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

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!