Thursday, January 29, 2009

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

My book group was on the hunt for a new book. Olive Kitteridge was recommended based on a Goodreads list. I hadn't heard of the book, but thought it sounded interesting based on the short blurb I read. I tried to reserve a copy through the library. Our city-wide system has at least half a dozen copies of the book. After 6 weeks on hold with no word, I finally found a copy at my university library. Apparently, I am not the only person interested in this book right now. It was just published in 2008, but someone has gotten the word out.

The book is a series of unconnected short stories with the link that everyone involves the character of Olive Kitteridge in some way. They range in time from her as a spouse with a tween son to her as an elderly widow. Some of the chapters are from Olive's point of view. In some chapters she has a secondary role to the main story, and in a couple of chapters she is merely a mention a la, "Do you remember what our junior high math teacher Olive Kitteridge once said." I really enjoyed the unconventional perspective of the novel. Weaving the stories together the reader does get multiple sides of a quirky, snarky, realistic person.

I must admit that when I first started reading I feared that the novel would be much like A Map of the World. There is so much sadness in Olive Kitteridge that it can get a bit overwhelming. Does no one have a happy life anymore? But, I didn't feel that way by the end of the book. Strout leaves the reader with a sense of hopefulness and optimism.

Part of what I liked about this book was the age of the main character. Too often individuals over the age of 50 are relegated to the role of "grandparent." Their own thoughts and desires do not seem to be considered. I appreciated Strout's inside look at the continued love affairs, frustrations, and emotionality of her characters. Emotions don't disappear with age; if anything Strout shows how they become even more crucial as other material aspects of life do fade.

Finally, I found myself having a better understanding of the persnickety attitude of my grandma as she got older. She became the stereotypical cantankerous old lady who just liked to argue and was never happy. Yet, Strout was able to portray the disillusionment and confusion of the elderly as life passes them by and demonstrates how and why those emotions boil over.

Olive Kitteridge is not a book I would have picked up on my own. It does have a bit too much of the syrupy, let's toy with your emotions feel that I find in too much contemporary literature. Nonetheless, I put the book down glad that I had read it.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Map of the World by Jane Hamilton

Why does every modern book that is recognized as good literature, or maybe it is just every book that has a recommendation by Oprah, have to be depressing? I know life isn't all sunshine and roses. I know that there has to be a problem (that's not the technical literary term, but it's all my brain can come up with for now) for a book to revolve around. But I'm tired of books that are depressing, depressing, depressing. And Jane Hamilton's book clearly falls into that category. Within the first twenty pages there's a major crisis. And it goes downhill from there.

I picked up a copy of Map of the World at the library book sale. There was no blurb on the back of the book. But the quotes recommending the book mentioned Jane Smiley as a similar author. I figured that was a good sales pitch. So I started reading. One of the blurbs said it was a book that is hard to put down - I agree. Not because I liked it but because I just wanted to get it over with.

The basic premise of the novel revolves around a young child drowning in a pond, a woman accused of sexually abusing a child, and the repercussions of two young girls having a mother in jail. How uplifting a book can it be? I am not suggesting that a book has to be uplifting to be good, but I also don't want to feel like the world is coming to an end and that social order has disappeared while I'm reading. There was very little redeeming about this book. I walked away feeling like the human race was doomed.

Did it have any good qualities? Yeah, I suppose it did. When I first read about the interaction between the mom and her daughters I had to smile. Hamilton portrayed a mother-child relationship true-to-life. I have had moments like she describes. And the presentation of life in jail was very intriguing. To hear about the marginalized women who by choice or by consequence end up in our public jail system opened my eyes to a group of people that I rarely think about.

I did like the switch in narrative between the husband and the wife. I think Hamilton did a nice job showing how two people living together can perceive individual moments so starkly different. The second part of the novel gave me a better understanding of the main character as I viewed her through her husbands' eyes.

When all was said and done though, I walked away from this book feeling heavy. And it wasn't a pleasant heavy feeling - as though I understood a terrible situation better (thinking of a book like The Kite Runner here.) Instead, it was just depressed and grumpy. I honestly felt like this book became an Oprah's Book Club book so that Oprah could have a show on women who are unjustly accused of crimes. I did not feel that it was a good enough book to merit the attention that being an Oprah's book allowed it to receive.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Neuromancer by William Gibson

Needing a break from cozy mysteries, I stood in front of my husband's bookcase and looked for something different. His shelf tends to be science fiction and fantasy heavy. Knowing I was in the mood for something heavier than "fluffy," he handed me William Gibson's now classic Neuromancer.

I read a decent amount of science fiction, but I don't read heavy cyberpunk much. So Neuromancer was definitely outside my normal comfort level. The reason my husband suggested it, and the reason it is worth reading, is because of the role it has had in creating the genre of cyberpunk. Believe it or not, this book coined the phrase cyberspace. It is a momentary drop in the plot of the novel, but nonetheless, Gibson helped create a world which is terribly familiar today.

The main character in Neuromancer is a down on his luck computer hacker in a futuristic Earth. Living in an undesirable Japanese slum, Case is hunted and hired by a sketchy military agent to hack into a closed, protected computer system. A heavily surgeried female is his physical entré into the computer system he needs to hack. The story revolves around the two main characters, their past, and the AI that keeps leading them on. A decent amount of the story takes place inside the computer.

This book is not for the un-cyberpunk educated. It is hard to read and hard to get into. I can't say I *enjoyed* the story. That's not to say I didn't like reading it. When I finished Neuromancer I was glad to have read it. Not the least because it was the first novel to win The Hugo Award, The Nebula Award AND The Philip K. Dick Award -no easy feat. I felt like I have a better understanding of the hacker/cyberpunk work having read this book. My husband is trying to get me to read more Willim Gibson. I will... One of these days.

Best Books of the 20th Century

I'm tired of everything on my bookshelf and was in search of something different. I happened upon the GoodReads poll "100 Best Books of the Twentieth Century." There has been some confusion about Neither Pride and Prejudice nor Twilight belong on the list - both good fiction, but not 20th century. 

I added my own vote to the list. Here are my top 45. 

Oh, and a few caveats:
I can't justify why a book is number 28 instead of 41, but I do think everything I have on my list deserves to be included. 
I only have 45 because I know there is a lot of good stuff that I haven't thought of yet.
These are all over the map - every possible genre - but I have read every book that I listed.
  1. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn - Betty Smith
  2. Memoirs of a Geisha - Arthur Golden
  3. Object Lessons - Anna Quindlen
  4. The Color Purple - Alice Walker
  5. The Mists of Avalon - Marion Zimmer Bradley
  6. To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee
  7.  Ender's Game - Orson Scott Card
  8. Rebecca - Daphne Du Maurier
  9. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings - Maya Angelou
  10. Exodus - Leon Uris
  11. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay - Michael Chabon
  12. The Outsiders - S. E. Hinton
  13. The Good Earth - Pearl S. Buck
  14. Roots - Alex Haley
  15. The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath
  16. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy - Douglas Adams
  17. Foucault's Pendulum - Umberto Eco
  18. Sons and Lovers - D. H. Lawrence
  19. A Suitable Boy  - Vikram Seth
  20. The Far Pavilions - M. M. Kaye
  21. Anthem - Ayn Rand
  22. Johnny Got His Gun - Dalton Trumbo
  23. Gone With the Wind - Margaret Mitchell
  24. Farenheit 451 - Ray Bradbury
  25. The Joy Luck Club - Amy Tan
  26. The Collected Stories of Colette - Colette
  27. Sarum - Edward Rutherfurd
  28. The Rowan - Anne McCaffrey
  29. The Lover  - Margureite Duras
  30. Welcome to the World Baby Girl! - Fannie Flagg
  31. Good Omens - Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaimen
  32. The Giver - Lois Lowry
  33. Black Skin, White Masks - Frantz Fanon
  34. Even Cowgirls Get the Blues - Tom Robbins
  35. The House at Pooh Corner - A. A. Milne
  36. The Portable Dorothy Parker - Dorothy Parker
  37. A Wrinkle in Time - Madeline L'Engle
  38. A Wizard of Earthsea - Ursula K. LeGuin
  39. The Stars My Destination - Alfred Bester
  40. Brave New World - Aldous Huxley
  41. The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood
  42. 1984 - George Orwell
  43. Orientalism - Edward Said
  44. Otherland 1: City of Golden Shadow - Tad Williams
  45. Invisible Man - Ralph Ellison

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Dragonwell Dead by Laura Childs

When my mom came to visit in November she brought me the latest in the Laura Childs' Tea shop mystery series. I picked it up in the mood for something light and not terribly thought-provoking. I knew the characters, I knew the setting, I knew the basic plot premise. I finished it last week and it was mindless enough that I can't actually remember whodunit... Thinking... Oh yeah, okay. Now I remember.

I like Laura Childs' books for light fluffy cozy mysteries. But she just started a third series. Now she has Charleston SC Tea Shop, New Orleans LA Scrapbooking store, and now the Cackleberry Club series about a "cozy cafe" - complete with recipes. Hey wait, she includes recipes in her other two series. And they're both about "cozy" locally-owned stores. Hmm, can we say marketing ploy to get more readers?

Personally, I would rather that Childs spent more time really developing her characters and her stories in one series that keep repeating basic themes in three different/yet ironically the same series. In the last tea mystery the main character ordered supplies from the scrapbooking store in Series #2. Ah, how quaint.

Long story short, I think I've read too many cozy mysteries for a while. They all blend together. The novelty is gone. They're great for mindless distraction. I would take a whole series with me to the beach, but I need something with a little bit more guts... oomph... plot? for now.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Bird Books for Kids

When my older son was three and a half, he fell in love with pirates. The obsession lasted through his fourth birthday. One day I stopped at the library in search of pirate stories appropriate for a 3 year old. The librarian very nicely took me to the non-fiction section and handed me books about the myths and legends of Blackbeard. And there was a book about all of the finer features of a pirate ship. Not really three year old appropriate. I went home, scoured the library website and found at least a dozen picture books, ABC books and other simple stories that would appeal to a three year old boy.

Today we had a strange repeat of two years ago. My youngest is OBSESSED with birds. I thought it was a passing fancy, but it has returned full force. He has a bird stuffed animal that must go to bed with him - he used to be "Yellow Bird" but has recently been rechristened "Yellow Baby Chick." He gets tucked in at night with a blanket and my son even suggests that he is the daddy bird. We have a kid's book about birds that he loves to look through. The other night he specifically asked for the page with the baby birds and I left him in bed staring raptly at the less than cute baby birds waiting for worms from their mother. He has Hush Little Ones which I find almost every morning open to the picture of the birds or the ducks.

So, back to the library we trekked today. I nicely asked the librarian - a different one - for books about birds. Her first question - non-fiction? Nope. I've got those. She looked at me a bit blankly; admittedly, it is probably not the most frequent request she gets. So, I suggested to her Make Way for Ducklings whose author I didn't know. She found that one and went back to her computer to search for others. A few minutes later she came by with Are You My Mother? A good bird book, but one we already own. That was it.

So, I did retreat to the non-fiction section. My son, who is not usually a big book lover, plopped down on the floor and stared intently at a story about abandoned ducklings that a scientist raised. He looked at every page, asked me a dozen questions, and asked to bring it home.

But, I'm looking for other good stories. Does anyone have any suggestions? I will happily search through the library catalog, but I know that someone out there can think of the perfect book to appeal to my yellow bird loving son.


Tuesday, January 6, 2009

My Best Friend's Girl by Dorothy Koomson

A friend passed this book on to me. Over the holidays I picked it up looking for something light. Little did I know that the plot was not as light as I had intended despite the soap operaesque description on the back cover.

Reading My Best Friend's Girl I had the distinct impression that Dorothy Koomson heard a story about a mother/daughter duo that seemed unlikely and her imagination went wild guessing how the team had found one another - what could have possible happened that these two ended up together? Wasn't there anyone else to take the girl? Why not? She took the idea of an adopted daughter whose father is involved through a previous romance and built on it. Then she decided to throw a screwy love triangle into the mix just to see what would happen with all of the characters.

The plot does read like a soap opera. Best Friends. Boyfriend. Boyfriend sleeps with best friend who ends up pregnant. Two years later the affair is discovered, chaos ensues, no one speaks to each other. Three years after that mom dies of cancer... What next? The book starts with the what next but does go back and forth to explain how the characters all got themselves into the situation that they did. Despite the overly dramatic plot, the book is interesting. As I read it I found myself pondering how I would deal with any of the situations that Kamryn, the main character, found herself in. I questioned how I would agree to take on the daughter of my former-BFF and raise her as my own. And how would I put together romance, friendship, work, and grief? Koomson dealt with all of those issues in the course of the novel.

There is something about the British. I couldn't help but think of Bridget Jones' Diary and About a Boy as I read My Best Friend's Girl. The Brits have a funny way of describing themselves, their physical appearances, and their foibles that is uniquely... well... British.

I never would have picked this book up on my own. At the end I didn't love it. I wasn't thrilled with the ending of the story. But, despite all of that, I'm glad I read it. I pondered questions that I would not have pondered otherwise. And there is something appealing about British literature.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

A Redbird Christmas by Fannie Flagg

Reading a book by Fannie Flagg is like sitting at your grandmother's feet waiting for a story that you've heard 100 times, to which you know the ending, but you want to hear it anyway. In general I find the term "heartwarming" rather gaggy - it reminds me of made for TV movie's on the Women's channel. Heartwarming is generally syrupy and meant to make you cry just so you can. However, the word heartwarming, in the most genuine sense of feeling warm and fuzzy when you walk away from whatever you are doing, is a perfect word to describe Flagg's work.

I have read most of Flagg's books. Her most famous Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, became a well-received movie in the '90s. But, the movie does not do her books justice. Flagg has an unfailing sense of humor and appreciation of small town southern life. She manages to describe the idiosyncratic characters in a light and appealing manner without reverting to offensive stereotypes. I can't imagining finding offense with Flagg's descriptions.

The story of A Redbird Christmas revolves around an older man without any family whose health is failing. On a doctor's recommendation he moves from Chicago to the South, basically to die. In the course of his move he meets and befriends most of the members of a very small river town. A young girl and a cardinal (the redbird in the title) bring the town together. So, yes, in short form the story does sound like a made for TV sappy movie. And there are undoubtedly elements of sappiness.

But there is more to the story than teary-eyes or light-heartedness. For the relatively short length of the book, the characters are well-developed. As a reader I felt sincere empathy with the main character. And I loved the quirks and the foibles of the secondary characters. They're all so funny. Moreover, Flagg pokes fun at small town silliness that makes the reader nostalgic for a life that probably rarely exists.

This book is the perfect light holiday read. If you have never read Flagg, you don't know what you're missing. Pick up one of her books NOW! Because of the season, A Redbird Christmas would be a great place to start.