Wednesday, December 29, 2010

I Heart Crumbling Estates

When I was posting about The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters in November, I looked again at the Amazon review of that book, to confirm that it really did have spoilers.  The next time that I went to Amazon, it told me that since I had recently looked at The Little Stranger, I might also like The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield.  Now Amazon has led me astray with shaky recommendations in the past, but since The Thirteenth Tale was sitting in my nightstand waiting for me to read it, I checked out the editorial reviews to see what they said.  Based on those reviews, I was a little worried that The Thirteenth Tale would turn out to be an earlier, better version of The Little Stranger that I had somehow missed.  They said that The 13th  was a ghost story, set in a "haunted ruin of a house" in England, and was full of family secrets.  Does that sound a little familiar to you?

After reading The 13th, however, I have to disagree.  The 13th is not a ghost story, nor a mystery, nor a fairy tale, but instead is a crazy blend of the three.  It is certainly set in a crumbling estate in rural England, like The Little Stranger, but where the Ayers family in TLS was eccentric, the Angelfield family in The 13th is mentally ill.  The story teller in The 13th is Margaret Lea, who although she is our narrator, is actually reporting the story that she is hearing as The 13th unfolds.  As in TLS, there is a kindly housekeeper, who understands the family and their problems perhaps better than the family itself does, and a doctor, who races to misdiagnoses.

Margaret hears the story of the Angelfield family when she is hired to write the biography of a reclusive writer who has attained celebrity status.  This writer knows how to keep Margaret and the reader interested by doling out little morsels of truth, which in this case are more interesting than any fiction. 

If you are a fan of a true ghost story, this book may be a disappointment to you.  However, if you liked The Little Stranger, like I did, and want to read something else along those lines, The 13th  is a great find.  And now I have a new "mini-genre" to follow, which I didn't even know I liked three months ago - 20th century stories set in crumbling estates in rural England and the crazy families that inhabit them.

Next Up on CD:  Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey
Next Up in Book Form:  Enemies of the People by Kati Marton

Monday, December 27, 2010

Something Worth Fighting For

Almost a year ago, I was at a party with some friends, Dave and Brooke, and we were talking about great books that we had read recently.  They could not stop talking about one, so I asked them to write down the name, so that I wouldn't forget it.  Dave handed me a note later that said:

A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin
Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin
Everything Mark Helprin has ever written

 So, I put Soldier on my TBR list, and figured that I would eventually get to it.  That time has come.

A Soldier of the Great War  is the story of an Italian man, Alessandro Giuliani, and his struggle to survive World War I, with his self respect intact.  The story begins with Alessandro as a dignified old man helping a young man, who is a stranger to him.  The two wind up going on a long walk together, during which Alessandro tells the young man, Nicolo, the story of his life, and challenges and expands Nicolo's view of the world. 

Alessandro's profession is the study of beauty, and that he is able to make a living in this field is an amazement to all.  According to Alessandro, La Tempesta by Giorgione is the reason for war and the reason for peace. The painting, which is at the top of this post, depicts a soldier going off to war, and leaving a naked woman and a nursing child behind.  The message being that the only thing worth leaving a wife and child behind for is to fight for their continued way of life, and a better future for the child.  Although he joined the war as a single man, Alessandro carries this image with him, and it helps him through difficult times. 

One interesting detail that I noticed in Soldier is that although the author is American, the United States is not mentioned at all during the story of the war - no mention of American soldiers, prisoners of war, or even participation. America is only mentioned toward the end of the book as a place to visit or move to after the war is over.

From the beginning, there was something about Soldier that reminded me of Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett.  There are many similarities before one even opens either book.  Follett and Helprin were born within 2 years of each other (1949 and 1947, respectively), the books Pillars and Soldier were published within 2 years of each other (1989 and 1991, respectively), and both books are massive, with Pillars having 1008 pages, and Soldier having 792 pages.  Both novels are set in Europe, and another strange similarity is that they are the only novels that I have ever read with scenes in a rock quarry.  But more than that, the stories feel similar in the tone and voice of the main character.  However, the plots themselves are completely different.  Pillars takes place over several decades in the 1600s, and the story is the struggle to build a great cathedral.  Soldier takes place between 1915 and 1919 in the flashback, and for 2 days in the 1960s.  I guess my point is that if you liked Pillars, you will like Soldier too.

Next up:  Enemies of the People by Kati Marton

Still Listening to:  Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

It's Olive's Fault

I am so not excited about posting for the third time in a row about a book that I didn't really like.  What a downer.  This time though, it's not my fault.  It's Olive's.  And Elizabeth Strout's. 

The last book that I read by Elizabeth Strout, Amy and Isabelle, was not one of my favorites.  Amy and Isabelle is the story of a woman who became a mom as a teenager, and her struggles to raise her daughter, and keep her from also becoming a teenage mother.  The mom, Isabelle, is hard to like, but I would have liked her a lot more if Strout had done a better job of reminding me that Isabelle was only 33 or 34 while she was trying to deal with her 16 year old daughter.  So that one is Strout's fault.

Olive Kitteridge, also by Strout, came out to great fanfare, and even won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009.  I liked the idea of several short stories all set in Maine, and all tied together by one person, Olive Kitteridge, who plays lead, supporting, or cameo roles in each story.  So, I decided to give Strout another try. 

Like Isabelle, Olive is a very hard person to like.  She is abrasive and hostile to those closest to her, but reveals a tender side to virtual strangers.  As her husband, Henry, says, she does not ever apologize.  This seems to be because she feels deep within her being that she is always right.  She is also quick to lay the blame on others for her problems, always saying that what is wrong is someone else's fault. 

So, if you are in the mood for a cheerful tale, this is not it.  But if you are preparing to go home for the holidays, and dreading dealing with your mother or mother in law, Olive Kitteridge might be the book for you.  After reading about Olive, your family members will look kind and thoughtful.

As for me, I'm done with Elizabeth Strout.  I think she'll muddle along without me.

Post Script:  After sleeping on this post, I have to concede that Olive Kitteridge is not a bad book.  It is interesting how you learn about each character through the eyes of the others, and the differences in character that each shows when with their own family versus when they are with acquaintances.  Additionally, there is light at the end of the tunnel, in that the book ends optimistically, with the hope for change and growth.  Olive's son, Christopher, is a more resilient character than he first appears, and while she only admits it grudgingly, Olive does learn from him.  I appreciate that Christopher does not allow himself to be damaged by his past, but instead works toward a better future.  But I still think I'm done with Elizabeth Strout.

Next Up on CD:  The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

Still Reading:  A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Book Group Report - 5

Wow!  It was a big night at book group!  First Heather showed us the amazing bathroom that she and her husband just renovated.  All 9 of us fit inside.  Then, while we played a game involving not saying each other's names, which I sucked at, Lynne told us about being in the Oprah audience for the Favorite Things episode!  She even wore the Ralph Lauren sweater and the diamond watch so that we could see them.  Then we had our annual used book exchange.  I scored copies of Out Stealing Horses by Per Peterson, The Rose Labyrinth by Tatania Hardie, The Fig Eater by Jody Shields, and a Rachel Ray cookbook.  Finally, we talked about our book of the month, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Steig Larsson.

I try not to spoil books by telling you too much about them on this blog.  That being said, I can't tell you how I feel about TGWTDT without giving away the ending.  So, if you plan on reading the book, you should stop reading now.  I will take this opportunity to insert a nice picture of the book cover, so that hopefully you can avoid reading the next paragraph, if you don't want to know.

Any who . . . if you are still reading, this is what I hate about this book.  In the beginning, Henrik Vanger is introduced as a wealthy man, who is unhappy.  Despite the fact that he has money and business success, he is not satisfied because he does not know what has happened to his niece.  He is fine with knowing she is dead; he is fine with knowing that she is alive; but he just needs to know.  In the end, his question is answered, but in reaching his resolution, he learns of several other girls who have died.  He decides not to tell their families what has happened to them, but instead to give their families monetary gifts.  He was not satisfied with money, but he expects that these other families will be.  It just seems that the whole point of the novel for Henrik is the importance of knowledge, but in the end, it is more important to him to preserve his family's reputation than to set the record straight, and give closure to other families. 

The rest of the book group was not bothered by this issue.  Of the 9 of us, 2 refused to read it, 1 loved it, 1 (me) hated it, and the rest were somewhere in between.

Next up:  The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters.  I told you I would have the book group read this one!  I can't wait to hear what they think about it.

Still Reading:  A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin.  I am really liking this book so far.  I am about 220 pages in, which is only about 1/4 of the way through.  So far, the tone of the story and the voice of the teller are reminding me of Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. 

Still Listening to:  Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Light and Fluffy

A couple of years ago, when our neighbors abandoned their house to move to Arizona for a new job and let another family move in until the bank foreclosed, I knew what to do.  Of course, no one in our neighborhood was happy to have a family with 8 "home schooled" kids, all named after Disney characters, squatting in a vacant house.  But, because I had read Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs, and The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, I knew that the question was not if, but when one of these squatter kids would write his or her memoir.  My legacy was in my hands.  Well, really, probably not.  But I did drop off groceries once and bags of winter clothes and books another time during the night when I don't think anyone was watching.  When the memoir comes out, we'll see if the kids had any idea where those goodies came from.

I read You Better Not Cry by Augusten Burroughs, thinking that it would be light and fluffy.  After all, it has a Santa Claus exposing himself on the front cover - how intense could it be?  But instead, this was a pretty depressing and heavy read.  Burroughs has had some miserable Christmases, even after moving away from his parents.  Running with Scissors was a horrifying recount of Burrough's childhood, but it did have its moments when you couldn't help but laugh.  Not so with You Better Not Cry, which was just sad.

Next Up:  A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin

Still Listening to:  Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Reading Gatsby in Tehran

In Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi, I got an unexpected look into life in Iran from about 1980 through 1997, when the author left the country.  What surprised me was how many choices were allowed in a country which I understood opposed anything "Western".  For instance, it never occurred to me that women are wearing jeans and t shirts under their chadors, or that such clothing would even be available for purchase in Iran.  I was also surprised that women could divorce, e-mail and travel outside of Iran.  Of course, women could not travel outside of Iran without their husbands, but the fact that they were permitted to go to places like London or the US at all was news to me.  However, while that was what life was like in 1997, based on news reports, I think that Iran must be more restrictive now.

Much of the book, Reading Lolita is spent with the author, Azar Nafisi, and her students, a group of women who are interested in Western literature.  One of the books that they discussed was Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov.  I expected that Lolita  would be intolerably scandalous for Iranian culture, and was shocked to realize that with one simple plot twist, it would have been perfectly acceptable.  The problem for Iranians was that Lolita (actually, Dolores) and Humbert were not married.  The problem for Americans was that Humbert was sleeping with a 12 year old, and blaming her for it.  The American issue with Lolita is no concern at all for the Iranian hardliners, because a woman can be married at the age of 9 in Iran, and it is perfectly understandable that a woman of that age could seduce an older man.  The Great Gatsby,  by F. Scott Fitzgerald, however, was considered absolutely outrageous when Dr. Nafisi taught the book in Iran.  Her students were horrified by the glamorization of American excesses and lax morality.  The fact that the reader is supposed to be judgemental for just those reasons was lost on Dr. Nafisi's more conservative students.

As I mentioned earlier, while this book is a memoir, it reads more like fiction.  Dr. Nafisi is a talented story teller, and as an added perk, she brings the reader up to speed with mini-lectures on the classic pieces of literature that may have been missed in college.  I would like to see another epilogue, written now by one of her students who stayed in Iran.  It would be interesting to hear about whether Western literature is being taught at all, what women are wearing, whether foreign travel is permitted, and what rights women have gained and lost since the late 1990s.

Next up on CD:  Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

Still reading:  You Better Not Cry by Augusten Burroughs

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Secret Formula

One of my favorite books is Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl.  After reading it, I told everyone who would listen about it.  My sister told me that if I thought that book was good, I should read The Secret History by Donna Tartt, which has the same premise, but which she said was even better.  Since then, my sister and I have agreed to disagree about which one is better, but the literary world is on her side.  A BBC list of the 100 best books of all time just circulated among my Facebook friends, and while Secret History has a solid seat on that list, Special Topics doesn't make the cut.  I think that which book you prefer might also depend on which book you read first.  I read Special Topics before Secret History, and liked Special Topics better, while my sister read them in the opposite order, with the opposite opinion.

The plots of The Secret History and Special Topics are very similar.  An outsider comes to a new school, and notices a group of closely knit students, including both men and women.  The outsider admires the group from afar, and then meets one member of the group who introduces him or her to the others.  The outsider does not instantly fit in, and realizes, uncomfortably, that the group has a secret that they don't want to share.  The outsider eventually determines that the secret is sinister, but never grasps how sinister, until it is too late to avoid becoming complicit in their activities.

Last year, the New York Times reviewed a book called The Hidden by Tobias Hill.  From the review it sounded to me that The Hidden might be another book using this same formula, and I was intrigued.  In The Hidden, the outsider, Ben, is older than the outsiders in Secret History and Special Topics but that barely complicates the story.  Ben is going through a divorce and needs to take a break, so he decides to go to Greece, under the pretense that he will be doing work to advance his studies of ancient Greece, but actually with no plans.  An acquaintance from his school runs into Ben, and tells him about an archaeological dig in the area which was once Sparta.  Ben instantly sees an opportunity to do something that is really interesting while on his hiatus from his life.

After making the requisite arrangements, Ben joins the dig, and is befriended by locals working there who warn him not to associate with the other foreigners, including Ben's acquaintance.  In Secret History and Special Topics there are teachers who are close to the clique, and have varying degrees of knowledge about the clique's secret.  In The Hidden, that role is played by Missy, who is in charge of the dig, who knows that there is a secret, and who believes that it's "bad voodoo", but doesn't know what it is.

What is it about this plot formula that keeps me reading?  It works.  And it works in The Hidden too.  The reader plays the role of the outsider, and slowly tries to piece the secret together.  Once the secret is known, the reader joins the outsider in analyzing all of the alternatives available, and deciding that the situation is hopeless.  In all three of these books, it is not clear why the clique eventually accepts the outsider and lets him or her in on the secrets, but it's really the only way that the story could be told.

Of these three, my favorite is still Special Topics, in part because the outsider never really figures the whole thing out, and some members of the clique are left guessing too.  There's a lot to talk about after finishing that book, and while the unanswered questions leave you wanting to know more, it's a good feeling.  My second favorite is The Secret History, which is really well written, but which spells the secret out completely.  The only thing that you are left wondering is why, why, why did the clique do the thing which they have to keep secret.  The Hidden reveals most but not quite all of the secrets, and it may have been better if more was left unanswered.  The clique is digging in ancient Sparta, and there is the opportunity to have a true "Spartan" ending, which would have left Ben facing a moral dilemma, and which would have been more haunting for the reader.  Another difficulty with The Hidden is that Hill rarely tells you who is speaking, which makes the underlying meaning of what is being said hard to follow, and stalls the character development of the individual clique members.

All said and done, the next time a book with this plot formula comes out, I'll read that one too.

Next Up:  You Better Not Cry:  Stories for Christmas by Augusten Burroughs.  My friend, Kim, lent me this book, and I am thinking it will be something light and fluffy to get me into the holiday spirit before I dig into A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin.

Still Listening to:  Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Most Wonderful Day of the Year

It's the most wonderful day of the year. . . yes it's Thanksgiving, but that's not why.  Yes, it's also the night before Black Friday, which I also love, but that's not why.  It's the day that I found the New York Times 2010 Notable Books List online!  The list won't be published in the paper for two more weeks, but I've found that if you Google compulsively for it this time of the year, eventually it will appear!  Here is the list.

Of course, Freedom by Jonathan Franzen made the list.  Other books on my TBR list that made it are Great House by Nicole Krauss, and A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan.  I was disappointed to see that Alice I Have Been by Melanie Benjamin and Sunnyside by Glen David Gold didn't make the cut.  I was also surprised not to see Just Kids by Patti Smith, especially since it just won the National Book Award. 

After reading the new list, my TBR list now includes Contested Will - Who Wrote Shakespeare by James Shapiro, which is about the controversy concerning who actually wrote the works accredited to Shakespeare, and why we are so obsessed with the question.  I also added Lisa Robertson's Magenta Soul Whip by Lisa Robertson.  How could I not want to read a book by that name?

In other good news, Jonathan Safran Foer has a new book out!  It is called Tree of Codes, and it sounds really interesting.  According to the Vanity Fair article that I read, JSF loves the book, The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz.  He decided to write a new book using some of the words from The Street of Crocodiles, in the order in which they are written, to write an entirely different story.  The book is die cut, so that it looks like someone cut out some of Schulz's words on each page with an Exacto knife.  I am really excited about the concept of this book, but of course, I will have to read The Street of Crocodiles before reading Tree of Codes in order to appreciate it.  Additionally, Amazon says that if I order it, the book will ship in 1 to 4 MONTHS.  Huh???  Is JSF personally cutting out the omitted words just for me? 

All in all, it is a pretty wonderful day!

Still reading:  The Hidden by Tobias Hill.  OK.  I'll level with you.  The reason that I really wanted to read it is that the NYT review that I read made it sound like The Hidden would be along the same lines as The Secret History by Donna Tartt and Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl.  So far (220 pages in) I am still intrigued, but prepared to be disappointed.  I'll keep you posted.

Still Listening to:  Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi.  I am intrigued by this one too!  I keep forgetting it is a memoir - it seems more like fiction, but is so poignant because it is real.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Unspoiled Little Stranger

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters is not the type of book that I normally read.   It is surprising that I even stumbled upon it, but I'm glad that I did.  It was named one of the top 100 books of the year by the New York Times in its 2009 Notable Books List, which may be where I first heard about it.  Each year, I eagerly await the Notable Books List, which usually comes out around Thanksgiving.  This year I read lots of books on the list, but of the books that I have blogged about, The Little Stranger, Museum of Innocence, Wolf Hall, and Columbine were named Notable Books of 2009.

The Little Stranger is an old fashioned ghost story.  It is set on an estate in rural England after World War II.  While the story must take place in 1949 or 1950, it feels more like it is taking place in the 1800s.  The Ayres family is committed to dated ideas of class and the formalities that proper people follow.  They are also economizing by not running their generator, and depending on candlelight for much of the story.  Our story teller is the family doctor, Dr. Faraday, whose mother worked for the Ayres family when she was young.  I remember hearing in high school that normal people go crazy, but rich people get eccentric.  The Ayres family is plenty eccentric. 

I listened to this book on CD in my car, and I loved it so much that I was constantly on the look out for opportunities to drive somewhere by myself.  This book was especially good to listen to since it is a ghost story, and stories like that are more often heard around a camp fire than read.  The important thing for me to tell you about The Little Stranger is to not read anything else about it.  The New York Times review and the Amazon Editorial Reviews are full of spoilers that I wish I hadn't read.  So trust me on this one.  Go get it and read.  We can talk about the plot later.  I think that this will be my choice for The Eclectic Book Group to read the next time it is my pick, so I will write more about it then.

Next Up on CD:  Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi. 

Still waiting for:  The Hidden by Tobias Hill.  I was really interested in this book after reading the NYT review last year, but apparently no one else was.  My library doesn't have it, and had to order it from another county.  In fact, there are only 4 copies of it available in libraries in the entire state of Michigan.  I requested it last Sunday and am still waiting to get it, which puts me in a strange place because I don't want to start reading another book.  Sometimes when the library gets a book from a different library one is only allowed to borrow it for one week.  That means that if I start something new, I'll have to drop it in the middle, and read The Hidden when I get it.  I know that I should take it as a warning that so few libraries have it, and I probably shouldn't expect it to be very good, but I want to try it anyhow.

Saturday, November 13, 2010


My local library has a used book sale about every 6 months, and it is always crammed with so many books, that it is not possible to see them all.  Today I picked up 10 new-to-me books, along with 5 books and 1 DVD for my daughter, and a book for my son, all for $20.00!  I may go back tomorrow for 1/2 off day, or on Monday for "bag day", because I know that even though I spent more than an hour there, I missed lots of other goodies!

The two books that I got that I am most excited about are

Netherland by Joseph O'Neil


Absrudistan by Gary Shteyngart

I also picked up A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, which has been on my TBR list since January, Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi, A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick, and So Long at the Fair by Christina Schwartz.  When I got home, I was disappointed to see that So Long at the Fair is in large print, both because I think I'll find the large print distracting and hard to read, and because someone else who needs large print might have really liked to have found this copy.  Oh well.

As you know, I also like to buy copies of books that I have read before, but which I don't own, and I picked up a couple of those too - Tales of Passion, Tales of Woe by Sandra Gulland, and The History of Love by Nicole Krauss.  I have actually bought The History of Love a few times to give to people, as it is one of my all time favorites, but I didn't have a copy of my own. 

This is the last used book sale of the season for me, but The Eclectic Book Group (yes, I have gone to initial caps in recognition that this label has become a proper name) will likely do a used book exchange in December, so I may still pick up a couple more new-to-me titles this year.

Gotta go read.  My nightstand is so full that there were books on the floor underneath it even before this sale.  There are worse things that I could collect, I suppose.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Story Behind the Painting

In Museum of Innocence, by Orhan Pamuk, the main character, Kemal, travels the world in an effort to learn how to make the best possible museum to honor his love, Fuson.  One of the museums that he visits is the Musee Gustave Moreau, where he is inspired by the fact that Gustave Moreau turned his own home into a museum, just as Kemal planned to turn Fuson's home into her museum.  When Kemal visited that museum, I felt a twinge of regret, and a wish to go back to Paris.  The Musee Gustave Moreau was the one place that I wanted to visit in Paris that we just didn't get a chance to see.

I first read about Gustave Moreau in Luncheon of the Boating Party by Susan Vreeland.  Moreau was a painter, and a collector of art, during the time when the impressionists were making their mark in Paris. Reading Museum of Innocence, with Kemal mentioning the Musee Gustave Moreau, put me in the mood to read more books about the stories behind impressionist paintings.  When I stumbled upon Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper by Harriet Scott Chessman at a used book sale, I knew that it would not sit in my nightstand unread for long.

Lydia Cassatt reminded me less of Luncheon of the Boating Party, however, than it did Girl with the Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier.  It has been a few years since I read GWTPE, but as I remember it, the story there was told by the model, instead of the artist.  The story was also told by the model in Lydia Cassatt.  I think that I liked Luncheon of the Boating Party better, because it was told from varying perspectives, focusing on Renoir's struggles with the painting, but also telling the stories of the models. 

I also prefer Renoir's painting to those of Cassatt and Vermeer, although I didn't get to see it in Paris, since it is kept in Washington D.C.  The painting, Luncheon of the Boating Party (pictured at left)  is itself more active than the paintings by Mary Cassatt which were the subject of Lydia Cassatt (one is included at the top of this post), and the painting, Girl with the Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer.  There may just be more to tell about an active painting than a lone model. 

I enjoy this mini-genre of stories behind the paintings, and think that I will continue to seek them out.  Actually, Alice I Have Been, by Melanie Benjamin, is basically of the same genre, with the only difference being that the art on which that story is based is a photo instead of a painting.  I have Girl in Hyacinth Blue  by Susan Vreeland on my TBR list, which will give me the chance to see if I like her handling of the subject of Vermeer better than Chevalier's.

Next Up:  The Hidden by Tobias Hill

Still Listening to:  The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Columbine: a Parents' Guide

On April 20, 1999, when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold staged their attack on their high school, Columbine, my son turned 7 months old.  Like the rest of the nation, I was transfixed by television, trying to find out every detail.  Of course, I thought about the killers' parents.  I wondered what they did wrong, or what they failed to do.  What could I learn from them?  Could it be as simple as giving my son organic milk, or not letting him watch Saturday Night Live?  I wanted concrete lessons, and if the lessons had been there I would have followed them.  It was especially important to me, because at seven months old, my son already owned a gun.

I come from a hunting family, and so does my husband.  My dad, father-in-law and husband all hunt deer, pheasants, turkey, you name it.  My father-in-law could not let my son's first Christmas pass without buying him a Daisy Red Ryder BB Gun.  And in light of Columbine, that worried me.  I assumed, like so many others did, that Harris and Klebold must have had easy access to guns.  It turns out that they did, but that they bought them through a friend at a gun show, rather than "borrowing" their dads'.  I wanted Columbine by Dave Cullen to come out the week after the tragedy.  Instead, it was worth a ten year wait.

While I was waiting, I heard about Jodi Picoult's book, Nineteen Minutes, and I even picked it as one of my choices for the eclectic book group to read.  If I couldn't have the answers on how to avoid raising a school shooter from an authoritative source, why not look to fiction?  Nineteen Minutes was a scary book, as it centered on the nineteen minutes of a boy's killing spree inside his high school, and how those nineteen minutes impacted the lives of all involved.  Nineteen Minutes obviously took inspiration from the tragedy at Columbine, but instead of giving me good advice, it perpetuated the myths.  The killer will be a loner, a loser, a victim of bullying.  The parents will be distracted; the mom will probably work.  The killer will be obsessed with video games, and some incident will trigger the killing.  In Columbine, Dave Cullen debunks all of these stereotypes, and that makes the truth scarier for a parent than fiction.

The real killers in Columbine did get into trouble from time to time, and yes, some signs were missed.  But for the most part, it seems that there was very little that their parents could have done differently.  The killers came from stable two parent homes.  Klebold went to prom and his mom waited up for him to talk about how the night went.  Both kids were highly intelligent, and had after school jobs.  They had friends - lots of friends.  Their parents did not own guns.  Harris seemed to be an Eddie Haskell character, who could smooth talk his way out of any situation.  His dad doubted his stories from time to time, but rarely had concrete proof that his son had lied.

What parenting lessons could I take from this?  Very few.  It seemed to me like there were two areas where if communication had been better, maybe the tragedy could have been prevented.  The first is communication between the Klebold and the Harris parents.  I can't recall any mention of the Klebolds speaking with the Harrises about the boys.  Could that have helped?  Maybe.  The other area is more troubling, and I think that it continues to be a problem.  Klebold and Harris both got arrested and faced felony charges, but their school was not told about it.  Then they both turned in papers talking about murderous crime sprees which concerned their teachers.  The police had one reason to be concerned, and the school had another, but they never shared their concerns with each other.  I know that kids are innocent until proven guilty, but why shouldn't the police be working with the school counselor?  This is a weak link.  But after reading Columbine I have to conclude that if Harris had not caused this tragedy, he probably would have caused others.

Columbine is a very well researched book.  Cullen did a great job in sticking to the facts without offering  solutions.  Cullen was one of the reporters covering the story, and I would have liked to have heard more about his experiences reporting the tragedy.  I do think it was professional of him not to try to inject himself into the story, so maybe just giving the reader a glimpse of his role as a member of the media in the end notes, like Cullen does, is enough.

Now my son is 12, and he has his hunter's safety certificate.  We don't have guns in our house and we do drink organic milk.  He's allowed to watch Saturday Night Live, but rarely does.  We play basketball and read together.  He's a great kid, and I'm lucky to have him. 

Next Up:  Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper by Harriet Scott Chessman

Still Listening to:  The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Free At Last!

After about 3 weeks of reading, I finally finished Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, and I have to say, I don't get it.  Not the story, mind you, the story is easy enough to understand.  I don't get the flurry of attention that this book has received, as it just didn't leave me all that impressed.

In 2001, The Corrections by Franzen came out with a similar media flurry.  Everyone was talking about it, from the New York Times to Oprah, and I had to read it!  When I finished that book I was also disappointed.  I had expected it to be life changing, but the only change was my realization that compared to the Lambert family, my family was really not all that screwed up after all.  But then, I kept thinking about The Corrections over the ensuing years, and finally, in 2009, I re-read it and I really liked it.  I think that maybe my expectations were too high when I first read it, and then when I re-read it I could see it for the great piece of literature that it actually is.  My feeling at this point, however, is that Freedom is not nearly as good as The Corrections

While reading The Corrections, I felt a bit like a malevolent grandmother, changing her last will and testament from month to month based on which of her grandchildren is "best".  The three adult children in the novel, Denise, Chip, and Gary, all took their turns being at the top, and at the bottom, of the best kid list.  They all made supremely stupid decisions that impacted years of their lives.  But, unlike the characters in Freedom, they all also made good decisions, and you could feel that at the heart of the matter, they were all good people who had complicated relationships with their parents, siblings, and significant others.

I was disappointed with the way the characters are developed in Freedom.  Even Walter and Patty, the husband and wife who are the main characters, are sort of one dimensional. Jessica, Richard, Lalitha, and Patty's siblings are all weakly characterized, and only Richard is really necessary to the story.  The development of Patty is  through her "autobiography", which takes up about 200 pages of Freedom.  Supposedly, Patty's therapist asks her to write about her life, and that autobiography becomes part of the novel.  What bothers me about this is that throughout the autobiography, Patty refers to herself as "Patty" and the voice of the story teller is no different from the voice of the narrator for the rest of Freedom.  In the second part of the autobiography, Franzen, through Patty, weakly apologizes for the limited use of first or second person, claiming that athletes, like Patty, always refer to themselves in the third person.  This comes off to me as lame, and I think that the autobiography could have been improved if Franzen had taken two days or two weeks or two months to re-write it with a different voice, with Patty speaking of herself as "I".

It also seemed to me as if Franzen found that he was writing characters that even he could not like, and that a change had to be made.  Up until Joey asks his dad, Walter, for help, somewhere around page 350, all of the characters are making bad decisions that don't seem consistent with their proclaimed visions of their selves.  Then, all of a sudden, when Joey asks for help, everything turns, and everyone starts getting along.  Maybe I've read the book too recently, and it will make more sense to me later, but for now, that turn is too awkward, and too complete. 

My other problem with the book, is that some inner part of me is a conspiracy theorist, and I can't help but think that this whole book is propaganda for a fight against overpopulation.  In Freedom, Walter is very concerned about fighting global overpopulation, and he comes up with a plan to fund a campaign against it.  The plan is that his friend, Richard, who is a rock star, will get other rock stars together to get young adults (i.e. people without kids yet) to start talking about overpopulation.  He feels that if he can just get overpopulation back onto nationwide consciousness, people will talk about it, and begin to take steps to address the problem.  Hear me out here.  Isn't Franzen, himself, really playing the role of Richard, in using his star power to get his readers talking about overpopulation?  Do you think Oprah could also be into fighting overpopulation?  She doesn't have any kids. . .and how else could you explain her picking this book, as soon as it came out, even after Franzen so blatantly snubbed her when she picked The Corrections?

All I can say is stay tuned to this blog, and if Freedom has the same power to stay in my thoughts as The Corrections does, then 7 or 8 years from now I will re read it, and apologize for my earlier (i.e. current) ignorance.

Next up:  Columbine by Dave Cullen

Listening to:  Yes, after The Memory Keeper's Daughter ended, I missed listening to something in the car!  My kids are at different schools now, so as part of my chauffeur duties, I spend about 45 minutes in the car alone each day after dropping off and before picking up kids.  So, now I am listening to The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters, and I am really liking it!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Book Group Report - 4

Last night, 6 members of my eclectic book group met to discuss Freedom by Jonathan Franzen.  Of those 6, 3 had read the whole book, 2 had not even started it, and I had read 3/4 of it.  Because so few people had finished the book, the conversation was a little coded, with those in the know hinting about what was to come. 

What I was able to gather about the ending is that (1) something unexpected happens; (2) it is a happy ending; and (3) the happy ending may or may not be the wife and mother's fictionalization of their "real" lives.  That's enough to make me want to keep reading.

Due to the timing of Thanksgiving, we won't meet in November, but will meet to discuss The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson in early December.  That gives me lots of time to get through some books on my TBR list!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Coincidence of Choice

My daughter and I drove to Chicago and back last weekend. She likes to watch DVDs in the car during the drive, but because the car can get a little noisy, she prefers to wear headphones to listen to them. This leaves me driving with no one to talk to. Each time this happens, I curse myself for not thinking ahead and getting a book on CD from my library. This time, I did plan ahead, and while I could not get anything on my TBR list, at least I could get one of the books that was in my nightstand waiting for me to get to it, The Memory Keeper's Daughter, by Kim Edwards.

A couple summers ago, everyone was reading Memory Keeper, but for some reason, I didn't. Now I was able to listen to it, and by coincidence, I am also reading Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. What's so coincidental about that? I was surprised by the number of ways that the two stories are similar. At first, I kept getting the two books confused, as both husbands came from poor families, but different states. Then both wives had affairs. The most blatant overlap between the two books, however, is how the Berglunds, the husband and wife in Freedom, and the Henrys, the husband and wife in Memory Keeper, are all intelligent people, very capable of doing the right thing, but instead, they each make horrendous decisions that eventually tear their families apart. Both Freedom and Memory Keeper focus more on the son (both families have two children, one son, one daughter), and he also makes some bad choices. Additionally, the stories are shaped by outsiders, Richard, in Freedom, and Caroline, in Memory Keeper, who influence the family dynamic through questionable decisions that they make.

While I have not finished Freedom yet, my hunch is that in the end, I will find Memory Keeper to be more morally redeeming. In Memory Keeper, Caroline raises a baby with downs syndrome, and is a fierce advocate for her. That is something close to my heart, and I could appreciate that Caroline was working so hard for the baby, Phoebe, when she could have taken a much easier way out. At the end of the novel, the Henrys make the conscious decision to choose understanding over hate, and it seems likely that understanding will soon give way to love. I am questioning whether the Berglunds are mature enough to make that same choice.

Still Reading: Freedom The book group meeting is tonight, and I still have 120 pages to go. Ugh! I cannot get through this book!

Friday, October 22, 2010


As I have mentioned, the books that I read are borrowed from the library, bought at used book sales, or received as gifts.  I almost never buy new books.  An exception is Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen which I am reading now for my book group.  I had to buy it because I would have been 28th on the waiting list at my library, and would have never been able to read it before our meeting. At least I had a 40% off coupon!  Today, I went to a rummage sale, and found some good books to add to my shelves!

These are the books that I bought to add to my nightstand full of books waiting for me to read them:

Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper
by Harriet Scott Chessman

I'm looking forward to reading this one, because I really liked Luncheon of the Boating Party by Susan Vreeland, and I think this one has a similar premise - telling the story of the painting of a famous painting.

Not Becoming my Mother
by Ruth Reichl

I really liked Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl (see below), so I am hoping that I'll like this one too.  It looks crazy short and gifty though.  We'll see how it goes.


Empire Falls
by Richard Russo

I don't know much about this one, but it looks good.  It won a Pulitzer, and was a NYT Notable book, so I have to wonder why I haven't read it before.

Also, I got three books that I have already read and loved, but which I don't own because I checked them out of the library to read them.  They are:  Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl, The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein, and Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami.  Although my kids are in 5th and 7th grades, I still read to them at night, and my son has been wanting to read The Art of Racing for a while now.  I'm looking forward to reading it again, but I seem to cry more when I read out loud.  This could get soggy.

Still Reading:  Freedom by Jonathan Franzen.  This is not going as quickly as I thought it would.  I am sort of bogged down in the middle now, and trying not to pass judgment on it yet. 

Listening to:  Yes, I'm multitasking!  I have been listening to The Memory Keeper's Daughter by Kim Edwards in my car.  I probably wouldn't have noticed it if I was reading them at different times, but Freedom and TMKD have a lot in common.  I'll get to that in the next post.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Museums of Love

In Extemely Loud and Incredibly Close  by Jonathan Safran Foer, the main character, Oskar, scours New York in search of someone who can answer his questions about his dad, who died in the 9/11 attacks.  One person who Oskar meets is Georgia Black, who invites Oskar in to visit the museum which she has created in honor of her husband.  It contains his baby shoes, his war medals, his report cards, old photos, etc.  Oskar is feeling  "heavy boots" about the museum, which is how Oskar refers to the type of sadness that keeps him up at night. He thinks that the museum shows how much Mrs. Black loved her husband and he assumes that she must miss him terribly, like he misses his dad.  Suddenly, in walks Mr. Black, who is now anxious to show Oskar his own museum which he has created, presumably featuring Georgia.

With these museums in mind, I read The Museum of Innocence, by Orhan Pamuk, determined that I would not be fooled by the foreboding and ominous hints that the main character, Kemal, drops about the museum that he creates for his love, Fuson.  Pamuk even teased that he admired JSF, and that he was borrowing from his style, in that he introduced himself, Orhan Pamuk, as a guest at an engagement party, just as JSF uses himself as a primary character in his earlier book, Everything is Illuminated.  In fact, it was not until page 469, when Kemal states "After all, a love story that ends happily scarcely deserves more than a few sentences!" that I began to believe that this story really would be a tragedy.

The Museum of Innocence  is not a page turner, but I think that is intentional.  I got through the first 200 pages at a steady pace, but slowed down considerably from pages 200 through 450, while the pace of Kemal's relationship with Fuson stalls.  In fact, if I didn't remember Georgia Black, and wasn't so confident that it would all end well, I probably would have stopped reading.  With it all said and done, I am glad to have read Museum, but am anxious to get on to my next book.

By the way, today was the 2010 Chicago Marathon, which I so did not run, but which was the original reason behind this blog. When I first started blogging, I planned to chronicle every mile that I ran in training, and the books that I thought about while I was running.  Oh well.  I'm really not feeling heavy boots about missing it!

Next up:  Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Book Group Report - 3

At tonight's meeting of the eclectic book group, we discussed Alice I Have Been by Melanie Benjamin.  I was shocked to learn that I was in good company, in that of the 8 people who were there, 3 had still not read Alice's Adventures in Wonderland even after reading the fictional story behind the fictional story.  I got to feel a little smug that at least I had read Alice's Adventures, even if it was just a month ago!

We were most interested in the history behind the photo of Alice that I blogged about on August 30, and where it was found.  For instance, it seems that if the photo was found among Charles Dodgson's things, or worse yet, in the possession of some other shady man from the era, that maybe the photo could have been intended to be provocative.  However, if it was found among Alice's belongings, it is more likely to have been taken and preserved innocently.  Melanie Benjamin writes that she first saw the photo at an exhibit of Dodgson's photography at a museum, but that still doesn't shed light on where the photo spent the 100 years prior to the exhibition, as photos could have been gathered from many separate collectors.

The consensus on the book was that it was a great story, and it just made us wonder how much could be true.

Our next book is yet to be determined.  Books under consideration are Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine B.  by Sandra Gulland, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson.  My vote would be for Freedom since I have already read the other two, and am going to read Freedom sooner or later, whether the group picks it or not.

Friday, September 24, 2010

To Meat!

As you may recall, in July, I wrote about reading Jonathan Safran Foer's book, Eating Animals, and how I thought that book would change my eating habits.  I am pleased to report that I just got back from buying my first 1/4 cow.

After reading Eating Animals, I could not stop talking about it, and one person who I talked to was a friend who is a vegetarian.  It turns out that she is a vegetarian who grew up on a steer farm.  I told her that the next time her dad had a partial cow available, to let me know.  Well, I got the call, and got the beef!

In Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer talks about the evils of factory farming and inhumane processing.  As such, I looked into both the farm, and the processor.  I was happy to be able to buy a cow from a friend, because I felt like I could trust that it was treated well.  In case you are in lower Michigan, and are in the market for a cow, I will tell you that I got mine from Langmesser Farms in St. Clair.  As far as I can find, they do not have a website.  The cow was processed by C. Roy Inc. in Yale, MI.  I have not tasted anything yet, but I like that C. Roy is a family operation, and they were very kind to a beginner buyer like me.

In researching buying a partial cow, I learned that in addition to those who care about animals or are trying to eat organic, there is another group that is into buying cows - penny pinchers!  Apparently buying the whole (or a partial) cow is much cheaper than buying individual packages, if you have the storage space in your freezer.  My order came out to cost about $3.90 per pound of edible beef, which I found to be very reasonable, considering that in addition to ground beef, I got many steaks of all types and roasts.  It may not be less than I used to pay per pound at Meijer when they had sales, but it is definitely less than even a sale at Whole Foods.  If you buy a cow, remember that there is hanging weight, and processed weight.  I knew in advance that my cost was going to be something like $2.29 per pound of hanging weight (this includes bones, etc), and the processing cost, so I knew in advance how much I would pay, but I didn't know exactly how many pounds I would be picking up.

In the July blog, I said that I was going to call to order my turkey right away.  In fact, I tried.  And the lady laughed at me.  Roperti's, where I will be buying my Thanksgiving turkey, does not take orders until October 1.  Yes, it's on my calendar!  I know that there is a video on Youtube of a man playing a fiddle to serenade turkeys who are penned up at Roperti's, but please don't let that deter you.  I can only guess that they are penned because of the deep snow.  Roperti's is right by my aunt's house, and I have driven by and seen the turkeys out walking freely for at least 20 years.

Also, in case you didn't notice, today is the one year anniversary of my first blog entry!  Now, I won't pretend and say that I've been writing this blog for a year (I have - except for November through June!), but I didn't want this day to go by without note!

Still reading:  The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk.  It is reminding me of a section of Jonathan Safran Foer's earlier book, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, so I will probably have the chance to write more about my favorite author, JSF, soon!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Electric Michelangelo

As I mentioned in the last post, The Electric Michelangelo  by Sarah Hall is a very well written book.  It starts off with the characters speaking in such a strong Northern British dialect that they are hard to understand.  Just when the reader begins to get the hang of the language, Cyril (Cy) Parks moves to America, where he becomes the Electric Michelangelo, tattooing customers at Coney Island, and his dialect begins to take on a more American tone.

Cy's mentor, Eliot Riley, tells him that a tattoo artist is really a midwife, helping people to become someone new.  Cy understands that, but he never quite realizes his own role as a care giver to anyone who needs it, regardless of their state in life.  While he looks for companionship in his life, Cy is constantly seeking a reincarnation of his mother.  What he fails to recognize in himself, is that he is his mother's legacy.  He carries all of the skills and gifts that he admires in her.  Cy and his mother also seem to share the ability of knowing when to walk away, even if they walk broken hearted.

I'm still not quite sure what I think of this book.  In the end, it doesn't seem that Cy got what he deserved.  I'm glad for him, though, that he didn't get what he wanted.  Many things that happen in this book are not fair, but when they happen, it seems that you should have seen them coming. 

I think that this book will be one that I think back on occasionally, and maybe begin to understand differently as time passes.

Next up:  The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk

Monday, September 13, 2010

Reading in the Foreign Language of Sarah Hall

When I first started reading The Electric Michelangelo by Sarah Hall, I was not sure that I liked it. The first night I read about 10 pages. The second night I read about 15. The third night, maybe 20, and so on, with the volume of pages increasing every night. The book bragged on its cover that it was "Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2004" but is that really so great? To brag that you almost won? I checked the Amazon reviews, and one reviewer said that Sarah Hall "can write, perhaps too well." I wondered what that meant - how could a writer write too well?

Now, somewhere around page 115, I think I get it. The characters in The Electric Michelangelo speak such a strange language, that it took me a while to learn it. The story is set in a town on the North West coast of England and begins in the time of World War I. I am not sure if Sarah Hall is such a brilliant researcher and author that she was able to discover and write in a manner of speaking that has long since been forgotten, or if she just started making up words that sounded like something an old British person might say. I really don't care either way, because I am falling for it. The first passage that lured me in was when the main character, Cy Parks, went to meet his future employer, and according to Hall, the door was opened by "a small, hatless, catgut looking man who said nothing . . ." What is that? How could one be "catgut looking"? I have no idea, but I have a vision of the man in my head, that I think is pretty accurate. Except that he is wearing a hat. In a later passage, a character describes an upcoming surgical operation by saying "They've got to cut the fly-walk off me lovvie; if it doesn't go, the whole loaf will go bad". I might be giving something important to the plot away by telling you that, but unless you speak Sarah Hall's language, you have no idea what is being removed, or even if it is being removed from a man or a woman.

When I read, I normally have a big fat dictionary close at hand, so that I can look up any words that I don't know. I don't mark the words that I look up, like the girl did in "Say Anything", because then I'll only be embarrassed that I'm looking up the same word again (and again and again). The words in this book that I don't know are also not known to Merriam Webster, which makes me feel better.

If the pattern continues of reading a few more pages every night, I'm sure to read 40 or more pages tonight, and I can't wait!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Hmmm, That's Odd

The books that I post about on this blog may seem a little mismatched.  For the most part, I find the books that I read in three places:  1)  Books that my book group picks to read; 2) Books that I find and am attracted to at used book sales; and 3) Books that the New York Times reviews.  When I read about a book in the Times that I want to read, I put it on my Amazon wish list, and then, assuming no one buys it for me, I eventually get around to checking it out of the library.  That is what happened with Painting Below Zero by James Rosenquist.  I read this review in the Times, and decided that the book was one that I should read.

While the Times review made me want to read Painting Below Zero, I found the book hard to get into.  I generally give a book 100 pages before deciding that I won't read any more, but with this book, I gave up reading every word and started skimming around page 85.  In its defense, the Times review is accurate, and the book is well written.  However, I think that I was looking for more gossip and glamour than I found.  If you are a fan of James Rosenquist, you would probably really enjoy this book.  On the other hand, if you looked at the picture at the top of this post and thought "hmmm, that's odd", you might want to skip it.

Next up:  Electric Michelangelo by Sarah Hall

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Sarah's Key

When I first met my sister's (now ex) husband, we were talking about his childhood growing up in the Netherlands.  After an embarrassingly long amount of time, it occurred to me that his parents had lived just outside of Amsterdam at the time that Anne Frank was living there.  I said something to him about how crazy it was that his parents had lived there during the Holocaust.  He said that instead of "the Holocaust", they refer to it as "World War II".  At first, I was a little freaked out that my sister had married a Holocaust denier, but that was not the case.  As he kept talking, I learned that while the Holocaust itself did not directly affect his family, World War II did.  His mom stayed alive by eating tulip bulbs.  His dad was forced to work in Germany, and survived the bombing of Dresden.  Ever since that conversation, I have been drawn like a moth to flame to any book about the civilians of World War II. 

The first half of Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay had me entranced.  I had thought about the story of an old apartment in Paris, and was thrilled to find it.  This also fit right in as a book that I would love from World War II.  Amazon even recommended it to me.  But somewhere around page 150,  Sarah's Key went from being a book that I loved and planned to tell all of my friends to read, to a book that is good, and that I will keep, but that I will probably only recommend to certain friends who are also interested in books from that era, or who are interested in books set in Paris. 

From the beginning, Sarah's Key is the story of the lives of people who lived in a certain apartment in Paris, including the family that lived there prior to July of 1942, the family who moved in in July of 1942, and the family who planned to move in in 2002.  In July of 1942, an event took place, which the Parisian author seems to believe has been largely forgotten, even by the people who live in Paris.  I had never heard about it, but of course, our American education regarding World War II consists of Pearl Harbor, the Holocaust, and Normandy.  This forgotten event was a rounding up of Jewish men, women and children by the French police.  Adults without children were generally sent directly  to Auschwitz.  The Nazis did not ask the French police to round up children, however the police did not know what to do if they were supposed to round up adults, and some of those adults happened to have children.  Thinking it would be best, they kept the kids with the adults.  At this point, the Nazis were trying to keep up the appearance that the Jewish adults were going to work camps and not to certain death.  They thought that sending children to work camps would raise questions, so they did not want children.  The French police found themselves in a bind, with hundreds of Jewish families, and no where to send them, so they put them all in a sports arena called the Velodrome d'Hiver.  There were no provisions for the families at the Velodrome, and the families suffered there without food, water, or bathroom facilities until the families were eventually sent to a camp in France, and from there to concentration camps.  This event is referred to as the Vel' d'Hiv', pronounced "the veldeef".

The book starts out with alternating chapters, the first about a ten year old girl in 1942, and the next about and told by a forty-something woman named Julia in 2002. The Vel' d'Hiv' changes both of their lives.  The alternating story pattern continues for several chapters, but about half way through, the chapters about the girl end, and the story is told only by Julia.  We do still learn more about the girl, but we stop learning as much.  While this is obviously deliberate, and I think that I can guess at the reason that the author did this, (sorry - I don't want to give too much away here and I will tell you that it's not why you probably think- read the book - it is worth the read)  I wish that girl's story had continued, even if it was told through journal entries, notes on scrap paper, letters, or friends.  I also wish that I had read this book before I went to Paris so that I could have checked out some of the places that this book features.

Next up:  Painting Below Zero by James Rosenquist.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Book Group Report - 2

Earlier this week, the eclectic book group got together to see the movie, Eat, Pray, Love.  A couple of years back, we had read the book,  Eat, Pray Love  by Elizabeth Gilbert.  The group was pretty much split between lovers of the book, and haters of Elizabeth Gilbert.  It seemed that those who didn't like the book didn't like it because they didn't like the voice of the story teller, the author herself.  Among those who really hated the book were one or two people who listened to it in audio format, with Gilbert herself doing the reading.

Eat, Pray, Love  reminded me of a book that I had read a few years earlier called Tales of a Female Nomad by Rita Golden Gelman.  That book was the story of Rita Golden Gelman's experiences in different societies very much unlike our own.  We decided to read Tales of a Female Nomad next.  The consensus was that Tales was somehow more genuine than EPL.  In EPL,  the author went to tourist destinations, and in large part, lived as a tourist.  In Tales, the author's goal was to understand the society, and when she chose, to become a part of it.   To me, Tales was also more financially truthful.  In EPL, Gilbert repeatedly mentioned giving all of her money to her ex-husband in the settlement, but never really addressed how she was paying for her trips.  My suspicion is that since she was already working as a travel writer, her trips were pretty much funded by her employer, or through an advance on the book that she planned to write about her experiences.  In Tales, Gelman is really honest about how she pays for her travel.  A portion of her funding is from royalties from a popular childrens' book that she wrote decades ago, called More Spaghetti, I Say.  After reading Tales, I went out and bought More Spaghetti for my daughter, and I think that I enjoyed it more than I otherwise would have, knowing what the author was now doing with the money this book generated.  I've thought several times that a combination of Tales of a Female Nomad and More Spaghetti, I Say would be a great gift for a new mother - one book for her, one book for baby - but I've never given that gift.

While we tend to be a pretty casual book group, when we discussed Tales, one of our members arranged for Rita Golden Gelman to have a conference call with us.  It was really amazing to have an author talk to our little group, and Gelman was very friendly and generous with her time.  She was familiar with EPL, and I got the impression that she was asked about the similarities between the books quite a bit.  It would be interesting to know if Gilbert had read Tales before starting on her journey.

I liked the movie, Eat, Pray, Love better than the book.  While there were some strange parts that I might have edited out (dream dancing with her ex-husband at the ashram for instance), it was all in all a positive and uplifting movie.  I was left with the feeling that I needed to go out and make some changes in my life, and really, why not?

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Previous Owners

In June, my husband, Bob, and I visited friends who live just outside of Paris in Courbevoie, France.  Courbevoie is so close to Paris that Napoleon's funeral procession actually started there, and ended at the Hotel des Invalides, where his tomb remains.  Our friends had recently purchased a new apartment, and it was fantastic, with high ceilings, huge, screen less windows, fireplaces, and crown molding everywhere.  Bob caught his first glimpse of the Eiffel Tower from their sons' bedroom windows.  The apartment is in a very old building, with a tiny elevator and creaky hallway stairs with a worn runner down the center.  It felt like home instantly, and I wanted to move in.

I was talking with the wife of the couple, Sev, about the apartment and how cool it was that it was so old.  I wondered aloud about who had lived there before, and who lived there during the German occupation of Paris in World War II.  Being so elegant, and on the top floor of their building, it seemed likely to me that important people had lived there in the past.  I was secretly thinking that maybe this was where Irene Nemirovsky had lived while she was hoping to survive and writing Suite Francaise, but of course, I knew that was very unlikely.  Sev had no idea who had lived there before, but we talked about where her grandparents lived during the war and how they survived. 

Tatiana de Rosnay must have visited old apartments in Paris, and wondered the same things, because 110 pages in, Sarah's Key is the story of an apartment in Paris, and the people who lived there before the war began, during the war, and in modern times.  This story has captured me.  I have to force myself to put the book down so that the story will last longer.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Go Ask Alice

Every summer, my family, like thousands of other Michigan families, would go "Up North" for a vacation. "Up North" is Michigan talk for "anywhere North of Flint", but when each family says that they are going "Up North", they are referring to a different specific city, and you would know which one they meant if you really knew that family. When my family went "Up North", we went to Charlevoix, which is at about the tip of your ring finger, if you are using your left hand to model Michigan.

I clearly remember going to the little grocery store at the end of the street that took you to our cottage in Charlevoix when I was about 8 or 9 years old, and choosing Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll from the metal rack that also housed Archie comic books. At the time, it seemed like Alice's Adventures was a solid choice. It was literature, after all, and it was written for children. As such, I should read it. And I tried. But the book that I picked was in the form of a paperback novel, with black and white line drawn illustrations, and it was boring to read on the beach when I could be splashing in the waves or building in the sand. I decided that I was probably still a little young for the book, so I took it home, where it sat on my bookshelf unread, until one day I realized that really, I was too old to read it. It probably wound up in a garage sale when my mom cleaned out my room when I was in college.

Decades later, my book group decided to read Alice I Have Been by Melanie Benjamin, and it became important to me to read Alice's Adventures for once and for all. But now a new dilemma. There are so many versions of it! I started off with the strange idea that the circa 1975 paperback that I had discarded would be available at my local library. Not quite. The library had many versions, all with the same author, but with very different illustrators, and not a single black line drawn illustration among them. After stalking the shelves for a few weeks, I decided on Alice's Adventures in Wonderland as illustrated by Michael Foreman. This was the ideal choice for me.

Both Michael Foreman and Melanie Benjamin used the picture of Alice Liddell at the top of this post as the centerpiece of their work. Alice Liddell is the real life person upon whom Charles Dodgson (the real life Lewis Carroll) based the Alice character. The picture at the top of this post was taken of Alice Liddell by Charles Dodgson about three years before the story of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland was first told. The author, Benjamin, and the illustrator, Foreman, take the subject of this picture in completely different directions, and both are contrary to the image of Alice that has thrived over the past 150 years.

Michael Foreman, as you might have guessed, uses this dark, shortish haired girl as a model for his illustrations, as opposed to the long blond haired girl who is in many versions of Alice's Adventures. It does not seem to cross Foreman's mind that the photograph upon which he bases his Alice could have been entirely inappropriate for the Victorian era in which it was taken, and he may be right. Perhaps Alice's parents, Dean and Mrs. Liddell, commissioned this photo of Alice in her Halloween costume or dressed for a play. Or perhaps Benjamin is right when she implies that this photo may be an early example of high society child pornography.

Alice I Have Been starts with the proposition that Alice and Dodgson had an inappropriate relationship. From there, we watch as that one photo, and possibly a kiss, shape the future of both characters in ways that are dark and haunting. Alice is punished throughout her life for Dodgson's questionable advances, and loses some chances at love while finding others. I kept wondering how Alice could be held responsible for the way a grown man treated her when she was 7, but Benjamin writes the story in a way that makes that accountability seem unavoidable, if not reasonable. Alice herself wonders, as I am sure victims of exploitation do, if she was really the person responsible for all that came after. After what? is the question of the book.

Alice I Have Been is historical fiction, but Benjamin does the reader a great favor by revealing at the end of the story what was true, and what was created. Not much fiction was required to make this an engaging story. The Victorian notions of blame and consequence have carried forward to the twenty first century more than I might have thought. Would you want your son (or daughter) to marry a person who was featured in child pornography when they were younger? Although we feel for the victim, we also want to disassociate ourselves from her. Perhaps we even want to escape to a nicer place, where all one has to do to change is to eat from different sides of the same mushroom.

Particularly poignant for me, although this part may have been entirely Benjamin's creation, was Alice's regret at not reading the story of her adventures earlier. To that, I can relate!

Next Up: Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Book Group Report

Last night, my book group met to discuss The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. My group is a little eclectic. It started off as a group of moms who all worked outside of the home, and had first graders at the same school. We have transitioned into a group of people who all have kids, all live in the same school district, and all like to read. We have about 12 regular members, but only 6 or 7 people come to each meeting.

This month, we had 7 people come to the meeting, of which 6 had read the book. That's pretty good for us, as the reading is not necessarily required. As I discussed in a July post, we voted in May to read Edgar Sawtelle as our BFB (Big Fat Book) for the summer. Throughout the summer I heard a lot of moaning about the book, including one book club member who refused to read it (and did not come to the meeting) because there's a bad guy in the story. Laura, my friend who warned me about Edgar, is also in the club, but I pretty much knew she would not be there for this discussion.

Of the people who were there and did read Edgar, we all pretty much agreed that it was a great book. We didn't have much sympathy for Edgar's mom, and everyone loved Henry. I was a little disappointed that there wasn't more disagreement among us, because it's hardly worth the post to say we all loved a best selling book.

For next month, we will be reading Alice I Have Been, by Melanie Benjamin. This is a book of historical fiction (!) written about Alice Liddle, the inspiration for Lewis Carroll's famous story. And now you know why I needed to read Alice in Wonderland at this point in my life!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

I Heart Historical Fiction

Guilty pleasures . . . I have a few. . .Ketchup on steak (I know!) . . .the TV show, Glee . . .and most importantly, historical fiction. I especially love historical fiction that involves Henry VIII or Josephine Bonaparte. Oh that they lived in the same era! In a world populated only with people holding English degrees, historical fiction would be known simply as "smut", containing no more literary value than a Harlequin Romance. I sometimes find myself arguing about some historical fact when the little light bulb comes on in my head reminding me that most of my historical knowledge comes from works of fiction, and I am forced to back down.

Imagine my surprise (and my glee, so to speak) when Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel won the Man Booker Prize in 2009. The Man Booker Prize is given for the best original full length novel written in English by someone who lives in The Commonwealth of Nations, Ireland, or Zimbabwe, and past winners include Disgrace by Coetzee, The Blind Assassin by Atwood, and Life of Pi by Martel. Wolf Hall also won the National Book Critics Circle Award. Finally, a book of historical fiction that I could proudly read as "literature".

Wolf Hall is told by Thomas Cromwell, who held various posts during Henry VIII's time. If you do not know who Thomas Cromwell is before starting Wolf Hall, then this is not the book for you. In fact, if you don't know what the "Field of the Cloth of Gold" is you might want to read something lighter first. In my opinion, this book was written for people like me, who devour historical fiction, for people who majored in history in college, or possibly for upwardly motivated businesspeople looking for tips from history. If you're not there yet, start with The Other Boleyn Girl, The Constant Princess or The Boleyn Inheritance, all by Philippa Gregory, or if you are up for a BFB, The Autobiography of Henry VIII by Margaret George is worth the read. The Gregory books all focus on periods of time in which Cromwell was involved, while the George book covers Henry's life from beginning to end, in which Cromwell figures prominently.

Somewhere around page 420 of Wolf Hall, with about 100 pages left in the book, two questions popped into my mind: 1) why do all of the other books that I read that include Cromwell make him out to be such a bad guy; and 2) how is Mantel going to wrap this up in 100 pages, when all of the juicy parts are yet to come?

I was quickly reminded of the answer to my first question, when Cromwell suggested to Henry that a law should be enacted requiring every English person to swear to uphold a line of succession to the throne that included Anne Boleyn's daughter, Elizabeth, and excluded Katherine of Aragon's daughter, Mary. To believe that Mary had a legitimate claim to the throne was to be a traitor, for which the penalty was hanging and disembowelment. Granted, it was not Cromwell who enacted the law, but he deserves blame for suggesting it, and to a large extent, for implementing it, resulting in the deaths of many Englishmen. Cromwell is remembered as the villain, and Henry is remembered not for having so many of his subjects put to death, but for having so many of his wives executed.

I learned the answer to my second question when I did a wikipedia search of Thomas Cromwell, and learned that Hilary Mantel is writing a sequel to Wolf Hall. Yes, this whole 532 page novel details Cromwell's ascent to greatness, but does not go on long enough to get us to the good parts. In fact, the title, Wolf Hall, in itself, references a more scandalous period in Cromwell's life, which Mantel leaves yet to come, with the title of the first novel serving only as a teaser of what will happen in the second.

If Mantel's sequel were available at my local bookstore, I would not run out today to get it. Wolf Hall is amazing in that given that it is a book written for those who already know the story, Mantel was able to leave out the best known parts of Cromwell's history, and still write an interesting and award worthy novel about one of England's more infamous bad guys. By the time the sequel is out, I am sure that I will be ready for more of Cromwell and Mantel.

Next up: Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. Yes, in addition to having guilty pleasures, I also have guilt about the book not yet read.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...