12/22/09

The Final Chapter

Fellow book lovers, thank you for reading Book Lovers, Get Your English On!  Carole and Chris have enjoyed reading and discussing books and book news with you since launching this blog in August 2007.

However, the time has come to retire this blog.

Please feel free to continue to use Book Lovers' archive as a reference for books and book-related issues.  If you wish to bookmark this site, please use its permanent link: http://book-lovers-get-your-english-on.blogspot.com.  The shorter URL previously associated with the blog is scheduled to expire, and the permanent link will provide uninterrupted access to this resource.

If you're so inclined, check out Chris' blogs:

And keep reading!

11/19/09

Olive Kitteridge — Review by Chris

I started Olive Kitteridge with great skepticism: a series of short stories as a novel did not sound like a smooth, cohesive story.  However, within a dozen pages I was glad it was nearly midnight because I would have called Carole to ask her why she hadn't forced me to start the book sooner.

Elizabeth Strout creates an incredible level of intimacy necessary for this kind of tale, where readers meet the title character through rumor, reputation, association and in person.  She is not all that likable, especially at first; in fact, throughout "Pharmacy," I actively wondered why the gentle and loving Henry was married to her in the first place. However, to be fair, she was seen through the filter of his perception, and there was a very stark contrast between his life at the pharmacy and his life at home.

Not until the second story, "Incoming Tide," did I actually find any redemptive, or even likable, qualities to Olive.  It was then, when a reader could see her in her own terms, did she start to make sense.  She was no longer distorted by the prism of her home life; we could see the bigger picture.

It was in this second story that I decided I really, really liked Olive.  As the stories progressed, readers witnessed the ebb and flow of her ideas, her emotions, her generosity, her fears, her defenses — sometimes through the spectrum of the others around her, sometimes through her own perspective.

Olive is not central to every story.  While sometimes she is a major character, other times she is in the distance, someone another resident of Crosby, Maine, sees walking across the street, or remembers from a previous encounter. 

The others we meet in Crosby are interesting, delightful, compelling, vexing, heartbreaking, heartbroken, misunderstood, self-absorbed, confused, struggling.  Denise is a waif of a girl who faces a life she never expected or would have chosen.  Kevin never really left Crosby.  Harmon's entry into middle age hasn't brought with it the riches he expected.  Nina hated Muffin Luke, but for all of the wrong reasons.  Christopher — well, Christopher is much like his mother, complex and initially unlikeable.  I remain ambivalent about this character, more so than others who surprised and discomfited me, like Ann Kitteridge or Louise Larkin.

I was intrigued by the relationships, especially the marriages.  Olive's relationship with Henry intrigued me. I've always been fascinated by what makes a marriage, and having that insight into Olive and Henry's relationship was fascinating. As the story evolved, I didn't always understand what made them work together, but they did. In contrast, "Winter Concert" showed a "perfect" marriage that was so different, and yet perhaps not as successful as Olive and Henry's; the Kitteridges survived "A Different Road," and I wonder if Bob and Jane could have done the same. There were other marriages, successful and/or not: Harmon and Bonnie, Chris and Suzanne, Chris and Ann, and a few we experience at or after the "end."  (As we learn in Crosby, death does not always bring a marriage to a close.)

All 13 stories are told in chronological order, which I liked.  Some stories were longer than others, but the shorter ones were no less important; some connections require no more than a skip and no preamble.  It's not a traditional novel, so not all of the stories smoothly flow into each other, but each has its place and makes sense in the quilt Strout stitched together.

I enjoyed this book and can heartily recommend it.

11/8/09

Rebecca — Review by Chris

Some people cannot keep the secrets of some classics, as though they expire after a certain period of time.  Right before I watched Citizen Kane for the first time in 1982, I was asked, "You know Rosebud is [SPOILER], right?"  I responded, "Well, I do now."


So I approached Rebecca like reading it was a state secret (except to Carole, who was her fabulous no-giveaway self, as I knew she would be).  No bonehead was going to tell me about Daphne du Maurier's "Rosebud," so  I started the novel with no information other than the brief and completely innocuous summary on the back of the 1970s-era paperback I picked up at the thrift store.

Thank heavens.  There were so many great elements I would have been quite vexed to have had any of them spoiled.

The summary is simple: a young woman is rescued from a life as a "traveling companion" (a.k.a. maid) to the American bore Mrs. Van Hopper by Maxim de Winter, who owns the legendary English estate  Manderley.  There in the halls of Manderley the young bride faces a more complex and frightening future than Mrs. Van Hopper: that of being the second Mrs. de Winter.  The first, you see, was Rebecca, a tall, beautiful, popular, graceful woman — all qualities the second Mrs. de Winter honestly felt she lacked.

The story is told by this young woman, whose new husband is more than twice her age and who hasn't as much professed love as asked her to join him in his life.  After a quick marriage and honeymoon abroad, she comes "home" to an estate of which she has heard, but it's grander than her wildest dreams.

Maxim is not the most attentive of men and the second Mrs. de Winter is an inexperienced young lady left her to her own devices — and to those of Mrs. Danvers, who served as Rebecca's personal maid who also ran the household under Rebecca's exacting eye.  Frith, the butler, addresses the young bride as "Madam" and directs her by stating what "Mrs. de Winter" would have done.

Maxim is not only inattentive, he refuses to run Manderley as it had been in the past, rejecting the idea of lavish parties and other entertainment that was to have gone on with Rebecca.  The second Mrs. de Winter is left to decide what this means for her as a wife and mistress.

The story is told by the second Mrs. de Winter, which provides a clear eye to established society and history.  It is new to her, so it's new to us.  Each piece of information — how Maxim acts, how Mrs. Danvers lurks, how Frith directs the ingenue — offers clues to the drama with subtle, caressing tension that entraps readers.  We know we're toeing close to the edge of disaster with the second Mrs. de Winter, and yet we can't look away because we really don't want to leave her alone at Manderley, not like this.  What is Mrs. Danvers doing in the west wing? Why is Jack's visit so disturbing?  Why would Maxim refuse to follow the dog down the path to the beach?  What is the draw of Rebecca, what is her secret?

The story is told at first as a mix of the past and present, with clues that suggest the de Winters are not presently at Manderley, that mention of this beloved home is painful.  Once the second Mrs. de Winter arrives at Manderley, the story and the reader remain there with her.

And remain we must, until the final pages with an end that I found spectacular and completely fitting to the story.

Please read this, especially if you plan to watch the movie.  Read the book first — let du Maurier tell you her story, then allow Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier (or, later, Emilia Fox and Charles Dance) to perform it for you.

And if anyone opens their mouth to discuss the book, ask them to wait.  You will want to talk about this story, if only to remind yourself that it is, after all, only fiction.

11/4/09

Five Classics on My List

"Classics" brings up the idea of dust, yellowed pages and hidden treasures — to bibliophiles, at least.  I think of people greeting the ships at the docks, asking if Little Dorritt was still alive.  I think of long skirts, scullery maids, post-World War II smoke curling up into a haze.  I think of manners, fear, control and society.  I think of those who came before and what reading meant to them.

So I picked up Rebecca as my ode to classics.  Who hasn't heard the opening line of the book, wondered what it meant, felt sorry for the young bride trying to find her way in a truly unknown landscape, haunted by the image of a woman who came before her?

I am taking my time with this one, knowing that once I'm done I can't say I've never read it.  It's like pulling a ribbon off slowly, wondering what may be hidden under the wrapping.  I am enjoying it, and the leisure with which I am consuming it is rather decadent and delicious.

I have a few others on my list, and I hope to consume them with the same leisure and joy (in no particular order):

  • Madame Bovary — anything considered obscene in 19th century France has to be worth a gander!
  • A Christmas Carol — Despite the enjoyable film adaptations of the past and present, nothing rings as true as Dickens' own words.
  • The Woman in White — I'm still partially mesmerized by Wilkie after reading Drood.
  • Dracula — it will give me a reason to go to the Rosenbach Museum to see, perhaps to touch, Bram Stoker's outline and notes for his novel.  (It was closed for renovation when I last tried to visit.) (The museum, that is.)

What classics have you enjoyed that aren't on this list? Which would you recommend?

10/29/09

The Silent Gift — Review by Chris

Carole can tell a story. In fact, her entire family has the gift: a trip to the grocery store that afternoon or remembering how television channels were changed "back in the day" can make me laugh so hard my face hurts and want to talk until all hours just to hear how it turns out.

Even when regaling the story of a movie or television show, the clan can rock. However, there is a difference: when they do not own the story, there's a distance between the storyteller and the tale.

For them, it's not bad. For Michael Landon, Jr. and Cindy Kelly, it's a deal-breaker.

Landon and Kelly have that problem with The Silent Gift. They don't own the story, so they tell it from a distance. The writers try too hard to create nonchalance in their story, but they can't hide the stress of too many wrong words too carefully chosen to create clumsy clues that blurt out the storyline, rather than provide a foreshadowing or creating a path that carries the story forward.

The novel begins with a rush: a terrible, exciting scene involving fast driving, death and birth, beginning and the end. Then the reader goes from 60 to zero when we meet the characters in their everyday life.

Mary is wooden and stilted, but there's no clue as to why, so she remains simply clunky rather than reserved and complicated. Every plot complication is due to her unexplained, unexpected action. All we see, all we know is what's on the page, and that's scant at best. Jack is almost invisible — which should be impossible, considering the third-person narrative focuses on Mary and she's focused on Jack. Jerry is a caricature who doesn't really even deserve a name, let alone any space in the narrative. He sweeps in with everything and nothing. The reader doesn't know, and with Mary's leaden characterization, the reader doesn't really care.

The story evolves around the action of a deaf-mute boy who cannot communicate. Out of nowhere he has skills he was neither taught nor would he understood what they meant. His mother, who after spending one night on a Salvation Army cot, suddenly becomes an expert in scripture, making connections between her son's actions and a complex book she admits to never having read herself, and not having even listened to since she was a child. It's not a miracle, just an unlikely plot complication. I just don't believe it.

Full disclosure: I didn't finish the book. I didn't want to. I have been reading long enough to know how many pages to give a book to make its case. I gave this book 93 pages, which is only a quarter of the novel but far more than it deserved, and it never captured my attention and imagination. I didn't find myself wondering what comes next. I didn't delight in the characters, despite their hardships. I didn't try to guess how the story would unfold. I have no idea what Mary looks like, what Jack looks like. I can't picture their surroundings, the cities in which they find themselves. I can't see it, and that only happens when my imagination is not engaged. When I see only the words on the page, I put down the book.

I wanted to like this book, but I didn't.

10/21/09

Electronic Books: Would I Go There?

Electronic book machines are coming out of the woodwork these days, surprisingly enough, in time for Christmas. As a lifelong reader, the question arises: would I go there?

Well, I already have, in my own way: I read my news on the computer.

I read the Washington Post, New York Times, AP News and BBC News on my computer daily. Those sources are in my browser toolbars, and I click on them before I open any other pages. I peruse the headlines and scan the pages to see what the media think I need to know. I regret to admit that I do not subscribe to any print news sources or newspapers (though I would be glad to support the Web sites I use with a subscription).

I do receive sales papers on my doorstep — and, when my neighbor Kathy is home on a Sunday, her copy of the Sunday WaPo. (That's Washington Post, for those of you outside of the metro D.C. area.)

As a former newspaper reporter, I should be ashamed. I should have ink flowing through my veins. I don't. I hate newsprint ink on my fingers, hands, arms and clothing after reading the paper. (No, I don't roll around in the paper to get that dirty. Try carrying newspapers in your arms and see how much ink winds up on your clothes. Smarty.) However, I love the news. Good heavens, I just realized: I'm a news junkie!

But back to the topic. I like the neatness of e-newspapers. I can read news stories on the computer all day. Well, let me clarify: I can read news articles for short bursts on and off all day. I do not stare at the screen for hours absorbing the news, not even on the weekends.

News articles have shortened to the point that Jeff Goldblum's character noted in The Big Chill: you can read the articles while on the toilet. (You're welcome for the paraphrasing.) I still read, and love, longer articles — but I rarely find them, and often wind up having to read them in installments, especially those from The New Yorker magazine. (The cartoons, thankfully, I still can read in one shot.)

But books — would I go "e"? No, books for me are not meant for the monitor or LCD, even when it's small and pocket-sized.

Some multi-feature cellular telephones have book-reading applications, but I don't want to use my cellular telephone to read a book. I'd go blind. The 3-inch screen is not meant to do more than show me what the phone is doing at that very moment.

I don't want a machine I carry in my purse, briefcase or backpack. I've tried viewing my digital camera's LCD screen in the sunlight, and I don't want to have to fight the sun, which is supposed to make reading easier because of its helpful light. I don't want to worry about dropping it and having to shell out a few hundred dollars more to replace it. I don't want to have to worry about it falling in a pool or getting splashed at the beach. My family kills electronics in water or finds their phones wiped clean of all information, and I don't want to follow suit with something I can't afford to replace regularly.

Would a machine make it easier to carry around my library? Would it reduce my pathological hoarding of books? (I have regaled my friends time and again with stories of the 25¢ copy of The Phantom Tollbooth for the home library, so I can lend out multiple copies at a time, or a dime for Franklin's autobiography.) Could I get some classics for free online and carry them with me to read at any time? Absolutely.

And yet....

I enjoy the heft of a book in my hand. I take pleasure in reading in direct sunlight (or by flashlight, even). I feel at home surrounded by stack of books on my nightstand and thousands of books piled on every flat surface in my home. I like perusing the spines to see what looks good, both at home and in commercial settings. I am gleeful to find Treasure Island illustrated by N.C. Wyeth in the thrift store bookshelves.

If I drop it in the tub, a book will dry, ultimately (though it never will be the smooth volume it once was). I can (and have) dropped my books down the stairs, lost a grip on an entire box of them and watched them crash to the ground or come to a stop on the landing. The cats have knocked over stacks, curled up on whatever I set down on the bed or table and chewed the corner or two of whatever distracted me from them.

My favorite place on the planet was Acres of Books, the now-defunct used bookstore in Long Beach, Calif., whose name was a literal description of the store and its inventory, with row upon row of towering bookshelves only shoulder-width apart. (Vicky would spend short bursts of time with me in there, bless her claustrophobic heart.)

In short: I love books. I do not plan to surrender them for anything "e."

Someday, I may change my mind. I suspect my love affair with the printed word will strain next year when David and I pack what most likely will be about a hundred boxes of books when we move. Someday my eyes may need assistance that only a future device can provide.

But it is not this day. I appreciate reading in any form, but I intend to continue my love affair with the printed page.

10/13/09

The Funeral Poe Never Had


Baltimore celebrated its favorite son this year on his bicentennial year by not only celebrating his life, but also giving him the sendoff from this mortal coil he did not get 160 years ago.

Only one man could write the stuff that scares the stuffing out of even the most seasoned horror writer and still spurs men to wear bright purple. Credit for that alone goes to Edgar Allen Poe, with whom a single word — Nevermore! — can create images that capture the essence of Gothic fiction, as well as inspire the name of a profitable football franchise.

The funeral event began at 11:40 a.m. Sunday, October 11, with a processional from the Poe House to Westminster Hall. The Loch Raven Pipes and Drums led a horse-drawn hearse, the curtains on the glass sides pulled up so the casket was visible. The bagpipes were haunting.

The hearse was followed by dozens of mourners in period clothing, including the speakers slated for the funeral service. My embarrassingly limited Poe knowledge prevented me from recognizing some of the bearded faces, and I was glad to see a few women in the processional. A few people were easy to detect with my untrained eye: Walt Whitman in his full gray beard, beige hat and light suit; Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in his garb perfect for the wild moor; and Sir Alfred Hitchcock with an unmistakable profile and very English hat. Not all in the entourage were in 19th century garb, and I was intrigued. (The Poe bicentennial Web site had warned that the list of speakers might change due to their being dead themselves, so I wasn't sure how death had affected the program.)

As the processional came to a halt in front of Westminster Hall, the crowd pushed closer, cameras clicking. (My camera, regrettably, was in my car, forgotten in the haste to see the processional and remembered blocks from where David and I parked.) I am not sure if I would have been as forward as some of the photographers; to me, it was a funeral more than a performance, and there was something macabre and disrespectful about shoving a camera in Whitman's face.

A handful of the men stepped forward to serve as pallbearers, and the casket was slid from the hearse into their waiting hands. They solemnly walked along the front of the hall, cautiously maneuvering their way past the crowd lining in the street. (They did not walk up the steep stairs in front of which the hearse stopped.)

As the hour of the first service drew near, those attending the first service filed into the hall after them.

Many of my fellow spectators/mourners were in period mourning costume, or a close approximation of such. I am not an expert, and some costumes were elaborate and interesting, like the men in full black topcoats, top hats and capes, or the women in long black crepe dresses and hats with black lace covering their faces. Some people were dressed in contemporary clothing apropos to mourning and funerals. Other spectators used this as an opportunity to air out their Halloween costumes a couple of weeks early, and many had clothing with depictions of skulls, The Nightmare Before Christmas or Poe himself. There was a fair smattering of Raven purple. (I myself was in blue jeans and a black blouse, which served me well in the quarter-mile sprint from the car to the processional).

Before the second service, people milled around Poe's grave, placing pennies and flowers on his monument. A clutch of men in the Baltimore City Men's Chorus warmed up in the narrow walkway amidst the gravestones in the yard beyond the spectators. People took photos of the grave, others took photos of their friends and family at the grave. A tall Asian man performed mournful classical music as he stood next to the monument, and the crowd clapped with appreciation. The crowed ebbed and flowed, Goth teens and 19th century mourners mixing with surprised pedestrians passing through the crowd. A long black hearse with a silver skull as its hood ornament blasted what sounded like Vincent Price giving a dramatic reading (presumably of Poe's works), though the distortion prevented me from understanding a word from where I stood. I took photos of tombstones, some of which were under the hall, behind locked gates.

Inside the hall was a replica of Poe's original tombstone, which was destroyed in a freak train derailment accident before it was even placed on his grave. The stone was surrounded by beautiful flowers (presumably from the event's official florist, who accepted phone orders with free delivery for the service). At the front of the hall were the organ's tall pipes that reached to the arched ceiling. Hundreds of chairs filled slowly as the mourners took their seats.

The speakers were unknown to me by sight, for the most part. The Reverend Rufus Griswold was soundly hissed as he took the stage. Both Poe's former fiancée Sarah Helen Whitman and his close friend George Lippard countered the reverend's previously published slights. Both were animated and engaging. In fact, Lippard was so overwrought he needed a glass of water to continue his eulogy — then, as he left the lectern, threw the rest in Griswold's face. Poe's nurse, editor, attending physician at his death all were present to pretty much set the record straight to the author's life and final days.

The second half of the service was more entertaining to the casual Poe aficionado. That was when those who were most influenced by him, authors and movie directors, illustrators and actors alike, took the stage. Whitman had little to say, but spoke with affection for the man who welcomed him to the office building in New York they both occupied. Charles Baudelaire was effusive and dignified. H.P. Lovecraft was brilliant with his nervous gestures and reading aloud what sounded like gibberish from a large book (I'm sure his fans will explain that to me). Hitchcock offered his profile and some of his familiar catchphrases.

When we came to the living, their tributes were touching and spoke deeply to my own sensibilities. Ellen Datlow, in her black dress and wild hair, was humble and appreciative. Gris Grimly was funny, self-deprecating and irreverent (and dressed in a t-shirt with a bare rib cage on the front and a dress jacket); only a geek can articulate what it's like to be a geek and have a roomful of fellow geeks get it. Mark Renfield brought Baltimore and D.C. of today into the mix with references to pop culture of the time and place. John Astin spoke briefly but with heartfelt appreciation, and Poe House curator Jeff Jerome's words spoke to this bureaucrat's heart.

In the end, the casket passed through the hall and we paid our final respects. More than 700 people attended the services, and many more stood in the cool autumn sunshine, blocking traffic and wandering about the cemetery. The event allowed all to celebrate the life and works of a man who might have been impoverished at his death but left a legacy beyond all measure. It was a great event, and I am glad David and I could be a part of it.

If a person's wealth can be measured by influence, Poe died a rich man who, I hope, will continue to be remembered and continue to influence generations of readers, writers and movie directors (and whatever media follows). May the events of 2009 in Baltimore encourage more people to read and learn more about him, his time, his work and his homes — including the Poe Museum in Richmond, another great Poe resource and enjoyable destination (and the town he felt was his true home).

10/6/09

Banned Books Week: Answers to the Quiz

Thank you to all who sent in your guesses for last week's quiz. It was a little tough, I have to admit.

Here are the answers to the quiz. Now, if these quotes intrigue you enough, I hope you go pick up the book. I've read all but maybe one, and to be honest I probably read that one but don't remember. And let me know what banned or challenged books you enjoyed most.

1. How could someone not fit in? The community was so meticulously ordered, the choices so carefully made. (The Giver, Lois Lowry)

2. It is like the hole in your mouth where a tooth was and you cannot keep your tongue from playing with it. (Ordinary People, Judith Guest)

3. “I believe that love is better than hate. And that there is more nobility in building a chicken coop than destroying a cathedral.” (Summer of My German Soldier, Bette Greene)

4. He was seething inside with new emotion. Nothing seemed very important except the Princess. He was single-minded about her. He was enchanted. He was possessed. He was in love. (Pillars of the Earth, Ken Follett)

5. I'd soon as go to jail than take that damn relief job. (Native Son, Richard Wright)

6. Last night while I lay thinking here
Some Whatifs crawled inside my ear
And pranced and partied all night long
And sang their same old Whatif song:
(A Light in the Attic, Shel Silverstein)

7. It had been all right as long as they could laugh at me and appear clever at my expense, but now they were feeling inferior to the moron. I began to see that by my astonishing growth I had made them shrink and emphasized their inadequacies. (Flowers for Algernon, Daniel Keyes)

8. "Mockingbirds don't do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don't eat up people's gardens, don't nest in corn cribs, they don't do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That's why it's a sin to kill a mockingbird." (To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee)

9. My first-born. All I can remember of her is how she loved the burned bottom of bread. Can you beat that? Eight children and that's all I remember. (Beloved, Toni Morrison)

10. "She won't be coming down here with the spray. She'll be coming down here with a shovel. It happened to my brother. Split him right down the middle. Now I have two half-brothers." (James and the Giant Peach, Roald Dahl)

11. We learned to whisper almost without sound. In the semidarkness we could stretch out our arms, when the Aunts weren't looking, and touch each other's hands across space. We learned to lipread, our heads flat on the beds, turned sideways, watching each other's mouths. In this way, we exchanged names, from bed to bed: Alma. Janine. Dolores. Moira. June. (The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood)

12. I expected Daddy to explain everything on the way home—all that stuff Dr. Griffith had been talking about—that I didn't understand. Instead, he and Ma argued about whose fault it was that I have something wrong with my spine until we pulled into the driveway. It was almost as if they'd forgotten I was there. (Deenie, Judy Blume)

13. I was getting to where I could see the truth. Someday I'll be brave enough to speak it. (The Outsiders, S.E. Hinton)

9/28/09

Banned Books Week: A Quiz

The American Library Association recognizes Banned Books Week — and this year, Banned Books Week is September 26 through October 3.

So, let's test your banned books knowledge.

The quotes below were taken from among the 20 books listed at the end of this entry. Can you match the quote to its book?

Submit your answers by October 5, 2009 via e-mail (see "Contact us," right), and I will choose one person from among those who have submitted the highest number of correct answers.

The winner will receive a banned book from The 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books List, 1990-99.

Good luck!


The Quotes
1. How could someone not fit in? The community was so meticulously ordered, the choices so carefully made.

2. It is like the hole in your mouth where a tooth was and you cannot keep your tongue from playing with it.

3. “I believe that love is better than hate. And that there is more nobility in building a chicken coop than destroying a cathedral.”

4. He was seething inside with new emotion. Nothing seemed very important except the Princess. He was single-minded about her. He was enchanted. He was possessed. He was in love

5. I'd soon as go to jail than take that damn relief job.

6. Last night while I lay thinking here
Some Whatifs crawled inside my ear
And pranced and partied all night long
And sang their same old Whatif song:

7. It had been all right as long as they could laugh at me and appear clever at my expense, but now they were feeling inferior to the moron. I began to see that by my astonishing growth I had made them shrink and emphasized their inadequacies.

8. "Mockingbirds don't do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don't eat up people's gardens, don't nest in corn cribs, they don't do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That's why it's a sin to kill a mockingbird."

9. My first-born. All I can remember of her is how she loved the burned bottom of bread. Can you beat that? Eight children and that's all I remember.

10. "She won't be coming down here with the spray. She'll be coming down here with a shovel. It happened to my brother. Split him right down the middle. Now I have two half-brothers."

11. We learned to whisper almost without sound. In the semidarkness we could stretch out our arms, when the Aunts weren't looking, and touch each other's hands across space. We learned to lipread, our heads flat on the beds, turned sideways, watching each other's mouths. In this way, we exchanged names, from bed to bed: Alma. Janine. Dolores. Moira. June.

12. I expected Daddy to explain everything on the way home—all that stuff Dr. Griffith had been talking about—that I didn't understand. Instead, he and Ma argued about whose fault it was that I have something wrong with my spine until we pulled into the driveway. It was almost as if they'd forgotten I was there.

13. I was getting to where I could see the truth. Someday I'll be brave enough to speak it.

The quotes above were taken from 13 of these challenged books:
  • Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret
  • Beloved
  • The Catcher in the Rye
  • The Chocolate War
  • Deenie
  • Flowers for Algernon
  • The Giver
  • The Handmaid's Tale
  • I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
  • James and the Giant Peach
  • A Light in the Attic
  • Native Son
  • Ordinary People
  • The Outsiders
  • Pillars of the Earth
  • To Kill a Mockingbird
  • A Wrinkle in Time

9/23/09

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society — Review by Chris


I like a good story. I also like fascinating characters who reveal the story in interesting ways. I got both in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, a surprisingly powerful yet compact novel that captured me by the third letter.

Juliet is best known for her wartime columns in London newspapers. As "Izzy," the writer found something light in the dark and shared her own poignant, humorous ponderings. But now the war is over and Juliet wants to leave Izzy in the past. It's time for the Next Thing — only she's not sure what that is. She owes her publisher a new book, but she's stymied on what to write. Nothing feels right, nothing sounds true.

Then she receives a letter from a stranger who has come to own a book that used to belong to her. Could she recommend a reputable bookseller to help him discover Charles Lamb? Thus begins a special correspondence that changes her life.

The letter comes from a resident of Guernsey, an island in the English Channel that, like the other channel islands, were occupied by the Germans. The occupation began in 1940, and the islanders were literally cut off from the rest of the world until the end of the war: no correspondence, no radio, no newspapers, no contact at all. Their food, homes, their every possession became the property of their prison guards. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society was borne of this oppression — and the existence of a single pig.

The slim volume unfolds the story in the form of correspondence: letters, cables — and, in one instance, something meant never to be seen by another person, ever. Juliet is the main character, and much of the correspondence is written by or received by her. However, the same situation is, from time to time, witnessed by and described by different people — like the time Juliet throws a teapot at another journalist's head. (He deserved it.)

I love Juliet. Wait, let me reiterate: I. Love. Juliet. She is lively, loving, clever, self-deprecating and wholly unaware of how utterly special she is. In other words, she is human. She writes some of the best, loveliest and wittiest lines of the novel. It is the margin notes in a pamphlet Juliet once owned that draw the original letter-writer to her.

I also loved how the story unfolded, letter by letter. Each letter-writer has a distinct voice that remains true. Each character is essential to the story, which unfolds to me a rich, new aspect of World War II. I was unaware of the occupation of the Channel Islands, or the existence of the Organisation Todt. I knew some urban dwellers sent their children to live in the English countryside with strangers (thanks to C.S. Lewis, I confess), but I didn't know that Channel Islanders also sent their children to the English countryside, then lost contact with them for five long years. I didn't know the first thing of being trapped on an island, subject to the whim of the Third Reich, when Churchill and the Crown considered the islands a necessary sacrifice for the whole of England. Despite all of this learning, never once does this feel like A History Lesson. It is the story of people, and the people are fascinating, even (and especially) the ones readers may not like.

I wholeheartedly recommend this modest tome and hope you enjoy the characters and their story as much as I did.

9/16/09

The Twilight Saga — Review by Chris


Spoiler alert: this review contains spoilers, so if you have not read all of the books and do not wish to know major plot points, stop reading now. Consider yourself warned!



***************************************************

Okay, let's just state the obvious up front: I am not your typical Twilight reader. However, I am certainly not your typical "young adult fiction" reader, and yet I am a fan of the genre.

I also am a fan of Twilight.

I read the saga at the recommendation of my friend Corinne, whose taste in books I admire. She and I have shared similar opinions on many books over the years, so I decided to pick it up. (Maybe then the Facebook Flair would make sense!)

I was not disappointed. It was a riveting series with engrossing storytelling and rather likeable characters.

For those of you who are under the same rock I so recently inhabited, let me sum it up: Bella lives in Forks, a small overcast town in Washington state. She meets Edward, a fellow high school student, and falls madly in love. One problem? He is a little older than she is. Okay, about a century. He's a vampire and will eternally look like a high school senior.

Once he admits he can't live without her, she admits she can't live without him — even though he's a vampire. To complicate matters, so is his entire family (a.k.a. coven). They're not "bad" vamps: they live on the blood of animals, rather than humans.

These are not the only members of the supernatural circus that surround Bella — and thank the heavens for that. Bella isn't the most graceful of characters and finds herself in a few pickles in her time. From threatening would-be attackers to psycho vampire trackers to bratty teen girls, she is not safe around any corner. (This is played up a little too much in the series for my taste, but at least I understand why.) Edward, on the other hand, is rather indestructible, so one can see why he hates to leave Bella to her own devices.

Charlie, Bella's father, is a little clueless for a police chief, but in the end it's possible, just possible, that he might be a little more savvy than readers have been led to believe. After all, I saw the Plot Complications coming, so why didn't Charlie? It is a very unfair, hackneyed characterization of small-town cops and parents.

The saga is told in four books, which I can summarize swiftly: Twilight puts Edward and Bella together, New Moon wrenches them apart, Eclipse puts them back together and Breaking Dawn completely changes everything.

To summarize is quick and about as cold as Edward's chiseled flawless frame. To read is to savor some terrific storytelling with the warmth of Jacob. The characters are richly drawn and complex, the plot twists aren't always the standard fare — and, quite simply, a girl simply must fall in love with Edward.

Oh, I know there's a Team Jacob, and I understand that camp. I, too, adore him and would gladly have chosen him had Edward not returned. However, Carole and I agreed: Bella could put Nessie on Jacob's back with total confidence that she would be safe for all time, but Bella's first, last and enduring thoughts will be her love with Edward Cullen.

I probably could have walked away from the series after Eclipse. The fourth book was weaker than the others. Stephenie Meyer should have split that book into two novels. Breaking Dawn already is longer than the others (which is saying something). Additionally, so much happens so quickly, and the final storyline of the novel is sufficient for a book in itself.

Breaking Dawn was relentless in its storytelling, and the reader deserves the loving treatment s/he experienced with the first three books. I even took a break of two weeks between the third and fourth novels, and it still didn't help. I fear Meyer suffered from the "Thousand Pound Gorilla Syndrome" and the publisher let her do what she wanted because her formula proved successful. (Note to publisher: be as judicious with the final book as with the first, and readers will love you for it.)

Don't get me wrong: Breaking Dawn was enjoyable. It just was too much.

Carole and I also agreed that Bella's self-deprecation was excessive. First, she droned on to the point of "shut up already!" about how she was so clutzy while Edward was perfect. She perceived herself as a stupid sack of meat in comparison to Edward's chiseled marble perfection. Only when she achieved her goal to be like Edward was she satisfied — and then she was unbearable as a perfect immortal. Thank heavens Corinne and her friends do not mirror that absurd thinking. I hope that's the same with other teen girl readers.

Aside from one spoiler from the Washington Post review (thanks a lot!), I walked into the series blind — and I am glad I did. I hope you did, too, and that it allowed you to savor the surprises, the great tale and the magic of a great epic adventure/romance.

I recommend it to every reader. It's a good read and a wonderful story. Just don't try to consume this generous gift at once. Pace yourself, and take your time. Cleanse your palate between books. Trust me: Meyer won't let you loose your place.

9/8/09

Classics, Past and Future

I have been devouring junk food for a while, and that's fine. I can gorge on chocolate as easily as Brussels sprouts, so consuming Stephenie Meyer's novels was very easy.

I do not mean to disparage Twilight, New Moon and Eclipse, all of which I devoured this past weekend. I loved every moment of these books. These novels are second to none in heart-beating romance. I shan't wax on about them now, but suffice it to say that I enjoyed them.

Then I stumbled across a quote from Madame Bovary and skipped over to Wikipedia for a reliable link to the novel. My, oh my, I do believe it could give Twilight a run for its money.

Gustave Flaubert's novel was known as scandalous in its time. When the story originally was published in 1856 (serialized in a magazine), it was put on trial for obscenity. Of course, that guaranteed its bestseller status the following year when it was published as a novel.

In 2007, contemporary authors cited Madame Bovary as one of the two greatest novels ever written.

The greatest novel, according to contemporary authors? Anna Karenina.

I don't know if I can agree because I'm ashamed to admit I have not read Tolstoy's masterpiece, and I am sure Madame Bovary was one of the novels I gave myself permission to skip as an undergraduate.

So, to cleanse my palate before reaching for Breaking Dawn, I will read one of these novels.

Or Janet Evanovich. I haven't decided which.

Hey, if 1800s popular culture can be considered among the best novels of all time, who's to say Stephanie Plum isn't destined to be a romantic heroine in the future?

By the way, Bella Swan's reading of Wuthering Heights in Eclipse apparently has stimulated teen interest in the classic. I am glad to see that good stories never lose their luster.

8/31/09

The Art of Racing in the Rain — Review by Chris


People who live with animals, or "pets," have a special relationship with them — and probably anthropomorphize them more than those who do not have intimate relationships with animals. I myself wonder just how much credit I give my cats that they don't deserve.

Then I see Khan sitting by the door when I return from my run so he doesn't miss me (or, really, his soft food that he gets every morning). I see Cisco tread carefully on the bed to see how I am feeling when I am sick or sad. I watch them, listen to them and know that while they may not have my same thought process or frame of reference, something is going on in their brains that allows them to analyze the situation.

Garth Stein lets Enzo show us the inner workings of devoted dog's brain in The Art of Racing in the Rain. The title does not refer to what I had expected, which that was a nice surprise.

When we first meet Enzo, the narrator, he is at the end of his long life. He gives us clues as to what has happened in his decade of life, little tidbits of who we might meet (or not), and a glimpse into his interests. (Yes, Enzo's interests. You'd be amazed.)

Through the course of the novel, Enzo unfolds for us the story of his life, which is the story of his family, the human who adopted him and the people who come along in his life. We meet Denny Swift, a race car driver who adopts the puppy Enzo from a farm in Washington. We meet Eve, who marries Denny. We are present at the birth of Denny and Eve's daughter, Zoë.

Stein captures with clarity and affection the relationship people have with their animals. Each family member has a different relationship with Enzo and each tell him what they will tell no one else. If you can't tell your dog your greatest fears, hopes, dreams and truths, you shouldn't have a dog — and in this story, it is clear that the Swift family should have a dog.

Enzo meets plenty of people who probably shouldn't have dogs, and many who should. He does not judge all people, but he does have opinions about those he knows. We meet all of the people who are in Denny's life, including his in-laws (whom Enzo calls the Twins), Denny's friends and co-workers, and the Swifts' extended family.

There are many lovely, light moments, when a dog loves being a dog. (Denny is a race car driver. Need I say more?) There are dark and terrible moments, when loss eclipses love, when people — and animals — react the only way they know how. Through it all, Enzo remains a reliable narrator, honest and observant. And he is observant in ways humans aren't, which provides an excellent dimension to the story. He offers the good and the bad, which is only fair, despite — or perhaps because of — his stalwart loyalty to his master and his family. When he is not privy to information or experiences firsthand, he reveals what he finds out from whom and how. (Readers may find themselves more judicious when speaking in front of others after Enzo reveals how keenly some around them may listen.)

I dread most "animal stories" with the animal as a narrator because they are terrible. The animals often act like or are treated like humans in the story, a betrayal of both the animal and humans. Animals are not humans, and Enzo (and Stein) never make that blunder of confusion. Enzo'a observations are true to character.

My friend Kathy warned me to have tissues ready at the end. I kept them nearby from the beginning, which for me was a good thing. It is not maudlin, but lovely and true, and good for all readers — even dog lovers of a tender heart who avoid books like these.

I wholeheartedly recommend this book for everyone, no matter their relationship with dogs.

8/24/09

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo — Review by Chris


The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was a well-written novel with interesting characters and a compelling story. It started off like gangbusters with an intriguing first few pages describing an old man receiving a mysterious gift in the mail, continued ripe with suspense and intrigue, and ended with heartbreak. I should really have liked it.

However, I didn't like it, and I wouldn't recommend it to another reader.

First and foremost, it was very lurid. I stopped watching the television shows CSI and Law & Order because every crime seemed to involve a young, attractive woman who was raped and/or murdered in gross, horrifying ways. The excruciating details of these crimes laid bare in 42 minutes made me ill.

Such was the case with this book. Every section title page included a statistic regarding violence against women, so we had an idea that more would be revealed. Two main female characters were brutalized, and as the story unfolded, so did the immensity and scope of their brutalization. To their credit, neither accepted the mantle of "victim," and each found a way to make herself a "survivor."

The number of women who were not survivors, however, is staggering. The range and the luridness of these crimes literally disgusted me. Readers have to plow through this information to get to the end, and it is a terrible path to have to take. I didn't need to read such tragic stories.

Author Steig Larrson, may he rest in peace, touts Lisbeth as quite the hero. I suppose she is — but at such a cost that I wish he hadn't created her. Maybe she isn't a victim, and never will be, but what she experienced still broke my heart.

The rest of the book deals with finance, corporate greed and corruption, romance, family intrigue, mystery, history, journalistic integrity, Swedish law and the love of Apple products. Oh, and computer hacking. And possibly autism. Are all of these important? Sure, but I couldn't get past the awfulness of the crimes to which the women in this book were subjected.

It also seemed interminable: the book was much like the Energizer bunny and I just so wanted someone to find a way to thwart it. Just when I thought the violence toward women couldn't get any worse, it did. (By the way, men were brutalized, too, and it was quite terrible as well.)

I recently discovered the Swedish title originally was Män som hatar kvinnor (which translates to Men who hate women), and it made the book more intriguing — until I got to the horrors, then I understood exactly what the title meant. It didn't make the revelations in the book any less awful, or more intriguing.

Stieg Larrson wrote two sequels to this book, the second of which, The Girl Who Played With Fire, was published this summer. I won't read either of them.

8/17/09

Dangerous Reading

I have a habit of reading as many books as there are rooms in which to read. It’s a lofty idea, and not a bad one for someone who likes the challenge. I have two books going on upstairs — Shadow of the Wind and Good Omens — and a “mobile” book (currently The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) I take with me wherever I might wish to lounge.

This weekend I also read four PostSecret books, but those were living/dining room books, working books of sorts about which I was taking notes.

Do you know what this means? (Oh, besides Who the heck is Blumkvist and which Vanger are we talking about now? — though I suspect that would be a question even if it was the only book in my repertoire.)

What this means is that it will take me three or four times longer to finish a single book, and I will finish multiple books at once.

That’s not a big deal. Normally. Unless there’s a blog that benefits from book reviews. (And I do believe I have one of those.)

So, for your benefit and for my convenience, I may have to leave Daniel Sempere wondering what Fermín was doing with Nuria.

Adam might be on his own with Dog, the latter of whom has begun to enjoy rolling on his back in the sun, while nuclear power plants lose uranium.

I may instead have to see who might have killed Harriet and whether Kalle will get anything out of the Vangers despite their best efforts to stay at war with each other and remain cranky in the bitter winters they spend within sight of each other’s houses.

Or not. The Vangers may be on their own — though the recent discovery that the Swedish title originally was Män som hatar kvinnor (which translates to Men who hate women) may catapult that book to the front of the pack.

No matter which book wins the contest, they’re all good reads and I can’t wait to finish all of them (and write about at least a few of them).

What are you reading? How many books do you juggle at once?

8/10/09

Allusions, Anyone?

I just found one of the best books for book lovers: Literature Lover's Book of Lists.

I read fewer than two dozen pages before I had to take a break. The table of contents was enough alone to make me dizzy. It was that good.

So, from time to time I might just pull a gem or two out of the book to share with you, Gentle Reader. You might know some or all of them, but I appreciate you humoring me.

For example, do you know from whence many literary terms originated? "Big Brother" isn't just a television show, after all. While familiar, many of these terms have become such common usage that their original meanings often are obscure to later generations. I delighted in reading about them, and being reminded of their origins.

Beau geste is from the novel (and movie) of the same name. As you remember, the eldest Geste brother, Michael (also known as "Beau") dies heroically. Now, any grand gesture or sacrifice can be a beau geste. The phrase is French and means the same.

Brave new world is from Aldus Huxley's novel and referred, with tongue firmly planted in cheek, to a heartless, soulless society.

Perhaps less well-known is Brahmin, which is the name of the first of four castes (varnas) of Hinduism. Oliver Wendell Holmes and his influential companions of his close-knit Boston community. This group was influential, well-educated and politically powerful — and referred to as the Boston Brahmin.

Peyton Place, the novel by Grace Metalious, gives us the term for a community that shows a veneer of respectability with a seething underbelly of real problems.

Svengali was a creation of George DuMaurier. In his novel Trilby, the lead character was being groomed to be a singer by — and under the hypnotic spell of — the musician Svengali. Now, strong personalities who hold too much sway over their proteges are called by the name of this character.

I could go on, but I'm sure you have a few of your own favorites. (Ugly American? Noble savage? Man for all seasons? Shangri-la?) Share them!

8/4/09

Johannes Cabal the Necromancer — Review by Chris


Johannes Cabal isn't your typical necromancer, if such a thing exists. First of all, he's a little unconventional (and the opening chapter will give you a clue). Second, he doesn't give a damn about what Satan thinks, wants or expects. Third, he'll get his soul back at any cost — no matter what's thrown at him.

In the spirit of Christopher Moore, Jonathan L. Howard crafted a clever, funny and unique book about life, death and everything else in between, courtesy of Johannes Cabal the Necromancer.

In this debut novel, Cabal has taken a road less traveled. He's become a necromancer, not a typical career choice in England (or anywhere else on the planet). He's taken the additional step of trying to ensure his success by selling his soul to Satan to succeed at this endeavor.

Alas, he's learned that lacking a soul throws a necromancer's experiments off just enough to mess up the works. Like a stomping baker, everything Johannes attempts falls flat.

He isn't going to take this lying down. He makes a wager with the Big Guy (Down Under): he will bring Satan 100 souls in a year's time or he loses his soul. Forever. Again. In nasty ways.

Knowing Satan doesn't make a bet he can't win, Johannes takes the wager and finds himself saddled with a traveling carnival. In a word, "Eeeeew." If you were skeeved by human carnies, the folks on this train will keep you awake at night — but in a humorous way.

This book could have been dark and foreboding, brooding and wicked. Instead, it careens toward the dark, nicks just enough to make it interesting, then puts a different spin on the story.

Take Horst. He's Cabal's brother, but he's so much more. He's a vampire, but he's not without some morals. He knows his brother (better than one imagines) and has, as brothers are wont to do, seen his brother at his worst and best. Horst is brought on because (a) he will play along and (2) he knows what people want. And he does, to an extent — he can recognize a damned soul from a hundred paces, and he knows what attracts them. But does he play along, really? What does it take, and what would it cost?

Horst is not alone. Johannes is surrounded by an interesting collection of creatures who know their roles and their positions. They know their jobs and they perform them well. The characters Johannes meets along the way make the tale intriguing in surprising ways.

Can Johannes collect a hundred souls with a ragtag carnival inconceivable to the Prince of Darkness himself? Can he do it without losing any more of what makes him a man? Can he use his talent to gain his talent? Can anyone beat Satan at his own game?

With wit and surprises, laughs and truly incredible moments, Howard crafts a compelling and entertaining story. I was captured by the first scene and riveted before I reached the end of the first chapter. I cared: about Horst, Cabal, Bones, the Laytex Lady — even the criminally insane escapees. The story unfolded with grace and precision, and I enjoyed it greatly. The carnival was reminiscent of (but nowhere near as dark and evil as) Ray Bradbury's classic Something Wicked This Way Comes, whom Howard credits in the book's acknowledgements.

Rumor has it that there is a sequel planned. I'm glad, in part because I really need the end explained to me — and a second book is a lovely way to do it.

Pick up this book, and thank Emily at Borders for the recommendation. (I already did.)

7/27/09

Why I'm Not Finishing A Lesson Before Dying

My local library has chosen A Lesson Before Dying as the community book, and I picked up a copy immediately so I could be one of the first out of the chute in discussions.

Now I'm one of the first out of the book discussions.

Grant Wiggins is an angry man. He treats his aunt with visible contempt, and she returns the favor. He's angry at his students, over whom he exercises a ridiculous amount of control and lords his authority. He gets angry at them because he's angry, and he treats them bad enough to make them cry. The only person he doesn't seem to treat like dirt is his married girlfriend — but it's still early in the book.

I'm halfway through the book and I'm still not sure exactly why he's angry.

Oh, I get some of it. I understand why he's mad at the white people who lord their authority over him, and the subtle ways he exercises his rights (the right to correct grammar, the right to choose his humiliations). I understand why he tempers his anger at them, and how he tries to use them to get what he needs for school, for his aunt, for Miss Emma.

I understand why he's mad at the students, most of whom will either never leave this place or will die terrible, violent deaths because of who they are and the poor choices they will make. He sees himself in them, and he hates that he's back in the same school where his former teacher told him to get as educated as possible so he'd have a chance at a decent life. His cruelty to them, especially the youngest ones, is abhorrent, and I don't wish to suffer it any longer.

But his life is a mystery, teeming with anger, and it's a mystery that I'm not sympathetic enough to unravel and anger I'm not interested enough to suffer. Wikipedia notes that Grant's relationship with Jefferson breaks him out of his self-absorbing anger, but I can't suffer any more Grant.

If you have any insights that might make me want to start the book over, I'd be much obliged if you would share them. I will give it another fair shake if, like God, I find one reader who can give me good reason why I should continue.

7/23/09

Astrid and Veronika — Review by Chris


Where does friendship start? In a classroom for a subject at which you do not excel? On a train, traveling to somewhere you've never been before? Maybe in a small village in Sweden, in a rented house where you're recovering from a pain so deep you don't know how it will ever stop?

In Astrid & Veronika, friendship begins in a kitchen in that Swedish village. Astrid Mattson is the "neighborhood witch" who has lived in the same house in the tiny village her her entire life. The globetrotting Veronika Bergman has rented a small neighboring house with the intent of writing her second book. The two houses are within sight of each other, but remote from all else.

Veronika falls easily into a habit of walking, eating, writing (or not) and thinking. From time to time, she thinks she sees a flicker behind the kitchen panes of her neighbor's home, but there's no movement otherwise inside or outside of the house. It's as if no one lives there.

Astrid knows she's viewed as a witch in the village. She doesn't mind that people in the village steer clear of her. She lives alone, and she says it suits her. However, once someone is suddenly not alone, it's hard to keep up the façade. She watches Veronika with more interest than a hermit should, noting her habits and activities. When she does not see Veronika for a couple of days, and it's apparent she's still in the house, Astrid makes a decision: she will go check on her.

This is the beginning, one can say, of a beautiful friendship.

Both women are full of stark and raw emotion. They've had losses and surprises, injuries and indignities. At 78, Astrid has lived a full life — despite the quiet nature of her current situation. Younger by more than half, Veronika had her share of loss and disappointment, and many of the items on her list are quite unexpected.

Author Linda Olsson creates a difficult story full of love and respect. The language is soft and gentle, the characters kind to each other and supportive. They listen when they should, share when they can. No judgment, no horror between the friends — despite some of the shocking details they reveal — which allows the reader to make the same concessions.

Some of the story is told by suggestion. Some is direct. However, it's crystal clear to the readers that these two women need each other at a time when they cannot reach out to anyone else. One hopes that all women have friends like that, and those of us lucky enough with worthy friendships can recognize our better friends (and hopefully ourselves) in these two women.

It's not an easy book to read because of Olsson's women. I don't state that to scare the "gentle" reader, but these women have heartaches, true and deep. Olsson gives it to the reader straight, unflinching as the characters themselves.

If you are brave enough, you will love the characters in the book and find the storyline and its subjects unforgettable. Approach with the open heart these women have and you will be rewarded.

7/19/09

Remembering the Memoir

The passing of Frank McCourt, the 78-year-old author of the wildly successful Angela's Ashes, made me think about the memoir — specifically, what good memoirs I have read.

I will give McCourt his props. His memoir was grand, sweeping and one of the most heart-wrenching books I had read to date. It broke my heart to read about children experiencing such abject poverty, hunger, cold and disillusionment. I watched the movie with Carole the first weekend of its release, and neither of us was a terribly happy camper when we left the theater that night.

Carole and I have reviewed a number of memoirs in our blog, and some of them are worth mentioning (and recommending).

  • If I am Missing or Dead by Janine Latus. A thoughtful and harrowing story of the author's younger sister — but even more so, the story of the author herself. The book jacket starts the story with the disappearance of the younger sister, but the author wisely begins the story at the right place: at her own beginning.
  • The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls. For those of us who did not experience it, parental neglect seems unfathomable. Try cranking it up a notch or 12 with Walls' book. I borrowed Carole's copy, tabs and all, and I was floored at the conditions under which these parents kept the children. The author begins her tale with an anecdote: seeing her mother living as a streetperson in Manhattan. Most authors wouldn't know where to go from there. Walls takes us to the right memories, weaving a story of sadness and disappointment that lingers.
  • I Dreamed of Africa by Kuki Gallmann. Africa takes center stage in this memoir of a European woman who escapes to Africa after tragedies in her life. For her, Africa is home and we experience her life in a very visceral way. I cried more than once as I read her tales of hardship and sadness, loss and despair. It was one of the most beautifully written books I had ever read.
  • How I Lost Five Pounds in Six Years by Tom Arnold. I laughed, I cried. It was a sweet, honest and rare story. The persona Arnold presents to his audience as an actor or a TV writer is much different than the love story he writes to his future children. I laughed at his self-deprecating humor. I appreciated the difference between a joke at his expense and being a joke — and never was he the latter. I loved this book so much I purchased a copy to use as a reference guide when I wrote my own memoir. (I will, however, leave out the meat processing plant job in mine.)
  • Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortensen. It's the story of a hiker who gets lost on his way down from trying to climb Mt. Everest and winds up in a tiny village whose inhabitants tend him back to health. In return, he promises to build them a school. Only he doesn't stop at one school for one village. I mentioned this book to my friend Wayne before his deployment to Afghanistan; he lamented the dove-ish approach of education, reminding me the true responsibility of the military. On his first R&R six months later, he commented that his humanitarian efforts made more difference by far than his military might. I think Greg would have agreed.

What are some memoirs you have enjoyed — or not?

7/13/09

The Strain — Review by Chris

I love the re-telling of a tale. There's a magic to recognizing the familiar amidst the unique and unexpected. I also enjoy the modernizing of a tale: technology and modern sensibilities bring a new perspective to an old story.

Then there's just the coolness of discovering a new way of looking at an old friend.

Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan's new book, The Strain, does not reinventing the wheel. But it does change the way we look at vampires.

When most people thing of vampires, they think of Bram Stoker's vampires: mysterious, exotic and just a little sexy. There's something almost erotic about their feeding. Oh, a few "slasher porn" movies have challenged that and made vampires into monsters that rip people apart and scare you to death, but what sells — and what people think of — is Bela Lugosi.

Get your romance somewhere else. The Strain is, as David put it, "part CSI, part legend."

One of the lead characters is a physician with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Ephraim Goodweather leads the Canary project, a group that, much like the name suggests, go into dangerous situations to see just how dangerous it is, disease-wise. When an airplane lands at Kennedy Airport in New York City and, within minutes of touching down, suddenly goes dark and quiet, Eph's people get called in to don their protective gear and test the air, so to speak.

Eph is no romantic. He looks at the slides, the black light, the samples and microbes. He goes cellular.

Neither is Abraham Setrakian. A Holocaust survivor who encountered evil beyond Nazis in Treblinka, the pawnshop owner living in Spanish Harlem knows exactly what is happening. He's rooted in the Old World, but only because of his background as a professor in an Eastern European university. His grandmother's tales open the book, and Bubbeh remains with us as we pick-pick-pick our way through the pages.

The authors introduce us to some interesting characters: Zach, Eph's son and the subject of a bitter custody battle; Gabriel Bolivar, a rock star who is surprised by what he sees when he removes his makeup one day; Joan Luss, a bloodthirsty lawyer (literally) who sees "tort" where others see illness; Fet, an exterminator with a unique perspective.

Hogan and del Toro might have dreamed up what they considered the most inefficient and awkward bureaucracy to respond to this perceived threat, but they weren't too far from the truth. I cringed at the response from the authorities, but it made sense. No one would believe what was happening, not if they were sane.

This is the first of a trilogy. Frankly, I can't wait for the second book, scheduled to be published next year (and the last book will be published in 2011). While reading the novel, I could picture the movie del Toro would direct, and I would be first in line to watch it.

The book was enjoyable, thrilling, compelling and impossible to put down. It is graphic and sad, and there's a scene that will be difficult for pet owners everywhere — but don't let that stop you. Read a new non-romantic vampire book. Expand your mind.

7/8/09

Beginner's Greek — Review by Chris

Beginner's Greek is one of the most satisfying romantic stories I have read in ages — and lately I've read some great love stories (post-marital Darcy and Elizabeth, anyone?). James Collins produces a very complex, enjoyable and tension-creating love story in this, his debut novel.

Peter and Holly meet on a cross-country flight. If there is such a thing as "love at first sight," they've managed to find it in the hours spent talking easily and pleasantly sitting side-by-side on the plane. As they disembark, Holly gives Peter the number where she will be staying, and Peter promises to call. If only he can keep his promise.

The next time he sees Holly, it's on the arm of his best friend, Jonathan. Peter respects his friend and won't stand in his way, and watches silently as the woman of his dreams marries his best friend. When Peter in turn meets Charlotte, he finds a woman with whom he could be happy, and they marry. The four of them — Charlotte, Peter, Jonathan and Holly — will be friends forever. But Fate intervenes.

Fate also brings a cast of fascinating characters that tell the story (their stories, the story of Peter and/or Holly) from their own perspectives. Readers meet Charlotte's father Dick and stepmother Julia, whose stories intertwine in ways one never expects and who tell their parts in the story with honesty and clarity. We meet Graham, Holly's father, in a scene that made me laugh and cry aloud. We meet Arthur, whose part in the story is rather complex and wholly unexpected. Then there's Miss Harrison, who saves the day more than once with a cool detachment that belies her intricate involvement with the tale. We end the story with one last reminder that what we do when we are in this world continue much longer than we realize.

What drives this book is the characters: they are complete and complex, clever and self-aware — and absurdly good people. Would I have the presence of mind to react with Peter's kindness and selflessness? Boy, I hope not. And yet they are wholly believable, whether by our own desire to be so or by the truth of their character.

The story has twists and turns that sometimes are telegraphed and sometimes are complete surprises. It's not wholly unique, but it is original and delightful. There are some moments that ring so true that I would swear the author had been reading my diaries. There is one love declaration scene that made me feel good that some of the most romantic scenes are the most realistic — and are the most wonderful.

From time to time, the language is almost archaic, with, as one reviewer put it, Victorian exclamations. At times, the character and storylines stretch almost to the point of breaking. Would you say what she said or do what he did? Would anyone? Who cares! It works within the confines of this novel.

Read this book. Enjoy this book. Then do what I did: recommend it to everyone you know who wants a satisfying, delightful read.

7/3/09

Books I Would Never Read Again

I have strong feelings about books I have read, but rarely do I assign them to the "untouchable" pile. However, there are a few exceptions, and I will share them with you (in no particular order).

Coincidentally, every single one of these books has been made into movies — and in some cases, Hollywood has taken some liberties — and I can hope that it helped. (Not for myself, but for others.)

  • Plague Dogs by Richard Adams. If he was trying to reinforce the horrors of animal testing, he more than did it. I had thumbed through it once or twice, then I gave a copy to Carole — who, one evening, asked me cautiously, "Have you read it?" Oh, no, I assured her, but Richard Adams wrote Watership Down, so I figured he was trustworthy. When Carole described the story to me, I declared that I would recycle my copy so no one else would suffer through it. Thankfully my reading was superficial, or I fear I would have never recovered.
  • Hannibal by Thomas Harris. The writing was sub-par and the author obviously despised his own character, Clarisse Starling. By the end, I didn't think Harris could lay her any lower — and then he proved me wrong. I had to re-read the ending 10 times before I believed it, and I was so angry. Jodie Foster said she would not reprise her role as Clarisse in the movie based on this book, so the studio hired a different woman (apparently they're all alike) to play the character and changed the ending. (Not enough, from what I heard.)
  • My Sister's Keeper by Jodi Picoult. I probably could have lived with the book if not for the ending. It wasn't bad, and the premise is intriguing. This book is considered by readers one of the most likely to be thrown across the room, and I can see why. Carole also read it for a book club and wanted to throw it across the room herself. Rumor has it the movie has a different ending. Thank heavens.
  • The Last Templar by Raymond Khoury. I chose it for book club and since them apologized frequently and loudly. It had great reviews, which shocks me: the characters were too stupid to be alive and the storyline was beyond absurd. To be fair, the premise is interesting, and in the hands of a gifted storyteller with characters that didn't annoy readers to tears, it might have been good. There's a movie out based on the novel; it's nearly three hours long. For the love of reading, don't do it.
  • Bastard out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison. I'm no masochist, so I stopped at page 70. I didn't think the story could get any more bleak and tragic, but my friend Kathy, who had read it, assured me it did. I'll take her word for it. It might be a tribute to Allison that the story was so vivid. Still, I won't even pick it up to move it aside.
What is on your list?

6/29/09

A Reliable Wife — Review by Chris

In A Reliable Wife, something is going to happen. There's no doubt about that. The question, however, is what?

Well, let's just say that even if it's what you think it is, it's not — not in the hands of Robert Goolrick.

James Truitt is a private man in a small town, where everyone knows everything. Every winter, people succumb to the slow madness of the blinding snow and numbing cold.

He advertises for a wife in a big city newspaper. He receives a number of replies, and he chooses one — Catherine, a plain woman who calls herself "simple" and includes her photo.

Only the woman who steps off the train is not the same woman in the photo.

Catherine is in the wilds of the Midwest at the turn of the 20th century for her own reasons. You know she is up to something almost from the beginning — and after the first few moments Truitt and Catherine are together, you wonder exactly what it is.

Goolrick has an amazing way of blending the story of two people, their lives apart and together, into a deftly tight tapestry of color and texture. Neither is what they appear to be, and yet they cannot be more than themselves. Until....

This story captures the endless winter of the Midwest in great detail, the isolation yet stifling connectedness of a small town, the loss and regret, the hope and anticipation, the surprising willingness to change and be changed.

The characters are vivid and crisp, their stories are bleak but hopeful, sad yet tinged with possibility, colorful yet monochromatic to themselves and their discouragement. I saw possibility in the first chapter and was hopelessly hooked by the second. I had no choice but to see the story through. Just when I thought I was clever (and I was, at least about the storyline), the author tossed in a few curves.

In the end, you will be satisfied by the story and characters, the setting and the surprises — and the parts you knew would happen like that after all.

6/18/09

Penny Vincenzi's Windfall

Keep your eyes peeled in October for what Amazon calls "perhaps Penny Vincenzi’s most riveting family saga yet."

What if you were given a chance to step out of your life? Would you step back in? Cassia Fallon has that opportunity in Windfall, Vincenzi's newest release due on this side of the Atlantic October 1.

So far, Carole and I have enjoyed the author's other books, including the Lytton trilogy, Sheer Abandon and The Dilemma. I'm saving Almost a Crime for my end-of-summer read, a reward just before school starts.

An upcoming Vincenzi is a cause for celebration, and I'm making room on my bookshelf right now.

6/15/09

David Sedaris is Coming to Town!

I recently discovered a writer who has made me laugh aloud more than once, and whose books I enjoy without fail: David Sedaris.

I heard him first on The David Letterman Show (thanks, Stadium Pal!), then stumbled across an audio recording of an essay of his I read about Christmas in the Netherlands:
A Dutch parent has a decidedly hairier story to relate, telling his children, 'Listen, you might want to pack a few of your things together before going to bed. The former bishop of Turkey will be coming tonight along with six to eight black men. They might put some candy in your shoes, they might stuff you into a sack and take you to Spain, or they might just pretend to kick you. We don't know for sure, but we want you to be prepared.'

Sedaris has an enviable way of making honest comments that stop the reader in her/his tracks. I read Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim and found myself reading passages out loud, and quickly shared it with Carole — his description of his mother's contempt for people who own more than one home (and the family's consideration of doing just that) was quote-worthy:
She laughed and swatted him with a towel, and we witnessed what we would later come to recognize as the rejuvenating power of real estate. It's what fortunate couples turn to when their sex life has faded and they're too pious for affairs. A second car might bring people together for a week or two, but a second home can revitalize a marriage for up to nine months after the closing.

His work is a literal joy to read, and these nuggets of humor are so tightly woven into his essays that every entry is a gem.

If you have a chance, read his stuff — and now that he's promoting his latest book, he very well could be coming to a town near you. I hope to see you there!