Friday, February 27, 2009

A Midwife's Tale

Full Title: A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812

By Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

I kept journals fairly religiously while I was in high school. They are so full of rampant sentimentality (i.e. boy craziness) that reading them now makes me want to fetch the lighter fluid and matches straightaway.

Martha Ballard avoided this problem neatly by keeping her entries brief, factual and largely devoid of emotion or interpretation. She kept careful track of her work as a midwife, her gardening and household chores, and the comings and goings of friends, family, and neighbors; basically, the daily happenings in her life. Consequently, her diary was long dismissed as “not of general interest” and “trivial and unimportant” by historians. Ulrich, however, chose to take another look, and the result is A Midwife’s Tale, winner of the Pulitzer Prize.

On its most basic level, this book is a fascinating look at life in Maine in the decades following the American Revolution. Each chapter uses a passage from Martha’s diary to explore a specific topic: midwifery, the religious environment, the legal system, the role of women, marriage, and so on. History buffs will certainly enjoy this glimpse into day-to-day (and, in particular, a woman's) life in Martha’s time and place.

On another level, however, this book is a detective story. The format of the book – each chapter is an excerpt from the diary, followed by Ulrich’s commentary – allows us a glimpse into the brilliant detective work that Ulrich undertook to craft this book.

Take, for example, the sentence, “Was Calld in at Mrs Husseys.” To a casual reader, Martha simply visited her friend Mrs Hussey, nothing more. Ulrich knows better. Throughout the diary, Martha speaks of going to Mr Bullins or Capt Coxes or Mr Goodins. In Martha’s world, houses belong to men. So why refer to the house as belonging to Mrs Hussey? Ulrich can tell you why (and she does, in the Introduction, so you don’t have to read far), and she tells you how she came to her conclusion so that we can share in the feeling of discovery.

I enjoyed Ulrich’s writing style. It was scholarly (lots of footnotes, for you footnote lovers!), but readable and laced with humor. I did find it impossible to keep track of all the people in the book; Martha did know most of the people in town after all. Ulrich warns her readers in the Introduction that this can happen (and that it shouldn’t really matter), but it made my head spin nonetheless. In spite of this (very, very minor) annoyance, I quite enjoyed this book and would recommend it to all history lovers.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell

I decided to go ahead and follow Partly Cloudy Patriot with Assassination Vacation and it was well worth it. An information-packed travelogue-of-sorts detailing the events and people surrounding the first three presidential assassinations. It sounds like a morbid topic, but it is not written that way. The "story" is entertaining, random and even funny in places (Guiteau, the guy who assassinated Garfield, was umm...insane). Unlike Partly Cloudy Patriot, this book shies away from too much discussion of current politics except to point out, in the case of the McKinley assassination, how history tends to repeat itself in cases of imperialism and the spread of democracy.
If you are interested in American history, or just like random facts, this is definitely a book to add to your list. I learned all sorts of interesting tid-bits like the origin of the Oneida china company, the supposed but incorrect origin of the phrase "your name is mud," the history behind the creation of the Lincoln Monument, and so much more.
I give it 4.5 stars, simply because I think the last 3 or 4 pages could have been left out...but overall a very good read.

The Shack

By William P. Young

Mackenzie Phillips is a man lost in "The Great Sadness". Lost from God, from his family, and from any sort of real happiness. His youngest daughter, Missy, was brutally murdered in an abandoned shack in the mountains while on a family camping trip four years earlier, and Mackenzie is having a hard time moving on with his life. He receives a suspicious letter from "Papa", inviting him to go back to the shack to find some answers, and incredulously, he does return to the focal point of his sadness. What he finds there, is supposed redemption.

I don't know what to say about this book. I didn't really like it, but I'm not a big fan of religious fiction or even self help books for that matter because of too much information in too small of a space. I would rather read these types of books in stages when the need arises, rather than in one big gulping swallow.

The writing was sub par and the dialog choppy and unrealistic in the beginning but improved as the book moved along, until really there are only pages upon pages of dialog. I could barely draw breath. Young not only likes to say his point over and over, he means to stomp it into your brain until you know nothing else.

At the same time, I can see why so many people like this book. Young manages to make God, Jesus and the Holy Ghost more relatable and human in a scary world where religion has become out of reach for some. The Shack is Young's personal guide to finding your own way through the murkiness and sludge that make up the problems in our world today. His opinions are rarely theologically or scripturally based, but rather, perhaps, a way he's learned to handle the grief in his life. If that helps other people, fine by me.

But, for me personally, it was just too much. 2 Stars.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Cordelia's Honor

By Lois McMaster Bujold

I like science fiction. I read a lot of it. Cordelia’s Honor, on the surface, seems a standard science fiction novel with just a dash of romance. It has the customary interstellar war, political intrigue, and, of course, high-tech gadgets that we’ve come to expect from our sci-fi. What makes this book special is its title character, Cordelia Naismith.

Cordelia is not the clich├ęd woman you see in most science fiction. She doesn’t just cling to the arm of her leading man (which would be easy to do, because her husband, Aral Vorkosigan, is awesome). She doesn’t sacrifice her femininity to be the hero. And she definitely doesn’t stoop to flaunting her sexuality in a steel bikini either (no offense, Princess Leia). Her strength comes from smarts and the relationships she forges, not from rippling biceps and an icy-cold demeanor, nor from short skirts and seductive smiles. In other words, she’s what I would consider the ideal female heroine: confident, resourceful, and intelligent.

The story itself (this is actually two novels in one book) is engaging and entertaining, but in my opinion, it is little more than a setting in which Cordelia can shine. And I, for one, am glad to find another female heroine that does us women proud. 3.75 stars

* This book is definitely for more mature readers. There is war and the accompanying atrocities, and there activity (all kinds). There aren’t any graphic descriptions - it's more just mentioned in passing - but don’t say I didn’t warn you!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Omnivore's Dilemma

by Michael Pollan
Like Stephanie, I really liked this book, mainly because it addresses a question that has driven me crazy ever since I unwillingly became the master chef in my house: Ah, what to have for dinner? A timeless question asked by millions of people, millions of times throughout their lives. Like I said, this particular question drives me nuts, loony, on a one way street to the crazy farm, and one that Michael Pollan explores here with enthusiastic, well-driven abandon. Speed vs. reality (McDonalds or the grocery store)? Organic or practical (expensive or cheap)? Meat or no meat? So many choices, so little time. I agree with Pollan. We do have a national eating disorder.

In trying to reconnect with what he eats, this author follows the long trip from the soil to our mouths, discussing where our food comes from in three sections: corn, pastoral grass, and the forest.

Corn it turns out, that wildly successful plant, has found its way into cow feed, our soda pop, virtually every other type of processed food, and most especially, us. As much as a quarter of everything we eat has some form of corn in it. We have more of that vegetable in us that the tortilla-eating South Americans.

The American monoculture of corn has pushed aside what we once thought of the family farm, the farms of my parents growing up in Idaho and Oregon. A farm that is self-sustaining and efficient in every way. In Pastoral Grass we learn that these farms recycle and reuse. Nothing is wasted. Cows eat what nature intended them to eat. Shopping locally is the only way these small farms survive.

In his last section, The Forest, Pollan follows our evolutionary trial back to our earliest forms of obtaining food: hunting and gathering. By rejoining this “shortest and oldest of food chains,” he hoped to take some more “direct responsibility” for the killing of the animals he eats. To discover what connections exist between us and the species and natural systems we depend on for survival.

I love science and ecology so for me, overall, I thought this a fascinating book. Pollan clearly has a gift for explaining natural science in an enthusiastic enough way for everyone to understand. The writing is crisp, clear, and very entertaining. And most of all, probably because of his easy writing style, and even though I don’t eat meat, I found it all very convincing. Yes, buying locally can be more expensive, but by helping local farmers, by growing our own food and making wise decisions at the grocery, we are investing not just in our health, but in the future of the planet as well. Hopefully my guilt will now set me free. 4 Stars.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

I think I've died and gone to heaven...

Amazon comes out with the Kindle 2: its new wireless reading device on Feb. 24 of this year. Cost: $359.oo and I'm dying to get one. Totally saving my pennies here. Books are $9.99 or less from a library of 230,000. Holy cow! It saves paper. It comes with a light and I'm pretty sure you can take notes on it. Check out the site to see its many possibilities. It's awesome!

What fun, I totally want one. I just wish they weren't so expensive, but still, think of the trees it could save.

Anybody else thinking about it?
Or does the thought of losing the nostalgia of holding a thick pad of ink and paper in your hands still hold on too tight?

What about that new book smell? I might miss that too.
Hmm...I don't know. I think I want one....bad.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Atonement by Ian McEwan

For the first half of the book I could not decide if I liked it or not. There is great character introspection and philosophising by a 13 year old girl. I got tired of it, but I loved the picture the author created. England in the early 1900's, beautiful landscape, rich characters going about their rich lives, and the such. The first half of the book takes place in one day. It has the "Clue" like feel of getting the story from every one's perspective until the "crime" happens. The main character is a 13 year old girl who does not understand her own naivety. Her lack of understanding causes a chasm between the two lovers of the story. I liked this book. Once the plot of the story came out I was hooked and could not put the book down. The sister , Cee, is quite funny to me. She is messy, has a temper, and true to herself. I was worried that I would end up dissapointed in her, but I am happy to say I wasn't. I think this book shows why there are things that we don't show or let our young children read. Children have such a limited understanding of emotions and feelings and their assumptions are often wrong. I ranked this a 3 on goodreads. I would warn you that this occurs during world war 2 and the soldiers like the "F" word a little too much.One of my favorite lines or ideas from the book was "Falling in love can be told in one word..." I won't finish it because I think for everyone that one word would be different.

More Harry Potter Trivia

Some amusing quotes from the first four books.
Do you know which book they are from?

1. "'They're... they're really... well, thanks, Dobby,' said Harry, and he pulled them on, causing Dobby's eyes to leak with happiness again."

2. "'Now -- be warned! It is my job to arm you against the foulest creatures known to wizardkind! You may find yourselves facing your worst fears in this room. Know only that no harm can befall you whilst I am here. All I ask is that you remain calm.'"

3. "'Well... when we were in our first year, Harry -- young, carefree, and innocent --' Harry snorted. He doubted whether Fred and George had ever been innocent. '-- well, more innocent than we are now -- we got into a spot of bother with Filch.'"

4. "'Certainly I knew, Minerva,' she said quietly. 'But one does not parade the fact that one is All-Knowing. I frequently act as though I am not possessed of the Inner Eye, so as not to make others nervous.' 'That explains a great deal,' said Professor McGonagall tartly."

5. "'I've been promoted,' Percy said before Harry could even ask, and from his tone, he might have been announcing his election as supreme ruler of the universe."

Be sure to decide your answers (unless you want to cheat) before you look at the comments.
Happy reading!

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Partly Cloudy Patriot by Sarah Vowell

I decided to pick up this book for a couple of reasons: 1) It is a collection of short essays so I figured I could read it here and there without forgetting the plot-line and 2) Sarah Vowell has a style all her own that was bound to be entertaining and thought-provoking.
First, let me explain who Sarah Vowell is in case you are unfamiliar. She has written for many magazines, participates in This American Life on NPR and is the very distinct voice of Violet in the movie The Incredibles.
This book definitely is thought-provoking as it covers topics from pop-culture, politics, history to her own family dynamics. She is very opinionated, very democrat, very aethiest, a self-proclaimed "civics geek" and has serious love for Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt. Most of the essays were written in the late 1990s to about 2001, so the political perspective itself was very interesting, given current events in 2009. When I read her somewhat long (and I am not going to lie, not that interesting) diatribe about how cool but dorky Al Gore is, and her disdain for the then newly-elected George W. Bush, I couldn't help but think of how much has happened since that inauguration day in 2001.
My advice to anyone who might be interested in this book is this: you absolutely need to get it on audio and *listen* to it. Her voice is not entirely lost in reading the book without her, but close. Sarah Vowell has such a distinct voice and personality, that really she should be the one telling these stories. The book is what one might somewhat crudely call a bathroom book (i.e. good for a few minutes of peace in the bathroom) or a great one for an airplane when you know your attention can't be held for long periods of time. I think I'd give it 3 out of 5, not because of content necessarily (I learned a lot and I like her ascerbic wit), but because it needs to be read BY her. I agree with one of the book reviews that says something to the effect of "you'll wish she was your high school history teacher."
I am curious to pick up one of her next two books, Assassination Vacation (2006) or The Wordy Shipmates (2008) to see how her political perspective changes as the Bush Years drag on...

Saturday, February 14, 2009

My Dear Cassandra - The Letters of Jane Austen

Selected and introduced by Penelope Hughes-Hallett

"I have now attained the true art of letter-writing," wrote Jane Austen. "To express on paper exactly what one would say to the same person by word of mouth."

Jane Austen wasn't just witty in her books, she was witty in life, in her dialog, in her correspondence to her sister Cassandra, and other members of the Austen family. Her letters were her sounding board, the practice for her later writing achievements. They are all cataloged here in this book; her direct manner; her ability to read even the slightest detail of things, "important nothings", she called them.

Trimming bonnets and making gowns; keeping the house and gardens; tending to the poor; visiting friends and going to balls; births and deaths of family: these are but the quilting blocks sewn to together to create her novels. To create Elizabeth, "her own darling child...I think her as delightful a creature as ever appeared in print".

In this book her personal letters are separated into six periods ranging from 1796, when she was twenty until 1817, the year of her early death. Hughes-Hallett provides commentary in between each period and each letter, and also included some of the most beautiful artwork from Regency England I have ever seen. Scenes that Jane herself described and would have observed in real life. They added another dimension to the book and really sucked me into Austen's writing.

I loved it. This book brought out a side of the author I never thought possible. She came to life within these pages, and from them I could see how she created some of the greatest heroines in English literature. Heroines that were almost a mirror image of her own personality.

"It as if I had lost a part of myself," Cassandra Austen wrote to her favorite niece Fanny Knight, on the eve of the death of her sister, Jane.

Indeed, we all lost something, but what a treasure chest of ink and paper remains. 5 stars. A++

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Sense and Sensibility on PBS, Parts 1-2

PBS just finished its rebroadcast of Sense and Sensibility on Sunday, and even though I'm a huge fan of the book and especially the Emma Thompson movie version, this one was not an altogether bad interpretation. In fact, I liked it quite nicely. It followed the book for the most part, with only a pesky scene here or there that I found egregiously troublesome.

1. A steamy opening sequence, something I've now come to expect from screenwriter Andrew Davies. He likes to change how a book begins. Nothing is ever implied in his scripts. He wanted us to know that Willoughby (Dominic Cooper)was a cad from the very beginning instead of towards the middle of the book like Austen intended. It was confusing, and if you weren't familiar with the story, you'd have no idea what was going on.

2. Harry Dashwood, the firstborn son of Fanny and John Dashwood finally gets some screen time. However, this is not how he's depicted in the book, and the poor kid looks miserable. Just look how they dressed him.

3. Where are the Palmer's, the daughter and son-in-law of Mrs. Jennings? They are only briefly seen after she gives birth. In the book and movie version, they were some of the funniest characters, with Mrs. Palmer's obnoxious gaiety, and her husband's non-contrite rudeness towards her. Also Lucy Steele, what little screen time she had made her seem more innocent than conniving, like she is in the book, and no time was devoted to how she fell in love with Robert Ferrars. They were just suddenly married. We saw none of the aftermath.

4. Gentling Marianne "like a horse". Every time I hear that, I try to find it in the book. It's just not there. It takes several years for her to fall in love with the Colonel. He doesn't treat her like he's breaking a horse, or in essence, play hard to get. In another scene Mr. Davies has him commanding Marianne to "Come here" as she looks at him all starry-eyed while he handles a hawk on his arm. I was more than slightly offended. Women are not horses, Mr. Davies.

I will add though, the Colonel was pretty good looking in this version. So was Edward Ferrars. I though both were better looking than Willoughby. Is that what Jane Austen intended?

But for the most part, I just love this story, and will take it in its many forms, horses and all.

I did like the addition of Mrs. Ferrars (Jean Marsh), played remarkably well with just the perfect amount of "bitchiness" and snobbery. The scene were Marianne puts her in her place is perfect.

And Elinor (Hattie Morahan) was also very good. She was both serious and vulnerable at the same time. Her face looked as though she carried the weight of her family's woes upon her shoulders. A remarkable actress.

I thought Willoughby was perfectly mischievous looking and I was particularly glad they included the scene where he returns to beg forgiveness after Marianne's illness. I almost felt bad for him then. Almost.

It must have been hard to take over the character of Marianne after Kate Winslet immortalized the part, but this actress (Charity Wakefield) does a good job of portraying both the innocence and recklessness of this young heroine.

Overall, a delightful adaptation.
True love indeed does conquer all, and I love Jane for it.
Somewhere in the oblivion of my VHS pile, I think I have this taped. If anyone wants to borrow it. It's worth watching with a cup of marshmallow-laden cocoa when the kids are finally in bed.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan

It’s not every day you read a book that threatens to change your life. I use the word “threaten” very deliberately, because they are changes that I know I'm going to find challenging.

In The Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan challenges his readers to examine their food a little closer, to consider where it comes from. And it's a logical request I think. We can spend days searching for the perfect doctor or mechanic, but how much time do we take to really think about our food? Do you know where your steak came from? Is your asparagus from a nearby farm, or far-flung Argentina? Are your peaches organic, and if so, what does that really mean? Most of us have no idea how to answer these questions.

In most cases, the answers are simple. Most of our food likely comes from a massive industrial farm or feed lot hundreds of miles away, fed by incredible amounts of fossil fuels -- the fertilizer, the machines used for harvesting, the trucks it took to transport the food to your local mega-mart, to name just a few uses of fossil fuel. Pollan's descriptions of these farms (and in particular, the feed lots) can be quite disturbing. However, Pollan does not outright condemn this "industrial food chain." He concedes that it would be difficult to feed billions of people inexpensively without it. Instead, he advocates having several different avenues for delivering food to our tables, and he describes several alternatives. It is up to the reader to determine how they want to eat.

As for me, my eyes have been opened to the appeal of "eating locally," where possible. (Emphasis on "where possible." There aren't too many oranges grown in Idaho.) By eating foods produced as close to my home as possible, I support the local economy, less fossil fuels are used, and the food should have fewer preservatives, hormones, and other chemical ingredients. Best of all, the food should be fresher and more flavorful. Yes, it will cost more, but I think it will be worth it. At least I'm willing to try it. I consider it an experiment.

I found Pollan's writing engaging and easy to read. (Disclaimer: I am a huge nerd, and the topic really spoke to me. If you don't like science, you may not find this book as fascinating.) A few words of warning: if evolution makes you uncomfortable, you may not like this book, as it often talks about the evolution of plants, animals and humans. Also, there were two or three instances where objectionable language was used. 4/5 stars

Shopaholic Ties the Knot

by Sophie Kinsella
The third novel of the series finds Becky Bloomwood getting engaged to her boyfriend and the wedding planning begins. Her mother wants her to get married in England in their backyard which is fine with Becky until her soon to be mother-in-law starts planning a wedding on the same day for them in New York at the Plaza Hotel, sparing no expense. Of course this creates a slight problem.
This has been my favorite so far in the series. To be quite honest I hate shopping so I had trouble relating to Becky and her desire for designer handbags and shoes in the previous novels. But I can relate to planning a wedding so I found this one more entertaining. The main character has irritated me in the past but in this one she didn't bother me at all.
Again, like the others in the series, this book is just a fluff book that provides pure entertainment. No deep thinking involved which I find nice from time to time when I want to "get away from it all." :) I give it 4 stars.

The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo

The full title of the book is The Tale of Despereaux being the story of a mouse, a princess, some soup, and a spool of thread. True to the title, the book is very clever and smart. Despereaux is a mouse born in a castle who has the misfortune of being a free spirit among mice. He falls in love with a princess (human) which puts him in disgrace with his fellow mice and his tale ensues. There are counter-stories happening with two other characters—the rat Roscuro and a serving girl named Miggery Sow. All the stories weave together throughout the book and come to a very nice ending.

Kate DiCamillo is an excellent author. She is four for four with me. Three other novels, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, Tiger Rising, and Because of Winn-Dixie are very well written, engaging books. She won the Newbery for Despereaux and a Newbery Honor for Because of Winn-Dixie. The elements she used in Despereaux made it just plain fun to read. I was excited to pick it up each day and see what would happen next and how DiCamillo would tell it. I read it with my 9 year-old daughter and she loved it also. I definitely recommend this as a read aloud for families.

I give it an A+.

***The movie is in dollar theaters now. I’m taking my kids this weekend—hopefully it will do the novel justice. Has anyone seen it?

Looking for Salvation at the Dairy Queen

Looking for Salvation at the Dairy Queen by Susan Gregg Gilmore

I do love the southern stories. I love the characters and the things that happen because of their strong personalities. This one was a slight disappointment in that area.

The main character, Catherine Grace Cline, lives in Ringgold, Georgia and can’t wait to get out. I kept waiting for her to leave and get on with what she wanted in life. Her father is the town preacher and so the author uses some biblical stories and examples to tell her own story. The first half of the book was a little slow, but I just knew something interesting would happen. When something interesting did happen, I felt like the author rushed through the conflict and the resolution.

It seemed like a really long short story. I would have liked more character development and I know this sounds silly but I think the author should have built up the Dairy Queen premise a bit more in the beginning. It had a place in the end, but she could have done a little more with it in the beginning. This is Susan Gregg Gilmore’s first novel so maybe she’ll get a little better in time.
I give it a B- or C+.

A New Book Out This Month

I know there are a few people who contribute to this site who like the most excellent book, Katherine by Anya Seton. I count myself among them so I was excited to hear about a new book about her life coming out this month titled:
Mistress of the Monarchy: The Life of Katherine Swynford, Duchess of Lancaster by Alison Weir.

A first-ever bio that brings this exceptional woman from the footnotes of English history and tells the fascinating story of the couple (she married John of Gaunt ) who began the royal bloodline from which all subsequent English monarchs descended.

More hot royal action? Gosh, I hope so.

Monday, February 9, 2009

A discussion - King vs. Meyer

The writer/blogosphere is all a buzz about a recent USA Weekend interview with the very opinionated Stephen King. In the article he discusses his thoughts on popular authors vs. the academic elite, and if he believes his success paved the way for what constitutes a successful career.

"The real difference is that Jo Rowling is a terrific writer and Stephenie Meyer can’t write worth a darn. She’s not very good."

After some further thoughts on Erle Stanley Gardner (King: "terrible"), Jodi Picoult (good), Dean Koontz (good and bad) and James Patterson (bad), King said further:

"People are attracted by the stories, by the pace and in the case of Stephenie Meyer, it’s very clear that she’s writing to a whole generation of girls and opening up kind of a safe joining of love and sex in those books. It’s exciting and it’s thrilling and it's not particularly threatening because they’re not overtly sexual. A lot of the physical side of it is conveyed in things like the vampire will touch her forearm or run a hand over skin, and she just flushes all hot and cold. And for girls, that’s a shorthand for all the feelings that they’re not ready to deal with yet."

Nathan Bransford, a popular literary agent, asks some interesting questions about King's response.

Who decides what's good anyway?

Is it the readers? After all, if Meyer is so successful she has to be doing something right. And in this world of American Idol, everyone fancies themselves an expert. But surely there is some difference between commercial success and artistic merit, right? Are we ready to crown the most successful books the "best" books?

Is it the critics? Should we leave "good" to the people who devote themselves to sifting through the books and movies and decide what's good and bad? Surely there's something to be said for expertise, right?

Is it the writers? Who knows better than the people who are actually writing the books, right? Or do they?

Is it the scholars? Yesterday's potboilers are today's classics. Yesterday's drivel is today's unappreciated genius.

Has the world of blogging made everyone a critic? Has well-informed criticism been replaced by popular opinion? Is Stephen King just jealous of Meyer and her overnight success?

Saturday, February 7, 2009


by Neil Gaiman
Tristran Thorn believes himself hopelessly in love with Victoria, the most beautiful girl in the village of Wall. He's young and innocent. She's full of herself and a tease. "I'll travel to China and bring you back your weight in gold," he says to her, if she'll only give him a kiss.

She smiles demurely while watching the stars in the night sky, one of which was falling in a bright streak over the horizon. "Bring me back that star and I'll let you."

And thus begins Neil Gaiman's adult fantasy adventure about a boy who travels into the land of Faerie. A place Tristran somehow feels akin to, but doesn't know why. All in search of that requested token, the star, to buy Victoria's affections. Or so he thinks. What he finds there, on the horizon, is something else entirely.

What did I find while reading this book? An entertaining, swash-buckling adventure, with many Grimm brothers, sort of fairy tale undertones. Gaiman's writing is simple and fun, and even though I felt its second half was too rushed, I grinned more than once while reading it.

I saw the movie first and loved it. I assumed the book to also be teen fare. It is not. This is an adult fairy tale. There's sex. There's some pretty gruesome violence. Some of which was a bit jarring. I wasn't expecting it, like I wouldn't expect a whimsical version of Cinderella to include a scene with her and the prince "doing it" and her evil stepmother lying in a "pool of her own blood". But with that being said, how many of the original fairy tales were like their purified Disney versions? Ah, very few.

I'm glad I read it, but I'll probably stick with the movie version. In my opinion, it's just a little better. And Robert DeNiro dancing in a dress with a faux mole on his cheek? That's just the gravy on the creamy mashed potatoes. Priceless. 3 Stars

Friday, February 6, 2009

Iron Thunder by Avi

(Here you go Lula.) I read this book as a short, clear-the-palette book between heavier reads. It is a children's book about the ironclad ships that were built during the Civil War. It wasn't that great of a book. Of course I now know more than I ever thought I would about ironclad ships which is actually quite interesting to me, but the book didn't have a strong enough story.

Avi is usually a very good, diverse writer for kids books. He certainly did his research for Iron Thunder as he does for all his other historical fiction books. I would suggest reading his book Crispin The Cross of Lead which won the Newbery (and takes place at the same time our friend Katherine Swynford was alive!), or another really good one of his is The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle. It's about a girl in the mid 1800's who accidentally ends up on a ship of men travelling from England to the USA. It is a Newbery Honor Book.

Iron Thunder gets a C- or D+ from me. But read the other two! They are good!

My take on The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Where do I start? Yes, it was an honor book for the ALA Michael Printz award (for YA literature), yes I had some friends who LOVED it, and it came highly recommended from librarians and such. But here’s the rub: I DO NOT (big emphasis on DO NOT) like stories about the holocaust, Nazi Germany, Hitler, the effects of Hitler’s idiocy on Jewish people, his own German people, the rest of the world. SO WHY DID I READ THIS BOOK?????

Answer: I don’t know. Maybe I was hoping for another miracle like The Diary of Anne Frank, but that didn’t happen.

All of that said, here’s how I felt about the book. It was very cleverly written, very innovative and different. It was intense in the emotions it conveyed. Several elements were employed to heighten the drama of the story and I appreciate all of those efforts put forth by Zusak. It invoked some serious emotions in me so I consider it to be an exceptionally well-written book. Personally, I just couldn’t get past the yuckiness of the setting/time/situation of the world. Frankly the despair went from bad to worse (hello! It was WWII! Did I sleep through my history class? Did I really think this would be a hopeful book?) and the innovations Zusak used heightened the sense of foreboding that only a ding-a-ling like myself would be oblivious to when she picked up the book in the first place! I just hope I don’t have nightmares now.

Can you tell I’m a little mad? But I’m not mad at Zusak or anyone who recommended the book, I’m mad at myself for not being true to myself and my likes and dislikes. Hopefully I’ve learned my lesson and I won’t have a similar lapse in judgment in the future. Live and learn. How strange to read a book that you think is exceptionally well written, but not like the story. So I’m not going to rate it.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Writing Challenge - Love in six words?

I discovered this book the other day and thought it an interesting concept. Love in six precious words. Summing up a life long passion or trauma so succinctly may seem like an abomination, but it actually dates back to the 1920's, when Ernest Hemingway bet his colleagues that he could write a complete short story in just six words. The result,

"For Sale: Baby Shoes. Never Worn."
He reportedly called that his best work.
A few excerpts from Love and Heartbreak:
Our prison visitations were surprisingly romantic. - Larry Smith
People can't want what they want. - Dr. Drew Pinsky
Didn't realize I'd still be lonely. -Pamela Cash
My marital advice? Marry an orphan. - Kristina Wright
The challenge in honor of red February - Write your own six word memoir on love.
(Feel free to publish it here. Please, please with a cherry on top.)

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Life of Bees- Take Two

I just finished The Secret Life of Bees, and have nothing to add to the already excellent review posted on this book, so I will just give my rating: 3.9 (ALMOST a 4) out of 5 stars!

Spotlight for February

I'm trying to reread the Harry Potter Series again this year and thought I'd spotlight the first book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone for the month of February. A lot of us are very familiar with this series, so for the next thirty days or so, I'll occasionally post tidbits about JK Rowling, the book and maybe some Potter trivia as I try to familiarize myself with the series again.
Here's a few samples. Anybody already know the answers?

1. What kind of wizard does Hagrid tell Harry he's going to be?
2. On the Hogarts Express, which candy bar does Harry hope to buy?
3. In which order does Professor Mcgonagall introduce the houses to the first years?
4. What did Harry think they had to do to be sorted?
5. Whose head did Fred and George have bewitched snowballs bouncing off of?

Just a taste ladies. Just a taste...
Happy reading!

Monday, February 2, 2009

A Confederacy of Dunces

By John Kennedy Toole
“A green hunting cap squeezed the top of the fleshy balloon of a head. The green earflaps, full of large ears and uncut hair and the fine bristles that grew in the ears themselves, stuck out on either side like turn signals indicating two directions at once.”
So enters in the first paragraph of this Pulitzer Prize winning novel, a most memorable character, Mr. Ignatius Reilly.

Ignatius is a “slob extraordinaire”, a lunatic on almost every level, a “fat Don Quixote” who at thirty years of age and nine years of school later, is jobless and still lives with his mother in a quiet little city named New Orleans. You'd think a character like that would be hard to like, but surprisingly by the end of the book I found him, and the laughable cast of characters that make up this farce to be quite endearing.

When Mr. Reilly’s long-suffering, slightly drunk mother gets in a car accident, our anti-hero’s life takes an unfortunate turn. She insists he leave the comfort of his yellow stained sheets, his screaming at the television, his castigating the world on big writing tablets that he keeps hidden under his bed, and get a job to help pay the damages. Fortuna has indeed dealt him a serious blow. What of his valve? What of his lute playing? But find a job he must, and we know of course, it will not end well.

A stint at Levi Pants, where “when he was at last nestled upon his perch, he looked like an eggplant balanced atop a thumb tack”, he leads the factory workers on an all out revolt for the “last crusaders of Moorish dignity”. His second attempt as a hot dog vendor also ceases as quickly as it begins, where he complains: “These carts are like Chinese puzzles. I suspect that I will be continually pulling at the wrong end.”

Woven within these promenades into the working world is a tapestry of endearing, and almost equally as obnoxious, secondary characters. Poor, always sick Patrolman Mancuso who couldn’t arrest anyone if he tried; Miss Trixie, the million year old secretary at Levi Pants who’s never allowed to retire no matter how bad she wants to; Miss Lee, the Nazi-like commandant of the Night of Joy Bar; Jones, one cool cat, floor sweeper who utters the word “Ooo-eee. Everythin in the Night of Joy firs rate” every chance he gets; and the stripper Darlene and her murderess cockatoo.

A complex cast in a complex, almost Dickens type of novel. I liked it, even though like Seinfeld, it was really about nothing of importance. Just a snapshot of life in New Orleans in the 50’s. A clear picture. The characters and scenery were so well described, I felt like I was there. John Kennedy Toole never lived to see it developed into the grand art it has become. I wondered as I read how closely his life matched Reilly’s. Was he too enclosed often in his room in the house that he still shared with his mother, writing furiously about the ails of the world around him?

It's a shame we will never know for sure. I would've liked to read a sequel to Reilly's exploits with his nemesis and girlfriend, Myrna Minkoff. Instead I must be content with a good chuckle, and a long sigh. Indeed, I hope my valve survives it. 4 Stars

***This was the Spotlight Book for January. Did anyone else get it finished? I'm curious what others thought of the book. Apparently you either love it or hate it. No inbetween .