Anyway, I'm beginning to suspect some of the best books aren't written with the intention of being either YA or adult. Instead, they blur the line between the two categories, becoming a book that is both appropriate for younger readers and absorbing for adults.

Monday, March 7, 2011

"The Red and the Black" by Stendhal

So, Stendhal. A one-named personage bears the expectation that he's sufficiently famous to be recognized by that single name, yet I'd never heard of him before. (I promise I'm really not completely uneducated, even though I may give that impression with depressing regularity.) I figured he must fall somewhere between Jesus and Flea.

In case this is the first you've heard of Stendhal also, here's a little bit about him. Stendhal was a Frenchman whose real name was Marie-Henri Beyle. He was born in 1783, just a few years before the French Revolution began. He did most of his writing, including The Charterhouse of Parma, after the Napoleonic era but before he stroked out and died on a Paris street in 1842.

Stendhal's works were renowned for their psychological insight. In fact, though I didn't even notice this as I read but I recognized it when it was pointed out in the Afterword, Stendhal spent very little time describing his characters' outward appearances, instead focusing on their thoughts and motives. He reminded me of Henry James by seamlessly and believeably allowing me into his characters' minds.

I didn't automatically know what the colors in the title referred to, nor am I sure I would have figured it out from the text, but luckily the blurb on the back of the book spelled it out for me: "the red" is the military and "the black" is the clergy. Unfortunately the same blurb also revealed what I consider a major spoiler, as it referred to something that didn't occur until about 50 pages from the end of the book. (See how nice I am, that I'm not telling you what that spoiler is?) The spoiler was almost forgivable, as it was only mentioned in relation to Stendhal's inspiration for the story, but that part of the plot would have had a much greater impact on me if I hadn't been expecting it. Or . . . maybe not. The copy Elvis read didn't have that spoiler, and to him it seemed as if that part of the book came out of nowhere.

The Red and the Black is the story of cold-hearted, calculating young Julien Sorel and his ambitions. He is pulled in two directions. He idolizes Napoleon but feels he has to hide that admiration, probably because it was frowned upon in Restoration France as disloyal to the king; and, anyway, the time for military glory seems to have passed. He is drawn to the church as a career, even though it is nearly meaningless to him as anything beyond a source of money and social status. But his ambivalence is pretty well derailed when he discovers sex. The book is divided into two parts, each dealing with one of his two all-consuming affairs.

Although Stendhal does provide a clear window into his characters' minds, he leaves it to his readers to decide how we feel about them.  He once wrote that "a novel is like a bow; the violin casing that renders the sound is the reader." Stendhal relates the thoughts and emotions of  his characters, but he does little to influence the way the reader judges them. Indeed, Elvis and I had quite different feelings about Julien: I thought he was despicable, and Elvis thought he was just young and confused. Maybe we were both right.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

"The World According to Mister Rogers: Important Things to Remember" by Fred Rogers

This is one of the books I picked up at Goodwill last month. It's a posthumous collection of quotes by Fred Rogers (who, as any true American no doubt knows, was the Mister Rogers of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood on PBS) mixed in with a few aphorisms he gathered from other sources. The book is a lovely tribute to a kind and good-hearted man.

Of course, at times some of the quotes tend towards the sappy. Fred's middle name wasn't "McFeely" for nothing. (I'm not kidding. That really was his middle name. At least it was for a good reason--remember Mr. McFeely on the show? He was named after Mister Rogers' grandfather.) But every page, even when overly sentimental, has a thoughtful and admirable truth.

Here's one of my favorites. "Solitude is different from loneliness, and it doesn't have to be a lonely kind of thing." I could have written that myself, if I had a habit of making up pithy sayings. I love to be alone, and it seems not many people understand that. Another good one, which puts into words something I really hope to instill in my kids: "I believe it's a fact of life that what we have is less important than what we make out of what we have."

Though each page was full of simple wisdom, I didn't always completely agree with every quote. When Mister Rogers said, "It always helps to have people we love beside us when we have to do difficult things in life," the first thing that came to my mind was that it helps me more to listen to loud music. But then that mainly applies to my "difficult thing" of cleaning the house. I've come to find that sort of task is made much easier with a soundtrack. Onerous chores are more palatable if I can do them while "wiggling my jiggly old butt." (Courtesy of my youngest. Don't I have great kids?)

Enough about my butt, the jiggliness of which I will neither confirm nor deny. The book gives a good feel for what kind of man Fred Rogers was, especially with the foreword by his wife Joanne and the short bio at the end, but it just scratches the surface. I'm left wanting to read a biography of Fred Rogers. Do you know of a good one?

Won't you be my neighbor?

Monday, February 28, 2011

In which I have more to discuss about Narnia

Since we're on the subject, there are Things You Must Know about Narnia and the Chronicles thereof.

In what order should the books be read? 

I grew up reading the books in order of publication (making The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe the first book of the series rather than The Magician's Nephew, even though Nephew is first chronologically). Setting aside habit and precedent and all that sort of thing, there's something so wonderful in reading about the very beginning of Narnia (in Nephewafter it has already become a familiar place. I will always want to read Lion first, but I won't harp on anyone reading the books in chronological order. The important thing is to JUST READ THEM!

Which of the seven books is my favorite?

I love each one of the Narnia books, but I don't love them all equally. I have four favorites and three not-so-favorites. The best: Lion, The Horse and His Boy, The Silver Chair, and Nephew. But don't tell the other three I said so.

Would I enjoy the books as much if I hadn't read and loved them as a child? 

My (grown-up) friend BR borrowed the series from me a few years back. She enjoyed them, but I don't think she loved them. She very tactfully said she wished she'd read them as a child. I think that means the books didn't hold the same magic for her as they do for me. But I know there are a few of you who have imminent plans to read these books for the first time, and I'm eager to hear what you think! Only . . . if you don't love them, maybe you shouldn't tell me.

What about The Movies?

After reading the books so many times, I have very vivid pictures in my mind of exactly how everything looks. With each re-read, I go back to the exact same place in my imagination. I was worried that watching the movie adaptations would ruin that for me . . . but I couldn't help but do it anyway. Oh, the BBC editions are a little bit horrible, but the Hollywood versions are so beautiful that I don't mind very much when the movie scenery rousts the familiar old images from my brain. Hollywood has made a *lot* of changes to the stories, but most of them have actually been good and exciting changes that have added to the experience. I HEART THEM AND I HOPE THEY MAKE ALL SEVEN BOOKS INTO MOVIES. I will die a little bit inside if they don't.

Guess what? I just finished writing my 200th blog post.

Illustrations by Pauline Baynes. She's my hero.