Bookish News: Opportunistic or Timely? — Comments by Chris

I love reading historical fiction and non-fiction. I love the odd thriller, even creepy ones.

What I don't like is opportunism.

Publisher Henry Holt has offered biologist Nathan Wolfe a six-figure deal for his book on viruses — during the frenzy of what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is now calling the H1N1 flu. We all have been calling it the "swine flu."

Unless you live under a rock, no one within earshot of a television or radio could have missed the breathless reports about this virus. If you missed that, your government was ready to direct you to their own sources, including flyers from Children's Hospital about how to talk to your children about this disease.

I received a briefing from my organization's infectious disease officer, who assured my co-workers and me that the H1N1 flu is less virulent and deadly than the viruses that circulate every winter. Stripped of the hype, and with added information that the healthiest people are the ones showing the highest exposure to it (without fatality) and the vaccine is plentiful and ready if needed, I wondered why the excitement.

Then the CDC confirmed the first reported death from the virus, and any hope of sanity was wiped from the horizon.

I don't doubt people need to be educated. Wash your hands, use hand sanitizer if you must, sneeze into a handkerchief or your elbow — you know, all the things we all should do to prevent infection from all airborne viruses.

However, I'm a little ill from the profiteering by publishers during a catastrophe. I'm sure that without the hype, the biologist's book would have experienced a modest success, much like Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic and The Great Influenza: the story of the greatest pandemic in history. I read the former when it was first published a decade ago, and I enjoyed it greatly. However, it wasn't purchased, edited and set to be published while people were panicking about a disease the media had convinced them was oozing under their bolted door.

I suffered through the last few elections that saw the proliferation of insta-books littering the bookstores. Both parties tried to "swift-boat" the other with books that more often than not touted not how fabulous their candidate was, but why the other candidate was not fit for the job.

I'm exhausted from hype. I fear that since the terrorist attacks in September 2001, the media and government are trying to make up for missing one of the biggest stories of our generation — and over-hyping every event for the foreseeable future might buy them absolution.

Tonight, AP News announced that the number of reported cases in the originating country is slowing, and no other countries can match those numbers. I'm grateful for that news.

However, I am not grateful for the opportunistic media. We readers deserve better.


Classics in My Queue

I'm always thrilled to discover a classic I didn't know I wanted to read. Here are five on my list:
  • Giant by Edna Ferber. Carole just reviewed another of her books, and she enjoyed it. I loved the movie, and the first few pages promise a great read.
  • Peyton Place by Grace Metalius. It's been half a decade since the divine Ms. M rocked the house and coined a new term for "scandalous little town." There's a sequel, and I might just read that, too. (And yes, I loved the movie as well.)
  • Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe. Apparently this was as much a treatise on God as it was on humanity. It also sounds like it might be a little dry — but I'd be glad to be wrong. And I'm not sure which movie adaptation would be preferable to watch (though I have a soft spot for Pierce Brosnan!).
  • Rebecca by Daphne Du Marier. I loved The House on the Strand and this sounds gothic tale marvellous. Carole love it, so I'm sure I will, too. Again, lots of movie adaptations, but I am not partial to any single one, though the black and white classic sounds like a winner.
  • A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. I've started it many times — and fallen asleep before I finished the first page. Actually, I've managed to miss reading many of Dickens' classics, like Oliver Twist, Great Expectations and Little Dorrit — and after reading Drood, I can't wait to read more Dickens (and maybe even The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins!).

And an embarrassing bonus confession:

  • Dracula by Bram Stoker. Must I admit that I have read books about and based on the great Gothic novel but never the tale itself? Carole recently read it with her family and I enjoyed immensely her daughter's take on Mina (accurate in the way she was about Princess Leia).

What are some classics you've been meaning to read?


Repeat Reads

Some books are a one-time shot. Once the magic has been spent, there is none left.

Then there are the lovely re-reads that keep on giving. Here are a couple of those I keep in my library:

  • The Phantom Tollbooth. This is one of my Desert Island books — you know, the one you'd want with you were you stranded on a desert island. I watched the television show when I was a child and stumbled upon the book during my first week at college. I've never been the same since. It's a book written on so many levels. It is classified as a children's book, but I assure you, it's a delight for readers at any age. Milo is bored, so he takes a trip to a fantastic land and makes a discovery that I've found to be true time and again. Every time I read it, I find something else wonderful and new.

  • Good Omens. Rarely have I laughed this hard and this long. Every person to whom I have recommended this also has laughed aloud. In fact, one friend said he wanted to read the funny stuff to his wife and, well, found himself reading the entire thing aloud to her. What happens when the end of the world is nigh because an angel and a demon kind of lost the spawn of Satan? Bonus: it's written by two of my favorite authors: Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett.

  • The Spoils of Time: The Lytton Trilogy. To be fair, the first book is my only re-read of this trilogy, but I look forward to subsequent re-reads of all three novels. The books are hefty, but worth the read. Penny Vincenzi knows how to write scandal and suspense, romance and tragedy. Celia Lytton is determined to marry Oliver, and her life is never the same — nor is the British (and, ultimately, American) publishing worlds the same. The story spans more than half a century, and it's breathtaking and sweeping and yet personal and tender. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll wonder aloud to your friends (who must also read the books) how these characters can do what they're doing.

  • Lord of the Rings. I re-read these hefty tomes every year before the movies came out. I have re-read them every couple of years since. It's not the easiest read, and I have to admit I found it easier to imagine what was going on after watching Peter Jackson's vision of it. However, Tolkien is Tolkien, and his magic is more than legendary: it's sweeping and timeless.

  • The Moon is Always Female. Marge Piercy is accessible and yet still mysterious. I get her poems, but in every re-read there's more to discover. And yet reading the same images are a comfort and still powerful year after year. When I read Piercy, I suspect I might have a clue.
What will you read over and over — and why?


Grave Goods — Review by Chris

Spoiler alert: this is the third book in a series. This review might provide information about a storyline you have not yet finished in a previous book. Please be warned.

With the third installation of the Mistress of the Art of Death stories, you know you're going to get a good story. You know you'll see a few of the usual suspects.

But what you have no idea what Adelia will face this time.

Each of Ariana Franklin's Mistress books have been different. The rhythm and language is the same, the characters don't betray you — but the story, the "meat and potatoes" of the book, is different.

In Grave Goods, we start out in Glastonbury, the mystical abbey also known as Avalon. Yes, that Avalon. Someone is being buried, only we don't know who — or, really, when. The world has opened up with a terrible earthquake and no one can trust their senses, let alone the earth under their feet.

A couple of decades later, Glastonbury is still trying to put itself back together. So is Henry II, the monarch trying to quell a Welsh uprising. He finds himself in need of Adelia again. The Brits are a superstitious lot, especially the Welsh who believe in the mystical and can weave a tale that makes it all seem true. Henry, however, needs the truth, rather than the fantastic tapestry the Welsh are weaving). The king seeks it from the only person who will give it to him.

In the meantime, Adelia is busy trying to find a way to save the people of the fen — but avoid being called a witch. As strange as it seems, even after two novels, but as we noted before, the Brits are a superstitious lot — and not one to cotton to anything that isn't literally translated from the New Testament. Women as doctors? Women as people? Pshaw. She is surrounded by people she loves and trusts, but it's not enough. Rowley, however, could make it enough, and yet this bishop is as impossible to move as the doctor.

Thus Henry beckons.

As much as she would like to refuse him, she can't. In the end, she wouldn't, anyway — her obligation is to the dead, and helping them speak.

This time it takes her into the path of someone from her past: Emma, whom we met in The Serpent's Tale. Only it's not just Emma anymore, and the young girl whose live was changed forever has yet more change in store. She is taking care of what is hers, and if it means facing a daunting woman she has never cast eyes upon, then so be it. Some things are more important than a wild, frightened girl.

But in Henry's England, nothing is that easy.

This is a wild England, full of cut-throats and thieves. It is a land in transition, where ancient rites and challenges are beginning to give way to more modern ideas and speculation — but not too quickly or easily in the lands far from London, and certainly not in the mystical land of Glastonbury. (And even less so in within the walls of the Church.)

The strength of the story is not the storyline, though that is compelling and fascinating. What carries the story, as always, are the characters. Adelia cannot be other than what she is, and her true nature always shines through. She is faced by the intelligent and the ignorant people, and those people don't line up the way one expects.

In the end, Franklin again created a wonderful world with incredible people and a great story. Run, don't walk, to the bookstore and pick up all three novels. Read them in order, if you can. And enjoy.


Dewey: The Small Town Library Cat Who Touched The World — Review by Carole and Chris

Chris' Response
I have to admit: I would not have chosen to read Dewey: The Small Town Library Cat Who Touched The World had it not been given to me as a gift. As it was, I postponed the read for a couple of months (and probably would have further lingered had Carole not suggested we read it together).

It’s not that I didn’t think the book worthy; my friend Kathy, who has a similar reading sensibility to mine, recommended it. However, I feared it would be treacly and sappy, like a "Chicken Soup" book. I can’t say if it was treacle because I was crying too hard at the end of the book. Thankfully, it was a night I needed a good cry, so I’m not sure I can hold it against the book.

I was attracted to the story for a number of reasons: I like cats, I work for a municipality, I adore libraries and I like small towns. Let me clarify: I have cats but don't cotton to the cutesy images of them. As a government worker, I am intrigued on how other government entities work -- or, rather, how their employees think they work. I also wanted to get a sense of the inner workings of a library.

Did I get what I expected? No and yes. I got the best of Dewey, Myron and Spencer in a feel-good kind of way. There was no tarnish on anyone, just a gentle glow from the crackling fire in the hearth. Dewey wasn't romanticized or cutesy, thank heavens, but Myron included mostly his best side.

While there are some parts of the tale that have come to pass (we know Dewey was allowed to live in the library), there was precious little about that situation. Was it really a slam-dunk? Even in Spencer, I find that hard to believe — and Myron didn't say it was easy. She just didn't tell us how hard it was.

The same with the town history: I didn’t expect Peyton Place, but I also didn’t expect a sanitized view of the town. Spencer was like Garrison Keillor’s fictional town of St. Cloud, Minnesota where “all the men are strong, the women are good-looking and the children above average.” Even Garrison Keillor creates realistic friction and angst in his tales. We found none here. Even Myron’s description of the "dying town" seemed to take a step back from the town itself, shielding it from the prying eyes of the readers. It's hard to write about what you know too well, but sometimes what you know gets in the way.

I agree with Carole that it was as much a memoir of Myron as it was a book about the cat; I actually kind of liked that, from time to time. However, she was not equally forthcoming about all of the people in her life. She dished on her ex-husband, which makes sense in its context of the story — and that thoroughly rounded, admittedly juicy information, was rich and robust. That made the other important relationships in her life a little faded in comparison.

Myron protected fiercely those relationships that were important to her and made them glow in the light of love, such as her mother and her daughter. At times, she glossed over their stories, again taking a step back and using a wide brush stroke. I never really felt that she was totally forthcoming — about anything. I like a "good news" story, but there needs to be a reason it's news; in some cases, there was no "there" there.

The book also kind of petered out at the end. If it was supposed to be Myron and Dewey's book, as the content suggests, it appears that Myron had nothing left to say about the library in the end. That speaks volumes, if read in context.

In the end, the book served its purpose: it told a few tales about a loveable cat. People who like cats will want to read it. People who like libraries also will enjoy the tale. Readers who don't like cats, or who are Rules People (and we know who we, er, you are!) will wonder how this atrocity could happen, a "library" cat. It was well-edited, and the story moved along at a steady pace. As a book, it was successful. I enjoyed it and I can recommend it to those who want to know about Dewey.

Carole's Response
I hadn't heard of the book until a friend of mine in Iowa suggested that Chris and I read it for the blog. Stacy's mom lives in Spencer, and they are filming the movie based on the book there. Meryl Streep is playing Myron. Stacy said that her brother and his wife actually met Dewey and Myron; they didn't think that the librarian was all that friendly--I wonder how Streep will play her.

I come at this from a different perspective than Chris. I'm allergic to cats and therefore hold them at arm's length, literally and figuratively. What I do love, though, are animal stories that affect many people. I can't help but wonder if animals like Dewey really are extraordinary or do they just happen to show up at the right place and time to have an impact on that place and time. Or do they have an lasting impact because someone happened to tell their story?

When I was a little girl, I got to meet Misty of Chincoteague, who was an old lady by that time. I was in awe that I was getting to meet this character from a book. How cool is that? Dewey's influence on the town of Spencer reminded me of Misty and how her story affected the town of Chincoteague.

Like Chris, I really enjoyed hearing about the town of Spencer, but I often felt like Myron felt like an outsider in the community. She shouldn't have--she belonged to that place--but that hit me a few times as I was reading it. That's the funny thing about memoirs--the writer includes only the bits they want to share, but other stuff creeps in around the edges. It's up to the reader to see what they can make of it.

I didn't have a big cry when I read it--I did sniffle a time or two. Generally, I am a big crier, which my children will readily back up, but when I read an animal story that tracks its life, then I'm pretty sure I know how it will end, so I try to steel myself a little bit.

All in all, I liked the book. I'll probably catch the movie on DVD.


Reading a Long Book

What do you do when faced with an immense book, one that very well could take you the rest of your natural life to read?

Do you plod steadily, reading page after page, until the end? Do you break it up: read a little of the big book, then a short book — if only to feel as though you have actually accomplished something?

Or does it depend on the book?

Recently, I discovered that for me, it depends on the book. Drood was one of the longest books I had read in a while, and I was captivated. The first chapter was a little dry to me, but I was rewarded with one of the most original stories on the shelves today.

But it wasn't easy. In fact, it was a challenge. Don't get me wrong: the book was fabulous, and Carole and I will discuss it soon on this blog. However, after a week of staying up late and eschewing most other kinds of entertainment just so I could see what happened next, I was exhausted.

The book was weighty enough, but the story was equally weighty. In this tome were real-life people weaving stories amongst others whom I can only hope are fictitious and even others whom I hoped were real. The story captured the mores of the day with a touch of 19th century sensibility wrapped in modern-enough language. (I love 19th century literature, but some is a little ornamental for my everyday interest.)

Some books can be short (or short enough) and yet feel very long. The first 80 pages of The Mighty Queens of Freeville felt like an eternity. The 7th Victim was the normal length but insufferable.

Even good books can feel long, at least in part: The City of Dreaming Books was a teeny bit slow at the beginning, ramped up to a fevered pitch, then kept going and going. The Lord of the Rings is very complicated and riddled with Elvish and Middle-Earth language, but the story is compelling and a reader is catapulted forward. (One can see a little of the wisdom of breaking the book into three separate novels.)

From time to time, I read recommended books that aren't up my alley, and sometimes those books feel long as well, no matter how many pages. The ones I don't enjoy don't always feel like like an albatross around my neck. For the most part, though, I am keen to continue (or start) a book only if I'm interested enough to give it a certain amount of time or pages.

However, after the thrill that was Drood, I won't worry about a book's length — and I might have a little more courage to pick up the new Dumas find again, after a few years of its presence on the shelves. It's the quality, not the quantity, right?


Happy National Poetry Month!

April is National Poetry Month, and it makes me reflect on how people seem to perceive poetry.

They think it's hard.

I can see that. People think if you read poetry, it's because you "get it." There's some sort of key you must carry around your neck that unlocks the mystery that is a poem.

And yet they never seem to think that about prose, whether it's novels or non-fiction. (James Joyce is an exception.)

Despite my degree in poetry, or maybe because of it, I can tell you: there is no mystery.

Sometimes you get it, sometimes you don't. Sometimes it's good, other times not. And the best part about it? I could be wrong. I listened to people speak about a poem I wrote like it was an incredible piece of literature and I laughed: it was simply a poem about my cat. It was a good poem about my cat, and I could see why they went where they did, but it wasn't what I intended. That's the magic about it: sometimes a cat is just a cat, and sometimes she's a lonesome, disconnected besheret lingering in the shadows at midnight.

I recommend my favorite book of poems: The Moon is Always Female by Marge Piercy. Whenever I'm tense or in a situation where I need comfort from the written page, I reach for this book. I get it, and I am not alone when I am with Ms. Piercy.

So, in honor of National Poetry Month, I give you a poem by Billy Collins I stumbled across while perusing The Writer's Almanac. I think it captures the angst of reading poetry. Enjoy, and go read a poem!

Introduction to Poetry

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem's room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author's name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

by Billy Collins
from The Apple That Astonished Paris. © University of Arkansas Press, 1996.