Sunday, December 30, 2012

Review and Preview

Goodbye 2012!  As far as years go, you really weren't so bad.  Maybe you were even a little good.  For Christmas I got The Patrick Melrose Novels and At Last  by Edward St. Aubyn, which shows that it pays to drop gift hints.  I also got the DVD of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, to add to my Jonathan Safran Foer obsession collection.  December is almost over, and as far as I am aware, no one has launched anything as exciting as the OASIS, which is the massively multiplayer game featured in Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, that was said to have been released in December of 2012.  I think we are better off without it.  I mean really, we can barely handle Words With Friends.

My favorite books that I read in 2012 are these:

1.  Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
2. Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin
3. Black Swan Green by David Mitchell
4. Stone Arabia by Dana Spoitta
5.  Helen of Troy by Margaret George

in that order.  Your favorite books that I read in 2012 (based on page views) are:

1. Black Swan Green by David Mitchell
2.  The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
3.  Helen of Troy by Margaret George
4.  Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
5.  Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin

in that order.  So we almost agree, which is good.

For 2013, I have decided to sign up again for the Off the Shelf Challenge.  The idea of this challenge is that the participants should read books that they already own, in order to move them off their shelves.   This time I am only going to commit to moving 15 books off of my shelf.  Last time I committed to 24, and read 26.  I don't want to commit to that many this year, so that I can feel like I can review books for authors or read books that I pick up during the year, without feeling like I am failing the challenge.  So, here is the list of books that I plan to read in 2013.  As I read them, I will cross them out, and provide a link to my review.

1.  The Dressmaker by Kate Alcott Reviewed 1/26/13
2.  Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen Reviewed 7/16/13
3.  The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano Reviewed 3/31/13
4.  Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks Reviewed 2/6/13
5.  The Lost King of France by Deborah Cadbury
6.  True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey Reviewed 11/16/13
7.  My Life as a Fake by Peter Carey
8.  The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon  Reviewed 9/21/13
9.  Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
10.  Pope Joan by Donna Woolfolk Cross
11.  Zeitoun by Dave Eggers  Reviewed 2/14/13
12.  In the Woods by Tana French Reviewed 10/21/13
13.  Happy Families by Carlos Fuentes
14.  The End of Sparta by Victor Davis Hanson
15.  The Rose Labyrinth by Titania Hardie
16.  Memoir from Antproof Case by Mark Helprin
17.  The Nick Adams Stories by Ernest Hemingway
18.  The Descendants by Kaui Hart Hemmings Reviewed 2/25/13
19.  Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand Reviewed 3/9/13
20.  The Iliad by Homer Reviewed 11/29/13
21.  The Odyssey by Homer  Reviewed 1/15/2013
22.  The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James Reviewed 4/6/13
23.  Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James
24.  The Titans by John Jakes
25.  The Undomestic Goddess by Sophie Kinsella Reviewed 5/2/13
26.  One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
27.  Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It by Maile Meloy Reviewed 12/16/13
28.  The Last Life by Claire Messud Reviewed 7/29/13
29.  The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitchell Reviewed 5/12/13
30.  We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates
31.  The Magician's Assistant by Ann Patchett
32.  The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl
33.  The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman  Reviewed 6/29/13
34.  The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie
35.  At Last by Edward St. Aubyn Reviewed 8/22/13
36.  The Patrick Melrose Novels by Edward St. Aubyn Reviewed 8/6/13
37.  The Three Weissmanns of Westport by Cathleen Schine Reviewed 8/22/13
38.  The Weight of Water by Anita Shreve Reviewed 9/11/13
39.  Brooklyn by Colm Toibin Reviewed 9/26/13
40.  War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
41.  A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole Reviewed 1/19/13
42.  Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
43.  Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

There are a lot of great books on this list, and I can't wait to get started!  I'll keep you posted on my progress.

For now, I am

Still Reading:  Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.  I am LOVING this book so far!

Still Listening to:  Enchantments by Kathryn Harrison

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Two Thirds of Cromwell

In 2010, when I finished reading Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, I said that I liked it, but that if the sequel was out (Mantel was still writing it at that time) I would not rush to the bookstore on the corner to buy it.  Well, things have changed since 2010.  I no longer have a bookstore on the corner, or anywhere within 5 miles of my house.  Sigh.  And Mantel's sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, is not only out, it is a Man Booker Prize winner, like its predecessor, and a NYT Notable Book.  Mantel is the first woman to win the Man Booker Prize twice, and it is especially impressive that the wins are for two successive parts of a trilogy.  Expectations are high for the final volume, and I am sure that Mantel will not disappoint.

Mantel's trilogy tells the story of Henry VIII and his marriages through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell.  Cromwell was officially one of Henry's chief advisers, holding various titles of increasing importance.  In actuality, he was sort of an evil puppet master, coming up with ways of doing whatever it was that Henry wanted.  To say that Henry VIII was mercurial is a huge understatement.  He wanted what he wanted, when he wanted it, and until he didn't want it anymore.  Unfortunately for England, this spoiled child of a king, with the help of Cromwell, had the ability to change the laws to suit his needs, and to order the deaths of anyone who got in his way.

Want to know how immature Henry VIII was?  Here is a picture of his suit of armor that I took when I visited the Tower of London a few years ago. 

Yep, that is what you think it is, coming out of his mid-section.  One would think that this suit was designed by an optimistic 12 year old boy rather than by a reigning king.

After reading Bring Up the Bodies, I would suggest that a person should not try to read it without having read Wolf Hall first.  And I take back my earlier words.  If you can start reading Bring Up the Bodies as soon as you finish Wolf Hall, you absolutely should.  Mantel assumes that the reader knows a lot about the sixteenth century British royals.  If you allow too much time between the books, it will be harder to remember who the players are, and why Cromwell has grudges against some and wants to protect others.  Mantel's style is unusual.  The narrator's voice is incredibly passive for such an active story.  Many, many, many sentences include the words "he, Cromwell" as in "So the bargain is struck and sealed:  he, Cromwell, is to assist the old families . . . " on page 218, or as a variation, "This time he does go; but giving him, Cromwell, a sort of mock salute . . . " on page 217.  Even though I was really interested in the action of the story, and liked the tone of the book, I found myself falling asleep with the book in my hand more often than I would have expected, lulled by the narrator's voice.

Mantel is working on the final volume now, and it is presently titled The Mirror and the Light.  If I could start reading right now, I would! 

Next Up:  Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.  I was planning to read The Odyssey by Homer next, but then I got an email from my library saying that Gone Girl was available, but that I could only have it for one week.  Homer has already been waiting 2,500 years more or less for me to read his poem, so I guess one more week won't make much difference.

Still Listening to:  Enchantments by Kathryn Harrison

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Historical Fact

I started listening to Cleopatra:  a Life by Stacy Schiff with some trepidation.  I knew I liked the subject, but I wasn't sure I could handle listening to a biography on audio book.  The first time I heard a footnote, I almost ejected the disc.  So that you understand where I am coming from, this is what a footnote sounds like in audio form:  "Footnote:  This is an example.  End of Footnote"

Part of me thought "It's Christmas time and I am crazy busy.  I should listen to something light and fluffy".  The rational part of me thought "It won't kill me to get some historical facts, since my brain is growing mushy with all this historical fiction."  The first part of me argued that I didn't need any more real history after 21 years of public school education.  The rational part of me laughed out loud at that one.  And so, I kept listening.

My previous knowledge of Cleopatra came from Memoirs of Cleopatra by Margaret George, which is, of course, historical fiction.  When I read Memoirs, I felt really stupid, because I had no idea that Cleopatra had a child with Julius Caesar.  However, since all of my Caesar knowledge comes from Shakespeare instead of from history classes, and since Shakespeare kept his Caesar and his Cleopatra in separate stories, I would guess that I am not the only one who never made the connection.

I learned more about Cleopatra in Schiff's book, as should be expected.  One thing that surprised me was that in Cleopatra's time, the Sphinx had already been buried in sand for a thousand years.  Another was that Cleopatra lived just one generation before Jesus was born.  Cleopatra died in 30 BC, and Jesus was born sometime around 4 BC.  In fact, one of Cleopatra's most reliable biographers, Plutarch, was writing about Cleopatra at the same time that some of the New Testament gospels were being written.

Cleopatra: a Life is a very good biography.  It was a NYT Notable Book in 2010.   My library has picked it as a book group book for February.  It seems like an odd choice at first, but I could see how this particular biography would appeal to people who normally prefer fiction.  Schiff researched her subject thoroughly, and throughout the book, she tells the reader whose story she is relying on for certain facts, and why she determined that one author might be more reliable than another for specific issues.  I liked how Schiff said things like "Cleopatra probably did this" or "It is likely that this happened in this way"  without being stubbornly definitive.  History is, of course, written by the victors, and Cleopatra was ultimately a loser.  She should have been relegated to being a footnote herself, but her reputation was so intriguing that even her contemporary conquerors couldn't keep from writing about her. 

I, personally, preferred George's telling.  But then, why wouldn't I?  Since she was writing fiction, George could invent juicy dialogue, and be creative with any "facts" that true historians now question, such as the method of Cleopatra's death.  Schiff is a Pulitzer winning biographer (for her biography of Nabokov's wife, Vera), and she manages to tell a story full of historical facts and details in a way that is interesting, and almost conversational.  Given her unbiased treatment of Cleopatra, I would like to propose another subject for her - Jesus.  If anyone could take apart the propaganda and the edits that were made after the fact to get to something as close as is possible to what really happened, that person would be Schiff.  I for one would read it, footnotes and all.

One thing that the "light and fluffy" part of me found really funny about the audio book, was that the reader pronounced Caesar and Cleopatra's son's name, Caesarion, as "Cesarean".  I am sure that she pronounced his name correctly, but if I had been reading it, I would have contorted it in some way to sound less like the medical procedure.  With the reader's pronunciation, every time I heard his name, I wondered if he was still hanging out with his friends, Epidural and Episiotomy.  Yep.  I'm that easily distracted this time of the year.

Next up on CD:  Enchantments by Kathryn Harrison

Still Reading:  Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Typical Book Exchange

Tonight was The Typical Book Group's annual book exchange!  There were nine of us there, and by luck, I got to pick first.  I exercised impressive self restraint (if I do say so myself), and left with only 3 books this year.  The ones I picked are The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl, The Weight of Water by Anita Shreve, and The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James.  I have somehow not read anything by Henry James, so I am interested in that one.  The Dante Club is a mystery set in Boston in 1865, and featuring detectives who study Dante's Inferno. I'm thinking that this one might be a little like The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon.

We were meant to talk about The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey tonight, but the group was just getting started on the discussion when I had to leave, after being there for two hours.  I listened to the book in audio form, but my friend, Nancy, who read it, wanted me to ask the group what they thought about the conversations with Faina not including quotation marks, when the conversations with the other neighbors were properly punctuated.  We felt that stylistic choice contributed to the question of whether Faina was a "real" girl or whether she could possibly be a snow girl, which really is the central issue of the narrative.

Next month we are going to read Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.  I was surprised to see that I was 7th on the wait list for 11 copies of the book when I tried to request it from my library.  Hopefully I will get it in time to read it before the next meeting!

Still Reading:  Bring up the Bodies  by Hilary Mantel

Still Listening to:  Cleopatra:  A Life by Stacy Schiff

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

'Tis the Season

It's that time of year again, when the classic holiday special, Frosty the Snowman, is appearing on television screens everywhere.  The idea behind that story, in case you have somehow missed the point, is that children build a snowman who then comes to life.  The snowman wants to be just like the other kids, but finds that he can't do some things without putting his snowy body at risk of melting away.  In The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey, the reader learns that the story of Frosty is actually based on a Russian or Eastern European fairy tale, which has several different variants, all of which involve a childless couple building a snowman that comes to life, but also comes to a tragic end. 

In The Snow Child, Jack and Mabel are just such a couple.  They moved to Alaska in the 1920s, and are trying to create a life for themselves in the wilderness.  Although they are living together with no nearby neighbors, they are also living apart, with each of them keeping secrets from the other.  Their existence is very lonely, with not even each other to confide in or depend upon for help.  One night, in a bout of uncharacteristic playfulness, they build a snow girl together.  They dress her in a scarf and gloves, and think nothing of it when they go to bed.  But the next morning, the snow girl is gone, along with the gloves and scarf. 

Soon thereafter, Jack and Mabel separately catch glimpses of a child in the woods, who appears to be wearing the scarf, and who also seems to be all alone.  Each of them questions whether they are really seeing what they think they are, as it seems so unlikely that a child would be near their home in the middle of winter.  Eventually, they learn that the child is a girl named Faina, but they still don't know why she is in the woods that surround their cabin. 

Throughout the story, Jack and Mabel wonder if Faina could possibly be the snowman that they made, brought to life.  Each finds reasons to believe that Faina is just a normal child living on her own in the woods, but still they wonder.  Because of the lack of communication in their relationship, they don't share their ideas or the facts that they have uncovered in support of those ideas with each other.  Wherever Faina is from, they want her to stay.  Mabel keeps her mind on the fairy tale, but comes to believe that for some stories, a person can write their own ending.

This is The Typical Book Group's pick for December, so I'll talk more about it next week when we meet.

Next up on CD:  Cleopatra:  A Life  by Stacy Schiff.  I'm not so sure about listening to a biography on audio book, but we'll see how it goes!

Still Reading:  Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Friday, December 7, 2012

How to Read Clouds

For years, my sister has been recommending that I read Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell.  In my defense, I tried.  In fact, I think that I gave it about 215 pages before giving up, which is pretty generous.  When I last tried reading it though, my daughter was just going through her testing for dyslexia, and I had a lot on my mind, other than trying to piece together the tangled web that Mitchell was weaving. 

This past Christmas, my sister bought me Cloud Atlas and Black Swan Green by Mitchell.  She knew that I had tried CA before, and gave up, but she thought I should give it another try.  I wasn't exactly in a rush.  But, then I read Black Swan Green, and really loved it.  So, I agreed to give CA another look.

Even the second time around, Cloud Atlas was not an easy read.  Part of the problem is that for the first half of the book, the reader is trying to figure out what is going on.  But this time I realized that if I would have just hung in for 20 more pages the first time, I probably would have been hooked.  So, if you are interested and want to know how to read the book without getting frustrated, keep reading.  On the other hand, if you want to be surprised about how the book works, stop reading here.  I'll insert a nice picture of the CA movie poster, so you don't have to read more than you want.

OK.  For those who are still with me . . . see that tag line above?  "Everything is connected"?  Yes, it is.  To prepare yourself for reading CA, start with the back cover.  On the back of my copy, Michael Chabon describes the book as "The novel as series of nested dolls or Chinese boxes. . . "  Remember that.  Then, look at the names of the chapters.  You have "The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing", then "Letters from Zedelghem", then "Half Lives:  the First Luisa Rey Mystery", then "The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish", then "An Orison of Sonmi-451", then "Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After".  Halfway though Sloosha's Crossin', you are halfway through the story of the book.  From that point, you will revisit the characters from the earlier chapters, in reverse order, starting with Orison of Sonmi, then Timothy Cavendish, etc.

Each chapter seems to be entirely unrelated to the others, with different characters, taking place in different periods of time.  The chronology, as it is, begins with Adam Ewing during the California Gold Rush.  It then progresses in each chapter, with the Timothy Cavendish chapters being the closest to modern day, and Sloosha's Crossin' being in the (hopefully) very distant future.  After the Sloosha's Crossin' chapter, time goes backward again until we return to the 1800s. 

Knowing this, I think you are now prepared to read CA.  The first time I tried it, I just didn't get why we were ending each chapter in the middle of a story, but never getting back to it.  You will get back to each story, but it will take a while.  As I read, I tried to look for the connections, and had corners turned down in my book all the way through the first Sonmi chapter, marking where I could look back to the precious hints I had recognized.  After Sloosha, however, Mitchell hits the reader over the head with the connections, in a way that ties everything together.

There are recurring themes, and Mitchell explores how each plays out in the different eras.  The battle of good versus evil begins with bullies as the bad guys, progresses to corporations as evildoers, and then progresses into the future even further, where we return to bullies. 

Mitchell has a couple of great and timeless quotes.  The first that I really liked, possibly because it could have fit just as well in Black Swan Green was "Prejudice is permafrost", which is in the first Sonmi chapter.  The second, which doesn't blog as well as it read, was from Sloosha,where two characters were talking about what separates the civilized societies from the violent ones.  The more optimistic character says that in the violent societies, there are savages with beautiful hearts, who might make a difference one day.  The doubting character says "'One day' was only a flea o' hope for us."  "Yay" says the other character, "but fleas ain't easy to rid."

Cloud Atlas is a good book, with a lot to discuss when it is finished.  Why are there two characters named Adam?  Do the birth marks mean what I think they do?  What caused the Fall?  Do the Henderson Triplets create the Sonmi culture?  But it would be a lot for most book groups to digest. 

Cloud Atlas was a NYT Notable Book in 2004.

Next up:  Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel.  Yep, I managed to get it, even after it made the NYT Notables!

Still Listening to:  The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Magic Enough

Imagine a circus, which arrives in a field, at night while you sleep.  Unlike every other circus that you have ever seen, the only colors on the tents and decorations are black and white.   Unlike any circus that you have ever heard of, this circus is open from dusk to dawn.  This is the circus that Erin Morgenstern imagined in her novel, The Night Circus

In the night circus, unexplainable things happen. These happenings are not the result of magic, but of the skill of two particular people who are engaged in a secret contest with each other.  The contestants, Celia and Marco, claim not to be magicians or wizards, but they are able to make the circus feel as though it is enchanted.  Celia is an illusionist in the circus, and her feats range from changing the color of her dress to complement the clothing of others, to arranging for the circus to travel via train between cities such as Sydney, New York, and London.  Marco works behind the scenes, but creates attractions that astound Celia and the circus goers alike.  The story is set in the 1890s, and the first years of the 20th century, mostly in London and in cities in the Eastern United States, but it could have been set anywhere and in any time.

Bailey is a young boy when he first discovers the circus, and he is immediately enthralled.  He meets twins, Poppet and Widget, who are about his age, have a circus show, and treat him as though he is their best friend.  Poppet has the ability to read the future in the stars, while Widget can read people's pasts. What Widget reads, he records, not in writing, but in bottles containing smells that remind people of of where they have been.  Poppet realizes that there is something special about Bailey, even if no one can quite figure out what it is.  My favorite quote from the book is spoken by Celia to Bailey, and it is this:  "You're in the right place at the right time, and you care enough to do what needs to be done.  Sometimes that's enough."  In this circus, it turns out that it is.

Morgenstern's circus is amazing.  One tent contains a cloud maze.  In another, everything is made of ice.  A wishing tree keeps wishes constantly burning, and feeding off of each other.  The entire circus always smells like popcorn and caramel.  I could go right now.

I listened to the book on CD, and while the reader was great, I think that I may have liked this one even better and found it more powerful, if I had read it myself.  Apparently a movie is in the development stages. If it is done right, it should turn out to be a "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" for adults.

At the end of the book, a visitor to the circus is handed a business card with an "@thenightcircus" email address on it.  Even though I'm an adult, and generally am not suckered in by these gimmicks, I am finding myself oddly tempted to write and let the addressee know that I really love his circus, and think it should swing by Michigan soon.

Next up on CD:  The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

Still Reading:  Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

At Last

Finally, my mid-workday Googling has paid off!  The NYT Notable Book List for 2012 is online!  Last year, I found the list on line on November 23, so I have been anxiously looking for it for about a week now.  

Two of the books on my TBR list made it - Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel and Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter.  I have been trying to get Bring up the Bodies from my library for quite some time, and I thought that it would finally be available now that the Man Booker Prize hype had died down.  Oh well.  It's sure to be off the shelves for months now.

I was surprised that Gods Without Men by Hari Kunzru made the list, given the conflicted reviews that it received from the Times.  The Starboard Sea by Amber Dermont made the list too, which was just as unexpected.  No one seems to be talking about that book, and it deserves some publicity.

At Last by Edward St. Aubyn made the list too.  This is the fifth and final book in the Patrick Melrose series.  I haven't read any of this series, but my sister recommends it, and I aggressively hinted that I wouldn't mind if she bought me a couple of the books for Christmas.  I bought Building Stories by Chris Ware as a Christmas gift, and have been feeling a little unsure about whether my intended recipient will like it.  Now at least I can smugly tell him that the Times says he should like it.

What did I add to my TBR list?  I am sure that I could add 5 or 6, but so far, I have only added 3:  The Enchantments by Kathryn Harrison, The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin, and This is How you Lose Her by Junot Diaz.  The Enchantments is about Rasputin and his family, and sounds perfect.  I love historical fiction about royalty, although my royals are usually British.  This is How you Lose Her has been flirting with my TBR list ever since it came out.  I didn't love The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Diaz, but my favorite character from that book, Yunior, is featured in this collection of short stories.  I had to force myself not to add Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon to the list.  But since I have 3 unread Chabon novels in my nightstand, I feel like I should work my way through some of his oldies before I earn this goody.

Can't wait to read!

Still Reading:  Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Still Listening to:  The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Typical Book Group Report - 8

The Typical Book Group met last night to discuss The Story of Beautiful Girl by Rachel Simon.  There were 10 of us there, which was a pretty good turn out.  Amazingly, we discussed the book for at least an hour.  All but one of us had read the book, and everyone liked it.  I was surprised that we didn't really have much to say about Martha, who was the character who raised the baby.  I also didn't expect people to think that Homan's story was boring.  I was never bored by it, but I was listening on CD, and maybe the reader added more to my experience than I realized.

One thing that bothered us is that we couldn't really explain how Martha's box of letters got to the museum.  My recollection was that the Lynnie read the letters, and I thought that she must have sent them to the museum with her art work.  Others disagreed.  No matter how the letters got to the museum, it didn't make any sense to us that Julia read the letters last.  They were written to her, and were in the house where she was raised, so it seems strange that Julia didn't see them until she stumbled upon them while on a field trip.

After I finished the book, I came across this article in the New York Times about how a power outage caused by Hurricane Sandy resulted in inmates in a halfway house being freed.  Some men apparently went to the women's housing, like the men did in Beautiful Girl.  As much as I like Chris Christie for crossing the lines of politics and complimenting President Obama on his handling of the disaster, I have to think that there is more to this story than the Times has uncovered, and Christie's name seems to be all over it.

Next month we are going to read The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey.

Still Reading:  Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Still Listening to:  The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Sunday, November 18, 2012

In Love with Marriage

Mrs. Kimble by Jennifer Haigh is the story of a man, Ken Kimble, told through the eyes of his three successive wives.  The first, Birdie, was Ken's choir student when he taught at her Bible college in the 1960s.  When Ken leaves, Birdie's life starts a downward spiral, which eventually leads her to a night in a dirty bar straight out of Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates. In walking away from Birdie, Ken is also walking away from his two children with her, Charlie and Jody.  The next wife, Joan, is older than Birdie, and richer.  For her, Ken forgets his past as a minister, and suddenly becomes a Jewish Realtor.  The third wife, Dinah, is a few years older than Birdie was when Ken married her, but the gap in ages between Dinah and Ken, and the way he treats her as an accessory, leave Dinah feeling "like the punch line to a dirty joke."

The author describes Ken Kimble as a "serial husband", who is somehow able to convince each of his wives that he is exactly what she needs.  That Kimble can accomplish that is something of a feat, as one apparently needed a Christian minister and one would only marry a Jewish businessman.  Haigh maintains that Kimble is not a sociopath, and his wives are not victims.  While he may not be sociopathic, Kimble is absolutely a big fat liar, with no feeling for anyone other than himself.

We are only told about three Mrs. Kimbles, but at the end I was left wondering if there were any more.  When Ken married Birdie, he was already in his thirties, which seems old for a first marriage, for a man so much in love with getting married.

This book sat unread in my nightstand for years.  As such, it is fitting that it is the final book for the Off the Shelf Challenge.  When I picked it up, I thought that there was some connection between Mrs. Kimble and The Hours by Michael Cunningham.  Specifically, I had the notion that this book was supposed to expand on Cunningham's character, Mrs. Brown.  Birdie and Mrs. Brown are cut from a similar cloth, and would probably be great friends, but I can't find any indication that this was intentional.  I think that my idea may have come from the cover of Mrs. Kimble, which shows dresses that three different women would wear.  These are obviously for the three different Mrs. Kimbles, but they actually would fit the three women in Cunningham's novel just as well.

Next up on CD:  The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Still Reading:  Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

A Wrinkle in the Formula

The Year of the Gadfly, by Jennifer Miller, is the story of a 14 year old girl, Iris, who is starting school in a new town, after her best friend from her former school committed suicide.  Iris has an imaginary friend, Edward R. Murrow, who she speaks to, sometimes aloud.  Iris doesn't need a rubber bracelet on her arm to remind her to ask WWERMD?  because she is constantly asking him what he would do in every situation.  At her new school, Mariana Academy, a group of rebels, who call themselves Prisom's Party, is exposing wrong doing among the staff and students.  However, no one knows who is in Prisom's Party, and the way in which they bring the misdeeds to light is more sensational than informative.  Iris sets off to find out who is in Prisom's Party, and what their motives are, but quickly finds herself tangled between a loyalty that she feels to a teacher and what she will have to do in order to find out more about the secret group.

I first heard about this book when the author, Jennifer Miller, sent me a message on GoodReads saying that since I had given Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl a 5 star rating, I would like her book too.  I was a little leery, thinking that Miller may have self-published her book, but I checked out the reviews on Amazon, and found that people liked The Year of the Gadfly, and that they also compared it to Special Topics.

As you will recall from my discussion of The Starboard Sea by Amber Dermont a couple of months ago, there are certain books that follow a formula that I like.  This formula involves a student starting at a new school, identifying a group of students who he or she admires, and then once the student is finally accepted by the group, he or she learns that they are keeping a secret which the student would be better off not knowing.  When I discussed The Starboard Sea, I left out one other important element - there should be a teacher, with some degree of knowledge about the secret, and some involvement with the group.  Books using this formula are Special Topics, The Secret History  by Donna Tartt, and The Hidden by Tobias HillGadfly is also a formula book, with the wrinkle that the story takes place partially in 2000, and partially in 2012.

In the part of Gadfly set in 2000, the story mostly involves Jonah and Justin, who are twin brothers attending Mariana, Hazel, who is a year older, and Lily, who is dating Justin.  In 2012, Jonah has returned as a teacher at Mariana, Hazel has a job in town, and Iris is attending the school, while living in Lily's old house.  In terms of the formula, there are cliques and secrets in both 2000 and 2012, but the outsider isn't really admitted to the clique in either year.  There is a teacher, Jonah, involved in the 2012 story, but not in 2000.  The secret in both years involves the newcomer's admission to the group, and not a separate secret that the new person finds out.

Gadfly  is a complicated story, where the reader really never knows who to trust.  Iris being so young and talking to Murrow gave the story a Harriett the Spy feel which made it seem unsophisticated at first.  I think that Miller has Iris talk to Murrow so that the reader questions whether Iris is a reliable narrator, to add to the confusion.  In the end, everything ties together nicely, without feeling contrived.

In my library, Gadfly was in the mystery section, which I think is a little strange.  It isn't really a mystery - it is more like Iris is investigating what there is to investigate.  I guess that the identity of the people in Prisom's Party is a mystery, but that's not really essential to the story.  I would consider this book to be good prep school fiction, but not a mystery.

Next up:  Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Still Listening to:  Mrs. Kimble by Jennifer Haigh

Saturday, November 10, 2012


It is time once again for my library's biannual book sale!  I went today, and  bought 13 books for my family members, plus 11 books for me, all for $29.50.  Pretty amazing. 

I'm most excited about finding The Dressmaker by Kate Alcott, which has been on my TBR list for a while. 

I also picked up Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James, which has been intriguing me.  But, I decided that if I want to read that, I should read Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, first.  Death Comes uses Austen's characters, but puts them in a murder mystery.  I was pretty harsh about Austen when I read Emma earlier this year, but my sister informs me that I am *wrong* about her.  Apparently Austen is objectively a great author, and any subjective opinion to the contrary is sadly misinformed.  I'll give her another try, and I did find a nice copy of Pride and Prejudice
I stepped outside of my comfort zone, and checked out the science fiction section this year.  I figured that if some people consider Ready Player One by Ernest Cline to be science fiction, then maybe I like science fiction, and just didn't realize it.  I picked up Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke from that section, which looks like it will take my beloved British historical fiction and mix in a large dose of magic.  It might be interesting. 
Finally, I got new books by authors whose work I have read and liked:  Zeitoun by Dave Eggers; Memoir from Antproof Case by Mark Helprin; and The Magician's Assistant by Ann Patchett.  In fact, the sale was so crazy that I got home and realized that I had picked up two copies of Patchett's book, so I gave that, and a great copy of A Watery Part of the World by Michael Parker, which I just couldn't resist, to my friend, Kim.

Once again, I was disappointed not to find any Murakami, and I've never had any luck finding back issues of McSweeney's at these sales.  Apparently, those either are not at all popular in Beverly Hills 48025, or they are so well loved that no one wants to donate them.  My guess is the former.  Oh well.  I think I've got enough to restock my nightstand for another year.

Still Reading:  Year of the Gadfly by Jennifer Miller

Still Listening to:  Mrs. Kimble by Jennifer Haigh

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Signs of Intelligence

One dark and rainy night, a widow, Martha, is sitting at home, when there is a persistent knock at her door.  She opens it to find an African American man and a white woman, wrapped in blankets and banners.  She lets them in, even though they don't tell her who they are or why they are at her house.  She gives them dry clothes, and is startled to find that they have a baby who they were hiding in their wraps.  Soon, the authorities are at her door, hauling the woman back to her "school", while the man runs off into the darkness.  The woman manages to whisper two words to Martha before she leaves:  "Hide her".  Martha promises that she will. And so begins The Story of Beautiful Girl by Rachel Simon.

The story starts off in 1968, and by the end of that year, the reader knows a lot more about Martha, the mysterious woman, Lynnie, and the man, Homan.  Lynnie was brought to the "school", which is actually an institution, by her family, when they felt that they could not handle her anymore.  Now we would call Lynnie intellectually or cognitively impaired, but in 1968, she was a "moron".  After witnessing horrors at the school, Lynnie stopped speaking, and no one seemed to notice.  Homan was born "normal", but lost his hearing after having a fever.  He learned sign language from some neighbors, but never learned to read or write.  He was found in an alley, assumed to be feeble minded since he couldn't speak, and taken to the "school".  Martha is a retired school teacher who thought that her days of learning were long past.  Her former students, who she has remained in touch with, help her to navigate her unexpected new life, as a grandmother.

Lynnie and Homan face incredible challenges over the next few decades due to their inability to communicate.  The world makes assumptions about them, but they each find advocates who help them to be heard.  Their advocates also help them to find their hidden talents, when they don't believe that they have anything worthwhile to contribute.

If Oprah was still picking books (is she?) The Story of Beautiful Girl would have the big O imprinted on the front.   It is destined for a Lifetime (or OWN) movie.  It is a little sappy, but still a sweet read.  I liked that some of the characters were based on real people, including one based on a young Geraldo Rivera.  There was an opportunity for a Water for Elephants ending, which I, personally, would have preferred, but the ending that Simon wrote will make a better movie.

There will be more about Beautiful Girl later in the month, when the Typical Book Group gets together to discuss it.

In other news, remember that card catalogue that I garbage picked in May?  Well, I have "after" photos for you. 

I refinished it, and gave it some legs.  Unfortunately, even with legs, it is a little too short for a coffee table.  So, I am thinking that I will put a cushion on the top, and make it into a window seat instead.

It seems to be just the right height for that.  If only it was a little more cushy. . .

Next up on CD:  Mrs. Kimble by Jennifer Haigh

Still Reading:  Year of the Gadfly by Jennifer Miller

Saturday, October 27, 2012

As it is Now and Ever Shall Be

World Without End by Ken Follett is the enormous sequel to Follett's earlier BFB, Pillars of the Earth.  In Pillars, Jack Builder struggled to build a cathedral in Kingsbridge.  World begins 300 years after Pillars ends and includes people who think, but seem to be not quite sure, that they are Jack's descendants.

World opens with four children running off into the woods together.  The children are Gwenda, the daughter of a poor laborer; Caris, the daughter of a wealthy merchant; and Ralph and Merthin, the sons of a knight who has fallen on hard times.  While in the woods, the children accidentally save a knight from being murdered.  This knight, Thomas Langley, is injured in the fighting, and seeks sanctuary in the Kingsbridge cathedral.  After all of the children except Merthin run off, Thomas buries a letter, and tells Merthin that if anything ever happens to him, he should bring the letter to a priest. 

Throughout the next 1000 pages, the children grow up, and to some extent, prosper, and Thomas becomes a monk.  The book is divided into four parts.  The first focuses mainly on efforts to build a new bridge to Kingsbridge.  The next is about power struggles between the priory and the businessmen of Kingsbridge.  The third is the longest part, and it is about the toll that the Black Plague takes on the people of the town.  The fourth and final part wraps everything up, so that justice is finally served.

I delayed reading World because I had heard that it was not as good as Pillars, and I didn't love Pillars.  However, I think that I liked World  more.  All of the characters were well developed, and while some were not at all likable, they were consistent.  Follett recently came out with a new book, Winter of the World, which is set in the time of World War II.  I am definitely interested in that one because I love books of that period.  However, it is the second in a trilogy, and so I feel like I should read the first, Fall of Giants before its sequel.  I liked World so much, that I'm ready to put Fall of Giants on my TBR list, even though it's another 960 pages.

I started off listening to the book on CD, and it was taking forever!  When I finally started reading when I was home, and listening while I was driving, the book went really fast.  I found that if I read at night for a half hour or 45 minutes, I could cover as much material as was on a disc, which lasted an hour and 15 minutes.  This was probably because of the dramatic way in which the story was read.  However, the reader wasn't cheesy, and it was nice listening, if you have 45 hours to spare.

That's the penultimate book for the Off the Shelf Challenge!  I love that word, penultimate . . . and I love being almost done!

Next up on CD:  The Story of Beautiful Girl by Rachel Simon

Next up on Paper:  Year of the Gadfly by Jennifer Miller

Monday, October 22, 2012

Bogged Down in the Paddies

After reading the first 50 pages of The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli, I thought that it would be an easy read, that I would just tear through.  However, after sinking my teeth into it, I got stuck in the quagmire of Vietnam, and found that book wasn't quite as easy as I thought it would be. 

Seriously though, and I know that it must sound like I am grasping for a metaphor by comparing the pacing of a book about the Vietnam War to the war itself, in the beginning, I thought that I would read the The Lotus Eaters in just a few days.  The book opens with a scene that could have come straight from "Miss Saigon", with the American photographer trying to get herself and her Vietnamese husband onto one of the final helicopters.  I couldn't put the book down, and my heart was racing.  But then, we flashed back to 1965, when the photographer, Helen Adams, had first come to Vietnam.  Thinking, like an American, that the war would be a quickie, Helen dropped out of college to document the story, afraid that it would be over by the time that she would have graduated.  Helen was proven wrong on that count, and the pace of the story slows, but it never bores.

In Saigon, Helen finds that everything happens faster than in America, with everyone in a frenzy, and worried that each story might be their last.  Helen falls in love with a famous photographer who is also covering the conflict, and because of the frantic war atmosphere, she sees no problem with the fact that he is married.  Her love interest, Sam Darrow, has a Vietnamese assistant, Linh, who Helen is not sure she can trust.   Ultimately, Linh's story, which is told in fragments, is the most interesting, although the least complete.

The Lotus Eaters tells some of the tales that we have heard before.  The South Vietnamese soldiers who don't want to do what the Americans want them to do, and are sometimes vicious to their own people.  The North Vietnamese forcing people to fight for their side.  The Americans confused as to who the enemies are.  But the story also seems fair to all sides.  No one is only good or only bad.  The question of why we went to Vietnam in the first place is raised, but not answered.

This is another book that I got from The Typical Book Exchange last year, and another one down for the Off the Shelf Challenge.  It was also a NYT Notable for 2010.

Next up:  I'm going to tackle World Without End in both paper and audio form, so that I can get through it faster.  I am on the 28th disc, so I have less than 1/4 of the book left to go.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Book Group Reports

Last night, The Typical Book Group got together to talk about Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst.  There were 7 of us there, and everyone had read the book, although our most timid reader skipped the "scary parts".  In fact, there are not really any scary parts in the horror movie sense in DOB, but there were times when the reader was worried that Paul would do something stupid.

One thing that we talked about a lot was why Paul, who was highly educated, didn't see more of Lexy's demons, and get her help.  We decided that Paul had co-dependent tendencies.  Mid discussion, we found ourselves confused about whether the ex-wife was an alcoholic in this book, or in 11/22/63 by Stephen King, which we discussed last month.  We even joked about changing the name of our group to "The Alcoholic Ex-Wives", which is only funny because none of us are ex-wives.   There's no need to jinx ourselves, so I don't see a name change in our immediate future.  However, the correct answer is that the ex-wife was an alcoholic in 11/22/63, and an obsessive compulsive control freak in DOB.  No danger of me catching OCD, that's for sure.

We also questioned if a person could actually die from falling from even the highest branches of an apple tree.  We realized that Lexy had to fall from a fruit tree so that there could be a plausible reason for her climb, but we couldn't think of a fruit tree that grows very high, other than a palm tree, which would be hard to climb, and harder to find in Virginia. 

Next month we are going to read The Story of Beautiful Girl by Rachel Simon.

To add to this jam packed week, The Friends Book Group met tonight.  There were only 3 of us there, unless you count the host's husband and son, who also participated.  All 5 of us loved the book, which tells me that 100% of readers agree, Ready Player One by Ernest Cline is a great read.  We spent most of the time talking about our favorite parts. 

You might recall that The Friends Book Group is made up of people who are members of a support group for parents and friends of different learners.  At the most recent meeting of the support group, we had a speaker in to talk about cyber addiction and its effect on kids with ADHD.  This topic was completely on point for Ready Player One.  The speaker addressed the addictive nature of massively multiplayer online games.  There could not possibly be a more addictive massively multiplayer online game than the Oasis, as described by Cline.  Our speaker warned about kids who have good friends who they play online games with, but who they may not have ever met in real life.  This was one of the issues that Wade faced in RPO.  He trusted those who he met online more than his relatives, and with good reason.  Perhaps the future is bright for our kids with ADHD who spend too much time playing video games, if Cline's predictions come true.

Given the consistent low attendance with this group, I think there is a good chance that this was the last meeting of this group. I mean really, if people won't come out to discuss Ready Player One  what will they show up for?  If there is a next meeting, you can be assured that I will post about it.

Still Reading:  The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli  This one is going slower than I expected.  Hoping for it to pick up soon.

Still Listening to:  World Without End by Ken Follett.  I'm on disc 24 now - 2/3 of the way through . . . still interested.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Translit Trip

Who, What, Where, When and Why.  This is what you need to know, right?  Gods Without Men by Hari Kunzru dodges these questions, while weaving an interesting story. 

Who:  There is quite a cast of characters in Gods, including animals who were men, men who were named for animals, people who believe that they can communicate with aliens, and most importantly, Jaz, Lisa, and their son, Raj, wealthy New Yorkers who have lost their way. 

What:  Well, I'm not quite sure.  At times the characters are people innocently looking for enlightenment.  At other times, they appear to be a cult.  Some of the characters are just looking for a vacation.  Others for the answer to all of life's questions.

Where:  Another good question.  All of the characters are bound together by "Pinnacle Rocks."  However, the Pinnacle Rocks in the story, while said to be in a National Park, don't seem to be part of the Pinnacles National Monument in California.  Kunzru's Pinnacle Rocks involve three points, blatantly like a holy trinity.  The characters all feel a need to be near the rocks, even if they are not sure why.  When flying to Kunzru's rocks, one would fly into Las Vegas.  Due to their attraction to aliens, they seem to be closer to Area 51 than Los Angeles.

When:  That's an easy one.  1947, 1778, 1958, 1920, 1970, 1871, 1971, and 1775, in that order, but with chapters from 2008 and 2009 alternated between the other years. 

Why:  Hmmm.  Several of the characters, especially the twentieth century characters, are drawn to the rocks and the group that surrounds them by a desire to communicate with aliens.  The earlier characters are on missions to explore the territory, but find strange things.  The characters from 2008 and 2009 are running away, with nowhere to go, and find themselves at the rocks.

Much of the story focuses on Jaz, Lisa, and Raj.  Raj has autism, which has shifted the entire focus of the family from the pursuit of happiness to just getting through the day.  Jaz is Indian and Lisa is Jewish, but they don't think that makes any difference in their relationship until they face an unexpected challenge, and both turn to people of their faith to confide.

I read Gods Without Men after reading THIS review in the NYT.  I was really interested in the new genre that the critic/author, Douglas Coupland, describes as "Translit".  Per Coupland, "Translit novels cross history without being historical; they span geography without changing psychic place.  Translit collapses time and space as it seeks to generate narrative traction in the reader's mind. . . With Translit, we get our delicious cake, and we get to eat it, too, as we visit multiple pasts safe in the knowledge we'll get off the ride intact, in our new perpetual every-era/no-era."  Sounds great, doesn't it?  If I had read THIS NYT Review instead, I would have skipped it.  It's hard to believe that the two reviewers are even talking about the same book, let alone in the same Times.

The briefest summary of Gods, and again, in Coupland's words, would be this:   "People come and go, damage is done, people return and some vanish".  While I certainly don't regret reading Gods, I probably won't frequently recommend it.

And my friends, that completes the Support Your Library Challenge.  24 books from my library read or listened to (so far) this year.

Half Time Report:  I am now on disc 18 of the 36 CDs that make up World Without End by Ken Follett.  I am really enjoying listening to it, and am in no rush to finish.  So far, much of the drama has centered on whether or not a new bridge should be built, and if so, who should build it, who should pay for it, and who should get the tolls.  Sounds pretty boring and 14th century doesn't it?  Not if you live in Metro Detroit!  Right now, a businessman named Matty Moroun, and his Ambassador Bridge Company are waging what appears to be a multi-million dollar campaign to try to keep the State of Michigan from building a new bridge to Canada, so that he can build it instead.  Either Governor Snyder or Matty Moroun should read World Without End to get some tips on how to be conniving and persuasive.  Follett even has a character named Matty, but right now she's in hiding after being accused of being a witch.  Snyder might be wishing he could take Moroun out of the action with an accusation like that about now.

In Other News:  Yep, it's that time again.  I just ordered my Thanksgiving turkey today.  Click on this link to understand why this has anything to do with reading or not running!

Next up:  The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli

Thursday, September 27, 2012


When I first met my friend, Kim, she did not like dogs.  She would tolerate my dog, when she came to my house, as long as my dog didn't try to "touch" her.  Then, The Typical Book Group read The Art of Racing in the Rain, and her heart grew a size.  When we read The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, her heart grew again.  Next thing you know, Kim got dog, who looks remarkably like the dog on the cover of The Art of Racing in the Rain.  Coincidence?  I think not.

About a year ago, Kim told me about Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst, and said that I had to read it.  Unfortunately, at that time, Kim was stuck in a rut of reading books, and especially memoirs, involving people with mental illness.  She described Dogs of Babel as being the story of a mentally ill woman who kills herself, and her husband who tries to teach her dog to talk when he misses his wife.  For some reason, I was not interested.

So this year, Kim stepped up and offered to have the Typical Book Group meet at her house to discuss our summer BFB, 11/22/63, by Stephen King, if she could pick the book when we met at my house the following month.  This was a fair trade off, as she agreed to let me pick the book when the Friends Book Group meets at her house that same month.  But then she picked Dogs of Babel, and I was a little worried.  I considered sending an email out to the group explaining that I really didn't pick the book, Kim did, but that seemed a little cowardly.  So, with a bit of dread, I started reading Dogs.  And I found that I really liked it.

Let me describe Dogs to you, in a way that might make it a little more attractive than Kim's mentally-ill-woman-lonely-man-talking-dog description:

Dogs of Babel is the story of a man, Paul,  who comes home from work to find that his wife, Lexy, died after falling from the top of an apple tree in their back yard.  Neighbors were alerted to the tragedy by the couple's dog, who was running back and forth between the house and Lexy's body, and barking frantically.  Lexy is not normally the tree climbing type, so Paul suspects that she may have killed herself.  Once the police leave and he has his house to himself, Paul notices two things.  The first is that Lexy rearranged the books on their bookshelf in a seemingly random manner before climbing the tree.  The second is that someone cooked a steak in a frying pan, and apparently consumed it, without using a plate or silverware.  There is only one witness who can tell him what happened - the dog, Lorelei.  Since he is already a linguist, Paul thinks that he just might be able to teach Lorelei to communicate intelligibly.  Complications arise, involving convicted felons, psychic hot lines and masks, as the story twists toward its satisfying ending.

Now do you want to read it?  You should.  Yes, the wife is probably mentally ill.  Yes, it is ridiculous to think that a dog could be taught to speak.  The book works through flashbacks that tell the story of Paul and Lexy's relationship, and their mutual love of Lorelei.  The critics agree - Dogs was a NYT Notable Book in 2003.

I'll post more about this one when the Typical Book Group meets to discuss it next month.

In Other News:  I read this story in the New York Times about a small island off the coast of Georgia with few inhabitants and fewer utilities, services and opportunities, and couldn't help thinking of The Watery Part of the World by Michael Parker.  In that book, descendants of island settlers are trying to make due in the modern world, despite the declining state of the island.  It seems that places like Parker described really still exist.

Next up:  Gods Without Men by Hari Kunzru

Still listening to:  World Without End by Ken Follett.  I'm on the 9th disc, which means I am about 1/4 of the way through.  I'm really liking it though, so I think I'll make it to the end.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Homage to the Menstrual Cycle

I delayed reading The Red Tent by Anita Diamant for a long time, because of what I thought I knew about it.  What I expected was a book about women in 14th century England who were forced to go to an island (island?  why did I think an island?) and live in red tents each month when they had their periods.  I imagined them scheming against the men, and discovering their own strengths.  In short, I thought The Red Tent would be "an homage to a menstrual cycle", to quote Tim Gunn's recent commentary on an unfortunate Project Runway dress.

Basically, I was all wrong. 

The Red Tent is set in the time of Jacob, from the book of Genesis.  The main character, Dinah, tells the story of Jacob and his many sons from her perspective.  Dinah is apparently mentioned in the Old Testament, and is better known for being the only sister of the famous Joseph, of the Technicolor Dreamcoat.  Genesis 34 tells the story of Dinah's rape.  In The Red Tent, Dinah tells the tale from her point of view, and includes her version of what happened to her before and after.

Yes, there is a red tent, and women go there when they have their periods.  However, it is considered an honor to get to go to the tent.  The women of Dinah's family were all on the same schedules, so the red tent was a place where they could get together and tell their stories to each other.  While there, they also were freed from their regular daily chores, and were waited on by others.

Reading The Red Tent reminded me of something that I forgot to mention when I was discussing The Muslim Next Door by Sumbul Ali-Karamali - the perception that Muslims have many wives.  Ali-Karamali mentioned that it is very uncommon now for a Muslim to have multiple wives, but that in the past it was common, with Muhammad having several.  She also pointed out though, that in other religions, multiple wives were also common.  In fact, Jacob had 4 wives, including two who were full sisters, and two more who were born of the same father as the first two wives, but with slaves as mothers, and were treated as slaves themselves.

The Red Tent got off to a slow start, but picked up, and was a worthwhile read.  If I had known my Old Testament better, I may have liked the book more, as I would have known what was coming, and appreciated the differences between this book and the Bible's story.

That's one more down for the Off the Shelf Challenge, and a challenge double countsie, since I listened to it on CDs that I checked out of my library.  Now I just need to read one more book to complete the Support Your Library Challenge.

In Other News:  Guess who "liked" my Goodreads review of The Starboard Sea by Amber Dermont?  Amber Dermont.  One of my favorite things about Goodreads is how easy it is for authors to interact with readers.  I wish that I could "like" her like!

Running Commentary:  Just a quick brag - my son made the varsity cross country team as a 13 year old freshman at his high school!  I may not be a runner, but I seem to have become a Cross Country Mom.  Now to convince the politicians that we are just as important as the Soccer Moms . . .

Next up on CD:  Bear with me.  The next book that I will listen to on CD is World Without End by Ken Follett.  This is 45 hours of story, on 36 discs, and it will be the longest book that I have ever listened to, if I make it through.  I finished The Red Tent a couple of days ago, and since I've done a lot of driving lately (including picking up another 1/4 cow!) I am already on disc 5. 

Still Reading:  Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Typical Book Group Report - 7

Tonight the Typical Book Group met to discuss 11/22/63 by Stephen King.  There were 11 of us there, which just might be a record turn out!  Each summer, we pick a Big Fat Book ("BFB") to read, and then we get back together in August or September to discuss it.  Usually we are struggling to finish the book before the meeting, but this summer it seems that everyone tore through 11/22/63 in June or July, so we had to work to remember the details.

All of us liked 11/22/63, even though none of us would consider ourselves Stephen King fans.  In fact, we were glad that one member's daughter was there to fill us in on the references to his earlier book, It, which we all missed.  Apparently Derry, one of the towns that Jake visited, was the town featured in It, and the kids that were dancing were characters in the earlier book.

One of the things that we wondered was whether there were other historical events that Jake could have chosen to influence rather than the JFK assassination.  We didn't like how Jake gambled to make money, instead of finding another, safer way to profit from his knowledge of the future, but it did fit the story well, and gave us a Jack Ruby tie in.  Our host, Kim, printed out Stephen King's letter to the NYT Editor about Oswald's motivations for us, and we talked about that.  We wondered whether Oswald, at least as written by King, would have been smart enough to come up with the assassination plan on his own. It seemed that the assassination might have been a lot of bad luck, in that Oswald might not have put in the effort to try and kill Kennedy if the President wasn't scheduled to drive right by him.

We're reading Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst for the next Typical Book Group meeting.  Several Typical Book Groupers had already finished that one too, so they are going to get started on Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, which the Friends Book Group is reading, and they'll join me at that meeting next month.

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Formula Remixed

The Starboard Sea by Amber Dermont is the story of a boy, Jason Prosper, who finds himself attending a third rate prep school, Bellingham Academy, and racing on their sailing team.  Bellingham is described as an island of misfit toys, only with wealthy but defective children as the inhabitants.  The students' defects generally relate to misdeeds that caused them to be asked to leave the other, less tolerant prep schools.  Whenever there is a novel about a boy attending a prep school, and especially if he is at his second or third prep school, Holden Caulfield comparisons are sure to surface.  In this case, I was looking for Jason to be like Holden, who was the main character in Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, but I found myself thinking of other books instead.

There are certain books set in prep schools, colleges or graduate programs, that involve a new comer to the school, and an elite clique of both men and women. The clique may or may not include the most popular people at the school, but to the new comer at least, the clique includes the most interesting people.  The new comer tries to become a part of the clique, and ultimately succeeds, only to realize that the clique is hiding a secret which the new comer would be better off not knowing.  Examples of books using this formula are Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl, The Secret History by Donna Tartt, and The Hidden by Tobias Hill.  In The Starboard Sea, Dermont seems to be aware of this formula, and determined to defy it.  The pieces are all there.  Jason comes to a new prep school which has recently started admitting girls.  Many of the students are familiar to him through his other schools and his social circle, and so he immediately identifies the popular crowd.  The twist is that it is the popular crowd that wants Jason, and not Jason who wants to join them.  In fact, it is not until Jason realizes that there is a secret to uncover that he even tries to play nice and win their trust. 

In The Starboard Sea, Jason is an accomplished sailor, who is recruited to join Bellingham's sailing team.  For the last 20 summers, I have raced sailboats.  My husband had been sailing for years when I met him, and he was anxious to teach me.   Jason's character is so familiar to me in the words that he uses and the things that he notices that I know Dermont must have spent years with sailors herself.  The way that Jason notices minute changes in the weather, and can't keep away from the water rings true.  I also loved how Dermont mentioned Jason and his sailing partners feeling so lucky to be able to be out on the water for a race.  So many times when we have been racing, someone has commented on how lucky we are.  I can't think of any other amateur sport where a person would say that - win, lose, or even sitting and waiting for wind, the sailboat racer is lucky, and knows it.  And I mean lucky.  I don't mean fortunate, which when talking about sailing seems pretentious and monetary.

Another great thing about The Starboard Sea is that it is set in the 1980s.  In fact, Jason's class is the same as mine, the class of '88.  It was cool to read another book set in the 1980s so soon after reading Ready Player One by Ernest Cline.  In Ready Player One, people in the 2040s studied James Halliday's favorite things about the 1980s in order to be better prepared to win a huge challenge.  The 1980s of Jason Prosper were entirely different from the 1980s of James Halliday, with Jason reminding me of the "Preppy Killer", Baby Jessica (in the well, remember?), and perestroika, instead of video games, movies and commercials.  Monty Python movies were the only overlapping mention between the two books.

Jason is a flawed character, who believes that he is self-aware, and that he has learned from his mistakes.  However, he is also somehow genetically destined to always be a part of the clique which he tries to avoid.  He is quick to judge others for failing to do the right thing, but sees himself as helpless to correct wrongs even as they unfold in front of him.  It is as though his own errors have condemned him, and he is just watching his life happen from a self-imposed prison.

I really loved The Starboard Sea.  The characters were well developed and interesting, if not always likable.  Being a book using the "elite clique with a secret" formula which I love, being about a sailboat racer, and being set in the 1980s, it's the prefect book for me.  If you liked the books by Pessl, Tartt or Hill, you should give this one a try too.   I would think that other sailors would love the book as well, as long as they are not homophobic, and believe that bullying, even when referred to as hazing, is just wrong.  Unfortunately, that may rule out a good number of potential readers.

One more down for the Support your Library Challenge!  I'm almost done!

Next up:  The Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst. This is the first book of the 2012-13 year for the Typical Book Group.

Still Listening to:  The Red Tent by Anita Diamant

Saturday, September 8, 2012

One to Read and One to Skip

A gazillion years ago, when I knew the name of my sister's blog (in fairness, maybe she just doesn't blog anymore?) she mentioned in said blog that she wanted to read I was Told There'd be Cake by Sloane Crosley.  Eventually, I stumbled upon the cake book at a used book sale and picked it up.  I have to say, it was really pretty great.

However, I was confused, from a Dewey Decimal stand point. Specifically, I thought that I was reading a book of short stories, which the author pretentiously decided to call "essays" instead, but when I looked up the book at my library, it was in non-fiction territory.  I recently read a collection of short stories by Tobias Wolff, so I double checked on my library's online catalog, and sure enough, that book was listed as  fiction.  It turns out that an essay is different from a short story in that an essay is supposed to be true.  So while Wolff may have been writing about himself, and calling it fiction, Crosley was admittedly writing about herself, which turned her short stories into essays.  And not memoirs, which are, apparently, longer essays.  So, I was Told There'd be Cake is not in the biography section, with the other memoirs.  However, for my purposes, because Crosley is writing about herself, and because my standards are somewhat lax, I'm calling this one a memoir.

Crosley's stories are mostly about her time as a college graduate trying to navigate NYC with undefined career goals.  She stumbles; she falls.  But she also writes really well, and her stories are worth reading.  It was refreshing to read mini-memoirs from someone who seems to genuinely like her family.  She is sort of a less materialistic Jen Lancaster, and Crosley doesn't try quite so hard to be funny, but is funny nonetheless.

On the other hand, I am not going any further with Freddy and Fredericka by Mark Helprin.  F&F seemed like the perfect book for me.  I recently read and loved Winter's Tale by Helprin, so I knew I liked the author, and the characters of Freddy and Fredericka were said to be loose characterizations of Charles (Prince of Wales) and Diana, so what's not to like there?  Camilla was cast as Lady Boilinghot - really.  For the first 5 discs  that I listened to on CD, (there are 22 discs in all), I thought of it as a Monty Python-esque story, and tried to play along.  Having just finished Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, I had a soft spot for Monty Python movies, and followed the ridiculousness obediently.   But when Freddy found himself tarred and feathered (in the 1980s) and complained that his wife wouldn't play with his [tennis] balls, I questioned my commitment, and checked the GoodReads reviews.  They were mostly positive, with lots of people saying that the book got off to a slow start, but that it got better after a couple of hundred pages.  So, I gave the story 3 more discs.  The idea, where I left off, is that Freddy and Fredericka/Charles and Diana were dropped in New Jersey, naked except for furry bikinis, with the charge to conquer America for England, or to lose the claim to the throne.  They were portrayed as being clueless about how to speak American, and that is supposed to lead to hysterical antics.  Not for me.  I figure I have about 10 hours into that book so far, and that's enough.

That's two down for the Off the Shelf Challenge, and I'm counting Freddy and Fredericka  for the Support Your Library Challenge too, since I checked the discs out on CD.

Next up:  The Starboard Sea by Amber Dermont

Next up on CD:  The Red Tent by Anita Diamant
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