Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing

I read this book in two brief sittings, and it's hard to define or place neatly into a category. It's also the first book I've read from author, Doris Lessing. The story is that of Harriet and David Lovatt, which begins with their brief courtship and marriage in the late 1960s in England. They are both alike in that they don't want to take part in the societal changes taking place all around them. They have old-fashioned values and want nothing more than to create a life together complete with lots and lots of children. They buy a huge house in the country and begin right away on their family. Much to the chagrin of their family and friends, they continue to have children one right after the other to the detriment of Harriet's health and their economic situation. However much everyone around them disapproves, they are happy and plan to continue their lifestyle even if that means that David's father must help support them.

Everything is just as they had planned until Harriet finds herself pregnant with her fifth child. From the beginning of this pregnancy, nothing seems right. She gets huge right away and the baby seems as if it is trying to claw its way out of her. She is absolutely miserable until the baby is born. But right away, Harriet knows that something is not right with this child whom they name Ben.

I don't want to say much more for fear of spoiling the experience of reading this. I'll just say that Harriet is forced to make a decision that no mother would ever want to make. As a mother, I found myself wondering what I would do in her situation. There are no easy answers or nice tidy endings here. Because I haven't read anything else by this author, I don't know if this is typical of her work or not. But, based on this book, I'll definitely seek out some of her other books. The only real problem I had with the book is the fact that I felt like I never really got to know most of the characters in the book, except for Harriet. I know that the story centers around her and her decision about Ben and how it affects the family, but I would have liked to have been able to get to know David and some of the other family members a little better. However, that's just a minor quibble with an otherwise amazing book, and I recommend it highly.

This is a short book, at only 133 pages and would probably fit the bill for Carl's RIP III challenge. I know I really shouldn't join the challenge, but I'm going to. I've done a decent job with challenges this year, but I may not finish all of them. But, this one is just too fun to pass up. I'll be posting my list hopefully later today or tomorrow.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Maus by Art Spiegelman

Sorry I've been away all week, but I just haven't been able to find the time or energy to do much else beyond what I absolutely had to do at work and at home. I know Alias Grace has been in my "Currently Reading" sidebar for quite a while now, but I haven't actually been reading it. I love Atwood, but I just couldn't get started on this book. I know I will in the near future, but right now I needed something else. So, even though I've been absent from the blog, I have been reading. I read Maus I and II by Art Spiegelman for the Year of Reading Dangerously Challenge. It's a graphic novel in two parts, which deals with one family's ordeal living through the Holocaust. I have had very little experience with graphic novels, so I wasn't sure what to expect. This book is actually based on the true story of the author's family, Vladek and Anja Spiegelman who both ended up in Auschwitz during WWII. Unlike most of the rest of their family, including their oldest son, they survived the war and emigrated to the U.S. afterwards. The book is very well-done and documents a well-known yet little understood event in history. I don't know how anyone can ever truly come to grips with what happened to so many people under the Nazis. In fact, in addition to the story of what happened to Art's family, the book is also about his difficult relationship with his father. Obviously the living hell that his parents endured changed them irrevocably. Art didn't always understand why his father was the way he was. So, writing this book served to help heal their strained relationship, as well.

As I said, I haven't had much experience with graphic novels. In the beginning, I was a little distracted by the drawings. But, after the first third of the book, I got into a rhythm, which allowed me to read and look at the drawings without being distracted. The book actually went very quickly. I'm glad I read it, and I'd be willing to read more graphic novels in the future.

Hopefully, I'll get back in my reading groove having finished this one. I'm feeling a lot better. It's just been a busy couple of weeks. In addition to moving my son into college, I'm teaching a class in the evenings in addition to my full-time day job as librarian in a community college. It's a new class so I've had to build the course from scratch. I think I'll enjoy it after I get everything planned out. I appreciate all the nice comments from you guys over the last week or so, as well. I'm already adjusting to the empty nest, and my youngest is adjusting to college life just fine.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Tired and Overwhelmed

I haven't read anything for pleasure since probably last Thursday. I need to read for my sanity, and it's really starting to show now. So, what have I been doing if I haven't been reading? I took off work Friday to finish getting my son ready to go to college. I spent all day Friday shopping and packing. Then we got up at 4:30 AM on Saturday to drive the four hours to arrive during our assigned check-in time. The actual moving in was painless because they had volunteers to take all of his stuff up to his room. That was great! He's in a traditional dorm with just two beds, two desks, and two dressers on the fifth floor of a high rise building. His roommate seems fine although I know it will take some getting used to for my son. He's so used to having his own space. It still took most of the day to put his stuff away and make a couple runs to the local Wal-Mart to pick up things we didn't even think about him needing. We ate dinner together Saturday night and then had orientation on Sunday. The students went in groups to their own sessions while all the parents attended sessions together. Since I've done this all before, I really didn't learn anything much from the sessions so it was pretty boring. All I did was sit there and think motherly thoughts. How can he be this old? How is he going to like it? Will he be homesick? Will he be safe? The rational part of my brain knows he'll be fine, but it's always hard letting go. He's smart, strong, and has a good head on his shoulders. He's going to have a ball. Meanwhile, I'm going to miss him terribly just like I still miss his older brother. Sure, I see him some on weekends, but it's not the same.

On the positive side, I'm kind of looking forward to some me time and of course spending some time with the hubby. We had our children when we were pretty young, and now we're going to have our time together. I'm still trying to get over lack of sleep, but hopefully in the next couple of days, I'll be back to normal. For those of you without kids, I know this probably seems pretty silly, but I assure you it's extremely difficult to watch your kids grow up and leave home. It's rewarding and I'm happy for them, but just a little sad, too. They have been wonderful kids, and I'd love to do it all over again. O.K., the pity party is officially over, and I'll be back to reading and talking about books soon!

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Sea Glass by Anita Shreve

This was a selection for my book club, which met on Tuesday night. I really enjoyed the book and was looking forward to a good discussion. However, I ended up not going. I actually got off of work early on Tuesday and decided to mow the yard. The weather has been absolutely beautiful around here lately, and I love being outdoors. So, I really don't mind mowing at all. But, that meant that I didn't have time to get to book club and see what everyone else thought about this book. So, I guess you're stuck with my random thoughts.

The only other book by Shreve I've read is The Pilot's Wife, and that was years ago. I don't remember too much about it, but I know I liked it at the time. So I came to this one with few expectations. Each chapter is devoted to one of the main characters, and I usually like this style when all of the characters are well-developed. In this case, it works. The story is set in the Northeast during the early 30s just after the Stock Market Crash. We meet Honora and Sexton as newlyweds. I liked being able to see how Honora and Sexton each perceived things. It shows a great deal how differently men and women think sometimes. They're both young and naive and don't really know what to expect from marriage. In fact, they don't really know each other all that well because they didn't date very long. The other characters are woven into the story as their lives intersect with Honora and Sexton. McDermott works in the mill and becomes involved in union organizing. Alphonse is a little boy from the town who also works in the mill. Vivian is a socialite that vacations on the coast each year. It's interesting to see how Shreve brings all these characters together.

I really enjoyed the setting, and I love this time period. Though I'm thankful I didn't live through it, the Great Depression is fodder for some really interesting books. The reader can tell that Shreve did her research into this time period. In letters from her mother, Honora gets advice on how to make the little they had go a long way. Her mother included recipes that took very few ingredients and told her how to make her own cleaning supplies, etc.

I enjoyed this book and would recommend it. It's a quick read but not fluffy. It deals with relationships, but it's not overly sentimental. The author seems to have the knack of hitting that middle ground, which provides a glimpse into what makes us all human and how we interact with each other especially during difficult times.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

I've read several reviews of this book, and they've all been favorable. I'm throwing my lot in with the rest. I absolutely loved this book. It's written as a series of letters and is set just after the end of World War II. The main character, Juliet Ashton, is a writer in search of her next book idea when she receives a letter from Dawsey, a resident of Guernsey (Channel Islands). He's in possession of a book that originally belonged to Juliet, which had her name and address in it. Dawsey writes to Juliet who lives in London to find out how he can get more books by and/or about this author -- Charles Lamb. Other Guernsey Island residents begin writing Juliet and she soon becomes obsessed with these people who lived through a Nazi occupation during the war. Thus begins a correspondence that leads to life-changing events for everyone involved.

I fell in love with these characters, especially Juliet, Dawsey, Sidney, and Isola. I laughed out loud more than once at the shenanigans of Isola. The book is full of wit and charm, but there are also passages that tear your heart out as you read about what it was like for the islanders during the Nazi occupation. In the end it's a look at life, love, and the humanity and inhumanity of people during the most difficult of times. Like the old saying about hardship either bringing out the best or the worst in people -- it's all here in this book. One of the things that I really liked is the way that the author made some of the German soldiers on the island human -- instead of portraying them all as monsters. Governments start wars, and it's the ordinary citizens as well as the soldiers that have to deal with the aftermath of those decisions.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society of the title is a book discussion group that began in an unexpected way and allowed the members to find solace in the pages of great books and in each other's company. This book was over way too fast. I wanted it to go on.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Another Reading Coincidence

I love it when things like this happen. I just finished reading and writing a post about The Sea by John Banville and discussing it through comments with some of you. Now, this morning I come across this book review in which Banville explains the difference between his writing as himself and his writing as Benjamin Black.

Benjamin Black, of course, is Irish novelist - and Man Booker Prize-winner - John Banville. The difference between the two, Banville explained to the LA Weekly in May, is that John Banville writes "first-person narratives of obsessed, half-demented men going on and on and on and on," while Benjamin Black's work is "completely action-driven, and it's dialogue-driven, and it's character-driven."

This describes perfectly the narrator in The Sea. Now, I really need to try one of his mysteries.

Friday, August 1, 2008

The Sea by John Banville

I didn't know what to expect with this book when I first picked it up. Some how I missed all the earlier buzz when it won the Booker Prize. That's not always a bad thing. I like to come to a book without hearing a great deal about it ahead of time. I can honestly say that I liked the book, and I understand why it won (although I don't remember which books it was up against). Banville is obviously a talented writer. Grief and memory are the two major themes of the book. Max Morden is the narrator who tells us the story of how he loses his wife to cancer. Following her death, he returns to a seaside cottage that he visited as a child to deal with his loss and the ghosts of something that happened long ago. The reader doesn't really know what it is that draws Max back to the beach until close to the end of the book. He introduces us to the Grace family, but at first I really couldn't figure out why he was telling us about them. It simply didn't seem relevant at the time. He just lost his wife for heaven's sake. Why should we care about the family he met as a boy on vacation? I won't say more about that because he does a nice job of answering all the questions for the reader as the book comes to a close.

I usually either like the narrator or hate the narrator. In this case, I seemed to have a fickle relationship with Max. At times, I felt extreme sympathy for him as he struggled to deal with his grief. However, at other times, I felt more like slapping him. I guess he was just being honest about his feelings. But, at times, I wanted to scream at him -- you're wife is the one dying of cancer! He seemed very needy and somewhat of a chauvinist. He even had some unkind things to say about his own daughter. I guess I may be being too hard on him. Everyone grieves differently, and none of us would hold up very well against criticism if the rest of the world could read our minds.

The book does give the reader a glimpse into what it would be like living with someone with a terminal illness and the aftermath of their death. A close family member went through this a couple years ago, and I could relate to some of the things that Max went through. Grief is a funny thing. It can make you feel as if you're losing your mind at times. Overall, I would recommend this book. I had a few quibbles, such as the narrator interrupting the story unnecessarily. However, this wasn't a big deal. Just know going in that this isn't a feel good book.