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

Saturday, March 29, 2014

"Mrs. Poe" by Lynn Cullen

Of the four books I added to my list during last November's lovely visit to The Book People in Austin, this is the first one I read. (The second was Maggie O'Farrell's Instructions for a Heatwave, which I've already blogged about; I have yet to read the other two.)

Edgar Allan Poe is, to me, an intriguing and mysterious figure. From the rumors that surrounded him (alcoholism, drug abuse, insanity) to the somewhat strange but true aspects of his biography (he married his 13-year-old cousin) to his body of work (Wilkie Collins could have learned a thing or two from him about the creepiness factor!), I don't think anyone could call Poe boring. And yet I've never sought out a biographical work about him. I guess I'm too busy preferring fiction. So here's a good compromise: historical fiction. 

But this book isn't that straightforward (as perhaps you might have guessed from the title). Like The Journal of Mrs Pepys or The Mists of Avalon, Mrs. Poe takes a well-known subject and gives it a fresh twist: it is narrated by the women involved. One great thing about this idea is the way it gives new life to an old story. And one way it gives new life to an old story is by embellishment. Where the information known about a topic is thin, an author is more free to invent her own details.

When I first picked this book up, for some reason I assumed that it held a great deal of embellishment. But (with the help of Wikipedia) I discovered that this book is weighted much more heavily in fact than fiction. Yes, Frances Sargent Osgood was a real poetess and she really knew Poe and they really did have a relationship (or at least that's what everyone said) and everyone who was anyone in mid-1800s New York literary society was being consumed by consumption. 

So, did Lynn Cullen do a brilliant job of telling this story? Well, here's where you'll realize that this is one of those crap blog posts I warned you about. I don't remember. I'm pretty sure I enjoyed reading the book, but I'm also pretty sure it wasn't one of my Most Favorite Books Ever. I'm certain I would have remembered if I'd loved it or hated it. I'm just going to have to assume it is worth re-reading and try it again someday.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Leonard Maltin's 151 Best Movies You've Never Seen

I first heard about this book back when I actually had time to watch movies. I liked the sound of it: first of all, I was intrigued. Could Maltin really come up with 151 great movies I'd never seen? Second of all, back then I was always looking for good movies to add to my bloated netflix queue.

Now, life is different. I've even canceled my disk subscription to netflix (though I kept the streaming subscription, worthless as it is, mainly because my kids like to watch the handful of crappy little shows they can find there. Oh, and netflix has the first two seasons of Sherlock.)

So why didn't I read this book years ago, if I'm not really looking for movies to add to my list anymore? The main reason is that it just recently arrived from The secondary reason is that it seemed like a good book to bring on a busy vacation. A book of one- or two-page synopses of movies is something I can dip into briefly and occasionally without losing momentum or getting too involved.

Surprise 1: Maltin really did come up with (almost) 151 movies I've never seen. There were only about a dozen movies in this book that I'd even heard of! Though there were a handful more I thought I'd heard of, but that turned out to be merely due to a titular similarity to other films or books. So, obviously, I've seen even fewer of them (Brick, 15 Minutes, Bubba Ho-Tep, CasanovaOne Fine Day, and Zathura . . . some of which make me doubt the "Best" mentioned in the title somewhat).

Surprise 2: There weren't many films that Maltin convinced me I'd want to watch. I wonder if I would have felt differently in my gorging-myself-on-movies heyday? I suppose that's possible, except there was a lot of "this movie was great except for [huge flaw/series of shortcomings that turned most people off]", or "this is a movie that no one else liked except for me, but since it was perfect for me I'll write about it in this book." There was even one movie that Maltin admitted some people might find as entertaining as watching paint dry. (Oh, by the way, he's not afraid of cliché.)

But there were a few I think I'd like to see someday, even if  I'm not rushing out to buy the DVDs:

The Devil's Backbone, directed by Guillermo del Toro (as was Pan's Labyrinth). Why? Maltin describes it as "unrelentingly eerie--a thinking person's Halloween movie." And because of Pan's Labyrinth, of course.

Stone Reader (a documentary, no less). On the surface, it is director Mark Moskowitz's search for the author of a book he loved as a child; through this quest, he "decides to explore the very nature of reading, and why we feel so connected to certain books we encounter over the course of our lives." On one hand, that sounds like the sort of exploration I'd like to do. On the other hand, I'd kind of just rather read a book.

The Shadow of the Moon, another documentary (?!), this one about the Apollo space program--including interviews with ten of its surviving astronauts.

Metroland, based on the novel by Julian Barnes, because it's about love and Paris and what-ifs and "the truth of hopes, dreams and reality," though Maltin managed to make it sound less cheesy than I just did. And Christian Bale is in it. He's cool. (Oops, I forgot my 14-year-old son told me I can't use that word.)

The Dead Girl, not really due to Maltin's synopsis, but because it sounds intriguing.

The Tao of Steve. I almost didn't want to list this one here--for some reason, I'm embarrassed to admit I'd like to see it (it's about a lothario who is disarmed when he falls in love). But I also didn't want to forget about it.

Final analysis: this was an entertaining diversion, and a great book for a movie buff (though I imagine a true movie buff would have already seen far more of these movies than I have). My favorite thing about this book? It now has a bunch of sand from Cocoa Beach stuck between its pages.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

"Paper Towns" by John Green

I have no idea when I bought this book (although I do know it was before Tuesday, September 21, 2010). I do know why I bought this book: first, the author is John Green, and second, it was on sale for $2.97.

The spine of Paper Towns caught my eye on my bookshelf (not my Future Reads shelf, which is where I'm supposed to be finding my next selections, if only to make the choice less agonizing, but that's my own rule so I am welcome to break it) as I was putting my youngest to bed on Sunday night. I knew absolutely nothing about the story, but I felt sure it would be a good read and I was fairly certain I wouldn't get stuck on it for weeks.

I was right on both counts: I enjoyed the book and finished it last night. And because I would really, really like to pick up another book now (though I haven't even given a thought to which one will be next), and because the rule I made in my last post is too new to break even if it is my own, I am proud to be posting about this book within 24 hours of completing it!

John Green is so good at capturing the anguish of teenage love. And the voice of a teenager. Or . . . I don't know, it sure has been a long time since I was a teenager, so I could be wrong about that. There were times where the "witty repartee" seemed a bit too slick to be believable. But it can't be denied that he tells a good story!

I find it difficult to describe the book's plot without giving too much away, so I'll err on the side of saying too little: a slightly nerdy teenage boy is starry-eyed about the beautiful girl who lives next door to him. For the first half of this book I was thinking Paper Towns was merely a variation on Green's Looking for Alaska, right down to the dynamics between the main characters. But, happily, I was wrong, and this turned out to be its own unique story, full of its own secrets.

And what do you know? On the very first page I found out the story begins in Orlando. Can you believe it? (Did I mention I'm going there next week?) But I only had to turn one page to discover it's not about the Orlando I'm going to. (At least that's my hope.) This is definitely not a Disney story. But I liked it (probably more than I would have liked a Disney story) and was absorbed by Quentin's hunt for clues. Paper Towns won't join the ranks of my Most Favorite Books Ever, but it was fun without being fluffy.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Note to self on Blogging Theory

I am far, far behind on blogging. (Have I mentioned this before? Maybe about once a year? Which seems to be how often I'm posting these days?) When I look at this stack of books I've read but haven't written about, it makes me sad. I KNOW I thought things and ingested ideas as I read each of these books, but without a blog post to refresh my memory, that's all lost now.

Though there are many things I've enjoyed about book blogging in the past (especially pertaining to the community of book bloggers: sharing my thoughts on books I've read, and finding similar posts by others), the thing I love most about my book blog is that it is a record of my reading experiences. It is important to me as my own resource. Where did I first hear about a book? When did I read it? What about the book beckoned to me, calling me to pick it up? Was it skillfully written? What parallels did I draw: between this story and others, or between the characters and people I've met? Did any ideas or quotes stand out to me? Was it an enjoyable reading experience, and is the book worthy of a re-read?

I hate to give up on the idea of posting about all my currently un-blogged books, though I know a lot of those posts would be worthless--even to me. In the majority of cases, I won't be able to remember the answers to many of the questions that explain what stood out to me as I read. But as ineffective as those posts may be, I still want to make the attempt. So, at the moment, my plan is to slowly catch up. I am making it my goal to write about at least one book a week, no matter how insignificant the post.

 More importantly, I want to commit to writing about the books I read from here on. In an effort to avoid getting even further behind with blogging, I am imposing a new rule upon myself: I can't start reading a new book until I've posted about the last one. What I write may be minimal and unembellished, but at least I'll be maintaining a record.

Oh yeah . . . and my plan doesn't take effect until after Spring Break. Because I'm going to Disney World!

Sunday, March 2, 2014

"Instructions for a Heatwave" by Maggie O'Farrell

My sweet husband gave this book to me for my birthday. We were spending a lovely afternoon browsing at The Book People in Austin (if you have a chance to visit them, you should!) and he came to me holding this and The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton and asked me to pick one. I told him that was like Sophie's Choice and he bought me both. He's the best!

As usual I've become distracted from my purpose, which is to tell you how much I enjoyed this book. I started it Friday night. I'd just finished with a different book and wanted to read a few pages of something new before drifting off to sleep. So I plucked this beautiful, luscious-looking hardcover from my Future Reads shelf . . . and read 70 pages. And though it can take me weeks to finish a book these days, here it is Sunday afternoon and I've already turned the last page.

My husband and I had both previously read (and loved) O'Farrell's After You'd Gone, and ever since, I've been intending to read something else of hers. (As well as thoroughly intending to pick up AYG again at some point.) Tops on my list was The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, after reading about it here, but as I hadn't been proactive enough to procure a copy of that one yet, Heatwave squeezed its way in front.

I kind of love this book's dust jacket, and I must say I much prefer its look to this coverbut what's inside is even better. From a limited perspective the story might be viewed as your run-of-the-mill window on a slightly dysfunctional family--one of many books that may differ in details but is really just a re-telling of the same old story. The general premise, though interesting, is not in itself earth-shattering: three grown siblings, Irish by birth but raised in London, are brought back together when their father disappears. But this over-simplification does not do the book justice. It is borne above the crowd by the triumvirate of excellent writing, indelible characters with an invigorating synergy, and the draw of secrets. Because it's not just about the disappearance of the father. Within that larger mystery are wrapped countless smaller ones, each just as intriguing as the last.

If I had three thumbs, they would all be pointing up: one to say this book is a keeper, one to say I would re-read it, and one to say I can heartily recommend it to you--after two caveats: first, you may want to look up the pronunciation of the name Aoife before you start reading. Unless you're Irish, in which case you probably already know it. (The pronunciation is described in the book, but if you're as impatient as me, you may find it's not soon enough.) And second: be prepared for the disappointment of never knowing what Gabe wrote at the airport. Unless it's one of those things that's obvious to everyone but me, in which case you'll probably figure it out on your own. (And when you do, please tell me!)