Friday, February 28, 2014

The Poet Game by Salar Abdoh

What the *bleep* did I just read? This was definitely not my genre as far as books go, so there was that...And then it was written in a very casual, assume-you-can-pick-up-what's-going-on-as-stuff-happens way, so that wasn't helpful...And I just kept thinking, "This is so not real!"

I understand that intelligence agencies and counter agencies and rogue groups exist…I understand that their operatives are likely to try to infiltrate each others' groups to obtain better information...But I doubt that these operatives are flopping around like fish on the sand, given no information about their assignments and told to gather and report back. And I doubt that they're off randomly running into raunchy women and having pseudo-sexual experiences with strangers.

This is one of those novels that I just DON'T GET. So if you think an enigmatic, self-absorbed, Spooks-like novel of Muslim intrigue in New York sounds like fun, read this book. If you are thinking, "Dear god, could something be more enigmatic or self-absorbed than Spooks?!" DO NOT READ THIS BOOK. I really did not think anything could be more Spooks-like than Spooks. I was wrong.


Thursday, February 27, 2014

DIY Cocktails by Marcia Simmons and Jonas Halpren

I am really tired, so I won't be saying much about today's book, other than that it is rock solid and spot on! Cocktails for Idiots! Seriously, though, if you read this and follow their guidelines for the basic versions of the cocktails, they're basically idiot-proof. It's when you start to get fancy that you're taking the life of your taste buds in your hands…

I do think this is a good beginner's book in a lot of ways. It explains, very conversationally, what differences in supplies are, for instance. However, I don't think they need quite so many cocktail recipes--for the beginners, they muddle things up a bit (pun intended), and for the more seasoned cocktailer, the explanations and basic recipes clutter the more interesting recipes. They would have done better (and sold twice as many books) to make it a two-part series. Book 1: Cocktail Basics. Book 2: Fun Cocktail Recipes.

I will leave it up to you--try this guide out and see if you like it!


Wednesday, February 26, 2014

My Wicked Wicked Ways by Sandra Cisneros

Sandra Cisneros wrote one of the few pieces of modern literature that we studied in high school that I actually LOVED, The House on Mango Street. So finding some of her poetry at the library was exciting.

This collection of poems that she wrote in the 70s reflects the roller coaster of emotions, events, and passionate love affairs that she had in her twenties. Or, as she puts it in her introductory poem, "these are the pearls from that ten-year itch, my jewels, my colicky kids who fussed and kept me up the wicked nights when all I wanted was . . ."

Talk about dot-dot-dot. Ellipses with power!

Sandra Cisneros' writing exudes power. And I never realized until now how fiercely independent she was when it came to men. Not that she shunned them, but these poems speak to her preference to engage in these passionate love affairs that sweep you up and away until the wind goes out of their sails (at which point, well, what's the point anymore?) rather than "settling down" and committing to sharing yourself with another person forever. I shudder to think what we would have lost if she had settled down--what writings would have never come to pass?

I also never knew how much time she spent in Europe. This collection really inspires you to want to grab life by the *ahem* and have grand adventures. Go travel! Go love! Go celebrate!

To be fair to the author's intent, not all of these are positive, adventurous poems; several of them are quite the opposite, depicting people trapped in unhappy circumstances. Cisneros doesn't turn a blind eye to the hardships of life. But she does contrast them beautifully with the adventures to show you that life is all things--good and bad. The point is to live!

Who knows if what I'm taking away is a reflection of her intent…But I was moved by these poems and highly recommend them to others!


Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris

Well, I promised and now I have to deliver. Unfortunately, Clybourne Park, rather than leaving me awed, left me feeling creepily unsettled. I much preferred the inspiration of intrepid souls overcoming obstacles in A Raisin in the Sun than the insipid, very direct fighting about whether people and their actions are bigoted or perpetuating institutionalized racism.

This play continues the exploration of race and class and housing issues begun in A Raisin in the Sun. The first half shows you the story of the white family who decided to sell their house to the black family in the 50s and the second half is about the subsequent white "gentrification" of the area in the 00s.

I really didn't enjoy reading the snappy dialogue--I'm sure it's much more "natural" when acted out in front of you, but I felt the words carried less weight for being flung about. I also felt that there was too much disconnect between the characters. The whole play just dripped acid.

I prefer to believe that groundbreaking plays should leave you with positive or inspirational feelings. This is not to say that they should depict the world through rose-colored glasses, but they should show you how to fix problems, and not just carp about them. For instance, I can complain all day about being a woman, but would you pay to see a show like that?

Okay, fine, many people have, but cynicism and rancor just breeds more cynicism and rancor. If I propose a show about my struggle against a sexist system to rise up in the ranks of a male-dominated company and become a highly paid, well-respected professional, now, doesn't that sound like something you would much rather pay to see? You're nodding your head--or if you aren't, you should be. Positivity! Inspiration! This is what I expected from a Pulitzer-prize-winning play!

I was let down. And I'm irked that the main idea for Norris' play came from another (superior) work--I don't think we ought to praise someone so much for creating something so intentionally derivative. Not even derivative, but piggybacking! Newsflash: Educated white male sees opportunity for success, capitalizes on groundbreaking work of black female. (Who, by the way, died of cancer in her 30s--yeah, that's right, I'm playing the cancer card!) Clearly all's well on Broadway.

I will begrudgingly say that this is probably worth reading, although I think it is a poor example of constructive conversations about privilege, race, and class (mostly due to lack of any kind of positive conversation model).


Monday, February 24, 2014

A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry

I have read very few plays that made me sit back in awe at the end the way that this play did. Usually when written down, plays lose some of their power, but DAMN! I am in awe of what such a seemingly simple three-act piece was able to accomplish.

Simple, because really, this is a play about a family that grumbles a bit when together--don't we all--but when dealing with outsiders, sticks together and sticks up for one another. This is a play about an unexpected gift providing you with the ability to live out a dream. This is a play about some people just being who they are and others wanting more. And these simple things coalesced to accomplish so much.

And I'm not even talking about politics or civil rights. In these areas alone, yes, this was (and, sadly, continues to be) a groundbreaking play. But even just the intensity of human emotion and these universal situations that allow you, no matter who you are, to connect with the characters…This is what playwriting should always be about.

And yes, I did just end a sentence with a preposition. That's how much I loved this play!

Stay tuned for when I read Pulitzer Prize-winning Clybourne Park. (Does anyone know what beat A Raisin in the Sun for Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1960? I'll give you a hint--it's one of only eight musicals to have ever won a Pulitzer and it's nowhere near as good as this.)


Sunday, February 23, 2014

Wind Song by Carl Sandburg

This collection of Carl Sandburg poetry was published near the end of his life. I believe most of the poems in the book were first published in other publications or books, but that doesn't make them any less powerful when tied together in this one.

Really, Wind Song depicts for you the wonderful, mostly rural world of Middle America. Sandburg's poems tend not to be antagonistic or overtly political in nature, which is probably why he is known as an icon of American literature. His note in the beginning of the book says it all--treasure the poems that speak to you and feel free to disregard the rest.

I myself am partial to poems that contain direct messages. "Little Girl, Be Careful What You Say" is a good example of how some of the poems included dispense wisdom to the reader. I think the message, "be careful, be careless, be careful, be what you wish to be" speaks volumes. Act however you wish to be perceived by others.

"Mother and Child" also struck a tone with me. I feel like it captures so well the love a mother has for her children and behind that, although these aren't explicitly addressed, the hidden worries. A mother doesn't just love her child for who the child is, but for who they are going to become. And you can tie that to just about anything--politics, for example: you may love your country, but even more than that, you probably love the future you hope will come to pass as laws and social norms change (read: improve) in your lifetime.

Of the rest of the poetry that describes Middle American culture, I will say nothing, other than that it speaks for itself and that nothing has really changed in 50+ years.


Saturday, February 22, 2014

The Essential Scratch & Sniff Guide to Becoming a Wine Expert by Richard Betts

I saw this in a bookstore and thought, "No way that actually works!" The book is literally a scratch 'n' sniff guide to all wine-related smells. Betts' whole schtick, a very common one for American vintners and wine experts, is that anyone can be a "wine expert." They say this because they know it helps them make more money.

So naturally scratch 'n' sniff was the next step in that marketing scheme.

I do not have a sensitive schnoz, so although I was able to smell all the scratchy smells, I could already tell that I would have difficulty separating the smells of a glass of vino. But the book still had some relevant information.

I was pleasantly surprised by the chart at the end. Using the written guide, I imagined what I wanted to taste and it actually matched up with the resulting wine suggestion. So maybe I "know" what the smells are supposed to smell like in wine even if I can't separate those smells out individually.

Would be a good gag gift book to get on sale…Other than that, I'm not sure if it's worth it.


Friday, February 21, 2014

Wild Dreams of a New Beginning by Lawrence Ferlinghetti

I've been feeling very poetic lately--perhaps due to a poem I was made to write for reasons that really don't matter here… At any rate, this compilation of sometimes-inciteful and sometimes-eclectic poems from the 70s stood out to me on the library shelves and I decided to take a whack at reading it.

I am not really a fan of revolutionary poetry that uses seemingly completely unrelated imagery to express political opinions. So this one was a bit of a stretch for me.

What really helped was my understanding of the places Ferlinghetti mentions in his poems. He throws around locations and pop culture references like Jelly Bellies in a Reagan museum. If you don't get that sentence--I mean, really get it--you will not get some of his poems. A lot of California culture and subcultures are referenced in the blink of an eye.

My favorite poems in the book were "Alienation: Two Bees" and "Reading Apollinaire by the Rogue River." The bee poem was perhaps his most conventional. Not only did it have a plot--dear god!--it had two very explicit themes that made sense--the most obvious of which was obviously alienation. *wink*

I told you I'm feeling weird and poetic!

The other poem that I liked juxtaposed the methods of Apollinaire in giving life to the literary world (literally forming it visually for the reader) with the personification of nature--in this case the Rogue River. Personification isn't quite the right word, but Ferlinghetti offers up the image of the Rogue as a snake being drowned in the ocean, it's tail forever following after it, not knowing how it's head has already perished.

On that note, I think I'll simply say that there were some poems in this collection I connected with, but many more that were just too beatnik or off-kilter for me to appreciate. And thematically, the collection meandered a bit too much.


Thursday, February 20, 2014

Cinderbox Road & Other Stories by Scott Geisel

I went to a reading/talk by Scott Geisel yesterday and enjoyed what I heard, so I bought this collection of some of his short stories. They're all very neat little stories about people and life.

Too vague?

Well, I've found he has a pretty predictable style. He basically starts with a character doing something then getting interrupted by another character, a deeper and graver issue is revealed, the characters explore their relationship through dialogue and awkwardness, and they either make peace with the issue or leave the future open-ended.

So now I guess you don't have to read the stories, because that's pretty much the plot of each one. But they are cute stories to read. Feel-good kind of stuff, but with maybe a tad more edge or emotional depth.

My favorite story of the bunch, and the one that I think sticks out the most by not quite fitting his usual mold, was "You're Not the One." It's about a woman who follows a dream to Columbus, where she meets a man who dreamt about meeting her. I don't really fully understand the ending, but it made me think about fate and communication and how we relate to each other as individuals. It also really made me want to twirl. And visit Grandpa's Cheese Barn.


Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Tambourines to Glory by Langston Hughes

We all grow up reading Langston Hughes' poetry, but I never even really thought about what else he might have written until I saw Tambourines to Glory. This short novel criticizes the abuse of religion and faith, among other things, in underprivileged communities.

Essie and Laura survive in 1950s Harlem by mooching off of others, and they get it into their heads one day to start a church so they can rake in the dough. Essie actually provides the drive and passion for the idea by quickly deciding that she really does want to save those less fortunate than her and better life for all individuals in the community. Meanwhile Laura only wants two things--attention and more money.

As you can imagine, as their congregation grows, Hughes brings in a cast of strong, distinct characters--some unscrupulous, some genuine, some innocent, some devious. Evil and sin is magnified and becomes greater with time in characters who are "bad," while goodness and hard work find a home in human vessels that were previously vacant (more or less). No one is ever really "good"--I wonder if there's a message in there.

The style is typical Hughes--it's raw and real, the way conversation really happened, not some gentrified version--and the very real social, economic and religious issues brought up provide great intellectual backbone to the plot. A thought-provoking read.


Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats by T.S. Eliot

I saw this and was immediately intrigued--I didn't remember T.S. Eliot being so lighthearted as to write lyrical poems about cats! It turns out that this volume of cat-themed poetry was the inspiration for the Boadway musical Cats.

I am not surprised. The first thing you notice as you're reading the poems is a very real desire to start vocalizing the rhymes. Soon enough, you're chanting out couplets, then inventing melodies for stanzas. Finally, you are caterwauling--at the top of your voice--songs about mischievous cats with ridiculous names.

These would be particularly good poems to read/sing with children. My favorite was "Macavity: The Mystery Cat." Macavity is mysteriously not around whenever any crime or mischief is committed, which humans eventually think is suspect behavior for an "innocent" cat with an alibi "or two." Who just happens to be gone every time something goes missing, eh? I especially like that they conclude that he is clearly "the Napoleon of Crime," the ringleader for all the other mischievous cats.

A cute volume and a good bit of fun.


Monday, February 17, 2014

Dark Whispers by Bruce Coville

For a long time I had only read books 1 and 2 of The Unicorn Chronicles. And by a long time, I mean that I remember my mom reading book 1 to me before bedtime. So finally, as I was plugging some empty holes in my collections, I searched for book 3 of the series, Dark Whispers.

What a thrill to rediscover characters I probably haven't read about for a decade! Young, brave Cara, who can travel from Earth to Luster, haven of the unicorns, in the blink of an eye; finicky, reluctant Lightfoot, Cara's distant unicorn cousin and potential heir to the unicorn throne; sage Grimwold, who is the keeper of the chronicles; THE SQUIJUM!; and the poor, lonely Dimblethum!

Cara and her friends are sent on a quest by her grandmother, now Queen of the unicorns, to find out the story of the Whisperer and bring it back in time to thwart Beloved opening a gate bridging the worlds and bringing the Hunt to Luster.

I have to say, there are some things that are slightly less impressive than I remember. Some of the adult dialogue and thoughts just read too simple for their supposed maturity as well as the complex situations in which they find themselves.

But the overall plot development is wonderful and Cara and her friends form complex characters with very distinct personalities. Coville is not afraid to kill his characters, either, which I think is important when you make a large group embark on a quest--sooner or later, someone's bound to be killed and your story will read insincere if they aren't! Best of all, this book ends--as I believe the previous ones did--on a cliffhanger, so you are pretty much forced to search for the next installment.

I will not rest until I know the unicorns are safe!!!


Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Wandering Fire by Guy Gavriel Kay

Wow. Just wow. This second book in the Fionavar Tapestry was amazing. I still felt a lot of Lord of the Rings and The Secret Country influences or similarities, but there was added in some Arthurian-ness and a dash of something else… I am trying to think what it is.

At any rate, this continuation of our heroes' quest was absolutely superb--the threads of the tapestry are starting to form a recognizable tableau. The five return home and deal (sort of) with the aftermath of what happened in Book 1. They then quickly find a way to return to Fionavar to help save all worlds from the destruction that is almost sure to come.

I think one thing that made this book seem better to me than Book 1 was that the transitions in points of view and times seemed more natural and less forced. There were also many more times when the five were not together, and I think that helped avoid too much overlap or awkwardness in trying to figure out whether you were about to read something new or a different retelling of what just occurred. The characters, too, really develop in this book. Not just Paul, Kevin, Jennifer, Kim and Dave; but Loren and Matt, our Princes, Sharra, Jaelle, and the lot.

I refuse to give away any of what happens (in case you have yet to read the first book), but I will just say that I squealed with joy when the flying unicorn returned! Okay, fine, the unicorn is a very small part of the Tapestry. I guess I can say that there's a lot of traveling and some fighting…a few powerful children who really come into their own…a bit of magic and seer-related stuff going on here and there…sex…and death. (And sometimes some of that stuff is linked. *sob*)

I loved this book and I can't wait to see how this all gets tied up and how they continue to fight and end the war in just one more book. It's going to be tough!


Saturday, February 15, 2014

Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

I don't really understand how this book won a Pulitzer. I mean, I get it--the subject matter is definitely relevant--but I just don't think the style of the writing was interesting enough to merit such a great prize.

Lahiri wrote a series of short stories about people of Indian descent and their experiences as expatriates or immigrants (for the most part). The summary on the back says the collection of stories "charts the emotional journeys of characters seeking love beyond the barriers of nations and generations." I suppose that's accurate. I didn't think of love as the common thread, though, until I read that.

It's interesting because, as a collection of short stories, you don't really get a lot of time to become attached to the characters. And descriptions are sparing most of the time. I felt too often like too much of what I was processing was coming from my own imagination--that I was supplementing what I was reading with what I expected in order to form a more complete picture in my mind.

My favorite stories of the bunch were probably "When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine" and "Mrs. Sen's," although there were a few passages among the others that really stood out to me as well. "Mrs. Sen's" has to be my favorite, though, because I feel it captured so well that monotony and lost feeling that you have when you're in a new place and you're shut off (even if by choice) from really connecting with the world. And then the few times Mrs. Sen ventured out, how overwhelmed she was! I held my breath each time she got in the car. I understood her joy each time she was able to cook fresh fish. It brought back some of the feelings I remember when studying abroad.

Overall, I definitely appreciate the many versions of immigrant life that this book portrayed, but I just thought the literary style was too pedestrian. I was not overly impressed.


Friday, February 14, 2014

Phèdre by Jean Racine

Woah. It's been a while since I dealt with Greek tragedies…or Racine…or both.

I did not recall how flowery and self-indulgent Racine's characters could get! Part of that is the structure of the alexandrine--it often forces the playwright to move the plot forward in long, roundabout ways. It's almost like showing rather than telling, but really it's like you're showing by telling the audience more than they ever needed to know.

The plot of this French play from the 17th century is that Phèdre, Thésée's (Theseus') wife, is in love with her stepson, Hippolyte, while Hippolyte is in love with Aricie, a slave of whom his father does not approve. Everyone mistakenly "finds out" that Thésée is dead and they all decide to confess their love to each other. The reactions that ensue would be laughable if they didn't result in such tragic ends later on. Oh, yeah, in case you didn't guess, half the cast dies--that's a French Greek tragedy for you!

The main characters are pretty annoying. My favorite character in this was actually Panope, a servant. She's the only one who speaks normally and isn't all "woe is me!" She doesn't really have time for that stuff. Although I will say that Théramène, Hippolyte's tutor, had the best speech by far. His monologue wins the award for the most gruesome thing I've ever had to read in French.

"De son généreux sang la trace nous conduit:
Les rochers en sont teints; les ronces dégouttantes
Portent de ses cheveux les dépouilles sanglantes."

For a Racine Greek tragedy it wasn't bad. The French was a tad difficult--mostly due to the flowery language--but luckily the edition I read from was translated into English on the right side, so I could figure out which flowery adjectives and adverbs I'd have to look up and which ones I could skip.


Thursday, February 13, 2014

Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai

This children's book caused quite a stir a few years ago when it came out and immediately started winning awards. It's a semi-autobiographical account of a young Vietnamese refugee and her family who find sponsorship to move to America in 1975.

Ten-year-old Hà is smart, happy, childishly selfish, and obsessed with fresh, juicy papaya from her young papaya tree when she finds herself thrust into unforgiving, White, Alabaman suburbia. Suddenly the intelligence she once took for granted is being mocked by her peers at school and she has to struggle with learning a seemingly nonsensical language. Hà has to find a way to adapt to her new environment, master some new skills, and grow courage to stand up to bullies.

This book is beautiful in theme, content, and style. It's written as free-form verse, and the pithy language and structure is really effective at making you believe you are reading writings from a ten-year-old's journal. I think the beauty and simplicity of the poems and the way they build on one another really make this an appealing story for adults as well as children.

And what better way to share with children that everyone has different roots? Family, culture, experience…You can't take for granted the fact that your childhood was the same childhood that others experienced, and you can learn a lot by inquiring more about others.


Wednesday, February 12, 2014

A Gallery of Children by A.A. Milne

This really isn't a children's book in my opinion. It's a book written from the perspective of children about children for adults. Obviously, as a Milne fan, I was excited to discover this book among my local library's collection of children's fiction!

Technically, the book isn't written from the perspective of children, but the short stories in this collection really just act as snapshots of children playing or interacting with each other or talking when adults can't see or doing their chores… Really, it's an outsider's account of these brief moments in time when children did something…or didn't do something.

I can't really imagine reading these stories to a child (it's like if you stalk wouldn't show them the transcript of their conversations--that's creepy!), but I do feel that they have a lot of value. They make a very clear statement: "This is the difference between how you as an adult perceive children and what they actually say and do (sometimes when you're not around)." There's not necessarily always a discrepancy, but there's definitely a difference between our ideal and the reality. And there's something so beautiful and true in portraying these moments not as part of a greater story, but as individual, disconnected moments of childhood--of innocence, of pure emotions, of discovery--that are so identifiably childish…and would normally be disregarded by adults.

I appreciated it. I still don't think it's a good collection of children's stories to share with children; I think it's best enjoyed and appreciated by adults.


Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight translated by Brian Stone

And all were at last brought low
By a lover's malignant spell;
So grant me forgiveness, though
To women's wiles I fell.

Story of my life.

I have never been a fan of Arthurian literature, and I'm not really sure why not. Studying the lais of Marie de France was one of my favorite parts of college. But for some reason I get stuck on Arthur's court…in a bad way.

But I took a chance on Sir Gawain. I figured, meh, this might be fun. Unfortunately, it was just really way too blunt for me. The contrasts between courtoisie and the lady's actions, and the machismo of men and the conniving temptation of women just weren't subtle enough.

If you haven't read Medieval literature before, this might be a good place to start (and then you should read Marie de France and never look back!). It's short, easy to understand, and has a really basic plot. A mysterious green giant (like the one on the frozen peas!) visits the court at Christmastime and challenges Sir Gawain to a whacking contest. He'll let Gawain whack him now with an axe and in a year the knight gets to go on a quest to find the green giant who will whack him back (and since he's a puny, courtly man, probably kill him. Crazy adventures ensue! Actually, the adventures are pretty standard. But I won't tell you what they are so that you can be mildly surprised!

Honestly what kept me smiling was the translator's footnotes. Stone has a bit of sass in him and a dash of snark; it's refreshing! And he'll tell you exactly why a boar's hairs bristling in winter is relevant. You never know when that kind of information might come in handy! Good intro and appendices, too. The big downside to the edition I read is that it was published in the 50s, so other scholars might have had more modern contributions to make to the interpretation of the story in the last 60 years.


Monday, February 10, 2014

Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos

This is a childishly, morbidly, sweetly, defiantly hilarious book. It's the half-fictitious memoir told from the perspective of 11-year-old Jack as he is grounded for the summer and has to do some (Pause.) unusual chores for his elderly neighbor.

Basically, in this small town (which creepily reminds me of where I now live) the adults wear many hats, and this old lady whom Jack helps happens to wear the hat of medical examiner. She also wears the hat of obituary author. And town historian. And stalking victim. Jack ends up helping her with all her hats in one way or another.

There's a whole lot packed into this tiny book: The importance of community. Communism vs. capitalism. The place of history in our future. Authority figures. The banality of death. Trade and materialism. Don't let someone "hey mister" you. Don't piss off a hell's angel...

Okay, so maybe those last two were a little specific.

I understand how this won the Newberry in 2011, but at the same time, I don't get it at all. I don't feel like this was written with much literary self-consciousness. All these themes are too jumbled. What the hell is a kid supposed to take away from reading this?
"As I shoveled I worked on my obituary. 'Jack Gantos,' I said a little breathlessly, 'was born at the Frick Hospital in Mount Pleasant, Pennsylvania, and raised in Norvelt, Pennsylvania, which is a town that is slowly vanishing, and like some Houdini trick it will soon be found in West Virginia. Jack was a good student but learned more from reading books than from staring out the window at school. His parents were total strangers who took him away at birth.'"
I am, however, intrigued and considering ordering the sequel. It made me laugh.


Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Summer Tree by Guy Gavriel Kay

I read A Song for Arbonne a few years ago and LOVED it, so I have spent the last few years casually looking for more Guy Gavriel Kay books in used bookstores. Finally, I have started his Fionavar Tapestry, and I couldn't be happier!

This book reminded me so much of Pamela Dean's Secret Country trilogy! It had that same slow but necessary introduction of all the characters (both at home in our world and in the fantasy world to which they are transported). Except instead of the main characters being a group of bored children, it's a group of bored postgrads.

The fantasy world in this book is much more Tolkeinesque than Dean's world, though. As our heroes fall through, the roles they assume prepare them and the country for battle with the "big bad." Hm… Okay, that actually does sound a bit like the Secret Country. I guess the difference is that this war is more inevitable and more eminent. And it involves a bit more dreary, unpleasant creatures and monsters.

One thing that made me smile though…flying chestnut unicorn… I mean, out of nowhere--wham!--FLYING CHESTNUT UNICORN! I'm excited for the unicorn to make a "reappearance" in the future! (P.S. It wasn't really "out of nowhere," but I just wasn't expecting that!)

I think the thing I love best about the book is that I experienced a lot of "WTF" moments. One, I will admit, was due to my own stupidity in not putting two and two together (I realized that A was B and that B was C, but I never connected A to C--eek!). There are several moments when you will genuinely be surprised…whether you caught that whole A = C thing or not (you really should catch it--it's pretty obvious).


Saturday, February 8, 2014

Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

If you have ever read Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin and liked it, you'll like Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan. Of McEwan's novels, I've only read this and Atonement (which was, of course, optioned and adapted into the only movie I've ever paid to see in theaters four times in one release!), but I'm getting the sense that McEwan is a bit of a one-trick pony. Or rather, that he likes to subvert the reader's expectations of what a novel's natural flow should be.

In fact, Serena, the main character in this book, actually mentions her dislike of authors who have you happily reading along until they suddenly insert themselves as authors and break down the barrier that would have let you pretend like the story was plausible.

Which is not to say that this one isn't plausible. In fact, I'm sure the events on which it is based did happen. This book is about a young recruit to MI5 (Serena) in the 70s and her assignment ("Sweet Tooth") to use shell organizations to give a pension to an anti-communist writer so he can write happy, pro-government novels. Does all go as planned? If I told you, I'd have to kill you. (But of course not!) Many stories within stories and literary references are included, so if you're a reader, you're bound to relate to either Serena or her mark at some point.

I have to say that the publisher-provided summary of this book was misleading to me, so I hope that by comparing it (or at least its style) to The Blind Assassin, you are better forewarned as to its content. I myself happen to love The Blind Assassin and like Atonement quite a bit, so I was surprised by what I found, but not unpleasantly so.

I actually did really think this was a great book (if a bit prosey) until I got to the end. Then, without giving you too many spoilers, it kind of fell flat for me. Worth having read, though.


Friday, February 7, 2014

High Life in Verdopolis by Charlotte Brontë

I found this in a used book store and was so excited--I hadn't ever thought about looking into procuring a printed copy of the Brontës' early shorter stories and novels! This novella is one story among many that the four siblings created using their own high society characters (essentially the ton, although the timing is a bit early for all that), who live in the Glass Town a.k.a. Verdopolis.

Do we ever learn anything about Verdopolis? Other than that there are buildings that shine and are quite glassy, nope, not really. But we sure do get to learn a lot about the community of aristos that inhabit the area. The story follows Lord Charles Wellesley (called Warner) as he engages in several social events with the goal of procuring a wife. A perfect wife. Along the way, he argues with or ignores his enemies, converses congenially with his friends, and discovers a light scandal or two. Neglected woman? Secret bastard child? Assassination attempt? His perspective as an observer connected to the main parties in these events is intriguing and has me thinking back to when I was a third party witness to others' dramas.

This is great evidence of the early practice that Charlotte had creating, using, molding, and directing different characters. When people talk about the Brontës' early collaborations--the literary worlds they created together--they make it sound like these are the immature stories of writers who would become great. Honestly, this was a pretty good story, regardless of the experience or refinement of the author. Several parts seemed two-dimensional, but with a lot left unsaid, I feel like that both reflected real life and lent credibility to the relationships and dialogues between the characters.

I was happy with this one. And I'll be darned if I'm not starting to go over to the dark side (liking Charlotte more than Emily). Nay, I'll never betray my favorite!!!


Thursday, February 6, 2014

Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger

I don't get it. Nope. Don't like this one. Don't get it at all.

I didn't expect to love it, but I expected to respect and understand it. Instead, all I could think the whole time I read this was "She's pregnant, pregnant, pregnant. Super preggers. Knocked up. Up the duff. Screwwwed. Got a bun in the oven. Prego eggo. Pregnant." Seriously, though. PREGNANT!

So since I really didn't understand the point of this story--of the lack of genuine communication contrasted with the too-genuine communication, I'm guessing--I Wikipedia'd it. That definitely didn't help. For one thing, Wikipedia told me that she wasn't supposed to be preggers. Hmph.

For another thing, why is it that depressingly deep people always have to belittle the simple, happy people? Poor Lane, pitted and underestimated. Franny and Zooey can go float a boat for all I care for their depressing ruminations and "enlightenment!"

You can get all academic and high-brow on this shit, but it still seems like something one of my high classmates would have written at two in the morning, while sitting naked in a kimono, slurping Ramen.


Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Tamsin by Peter S. Beagle

Yes, that Peter S. Beagle. The one who wrote the amazing, sometimes-chilling-sometimes-inspiring The Last Unicorn. Apparently he wrote other great books as well, and Tamsin is supposed to be one of them. I say "supposed to be" because I was disappointed to find that getting through this book was like wading through molasses--at least when compared to The Last Unicorn. 

The plot is wonderful--especially for a late 90s paranormal historical mystery novel. Jenny, an American teenager, was transplanted to Dorset in England and is now recounting the tale (a few years later) of her adjustment to a world filled with brownies and ghosts. She developed a special bond with resident ghost Tamsin, who had a love triangle going on back in the day, and feels that experience transformed her into the Jenny she is today--hence the book. I won't give away much more than that--honestly, that's two thirds of the book already.

And therein lies the problem. You have to trudge through so much to get to the meaty good stuff…The narrative is written as a reflection on the events rather than a play-by-play of the events themselves, so it feels like every action has a preface, description and commentary. I find it to be a little excessive.
"Jenny, have you known it ever, that zone between aware and asleep when dreams float through you--or you through them--as though you and they were of the same substance? Beyond control, beyond words to name them, yet there's an exchange, a penetration, for all one knows them to be baseless phantoms…And is what I see truly what is? or are these visions of what has been? what might be? I can never tell."
Tamsin is an intriguing creation, but Jenny is so annoying! Self-centered young adults don't want to read about self-centered teenagers actually being knowingly self-centered  We aren't far enough out of adolescence to enjoy that sort of thing yet. And honestly, who wants to read a whole book from the point of view of a whiney teen?

The last couple of chapters are amazing, but I expected nothing less.

Anyway, this was a classic worth having been read once (like The Lord of the Rings), but I doubt I'll ever read it again.


Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Artemis Fowl: The Atlantis Complex by Eoin Colfer

Have you ever wondered what ever happened with the Artemis Fowl series? Well, I did. I remembered after book three Colfer said he wasn't going to write any more Artemis Fowl books. Then there was book number four and book number five, etc.

Well, I did keep up with the releases for quite some time until about four or five years ago. So in checking back in to bring my collection up to date, imagine my not-so-great-surprise to find that there was yet another Artemis Fowl book.

The plot of this book (the seventh in the series?) centers around our high-brow friend developing a mental disorder--which is actually well-timed as he comes into his teenage years. If this were reality, that's probably about when he would start manifesting symptoms. Of course, you can't just give Artemis Fowl a real mental disorder; you have to magic him up something special. Apparently, through all of his misdeeds, the little villain has developed an Atlantis Complex, something quite similar to obsessive compulsive disorder.
"If the old Artemis could see the new Artemis, the old Artemis would die of embarrassment."
As much as I hate to giggle over hyperbole and the actions of someone with a serious mental disorder…Well, the reality is that this isn't a "serious" disorder--it's fictitious--so I guess I can feel okay admitting that it was pretty funny to see Artemis devolve into a paranoid, illogical mess. It was even funnier seeing him develop "multiple personalities."

The psych major in me is horrified.

The book is as good as any of the later Artemis Fowl books. Not a treasure, by any means, but a solid read. I do wish it didn't quite induce so much giggling; I feel like that's sending the wrong message about psychological disorders to children. The good news is that Artemis Fowl may be turning over a new leaf (pun intended--you'll get it if you read it) and saving the world (but really, what else is new?).


Monday, February 3, 2014

Star-crossed by Linda Collison

This is a great book; I remember reading it repeatedly when I was 10-ish years old, ri--OH WAIT! That was The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle. So what did I just read?

I have to be honest and say that this was way too close to the plot of Avi's awesome coming-of-age story for me to be able to appreciate Collison's version. I'm trying to think of anything positive to say, but all I keep thinking is: "It's a rip off!"

I guess the writing is okay, and technically it's geared towards a somewhat older crowd than the aforementioned children's novel. I certainly don't recall Charlotte Doyle marrying anyone or doctoring her peers' disgusting ailments. But aside from those two huge differences--advanced love interests and medical emergencies--this book is pretty much a copy cat.

So if you liked The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle and if you like Grey's Anatomy (joking), you'll certainly like Star-crossed. This one loses major points for lack of originality.


Sunday, February 2, 2014

Freedom's Children by Ellen Levine

This was a really great compilation of first-person accounts of the civil rights movement in the South in the early 60s. Levine interviewed dozens of people who were children and teens at the time, and she clearly took great pains to include stories about many different incidents from different points of view.

One of the most interesting parts (in my opinion) was the testimonies of five different people who experienced an activist pastor getting beaten up during the desegregation of schools. I think it's really powerful to hear about one incident from multiple people and to hear the same--or nearly the same--thing from all of them.

Obviously, the stories about Dr. King stand out, too, but I really liked that he was definitely not the main focus of the book. You can't help but really appreciate how much happened before Dr. King was able to make his great speeches, how many others refused to give way to White oppressors before Rosa Parks refused to move on the bus.

This would be a great book for children in middle school or high school to read to better understand the movement. I don't think you can help but be emotionally affected and empathize with those who were courageous enough to stand up for what they believed in at the time. They say you shouldn't praise someone for being courageous just for living life, but screw it!, surviving childhood at that time as a non-White person was courageous!


Saturday, February 1, 2014

Wonder by R.J. Palacio

Wonder is the story of a boy with a craniofacial abnormality and his family and friends…and sometimes enemies. The book covers August's first year in a traditional school in 5th grade. August is a well-written, awesome character--scared, yet brave when it counts; sweet, yet tough when it's needed; odd, yet completely normal. He's also an outcast, due to others' reactions to his "deformity."

The overarching themes of the book--be nice to everyone and don't judge a book by its cover--are pretty obvious. Palacio pretty much slaps you in the face with the idea that everyone should be nice to everyone else. I think it's a great message to send to kids, but perhaps a bit too sunshiny.

The reality is that not everyone is nice to everyone else, and you have to know how to respond to that. Her characters don't always take the high road when they're bullied, but they do try--I'll give them that! And they're 12, what do you expect?

A friend (not pictured) who is a teacher, recommended Wonder to me, saying that her students love this book. I'm glad to see that there are children out there who are learning not to fear difference!