Monday, June 30, 2008

Back from Vacation

I got back from vacation Saturday night -- tired and glad to be home. We had a wonderful time. The weather was perfect, and it was great to be with the whole family for an entire week. During the day, we stayed out on the beach except to go back to the room for a quick sandwich. In the evenings, we went out to dinner -- cooking is not my idea of a vacation. We drove to Wilmington one day and walked around on the waterfront and went to UNCW to look around since this is where the youngest will be attending in about a month and a half.

I did get some reading done, but not as much as I wanted to (as usual!). I had just started Lolita when we left for vacation, and I finished it on Friday before we left to come home. I read mostly out on the beach, but I kept falling asleep. Did I mention the weather was perfect? The temperature was in the 80s with a good stiff breeze. So, it took me a little longer than usual to read. I'll do a review later in the week. I've just started Water for Elephants, which is for one of my face to face book clubs, which meets next Tuesday. I'm liking it so far.

Has anyone else ever noticed that it seems as if more people read on the beach than anywhere else in the world? I've always known that people like to take a book on vacation, but this year it seemed as if every other person on the beach was reading (and it was crowded!). I wish I would have snapped some pictures, but then I would have had to ask for permission to put them on the blog, and that was just too much work for vacation. I should have written down some of the titles, though. My husband and I walked a couple miles on the beach one day, and I was trying to keep a mental list of all the books I saw people reading, but I can only remember a few now. Let's see, there was a myriad of James Patterson (along with his co-authors); Eat, Pray, Love; Water for Elephants; Helter Skelter; The Glass Castle; and Choke. Wow, my memory is pretty bad. Oh well, it did my heart good to see all those people reading. I hope to get caught up with my blog reading and post a review for Lolita soon.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Bad Blogger and a Couple of Reviews

I have been a bad blogger. I admit it. I haven't meant to be, but it's just worked out that way. I've been super busy at work and at home. The job I started a couple months ago has kept me extremely busy. I'm loving it, but I've just been swamped. Most of it is my fault. I'm absolutely incapable of just doing what's required of me. I can't say no to people who ask me to do things because I want to be involved. I have all these ideas for ways of improving our library service to our students and faculty. So, before you know it, I've overextended myself. It's O.K. though. I'd rather be super busy than bored! But, between work and the hectic home life, I've spent little time online over the last couple of weeks.

I have been reading, even though that has stalled a little this week. I finished The Book Thief by Markus Zusak and Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen. I enjoyed them both, but they really couldn't be more different. I'm currently reading Lolita for the Year of Reading Dangerously, but I haven't gotten very far with it, yet. Im leaving for vacation in the morning and I'll be taking lots of books with me. I plan on spending my days on the beach with book in hand. I'm really looking forward to it. Before I go, I thought I would quickly give my thoughts on the books I've finished before I forget everything about them!

The Book Thief

This book is hauntingly beautiful. I really can't say enough about it. The basic story is that of young Liesel Meminger who loses her mother and brother just before WWII in Germany. She's sent to live with Hans and Rosa Hubermann outside Munich. Leisel grows to love her new papa dearly and she ends up loving Rosa, as well even though Rosa is very hard on Leisel. There are no other children in the house. The Hubermann's children are grown, but Leisel becomes friends with Rudy Steiner, the boy next door. This book is profound on many different levels. It's about relationships, war, regret, but most of all I think it's about the power of words. This is a theme throughout the book. Leisel becomes a book thief as she's leaving the fresh grave of her little brother. One of the gravediggers drops a book, and Leisel picks it up. She can't read, yet. But, she feels a compulsive urge to take it. It's over this book that Leisel and her papa forge their strong relationship. Papa comes to comfort Leisel every night when she's awakened by her recurring nightmare. He discovers the book and begins to help her learn to read. As time passes, and the Nazis gain power, Leisel begins to take more books. She steals one from the ashes of a Nazi book burning. She also begins to steal books from the home library of the town's mayor. She first discovers this treasure trove of books when she's delivering the wash for Rosa. She and Rudy return to the house many times, and Leisel "breaks in" the library and steals the books. However, it turns out that she's welcome there in a strange sort of way. But words are seen as powerful in other ways, as well. Though she's young, Leisel realizes that it's Hitler's use of words that has caused the trouble for the Jews and for Germany.

There's so much more I could talk about with this book, but please just take my word for it. If you haven't read it, you really should. I know I recommend a great many books simply by virtue of discussing them here, but this one is different. This is a truly amazing book for so many reasons, not the least of is the fact that Death is the narrator. It may sound corny, but it works. The subject matter is difficult to say the least, but it's so well done. It's not sappy, it's not preachy, it's brutally honest. Just as with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan today, the book demonstrates just how truly awful war is for everyone, and it's usually the children that suffer the most. The majority of the ordinary German citizens during WWII were victims of Hitler just as the Jews were victims. This book gives a glimpse into the lives of one such family that opposed the atrocities they saw happening around them and paid a high price for it. One last thing -- make sure you have some tissues handy.

Garden Spells (for Maggie's Southern Reading Challenge!)

I read about this book on several book blogs over the last several months, and I was intrigued byit. Another plus for me is the fact that it's set in North Carolina. I did enjoy this one, but I had a few small quibbles with some of it, which I'll explain later. After a difficult childhood with an unfit mother, Claire Waverly ends up being raised by her grandmother in the small town of Bascom, North Carolina. After the death of her grandmother, Claire remains in the family home and works as a caterer. Claire's one sister seems to be following in their mother's footsteps. She took off right after high school and hasn't been heard from since. For Claire, her life is safe, secure and simple. As long as she doesn't let anyone get close to her, there's no chance that she can be hurt. As it turns out, it's easy for Claire to remain aloof because of the local lore about the Waverly family. It seems that all of the Waverly women through the years have been blessed (?) with a special gift. For Claire, it's cooking. Or, to be more exact, it's influencing those who eat her dishes by using the special flowers and herbs from the family garden. For example, a dish made with lavender raises spirits and "prevents bad decisions resulting from fatigue or depression." Rose geranium "produces memories of past good times." Not many want to admit it, but many of the townspeople use Claire when they really want to make an impression on their guests.

To escape an abusive relationship, Claire's sister Sydney suddenly returns home with her young daughter in tow. Claire's glad to have Sydney back, but she's sure that Sydney will leave again as quickly as she reappeared. The sisters must come to terms with a shared past of regret and learn to love each other and embrace a family heritage that isn't always comfortable.

This book was a lot of fun. The only quibble I had with it is sometimes I couldn't quite believe the "magic." I know that's probably clear as mud, but I'm not really sure how else to explain it. I like stories with a touch of magical realism. But, sometimes it just didn't work very well for me. It probably had more to do with me and when I read it (immediately following the gritty reality of The Book Thief) than anything else. I wouldn't let this keep you from reading. I know it's not going to deter me from picking up Allen's next book -- The Sugar Queen.

Monday, June 9, 2008

We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Before reading this book by Shirley Jackson, the only other thing I had read of hers was her famous short story, The Lottery. Like most people, I first encountered this story as part of an anthology in an introductory literature class. I was blown away by the story, but for whatever reason, I never sought out any of her other work. To remedy the situation, I recently picked up We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Haunting of Hill House. They're both relatively short books and by most standards would be considered novellas.

I absolutely love the cover on my Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition. It's a black and white drawing with the two main characters surrounded by the people from the village. The book is deliciously creepy. I really don't know any other way to say it. I knew from the very first lines of the book that I would like it. Here, see what you think.

"My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead."

Isn't that great? Of course, I wanted to know right away what happened to her family. But, Jackson does a great job of slowly revealing just enough to keep the reader interested and turning pages. Mary Katherine or 'Merricat' and her older sister Constance lead a relatively hermetic life in their family home. The only other person there is old Uncle Julian who is wheelchair bound and showing signs of increasing dementia. Merricat is the unfortunate member of the family who must walk to the village weekly and buy the necessary supplies from the grocery store. She also stops by the public library with each visit into town. These visits are extremely uncomfortable for her. She is well aware of how the people in the village view her and her sister. The villagers remind me of the villagers in The Lottery during the stoning scene. However, here they are usually hurling words. It's almost painful to read the lengths that Merricat goes to to deal with her weekly outings. She talks to herself and plays little games to try and take her mind off of the people she encounters.

Constance is usually cheerful and takes good care of Merricat. She is patient and they live pretty normally, except for the fact that they don't go anywhere and don't have visitors. They keep the doors locked at all times and are very skeptical of strangers. It quickly becomes obvious that the rest of their family died of poisoning. This is something that they talk about with each other on a fairly regular basis just as you would talk about the weather or some other insignificant fact. Constance, Merricat and Uncle Julian are the lone survivors of that now infamous meal. Merricat had been sent to her room before supper that night, which happened often since she was a disobedient child. Constance didn't eat any of the sugar on her berries, which is why she was immediately held for questioning (she did all the cooking for the family). Uncle Julian fell ill, but eventually survived, though he was never the same afterwards. There was a trial in which Constance was eventually acquitted, but everyone in the village still believed that she was guilty. So, they shunned the Blackwood sisters and their crazy old uncle.

The girls would have been content to live in this manner indefinitely. However, the outside world wasn't content to leave them alone. Forces beyond their control invade their privacy and set in motion a chain of events that leads to more sorrow and heartache.

I really can't recommend this book highly enough. It is so well-written, and the story develops on several different levels. As with most good literature, everything is not as it seems and things are not necessarily black and white. If you haven't read this one, you'll definitely want to add it to your summer reading list.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Other Voices, Other Rooms by Truman Capote

Well, I'm a little late with the May selection for the Year of Reading Dangerously. I read it during May, but I haven't had time to get something posted until now. I don't feel as if I'll do it justice since it's been a little while. But, I'll give it a shot. If you're interested in what others thought about the book, take a look at the review site.

This book is semi-autobiographical. Capote wrote this novel when he was very young -- around 22 (I think), and it has all the characteristics of good Southern Lit. According to Maggie, it passes the true test -- "the dead mule." I'm also using this one for her Southern Reading Challenge. The story begins with 13-year old Joel Knox trying to deal with the loss of his mother. He's been living with his aunt since his mother's death, but his estranged father has now summoned him to come live with him in New Orleans. Joel is excited to meet his father, but things certainly don't turn out the way he envisions them. If you're not familiar with Southern Lit., happy endings can be rare.

After a long journey in which Joel has to catch a ride with a stranger and then make his way to Skully's Landing on the back of a wagon in the middle of the night, he's disappointed when his father isn't there to meet him. Instead, he meets his stepmother, Amy and Zoo Fever, the family's servant. In fact, it will be quite a long while before he meets his father. Everyone ignores his questions about his father. The only evidence that there is anyone else in the house is a 'knocking' sound and a red tennis ball that occasionally bounces down the stairs.

Everyone in the story is damaged in some way -- physically, mentally or emotionally. Zoo bears a long scar across her neck, but it's not this physical scar that torments her. Instead, it's the emotional one that accompanies it. She is crippled by fear of what may happen to her. Other characters that are out of the ordinary include, a midget with an apparent tendency towards pedophilia, a recluse with special healing powers, a tomboy (Joel's only friend) with an anger management problem, and the flamboyant Cousin Randolph who is eating and drinking himself to death as he pines over his one true love.

I enjoyed this story a great deal. I think this is a wonderful first novel that showcases a talent that was truly extraordinary. I'm glad I read this one.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

I'm Still Reading

Wow, I can't believe it has been almost two weeks since I last posted. Things have been crazy at work, and I can't seem to get a second to do anything. Home hasn't been much better, either. My youngest son is graduating from high school in about a week, and there have been so many activities and plans, etc. I don't know if I'm coming or going anymore. But, I have been able to get some reading in even though I haven't been able to review anything. I finished Other Voices, Other Rooms by Truman Capote, which fulfilled two objectives for me -- The Year of Reading Dangerously May selection and my first book for Maggie's Southern Reading Challenge. I really did like the book, and I will try to get a review up soon. I'm now reading The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, which is the June selection for Cornflower's book group. I've had this one on my shelf for so long, and I was glad to see this one chosen so I would finally get around to reading it. I haven't gotten very far into it, yet. But, so far, I LOVE it!! I know I read so many wonderful things about this book when it first made it's rounds, and I think I'll probably end up agreeing with all of them.

Hopefully, things will calm down for me soon, and I can get back to my daily reading of all of your blogs and posting on here.