Monday, December 29, 2008

Publish and Perish by Sally S. Wright

I am always on the lookout for a good mystery. And there is nothing better than a good academic mystery to whet my whistle. So, I was thrilled to find Sally Wright's new academic mystery series. I picked up the first book in the series Publish and Perish and just finished it.

It was good. It was different. I enjoyed it. But, I'm not going to jump right out tomorrow and buy the rest of the series. So what is stopping this series from being amazing? Mostly, the style of writing. It just doesn't flow. The characters are quintessential academics and talk with a lot of long wordy phrases that just don't roll off the tongue. There is something to be said for accuracy and it would have been more disturbing if the 40-somethings had thrown around "dude." But nonetheless, I found it took me a fair amount of time to get into the groove with this book. And more than that, I did not have much sympathy for any of the characters. They are not loveable, they are not empathetic, they are, honestly, kind of boring. (I'd hate to think all academics are like that; I know a fair number with spunk.)

Plus, the author sets up the plot as though the murderer is obvious. It was too obvious, but for quite a while I wondered why I was reading because she had already determined who the killer was. Okay, so I was wrong, but there was not a lot to keep me going, to keep me suspecting that maybe I was wrong. And as soon as I realized it wasn't the obvious killer than the second in line was pretty equally obvious. The desire to solve the mystery along with the sleuth was missing in this book.

All in all, I did like the main character, Ben Reese. As a World War II veteran with an interesting past, he has merit as a long term sleuth. I think Wright could go a long way into delving into Reese's background and his future. I might pick up more of the series purely based on the main character. But, as I said before, I'm not running out tomorrow. Maybe when my bookcase gets significantly emptier than it is now.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Decaffeinated Corpse by Cleo Coyle

After finishing Age of Innocence I was ready for a light, fluffy, non-thinking mystery. Cleo Coyle's stories are the perfect anecdote to that requirement. I picked up the 5th book in the series and read it in two or three sittings. It was everything it promised, light, fluffy, not too thought provoking.

Actually, I liked this book the least of the series. The killer was not as obvious as it had been in previous books, but neither was the plot. There was wayyy too much descriptions and wayyy too little plot. For a book that is a very short 288 pages, the authors spent too much time describing New York neighborhoods. In one scene Clare and her mother-in-law are chasing a limo and an SUV through parts of Manhattan. It could have taken 3-5 sentences. Instead, the chase took over five pages. Clare had to wax poetic about every neighborhood they drove through. For each area she had to describe the neighborhood's fall from grace and its resulting recent gentrification. All of these details had basically nothing to do with the story.

In addition, there is a lot of information about decaffainating coffee. That bothered me less. After all, the characters in the book have made fun of and complained about decaf coffee for four books. As a decaf drinker myself, I took offense. In this book they had to eat their words as they found a worthy cup of decaf coffee. I am actually curious to know how realistic their descriptions were. But, I don't know that I'll take the time and effort to look it up myself. Nonetheless, even those descriptions got to be a bit much. I did not need to know the average rainfall and acreage of coffee beans in Brazil and the Caribbean islands. Maybe it's just me.

All in all, if you like the series, a good break. But, not a book to go out of your way to find.

The Tales of Beedle the Bard by J. K. Rowling

As a Harry Potter fan, how could I not pick up and read the well-advertised newest book by J. K. Rowling. My husband read it first, in one sitting. So, I was not expecting a long read. I picked up Beedle the Bard one evening when I couldn't lay my hands on my copy of Age of Innocence. And like my husband, I read it in one sitting. Part of my motivating in reading Beedle the Bard was my husband's mention that we could possibly read it to our 3 and 5 year old boys. The lengths of the stories would be perfect for bedtime stories.

For me, the stories were entertaining. The best part of the book was Dumbledore's commentaries on the story. As a probably too discerning reader, I felt like Rowling was setting herself up for an unwinnable task. Writing fairy tales that set up the foundation for literature in the world is a weighty task. Trying to create a new version of Cinderella that has all the characteristics of good and evil, the moral at the end, and the enduring narrative that resonates with generations - that's no small feat. In that, I don't know that Rowling succeeded. The story I liked the best was the story that had originally appeared in the Harry Potter series. It seemed the most well conceived.

As for reading the stories to my kids: same thing. I know I'm overly protective of my boys and try to keep violence at bay, but I didn't find the stories compelling enough to keep their interest while simultaneously downplaying and ignoring the inherent violence in them. Don't get me wrong, every fairy tale has violence. But in Cinderella you don't focus on how the mother died - it's just a background plot point. The violence in the wizarding stories are a bit more up front.

All in all, not a bad book. There's a bit of me who feels like Rowling is just writing in the Harry Potter world because its easier and she can keep making money. But, I read the description of the foundation who this book supports and I laud her efforts to make a difference.

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

I have wanted to read more classic American literature. It was an area where I have a distinct deficit due to a less than traditional high school American lit teacher and class. But, now that I'm older, I can pick and choose. Not too much Great Gatsby or Hemingway on my shelf, but I will happily read the books that look interesting to me. My continuing fascination with the 1920s and 30s led me to pick up a Wharton novel and one by Willa Cather. I suggested Age of Innocence to my reading group in good conscience, but come early December I just didn't get around to reading more than the first couple of chapters (honestly, no body did.)

But, I persevered and picked up the book nonetheless, and I'm glad that I did. Age of Innocence is a great look at the upper-class American world in the late-nineteenth century. The dilemma or marrying for social standing and expectations while loving on the side resonate. They mores of the era were so different from the way that we live today that it made me really stop and think about how and why we live the way that we do today. When did it become acceptable to speak our mind - always, regardless of who we might offend? When did marriage become dictated as a purely love connection? And is it a coincidence that divorce skyrocketed in this same time period? Did the nineteenth century have something right that we now lack?

Wharton's writing reminded me of Jane Austen. She has a cutting commentary on her life and society. But, like Austen, she does not need to be blunt and crass to describe that world. Her subtle innuendos and her turn of phrase say significantly more than the in the face attitude of contemporary writers. Her style of writing, however, does not lend itself to a quick beach read. Age of Innocence is a relatively slow book, not the least because of the expectations she makes about her audience. She inserts very detailed architectural, literary, and artistic details to describe her characters which are not obvious to 21st century readers.

Having finished Age of Innocence, I would like to read more Wharton. I think she paints a very clear picture of her world and I feel as though I have a better sense of the world that she inhabited. I will definitely keep her on my list for further reading.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

The Deception of the Emerald Ring by Lauren Willig

Lauren Willig has made a fine career out of her Pink Carnation series. She started the book while she was writing a dissertation in English History at Harvard. By the publication of this book, Willig had decided to ditch the PhD, attend law school and now works as a lawyer during the week and writes during the weekend. What does that choice say about the state of affairs of academia? But, that's a whole 'nother post?

The Deception of the Emerald Ring is the third in Willig's series. Each of the books stars Eloise, a history grad student doing research in England to write a dissertation on English spies in the eighteenth century. A small portion of the book revolves around Eloise and focuses on her lack of a love life. These sections of the book are very cliched, light, chic-lit. The majority of the stories take place in Napoleonic-era England and follow the lives of the spies that Eloise is researching.

In the third installment, Letty, a nineteen year old with a perfect beautiful siste, ends up through miscommunication and hijinks, married to Geoffrey Pinchingdale, one of the many spies. Set up as a typical romance, Geoff and Letty hate one another. Through the course of the book they both realize how much they do in fact respect and love one another. By the end, everyone is happy, in love, and content with their lives.

So, if the books are so cliched, why do I keep reading them? Because Willig has a great sense of humor and has no problems turning that cynical humor on herself and on her chosen field (or, not so chosen anymore). Willig knows that she is writing stereotypical romance and plays up the interaction in a fun way. She pokes fun at the trite dialogue and the watery descriptions. More than that, the stories are amusing. I find myself engaged and anxious to keep reading. While I know that everyone will be happy in the end, sometimes it's nice to just sit back and enjoy the suspense while they all figure out how to make themselves content.

While I won't go out of my way to track down the fourth installment in the Pink Carnation series, I know that one of these days I will find myself, text in hand, happily reading about the further adventures of the flower spies. Lauren Willig's books make for great, light reading. A nice break from the stress of the holidays.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Doomsday Book by Connie Willis

The Doomsday Book has been sitting on my bookshelf for probably three years. I have been waiting for the perfect moment to read it. I have read all of Connie Willis' short stories and most of her other novels but sat on The Doomsday Book. The timing was never just right. For whatever reason, I finally picked up Willis' chef d'oeuvre a couple of weeks ago and spent much longer than normal working my way through it (Thanksgiving and a visit from parents slowed down my reading, but this is NOT a quick book.) I have no idea what mad the time "right" this time, but I'm thrilled that I did finally pick it up and read.

Doomsday Book has the honor of being one of the only books to have won both of Science Fiction's coveted awards The Hugo and The Nebula. This 500-plus page story tells of two worlds involved in medical crises and looks at how they deal with the problems that arise. Taking place in a world that Willis revisits in other novels and short stories, Doomsday Book tells the story of historians in the future who travel back in time to watch their era in the first person to gain a better perspective of bygone eras.

My first Connie Willis book To Say Nothing of the Dog resides in this world. I adored this book and became an instant fan of any Willis books. But, where To Say Nothing of the Dog uses humor to point out idiosyncrasies about our society, The Doomsday Book uses drama and pulls at the heartstrings. There is humorous moments, especially in the future Oxford of her creation. But overall I would NOT describe Doomsday Book as funny. Touching, engaging, fascinating, but not funny.

If you are an ardent science fiction fan, this book will not fit a stereotyped model. The science fiction is light and the drama and historical context are heavy. This story relies on medical knowledge and historical knowledge to tell the tale. The characters are what make the book. Connie Willis endures you to her characters through their realism and their faults. Her descriptions of their internal dialogue are so realistic that you can't help but be drawn in.

I would strongly recommend this book to any ardent science fiction/fantasy readers mostly because it did win the two highest honors a science fiction book can read. However, if you have never read any of Willis' books, this might not be the book to test her out on. She has other lighter, funnier, and more engaging books to start with.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

City of Shadows by Ariana Franklin

A fellow bibliophile sent me her copy of Ariana Franklin's City of Shadows. I picked it up off the cuff; the snippet on the back got my attention. As a historian of modern Europe, I enjoy reading fictional accounts of historical events. It is interesting to see how an author portrays famous moments through the eyes of individual characters. Once in a while I find myself frustrated at the historical inconsistencies in a novel, but in general I do not read fiction looking for a recreation of reality.

In that vein, Franklin has done an incredible job portraying interwar Berlin. Her story takes place in 1923, at the height of the German hyper-inflation and then in 1933 in the days preceding Hitler's election as Chancellor of Germany. The sense of realism that she describes as her characters walk through the streets, selling their personal belongings to buy food is really intriguing. I found myself tremendously invested in the lives of these characters. In the second half of the novel I held my breath knowing what was coming. Willing the characters to understand that despite their protestations, Hitler was going to come to power and destroy everything that they believed in. Franklin did an excellent job imbuing her story with the tensions of 1920s and 30s Berlin.

The story revolves around the... underworld, I suppose, of Berlin. The main character is a young Russian Jewish woman who works for a Russian shyster who owns nightclubs in Berlin. One of his clubs caters to homosexuals and the subplot revolves around this particular world. The one comment that I have about Franklin's story is that she gives the perception that homosexuality and cross-dressing were prevalent in this era. While it is true that this world did exist, it was a very small minority and did not have the public presence that I think she gives in her book. Nonetheless, she deals with the topic well and creates a fascinating world in which to place her novel.

Interestingly, my mom just finished this book as well - a total coincidence. When I mentioned the book she said, "Have you figured it out yet? There's a big hint at the beginning." At that point, I was reading purely for enjoyment. It had not occurred to me that there was a mystery to figure out. But, as soon as I thought for half a minute, I knew the answer. The big shock at the end of the book - yeah, not so shocking if you're looking for it.

All in all, a good read. I won't say light as it gets a bit heavy what with Nazis, homosexuals, and Russian pogroms. But an engaging read.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Looking Glass Wars by Frank Beddor

There's nothing like a good young adult book to take a break from the real world. Especially with the incredible flowering of fantasy novels that have emerged in the wake of the Harry Potter phenomenon. There were tons of great young adult fantasies well before J. K. Rowling, but there presence in bookstores is overwhelming today.

In that vein, I picked up The Looking Glass Wars which my husband had bought and read a year or so ago. He had described the book as entertaining, which in his world means, "I read it in one sitting, ignored the world, and did not go to sleep until 2 am because I wanted to see how it ended." He had purchased it based on the recommendation of a bookstore owner who said Beddor's work was a good addition to the field of young adult adventure fantasy - building on the genre made famous by the now well-known retelling of The Wizard of Oz - Gregory Maguire's Wicked.

So what is the book about? Well, if you look at the title, it becomes vaguely self-evident. Beddor has retold the store of Alice in Wonderland. He begins with Alice Liddell running away from Lewis Carroll in frustration because he has so badly butchered the *true* story she told him about Wonderland. The book then takes the reader back to the life of Alyss Hart, seven year old princess of Wonderland, whose realm is ruled by White Imagination. Her nemesis is none other than Redd, her aunt who works with Black Imagination.

The story is inventive. It meshes well with the well-known story of Alice in Wonderland. But in addition, Beddor creates fascinating and unique characters to flesh out his world. The cards form an army known as "The Cut;" the Mad Hatter becomes Hatter Maddigan a bodyguard to the queen whose hat is his greatest weapon. The Cheshire Cat becomes the ultimate weapon used against the Alyssians (the good guys who follow Alyss) because of his ability to come back to life, yep, you guessed it, nine times.

I liked The Looking Glass Wars for me. But to be honest, I find some of the death, destruction, and violence in many young adult books to be too much for the young adult audience for whom it is written. I may have enjoyed it at 15-16, but as a parent I would not give it to my 12-13 year old to read. Plus, I'm getting a bit tired of retellings of famous works. They're novel, they're inventive. But are there no new ideas left?

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Moo by Jane Smiley

I picked up Moo at a library book sale. I had my $5 for a bag of books half full, I recognized Jane Smiley's name, so I threw it in the bag. Less than a week later some friends were talking about reading a book in a book club sort of way. Lo and behold, Moo showed up on the list. I voted for it since at least it was already on my shelf and I had heard of it (I hadn't heard of any of the other options). Randomly enough, it won the vote and we are reading it this month.

I picked up Smiley's book and started reading having absolutely no expectations and knowing nothing about the book other than most of her novels take place in rural mid-America. My five year old son did ask me how you spell "oink." Having no idea why he asked, he pointed out that the cover of my book has a pig that says "moo." Quite a conundrum for a five year old: the pig is a character in the book, the name of the university is Moo.
This book is great!! For anyone who has any experience with college life, this book is worth reading. She has an incredible ability to succinctly and humorously encapsulate the inanity of universities.

The one thing I would have liked while reading was a cheat sheet to keep track of all of the characters. Smiley follows close to two dozen characters through the book - undergrads, professors, secretaries, cafeteria workers: if this person can be related to the university in some way, they can be a character in her book. And her means of moving from character to character is refreshing. As a reader, you're in the head of character A who talks to character B. Now you're in B's head. Then B gets lunch for character C and suddenly you're seeing the world through her eyes. But, there were moments when I had trouble keeping Diane and Keri and Divonne and Lydia straight. I would be reading along and go "Oh yeah, 50 pages ago she was in her dorm room..."

The stories that seem terribly diverse at the beginning all come together near the end of the book and combine to make a coherent story. The less than honest guys get their comeuppance. The sweet freshmen survive their year. The professors, for the most part, end up happy than they started. The story did drag a bit in the middle, but every so often Smiley incorporated the funniest most honest perspectives on college life that it kept me reading.

I understand that Moo is no longer in print. To a certain extent the book is dated: communism has just fallen in Russia and professors are trying to integrate that into their belief systems. However, I don't think it is so dated that it isn't imminently readable now. If you can get a hold of a copy - read, enjoy, laugh. It's fun.

Friday, October 31, 2008

O'Artful Death by Sarah Stewart Taylor

Sarah Stewart Taylor's first novel O'Artful Death was a real treat. I enjoyed it tremendously and found it both novel and a worthwhile mystery to untangle.

I met Taylor at a Mystery Book Signing a year and a half ago and have been patiently waiting to read the first two books in her series. She was extremely nice, very approachable, and did not fit the stereotypical mold of a cozy mystery author. She was the kind of author I could somehow imagine emailing and getting a thoughtful response from her. Her personality as much as the subject matter attracted me to her books.

Taylor's main character, Sweeney St. George is an art historian who studies funerary art. Yep, gravestones. This first story has her uncovering the history of a pre-Raphelite tomb located at an artist's colony in Vermont. In good mystery style, the mystery surrounding the early death becomes tied in to a contemporary murder. Sweeney contacts the descendant of the woman who died to ask about the tomb. Within 24 hours the descendant is killed. The game is afoot.

I enjoyed the story that Taylor told outside of the mystery. She had obviously done extensive research into both art and American artist's colonies of the nineteenth century. A world I know absolutely nothing about, I find myself curious to learn a bit more after reading O'Artful Death. In addition, the convoluted story that emerges left me guessing. Taylor placed well argued red herrings. And, she had enough twists and turns that the murderer was not obvious. But, once the crimes had been revealed I could go back and pick up the clues she had placed to go "oh, I get it now." The book was nowhere near as fluffy as some of the mysteries I have read in the recent past.

My only gripe (and this is just a personal annoyance of mine) is that like many academic mysteries, academia is only interjected at the beginning to set up the main character as a researcher. Per usual, the research takes place off campus during vacation.

I will definitely read more of Taylor's work. I have Judgement of the Grave waiting for me upstairs. But, it is time to turn to slightly more literary pursuits and pick up my two book club books next.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Murder Most Frothy by Cleo Coyle

Light, amusing, fun. The answer was not obvious - at the very least the twists and turns of who was involved kept me reading. The coffee tips were novel. The hunk was, well, hunky.

After reading three previous Cleo Coyle Coffeehouse mystery books I don't have too much to add.

A good beach read. Worth the time. A nice break from real life and political debates.

Friday, October 24, 2008

The Invisible Ring by Anne Bishop

After finishing Three Cups of Tea I needed something light and fun. My husband handed me The Invisible Ring. It is the fourth book in Anne Bishop's Black Jewels trilogy. I really enjoyed the Black Jewels trilogy, it is a unique perspective for a fantasy series. However, we went out to buy a fantasy-loving friend a copy of the series. The new printing of the book has bawdy romance covers, well maybe not bawdy, but definitely cheesy. My friend would have looked at the covers, laughed at me for giving him the books, and never opened them. They're not like that, really! Well, they do have implied sex - the rings serve a very specific purpose (think about it for just a minute. Yep, go there). But, the society that Bishop has set up is novel and worth contemplation. To explain, just a bit: the premise of Bishop's world is that women dominate. Men are subservient. But, the society has had to figure out a way to tame the bellicosity of men: hence the rings that control mens' actions.

Invisible Ring does not pick up where the trilogy let off. It is more of a companion novel set in the same world. You could read the book as a stand alone, but it makes much more sense having the background of the Black Jewels world. At its base, there is a romance: boy meets girl, boy and girl hate each other, boy and girl fall in love but can't acknowledge it, boy and girl finally hug and make up. Yet once again the social nuances are what make the story.

There is humor and poking fun at our own gender stereotypes that I enjoy. A good romance is worth picking up from time to time. If you enjoy fantasy series like Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel's books or even Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover series, you would enjoy Bishop. She is not the best author for a young reader because of the implied sexuality. I have more Bishop on my shelf. I will read it when I need an escape from reality.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Three Cups of Tea; One Man's Mission to Promote Peace by Greg Mortenson

I had picked up Three Cups of Tea multiple times at the bookstore. Then my mother-in-law sent me her copy and her recommendations. Book in hand, I placed it on my bookshelf with the greatest of intentions, but never actually picked it up and read it. Finally, my book group suggested this book for our next meeting. With the needed shove, I read Three Cups of Tea in the past couple of weeks.

I have varied opinions of this book. I liked it; I didn't love it. I learned a ton. It was a slow read and I was ready to put it down when I finally finished. I found it inspiring but equally frustrating at points too. I feel like I will be criticized for taking issue with anything about the book because of what an incredible humanitarian Greg Mortenson is - how could I not love every moment of this inspirational work? - but I do have a few issues. Let me see if I can explain myself more clearly.

First, and this is maybe pedantic, but Greg Mortenson is not actually the author of the book, he is the subject of the book. Journalist David Oliver Relin actually wrote Three Cups of Tea with the unwavering support of Mortenson and his family. Much of the story is told through the eyes of Mortenson. But, much of it is also written as hero worship (and I mean that in the most benign, literal sense) to the incredible feats that Mortenson accomplished. When I first began reading, I had flashbacks to Into the Wild, a book that I personally despised. There is a similar sense of awe around the choices of an anti-hero. And I must say the craziness of mountain climbers showed through as well. I am not suggesting that this fact detracts from the book, but I do feel that it is a slight misnomer when picking up the work.

Second, through much of the first half of the book I felt incredible empathy for Mortenson's wife. She is such a small figure in the book and yet as a spouse I cannot imagine taking not only second place but last place in my husband's life. I understand the greater good that Mortenson is accomplishing in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and the impact that his work can have on the war on terror, but shouldn't his actions start at home? As the book progresses I have to wonder if he thinks about his family at all. I spent too much time fretting for the life of the woman he continually leaves behind.

Third, the political nature of the book occasionally (and only very occasionally) gets a bit heavy-handed for me. I don't know any way around this as Mortenson's work comes into direct conflict with American governmental agenda in the region. But I don't know that the digs at the government strengthen his story in any way. To me they felt like necessary points to help cement his readership rather than effective tools to understanding Mortenson's work.

On the flip side, I was absolutely fascinated by the story of life in Pakistan. I know nothing about the region but find it has become a topic of discussion more and more. I feel like I am much better educated about the country, its history, and its current day issues than I have ever been. For that, I praise Mortenson and Relin.

In addition, because of Mortenson's unique perspective on rural Pakistan, I was pleased at his portrayal of Islam, madrassas, and the treatment of women in Islamic communities. The authors worked doggedly to remain honest and not revert to universalist descriptions of "all Muslim women" and "all Muslim faith." The authors very effectively portrayed the individualism of belief, of views of the United States, of treatment of women... I would like to use sections of the book in a classroom because I believe it effectively shows the diversity that is all too often lacking in American media portrayals of Central Asia.

I would wholeheartedly recommend Mortenson. But not to everyone. Because of the political statements I would hesitate to recommend it to certain people. Not that they couldn't benefit from learning about Mortenson's work, but I am afraid they would be turned off by the political descriptions and therefore not absorb the important messages that lay between that politicking.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

I find myself completely stymied when I try to write about my response to The Bell Jar. I can't imagine what I might have to add to a book that has been discussed by so many people over the past fifty years. People have written dissertations about Sylvia Plath and her personal experiences. My first introduction to The Bell Jar was my dad's use of it in his high school English classes. This is one of those works of *literature* that I have wanted to read but up until now had never gotten around to. I knew enough about the topic that attempted suicide was a theme and therefore I had waited to read it until I was in the right frame of mind for a less than uplifting book.

In fact, I found the themes of The Bell Jar to be more interesting and relevant than I had assumed. To me, Plath has done an incredible job describing the stresses of mid-American life for post-adolescent women. The concerns about sexuality, the feeling of inadequacy based on gender, the discontent with understanding psychological problems all appeared strikingly well in this book. Plath has done a remarkable job at allowing the reader to enter the mind of a woman whose life is at odds with the culture in which she lives. In many ways the characters disenchantment with society is not only understandable it is possibly even laudatory (not that I am advocating attempted suicide, but I can imagine the isolation and discontent that the character felt within her enclosed world and the outlet that she chose based on her experiences).

Moreover, Plath's poetic talent resound in the writing of the book. In very few words Plath succeeds in painting a panoramic picture of both the world in which she lives and the internal conflict of her protagonist. I found myself examining her use of terminology to describe in short order a detailed scenario. Plath's description of characters in particular resonated to me. I could imagine the smallest detail of individuals like Buddy and Joan although Plath never fell to describing them carefully.

Having read The Bell Jar, I am curious to know more. I did a quick internet search on the book to answer a few questions about the text that left me curious. I would now like to go back and read her poetry. I am also intrigued to read a biography of Sylvia Plath to compare to The Bell Jar in order to better understand where fiction met autobiography in her work.

To me The Bell Jar is a seminal work in twentieth-century American literature. Everyone should have to read it. Although it was first written over fifty years ago, many of the themes remain relevant today. I can imagine scenarios in which I would hand this book to a college age woman who was undergoing a stressful period while trying to find her place in society. The book is much less fatalistic and depressing than I had feared. Although Plath did take her own life, the book ends on an optimistic note suggesting that the main character had overcome the challenges that had shaken her so strongly.

Monday, September 29, 2008

The Color of Magic by Terry Prachett

My husband handed me The Color of Magic with the phrase, "fluffy, light, entertaining." I took the hint and started reading. His description was apt. The reason he suggested I read it was he wondered if we should look for the other Discworld books by Prachett to add to our ever growing list of books to read. The consensus: I enjoyed it, but I feel no need to go out of my way to read any more Discworld books right now.

The Color of Magic is the first book in Prachett's well-known Discworld series. For fans of Piers Anthony Xanth novels, Prachett is similar. The world revolves around satire and the ridiculousness of our own world. My personal favorite anecdote in the entire book involved a very unique explanation of the Big Bang theory. As Prachett himself states, there is no map of Discworld. Its characters cover the gamut from trolls to vampires to living luggage. Death and Fate are two important characters. The book is funny. It is not deep. But it does poke fun at our own society. For all of those reasons its enjoyable. But, I didn't walk away having fallen in love.

My first introduction to Terry Prachett was through a book known in my house as "the rat book." In fact, it is actually entitled, The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents. My mom had a classroom set when she taught Middle School and for the life of her could not understand who had purchased such a book for a school. I read it and had to agree. There was nothing wrong with it, but it did not fit the expected norm of American school educational text. After that introduction I was unsure of Prachett. But, the next book of his I read was a clear winner. I had been on a Neil Gaiman kick and read Good Omens co-written by Terry Prachett. I LOVED Good Omens. It is hysterical. And in reality there is a lot of similarity between Good Omens and The Color of Magic. They both use the supernatural to poke fun at the normal.

If you like Xanth and you're a fan of Good Omens; if you have a young teenager looking for something fun and light to read that has a large number of books in a series; if you want a fantasy beach read, I would definitely recommend The Color of Magic. If someone handed me the set, I would read them. But, I have other things I want to spend my book money on first.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Bride's Kimono by Sujata Massey

I have finally finished the last Sujata Massey book on my bookshelf. No more Rei Shimura Japan mysteries for me. There were enough engaging aspects to the series that I'm glad that I have read them. But, there were enough annoying moments in the writing that made me wonder why I was reading them.

In The Bride's Kimono, Rei travels to Washington D.C. to bring kimono to a museum for an exhibit and to give a speech on kimono history while she is there. The transition from Japan to the United States opened up a new world of Massey's writing. One of the first things I noticed: Massey isn't just negative about Japan, she's negative about the United States too. I have to wonder if there is any culture that she is not derisive of. In this book Americans are materialistic, crime is rampant, and the police are ineffectual and offensive. I remember an old adage which suggests that any person who has lived in more than one culture will always find faults with all of the cultures that he knows. But, I feel like Massey focuses so heavily on the negative that it is impossible to see the positive in her worlds.

On the other hand, this book was a more intriguing mystery than some of her other work. The criminal was not obvious. The reason for the crime was unanticipated. The characters who are suspect are varied and problematic. But, for fans of one particular character of Massey's, this book resolves an ongoing dilemma. Hugh Glendinning is back and Rei finally ends up with the man that she should be with. This book has a greater focus on the stereotypical romantic genre than her other books, but I don't think it is poorly done. And, in this book, readers get to watch the interactions between Rei and the parents that she discusses in each of her books.

One thing that kept me reading was Massey's ability to create a sense of tension. When I put the book down I wanted to know what was going to happen, where Rei would go next. At times I felt like the tension got a bit drawn out, but it was engaging nonetheless.

I won't be running out to buy any more books by Sujata Massey. I am glad that I read the ones that I did. I have learned a bit about Japanese culture and am curious to learn more - in part to dispel some of the stereotypes that I feel Massey has perpetuated.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

My German Question by Peter Gay

I picked up My German Question at a university bookstore a few years ago. The book was being used in a history course and the topic caught my attention. It has sat on my shelf for the past two years because I rarely pick up a non-fiction book to read for enjoyment. However, I decided to assign it as a choice for my students' book review this semester and knew that I needed to have read it before my students. I'm glad to have read Peter Gay's addition to the literature on life in Nazi Germany. It adds a direction to German history that I think has been little covered in the scholarship. However, there are definite limits to the work for the non-academic reader.

Peter Gay grew up a Jewish individual in Berlin. He was an adolescent in the 1930s and obviously was severely affected by the Nazi regime and their treatment of the Jews. However, unlike many Jewish people in that world, Gay and his family succeeded in escaping in 1938 to Cuba, eventually emigrating to the United States. Gay is a respected European historian who has written extensively on cultural questions in Modern Europe. He is probably most well-known for his extensive writings on Sigmund Freud. I first encountered Gay in a history class on 19th Century Europe with the book Schnitzler's Century.

In the 1990s, Gay chose to write an autobiographical examination of life as a Jew in Nazi Berlin. My German Question was the outcome. What makes this book fascinating is how far the path strays from the stereotypical representation of life in the 1930s. Gay never experienced a concentration camp. He never suffered direct physical mistreatment by a Nazi officer. In many ways, he world was quite isolated from the events that popular culture focus on leading up to World War II. The counter example is kristallnacht when members of his family had businesses destroyed and his father went into hiding for a short time. Nonetheless, Gay successfully explains how comprehensive Nazi ideology was in affecting people's lives. He studies his internal dialogue, his interest in sports, his growing awareness of adolescent sexuality as ways of showing how the Nazis affected him and his life. He effectively explains why his family did not feel the need to leave Germany earlier. They did not suffer the extensive cruelty that would lead them to feel a need to flee. And they were German. Why would they leave their homeland? I found the book interesting because it added a dimension that I had not read before.

However, that dimension is also the book's limitation. Gay is readable by a non-academic audience. Yet, if the reader does not have a strong background in the history of Nazi Germany I'm afraid that his views might confuse more than clarify what life was like. Life doesn't seem quite so bad as most books show. In addition, if a reader does not know Gay's academic background, his attention to sexuality and psycho-analysis can get a bit overwhelming. Finally, Gay drops a fair amount of German into his book. At times it is necessary to explain double entendres with the language, but it becomes distracting.

If.. and a big if, you are interested in Nazi Germany and have a decent background in life for the German people in the 1930s, I would strongly recommend Gay's My German Question. He successfully adds an important dimension to understanding life for the German citizen as Hitler rose to power. However, if you merely have a passing interest and prefer non-fiction that reads like straight-forward biography, this book is not the best choice.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Islam by Eyewitness Books and Mosque by David Macauley

I assigned sections from these books for my Middle Eastern History class this semester. I guessed that a number of my students were taking this class to learn some of the basics about Islam and life in the Middle East. So, I chose to give them excerpts from young readers books at the outset to familiarize themselves with the basic before we jumped to the more detailed history of the Islamic world. I hope that they respond as favorably as I have. Both Macauley and the Eyewitness book are excellent forays for a beginner interested in Islam. The books offer a historical interpretation of the Muslim faith that remains remarkably unbiased.

Macauley's 2003 work describes the creation of a fictitious mosque in the 16th century Ottoman Empire. He follows the architect and the financial donor as they decide how to construct the building. Macaulay is sensitive to the historical period and carefully explains the role of zakat, legal almsgiving, to justify the cost in constructing a mosque. His pictures and his explanations clearly show the role of a mosque in society; the important features of a mosque, specific to the Ottoman Empire in this era, but in many ways similar to mosques across historical and regional boundaries; and the surrounding buildings that would have likely been constructed alongside a mosque. With a long history of other architectural books for young adults, Macauley has a strong history in his field. I was pleased at his interpretation and sensitivity to a field that can often be contentious today.

As much as I enjoyed Macauley, I have to say, I liked Islam even better. Like the rest of the DK Eyewitness book series, this book is set up like a young adult's encyclopedia. Each page incorporates pictures and short explanations to further explain the religion and the society of Islam. What impressed me the most with this book was its ability to remain unbiased and historical. It would have been easy to oversimplify the history of Islam and try to describe one Islam that was relevant at all times. The authors of this work have not done so. There are pages that cover important historical era - Muhammad's life, the Crusades, the creation of the Ottoman Empire - and sections that cover diverse geographical areas - Mali, India, China as well as the more familiar (to Western readers) Arabian peninsula.

Whether you have no experience with Islam and are looking for a basic introduction to the faith or you have a decent amount of knowledge but would like further clarification about particular details, I would strongly recommend this book. In fact, I don't doubt that my lectures the next few weeks will be better because I sat and read Islam and Mosque carefully.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Flower Master by Sujata Massey

Due to less than careful reading of copyright dates, I read the last two Massey novels out of order. I finished The Floating Girl first, when in fact it is a story that comes after The Flower Master in the chronology of Rei Shimura's life. So, I knew going into The Flower Master a bit about what would happen to Rei and therefore knew at least one person who could not have been the murderer.

I have, as you may have noticed, a love/hate relationship with Massey's books. I continue to read them for the cultural information that I learn while I nonetheless feel that their are flaws in her writing. That having been said, The Flower Master is one of my favorite books in the series so far. I learned a fair amount about Japanese culture that I did not know - one of the greatest assets of Massey's books. In this instance it was a detailed explanation of the role of ikebana - flower arranging - for Japanese women. I thought that Massey did a good job elucidating the female-centric world and the jealousies that exist which are played out through flowers. She adds interesting cultural touches -a Koren-Japanese woman who never gets recognized for her hard work because of her heritage, for example.

There is also a secondary story about the impact of pesticides in flowers. It is logical to realize that flowers sold for decorative purposes have pesticides being used on them, but it is not something I have ever heard about before. Massey successfully introduces an environmental message into her book about the dangers of beauty and the appeal of a more natural type of nature. This sub-plot in the story also demonstrates a cultural interaction between the Latin American world and Japan that I was unaware of. (Amero-centric that I sometimes am, I think I forget that most nations have interactions with each other not just with the United States.)

The resolution to the book was sadly lacking. It was too quickly resolved and the choice of murderer seemed to come out of left field. I understood the choice of assailant, but I feel like Massey needed to lead up to the answer more deftly and once the murderer was discovered she needed to more clearly resolve the story line. Instead, the murderer is found, chapter ends. Next chapter starts the next week. What happened in between,? As far as I was concerned a lot of people were left sitting at a party waiting for food and flowers.

Once again, a mixed review for Massey. I'll keep reading (I have one or two more on the shelf) for the cultural story. But, I will probably once again find fault with her technical skills as a mystery author.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

I read March by Geraldine Brooks which was good, but not amazing. I enjoyed it, but don't remember much about it. So, when friends and family began raving about People of the Book I thought I would pick it up, but I didn't run right out and buy it. Mom sent me her copy and it has been sitting on my shelf all summer. I was in the mood for something non-mystery and this caught my eye. In the end, I'm glad that more than one person recommended it to me as I really enjoyed People of the Book. Yet, I find that it is a hard book to describe accurately.

The story takes place over a 500 year period working backwards chronologically in time from the 1990s until the 1480s. The story opens with a book conservationist who has been called to Sarajevo to verify the authenticity of a Haggadah (an illuminated Jewish text that tells the story of Passover) that was thought to have been destroyed during the Bosnian Civil War. As the conservationist attempts to unravel the mystery of this beautiful illuminated text the story jumps back in time to the world the book inhabited at different eras.

What I relished in this book was the encapsulated snapshot that Brooks gave of the life of average Jewish individuals through history. Most of the eras that she chose revolved around highly contentious moments when the Jewish people were at risk. One story takes place during World War II. Another takes place during the Jewish expulsion from Spain. But, because the book is not a static item that continues to have a life outside of the people who own it, Brooks does not feel the need to tell complete stories. Snippets end without a resolution to the lives of the individuals who interacted with the Haggadah. By the end of the book, the story of the Haggadah is resolved. As a reader you feel a sense of closure as the plots comes full circle and the text is authenticated and preserved.

There was a greater honesty to Brook's story because she did not wrap up each sub-plot into a neatly encased story. The threat to the Jewish people, the senseless death at the hands of religious zealots, the unease of the characters as they moved forward is mitigated because at length their journey is only important in so far as the preservation of the Haggadah is concerned. But as a reader I had a much greater sense of the long and often sad history of the Jewish people. Brooks compassionately showed the number of times that the Jews have been treated horrifically because of their religious beliefs. And, without giving away the ending, I had a huge appreciation for her choice of artist to have originally created the illuminations used in the Haggadah. To me, that choice speaks volumes about Brooks understanding of religious tension and strife and the senselessness of the death that has revolved around religion.

Another interesting side note is how readers have viewed People of the Book. To me it is first and foremost a book about religious intolerance. I have heard from a friend that it is primarily a book about the world of book conservation and the science involved. I have also heard second hand that it is at its base a love story. All of these things are true but I must say that the love story for me was merely a means to tell the story and not the plot. Nonetheless, I think it is a mark of a great book when different readers can take vastly different things with them when they finish. I would recommend this book to most anyone.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Veil of Roses by Laura Fitzgerald

Do not pick up this book if you have other things you need to be doing! It is hard to put down. My kids got to spend 3 1/2 hours playing at the park today so that I could sit with my nose in this book to finish it. The poor boys ate their whole lunch with me reading rather than paying attention to them. It is a relatively light and enjoyable romance. It is predictable with a Hollywood ending, but there are days when that is what is needed.

However, after a bit more research, I had my fears confirmed. Fitzgerald's book is based on a very overly-simplified stereotype that is largely inaccurate. Like other books of the genre, Fitzgerald plays on the sympathies of the American public and perpetuates stereotypes about the sheltered lives of Middle Eastern women. In this case, her story revolves around a 27-year old Iranian women who is sent to the United States for three months to find a mate, get married, and get a coveted visa so she can stay in the United States.

I'm conflicted about how I feel about the book knowing that it is an inaccurate portrayal. On the one hand, Fitzgerald builds an emotional connection to Tami, the Perisan woman, who is experiencing her first real taste of freedom. She is in awe at the little things that Americans take for granted like the ability to sit and laugh openly in public. I really enjoyed that aspect of the story.

Nonetheless, to suggest that a woman born in the United States to foreign parents has to get a visa to stay is not entirely accurate. Her description of the students in the English as a Second Language class suggests that everyone can speak in well-defined, slangy English in a remarkably short time. Her descriptions of Iran read accurate for someone who only watches mainstream American news. But, as an Amazon book reviewer explained, "This book may be an interesting read if you have little or no knowledge about iranian culture, but if you know the culture well you can easily see that the author has no understanding of the culture and it's people."

I think that Fitzgerald's style lends itself to a casual reader who is curious about the Middle East. While what she says is exaggerated and not entirely accurate, I don't think she meant any harm. In fact, I would guess that many people would be curious to know more about the treatment of woman in Iran after reading her book. They might discover on further research that she over simplified the situation and painted a more negative portrayal than is accurate. But, at the very least it might allow readers to grasp a better understanding of what it would be like for a foreigner - especially from a non-Western culture - to immigrate to the United States and attempt to acclimate themselves in the midst of our very laid-back dating culture.

I would recommend this book as a good work of fiction. But, don't read it expecting a biographical realistic account of modern day women in Iran.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Lucia Lucia by Adriana Trigiani

Having read Trigiani's Big Stone Gap trilogy (quartet, so I discovered), I picked up Lucia Lucia without any particular expectations except a fun light read. I was pleasantly surprised then to discover this really engaging story. It tells a story that is not uncommon but I think little told. All in all, I would definitely say this is my favorite book by Trigiani to date.

Lucia Lucia starts out in the modern day following a playwright who lives in a small apartment in Greenwich Village. She has tea with her eccentric older upstairs neighbor Lucia who always wears a mink coat. You know quickly that Lucia has never married and lives in this building because her nephew is the landlord. The playwright walks into the apartment she discovers an eclectic mix of items including boxes from B. Altman department store and a photograph of Lucia as a stunning younger woman. Asking about the photograph leads into the real story of the book - Lucia's life.

It is the 1950s and Lucia is the daughter of an Italian immigrant. She works as a seamstress for the now defunct New York City department store B. Altman. And she loves her job. She cannot understand the desire among most woman her age to quit working, get married, and have children. A generation too early, Lucia doesn't understand why she can't continue to work once she gets married. Trigiani does a stunning job describing the importance of work for Lucia. She shows how it gives the protagonist a very important sense of self-identity, purpose, and pride. Lucia is not a feminist, but she is confused by the social stereotypes of her world. I liked the placement of the character in her time.

The only thing that frustrated me vaguely was the overarching sense of foreboding. From the introductory chapter you know that Lucia never married. Yet, much of the book is a romance. So from page to page you're just waiting for the bomb to drop. What exactly is going to happen to ruin this young woman's happiness. I wouldn't want the first chapter to have been erased because the end of the story returns to the present and Lucia's resolution to her personal life. So it was necessary to set up the downfall. But, I never like reading a book and just waiting for something to go wrong.

I was very pleasantly surprised by this book. And every page reminded me of a friend, born in Italy who also never married and who lived through the male-dominated world of post-World War II America. A good find and a fun read.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Latte Trouble by Cleo Coyle

I think I should take a break from the mindless mystery genre for awhile. I met a character, I knew she was guilty. I guessed at some level why she was guilty. Then I read 230 pages to see if I was write. Yep, I was. I'm not suggesting I have some amazing talent for reading into a book, but there is a pattern that many modern cozy mysteries take - especially ones that are part of a series. There are certain key elements to look for to discover whodunit. At the very least, you can discount the handful of regular characters who spice up the books. Rarely will an author turn a beloved character into a murderer. So, right off the bat you can remove close to half the characters from the suspect list. There was one plot twist that took me by surprise. And I thought it was well done. It played into the capture of the murderer and made the book more interesting than it might have been.

Latte Trouble is the third coffeehouse mystery book by husband and writing team pseudonymed Cleo Coyle. The continued love affair with coffee makes these books a fun read that I will keep reading. Although I would definitely categorize this series as one of the mindless, taking a break from reality series, I do still learn something. I know more about coffee than I ever needed to know. How it is brewed, where it comes from, how it is grown. The authors have done a nice job with their research into the world of coffee. And, in this book, they have added to it by exploring the world of High Fashion in New York City. That aspect of the book reminded me of watching Sex and the City.

There's really not too much else to say. Fun, light, humorous, engaging. A good summer read.

Monday, August 18, 2008

The Pilot's Wife by Anita Shreve

I picked up The Pilot's Wife as part of a "stuff a bag with books for $2" at our local library's semi-annual book sale. It was one of a number of once bestselling titles; it has been reviewed on Amazon 999 times! I never seem to read books when they're popular. But five or ten years down the road I might get to them. And when a book says, "Oprah's Book Club" on the front I'm never sure it that's a good thing or not. I feel like too often the books are heavy on plot weightiness (you must be emotionally shocked) and light on depth of reading (any 8th grader could figure out all the words). So, I'm writing a review of a book that got a ton of attention ten years ago.

The Pilot's Wife is a quick read. I don't think an eighth grader would have trouble understanding this book. I started and finished it the same day. Admittedly, it was my last day of child-free vacation so I had almost no interruptions. But nonetheless it is not hard to read. And the story is engaging enough that once picked up, it is hard to put down. At just under 300 pages the book is average length for a novel today.

The plot is not that surprising. A pilot dies when the plane he's flying explodes killing all 104 passengers. There is a mystery surrounding the crash which turns into a mystery surrounding the pilot himself. I don't think anyone will be absolutely shocked to discover what the mystery is. After all, it is a common theme/joke about pilots. And in fact I had a friend whose father-pilot fell into this exact category. That's not what makes Shreve's book good. Instead it is her ability to get inside the mind of the widow as the plot unfolds.

The story alternates the present, beginning with a knock on the door when Kathryn discovers her husband is dead, and the past as Kathryn reflects back on her marriage trying to discover who her husband really is, or was. Shreve's strength is her ability to accurately portray the emotional and internal moments that Kathryn experiences as she begins to understand who her husband was. As a reader I did feel drawn into Kathryn's world and could imagine as a wife and a mother how I would respond if I learned that much of my husband's life was a lie. In that regard, I may have understood the words in the book when I was in eighth grade, but I most assuredly would not have understood the emotional baggage of loss not only of her husband, but as the character explains, a loss of the memories that she had as she discovers that they are not true.
A worthy book to pick up at the library if you haven't read it already.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Floating Girl by Sujata Massey

This is another book in the Rei Shimura Japan mystery series. In this book she focuses on the very popular world of manga. During the story Rei visits an anime shop, reads a wide variety of manga, and even dresses up like a comic book character and goes to a Comic Convention.

I found Massey's explanation of the world of manga interesting. I know a little bit about the genre from my husband so I was intrigued to learn more. To see how it is read and what is available in Japan was interesting. I did learn more about the field and the purpose of manga literature. The descriptions of individuals who go to great lenghts to cosplay made me laugh knowing the number of people in the United States who do the same thing. Because managa is a growing genre in the United States I felt the theme of the novel was timely.

In addition, Massey once again explores the experiences of foreigners living in Japan. In this case, she introduces foreign men who dance in an exotic club exclusively for Japanese women. The perceptions and treatments of foreigners is probably what brings me back again and again to Massey's book. This is a theme that I have explored on a different continent as an academic and one which continues to fascinate me.

However (and there always seems to be a however with her books), the foundation of the book is slipshod. The mystery is solved, bam, with little nuance. The explanations for what happend are plausible, I suppose, but they just don't ring true. In addition, there is a moment in the book when the main character runs downstairs from her apartment to a local market to make photocopies. The only problem is that it is the same market and character from her first novel, but Rei no longer lives in the same apartment or even the same neighborhood. And character interactions seem to resolve themselves too easily. Problematic moments in the book suddenly disappear in order to wrap up the story in a neat little bow.

I like the information I get from Massey as I am reading. But I always finish her books wanting more. I just think she could improve some of the problematic points that inevitably seem to find their way into her finished work.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver

I finally finished this book! I read the first half very gung-ho for Kingsolver and her ideas. But I think what she is suggesting can get overwhelming. So, I put down Animal, Vegetable, Miracle for the summer. But, with a few spare days I picked it back up and plowed through to the end.

I think that Kingsolver's book, which is her family's diary of a year eating only locally produced food - much of it by the immediate family, is funny and really interesting. I learned a lot about what grows where and when. I learned way more than I needed to know about turkey reproduction. And I have a much better sense of the slow food and locavore movements. If nothing else, I'm heartened by the fact that so many people are trying to improve the health of our world. And, with a well-known author like Kingsolver writing about how to actually make positive changes I have faith that more and more people will start to adjust their own lifestyles.

On the other hand, Kingsolver and her husband can get a bit preachy. Having a farm in Virginia, working as a writer has given them the possibility of truly living off the land. Most Americans cannot realistically do that. Steven Hopp, Kingsolver's husband, in his short monologues which are interspersed through the book, does address how the average citizen can move in the direction of more locally produced food without actually giving up everything in a grocery store nor spending hours all summer weeding and gardening. But, I still felt overwhelmed while reading.

This book would make a great "weekly devotional" type reading. I find myself getting enthusiastic to go to the Farmer's market, buy a bushel of tomatoes and can all my own sauce. That enthusiasm lasts for a week or two and then it's just too easy to fall back into routine and habit. After all, the $3 jar of store bought sauce is tasty. I wonder if I could maintain my enthusiasm if I read bits and pieces of the book regularly rather than reading it all at once.

I would like to think I will use Animal, Vegetable, Miracle as a baseline to start to eat healthier and pay more attention to what I eat. I have gone to the farmer's market much more regularly this summer than in the past. I have paid more attention to what produce at the grocery store is local. But, I'm not ready to till up my back yard and plan rows of zucchini and winter squash. Maybe one day, but for now I'll just leave Kingsolver on my shelf as a reminder.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

How Reading Changed My Life by Anna Quindlen

My first exposure to Anna Quindlen was the year that I lived in Paris. My parents had sent me a care package that included Jane Eyre from my mom and Object Lessons from my dad. Object Lessons was Quindlen's first novel. Dad picked it out because he believes she is one of the best writers (and in my dad's eyes that means technical composition skill - putting together a noun and a verb) today. He has always enjoyed her columns.

I found my parents pairing of books amusing since the girl in Object Lessons is reading Jane Eyre. The odd thing is, my parents did not know that. Neither of them had yet read Object Lessons. I still remember having one of those chilling moments when we realized the odd coincidence of the book choice. At the time I appreciated Quindlen's novel because it resonated with me. I felt Quindlen did an excellent job of portraying characters at such different stages in their lives and demonstrating how they interacted. But, more importantly at the time, was the pleasure I derived from my parents sending me books. Getting a touch of American culture (okay, and British) at a time when I was far away from home and immersing myself in books when I suffered from homesickness and culture shock was the best thing my parents could have given me.

And it's that love of books that made me appreciate so deeply what Quindlen wrote in How Reading Changed my Life. Quindlen's extended essay describes the desire and need to travel through literature. She recounts moments in her lives when books played an integral role. She examines the increasing importance of book groups - the connection people find through shared memories of the written word. Quindlen finishes by discussing why computers will never truly replace books. It is the act of holding a book and turning its pages that make reading reading. On every page I found lines that I wanted to write down and keep. Great quotes about the importance of books.

I aspire to be Anna Quindlen. I have read all of her novels. (I can't claim to have read all of her columns. I'm just not a newspaper reader). I marvel at her ability to turn her family into her means of expression. She has always used her role as a mother and a wife to write both her columns and her novels. One is not more important than the other. When I grow up, I want to be her. I will forever keep How Reading Changed My Life on my bookshelf. It is more indicative of who I am than probably any book I've ever read.

(And so goes my hommage to Anna Quindlen.)

Always Dakota by Debbie Macomber

As you can surmise from my copious posts, I LOVE to read. But as a reader I feel as though I am supposed to poo-poo light, fluffy books for real *literature*. After all, if its beach reading, what are you really getting out of the book? So, I keep thinking I should not like Debbie Macomber's books. But, ya know what? I do. They are light. They are definitely feel good. You don't have to worry that a character is suddenly going to go wrong. In the end everything works out, everyone is happy - even if they have gone through some difficult struggles in the course of the book. There is no overwhelming moral to the books. There is no "Hmmm..." moment when reading The Dakota Trilogy. But, I stayed up until 1:45 am last night to finish the book. If nothing else, that should signal a good story.
I do have to wonder, nonetheless, exactly how Debbie Macomber does what she does. She must release two or three books (at an absolute minimum) every year. How does one feasibly write that much? Even were she to write every day she must edit her work at some point. I wonder at times if there is some secret computer program where an author can plug in characters and plot points and then let the computer fill in the blanks. How else could she have written 150!! books since 1983. The three Dakota Trilogy books were all published within one year. And there were a handful of other books published in that same two year time-frame. Or maybe she has a fleet or writers who do much of the work for her. Somewhat like the Carolyn Keene/Nancy Drew phenomenon . There never was a Carolyn Keene; it was merely a pseudonym for various authors who created the Nancy Drew series over a long-span of years. At the very least, it is clear that Macomber's books follow a very pat formula. Boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, trouble ensues, all he** breaks loose, boy and girl realize they love each other despite everything. Everyone lives happily ever after.
The story in Always Dakota very clearly follow that formula. It continues where the previous two novels left off. In this book the main characters are Matt and Margaret, minor characters from Dakota Home, the second book in the series . But, it also continues the story of the characters from the other two books and resolves some open-ended questions that Macomber had left hanging in the second book. There were moments that brought a tear to my eye as families negotiated family dynamics.
All in all: Light, fluffy, entertaining? Without a doubt. A great read if you want something truly mindless and feel good. Literature, no. Deep and thoughtful, no. A good summer read.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Zen Attitude by Sujata Massey

I just finished the second Rei Shimira mystery. It was a quick read - much more so than the first book. I'm still unsure about this series. It's better than some. I enjoy learning about Japanese culture. It's not a completely fluffy cozy mystery. Nonetheless, I can't say that I completely enjoy the books either.
I think my frustration has to do with the main character Rei. She's prickly. Her interactions with characters don't seem rational at times. Sometimes she's submissive to the point of annoying. And at other times she gets extremely angry and flies off the handle for less than rational reasons. Maybe this makes her more human... but I find it just makes her actions difficult to gauge.
In addition, much of the story revolves around her continuing relationship with Hugh Glendinning, the Scottish beau from the first novel, a character whom I really like. The two charcters' relationship is volatile. In the course of one book they are ridiculously happy, they break up, she moves out, he proposes, she considers saying yes. Realistically, most relationships don't function in that kind of order. In addition there is another character in the book - Angus, Hugh's brother - with whom Rei has an unstable relationship. Throughout the entire book she and he share a hate/hate relationship. Yet suddenly at the end she is laughing hysterically with him as though there was no tension all along.
So why do I keep reading? I'm pondering that myself. I will read the other Sujata Massey books sitting on my shelf. Even though I have other series that I have said I like better. I think it really revolves around the setting of the stories. I know very little about modern-day Japanese culture. Sujata Massey has a good way of describing a culture that I know little about. I would not sit down and read a non-fiction book about Japan, but I am curious to know more. In this story I did find out more about aspects of Japanese culture - in particular Zen temples.
What can I say. I don't have a good answer. I don't particularly like parts of these books. Maybe I just keep hoping they'll improve substantially over time.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

I am Legend by Richard Matheson

My husband and I picked up I am Legend after seeing the movie of the same name. The movie was SCARY!! I like sci fi but I'm not a big horror fan. Writing in the 1950s, Matheson's book is suspenseful, but not gory like more modern horror has become. Part of what interested my husband and I in picking up the book was the quote on the back, "Books like I am Legend were an inspiration to me." - Stephen King.
My husband loves classic science fiction and is always curious to see how it holds up over time. He has become quite knowledgeable about post-World War II era books. I am Legend clearly fell into that category. He read the whole book - which includes the I am Legend novella as well as a handful of Matheson's other short stories. He guesses that some of the other stories have been adapted over time to be storylines in X-Files or various other sci fi shows. Personally, having read one or two of the short stories they really didn't hold my attention. But I digress...
I read I am Legend curious to see how much had been changed and adapted to turn it into a 21st century film starring Will Smith. Like many adaptations recently, there were scenes that were word for word identical to the book. Then there were entire plot arcs that had absolutely nothing to do with the original story. The long-term outcome of the movie and the novella were completely different. So much so that the purpose of the title had to change between the two formats.
Matheson's decision to write about vampires in the 1950s - much before our current Anne Rice/Buffy obsession with the creatures - made for an engaging story. In good science fiction style he relies heavily on a biological, scientific explanation for his plot - at times going into too great a detail. But, at the final moment, I would have to say, I liked Matheson's finale better than the Hollywood version. It led to a much more introspective ending. I put the book down with a "Hmm." I always like a book that makes me think.

The Salaryman's Wife by Sujata Massey

Generally when I read a book I find myself curious about the location in which the book takes places. Interestingly, after finishing Massey's first Rei Shimura novel I had the exact opposite response. I have little to no interest in visiting Japan based on Massey's description of the people and the culture. That's not entirely fair; I suppose it would be like viewing all Americans based on a book that I read about New York City. Nonetheless, Tokyo holds no appeal for me. And, Massey's description of the staid, paternalistic society did little to win me over to Japanese culture.
The story revolves around Rei Shimura a half-Japanese, half-American 20-something who lives in a small apartment in Tokyo and teaches English to Japanese businessmen. During a New Year's Eve vacation she becomes involved in a murder scandal. She finds herself intertwined with Hugh Glendinning, a Scotsman who is accused of the murder.
I read another of Massey's books - much later in the series - and liked it well enough to have gone back and gotten more in the series. But, at this point, the character is not overly likable. She is quick to be offended. She tends to be prickly to the point of offensive. And Massey creates a weird friendship triangle between three of the characters that seems awkward.
When I finished the long, vaguely convoluted plot my immediate response was, (in high academic terminology) No duh! Massey threw out innumerable red herrings but, to me, they were all quite obviously not part of the overriding plot.
Massey did win an Agatha Award for Best First Novel. She has continued to expand the series having written at least nine further books. And, despite everything negative I've said in this review, I'm currently reading the second book in the series. So, what is it that has kept me reading? I think it's Massey's incredible description of a people and a society. I might not want to visit it, but I am intrigued by it and I feel like Massey has described this world more honestly and aptly than some authors might. Plus, while I find Rei immature, I know that she matures as I read in the later book. I appreciate the fact that Massey has written a character that is not stagnant.
Convoluted review? Yeah, that's sort of how I felt about the book.