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 Bolaño, 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

Saturday, January 24, 2009

I'm Still Here (barely)

I can't believe it has been so long since I last posted. I have been reading my favorite blogs and keeping up with what everyone else is doing in my absence. However, work has been absolutely crazy, and I'm just exhausted when I get home in the evenings. I've been doing a lot of quick knitting projects, which eats up some of my reading time. I'm finishing up Blackbird House by Alice Hoffman, which I am loving. I'll post a review soon. I also read The Curious Case of Benjamin Button on DailyLit. I just started The Awakening on DailyLit, and I'll see how it goes. I've tried reading online before and haven't been able to get into it. However, my success at finishing Benjamin Button (I know it's really short) has given me the courage to try again. I'll let you know how that goes. I also just received a book in the mail yesterday that looks really interesting. I ordered The 7 Deadly Sins Sampler from The Great Books Foundation. It's an anthology of great short stories with questions and ideas for further reflection following each story. There's also a brief bio of the author at the beginning of each story. It's set up so that there are two short stories which fall into one of the seven deadly sins. For example, A Rose for Emily by Faulkner and Good Country People by O'Connor are included under the sin of Pride. There is a really nice introduction to the collection which discusses the idea of sin and how it has changed over time. I could easily see this being used in college literature courses and by book clubs.

Finally, I saw this on several blogs and thought I'd share it as well. It's Entertainment Weekly's List of New Classics. It has been made into a perpetual challenge. I'm not going to participate in the challenge, but I still like to see how many books I've read and how many I have waiting in the stacks. Books I've read are bold, books I own but haven't read yet are italicized.

1. The Road , Cormac McCarthy (2006)
2. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J. K. Rowling
3. Beloved, Toni Morrison (1987)
4. The Liars’ Club, Mary Karr (1995)
5. American Pastoral, Philip Roth (1997)
6. Mystic River by
7. Maus, Art Spiegelman (1986/1991)
8. Selected Stories, Alice Munro (1996)
9. Cold Mountain, Charles Frazier (1997)
10. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Haruki Murakami (1997)
11. Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer (1997)
12. Blindness, José Saramago (1998)
13. Watchmen, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (1986-87)
14. Black Water, Joyce Carol Oates (1992)
15. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Dave Eggers (2000)
16. The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood (1986)
17. Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel García Márquez (1988)
18. Rabbit at Rest, John Updike (1990)
19. On Beauty, Zadie Smith (2005)
20. Bridget Jones’s Diary, Helen Fielding (1996)
21. On Writing, Stephen King (2000)
22. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Díaz (2007)
23. The Ghost Road, Pat Barker (1996)
24. Lonesome Dove, Larry McMurtry (1985)
25. The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan (1989)
26. Neuromancer, William Gibson (1984)
27. Possession, A.S. Byatt (1990)
28. Naked, David Sedaris (1997)
29. Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
30. Case Histories, Kate Atkinson (2004)
31. The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien (1990)
32. Parting the Waters, Taylor Branch (1988)
33. The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion (2005)
34. The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
35. The Line of Beauty, Alan Hollinghurst (2004)
36. Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt (1996)
37. Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi (2003)
38. Birds of America, Lorrie Moore (1999)
39. Interpreter of Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri (2000)
40. His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman (1995-2000)
41. The House on Mango Street, Sandra Cisneros (1984)
42. LaBrava, Elmore Leonard (1983)
43. Borrowed Time, Paul Monette (1988)
44. Praying for Sheetrock, Melissa Fay Greene (1991)
45. Eva Luna, Isabel Allende (1988)
46. Sandman by Neil Gaiman
47. World’s Fair, E.L. Doctorow (1985)
48. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
49. Clockers, Richard Price (1992)
50. The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen (2001)
51. The Journalist and the Murderer, Janet Malcom (1990)
52. Waiting to Exhale, Terry McMillan (1992)
53. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Michael Chabon (2000)
54. Jimmy Corrigan, Chris Ware (2000)
55. The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls (2006)
56. The Night Manager, John le Carré (1993)
57. The Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe (1987)
58. Drop City, TC Boyle (2003)
59. Krik? Krak! Edwidge Danticat (1995)
60. Nickel & Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich (2001)
61. Money, Martin Amis (1985)
62. Last Train To Memphis, Peter Guralnick (1994)
63. Pastoralia, George Saunders (2000)
64. Underworld, Don DeLillo (1997)
65. The Giver by Lois Lowry
66. A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, David Foster Wallace (1997)
67. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
68. Fun Home, Alison Bechdel (2006)
69. Secret History, Donna Tartt (1992)
70. Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell (2004)
71. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, Ann Fadiman (1997)
72. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon
73. A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
74. Friday Night Lights, H.G. Bissinger (1990)
75. Cathedral, Raymond Carver (1983)
76. A Sight for Sore Eyes, Ruth Rendell (199
77. The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro (1989)
78. Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert (2006)
79. The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell (2000)
80. Bright Lights, Big City, Jay McInerney (1984)
81. Backlash, Susan Faludi (1991)
82. Atonement, Ian McEwan (2002)
83. The Stone Diaries, Carol Shields (1994)
84. Holes by Louis Sachar
85. Gilead, Marilynne Robinson (2004)
86. And the Band Played On, Randy Shilts (1987)
87. The Ruins, Scott Smith (2006)
88. High Fidelity, Nick Hornby (1995)
89. Close Range, Annie Proulx (1999)
90. Comfort Me With Apples, Ruth Reichl (2001)
91. Random Family, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc (2003)
92. Presumed Innocent, Scott Turow (1987)
93. A Thousand Acres, Jane Smiley (1991)
94. Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser (2001)
95. Kaaterskill Falls, Allegra Goodman (1999)
96. The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown
97. Jesus’ Son, Denis Johnson (1992)
98. The Predators’ Ball, Connie Bruck (1989)
99. Practical Magic, Alice Hoffman (1995)
100. America (the Book), Jon Stewart/Daily Show (2004)

I've read 9 and have 12 more in the stacks. How many have you read? Why is it that book lovers are so interested in lists like this?

Friday, January 9, 2009

Cranford -- again

I read Cranford a while back and really enjoyed it so I suggested it to my book club. They chose it for this month's meeting, and we met last night to discuss it. I'm always a little nervous when we discuss a book that I've chosen. I know I shouldn't, but I tend to take it personally when people say negative things about the book. If I suggest a book, it's because I really saw something worthwhile in it. When we read a book that I don't care for, I try not to be negative in the discussion. I will certainly give my opinion about certain aspects of the book -- characters, setting, etc. But, I never just say I hated the book. There's a way to give your honest opinion without being offensive. O.K., I know I'm probably sounding like a big baby right about now. I guess that just shows how anxious I am about choosing a book for discussion. I almost feel like I'm opening myself up for inspection.

Luckily, everyone in attendance really seemed to enjoy the book. So, I was worried for nothing -- as usual. In fact, several of the members had taken the time to do a little research on Elizabeth Gaskell and the Victorian era. Several others had editions with really nice notes and introductions. One even had a section on the fashion, which plays a part in the book.

I did a little research in preparation for the discussion and found quite a few interesting sites that are worth browsing. There's even a Gaskell Society devoted to studying Elizabeth Gaskell and her works. In looking at some of these, I discovered that Cranford is somewhat of a departure for Gaskell from her other writing. The majority of her other novels were considered "social problem" novels. She was very interested in trying to shed light on the problems of poverty, poor working and living conditions, and the plight of women and children in the cities and factories. Most of these social problems were due to or made worse by the influx of people moving from the country to the city to work in the new factories during the early days of the Industrial Revolution. Gaskell was married to a Unitarian minister, and they worked side by side in the cities trying to help improve conditions for people. Her writing was one way that she could help bring these problems to light. At the time, her "social problem" novels, such as Mary Barton, caused quite a stir because of their realism in portraying the lives of the workers. In addition, many of the owners were upset because of the way she portrayed them.

After publishing Mary Barton anonymously in 1848, she was soon discovered. Charles Dickens contacted her and implored her to write for his serial Household Words. This began a long professional relationship between the two. It's clear that they didn't always agree on things, but they both greatly respected each other. Cranford began as a single episode published in Household Words. She hadn't intended to write more, but Dickens begged her to continue the series. So, she wrote several more episodes that were eventually purchased and put in novel form.

In one memorable scene from Cranford, Deborah Jenkyns is arguing with someone about who was the better author -- Samuel Johnson or Charles Dickens. Of course due to her strict Victorian ideals, she believed that Samuel Johnson was a 'real' writer and that Dickens was pretty much a hack. This illustrates the old argument of the role literature should play in people's lives. During this time period, many believed that literature should be something that improved one's life and not something used for mere entertainment. In addition to Dickens, Gaskell was friends with many others in the literary world, including Charlotte Bronte. In fact, she was chosen by the family of Bronte to write her official biography.

This book pays tribute to a group of women and a way of life. The women of Cranford were still living by the old social order just as life was rapidly changing in the cities close by. Gaskell paints a portrait of these women that is both funny and tender. I highly recommend this book.

The only other book by Gaskell that I've read is Mary Barton, which I would also highly recommend. I want to read North and South, which is similar to Mary Barton in tone and theme.

The Gaskell Society

The Gaskell Web

Elizabeth Gaskell at Victorian Web

Works by Elizabeth Gaskell at Project Gutenberg

Elizabeth Gaskell on the Literature Network

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

If on a winter's night a traveler by Italo Calvino

This is a book that I've wanted to read for quite a while. It just so happens that it was one of the books that my husband bought me for Christmas. So, this is my first official read of the new year. Yeah, I know many of you are already on your second, third, and fourth books. However, in my defense, this was not exactly quick reading. I wasn't really sure what to expect from this book, and I'm still not sure about it after having read it. I did enjoy the book after an initial state of confusion. What probably helped me more than anything else is the great introduction in the edition that I have.

The novel is about books, reading, writing, publishing and the interrelatedness of all of these. The author looks at some serious subjects in a comedic way. O.K., I already feel like I'm rambling. Let me try again. The book is written in a format with twelve chapters, which are addressed to the Reader who is also the protagonist. In between each of these chapters is the beginning of a fictitious novel by a fictitious author. Sound confusing? Well, it's really not once you get into it. You see, the Reader begins a book entitled If on a winter's night a traveler but is unable to finish it due to a publishing error. It seems that two different books got put together in the binding process. This sets the whole story into motion. The Reader is on a quest to find the ending to this book, which only leads him to the beginning of another book by another author, etc. This happens a total of ten times. So, each chapter sends the Reader to a different location and a different set of strange circumstances only to find the beginning of another book.

The great thing about this book is its inventiveness and the way that it captures the way readers interact with books. In chapter eleven, the Reader finds himself in a library desperately seeking any of the ten of the novels he has begun. He encounters other readers in the library who explain the way they read and why they read. I won't go into all of them, but the one that stuck out to me is the reader who says that he encounters a new book each and every time he rereads a book. This reader believes that the meaning comes from the reader in that particular time and place. So a rereading of the same book can never yield the same emotions. I would have to say that I pretty much agree with that statement. I know I've begun books and put them aside only to pick them up later and devour them. It wasn't the book that had changed. It was me.

This is probably not a book for everyone, but I did enjoy it. It did make me stop and think about the act of reading, which I usually just take for granted. But, take my word for it, if you're going to read this, find one with a good introduction.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

O.K., Just one more. . .

I'm adding this challenge hosted by Dana because this is something I've been thinking about doing anyway. Hopefully, this will help me follow through with my plan. There are several chunky books that I've been wanting to get around to reading for quite a while. These include: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, and A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell. I'm only going to commit to reading one chunkster in 2009 and will choose one of these three as my official choice for this challenge.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier

This is one of those rare books that I was sad to see come to an end. However, there really isn't anything else that could be added to the story. I was hooked from the very first page to the very last page. It is historical fiction at it's best. For me the mark of a good book is one that keeps me interested and makes me want to know more -- about historical figures, a particular time period, etc. In this case, I wanted to know more about 17th century Delft. I love the idea of this book. The author, Tracy Chevalier, is fascinated by the girl in the famous Vermeer painting and begins to wonder what her life was actually like. Since little evidence exists, she decided to create a past for her. The author evokes a very realistic setting for this young girl.

Griet is sixteen years old when she goes to work as a maid in the famous artist's home. Though the two families lived only miles away from each other, they couldn't have been more different. Griet comes from a working class Protestant family. Her father has been forced into retirement after an explosion in his tile painting factory. Griet's brother has been apprenticed out, and she must be relied upon to bring money into the home.

On the other hand, the Vermeers are Catholic and relatively wealthy. He lives with his wife, his mother and their children. They end up having eleven children. Vermeer's paintings are the main source of the family's income and he is notoriously slow in completing paintings. This is due to his perfectionism and not to laziness.

Griet is unhappy in her new position because she misses her family and everything is so different. Vermeer's wife also makes things difficult for Griet. Eventually, Griet secretly sits for a painting which sets into motion a series of events that will change her life drastically.

I really enjoyed this book and plan on watching the film version next week with my book club. The edition I read includes 9 full color paintings by Vermeer. It was nice to be able to look at the paintings as I read about the artist and his world.