Our Town - Review by Carole

Thornton (You don't meet a lot of Thorntons these days--some names are fading out of use--I think that's a shame) Wilder's Our Town is one of my favorite plays. I have read it many times, most recently reading it aloud with my family. Chris recently posted on her Top Fave Summer Reads; Our Town would be on that list for me.

The simplicity of the play as it examines small-town life, particularly the lives of the Webb and Gibbs families, just has a staggering impact on me every time I read it. My family had to sit around and wait patiently for me to collect myself and blink back tears as I read the play to everyone (Cue the eye-rolling for my children, who would argue that I do that for almost everything we read at least once).

What struck me this time was how strongly I reacted to what was happening in the parents' lives throughout the play. When I was younger and read the part of Emily for a class play, I identified most with young Emily's role. Her certainty about life, her views of life in black and white, I could relate to all of that.

Reading it later as a wife, I sympathized greatly with George and how his life turned out. While I still feel for him, this time I was really touched by what was happening in the parent's lives throughout the play. As a parent, my heart just ached for Mr. and Mrs. Webb.

To Kill a Mockingbird is the only other work that I can say has touched me in the same way. You get one perspective when you read/watch it as a child, another as an adult, and yet another, more intense one, as a parent. I could relate to Scout and Jem as children, I admired Atticus' integrity and strength as an adult, but I felt his palpable fear and his abiding love for his children most keenly as a parent.

Works such as these are rare indeed--I treasure them.


The Gemma Doyle Trilogy - Review by Carole

I wanted to name this blog post "Hanging with the Victorian Girls" because I really feel like that's what I've been doing lately. A trilogy is a big time commitment, and in this case, one I'm glad I made.

During a recent trip to Nashville, my daughter and I were heavily into our trilogies. She begged me to read the Gemma Doyle trilogy (A Great and Terrible Beauty, Rebel Angels, and The Sweet Far Thing) by Libba Bray so that we could talk about it. She moved on to the Twilight series by Stephanie Meyer(Twilight, New Moon, and Eclipse vampire series set in modern day, which has really captured the attention and imagination of the 16-year-old set. (My daughter and her friends are actually getting together at a local bookstore and coffee shop first thing on the morning of August 2 to get the fourth book (Breaking Dawn). I'll be taking that series to the beach with me in August.

Meanwhile, I was hanging with the Victorian girls in the world created by Bray. I couldn’t help but notice some Harry Potter similarities—young girl discovers that she has powers, she heads off to boarding school feeling alone and friendless, she learns that she has enemies before she learns that she has the ability to face and fight them. Once you accept those similarities, you follow Gemma Doyle on her path of self-discovery.

Gemma Doyle is a lovely brave girl of many admirable qualities, but many times throughout the trilogy, I wanted to shake her until her teeth rattled. (“You have magical powers, and that is what you chose to do with them. Seriously?”) I found myself getting irritated by her actions, but then I came to respect Bray’s choices for Gemma’s actions. Gemma is a Victorian girl, and nothing is expected of her except to attend boarding school to learn to be a proper lady whom a gentleman would want to marry. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that she is rather overwhelmed by some of the dramatic situations in which she finds herself (or into which she blindly stumbles!). Watching her mature and evolve into a stronger self makes it a worthwhile read.

After initially feeling lost and alone when she gets to school, Gemma makes friends with an interesting group of girls. Ann is her roommate who is at the school on a scholarship. She is poor—she is only there to learn to become a governess for her nouveau riche cousins’ children. Her dreams of becoming a singer/actress are fading into the drab background of limited possibilities for Ann. Felicity is wealthy, but her parents are alternately neglectful of their daughter or entirely too involved with her, which leads Felicity to desire independence and some say in how she lives her life above all else. Pippa’s beauty overwhelms those around her, but her sense of self-worth is entirely based on her looks, leaving her vulnerable when it comes to making important life-and-death decisions.

Gemma learns that her magic brings with it many responsibilities. The magical world she and her friends are able to enter is populated with many different characters and creatures who demand much of Gemma. Gemma also faces the demands of her family and friends. She often has to choose whom to help and when. Her choices are often made on an emotional level rather than a practical one. But then again, she’s a Victorian teenager.

If you are looking for escapism this summer, this series will keep you entertained albeit occasionally irritated. In any event, you’ll find the pages turning faster and faster to find out whether Gemma Doyle triumphs over the many challenges she faces in both this world and the magical realm.


Visitors from All Over

Less than one year after we started our blog, Chris and I are thrilled to see that we have had visitors from all 50 of these United States (and 49 countries). New Mexico was the last holdout, and thanks to some help from Joe in Nashville who stills has friends in Albuquerque, our map is now all in shades of green (how trendy!).

We love that you are reading what we post and we always look forward to hearing from you. We hope that by the time we are closing in on our second year that the shades of green on our map will be even darker as we get to know you all better.


Chris' Summer Reading List

Okay, so it's halfway through summer and I've just issued my reading list. Can you blame me? Everyone crowded around Memorial Day as though Summer Reading Started Then.

We all know Summer Reading Begins After School Lets Out.

However, I was knee-deep in planning a wedding at that time. So, I give myself a pass.

Now that I am healing from a broken foot, Carole has given me a suggestion that has saved me from the brink of insanity: read. Don't worry about what needs to be done around the house. First of all, that's what David is for. (Okay, she didn't say that last part.) Second of all, exactly when will there be another excuse like this one?

"I'm sorry I can't vacuum, but I can't hop on one leg for that long." (Though David did jokingly suggest it, even pantomiming the Chris-hopping-action. We laughed.)

"I can't change the sheets. I just can't stand it."

"Mop? On one foot? On a wet floor? Honey, do you have a life insurance policy on me I don't know about?"

Long story short, it's time to read.

Here is what I plan to read this summer (and not exactly in this order):
  • 20th Century Ghosts. Little by little I finish this very good collection of scary short stories.
  • Ahab's Wife, or the Star-gazer. Carole loves the first line. Can you blame her?
  • Dark Angels. I borrowed it from Karen. She needs it back at some point in the future. Why not now? Anyway, I had picked it up at the library this past winter and never got to it, so now is as good a time as ever.
  • The Garden of Last Days. I still haven't recovered from The House of Sand and Fog, and yet I reach for Dubus' latest novel. What am I thinking?
  • The Golems of Gotham. I loved the title, so I bought it at a library sale a couple of years ago. Re-animating the dead as golems? In New York? As if I could resist.
  • A Great and Terrible Beauty. Carole will soon review the Gemma Doyle trilogy, which she and Corinne loved. I read the first chapter and liked it — but was lured away by Neil Gaiman.
  • Mistress of the Art of Death. I purchased this book a year or so ago and never got to it. Now it has a sequel. Maybe I'd better start the first one....
  • Sheer Abandon. Penny Vincenzi is a Must-Summer-Read.
  • There Will Never Be Another You. Kathy loved this one. I hope to, too. I want to read her autobiography as well. (Carolyn See, not Kathy's — though I'd read that one, too.)
  • Unaccustomed Earth. I started this book as soon as I fished it out of the Amazon box. I set it aside, however, because I wanted her stories to linger. I have enjoyed both of her other tomes, and I will pepper my reading with these wonderful stories.
  • The Year of Pleasures. Another Kathy pick. She hasn't steered me wrong yet!
Does this seem ambitious? Probably. However, I have time on my hands now that I'm not on my feet. Plus, if I get David to row out to the middle of the lake, I get to see him and read. I promise to make the best of this situation.

Wish me luck, and let me know if you can think of any other not-to-be-missed novels!


Fearless Fourteen — Review by Chris

Fearless Fourteen, the latest Stephanie Plum novel by Janet Evanovich, was mindless and delightful, easy to pick up, hard to put down. I needed Fluff 'n Trash while sitting for eight hours in the emergency room, and Cindy hooked me up with the this great distraction.

This is the latest in the Stephanie Plum series, so I started at the end. However, that wasn't a problem. With this series, the books appear to stand on their own. I waded into the middle of it all with no problem.

And talk about a "middle"!

In book 14, Stephanie works as a "bounty hunter" for her cousin the bail bondsman. It's not glamorous or sexy, and it's not dangerous.... until now. Her boyfriend's cousin Loretta, who was arrested for knocking over a liquor store (okay, she took only a bottle of gin because she wanted a Tom Collins), didn't make her court date. Stephanie returned her to jail to let her set a new date and come up with more bail — and promised to pick up Loretta's son from school that afternoon.

If only it were that easy. "Zook" is a gamer who turns on Stephanie's elderly grandmother to the game — and tags everything he sees (with washable paint, thank heavens) with his name. Not even Morelli's dog is safe.

Meanwhile, Loretta's brother Dom is out of the klink after serving time for robbery — and a $9 million fortune that was never found. Dom is convinced that Morelli is Zook's father, though neither Morelli nor Loretta have ever claimed that. Add to that Dom's anger at Morelli getting their grandmother's house while Dom was in prison and it's not pretty.

At this time, Ranger needs Stephanie to do a little moonlighting. He's got a gig protecting Brenda, an aging superstar known by only her first name. And she's every security guard's nightmare: brassy, sassy and more than glad to see what Ranger is packing.

Then there's poor Tank. Lula has decided they need to be engaged to be married. This brick of a man has to face his animal-printed woman and her plans for her, er, their "dream" wedding complete with a white dress with train (for her) and an unspeakable-looking tux (for him).

Suddenly, people wind up dead and in Morelli's basement (sometimes both at once). Then Loretta gets sprung from jail, only to wind up kidnapped — and Zook has to stay with Morelli until they find Loretta, hopefully before her toes are mailed to him, one by one. Why and how is this happening to Morelli?

What has a giant pizza have to do with Brenda, and could Gary be right? Does yellow police tape really keep people from digging up the yard? Would you go to Cluck-in-a-Bucket on a Sunday? How many partners did Dom have? More importantly, who's Ken and how far can Mook shoot a potato?

I might have to hit Cindy up for a couple of the previous books. This is mindless summer reading at its best, and it's a book I can heartily recommend. Dive in — and hand me the sunscreen.


Neverwhere — Review by Chris

I want Neil Gaiman's imagination. He doesn't just come up with a storyline. Nope, he has to come up with entire worlds, filled with characters that couldn't come from anywhere else but his imagination: trickster gods, dead princes — and now London Below.

Thus is the case with Neverwhere, a slightly beaten hardback I found on the shelves of the local used book store months ago but saved until now. (One does not rush Gaiman works. One savors them, approaches them carefully. One can only handle so much assault on reality and yet remain in it.)

Richard is living his life as best he can. It's not a bad life. He has a job, a social life, a new fiancée — all in all, not bad. However, it's not exactly good, either. Like so many of us, Richard is going through the motions, living a life he has sort of stumbled into — and one, like a soft, fuzzy but sticky web, he can't escape. On a disastrous Friday afternoon with seemingly typical debacles involving work and Jessica (the aforementioned fiancée), he starts out for dinner.

He never makes it.

A young woman appears on the sidewalk in front of him and his fiancée, seemingly having fallen out of a wall, and bleeding. Jessica sidesteps around the young woman, but Richard can't. He picks her up and carries her to his aparttment, despite Jessica's stern warning about missing dinner with her (very powerful) boss. He doesn't listen. He must help the young woman.

Her name is Door, this strange, small and wounded woman. From the first, the encounter is one not to be understood. Can she really talk to rats and pigeons? Is he truly dozens of stories above London? Who is this marquis? And where did that copy of Mansfield Park come from on his shelves?

When she leaves, she apologizes with a great air of sadness. He doesn't know for what. He also is very insulted by the marquis, who dismisses him without an inkling of respect. After Jess (excuse me, Jessica) leaves a message on his answering machine, he's not inclined to venture out until work Monday morning.

And that's where it gets weird. (You'd think the pigeon would have done it.)

Richard disappears from his life and everything he knows. He wanders around aimlessly until —

Well, let's just say the author does not disappoint. I found it difficult to put down the book, and as I read it, I would every once in a while turn to David and say, "This is really really good." Then I'd turn back to the book and be lost.

With Gaiman, one literally does not know what will come next. At every turn, I wondered, and was delightfully surprised by what the author had in store. It was one long surprise, which is a rare treat.

There are many rich moments in the book, but one in particular stands out: Richard is challenged to either believe his reality at that moment, or believe that it's all in his head. Like one of the more interesting "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" episodes, the hero is provided with two equally convincing scenarios. However, as with just about everything in London Below, Richard has no room for error. Choose the wrong reality, and — well, let's just say the pain might not last too long, maybe. If faced with life as you knew it, which was so comfortable, and the new reality, which decidedly was not, which would you trust yourself to choose? Or rather, where would you prefer to be?

As the book came to a conclusion, it did follow part of a path I had anticipated — or rather, what I had hoped. I had come to love the characters and wanted the best for them. Thankfully, the conclusion wasn't exactly as I thought. The final pages went where I was glad to follow them.

If you like Neil Gaiman, this will not disappoint. If you like fantasy, this will be your book. If you like a story that you don't see coming, go get this book right away. Afterward, I suspect you never will look at the seemingly discarded members of the human race again.


Chris' Top Five Fave Summer Reads

With the late Mr. Juster's birthday in the so-recent past, I celebrated my favorite book of his and wondered what books I would want with me if I was on the beach — of a desert island, or in the midst of holiday revelers.

These are books I have read. Some are oft read, some aren't because I have shared them. The list of books I have yet to read for the summer will follow soon!

The Phantom Tollbooth

This novel is perfect to share with readers of all ages. It's classified as juvenile fiction, but as fans of Harry Potter know, "juvenile" is in the eyes of the beholder. Norton Juster creates a fabulous world that can be taken on many different levels, depending on the reader's age and maturity (which can be mutually exclusive).

Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife
Readers might want to take along a dictionary when they read this wonderful novel, but it's not really necessary. Linda Bertoll is very clear, no matter her vocabulary. As one fellow reader put it: He takes her again, and again, and.... You get the gist. It's a great romp for the reader as well. One always wanted to see how the Darcys wound up — and now one does.

No Angel
Romance, sex, intrigue, consuming passion, family obligation, wealth, loyalty, wartime — and enough to last for more than a single generation! Penny Vincenzi wrote the perfect Fluff 'n Trash story that has the interest and energy to last for three books. I have recommended this book many a time since my friend Kathy introduced me to it, and every person has instantly read the subsequent novels. Now, I myself have read only the first book in the trilogy, but I can't wait to read the rest. I might have to alter this list to include all three novels!

The Moon is Always Female

I love poetry, and this volume really speaks to me. Marge Piercy can be a little heavy-handed, but I like her language, rhythm and line breaks — not to mention her sentiment.

I thought I knew the story of Oz — that is, until Gregory Maguire got a hold of it. The Wickedest Witch There Ever Was: was she really wicked? Says who? And why? Under some circumstances, one does not delve. For example, when Dr. Seuss tells readers no one knows why the Grinch was grinchy, one should believe him and not delve into live-action Whoswapping. However, when Maguire raises the question, readers want to know — and see differently what was once clear. (This book is not the musical, and vice versa. Both are fabulous in their own rights, but they are not the same. Trust me.)

And to be fair, here are Some Books that Don't Belong on This List (in no particular order — and not because they're not good, because some of them are!): Jude the Obscure (come to think of it, anything by Thomas Hardy) • MiddlesexThe Last TemplarHouse of Sand and FogA Good and Happy ChildThe Somnambulist • and more....

Let me know what you would (or would not) put on your list.


An Innocent, A Broad — Review by Chris

I am a huge fan of Denis Leary, whose No Cure for Cancer is one of the most amazing stand-up performances I have seen. In that show, he talks about his young son born prematurely in London. I am touched by that part of the show — Denis shows an amazing range of delivery, and who can resist a man's love for his infant son?

Imagine my surprise when I discovered his wife Ann wrote a memoir about that experience. Her first book was mentioned in an announcement for her new novel. So, I had to read it — I wanted to learn about the experience from the other perspective.

One of the most important elements of a memoir is the honesty. I don't mean A Million Little Pieces Dishonesty, where characters and situations are created for the "storyline." I mean honesty about herself and the situations around her. This was a very touching and tense story, and author Ann Leary could have taken the easy road with sympathy and saccharin-sweet reflections and observations. But then, with that sentimentality, could she have survived nearly three decades married to Denis?

I was prepared to like Ann Leary. I wasn't disappointed (until the cat incident, see below). She was an honest person about her own strengths and weaknesses. She did not always show her best side, and I was glad to read that; if she had presented herself as a flawless individual, I would have stopped reading pretty early on. She showed her interactions with the medical staff and she didn't always come off looking good; one can forgive her because she was trying to be active in her son's treatment. Those exchanges showed how patient and understanding the staff was with her.

She was very, very kind to her husband. When he was there, he was on — and I really enjoyed his presence in the story. He grounded her and was a fabulous husband and father. Heck, between his stand-up and her memoir, I'm a little in love with him myself. He asked the important questions. For example, when her water broke, he asked, "Are you sure you didn't pee?" Her answer made me laugh out loud, but also made me anxious for her. I'm sorry to say that he was gone most of the time, which was hard on Ann and on the story.

It also was an interesting comparison of the British and American medical systems. Ann is complimentary of the British system, which we see from the perspective of the person involved with it. As the current presidential candidates talk about this hot-button topic on the campaign trail (or not, depending on the financial crisis of the week), it's nice to see what other countries do for their sick people.

I was really in her court -- until she waxed on about killing a geriatric cat. I have a sense of humor, but not about that. Wishing ill on a 20-year-old arthritic, nearly crippled feline is not funny in the least. The incident took place near the end of the book, and it changed the way I saw her. I liked her up to that part, then I couldn't like her anymore. It was ugly and selfish and I saw her in a different, less flattering light after that.

As far as memoirs go, it was a good book. It wasn't mind-blowing, life-changing or otherwise pivotal. It was just an interesting tale told from a different perspective than I had heard to date. Just skip the parts about the cat and perhaps you'll like her at the end of the book.