Thursday, December 9, 2010

Wordless Picture books

During the month of October I focused on the books my kids were reading. I haven't found any of my recent reads that inspiring which is why I haven't posted much. However, I wanted to add another to the list of good kids finds. And I wanted to join the latest I Can Read Carnival celebrating early literacy

If you look at the title, I am writing about wordless picture books. You may ask, how can a book without words inspire literacy? Let me explain:

Boy2 can read. He can read remarkably well considering he is only 5. But I have little idea what his comprehension level is. While he will sound out and correctly pronounce words on a billboard that doesn't mean he comprehends the word. At the beginning of the school year his teacher told me his "comprehension was 0." I know that is not true because he will tell me the plot of books he has read. Sometimes.

Long story shorter... he is not excited about reading on his own right now. He still loves to listen to stories at bedtime and he will look at pictures but he has no interest in "reading." Then I discovered two great new finds at the library. Owly and Polo. These are both series of graphic novel/comic books with complete visual stories but they have (almost) no words. At first Boy2 was skeptical and wanted me to tell the story. I told him he had to tell the story to himself.

Success... yesterday in the car on the way home from the library he picked up Polo and the Magic Flute and told the story - in great detail - to the Clifford stuffed animal he brought home from school yesterday. Listening to him adding dialogue and plot points I realized his literacy was growing exponentially. As important as understanding words when we read is the ability to follow a story to its conclusion.

Both series are well-drawn, colorful, and engaging. The stories have a distinct plot but for my son who doesn't like too much suspense they are not overly suspenseful. I also like that there are multiple stories with the same characters which really appeals to my kids. They become invested in the world of the characters.

I will continue to drop books at Boy2s bedside. But I am more willing to think a little bit outside the box to find other means of working on his literacy than just reading flashcard words.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Sepulchre by Kate Mosse

Bestseller denotes a book that has sold many, many copies. However, does anyone ever track how many books have been read? That is, just because I buy a book and set it on my shelf doesn't mean I ever pick it up and read it. Nor does bestseller acknowledge the books that look good and get lots of hype but just don't live up to expectations. Recently I talked with friends about a memoir that had been heavily touted in the media. Two people separately told me they started the book only to put it down because it was boring and badly written. I wonder if in the future e-readers will allow statistics about how many people actually spend time with every page of a book...

These were my thoughts as I put down Sepulchre by Kate Mosse. A few years back a friend sent me Labyrinth which I read and enjoyed. But I wasn't over the moon about it. I feel very similar about Sepulchre. I liked the book. Mosse writes a compelling, detailed, historically accurate story. But in the end, I was disappointed. I felt like the book was 500 pages of hype for a relatively simplistic and facile ending.

Sepulchre, in the recent tradition of historical suspense stories, tracks the lives of two individuals in different eras whose worlds intersect. Leonie Vernier lives in 1890s Paris. Meredith Martin is a present day historian tracking down both biographical information about Debussy and historical information about her murky past. Needless to say, there is a connection between the two women - at the very least, the fascinating tarot cards they both possess.

Mosse presents a well-researched historical reality. Her knowledge of Languedoc France at the turn of the century create a believable world. But her character of Victor Constant - the bad guy - is remarkably one-dimensional. The present day villain is not well enough fleshed out. For all of the immense detail Mosse includes, she needed to spend more time giving her villain a motivation for his obsessions.

In the story, Mosse's characters talk about Dan Brown and links to the Templars. Needless to say, Mosse is attempting to separate her story from Brown's formulaic pop fiction. Yet, Mosse falls into some of the same traps. All of the drama is easily explained away. The suggestion of more is never really fulfilled.

According to Goodreads, this is the second book in the Languedoc Trilogy. I can't find a link between the stories aside from the geographical location. I am curious whether she intends to write a third book which brings all of the characters together. If so, it seems relatively far fetched.

All in all, I'm glad I read it. I learned a few things. But I would have rather spent the past couple of weeks on something better.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Mapping of Love and Death by Jacqueline Winspear

I have loved the Maisie Dobbs series since I read the first book. I was thrilled to realize I had an unread book in the series on my shelf: don’t know how I could have missed that earlier. I have heard people call the series “light” because they are mysteries, but really I think there is an incredibly depth to Winspear’s writing. She takes on topics that are weighty and in no way fluffy. She also has created an incredibly real, detailed world which is eminently believable. Winspear is not cozy mystery machine who churns out a new book every season. There is an analytical depth and research background which undermines the descriptions of a mystery as “light.”

In the latest Maisie Dobbs book, Winspear introduces Americans. The soldier who has been killed is an American cartographer who joined the War because he had unique skills and his father was British. Like all Maisie Dobbs books, the plot is more intricate than first perceived.

This book would be terribly hard to pick up without foreknowledge of the series. By the seventh book in the series, Winspear assumers her readers are up-to-date on Dobb’s friends, relationships, and past. This story brings back Maurice, her mentor who has been a foundation of the series. It also reintroduces James Compton and adds a heretofore untold back story which fleshes out the world of Maisie Dobbs. Winspear does an amazing job of combining the mystery and the personal story in a balanced way. She does not go too far astray on either side, losing track of one plotline of the other.

When all is said and done however, I didn’t like this book quite as well as others in the series. The only problem for me was the way the mystery wrapped up. There were too many moments when Maisie knew information which Winspear did not share with the reader. And the denouement was muddy. One character was “sort of” guilty, but I did not feel it was explained as well as it could have been.

Despite the shortcomings, I would wholeheartedly recommend the series. It is easy to get lost in Jacqueline Winspear’s world. And I always learn something new.

Firefly Lane by Kristin Hannah

Yesterday (well, in October. I wrote this then and am posting now) I had to finish Hannah’s latest book. Everything else could wait; the book came first. My second novel by Kristin Hannah and I’m hooked. I will eagerly be looking for more of her work – she’s amazing. Hannah’s books are character driven plots detailing the intertwined relationships of women as they attempt to chart their own path.

Firefly Lane tells the story of Tully Hart and Kate Ryan, best friends from the age of 14. They remain close throughout high school, college, early career and family. From the outset Hannah lead her readers to know *something* would cause a rupture between the two women and I spent lots of reading time attempting to unearth what would cause the break. There are obvious clues but I am happy to say it was not the one I anticipated. What she did create was a logical trajectory for the climax so when it came it seemed so logical without have been blaringly obvious – so to speak.

I loved how Hannah showed the passage of time. There were no “It was the fall of 1985…” paragraphs. Instead she subtly interjected song titles and fashions to show new eras. At one point the girls sport Farah Fawcett do’s, later Tully gets her hair cut in a “Rachel.” Hannah never falls into the trap of describing what a “Rachel” looks like, she knows her readers will know. The story arches from the height of hippie-era bellbottoms through the sequins, crosses, and shoulder pads of the 1980s to the low-rider jeans and belly-baring 2000s. For anyone aware of women’s fashions for the past 30 years Hannah did a great job of showing the period without having to state it.

I will admit, I sobbed through the last 100 pages. I don’t always like tear-jerker books. Especially when an author makes a concerted effort to tug on emotional chains. I don’t feel that way with Hannah. She is telling an amazing story that comes with heartache and drama. The book is not all about the bad, but there is bad as a reality of life.

Oh, and the two Kristin Hannah books I’ve read both take place in the Pacific Northwest. This one starts in the town where my husband went to high school. I liked reading her perceptions of a town I saw in the late 1990s.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Winter Garden by Kristin Hannah

Shortly after I started my blog I joined Goodreads. What better way to keep track of the books I read. I love the ability to track my books and I love seeing what my fellow bibliophiles are reading. However, Goodreads has recently added a new dimension to my reading. They send a monthly email with book news and new book suggestions. When something catches my attention it is easy to add it to my future to-read list. Whether I get to the books immediately or not, I have them cached for when I need a suggestion.

A few months ago one of the suggestions was Kristin Hannah’s new novel Winter Garden. Hannah was a brand new author to me; although I have since learned she is quite prolific (which makes me very happy as I love finding good new authors to add to my list). I picked up the book at the school library and read it over the weekend.

What an amazing book. Hannah’s story revolves around a mother and her two daughters upon the death of the father: the glue who holds the family together. The adult daughters are not close to their mother but promise their father they will try to remain close after he dies. Over time the women learn about their mother’s past and what has made her the distant woman she is.

Hannah’s characters are well-rounded: their quirks, foibles, and interests resonate with the childhood she created for them. Both daughters have difficulty with love relationships – albeit in a very different way from one another – because of their upbringing. They are distrustful and shut off, more like their mother than they are willing to admit at the outset. It is easy to believe in the people she has created in her novel.

Moreover, Hannah has done an incredible job researching war torn Leningrad. Her descriptions of Anya’s life in Russia during World War II are amazingly accurate. In the right setting, I would happily use this book in a history class. She brings personality and emotion and horror to an event that is hard to portray accurately in a sterile history setting.

Suffice it to say, I will be looking for more books by Kristin Hannah. Firefly Lane is sitting on my bookshelf and the only reason I didn’t pick it up immediately is I wanted to savor knowing I had such a great book waiting for me. I would strongly recommend Winter Garden to almost anyone!

Death Swatch by Laura Childs

I have read most of Laura Childs’ books in all three of her series. Death Swatch is the sixth book in the scrapbooking series. And as much as I enjoy Childs’ series I am beginning to feel as though she is spread too thin. For the first time I found inconsistencies and problems in this story.

Laura Childs excels at light cozies with strong female characters. She chooses locales with personality and depth. Her themes – scrapbooking, tea, cooking – all offer great opportunities for creativity and useful tips at the back of the book. In Death Swatch Childs combines Mardi Gras and paper stamping techniques.


She is not a historian. Within one chapter she confuses the era of Jean Lafitte badly. She talks about the 18th century, then she says he lived “over 100 years ago” and then she makes some other claim about the Battle of New Orleans in the early nineteenth century. It was more than a slight editing gaffe. For me it was a sign of someone who is over-extended and not reading or researching as carefully. Aside from flummoxing her dates, she clearly was not overly familiar with the timeline she was writing about. This plot just went too far off the scale to be even remote believable. I realize cozies are not about accuracy and believability, but the authors usually fact check and try to keep their plots vaguely realistic.

All in all, not one of Childs best efforts.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Poetry for kids or Why everyone should read Shel Silverstein

When my boys were much younger we belonged to a neighborhood playgroup. The kids ranged in age from newborn to kindergarteners. At Christmas we had a book exchange. Everyone brought an anonymous wrapped book and put it either into the "infant/board book" category or in the "older kid" category. I debated the best present to get. After all, I could go to the Dollar store and get a board book but I know I wouldn't have wanted that as a present. I finally found the perfect book:

a 30th Anniversary Edition of Where the Sidewalk Ends

Although a three year old might not dig Shel Silverstein I figured it was a long-term present. I was vastly relieved when the mom who picked my book had a 5 year old. She was the perfect age for the book. Imagine my surprise when the mom opened the book and nearly burst into tears. She announced to the room, "Who would buy an adult book for a child?" in a snide, disappointed voice. I wanted nothing more than to crawl out of the room. This woman obviously had no idea who Shel Silverstein was.

So I am posting here for anyone who doesn't know Shel Silverstein. His work is amazing. And more than anything it is poetry that should be read aloud (as should all poetry, in my opinion).

Lately my boys are getting into reading longer books on their own. But interestingly, they have no desire to move even further up the reading scale and have me read them longer books. While their friends are starting to listen to Harry Potter or The Chronicles of Narnia Eldest and Boy2 still prefer if I read them picture books. Last week Eldest picked up Where the Sidewalk Ends (I bought my own copy at the same time I bought the gift. It has remained on the shelf for a number of years) and they are hooked. Every night they ask for more poems. Both boys want me to read the same book - which is a small miracle of its own.

The cadence of poetry begs to be read aloud. The silly themes in Silverstein's work appeals to kids of all ages. In school over 50% of my classmates chose to memorize Sarah Cynthia Silvia Stout when we had to recite a poem (while I proudly stood and read Robert Frost's The Mending Wall). Yet as an adult I find I am enjoying the books on a whole different level. Silverstein thrives on the acceptability of difference. For any child who has ever felt awkward or like they didn't fit in, there is a Shel Silverstein poem that will speak to him or her.

A couple of months ago I picked out The Giving Tree and read it to Boy2 who listened appreciatively. At bedtime he asked me to read it again. The next day Eldest grabbed it from his brother's room but never said anything about it. When it came time to return the book to the library I asked if he had read it. His comment, "I didn't think I'd like it from looking at the pictures. But, it was actually really good." I would call that high praise from a 7 year old.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Dear Deer: A Book of Homophones by Gene Barretta

I picked up this book at the school Book Fair in the spring because I liked the bright colors and the cartoony art. It turns out to have been a fun find for both boys. The story is a goofy, cute picture book. But you can read it to kids, and have them read it themselves at many different levels.

The point of the book is to introduce kids to homophones: words that sound alike but have two different meanings (and sometimes spellings).

Each page has a series of two or three homophones. All together the book tells the story of life in a zoo. The pages include things like

I now live at the zoo. Wait until you HEAR what goes on over HERE.

The homophones are always in capital letters. Through the book they do get more difficult. The first time I read it the boys just listened to the story. By the second time they had started to pick up on the words and the differing meanings. Now if I read it they jump up and down and fight for the chance to explain what the story means and to explain the difference in the definitions between the homophones. It is hysterical watching them try to act out "here" versus "hear."

I have noticed a growing trend lately of "grammar" and "math" picture books. I am of a mixed mind on these. On the one hand, like Dear Deer, they are a good way to introduce kids to difficult concepts. Both of my boys have enjoyed math story books we have found. On the other hand, we cram so much academic at our kids that sometimes a story should just be a story.

A couple of examples
Eats, Shoots, & Leaves (the children's edition)

Anyone else have thoughts on this growing children's sub-genre?

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Benny and Penny Series by Geoffrey Hayes

**A special thanks to The Reading Tub for asking me to be part of her A Carnival for New Readers for the month of October**

A good librarian is worth her weight in gold. Much of my childhood was spent browsing the shelves of our library with the librarian standing over my shoulder offering recommendations. Last week I stopped in our library and asked for suggestions for my budding readers. She could not have been more helpful!! I went home with half a dozen books, most of which got read in the first couple of nights.

I find it is difficult for emerging readers to suddenly jump into the world of black text, white page, one picture on every other page. So much of reading up until that point has been visual that the change can seem stark. But finding good books which bridge the gap can be something of a challenge (although I will admit that more and more authors are seeing and filling this literacy gap). While I have a long-standing distrust, shall we say, of graphic novels as something less than "real literature," I am beginning to recognize their appeal to new readers. After all, I didn't spent every evening as a child reading Dickens. I read my fair share of Archie and Richie Rich comic books.

Moreover, emerging readers have the challenge of fitting their reading level into their interest level. As Eldest struggled to read he didn't want books with pictures of babies and words like "dolly" and "ball;" he wanted Star Wars and NFL Football. Boy2 is the opposite. His reading ability his high for his age, but he still prefers Blues Clues and doesn't want stories about zombies or space aliens.

Benny and Penny fit perfectly into Boy2's needs. The characters are a brother and sister mouse who go on adventures and get into typical little kid trouble. One of the realities of graphic novels is that many of them are geared to an older reader. Benny and Penny is blissfully innocent. There is nothing scary. There are no creatures lurking in the dark. There are no themes of good vs. evil. They are simple stories.

Boy2 read the 32 page story at bedtime the evening I brought it home. The next evening he requested that we read it together - he played the role of Benny, I got to be Penny. Listening to him read and include the enthusiasm and expressionism of the story was magical. He was so excited.

Yesterday I was back at the library browsing the shelves for more Benny and Penny stories. Sadly, they were all checked out. Obviously my son is not the only fan. We will be keeping our eyes out for these books.

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Geronimo and Thea Stilton Series

Finding a series which is appealing to both boys and girls can be challenging these days. In a world which touts gender-neutral toys, chapter books do not follow the rules. So many of the plots are extremely gendered. Walking through the bookstore you can find pastel colored spines with titles about fairies, girlfriends, and jewelry. Or you can find dark colored spines and titles with "gross," adventure, or daring in them. There is little to appeal to kids who don't fit the mold.

Enter the Geronimo and Thea Stilton series. Even here they have divided the books into two categories - Geronimo for the boys and the Thea Sisters for the girls. But they remain significantly less gendered than what else I have found. The stories are action/adventure. In each one Thea or Geronimo - employees of their family's newspaper business - track down missing people, find treasure, or explore scary houses.

As much as my boys enjoy the plots - and for those who are leery of too much tension, these have not bothered Boy2 who tends to be very sensitive to scary things - the best BEST part of the Stilton books is the actual text.

As I have said, my boys are visual. They like the pictures. So a page with all black and white text still seems a bit too boring. But the creators of this series had a great idea. The font is far from standard. According to The Geronimo Stilton News Site they use "nontraditional fonts and colors" as part of "Visual Literacy." Whatever phrase they use to describe it: it works for my kids! In a big way! They love to see the words played out on the page.

If I could find more series like this I would snatch them up in a heartbeat. Right now it is the only thing Boy2 is reading. He even approached the school librarian and asked for a harder book than what she had put out for the kindergarteners. He mentioned Thea Stilton and read a page to her before she would let him take it out to prove he could read it.

From their site I just learned Geronimo Stilton is a translated Italian series. The Italians are doing it right. For early literacy I love love love this series!

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Bad Kitty by Nick Bruel

Both of my boys are very visual. They have always loved reading picture books at bedtime. About a year ago when I attempted to read a chapter book to them Eldest declared, "I don't like chapter books because I can't see the pictures in my head." So we stuck with picture books. Even as they are reading more on their own recently, they still prefer picture books to chapter books at bedtime.

I realized for kids who like the depth of picture book stories, like Eloise, easy readers are overly simplistic. While the idea of reading their own books is important, both of my boys wanted to move from picture books to detailed stories.

All of that to say, we love the Bad Kitty series in my house. The original Bad Kitty is cute and funny. Both boys laughed and asked us to read it again and again. The pictures are amusing and well done. In addition, it is also a more advanced alphabet book incorporating words a child would not be expected to know but can easily learn. After reading Bad Kitty, we immediately moved on to Poor Puppy.

Nick Bruel made a great choice in expanding the picture book into an easy chapter book series. The same humor is apparent in the stories. They are funny for kids but equally funny for the adults reading. The great pictures (although in black and white rather than color) run throughout the book which means for Eldest he can hear the story and still be invested in what's on the page. In addition, there is enough text to tell a whole story. I started reading Bad Kitty Gets a Bath the other night and after I left Boy2 finished reading the story on his own. We have not yet read Happy Birthday Bad Kitty but I foresee it in the near future.

If you can think of other series like Nick Bruel's which bridge the gap between graphic picture books and graphic chapter books, please share. We're always looking for more like it.

Friday, October 1, 2010

October is Children's Book month - at least for me :-)

I am going to take a break for the month from blogging about the books I am reading. I may hang onto the titles so I can post them later. But for this month I will turn my focus to children's literature. Both of my boys: Eldest and Boy2 have recently made the jump from Easy Readers to Chapter books. It is not an easy transition and some days are more successful than others. But it is fascinating to watch their interests and their abilities change every day.

There are so many good books for kids these days that I am gratified by what I can find. Not everything they read is "literature." Far from it. But they are reading and that's what is important. There is always room for improvement too. If there is one great book, how can I find more like it?

I try not to be an overbearing parent. I did not spend hours showing my kids Mozart flashcards at the age of two. But I will admit that I have pushed reading on them. As you probably noticed from my blog, I LOVE to read. Books are as necessary to me as food. I wanted to pass that love onto my children. But equally important is the necessity to read to be successful in school. Whether Math, Science, Social Studies the ability to read and comprehend instructions and texts are crucial. So I felt like early reading would make the transition to school easier.

It has, but now I have kids reading above their grade level which presents its own challenges.

Anyway, that's enough from me. Now on to the books:

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

State of the Onion by Julie Hyzy

When reading a cozy mystery series there is suspension of disbelief and then there is "so far fetched I am having trouble with my disbelief turning into laughable disdain." What can I say; I applaud Hyzy for her attempt at a novel fun locale for her series. I think writing a series about the White House chef is creative. She admits in her acknowledgements that she can't have all the details concerning the White House kitchen completely accurate because of privacy and security. That actually wasn't what bothered me overmuch.

The plot of State of the Onion revolves around Olivia Paras, the assistant chef in the White House who gets involved in a security breech involving the president. With an inability to keep out of harms way, Ollie ends up the target of an assassin's wrath because she is the one person who has seen him and can identify him. As a chef, the book of course revolves around cooking and the kitchen. There are recipes in the back. So far, typical cozy.

My frustration came from the subplot which involved two warring Middle Eastern nations who come to the United States for a joint meeting. Hyzy could not logically put Palestine and Israel into the book so instead she created two made-up nations with "very different backgrounds." That destroyed it. By definition she had to write in generalizations. Her perceptions of Middle Easterners were stereotyped and one-dimensional.

Furthermore, I found the "rah rah the President is perfect we're so patriotic it makes everyone gag" to be over the top. Obviously someone who works in the White House has a healthy respect for our government and the office of the President. But to suggest that we are the only great nation who has all the answers is overstated.

Now, other people I know liked this book a lot more than I did. I'm a harsh critic when it comes to accuracy and realism. If you want a light fun story, Hyzy's not bad. I did get invested in the climax and discovery of the bad guy. It was also the right book to have when I needed something light, fluffy, and not too deep.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Baker Towers by Jennifer Haigh

I picked up Baker Towers on a whim at a discount bookstore. I had never heard of the book or the author. But the blurb on the back sounded engaging. I'm really glad I got the book. Haigh's novel grew on me as I read it. By today I wanted the peace and quiet to sit down and finish the story uninterrupted.

Jennifer Haigh has an interesting quality of saying a lot in a very few words. The story revolves around a miner's family in World War II-era Pennsylvania. In the first moments the father, a coal miner, keels over dead. The rest of the book follows his children as they navigate the world they inhabit from youth to adulthood. There are two sons and three daughters in the family who all take very different paths which continue to intersect.

Dorothy, the eldest daughter, moves to Washington DC to work as a stenographer to help out her family. Joyce, the middle daughter, enlists in the Navy after the War is over, returning home when her mother's health fails. Lucy, the baby, struggles with her weight and navigating a world devoid of me. George, the eldest son, returns from the War with grandiose desires he cannot fulfill. Sandy is the golden child of the family, yet he's always on the periphery of everyone's concerns. Each of the children, and eventually the grandchildren, flit in and out of their hometown and one another's lives as their circumstances change.

Haigh's writing is light but imbued with a lot of depth. She does not dwell on unnecessary explanations of feelings. Nor does she spend overmuch time describing imagery. Yet with a short turn of phrase an entire conversation makes sense. Although the book is only 320 pages long it feels like a much longer story. She intertwines the voice of the family members in a way to see a clear picture of their life through many eyes.

An unexpected pleasure. I hoped for a good book. I found a really well-written treasure about a time and place I personally really enjoy.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Uncharted Territory by Connie Willis

Connie Willis is one of the most award-winning science fiction authors in the past twenty-five years. And yet her books will never be a part of the literary cannon. That isn't Willis' point. In fact, it is her ability to poke fun at so much of society that makes her books great. They are the antithesis of the cannon and yet everyone should read them.

Uncharted Territory is an odd little novella. At 160 pages it seems tiny compared to most of what appears in bookstores these days. But considering that more than half of Willis' work is short stories this book bridges the gap between her two types of stories.

The story drops you right in the middle of a fantastical science fiction world replete with explorers charting a foreign planet. The language is slightly off making it a bit of a challenge to immerse yourself in the story. The alien is inexplicable and speaks oddly. There is no immediate conflict to drive the plot. All in all, it sounds like many, many short stories.

The appeal of any Willis story is her ability to find the incredible humor and irony in seemingly serious topics. Most of the story explores the ridiculousness of treating native peoples and lands "with respect" (which looks bad when I write it that way). Obviously she takes the idea to the extreme in which the explorers are fined for leaving footprints in the dust which may irreparably harm the native flora and fauna. Trust me its funny.

But in the long-term the story is actually exploring gender-bending. One of the main characters is Evelyn - assumed to be a woman but of course a British male - who studies mating habits of alien species. As it turns out, he should be studying the mating habits immediately surrounding him.

This book has a limited audience appeal and universally relevant commentary. While not my favorite of her books by a long shot, Connie Willis remains a great author.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Girl Who Played with Fire AND The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest by Stieg Larsson

Last night I refused to interact with anyone in the house. I was bound and determined to finish Stieg Larsson's trilogy. On the one hand, I really wanted to know the outcome - how was he going to wrap up all of his story lines? On the other hand, I just wanted to finish the damn series!

Stieg Larssoon loves details! He goes into amazingly explicit minutiae for the sake of the story. In the long run I understand why he included every single aspect. Nothing was extraneous. It all tied together in the end. And all the sideline stories were crucial to bring the people together how and when he did. But... 250 pages into The Girl Who Played with Fire he *finally* set up the plot. It was somewhat laborious to keep reading and wonder where in the world he was going with his stories. Similarly, in The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest I had to wonder why I was spending so much time reading about Berger and her personal problems. It all made sense in the end, (there was one particular moment in the story for which it was necessary for Berger to implicitly trust Salander) but I don't know that that much space was needed for some of the information.

It is an amazing series. Larsson has combined police procedural, John LeCarré style spy intrigue, and current social gender intrigue into an intricate and intriguing storyline. I won't debate the merits of Larsson's trilogy. Instead, I am going to take a minute to debate a few small issues I had with the series.

In the beginning of The Girl Who Played with Fire Salander is wandering around the Caribbean. As I said before, I understand the logic of setting up the story in the way Larsson does. But, given the character he had described in book one, I had a hard time buying some of her character traits in book two. Suddenly this sullen, untrusting girl is sitting chatting casually with a bartender and helping people out. It didn't fit for me. It was too abrupt of a change.

My husband and I have been having an ongoing conversation about the role of sex and violence in the series. We've debated why Bloomkvist has to take so many women to bed - is it necessary for the storyline to set him up as an individual who is very casual about relationships? is it indicative of Swedish society? or is it sheer selling value to include lots of sex?

My mother and I discussed why the series has gained so much popularity recently. Her conclusion: it's about Sweden which is currently "hot," and its for sale at Costco which seems to dictate bestseller list these days. I agree with both of her statements, but I would add that the intrigue of Larsson adds to the power of the series. Knowing that Larsson is dead and can't write anymore allows readers to wonder what was supposed to happen next.

I'm glad I read The Millennium Trilogy, as it has been dubbed. It's a fast-paced, interesting series that raises a lot of questions about how society views outsiders. But I also am glad I read it because it keeps me abreast with current trends. Now I'm ready for something without a lot of sex, violence, or coffee drinking. :-)

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

The Girl With a Dragon Tattoo is an international phenomenon. I have to believe everyone in the literate world has heard about this book in the past six months. My mom has read the series, my husband has read the series, friends have read the series. I finally decided I would bite the bullet and read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Too many recommendations tend to leave me cold; I find overwhelming praise often means I am disappointed in a book so I started reading with considerable trepidation.

Happily I can report I liked The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo as much as alluded to by other readers. Larsson writes a compelling book. His characters are not archetypes and yet he describes them well enough to make them believable. All things considered, Larsson does not lack for descriptive detail. Reading the second book in the series I find that he overwhelms with detail, but more on that later.

For anyone left who has neither heard of the book nor seen the movie, the plot revolves around a 30-year old mystery surrounding a teenage girl who disappeared from an island without a trace. Mikael Blomkvist, a veteran journalist suffering from professional problems, is brought in to reanalyze the facts and try one last time to discover what happened. Eventually he needs a researcher to help with his search and brings in Lisbeth Salander, the infamous girl with the tattoo. Lisbeth’s back story ultimately becomes the plot of the Larsson trilogy. In this book Blomkvit and Salander solve the immediate mystery. But Larsson sets up the conundrum for the next two books.

So many people have commented on this story that I don’t feel it necessary to once again rehash the merits of Larsson’s story or writing ability. Let me just reiterate a thought I had when I read Camera: the Swedes are a DARK people. The literature that I have read involves sex and brutality in concrete, detailed terms. I have no idea if this is a fair assessment of the population or merely the books which have been translated to English as having a cross-cultural interest. But either way, it is not a book to be read by the faint of heart. Sexual deviance is an assumed narrative in Larsson’s storylines.

As I write, I am halfway through The Girl who Played with Fire. So far, I like the first book better. But I’ve been told I have to finish all three before I can make any conclusive statements.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Slummy Mummy by Fiona Neill

First, let me say that I have learned after reading Fiona Neill's book Slummy Mummy that the term "slummy" in British English is more akin to our word sloppy as opposed to the more common usage of the phrase.

Second, let me point out that I did not expect to like this book. I didn't think I would hate it, but I also didn't pick it up expecting to read a great story or encounter great literature. I saw Slummy Mummy as a mindless diversion book.

Having those two caveats out of the way, I will admit I enjoyed Slummy Mummy more than I intended. Imagine, as a mother, your worst possible morning taking the kids to school, turn that day into a routine which occurs every day, and then add a good touch of humor. Now you have the basis for Neill's novel. Lucy Sweeney, the "mum" in the title is drowning in a sea of overwhelming motherhood. She cannot keep up with her kids' needs on a daily basis and her OCD husband does not seem to help the situation.

Sweeney finds herself competing with other school parents like the "Yummy Mummys," the "Alpha Mum," and "Sexy Domesticated Dad." The thing is, as a parent of school-age kids I would hate to admit I'm a slummy mummy, but I do know my fair share of yummy mummies and alpha mums. Neill's descriptions are really funny because they're so real.

On top of the humor, Neill tells a pretty good story. Sweeney finds herself unhappy with her personal life and turns to a flirtation with Sexy Domesticated Dad to push her out of her misery. The humorous antics and horrific moments in the story end up telling a good plot. Everyone is relatively redeemed in the end. but it actually made me stop and think about my own family situation. I hadn't anticipated that when I looked at the front cover.

It is diverting and not terribly heavy. The cover might forgo a read in public. But Slummy Mummy is worth the read.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Aloha Quilt by Jennifer Chiaverini

I first discovered Jennifer Chiaverini by sheer chance. I stood in the bookstore looking for a book by Tracy Chevalier and was attracted by the cover of a nearby book, The Quilter's Apprentice. I am not a quilter but at the time I worked with a volunteer quilting group and I enjoyed watching them work and listening to them talk. I read the first three books in the Elm Creek Quilt series and happily shared the series with my mom and the quilters. The books were easy reads, somewhat sweet, but also informative about the art of quilting.

As Chiaverini grew in renown, her books also grew in number. When I picked up The Aloha Quilt I was surprised to learn it is the 16th book in the series!! And it is one of the better ones I have read lately, honestly. Chiavernini's books fall into two categories: contemporary stories about modern day quilters and their socio-personal interactions versus historical stories about the roles quilts have had in important American historical events. While the historical books are very informative, they just don't grab my attention the same way as the contemporary stories do.

When I saw The Aloha Quilt sitting on the new book shelf at the library I picked it up gleefully and immediately began devouring it. It took me less than two days to read (which is not an amazing feat unless you consider it was the last week of summer and both of my kids were at home pestering me and expecting me to help them get ready for school).

The book takes a secondary character from early Elm Creek novels, Bonnie, and gives her a whole book. Bonnie and her husband have recently filed for divorce (a topic explored in another book) and as a way to escape the ensuing difficulties she moves to Hawaii for six months to help her friend Claire set up a quilt retreat. The story revolves not only around Bonnie, Claire, and the questions over divorce later in life, but also spends a good amount of time on Hawaiian culture.

I found Chiaverini's descriptions of Hawaiian quilting and its offshoot history really interesting. She managed to dovetail the state's unique history with detailed information about the applique-style quilting of the region. Knowing only the most tangential information about Hawaii, I enjoyed learning more in the light style Chiaverini has.

Was the book a bit cliché? Yeah, a bit. Did everything work out in the end with a nice ribbon tied around it? Yes. But that's part of why I like the contemporary Elm Creek stories. They're easy on the psyche. All in all, a great end of the summer read.

Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

I came at reading Geraldine Brooks in rather a backwards fashion. I started with March, followed by People of the Book and am only now getting to Year of Wonders, Brooks’ first novel. The friend who recommended it described the story as “a book about the plague with some romance thrown in.” With that description in mind, I expected more romance than delivered. Not that less romance is a bad thing, I was just surprised at the outcome of the story.

Backing up, the plot of Year of Wonders revolves around a small northern English town that isolates itself during an outbreak of the Plague to avoid spreading it to neighboring communities. As surprising as it sounds, the story emerged from an actual historical account of an early modern town which did exactly that. The protagonist of the story is the rector’s housekeeper, Anna Frith. The reader learns in the first few pages that she and the rector, Michael Mompellion, are two of the survivors of the attack who remain in the, physically and emotionally, diminished village. Most of the story backtracks and follows the characters through the year of disease, eventually coming full circle so the story meets where it left off at the beginning.

In the Afterward Brooks describes her transition from journalist to novelist, fascinated by understanding the story of the historical Derbyshire village. Brooks’ research skills shine through as her descriptions of the lifestyle and times are apt. At times her graphic imagery leaves too little to the imagination, but given the subject matter it is not surprising. Brooks does acknowledge her choice of a strong female character who sits outside the bounds of traditional society as her focus. In Brooks’ mind the story needed someone who could break the confines of social norms and was in an ability to do so.

I could see common interests in Brooks’ three novels; her work focuses on strong female leads. She takes these characters and places them in nearly impossible (yet historically real) situations to unearth how their strengths allow them to persevere. I enjoy her plots but mostly her development of the issue of integrity.

Year of Wonders reminded me of reading Connie Willis’ The Doomsday Book. The comparison is obvious considering they both focus on the Plague. But the similarities are not merely that straight forward. Like Brooks, Willis writes about the strength and wherewithal to survive adversity and horrible odds. If you haven’t read Year of Wonders and don’t mind descriptive imagery of the Plague, this is a book worth reading. If you’re not so into the Plague, I would still recommend Geraldine Brooks – one of her other stories may be more palatable.

Friday, August 27, 2010

The Abyssinian Proof by Jenny White

Jenny White's first novel in the Kamil Pasha series, The Sultan's Seal, was far and away one of my favorite books this year. White has the uncanny ability of imparting a ton of knowledge about the Ottoman Empire, a subject of which she is well versed, without lecturing or falling into a litany of facts. The plot remains the most important aspect of the book.

The Abyssinian Proof, White's second entry in the nineteenth-century mystery series, tells a nuanced story of a little-known religious group living in the middle of Ottoman Istanbul. The information White has at hand about this leftover Byzantine Christian sect is fascinating. There was a tenuous moment when the story veered into a mention of Templars and I feared White had fallen into the trap of writing another derivative Christianity gone bad novel, à la Dan Brown. But, she saved herself and didn't go there. Thank goodness.

It is easy to lose oneself in White’s novels. She tells a compelling story with plenty of interesting twists and intrigues to keep me reading. The mystery is not overly straight-forward but she does throw in clues throughout to keep me guessing. However, White is also knows her history. She is not writing about stereotypes and overused characteristics of the Ottoman Empire. Her depth of knowledge allows me to learn relevant, genuine historical information within the scope of a fictional story.

Moreover, White tends to throw in some subtle social commentary about our own world. The intrigue between the Christians, the Muslims, and the Jews; the distrust of differing religious beliefs; the debate over political and cultural power based on ethnicity all ring as remarkably true today as they did 150 years ago. White manages to point out that the Ottoman Muslims were not some evil religious offshoot with nothing but bloodlust in their hearts. Her characters are somewhat universal.

I look to disappear into my books. But I don’t mind learning something along the way. Jenny White is one of the best current authors who allows me to do both of those things at the same time. I will definitely be keeping my eyes open for the third book in the series. (Oh, and I heard a rumor she may attempt to discuss the Armenian Genocide in a future story. That would capture plenty of attention.)

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Russian Concubine by Kate Furnivall

I picked up The Russian Concubine at a discount bookstore based purely on the blurb on the back. A story about White Russians living in Junchow, China in 1928 sounded like a great locale and population for a novel. After a grad school classmate wrote a paper about Russians in China I became intrigued by an ex-pat community I had never heard about before. This book fit that niche perfectly making it a great opportunity for a summer read.

The Russian Concubine was good, but it could have been better. I really enjoyed exactly what I had hoped for - the locale and the interaction between vastly different communities of inhabitants. However, Furnivall fell into too much romance and the plot fell flat by the end of the story. The story revolves around Lydia Ivanova, a young Russian whose father was killed by the Communists when they were fleeing Russia in 1917. The story picks up in 1928 with Lydia pickpocketing a British gentleman and bringing the money back to her drunken, beautiful, classical piano playing mother. Finding herself trapped by dangerous locals, an exotic stranger saves her - enter the love interest: Chang An Lo.

Furnivall's strength lies in her ability to describe the interaction between the various ethnic communities living in China in the interwar era. The British have the money and the power. The Chinese are in the midst of a Civil War between Chang Kai Shek - supported by the British, and the Communists (pre-Mao and a strong leadership). The Russians, meanwhile, exist in a vacuum without either passports, wealth, or power. Lydia and her mother work to give themselves a legitimacy in the society to which they do not belong. The mother uses her beauty to gain financial and social support from better-off men, the daughter uses her wits to manipulate the society to help her.

While I immersed myself in Furnivall's world the story drug in the second half. She spent too much time laboring over the romantic relationship between Lydia and Chang An Lo. Lydia manages to find and save her love in a highly unrealistic way. At the last moment Furnivall throws in a curve ball which I found highly unnecessary and likewise unlikely.

The Russian Concubine was a good summer read; it was diverting and romantic. But I had hopes of reading a more historically-driven accurate story which it was not.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Every Last One by Anna Quindlen

Anna Quindlen is my hero. She has an incredible ability to vividly yet succinctly describe a scene. Reading her prose is effortless; I never feel like I am wading through unnecessary text, yet I can perfectly envision the world she narrates. Honestly, I have read almost none of Quindlen's more well-known column writing, but I have read every novel she has written so I couldn't wait to get my hands on Every Last One. I finished it yesterday and sat thinking, "Wow."

If you have never read any of Quindlen's fiction, be forewarned. Her books are heavy! And emotional. I cry more reading her than almost any other author. Yet, I respect the dilemmas Quindlen forces her characters to face much more than other author's emotive problem-driven plots (think Jodi Picoult). For me, Quindlen doesn't force a particular emotional response on her readers. Her characters are flawed and human rather than idealistic or purely bad. She doesn't tell a reader how they should respond to a situation; instead she presents the situation and allows the reader to decide how they feel about what happened. Moreover, Quindlen doesn't give away the plot on the dust jacket. I will say, the crisis in Every Last One caught me off-guard. I was completely blind-sided by the events that unfolded in the story. At 3 am I lay in bed sobbing with the main character.

Without giving away too much of the plot, the story of Every Last One revolves around a normal all-American family: a doctor father, a part-time working mother, a 17-year old daughter thinking about college, and twin 15-year old brothers one who plays soccer and the other who plays the drums. The daughter breaks up with her long-term boyfriend, the drum-playing son suffers from depression, the mom ponders her childrens' futures. The reality of Quindlen's characters is what gives her book power. We can all imagine ourselves or our neighbors in Quindlen's fictional family. The realism is what gives the tragedy even greater weight.

I would not recommend reading Every Last One at the beach, or anywhere else in public. But I strongly recommend reading it. It really makes you think.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Rose Daughter by Robin McKinley

Once upon a time a book-loving sixth grader met a generous intelligent librarian. This librarian, wise in the ways of tween girls, introduced our heroine to the world of fantasy books. Recognizing the dreams of young girls to be princesses and marry princes the librarian offered the young girl Robin McKinley’s books, in particular The Hero and the Crown.

Across the miles and years a tween boy entered the realm of fantasy reading the classic tale of Robin Hood as retold by Robin McKinley in The Outlaws of Sherwood.

Time passed, the two met and shared a love of good fantasy, Robin McKinley having faded into the background of other authors and works. Until the day when our heroine brought home Rose Daughter thrilled to read a new book by the person who introduced her to fantasy. Her husband (and very own prince) saw the book at home and exclaimed, “I remember Robin McKinley. She was …” and our heroine, older, wiser, and no longer desiring the life of a princess finished his sentence, “…one of the first fantasy authors I ever read.” And so ends our story…

Yes, I’m a cheeseball. But yes, it’s true. Both my hubby and I first delved into fantasy reading Robin McKinley’s books. She is the idyllic fantasy author for tween readers. Her stories offer romance and adventure and magic but they are innocent and appealing. Many of her works are retellings of famous fairy tales and Rose Daughter is no exception. As a matter of fact it is the second book by McKinley to retell the story of Beauty and the Beast (the first being her well-loved and recognized Beauty.)

In Rose Daughter McKinley works all the details of the infamous story of Beauty and the Beast into a nuanced version which focuses around the importance of the rose. In this version Beauty is one of three daughters, her special talent being gardening. When she travels to the Beast’s palace she focuses on bringing his rose garden, housed in a large greenhouse, back to life.

The story was intimately familiar but yet novel enough to not be boring. Robin McKinley has an incredibly vivid descriptive writing style without laboring over too many details. All in all, Rose Daughter reminded me of my introduction to the world of good, innocent (romantic) fantasy. A great light summer read.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld

Prep satisfied everything that the last two books I read have not satisfied. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, even if it wasn't exactly what I thought it would be.

My husband noticed me reading a new book the other night and asked what I was reading. Based on the quotes on the cover I replied, "A female version of A Separate Peace.” My answer was largely tongue-in-cheek but having finished the book, it was actually an extremely apt description. Prep is the story of a fish-out-of-water and her four year experience at an elite East Coast boarding school. From the first day Lee Fiora does not match the stereotypical description of a boarding school student of which she is hyper aware. Throughout the novel her comfort level waxes and wanes and she makes friends, learns to navigate academics, and explores sexual relationships. I think there is something of Lee in every girl.

So many of the conundrums Sittenfeld places on Lee resonate with modern teenagers - whether in boarding school or at home. As I read I found myself personally relating to the angst Lee felt. But I also found myself reflecting on my friends as we traversed the high school issues. One friend in particular suffered from so many of the self-doubting characteristics of the main character that I felt as though I were in her head and I began to understand her better.

I had friends who went to boarding school and while some of the challenges were undeniably unique, I don't think this book speaks exclusively to that audience. I found myself thinking back to college classmates who had gone to boarding school and middle school friends who chose boarding school. In some ways they always seemed a world apart; they had an experience to which I could hardly relate. Yet, I found myself thinking about the intense dynamics of dorm life - even if Lee suggested college dorms were quite different from high school ones. And if nothing else I have read a distinct canon of boarding school literature which addresses similar themes across the ages.

I loved this book as much as I disliked The Secret History. To some that may seem antithetical - after all they are both "academic/literary fiction" - situated in the insular worlds of rich East Coast academia. So I think it only fair to explain the differences in my mind. Neither book is particularly plot driven. Yet I found this one so much more engaging because it was about the development of a teenage girl on an individual and extremely personal level. Interestingly, in the Reader’s Guide Sittenfeld says,

I consider plot above everything else except character. There’s nothing I hate more than some book that’s all just exquisite language. That’s so boring….I very consciously think about plot and say, I want there to be a twist here or I want there to be a surprise.

To me that is indicative of the difference in the two novels. Moreover, Sittenfeld felt like a real person in her interview whereas Tartt annoyed me in hers.

The other main difference between the two stories was the characters. I could empathize with Lee’s plight and I could understand her angst. She was flawed and at times annoying, but generally I would describe her as a character I enjoyed reading. Tartt’s characters were so flawed as to be unlikable.

I read Prep in less than 48 hours. It was a book I thought about and couldn’t wait to pick up again. Now that I’m done I still find myself think about Aspeth and Dede and Martha. I am curious how these individuals lived and worked together. More than anything longevity of thought is a sign of a great book.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Murder in Miniature by Margaret Grace

Murder in Miniature is a true cozy mystery. Nothing violent happens on screen - it is like reading a classic play. The only people who die, die offstage. The characters hear about what happened to them but never actually see any gore. Even the main character is never put in real danger - no gun toting or kidnapping. It is very sanitized.

After finishing The Shipping News which is not plot-driven I needed a story with a bit more to lead me through it. Margaret Grace succeeded on that front. The plot revolves around a temporarily kidnapped friend, a murdered drifter, and a found sapphire. The main character is an aging widow and her ten-year old granddaughter. The theme is building dollhouses. The characters are always on the looking for ways to incorporate found objects into their dollhouses. The sapphire is found inside a craft tote bag of dollhouse making materials.

This would be a perfect book for your great aunt who doesn't like things that are too messy. Or for your 11 year old niece who wants to read more grown-up books but doesn't need all the gore or sex so many books can have. It is innocent - while still a murder mystery.

Great literature? No. A good summer diversion? Yep.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Shipping News by Annie Proulx

I don't appear to be genetically created to appreciate literary award winners. The Shipping News won the Pulitzer prize after all and yet I found it... boring, honestly. Okay, I am glad that I read it now that I'm done. But it was not a book I enjoyed reading. I can understand why it was award winning when it comes to novelty of style and setting the stage for the plot. But the plot itself is just not very interesting.

The story of The Shipping News revolves around a single father, Quoyle, who finding himself at loose ends moves with his aunt and his two young daughters to a small village in Newfoundland. Although he has never been there before his family is from there and still owns property in the area. Quoyle is an accidental journalist who becomes involved in the town's life while writing the news of the boats coming in and out of port.

Proulx has a unique writing style. At least half of her sentences are fragments. They evoke distinct imagery and the purpose of her style is clear. Yet if 90% of writers tried to emulate Proulx's writing they would be kicked out of school for poor use of language. While I appreciate the idea behind her voice I personally did not find it engaging to read. As a book lover I found it discouraging that every five pages I was more inclined to set the book down and find something else to do rather than keep reading. Last night I had to force myself to focus just to get through the final 30 pages of the story. It is rare that I am that unengaged in a book. Once again I am guessing I am alone in my views on this book. Friends raved about it and gave it to me encouragingly. Other reviews I have seen give it an overwhelming thumbs up. Maybe I just need to realize that I don't appreciate "novelty" and "literary qualities" in my book reading.

I am glad I read The Shipping News. I gave it points for uniqueness and novelty of voice. But the story itself just never caught my attention. To me plot overrides writing style. What can I say, I guess I'm just an action-oriented girl.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett

My eldest son picked up Chasing Vermeer and read the first two chapters. By itself that sentence should not be breathtaking. However this is the first (non-picture) book he has ever voluntarily picked up and read. I don't know if he will get much farther, to be honest. He is starting first grade and is just jumping into the world of chapter books and I think Chasing Vermeer is over his head for now. But it will stay on the shelf for another day.

In the meantime, I had heard about Blue Balliett's first book somewhere along the way and was more than happy to pick up a copy at the library book sale for under a dollar. I decided to read the story first to see if it was appropriate for my 6 year old but also because I love a good kid's book. I'm glad I did.

Chasing Vermeer is the story of Petra and Calder, two socially-awkward kids, at a lab school attached to the University of Chicago. Their enthusiastic teacher introduces them to the art museum and the idea of debating with the meaning of art. They both discover an affinity for Vermeer when a famous Vermeer is stolen launching them into a mystery to uncover what really happened. The idea of coincidences, hidden messages, and questioning the truth lie at the heart of Balliett's book.

The story has an appeal at many levels. The main characters have interesting backgrounds and idiosyncrasies which speak to children who don't always fit in. The illustrations in the book and parts of the plot revolve around hidden messages and breaking codes which I know my boys both love. But the plot is both genuine and well-enough-crafted to appeal to a parent. I don't know that I will run out and buy Balliett's other books. But I will leave Chasing Vermeer for my boys on another day and will happily buy the other stories at their request.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

If I have a passion for an odd sub-genre of books, it is stories about foreigners adapting to a new culture. I love books like A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth - books that delve into questions of identity and ethnicity and interacting as a minority. Over the years I have found myself searching out books whose plots revolve around the individual struggles of people in flux. It was an interest in this type of story that brought me to Jhumpa Lahiri in the first place. I read The Namesake and then I saw the movie. The book was better (isn't it always) but the movie was actually quite good.

I have been coveting Unaccustomed Earth for absolutely months and finally got a copy from the library. I devoured the stories in a couple of days. While I loved the book I would have liked a novel better than short stories - but that's just me. I like the development of a novel-length plot. In Unaccustomed Earth Lahiri writes about Bengali-Americans who all interact with their families and deal with their joint cultural identities as integral definitions of their self. I had two favorite stories. One dealt with three post-grad roommates with little in common other than their shared apartment. The Indian girl gets regular calls from Indian men proposing a meet-up for the possibility of a future marriage. But she is heavily involved in a less than healthy relationship. Her American doctoral candidate roommate gets unwittingly involved in her affairs.

The best of the book in my opinion (which plays to my preference for longer stories) is the three-part novella style "Hema and Kaushik." The story unfolds in three parts, each part being narrated by either Hema or Kaushik. These two individuals have a shared family background. Over time their paths cross again and they find their heritage and future life choices brings them together in a way they would not have anticipated.

Lahiri's stories are poignant. While there is something about her characters which make them (maybe) uniquely Indian, she is attuned to universal themes in the relationships between family and friends. Certain aspects reminded me of filial duties I have had friends of mine express in the past. I believe Lahiri is becoming an Amy Tan for the 21st century: a voice for "her people." I would be curious to read more about how she feels about this role because while there is a universality to her stories each of the characters are fiercely unique and independent and not easily categorized by his/her ethnicity and/or identity.

I will happily read more of Lahiri's work. I have not yet read Interpreter of Maladies - a heavily lauded compilation of short stories (heck, it won the Pulitzer Prize) only because I don't gravitate towards short stories. But I have no doubt I will in the future.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen

I need to take a break from reading memoirs. I have two friends currently writing their memoirs and they're SO much better than the published books I'm reading. Somehow current memoirs do not seem to follow a standard narrative line. It is acceptable to revisit the same topic multiple times throughout a book even though the reader has already learned about the topic, more than once. I prefer reading books that follow a story rather than ones which jump around reciting anecdotal stories without connecting them.

A friend gave me Janzen's book and described it as a light, fun read. The title caught my attention. It's the beginning of summer, a comedic beach read sounded like the perfect idea. The story is light and fun and engaging. I did laugh from time to time. But I was hoping for more. The title is a bit of a tease, suggesting a greater dichotomy between the character and her upbringing than actually appears in the story.

The basic plot of Mennonite in a Little Black Dress is a newly divorced woman who travels to her childhood home for a chance to recover and put her life back together. To add insult to injury her husband left her for a man named Bob who he met on “” Janzen also suffered from a car accident which left her physically hurt. Through the course of the memoir the reader learns thatJanzen’s ex-husband was verbally abusive and a manic depressive who brought his wife into his misery. Janzen counters her experiences with her admittedly bisexual husband to the much more traditional men of her Mennonite upbringing.

Both Janzens’ brothers and her father are devoted Mennonites who accept her differences of opinion relative to religion and lifestyle but yet remain wedded to their traditional views. By the end of the book Janzen has reconciled herself to many of the Mennonite ideas she escaped in college and through her marriage. But she leaves the conclusion necessarily open-ended as to where she will turn in the future.

The whole book rang a bit false, “Ha ha, my husband treated me like crap and then left me. Now I’m going to poke fun at him, at me, and at my upbringing. Isn’t that funny?” I enjoy snark and satire and witty cynicism. But it was a bit too raw and painful to be genuinely funny.