Sunday, April 19, 2009

Letter to My Daughter by Maya Angelou

I find Maya Angelou fascinating. I had the opportunity to hear her speak when I was in college and have remained a huge admirer ever since. I am not a fan of poetry in general which is obviously one of the things Angelou is famous for. But everything about Angelou's writing style is poetic. Her autobiographies are intriguing and powerful. When I read her books I am able to imagine the sound of Ms Angelou's voice in my head. And she is such a powerful speaker that it makes a world of difference.

That having been said, I was slightly disappointed by Letter to My Daughter. The introduction tells the reader that the book is dedicated to all the women in the world who are devotees of Maya Angelou, considering that Angelou herself only ever had a son. But I don't feel that the essays included in this book are in any way uniquely geared towards women. Moreover, the book is remarkably short. I was left wanting. At 192 pages it isn't long regardless, but every essay is under 5 pages in length and then there are multiple blank pages between essays. All in all, the actual text is probably closer to 100 pages.

The essays run the gamut from biographical to social commentary to poetry. My favorite chapter was a poem written for a college graduation. She gives good advice to the newly-graduated. She also has a few amusing anecdotes based on her worldly experiences in her twenties. But, I would have like to have more. Many of the essays were disconnected and relatively uninspiring - which is unusual for Angelou.

If you're a devotee, it's worth reading. If you're new to Maya Angelou I would recommend starting elsewhere.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Murder on the Eiffel Tower by Claude Izner

Books in translation. These books are a quandary for me because I am never sure what to say about the writing. Do I review the book as though it is in its original form? Or does the translator play a role in the description of the book? Americans praise Victor Hugo for his writing style, but is it really Hugo they are praising or random translator #32 whose version of Les Miserables everyone is reading this year?

This question is cogent when discussing Murder on the Eiffel Tower because I had trouble with the flow of the book. I found myself stopping and starting and couldn't get into a good reading groove. I have no idea if the problem is the translation, the attempt to turn French prose into English, or the difference in French and English writing styles at the base. Whatever the answer, my first observation about Izner's book was that it didn't read smoothly. It was jarring in its speech.

My second quandary about Izner's book is about the historical content. As a French historian I understood the plot of the novel. I would guess that the average Frenchman reading would also understand the book. But I don't know that the average American has enough background in late-nineteenth century French history to grasp the nuances of the story. I'm not trying to suggest Americans are dumb, but if you handed an Italian a book about Abraham Lincoln would you automatically assume he would know about the log cabin, the Gettysburg Address, and Ford's Theater?

Izner(which by the way is a pen name for sisters Liliane Korb and Laurence Lefèvre) solves that conundrum by including a short description of the 1889 Expo at the end of the book to explain the setting. But I think that would need to be read first. And it still doesn't explain the Boulanger Affair which is thrown around like a current day conversation about Britney Spears. And a handful of the names are play on words in French but just names in English.

The story takes place in and around the World's Fair for which the Eiffel Tower was constructed. Much of the action takes place amid the action at the Expo. Individuals have died from what people believe to be bee stings. Victor Legris, a bookseller, becomes involved due to friends' connections to the death. His frenetic searching describes much of the story.

As a fan of French history and mysteries in general, I will undoubtedly keep reading Izner. I have the next book on my bookshelf already. But, I don't know that this book would have wide appeal. Francophiles, yes. General mystery lovers, not necessarily.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Three Weeks to Say Goodbye by C. J. Box

I hated this book. 

With a passion. 

I hate the fact that my mother told me to read this book. When I asked her about it she said, "I never said you would like it, I said it would be interesting to discuss."

Box is a good writer. The plot is sound. But I hated the plot. Why would someone want to read a book like this? Why would someone want to write a book like this?

So, the obvious first question is, what is this painful plot? An infertile couple have adopted a baby through an open adoption. They met the 15 year old who was pregnant and signed away rights to the baby. When the child is 9 months old the couple is contacted with information that the father never signed away his rights to the baby and the grandfather is now claiming he will come pick up the baby in three weeks - hence the title. The story takes place in the 21 days during which the couple tries everything they can to keep their daughter.

As I read it I thought back to a comment in another book I read recently. Maybe I just don't like male authors. The emotionality is different between men and women. This book is not the emotional plight of a mother losing her child. But I don't think that is it. There are plenty of male authors that I like - a lot of science fiction is heavily male-dominated. I do think this book would have been written very differently had the plot been handed to a woman - much less bloodshed and violence for one thing. Much more internal emotional debate on the other. But that's really not what made me dislike the story.

When I read a book, I want to care about the characters. There is not a single character in Three Weeks to Say Goodbye that I can like. Even the baby is portrayed in such a cardboard way that she I have no sympathy for her plight. And the mother is wooden and unrealistic to me. Other reviews I have read of Box's book is that it is honest and realistic because the good guys are "real" and not perfect. Maybe that's true, but I find myself loathing them and their choices as much as I loathe the bad guys. I don't feel as though Box has set up a scenario in which I can empathize with any of the choices the actors make. When all is said and done, I finished the book because I was curious how Box would untangle all of his plot twists. But I didn't walk away from the book relieved at the outcome. I didn't feel that he had done a good job completing the story. I wasn't glad to see that the bad guys had lost. I just didn't care about anyone in the book.

I just didn't like it.

Friday, April 10, 2009

The Reading Group by Elizabeth Noble

Trite. Cliched. I picked this up for $1 in the Clearance aisle at Half-Price Books. It sounded light and fun, but now I know why it was in the Clearance section.

The premise of the book sounds engaging. Five friends meet once a month to discuss the book of the month. Each book relates to their lives in some way. Noble gives a blurb for the book - all of which are stereotypical book group readings - at the beginning of the chapter before launching into the conversation the characters have about the story.

I found myself having difficulty keeping track of the characters originally. Five women, all with personal issues, all with children. Somehow despite their varied stories and varied physical looks they blended together.

When all was said and done the overall stories ended up in a very Hollywood way. Noble suggests early in the book that she likes happy endings but the endings are so obvious as to make the reader wonder why they bothered reading the book.

As much as i disliked the book, I would actually recommend The Reading Group for book groups. Many of the themes about relationships and social interactions - trite or not - open themselves up for interesting debates. Falling out of love with a mate, dealing with the death of a parent, infertility, discovering infidelity: issues that affect many of us are covered in this novel.  Using the same format that Noble herself used, it would be an interesting experiment to read the books used by Noble and Noble's book herself in the course of one year of a book group.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Kushiel's Scion by Jacqueline Carey

Having read the Kushiel trilogy (okay, there are more than three books, but the original three make up one coherent trilogy) by Jacqueline Carey I was happy to pick up the newest addition to the series. Carey's books are described as "sexual fantasy," which is an odd term for so many reasons. First, her works are no more sexual than your average romance books, but no one would ever call them "sexual romance." Second, sexual fantasy somehow sounds like a pornographic sex with aliens type idea. It's really not. Her books just happen to be set in a world with sexual freedoms and assumptions quite different from our own which do revolve around the sexual relationships of characters. But there's nothing in the book to make you blush - well too much.

Kushiel's Scion is a companion/continuation of the original series, I enjoyed it. The main character is the adopted son of Phedre, the heroine from the original books. Which brings up a slightly picky but nonetheless annoying point. Why put Phedre on the cover of the book if the book isn't about her? It goes back to the sexual fantasy description. Because of Carey's pigeonholed genre I feel as though the editors wouldn't want to put an 18 year old boy on the front because it might deter the reader or give them the wrong idea. But, looking at the cover I would have never guessed anything about the plot. But I digress...

Kushiel's Scion is looooooooooooong!! And I don't mean the 940+ pages of the story. All of Carey's books are weighty tomes. But the story is unnecessarily long. There are a few points at which I wished 50+ page descriptions had been rewritten with "it was a long and busy winter." In trying to give the image of how Imriel, the hero of the story, has developed, Carey feels it necessary to show - in explicit detail - every moment in his development. There is finally a point when Imriel says, more or less, "enough, I want to go home." There are 250 pages to go at that point and I found myself skimming. Something I almost NEVER do in fiction. 

I like Carey's stories in a fun, escapist way. She has a different way of looking at society that makes me stop and rethink from time to time. She is open-minded in a way that I find refreshing. I don't think her books would appeal to everyone. You definitely would NOT want to read this novel if you didn't understand the original Phedre trilogy. But all that having been said, I would recommend this book - especially to people who enjoy Arthurian quests and love triangles.