Friday, December 27, 2013

2014 Preview

Whoops, there goes 2013!

I read some great books in 2013, but if I think about my favorites, they were all published before the year began.  My four favorite books that I read in 2013 are:

1Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonathan Evison
2.  The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
3.  Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
4.  Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

Last year I told you at this point what your favorite books that I read in 2012 were, based on your page views.  This year, the page views seem to be oddly skewed toward the Industry Requested Reviews.  The post that my readers looked at the most this year was actually my review of Black Swan Green by David Mitchell, which I reviewed in 2012.

Although there doesn't seem to be an "Off the Shelf Challenge" for 2014, I still plan to get some books off of my shelves, or more accurately, out of my nightstand.  This year I will do the Rewind Challenge, which is similar to the Off the Shelf.  These are some books that I own, and I hope to read 24 of them in 2014.  I'll cross them off and link to my reviews as I go.

1.  City of Thieves by David Benioff  Reviewed 1/27/14
2.  The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb by Melanie Benjamin
3.  Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain
4.  Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks  Reviewed 6/27/14
5.  We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo
6.  The Lost King of France by Deborah Cadbury
7.  The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon
8.  Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
9.  The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho  Reviewed 3/8/14
10.  Pope Joan by Donna Woolfolk Cross
11.  A Secret Kept by Tatiana De Rosnay Reviewed 3/27/14
12.  Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend by Matthew Dicks Reviewed 1/9/14
13.  The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides Reviewed 4/21/14
14.  Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon
15.  Happy Families by Carols Fuentes
16.  The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway Reviewed July 2014
17.  The Hemingses of Monticello by Annette Gordon-Reed
18.  Sycamore Row by John Grisham
19.  The Rose Labyrinth by Titania Hardie Reviewed 2/19/14
20.  A Movable Feast by Ernest Hemmingway
21.  The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson  Reviewed September 2014
22.  The Titans by John Jakes  Reviewed 5/18/14
23.  Devil in the Grove by Gilbert King
24.  McSweeney's 44 Reviewed July 2014
25.  The Tudors by G. J. Meyer
26.  1Q84 by Haruki Murakami
27.  The Magician's Assistant by Ann Patchett
28.  The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl
29.  Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
30. Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
31.  The White Woman on the Green Bicycle by Monique Roffey Reviewed October 2014
32.  The Casual Vacancy by J. K. Rowling
33.  The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie
34.  New York by Edward Rutherfurd
35.  The Electrical Field by Kerri Sakamoto
36.  Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart
37.  The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
38.  Safe Haven by Nicholas Sparks  Reviewed September 2014
39.  Rules of Civility by Amor Towles
40.  This is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper  Reviewed 3/29/14
41.  The Age of Miracles by Karen  Thompson Walker
42.  Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
43.  The Zero by Jess Walter

I have found some other new challenges that I want to try.  Specifically, I am going to do A Year of Re-Reading.  I have said so many times that I want to re-read a book, but I almost never find the time to do it.  This year, and this is not a big commitment, but I hope to knock 2 books off of my re-read list.  Here it is:

1.  Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold
2.  Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin
3.  Great House by Nicole Krauss
4.  Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl
5.  Luncheon of the Boating Party by Susan Vreeland

I also listen to a ton of audio books, so I am going to do the 2014 Audiobook Challenge.  I think that I can listen to 20 audio books in 2014, which would make me a Socially Awkward Binge Listener according to this challenge's host.

Finally, I love library books, so I am going to do the I Love Library Books Reading Challenge.  Appropriate, right?  All of these challenges allow cross overs, so I might listen to a book for the Rewind Challenge, also count it for the Audiobook Challenge, and if I check it out from the library, count it for the I Love Library Books Reading Challenge too.  I hope to read 30 library books, counting all 20 of my audios.

Still Reading:  The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

Still Listening to:  Winter of the World by Ken Follett

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

My Perfect Guest

Last Wednesday, when The Typical Book Group got together for our annual book exchange, I offered the book groupers a chance to review Rachel Joyce's new book, Perfect.  My friend, Kim, decided to give it a try, and now she has become my first ever guest blogger.  Here is Kim's review of  Perfect:

Apparently, people with OCD want things to be perfect, because they believe that then nothing bad can happen.  As a result of Byron's obsession with the addition of two seconds to the yearly clock things go horribly wrong in the summer of 1972, in Rachel Joyce's book, Perfect.

To begin with things did not seem to be going well in Byron's household.  Especially not on the weekends when his father came home from the city.  Perhaps his father also suffers from the OCD, as shown by his insistence that his wife wear certain clothes, that nobody touch anything in his office and his excessive car washing.  I believed that he was just more worried about what people thought about him than that he was mentally ill, but perhaps I was wrong. 

Diana, Byron's mother, really let me down.  Besides being mostly (but not completely) controlled by her husband, she desperately loved her children, but could not fight her unhappiness with her life.  Depression medication did not work, and at times I thought that she might be an alcoholic.  Can you drink yourself to death without alcohol?  Can drowning permeate your body that much?  Why didn't Diana know that she was being taken advantage of?  It was obvious to her son.

We, the reader, were led to believe that the flash forwards to Jim were to James.  James, Byron's best friend, was odd, but I wasn't sure if he was mentally ill.  I was quick to judge James' mother and jump to conclusions.  Instead, his mother did better for him than Diana did for Byron.

The ending seemed a little "Silver Lining Playbook" to me.  I am not sure that love can cure OCD.  I would like to think so.  God bless Eileen and everyone at Jim's work for sticking with him.  Tears were in my eyes (at work) at the end.

To me this is what makes a book great: 
1.  Hooks me from the beginning
2.  I can't wait to read more of it and find out what happens
3.  Moves me (maybe to tears - maybe not) because I care about the characters so much

By that criteria, I guess that Perfect is great. In fact, I find myself frequently thinking back on it even days after I finished it.  Would I pick it as a book group book?  I went back and forth on this, mostly because I am known for reading too many mental illness books.  Why I think this would be a great book club book is because it would provide a lively discussion.  Besides, it is an enjoyable, complex, and surprising read.

Thanks, Kim!  Kim and I generally like the same books, so I think that I will have to read Perfect soon.   Full disclosure:  I was offered and accepted a free copy of Perfect, which I let Kim borrow.  No promises were made, no payments were received.  Perfect will be released on January 14, 2014.  Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

Still Reading:  The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer.  I am really loving this book, but wish that I had more time to read it.

Still Listening to:  Winter of the World by Ken Follett

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Typical Book Exchange

Last night, The Typical Book Group got together to exchange books, and talk about The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce.  There were 10 of us there, which was great.  Each December, we clean our closets of the books that we are prepared to part with, and trade them with each other.  This year, I got a little aggressive, and gave away two of my unread books from the Off the Shelf Challenge, We Were the Mulvaneys and Death Comes to Pemberly.  The Mulvaneys had been sitting in my night stand for at least 4 years, and I have always dreaded reading it, but felt that I should because it was written by Joyce Carol Oates.  And we all know about Joyce Carol Oates.  Hello??  She was one of Jonathan Safran Foer's professors in college, and she helped him get started writing.  When I was Googling the connection to support this claim, I came across this article that I hadn't seen before.  Not much about JCO, but it talks about almost everything JSF has ever written.

So, anyhow, back to the Typical Book Group.  We usually pick numbers from a hat or a bowl or whatever to decide who gets to choose first, second, etc.  This year, I got 9th.  Did you notice that I said that there were 10 people there?  So, I was surprised that a copy of The Casual Vacancy by J. K. Rowling was still available for me to snag.  I also got a book called The Tudors by G. J. Meyer, which I hadn't heard anything about, and two cookbooks. 

After the exchange, we talked about Harold Fry.  There was quite a lot to say.  We all pretty much agreed that Harold seemed like a nice enough guy, but not anyone who we were dying to meet.  We talked about his journey, and Queenie, and about the effect his journey had on his wife, Maureen.  Our host, Kim had printed out some discussion questions that she had found online, and we thought it was odd that none of them dealt with the subject of alcoholism.  We all had ideas of what we thought would happen, which actually didn't happen, but in the end we felt that Joyce found the right ending.  Rachel Joyce, I mean.  I'm not exactly on a first name basis with JCO.

In the spirit of the season, I offered the Typical Book Groupers the opportunity to review Joyce's new book, Perfect, which is coming out next month.  Kim took me up on it.  Kim has a blog of her own, where she claims to review books, but she keeps her blog private.  I can only guess what she writes about me there . . . So, stay tuned, and we should soon have a guest blogger, or at least opinions dictated by Kim, and transcribed by yours truly.

We didn't decide on a book to read next month, so that will be a surprise as well. 

Still Reading:  The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer.  I am loving this book so far, and only wish that I had more time to read it!

Still Listening to:  Winter of the World by Ken Follett

Monday, December 16, 2013

Both Ways, but Wanting More

When I read The Night in Question by Tobias Wolff, I was so impressed with the intensity that Wolff brought to each story, that I decided that the reason his stories were not novels is that no reader could stand the tension long enough to read a full novel.  With that expectation, I began reading Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It by Maile Meloy.  Sadly, I didn't find what I was looking for.

To me, the best thing about Both Ways is the title.  I totally get that.  Meloy took the title from a poem by A. R. Ammons, which she quotes before her stories begin.  The theme of wanting what one can't have, and being indecisive about those wants plays out again and again in the stories, but I found that I really didn't care.  I didn't have any pages turned down with unforgettable quotes, and now, less than 24 hours after finishing the book, I can't tell you a single character's name.  Pathetically, in opening the book to try to refresh my memory, I realized that two of the characters in the last story of the book were named Bonnie and Clyde.  Even that I forgot. 

I was looking forward to reading Both Ways all year, since I like short stories, and I had read something good about this collection.  In fact, Both Ways was a NYT Notable for 2009.  I guess I'm just more of a Tobias Wolff kind of a girl.

This is the 24th book for the Off the Shelf Challenge.  I think that it will probably be the last Off the Shelfer of the year.  I can't feel too bad about not making my "goal" of 25 books, since my original goal was only 15, and I increased the goal twice.

Next up:  The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

Still Listening to:  Winter of the World by Ken Follett

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Constant Forward Motion

One day, Harold Fry gets a letter from a former co-worker, telling him that she is dying of cancer.  Harold wants to send a nice letter in response, but somehow, as he walks toward the mailbox, the letter feels inadequate.  After speaking with a girl at garage (which Harold pronounces as "gare-ah-ge" because he's British), he comes to believe that if he can just walk all the way to see his friend, she will live.  Harold is in the later half of his 60s, and wearing yachting shoes.  The friend, Queenie, is 500 miles away.  But Harold keeps walking, away from his wife and his life, and toward his friend from the past.

I was not a believer in Harold.  In fact, it took me until I was 3/4 through The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce, to even understand what journey Harold was taking.  But once I got it, I got it.  Harold and his wife, Maureen, had been living distantly from each other within the same house for 20 years.  Somehow, with every step that he took away from Maureen, Harold grew closer to her.

Harold describes his son, David, as being clever.  He is so clever in fact that he went to Cambridge, despite growing up with working class Harold and Maureen, in their ordinary world.  David is a bit of a mystery throughout the story.  He might have autism or Asperger's; he might be depressed or mentally ill, but something is not right.  David is the wedge that forced Maureen and Harold apart.  Some studies say that parents of children with autism are 60% more likely to get divorced than people with "typical" children.  Even the parents of "clever" children may be facing troubles that are hidden to the outside world, like drugs, alcoholism, anxiety and debilitating stress.  Between the blame and the guilt, there may not be much room for hope.  What Harold learns on his journey is that people make choices, and that those choices are OK.  If parents choose to stay married, they should.  If they choose to divorce, they should.  They should make choices, and take responsibility for those decisions.  We, as a society, have to respect other people's choices.  Harold realizes that his life with Maureen is not limited to their life with David.  In choosing not to divorce, he and Maureen actually chose to stay together, when it might have been easier to leave.

Along the way, Harold gathers followers and corporate sponsors.  He wants none of this.  Eventually he sees that he feels better when he carries less, in terms of physical and emotional baggage.

I read this book for The Typical Book Group.  When we discussed The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving in October, we discussed whether Benjamin Benjamin was on a pilgrimage.  Harold adds an important, if not essential, element to the term.  Harold is on a pilgrimage, and Ben was not, because Harold's journey was based on faith.  Harold believes in Queenie, the girl in the garage, and occasionally, he even believes in himself.  His faith is not necessarily religious, but it is there, nonetheless.

The Typical Book Group will discuss Harold next week.  I'll let you know what everyone else thought about it then.

Next up on CD:  Winter of the World by Ken Follett

Still Reading:  Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It by Maile Meloy

Monday, December 9, 2013

Makin' Bacon

After reading the first few pages of Make the Bread, Buy the Butter by Jennifer Reese, I couldn't sleep.  You see, Reese told me that I could make bagels.  In my house.  Without fancy bagel making stuff.  I began to imagine the possibilities.  But, who could I invite over for freshly made bagels, who would appreciate them, without thinking that I was insane for making them?  And that was what kept me up.  Who would properly appreciate my homemade bagels?

In fact, Reese told me that I could, and should, make all kinds of things that I had never considered making.  Like hot dog buns, and English muffins, and hot cocoa mix.  For each recipe, Reese told a little story about how and why she decided to try making the item, what the cost was to make the item versus the prices of various brands one can buy at the store, what the result was, and whether it was worth the hassle.  I came into this book thinking that it would be mostly about keeping me from eating preservatives, and saving money. Reese surprised me by recommending that I buy some items that lot of people commonly make, like Quaker instant oatmeal and Kozy Shack rice pudding.  If she couldn't make it better, or if she or her family preferred the store bought version, she said so.  Sometimes, her recipes cost more than buying the product from the store.  In some of those cases (margaritas, chocolate chip cookies) she still recommended making them.  In others, like French onion dip, she recommended buying.

There were so many things in this book that I had never thought about making, but now I'm ready to try.  These include the bagels and hot dog buns mentioned above, but also Cheez-its, Oreos, and ginger ale.  I love Oreos, but I stopped buying them once I heard a nutritionist speak about all of the secret ingredients that they include.  Reese's recipe includes butter, sugar, vanilla, chocolate chips, an egg, flour, cocoa powder, salt and baking soda.  No secrets there.  She also recommends (strongly) that I make my own vanilla.  Who knew?  According to Reese, if I make my own I will pay $7.00 for 12 ounces, versus $53.00 if I bought 12 ounces in a store.

Admittedly, Reese is many steps ahead of me.  While she makes owning chickens and even goats sound like something that I am missing out on, I'm sure my neighbors aren't ready for that.  I'm not ready for curing my own meats or making cheese.  But, there are enough things that I want to try that my copy of the book is fatter than it should be, with just about every second corner turned down.

So, when it comes to Make the Bread, Buy the Butter, should you check it out of your library or buy it?  The book is marked $15.00.  If you go to Books A Million, you could probably use a coupon.  If you order it from Amazon you will pay $13.21.  If you also buy the Madagascar vanilla beans that she recommends for $18.95, you will be just shy of the $35.00 minimum for free shipping.  Maybe you should buy more beans.  In terms of hassle, there is virtually no hassle in buying from Amazon.  However, if you check the book out of the library, you are sure to find yourself photocopying half of the book, then losing the loose pages, and generally making a mess of things.  Better to buy the book, and help Reese justify her goat purchase.

Next up:  Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It by Maile Meloy

Still Listening to:  The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Virtually Real

In Upload by Mark McClelland, the main character, Raymond Quan, is a teenager living in a group home in 2060.  He has a job working for a wealthy 85 year old man, Nicholas Tate, who had made his money through insider trading tech stocks.  Tate, like many people, spends most of his time in a V Chamber, living in a virtual world of his own creation.  Some people, like Raymond's father, become so V addicted, that they can't live life in the real world.  Most people have a virtual presence, but still live a real world life, with a job and a family.

While exploring how to improve his own virtual world, something goes wrong, and Raymond is convinced that he could be charged with a serious real world crime.  We fast forward to 2069, and Raymond is working for a company working on an uploading project.  The company is attempting to upload a monkey into the virtual world.  The result would be that the monkey would die in the real world, but would live forever, and enjoy his life, if his brain was uploaded into the virtual world first.

McClelland drops the bombshells of Raymond's crime as though they were breadcrumbs.  He gives us details so shocking that you re-read to be sure that you have it right, and then he quickly moves on, as though those specifics are no big deal.  Soon, someone else is following the trail, and Raymond begins to consider whether he should upload his brain into the virtual world in order to escape a reality that is closing in fast.

Raymond is an odd, but well developed character.  He lacks social skills due to being raised in a group home and being so focused on his virtual world.  At his upload company, Raymond meets a woman and begins to fall in love, only to stumble on the intricacies of normal social interaction.  He tries to fill his virtual world with everything that he could possibly need in case he were ever to actually upload.  However he is so overconfident in his skills and naive that he overlooks the obvious.

Upload is a good book, exploring a really interesting concept.  If we could create a world and move into it, would it be better?  What would we forget?  What would we get sick of?  Do we need our bodies in order to live a fulfilling life?  If I was writing the story, I would have resolved a few of the issues differently, but McClelland also thought of things that I would never have considered.

I read Upload at the request of Mike at Sandpiper Publicity.  I received a free copy of the book, but other than that, no promises were made and no payments were received.  I would recommend this book to anyone who likes technology focused sci-fi, and especially to any sci-fi lovers who live in Ann Arbor or attended U of M.  McClelland is a U of M graduate, and much of the story is set in the Ann Arbor area.

You might remember that last month I said that I might do two Industry Requested Reviews in November.  Instead, I did none.  I just missed finishing Upload in November (better late than never), and I never got a copy of Melt:  The Art of Macaroni and Cheese.  I'm probably better off without that one!  My next IRR will be Perfect by Rachel Joyce.  I'm taking a chance on this one.  Joyce also wrote The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry which I just started listening to.   If I can't stand Harold, I might not be so anxious to jump into Perfect.

Next Up:  Make the Bread, Buy the Butter by Jennifer Reese.

Still Listening to:  The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

Friday, November 29, 2013

The Prequel

In January, when I read The Odyssey by Homer, I was left wanting more.  Luckily,  I had Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller on my TBR list, and The Iliad sitting in my nightstand.  I read Song of Achilles first, and liked it, and now I have just finished The Iliad.

The Iliad seems to be a book by which people define themselves.  Sometimes when I am reading reviews, the reviewer will say something like, "yeah, but I'm also one of those people who likes The Iliad better than The Odyssey, so take that for what it's worth", implying that most people, or normal people at least, prefer The Odyssey.  For a change, I think that I am in the "normal" camp, in that I preferred The Odyssey too, which I didn't expect.

After reading Helen of Troy by Margaret George, I was excited to read The Iliad, since I expected it to cover all of the same material:  Helen's engagement to Menelaus through the fall of Troy.  I was surprised when Homer started his story after the war over Helen had already begun.  In fact, although the version that I read covers 594 pages, The Iliad takes place over just a few weeks during the last year of the Trojan War.  We actually end  before we hear about the Trojan horse.  Homer's works are only two of the eight books of The Epic Cycle, including four that cover the period from when The Iliad ends until The Odyssey begins. Homer's version also differs from George's in the extent to which the gods are involved.  Homer treats the mortals as pieces in the gods' chess game, while George involves the gods only when the humans need an excuse.

While I really shouldn't question Homer's writing style, given that we are still reading him centuries later, I have to say that large portions of The Iliad read more like a census report than a poem.  Countless times, Homer mentioned a character for the first time only to tell us who his father was and how the character was killed.  For example, we have "Aphareus, son of Kaletor, Aineas hit his throat as he turned toward him and cut it with his sharp spearpoint . . . " and ". . . Teukros shot Glaukos, powerful son of Hippolokhos, with an arrow . . . "

So yes, check the box, I read The Iliad, and you probably should too.  But if you'd like a more interesting version of the same story, you should try either Helen of Troy by Margaret George, or Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller first.  This brings me one step closer to completing the Off The Shelf Challenge.

Next Up On CD:  The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

Still Reading:  Upload by Mark McClellend

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

It's Here!

Yep, it's here.  What?  The New York Times' list of Notable Books for 2013, of course!  When I read My Education by Susan Choi, I promised that if Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld made the Notables list, and My Education did not, I wouldn't link you to the list.  Fear not - neither book made the list.  So HERE is your link.  In fact, none of the books published in 2013 that I have read made the list, which was sort of a surprise.

On the other hand, just about every book on my TBR list made it:  The Circle by Dave Eggers; The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt; The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer; and Manson by Jeff Guinn all are listed.  MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood hasn't made my TBR list yet, but it most likely will after I finish the second book in the Oryx and Crake series, The Year of the Flood.  Also, I managed to pick up We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo at a used book sale, which also is a notable.  Looks like I will have lots of good books to blog about in 2014!

Usually after I see the Notables list, I add a ton of books to my TBR list.  Not so much this year.  The only one that I am adding is Life After Life by Kate Atkinson.

And now that I have the list, let the holidays begin!  Happy Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, and Black Friday everyone! 

Still Reading:  Upload by Mark McClelland

Almost Done Listening to:  The Iliad by Homer

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Typical Book Report - 16

Last night, the Typical Book Group got together to talk about The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan. There were 7 of us there, but for me it was a pretty short night since I had to get home to help my kids study for some tests.  Our host, Lynne, had seen one of the bronze sculptures of Marie at an exhibit many years ago.  We even had a miniature Marie as a centerpiece.  This was surely one of the reasons why Lynne picked the book.  However, none of us was wildly excited about the story.  We all liked it, but it just didn't seem like there was much to talk about.

Right now, GoodReads is asking readers to vote for the best books of 2013, and The Painted Girls is still in the running for Historical Fiction.  Truth be told, I even voted for it, since it is the only one of the eight finalists that I have read.  I guess that I'm a little surprised that it has made it so far when our opinion was so unenthusiastic.  Perhaps we aren't that typical after all.

Next month we'll read The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce.  Everyone who I know who has read this one has loved it, so I'm looking forward to reading it.

Still Reading:  Upload by Mark McClelland

Still Listening to:  The Iliad by Homer

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Such is Life

The True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey is a novel.  Well, duh, right?  Not so fast.  As an American, I had never heard of the Kelly Gang, but it is quite a big deal in Australia.  In fact, the National Museum of Australia is developing a collection of "Kellyana", as they call it.  So, True History could have just as easily been nonfiction.

Ned Kelly and his family lived in the late 1800s in Australia.  His father was an Irish man, who was brought to Australia as a prisoner.  His parents became settlers, seemingly like American settlers in our West.  They were able to get an inexpensive piece of land, but were subject to strict rules as to what they had to do to keep it.  The police took an unusual interest in the Kelly family, and the Kellys believed that they were being unfairly targeted for prosecution.  One thing led to another, and Ned Kelly and his brother, Dan, became "outlaws" in the style of Jessie James, with a large dose of Robin Hood.

The most unusual thing about Ned Kelly was that he wrote letters to members of the government and others that he hoped would be published in the newspapers that explained what he was doing, and why he was being unfairly pursued.  Some of his letters are so long that they are sometimes referred to as "manifestos".  What Peter Carey does in his True History is to turn these letters into a 368 page novel.  Carey tells the story in Ned's voice, and with an almost complete lack of punctuation.  At first (as in on the first page) it is hard to read, but one quickly becomes used to the style and voice.  In fact, the narration reminded me a lot of the voice of Zachry in the "Sloosha's Crossin' an' Everythin' After" section of Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. The interesting thing about this comparison is that Mitchell was writing about a fictional character in the (hopefully) distant future, and Carey was writing an authentic voice from the past, but somehow the same style works in both cases.   Don't let that comparison scare you off - if you like reading westerns, this one will fit right in.

The True History of the Kelly Gang won the Man Booker Prize in 2001.  That same year, David Mitchell was shortlisted for number9dream.  Cloud Atlas was shortlisted in 2004.  This is also one more to cross off my list for the Off the Shelf Challenge.

Next up:  Upload by Mark McClelland

Still Listening to:  The Iliad by Homer

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Speculative Snowman

Where should I start talking about Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood?  If I start at the beginning I'll be starting at the end, but if I start at the end I'll start at a new beginning.  It's all so strange, and yet frighteningly familiar.

The book itself starts with post-apocalyptic Snowman, explaining simple objects to people who he calls "the children of Crake".  He is naked, with few possessions, and he sleeps in a tree to avoid the genetically modified animals who might attack him on the ground.  The time shifts between Snowman's present and his memories of his past, starting with his childhood.  Snowman, who was then known as Jimmy, grew up in a compound, like everyone else that he knew.  The compounds were owned by competing corporations, working to secure the smartest people who they could find to create new breeds of animals, new cures for diseases, and new sources of food.  The normal people who were thought not to be as smart as those living in the compounds lived in "pleeblands" between the corporate bases.

Growing up among the elite brains of the era, Jimmy lived a fortunate, but highly guarded life.  He never left the compound.  Ever.  The ocean was a few miles away, but he had never even seen it.  Still, he was certain that his life was better than that of the pleebs.

Jimmy's best friend in the compound was Glenn, who was also known as "Crake".  Together they played computer games and surfed the Internet.  There were sites where the tweenagers could watch live executions, sites where they could watch people commit suicide, and every variety of porn site that a person could dream up.  It was on an Asian kiddie porn site that Jimmy and Crake first saw Oryx.  While still kids themselves, they were mesmerized by something about Oryx's eyes as she looked into the camera.  They took a screen shot of her face, and each kept a copy.

The years go by, and the boys grew in different directions, with Crake becoming a rising star as a bioengineer.  Soon he was basically running his compound, and designing things that no one else fully understood.  Jimmy was working in a third or fourth rate compound when Crake brought him to work for him, eventually making Jimmy his second in command.  Obviously, since I started out by referencing an apocalypse, something goes wrong.  Jimmy/Snowman questions his culpability as he tires to help Crake's children make their way in the new world.

Atwood apparently does not feel that this book is science fiction, but instead is "speculative fiction", because it doesn't deal with "things that have not been invented yet."  That is scary, and I hope that she is exaggerating.  While listening to Oryx and Crake I thought a lot about what science fiction is, and why I am finding myself so attracted to it lately.  I was specifically thinking about Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore and whether that is science fiction or not.  In Penumbra's case, I think it's even more likely that the technology mentioned in the book may already exist, in the hands of a chosen few.  With that in mind, Penumbra might also be considered speculative fiction. I'm tagging these, and the other sci-fi books that I've reviewed here as "Sci-Fi-ish" in deference to Atwood's assertion.  Whatever it is, I like them both.  With no offense intended to the reader of Oryx, I think that if Jeff Woodman or  Wil Wheaton had read it, I might have been persuaded to add it to my list of favorites.

Oryx and Crake was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for 2003.  It was also a NYT Notable for that year.  I hadn't heard of Oryx until I read a review of the book that is the third in the trilogy, MaddAddam, and I thought that if I wanted to read that one, I should probably start at the beginning (there I go again) with the first book in the series.  The second book is Year of the Flood, and I will be adding that to my TBR list.

Next Up on CD:  The Iliad by Homer

Still Reading:  True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey

Friday, November 8, 2013


It's time again for my library's semi-annual used book sale!  This time, I came prepared with a list of the books that I wanted.  I've learned my lesson - there were no Murakamis or McSweeneys on my list.  Right off the bat, I found what I was looking for.  The first 3 books that I grabbed were on my list, and then I found 4 Advanced Placement test study guides for my son.  He'll be thrilled!  Actually, not.  There were only three books on my list that I couldn't find - Where'd You Go Bernadette? by Maria Semple, Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon and Mary Enig, and Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood.  I think I was too early on Bernadette - if any copies were donated they were probably snatched up by volunteers.  From what I hear everyone loves Nourishing, so maybe no one would donate it.  And the problem with Year of the Flood is guessing where the volunteers would put it.  It should be in sci-fi, but is equally likely to have been grouped with fiction, or even history.  Enough complaining.  What did I find?  Here you go:

New York by Edward Rutherfurd was one of the three books that I got from my list. The other two are Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks which I've looked for the last few sales, and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot.

I seemed to be attracted to non-fiction tonight, starting with Henrietta Lacks.  I also picked up Kitchen Confidential with Anthony Bourdain, even though I've never seen his show and (disappointingly) it doesn't look like any recipes are included.  The last non-fiction book that I got was The Hemingses of Monticello, by Annette Gordon-Reed, which I had in my hot little hands at an earlier sale, but let go. 
Lastly, I picked up two randoms that I had heard something, but not much about - This is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper and Rules of Civility by Amor Towles.  When I was checking out, the volunteer who took my money raved about Civility, but said that she wished that she had read the Afterward first.  That's the kind of advice that I like to get, as I've had that problem before.
Now I've got to get reading!  Can't wait to start.
Still Reading:  The True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey
Still Listening to:  Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood.  As you may have guessed, since the sequel, The Year of the Flood was on the list of books that I wanted to buy tonight, I have warmed up to this story.  In fact, I'm almost done with it.  Stay tuned.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Face of a Model

In The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan, the author attempts to add dimensions to one of Degas' models, Marie van Goethem.  In fact, Degas also attempted to give Marie three dimensions, in his most famous sculpture, Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen, which is pictured below.

In her book, Buchanan appears to have invented sisters and a mom for Marie, and given a full back story to the dancer's life.  What surprised me was when I got to the Afterward, and found that Marie's life actually is well known, and that Buchanan, for the most part, stuck to the facts.  At the time that Degas was creating his art, Paris was the center of the art world, and many of the artists of the time were well known.  His contemporaries included Van Gogh, Manet, Monet, Pissaro, Cezanne, Gauguin, Cassatt, and Renoir, most of whom were working in Paris at the same time.  The artists of that period must have been like our celebrities today, so much so that a fourteen year old model's name would be known now, more than 100 years later.  Buchanan is not even the first to write about Marie.  From what I have seen, she has at least three other books written about her and a BBC special.  This is not to mention the Marie doll and snow globe, which I would assume could be purchased at the gift shop of the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, or in any of the museums where the brass castings of the original wax sculpture are on display.

Nor is Buchanan the first to write about the subjects of famous works of art.  A similar book that I reviewed a few years ago is Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper by Harriett Scott Chessman.  The best known recent book about the subject of a painting is The Girl With the Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier.  My favorite is Luncheon of the Boating Party by Susan Vreeland.  Luncheon tells the story of the making of the famous painting primarily from the point of view of the painter.  Buchanan takes an entirely different approach, and one more similar to Chevalier's, by focusing on the subject of the art instead of the artist.  The interesting thing about Painted Girls is that it attempts to explore Degas' motives, especially in regard to a theory about whether the shape of a person's face can predict their future, but that it does so without Degas' voice.

Marie's life is made for a novel.  As a parent who has paid the "pay to play" fees for the last 15 years, I was surprised that the ballerinas of Paris in the late 1800s started as poor children who were paid to attend the classes.  The pressures on the 14 year old Marie were astonishing.  That the ballet would pay her enough to survive, but expect her to find a sponsor to help her put food on her table was pure exploitation.  Even Degas' treatment of her would now land him on a sex offenders registry.  Buchanan takes some liberties in tying Marie's story together with that of another of Degas' subjects, but she does so in a way that seems possible.

I read this book for The Typical Book Group, and I will write more about it when we get together to discuss it in November.  We are sure to talk about Marie's relationship with her sister, Antoinette, about a choice Marie made, and a certain lie Antoinette told her.  I'll fill you in soon.

Next Up on CD:  Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood.  I'm not so sure about this one . . . I'll give it a few discs to decide.

Still Reading:  The True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Penumbra's Conundrum

When Clay Jannon takes a job at a bookstore that is open all night, he wonders what is up.  The store has few if any best sellers, random classics that Clay assumes are the store owner's favorites, and a whole library's worth of books that are not for sale.  The customers are as odd as the bookstore itself.  A few "normal" people come in, but Clay is more likely to encounter odd customers who are desperate for a certain book from the lending library, and immensely relieved find it.  Because he is working the night shift and has so few customers, Clay has a lot of time on his hands.  As a beginner computer geek, Clay designs a method of tracking what the lending library customers check out, and he notices a strange trend.

In Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Book Store by Robin Sloan, the primary conflict is between the old and the new.  A 500 year old society is studying old books of codes in an attempt to find the secret to immortality.  Across town, a newish company, Google, has a team working on discovering the same secret, but through modern and futuristic technology instead of ancient codes.  Clay is the force that leads the two groups to work together, with those focused on the past embracing technology, and the Googlers challenged by "OK", which is what they call "old knowledge".

Penumbra had some of the feel of Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, with technology doing amazing things which are taken for granted by the users.  Both books are also similar in that the key to solving the puzzle is hidden in plain sight in the same manner.  I'm not going to spoil that one for you - read the two books and you'll know what I am talking about.  A difference, however, is that Penumbra is set in the modern day, and the reader is left wondering which of the technologies that Sloan describes really exist, and which he invented.  Predictably, I spent time Googling just that as soon as I finished the book.  Some of the reviews that I have read have warned that Penumbra was written in 2012, and will only be relevant in 2012, because of its reliance on then current technology that will soon be dated.  I couldn't disagree more.  Sloan did choose to use the name of a real company, Google, and to talk about things that Goolge may or may not really be doing.  But even if Google does have the technology that Sloan describes, it won't be available to or understood by non-techies for years.  At one point, Mr. Penumbra compares Google to a start up company from his day, Standard Oil.  Yes, it is possible that Google won't be here in 50 years, but it will still be discussed and its practices will be studied due to the revolution that it caused.  Sloan seems to be saying that the new technology doesn't make the old knowledge irrelevant, and instead, the old knowledge can enhance the technology.

Sloan grew up in Troy, Michigan, which is a neighbor to my village.  Despite its great school system and affluent residents, Troy has struggled to support its library in recent years.  In fact, its voters have decided more than once that the library is not worth keeping, and should be closed.  Fortunately, for now, reasonable minds have prevailed, and the library remains open.  I was happy to stumble upon this great interview where Sloan credits the Troy Public Library specifically for his success as a writer.  I'm happy to link to the interview, so that when future Troy voters Google "why should we keep the Troy Library open", there is one more chance that they will find the interview with a great author crediting their library for giving him "a reason to write".   

I checked the NYT Notable Book list for 2012, and was shocked not to see Penumbra there.  I'm not the only one.  Penumbra, and another book that I loved from 2012, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, were both listed on Flavorwire's list of "25 Notable Books Unfairly Overlooked by 'The New York Times'".  I absolutely agree with Flavorwire.  Penumbra was also picked by BookPage as one of the 25 Best Book Jackets for 2012.  It's funny how many books made both Flavorwire and BookPage's lists.  Anyhow, I totally agree with BookPage too.  Although the cover, which you can see at the top of this post, looks relatively plain, I was surprised when I turned off my light to go to bed, and could still see the books on the cover glowing.  The glow in the dark cover could have seemed really childish and gimmicky, but for this particular book, it was like a neon sign twinkling outside of my window, reminding me that while I may be going to sleep, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore is still open, and waiting for me.

Next Up:  The True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey

Still Listening to:  Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan

Monday, October 21, 2013

Child's Play

In 1984, three twelve year old children are playing in the woods.  Hours later, two of the children are missing, and the third is clinging to a tree, unable to speak, with his shoes full of someone else's blood.  The missing children are never seen again, while the survivor is unable to help with the investigation, because his brain won't let him recall what happened.

Twenty years later, a twelve year girl's body is found in a clearing of those same woods.  She has obviously been murdered.  The lead detectives on the case, Rob Ryan and Cassie Maddox, begin to interview the people who found the body, the people who live in the area, and the girl's family.  However, Ryan and Maddox have a secret.  They both know that Ryan is the child who survived in 1984, and that if anyone else finds out, they will be off the case.  Because of his personal connection, Ryan doesn't think that anyone else could investigate this murder as well as he could.  Really, what are the odds of three twelve year old children being killed in the same woods in a small town outside of Dublin?  The cases must be related.

And that's just about all that I want to tell you about In The Woods by Tana French. The first half of the book is a mystery, as the detectives try to figure out "who done it", and then the story focuses more on police procedure and interviews with suspects.  I liked the first half better than the second.  Everything else that I want to say about this book will be a Spoiler, so check out my Spoilers Page, if you are interested, and don't mind finding out what happened.

That's one more down for the Off the Shelf Challenge!

Next Up On CD:  The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan

Still Reading:  Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Perfect Shot

A group of boys go into the woods.  One of them has a slingshot that he made himself.  The boys all think the slingshot is pretty great, but they doubt the boy, Will, when he claims to be able to hit a rook on a branch far away.  Somehow, he finds the perfect trajectory, and the bird falls.  The boys are thrilled!  While they don't know it, William Bellman's life has been changed forever.  And so begins Bellman and Black by Diane Setterfield.

From that time on, death follows William everywhere.  His family members, his friends, his children, everyone he loves seems to be dying.  For some reason, the same person appears at all of their funerals.  William doesn't know who this stranger is, but he begins referring to him as "Black".  In a fit of grief induced madness, William decides to make a deal with Black, to try to keep his last daughter alive.  The problem is that once the deal is made, William is not quite sure what he agreed to do.

William spends the rest of his life trying to live up to his end of the commitment.  He creates a funeral department store, selling everything that a mourner could need.  He makes a fortune, but carefully saves a fair share for Black.  It is only when business declines that Bellman recognizes a familiar trajectory from his past.

I went into this one expecting a ghost story.  Perhaps this is because the full title is Bellman and Black:  A Ghost Story.  There wasn't anything in the story that sent tingles down my neck or made me wonder what was lurking behind my curtains late at night.  The ghost here (if there was one) was more like the Ghost of Christmas Past than like the ghost in The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters.  It's funny though, because when I reviewed Setterfield's last book, the best seller, Thirteenth Tale, I cautioned my readers that although it too was billed as a ghost story, it really wasn't.

What Bellman and Black is like, unexpectedly, is World Without End by Ken Follett.  Both stories begin with children in the woods being part of something that shapes the rest of their lives.  They both involve families struck down by the plague, a daughter who miraculously survives, and a revolutionary building project, with Merthin in World building a bridge and William in Bellman building his department store.  Merthin and William share the same business acumen, attention to detail and foresight.  But where the bad guy in World is an evil person in a position of  authority, that role in Bellman is played by Black.  The question of whether Black is evil or even if he is a person, is shimmering at the edge of every page.  If you liked World, you will tear through Bellman, which is only 336 pages, compared to World's 1,024.

There is more that I want to say about Bellman and Black, but I don't want to ruin it for you, so I will post those comments on my Spoilers Page, for you to read after reading the novel.  And you should read the novel.  It's certainly a good book, even if it isn't scary.  Bellman and Black will be released on November 5, 2013.

Full Disclosure:  I was offered and claimed a free electronic copy of this book from Net Galley.  No promises were made, no payments were received.

Next IRR:  I've noticed that the last five Industry Requested Reviews that I have done were for books by well known if not best selling authors.  While I do like doing those, I'm feeling like I'm missing out on the "unknowns" out there.  So, for next month, I have requested two books from lesser known authors, Melt:  The Art of Macaroni and Cheese by Stephanie Stiavetti, Garrett McCord and Michael Ruhlman, and Upload by Michael McClelland.  If I get them both, I'll review them both!  Stay tuned.

Next Up on Paper:  Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

Still Listening to:  In the Woods by Tana French

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Typical Book Group Report - 15

Tonight, The Typical Book Group met to discuss The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonathan Evison.  While there were only 6 of us there tonight, we all LOVED the book.  In fact, we think that we might have talked about this book more than any other book that we have ever read.  Although the story was emotional and a few of us cried while reading it, we couldn't stop talking about the funny parts.  We were amazed by how well Evison thought out the characters and their ideas.  We also felt that Benjamin Benjamin's voice was so clear, that it was almost as though we knew him.

One obvious thing that came up in our discussion was the redemption of all of the dads in the story.  They had all screwed up, they all knew it, and they were all doing whatever they could think of to make it better.  Ben helped them to find more constructive ways to reconnect with their kids while finding a way to forgive himself.

We also talked about whether Ben and Trevor's trip was more an odyssey or a pilgrimage.  You didn't think we were that deep, did you?  We decided that it was more of an odyssey, because it was more about the journey and the challenges that they faced along the way than it was about the destination.

100% of Typical Book Groupers agree, The Revised Fundamentals is a great book. 

Next month we'll read The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan

In Other News, the Man Booker Prize winner was announced today.  And the winner is . . . Eleanor Catton for The Luminaries.  Apparently this is the longest book ever chosen for the prize, at 848 pages.  We'll have to consider it for The Typical Book Group's Big Fat Book next summer!

Still Reading:  Bellman and Black by Diane Setterfeld

Still Listening to:  In the Woods by Tana French

Monday, October 7, 2013

Telling It Like It Is

So, if a white author wrote a book where in the very first chapter, a black character is cooking fried chicken, complaining about living in a bad neighborhood, and thinking about her granddaughter named "Noxema" who was taken from her daughter by social services, what are the chances that you would read the second chapter?  I'm guessing slim to none.  In fact, I would bet that the author would find herself on the Today Show trying to defend the "research" supporting her offensive characterization.  But in Who Asked You, where the first chapter includes just that character, the author doing the writing is the best selling African American author, Terry McMillan, who is known for telling relatable stories.  Personally, I was still a little put off by the stereotype, and wondered if McMillan still knows how "it is" for people not optioning their books for movie deals.  But I kept reading.

I'm not new to Terry McMillan.  I think that I read Waiting to Exhale first, like most of America did.  It must have been then that I learned that McMillan had grown up in my husband's hometown of Port Huron, Michigan, and that an earlier book, Mama, was set there.  While Mama does not portray Port Huron in such a way that would encourage endorsement by the Port Huron Chamber of Commerce, I read it anxiously, and passed it on to my mom.  McMillan's descriptions were so precise that I was pretty sure that if we followed the roads that she named and turned where she said, we could drive to all of the settings in the book, even though the characters were supposedly living in "Point Haven" instead of Port Huron.  My mom and I gave it a try, and while we couldn't find all of the locations, some directions were spot on.  When we turned on to my husband's grandmother's street, Strawberry Lane, where the mother in the novel cleaned houses, I think that my mom was a little disappointed to see ranches with walk out basements instead of the mansions McMillan described.  But despite the exaggerations, the descriptions were so true that I've always wondered if McMillan's own mom really did clean houses there, and if I may have known one of her employers. 

This tendency to stick closely to the truth of her own life is a McMillan signature. Whether or not her (now ex) husband was the inspiration for a character in How Stella Got Her Groove Back was a hot topic that resulted in litigation.  So this is why I was so surprised that McMillan seemed to be using racist stereotypes in Who Asked You.  I should have known better.

Who Asked You is primarily the story of Betty Jean.  She is living in what she calls a "ghetto", working as a maid in a hotel, and trying to take care of her husband who is bed ridden with something like dementia.  She has three adult children, one who feels he is too good for his community and has left, one who is addicted to drugs, and one who is in prison.  Early in the story, her daughter with the drug addiction asks Betty Jean to watch her two sons for the day, and never comes back. Suddenly Betty Jean is stretched in yet another direction, as she finds herself raising the young boys.  The story is told through the voices and perspectives of Betty Jean, her children, her grandchildren, her sisters, her neighbor, and a few other characters. 

Betty Jean could be a one dimensional stereotype, but she is not.  She is part of a family.  There is something about the family relationship that makes people feel free to express hurtful opinions and to say mean things that they really do think, but that they would never say to strangers. Through the story, Betty's family members grow and change, forcing each other to open their minds.  McMillan's message is clear:  Don't judge.  Even if you know you are right, and think that your family members would benefit from your opinions, be supportive.  You might think that you know your siblings or kids better than they know themselves, but you will never really know what they are going through, or what they don't want you to know.

At first I also thought it was a little hooky that the story started with 9/11 and ended with Obama's election.  Those events are huge in American history, but it seems like 9/11 especially is becoming an overused device for authors.  But again, this worked.  Thinking back, the entire country went through the changes that Betty's family faced during those years.  We all learned.  We all opened our minds.  The "great recession" came and hit us all, and we learned a lot about judging and being judged.  I'd like to think that we are better people now than we were before.  Who Asked You had such a positive ending that it made the journey of the book worthwhile.  It's an ending that I would like to believe in, even if it might be a little too good to be true.

I read Who Asked You at the request of Angela Messina of Viking/Penguin Publicity.  No promises were made, and no payments were received.

Next Up:  I am so late on getting my September Industry Requested Review out, that I'm going to rush right into the IRR for October.  So, my next book will be Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield.

Still Listening to:  In the Woods by Tana French.  This is a good one!

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Nice Enough

Brooklyn by Colm Toibin is an exploration of the choices available to young women at the end of World War II, and the consequences of those choices.  Eilis (apparently pronounced "Elle-ish") is a woman from Toibin's hometown of Enniscorthy in Ireland.  Enniscorthy is portrayed as a small town, with very limited options for a smart girl who is not in a rush to get married.  With the help of her sister and a friendly priest, Eilis is given a chance to move to Brooklyn and work in a store while going to school. 

Throughout the story, Eilis makes a ton of life changing decisions, but in doing so, she barely considers the consequences that her decisions will have for her.  She thinks about what the other people in her life would want for her to do, and then that is what she generally does.  Although she is free to make choices, she restricts herself to what people around her would want. 

In the years after World War II, many women must have found themselves in similar situations.  They were encouraged to work, but only until they got married.  If they wanted careers, they didn't look for a husband.  They could live apart from their families, and even in distant countries, as long as they are under the supervision of a mom-like character or a friendly priest.

Eilis is a very pliable character.  When she is in Brooklyn, she likes it well enough.  When she is in Ireland, she might as well stay.  She is struck by how her not-so-exciting life in Brooklyn seems glamorous to her neighbors who have never left Ireland.  All told, while this was a nice story, that's really all that there was to it.  It had the Jane Austen feel of a book without a lot of action, focused on whether someone is or is not in love with someone else.

Brooklyn was long listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2009.  It is also another book of my list for the Off the Shelf Challenge.

Next Up on CD:  In the Woods by Tana French

Still Reading:  Who Asked You by Terry McMillan

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Typical Book Group Report - 14

Last night, The Typical Book Group got together to discuss Fall of Giants by Ken Follett.  The turn out was a little light, with only 6 of us there.  All of us liked the book, and two people had already read the sequel, Winter of the World. 

We were all surprised by how little we knew about World War I.  One person had just finished a Hungarian memoir (Dossier K?) and said that even the Hungarian telling that story was shocked that the murder of Franz Ferdinand was enough to get anyone's attention, let alone to spark a world wide war.

One thing that never crossed my mind, because I am apparently the only person on the face of the Earth who is not watching, is that the story lines in Fall of Giants  are strikingly similar to those in Downton Abbey.  Both stories have someone getting pregnant by the chauffeur, someone operating a clinic, someone named Ethel, and they both are set in the same time and place.  The things one learns at book group. . .

Next month we will meet at my house, and we are going to discuss The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonathan Evison.  I can't wait!

Still Reading:  Who Asked You by Terry McMillan

Still Listening to:  Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Just Amazing

It is time for you to read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon, and in fact, I might ask, what has taken you so long?  Amazing was published in 2000, was a NYT Notable Book for that year, and won the Pulitzer for fiction in 2001.  And still you haven't read it?  Neither had I, despite the fact that it had been sitting in my nightstand for 3 or 4 or 5 years, just waiting for me.

Amazing is the story of Josef Kavalier, who starts off as a teenage boy living in Prague as Hitler rises to power.  Josef is interested in magic, and worships Houdini.  His mentor, Bernard Kornblum, teaches him illusions and the tricks of escape artists.  Joe's training is tested when he escapes from Prague and manages to find his way to the United States.  Joe's cousin, Sammy Klayman, is living in New York, where one day Joe appears.  Joe and Sammy are about the same age, and form a quick bond.  Sammy wants to find Joe a job at the Empire Novelty Company, where he works.  Joe has an artistic talent that gives Sammy a great idea.  What if he and Joe could create a comic book that Empire could publish to compete with the new Superman comics?

Joe has never even heard of a comic book before, but he trusts Sammy, and will do what Sammy says to help him get a job.  As Sammy tries to persuade his boss to start a comic book, Joe draws up a few quick sketches of a Golem.  A Golem is a character from Jewish folklore which is formed from inanimate materials, such as sand, but becomes alive and powerful.  The Golem is all wrong as a superhero for America in the 1940s, but with Sammy's boss' tentative approval, they try to come up with something else that the American public will embrace.  And so, the Escapist is born.  The Escapist fights Nazis and other evil forces, and becomes an immediate hit. 

Sammy and Joe's boss becomes incredibly wealthy from the success of the Escapist, and even Sammy and Joe are making more money than they need.  Joe saves every penny to try to help the rest of his family escape from Prague before it is too late.  The juxtaposition of the golden age of comics in the US versus the oppression of Jews in Prague is stark, and leaves Joe feeling lost and conflicted. The years go by, and the cousins grow up and grow apart, while always remaining connected by one woman, Rosa.  Rosa is the inspiration for their most successful female character, Luna Moth.  The love triangle between Joe, Sammy and Rosa is entirely unconventional, but it works. 

There are a couple great quotes in Amazing.  The first that I loved is when Joe is explaining that he's not satisfied to write the Escapist in more commercially viable terms.  He says "I'm tired of fighting, maybe, for a little while.  I fight, and I am fighting some more, and it just makes me have less hope, not more.  I need to do something . . . something that will be great, you know, instead of trying always to be Good."

Another is explaining why Joe loved comic books, even years after he had quit working for Empire:  ". . .he loved them for the pictures and stories they contained, the inspirations and lubrications of five hundred aging boys dreaming as hard as they could dream for fifteen years, transfiguring their insecurities and delusions, their wishes and their doubts, their public educations and their sexual perversions, into something that only the most purblind of societies would have denied the status of art."

A few years back, when I was reading McSweeney's 36, which included Fountain City:  A Novel Wrecked by Michael Chabon, I mentioned how he had given us such intimate details of his writing process and personal life, that I knew that he slept in the nude, which was maybe a little more than I wanted to know.  In Fountain City, Chabon comments about how although he hadn't realized it, other people had told him that in his novels he seems to have a thing about sleepwear.  I laughed the first time that I noticed a detailed description of pajamas on page 471 of Amazing, but by the end of the book I had turned down the corners on 4 more pages of PJ descriptions.  A thing indeed.

I have often wondered, and complained to anyone who would listen, about why Carter Beats the Devil by Glenn David Gold has gotten so little attention, when it is a truly great book.  I have attributed its lack of acclaim to the fact that it was published less than a month before The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen which was ridiculously (but deservedly) hyped, and also less than a month before 9/11.  It seems obvious now, that while Gold and Chabon likely took years to write their respective books,  it was really unlucky for Gold that Chabon was able to publish a great book also focused on magicians just before Gold's book hit the stores.  While the stories are entirely different, there may have been a little bit of magic burn out in 2001.  But, if you do read and like Amazing, I recommend that you also give Carter a try.

I am adding The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay to my Favorites list.  At 636 pages, it is also a BFB.  Amazing is the last book that I need to complete my revised goal for The Off the Shelf Challenge.  This is THE book that has made doing the OTS Challenge for the last 2 years worthwhile for me.  I never would have gotten around to it if I hadn't had a goal of trying to get through the books that had been crowding my nightstand.  In its honor, and since it's only September, I think I'll extend my goal by another 5 books, to 25.

Next Up:  Who Asked You by Terry McMillan

Still Listening to:  Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

Friday, September 20, 2013

Doing What Dad Did

For years, Amazon and GoodReads have been recommending that I read Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe.  At first, I thought that it was a newly released book.  Then, I noticed it in the "classics corners" of used book sales. Finally, I had seen it enough times, and I had to pick it up.

Things Fall Apart is the story of Okonkwo, who is an honored man within his village.  Okonkwo has a few wives and many children.  He lives in his fathers' village and worships his fathers' gods.  I didn't misplace my apostrophe.  In Okonkwo's world, the man always lives in his father's village, and his father lived in his father's village, and so forth, so that many generations of men before Okonkwo were living where he lives in very much the same way that he is living.  Okonkwo's time is different from that of his fathers though, because villagers are beginning to see white men.  At first, the white men are thought to be albinos, or possibly even lepers.  All too soon it becomes clear that these white men are not just people from a nearby village with a disease or a skin condition.  They are people from another country, intent on converting Okonkwo's people to Christianity.

While reading Things Fall Apart, I was never sure of when the story was supposed to have been taking place, or where it was set.  Most obviously, Okonkwo's village was called "Umofia", and I could tell by the tone of the story, the names that were used, and the fables of the villagers that Umofia was in Africa.  I knew that the book was published in 1958, but because of how the villagers referred to the passage of time, it was not clear what decade they were living in.  According to Wikipedia, it was set in the 1890s, which I probably would have realized if I knew more about the colonizing of Africa.  Wiki also says that Umofia was supposed to be in Nigeria.

I thought a lot about what, exactly, makes Things Fall Apart a "classic".  Judging by the standard of whether it was published before my parents graduated from high school (check) and whether it is likely to appear on my son's high school required reading list (check), then it is a classic.  I've complained about my son's required reading lists to my son, saying that he should be reading more modern works.  While he likes contemporary fiction, he doesn't feel that anything new is likely to ever qualify as a classic.  It's tough to think of anything, even books that I love, that are going to be discussed and relevant in another 20 or 50 years.  As much as I would like for Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer to become a classic, it may not translate well to people who weren't alive on 9/11.  Some of the other books that I've loved that are set in a less specific period and may remain relevant longer, like The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen or Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin are simply too long for required reading lists.  Black Swan Green by David Mitchell is a solid candidate that has been suggested by others with voices louder than mine, and I have noticed that my son will be seeing some Barbara Kingsolver on his lists in his junior and senior years.  But what makes a classic?

As I was reading Things Fall Apart, I was sort of thinking of it in comparison to Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck.  Both stories are set in a time in the past, and paint vivid portraits a certain  community during that period.  A person in Africa reading Grapes of Wrath and thinking that they have a good understanding of America in 2013 would be just as misled as a person in America reading Things and thinking that they understand the modern tribes of Africa.  There are great books set in Africa that could give a reader a better grasp of what it is like now (or at least during my lifetime), including The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver and What is the What by Dave Eggers.  However, like those books mentioned above, these are also a little long for reading during a high school trimester.  Things' short length, at only 209 pages, may be what has kept it on the reading lists, which is sort of sad.  Maybe spending a longer amount of time on a longer book, rather than trying to fit a set number of books into the trimester would allow our kids to stop the cycle of reading the books that their fathers read, for the sake of reading what their fathers read.

Next Up on CD:  Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

STILL Reading:  The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon.  I have no excuse as to why this book is taking me so long to read!  I am really liking it, and even considered whether it could be considered a modern classic.  But if it is taking me this long, how long would it take a distracted high school student?

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Weighed Down

Given a real life murder, with a question as to whether the person executed for the crime actually committed it, combined with a modern day love polygon, what could go wrong?  Sadly, more than you might think.

The Weight of Water by Anita Shreve is the story of Jean, a woman who is doing a photo shoot on the island of Smuttynose, off the coast of New Hampshire.  What intrigues Jean and her editor about Smuttynose are the murders that were committed there in 1873.  At that time, according to Shreve, only one family lived on Smuttynose, but the family included quite a few people.  The house belonged to Maren and her husband, John, but John's brother, Maren's brother, Maren's sister and her sister in law were all living in the same very small home. 

Shreve cleverly mirrors the tight quarters of the house in modern times by having Jean, her husband, her daughter, her brother in law, and his new girlfriend visit the island on a 41 foot sailboat, where they stayed for the duration of their trip.

In 1873, Maren's sister and sister in law were killed one night while the men were off the island.  Maren escaped by hiding in the rocks near the ocean.  A man who had stayed with the family as a lodger was accused of the crime, and was executed despite proclaiming his innocence.  Shreve takes some liberties with recreating the crime, which I'll discuss more on my Spoilers Page, because I'm a little critical of her choices, but don't want to spoil the story for anyone who is still interested.

Meanwhile, on the boat, Jean begins to suspect that her brother in law's girlfriend may have more of a connection to her husband than anyone has revealed to her.

All told, this should make a great story.  For some reason, it didn't.  I listened to the book in audio form, and as much as I sometimes rave about how the reader makes the book, this time I have to wonder if the reader didn't do the book a disservice.  The story is told primarily through the voices of Maren and Jean.  Maren uses very stilted language because she is supposed to be a Norwegian immigrant in the 19th century.  It is less clear why Shreve chose to give Jean such a pretentious voice.  Maybe it is that she is married to a poet, and wants to appear to be highly educated at every opportunity.  I think that if Jean had used a more conversational or friendly tone, the story might have been more interesting, and Jean would have been more sympathetic. As it is, Jean and Maren are very similar in the lack of empathy that the reader feels for them.

Well, I can't love them all.  At least that's one more off my list for the Off the Shelf Challenge.

In Other News, the Man Booker Shortlist was announced yesterday.  The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin is still in the running!

Next Up On CD:  Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

Still Reading:  The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon.  I am really liking this book, and it's crazy that it is taking me so long to read it.  I'm torn between wanting to rush to see what happens next, and wanting to slow down and make it last longer.
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