Sunday, May 08, 2016

Striking Out

I usually have pretty good luck with books, especially since I started blogging and reading other's blogs and scanning GoodReads for books I would like, but just this past week I had two disappointments.  Maybe I wasn't in the mood, but I read the obligatory 50 pages, and found I was completely uninterested in continuing.  And what were these duds?

At the Edge of the Orchard, by Tracy Chevalier - I've just loved all her other books I've read: Girl with the Pearl Earring, Remarkable Creatures, The Lady and the Unicorn, The Last Runaway.  But this one just fell flat--I found the couple distasteful and uninteresting and the tone just seemed grim.  I was so looking forward to this book, but the magic just wasn't there.

The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro - I liked this one slightly better, probably because it seemed like reading a Grimm's fairy tale or Germanic folk story, but again it just didn't seem to be the way I wanted to spend my time right now.  As with the other book, I've really enjoyed Ishiguro's other novels that I've read, The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go, but this one just didn't work for me.

I might revisit both at some time in the future.  Maybe I'm suffering from a surfeit of books underway (see Juggling) and just wasn't hungry for a new story.

Happy Mother's Day to all of us--those with children, those who don't, those with mothers still living, and those whose mothers have passed on.  We're all in this together!

Sunday, May 01, 2016


I'm in one of those times where I am reading a lot, enjoying what I'm reading, but in the middle of muliple books, most of which I am purposely reading slowly, and so have nothing to really review.

So here's an update on what I've got in progress...

Dragonfly in Amber - rereading for the third time book 2 in Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series.  I'm a few weeks ahead of the STARZ broadcast of the TV series, and so far enjoying refreshing my memory as to who's who and how things work in the book.  I have to say that Gabaldon was right to hold out for STARZ--so far they are really staying true to the books in characters and story line.  A few variations, but not much.

Roots - I'm doing a read-along at True Book Addict in anticipation of the new TV series which starts Memorial Day weekend, I think.  I never read this Alex Haley when if first came out in the 1970s, so really enjoying it now.  I just passed the half-way mark and we're still on Kunta Kinte's story.

Bel Canto - this marvelous novel by Ann Patchett is my audio book these days, and it is fascinating. Again, the theme of "everyone has a story" really resonates with me.

The Coming of the Third Reich - first in a trilogy by Richard J. Evans, it is well written and very interesting.  I finally feel like I am getting the foundation I need to understand the 20th century. Reading very slowly--just a section a day--so that I can retain more of the vast amount of info contained in this book.  I plan to read the entire trilogy, but it will take awhile.

The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death... - by John Kelly, the fiction selection for May in the GoodReads Tuesday BookTalk Readalong group.  I am loving it, so interesing--it's a perfect mix of history, science, social history, and geography.

Emma - reading this Jane Austen classic for the upteenth time and loving it all over.  I'm planning to go to the JASNA AGM in Washington D.C. in October, so this is homework!  Reading about a chapter a week, though I will pick up the pace so that I finish by my region's June meeting on Emma.

Onward and Upward in the Garden - this set of essays by Katherine White, wife of Charlotte's Web author, E.B. White, is lovely.  Reading an essay every week or so, I intend to read this all year!  Her analysis of seed catalogs makes me smile and makes me nostalgic for the good old days of printed catalogs.

The good thing about having so many good books underway is that there is always something I am in the mood for, the downside is that I have to choose amongst so many excellent options.

Hope everyone is having a marvelous spring (or fall, if you're down under), and I can't wait to get back to my garden, if it ever stops snowing here in Colorado!

Sunday, April 24, 2016

The Road to Little Dribbling

I am a Bill Bryson fan--I've enjoyed his travel books, social history books (At Home is one of my all-time favorites), and his book on Shakespeare is absolutely excellent.  I like his humor, snarkiness notwithstanding, and I love his appreciation for nature.  Politically, we're pretty well aligned too. And his walking treks always inspire me to do more.

So, I eagerly awaited the audio version of his latest book, The Road to Little Dribbling.  Like many, I have to give it a mixed review.  While so much of what I like about Bryson is still there--the love of walking, nature, Britain, and quirkiness in general, I think he indulges in a tad too much ranting at inanities, which makes him come across as a grumpy old guy, a persona he is wearing like one of his old sweaters, but that gets tiresome after awhile.

For the most part, I did enjoy the book--it's a tour, bottom to top, side to side, of Great Britain.  He revisits some places covered in Notes from a Small Island, but mostly goes to places he didn't get to yet but always wanted to.  Listening to his rambles made me want to book passage and pack my bags for a similar tour.  I really like to travel as he does, skipping the crowded tourist attractions and finding the local haunts and hidden gems.

One place in particular that I want to go is the Lost Gardens of Heligan in Cornwall.  It sounds enchanting.  I also loved hearing about Gilbert White and his naturalist writings--I ordered an abridged copy The Natural History of Selbourne.  I'm not up for reading 40 years worth of his journal entries but I wanted to get a flavor of his observations, especially now that spring is here and I really need to get weeding.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Thinking about Sisters...The Nightingale and The Blind Assassin

I recently read two books that feature sisters, and I was struck with how closely they followed the pattern established by Jane Austen in Sense and Sensibility in which you have an older pragmatic, mostly sensible sister (Elinor Dashwood) whose passions run deep and silently contrasted with a younger, impulsive, heart-on-her sleeve sister (Marianne Dashwood).

In Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin, Iris is the older sister who is pressured into marrying a rich stick and Laura is the younger sister who is Marianne to the core, but never learns the lessons of moderation that Marianne ultimately does learn in S&S.

In Kristin Hannah's most recent novel, The Nightingale, set in WWII France, you have Vianne as the older sister who stays on the farm and compromises virtually everything of value to her in order to keep herself and her child alive during the German occupation.  Her younger sister, Isabelle, like Laura from The Blind Assassin, is Marianne by another name and in another time. Virtually unable to not utter every thought, she falls in love with danger and willingly risks everything in order to live according to her ideals.

Of course, there is more to both books than simply following the S&S sister model but in a way it sort of undercut the freshness of both.  I must say, though, that I enjoyed The Nightingale far more than The Blind Assassin, which thought I well-written, but was a chore to read, probably because it was so bleak and tried so hard to be innovative that there were parts were I literally did not know what was happening and to whom.

Perhaps Hattie Morahan and Charity Wakefield (Elinor and Marianne from my favorite adaptation of S&S) will be cast as Viane and Isabelle in the upcoming film version of The Nightingale.  I must say, it will make a terrific movie.  Kept me on the edge of my seat and moved me to tears in parts.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

What a Coincidence! Thoughts on Dickens' Oliver Twist

I just had the pleasure of rereading the first Dickens' novels I ever read, back when I was a young teenager, Oliver Twist, or The Parish Boy's Progress, by Charles Dickens.  First published serially in 1837-1839, Oliver Twist is a wonderful story, full of memorable characters and highly readable.

There's lots to talk about with regards to the novel, but what I'm thinking about mostly on just finishing it is the role of coincidence in the story.  In other words, could the plot work if Oliver didn't happen to run into all the right people who could engineer his rescue and restoration?


Here we go:

In Oliver's first venture outside of Fagin's lair with the Artful Dodger and Charley Bates, he is nabbed as one of the boys who attempts to pick Mr. Brownlow's pocket.  Mr. Brownlow believes that Oliver is an innocent and lets the boy live at his house where he notices a striking resemblance between Oliver and a portrait of his best friend's daughter, Agnes Fleming who disappeared after becoming pregnant by Brownlow's friend, Edwin Leeford.  Once Oliver disappears, Mr. Brownlow sets out to find out Monks, the wayward son of Leeford, who died estranged from Monks' mother.  If Mr. Brownlow hadn't noticed the resemblance, he never would have set out to find Monks.

After Oliver is snatched from Mr. Brownlow's care and returned to Fagin's lair (love that word!), he doesn't set foot outside again until he is sent to help nasty Bill Sikes break into a house in the country. The burglary goes wildly bad and Oliver ends up being taken in and cared for by the family whose home he was helping Sikes to break into.  It just so happens that the owner of the house is Mrs. Maylie, and her adopted daughter Rose is the orphaned sister of Oliver's mother.  Small world!  Rose bonds with Oliver, believes he is goodness itself, and is instrumental in convincing Nancy, Sikes' girlfriend, to save Oliver when Nancy overhears that Fagin and Monks want to kill him.

The coincidences really are eye-rolling but without them would the plot still work?

I think the answer is no.  Mr. Brownlow seeing a resemblance between Oliver and Agnes Fleming and setting out to find Monks didn't really advance the plot.  Monks was actively looking for Oliver in order to get rid of him completely.  However, once Oliver and Mr. Brownlow find each other again, only Mr. Brownlow could understand the interest Monks had in Oliver and could insist that Monks relinquish his fortune to Oliver.  All other parties who know of what happened were dead.  Somehow, Oliver had to encounter the one person left on the planet who knew what Monks had done.  The problem is that Oliver encountered him entirely by chance.

The second coincidence is less problematic.  It's lovely and sweet that Oliver and Rose found each other and loved each other before learning of their family relationship, but it wasn't that relationship that spurred the Maylies and their circle to work to protect Oliver.  I don't see how Rose and Oliver being related affected the main storyline other than to underscore the Victorian sentimentality.

One final note, though.  The subtitle of the book is The Parish Boy's Progress, which echoes and alludes to John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress.  I have to wonder if whether it was grace, in the form of coincidence, that led Oliver into Mr. Brownlow's world and thereby put himself into a position in which he could be rescued by Mr. Brownlow.  I'm no theologian and I could be grasping at straws to make a favorite novel "work," but perhaps the use of coincidence reflects a belief in the guiding hand of providence.  Without the subtitle, I wouldn't have thought that the coincidences weren't more than a young novelist taking shortcuts, but now with the subtitle, I'm not so sure.

Mr. Brownlow, the one character who can restore Oliver to his family.
This counts as my 19th century classic in the Back to the Classics challenge.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

The French Lieutenant's Woman

Of all the books on my TBR shelf, I think The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles has been there the longest.  I always meant to read it but I admit that I was put off by labels like "post-modern," "meta fiction," and the like.  I think I bought the book shortly after the 1981 movie was released with the idea that I would read it first.  That held true for the past 35 years--I still haven't watched the movie, but now I can...since I finally read the novel for my TBR Pile Challenge!

It turns out that it was extremely readable--great writing, interesting story, marvelous setting (Lyme Regis, 1867), troublesome characters, and a delightful narrator who not only didn't try to hide the fact that he was firmly planted in the 1960s but relished his puppet-master role.  Sort of reminded me of Thackeray's narrator in Vanity Fair.

There's actually a lot to write about, but I think what I want to comment on in this post is inspiration.  I really enjoy learning about the writing process and in particular what inspires, either consciously or unconsciously.  In this case, I saw the subplot of Charles Smithson's relationship to his valet Sam to be a reworking of Mr. Pickwick's relationship to the loyal Sam Weller in Dickens' The Pickwick Papers.

Not only are both valets named Sam, as the narrator helpfully points that out, both masters are involved in the breaking of an engagement--one overtly and the other completely innocently.

Both Sams fall in love with servants encountered in the homes where their masters visit, and both have the gift of the gab, are energetic, wise to the ways of the world, and ambitious.  The biggest contrast is that Samuel Weller is completely devoted to Mr. P and extricates him from countless predicaments, while Smithson's Sam betrays his master and sinks him completely in the face of his own self interest.

Just as The French Lieutenant's Woman can be seen as an ardently feminist book, I think it can also be seen as a paean on the undermining of the class system.

I really enjoyed it, so much so that I would actually like to reread it again.  Maybe I will in a couple of years when I can count it as a classic!

Meryl Streep as Sarah Woodruff, the French Lieutenant's Woman.
I know that watching the movie will put Lyme Regis even more firmly on my must-visit list.  Not only for Persuasion, but now for The French Lieutenant's Woman as well.

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

When to censor?

I have gotten very interested in finally really learning about WWII and in particular how Nazi Germany came to be.  So, I turned to what I was told was the definitive book on the subject, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, by William Shirer.

I read about 100 pages before I started getting a queasy feeling, and it wasn't long before I closed the book in disgust and started to do more research on Shirer and his monumental tome.  It turns out that what stopped me cold is something that others have also had trouble with, and this is Shirer's blatant homophobia. At first I thought his mention of the many homosexuals who figured in the high ranks of the early Nazi party was just an odd, off-hand comment.  But then, he went on a tirade about sexual perverts (meaning homosexuality) and characterized them as part of the dregs of society.

This is one of the best articles I found that articulates clearly the problems with Shirer's book.

Homophobic histories of Nazism ignore Hitler's war against gay men, by Peter Tatchell

The Amazon blurb on the book pretty much sums up what is the conventional wisdom about this book:
Hailed as “one of the most important works of history of our time” (The New York Times), this definitive chronicle of Hitler’s rise to power is back in hardcover with a new introductory essay by Ron Rosenbaum (Explaining Hitler and How the End Begins) commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of its National Book Award win.
The fiftieth anniversary edition of the National Book Award–winning bestseller that is the definitive study of Adolf Hitler, the rise of Nazi Germany, the Holocaust, and World War II. This special edition now features a new introduction by Ron Rosenbaum, author of Explaining Hitler and How the End Begins.
I read the introduction by Ron Rosenbaum, and feel like he should have addressed Shirer's bias and skewing of history in order to reflect his own prejudices.  I've read some comments that Shirer's homophobia reflect the societal norms of 1960.  I actually don't buy that, and even if it were true, Rosenbaum doesn't share that excuse.

Interestingly, I'm also currently rereading Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist and I cringe every time Dickens uses the term "the Jew" to refer to Fagin.  I am excusing Dickens because he is using a label for an individual character, as opposed to talking in general about a set of people but it still makes me cringe.  And it's not clear that he is using the term "the Jew" to convey characteristics about Fagin, or just trying to make the story readable.

I can't excuse Shirer, or Rosenbaum, though.  And, it bothers me that this book is routinely praised to the skies.  I'm not in favor of banning books, but I would hate for students to read this book and think that Shirer's comments should be taken as truth.

Now, once again, I'm in search of a good book that will explain the rise and fall of the Third Reich, and what should I do with the copy I have?  I really don't feel like I want to pass it on to a fellow unsuspecting reader.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Breaking Wild

I really like to read about far away places and stories set in the distant past, but sometimes it's fun to read about the here and now.  I heard about Breaking Wild, Diane Les Becquet's debut novel earlier this year, and immediately wanted to read it because it is set in Colorado and is a thriller of sorts.

I enjoyed it and read it on both legs of a trip to New York over the weekend.  I ended up seeing it as a cross between The Girl on the Train and 127 Hours.  It is another one of those alternating protagonists novels--this time we get the third-person narration of Amy Rae's story, a reckless young mother who gets lost on a hunting trip in northwest Colorado, and first-person narration of Pru's story, the single mom who is part of the search and rescue team that tries to find Amy Rae.  I'm not entirely sure why one was first person and the other was third, but it worked and helped keep the two stories straight in my head.

While it has a high tension quotient--will Amy Rae survive the bear, the cougar, the freezing temperatures, the injuries, the isolation, and her own recklessness?  I also really liked how the author told the back stories of both Amy Rae and Pru--they have a lot of similarities. Both are comfortable roughing it in the Colorado mountains, both are committed to their children, but they come at life and its responsibilities completely differently.  Both have to decide to live and how.

With regards to 127 Hours, much as I disliked the author of that book--his recklessness also took a heavy toll on the people he said he loved--I found Breaking Wild to be as fascinating as 127 Hours just to read about how people can survive in absolutely horrible situations.  The will to live is a powerful force and we can endure more than is conceivable given some knowledge, some tools, and sheer grit.

I really enjoyed the book--the pacing was good, the writing was pretty good (although I confess that early on I struggled with the author's love of similes--it's usually sufficient to say that the sky is blue, it doesn't need to be compared to something else, although Colorado blue skies are breathtaking!), the story was good, and the characters were interesting, flawed, and worth rooting for although Amy Rae is hard to like for the most part.  But, she was a good counterpoint to Pru and her saintliness.

This was a nice break from the classics that I've been reading lately and it was fun to read about places I know very well...Boulder, Golden, the Western Slope, and the Colorado Rockies.

Monday, February 22, 2016

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

I've heard of Jules Verne and his many adventure/sci fi novels forever, but since sci fi has never really been a genre I've warmed to, I've steered clear of them.  However, I decided to rise to the challenge of the Back to the Classics challenge for 2016 and try to read something in both the adventure and sci fi categories.  And, since 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea figured so prominently in All the Light We Cannot See, which I enjoyed so much in January, I decided to tackle it as my next classic.

I wish I could say that it has converted me to Victorian sci fi, but alas that is not the case.  I found it tedious.  Maybe I'm not just a creature of the deep, but hearing Professor Aronnax describe the weirdness under the sea, from Atlantis to giant attack squids to coral cemeteries to underwater volcanos, just didn't float my boat, so to speak.

What I really wanted was backstory and character development.  I was so frustrated at the end to not hear why Captain Nemo abandoned land for the sea--we caught a tantalizing glimpse of a wife and children, but I have no idea what happened to them and how he first came to build the Nautilus, the submarine in which he and his crew circumnavigate the world under water.  Who built it, when was it launched, who were the crew?

And then there's Ned Land--yes, he's a harpooner on whaling ships, but apart from being from Quebec and missing it, who is he?  And Conseil, the professor's slavish servant--what's his story?  Why is he so devoted to Aronnax?

It's a really a one-note story--we see another world, there are some adventures, and then Aronnax, Conseil, and Ned Land escape from the Nautilus.  Talk about a let down!

While I was reading this, I kept on thinking that a really good annotated version might have made this more enjoyable.  I think I would have enjoyed reading about what Verne got right with regards to his science and what was completely fabricated and off base.  However, I'm not tempted to do another run-through with an annotated version.  Too many other great books out there unread to do that.

I had been toying with the idea of reading Around the World in Eighty Days, but I think I've had my fill of Jules Verne.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Pioneer Girl

Reading Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, edited by Pamela Smith Hill was an absolute delight and a milestone reading event for me.  Like so many, I grew up reading and rereading The Little House books.  By the time I reached 5th grade at Ivywild School in Colorado Springs and my teacher starting reading the books to the class everyday after lunch, I had already read through the series a couple of times.  As an adult, I've read several biographies of Wilder, including a few books about the evolution of Wilder as an author and the role her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, played in bringing the books to the world.

However, reading the source material, Wilder's non-fictional account of her childhood in the American Midwest during the 1870s and 1880s was fascinating and satisfying.  The annotation was superb, with Hill providing meticulous notes on virtually every person and place Wilder mentions in the book.  She also provided extensive notes on how the non-fictional accounts of various events were used by both Wilder and Lane in the later fiction that grew out of Pioneer Girl.

Not only was my reading of Pioneer Girl intensely nostalgic, but I also came away from it with a renewed respect for Wilder as an author.  Her diligence, her willingness to listen to her writing coach (i.e., her daughter), her ability to learn from her mistakes, and her insistence on being true to her vision of her life and family are admirable. I'm not sure that I would have gotten that sense of the author without the annotation.  She also included notes on what Wilder and Lane decided not to include and speculation as to why.  Her notes on the chronology of Wilder's reminiscences were also helpful, usually giving Wilder the benefit of the doubt with regards to a 60+ person remembering accurately dates of events from her childhood.

I've decided to reread the Dakota Territory books, starting with On the Shores of Silver Lake, and including The Hard Winter, Little Town on the Prairie, and These Happy Golden Years.  I'm also hoping to take a road trip in May to De Smet, SD, the little town on the prairie where these books take place.  I'm also planning on reading some of Rose Wilder Lane's novels, probably starting with Young Pioneers.

I wish we could get a good documentary of Wilder's life--I'm not interested in any adaptations of the books, my own imagination is too firm in how I want to visualize them, but a documentary would be very welcome!