12/31/08

Our Top Reads of 2008

Carole's Top Reads of 2008
2008 was a good year for reading. I read more books than the previous year, but even better, I liked more of the books I read. I discovered some new (to me) authors, and that is always a great gift to give yourself. I think I’m becoming more discerning as I remind myself that life is too short (and there are too many books) to spend time reading books you don’t like. With that said, I didn’t lovelovelove everything I read, but here is a list of my favorites from the year (in no particular order).

Mark Haddon’s A Spot of Bother was a treat to read. How he manages to convincingly write about the quiet desperation of ordinary people while making me laugh out loud at the same time is beyond me. I’m just glad he does. This was the second novel of his that I’ve read; while quite different from one another, I really enjoyed both this one and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.

Thanks to one of my book clubs, I was introduced to Wallace Stegner. His Crossing to Safety is a truly beautiful book of marriages and lifelong friendships that rang true to me.

My pleasant experience with Stegner and my foray into some Pulitzer-winning novels led me to read Angle of Repose. (Not right away of course—I wanted to avoid a case of author repeatitis.) I enjoyed it immensely; not only does Stegner write compellingly about relationships, but in this novel, he captures the period of westward expansion in American history through the eyes of an educated woman from the East. I couldn’t put it down. I already have Big Rock Candy Mountain and All the Little Live Things on my list for 2009

The title attracted me to We Were the Mulvaneys--it says so much. “We” means that the story is told by an insider; the choice of “were” rather than “are” means that something pretty serious happens to change things; “the Mulvaneys” tells me that they are/were a family. This was my first Joyce Carol Oates novel, and I was enthralled and appalled all at the same time. There were plot points that literally made my jaw drop open. I had Chris read it right away after I finished it so I could talk about it with someone!

This is one of the Newbery winners that I read with my family. I, Juan de Pareja tells the story of a slave who worked under the Spanish royal painter Velasquez. What absolutely blew me away about this book is that it is about a painting—Las Meninas—about which I wrote my 11th grade term paper. The fact that I read Newbery winners and that one of them is about the one painting in the world I know a little something about is one of those delicious coincidences in life that give you pause to think.

Breathing Lessons is my second Anne Tyler novel. I really enjoyed Back When We Were Grownups, and Breathing Lessons was equally rewarding. Tyler develops her characters so fully that you are drawn into their lives and find yourself wanting to learn more about them and to find out what happens next. Breathing Lessons focuses on a long-time married couple and how very different they are from each other and why that is sometimes a good thing and sometimes not!

My sister-in-law picked Julia’s Chocolates for our book club, and we all enjoyed it a great deal. I’ve loaned the book to several people and it’s been well received by all except my father, who found it dreadful. So, I’ll revise and say that it’s good chick lit.

I'm cheating a bit and including two picks here. Our Town and A Christmas Carol. These are perennial favorites of mine—I re-read Our Town with my family, and we read A Christmas Carol every year, starting on December 20. We read one stave each night and, if all goes well, we finish on Christmas Eve. If Scrooge’s redemption doesn’t put you in the Christmas spirit, then you truly are a humbug!

Twilight series: I enjoyed the experience of sharing these books and the movie with my daughter this year. I am also heartened by the fact that books can have such an impact on young people these days. If you want to indulge in some innocent vampire romance, read Bella and Edward’s story.

Before Twilight came into our lives, my daughter was captivated by the Gemma Doyle series. In fact we went rather breathlessly from one series to the other, making for some hefty reading. She wanted me to read them too so that we could talk about them. Harry Potteresque in that a young girl discovers that she has powers that lead her to another world and way of life, these books by Libba Bray weave a deft tale with memorable characters. They are also a great way to spend time with your daughter.

Least Favorite Book of the Year
Last year I called this the Most Hated Book of the Year, but I found as I reviewed the list that I didn’t hate any book I had read with as much passion as I hated Middlesex in 2007. So I changed the name this year to Least Favorite, and the book most deserving of that title for me was I Dreamed of Africa.


Chris' Top Reads of 2008
This has been the Year of the Series. I have discovered time travelers in the future at Oxford University, 20th century English book publishers, bail bonds(wo)men in New Jersey, a very different Wonderland with Queen Alyss and children who can see creatures invisible to most people. And yet, most of my choices are individual books.

And so difficult to choose! For every book on this list, there is one other begging to be included. I chose those books that I could still feel, even months after reading them.

I was prompted to read this book by its introduction: if you are not up for the adventure, you are a coward and should put down the book and stop reading forthwith. From that moment on, I had no choice but to prove my courage. It was a rip-roaring tale about books — and, most importantly, one particular book, the best book ever written. The author, sadly, had written nothing after visiting the nearby metropolis of Bookholm -- which spurred the narrator to find him in Bookholm, despite the repeated warnings to cease and desist.

Doomsday Book/To Say Nothing of the Dog
Time travel is one of my favorite topics, and I was thrilled to learn about Connie Willis from a discussion about The Time Traveler's Wife on Literature and Latte, a Web site for readers and writers. Willis creates a modern story of the past. At Oxford University, Professor Dunworthy helps his students travel in time. Doomsday Book is her first foray into this storyline with Dunworthy (and Finch, Oxford's answer to Radar O'Reilly), as he sends Kivrin into 14th century Oxford. Time travel is not what it's cracked up to be, and there's more to learn about it — and the past. Dunworthy returns in Willis' second novel, a delightful play on Three Men in a Boat — and in this episode, we speculate on the importance of the bishop's bird stump and listen to women say "O!"

George, a 30-year-old first-time father, cannot touch his son, or even be alone with the child. He seeks the assistance of a counselor, who dredges up memories from George's childhood in the this debut novel by Justin Evans. "Demons" and "possession," "God" and "evil" are nothing more than concepts for most of us. For George, they are so much more. When writing the final scene of the book, the author one day read a dozen iterations to his wife — who then, that night, woke up screaming. Frankly, I am not surprised. Though a work of fiction, it read like a memoir and made me wonder just what I would do with the truth about God if ever "faith" received a tangible test.

Heart-Shaped Box
Joe Hill scared the heck out of me with this book. His collection of short stories, 20th Century Ghosts, was creepy and frightening, too, but in short, sustained bursts. This novel was an all-out scare-fest that required a Reading Buddy (and inspired the phrase for the bookish terms in the right column). An aging rock star purchases a ghost on the Internet and gets a lot more than what he bargained for. This story unfolded in surprising ways, with characters that did the unexpected, surprise actions by inanimate and non-human creatures. Just don't read it alone.

Stewart O'Nan's stories linger with me long after the cover closes. This novel describes the last day a particular Red Lobster restaurant is open for business. Days before Christmas. During a snowstorm. Days before Christmas. In Connecticut. The characters are rich — you know these people — and the story is simple yet memorable.

Neverwhere
Richard is living a safe life: a good enough job, good enough friends and a fiancée who he thinks is out of his league. One day, he encounters a young woman who changes his life. He discovers a different world under (and over) London where every movement, every encounter is risky. One cannot be simply "good enough" to survive in London Below. As with all books by Neil Gaiman, the world created is complete and rich. I think I felt the grit and dirt under my fingernails for weeks after reading this book. Gaiman is one of my favorite authors, and this book did not disappoint.

This is decadence at its finest. The tale of a British family covers three generations — starting with Lady Celia, the matriarch. We first meet her when she has created an opportunity for herself, and we follow her and her very colorful and interesting brood through the first part of the 20th century. Just be prepared: this story will keep you reading at night long after most sane people would have already turned out the light. You will regale these tales as if these were real people having real issues. Then you'll foist these books on the people around you. (Or maybe that was just me....)

Last winter, when my nearby public library closed, I took home dozens of books to read. This was one of them, and a fabulous read. Ian McEwan wove a taut tale filled with rich imagery. A story about two naive young adults who married one afternoon then planned their wedding supper at a small inn on Chesil Beach, this thin volume captures the essence of innocence and heartbreak with candor and beauty. Was I ever that young? Were any of us?

People of the Book
Carole and I anticipated this book for years, ever since Brooks mentioned the story at a reading of her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel March. Alternating between modern times and the past, this novel tells the story of a renown Haggadah as a book conservator investigates its history and thus its secrets. Each hair, insect wing, wine stain tells its own story within this story. Brooks has never failed to deliver an excellent story, and I can't wait to read her next gift to readers.

Water for Elephants
Life was not easy during the Great Depression, but no one suffered the rich, deep sadness and loss of Jacob, whose reaction is to leave school and hop the rail. He winds up as the veterinarian for a traveling circus. I was riveted and at least one friend is already reading a gift copy of that book they received from me as a Christmas gift. I was worried that my sensitivities toward animals would make this book unreadable — indeed, it was just the opposite.

Hated It!
None provided a visceral dislike, but there were a couple I could have lived without. I am not sure which was worse: the terminally flawed lead character and storyline of The 7th Victim or the undiscernable "secret" of The Somnambulist.


12/27/08

No Angel/Something Dangerous/Into Temptation — Review by Chris

For the last couple of months, I have been living with another family: the Lyttons. And I have enjoyed it immensely.

What I call the Lytton trilogy has been called "The Spoils of Time" by its author, Penny Vincenzi. The series consists of No Angel, Something Dangerous and Into Temptation. It's a hefty trilogy, and not a quick read — which is good because it's too good to get through quickly. (Each book runs about 700 pages, so it's not a quick or light anything.)

It's a take-no-prisoners book. Once you start, you really can't stop. You read to the bitter end, even if that's 3 a.m. on a Sunday Before An Important Presentation or Meeting. It is too compelling a story to put down, really. Carole already had read the series, and she received many phone calls from me in which I didn't even bother to breathe for what seemed like minutes ("Hey Carole! Celia just...."). I got to enjoy it again as Carole and I discussed it, and it was wonderful having someone with whom to gasp and laugh.

Vincenzi knows how to tell a tale. She weaves a rich tapestry, using just enough thread to snag a reader — then shuttling another storyline into place just enough to ensnare the reader, then she gives another character a moment before seamlessly taking the reader back to the first thread. And yet they all matter, all touch in multiple places — single threads that, if cut, would unravel the rug on which the reader sits.

The saga centers on a family headed by Lady Celia, and we spend more than half a century watching this family and its matriarch. The characters are rich and deep, fully imagined and fun (though sometimes maddening) to read.

Celia is a pretty determined person, and her first act as a character defines this character: she is getting married. To a man her parents do not want her to marry. At a younger age than they would prefer. Well, such little things never stopped Celia, even in 1909 — and, as we shall see, she faces down a few more formidable obstacles than this in her lifetime. Like having children, or not. War. Love. Truth. Fascism. Oh, and publishing.

Celia has married into a publishing family. Lyttons is a somewhat small, but respected, member of the book publishing community in London. Celia is enraptured by it, and she shows great talent and instinct. *sigh* If only her husband would let her work in the family firm. This is, after all, 1909, and times are different.

Only, really, they're not. Celia has many of the issues today's women face: family, love, home, work, duty, marriage, charity, honor.... and Celia faces each with her own style.

For example, she wants to make London, if not the whole world, a better place, so she signs on to assist in a study of impoverished families. She is "assigned" the Millers: the mother always pregnant, the father always working, the children tied to table legs to keep them from underfoot until they can be sent outside to take care of themselves, for the most part. Celia starts taking care of the family, rather than merely "studying" it, and winds up leaving one day with one of its young members to be raised in her own home — only temporarily, so what could it hurt....?

The publishing house into which she has married is a character in itself. Truly, without it, this might have just been another multi-generational saga. However, booklovers will enjoy this added feature, a publishing company with a heart.

Much happens in Celia's life, and beyond: two world wars, countless births, a multitude of scandals, lots of misunderstandings, marriages and divorces, deaths that you wish will never come (and some you think will not come soon enough), tragedies, woundings, survival — and a ride through London during the Blitz that will leave readers literally breathless.

More than once I had to press the book to my heart to calm myself down. One scene in particular I was glad I was alone when I read because I startled the cats with my sobs. I took a two-week break during the third book because I was so disgusted by one character's actions (and another's reactions) and I couldn't bear the situation. Honestly, I did not care for the way she resolved one set of character's situation; Celia would have disavowed this romantic notion, but I I trust Vincenzi, and there was some logic to the resolution (even if I didn't like it).

Vincenzi does not write brief stories. I also have read Sheer Abandon, which also is a taut thrilling ride — and hefty book (the paperback was inches thick!).

I am, and plan to remain, a real Vincenzi fan. Once you try her, you will be a fan as well.

12/11/08

Twilight Series - Discussion with Carole and Her Daughter

This summer I noticed that you couldn't really carry on a conversation with a teenage girl unless you had read Stephanie Meyers' Twilight series. My daughter accompanied me on a business trip to Nashville in June and read the three that were available in four days. I got such a kick out of watching her actually grinning while she was reading it.

In August, when New Dawn came out, she and her friends all met at the bookstore for the midnight release. The place was packed.

We visited friends in North Carolina later in the summer and their daughter was also up to speed. Later, my daughter's friend from San Antonio joined us at the beach, and she devoured the series during our week there.

Now the movie is in theaters. My daughter and I went on the opening weekend to watch this much anticipated event. We had approved the choice of Robert Pattinson to play Edward (He was Cedric Diggory in the Harry Potter movie, Goblet of Fire). I wasn't familiar with Kristin Stewart, who played Bella, but my daughter said she was Lisa in Zathura.

To sum up the story, Bella is a young girl who has decided to come to the Pacific Northwest to live with her father. She is unsure of herself and is not looking forward to standing out as the new kid. Little does she realize that she soon will have much than that to worry about. She just happens to have moved to a town that unwittingly hosts the Cullen family, a family of vampires. They eschew the traditional vampire lifestyle, choosing instead to feed off of animals rather than humans. They are exceptionally beautiful (I wonder if anyone has ever written a vampire story that involves ugly vampires). Bella is immediately drawn to Edward although he seems to loathe her on sight. This does nothing for her self-esteem. It turns out that he is afraid of her because he is so drawn to her.

Their love story develops from there and Bella slowly learns the truth. The first book focuses a great deal on discovery; the rest of the series revolves around her desire to join Edward's family, and all that entails, and his desire for her to lead a normal human life.

Back to the movie--we loved it! It was beautifully filmed, and I think that the romantic tension between Edward and Bella maintained an innocence that was refreshing in a teenage love story. I read a review recently by a psychiatrist who maintains that all girls want is an Edward Cullen to love them--she praised the movie. The article generated a lot of chat; several readers scoffed that a vampire story shouldn't be called wholesome or something for girls to wish for.

We talked about it, and my daughter and I think that the success of the Twilight series is due to the fact that it is a love story first and a vampire story second. Bella and Edward are in love and he just happens to be a vampire. He is older and more experienced than Bella and rather than press his advantage, he does everything he can to protect her and take care of her. That is what girls are responding to, I think. (For those of us who have not been teenagers for, ahem, a while now, the story works too.)

While reading the books, I will admit that I found Bella irritating on more than one occasion. Her tendency to run herself down at every opportunity got old fast for me. I would have preferred her to evolve a bit more as the story developed. My daughter said that didn't bother her and didn't find it as pervasive a habit as I did. A great deal of the book is spent telling us what's in Bella's head (she tells the story), so I found the movie actually an improvement because the emphasis was more on what is happening than what Bella is thinking. I also found myself worrying that Bella was losing her sense of self and couldn't define herself in any way other than loving Edward.

Some of my daughters' friends liked the movie, but not as much as the book. While this is not unusual for a book that you love, I was curious as to why. Generally, the feeling is that too much gets glossed over. For example, Jacob, a Native American friend of Bella's family, tells Bella the legend between his people and the vampires. This is key to the development of a main story thread that runs throughout the series-many of my daughters' friends felt that this scene wasn't treated with the importance it deserved. Ditto with the development of some of the other members of Edward's family, who play larger roles in future books/movies.

We haven't encountered anyone who hasn't liked the movie, but I don't know any guys who have seen it. My son is quite dismissive of any vampire movie that isn't a gore fest--he views Twilight with a why-bother attitude. I suspect that many men feel the same way. My daughter does know some girls who have chosen to not read the books precisely because they are popular. I know that mindset and have been there myself, but sometimes things are popular because they are really good, and then you miss out.

While I wouldn't recommend this series for tweens--it deals with some pretty heavy topics--I think most teenage girls will really respond to it. If you know any teenage girl who hasn't read the books, they would make a good Christmas present.

The book titles are Twilight, New Moon, Eclipse, and Breaking Dawn. I'm sure a movie for each book is in the works, so teenage girls will be discussing these for quite some time.

12/6/08

Are You Series-ous?

As I noted in earlier entries, I've been doing some light reading for the past few months. In these "light" forays, I've discovered the pleasure of the series.

I have been a fan of series books since my earliest years, when reading Encyclopedia Brown and the Chronicles of Narnia. I loved the characters and wanted to join them for yet another adventure. I trusted them — that is, I realized as I got older, I trusted the writers and editors who brought me those characters and stories.

There are some well-known and very popular series on the bookshelves today, and I have sampled at least a few of them: Harry Potter, Gemma Doyle trilogy, Twilight series, A Series of Unfortunate Events, Magic Treehouse, Dresden Files, Gossip Girls, American Girls, Spiderwick .... each with its own following.

I, lately, have found myself ensnared by a couple of series: Stephanie Plum and the Lytton trilogy.

I met Stephanie Plum in the emergency room of the busiest hospital in my region. It was in the wee hours of a Thursday, Medivac helicopters were bringing in the terribly injured and it looked like it would be a long night for David and me. Cindy dropped David and me off, and Alicia returned a while later in her own car and with a book in hand: Fearless Fourteen, a kind gesture from Cindy, who was rarely wrong about a good leisure book. Plus, when sitting with my foot elevated in a wheelchair facing "The Fugitive" on a snowy and tinny-sounding television, Fourteen looked better and better. Then, as David fetched cake and took a nap, and I battled to stay awake, I cracked open the book.

And was transported.

As you can tell from my review, I found it delightful. I didn't realize, however, that it was part of a series until Carole mentioned it later. ("A Stephanie Plum novel" meant nothing at 5 am that day, nor in the exhausting, trying, hazy days following.) During my convalescence, Carole brought me the first four Stepanie Plum novels, and I began anew.

So far, I've read the first six, and I will start Seven Up after I next see Carole. (She's my Plum dealer.) The characters are feisty and memorable, and rumor has it that some of my favorites will make appearances in books I have yet to read. I can't wait.

Another series in which I have found myself hip-deep is the Lytton trilogy. I had read the first book, No Angel, five years ago and was totally absorbed — and was thrilled when I learned Penny Vincenzi had written two other books. Carole, thankfully, had read all three, so as I hit different points in the story, I would call her. With no preamble. "This is Carole" would be greeted with, "Okay, Celia has just...." or "She's not leaving! Still! What is she thinking!?" Sometimes I would answer the phone with, "Hey, Carole, I'm at...." (Thank you, Caller-ID!)

It's a hefty trilogy, and not a quick read — which is good because it's too good to get through quickly. (I think the first book is nearly 700 pages, so it's not a quick or light anything.) I am about a third of the way through the final book, and I am afraid to pick it up. When I read during my convalescence, I had the luxury of napping and sleeping in. No such luck these days, so I have to pace myself — which is impossible with such a compelling book. Therefore, unless I plan to read until I hide the book in the other room and fall asleep, my eyes red-rimmed and scratchy, I have to approach with caution. I will have to see how Carole managed. It's too good a book to put down!

I foresee a few more series in my future: Spiderwick, which my friend Kelsey shared with me; the Gemma Doyle trilogy (reviewed by Carole and a favorite of her daughter); Twilight (because I wish to discuss it with my friend Corinne); Dresden Files (only because the television series is so enjoyable).

When I find the time, I will re-read a couple of my personal favorites:
  • The Chronicles of Narnia, which holds a special spot in my heart for the week I enjoyed it, holed up in my room as I devoured each book, forsaking sleep and sun until the end; and
  • Harry Potter, with thanks to Suzanne, for sharing the first book with me, as well as Carole and the kids, who managed to keep secrets until after I read each volume.

One warning: take a breather, no matter how beloved a series is. Don't risk Author Repeatitis! Chances are your series will not falter, but don't give it a chance to fail because of your own saturation. I remember my experiences with the original Dune trilogy and wince. Frank Herbert deserved better attention than a 19-year-old college student with time on her hands could give him.

11/29/08

Outliers — Review by Chris

What made Steve Jobs, Bill Joy and Bill Gates rise to the top of their fields and change the way we work and live? Some say talent. Some say luck. Some say class advantage. Some say drive and determination.

And they're all right. But what do they all share that puts them in a category unto themselves?

When Malcom Gladwell reveals that information in his newest book Outliers, you'll be surprised — then it will make sense.

That's because Gladwell knows how to explain complicated information in very precise but "plain" language. I have read his other two books, The Tipping Point and Blink, and I enjoyed them very much. His plain language and straight talk make the complex materials and conclusions very understandable.

Having said that, I have to admit: I can't explain it myself very well. And I don't necessarily remember it for very long. (Which may explain why I'm no Steve Jobs.)

However, that I blame on Gladwell's smooth transitions between subjects and topics. His chapters are beautifully organized and his information unfolds like a story. I wanted to know how class and financial status of a family unit influence how children do in school. I wanted to know how an off-the-charts genius could flunk out of school — twice! — and wind up on a small farm in the American Midwest, when other people not even a fraction as smart (including Robert Oppenheimer) manage to navigate the trickiest parts of the institutions that so baffled him. Finally, I simply had to know how it all fits together. Gladwell makes these discoveries a delight to experience.

I was particularly intrigued about the book after hearing an NPR interview with Gladwell, in which he commented on the danger of making general statements about any particular nationality or ethnicity. And yet, this is exactly what Gladwell does — with great success. What problems do Koreans face in the cockpit of a plane? Why are Asians better at math than Caucasians? Why did Jewish lawyers blossom in the latter half of the twentieth century? Can one make general statements about an ethnicity or race without being racist or categorically unfair and biased? Gladwell manages, and give me hope for more honest and probing studies and reports in the future.

I enjoy reading Gladwell's work. I read his work in the Washington Post and New Yorker magazine. I envy and enjoy his turn of phrase and his ability to get to the nut of a thought. His explanations or ideas are not short or truncated; you must follow him down the rabbit hole to get where he is going. It's a decision you will be glad you made.

Please read this book and find out how sometimes, brains and brawn finds assistance in the most unlikely of places — and how something as unexpected as immigration patterns, rice farming or a loan from a local Chinese shopkeeper can impact the human race beyond our wildest imaginations.

11/19/08

All Things Austen - Reviews by Carole

Last weekend, I had the privilege of seeing a dear friend's son play Mr. Darcy in his high school production of Pride and Prejudice (P&P). What fun! I had never seen it performed as a play; I watched with great joy as the young actors and actresses delivered Austen's words with feeling. It was a lovely night of theater.

I have been a fan of P&P for many years now. In addition to owning different editions of the book, my daughter and I seek to own all of the film versions. I find it fascinating that each generation seems to have its Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth. Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson; Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle; and Matthew McFadden and Keira Knightley have all paired up as the famous couple. I know there are others, so please let me know about them. Chris tells me that I have to see the Bollywood musical version, Bride and Prejudice. Each has its charms, but most charming of all to me is the endurance of this story.

A young college student I know tells me that she is taking a movie class, and they are discussing why Jane Austen, particularly through P&P, remains so popular and why each generation seems to choose it for its own. Her professor is of the opinion that it's just good marketing--I think it's much more than that. You can market a lousy story all you want, it just isn't going to resonate with people. My particular belief is that it is all about the story. In the case of P&P, I believe that it's not that women wish their men were Mr. Darcy, but rather they see Mr. Darcy in their men. If men knew that, they may like P&P more.

I also noticed something else almost by accident. I seem to have acquired almost an entire bookshelf of P&P spinoffs. This appears to be a recent phenomenon and one I didn't initially seek out. But they've sort of crept up on me. Why so many spinoffs now? One of the authors actually thanks Jane Austen for being out of copyright. I'm sure that is a factor, but that is not a recent enough occurrence to account for all of these Austen-inspired books. Something more must be at work here. I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Here are the P&P products I've read in the past year (and many other remain to be discovered):

Darcy's Story

By far and away, my favorite re-telling of a tale. Janet Aylmer does an amazing job of telling us P&P from Mr. Darcy's point of view. Darcy is absent for much of P&P--this book tells you what was happening to him through all of this. It made me heart Mr. Darcy even more. (I realize that not all women heart Mr. Darcy--I'd love to hear where you fall in this debate)

Me and Mr. Darcy

Alexandra Potter sets this tale in modern day; the heroine has suffered through a series of unsatisfying relationships. After her latest breakup, her roommate begs her to forget her woes in a margarita-induced haze in sunny Mexico. Instead she decide quite spur of the moment to take a Jane Austen tour of England. She turns out to the be youngest person on the tour by many years, and she thinks she's made a huge mistake. Then the strangest things start happening--she keeps running into this man who seems so familiar to her. He seems to be from another time...you get the idea. It's a lovely bit of fluff-n-trash--I enjoyed it.

Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife

As my mother said after she read it, "...and takes and takes and takes!" In other words, this is a bawdy tale. But fun in the extreme. This book picks up where Jane Austen left of in P&P. True Austenites might be appalled. We see a lot more of Mr. Darcy, and we get a lot more romance. I'll also admit that I ended up flagging more than 20 words that I had never heard before--that doesn't happen often, so hats off to Linda Berdoll for writing what is essentially a high-brow bodice ripper. Fluff-n-Trash at its best.

Darcy & Elizabeth: Nights and Days at Pemberley

Berdoll continues the story in this sequel to the spinoff. I particularly like how the nasty characters in P&P get a chance to be even nastier. Lady Catherine is at her conniving, arrogant best. Lydia and Wickham prove time and again why they deserve each other--their selfishness knows no bounds.

The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen

Chris gave me this book for my birthday. It was great fun because it's written as a novel that reads like one of Austen's own books. The family tree at the beginning was fascinating to me. The similarities between this book and Becoming Jane are considerable. I didn't read that one, but enjoyed Anne Hathaway as Austen in the movie.

The Jane Austen Book Club

This is my least favorite of the bunch. While I liked the idea of a rather disparate group of women (and one man) getting together to read the works of Austen, I was disappointed in the lack of follow through. To me, it seemed as if it were set up so that each character would encounter some Austen-inspired plot twist in their own lives and find inspiration from the books. But that wasn't it--they read each of the books and they lived their lives. Big whoop! I was not thrilled to hear that they were making a movie of it, but I wasn't surprised. Darn this power of mine--it's a blessing and a curse! Good cast notwithstanding, I don't think there's enough story there to save it.

Lost in Austen

I bought this for my daughter, and we both have had fun with it. It's labeled by author Emma Campbell Webster as a Create Your Own Jane Austen Adventure. You read until you come to a point where you have to make a decision, and based on your choice, you turn to specified pages. This book dumps all of Jane Austen's plots into one big soup pot, stirs it up, and lets you decide whether you have something palatable or not. My daughter didn't enjoy it as much as I did, but she was being diligent about keeping track of her points earned; I just read it, made my choices, and wandered where the book would lead me, so I had fun with it. I do confess to backtracking to see what would have happened if I had chosen the road less traveled.

To sum up, I’m not sure why Jane Austen’s works, particularly P&P seems to be hitting a new stride with today’s audiences, but I’m happy that they are. You know that when there is a Jane Austen for Dummies and an action figure that you are alive and well in the 21st century!

11/13/08

If it's Heavy, Can it Be Fluff 'n Trash™?

I am having the best time reading Penny Vincenzi's Lytton family trilogy. However, it begs the question: can something so substantial really be Fluff 'n Trash™?

Carole and I were discussing that very topic just last night. Earlier this week, I called her and declared, "Pandora!" She knew exactly what I meant.

Carole has read all three books (No Angel, Something Dangerous, Into Temptation), while I'm only about halfway through the trilogy. (I read the first book in 2003, but just re-read it to make sure I didn't miss a thing before moving on to the last two books.) Carole is spectacular about not letting on a thing about what actually happens next, a trait I very much adore about her and her family. (Remind me to tell you about two very respectful children not spilling the beans during my Harry Potter catch-up one spring.)

Lately, I have needed light reading. I've plowed through a few months' worth of People magazine, The Onion and two Janet Evanovich novels so far during my convalescence. I've enjoyed it, relaxing on the couch with Rob's iPod playing softly in the background as I thumbed through some light reading. (I also read a couple of Rolling Stones, but those border Serious Material with the in-depth stories and interviews for Campaign '08.)

So, in that vein, I lined up all three Lytton books to round out my Fluff 'n Trash™ selection.

However, the so-called "Spoils of Time" series are an interesting hybrid: light reading that is much more substantial in storyline and character development than traditional light fare. Years after having read them, Carole can still recite storyline and characters from the Lytton family saga.

So I ask: can it be Fluff 'n Trash™ if it's that substantial?

Some light reading is just that: a nice read, good elements all around, but instantly forgettable — or at least not enough substance or detail to stick with this reader for very long afterward. These can be very good books, but not the kind about which you could speak at length, or write a term paper.

However, the Lytton trilogy is so much more.

It's complex character development, sweeping sagas, war and sacrifice, drama and tension. I can't put it down until I know certain things about the characters.

I speculate with Carole about what I think will happen next. (I have to admit that the author has thrown some great curve balls at the readers, and I'm thrilled. Usually I can anticipate a storyline — but with Vincenzi, not always so much, or even so completely.)

I worry about the characters: poor Izzy (and what a terrible nickname!), poor Barty, poor Giles (though after a while I worry that I will abandon my sad tone when saying "poor Giles"). I cringe when reading about Celia's foray into politics, or Sebastian's temper regarding one child in particular, or Helena's observations about her husband's career.

Granted, there's all the stuff of Fluff 'n Trash ™ — romance and affairs, unplanned pregnancies galore, abandonment, death, society gossip, use of the word "Mummy" that sounds alien to my American ears. There's also common sense from the least likely characters, vast country estates and quite a bit of tea. There's unimaginable amounts of wealth that provide a certain amount of independence — or does it?

So, does something with substance count as light reading? Does the fact that something is a quick read make it a light read as well? What do you think?

And if you've read the Lytton trilogy, chime in. But no spoilers, please — not even with warnings!

11/12/08

Leeway Cottage and Good-Bye and Amen - Discussion by Carole and Chris

Chris and I don't always have the same taste in books (how boring would that be?), and we don't always agree on the books we read to discuss. Many a time either she has passed a book along to me to see if I could get any enjoyment out of it (The Dante Club and Rule of Four come to mind) when she couldn't or I've passed back a book that she's included in her bag o' books for me with a "Uh-uh. I tried, but can't get through it".

Why mention all of this here and now? Well, Chris and I had exactly the same reactions to Beth Gutcheon's Leeway Cottage and Good-Bye and Amen. What were they? In a nutshell, we lovedlovedloved Leeway Cottage and that is what saved us from thoroughly disliking Good-Bye and Amen. If we had read Good-Bye and Amen on its own, we would not have liked it or understood it.

Let me back up a bit. The story of Leeway Cottage is essentially the story of Sydney Brant. The book spans her lifetime, but we are introduced to so many family members from different generations to cast this as a multigenerational novel. The family summers in Maine provide a constant in the quickly changing world--the events of World War II have far-reaching and long-lasting effects on Sydney's family. Gutcheon weaves true elements, such as the heroic efforts of the Danes to save the Jews in their country and the role British intelligence played in those efforts, with the fictitious, such as Sydney's husband's family, which would never be the same after what they endured at the hands of the Nazis. Those events colored Sydney's relationships with her husband, her in-laws, and even her children in ways in which Sydney was never even aware. But we were.

Chris and I talked a great deal about what an interesting, and not always likable, character Sydney was. She had a horrible relationship with her own mother, which affected her relationships with her own children. I liked that she wasn't always likable--it made her more real. To hear her grown grandchildren talk about how awful she was to them, though, made me wince.

We both liked Gutcheon's writing style in Leeway Cottage and eagerly devoured it and moved on to its sequel, Good-Bye and Amen. What a puzzle to learn that it is written in a completely different style from the first book. Rather than a narrative, it is written as a series of journal entries by many, many characters, most of them familiar from the first book.

We were baffled as to why Gutcheon chose to do this. What was the motivation to switch styles? Chris thinks that the author became so attached to her characters that she felt she had to write this to stay connected to them. When I was reading it and discovering that one of the characters we heard from periodically was actually dead, I thought that we were actually going to get a glimpse into a continuation of Sydney's life from someone who knew her then and now. But that didn't actually happen in the book, so I'm not sure why we were given that information.

An extensive biography of each character ever mentioned is provided in the back of the book, along with photos tagged with the characters' names. Huh? Is this fiction or a true story? I still don't know. If it's true, then whose story is it really? If it's fiction, did the author just use some old photos and say these are her characters? If so, why? We couldn't come to any real conclusions. Their inclusion raised more questions than they answered.

Chris and I enjoyed reading both books, and Leeway Cottage stands alone beautifully. We agreed that if we had come upon Good-Bye and Amen and read it first, we would have been bewildered. The deftness with which she wove the original story, however, will keep Gutcheon on our list of authors to watch.

11/8/08

Unaccustomed Earth — Review by Chris

Jhumpa Lahiri knows how to communicate. She's not just — as if one can be "just" — a short story writer or a novelist. She is a communicator.

Take her latest: Unaccustomed Earth, a collection of short stories. In it, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author shares with us the life and inner workings of Bengali men and women and the people around them. Each character is carefully drawn and, to the reader, is a distinct individual. Lahiri has an affection for each of them, allows us into their lives with such intimacy I am overwhelmed and grateful time and again. Her language is precise and generous, and by no means unfair nor ambiguous. Her characters have their faults and foibles as well as their strengths and charms, deep and clear. She does not criticize them, but lets their stories make or break their cases.

In earlier books, Lahiri's characters precariously straddled the life between Bengali and American culture — bound to one but striving for the other. However, in this book, the characters have come to terms with this dichotomy, accepting the implied hyphen that keeps them in both camps with simultaneous magnetism. It isn't easier for these people, but the struggle has changed: from trying to find a place in the world to living within the boundaries of their territory.

The book is divided into two sections, the second of which involves the intertwined lives of Hema and Kaushik. I read the stories in order, but you needn't do that with the first section. The second section, however, you must read in order. All stories in this collection are varied and rich in detail.

Ruma is torn between life with her American husband and her expectations as a Bengali daughter. Her mother died unexpectedly and her father now travels the world by himself. Ruma thinks her father lonesome and abandoned. Her father, however, feels nothing of the sort. The story tells both Ruma's and her father's perspective of the same situation. As a daughter myself, it was lovely to see how both father and daughter held on to their strong — and wrong — expectations.

Sudha gave her baby brother Rahul his first beer when she was in college, helped him buy his stash and hide it when she would come home during school breaks — then watched, with a growing understanding and horror, as he continued down the slippery slope of alcoholism.

Sang has a boyfriend and Anglo roommates. She also has an unending line of potential husbands (Bengali, of course). She is a good catch: well-educated, a good daughter, of good moral character. She, however, has a boyfriend: Freddy/Farouk, who has, for the three years they have been together, spoken of the future in broad terms. However, things change when her male roommate, Paul, answers the phone one lonely evening.

Many vignettes stopped my heart as I read them. One in particular was about Kaushik, who met his new stepsisters and their mother one college break. His own mother had been dead for years, but he didn't discover the depth of his loss until bleak winter night — and his fury against two young children was so hot and violent it scared me to read it.

Another was the slow terrible realization of Neel's plight one evening. Could his uncle be as reliable as he appeared all week, while under the watchful eye of his suspicious sister and unaware brother-in-law? The gnawing doubt culminated in a terrible brief scene with details and images that brought tears to my eyes — it still gives me chills when I think about it, the subtlety, the devil in the details. Lahiri makes the tragedy and the joy immediate and deliberate.

Do yourself a favor: go out and pick up all three of Lahiri's works (including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Interpreter of Maladies and her sole published novel to date, The Namesake). Then pace yourself if you can. Once I finished a story or chapter, I found myself unable to resist reading the first few lines of the next part — which sucked me in for another indeterminate period of time. I never experienced Author Fatigue from Lahiri; unlike other authors, I did not feel a rut in style, rhythm or characters. If you picked them up at the library, which I always recommend, you will then want them for your permanent collection. Then you will wait hungrily for her next work.

I enjoyed this collection immensely and highly recommend it. Please let me know when you read her work. You will be glad you did.

10/27/08

So Big - Review by Carole

Yikes! I've been doing more reading than writing lately. I've been bouncing from one Pulitzer Prize-winning novel to another lately without taking the time to reflect. Shame on me!

Edna Ferber's So Big started me on this kick. This was the pick of one of my book clubs, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I also enjoyed learning more about Ferber. One of the famed Algonquin Round Table members, Ferber devoted her life to writing. Sigh, I was born in the wrong era. I would have loved that life, those clothes...but I digress.

I hadn't read any Ferber--did you know she wrote the novels on which Show Boat and Giant are based? I didn't! She won the Pulitzer in 1924 for So Big.

So Big tells us the story of Selena, a young girl who grows up with a gambler for a father. When he is rolling well, they live the high life; when he's not, they eat at the boarding house table. But he always managed to pay her way at an exclusive girls' school. She gets a strong education from school and from him. When he dies unexpectedly, she has to make her own way. She takes on a schoolteacher job at a small farming community outside of fast-growing Chicago.

Her appreciation of beauty helps her see the color afforded by simple things, such as a field of cabbages, as she approaches her new life. This sentiment arouses rare humor in the taciturn, hard-working Dutch farm family with whom she comes to live. She finds a kindred spirit in their son, Rolff. Her influence, while brief, has a lasting impact on his life.

Before long, she finds herself agreeing to marry one of the community's farmers--a kind man, but no great shakes in the imagination department. Selena tries to get him to see what their farm could be, but he continues in the ways of his father.

They have a son, Dirk, whom she nicknames "So Big" from the old baby game: "How big is baby?" "Sooooo Big". You can just picture her taking the time from digging up vegetables from the garden to play this game with her baby, taking great joy in seeing him hold his arms wide.

When she finds herself on her own again, Selena manages to carve out a life for herself and her son. She raises him with her values, but he internalizes things much differently. His life experiences are significantly altered from her own. It's a classic story of a parent who wants a better life for her child and works hard to make sure of it, but then is surprised to see how different the child turns out. Children who have a better life aren't forged by the same fires as their parents and thus don't form their characters, values, or work ethics the same way.

Selena and Dirk have a great love for one another, even if they don't fully understand each other. The story shifts to focus on Dirk's life. He has many of the things that constitute success in that era. After an attempt at an architecture career (of which his mother has very high hopes), Dirk decides to become a bond salesman (a career his mother doesn't fully understand). He is very good at it--he makes good money--he lives in a lovely a part of town. Yet, it is very clear to the reader that he really doesn't have anything. He has no wife and children; he cannot point to anything lasting that he has created or improved. He cannot see that, though, until an artist comes into his life.

His feelings for the artist force him to examine his life--he sees that she and his mother have more in common than he would have ever envisioned. He sees his life as a "rubber stamp" of Selena's--a cheap imitation in other words. He finds himself at a crossroads.

Chicago looms in the background throughout the story, growing and sprawling across the pages, making it as defined a character as Selena or Dirk. A truly American story of success and how that is defined--I couldn't put it down.

10/18/08

The 7th Victim — Review by Chris

Poor Job — er, Karen Vail. She's having one tough time.

Alan Jacobson invites us into this FBI profiler's ramshackle life. At home, she's divorcing her abusive husband, who it also turns out is abusing their son. Her mother, who has advanced dementia, lives alone in the country in New York — a seven-hour drive from Karen, who doesn't visit too often. During a non-lucid moment, Karen's mother makes a statement about her past that Karen remarkably accepts as true.

The FBI special agent is beleaguered at work by her boss, who doesn't respect her cutting-edge research. At least one person in her department actively dismisses her. She encounters a hostile former co-worker, who again becomes a colleague and remains hostile. A new young co-worker has the hots for her, and she for him — and starting a new relationship in the middle of an investigation is such a good idea.

Oh, and did I mention she's the profiler on a grisly serial murder gripping Northern Virginia?

All this and more — next, in The 7th Victim.

Don't get me wrong, I love crime drama. I just couldn't take another moment of Karen. I didn't respect or trust Karen. She made terrible choices. She made her life a train wreck.

However, I appear to be the only one with these feelings. The author loved her and the publisher thought Karen tested well enough with readers to release another Karen Vail novel within the next year, changing another Jacobson book release date.

Unfortunately, my issues with the novel went beyond Karen. The killer never felt truly threatening because the killer was veiled, purposely obscured, to add to the "twist" of the story. The title told me no resolution could come before victim number six, no matter how the story unfolded. The book jacket blurbs trumpeted the book's surprises, twists and turns. And don't tell me the end will shock me — because now it won't.

As an editor, I didn't like the inconsistent editing. Words were spelled differently (missing hyphens and apostrophes) throughout the book and the language was trite. Cops in Hollywood are the only ones who say, "Give it to me straight, doc."

If this is typical in this genre in the post-Hannibal world, then I am disappointed — and possibly reading in the wrong field, much to my dismay.

I would be willing to check out another book by Alan Jacobson, just in case this atypical book for him. I just can't recommend this book.

10/11/08

The Grift — Review by Chris

Marina didn't lie, not really. By paying attention, she collected the same information she would have obtained with The Sight, right?

No, not really, according to Debra Ginsberg's brilliant new novel, The Grift.

The reality is always much worse than the fantasy. Well, "worse" is subjective in most cases. Not in this one, though, really. Not as I see it.

Marina was intelligent and observant enough to know that people all want to know something, and they think someone else knows it, whatever "it" is. I've been there, looking in country western songs for the meaning of life. For others, its in the cards or eyes of a psychic.

I do not discount psychic abilities, but Marina doesn't make a good case for them. Despite a "sighting" by a psychic early in her life, Marina has been untouched by The Sight. She listens, she watches, she lets people tell her what they want to know, then she finds ways to give them back this information — in the form of readings, candles, herbs and other (surprisingly expensive) occult paraphernalia.

Until the day she starts seeing what she never believed in. Then the question becomes what does one do with the truth when she never really beheld it before? It does not, as the old hymn leads us to believe, set us free. Not the real truth, and not for people who don't really want it after all.

Ginsberg's novel was a compelling read. The language was precise, the writing smooth, the story a fresh perspective of an old concept and the characters interesting and rich.

The book's strength is in its characters. While the story is compelling, it could not be so without the characters. And the characters are not "typical." There are few victims in this novel, though some are easily led where they want to go. Some characters are weaker than others and more desperately want to believe what they are told. Some part more easily with their money.

Marina is a very sympathetic and realistic working woman. Damaged by an early life with an abusive addict of a mother who marks her (permanently) in a hideous way, the young woman gives people exactly what they want. That they give her money is not a sin, even if it's for an illusion. Marina does not sugar-coat her abilities, though she glosses over the rougher stuff in her history. We meet more than one psychic, and we have a chance to compare Marina to the others in talent and character. Ginsberg is fair to her psychics, and I appreciate that.

Marina's clients, however, fare worse. Her first client is more sympathetic than the rest, I suspect, because of her age, income and desperation. Marina's subsequent clients are more wealthy, and that is a very important factor in this story. Ginsberg shows them no mercy; in fact, she is rather brutal to those for whom she perceives entitlement via wealth and opportunity. Ginsberg shows how the mind evolves from client to friend to owner to blame-caster. It's a fascinating, well-illustrated path on which we follow these Southern California privileged.

Despite Ginsberg's clear and linear storytelling, I was confused about Marina's situation after her breakdown. At a certain point in the book, I could not overcome the confusion between reality and psychic visions regarding Marina herself. At one point, professionals dispute something Marina knows, knows as fact. Science literally disproves her theory, and yet the condition continued with other characters contributing to what appeared to be the psychic's psychosis. I was unsure what was hysterical and what was "real." I was confused: who was right, Marina or the professionals?

The book ended as I thought it should, but the final image was too quaint for the character expressing it. After 400 pages of Night Gallery, Ginsbery ended with something I would have expected from Susan Polis Schultz. It didn't ruin the book, but it went out with a simper.

Despite these two quibbles, which in the scope of the book are quite minor, I would highly recommend the book.

10/4/08

The Perks of Being a Wallflower — Review by Chris

You know how you read some books that are supposed to be in the voice of a teenager and, to put it kindly, you know they're not?

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is not one of those books.

The voice of the narrator is spot-on. Stephen Chbosky wrote a story in a series of letters to "a friend." The story takes place over a school year, which is a lifetime in a teenager's life. Charlie's narrative is very simple, yet very revealing.

From the beginning, Charlie seems a bit off — distant, an observer rather than a participant.
Charlie's life has been derailed by the death of his favorite aunt. He missed a year of school, but he's trying to get back into the swing of things. Slowly, Charlie unveils the story of his life and those of the people around him. It's a rich and powerful world — and it's exactly how I remember high school being, which is probably why it is one of the most challenged books of 2007, according to the American Library Association.

It has everything an inappropriate book for youths might have, starting with the suicide of one of Charlie's friends. Charlie reports how guidance counselors respond to confused and grieving students, some of whom make wildly courageous and pained remarks. It's clear that the world of teens is very different than that of the adults around them.

Bill, Charlie's English teacher, recognizes Charlie's intelligence and perceptiveness, and gives him different books to read in addition to what the rest of the class is reading. The variety in these books speaks to Charlie's intelligence, and Charlie discusses some of them in his letters. Charlie writes essays about some of the books, each of which becomes his favorite. When Bill and Charlie discuss them, the new teacher encourages Charlie to participate. Thinking is good, Bill says, but too much thinking distances you from the world. Be a part of it.

So Charlie becomes a part of what he sees when he meets two new people at a football game: Sam and Patrick. These new friends, who are step-siblings to each other, introduce him to a variety of people who would be otherwise outside his experience: Craig, Brian, Mary Elizabeth. His observations on friendship are deep and moving.

We meet Charlie's entire family: his mother, a housewife and the only one who can speak with Charlie when he starts to lose it; his father, who tries to take care of his family as best he can; his brother, a football star at Penn State; his sister, a senior at his high school. We also meet his extended family, all revealed with their charms and foibles through the keen eye of the observer.

With each letter, Charlie reveals more of himself and his situation, his emotions and his perceptions. He thinks about the private lives of his friends and family with an open heart. The reader knows there's as much to be gleaned by what is not said, and Charlie doesn't disappoint. His revelations are deliberate, measured and powerful. By the end of the book, everything in Charlie's live is revealed, from who the friend is to why he gets so upset on his birthday.

There are golden moments, phrases that will stick in the reader's mind. His use of language is appropriate for a young man of his age, sensitivity and intelligence. His observations are crystal clear and honest. A reader could learn a lot from Charlie.

Every generation has a book that has it "all," and this is the book for the MTV generation. (In fact, it was published by MTV in 1999.) The story includes suicide, pregnancy, physical abuse, homosexuality, masturbation, abortion, drug use, mental illness, sexual abuse, literature and more. It's the kind of book we used to pass from student to student, some pages dog-eared, others with obvious watermarks (small and round, you know the kind). It explains a lot in a way we could understand, and it made us all feel less like the freaks we were sure we were.

It is a fabulous book, beautifully written, poignant and revealing. I enjoyed it immensely and highly recommend it.

By the way, I checked it out from my public library. ¡Viva la biblioteca!

9/30/08

Things Fall Apart - Review by Carole


Chinua Achebe's classic novel, Things Fall Apart, is celebrating its 50th year. A common read in high school curricula, the novel was enjoyed by both of my children. When the kids came home and told me that Achebe himself was going to read from the novel, I figured we would check it out. Chris, the kids, and I went to George Mason University to hear him read from his works. We also were treated to a traditional libation ceremony performed in his native Ibo language.

I had not ever read the book, so I spent time doing just that before the event. I'm glad I did. The book packs quite an emotional wallop, and I can only imagine how shocking a book it must have been when it came out in 1958.

Okonkwo, Achebe's main character, is a Nigerian who has grown to be a man, a husband (to multiple wives), and a father (to many, many children) following the mores, customs, and laws of his people. But his world is changing, faster than he is willing to recognize and accept. A harsh man, he reacts fiercely to adversity. Through his story, we learn about another land, another way of life.

Kids today often read books about other cultures, other lands, but in 1958, this was not the case. Described as Africa's first story by some, Things Fall Apart, flew in the face of Conrad's description in Heart of Darkness of African men as people of no language, no storytelling. Achebe mentioned that specifically before reading to us.

"When you write a book and read from it often, you learn new things all the time. I learned for instance that I was clearly reacting to Conrad when I wrote Things Fall Apart."

In addition to reading some of his poetry, some in English and some in his native Ibo, Achebe read one of my favorite passages from Things Fall Apart. In the story, one of Okonkwo's elders on his mother's side asks him a question: "Why is it that one of the commonest names we give our children is Nneka or 'Mother is Supreme'?"

"It is true that a child belongs to its father. But when a father beats his child, it seeks sympathy in its mother's hut. A man belongs to his fatherland when things are good and life is sweet. But when there is sorrow and bitterness he finds refuge in his motherland. Your mother is there to protect you. She is buried there. And that is why we say that mother is supreme."

Achebe's courtly manner and his lilting accent heightened the impact of the words as he answered the question.

When asked why he named the book Things Fall Apart, Achebe said he was "showing off." He drew the title from Yeats' "The Second Coming":

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Achebe graciously signed copies of his books for the many, many people who waited in line. It's always a thrill for me to listen to authors read their own words. In the case of an iconic work like Things Fall Apart, it was also a privilege.

9/27/08

Banned Books Week is September 27 to October 4

This year, the American Library Association's Banned Books Week: Celebrating the Freedom to Read is September 27 through October 4.

Recognized by booksellers and librarians across the nation and promoted by the American Library Association (ALA), readers are encouraged to think about intellectual freedom and freedom of expression through books.

According to the ALA, Banned Books Week also
celebrates the freedom to choose or the freedom to express one’s opinion even if that opinion might be considered unorthodox or unpopular and stresses the importance of ensuring the availability of those unorthodox or unpopular viewpoints to all who wish to read them.

Me, it makes me want to read banned or frequently challenged books. Visit the ALA Web site for a list of challenged books over the years.

What, may you ask, is considered a banned or challenged book? You'd be surprised. Well, some you wouldn't because they're old hat: The Color Purple, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Of Mice and Men, A Wrinkle in Time.

Then, there are the ones you could see coming — Heather Has Two Mommies, Daddy's Roommate — because they introduce ideas and lifestyles that some people don't agree with expressing or revealing. (The latter book was introduced into the current presidential campaign in the New York Times.)

Finally, there are the ones that make you scratch your heads: Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, And Tango Makes Three. (Click on the links to read my reviews.)

For me, Banned Books Week is a celebration of books and freedom of expression. More importantly, I want to see if there's anything to the fuss. I don't turn away from controversy, but wade into the middle of it. I research that which is being protested. If you tell me that something shouldn't be read, what do you think I do? I read it!

So, start shopping at your local library or bookstore. Read the challenged book and see for yourself if it's all that and a bag of chips.

Don't let others decide what you can read. Never let others make decisions for you. You're smarter than that. So go exercise that brain and your freedom. See what it's all about.

And whether you agree or not, decide what your course of action will be. This is, after all, the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave. Be both.

9/22/08

Mistress of the Art of Death — Review by Chris

With Mistress of the Art of Death, transport yourself back to 12th century England. Henry II is losing money in his kingdom because the Jews of Cambridge are holed up in a castle to save their lives. Children are being murdered and someone has accused the Jews.

This gruesome action against defenseless children cannot continue — but not for the reasons we might first consider. In this gripping novel, Ariana Franklin appoints an amazing and unlikely observer who, with an incredible cast of characters, weaves a tale that holds readers from the start.

To help his fellow regent, the King of Sicily sends two of his greatest minds to Cambridge. Simon of Naples, also Jewish, is a keen thinker who, as a man, can go anywhere and do anything. Adelia is a doctor and teacher in Italy — and a woman who looks on the dead for clues on how they died. Accompanied by a huge Arabian eunich for protection and Adelia's former nursemaid for propriety, they travel across the English channel — and, quite frankly, back in time.

Not all of Europe is created equal, then or now. In Italy, women were not full members of society, but a brilliant mind was less likely to be quashed (especially those adopted by physician-teachers already respected in society). Adelia is accepted, perhaps grudgingly, in her hometown.

But they're not in Salerno anymore. Adelia pretends Mansur, the eunuch who speaks no English, is the doctor; she guides him in Arabic and "translates" the doctor's findings. The nursemaid, an old woman, died on the journey over, and Adelia still mourns her — plus, Adelia discovers, she is missing a chaperone, which limits Adelia's ability to simply walk to the market. Simon is a man, which buys him some freedom, but as a Jew he is aware of his precarious situation.

England is medieval, lacks hygiene and open minds. Thankfully, Adelia's crew encounter Prior Geoffrey early in their travels. After providing him with emergency medical care (and his awareness through the procedure), he enables their investigation, all the while keeping Adelia's secret.

In this novel, readers are captured from the first by the interesting characters and amazing situations. I call them "amazing," but perhaps I need to call them "barbaric" or "antiquated." I hate cold and dirty places, and Franklin captures Cambridge with an accuracy and richness that transports readers to Adelia's side. We join her on the hillside with pilgrims, in the castle with frightened people, standing next to the aggrieved mother who taunts the "murderers" behind castle doors, in the convent where she slowly realizes what makes the "buzzing" sound she hears.

Humans always look for the enemy in "other," and through Adelia, Franklin introduces us to a fascinating array of "others." Ariana herself is "other." As an unbiased observer, she examines Cambridge society to find the killer. Are the disadvantaged — those easily hated and despised — apt to commit these heinous crimes because they are outcasts? Or is the killer someone of position? Do the people of Cambridge point to "other" because it is too horrible to think one of their own killed them?

Through Franklin, we see how little times change. We see brilliant minds, the end of friendships, the beginning of others, love among the least likely, "cleverness" that trumps "smarts," and the horror of horrors: murder.

I found this book hard to put down. Many were the night when I stayed up late to finish "just one more section." The story careened to an incredible crescendo, and the last 40 pages are simply astonishing. I recommend this book to those who like good stories, strong characters, true love, cleverness and English society.

9/18/08

A Year in the Merde - Review by Carole

Meant to be a send up of the popular A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle, A Year in the Merde had a promising premise. Author Stephen Clarke sends Paul to Paris to open a chain of English tea rooms. It's a task for which his British company and he think he is well suited. Unfortunately, I found the situations more amusing than the characters.

I wanted the book to be more charming than it was. Trying to figure out where it fell short for me, I came to the conclusion that Paul just wasn't very likable. He often would lament the lack of l'amour in his life, but then he would do something stupid like go home with the wrong girl (as Katie in my book club pointed out, it was difficult to distinguish one girl from another--they were all rather one dimensional). Paul mentions that one of the girls thought he was like Hugh Grant, but I thought he lacked Hugh's charm. In fact, he isn't even clearly defined as British--it's too easy to forget that he is British and he struck many in my book club as American.

I was interested to read about the French approach to business. The realization that the people who work for you are pretty much there forever and cannot be fired must be a sobering one, particularly when you realize that they are not very motivated to do what you need them to do. Paul undergoes quite a transformative process in his assessment of the proposed name for the chain. The French people with whom he works want to call it My Tea is Rich. Over the course of the nine months he is there, Paul goes from thinking it was the worst name ever to realizing that it was very clever in a French sort of way.

Paul often shakes his head at the French's acceptance of inconveniences in their lives, such as copious amounts of dog merde in the streets and strikes of every conceivable sort, and invites us to marvel along with him. Unfortunately, because of my ambivalent feelings for Paul, too often I often found myself thinking, "it serves you right" when he would literally step in it.

I did enjoy watching Paul develop an appreciation of the Gallic shrug. Having had a French kid living with us this summer, I was on the receiving end of quite a few shrugs myself recently. The shrugging descriptions in the book were spot on.

Paul's attempt to buy real estate in the French countryside was probably my favorite part of the book. Observing him navigate his way through literally unfamiliar terrain was funny; if I liked him more, I would have been rooting for him to come out on top. As it was, I didn't care overly much how it turned out.

The book has two sequels, but I don't think I'll be picking them up. Some people just live right, I guess. Clarke writes an okay book and gets to publish two sequels? How does that work?

9/15/08

Richistan — Discussion by Chris and Carole

Editor's Note: Chris wrote her review first, and I've added my comments in italics throughout her review. We just posted this last week, and in light of the bleak economic headlines, I can't help but wonder how many of these people still live in Richistan and how much more difficult has it just become for the rest of us to every live there?

Close your eyes and think of how much money would make you comfortable. You know, pay your bills, give you a chance to do whatever you've told yourself you'd do if you didn't work, maybe fix the house and put the kids through school. Chances are, it's not an exorbitant amount. (Some of you are going hog-wild, I bet. Even then, add it up and I'll bet it doesn't top a high-end lottery winning.)

The older I get the more I realize that if I were to come into any appreciable amount of money, my ideas of what I would do with the money changes. When I was in my 20s, I would have been focused on what I could buy with that money; now that I'm-er-not in my 20s, I believe that what would bring me the greatest happiness is knowing that I no longer needed to worry about money. I would want to sit on a big ol' pile of it (metaphorically speaking), pay my bills, and relax! The conspicuous consumption doesn't really fit into my mental image of a rich me nowadays.

Now, think of the poor souls whose principle adds a few zeros to the end of that number. How did they get there? What kind of lives do they lead? Do you envy them?

Read Richistan to find out, and be prepared to leave behind your preconceived notions and your envy.

I envy some of them. I always admire anyone who has an idea for a product or a service, actually acts on it, overcomes the obstacles in the way of success, and follows through to achieve the dream. I have had countless ideas for things over the years, and they remain nothing but ideas. Others take it to the next level--they live in Richistan, and I do not. After reading the book, I think the sure bet would be to come up with a product that the nouveau riche cannot live without, like something for their kids, and you would be golden. Mind you, you might not live in Upper Richistan after successfully marketing your product and then selling your company in a huge "liquidity event", but you could become comfortably esconced in Lower Richistan. Speaking for myself, I could be perfectly fine with that.

Author Robert Frank identifies the lives and issues of the mega-rich with a clarity and honesty that is more than refreshing. From the first page of the introduction, I was riveted by Frank's tales of the homes and businesses of those with money. Frank's prose was crisp, wonderfully written and so un-self-conscious that every word flowed like a smooth river of Godiva.

Wait, I'm sure there's a chocolate that's better than Godiva in Richistan, the land of the wealthy — where a million dollars doesn't even gain you a toehold.

In this land, there are cars better than Rolls-Royce, watches better than Rolex, private jets better than Jetstream, private yachts bigger than a football field. There are homes with more amenities than an entire city block and closets bigger than the (non-Richistani) average home.

The descriptions of the products, and the realizations that there are brands of things that don't even want to be known by anyone who is not a Richistani, blew my mind.

How did this happen? Frank examines the economy and the people who found their way to this land. He looks at the nation — and the world — to see how this new phenomenon of mega-wealth occurred. He looks to the past, to the present and to the future.

Woven in with these real-life examples are statistics that help shape the reader's view of the nation's economy. Frank helps readers understand how fast the Richistan population has grown and how. And the residents of this heretofore unexamined country are fabulously and honestly drawn. When reading about the guy who made "Dickens Village" popular, one understands how he managed to make his mark and his money.

Frank's explanation of the different periods of wealth creation in the United States was fascinating. The various economic factors that have to come together to create the proper environment for wealth was eye-opening. His description of the "river of money" that is currently swirling through our economy just waiting for those bold enough to set their raft afloat in it made me want to become a metaphorical Huck Finn. What separates most people from those that are willingly to chance the river and those that won't even dip their toes in it? I would say generally it's fear--the risk of losing money is too great for most people to chance. So to the risk takers go the rewards--I think that's fair. Frank brings up many questions, however, about the influence that the Richistanis then get to wield on the economy, politics, and other social issues. And that's when I get worried. When does it become not fair? Just because you're rich doesn't mean you're the boss of me! But I also don't think that just because you worked hard and were wildly successful that you should have to give up your wealth to support people who haven't achieved what you have. The redistribution of wealth is a scary concept for me.

In addition to fine portraits, Frank offers wide brush strokes. While each Richistani resident is her or his own person, they create a group with certain behaviors and expectations. As a group, they are fascinating. Frank is kind and generous to his subject and treats them with respect they deserve.

I agree that Frank was very evenhanded--as someone who has to visit Richistan, but presumably does not live there--I often found myself wondering what he thought of it all. He does not share him personal impressions with the reader, other than by the examples he chose to share. Relative objectivity in this day and age--imagine that!

The book was addicting. Imagine life with a butler. Nice, huh? Really? The answer will make you think twice. How many people does it take to get a mouse out of the house? In Richistan, it's a different number than in the rest of the world. It's a world that most of us might have glimpsed on TV shows, maybe driven past in traditionally wealthy pockets of the nation, but never considered so personally until now.

Like I said earlier, I think there is great potential for Richistani wannabes to capitalize on fulfilling the needs of the Richistanis. My brain has been spinning with possibilities since I finished the book!

In the end, the broad strokes blended with the fine detail to create a portrait of unimaginable wealth. Every section, every chapter flows seamlessly into the next. It's impossible to put down once it's started, and it's easy to recommend — even to those like me who approach economics and business with great trepidation. It's like a novel, only real. And it oh so very interesting.

I recommended that everyone in my house give it a read. The one point in the book that had me rolling my eyes was the bit on the support groups for the rich. Poor, poor rich people. What are they to do? I think those elements highlight the differences between the wealthy of this era versus the Old Money folks of yesteryear. I think that the primary reason that the wealthy today run into so many problems, such as living beyond their means, worried about the effects of wealth on their children, and generally being unhappy that they are not as rich as others they know, is they become more concerned with everyone else knowing that they are rich than they are with just being rich.

All in all, a fascinating exploration of a world to which I'm not privy. But if I ever find myself in Richistan, I now know how to behave!