Monday, December 19, 2011

Reading Roundup: Holiday Picks

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If you're looking for a holiday read in the next couple of weeks, I've got a couple of suggestions for you. These are both quick, lighthearted stories that you can squeeze in before the end of December!

Wally Lamb's Wishin' and Hopin' is something that's been on my list for months because a) I love stories told from a childhood perspective and b) I love stories set in the 50s/60s. However, I held off on reading this until the holiday season, because it is described as a Christmas story.

Wishin' and Hopin' tells the story of Felix Funicello, distant cousin of the famous mouseketeer Annette, who is getting through his fifth-grade year at St. Aloysius Gonzago Parochial School. After Sister Dymphna, Felix's teacher, suffers a mental breakdown at the beginning of the year, she's replaced by the eccentric Madame Marguerite, who emphasizes French culture over religious studies. When preparations for the annual Christmas program begin, everything that could go wrong does, resulting in the most memorable Christmas program in recent years.

Wishin' and Hopin' is similar to Jean Shepard's infamous A Christmas Story in tone—a lighthearted story of nostalgia that contains situations and incidents that are so unique to childhood in a particular time and place. The characters don't have oceans of depth, but are developed enough to interact (and often clash). Anyone who grew up in this time period is sure to enjoy this walk down memory lane. The story is amusing more than anything else, which may just be perfect for a quick holiday read.


The Flavia de Luce series is one I have been enjoying for the past couple years, because Flavia is a really fun, unique character to read. She's intelligent, precocious, and entirely mischievous. The latest in Alan Bradley's series, I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, is now my favorite since I met Flavia in the first in the series, and with a holiday theme, it's perfect to read right now!

Christmas isn't the only thing coming to Buckshaw; the Colonel is hard up for cash and has agreed to allows Buckshaw to serve as the backdrop for a sure-to-be mega hit film starring the famous Phyllis Wyvern. The film crew has rolled in and made themselves at home, while the film's star has been busy charming the house staff, even winning over the skeptical Flavia. Of course, in a small town like Bishops Lacey, any news is big news, and the Vicar is quick to enlist the movie stars' help in a performance to fund a new church roof. But when a snowstorm traps the entire town at Buckshaw and a body is found strangled with a length of film, chaos ensues and, naturally, Flavia is on the case.

The reason I love these books is because they're multi-faceted and can't easily be defined by one genre. The plotlines are all mystery, but the characters add a light-hearted, juvenile dimension. Flavia's investigations are always fun to read, especially as we follow her deductive skills that lead to her crime-solving conclusions. KEEP WRITING, BRADLEY.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Reading Roundup: Not What I Expected, Part 2

As I mentioned last week, I've recently read a couple of books that ended up a complete 180 than what they had begun. The first was Edward P. Jones' The Known World, which started off boring and convoluted but I ended up really liking. Sadly, Part 2 does not have such a happy conclusion. This commentary will probably be a little spoiler-y, so read with caution.

Karen Russell's Swamplandia! has seen a lot of list placement lately, including a spot on the New York Times' 10 Best Books of 2011. I discovered it on a book blog (can't remember where) and it was one of those books I immediately thought I would love, and hoped that sentiment would be confirmed.

The premise of this book just sounds so great. Set deep in Florida's Everglades, Swamplandia! introduces us to Ava Bigtree, the youngest of an alligator-wrestling dynasty. Swamplandia, an old-fashioned tourist attraction, is the Bigtrees' livelihood. Ava's mother is the park's headliner, but she's just died and the theme park is dying with her. Ava's father, Chief Bigtree, has headed back to the mainland on "business" while a mountain of debt threatens the family's home; older brother Kiwi has run off to the mainland, partly out of frustration and partly to earn money for his family; and older sister, Osceola, has lost herself in the world of the occult, chasing after a ghost boyfriend. Left alone, Ava embarks on an adventure with new friend, the Bird Man, to find her sister before she gets lost in the Underworld.

There were just so many things I liked about this book in the beginning.

  1. The setting: I grew up vacationing in Florida, and those tourist-trap sideshows are just so quintessentially Florida and have always piqued my interest. Who runs those? Do people actually visit them? 
  2. The plot: A little bit quirky, a little bit weird, a little bit of magical realism to create a tone oozing creativity and intrigue. 
  3. The main character: As an eleven-year-old Ava is just on the cusp of understanding things in the adult world. She shifts from having the perspective of an adult to the perspective of a kid, and it's exciting to see how these perspectives influence her actions. 
  4. The writing style: Once the characters have been separated in the story, Russell focuses on Kiwi and Ava in alternating chapters. However, Ava's chapters are written in her first-person perspective, so we experience Ava's story as she is.

So, for the first 200 pages or so, I absolutely loved this book and was certain I would love it in the end. Then we're hit with a major WTF plot point that was totally out of sync with the story and completely unnecessary. And to me, it just sort of lost its sparkle after that. The story had just seemed to be building up and building up, and after the WTF moment, I realized that in the end, the awesome beginning was never really going anywhere in the first place—a case of high expectations that fell flat. I can't even remember how it ends now, because it just felt so unfulfilling. That BIG AWFUL THING signaled the end of the magical realism as we suddenly saw Ava's story in the harsh light of adulthood instead of the muddle ambiguity of immaturity. Unfortunately, it also signaled the end of the story's magic for me. So while I think it was intentional, I found it very disappointing.

I did so enjoy about 80% of this book, but I so SO wish it had ended on a more satisfying note as a whole.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Judy Blume on NPR, and helping the YA audience

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“I’m afraid today everybody thinks the sexiest, smartest thing to do is write for YA, and I worry about the middle grade readers, because if they don’t learn to love books when they’re middle graders, when are they gonna learn to love them?”

This, in a nutshell, is why I want to be a youth librarian.

Early on in my quest for Master Level Librarian (aka grad school), I was mostly undecided about where to focus in the public library realm. First off, MLS programs are incredibly expansive. Do you know how broad the library field is? Technical services, records management, digitization, preservation, archives, academic libraries, School Media Specialist, and yes, public libraries. I've known, since day 1, that I want to work where the people are. I love books, and I want to share that, not be closed up alone in a room with them. This pretty much leaves academia, public libraries, and school libraries, but academia bores me and it seems to me primarily information retrieval. I want to be an information guide and promote a love of reading, and I want the diversity of a public library.

Once you get in a public library, though, it's still divided—adult services, children's services, YA services. Do I go Adult where I can share what I myself enjoy reading? Do I go Children's because they're so cute and inspiring? Or the YA group that is probably the most challenging and the most reluctant?

Here's what I've decided. If adults are in the library to read, then they're readers. You just hit a point in life where you're either a reader or you're not. And kids have people encouraging them to read from every angle. Parents reading to you at home, read-alongs in class at school, summer reading programs, Accelerated Reader requirements—things that just encourage you to READ, doesn't matter WHAT you're reading. Then you hit the middle school/high school years and it just seems to drop. You're done with programs like AR; you're done with class visits to your school library to pick out some books; you're given six books you must read for English class that are usually "classics" and therefore pretty boring. And because you have to do it, you don't want to do it. So you start to resist reading. It's not fun; it's boring; books suck. You Google everything, and books are outdated. You develop poor research habits based on what's quickest and easiest, not the most thorough or accurate. Maybe, by some act of divine intervention, you'll pick up reading again in a few years before your adulthood habits and priorities are solidified. But most likely, if you lost interest once, it's gone.

And that's why I want to work with this fragile and underserved group. Yes, YA is the rapidly-growing hot reading genre, but you can't just produce the material. Spending time with teens, teaching them good research strategies and habits, inspiring in them a life-long quest for knowledge and love of learning, using their individual interests to motivate them—that is what I think teens need, and that's where I want to help.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Reading Roundup: Not What I Expected, Part 1

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This is going to be a story of two books I recently read and how they turned out to be entirely different than what I had expected at the beginning. I can't honestly say that happens very often in my reading adventures; I guess I'm usually just a pretty good early judge of my opinion, but these both surprised me.

The first was last month's book club selection, The Known World by Edward P. Jones. At first encounter, I thought, "Oh boy, it's a book about slavery. What an upper." And then I saw it won the Pulitzer, and I thought, "Oh boy, it's gonna be boring, too." And yes, it was. For a bit. The structure is non-linear and there's about a billion characters, which requires some time and dedication to fully grasp and get into. But somewhere just past a third of the way in, I got into it, and it turned out to be really stunning.

So yes, The Known World is about slavery, which I unfairly judge as a boring topic I've encountered one too many times, thanks to high school English. But, it's not really about the white vs. black theme of slavery predominant in American literature; it's about free blacks (specifically, a freed slave) owning slaves. The man around which all revolves, Henry Townsend, has had his freedom since he was a boy, when his free parents bought Henry's freedom from his master, William Robbins. Henry had an atypical upbringing as a slave under Robbins, who took Henry under his wing, made sure he was educated, and treated him more like a son than property. As a result, Henry adopted Robbin's belief system as an adult, which caused conflict between his parents, his plantation, and the Virginian society directly outside his realm of reign.

In this Virginia town that upheld slavery as an acceptable institution in society, free blacks owning slaves contradicted how things "were supposed to be." What Jones did—he made slavery less about race and more about class, invalidating all the rules from slavery that put blacks below whites. Naturally, this caused chaos that slowly, but surely, caused the town to essentially implode, as the rules of society and morality were called into question.

Jones' characters are complex with all the grey areas left open to explore. A single action can quickly shift your opinion, because no one is ever fully good or fully bad enough to have warranted permanent placement on either end of the spectrum. On a similar note, the scattered, time-jumping structure of the story can leave you wishing for more on some characters while other important ones reach their fate abruptly. The Known World keeps you on your toes, and you need focus while reading it. As I learned, it's not a book to be read in short snippets on your morning and evening subway commute. But it is very satisfying by the end, when you feel like you were plopped down in this specific place and time with these people and rules and you watch it all unfold and figure out what it all means.

By the way, there's a list of characters at the END of the book. Yeah, no one in book club realized that one until it was too late, either.

For brevity's sake, I'll post my second review at a later date. That turned out to be a lot longer than I expected, and I don't want to bore you to death...

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Book vs Movie: I Capture the Castle

True story: when I was a teen, I was OBSESSED with the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Like, unhealthily obsessed. And in seasons 4 and 5, my BFF Carol and I had huge crushes on Marc Blucas, the actor who played Buffy's college boyfriend. Like serious 'write fan letters, hang pictures in our lockers, hunt down his other movies, write notes about him' crushes. He was a total all-American boy beefcake. So, imagine my surprise when I'm browsing the Netflix instant library a few months ago and see his name in the credits of a BBC-produced film. I texted Carol immediately (because we still alert each other as to MB's whereabouts). And then I realized that I Capture the Castle is the book that's been sitting on my shelf in Nashville for years after my mom read it and passed it along to me.

Well, because I'm a book-before-the-movie type of person, I left I Capture the Castle and Marc Blucas patiently waiting on my Netflix queue until I headed home again and could grab my copy. I was actually excited to finally read it after all these years. My mom had recommended it to me back in my early college years or so, and the recommendation has only been reinforced since then; a fellow book club member who shares many of my reading tastes gave it the highest praises, citing it as one of her favorites.

Dodie Smith's classic is about a family living in squalor in an old English castle in the 1930s. Seventeen-year-old Cassandra guides us through the story via her journal pages. She's just on the cusp of childhood and adulthood and not quite certain where she belongs. Her older sister Rose longs for beautiful things and a rich lifestyle. Their father once wrote a great book but has been in a writing slump for years and refuses to get out of it. Stepmother Topaz is an eccentric soul, latching on to art and its creators. And little brother just tries to stay out of it. Life seems pretty mundane until two American brothers suddenly arrive  and stir things up (in a nutshell).

I think this was a case of my expectations being too high. I enjoyed this, I really did, but I just didn't see the magic that lots of people have found in the story. Cassandra was introduced as such a strong, independent character as opposed to her sister, a characterization that was reinforced throughout her journal entries. But eventually, I lost faith in her rationality. Cassandra was never as petulant as Rose, but I didn't hold them on such a different level by the end. Maturing as a result of new experiences is one thing; I think the point, by the end, was to show a stronger, more mature Cassandra, but I didn't like the path that took her there, nor felt she was the same independent girl who viewed the world with a naive fascination. And that's something I don't believe Cassandra would have lost, no matter her experiences.

After I finished the book, I finally watched the movie. Sometimes, I actually like the movie version better, as in the cases of Harriet the Spy, Atonement, and Julie & Julia. Minor plot shifts, the visualizations, or an actor's characterization can bring a new dimension to the story. But this one just didn't really add anything. I felt like I was seeing the same exact story I had just read. Maybe it was due to the fact that I wasn't totally enchanted with the story in the first place, but I probably could've skipped it. Except I got to enjoy MB on my TV screen once again. Ahhh.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Nonfiction | A man so cool, they named DVDs after him

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Eeep, I have been MIA for quite a while. I know it's bad when I have my next book club meeting in two days, and my post on last month's book is still one of my most recent posts. Somehow, I imagine fall as this wonderfully peaceful time of winding down from summer and getting nestled in for winter...but that doesn't seem to be the case. Do you remember the days when your weekends just sprung up like any other day of the week, open for spontaneity and without plans? Yeah, neither do I. Something happens in adulthood where suddenly every weekend is planned, and even weeknights quickly become booked. So strange! But maybe winter will slow things down...(though I'm not holding my breath).

A few months ago, I heard Dick Van Dyke on NPR's Wait, Wait...Don't Tell Me, where Peter Sagal provided the excellent introduction I am using as this post title. Dick Van Dyke has always been one of my favorites. When I was a kid, I could recite every line to Mary Poppins (which served me like counting sheep when trying to fall asleep) and spent my evenings watching Nike at Night. Needless to say, Dick Van Dyke has always entertained me, and after I heard about his memoir on Wait, Wait and I saw it at the library, I picked it up.

My Lucky Life In and Out of Show Business chronicles DVD's career from his early high school days at a radio station to the present. His life is barely controversial, and he's candid and honest with his storytelling. The main point he drives home is that...he has no idea how all his success happened; he maintains it's all luck. And maybe it is, but the guy is a fabulous entertainer. He's got a rare talent of physical humor and has a pretty good stage presence. As entertaining as Dick Van Dyke is on the stage, screen, and radio...he maaaaay not be the most entertaining writer.

Some of his stories were so interesting, especially reading about the how the TV industry worked in days past. I have zero doubt in my mind that I could have dinner with DVD and he could recite every line from his book, and I'd be enthralled, intrigued, entertained, etc. But that's the thing with much of his personality is dependent on his physical presence that his words typed on a page read kind of dry. I don't love him any less, but I think I'll stick to watching a man "so cool, his initials have entered the international lexicon" on my TV screen.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Fiction | The story of the Puzzle King

I've been waiting for just the right moment to read The Puzzle King for quite a while. You know how sometimes you want to read a book, but you just know you need to hold off for a little while? Maybe you just read something similar or maybe you're just not in the right mood...I want to urge you to follow my new rule for reading: DON'T FORCE IT! Because a book will probably be better if you wait!

I picked this up at just the right time—after some non-fiction and before my (possibly) depressing book club selection. The Puzzle King is just serious enough to make the story feel worthwhile without bogging my mind down with depressing thoughts. The story begins with a 9-year-old boy named Simon whose mother has put him on a ship alone to start a new life in America. Basically the only thing he has going for him is his artistic talent; he's a fabulous drawer and earns a reputation as such, even as a kid. A decade later, Simon meets Flora, a German immigrant who has been in the States for four years. As their relationship blossoms, the world gets complicated. As Simon and Flora's life prospers in America,  Jewish relatives in Germany are suffering under Hitler's rule. In case you can't tell, The Puzzle King has got a lot of dimensions to it...

First of all, the characters are fabulously developed. They each have their own defining belief system, sometimes conflicting with other characters and sometimes creating an internal conflict. These conflicts between characters are representative of much bigger conflict in the story. Carter creates a divide between one's history and one's present. As anti-Semitism is developing worldwide, characters in the US are torn between their European roots and their current situation in America—much of a "need we worry about what's happening there when we're here" mentality. Characters question what defines them as individuals—"am I defined by my country though it's turned its back on me?"

Carter knows how to tell a good story. And the exciting part is that it's based on her own family legend and lore! She has created her own puzzle in the narrative of The Puzzle King, interlocking family and identity with past and present. The sense of time and place is so distinct...and really troubling—the idea that you can work hard and create a successful life but knowing that others won't have that chance, that you're still hindered by where you came from.

My only complaint is that the story seemed to end rather abruptly. I had twenty pages left and couldn't even imagine how the author was going to wrap it up so quickly, and I was left wondering how things turned out for several of the characters. But, maybe that was intentional—the same uncertainty that many characters like these had to live with at the time. This is the exact kind of book I'd recommend to my mom (and I will! If you're reading, Mom, HI! Read this!). It's more substantial than light reading but light enough to be enjoyable and give you something to think about.

Note: I found this similar in tone to Colm Toibin's Brooklyn. So if you liked that, you'll probably like this.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Nonfiction | Lost in the Amazon

After a long Anna Karenina-filled end of summer, my Idlewild book club decided on something a little lighter for our October meeting. Enter, the nonfiction bestseller, The Lost City of Z by David Grann. Grann is a writer at The New Yorker, and this first book of his led him deep into the Amazon to investigate the 1925 disappearance of explorer Colonel Percy Fawcett.

Fawcett's story is notorious. One of the last "gentlemen explorers" of the 20th century, Fawcett was a member of the Royal Geographic Society, an organization that sent explorers to map unknown parts of the world for the advancement of geographical sciences. First of all, take that in for a minute. Less than a hundred years ago, there were still parts of the world unmapped. It's not a fact easily comprehendible, when we live in a world in which I can currently perform a live street view search via Internet on my suburban house 800 miles away.

Fawcett took several trips to and through the Amazon in his day to map its unchartered abyss, but his 1925 expedition is unquestionably his most famous...because he never returned. Accompanied by his son Jack and Jack's lifelong friend Raleigh Rimmel, Fawcett entered the forest on a quest for Z, a lost city of grandeur he believed to have been hidden deep in the Amazon.

Imagine this: no phones, no satellites, no GPS, no Gore-tex, no Off, no modern gadgets for ease and convenience. You have none of these things and you're entering an unmapped territory, populated by possibly hostile natives, where nature rules. And let me tell you, Grann makes it clear that nature is nothing to mess around with—so many bugs that can invade your skin and body, viruses and bacteria that invade your body and mind, things so disgusting that you'll cringe as you read their attacks on explorers. WHY WOULD YOU SUBJECT YOURSELF TO THAT?

Fawcett wasn't the first to quest for a lost city. The legend of El Dorado long preceded Fawcett and his crew, but Fawcett believed he'd found proof, had faith, and was just antsy enough to keep trying. A lot of worldwide speculation has been made since Fawcett began his trek in 1925 and never returned—did he die of hunger? Was he killed by natives? Has he been held hostage? Did he decide to stay in the jungle? Grann uses our modern tools of the 21st century to try and follow Fawcett's path, find out Fawcett's fate, and see if there ever was a Z that existed.

That all was more of a summary than a review, but that's kinda how it goes with this book. It's a fascinating piece of 'armchair travel' nonfiction, one of those stories that's gonna make you want to Google everything and find out more information as you read it. It's got some good ideas to what drives a person to such a quest? And can man ever really conquer nature? Does it need to? Should it? Living in a world that feels pretty domesticated, we're reminded by The Lost City of Z that nature is King. It's no joke; it can chew us up, spit us out, and make it look like we never existed—an idea further explored in Alan Weisman's The World Without Us.

Anyone else read this one?

Monday, October 17, 2011

Reading Roundup: Eclectic set of fiction

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October is here in full force, and it's already been a busy one! I spent six days in Nashville, wrote a paper for class, sped through my book club book, and celebrated my birthday—all in the past ten days! Thus, a reading roundup is necessary to get myself caught up and let you guys know what I've been reading!

I checked out Beth Hoffman's Saving CeeCee Honeycutt from the library and downloaded to my eReader for a day at the beach day back during Labor Day weekend (so long ago!). In case you don't recall, it got quite a bit of buzz in the blogosphere back in the Spring of last year. Well, I finally got around to reading it! It was perfect for a beach read, because I read the whole thing in about 5 hours sitting in the sun.

Twelve-year-old CeeCee has a big burden on her shoulders, and that burden is her mother. With a distant father that's always traveling for work, CeeCee has become the main caretaker of her crazy mother—a woman who thinks she's winning a Georgia beauty pageant in 1951, even though it's 1967 and they're in Ohio. After tragedy strikes, CeeCee finds herself living in Savannah with a great-aunt where she can finally be the one looked after, instead of doing the looking after. Saving CeeCee Honeycutt is sort of a coming-of-age tale for CeeCee as she adjusts to her new life in a new part of the country, new social issues, new relationships, and finally has room to discover herself.

The cast of characters was amusing and diverse in scope, and this was an enjoyable read—great for the beach. And...just that. I bet it was a big book club choice for 40-something Southern women. Similar to The Help in that it has a real easy writing style, reflects that Southern vibe, and sorta touches on social issues but not in a really gritty, intense, profound literary way. In that way, it makes both these books and any similar seem kinda formulaic. But I mean, I still enjoyed it.


The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy was a book that I've been wanting to read for months (maybe even a couple years?) and just never got around to it. Finally after one book club meeting, I decided to buy it on a wine-influenced whim (is that why wine is served at our meetings?). I read Dundy's other novel, The Old Man and Me, last year, and supposedly The Dud Avocado is the better one (though they both have their cult following). In Dud, Sally Jay is an American that's headed to Paris in the 1950s to live as one of those "lost youth" so prevalent in literature at the time. She's witty and charming and sometimes a little crazy like any good young ingenue. 

Well, here's the thing. I read this so long ago, and this whole time I've struggled on what to write about it. I had the same issue with The Old Man and Me. And because the writing is just so full of subtle wit and a highly developed (in terms of writing) and complex character, I feel I can't do it justice by just reading it once. So I'm not going to say much more about it, except this: The Dud Avocado and Dundy's works require more than a single light reading, and I hope to give them some point.


My hiatus from the Penderwicks didn't last long, because I picked up the most recent in the series the last time I was at the library. The Penderwicks at Point Mouette is the third in the series by Jeanne Birdsall that follows the adventures of the Penderwick sisters and their friend Jeffrey. This time, Daddy is on his honeymoon in England, Rosalind is vacationing at the beach with a friend, and the rest of the Penderwicks (and Jeffrey) have headed to Maine with Aunt Claire. 

I liked this better than the last one, and I appreciated the details that made it a small departure from the previous two. Skye's character was developed and came into her own as she performed the role as the Oldest Available Penderwick; Jane experienced her first real disappointment with love and a more grown-up world; Jeffrey was finally a leading man rather than just supporting cast as he got his own unique storyline; and the girls all had learning, growing experience when Daddy wasn't there to fix everything. 

I don't think the Penderwicks series has quite as much depth as some of my other childhood favorites, like Anne of Green Gables or Betsy-Tacy, and part of that may be due to its ensemble cast as opposed to a single main character. But, Birdsall has created characters and stories that are fun to follow and are pretty timeless experiences of childhood and adolescence.

Monday, October 3, 2011

World Party: An Uninspired Conclusion...

Well folks, September has come and gone, which means that the 2010-2011 World Reading Challenge has officially come to a close. I am proud to say I kept up with this challenge all year! Except At the end. Right at the last month.

I sorta failed.

September's month was India, and I chose to read Salman Rushdie's well-known Midnight's Children. Originally published in 1980, it won the Booker Prize in 1981, the Booker of Bookers Prize in 1993 (a special award celebrating 25 years of the Booker Prize), and the Best of the Booker in 2008, celebrating the Booker's 40th. I'd never read Rushdie and I had nothing else in mind for India, so why not go with something so prestigious? (Plus, it was available as an eBook through the Brooklyn PL, once again saving me a physical trip to the library.)

Well...this is not a quick read. The story focuses on Saleem Sinai, born at midnight on August 15, 1947, his birth coinciding with the birth of a new, independent India. Rushdie's novel is divided into three "books," and Saleem is the narrator of the story. The first book serves as an introduction to Saleem's own life—stories of his grandparents and parents, of a prophecy made about him before his birth. Then narrator Saleem slowly introduces his own birth and childhood, interactions with family and peers, with the spectacle of India's independence happening all the while in the background. Most notable about Saleem is his "special power" that allows him to enter the mind of all the other thousand "midnight's children."

I know that Midnight's Children is notable for its unique use of language, an Indian perspective on the English language. Likewise, it contains elements of magical realism and is often compared to One Hundred Years of Solitude. So language, structure, and flow may or may not be to blame here when I let you know that I DID NOT FINISH either of these books.

It is extremely rare that I start and book and put it down without finishing it. I can only think of one other book I've done that with in the past decade, and that, coincidentally (or not?), is Marquez's classic, which I started and gave up on about two years ago. But this is what happened with Midnight's Children: I was about 250 pages in with over 300 left to go, my eBook check-out expired today, and I just was not into the story enough to dedicate another week or more to this book. The structure of the story takes time; the language has a specific style and pace, one which takes focus. I've got a busy schedule and list of exciting things I want to read, and frankly, I decided this wasn't worth my time struggling. Maybe I'll come back to it someday, but for now...sorry, India. I let you down in this challenge.


I am very pleased I chose to follow this challenge over the past year. It's actually something I have told many people about and have promoted as a good way to broaden your reading horizons. For the most part, I am happy with my reading choices. I chose some because I felt like I should read them and some because they were easily accessible. Persepolis and The Reluctant Fundamentalist were my favorites; Three Cups of Tea was inspiring at the time but has had interesting developments since I read it; and some (read: Wolf Hall) were just too smart for me. I'd like to do a similar challenge again someday, but for now I'm going to take a bit of a break from a reading schedule!

The World Reading Challenge Year-In-Review:

Friday, September 30, 2011

Fiction | Sentimentality in Athens

Alright, I am not a sappy person. I am an appreciator of well-written romantic language, but I don't like the flowery stuff. To me, Simon Van Booy walks a thin line between the two.

In Everything Beautiful Began After, the author's first full-lenth novel, three young, lost individuals have come to Athens and their paths cross. George, an American from Kentucky with a boarding school past and a drinking problem, has come to Athens to get lost in ancient languages; Henry, from England, is there on a dig as a successful young archaeologist; and Rebecca, French, is an artist seeking inspiration and trying to find herself. The events of their summer together will prove to affect each one of them more than expected and continue to define them.

This is not my first encounter with Van Booy; I read his latest short story collection, The Secret Lives of People in Love, last year and the language was something of which I definitely took note. Like in his short stories, his language, to me, borders on exquisite and trite. I think certain sentences are beautiful and subtly capture a feeling:
Like some devout follower of an obscure religion, he was moved to tears frequently by what he perceived as divine moments—like rain on the window or the smell of apples, or a man reading a book with his daughter in the park; a flock of passing birds. (p. 91)
"How does it feel holding the leg of someone who once lived?"..."I wonder about their lives—not the main events, but small things, like drinking a glass of water, or folding clothes, or walking home." (p.105)

...and some are overly descriptive, like they're forcefully trying to make a poetic statement someone will underline:
He would give up his search for the dead. Love is like life but longer. (p.188)
Language is like drinking from one's own reflection in still water. We only take from it what we are at that time. (p 275)

Van Booy had more room in this novel to fully flesh out his characters than in his short stories, so I found that he relied less on the pithy one-liners to grab the reader's emotion. In this book, it wasn't really the language that made me roll my eyes at times, it was the writing style. The Prologue begins with a third-person omniscient perspective on the abstract existence and thoughts of some unknown child; the story continues with a third-person storytelling of our characters; a section later delves into communication between Henry and George strictly through images of fax machine letters (which I quite liked a lot!); and then it goes into the rare second-person perspective of Henry, and this is where I just said, "Oh boy..." Call me unappreciative of fine literary technique, but I just can't appreciate. This last section struck me as using various writing techniques just for the sake of it; I'm not sure what purpose it actually served and whether the story benefited from it. But at least it didn't feel too gimmicky.

I think Van Booy is talented with his use of language; he's mastered his own personal writing style. Nothing against him, but I'm just not sure I have the tastes to completely appreciate it. I roll my eyes at sap; I roll my eyes at 99% of poetry. It's just not my thing. I can appreciate a lot of what Van Booy says; my inner-cynic just needs it in small doses.

Monday, September 26, 2011

A Belated Book Blogger Appreciation Note and Giveaway

I know that Book Blogger Appreciation Week came and went, but you'd never notice it based on this site. That was an intentional choice; between working full-time, grad school, banjo lessons (yes, I'm taking banjo lessons), and other really important things like watching Friday Night Lights on Netflix, this blog often gets the shaft.

As a result, this leaves me less involved in the book blog community than I would like to be. I don't have as much time to browse all your lovely blogs and check up on what you've been reading. Posting on this blog has dropped dramatically since its early days (if I can get something out once a week, I feel I'm doing well) and my posting inconsistency does not, in turn, foster much of a discussion, because I know you blog readers like frequency! 

But excuses aside, I just wanted to say I am VERY appreciative of the book blogging world! I thank you guys for constantly giving me new books to read [Seriously, I used to browse the shelves at the library or bookstores to find my new reads, and I don't even remember the last time I did that. Now, all the books I read come from other bloggers' recommendations.] and for taking time to add to the discussion here with your thoughts and comments.

And now, I'm not trying to buy your love...but I have a lot of books on my desk that are duplicates or that I've already read (some are ARCs, and they are from Algonquin, so thanks Algonquin!), and I'd like to share them with you. If you're interested in any of these books, please fill out the form below and I'll shoot you an email. First come, first serve. Please limit your choice to one title.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Reading Anna Karenina: Part II

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After a nice two-week break, I finally got back to Anna Karenina and finished it in time for our Idlewild book club discussion last week.

You know what I thought of Anna Karenina, Parts V-VIII? Mostly...BORING. Maybe it was because I already knew the characters; maybe because Tolstoy seemed to go on endless detailed rants, even more so than before; maybe because I was reading on long subway commutes and was being gently rocked to sleep anyway. But whatever the reason, I was just itching to finish.

My final thoughts on the book are pretty consistent with my original thoughts—more than consistent; those thoughts were completely reinforced!

  • The level of detail that I griped about back during the first half of the book seemed to take over certain sections. Long-winded chapters about hunting trips and dinner discussions and political elections about bore me to tears. I definitely zoned out for all of these sections during those long train rides mentioned before.
  • I thought the book's strongest point is that Tolstoy handles each character with such detail that they seem realistic—neither one way nor another, neither black nor white. This was particularly poignant in Tolstoy's treatment of his women characters. Anna is, at one point or another, intelligent, confident, irrational, jealous, passionate, apathetic, and ultimately her hysteria takes control and she spirals out of control, leaving you to wonder what happened to all her strong, independent characteristics.

I know that one of the notable features of Anna Karenina is that Tolstoy does address the issues of society in 19th century Russia, but as I mentioned, they bore me, so I don't have much to say on those. My favorite feature of the story, though, is how Tolstoy juxtaposes his characters and couples to create a story about relationships and how they are affected by the society in which they are built and by the individual personalities involved. The reader is constantly comparing Anna/Vronksy to Kitty/Levin because their stories are presented side-by-side.

One of the most important things to note upon finishing this book is—why is it called Anna Karenina? Sure, it's the plot line that everyone knows, the focus of any movie adaptations...but Anna's story is not the most important one in this novel. Yes, it's the most dramatic (a love affair, a fallen woman—ingredients for a headlining story), but Tolstoy spends most of his attention on Levin and his own personal awakening. The entire eighth part of the book, in fact, has moved entirely beyond Anna and Vronksy and is devoted entirely to Levin and his own struggle with reason and meaning. It leaves you wondering: What story did Tolstoy intend to write? Was Anna's only purpose to grab readers with a "dramatic" plotline? And if so, why did he name the book after her?

I never had to read this book in high school, but many other book club members did and noted how different their opinion was this time around as adults—when you understand complex relationships and recognize the grey areas. I have to wonder if I would've brushed this book aside ten years ago without thinking further about it.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Reading Roundup: Fiction for the Younger Set

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Last month, I told you about an awesome new children's series called The Penderwicks about four sisters, their widowed father, and their adventures and hijinks. I loved the first in the series and said it's just the kind of series I'm always looking for, because it's lighthearted and fun and perfectly representative of childhood. I'm trying to drag this series out since, so far, it only consists of three books, but I couldn't resist picking up the second in the series, The Penderwicks on Gardam Street, when I saw it waiting on the shelf.

This installment of the Penderwicks brings the girls back to their own home on Gardam Street and back to the routine of a new school year. But things are not all routine; Mr. Penderwick, goaded by his sister, has started dating again, much to the girls' chagrin. Seeing how unhappy and uncomfortable their father is navigating the dating world, the girls institute the Save-Daddy Plan.

While certainly still enjoyable, I found the second in the series a lot more predictable in the first, particularly because a major plot point depends on the fact that the intended reading audience is most likely under the age of eleven. Most adult booknerds will quickly pick up on the literary clue and realize how the story is going to end. That being said, I still love the daily adventures of the Penderwicks, and I'm going to have to seriously resist picking up the next in the series, The Penderwicks at Point Mouette, on my next library visit.


Deb Caletti's Wild Roses is a book that's been sitting on my shelf to be read since last year's BEA and BBC. To be honest, I don't read much YA fiction, because...well, I am beyond those years. I don't need stories to connect to as an angsty teen; I don't need to look back on stories of adolescence with fond memories as I like to do with JUV fiction; and mostly, I just don't want to read about teenage issues that seem so imperative when you're a teen but that I'd just roll my eyes at now. Go me a cynical, jaded ADULT. However, I've been on a kick where I'm trying to read the books that have been sitting on my shelves forever, so I finally picked it up.

Cassie is seventeen and has a stressful home life; her divorced mother remarried Dino Cavalli, a prodigy composer and musician, but emotional time bomb. The talented Ian Waters enters Cassie's life as he begins lessons under Dino's tutelage, and Cassie—big surprise—falls in love.

As far as YA fiction goes, I think Wild Roses hits the mark. It deals with teen issues like relationships, family drama, divorce, depression, responsibility, and that big scary "future" with grace—never in your face, never over the top, never too much. There are many things for teens to relate to in this story, whether it be situationally or emotionally. I did have some issues—the basis of a relationship between Cassie's mom and the emotionally abusive Dino seemed unrealistic to me; the fact that more time was spent on chronicling Dino's decline than delving into the depths of Cassie's thoughts; that the teenage first romantic encounter is the be-all, end-all love story. Maybe my reaction is just influenced by my own teen experiences, because while Wild Roses may stand out to its intended audience, it was just a typical YA novel to me.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

World Party: Contemporary Thailand through many sets of eyes

Thailand was August's country of choice for the World Reading Challenge, and I chose some contemporary fiction—Sightseeing by Rattawut Lapcharoensap.

Sightseeing is a collection of seven short stories that touch on issues like family tension, generational division, and cultural differences. These stories all felt very raw. They all focused on one particular moment of life—an encounter with an foreign tourist, a trip abroad with a parent, a man's experience with the draft, an encounter with a refugee neighbor—but none of these moments, these stories, felt particularly optimistic. The voices in the stories all felt...not defeated, exactly, but perhaps disenchanted. It may have something to do with the perspective of the stories' narrators. Several of the stories were written in the past tense, as if the narrator was reflecting on this past incident or moment. Maybe this is why the voices sound so detached; maybe these are memories the narrators would rather not remember.

It's also worth noting that all of Lapcharoensap's narrators—except the narrator of the final story, "The Cockfighter"—were male, and I wondered why this was. Did culture play a role in that decision or was it purely the whim of the author? Though these stories, as I mentioned, weren't very happy, I found myself sympathetic with all of their narrators. I couldn't quite figure this author out after reading a couple of the stories. Sometimes, when you start a short story collection, you quickly pick up on the author's style and realize that all the stories have similar endings—a happy ending, a bittersweet ending, an unhappy ending. For example, when I read Simon Van Booy's The Secret Lives of People in Love, I quickly learned that all his stories end with some little catch, some little amount of pain that keeps the ending from being completely "happy." Well, Lapcharoensap isn't that easy to categorize. Some stories ended bittersweet, some happy, some poignant, and some just ended without much conclusion. Overall, these stories served more as introductions to characters than conclusions. The endings were mostly open-ended, which makes these characters memorable as you wonder what happened to them.

A good selection for the World Reading Challenge, and a good collection of short stories for readers interested in exploring unfamiliar (or at least, different) cultures.

Only one month left in this year-long World Reading Challenge, and I have to pat myself on the back here for successfully keeping up with it! September's country is India, and I haven't chosen a book yet. Any suggestions?

Thursday, September 1, 2011

How the west was won by some modern ladies

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Dorothy Wickenden's Nothing Daunted: The Unexpected Education of Two Society Girls in the West went on my to-read queue thanks to a feature on NPR, but it's apparently been getting quite a bit of buzz lately on its own accord.

Authored by the executive editor of The New Yorker, Nothing Daunted tells the story of two women who head west from upstate New York in 1916 to teach school in the wilderness of Colorado. These were society girls, lifelong friends and recent graduates of Smith College, that were never expected to work, much less work in a remote mountaintop schoolhouse thousands of miles away. Life out west obviously took some adjusting—riding miles on horseback to school no matter the weather, clothing kids without the resources to keep themselves warm in the winter—but Dorothy and Rosamund were the adventurous type, embraced the lifestyle, and won the hearts of the community.

This was a fun book for me, as someone who has shows like "The 1900 House" on her Netflix queue and relishes storytelling that gives a glimpse of life in the past. Not only does it give a detailed account of Ros and Dorothy's experiences, Wickenden wrote this book with context; we learn about western railroad expansion as we read anecdotes about the role it played in daily life in the tiny town of Elkhead.

I can't decide what this book made me want to do more, go out west or go back in time. But it definitely ignited my sense of adventure.

Ultimately, Nothing Daunted is an ode to an experience. It doesn't end with any real overt message or lesson to learn. Instead, it chronicles this experience of Dorothy and Ros and reminds the reader that some are the kind never to be forgotten.

And hey! This fulfilled one of my missions to read about the western experience!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Reading Anna Karenina: Part I

When I stopped by Idlewild in July to discover August's book club selection, I learned something unsettling: We were completely bypassing August and meeting again in September...and the book was Anna Karenina. I looked at it sitting there, so big and daunting, and promptly turned around and walked out of the store. I thought, "Anna Karenina?? REALLY?? This isn't 11th grade English! If I had wanted to read this, I'd have read it by now!!!!"

So I had completely decided to skip this one. Anna Karenina...HA. But then a couple weeks passed; I remembered that book club is one of my favorite extra-curricular activities, and I didn't want to miss another meeting with no excuse besides not wanting to read the book. And I discovered that the Brooklyn Public Library had the exact version (the newest translation) we were reading available as an eBook and therefore would require literally no effort to I gave in and started reading Anna Karenina.

Anna Karenina is not a difficult read, but it's not exactly a quick one, either. It's a "story told in eight parts," and I made it through four of them before my two-week digital check-out expired. But that was perfect, because I needed a break from Anna Karenina.

What do those few of you who don't know much about Anna Karenina need to know? Russia. Social rules. Love affair.

What have I learned so far?

  • Tolstoy is detailed in his writing...painstakingly detailed. He's created these interesting, dynamic characters but sometimes goes into so much detail that it becomes incredibly boring. It's like he starts writing about one of them and then gets carried away and keeps going and going to the point where you're like "Ok, great, I see that Levin got a kick out of manual labor, but geez I don't need to know about every swoop of his scythe."
  • The story can drag...but so can the characters. They all have some sort of "falling from grace" moment, some indication that they aren't easily pigeonholed as the certain type of person you initially took them to be. You think Levin is this socially-awkward, quiet type that you kinda feel sorry for while cheering him on, and then he gets really critical of the peasants and that just seems sorta uncalled for. Vronksy seems like the knight in shining armor type, but then you find out he's in debt and tries to off himself because he just can't deal. No one's perfect, I guess.
  • On the same note, I don't particularly like any of the characters. Most of us know how the story ends, so I guess I keep reading just to see how it gets there. It is like a soap opera, but a demure, high-collared one.

Since I never had to read this in high school and thus missed the mega-analysis that English teachers force upon you, I feel like there's probably a lot I'm missing. But that's part of the reason I chose to read this with book club, because I'll get more out of it than if I chose to read it alone. (But let's be serious, that wouldn't have ever happened anyway.)

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The JUV FIC Corner presents Anastasia Krupnik

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One of my favorite series in middle school was Lois Lowry's Anastasia Krupnik series. I remembered one very important covetous thing about Anastasia Krupnik—her room was in the tower of an old Victorian house. That was all I remembered about this series beyond remembering that I really liked the books.

I grabbed the first in the Anastasia series, the eponymous Anastasia Krupnik, from the Nashville Public Library when I was home last month. [Brooklyn PL, I cannot figure out what fills the shelves at my local branch because you NEVER HAVE WHAT I NEED!] I sped through it and...realized I don't think I'd ever read the first in the series before. I mean, I remembered NOTHING from this book. I didn't remember any plot points from this one, but it serves as an introduction...

Definitely the cover I remember.*
Anastasia is a 10-year-old only child living in an apartment in Cambridge, MA. She's a likable character, now and especially to my 10- to 12-year-old self. She's spunky (the good JUV FIC female characters always are!) and creative, smart and opinionated.  Her parents are just as smart and quirky (a professor father and artist mother) and treat Anastasia like a person and not just a kid—they sing opera and listen to classical music and read poetry, let Anastasia drink the first sip when they open a beer, and tease yet appease her childish whims.

Well, since I didn't remember the first one in the series, I moved onto the second, Anastasia Again. Now, Anastasia and her parents have moved to the suburbs (in the Victoria house with a tower! WIN!), she has a new little brother named Sam, and Anastasia deals with meeting new friends and keeping in touch with her old ones through a series of humorous hijinks that can only be signature of Anastasia. I read this one and it was exactly as I hoped it would be—all the memories came flooding back and I remembered all the silly things that happened!

There are several reasons I loved Anastasia Again this time around:
  1. I can see how stories and characters like this deeply influenced me as a kid. Anastasia and her family lived in a very academic, cultured environment, and that's something I always strived for growing up (even as a kid). They listened to classical music and (probably) watched PBS. Anastasia and her parents had a relationship that was much more than parent/child; it was more equal, as a friendship, with some mentorship thrown in.
  2. It demonstrates a worldly view that I think is really important, and fun, for kids to have growing up. Lowry describes the cultural diversity in the parks of Cambridge, the lifestyles of persons with different interests and of different ages. Aside from eventually having my own kids that I am excited to expose to new things, this is also one of the main reasons I am so excited to be a librarian and have books like this available to share with readers.
  3. Anastasia is a JUV FIC series, but it's not written as if it's directed only towards kids. Lowry talks about things that surprised me a bit, things that only adults would get—mention of Playboy and pornography and curse words (though we know kids understand those). Frankly, I'm surprised they survived publication [though I have read a couple notes that Anastasia books have been challenged in libraries for their language].

I thought Anastasia Again was much better than the first, and I may keep on with reading the series since they're all available as eBooks from the Brooklyn PL (FINALLY, Brooklyn!). It's fun to see now, as an adult, how books I read in my childhood/youth have probably shaped my world view, and I'm certain that Anastasia had some influence somewhere in there.

*Note: When I write these JUV FIC posts, I try to use the cover images that I remember as a kid. Looking at the Anastasia covers, there are so many editions and I remember them all!

Monday, August 8, 2011

The English and their drama


There's been buzz for the past few months, both in the blogosphere and beyond, about the English series Downton Abbey (aired in the U.S. as a PBS Masterpiece Classic), and I'm just going to contribute to that buzz. Colin and I discovered this mini-series off the recommendation of a friend, and, conveniently, it's available streaming through Netflix.

Downton Abbey follows the lives of the wealthy Crawley family, owners of the fictional Downton Abbey, and their numerous servants in the years just preceding World War I. With the sinking of the Titanic, along goes the two male heirs presumptive of Downton, and the Crawleys must determine who will become Lord Grantham's heir. Most of the heir drama centers around Lady Mary, the eldest of the three Crawley daughters, whose future husband will most likely become the heir. But they also mention a lot of stuff about an "entail" but I don't know much about English inheritance rules and therefore still don't really understand what all that's about.

On the servant side of Downton, hierarchy rules, from butler and housekeeper, to valet, lady's maids, footmen, housemaids,  down to kitchen maid. Each member of the Downton staff has their own story and their own history. A staff so numerous with sometimes clashing personalities has the ability to affect the entire house. The line between the Crawleys and their employee is clear, but that's not to say that relationships are cold, nor strictly formal. Friendships, loyalties, and frustrations abound.

So, ohmygod, is Downton addicting. We started the series last Sunday night and had finished all seven episodes 24 hours later. The plot lines are entertaining and just the right amount of drama. The acting is superb. The casting is perfection. Maggie Smith, always entertaining herself, as the Dowager Countess has some of the best one-liners that have graced my ears in a good long time.

If you like ensemble casts, watch this. If you're a booknerd and like stylized period pieces, watch this. If you like subtle English humor that often jabs at Americans, watch this. AND if you want to get hooked to a new series that is COMING BACK IN JANUARY ON PBS [or fall 2011 for our English friends] so you'll have something exciting to look forward this!

Thursday, August 4, 2011

World Party: Corrida de toros...olé!

About a week before the end of the month, I realized I had not yet read a book for the World Reading Challenge! July's country was Spain, and, though I'm sure there are much better books representative of Spain by actual Spanish authors, I chose The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway; I'd never read any Hemingway and the library had tons of copies immediately available. [What did I read in high school, you may ask? Apparently not the classics.]

One reason I'd never read any Hemingway is because I was intimidated by his writing. I always perceived it as difficult—full of symbolism and themes and motifs and all that crap that makes it a high school English requirement. I thought he was something like Faulkner with the rambling and incoherence. But I was quickly informed that is not the case with Hemingway. He writes in short, staccato sentences with lots of short dialogue. Apparently this is his trademark. Thanks, high school English, for teaching me about important American authors.

Another reason I'd avoided Hemingway kind of goes with my first reason; I assumed his books were all depressing and serious. Since this is the only book I've read of his up to this point, I'm not sure I've been all wrong on this assumption, but The Sun Also Rises is less dark and difficult than I'd expected. It's more Kerouac and Salinger than Faulkner in terms of writing style and character. Youths of a post-war generation aimlessly wandering the world...eating, drinking, dating, and thinking of little else. The power struggle between young men and women. These are the same youths of other high school reading classics that just seem so miserable and never admitting it, so lost on their quest to find something of meaning in the world. These characters are never particularly likable. They drink and smoke and have intellectual conversations and arguments usually over nothing, and are generally just so lonely.

The Sun Also Rises is probably most well-known for its focus on bullfighting (hence Spain). I'm trying to read into this book as I would have in high school [by reading the Sparknotes alongside to figure out what the hell someone can interpret from this and test me on]. The bullfighting, I'm certain, plays a huge symbolic role—seduction and danger that parallels character drama in the text. But frankly, that is not what I thought of as I read it. I thought, and call me stupid if you want, "They always kill the bulls in the end???" I've seen the bullfighting arenas in Valencia, Madrid, and Cordoba, but I guess I just never gave them that much thought. I didn't know they always killed them. Poor bulls.

Other than the geographical setting and focus on the bulls, I didn't feel much sense of place (of Spain) with this book, which is why I'm certain there would've been better options for this month's country of choice. I guess I'm glad to have read this so I can now actively participate in a Hemingway discussion. [Coincidentally, I just read an article about him and his Ketchum, Idaho, home in an in-flight magazine.] Can't say I'm too inspired to read any of his other works, though.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Vacation Reading, Part III

The books I read in Florida really deserve their own posts, but work has been busy and I'm not going to drag these reading compilation posts out any longer than I must!

So, for the third and final chapter of my vacation reading: What I read in Florida

The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy, the first in a newish children's series by Jeanne Birdsall, is just the kind of book/series I feel I am ALWAYS LOOKING FOR! It's got that innocent, old-school kinda style of the books I grew up reading as a kid—that simple and timeless quality that I love in Lois Lowry and Beverly Cleary books. This story could've been set on 2010 or 1960, and it wouldn't make much of a difference. The Penderwicks are four sisters—Rosalind (age 12), Skye (11), Jane (10), and Batty (4)—who live with their widowed father and pet dog, Hound. In this intro to the series, the Penderwick crew is on summer vacation in the Berkshire Mountains where the sisters meet a young gardener, two rabbits, and a young boy with a horrid mother.

Birdsall creates her story with the day-to-day occurrences that so deeply affect those with an adolescent mentality. She does a good job of creating four distinct and unique characters with the Penderwick sisters who each experience and react to things in her own way. Each character has her own adventure, which is nice because you feel like you know each of them equally as well. There are, so far, three books in the Penderwick series, and I've already started number 2. These are the kinds of books that hooked me when I was kid because they were simple enough to be familiar and relatable but featured new adventures and settings that I did not live. And now I like them for the same reason, and because much of my mentality is still that of an 11-year-old; I'm always on a quest to find things that feel as simple, innocent, and fun as childhood.

Coming Home by Rosamunde Pilcher is a chunkster I read about on a blog and decided I must read, because it sounded like an epic coming-of-age story centered around WWII. The edition I received through Paperbackswap looks like a romance novel. For this reason, I have been saving it for a beach read, just because it looks the part.

The story opens in 1936 when Judith Dunbar is fourteen and beginning boarding school in England after her father's job transfers the family to Singapore. With a couple of aunts being the only relatives Judith has left in Cornwall, she befriends a classmate named Loveday Carey-Lewis and becomes a surrogate member of the Carey-Lewis clan. At the heart of Coming Home are the two frontiers on which Judith grows up and learns to navigate the world independently; she must grow and learn as any normal teenager, but she also must grow in response to the omnipresent war. Love, longing, sadness, independence—all that goes with your typical coming-of-age story is here.

Well, this book is long and I didn't finish it until after I got back to New York. And you know what this means? I was ridiculed many times for reading "something that looks like my grandma would like." So I want to thank you, St. Martin's Paperbacks, for designing such AWFUL book covers. Pilcher's books were republished recently with non-romance novel covers (shown), thank god, so maybe they won't be so judged by the cover. Regardless, I loved this as I figured I would. I was sucked in for 1000 pages of adolescent English wartime drama, and then I discovered there's a miniseries version available instantly on Netflix! I'm also planning on checking out Pilcher's other non-romance novels, and I don't care who makes fun of me on the L train.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Vacation Reading, Part II

Next on my very slow (sorry!) review of books I read on vacation: What I read in Nashville

Jeannette Walls' The Glass Castle has been sitting on my shelf for at least two years, but after a friend recently urged me to JUST READ IT, I moved it up in the queue. This one's had a lot of hype and been around for quite a while, so you probably already know it.

Jeannette grew up with some...interesting...parents. They were, at the same time, incredibly inspiring and incredibly negligent. I hesitate to specify any particular anecdotes so as not to sway your judgments one way or another, because this book has a very strange grey-area sort of perspective. It's written in brief snippets of chapters that are anecdotal, which make it, yes, unputdownable; it's a fast read and engrossing. But it's one of those stories that glides by on the surface as you're reading, and then when you stop to think about it, the questions pop up.

Like, isn't it interesting how Walls writes this with almost no subjectivity? Situations that enrage me, as the reader, are simply stated, without reflection or emotion. In fact, we feel more a sentiment of affection rather than anger—a sentiment that is reinforced by the fact that these family members remain a presence in each other's lives when you think most would want to move on and never look back, victims of a soon-to-be-forgotten dysfunctional adolescence.

And perhaps most importantly, how trustworthy is the author's voice? I can only attribute Walls' objectivity to the analytical adult perspective she possesses now, when looking back on memories decades old. But all these things she suffered through, all the thoughts and emotions she must have experienced as a kid and a teen, what were they like then? How would she have recorded her life in her diary, in the moment? Of course, this is a question for all memoirs, when a story relies on memories to be told.

Paris Was Ours by Penelope Rowlands is really a collection of 30-something essays or articles by a number of people who have, at some point in their life, packed up and moved to Paris. Because, really, who doesn't have that dream? I feel I can safely say that Paris is the only other city in the world alongside New York that has that "ooooOOOOoOo" aura of "living in Paris." It just has this style, this glam, these worldly cultural connotations, that make the idea of "living in Paris" something one feels they must do at some point in their life.

You know what I felt after reading all these stories? Afraid of living in Paris. Parisians are a unique breed of person (like New Yorkers) who have a distinct way of doing things (like New Yorkers) and aren't necessarily always kind to those who aren't native to their lifestyle (like New Yorkers). The thirty-two authors who contributed to this collection are diverse in age, profession, lifestyle, writing style...The stories weren't all glamorous, nor were they all intimidating. Some were humorous anecdotes, some were trivial observations. Overall, I think it painted a bit more realistic a portrait of the City of Light, making the point that it is a city with a profound influence on its inhabitants and their identities.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Vacation Reading, Part I

I hope you gathered from my pre-vacation post that I was, in fact, going on vacation! I've been out of New York for, pretty much, the last three solid weeks. I spent a week in New Orleans at ALA, a week in Nashville, and a week on real vacation at the beach in Florida. I've read a ton the past three weeks, so much that I'm going to have to scramble to write about all the good books I've read so that I remember something about them later!

I'll start with the first leg of my trip: What I read in New Orleans

First up, Tomorrow River by Lesley Kagan. This book was more of a mystery and more thrilling than I expected, and I loved it. It's been a while since I've read something that gets my heart racing. In the story, it's the summer of 1969 and Shenandoah's mother has been missing for a year. Her father has turned into an unhappy drunk, and her twin sister Woody has gone mute. Once Shenny gets over her own heartbreak, she storms into an investigation to find the truth about what happened the night her mother disappeared, with the belief that Woody may know something that's shocked her into silence. Shenny is a headstrong girl who is smart, but whose weakness is her own innocence. It's one of those situations where we, as the reader, cringe or get anxious as we realize things that Shenny, as an 11-year-old, does not. Overall, I enjoyed this one and got through it pretty quickly.

In between novels, I opted for Life With Mr. Dangerous, a graphic novel by Paul Hornschemeier. Amy is in the latter half of her 20s (I am hitting this mark with my own birthday this October, so I am refusing to call it her "late twenties") with a crappy job, a best friend (and love interest) living across the country, and having just broken up with a crappy boyfriend. Basically, she's down and out. And she's surrounded by people who give her little hope that things will ever get more interesting. I liked Hornschemeier's drawings a great deal, but in this case, the story just didn't do it for me. I'm a 20-something, so I get it. I get how your twenties can feel boring, exciting, bleak, meaningless, adventurous, stressful, hopeful and hopeless, all at the same time. But this story just had a serious WOMP WOMP tone to it. Frankly, it was Amy. I would not hang out with her because she'd just bring me down. She notices the sad things that exist about people and their lifestyles, and yes, these things exist and are sad. But she wallows in them and just seems kinda...pathetic. Here's it in a nutshell: She's waiting for life to happen to her instead of seeking things out for herself. And that is not an attitude I want to live by. And ranting spoiler alert (highlight to read): I don't buy the sudden happy ending that just "worked out" in her favor. Seems totally unrealistically optimistic for a story about this character that's all about the depressing realities of her age. Nor do I buy the fact that multiple men are interested in her, because from these 160 pages, she was permanently moping and always thinking/talking about an obscure TV show. 

My last book of the trip, mostly an airplane read, was Diamond Ruby by Joseph Wallace. I really liked this one too, for a few reasons. It had a likable main character—Ruby is tough and does what she has to do; you cheer for her. It's historical fiction set in New York, and I love reading about places I encounter daily. It's about baseball, particularly women in baseball, reminding me of A League of Their Own, for which I will always have a special place in my heart. It ties in all sorts of historical people and places and events, which just makes a story much more rich. Anyway, it's about a girl, Ruby, whose parents and other family members die in the Spanish Influenza epidemic of 1918 and she's left to take care of her two young nieces. She's got something special, though—an arm that can throw as fast and as accurate as a major league pitcher. Diamond Ruby spans the 1920s, from Ruby's gig as a sideshow artist on Coney Island to the starting lineup of the minor league Brooklyn Typhoons and encounters with Babe Ruth, the Ku Klux Clan, gangsters, rumrunners, and gamblers. This is a really good story to get sucked into—the writing is quality with lots of plot twists and turns to keep you guessing, the characters elicit an emotional connection, and it's one of those books that has so many details woven in that it feels like an educated read.

What have been your vacation reads this summer?

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

World Party: An ambiguous Siberian tourism endorsement

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It's been a long, travel-filled two weeks for me. After spending a week in New Orleans for ALA, then a night in El Paso for more work-related things, I'm now in Nashville for the week before heading to Florida's Gulf Coast on Saturday for REAL vacation.

You know what all of these places have in common with Siberia? NOTHING, because it is cold there. At least, that is the impression I got from Ian Frazier's travelogue, Travels in Siberia, which was my June Russia pick for the World Reading Challenge. Frazier is most well-known as a writer for The New Yorker and has a slew of other travelogues published.

Siberia is an interesting place. Just to put the size in perspective, in Frazier's words: "Three-fourths of Russia today is Sibera. Sibera takes up one-twelfth of all the land on earth. About 39 million Russians and other native peoples inhabit that northern third of Asia. By contrast, the state of New Jersey has about a fifth as many people on about .0015 as much land." That's a big mass of land, one that I know very little about. It just seems so...remote, desolate, and cold. And that's sort of the impression I got from Frazier's notes—a land so rich with resources but so sparsely populated, with living conditions and lifestyle so contingent upon the environment.

Frazier's Travels is Siberia blends his own travel notes with Siberian history to paint the pictures of just how 'out there' Siberia really is. And why it is that, despite Siberia's sad and violent history, it's still so captivating. Some of my favorite, memorable lines or passages (you can skip reading this part if you want):

  • I believe the tropical poster is the most common indoor decoration in Siberia.
  • In Russia, writing is so revered that no one had had the nerve to interrupt me in what might have been an act of literary creation.
  • Beneath a surface layer of unbelief or Orthodox Christianity, Russia is an animist country. Ordinary physical objects are alive in Russia far more than they are in America, and however Russia's religious or political currents flow, this native animism remains strong...In Russia the windshield wiper on your car isn't called a mechanical name--it's a dvornik, a word whose more common meaning is "custodian." What we call a speed bump in America the Russians call lezhashchii politseiskii, which means "lying-down policeman."
  • What struck me then and what still strikes me now was the place's overwhelming aura of absence. The deserted prison camp just sat there--unexcused, un-torn-down, unexplained. During its years of operation it had been a secret, and in some sense it still was. Horrors had happened here, and/or miseries and sufferings and humiliations short of true horrors. "No comment," the site seemed to say. / I thought this camp, and all the others along this road, needed large historical markers in front of them, with names and dates and details; and there should bne ongoing archaeology here, and areas roped off, and painstaking excavation, and well-informed docents in heated kiosks giving talks for visitors. Teams of researchers should be out looking for camp survivors, if any, and for formers guards, and for whoever had baked the bread in the bakery. Extensive delving into KGB or Dalstroi files should be showing who exactly was imprisoned here when, and what they were in for, and what became of them. The zek engineers and builders who made the hand-constructed bridges should be recognized and their photographs placed on monuments beside the road, and the whole Topolinskaya Highway for all its 189 kilometers should be declared a historic district, and the graves, of which there may be many, should be found and marked and given requiem. / The fact that the world has not yet decided what to say about Stalin was the reason these camps were standing with no change or context; the sense of absence here was because of that. / The world more or less knows what it thinks of Hitler. Stalin, though, is still beyond us. As time passes, he seems to be sidling into history as one of those old-timey, soft-focus monsters--like Ivan the Terrible, like Peter the Great--whose true monstrosity softens to resemble that of an ogre in a fairy tale.
  • Thus I was once again convinced that the Russian car is the most reliable in the world, because it is possible under necessity to replace any part in it with a piece of wire or with a nail.
  • I had not flown Aeroflot since the nineties. Now the complete absence of smoking, in accordance with revised policy, made a real change in the airline's tone. Russians not smoking!...Everything about the Boeing 767 we flew in was better than what I remembered of their former planes. Now they had real seats, not lawn chairs. Nothing about the interior looked beat-up or shabby.

The memoir sections are naturally more interesting than the history lessons, but they both serve their purpose. If you like Bill Bryson books, this is probably one you should check out. Frazier has an eye for the little details that make a place what it is. His observations will introduce you to the same culture and make you feel just as awkward as Frazier often felt.

I've always gotten the impression that Russia (and Siberia) is a fascinating place. But I can't confirm that I've ever actually heard a recommendation to plan a visit. I think this book just confirmed that sentiment. Interesting country; spend your vacation days elsewhere.