Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Last Child by John Hart

This is the third book by this North Carolina author. In fact, he's not only a North Carolina author, he's also from my home town, which is pretty darn cool. His first two books, King of Lies and Down River, are both set in Rowan County. I read King of Lies, and I have Down River but haven't read it, yet. Hart has sold the film rights to both of these books, and I think they would both make great movies. He won the Edgar Award for Down River, as well. I finished The Last Child over the weekend and really enjoyed it. In fact, I liked it better than the first book. They are all stand alone books so it doesn't really matter in what order you read them -- just read them, especially if you like well-written, mystery/suspense/thrillers.

This book has quite a bit going on, but it all comes together nicely in the end. There are two main characters -- Johnny Merrimon and Clyde Hunt. Hunt is a lead detective in charge of the most serious crimes. Johnny is a 13 year old boy who lost his twin sister a year previously to an apparent abduction. Hunt has been investigating the case, but has yet to find Alyssa or anyone who may have taken her. Of course, as you can well imagine, this event takes its toll on everyone in this small community. A once happy family is torn apart. Johnny's dad walks out the door one day following the incident and never comes back. Johnny's mom drinks herself into a stupor because she can't cope with the situation. Johnny is left to care for his mother while obsessively looking for his sister and whoever may have taken her. He skips school and sneaks out of the house as he methodically searches every street focusing on the addresses of known sex offenders.

This is a very brief summary of the book. There is a great deal more to the plot, but I don't want to risk spoiling anything. I thought I had part of it figured out early on, but then I began to doubt myself at the midway point. In the end, I figured out part of it, but not the whole thing. I wasn't sure how Hart was going to tie all the loose ends together, but in the end he does. This genre is not always my first choice in reading, but I enjoy a good mystery/suspense book every once in a while. This one is well written and done in such a way as not to rely on too many coincidences to further the plot. I think Hart is an author we will definitely be hearing more from. I love it when a hometown boy (or girl) makes it big.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Still Alive and Reading

It has been a month since I last posted. I'm not really sure why, either. I've been reading, and I've been keeping up with everyone else's blogs. But, for whatever reason I can't seem to find the time to post. I enjoy blogging immensely, but it has begun to stress me out a little bit. I'm way behind on my reading challenges, as well. Therefore, I'm making some mid-year resolutions. I contemplated giving up the blog, but I do enjoy it. So, as a compromise with myself, I will no longer stress over how long it has been since my last post. Hopefully, you'll keep reading it even if I don't add to it weekly. I'm also going to drop all of my reading challenges. I love the idea of reading challenges, but I just can't stick to a reading schedule. I'm a mood reader and don't want to feel like I have to stick to a timetable. There is just way too much going on in my life for me to stress over one of the things that brings me the most joy -- reading. Maybe, one day when I'm retired I'll be able to devote more time to blogging and can join the ranks of some of you super bloggers who post daily. It's just not realistic for me right now. O.K., if you're still reading this, I do have a few quickie reviews just to catch up.

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
I liked this book even though it is rather dark. It's definitely not one you want to read if you're already depressed. It's about two sisters who are raised by a succession of family members, all of whom have different degrees of eccentricity and/or mental illness. This is the first book I've read by this author, and it was the first book she wrote. I have Gilead and Home in the tbr pile. I'm not sure how similar they will be to this book, but I've heard great things about them both. My favorite thing about this book is Robinson's language. Her prose is beautiful.

Valeria's Last Stand by Marc Fitten
This was a really fun book. It reminds me a little of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society in that it is funny while also dealing with serious issues. At it's heart, is Valeria who has spent her entire life alone and standing in judgment of everyone in her tiny village. Unexpectedly, she falls for the local potter, which sets into motion a string of events that changes the little village and Valeria forever. This book is not necessarily on the same literary level as Housekeeping; however, it is a perfect antidote the melancholy you may feel after reading Robinson's book.

The Camel Bookmobile by Masha Hamilton
I read this book for one of my book clubs. I had heard of the real camel bookmobile and assumed that this was a nonfiction account. However, this is indeed a novel, which is loosely based on the Kenyan Camel Bookmobile. The heart of this story for me is the culture clash between the traditional ways of the itinerant villagers and the well-meaning American librarian who wants to bring literacy to the desert. This was probably one of our better discussions for this reason. Western society tends to assume that we have all the answers and that our way of life is always better. However, what happens if people are happy living the life they are living? This is brought up in the novel when someone brings to Fi's attention the fact that even though Westerners are literate, they rarely know their ancestors just a couple generations back. In stark contrast, the nomadic tribes enjoy an oral tradition in which they remember, recite, and pass on the stories of their forefathers. Of course, I believe in the value of literacy and education, but we must always be careful to try to understand and respect the cultures we encounter and not just assume that different means not as good.

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
I don't really even know where to start with this book. I know people either usually love or hate Woolf's work. I'm quickly falling into the LOVE category. Her writing is so different and does take a little getting used to; however, it is well worth the effort. It is so difficult to explain. She tells very intricate stories, and the reader gets to know quite a few characters all from inside the characters own heads. There is very little direct dialogue and very little background information. I'm not sure how she pulls it off, but it works. To say that her writing is gorgeous is an understatement. In this book, we get a glimpse into the lives of the Ramsey family as they live out one summer at the beach. Again, it defies description. If you haven't tried her writing before, give it a try. Just know that you can't read this fast or you'll miss too much. This is the kind of writing that you should linger over. In fact, I found myself rereading the same passages over and over.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009


...well sort of, anyway. It's been so long since I read the following books, that I really don't feel I can say all that much about them. But, in an effort to get back on track and get caught up with some things, I'll just briefly mention my thoughts on each one.

The Spare Room by Helen Garner

I first heard of this book from dovegreyreader. It is a short little book, but it is absolutely packed with emotion and heart. It's the story of two women, one of whom has terminal cancer. As the book opens, Helen is getting her guest room ready for her friend, Nicola who is coming to stay with her for a couple weeks while she gets some experimental treatments. It becomes obvious right away that Helen is not at all prepared for the horrible reality of cancer. The book is so realistic in its description of not only the physical effects of cancer on the patient, but also the emotional toll it takes on everyone around the patient, as well. Having watched my brother lose his wife to cancer, I recognized so much of what they experienced in this book. The main caregiver for a cancer patient experiences so many emotions, including anger and guilt. You expect them to experience sadness and grief, but I don't think most people are prepared for the anger they feel towards the person and then the ensuing guilt. That was the hardest thing for my brother to deal with after his wife died. I don't mean to make this book sound so depressing, because it really isn't. Yes, it is sad to read about what cancer does to people, but Nicola herself handles it so well. She is uplifting and encouraging to everyone around her. She refuses to give up and maintains her dignity through it all. In an interview, the author confirmed my suspicion that she had indeed experienced such a situation herself. I knew she could not have written this book otherwise. I wish I had read this book before my brother went through what he did. I think it would have helped me to understand and possibly help him to know that he wasn't alone. Everyone experiences those feelings. I think it could have helped him with the guilt, especially.

Maud Martha by Gwendolyn Brooks

This book is written in short little chapters that tell the story of a Maud Martha. Each chapter tells the story of her life at different stages beginning with her as a young girl and following her through her teenage years, young adulthood, marriage and motherhood. Brooks was the first African American to win a Pulitzer Prize (1950). She mostly wrote poetry, which is obvious when you read this novel. The language paints beautiful pictures that give the reader a brief glimpse into the life of Maud Martha at a particular moment in her life. I'm not sure if this will make sense or not, but reading this book is like looking at a photo album, which documents someone's life. Brooks uses few words to tell her story. But, the reader learns more about the character than you would in a book length biography of a person.

A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest Gaines

I read this book for my book club, which I didn't get to attend. I was really looking forward to the meeting because this book really lends itself to thought and discussion. The book is set in the deep South during the late 1940s and tells the story of two young, Black men. They both are born and raised in the same small town, but their lives take drastically different paths. However, one random act will bring them together and change them both forever. Ernest Gaines is a master at evoking time and place. He also does a great job with developing characters. The reader can't help but ache for the young men who are victims of circumstances. This is a must read, especially for anyone who wants to know what is meant by the term Southern Literature.

The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

I wasn't really sure what this book was all about when I picked it up. It turns out that it's a genre that I absolutely love -- retellings of classic fairy tales. Carter takes some of the fairy tales we all loved as children and puts her own special twist on them. Some remain somewhat light-hearted, but the majority of them are much darker. The story for which the book is named is a great example. The Bloody Chamber is the longest of the stories in this collection, as well as the darkest. The author does a great job at building suspense even though the reader knows from the beginning what is coming. I highly recommend this one.

So, now I'm caught up with reviews. I'm in somewhat of a reading slump right now. You can tell from the "Currently Reading" section in the sidebar that I'm still reading Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, as well as A Jury of Her Peers by Elaine Showalter. They are both great books, and I'm really enjoying them. I'm not sure why I'm not picking them up more often. I have been doing quite a bit of knitting lately. I have been trying to finish a gift for my mother-in-law's birthday, which is tomorrow. I have pretty finished it, but I just have to weave in the loose ends. It turned out very pretty, but it took forever. I actually had to rip it out and start over twice. It is a wrap, which is usually simple; however, this one is a complicated lace pattern. What made it more difficult is the yarn is very slippery, which means a slipped stitch can ravel back through quite a few rows before you catch it. There's also been quite a few things going on at home, as well. So, I hope to get back in my reading groove soon. But, until then I'll just keep up with what you guys are reading through your blogs.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Southern Reading Challenge

I've been trying to decide what I want to read for Maggie's annual Southern Reading Challenge. I still haven't narrowed it down, but I do have a list of potentials. In no particular order, here are some of the books I'm considering for this fun challenge:

Mudbound by Hillary Jordan
Confederacy of Dunces
Charms for the Easy Life by Kaye Gibbons
Killer Diller by Clyde Edgerton
A Long and Happy Life by Reynolds Price
something by William Faulkner?

As you can see, I'm very undecided. I think it's because I enjoy Southern Lit so much that I have a hard time deciding what to read. I may even end up reading something totally different.

On a side note, I have been reading even though I haven't been posting any reviews. It's just that when the weather begins to warm up, I'm ready to be outside. Since, I don't have a laptop, that means I'm away from the computer. Hopefully, I'll post some quick reviews of four books I've recently finished so I can get caught up.

I hope everyone had a nice Mother's Day weekend! I enjoyed myself immensely. Hubby had to work, but both the boys came to church with me and then we all ate at my mother's for lunch. We didn't do anything special, but it was just nice spending time with everyone.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Weekend reading and shopping

I know this is already Tuesday, but I haven't had a chance to post until now. Saturday was an absolutely gorgeous day here in the Piedmont of North Carolina. I just love this time of year. It was probably in the mid-80s with bright sunshine and a light breeze. I went downtown to go to the farmer's market and decided before I stopped in there I'd walk around downtown since it was such a beautiful day. I'm glad I did because I found two new shops that haven't been open for very long. One is called Southern Spirit and the lady who runs it is really nice. Everything in her store is handmade by an artist in North Carolina. I love that! There is a little bit of everything, too -- pottery, photography, painting, sculpture, wood turning, knitting, jewelry, soaps and candles, quilts and on and on. She is planning on hosting classes at the shop with some of the artists. I think she has a jewelry making class coming up. The other new shop is called Pottery 101. She is a local artist as well with some really nice pieces. She also teaches pottery classes. Of course, I went to one of my favorite independent bookstores -- The Literary Bookpost. I know I shouldn't have gone in, but I just couldn't help myself. I bought five books:

A Jury of Her Peers by Elaine Showalter
A Room of Her Own by Virginia Woolf (already read this one but wanted my own copy)
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
Jacob's Room by Virginia Woolf
The Awakening by Kate Chopin (Everyman's Library edition)

When I got home and my husband got up (he was working the night shift this past weekend), I showed him my purchases and he just grins and says, "That's exactly what you needed -- a few more books." He doesn't really care, he just likes to kid me about my little obsession.

Oh, and I actually did make it by the farmer's market, but they were getting ready to close. I didn't get the wonderful sourdough bread that I usually buy. She was out. So, I got some cinnamon bread, which is wonderful. I also picked up some cherry pecan bread, some oyster mushrooms and some homemade preserves -- damson and strawberry-rhubarb.

I stopped by the Sidewalk Deli and took something home for lunch. After I ate, I settled in on the front porch with my books. I actually read uninterrupted for a couple hours. It was heavenly. I am actually reading all the books that are in my Currently Reading sidebar. It's pretty unusual for me to have more than two books going at one time. I'm absolutely loving The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter. I've also read the first three chapters in the Showalter book, which is really good, as well. This is literary criticism/history. It sounds pretty dry, but it's really not. Showalter is a good writer, and it's interesting to hear about some of the earliest American women writers. I'll talk more about it when I finish. Of course, I still have three books that I've read recently that I haven't reviewed, yet. I'll get caught up some time, I guess.

Unfortunately, later Saturday afternoon, we got a call that my husband's uncle had passed away. He was 82 years old and lived in Asheville, NC, which is about 2 1/2 hours from us. So, we made the trip to Asheville Sunday for the visitation and again on Monday for the service. This means I had to be out of work again, which I hate after being out for a week when I was sick. Oh well, that's the way it goes. I hope everyone had a good weekend and your week has started nicely. I'm off to check in on all the blogs I missed reading over the last couple days.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

First Book and random good thoughts

I first heard about this nonprofit organization when I attended a literacy conference at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (you know, the home of the 2009 National Champions!!) back in 2007. I'm sure that many of you have heard of it, but if you haven't, you should really check out the website. They provide books for kids in an attempt to foster early literacy and a lifelong love of reading. I chose this organization to read for during Dewey's Read-a-thon last weekend. Even though I didn't get much reading done, I still wanted to donate to this very worthwhile cause. I know many of the read-a-thon participants read for a worthy cause during the event, as well. In fact, there was a nice list of possible charities on the Dewey's Read-a-thon site you may want to check out if you haven't been there already.

Oh, and as most everyone in the world knows by now -- she won!! For the first time ever, the person I was rooting for actually won. Elizabeth Strout won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for fiction for her book Olive Kitteridge. I loved this book and have gushed about it often.

I just wanted to thank everyone for their kind thoughts and wishes over the last week. I'm much better and actually glad to be back in a routine and at work. :) It sure is nice to know that there are so many wonderful book bloggers out there who care.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Best Laid Plans...

You know what they say about the best laid plans. Within five minutes of my last post yesterday morning at 10:30, my husband's grandfather stopped by unexpectedly to check on me since I had been sick. So, we sat out on the porch and visited for over an hour, which was really nice. He's one of my favorite people in the world. Before he left, my oldest son came driving up ready to help his dad and brother clean out our attic. So, I went to pick up some lunch for everybody. At this point, I still thought I would get some reading in that afternoon, which I did finally about 4:30. After lunch, I got stuck in the garage helping sort things out as they brought things down from the attic. We're going to have to have a big yard sale or else borrow a truck and take a load of stuff to the Goodwill. That took longer than it should have because I kept getting sidetracked looking at some of the boys' stuff from when they were younger. There were favorite books like Gus was a Friendly Ghost and A Day on the Farm. Of course, there were also favorite toys, such as the Jack and the Beanstalk stuffed book that Kyle loved when he was little. Well, you get the picture. It was nice though having everyone home and reminiscing a little.

But, late that afternoon, I finally did settle down in the chaise lounge on the front porch and read a little before everyone wanted to go out for dinner. I read another hour or so before bed, which probably brought me to a grand total of between 2-3 hours for the day. I want to get caught up with everyone else and how they did. I know it was a lot of fun for everyone. Maybe next year, I'll have more luck. So by the numbers, my read-a-thon was not very successful, but I had a great day, which did include a little reading. I'm off to watch The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency and then turn in early. I'll be back at work tomorrow after being out all last week. I know I'll have a great deal of catching up to do. I hope everyone has a great week!

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Read a thon

I got up early (for me anyway) at 7:30 this morning and continued reading Maud Martha by Gwendolyn Brooks, which I'm loving by the way. My husband took me out for breakfast, which is the first time I've been out of the house except for going back and forth to the hospital since last Monday. We stopped by the farmer's market and picked up a few things, and I'm settling back in with my book. It is a gorgeous day here in North Carolina, and I plan on spending the majority of it on the porch with my books. I'll check in periodically with everyone else, but I'm mostly going to be reading.

Friday, April 17, 2009

O.K., I'm In

I have been very tentative to officially join Dewey's Read-a-thon because I know I won't be able to read for 24 hours straight. But, I just couldn't take it anymore listening to the excitement on everyone else's blog. So, count me in! I don't know how much I'll be able to read at all since I have been sick. But, I will read as much as I can and check in at the site to see what's going on with everyone else. I think I'll try to read as much as I can from my tbr stacks for some of the challenges I've joined. I have still yet to even choose books for the OUAT challenge! So, we'll see how it goes. If I just get a book or two read, I'll be happy. I have also decided that I would like to make a donation to a literacy organization. I'm leaning towards First Book right now. Since I'm not sure how much I'll read, I think I'll just make a donation to the charity instead of basing it on how many books or how many pages I read. Good luck to everyone and Happy Reading!

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Time Warp

Well, it is now Thursday evening here in the U. S., and I feel as if I've just returned to the land of the living. You see, I went to bed Monday night feeling fine, and awoke around 4:30 AM Tuesday morning feeling quite nauseous and faint. I went to the bathroom and ended up on the floor unable to get up. This has happened to me several times in the past. I get these spells in which I feel as if I'm going to pass out even laying flat on my back. I break out in a cold sweat and begin tingling all over. It hits me suddenly without any warning. The only relief I can get is to hold a cold cloth on my face as my husband holds my legs up over my head and fans me furiously. The feeling finally passes, but I'm too weak to move. This time I had several spells an hour until I finally agreed to go to the ER Tuesday afternoon around 3:00 PM. They admitted me and did numerous tests -- EKG, chest X-rays, numerous blood tests, and a CT scan of my sinuses, and they couldn't find anything definitive. They've come to the conclusion that any time I get anything -- virus, infection, etc. -- my blood pressure bottoms out because it runs really low all the time. My regular blood pressure is usually something like 90/60. At the ER, it was 70/30 at one point. So, needless to say, I feel as if I have just come out of a time warp, not knowing what day it is, etc. I'm feeling much better now, except a little frustrated. I'm not convinced about the diagnosis and don't want to have to deal with this again. To add insult to injury, I didn't even feel like reading all week. Seriously though, I don't mean to sound like a whiny baby. I know there are people who deal with serious and chronic illness all the time. It really does make you appreciate your health when you're sick for a while.

I did finish A Lesson Before Dying on Monday evening before all this started, and this afternoon I started The Spare Room by Helen Garner. I'm not quite up to doing a review for the Gaines book, yet. But, hopefully I'll get that done over the weekend some time. I should probably finish the Garner book, as well since it is pretty short. I hope to also get caught up on my blog reading, as well. I never joined in the Read-a-thon officially, but I was hoping to read as much as possible. Now, I'm just glad to get back to being able to raise my head off the pillow and focus my eyes on a page. But, I'll look forward to hearing how everyone else did.

It's beautiful weather here in North Carolina and is supposed to be a nice weekend. So, I hope to get back to 100% soon and start enjoying the great Spring weather. I hope everyone has a nice weekend and good luck on the Read-a-thon.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Happy Easter and a Couple Book Reviews

I hope everyone is having a good weekend -- a holiday weekend for those who celebrate Easter.

Even though my posting has been quite sparse lately, I have been reading and keeping up with your blogs. I've recently finished Darling Jim, an arc from Library Thing and The Mrs. Dalloway Reader. I'm also finishing up A Lesson Before Dying for a book club on Tuesday. Hopefully, I won't wait so long to post my thoughts on that one.

First up, Darling Jim by Christian Moerk, which as I said is an arc from Library Thing. I purposely didn't read any of the reviews posted at LT. I'll go check them out after I get my thoughts down here. I'm always afraid I'll be influenced, even subconsciously, by reading reviews so close to finishing a book. I really enjoyed this one. For me, it started with a great cover, which looks like a torn piece of paper containing one of the diary entries of Fiona Walsh, one of the three Walsh sisters who live in modern day Dublin. They're all grown and lead relatively normal, happy lives even though they've had their fair share of past tragedy. Their parents died in an explosion, which left the sisters to the care of their aunt, Moira Hegarty. Moira is unstable but seemingly harmless, at least in the beginning. The sisters tolerate her quirks and continue to visit her weekly mostly out of a sense of obligation.

It's funny how one seemingly small event can drastically change the course of one's life. This is exactly what happens for the Walsh sisters and their aunt when a young, charismatic, itinerant storyteller finds his way to their village. Jim seems to be able to seduce virtually any woman of any age by telling them what they want to hear. He is a professional storyteller after all.

I enjoyed the mood and the atmosphere the author creates in this book. I also really liked the sections in which Jim tells his stories. I knew there was some type of connection between the story he was telling and his life, but I didn't figure it out right away. There were a couple of times in the book that I questioned the actions of one or more of the sisters. I just didn't believe anyone would react that way to the circumstances. I won't go into detail because it will spoil the story. Overall, I really enjoyed this book and would definitely recommend it.

Now, The Mrs. Dalloway Reader couldn't be more different from the previous book. It contains the full text of the final version of Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf along with critical essays, some of her short stories, an introduction by Francine Prose and Virginia Woolf's introduction to Mrs. Dalloway, as well as some of Woolf's correspondence. This is the first fiction I've read by Virginia Woolf. I recently read A Room of One's Own and fell in love with her nonfiction, which reads like fiction by the way. Any discussion I've ever heard about Woolf and her writing is pretty decisive. People seem to either love her or hate her. It's very difficult to come up with a concise way to describe this book because there really is no plot in the conventional sense of the word. The Mrs. Dalloway of the title is throwing a party and is on her way to buy flowers for the party as the book opens. We learn most everything about her and everyone else for that matter from interior dialogue. There is very little conventional dialogue. Rather, we learn what everyone is thinking and how they all relate to each other. Another note about her writing style -- she writes very long, complex sentences. It's not the kind of book that you can read without giving it the proper attention it requires. However, once I got into the flow of it, I found it quite easy to read. I know from this description, it sounds like a book in which nothing much happens, and that is true to a point. However, we learn a great deal about not only Mrs. Dalloway, but about her husband, her former suitor, childhood friend, as well as other people who she doesn't even know. Semptimus Warren Smith is a WWI veteran with shell shock who lives in London. I'm not sure how she does it, but Woolf interweaves his story into the world of Mrs. Dalloway. A friend of a friend mentions this young man at her party and it upsets Mrs. Dalloway that such a disturbing subject is broached at her party. I guess it is this seemingly simple premise, that once you actually look at it, makes you realize the extent of Woolf's literary talent.

I've heard several others say that To the Lighthouse is their favorite Virginia Woolf book, so that is probably the next book of hers that I'll read. If you haven't gotten around to reading Woolf or been somewhat intimidated by her (like I was), please give her a try. I think her writing is beautiful.

Enjoy the rest of the weekend and Happy Easter!!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Reading Notes

Wow, I can't believe it's been over a week since I last posted. Things have been really busy lately -- more so than usual. But, I have been reading. I've finished the arc I received through LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program -- Darling Jim by Christian Morek. I really enjoyed this one and will be doing a review soon, I hope. I've started reading Mrs. Dalloway's Reader by Francine Prose and Virginia Woolf. This book collects the full text of Mrs. Dalloway and also includes several short stories by Woolf, some of her diary entries and commentary from Francine Prose and others. I'm really looking forward to getting into this one. I've only read the introduction and the first of the short stories so far. I didn't realize it before, but Mrs. Dalloway began as a short story and eventually turned into a novel. I absolutely love both Francine Prose and Virginia Woolf, so this should be a treat.

For book clubs in April, I'm reading A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest Gaines, and in honor of National Poetry Month, we're reading selected poems of Robert Frost. A literature professor from a local school is coming to discuss the poems at that meeting. I've never been a big poetry reader, but I've really started to like some of the poetry I've been reading. I think I was always just a little scared of poetry in the past. So,I especially like discussing the poetry I read with others.

Not sure if I've mentioned this before, but I've downloaded three literature courses from The Teaching Company recently. One is the History of World Literature. For this class, I'm reading The Epic of Gilgamesh. This book will also count towards my Year of Reading Dangerously challenge.

Right now the hardest thing for me is to decide what to read next. After I finished reading Darling Jim the other night, I was laying in bed literally surrounded by about 10 books that I was trying to choose from. My husband walked in the bedroom, looked at the pile of books on the bed, and turned around and walked back out smiling and shaking his head.

So, that's what I've been up to -- in addition to knitting and working, and... -- well, you get the picture. So, what are you reading?

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Free Books!

Post edited: I'm extending this drawing until Friday at noon due to lack of participation. Since she is the only one who entered initially, Iliana will get her choice -- Godmother by Carrie Adams.

I mentioned a week or so ago that I received a prize from Reading Group Choices, and I wanted to pass some of those goodies on to you. I know you think I forgot, but I really didn't. So here it is. The following books will be given away via a random drawing. Please leave a comment on this post by Monday, March 23, at noon. I'll draw a separate winner for each of the five books. Anyone is welcome to put their name in the hat.

Trespass by Valerie Martin
With Violets by Elizabeth Robards
The Night Climbers by Ivo Stourton
Domestic Affairs by Eileen Goudge (hardback!)

Monday, March 16, 2009

A Month in the Country by J. L. Carr

This book was the latest selection for the Cornflower BookGroup which held it's discussion online on this past Saturday. I haven't been a faithful member of this group but have enjoyed several of the selections when I've been able to fit them in at the proper time. I thoroughly enjoyed this one. The edition I read is a beautiful copy from the Folio Society. The cover art and the illustrations inside are absolutely gorgeous. This is a short little book (my edition came in at 121 pages), which on the surface seems to be about nothing much at all. However, this initial impression is quite deceptive. My favorite thing about the book hands-down is the setting. Carr does a wonderful job of evoking a sense of time and place. The book is set in the small village of Oxgodby, a rural area of Yorkshire just after the end of WWI. Tom Birkin has come to Oxgodby to rescue an old mural in the local church, much to the dismay of the Vicar. When he arrives, Tom is still trying to cope with everything he experienced during the war, as well as the fact that his wife ran off. Tom begins the slow process of healing as he slowly immerses himself in the slow paced village life in Oxgodby. In addition to the beautiful setting, the quirky characters and some tough subject matter, there is also humor in this tiny little book. Reading this book made me want to slow down, which is definitely a good thing for me. Go on over to Cornflower Books and you can read what everyone else thought about the book. Most everyone liked it; though, there were a couple people who felt it lacked enough action for their tastes. For me, that is precisely what made this book enjoyable. For me, characters, setting and language always win out over plot any day.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Dysfunctional Families in Literature

This is a fun little Friday quiz. I don't know about you, but I do so love reading about dysfunctional families. Try your luck with this quiz. I got 9 out of 13 -- not too bad. How did you do?

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Books About Books

This fulfills another category in the my Year of Mini Challenges for the nonfiction category. I had planned to read Three Cups of Tea since it was already a book club book for me, but I just couldn't finish it. It's a great story of what one person can do to make a big change, but I've heard so much about it, I felt like I already knew the story. The writing is not great, and I've too many other books waiting to be read. So I gave up after about 100 pages. Now, on to the books I did read. They are both books about books and how and why we read them, as well as how writers can learn how to write better by reading great books. The first book is How to Read and Why by Harold Bloom, and the other book is Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them by Francine Prose. I know that not one person that bothers to read this blog will find it at all weird that I have read and enjoyed these books. However, that's not been the case with the people I run into during my day to day life. In fact, I found myself more than once hiding the cover of the books when reading in public. I didn't want to have to explain AGAIN why a 41 year old librarian would want or need to read a book about how and why to read a book. It just doesn't make sense to those outside the book lover's realm, which sadly describes most of the people I encounter daily. Don't get me wrong, I am not surrounded by a bunch of illiterate people. On the contrary, many of them read and would say that they enjoy reading. However, none of them feel about books the way that I do or the way that many of you do.

My initial impetus for picking these books up in the first place was to learn to read more closely in order to wring everything possible out of the books that I read. Often when I read reviews of books that I've read or participate in book group discussions, I always find something that I missed or see something about the book in a new light. I think we've all experienced this. In fact, that's one of the reasons I love reading your blogs and participating in group discussions in the first place. I get more out of my reading when I do.

Well, you may ask -- did I learn anything from either of these books that will help me be a more attentive reader and get more out of my reading? The answer would be a resounding, yes. Though, I liked both books, I learned much more from Francine Prose's book, which was also written in a style that I much prefer over the Bloom book. Always a good indication for me of how much I like a book or how much I want to be able to recall is the number of book darts I use. Let's just say that I wouldn't be able to take the Prose book through a metal detector as it is now. I think I used almost an entire container of book darts in this book.

For the most part, I'm a fiction reader. I don't read a whole lot of nonfiction unless it's about books and reading or some related topic. There are a few exceptions occasionally but not very often. The reason for this is the language. I often find nonfiction written in a straightforward way in which language is used only to convey meaning. In other words, for me at least, the language isn't beautiful; it doesn't paint a picture for me; it doesn't transport me to another place or time. It simply relays information. That being said; however, I've learned that this certainly isn't the case for Francine Prose. I fell in love with this book and her writing style while reading the first few pages of the first chapter. I used 10 book darts in the first 12 pages. The first chapter is entitled "Close Reading." Prose begins with the question of whether creative writing can actually be taught. She doesn't really try to answer this question fully, but rather she looks at how she learned to write and how many other writers learned to write, as well and uses this as an example. She says on page 2,
"Like most -- maybe all -- writers, I learned to write by writing and, by example, by reading books. Long before the idea of a writer's conference was a glimmer in anyone's eye, writers learned by reading the work of their predecessors. They studied meter with Ovid, plot construction with Homer, comedy with Aristophanes; they honed their prose style by absorbing the lucid sentences of Montaigne and Samuel Johnson. And who could have asked for better teachers: generous, uncritical, blessed with wisdom and genius, as endlessly forgiving as only the dead can be?"

She continues on page 3 to describe what she means by close reading,
"I read closely, word by word, sentence by sentence, pondering each deceptively minor decision the writer had made. And though it's impossible to recall every source of inspiration and instruction, I can remember the novels and stories that seemed to me revelations: wells of beauty and pleasure that were also textbooks, private lessons in the art of fiction."

According to Prose, which makes perfect sense to me now that I think about it, we all began to read this way. As we gained more aptitude, we were able to read chunks of text at a time instead of decoding each word separately. This of course is necessary to be able to read anything of any length. However, it also makes it possible to miss subtle nuances that the author embeds in her book. Of course, it depends on what you're reading and why you're reading it as to how closely you want to read. A technical manual on how to put something together or make something work only needs to be read closely enough to pick out the crucial bits. However, a literary novel by an erudite author may require a closer reading in order to catch all the allusions, to understand all the symbolism, etc. That's basically what this book is about. In each chapter, starting with the smallest component of a novel -- the word -- and going on to the sentence in chapter 3, followed by paragraphs, narration, characters, dialogue, details, and gesture, Prose breaks down how to be a close reader. On the final page of chapter one, she describes a scenario in which close reading helped her in her own writing. She was writing a story and having a hard time figuring out how to make a violent ending seem natural and not forced. During this time, she was also teaching the works of Isaac Babel in one of her classes. As usual, they were reading his works one word at a time and breaking the story down in order to understand his choices and what each word signified for the story as a whole. In doing so, she realized that Babel often used "intense lyricism" directly before a scene of intense violence. "It's characteristic of Babel to offer the reader a lovely glimpse of the crescent moon just before all hell breaks loose. I tried it -- first the poetry, then the horror -- and suddenly everything came together, the pacing seemed right, and the incident I had been struggling with appeared, at least to me, to be plausible and convincing."

Throughout the rest of the book, she uses examples from some of the great writers to illustrate how to choose the perfect word, write the perfect sentence, put together a great paragraph, etc. Whether you're reader like me who wants to get more out of her reading or an aspiring writer, this is an excellent book. It is amazing what you can get out of reading if you take the time to slow down and look at it more closely. I know it's not possible to read everything this way or I'd only finish a couple books a year; however, for certain books, I think it is a shame not to slow down and delve a little deeper. After all, the author took all that time to embed these little nuggets of literary gold, the least we can do is take the time to appreciate them properly.

Before you think this post is never going to end, I promise I am soon coming to a close. However, I thought I should say a little something about the Bloom book since I mentioned it at the beginning of the post. It's a good book, but it's just not as good as the Prose book. He is more concerned with convincing people that they should read "the best" books. Of course, he goes on to tell you exactly which books are best and why he knows this. It's hard to argue with some of his choices, such as Shakespeare, but I just don't like being told what I should like and what I shouldn't. His writing style certainly doesn't read as fiction as does some of Prose's. He is a brilliant literary critic, and he includes some analysis of some really good pieces, but I just didn't find it as enjoyable or useful. I may have felt differently had I not read these two books so close together. If you're still with me at the end of this long, rambling post, I think that probably means that you feel about books as I do. If this is the case, I highly recommend Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose.

Friday, March 6, 2009

One Foot in Eden by Ron Rash

This book fulfills categories in two of my reading challenges -- What's in a Name? and "a new to me author" from the Year of Mini Challenges. To fulfill the mini challenge, I am supposed to find information on this author and share it with you. So, here goes. Ron Rash was born in 1953 and grew up in upstate South Carolina, which is where this book is set. He went to Clemson University, which also gets a mention in the book. He currently holds the Parris Distinguished Professor in Appalachian Cultural Studies at Western Carolina University where he teaches the works of other great Southern writers like Lee Smith, Fred Chappell and Robert Morgan. This was his first novel for which he won the Novello Award and the Appalachian Book of the Year Award. Unfortunately, the book didn't garner the widespread publicity that it truly deserves. His latest book just came out, Serena. It is already gaining quite a buzz, and I think it will find a much wider audience. I hope it lives up to the quality of his first novel. If it does, book lovers all over the country are going to happily discover a great new author. Rash has also written short stories and a couple poem collections.

This book has everything a good Southern novel should contain -- love of place and a connection to the land, religious symbolism, ode to a fading way of life, superstition, and a fierce individualism. The story is set in the Jocasse Valley in upstate South Carolina just after the Korean War. The story is told from the perspectives of five different characters -- the Sheriff, the Deputy, Amy Holcombe, Billy Holcombe (Amy's husband), and Isaac Holcombe (the son). All we know at the beginning of the story is that Holland Winchester is missing. Holland is a rough, mean guy who has very few friends in the county, but he returned from Korea a hero. The Sheriff narrates the first chapter as he begins to try to find out what happened to Holland.

The story builds from there chapter by chapter as the main characters narrate their individual stories, and the reader begins to see how their lives are all interrelated. The book reminds me just a little bit of Robert Morgan's Gap Creek with its depiction of the land and how hard these people work to scrape a living out of the dirt. Another similarity and one of the reasons I really like the book is the chapters told by Amy and Billy Holcombe. I'm always fascinated to see the same events played out from the individual perspectives of a husband and wife. Rash does this particularly well. It would not have been near as good a story if he had left any one of these characters' stories out.

One of my favorite characters in the book is the Widow Glendower who lives alone in a remote area. She is a "granny woman" or midwife, and she practices herbal folk medicine. For all of these reasons, she is seen as a sort of witch. People seek her out when they are in desperate need of help, but at other times she is scoffed at or feared. The widow's speech exemplifies best some of the true Appalachian dialect that the author uses in the book. Amy Holcombe goes to see the widow when she and Billy have trouble conceiving a baby. However, once she conceives, Amy is scared to let the widow midwife for her as promised. She hopes she won't find out for fear that she may harm the child. I'm afraid to say too much more about the plot because I'm always scared I may inadvertently spoil it. However, I really feel like this is one of those books that transcends the plot. Don't get me wrong -- a great deal happens in the novel. However, for me at least, I don't think that is the most important part of the book. The characters themselves and their inner struggles are more important than the actual story. Why did she do that? How desperate would you have to be before making a decision like that? How could she keep quiet? The characters seem to be real. They're not one-dimensional stereotypes or archetypes. They exhibit all the characteristics that we all do. They're not always good, and they're not always bad. They have good intentions and still make terrible mistakes. That's what makes the readers heart ache for them. For me, that's what makes good writing.

It amazes me that this is a first novel. There is so much depth to it. It was a perfect book for our book club discussion last night. As I said earlier, the book is full of everything that makes Southern Literature its own genre. The focus on the land and the importance it plays in people's lives permeates the novel, as well as the fear of losing that land and thus a way of life. This drama unfolds in the forefront as the characters deal with the personal decisions they make and the hand that fate has dealt them. Carolina Power (now Duke Energy) is getting ready to flood the valley and all these people are being forced to move off land that has been in their families for generations. Unfortunately, this part of the story is all too true. There were many dams built in the Carolinas as part of the WPA projects following the Depression and WWII. Jocasse is just one example. Santee Cooper is another one that I'm familiar with, but I think there were somewhere between 7 and 9 dams built in North Carolina alone.

I can't wait to read his latest novel, Serena, and I hope that it lives up to this one. I rank this book right up there with the likes of the aforementioned Gap Creek and Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons when considering contemporary Southern novelists. I'm thankful that there are Southern authors that are continuing in that proud traditions begun by legends such as Faulkner and O'Connor. As it turns out, I'm going to get to meet Ron Rash because he is the featured speaker at the Pfeiffer Friends of the Library luncheon on April 7th. I hope he's as good a speaker in person as he is on the page. I'll let you know. I'll leave you with a quote from the book that mentions the Eden of the title:
"There was something deep inside him that money and fame couldn't cure. I reckoned it must be in a lot of us since his records were so popular. Lonliness was a word you could give it, but it was something beyond words. It was a kind of yearning, a sense that part of your heart was unfilled. A preacher would say it was man's condition since leaving Eden, and so many of the old hymns were about how in another life we'd be with God. But we lived in the here and now. You tried to find something to fill that absence. Maybe a marriage could cure that yearning, though mine hadn't. Drink did it for many a man besides Williams. Maybe children filled it for some, or maybe like Daddy even the love of a place that connected you to generations of your family."

Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski

This book completes the 2009 Chunkster Challenge for me. I only signed up to read one chunkster. I'm really glad I chose this one, too. There is so much to say about this book. As usual, I found myself wishing that this was a book club book so I would be able to discuss it with a group of people. The book is really long, but it doesn't take that long to read it. The only complaints I've heard from some people is the fact that they feel the author could have left out some of the information on dog training. Surprisingly I wasn't bothered by that. I didn't feel like it was too much, at all. However, I did feel like the time that Edgar spent alone in the woods when he ran away was just way too long. However, that is a small complaint about an otherwise wonderful book.

The book tells the story of Edgar Sawtelle and his mother and father who raise a special breed of dogs on their Wisconsin farm. Edgar is born mute. He's not deaf, but he has never been able to make a sound. As a result, he develops a gift for observation. He sees things that others don't. I'm not just talking about the surreal here, although there is some of that. I mean that he watches people and understands things that many speaking people don't take the time to because they're too worried about what they're going to say next. As a result of his muteness and his being an only child, Edgar also develops a very strong bond with Almondine, the matriarch of the Sawtelle dogs. She has watched over Edgar ever since the day he was brought home.

Things begin to change for Edgar when his estranged uncle comes back to the family farm to stay with them. It's evident right away that there are unresolved issues between Edgar's dad and his uncle. We're not told what they are right away. Instead, we see things as they unfold just as Edgar sees them. I don't really want to go into too much more of the plot for fear of ruining the experience for others. Suffice it to say, this book has a little bit of everything. There are beautiful descriptions of the natural beauty of the land. There are secrets, lies and betrayals. There is a little magical realism, which seems perfectly plausible in this story. I didn't really see how the book was going to end until I was almost there. Some critics have made comparisons to Hamlet, which I can definitely see. I am left with a couple of questions regarding Edgar's mom. After reading a couple of interviews with the author, I discovered that he wanted it that way. He didn't want to tie things up neatly with a bow. He wanted the reader to be able to draw their own conclusions about some things. If you haven't read this one yet, you may just want to give it a try. It's well worth it.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Books and Snow

I've been quite busy over the last week or so. I have several books that I need to review and so many more waiting in the wings. I have been meaning to mention the fact that I won a contest through ReadingGroupGuides.com. They chose 15 winners to receive 15 books in honor of their (you guessed it) 15th anniversary. I was shocked when I came home from work one day and found the huge box. Believe it or not, I actually took pictures of the books.

The Safety of Secrets by Delaune Michel
Who by Fire by Diana Spechler
Things I Want my Daughters to Know by Elizabeth Noble
Brother I'm Dying by Edwidge Danticat
Songs without Words by Ann Packer
Still Alice by Lisa Genova
The Age of Shiva by Manil Suri

The Middle Place by Kelly Corrigan
The Space Between Before and After by Jean Reynolds Page
Driving with Dead People by Monica Holloway
Lady of Quality by Georgette Heyer

The last one in this photo is a book that I picked up at the local Goodwill store. I have heard so much about Georgette Heyer and haven't read any of her work, so I was really excited when I found this. It's hardback and in really good shape, too.

If you're counting, you'll see that there are only 10 new books in these photos, and I said that I won 15. So what happened to the other books you ask? I decided to do some giveaways with the other 5 books. So, check back in the near future for some free books!

Now, on to the snow. Being in the Piedmont of North Carolina, we don't see a whole lot of snow. We may get a dusting once or twice a winter, and that's pretty much it. Needless to say, it's exciting when we get more than just a flurry. Most of this area got some snow, and it seems that we got the most in my immediate area. I think we had around six or seven inches. O.K., I can hear some of you now -- "That's not much snow!" Well, for us it is. I actually got a day off work on Monday due to the weather. It was absolutely gorgeous. It started snowing Sunday evening around 5:30 and continued throughout the night. When I got up on Monday morning, there was a beautiful blanket of snow covering everything. The best part is that the sun was shining and
the sky was a brilliant blue.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Reader by Bernhard Schlink

I admit that the premise for this book made me a little queasy. I'm no prude, but as the mother of two sons, I didn't know if I'd like reading about a relationship between a 15-year old boy and a 30-something year old woman. However, I wanted to see the movie and I always like to read the book first. So, I read it, and I'm so glad I did. It's one of those books that hooked me from the first and forced me to keep reading. My only regret is that this wasn't a book group book. I really would have liked to be able to discuss this book with others. There's so much about the book that lends itself to discussion. Of course, above everything else there is the moral quandary of this relationship between Michael and Hannah. The story is told completely from Michael's point of view. I found myself wanting to hear more from Hannah. I wanted her to explain herself and her actions. I know the author did all of this for a reason, but I really wanted to try and understand her. She made such a huge impact on Michael's entire life. She colored every relationship he had from that point on.

The reader pretty much knows from the beginning that she has a secret. She doesn't want to share anything with Michael. He's young and in love and wants to know everything about her. She ignores most of his questions and never really opens up to him. In fact, he doesn't even know her name until they had already slept together numerous times. Of course, later the reader understand more about why she doesn't share much about her past. For Michael, the romance is extremely intense and ends abruptly. Hannah simply leaves and never contacts him again. By chance, Michael ends up finding out what has happened to Hannah through a seminar class he's taking in college.

The title of the book comes from the fact that eventually their afternoon trysts included him reading aloud to her. In the beginning, he read to her whatever he was reading at the time. She seemed to crave this. She was always very attentive and perceptive. She would make observations and ask lots of questions. This continued throughout their relationship.

I really don't want to say too much more about the plot. I will just say that I really enjoyed this book, and it is definitely one that will make you think about it long after you turn that last page. The book really left me with more questions than answers. Again, I wanted to know more about Hannah and why she made the decisions she did. The reader is led to believe that one thing may have lead her to some of her decisions. But, it doesn't explain everything. Can you ever really fully know a person if they aren't willing to open themselves up to you? Are people who do evil things evil themselves? Does following orders relieve someone of personal responsibility?

If you haven't read this one, I highly recommend it. It's not a happy, feel good kind of book. It's a book that really stops you in your tracks and forces you to think about difficult philosophical questions. I'm anxious to see the movie now.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Playing Catch Up

I'm currently reading The Story of Edgar Sawtelle for the Chunkster Challenge. I'm only a couple chapters into it so far. I'll admit that I was a little surprised at the chapter told from the dog's point of view. I usually don't have any problem with the surreal or magical realism in books, but for some reason this didn't really work as well for me. Don't get me wrong, I do like the writing. I just hope that the majority of the book anyway is told from a human perspective. A coworker told me to stick with it that it is worth it.

I've finished a couple books that I haven't reviewed yet. One is Grendel by John Gardner. I recently read Beowulf and loved it. So, I thought I would read this while Beowulf was still fresh in my mind. Grendel is the monster from Beowulf, and this is his side of the story. I was really disappointed in this one. I usually stop reading a book after about 50 pages if I don't like it. This one is really short and I was still kind of on the fence at that point so I continued. But, it never got any better. It was actually kind of hard to understand at times. Believe it or not, there's a lot of deep philosophical stuff in the book. I just really didn't like it all that much.

I also finished The Reader, which I liked much better. I'll do a proper review of it on Monday. Hopefully, I'll be further along with Edgar by Monday, as well. I'm not sure how much time I'll have over the weekend because I'll be getting ready for my son's 21st birthday party on the 24th. Since they've gotten older, we usually just go out to dinner with all of our family and have cake and presents. This year, he wants to do it at our house, which means I have a whole lot of cleaning and cooking to do! I can't believe he'll actually be 21, but he's still my baby. :)

Monday, February 16, 2009

Book Love

I had a great Valentine's Day even though my hubby had to work until 7:30 PM. I called in a take out at a steak house and we ate at home since it would have been very crowded by that time of the evening on Valentine's Day. My wonderful husband bought me a gorgeous pink ornamental lily that can be planted after it warms up a little. It is just full of blooms. He also bought me two books that I've been wanting -- The Good Thief and The Reader. I 've been wanting to see The Reader at the movies, but I wanted to read the book first. I should have taken a picture, but you all know I'm really bad at that. I love seeing everyone's lovely book stacks, but I never seem to get around to taking any photos of mine. With my lovely new acquisitions, I've put The Story of Edgar Sawtelle aside for now and started The Reader. I'm only a couple chapters in, but so far I'm liking it (even though the subject matter is a little disturbing).

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne

I read this book for one of my book clubs that meets tonight. I'm anxious to see how the discussion will go. It's a YA novel, and I read it in just a couple of sittings. There's also a movie, but I haven't seen it. It's about two 9 year old boys who quite literally find themselves on opposite sides of a fence and neither knows what it all means. Bruno is the son of a high-ranking Nazi official who is put in charge of "Out-With". Bruno is never able to pronounce the word correctly. Schmuel is a young boy from Poland who was taken to the concentration camp along with the rest of his family. The thing that makes this book different from other books I've read on the Holocaust is the fact that it is told from such a young and naive perspective. The boys form an unlikely and secret friendship by meeting along a remote area of the fence each afternoon.

The edition I read has an author interview in the back, which is pretty interesting. The author is asked why he calls this a fable. I had missed this designation on the title page, so I went back and there it was -- The Boy in the Striped Pajamas: A Fable. A fable is basically a story which contains a moral. The author says that he wants to make this not simply about one concentration camp in one war. He wants the reader to be able to relate the story to any time period and any war. This is also why he never uses the word Auschwitz, but instead lets nine year old Bruno pronounce it Out-With. Bruno also calls Hitler the Fury instead of the Fuhrer. The moral is simple. Complacency is dangerous. Looking back, we all wonder how something like the Holocaust could have happened. Surely we would have spoken up or done something. The question we need to ask, and this is the message that Boyne is trying to get across, is what are we doing about the genocide that is taking place today?

There were a couple people who didn't read the book because of the subject matter. They felt it would be too disturbing. Those who did read it really enjoyed the book. I guess it's kind of strange to say you enjoyed a book which deals with such a terrible chapter in history, but you know what I mean. It is well-written and makes the reader think. For me, that's what good literature does. The only problem a couple people had with the book is that they felt that a nine year old would have been more aware of what was going on around him. I disagree. I think Bruno knew that something terrible was happening, but he didn't understand what it was. I've heard some people compare this to The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. In that it is a book about a child's view of the Holocaust, I agree. However, I think the similarities end there. I think because this book is written in third person, I never really identified with Bruno quite as much as I did the characters in The Book Thief. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas deals with a horrific tragedy that possibly could have been prevented. Hopefully, we never forget this. I'll leave you with a line from the book that I think pretty much sums it up. "Fences like this exist all over the world. We hope you never have to encounter one."

Monday, February 9, 2009

A Room of One's Own (Mini Challenge # 6)

This book fulfills #6, 'borrow a library book' in the Year of Mini-Challenges. It actually fulfills several of the categories in this challenge because it is a 'new to me author' (I can't believe it either, but I haven't read anything by Virginia Woolf before now). It could also fill the 'read 2 essays from the same collection' because this book is based on two talks she gave in 1928. But, I'm only going to count it towards #6 because I have some other things in mind for these other categories, and I want to do all twelve mini-challenges separately.

I know this will definitely not be my last book by Virginia Woolf. I love her writing style. She is very witty while at the same time fleshing out a serious argument. Woolf was invited to speak to two British women's colleges in 1928 on the subject of women and fiction. She begins her talk by explaining that she has had quite a bit of difficulty preparing her remarks. She came to the conclusion that what she really wanted to explain is the fact that in order to write or be creative in any number of ways, it is crucial for a person to have freedom. She must be able to have a place to get away from the everyday interruptions and responsibilities of life and the money that provides that type of freedom. This is where the title of the book comes from -- a room of one's own.

She accomplishes her goal by fictitiously describing the two days that preceded her coming to this meeting. During these two days, she illustrates the myriad ways that women are 'kept in their place.' For example, she's walking outside when she forgets herself and mistakenly takes the path reserved only for the male scholars of the university. She has just had a brilliant idea when a male figure begins approaching her with his arms waving wildly. In the ensuing moments, she forgets the idea that was forming in her mind. She proceeds in this manner describing event after event in which women are treated differently than men, which in turn stymies the creativity of the women.

All sorts of questions are raised in her mind as she goes through these two days in preparation for her talk. "Why did men drink wine and women water? Why was one sex so prosperous and the other so poor? What effect has poverty on fiction? What conditions are necessary for the creation of works of art?" She seeks the answers to these questions in the British Museum by taking book after book off the shelf. What she soon discovers is that for most of recorded history, the majority of books were written by men, even the books about women. Then more women began to write and publish books in the mid to late 1800s -- George Eliot, the Brontes, Louisa May Alcott to name a few. However, she noticed something different in the writing of these women in comparison to the great male writers of the day. Even with their immense talent, she felt that they were at a disadvantage because they lacked the necessary freedom to write without restraint. She goes on to say that she believes that in another 100 years possibly women will be able to write without thought of gender like men have always had the luxury of doing.

There is absolutely no way I can do this book justice. Virginia Woolf makes a very compelling argument without bitterness or blame. She simply states the fact that to be able to be creative and write well, a person needs money and personal space -- something that women have lacked throughout history. Creativity needs freedom to be able to think and write without worrying about daily responsibilities or societal expectations. Woolf accomplishes her goal with candor and humor. As I said at the beginning of this long, winding post, I will definitely be reading more Virginia Woolf in the very near future.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009


This is my first selection for the Year of Reading Dangerously challenge. I know I probably had to read this, or a portion of it, at some point during my time in school. However, I really don't remember reading it. I have always felt like I was not properly educated because I couldn't really say for sure if I'd read it or not. So, that's why I chose this one for this particular challenge.

Like everyone, I already knew the gist of the story -- great warrior king faces overwhelming odds numerous times and rules his country justly for many years until he is finally killed as an old man doing battle with a dragon that no other warrior would fight.

I read the 2001 Seamus Heany bilingual edition. I was actually pleasantly surprised. I really liked it and read it quickly. I guess it has just gotten a bad rap over the years like other classic works forced on students in school. But, this is a really well-written epic poem. Of course, I was reading the translation. The Old English on the other side of the page might as well have been Greek.

I particularly liked the introduction by Heaney in which he describes several possible ways of approaching Beowulf. The first he says is to simply look at it as "three agnons in the hero's life..." These are the three major battles he fights -- first against Grendel, then Grendel's mother, and finally the dragon. Another way to look at the epic, is to consider it the story of three groups of people and how their lives were intertwined through the character of Beowulf. The third way to approach the poem is to look at it as a study of the honor-bound warrior culture, which is also tinted with Christian references.

I really thought I would have a hard time understanding any of this, but again, I was pleasantly surprised. I had no trouble understanding the story. The only thing that was a little difficult was the pronunciation of the names and keeping all the lineages straight in my head. So, if like me, you haven't read it or don't remember reading it. Go ahead, it's not that scary or dangerous after all.

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie

This is my first read for the What's in a Name Challenge. I really didn't know that much about this book when I picked it up. It's been on my shelves for a while, and it fits the category of "a book with a profession in its title." From the brief blurb on the back of the book, I thought I would really love this one. However, I have to admit that I was a little disappointed. Don't get me wrong, I did like it. There just wasn't as much about books as I thought there would be.

Two lifelong friends find themselves sent to a tiny village on a mountainside far away from their family and the life they knew in the city. This was part of the "reeducation" process of the Cultural Revolution. The children of famous doctors, scientists, and other academic types were taken from their homes and sent to live with peasants in the hopes that they would forget their bourgeois lifestyle and embrace the communist ideal.

The boys make an acquaintance in a neighboring village who is also a victim of the "reeducation" process. The boys suspect that he is harboring a dangerous secret and soon discover that he has contraband hidden in a suitcase. Yep, you guessed it -- he has books. All literature, especially western literature was banned during this period. The only approved reading material was books by Chairman Mao and his followers. The boys finally persuade their friend to let them borrow some books, which they devour. In addition to Balzac, they have books by Flaubert, Gogol, Melville, and Romain Rolland. These books open the boys' eyes to a new world. Even though they had lived in the city, they were very naive and knew little of the ways of the world, especially when it came to women and sex.

Luo is smitten with the daughter of a tailor in one of the villages on the mountain and begins daily visits to read to her from Balzac. He is trying to impress her, and he also feels that he is doing her a favor by educating her, as well. They have a brief, albeit intense romance. I won't go into more detail here for fear of ruining the story. Overall, I liked the book, but I didn't love it the way I thought I would. I enjoyed learning a little more about the Chinese culture during this period in addition to the literary references. I'd be interested to know what you think if you've read it.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Blackbird House by Alice Hoffman

I can't begin to tell you how much I loved this book. Alice Hoffman is quickly becoming a favorite of mine. I was so immersed in the reading that I didn't want to take the time to stop and take notes or even mark favorite passages. So, I know I won't even be able to come close to doing the book justice. Hopefully, my profuse gushing will be enough to entice you to read it. Then again, it may simply want to make you scream. Blackbird house is a book of connected short stories. But instead of being connected by a particular character or characters, these stories are connected over a couple hundred years by a house.

The house is located in the remote reaches of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. The house truly seems to be another character in the stories, sometimes the main character. For some, it is a dream come true. For others, it is a refuge. For still others, it is a place to hide. Of course, I liked some stories more than others, but I can honestly say that there is not one story that I didn't like, which is rare for me. As with most all of Hoffman's books, there is an element of magical realism. Sometimes this element doesn't always work for me, but Hoffman makes it work every single time. I never question it. Again, as with a lot of her writing, there is often a darkness to the stories in this collection.

The Witch of Truro is probably my favorite story. It's about Ruth, a young woman, who lives alone after her mother and father die of smallpox. Tragedy finds her again when her house burns down and she's left with literally nothing but her milk cows. She takes to living right on the beach until the women of the small town can stand it no longer. They put a plan into action. They begin by bringing her food and befriending her. After a while, they convince her to be the cook for Lysander Wynn who survived a storm at sea years earlier. Both Ruth and Lysander have been beaten up by life and are pretty much loners who end up finding some comfort from each other.

Everything that happens to these families in Blackbird House over the years makes me wish that I lived in an older home. I would love to think about the people who lived there before me. However, we built our house, so I can only hope that hundreds of years from now, someone may think about the original inhabitants of their home and wonder what our life was like.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

A couple more won't hurt

I've decided to join in on a couple more challenges. So far, I don't think I'm overcommited, but I didn't think so last year, either. But, I have fun just thinking about what I might read for the challenges. So, even if I don't finish them, that's O.K. I'm certainly not going to stress over it. So, I'm going to give these a try:

My Year of Reading Dangerously Challenge 2009

I participated in this one last year and was pretty successful, I think I read 9 or 10 out of the 12 selections for the year. Not bad. This year the requirement is also twelve books; however, they can be any books of your choosing. There isn't a specific list this year. It runs January 1 - December 31. Participants are encouraged to read books that have been challenged or banned, new to you genres, books that seem to inhabit a permanent space on your stacks, or authors you're afraid of. There is a list of books that the hosts are considering if you're interested. I haven't put together a full list, yet, but I think I'll include some science fiction (a genre I don't particularly care for), definitely some frequently banned/challenged books, and maybe a few authors/books I'm afraid of -- Ulysses by Joyce, Inferno by Dante, etc. Hopefully, I'll get a list together soon and post it in the sidebar.

The 2009 Pub Challenge

This is a no-brainer for me. The rules are simply read nine books that are first published in 2009. I normally read a great deal of new fiction every year. So, this shouldn't be a problem. At least five books have to be fiction (again, no problem here) and crossovers are allowed. No children's/YA books because in the words of the host, "we're at the pub." Check out the challenge blog for all the rules and to sign up.

The Year of Mini Challenges

This one is a little more challenging, but I really like the idea. There are twelve mini-challenges. Of course, they include reading (short stories, a play, nonfiction, a classic, etc.), but they also include other things like promoting literacy and going to a book event. I do have some books in mind for some of these. Once again, I'll be posting them in the sidebar soon. Check this one out because it really does look like fun.

O.K., finally there's the Modern Library's 100 Best Novels Challenge ( but this is a perpetual challenge, so no time pressure!)

The idea is to simply read the Modern Library's list of what they chose as the best 100 novels. There are a couple options available. I've been trying to do this for a while anyway. So, I thought I might as well join the challenge.

I had already signed up for the Read Your Name, What's in a Name 2009, and Chunkster 09. So that is six timed challenges and one perpetual challenge. I think that's doable.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Six Word Memoirs

I just read Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six Word Memoirs by Writers Famous & Obscure and the companion volume, Six Word Memoirs of Love & Heartbreak by Writers Famous & Obscure. I know the first book made the rounds when it was first published, but I just now got around to it. I read it in one sitting and really enjoyed it. The idea is based on the legend that Ernest Hemingway was challenged to write a story in just six words. He wrote, "For sale: baby shoes, never worn." That definitely tells a story and leaves you wanting to know more, as well.

Many of the memoirs in both these little books are good, some are just silly, and there are a few that are quite profound. Obviously, they chose one of the best for the title, "Not quite what I was planning." If you haven't read this little book, I would definitely recommend it. And then of course you have to write your own. I'm still trying to come up with mine. I'll include a few below for your enjoyment.

"Sold belongings. Became Itinerant Poetry Librarian."

"I still make coffee for two."

"Danced in fields of Infinite Possibilities."

"What the hell, might as well."

"Still lost on road less traveled."

"Lucky in love, unlucky in metabolism."

"Perpetual work in progress, need editor."

O.K., I'll stop now. It's really quite addictive.

Monday, January 26, 2009

National Book Critics Circle Award Nominees Announced

I don't normally put too much faith in book awards simply because my choice hardly ever wins. However, I like to watch and see what happens anyway. There are other categories, but I've listed the fiction and nonfiction below. I definitely hope Olive Kitteridge wins in the fiction category. Anyone who has read this blog for any length of time has heard me sing the praises of this book. I read it as an arc and absolutely loved everything about it. I have Marilynne Robinson's Home, but I haven't read it, yet. I know it will be good, though. You can find the entire list here. What book are you rooting for?

The 2008 National Book Critics Circle Award Nominees:


Roberto BolaƱo, 2666, FSG
Marilynne Robinson, Home, FSG
Aleksandar Hemon, The Lazarus Project, Riverhead
M. Glenn Talyor, The Ballad of Trenchmouth Taggart, West Virginia University Press
Elizabeth Strout, Olive Kittredge, Random House

Dexter Filkins, The Forever War, Knopf
Drew Gilpin Faust, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the Civil War, Knopf
Jane Mayer, The Dark Side, Doubleday
Allan Lichtman, White Protestant Nation, Atlantic Monthly Press
George C. Herring, From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1776, Oxford University Press