Wednesday, December 28, 2011

2012 Challenges

Each year, there are several "novel challenges" that encourage avid readers to sign up, and commit to reading a certain number of books.  There are "around the world challenges", that dare the reader to read a book from every country.  There are challenges to read novels from the year in which one was born.  There are challenges to read books with colors in their titles.  You name it, there's a challenge for it.

This year, I decided to join two, the 2012 Support Your Library Challenge, and Off the Shelf 2012.

The 2012 Support Your Library Challenge is exactly what it sounds like, a challenge to read as many books as you can from your local library.  My goal for this challenge is 24 books, as I plan to get books from my TBR list from the library, read books for both book groups from the library, and get audio versions of some of the books for the Off the Shelf Challenge, and be able to double count those.

The Off the Shelf 2012 Challenge encourages the reader to read books that he or she already owns.  Since my nightstand is always over flowing, I think that I can make this one work.  I have to admit, however, that even in the best of circumstances, I can only expect to read 24 books from my nightstand each year, including those that I actually own on paper, but listen to on CD. 

To this end, and to my dismay, I have made an inventory of my nightstand.  After adding it all up, I have to wonder if my nightstand has secret compartments, or if it magically extends into the wall behind it to give me added storage.  Here is what it is holding right now:

1  .Emma by Jane Austen  Reviewed 3/17/12
2.  The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano
3.  March by Geraldine Brooks Reviewed 4/6/12
4.  The Lost King of France by Deborah Cadbury
5.  True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey
6.  Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
7.  The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon
8.  The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon
9.  The Witch of Portobello by Paulo Coelho
10.  I Was Told There'd be Cake by Sloane Crosley Reviewed 9/8/12
11.  Under the Table by Katherine Darling
12.  Belong to Me by Marisa de los Santos
13.  The Red Tent by Anita Diamant  Reviewed 9/22/12
14.  The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz Reviewed 2/3/12
15.  Middlemarch by George Eliot
16.  In the Company of Liars by David Ellis
17.  The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides  Reviewed 1/6/12
18.  World Without End  by Ken Follett Reviewed 10/27/12
19.  Helen of Troy by Margaret George  Reviewed 3/22/12
20.  The Grown-Ups by Victoria Glendinning Reviewed 8/20/2012
21.  London Train by Tessa Hadley Reviewed 2/7/12
22.  Mrs. Kimble by Jennifer Haigh Reviewed 11/18/12
23.  The Rose Labyrinth by Titania Hardie
24.  Freddy and Fredericka by Mark Helprin Reviewed 9/8/12
25.  Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin  Reviewed 4/26/12
26.  The Titans by John Jakes
27.  Lulu in Marrakech by Diane Johnson Reviewed 2/23/12
28.  Lit by Mary Karr Reviewed 4/30/12
29.  One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
30.  The Last Life by Claire Messud
31.  The Book of Fate by Brad Meltzer Reviewed 6/9/12
32.  Black Swan Green by David Mitchell  Reviewed 3/31/12
33.  Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell Reviewed 12/7/12
34.  We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates
35.  My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk Reviewed 7/6/12
36.  Change of Heart by Jodi Picoult Reviewed 8/21/12
37.  Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
38.  Not Becoming My Mother by Ruth Reichl Reviewed 4/30/12
39.  Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff  Reviewed 12/22/12
40.  Mockingbird by Charles Shields
41.  The Russian Debutante's Handbook by Gary Shteyngart Reviewed 8/2/12
42.  The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli  Reviewed 10/11/12
43.  War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
44.  A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
45.  Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
46.  Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters Reviewed 6/13/12
47.  The Night in Question by Tobias Wolff Reviewed 7/25/12

As I read these, I'll cross them off this page, and link you to the page where I tell you about the book.

No time to blog - I've got to get reading!

Still Reading:  Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

Still Listening to:  Empire Falls by Richard Russo.  This one just narrowly missed being listed above.  It had lived in my nightstand for at least 2 years before I finally decided to listen to it instead of waiting to read it.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Chicago Memoirs

Long time no blog!  I've been so busy getting ready for Christmas, that my heart just hasn't been into reading, let alone writing about reading.  Now that the gifts are unwrapped, but before the wrapping paper is thrown away, I'm back.

A couple of weeks ago, I finished listening to A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers.  I didn't immediately write about it, because although I was listening to it on CD, I also owned the book, and I realized that the book included an extra segment not read on the disc.  This segment is called Mistakes We Knew We Were Making, and is almost 50 pages long.  In this section, Dave attempts to make right anything that he got wrong in the first edition.  While most "memoir" writers would find this unnecessary given that half of their so-called memoirs are fiction, his efforts to make everything exactly correct make the reader feel closer to Dave and his brother, Toph.

Heartbreaking Work is the story of Dave Eggers raising Toph after their parents die of cancer within months of each other.  At the time that Dave became a quasi parent, he was 21, and his brother was 8.  Dave has another brother and a sister, both who are older than him, but for some reason, the family decided (against the terms of their parents' wills) that Dave would raise Toph.   The story in Heartbreaking Work starts with Dave caring for his mother while she dies, and then moves to California with all of the siblings after the parents are gone.  We flash and travel back to Lake Forest, IL, just outside of Chicago, where the family home was, and where Dave feels a need to return.

Dave is a pretty amazing faux father for Toph, despite his obvious and honestly reported flaws.  They cook tacos using spaghetti sauce, on purpose.  They run late for open houses at school.  Dave sleeps in each morning while Toph manages to get himself to school on a bike he can't pedal, and instead rides like a scooter.  But at the end of the day, they make it work.

In reading about Heartbreaking Work, I learned that Eggers is 12 days younger than me.  This is extremely disappointing.  I have read and appreciated other works that he has written and created, and would like to think of him as being much older than me, as an explanation for why my accomplishments are so lacking in comparison.  However, our small difference in age also helped me to appreciate the effort that he was making while raising Toph. When I was 21, my parents were paying my rent, and my time was spent working in the mall between classes and planning "progressive" drinking parties in my apartment complex.  I have no doubt that I would have raised Toph differently than Eggers,  but I can't say that I would have done better.

Meanwhile, back in the Hills of Beverly, I have been reading Bitter is the New Black by Jen Lancaster.  Bitter is the story of Lancaster and her husband both losing their jobs, their standard of living, and their self respect, but then finding themselves again.  Lancaster and her husband were victims of the dot com bust, reminding me of the characters in The Cookbook Collector.  The first two thirds of the memoir is Lancaster going on and on about the things that she used to have, and scheming up ways to get them back.  The last third of the book is where she puts on her big girl panties and pulls her life back into shape.  In fact, that sounds just like something Lancaster would have said herself.  Lancaster has a sassy and funny way of telling a story.  She is also quick to point out her flaws, although she usually offsets them by naming 4 or 5 of her strengths for each weakness.

Lancaster's preferred Chicago neighborhood, where she once lived in her "dot com palace", is Bucktown.  When Lancaster is somehow lacking in adventures in her own life to relay, she reports on those around her, like her neighbors.  Coincidentally, my sister has just bought a house in Bucktown, where she'll be moving soon.  My fingers are crossed that Lancaster lives next door.  I feel like I know the neighbors who Lancaster wrote about in Bitter, and in her later book, Bright Lights, Big Ass, and it would be fun to read about my sister through the eyes of the self proclaimed "condescending, egomaniacal, self-centered, smart-ass" herself.

So what can Eggers and Lancaster have in common?  Probably a mutual loathing of each other, but other than that, I was surprised to find some coincidences.  Obviously, much of both memoirs takes place in Chicago.  Thematically, they both face challenges they never expected, and were unprepared to face.  Strangely, Dave auditions for "Real World San Francisco" and Jen watches a rerun of the show while she prepares for her wedding.  But really what Heartbreaking Work  and Bitter have in common is that they are each their author's first foray in memoir writing, and both authors hone their skills while telling great stories.

In other news:  Today's Christmas!  And my life is changing. . . my kids bought me a Kindle for Christmas, and my husband loaded The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides on it for my first e-reading adventure.  Although I am pretty much a book purist, and to be honest, a used or library book reader, I have to admit that there have been a couple of times this year when I have wished for a Kindle.  I have a feeling that I will take to it like a fish to water.  I also got a number of other books as gifts, including The London Train by Tessa Hadley, Cloud Atlas and Black Swan Green by David Mitchell, and three great cookbooks!  One of the cookbooks is The Pioneer Woman Cooks by Ree Drummond, which is absolutely amazing.  Her spaghetti and meatballs recipe is already one of my favorites, and I can't wait to cook more. There are tons of photos in the book, with the obvious food photos, but also lots of Drummond, her family, her animals and her friends.  I think this is just enough to get me to add her memoir, Black Heels to Tractor Wheels to my TBR list.

Next Up On Paper:  Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami.  I requested this in audio form from Michigan's inter-library loan system 3 weeks ago, and still haven't received it.  I gave up and requested it in paper form, which I got in a week.  Hope it's worth the wait!

Next up on CD:  Empire Falls by Richard Russo

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Life After 40

A few years back, when my friend, Kim, turned 40, I bought her a copy of Julie and Julia by Julie Powell.  In that book, a girl living in New York, Julie, decides that she will spend a year cooking every recipe from Mastering the Art of French Cooking, the cookbook which made Julia Child famous.  Julie blogs about her culinary adventure, and eventually her blog became a book.  I thought this was a great book for me to give to Kim, because we had just finished editing a cookbook for our kids' elementary school.  After Kim read it, she passed it on to me, and thus began my relationship with Julia Child.

After reading Julie and Juila, I wanted more Julia, and read My Life In France by Juila herself.  MLIF (no, not "MILF") is Julia's story of not knowing what to do with her time while her husband, Paul, was stationed in France for his job, and taking up French cooking.  Julia loved French cooking so much, that she moved on to teaching cooking lessons with two of her friends.  The three of them then began writing Mastering the Art of French Cooking.  One thing that I love about Julia is that she didn't take her first French cooking class until she was in her late 30s, and she was well into her 40s when Mastering the Art was published and she really knew what she wanted to do with her life.

The movie, "Julie and Julia" came out a couple of years ago, and I have to say that it is great.  In fact, it is the only movie that I can think of that is actually better than the book.  The movie is a combination of the books, Julie and Julia and My Life in France, and is focused much more on Julia Child than Powell's original book.

When I went to Paris last year, I looked up Julia Child's apartment, which she called "the Rue de Loo", but which is actually at 81 Rue de L'Universite.  Here is a picture of me outside.  I also went to the cooking store which she loved and raved about in MLIF, E. Dehillerin, on Rue Coquilliere.  I had figured that E. Dehillerin would have been overwhelmed with tourists since the movie had been released, but when I went there, that seemed not to have been the case.  At first the staff was a little standoffish, and I was surprised, after talking with a salesperson, that he wanted to know about Detroit.  He asked about the music from Detroit, and I assumed that he was referencing the Motown songs.  Actually, he wanted to talk about the Techno music fests, which are apparently better known in Europe than they are in Beverly Hills, just 5 miles north of The D.

This brings us to As Always, Julia:  The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto, as edited  by Joan Reardon.  MLIF tells the story of Julia's struggles with getting her cookbook published, and this is echoed in As Always.  As Always is not really a story at all, but a collection of letters exchanged between Julia and Avis.   Their relationship started when Avis' husband wrote an article about how inferior American knives were in the 1950s.  Julia read the article and wrote to its author, enclosing one of her favorite French knives.  Avis wrote Julia a thank you note, since her husband, Bernard, was too busy.  From there, Avis and Julia established a pen pal relationship that spanned the Atlantic.

Mastering the Art was intended by Julia to be a fool proof book allowing busy American wives to successfully cook French dishes which they probably thought were too difficult for them.  Julia painstakingly cooked and re-cooked every dish until she had the instructions just right.  The problem was that Julia was cooking in France, and writing a book for Americans.  Julia consulted with Avis regarding what ingredients may be hard to find, how cooking times may vary, and how certain instructions may be interpreted.  Without Avis, Mastering the Art would never have worked.  Without Avis' publishing connections, it probably would not have made it to print.

Frequently, while reading As Always, I drifted off to sleep.  Several times I told myself that if the book was so boring, I should quit reading it.  But it was not boring.  It was just so soothing to be reading letters between two strong women who established their relationship in paper and pen, that sometimes I did find myself startled awake with the book still in my hand.  As Always tells the stories of the election gossip of the 1950s, of the McCarthy hearings, and of the battles with Child's co-authors.  Details about recipes are worked out, including one of Child's most famous, scalloped potatoes.  But I did take the full three weeks of my library loan to read the book, which is unusually slow for me.

My mom gave me back MLIF, without finishing it.  To my dismay, she found it boring.  As Always, Julia, is not going to be the book for her either.  However, if you loved MLIF, and can't get enough Julia, then As Always is worth the read.

Next up:  Bitter is the New Black by Jen Lancaster

Almost Done Listening to:  A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers.  In fact, I have passed the part where the reader said "The End" and am now listening to the 12th and last disc which Eggers says one should only listen to if one does not have anything else available.  That is exactly my situation!  I tried to get Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami in book form at my library and was surprised to find a lead on it in CD form first.  My library doesn't own it in either form, so I had to order it.  I placed my order 4 days ago, but sometimes these things take a while, and I don't want to start something new while I wait.  I'm hoping Eggers makes this 12th disc last.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Typical Book Exchange

Tonight the Typical Book Group got together for our annual book exchange.  While it wasn't quite as exciting as last year, when Lynne was fresh back from Oprah's Favorite Things episode, it was still a lot of fun.  I picked up a few new titles, including The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli, and Lulu in Marrakech by Diane Johnson.  More books to read for the Read What You Own challenge!

The real purpose of the meeting tonight was to talk about Room by Emma Donoghue.  Of the 8 of us there tonight, all of us had read the book and liked it.  We agreed that Ma was a creative and thoughtful mother, and felt sorry for her when her choices were questioned by the media at the end of the novel.  An interesting point that was mentioned is that sooner or later, Jack will find out that Nick was (is) his dad.  We can imagine Jack struggling to understand that the bad-guy-captor is also his father.

The next book that we will read is Stories I Only Tell My Friends by Rob Lowe.  I warned January's host that my husband will be coming along with me that night.  He's already planning his book group discussion points, and keeps walking around the house saying "I'd like to hear you read some words" like the guy in the Bud Light commercial who realizes beer is served at book group and wants to join.

Almost done reading:  As Always, Julia by Julia Child

Almost done listening to:  A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers

Wednesday, November 23, 2011


This just in:  The NYT List of 100 Notable Books for 2011 is  available online!  I haven't had a chance to really study it yet, but as expected, Swamplandia! by Karen Russell made the cut.  Several of the books on my TBR list are listed, including A Moment in the Sun by John Sayles, Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta, The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, and This Beautiful Life by Helen Schulman.  Looks like I'll be reading a lot of good books in the weeks and months to come!

I also think I will add some of the listed books to my TBR list after reading their reviews again.  I am interested in 11/22/63 by Stephen King after seeing it made the list.  I haven't read a Stephen King book in years, and sort of thought I was over him.  Maybe this one will renew my interest.  Another one that I will add is London Train by Tessa Hadley.  And finally, I will add Moby Duck by Donovan Hohn.  Moby Duck is the story of a person who is studying how garbage floats through the ocean by following a shipment of rubber ducks that actually fell overboard in 1992.

Can't wait to read!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Except for These 5 Things . . .

The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman is the story of two sisters and their male friends and boyfriends.  The sisters are Emily, who is the twenty-something owner of a enterprise in the late 1990s, and Jessamine, who is younger, and struggling to finish school and/or find herself.  The men in their lives include "tree savers" Noah and Leon, young business executives Jonathan and Orion, a couple of rabbis, a book store owner, and their father.

Here are 5 things that I don't like about this book:

1.  It begins on page 1 with the simile "Like money, the rain came in a rush . . ."  Really?  Is that an appropriate simile?  I don't think that it is most people's experience that money comes in a rush or is like rain.  I think Goodman's idea here was to set the tone, by telling us that for some of the characters in this book money would fall from the sky like rain, but the simile came too early, and too obviously.

2.  At the beginning of the second chapter, George, the book store owner, is referred to without obvious sarcasm as being "old money, a Microsoft millionaire".  Now mind you, the story begins in the late 1990s.  I really don't think that someone who made their millions from Microsoft could be considered "old money" even now, a decade later. 

3.  Emily owns a business specializing in online data storage, and her boyfriend, Jonathan, owns a company focused on online security.  It is December 31, 1999.  They go to a New Year's Eve party together.  The phrase "Y2K" is nowhere in the book.  Now I know "Y2K" turned out to be a whole lot of nothing, but would the CEOs of an online data storage company and an internet security company really have been at a New Year's Eve party free from concern?  Shouldn't we at least have heard about them frantically planning for Y2K in the months leading up to the big night? 

4.  We are expected to believe that a person could not possibly win an admittedly complicated custody battle for less than $500,000 in attorney fees, and then that $1,000,000 is sufficient.  Really?

5.  Toward the end of the book, there is a relationship reveal that just doesn't work.  I don't want to give it away, but I would suggest that the reveal would be more believable and more interesting if the rabbis had known about it all along, and not told the others about it.

However, I don't hate the book as a whole.  The Cookbook Collector is a complicated story, and Goodman did her research in very specific areas including rare, old cookbooks and redwoods.  She tells the story of the boom and bust through Emily and Jonathan's examples, and her vocabulary from the era brings back memories of a more optimistic time.  There are a ton of well developed characters, but also some who are just place holders.

All told, if you stumble upon this book when you are looking for something good to pass the time, it is worth the read. 

Next up on CD:  A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers

Still Reading:  As Always, Julia by Julia Child

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Back to the War

When I started reading Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum, I felt like I had read that story before.  Not in the sense that I had actually picked up that book and read it, but in the sense that I have read so many stories of the civilians of World War II, that I was wondering if I was getting a little burnt out on them. 

TWSU  is divided into two parts, with one story set in Germany from 1939-1945, and the other set in Minnesota from 1993-1997.  At first, the German story had echos of The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, with a German girl hiding a Jewish man who was even named Max in both stories.  The more modern story started off in practically the same way as Winter Garden by Kristin Hannah, with the death of the father, the mother who wouldn't talk to her daughter, the mother's decline in health, and even a university study relating to the mother's war years.  However, TWSU could not have stolen it's story from these other two, since it was published years before either of them.

My interest was piqued when I understood the angle of the university study, which Trudy, the daughter of the German mother, Anna, was conducting.  Trudy was born in Germany during the war, and then grew up to be a university professor teaching German studies.  Her project focused on how German civilians could live with themselves after the war.  Obviously, this is a thinly veiled accusation of her mother, but Trudy learns more than she anticipated. 

A comparison that I didn't expect to make is that Anna's predicament during the war was really not so unlike Ma's situation in Room by Emma Donoghue.  A Nazi officer falls in love with Anna, and provides her with food and supplies not available to other civilians.  However, Anna doesn't have any choice in the relationship and must do as he wishes.  The children in the stories, Jack in Room and Trudy in TWSU, both think of their mother's captor as a person who brings them gifts, like Santa Claus.  Jack refers to the kidnapper as "Old Nick" in reference to "Old St. Nick", and Trudy refers to Horst as "St. Nikolaus".   A significant difference between Anna and Ma is that if Ma had managed to escape, the neighbors would have helped her.  Anna's neighbors see her as an enemy deserving of their scorn.

All told, once I was able to spot the differences that made this story unique, I didn't want to put TWSU down.  And I am certainly not done with my "Civilians of World War II" genre.

Next Up:  As Always, Julia:  the letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto by Julia Child

Still Listening to:  The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman

Friday, November 11, 2011


Tonight I went to my library's semi-annual used book sale, and scored some new-to-me books for my nightstand.  While I was hoping for some Murakamis, that was not to be.  Instead, I came home with some interesting finds. 

I'm most intrigued by The Savage Detectives  by Roberto Bolano.  I was really only interested in this one because I am trying to work my way up to reading 2666 by the same author.  But, when I got home, I found random stuff crammed inside the pages, including a bus ticket from Paris, a currency exchange receipt from a Spanish speaking country, and a Chilean currency exchange chart.  I'm curious whether I got this book from a person with sloppy habits, a person who wants to brag that he's been where the story is set, or a person who is trying to provide me with useful information that will assist in my understanding of the book.  My guess is the second, but I'm interested anyway.

Next, I found another book by Sarah Waters.  This one is called Fingersmith.  I loved The Little Stranger, and have blogged about it often.  At the last book sale, I bought Tipping the Velvet by Waters.  However, I still haven't gotten around to reading TTV.  I think my expectation of a lesbian love story is scaring me off.  Maybe Fingersmith will be a better transition for me to Waters' earlier works.

Then, I got My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk.  I really liked Museum of Innocence by this author, even though I wouldn't call it one of my favorites, and I can't even say why I liked it as much as I did.  My Name is Red has great reviews, and I am excited to read it too.

I also picked up The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which won the Pulitzer and which Amazon constantly recommends to me, Lit by Mary Karr, which has fallen on to and off of my TBR list a few times, and The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon.  I tend to either love or hate memoirs, so I think that is why I have put off reading Lit for so long.  The Mysteries of Pittsburgh has a sticker in it indicating that it is From the Library of Edward Sullivan, and is also embossed as being from The Library of EJS, E J Sullivan, III.  Apparently, he didn't want to lose it.

There are several "novel challenges" that will begin on January 1, 2012, including 2 that I have found so far that challenge the participant to read as many books as possible that the reader already owns.  I plan to pick a challenge, and then, after Christmas, post a list of the books that I have, and that I hope to read in 2012.  The pressure is on for me to clean out my nightstand now, before I have to tell you everything that I have kept hidden inside.

Sorry, I had to stop blogging for a moment, in order to observe 11:11 on 11/11/11.  According to my daughter, during that minute (and at the same minute 12 hours earlier) we could wish for whatever we wanted, and our wishes will come true as long as we don't tell them.  How could I not wish for her to keep wishing?  She didn't have school today, and by a gift of fate I was with her for both wishes.  Yes, she is 11, and yes, we have discussed that she will also be 22 at 2:22 on 2/22/22, but my guess is that won't be quite as good.  No comments about how I shouldn't allow my 11 year old to be awake this late - it's a special occasion, right?

Still reading: Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum

Still Listening to:  The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Friends Book Report - 3

Tonight the Friends Book Group (or a portion thereof) met to discuss The Paris Wife by Paula McLain.  There were only 3 of us there!  I guess people weren't excited about reading this book.  Of the three of us, two thought the book was so-so, and the third really liked it. 

We all agreed that although the book was all about Hadley Hemingway, it was really a very shallow portrayal of her.  We would have liked to have known more about Hadley herself, and what made her so attractive to Ernest Hemingway, and her many friends in Paris.  Several topics, such as Ernest's depression, were mentioned in passing, but not really shown to the reader.  The many suicides in Hadley's family and Ernest's family were not mentioned until the end of the book. Knowing more about their shared history of family tragedy earlier in the story may have helped explain the Hemingways' relationship and its many complications.

Although it doesn't directly relate to her time in Paris, a little during-book-group-Googling told us that Hadley and Ernest's grandchildren are Mariel and Margaux Hemingway.  It seems like this might be something that Hadley would have bragged about, or at least hinted at.

All told, we found the story interesting, but wanted more.

Next up:  State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

Still Reading:  Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum

Still Listening to:  The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman.  I am really not liking this book, but don't really have time to get to the library to get another.  I'm on disc 3 now, and I'm having a hard time looking forward to another 10 discs.  Either it will pick up and I'll be back raving about it, or it will drive me crazy enough to give up on it, in which case I will be sure to tell you why.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Safe Keeping

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford is a sweet but predictable story about a boy who befriends an American born Japanese girl, growing up in Seattle during World War II.  The twist that makes this story interesting is that the boy, Henry, is Chinese, and that the difference matters in the 1940s.  In 2011, people who are not part of the Asian community frequently refer to people of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, or Vietnamese descent all as being "Asian", or if the speaker is over 60, as being "Oriental".  In the 1940s, whether a person was Japanese or Chinese made a huge difference, even when both people were actually born in the US.  The Chinese were our friends, and the Japanese were our enemies.

The story in Hotel alternates between the war years of the 1940s, and 1986, when the belongings of several Japanese families were found in the basement of an old hotel.  In 1986, Henry is still living in Seattle, but now he has an adult son.  At the beginning, the relationship between Henry and his son, Marty, is much like the relationship between the Major and his son in Major Pettigrew's Last Stand.  Like the Major, Henry has recently lost his wife, and his relationship with his son has suffered.  Both sons are dating white American women, and judge their fathers harshly.  However, as Hotel progresses, the relationship evolves in unexpected ways.

The story of the Japanese internment was told by Henry, who was not "evacuated for his own safety" like the Japanese.  He struggles to understand how Americans are turning against each other, based solely on the countries of their grandparents' birth.  Another book that tells the story of the internment of the Japanese in America is When the Emperor Was Divine  by Julie Otsuka.  Emperor details the lives of various members of a Japanese American family, in a way that is more harsh, and probably more real than that in Hotel.

Next up on CD:  The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman.  I started listening to this one today, and am not impressed so far.  Hopefully the plot will thicken in the second and subsequent chapters.

Still Reading:  Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Beyond Me

Truth is . . . Lisa Robertson's Magenta Soul Whip by Lisa Robertson is way out of my league.  I'm a person who can enjoy a book of poetry now and again, but I really have no idea what I just read.  Robertson's poems are full philosophical references, science and proportion.  I am sure she is right, but I am not sure what she said.

Some lines that I liked:

Dirt is tired of giving.  We sigh at our expired
work, envious of the luck of our
parents.  We walk to the bar with stooped shoulders.

. . . .

You have to realize that a parallel materiality also spontaneously resists our will.
Place here the catalogue of hungers.
Call it the future.

from First Spontaneous Horizontal Restaurant

The woman in your midst may be kneeling or seated or may simply be drawn out of scale.

from Wooden Houses

I found this book on last year's NYT Notable Book List.  For the first time in recent memory, I have read all of the books that I added to my TBR list after reading the Notable Book List before the following year's Notable Book List came out!  The next list should be out by the end of the month, and I can't wait to see what is on it.

Magenta Soul Whip was heavy and hard.  I finished it last night, and immediately picked up Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum.   Compared to Magenta, Those Who Save Us  seemed light and childish.   Maybe I absorbed more from Robertson than I realized.

Next up:  Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum

Still Listening to:  Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The World As He Knows It

When The Typical Book Group picked Room by Emma Donoghue as its book, I was dreading reading it.  I had read the reviews, and really didn't think that there could be anything good about a novel based on a woman who had been abducted, and held in an 11 x 11 square foot room long enough to raise her child there.  But once again I was pleasantly surprised.

The story in Room is told by Jack, a five year old boy who has never known a world outside of his small room.  He sleeps in a wardrobe, and refers to items in the room like "Rug" and "Skylight" with initial caps, as though he is referring to his friends.  He lives with his mom, who is only known in the book as "Ma".  Ma is frequently visited by a man who he refers to as "Old Nick".

Ma is an amazing mother.  She teaches Jack everything that she knows, and plans their days out with a rigorous schedule, so that Jack watches very little television, and has plenty of time to learn.  Ma makes the best of the few things that she has.  For instance, instead of throwing the egg shells away after making breakfast, she blows the eggs out of the shells, and strings them together to make Snake.  She also keeps Jack safe from Old Nick, by never allowing them to see each other, even in the constraints of the very small Room.

Is this a fictional version of the Jaycee Dugard story?  Sort of.  It is more like an author's exploration of how one could make the best of and survive a horrible situation.  Through Ma, Donoghue creates a world for Jack where he doesn't know he is missing anything, and where he feels safe even when he is in more danger than most people will ever face.  Everything that the characters experience seems real, and frighteningly possible.  I am not sure that I would have been able to be as good of a mom in the same situation, yet Ma still has enough faults to be believable.

Next up:  Lisa Robertson's Magenta Soul Whip by Lisa Robertson

Still Listening to:  Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Exhausting Limits

When a friend posted a Huffington Post review of his uncle's book, Exhaust the Limits:  Life and Times of a Global Peace Builder on Facebook, I checked out the review, and then added the book to my TBR list.  There it languished for a very long time, since no library in Michigan owned the book.  Eventually I asked my library to buy it, and it did.

The uncle and author, Charles "Chic" Dambach, has lived an incredible life, which could make for a great book.  He joined the Peace Corps as a young man, and then climbed the ladder to the top of that organization.  He was involved in negotiating peace in Ethiopia.  He became a national champion kayak racer, and an Olympic official for that event.  He met presidents, he ran non-profit organizations, and his words found their way into speeches in Washington. 

But for all that, the book read a lot like something that a amateur writer would self publish.  There is a great story here, but after the first 100 pages, I started skimming.  The book would have benefited from having an experienced author help Dambach to take the book to the next level.  I was hoping that the book would be really inspirational, but it didn't really feel that way.  I would have liked it better if there had been "tips" or "pointers" between the chapters.  Topics could be things like "How to make your voice heard at the local, state, and national level"; "How to become an Olympic volunteer"; and "How to maintain your dignity while asking friends and strangers to help with medical expenses".  Dambach seems to have been in the right place at the right time to make things happen, but it couldn't have been that simple. A book offering ideas to help the readers find themselves in those places at those times would be a must read, and a better buy for my library.

Next up:  Room by Emma Donoghue - This is The Typical Book Group's next pick. 

Still Listening to:  Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jaime Ford

Friday, October 21, 2011

Destination Unknown

The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris is the story of a man with a disease of sorts, that requires him to walk for hours on end, without the ability to stop walking.  He has met with endless doctors, and they are all unable to determine if this "disease" is a true physical ailment, or if it is a mental disorder.  Have I lost your interest yet?  I thought so.  My interest was also lost at that point, which explains why I delayed reading The Unnamed  for so long.

However, I had read Ferris' earlier book, Then We Came to the End, and I really liked it.  That story is almost like a literary version of the television show "The Office", with the strange glitch that it is all written in first person plural ("We all went out to eat."), so that we don't know whose story it is until the end.  My sister blogged about that book here, which is where I first heard about it, even though it was apparently hyped in hipper circles than my own.

I was interested in The Unnamed when it first came out, but based on the blurbs and reviews that I read, I just couldn't bring myself to add it to my TBR list.  I wound up listening to it on CD, which I loved.  As I mentioned earlier, Ferris reads the book himself, and reads it perfectly.  This is the best audio book that I have ever listened to, in that the author seems as committed to getting the audio book right as he was to the original novel.  Certain conversations are recorded so that one participant is heard through the right speaker, and the other participant through the left.  At the end of the CD, there is an interview with Ferris, which made me love the story even more.   Listening to The Unnamed was the first time that a story caused me to cry while driving.

So what makes The Unnamed worth reading?  Ferris' character development. Tim, the person suffering from the walking disease, is at first a high powered, hard working litigation attorney.  He and his wife, Jane, find ways to cope with the disease, while hiding it from his partners and clients.  At a certain point, however, Tim stops trying to fit the disease into his life, and decides instead to live his life to fit the disease.  Tim and Jane, and even their daughter, Becca, progress, regress and digress, while coping with Tim's prolonged absences.  Ferris shows the changes in Tim in a way that is believable, and yet still catches the reader off guard.

This was an incredibly moving book, but it was not at all sappy.  Once again, Ferris has done something that no one else is doing, and he has done it incredibly well.  He created a disease, but not a cure.  He created a family, but he didn't fix it.  While I enjoyed both Then We Came to the End and The Unnamed, I'm not sure that I'll be adding either to my list of favorite books.  However, Ferris has secured a place as one of my favorite novelists, and I can't wait to see what he does next.

Next Up on CD:  Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford

Still Reading:  Exhaust the Limits by Charles Dambach

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Wife Life

Back in 1999, when I was pregnant with my daughter, my husband's friend, Dave, and I were discussing baby names.  Although Dave was single at the time, and didn't have plans to have a child any time soon, he told me that if he ever had a daughter, he was going to name her Brett, after the character in Hemmingway's novel, The Sun Also Rises.  I hadn't read The Sun at the time, but I decided that if there was a character in it who was worth naming one's daughter for, I should.  After reading The Sun, I had no idea what Dave (or for that matter, Jake Barnes) saw in Brett. 

Earlier this year, Paula McLain's book The Paris Wife came out, and I knew that I wanted to read it.  I had heard about Hemmingway's wife, Hadley, over the years, and wanted to read about what had happened that led to her destroying one of Hemmingway's novels.  The Paris Wife dispels the myth of a hysterical wife tearing apart a great work of literature, and tries to shed light on Hadley's role in shaping Hemmingway's early works.

Unfortunately, The Paris Wife was not a page turner.  I guess that when a person is well known only for being someone's wife, there may not be a lot to tell.  Curtis Sittenfeld did a better job in telling a fictionalized version of Laura Bush's life in American Wife, and Nancy Horan took the lessor known figure of Mamah Cheney and made her story interesting in her book, Loving Frank.  To be fair, Sittenfeld's book is pure fiction, and she doesn't even name the characters George and Laura Bush, and Nancy Horan had a great and forgotten true story to work with, but I was hoping for more from McLain. 

What the reader does learn is that Hadley was Hemmingway's wife when he wrote The Sun Also Rises, and that he based the story on real events that happened to them, changing only the names, and telling it in his voice.  Hadley is not the character of Brett, and is somehow absent from the story, even though she was very much there when the events happened in Hemmingway's life which he attributes to Jake Barnes.  The woman who inspired the character of Brett, Lady Duff Twysden, seems to have been much like the character.

Many years later, Dave had a daughter, and named her Avery.  But his idea must have stuck with me with me subconsciously.  My daughter's name is Hadley.

Next up:  Exhaust The Limits:  The Life and Times of a Global Peace Builder by Charles Dambach

Still Listening to:  Unnamed by Joshua Ferris

Friday, October 14, 2011

Finding Z

In 1925, a British explorer named Percy Fawcett, set out with his 21 year old son and his son's best friend in search of a city that he believed existed in the Amazon, which he called "Z".  Fawcett was a very experienced explorer, and had spent most of his life looking for evidence of a lost sophisticated culture in  the Amazon jungle.  While this was not his first trip, it was his last.  Many people made expeditions to the Amazon in the following decades in an attempt to find Fawcett.  There were rumors that he was alive but a captive of the Indians, and rumors that he had died, but that his son had lived and had fathered blond haired children in the rain forest.  Many of the people who tried to find Fawcett were never seen again themselves.

Over the years, the methods of exploring became more and more advanced, so that when David Grann set out on his own expedition to find out what had happened to Fawcett for his book, The Lost City of Z, he was able to go to a camping supply store in New York, and get everything he needed, no experience necessary.  The modern world has also made the Amazon more accessible by cutting down miles of the trees through which Fawcett trekked.  Grann got help in South America from guides and locals, once they were assured that he was only a journalist, and not an explorer.  This presents the obvious question  -  what exactly is the difference between a modern day journalist and an early 20th century explorer?  Both want to find out more and reap the notoriety and monetary rewards of their discoveries, right?

The Lost City of Z details all of Fawcett's Amazon expeditions, and to a lessor extent, their toll on himself and his family.  There were definitely pages of details that I could have skipped, and questions that could never be answered.  However, the last chapter makes it all worth while.  While Fawcett was exploring, the world wondered if there really was a Z,  or if Fawcett was crazy for looking for it.  In the end it seems that he might have found what he was looking for, but couldn't see that he had found it.

Next up on CD:  The Unnamed  by Joshua Ferris.  I've started listening to this one and was excited to hear that Ferris was reading it himself.  I've had good and bad experiences with authors doing their own reading, but Ferris' voice seems to fit this story.

Still Reading:  The Paris Wife by Paula McLain.  Seriously.

Friday, October 7, 2011

We Interrupt This Blog

I know that this blog is supposed to be about reading, but I have to call your attention to the movie, "Midnight in Paris".  This is a Woody Allen film, which I wasn't all that excited about seeing.  As far as I could tell though, Woody Allen did not make an appearance. 

You may have noticed that for the last few posts, I have ended by saying "Still Reading:  The Paris Wife by Paula McLain"  without further comment.  I was really excited about reading The Paris Wife, because I had heard that it was about Ernest's first wife, Hadley.  I have been interested in Hadley since I first heard the rumors that she burnt a great Hemingway novel, so I really wanted to read a novel from her perspective. 

However, so far, and I admit that I am only about 100 pages into it, The Paris Wife has not  been all that exciting.  But, after seeing "Midnight in Paris", I am rejuvenated, and want to dive back into it.  "Midnight in Paris" is a movie about a man from 2010 who is vacationing in Paris with his fiance and her parents.  He is a budding novelist who has a nostalgic longing to be in Paris in the 1920s, with Fitzgerald, Zelda, Hemingway, and Gertrude Stein.  His finance does not understand this, and discord soon follows.  Our novelist explores the Paris of the 1920s, and finds that in the '20s, people were longing for a "golden era" even earlier. 

Seeing Hemingway, Stein, and the other characters who also star in The Paris Wife has me ready to read more!  So, here we go again:

Still Reading:  The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

Still Listening to:  The Lost City of Z by David Grann

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Magic Kingdoms

As I listened to Swamplandia! by Karen Russell, I thought that it was a very strange book.  I couldn't understand some of the youngest character's choices, and thought that Russell must have done detailed research into the minds of traumatized children in order to make Ava believable.  Then I realized that when I should have listened to disc 6 (of this 11 disc book), I listened to disc 9 instead.  When I eventually listened to disc 6, just before disc 10, more pieces came together, but really, Swamplandia! is still a twisted tale.

Swamplandia is a fictional amusement park, set in the swamplands of Florida, where the main attraction is Hilola Bigtree, an alligator wrestler, and the mother of Ava, Osceola and Kiwi Bigtree.  The children are "home schooled" on their island, but this schooling seems to consist of a great deal of ticket taking and popcorn making, and very little attention to current educational standards.  Ava, who is 13, is being trained to wrestle alligators, and this apparently has not come to the attention of the Florida child welfare authorities.  Osceola regularly falls in love with the ghosts who she meets via her Ouija board, and goes on "dates" with them.  Kiwi is the Bigtree who is least enthralled with the idea of Swamplandia, but even he goes to bat to save it when attendance drops off.

Russell is very clever in her mocking of the Florida theme park scene.  The parks that she creates for her characters to inhabit seem inevitable in a sad way.  When Kiwi leaves Swamplandia to try to make enough money to save it, he goes to work at the World of Darkness, a competing amusement park which features demonic rides and attractions.  Although the kids occasionally catch glimpses through the cracks in the Swamplandia propaganda, it is not until Kiwi is off the island that he is able to see the shortcomings in the park, his education, and his parents.

This is an interesting book that I am guessing will make the 2011 NYT list of Notable Books.  There are two very favorable NYT reviews here and here.

In Other News:  Today I ordered my turkey for Thanksgiving!  I also picked up my second 1/4 cow this past weekend.  If you don't understand why this is relevant to this blog, read my post about Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer.

Running Commentary:  As you might know, I started this blog to keep track of my mileage, times, and random thoughts while I was training for the Chicago Marathon.  I realized after one 10K race that I truly am not a runner.  But it turns out that my son is!  Last weekend he signed up for a 5 K race, and made a starting line decision to run a half marathon instead.  Things you do when you are 13 . . .

Next up on CD:  The Lost City of Z by David Grann

Still reading:  The Paris Wife  by Paula McLain

Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Frizzly Hair Girl

Today Jaimy Gordon, author of Lord of Misrule, did a reading at my library.  It is sort of funny that I've never gone to see an author before, and now, within 8 days, I have seen Jonathan Safran Foer and Jaimy Gordon.  It's even more of a coincidence when you consider that JSF's wife, Nicole Krauss, was Gordon's strongest competition for the National Book Award, which Gordon won last year.

The two authors, JSF and Gordon, could not have been more different.  Both were kind, and generous with their time.  But Gordon was also very down to earth and chatty, which was great.  She probably took 3-5 minutes with every single person who was the line for her book signing.  Several of her former students were in the line and she asked each of them about their writing while meeting their spouses and children.

There were great differences in their methods of writing as well.  JSF made a point of saying (and I'm paraphrasing here) that there is no hidden meaning to his words - they mean what they say.  Gordon discussed the meaning behind the name of the horse which is the title of her book, and asked if anyone noticed how often she mentioned twins.  The twins, according to Gordon, mirror the duality of her feelings about horse racing. The sex scenes echo the training of the horses.  I think that this difference in the significance of their words may have to do with the differences in how JSF and Gordon have lived their lives.  JSF became a rock star of an author almost as soon as he graduated from college, and then later became a professor.  Gordon was a professor for decades before she attained fame as an author, and has probably spent thousands of hours leading class discussions about what authors mean by what they say in their works.

It should be no surprise to anyone who has seen Gordon, that Lord of Misrule is based on her experiences.  Gordon's picture is at the top of this post, and as you can see, she closely resembles Maggie, "the frizzly hair girl", and both are Jewish.  Both also worked with horses in low stakes horse races, and had loan sharks for uncles.  Gordon  talked about how while she worked at the track, in the late 1960s, there was a race set up like the final race in her novel.  But while Lord of Misrule has much in common with Gordon's life, it is not even close to a memoir.  Gordon created amazing characters, who were strengthened by the details which only her experience, as a race track worker, as a writer, and as a person, could provide.

Still Reading:  The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

Almost Done Listening to:  Swamplandia!  by Karen Russell

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Float Like a Butterfly

I would not have read Little Bee by Chris Cleave if my book group hadn't chosen it.  My friend, Kim, read it, and said that it was awful, and I usually agree with her.  This time, I'm glad I didn't listen. 

Little Bee is the story of a girl from Nigeria who meets a couple from England on the beach while they are visiting.  She later makes it to England, and tries to reunite with the couple.  The reader knows from the beginning that there was an incident on the beach that they all are unable to forget, but Cleave doles out the details slowly.

Like Achak Deng in What is the What by Dave Eggers, the main character, Little Bee, begins the story by saying that although her story is sad, it must be a story of survival, because she is here to tell it.  Unlike What is the What, Little Bee is pure fiction, but is based on the struggle of asylum seekers in the UK.  I would guess though that a reader of either book would like the other.

The characters in Little Bee are not all likable, and they are easy to judge.  But in some of their circumstances it is hard to propose a better solution than the flawed choices that the characters make.  The ending also leaves the reader with a lot to think and talk about, which makes this a great book for a book group.

As I was reading and liking the book, I asked Kim what she disliked about it.  It turns out that she hated the things that happened to the characters.  No reader could like what happens to the characters here, but the story of how one day on the beach sticks with each of them and changes their lives is worth reading. 

Next up:  Paris Wife by Paula McLain

Still listening to:  Swamplandia!  by Karen Russell

Sunday, September 25, 2011


Each year, Michigan State University chooses a book for all of its incoming freshmen to read as part of its "One Book, One Community" initiative.  The idea is that if everyone reads the same book, they will all start the year having that in common, and having something to share with each other.  This year, the book that they selected was my all time favorite, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, by Jonathan Safran Foer.

The choice of this book was brilliant, due to this year being the ten year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.  Extremely Loud is the story of a boy, Oskar, whose dad is killed in one of the World Trade Center buildings.  At the time of the story, in 2001, Oskar is nine years old.  This means that if Oskar was a real person, he could be a student at MSU right now.

Tonight, Jonathan Safran Foer came to East Lansing to talk about his book.  He was incredible.  He talked a little about his work, and himself, and then opened the floor for questions.  When asked about his writing process, he said that he can't use an outline, because if he did, the best that he would ever get from himself is what he expected to get.  Instead he said that he tries for more.   "I want to do more than what I can do, and I want to write better than I am able to write" is how he explained it.  He also said that the best writers are not the people who start off as the most talented writers, but instead they are those who just keep writing.

At the end of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Oskar receives a heartfelt letter from his idol, Stephen Hawking.  JSF revealed that earlier in the day, an MSU student had asked him if the letter was really from Stephen Hawking.  It took JSF a few minutes to understand that the student thought that the letter may have been written by Oskar's mom, instead of Hawking.  JSF said that he had never thought about that possibility, but now that he considered it, yes, the letter must have come from Oskar's mom.  How cool is that?  He is not only willing to discuss his book and answer questions about it, but he is willing to reconsider what it means.  He compared his books to the scores written for orchestras.  Just as the score needs the orchestra to be fully realized, his books need the readers' interpretations.

JSF was also remarkably generous with his time.  The line of people waiting for him to sign their books twisted and turned, and I have no doubt that some people are still in it.  He signed my son's copy of Extremely Loud, and my copy of Tree of Codes.  Extremely Loud is scheduled to come out as a movie next year.  I will have to see it, because I won't be able to stay away, but I am planning on being disappointed in it.  I just hope I can get my son to read the book before he sees the movie, because once he's seen that, I'm afraid the power of the story will be lost, and he'll never understand why I thought it was such a great book.

THIS JUST IN!  Thorougly unattractive picture of me with JSF!  Love it!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Friends Book Report - 2

Last night the Friends Book Group met to discuss Left Neglected by Lisa Genova.  We were surprisingly harsh.  It seems that the Friends thought that the story all worked out a little too conveniently in the end, and that the side story about a child with ADHD felt contrived.

A few of the Friends had also read Still Alice by the same author, and found Alice  to be the more powerful book.  We decided that Alice had more of an impact on the reader because it is so much more likely that one of us would get early onset Alzheimer's than that one of us would get left neglect.  We also thought that it seemed like Genova had more experience with Alzheimer's, so she was able to show it to the reader more convincingly.

In terms of the narrative, I preferred Left Neglected, but that may be for the very reason that Alice was so powerful, and more than a little frightening.

Next up:  The Paris Wife by Paula McLain  This one was next up on my nightstand anyway, so I'm excited to read it!

Still Reading:  Little Bee by Chris Cleave

Still Listening to:  Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Proper Choice

From the beginning of Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson, it is clear to the reader, though not to Major Pettigrew, that he is looking for a new love.  His wife died a few years before the story begins, and although the Major has been keeping himself busy, he is growing a little bored.

At first, I was not a fan of the Major, and thought that he would be well suited to a crotchety, self righteous woman like Olive Kitteridge.  I kept reading though, and realized that the Major really wasn't so bad, but was just hung up on his ideas of what was "proper".  This made him a good match for Mrs. Ayers from The Little Stranger.  But soon, it became clear that the Major was meant only for Mrs. Ali.

In MPLS, the Major is a stodgy old Englishman, who surprises himself by falling in love with a woman, Mrs. Ali, who was born in England, but is of Pakistani descent.  The Major doesn't think that he has prejudices, but he knows that Americans are crass and annoying, and that an English gentleman really can't become involved with a foreigner, even if she was born in one's own country.  He doesn't struggle with his beliefs so much as he looks at them in fresh light, and slowly realizes that what he thought he knew was not his own belief at all.

MPLS looks at the parent/adult child relationship from the less explored perspective of the parent.  The Major realizes, without blaming himself or his wife, that his son, Roger, has grown to be a person who he really doesn't like.  It is refreshing to see the parent having to show the adult child why he should be more accepting of others.  So often it is the stereotype to have a prejudiced, out of date parent refusing to accept the person the child is dating.  Roger, who is obsessed with his image and quite convinced that his dad is old fashioned, is willing to accept Americans, but sees the English born Pakistanis, including Mrs. Ali, as foreign and below him.   

The Major taught me a new word, which I really should have known before now.  The word is "patrimony", which is defined as "an estate inherited from one's father or ancestor" or "anything derived from one's father or ancestor."  As an estate planning attorney, I bet that I could use a phrase like "he's in it for the patrimony" on an almost daily basis.  The Major's son is absolutely in it for the patrimony.  The Major realizes with some embarrassment that the love of patrimony is a trait that Roger inherited from him.

Ultimately, Major Pettigrew's Last Stand is a very sweet, memorable love story.   The Major learns that the people he loves don't have to be the people he is tied to by blood, but that the ties of blood complicate each person's life, and add fullness to it, nonetheless.

Next up on CD:  Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

Still Reading:  Little Bee by Chris Cleave

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Typical Book Group Report - 3

The Typical Book Group met tonight to discuss The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova.  Normally, there is a lot of discussion about acquaintences, teachers and Hollywood stars, and not so much talking about the book.  That was not the case tonight!  We all wanted to talk about The Swan Thieves.

There were 7 of us there tonight, and only one person hadn't finished the book.  On the whole, the group loved Swan Thieves.  I was probably the person least excited about it, as you might have guessed from my spoilers.  We talked a lot about the parallels between the historic story and the story told in the modern day.  One person felt that Robert, the modern day artist, was Olivier, the old artist uncle, reincarnated, which I have to admit is a thought that crossed my mind.  We also wondered whether Marlowe, the psychiatrist, actually was jealous of Robert, and was trying to replicate his life.

Three of us had read Kostova's earlier book, The Historian, which seems to have received better reviews than The Swan ThievesThe Historian has a woman as the main character, and spends a great deal of the story focused on the legends of vampires and Vlad the Impaler.  We all agreed that the story of Swan Thieves had a better flow than The Historian, but we disagreed about which was ultimately the better book.  I'm on Team Historian.

I brought up most of my questions about the story line, and for the most part, they were easily brushed aside.  We did feel though that Kostova was not consistent with Olivier's age, which was a little confusing.

Next up:   Little Bee by Chris Cleave

The Art of Fiction

The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova is a complicated but interesting story.  On its face, it is the story of a twenty-first century artist who tries to attack a painting at the National Gallery, and of the psychiatrist who treats him.  Quickly though, the story of our doctor moves from professional treatment to amateur investigation.  The doctor discovers that the artist, Robert Oliver, has become obsessed with painting a certain woman who is unknown to his friends and family, and thinks that finding the identity of this woman is the key to Robert's recovery.  He sets off on a quest to find her and hopes that she can explain why an artist would attack a work of art.

The story shifts from modern day Robert, to a little known fictional artist working in the midst of The Impressionists in France.  This artist, Beatrice de Clerval, exchanged letters with her husband's uncle, which Robert reads continuously.  The letters give way to narrative, and we learn the story of Beatrice and her daughter, Aude, as well.

A common thread throughout the story is the forbidden May-December romance.  I count 5 of them, if we include Robert and his obsession. 

I am interested in how this story took root in Kostova's head.  The book itself begins with a painter working, and ends with the identification of the resulting painting as one by Alfred Sisley.  I would have loved it if Kostova started her story with the one person in an obscure painting, and created a ficitional world around her.  However, the online consensus is that Sisley didn't paint anything like the painting Kostova describes.

This is a 560 page book, which is a lot, but the ending seems rushed and unbelievable.  I would have preferred for Kostova to take another 40 pages, (I mean really, at that point, what's another 40 pages between friends?) to tie together some loose ends, in order to reach a less contrived conclusion. 

I had to rush to finish The Swan Thieves, as The Typical Book Group will meet to discuss it in a few hours.  I have some questions, which I will put on my spoilers page, and which I hope the other book groupers will want to discuss.

Got to go!

Next Up:  We'll see what the book group decides

Almost Done Listening to:  Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson.  I didn't like this book at first, but I seem to have fallen for Major Pettigrew.  Now I am actually delaying driving, to try to make it last longer.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Any Many Convincing Voices

After reading Great House by Nicole Krauss, I could not imagine how it missed out on winning the 2010 National Book Award.  The award went to Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon, which didn't even make the NYT Notable Books list.  I added Lord of Misrule to my TBR list, confident that I would be berating the judges after I read it.  After reading, I have no such complaints.

Lord of Misrule is the story of a race track, set vaguely in the early 1970s, and the characters who inhabit it.  The book is divided into parts named after horses, but the horses serve primarily to unite the people who care for them and bet against them.  It is the development of these characters that won Gordon her prize. 

In reading Lord, I couldn't stop myself from comparing it to Great House.  Oddly, both books are divided into four parts.  Lord has its four separate stories involving most of the same characters in each, while Great House  has four stories with characters who may or may not overlap and are united by a desk.  Additionally, both books touch on complicated relationships within Jewish families.  But more than Great House, Lord reminded me of The Help by Kathryn Stockett.

Gordon's best character voice is that of Medicine Ed, who is an older black man who has lived around race tracks for most of his life.  Medicine Ed speaks of "any many" colored hair, and can't just use the word "but" as a conjunction, using instead "yet and still".  His voice is enthralling and true, like that of Aibileen in The Help.  It is interesting that both Kathryn Stockett and Jaimy Gordon, who find these great African American voices, are themselves white.  It would have been taboo, or at least disrespectful, for a white person to purport to be able to speak for such a character not so many years ago, yet Stockett and Gordon both were rewarded with popular and critical success.  Let's hope this is a sign of a more color blind or blended world to come.

I, personally, preferred Great House, but I am so biased toward Nicole Krauss and Jonathan Safran Foer that my opinion should be read more like an article in People than in Consumer Reports.  My friends who generally like the same types of books that I like were not impressed by Great House, and didn't quite understand my strong endorsement.  My hunch is that they would agree with the National Book Award judges, and give the award to Lord of Misrule.

Next Up on CD:  Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson

Still reading:  Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova.  I am reading this book at a pace of about 50 pages a day!  The cultural references make the book feel like it was written just for me.  The story starts off a week after the Columbine shooting, progresses to focus on the Impressionist painters, with special mention of Luncheon of the Boating Party and Mary Cassatt, and has a character reading Thackeray.  What more could I want?

Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Real Shakespeare

When I read about Contested Will:  Who Wrote Shakespeare by James Shapiro, on the NYT Notable Books List, I was interested.  I knew that I had read somewhere that Shakespeare may have been Queen Elizabeth's illegitimate son, and I wanted to uncover the real story.  Shapiro was ready for me, and prepared to dispel my every misconception.  In fact, I was still in the Prologue, when he reminded me, accurately, that I had read about the Queen Elizabeth connection in the children's mystery, Shakespeare's Secret, by Elise Broach. 

Shapiro starts off by telling the reader that he believes that Shakespeare's works were written by (gasp!) William Shakespeare.  He is open to and embracing of the idea that Shakespeare may have collaborated with others on certain pieces, but is mystified by the historians and celebrities who have argued for centuries that someone else must have been the author.  A strange thing about the Shakespeare controversy is the vast array of celebrities who have felt the need to weigh in on the issue. From Helen Keller to Mark Twain to Sigmund Freud to Charlie Chaplin to Malcolm X, everyone has an opinion.

Apparently, much of the controversy about whether or not William Shakespeare could have been a great playwright stems from his will, where he apparently didn't leave his books to anyone, and is said to have spelled his name wrong in one signature.  His detractors say that this helps to prove that the person named Shakespeare was illiterate, and could not have written the plays.  There are two candidates who the detractors put forward as the most likely true authors, and Shapiro addresses the likelihood of each being the "real" Shakespeare, dismissing them with persuasive authority.

If you are looking for juicy 17th century gossip, Contested Will is probably not going to hold your attention.  However if you are really interested in the authorship controversy, Shapiro is very convincing.

Next up:  Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova

Almost done listening to:  Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon 

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Typical Book Group Report - 2

The Typical Book Group found Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray to be a very tough book.  Only 6 hearty souls were brave enough to attend book group last night to discuss it, and of them, only 3 had finished the book.  We discussed the story for very little time, and our discussion focused mainly on the differences between the book and the movie that came out a few years ago, with Reese Witherspoon as Rebecca.

The book grouper who watched the Vanity Fair movie (and also read the whole book) was on Team Rebecca.  The other two groupers who finished the book were on Team Amelia.  It seems as though the movie made Rebecca appear more innocent, and Rawdon Crawley appear less worthy, than the book.

All told, a book that takes 300 pages to get interesting is probably not a great book group pick.  On the other hand, we all felt that we could now check the box and say that we had read Vanity Fair, which gave us a tiny sense of accomplishment.

Next up:  The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova

Still Reading:  Contested Will  by James Shapiro

Still Listening to:  Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon
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