Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Skeletons at the Feast

I know it seems baffling to be writing book reviews on Christmas Eve. But, the presents are wrapped, the house is relatively clean, the laundry is spinning, the boys are playing and I need to get these books out of my head so that I can relax. I do enjoy writing them, but when I get backlogged, I can feel a little overwhelmed by all the characters and plots in my head.

Skeletons at the Feast took me to a dark place - the Holocaust. If there weren't so many great books written about this black mark of the world's history, I would ban myself from reading any books on this topic in the future. I hate that such a horrific occurrence is repeatedly used as bait for novelists.

Bohjalian is a good author, though, and does a good job developing his characters, giving them interesting conflict, all the while threading bits of real history into his story that he obtained through diligent research. I'll give him credit for all of the above.

However, part of me felt like Bohjalian decided this was going to be his one and only time to write about the Holocaust so he was going to put it all in one book. The details he gives about the atrocities committed by the German soldiers, the Russian soldiers and the desperate and destroyed left in their wake is so graphic, so skin-crawling brutal that it borders on gratuitous. Including as much as he does has the opposite effect from the one I imagine the author intended and his book almost becomes a WWII caricature. I'm not saying the things he describes didn't happen. No, he seems to have read enough journals and letters to give each horror story credibility, but to include them all -- in the same book, witnessed by the same characters in the space of about a year -- it made these disturbing acts of cruelty seem made-up. I feel it was a disservice to take someone's real life nightmare and diminish it by setting it alongside so many other nightmares so that they all seem somehow....less. Because that is what happens. The first description was like a punch in the stomach, the next a slap on the face and all the rest...swats on an already numb backside.

As much as I wanted to, I didn't dislike this book. Bojahlian creates a complicated story about the fallout from ignorance, naivety, and privilegefound among the rural aristocrats of Poland and Germany near the end of the war. Not forced to witness the daily disappearance of Jews and other minorities, the Emmerilich family was living in relative peace and prosperity, along with their polite relationships with the POWs helping out on their beet farm, until the ugly consequnces of their fuhrer's decisions found their way to the family's country manor, Kamenheim. Anna, The Emmerlich's teenage daughter, falls in love with Callum, a scottish POW, and convinces her parents to allow him to remain with their family instead of sending him back to the prison camps. As Callum and the Emmerlichs flee the approaching Russian troops, the blinders of this family's eyes are removed and they finally see first hand the destruction throughout their land. Along their west-bound journey, they meet and become dependent upon Uri, a young, vigilante Jew posing as a German soldier in order to survive. There is an additional, competely separate story involving a french, Jewish girl named Cecile who is trying to keep herself and her friend, Jeanne, alive while prisoners in a concentration camp that does eventually intersect with Uri and the Emmerlichs but not soon enough to be satisfying

There are plenty of lessons to learn within the pages of this book, but I can't say that it is one I recommend. The author tries to write too many stories at once-- a romance, a look at Nazi sympathizers, stereotypes the Polish people had of Russians, allied prisoners of war, a coming of age story, the gore and sadism of war, Jewish resistance, Jewish survival and an unnecessary epilogue, to make this novel truly great.

The Painted Veil

Kitty is a beautiful young woman, raised by her shallow and socially aggressive mother to be equally shallow and ambitious. In spite of her beauty, Kitty finds herself unmarried at the age of 25 and losing her place as her mother's beloved when her much younger and less attractive sister, Doris, becomes engaged to a baron. Embarrassed by her sister's superior match, desperate to leave the disappointed glare of her mother and panicked that another decent offer won't come her way, she says "yes" to Walter Fane, a bacteriologist working in Hong Kong, whom she barely knows.

They marry and she accompanies him to Hong Kong where she finds herself bored, ambivalent and unmoved by her husband's love for her. Quickly, she falls in love and begins an affair with Charles Townsend, a handsome, suave politician who, like her, views life as a shallow thing to be lived as selfishly as possible. When Walter discovers their relationship, he coldly gives her an ultimatum: accompany him to inland China where there is a cholera outbreak or he will cause a scandal and divorce her (this was written in 1925 when an affair such as this would, indeed, be an actual scandal) unless Townsend will agree to divorce his own wife and marry her within the week.

Predictably, to all except Kitty, Townsend's true colors appear and he disappoints her. Disillusioned and actually afraid of her husband who she believes only wants to kill her, she travels inland and her deeper, more understanding, more aware life begins.

The title comes from the English poet, Shelly's, sonnet, "Lift Not The Painted Veil Which Those Who Live/Call Life." I love the multiple layers found throughout the book that stem from its title. There are several descriptions of reflections on water, camouflaging the death and disease of the village condemned by cholera with scenes of light and beauty. As Kitty is a front-row witness to death, she observes the veil that lifts when life leaves a body several times. Most poetically is her own veil, lifted to experience a life so different from the superficial one she had expected.

I hate that I wanted the Hollywood ending (apparently...there actually IS a Hollywood ending. The book was made into a movie and I hear it gave the story the satisfying ending I didn't even know I wanted until it didn't happen). Seriously, why do I feel disappointed? Maugham writes a fantastic portrayal of a shallow woman developing into something more. I suppose I wanted her progress to have an effect beyond her own awareness. I wanted it to fix her marriage, alter her relationship with her sister and parents, and finish the relationship with her adulterous lover for the right reasons. Eventually, Maugham allows those things to happen but not at a pace which allows Kitty to avoid loss, pain and humility. Once again...why do I feel disappointed? Those consequences are truths and I appreciate and respect truth. Maugham unflinchingly writes Kitty's growth as a woman as it would have realistically happened.

But, it's a gritty reality.

A Christmas Dress for Ellen

I needed a nice story to read at our Relief Society Christmas party and my sister in Canada immediately suggested this one. Having never heard of it before, I read its summary on Amazon.com and, from the convenience of my computer, ordered it.

It did not disappoint. Originally told by President Thomas S. Monson during the 1997 First Presidency Christmas Devotional, A Christmas Dress for Ellen retells of the Jeppson family's frozen and desperate 1927 Christmas. Living in Hillspring, Alberta Canada, the family had suffered two straight years of failed crops and was living in poverty. Without the means to provide any kind of Christmas for her five children, Mary Jeppson wrote to her sisters in Idaho and modestly asked for help. The subsequent response to her humble request is filled with love, service and sacrifice - the very gifts our Savior offers us.

I'll enjoy this addition to our Christmas library for a long time.

Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10

I'm not sure I can separate this book review from my politics. Although, after reading some of the other reviews of this book, I'm not sure anyone reviewing this book has yet, so I'll just add my own bias to the pile.

Marcus Luttrell, a Navy SEAL, writes a first person narrative of his four member covert SEAL team's failed Operation Redwing mission: to take out a high ranking leader of al Qaeda, protected by members of the Taliban, in the remote and forsaken mountains of Afghanistan. The mission, attempted during June of 2005 and risky to begin with if everything went perfectly, turned into a bloody retreat as their location was apparently leaked to the Taliban by some unarmed goat herders Luttrell and his team mistakenly, or rightfully...depending on your ideology, set free after the goat herders stumbled onto their hidden location.

Luttrell and his SEAL teammates faced 4 against 100+ odds against a heavily armed, better positioned Taliban army and the results are disastrous for the SEALs. Within 24 hours, Luttrell turns out to be the sole survivor and his injuries and position give him little chance for rescue. Days later, dying of thirst, his legs destroyed from a grenade explosion and from seven miles of crawling, he is found and protected by an independent and stalwart Pashtun tribe who refuse to hand over Luttrell into the hands of the Taliban. With their protection, Luttrell is eventually able to send out an emergency beacon picked up by the US military and is later rescued by an elite team of Army Rangers.

Brave and physically fit as Luttrell is, elite as the Navy SEALs are, courageous and patriotic and confident as his team was...Luttrell does not give this story, or his team, the justice they deserves because he fills his book with so much personal bias, so much political and military rhetoric, and much too much tangent-flowing-pat-on-the-back-extraneous-information that this story of survival and valor is weakened to the point of failure. He failed to share his story in a neutral, matter-of fact way that could appeal to the masses, instead choosing to propagandize it to those who already agree with his personal political philosophies. The entire book reads like a Toby Keith song.

Recently, I was watching What Not To Wear on The Learning Channel and after a woman's boss told the video camera that she didn't feel like she could send her employee to certain meetings because of how she dressed, Stacy and Clinton told their victim that her clothing should never have a negative impact on the workplace. Neutral or positive....yes...but if her choice of clothing was hurting her opportunities for progress and promotion, she needed to change how she dressed for work.

Both for its perspective and understanding about the sacrifice and heroism those asked to defend our country display - this is an important story to tell. Unfortunately, I feel like Luttrell's choice of voice is like this woman's personal choice in clothes: it may be exactly what he thinks but how he tells it is not very helpful and perhaps even harmful. The writing was poor to distraction. According to the cover, there was a co-author involved but the writing felt so juvenile - it read like a high school, or worse, junior high school essay. First hand accounts of history are, of course, invaluable, but a grown-up story should be given the benefit of grown-up writing.

Beyond that, I lost track of how many times Luttrell veered off track his story of survival. Whether it was the detailed account of exactly how extremely physically fit Navy SEALs are through rigorous training is (his Bud/SEAL training fills the first 2/3 of the book), how liberal, unfair and anti-military the mainstream media is, personal stories of his family members and childhood, or the unnecessary repetition of military procedures and his personal racism, (I found his stereotypes of the Arab people disconcerting, particularly after Afghan men risked their lives, and the lives of their entire tribe, to protect and help him) this book ended up having too many objectives than the one the title claimed: the story of Operation Redwing and the fate of the SEALs who gave their lives to the cause.

Not ever having served in the military, nor knowing many people who have, I can only imagine the indoctrination that must occur to train and prepare soldiers for battle. Luttrell clearly believes certain things to be so but that does not necessarily make them so. The laws protecting human rights given in the Geneva Convention, the criminalization of torture, humiliation and harassment of an enemy, rules of engagement - all, according to Luttrell, written by a bunch of liberals in suits - might seem misplaced and unnecessary in Luttrell's mind, who has a Machiavellian belief that in the military realm, the desired end should justify any means. However, history has shown that without checks of power, mankind is notorious for disregarding human life. I'm not saying those rules and regulations make his job easy or fair, because, just as he complains, too many of our enemies do not abide by these same rules. He contends that unless the members of the military are given free-rein to do "whatever needs to be done to win" we will lose not only this war, but any war.

Maybe he's right. I don't know. Maybe he should have killed those goat herders who he believed betrayed their location. Maybe the coalition guards in Abu Ghraib had every right to humiliate and treat their prisoners like animals and slaves for the sake of their own morale. Maybe the only real way to be patriotic is to believe your country is stronger and tougher than any other. But I hope not.

I hope there is room for a little humanity in the world. I hope, like that Pashtun tribe in Afghanistan, there is room to do the right thing regardless of the guns pointed at you. I hope there are people everywhere who do the right thing because it is right and not because there is a law against doing something else that is wrong. I did not get the sense from Luttrell that in his world of war games and war, he believes many human beings are capable of doing the right thing. Except, of course, Americans and only if those Americans happen to be from Texas, think Bush is the greatest commander-in-chief ever or members or relatives of members in the military. Otherwise, those actions are a surprise and perhaps even an anomaly.

Luttrell may be brave, tough and patriotic. He may be highly trained, confident and a finely tuned warrior.

But....I hope, for my own sons' future, that he is wrong.

Recovering Charles

If ever a book was to get a "meh" rating, this would be it. Not bad but not necessarily good, Recovering Charles tells the story of a son who finds a way to forgive his alcoholic father by searching for him throughout the wake of Hurricane Katrina's devastation. Like most "meh" books, it has some highs and lows.

The highs would be the description of New Orleans. For the first time, I felt a deep sense of horror and urgency about saving that great city. Blame it on the over-saturation we get from the media, the almost non-stop global disasters whose images stream through our T.V.s and computers through-out the years, but I admit that I was not personally affected with New Orleans flooding. Reading this book didn't give me a complete turn around, but I do think it allowed me to feel how much was lost for the individual citizens there - albeit the people I was mourning for were completely fictional.

The lows included an unnecessary love story, a completely unnecessary love triangle, and a weak protagonist.

If you're interested in a story involving New Orleans and its recovery, you might enjoy this book. For anyone else...all I can say is...."meh."

The Peacegiver

I've been wanting to read this book for years. Literally. I'm not quite sure why it has taken me as long as it has, other than the fact that it's a church book and being the literature heathen that I am, righteous books sometimes stay at the bottom of my often tall stack.

However, now that I've read it I can say that I am glad that I did because it changed how I think. I consider myself on the stubborn end of persuadable so that is saying something.

The Peacegiver uses a story format with conversation, philosophy, parables and Dickens-esque-out-of-body-experiences to shed light on Christ's atonement. The main character is Rick, a 30-something year-old man who thinks his marriage to Carol is beyond repair but the lessons he leanrs about forgiveness can be applied to any struggling relationship. Using two Old Testament examples, Abigail and David (which, embarrassingly enough, was a story that was previously unknown to me) and Jonah's mission to Ninevah, Rick's grandfather guides him like a Greek philosopher to new understandings about sin, blame, forgiveness and peace.

I hesitate to give you the conclusion. I guess I'm being as annoying as Rick's grandfather (and, believe me, he is plenty annoying...even as a kind of guiding angel) who wanted Rick to figure out for himself what the the scriptures were teaching instead of handing over the big "ah-ha!" but those conclusions are powerful. Without question, it has brought additional peace and harmony to my home, my marriage and my relationships with others in the three weeks since I've read this book. That's exciting.

I can't promise ease and enjoyment if you read The Peacegiver. The author uses descriptive similes like a germaphobe uses hand sanitizer (catch that?) and it's very, very slow. Rick's lightbulb takes much longer to turn on than any human I know so it can be frustrating to stay at his pace. However, because the book's reward, an easy and applicable understanding of the most important principle given to us from God, is made possible without first attaining a degree in Old Testament studies OR philosophy...it's worth your time and patience to read this book.

84 Charing Cross Road

I was guided to this book by several people after I raved about my love for The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Now that I've read it, I can see how the two books are similar, although I did prefer the satisfying fiction in Guernsey.

84 Charing Cross Road is a sweet, short book containing the correspondence between Helene Hanff, a gregarious and irreverent writer living in New York, and the much more formal workers of the antique bookstore, Marks & Co. in Great Britain. The letters begin following World War II and Helene's warmth and generosity (she sends them things that are difficult to get over there with rations. Eggs. Nylons. Canned tongue Blech!) brings down their professional front until a clear friendship develops.

Obviously, each correspondence isn't included as the book progresses 20 years and there is sometimes nearly a year between letters. Still, I found Helene's humor and charm to be every bit as disarming as Frank Doel and the others at Marks & Co did. To be centered around their common love of books makes it only more lovable.

As it is non-fiction, the story ends realistically and not nearly as satisfying as a feel-good novel. Still, I love that Helene published these hard copies of proof about the power of correspondence and friendship.

Pillars of the Earth

I hated this book. Let's just get that out of the way so there is no confusion later on.

Ken Follett describes a gloomy, dismal, nearly barbaric society whose citizens' greatest concerns seem to be their egos and their lust for power and control. He uses the building of the great European cathedrals as the impetus for his story; the magnificent structures were made possible through trickery, lies, greed, criminal acts and selfish ambition. Forget about the Glory of God...that's just history's cover story. But Follett's cathedral in Pillars of the Earth serves as much purpose as the hospital in the soap opera General Hospital. He focused much more on the personal drama, romance, and rivalry of his weak characters. This was historical fiction a la Daytime television.

The story didn't even feel historical. Follett tried. He mentioned eating with a knife almost as frequently as the tunics his characters wore (Setting it apart from modern day. We no longer wear tunics, you know). But everything felt too modern - their speech, their attitudes, even their relationships. I read the mammoth 1,000 page story quickly but I can just as easily get sucked into Guiding Light. The plots are interesting enough...just mind-numbing and unlikely. For example, the Alfred-Aliena-Jack love triangle had my interest but then the high drama of Aliena's secret pregnancy followed by her truly unbelievable delivery (during the same time the ceiling of the cathedral fell....underneath the stone rubble....really?) along side Jack's odyssey was just too much. And could someone please just get kill William Hamleigh before he rapes someone else? (They don't. The reader is required to experience one too many grotesque acts by an inhumane man who supposedly fears hell. Once was MORE than enough, Ken. We get it. He's baaaaaad).

Even if there is some historical truth to the background story - the difficulty in building a cathedral (oh yeah..remember that?), it is overshadowed by all the non-historical melodrama. I don't think Follett did that period of history any favors by making it all seem so salacious.

Here Be Dragons does a much better job of storytelling the tumultuous middle ages. Read it if you want to experience the pettiness of power. I'd even recommend Philippa Gregory's novels over this. It was about 900 pages too long.

The Mother In Me

Written by a group of smart, articulate and thoughtful women who write for Segullah Magazine and Blog Segullah, The Mother In Me compiles essays and poems whose topics cover pregnancy, miscarriage, infertility, adoption, birth, the loss of a stillborn (I wept), parenting special needs children, and several on the challenges of being a mother to small children.

I think this book is best read in small doses - first, because each essay has its own feeling and message to experience and second, because after reading multiple essays at a time, the book starts to feel redundant. Smart woman....smart woman sacrifices (time, energy, body, mind)....smart woman resents challenge...smart woman feels grateful for challenge...smart woman better because of challenge.

As someone who considers herself a smart woman (I hope we all do), I can certainly identify with the whole cycle. Motherhood is hard. Motherhood is sacrifice. And yet, motherhood is the absolute best teacher I could have ever hoped for in life. Every essay chronicles the development of a God-like trait: patience, hope, faith, forgiveness, compassion, and pure, pure love. After reading, I'd want to hug my children, read them a story, take them somewhere to teach them something, play hide and seek, cook together. It made every experience that every mother knows is difficult and frustrating to be looked upon as a cherished opportunity. I really enjoyed it.

It's only flaw, in my opinion, was that sometimes the essays felt overly essay-ish. It's not like I prefer authors to dumb their writing down, particularly in this book because their writing isn't difficult to read or hard to understand. But sometimes...only sometimes...I felt the superfluous descriptions of leaves, food, weather, etc, etc were added because the authors were English majors going for the "A" instead of mothers writing for mothers. That's all.

This would be a GREAT book for any young mother, any mother who ever was a young mother, any woman who one day hopes to be a young mother. In other words, this would be a great book to read for any woman. I'm sure some men would even like it too.

Highly recommended.

James and the Giant Peach

I shouldn't be allowed to read classic children's literature. My brain simply doesn't appreciate its intended purpose - creativity, imagination, fantasy. Instead, I wonder, "What's the point here?" Sometimes, there is a point, but I think with Ronald Dahl, the focus is placed on the magic and if there happens to be a story in there somewhere in it..so be it.

I borrowed it from the library because it was on the most-commonly-banned-books-in-America shelf and I wondered how the author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory could upset so many modest American readers?

I still don't know. Unless there is some upsetting symbolism that went way over my head and would be sure to go over the head of its intended audience, I don't understand how this book could offend anyone but mean, crusty old aunts who don't love and take care of their orphaned nephews.

That being said, I wish I loved this non-controversial story, but I didn't. I thought it was overly strange. Strange in a did-you-write-this-while-tripped-out-on-LCD? kind of way. Giant talking bugs. Living in a peach. Flying over the Atlantic Ocean with the help of string tied onto 501 seagulls via the giant silkworm and spider. Landing on the needle of the Empire State Building in New York. A ladybug marrying a police man (What the?). O.K then.

James was surrounded by mean, nasty aunts and now he's happy and living in a giant peach in New York City's Central Park. Wildly imaginative but famous through the ages?

To make sure it deserved its fame, I had my eight year old son read it (even though the word a** is in it twice. Why did Dahl do that?) and he liked it. He didn't love it. Not because it was strange but because like most things he reads, the characters are magical and the plot bizarre. For him, it seemed almost standard fare. When he finished, he handed it back to me and I asked, "Did you like it?" "Yeah." That's it. No buzz. No acting out parts of the story and certainly no regurgitating details from it like he does with some of his other books.

I guess we're just a bunch of fuddy-duddies around here because I found nothing extraordinary about James and the Giant Peach except it's eccentricity.

The Art of Racing in the Rain

I'm shocked...shocked, by how much I loved this book.

The narrator is a dog.

There is much mentioning of racing - Formula One, NASCAR, Indy....

and the narrator is a dog. But I think I mentioned that already.

I liked this book so much that it made me want a dog. No, it made me want this dog. And I don't even like dogs.

Enzo, a terrier/lab mutt, believes in his next life he will be human. As he feels practically human already, just limited to grand gestures due to his loose-muscled tongue and lack of opposable thumbs, he spends his dog years closely watching his ownder, Denny Swift, to learn the art of being human so that when it's his turn, he'll have a head start.

Denny, a race car driver/mechanic/down on his luck dad is a kind owner who loves his dog and uses racing philosophies in his own life. There are many to choose from, but my favorite is, "No race has ever been won in the first corner; many have been lost there." Denny's own story is one of work, patience, courage, endurance, hope, and love. It's not an easy story to read. There are times I felt like throwing the book I was so mad at Denny's in-laws, but (kind of embarrassing to admit here), Enzo kept me sane. I just loved that dog. Just when I'd about had it, he'd make me laugh and I could manage another chapter.

Enzo dies in the end. It's not a secret. From the opening pages, you are reading the words of a dying dog. But that didn't take away my sadness in the end. I bawled when Denny held his beloved friend in his arms and says, "It's okay. You can go." Think Where The Red Fern Grows and Old Yeller only for adults. There is some mentioning of "mounting" (it's a dog's perspective, remember) and language.

Several times throughout the book, Denny or Enzo say, "Your car goes where your eyes go." Enzo knew that applied to life as well. Your life goes where your eyes go. I'm happy my eyes rested on this book.

So Brave, Young and Handsome

I love Leif Enger's writing. It's almost like he has some sort of program akin to Photoshop for writing - and manages to edit words so that they're softer...more pleasant than the picture he's describing. This whole book has a romantic, old-west feel that immediately snagged me. Even though I had already started another book, the opening chapters of So Brave, Young and Handsome swept me up and into its narrative.

It begins with a former postal worker, Monte Becket, painstakingly trying to write 1,000 words a day to produce the follow-up to his first surprisingly successful debut novel. His son and his wife patiently wait for him to finish but Monte knows, deep down, that he doesn't have what it takes to write a second book. With a need to distract himself from his failure, he befriends his mysterious neighbor, Glendon Hale, and accepts an invitation to travel to Mexico with Hale as his old neighbor rseeks forgiveness from the wife he left behind years before.

Hale turns out to be a wanted man using an alias, and much like Peace Like A River, the story - while beautiful and not in a hurry to get anywhere - turns into a bit of a hunt as Hale evades capture time and again from an old nemesis.

In the end, the book has a little bit of everything. Romance, adventure, crime, art, philosophy and a not too shabby tale of friendship. I can't say I enjoyed it as much as Peace Like a River, but it's a pleasant read.

Loving Frank

This book was brought to my attention several months ago but I didn't seriously consider reading it because I thought it was essentially a biography of Frank Lloyd Wright, the famous architect. I have a serious handicap when it comes to reading non-fiction and if I'm going to read a biography of someone, I wanted to read about someone whose life's details I had some...nay....any interest in knowing. An architect, even a really, really famous one, didn't meet that criteria.

When it was selected as a book group selection, I waved my white flag and read it anyway. Say what you will about book groups, one thing I appreciate about the forum is that they tend to throw books in my path that I wouldn't otherwise read. When I end up actually enjoying the mandated book, I appreciate the selection even more.

Loving Frank is part factual biography, part fictional novel featuring the life of Mamah Borthwick Cheney's as she fell in love with Frank Lloyd Wright. Mamah, a feminist, intellectual and suffragist, was married to safe, loyal but rather boring Edwin Cheney. The married couple were financially secure enough to keep a nanny, a housekeeper and eventually hire an up and coming architect to build one of his conceptually new "Prairie Houses". Financial and marital security did not bring contentment to Mamah, however, and when Wright intimately connects with her on an intellectual and emotional level during the building of her and her husband's home, a physical affair between the two quickly follows.

What makes this story compelling and great discussion fodder isn't Frank and Mamah's relationship or their affair, it's the constant negotiating and justification the author forces Mamah to debate with herself and with the world about the honesty and integrity of romantic and self love. For Mamah, a person's own happiness super ceded that of any one else's, including one's children, although she admitted several times how incongruous that belief felt at times. When she found literature written by radical thinker, Ellen Key, her belief that she should be with Frank at the expense of everything else, because she loved him, deepened. I am left wondering when, if ever, a selfish act is the BEST act. As much as the pair wished it to be so, they did not exist in a bubble and their relationship had real and lasting consequences to the families they abandoned.

If the moral debate is the actual gift of the book (and for me, it was), then the fancy wrapping and giant bow is the holy-cow-wow! drama and historically significant events that made up the life of Frank Lloyd Wright. This should be a very interesting discussion.

Ella Minnow Pea

It wasn't until I told someone, out loud, what I was reading that I realized the title, Ella Minnow Pea, really sounded like the "LMNOP" of the alphabet song. Now, of course, I have no idea how I missed it. Ella Minnow Pea. LMNOP. Obvious. So obvious I wonder what else I missed. Such a clever title. Such a clever book.

Ella Minnow Pea resides on the fictional island of Nallop, off the South Carolina shore, where all the residents are brought up in reverence of syntax and language. The founder and most celebrated resident, Nevin Nollop, was the author of the well known keyboard practice sentence, "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog." When the letter tiles creating this celebrated sentence beneath his statue begin to fall off, the self-righteous and clearly brainless members of the governing council take it as a sign that Nollop, himself, wants the usage of these letters to terminate. As a result, they ban all future use of the fallen letters. First "z" gets the ax, followed by "q" and "k". The residents of the island face severe and, frankly, far fetched punishment if the banned letters are used in writing, speech or music.

As the book is written through letters between friends and family members within the community, the reader witnesses first hand the difficulties in communicating without all of our precious 26 letters. Yes, we need our "z" and our "k"s, uncommon as they may seem. Life without the letter "d" is no life at all. End scene.

In spite of all of the author's cleverness, which is bountiful, I found this novel lacking. The author, Mark Dunn, brilliantly uses the English language in its most advanced form. While I'm sure I'm exaggerating, (but since this entire book is a satire, I feel it's appropriate here) I think at least 10% of the words throughout the book were words I had never seen nor heard before. Dunn either has an intimate knowledge of English vocabulary or an extremely thick thesaurus at his disposal. For language lovers, I've no doubt this book would be a delight.

For story, character, plot and reality lovers, however, the story isn't quite as accomplished. The author's not very subtle dig at organized religion as a vehicle for the blindly obedient to carry out the wishes of non-existent tyrannical beings got on my nerves. Likewise, the characters were so poorly developed that I was never quite sure who the letters were being written by or to whom they were being sent. As their relationships with each other was never the point of the book, however, I let it slide.

Ultimately, this is a show-off book about language but not one that really entertains or matters, because the story isn't funny, romantic, endearing, sad or slightly plausible. Just very, very clever.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

The Woman In White

Regarded as the first mystery novel, The Woman In White tells the story of Laura Fairlie, a young, beautiful heiress engaged to marry an older baron, Sir Percival Glyde. Before the marriage, a drawing master, William Hartwright, comes to Limmeridge House to give Laura and her half-sister, Marian Halcombe, art lessons. On his way to their country home, he crosses path during the night with a mysterious and troubled woman wearing all white.

Her appearance begins to unravel the secret of Sir Glyde, whom Laura Fairlie eventually marries. The marriage is doomed not only due to Glyde's obsession with keeping his secret in tact, but also because Mr. Hartwright and Laura Fairlie fell in love.

Throw in a truly terrific villian, Count Fosco, maids, cooks, doctors and lawyers all giving their own versions of the truth and what's left is an authentic mystery loaded with plot twists and turns developed through many interesting characters.

The author, Wilkie Collins, was a contemporary of Charles Dickens, although I have to admit that this was the only book of his I'd ever heard of. He's a talented author and uses several different voices quite convincingly to tell this story.

I appreciated the book more from a historical standpoint than its storytelling. While I found the first two-thirds of the book to be intriguing the climax of the story unfortunately happened with several hundred pages still left for the much less fun wrap up. Oh, several things still needed to be figured out for us readers to be completely satisfied, but, in spite of Collins putting Mr. Hartwright in danger a few times, the book became a little too comfortable and predictable. I knew the smooth ending was coming, but it took a long time to get there!

I'm glad I read it, though. It's very readable for being written in the mid 1800s, more so than Dickens, I would say, and an all-together entertaining story.


So - the big news is I've found myself a bookgroup! I rank finding a bookgroup I enjoy right up there with finding an OB/GYN, hair stylist, pediatrician, dentist, and babysitter after a move. I'm simply not settled until I have a group with whom I can meet and discuss things.

I was told the group planned on discussing Away by Amy Bloom, so I hoped beyond hope that I could find it at the library instead of buying the unproven book. I did and I'm lucky I did.

This is NOT a book I enjoyed. Apparently, Amy Bloom is a successful short story author and Away is her first attempt at a novel. Unfortunately for us readers, Away, while a novel's size in length, does not contain a novel's size plot. It has lots of side stories and a sort of light at the end of the tunnel to get you to keep reading, but a journey is not a plot and I found myself weary of the main character, Lillian Leyb, and her journey to find her possibly alive daughter, Sophie.

More than that, I found Lillian's character, the one and only consistant character from beginning to end, to be underdeveloped. I knew the kinds of shoes she wore, but I was given very little information about her personality. Did she enjoy being a mother? Did she love her husband? Does she want to be an American? The author writes her as extremely motivated without detailing her motivation. It's frustrating.

Her story begins as she looks for work and opportunity as a newly landed immigrant in New York City during the 1920s. Destitute and alone after the murder of her family in Russia, there is a coldness and lack of feelings to her actions. She seems to believe and act upon the philosophy that a desired end justifies any means.

Again, the story flounders because Bloom never really tells us what end Lillian wants. For the first 100 pages, she seems to merely want security but not necessarily happiness. When she receives news of her daughter who is possibly alive and possibly living in Siberia, the story suddenly changes and her sole desire is her daughter. The story's dramatic change from an immigrant's survival guide to a not-without-my-daughter drama doesn't work. The stories aren't really necessary tied together and the novel unravels into a series of short stories - none of which are particularly enjoyable as they each describe Lillian among the morally bankrupt as she impossibly attempts to find her daughter.

The delays and harships along the way (and along the way I mean from New York to Siberia via Alaska) have an almost circus-like horror to them. Any one of the situations Bloom puts Lillian in, starting with the massacre she witnesses while still in Russia) would be enough to defeat the strongest of women - if not kill them. Add to the implausibility of Lillian's survival the lack of background development to even care that mother and daughter are reunited and Away becomes a very fragmented and unfulfilling story.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

Guernsey is a small Island in the English Channel that was controlled for five years by German forces during World War II. After the war, a young female British author, Juliet Ashton, finds herself unwillingly on a book tour to promote her book, Izzy Bickerstaff Goes To War. She's tired of the war, tired of writing under a pseudonym and tired of trying to be funny and lighthearted about such a horrible topic. Unfortunately, her mind draws a blank when it comes to knowing what else to write about. All of this information is delightfully given through amusing letters to her editor, Sidney.

While on tour, she receives a letter written by Dawsey Adams, a native of Guernsey, who has stumbled across her name written in a book by Charles Lamb. Seeking more information on this author, Juliet and Dawsey begin a correspondence that soon involves a dozen or so members of what is known as the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

The letters include informations about the conditions during the War, zany character sketches that Island life seems to be best at producing and an emerging story that Juliet eventually realizes is her next book topic. To gather more information for her book, she decides to travel to Guernsey to meet these people she has come to know through letters face-to-face.

I have to include one fabulous quote. It will put a smile on the face of any blogger that has risked a meeting with a fellow blogger for the first time:

As the mail boat lurched into the harbor, I saw St. Peter Port rising up from the sea on terraces, with a church on the top like a cake decoration, and I realized that my heart was galloping. As much as I tried to persuade myself it was the thrill of the scenery, I knew better. All those people I've come to know and even love a little, waiting to see -- me. And I, without any paper to hide behind. Sidney, in these past two or three years, I have become better at writing than living -- and think what you do to my writing. On the page, I'm perfectly charming, but that's just a trick I learned. It has nothing to do with me. At least, that's what I was thinking as the mail boat came toward the pier. I had a cowardly impulse to throw my red cape overboard and pretend I was someone else.

In spite of it's long and confusing title, this is a book I happily recommend to everyone. It's chaming, uplifting, well written, funny, clean, historical, romantic and, best of all...a very easy read. I've read a few disparaging reviews that attack the book for being World War II fluff or not an accurate representation of what a female author in 1946 would sound like in letters. To them I say...fiddlesticks. If you want the nitty gritty of World War II or a proper British tone, have at a long list of other books already available.

If, however, you want to jump into small-town life on Guernsey, remember the thrill of letter writing, and enjoy a collaborative "na-na-na-na-na-na!" at resident busy-body Adelaide Addison - read this book! I have a happy hunch you won't be disappointed.

A Town Like Alice

A Town Like Alice reminds me so much of my favorite book, Mrs. Mike. Both catalog the difficulties and triumphs of living in remote areas. Both are historical. Both have a strong and engaging female protagonist who are in love with a man responsibly tied to a piece of land. Neither are fluffy Harlequins but make that pit in the bottom of your stomach churn with romance.

In short, I loved it. A Town Like Alice follows Jean Paget, a Scottish woman who was raised by her parents in Malay (now known as Malaysia), returns to work there as an adult and ultimately finds herself trapped there as a Prisoner of War when the Japanese invade the Island during World War II.

Her captivity is accurately described as horrible, with starvation and long marches from town to town killing many women and children. But, it also shows that unique ability of women to nurture, even in the most degrading situations. When she meets Joe Harman, an Australian ringger (cowboy) and fellow POW, he tells Jean about his home and work near Alice Springs, a bonza town in the heart of the Outback. The two extremely lonely and isolated characters become friends. Eventually, when Joe steals five chickens to feed the sick and hungry women and children, Jean is interrogated and punished until Joe confesses and is later crucified by a cruel Japanese leader.

The story's narration is directed by an elderly British attorney, Noel Strachan, who is put in charge of a trust Jean's uncle leaves her. Even with the narration in his control, most of the story is told through Jean sharing her memories to Noel. Eventually, I found Noel's involvement and third party perspective very satisfying, mostly because it allowed the author to cover a greater amount of time without seeming overly jumpy.

The book was written in 1950 and feels like it at times. The attitudes of segregation and thoughtless charactitures of minorities creates feelings of discomfort at times. It's not done with malice, and the story isn't about racial barriers at all, so I didn't find it offensive. If anything, it allows an unapologetic view that probably most white people had at the time - which is actually an interesting glimpse on its own.

I appreciated this book - for its less frequently told story of female prisoners of war and for its celebration of the human spirit.

Flowers For Algernon

This book will get me up to date and hopefully I'll lose that feeling of being behind and unorganized. Maybe. At least in this area of my life.

This was another book I saw on the most commonly banned book shelf at my library. I may have read it before, because I sort of knew the story already. Although if I did, it was when I was much too young to understand the depths of this novel.

I loved it. I really loved it. I even cried at the end, which is so, so rare these days (unless I read Nicholas Sparks who always seems to get me at the end. Blast him.).

Charlie Gordon is a thirty-two mentally retarded man with an IQ of 70. He works as a janitor and errand boy in a bakery and considers his life good and happy because he has lots and lots of friends. He is aware, however, of not being very smart. He thinks if he can learn to read and write properly, he'll be smart and able to understand and participate in what everyone else is talking about.

When an opportunity to undergo an experimental surgery as part of a neuro-psychological study to artificially increase intelligence arises, he happily signs on. He can't wait to become smart.

Algernon is the name of a mouse who has reached unprecedented levels of intelligence following the same surgical procedure. Charlie, the first human subject, mirrors Algernon's success and reaches levels of intelligence far beyond what the doctors behind the study are capable of understanding. Alongside his increased intelligence are emerging emotional capabilities, such as romantic feelings towards women, and troubling memories he was previously unable to remember or understand with his lower IQ, about his childhood and friends.

The entire story is important and poignant. The author, Daniel Keyes, includes part of Plato's, The Republic, to begin the story. Plato writes:

Any one who has common sense will remember that the bewilderment of the eyes are of two kinds, and arise from two causes, either from coming out of the light or from going into the light, which is true of the mind's eye, quite as much as of the bodily eye; and he who remembers this when he sees any one whose vision is perplexed and weak, will not be too ready to laugh; he will first ask whether that soul of man has come out of the brighter life, and is unable to see because unaccustomed to the dark, or having turned from darkness to the day is dazzled by excess of light. And he will count the one happy in his condition and state of being, and he will pity the other; or, if he have a mind to laugh at the soul which comes from below into the light, there will be more reason in this than in the laugh which greets him who returns from above out of the light into the den.

I don't know if he read Plato's words and then wrote this story, or if he serendipitously found it afterward, but it is the perfect prologue. As Charlie adjusts his sight from living in the den of his limited mind to the brighter light of understanding, the growing pains the rest of us have had years to adjust and become accustomed to, are uncomfortable and awkward.

Likewise, at the peak of Charlie's intelligence, when he viewed the world around him in the brightest light possible, Charlie understands the flaws of the experiment that those who developed it were unable to see. With that understanding, the tragedy of watching him lose his grip on so much knowledge feels overwhelming.

As far as being commonly banned, I have no idea, at all, how this could be. The only thing even mildly questionable, to me, is Charlie's struggle to come to terms with the negative sexual conditioning he received from his mother as a boy. As he begins to express the feelings he has for women in general, and specifically towards Alice, a woman he loves, he struggles to understand, beyond theoretically, the complexities of the male-female relationship. While these situations are included, I actually think it's a critical part of the discussion of light and dark. Perhaps not for middle schoolers, but definitely for those of us who live with our own conditioning and judgment.

I highly recommend reading this. Even if you know you've read it long ago for school, read it again as an adult. And then test your own eyes.

Slaughterhouse Five

I've never read Kurt Vonnegut, but have been told by enough readers that he's one of their favorite authors to pick up one of his books. When I passed by a shelf at my library that was full of the most commonly banned books in America, and found Slaughterhouse Five, with its distinctive "V" embellishing the front cover in plain view, I thought to my rebel self, "Perfect."

On any given day, I'm going to be an opponent of book banning. If any one person has a problem with a book, I fully embrace that person's agency to not read, never read, and with as much influence as they believe they have, persuade others to do the same.

ban1 [ban]
- verb - banned, ban·ning,
1.to prohibit, forbid, or bar; interdict: to ban nuclear weapons; The dictator banned all newspapers and books that criticized his regime.
a.to pronounce an ecclesiastical curse upon.
b.to curse; execrate.

Waaaaay too extreme an action for this book, and, really, for any book. Notice the sentence in italics used above. Notice it contained the word "dictator".

Banned or not, I found Vonnegut's part memoir/part novel about free will and war in general, but the bombing campaign against Dresden, Germany during World War II in particular, to be extremely provocative.

The plot is not your straightforward, everyday war novel plot. Rather, Vonnegut puts his character, Billy Pilgrim, an unambitious and fearful optometrist from New York, in the war and makes him the unwilling companion of a psychopath. As Billy becomes "unstuck in time" and later abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore, the novel takes several unexpected twists.

It sounds weird, which it is, but not overly so. Somehow, even when describing the Tralfamadorian's ability to see in four dimensions, their ability to see everything that has ever happened at once but their choice to concentrate instead on any one moment of their lives, the hands that comes out of their bodies pointing straight up and their telepathic communication, it doesn't seem like a gimmick. Not only does it provide comic relief to a horrific subject matter, but it also allows Vonnegut to write a parallel perspective - perhaps his but probably more what he thinks the masses believe. As Billy Pilgrim narrates each scene, he does so with this Tralfamadorian understanding of time. The atrocities he faces in the rail car that takes him from France to Germany as a POW, the complete destruction and death of a once beautiful city and the execution of a good man are written with the matter-of factness and reality that would have been impossible for him to describe in detail otherwise.

I think part of the uproar, if there still is any, is over its age appropriateness. I know this is required reading for a lot of high school students, and while I think a mature and interested reader could appreciate the opinion Vonnegut attempts to give form to, the language, description and attitude of the book could easily offend many a student and parent.

It would be a hard thing to be an English teacher and give a "required reading list" to your class. You want to choose books that create discussion and trigger thought, which this book certainly does. However, just as I feel no book should truly be banned, I equally feel that every reader should have a choice as to what they read. But then, how do you have a class? I don't know.

As Billy Pilgrim famously says, "So it goes."

The Last Jihad

I cannot remember who recommended this to me, but I'm fairly certain I was told to read it because it's not the kind of book I normally check out. Jay - yes. Me - no.

I knew right away that it might not be my kind of book after seeing the rave reviews by both Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity on the back cover. Hmmmm. In spite of their warning, I forged ahead.

The Last Jihad takes place in 2011 - ten years after the the World Trade Center attacks and enough time later for the current president to have persuaded the American people that he's just about vanquished every foe. With a 70% approval rating and the economy stronger than ever, the War on Terror is declared won.

During his victory tour in his hometown of Denver, Colorado (described with annoying detail. O.K. I believe you. You've been to Denver), his motorcade is attacked by a kamikaze pilot.

This attack is coordinated by none other than Saddam Hussein, who the author unfortunately didn't realize would be an obsolete bad guy when he wrote this in 2001. It was hard to muster up the anxiety about a nuclear attack on Israel, and the United State's own necessary response because the villains were who they were. I know I could have replaced Saddam with an actual living bad guy, but with its cheesy dialogue and a cast of confusing characters - it required too much effort.

I passed the book to Jay when I was done, thinking he might enjoy it and he returned it to the library after only a few short chapters. He told me, "If this is what you think the books I read are like, then you must think I'm some sort of idiot."

I stand corrected.

(I'm so not going to get away with this comment after describing his head as "not petite." I'm still digging myself out of that hole).

I Fell Bad About My Neck

I think Nora Roberts is an almost David Sedaris. Not quite as funny, probably because her topics are safer and less random. She writes about female things, with great wit and perspective, and I enjoyed each chapter. However, it's been several weeks and now I find the entire book a bit unmemorable. Regardless, it was a nice lighthearted, pick-up-when-I-only-have-a-few-minutes-to-read kind of boo

The Shadow of the Wind

Originally written in Spanish and a European best-seller after it was published in 2001, Carlos Ruiz Zafón's book, Shadow of the Wind, was translated into English in 2004 and has become a best-seller in the United States as well.

In addition to its commercial success, I have only heard good things about this book from readers I respect. With that kind of eager anticipation, I delved into this book, finishing it in two days.

Daniel Sempere and his father own a rare bookstore set in post Spanish Civil War Barcelona, where they have lived alone together after his mother died in his early youth. When Daniel is ten years-old, his father takes him to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, to choose a novel in its midst to take care of and insure against being lost forever. Daniel chooses a book entitled The Shadow of the Wind, written by Julian Carax. He begins reading his new treasure that very night and, completely engrossed, finishes it by the next day.

Determined to find more books written by Carax, Daniel soon learns that the book and its author are surrounded by shadows. For years, an unknown person identifying himself as a character in Carax's book, Lain Coubert, whose name means "The Devil", has been collecting all of Carax's books wherever they are and burning them. When he learns of Daniel's ownership and subsequent inquiries, he corners Daniel on the streets of Barcelona and warns him of what will happen if he doesn't hand over his copy of The Shadow of the Wind. To preserve the endangered book, he once again hides it in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books and continues his quest to find out what happened to Carax.

The language throughout the entire novel is truly beautiful. I remember at one point, early in the novel, the author casually using the word "nib" in place of pen and thinking, "This is a translation?" The prose can be really fancy at times, but as the characters' lives are surrounded by great books, it doesn't seem out of place or pompous to use these less familiar words.

The plot is complicated and well developed. I honestly didn't know who the bad guy burning all the books was until the guy I thought it was was killed. The pace fantastically pulsed and the mixture of romance, suspense and history were all tastefully woven together.

With that gushing aside, I found myself a little disappointed with this book. I'm not exactly sure what I was expecting, but I know it was more than The Shadow of the Wind offered. I fear my disappointment is a result of the classic case of having too high of expectations.

My main disappointment involves the characters, their motivation and their perspectives. There are many characters throughout the book, past and present day, and there was one I absolutely fell in ove with, Fermin Romero de Torres - Daniel's hilarious, enthusiastic, and unbalanced sidekick. His humor and methods of getting things done gave the story a very necessary comedic lift. Besides Fermin and probably Daniel's father, however, who isn't even very well developed, the rest of the characters had me wondering at their extreme behavior.

It begins with Daniel, at age ten, when he becomes obsessed with beautiful, older and blind Clara, a woman who, thankfully, is not equally infatuated with Daniel. Clara never seems to possess any quality, other than being blind and requiring being read to, that warrants Daniel's unwavering love. I didn't understand his motivation to become so completely romantically devoted to a woman at such a young age and I don't feel like it was explained, either. He simply was. Until he caught her in flagrante delicato with her piano teacher. And then he wasn't.

Almost all of the supporting characters do extreme things or are punished extremely for doing normal things. Every woman who has sex the first time gets pregnant. Every father of said daughters tries to kill the impregnator. Every friend of a boy who falls in love ends up hating his friend. There is just a lot of insane people. It's all very dramatic. Which makes for an interesting story, but not altogether very likely.

There is also some perspective problems. Frequently throughout the story, Daniel unravels Carax's past by listening to Carax's peers recall their memories. Each time, the person remembers things that they could not have known. They weren't there. Looks or words between a couple. Promises made in secret. It happens with Carax's boyhood friend who becomes a priest. It happens again with Penelope's, Carax's love interest, nanny, and again with a woman who worked at the company where Carax's books were published. By the end, this flagrant abuse of recollection bothered me. As interesting as Daniel's first person narrative was, if more information was needed to fill in the holes, an omnipresent third person narrative seems more honest and appropriate.

Sadly, this is what I do when books fail to meet their expectations. The imperfections glare at me and I mention them - even when a book is really good. And this book is really good. It just fell short of its hype.

Love Walked In

I liked this book. I really did. But it's not going to sound like it.

Loved Walked In was recommended to me by Becky K., a blogger whose taste in books I take seriously. Once I began reading, I couldn't put the book down because the writing is intimate - very conversational - so you feel like you're reading a lengthy, but funny and interesting, personal letter from your best friend. I admit that I was disappointed with de la Santos's too frequent and flippant use of the F bomb because the other language she uses is so enjoyable. She's a poet, after all, and can string together some really pretty words. I suppose her defense is that it went with Cornelia's conversational tone, and, like many people nowadays, Cornelia casually peppers her everyday language with vulgarities, but I felt like it took away from a book that was on track to be great.

If the unnecessary language was strike one, then the overly tidy ending was strike two. Love Walked In begins when Cornelia Brown, a pretty, 85 pound 31 year-old woman obsessed with old-style Hollywood romances and working in a Philadelphia coffee shop, meets Martin Grace, a Cary Grant look alike who changes her life forever after he walks into her cafe. Cornelia's story, told in a funny parenthetical filled first person narrative, alternates with eleven year-old Clare Hobb's, who describes her increasingly desperate situation as her mother succumbs to manic depression in a much more direct third person (I mention the different voices because the change really is noticeable and, at first, a little disconcerting). Cornelia and Clare cross paths halfway through the book.

It doesn't feel predictable until it is. There were so many plot twists throughout the first two-thirds of the story, things not going the way you'd expect them to, that its tied-up-in-a-pretty-bow ending didn't feel right. It's a good ending in that everyone's happy and everyone wins (at least the characters whose relevance still matters by the end) , but happily ever after isn't always the best way to end a story.

I AM glad I read it. It's charming and well written, interesting and funny. The criticism comes from it not being as great as it could have been.

Dress Your Family In Corduroy and Denim

What if you could write about whatever you wanted? What if no topics were off limits, no person's feelings or privacy taken into consideration, no personal flaws purposely left unmentioned in order to be protected from ridicule?

You would probably write exactly like David Sedaris.

To actually write like David Sedaris, however, you'd also have to be intelligent, impeccably attentive to details and most importantly - uncommonly funny. With that winning combination, Sedaris's unencumbered writing creates a truly fascinating look into his life and way of thinking.

Take, for instance, a neighborhood family that supposedly doesn't watch any television. You've know them, or at least heard about them. But have you hidden yourself in bushes outside their house watching them at night? Sedaris spied on this family with fascination, watching them interact at the dinner table during the evenings and feeling sorry for the absence of television in their lives. After watching one of their children at school being left out of a joke that made reference to a TV show, Sedaris writes, "It occurred to me that they needed a guide, someone who could point out all the things they were unable to understand. I could have done it on weekends, but friendship would have taken away their mystery and interfered with the good feeling I got from pitying them. So I kept my distance."

Then, when this same family showed up for Trick-Or-Treating the day after Halloween, Sedaris expresses what must be universally believed: "Asking for candy on Halloween was called trick-or-treating, but asking for candy on November first was called begging, and it made people uncomfortable. This was one of the things you were supposed to learn simply by being alive, and it angered me that the Tomkeys did not understand it."

The subject matter varies wildly from chapter to chapter, but each contains Sedaris's hilarious spin on what would probably appear to most outsiders, nothing to write home about. Although there are several uncomfortable chapters that touch on situations involving his homosexuality, his willingness to expose himself, and, I suppose his willingness to expose his loved ones, give his writing an important and appreciated perspective. It's so enjoyably honest! I mean, he writes about going through the Anne Frank House while simultaneous apartment hunting and wanting to live there because it's "cute." Totally irreverent. But when he talks about ripping out the wood stove so that the fireplace would be the focal point and thinking the attic, with its charming dormer windows, could be his office...it ends up being really funny.

The best chapter for me was called Six To Eight Black Men when he describes in laugh-out-loud detail the Christmas traditions in the Netherlands. Of course he begins the chapter by pointing out some of the more unusual local gun laws in various states of the USA, mentioning as an interesting fact that in Michigan - blind people are allowed to hunt...alone. As the chapter nears its end, and you wonder what the two stories have to do with each other, he finishes by sharing his thoughts while sitting in a Dutch train station. "I couldn't help but feel second-rate. Yes, the Netherlands was a small country, but it had six to eight black men and a really good bedtime story. Being a fairly competitive person, I felt jealous, then bitter. I was edging toward hostile when I remembered the blind hunter tramping off alone into the Michigan forest. He may bag a deer, or he may happily shoot a camper in the stomach. He may find his way back to the car, or he may wander around for a week or two before stumbling through your back door. We don't know for sure, but in pinning that license to his chest, he inspires the sort of narrative that ultimately makes me proud to be an American."

Funny, funny stuff.

Crossing To Safety

Written by Wallace Stegner, author of one of my all-time favorite books Angle of Repose, Crossing To Safety describes with beautiful prose the art and act of friendship.

Two couples, Larry and Sally Morgan and Sid and Charity Lang, are both young couples living in Madison, Wiscosin during the Great Depression. Larry and Sid both have teaching jobs in the English Department at the university and Sally and Charity are both pregnant with similar due dates. The friendship between the four of them are instant and fully requited, and, as the novel begins with the Morgans visiting the Langs in their later years, obviously life long.

The title of the book comes from a poem written by Robert Frost that goes:

“I could give all to Time except-except

What I myself have held. But why declare

The things forbidden that while the Customs slept

I have crossed to Safety with? For I am There

And what I would not part with I have kept.”

I regrettably admit that I don't usually understand poetry without someone explaining to me its meaning. I think...I think this has to do with the intangible but still very real benefits of meaningful relationships. That those benefits exist even after death. But I could be wrong.

Like many, I assume, I long for that kind of meaningful friendship. One incredible thing about this book is that it adds to my longing without particularly making me want to BE a part of the book. The characters Stegner creates are so vividly real, I know...just know, that I couldn't be great friends with Charity. She's way too controlling. Likewise, I'd walk all over Sally. I need an equal sharer! Unfortunately, like almost every other character in the book, I don't have enough respect for Sid and Larry is much too full of himself to enjoy for long periods of time.

While I don't want to be their friends, in particular, I still envy their friendship. I want something similar. Only I want that one great friendship to be with people that don't bug me.

This book contains no great drama - no affairs or divorces, deaths or mysterious crimes - the journey of their friendship is compelling enough. He describes with such detail the universal jealousies, the generosity and benevolence of close friends, as well as the inevitable judgment that we make about others' relationships.

It's more than just a story about friendship and marriage, however. The characters themselves are literary looking glasses, exposing our own ambitions, priorities, tolerance, vices, pride, loyalty and egos. If you enjoy literature, and don't need an exotic story but find satisfaction in honest reality, you'll probably enjoy this quiet gem.

Friday, October 24, 2008

The Host

Stephanie Meyer breaks away from her vampire romance juggernaut to introduce a new story involving alien parasites called "souls"- shiny centipede looking species, that invade planets around the universe, take over the dominant species and, in their altruistic view, make them better.

As they overtake Earth, and secretly begin invading the bodies of humans, relationships are torn apart as loved ones bodies remain in tact, but the person inside is replaced with a higher evolved and peace-loving soul - the only physical evidence of takeover being eyes that are now reflective. Humans struggling to remain human take desperate measures to hide and survive. Melanie Stryder and her younger brother, Jamie, both human, are discovered stealing food when another rogue human, Jared, discovers them. Jared and Melanie form an intense bond and the three become a tight-knit family. When Melanie is discovered by a Seeker, a member of this alien race whose main purpose is to discover, catch and transform any remaining humans, her body become inhabited by a soul who goes by the name of Wanderer. Wanderer struggles to control Melanie's being as flashes of Melanie's memories, feelings and urges all complicate the normally peaceful process. Eventually, Wanderer chooses to leave her peaceful peers and, using Melanie's memories, discovers where Jared and Jamie are now hiding with other human rebels.

First of all, this book should never have been given the title The Host. The host is Melanie and this is not Melanie's story. It is Wanda's (the name Wanderer is eventually shortened to). Melanie is a strong character and certainly influences the direction of the plot, but as Wanda is developed more and more, and establishes her own relationships with supporting characters, the conflict, climax and resolution all focus on Wanda and her journey. Call it The Wanderer. Or The Soul. Or The Beautiful Shiny Centipede-looking thing.

Secondly, the entire story was too long. Wanda, separate from Melanie, falls in love with another human, Ian. But she looks like Melanie and is influenced by Melanie's feelings so she's attracted to Jared. Jared hates Wanda, because she essentially killed the woman he loved. Except that she looks like Melanie. And he is attracted to Melanie. Ian falls in love with Wanda, and her gentle altruism, and becomes convinced he'd be attracted to Wanda regardless of what form she takes - even her shiny centipede form. I don't think so, but Ian was one of those good-all-the-time-guys so...I guess. Ergo conflict. Jared-Melanie-Ian. Jared-Wanda-Ian. Wanda-Melanie-Ian. Wanda- Melanie-Jared. I found this love triangle storyline interesting and complicated. Unfortunately, it was too drawn out alongside several other different story lines, including Wanda's life being in danger from angry humans, Wanda's realization that her species was wrong to eradicate human beings, descriptions of Wanda sleeping on hard dirt (again and again), the angry Seeker who inexplicably won't go away, the plot to get medicine, the plot to get food, the plot to recover other humans, the plot give Melanie her body back and on and on and on. By its end, I was tired. Overloaded with perhaps interesting, but too much, information. The idea of sequels makes me shudder.

If it sounds like I'm Stephanie Meyer bashing, I'm not. I think she comes up with unbelievably original ideas. I simply don't like how she tells them. I think her stories are better suited for movies, or - if she would really, really try - shorter books. There should be a really good reason to justify publishing over 600 pages and this doesn't seem to have one. Except that all parties involved must have known that based on the Twilight series success, this book would sell like hotcakes. Why not make it heavy and charge more?

In the end, this is an average book. Not awful but not great. For me, the ride ends here.

Anna Karenina

At the conclusion of Karenina's 800 plus pages, I add my name to Tolstoy's long list of admirers. What a thinker! Like a talented photographer, Tolstoy has an eye for realism and his writing inside the heads of his characters is perfection. For a book where nothing really happens (besides wealthy people hanging out in various places...and a few people dying) to still manage to have such a fascinating effect on readers takes a certain kind of genius. So many times, while reading, I thought to myself, "Nothing is happening. How did Tolstoy get away with writing this and why are we all convinced it's one of the greatest novels of all time?" Continued reading converted me, as it has the masses, but it reminds me of an old movie, where the story stands alone, without being propped up by special effects and dramatic music. It's good - naked.

These are my take-away overall impressions. But, there were some very frustrating moments that happened along the way. Sometimes, my eyes blurred as I waited for Levin, a wealthy land-owner who has no understanding or appreciation for insincerity and falseness (characteristics that run rampant among his aristocratic peers), to finish his conversation with the peasants or friends about farm management. The amount of time Tolstoy dedicated on a Russian painter living in Italy, and his opinion about art and technique and style seemed wholly unnecessary to me. Almost like Tolstoy introduced the portrait, knowing he'd need it later in the story for contrast, but couldn't simply write leave it at that. Instead, he had to include whatever obscure experience or knowledge he had about art too...throw it into another character. I felt, a bit, like I was being taken on a ride.

Obviously, I am a modern reader, and need my greatest-novels-of-all-time written modernly! Imagine, me...little reader from nowhere, thinking, "This Russian guy needs an editor!"

I include the critical thoughts along the way, because I don't think I'm alone in thinking Anna Karenina is, perhaps,a little bloated. However, bloated or not, this is an incredible, incredible book. Embarrassingly incredible. Like, how in the world does Tolstoy see the ridiculous inside everyone's head? How does he know how insecure a man like Levin is - a man, who from the outside, appears to have everything? How does he understand how a woman can be instantly irritated and irrational from something that her lover has said, or...more frequently, has not said?

It's not only the realism that makes this book famously good. It's the artful way he makes his case against falseness. Through one of his dual protagonists, Levin, he cleanly paints his case with soft, muted colors - conversations, thoughts, and actions - that reflect,ultimately, a very likable character. Levin does the right thing, usually thinks the right thing - so his thoughts are beautiful, enjoyable thoughts. If Levin hates falseness - well...I will hate falseness too!

Then, on a canvas located directly beside the pretty picture, he paints Anna, with dramatic boldness - including the vividness but also the awful, the disturbing, and chaotic result of a woman, who, every bit as passionately, hates falseness too. Whereas Levin is ultimately rewarded for his inability to accept hypocrisy, Anna, a woman we know isn't really bad, but who makes choices that aren't sympathetic either, is punished for it.

It may seem bizarre to review a book named Anna Karenina and only now mention her. I was surprised that this isn't more her book. Her story, along side Vronsky's, is certainly the most intense and tragic, but the novel's overall point isn't limited to her infidelity, or about her choice to leave her husband and child (which is what I thought it was going to be about. Even my husband, when he saw I was reading this said, "Oh. Reading the adultery book, huh?").

In fact, it's about a group of Russia's aristocratic upper class, and their motivations and justifications about the way they live their lives. Their stories are all tangled together and each of their decisions and actions create shock waves throughout the group. Tolstoy shows how, even within a privileged group such as this, where access to information, money, justice etc., supposedly is the same, how differently they think and choose to behave. There's the brilliance. I read a quote from another famous author who said that if the world could speak on it's own, it would sound like Tolstoy. Exactly.

Thousands of reviews have been written about this book, and I certainly have nothing new to add, but, if you have hours and hours of spare time or a penchant for 19th century Russian socioeconomic exposés or simply enjoy the thoughts of a great mind - read this book.