Friday, May 23, 2008

Wilderness Tips

It seems that I've been on somewhat of a Margaret Atwood binge here of late. It started with the Handmaid's Tale, then Cat's Eye, followed by The Penelopiad. In addition, I ordered and have sitting on my shelves Alias Grace and the Blind Assassin. I finished my latest helping of Atwood a couple days ago. Wilderness Tips is a short story collection, which deals with a lot of the same types of themes that Atwood is known for in her writing. Women always play prominent roles. For the most part the women are strong or are struggling against oppression to exert their strength. There are ten stories in this collection, and I can honestly say that I enjoyed them all. It would be extremely difficult to pick one as a favorite. I guess if I had to single one out, it would be "Weight" simply because I continue to think about this story.

It begins with a woman trying to get a businessman to make a charitable donation over dinner. It's obvious that she's willing to do whatever it takes to secure his donation for her cause -- a battered women's shelter. In fact, she lets us know that this is not the first time that she's used her sexuality to get what she wants from a man. She's never married and doesn't think she ever will. She's not sure that she wants to. But there is some ambiguity there. As the story progresses, we learn that she and her friend, Molly, started adult life as young, idealistic attorneys who were going to help women and change the world in the process. She describes Molly as optimistic and caring -- someone who sees the best in others and believes that she can make things better for them. As the story continues, we learn that Molly eventually marries and has children, but things are not as they should be. She considers leaving her husband and discusses it with her friend. I can't really say any more about the story without giving too much away. However, I think it's interesting that the author decides to put an educated, middle class, feminist into this particular situation. I think society often assumes that women who find themselves in destructive relationships are often poor and uneducated. They stay with their man because they have no other options or don't know what else to do. That's one of the things that I really like about Atwood. She doesn't always follow the conventional wisdom. She looks at things from all angles and her characters are multidimensional.

Though feminist in nature, her writing doesn't paint all men as evil and all women as victims (thank goodness!). It's much more complex than that. No matter what I've read by Margaret Atwood -- novel, short story, poetry -- she always makes me think. I'm going to order another collection of short stories that I saw somewhere online the other day -- The Door -- and continue my Margaret Atwood feast.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

A Bit of This and That

I found a couple of interesting things while reading this morning, and I thought I'd share them with the rest of you. So, if you're bored, take a few minutes and check them out. First, here's a really great picture of Obama during his campaign travels. It does my heart good to see a public official reading a book, and an intelligent book at that. The short blurb about the photo contains a good description for the book he's reading -- The Post American World by Fareed Zakaria. I have a suspicion that sales of this book will now skyrocket.

The other tidbit I came across this morning is a great article with lots of photos of book jackets, movie posters, etc. involving the "A-Frame." I'd never really thought about it before, but this is definitely an oft-used technique. I especially like the older book jackets from the 40s and 50s.

I came across both of these via Paper Cuts, the New York Times blog about books.

I will try to do a review of Wilderness Tips, a short story collection by Margaret Atwood in the next day or so. I really, REALLY liked this one. I'm so proud of myself for reading more short stories. :) I don't know why I have ignored this genre for so long.

Have a Great Thursday!

Monday, May 19, 2008

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

I read this classic by Betty Smith for one of my book clubs. I was a little embarrassed to admit to the group that I hadn't read it before. I had seen the movie several times, but I'm not sure why I never got around to reading this one. The book is narrated by Francie Nolan, a precocious 11-year old who lives with her Irish American family in Brooklyn in the years prior to and just after WWI. They are extremely poor but proud and determined to make a better life for themselves. Katie, Francie's mom, cleans their building and a couple other buildings on their street to pay their rent. Francie's father, Johnny, is a lovable, carefree man with absolutely no ambition. He also happens to be an alcoholic. He works sporadically as a singing waiter when he's sober, which isn't very often. You'd think that it would be easy to dislike him, but for some reason I didn't. I liked him, but most of all, I felt sorry for him. He truly loved his family and was very proud of them, but he couldn't stop drinking long enough to take care of them properly.

Francie never seemed to fit in with the kids in the neighborhood or at school. She was often very lonely. She spent most of her time reading. In fact, she had a plan to read every book in the little library near her home beginning with the "A" authors and working her way right through to the "Z" authors. Saturdays were special because Francie would go to the library to get a book outside of her reading plan -- something just for fun. Each Saturday morning, Francie approached the librarian to ask her for a recommendation. And each Saturday morning, the librarian would ask her how old she was and then pull a book out from under her desk. During the entire exchange, the librarian never looked up. You'd think she would know this little girl by name and be excited to help her find something to read. This same thing happened every Saturday morning for years, and the librarian would bring the same (!) book out from under her desk for Francie each and every time. It didn't matter how old Francie got. It didn't matter that she had given her the same book every Saturday for years. The odd thing was that Francie never said anything. She simply took the book and read it -- again. As a librarian, I'm always sad to see librarians portrayed in a negative light. I'd like to think that librarians are in the profession because they want to help connect books and readers. Thankfully, the librarians in my local public library system are great! It's obvious that they chose their profession because they love what they do and care about their patrons.

Education, both formal and informal, is a running theme throughout the book. Katie's convinced that education will be the tool that helps her children better themselves and climb out of extreme poverty. Katie asks her mother what she can do to make sure that they succeed. Her mother replies, "The secret lies in the reading and the writing. You are able to read. Every day you must read one page from some good book to your child. Every day this must be until the child learns to read. Then she must read every day. I know this is the secret (p. 74)." Katie chooses two books to read a page out of to her children daily -- the Bible and Shakespeare.

The book follows Francie and her brother Neely and later, little sister Laurie, as they navigate life in the city. There is often cruelty and hardship, but there's also great love. Once they're older, they look back with fondness at the "good ole' days." It's hard to imagine any fond memories when they rarely had enough to eat, but they found joy in life and in each other.

There's so much more to this book than I can discuss here. The reader really gets a sense of what it was like for first and second generation immigrants in New York during the early part of the 20th century. In many ways, Brooklyn itself is almost another character in the novel. Francie loves Brooklyn. And she loves the tree that grows outside her window. It's called the Tree of Heaven. This tree is able to grow anywhere and under any circumstances. As a young child, Francie sits out on the fire escape under the shade of this tree and is transported to other worlds through her books. The tree, like Francie, thrives with very little nourishment. Even though it's cut down at one point, it returns and begins growing and thriving again. I highly recommend this book to anyone who hasn't read it. It is a true gem.

Several of the women at my book club read a biography of Betty Smith that really added to their understanding and enjoyment of this book. I haven't read it, but it comes highly recommended by those who have read it. If you're interested in details of the author's life and want to know more about how she came to write this book, check out Betty Smith: Life of the Author of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

Friday, May 9, 2008

The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

I really don't think I'll be able do this one justice. I really can't recommend it highly enough. But I'll give it a try. This is Atwood's contribution to the Canongate Myth Series. For those of you who may not have heard of this series, the concept is simple -- contemporary authors remake famous myths. I read and reviewed another book from this series, Dream Angus, by Alexander McCall Smith which I reviewed here. This book is Atwood's interpretation or re-interpretation of the myth of Penelope and Odysseus.

She describes it like this in the introduction, "But Homer's Odyssey is not the only version of the story. Mythic material was originally oral, and also local -- a myth would be told one way in one place and quite differently in another. I have drawn on material other than The Odyssey, especially for the details of Penelope's parentage, her early life and marriage, and the scandalous rumours circulating about her. I've chosen to give the telling of the story to Penelope and the twelve hanged maids. The maids form a chanting and singing Chorus which focuses on two questions that must pose themselves after any close reading of The Odyssey: what led to the hanging of the maids, and what was Penelope really up to? The story told in the Odyssey doesn't hold water: there are too many inconsistencies. I've always been haunted by the hanged maids; and, in The Penelopiad, so is Penelope herself."

Atwood is such a great writer, that she even makes the introduction interesting and entertaining. Then the very first line of the book hooks you and you're suddenly ensconced in Penelope's world. "Now that I'm dead I know everything." Thus Penelope begins telling her story from Purgatory where she is still trying to piece together the puzzle that was her life. I love that Atwood gives us complete access to Penelope's thoughts, fears, and desires. She begins with her somewhat troubled childhood and tells us the story of her life both before and after her marriage. The chapters alternate between Penelope's story and the Chorus of the hanged maids. Atwood brings everything into sharp focus with vivid description and beautiful language.

"I can't make myself understood, not in your world, the world of bodies, of tongue and fingers; and most of the time I have no listeners, not on your side of the river. Those of you who may catch the odd whisper, the odd squeak, so easily mistake my words for breezes rustling the dry reeds, for bats at twilight, for bad dreams (pg. 4)."

I don't know that I have the answers to the questions that Atwood poses in the introduction, but it doesn't really matter, either. This is a multi-faceted story with rich characters, especially Penelope, that can't be easily pinned down. It would take someone much better qualified than me to actually do this one justice in a review. But, just take my word for it -- this book is a treat -- plain and simple.

This is my last book for the Once Upon a Time II Challenge except for The Midsummer Night's Dream, which I'll read on June 20. I have read the introduction and other supplementary material in the edition I have in anticipation of this one, which I'm excited about. I have thoroughly enjoyed this reading challenge and have liked all the books that I've read. Two of the books that I read were by authors that I hadn't read before -- Coraline by Neil Gaiman and Transformations by Anne Sexton. Neither of these were books that I would have picked up before this. This is actually the first time that I've successfully completed a challenge. But, I think that the fact that I've discovered new authors and a whole new genre of books that I enjoy is the best part of it all. Thanks, Carl!!

The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald

This is the first book by Fitzgerald that I've read. It's a fun novella that is full of small town charm and wit. Florence Green, a widow, decides to open a bookshop in the Old House in the tiny coastal town of Hardborough. Much to her surprise, she soon discovers that not everyone in this tiny little community is excited about her new venture. It seems that even though the Old House has been sitting empty for ages, once Florence decides to purchase it for her bookshop, others suddenly have ideas for the place themselves. It's not only some of the townsfolk that she must contend with, but she also must contend with the rapper who occupies the Old House, as well. Before you get the wrong idea, the rapper in this case is a poltergeist that isn't too thrilled to have someone living in the house again. But, Florence doesn't let the people or the poltergeist stop her from realizing her dream. After much negotiation with the bank manager, Florence gets the loan and begins the task of turning the Old House into a proper bookshop.

The book is full of interesting characters (besides the rapper) such as Christine, the 10-year old girl who becomes Florence's assistant in the store. Like all of the children in Hardborough, Christine is used to hard work and seems older than her years. Mrs. Gamart is the self-appointed matron of Hardborough along with her husband the General. While most of the townsfolk simply think Florence's shop will fail, Mrs. Gamart is openly against the idea. For she has decided that Hardborough requires an arts center, and the Old House is the perfect place for it. Never mind the fact that it has sat empty for years. There's really only a couple people who actually support Florence in her endeavor, one being an eccentric recluse whom she only meets in person once. This is a fun book with great descriptions of small town life in a coastal village and a cast of very colorful characters. I will definitely be seeking out more books by Penelope Fitzgerald.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Count Me In

I wanted to join The Southern Reading Challenge ever since I heard about it (too late) last year. But, I've had a hard time deciding what I want to read. I think I finally have my list, but it could still change.

Other Voices, Other Rooms by Truman Capote
I'm reading this one for the Year of Reading Dangerously, as well. I really enjoy Capote's writing.

Light in August by William Faulkner
As I've mentioned on here before, I really need to give him another try. I read As I Lay Dying years ago and hated it. I have a sneaking suspicion that this had more to do with me at the time than it did Faulkner. We'll see. Anyway, he's such an icon of Southern fiction that I felt like he should be on the list.

Charms for the Easy Life by Kaye Gibbons
I've loved everything I've ever read by Kaye Gibbons. I don't hear a great deal about her from others in the book blogging world, and I'm not sure why. I was first introduced to her in a Southern Literature class as an undergrad. We read Ellen Foster, and I was hooked. Other books by Gibbons that I've read and enjoyed are: A Virtuous Woman, On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon, The Life All Around Me and Divining Women. She has all the hallmarks of great Southern literature, including the dysfunctional family, but my favorite aspect of her writing is the strong female characters.

Possible alternates include:

Down River by John Hart
This book won the 2008 Edgar Award. I heard Hart speak at a Friends of the Library event at Pfeiffer University in April. He's a very entertaining speaker, and he's from my neck of the woods. He's from Salisbury, North Carolina and currently lives in Greensboro, NC. This book, as well as his first book, The King of Lies, is set in Rowan County. It's so neat to read about all these places that I see on a daily basis. If the Faulkner gets to be too much, I'll switch it out for this one.

I also thought about several books by Clyde Edgerton. He's another good Southern writer that I don't hear about often. And then of course, there's Flannery O'Connor and Eudora Welty and the list could go on forever. If you couldn't tell already, I really like Southern literature.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Who Says People Aren't Reading Anymore?

One of the blogs that I visit periodically is Reading Ahead, which is the blog of the National Book Foundation.

The blog’s purpose is to gather information and ideas in various fields that are having, or will have, an impact on literary reading: the sociology of (literary) reading, the neuroscience of (literary) reading, the marketing of literary work, delivery systems, educational approaches, and innovative projects that cultivate a passion for literature."

A visit to this blog this morning took me to an interesting site. We've all heard the discussions and debates regarding the supposed decline in reading, especially in the U. S. Often, what hasn't been taken into account are the 'new' ways of reading that take place every day -- such as reading book blogs.The Palo Alta Research Center (PARC), which is known for developing new technology currently has an exhibit that focuses on the future of reading. Now, I'll be the first to admit, that I'm pretty skeptical about reading technology. I have no desire for a Kindle, and I've only attempted to listen to an audio book once. I didn't get through it. But, please don't get the wrong idea. I'm not technology averse. I just prefer reading an actual printed book that I can hold in my hands. For me, the physical object can be almost as important as the words it contains. But, this new exhibit is really exciting if for no other reason than the fact that money is being spent on research that deals with reading. There is a wide range here, but all the new technology deals with the ways in which people interact with text and reading in some way. For example, The Listen Reader and The Reading Eye Dog could be utilized to help people with sight impairment. In addition, there are a few other exhibits that are quite interesting, such as The Tilty Tables and the Speeder Reader. Even if I never utilize any of these products or some of them don't even make it to the market place, it does my heart good to know that serious research is being conducted in the art and science of reading.

Monday, May 5, 2008

The Perfect Weekend

For the first time in quite a while I didn't have anything that I had to do over the weekend. For a change, the weather was really nice, too. The pattern lately has been beautiful weather all week, and then cool and rainy on the weekend. So, it was a nice change to have sunny, warm weather for the entire weekend. Saturday morning, my husband and I went out to a few antique shops and also stopped by a couple yard sales that advertised that they had books for sale. I brought home a few treasures. I meant to take a picture of them, but forgot. I hate I forgot because the covers on several of the books were really nice. Here's a list of my treasures for which I think I spent around $4.00:

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith (classic; one of my book clubs is reading this for May)
A Rose in Bloom by Louisa Mae Alcott (never read this one)
Light in August by William Faulkner (it's Faulkner and I really need to give him another chance. I read As I Lay Dying and hated it, but that was years and years ago. )
Moon is Down by John Steinbeck (I had never heard of this one)
The Good Mother by Sue Miller (I've been wanting to read this for a long time)
Forever: A Novel by Pete Hamill (this one looks really good)

Afterwards, we met my mom and sister for lunch and ate outside at a really good burger place. I pretty much spent the rest of the day reading. I was actually able to finish two books this weekend -- The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald and The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood, which I'll review later. Sunday included a family reunion and cleaning. I know that doesn't sound like it should be included in a perfect weekend, but it feels really good to start the week with a clean house.