Wednesday, July 13, 2016


Blonde, by Joyce Carol Oates, is a fictionalized account of the short, sad, weird life of Marilyn Monroe, that is, Norma Jean Baker.  It was my first novel by JCO, and while at times I thought it brilliant, I was so relieved when I finally finished it. It was a long 700 pages.

There is no doubt that Norma Jean was enormously talented, as well exploited, abused, intimidated, and victimized.  Most of the story was painful to read, and while JCO managed her themes adroitly, I couldn't help feeling that the novelist was just one more person exploiting Norma Jean.

I did spend a lot of time on my iPad looking up images of the various people who played a part in Norma Jean's life--JCO usually used initials or nicknames or labels, such as the Playwright for Arthur Miller, and the Ex-Athlete for Joe DiMaggio, which I found a bit irritating and not a little coy.  I am inspired to watch some of her movies, particularly Some Like It Hot, which I have never seen, Bus Stop, which I caught on a Saturday afternoon matinee when I was about ten and was mesmerized, and The Misfits, which was her last completed movie. But, time, being in chronically short supply, I probably won't!

I definitely had mixed feelings about this book--I admired the writing and the storytelling, but I found it sad and tedious and was happy to close the book and swap it on for something a bit more positive to read.

This is the first book completed in the Big Book Summer Challenge, and another book to check off my TBR Pile Challenge list.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Wilde Lake

I read Wilde Lake by Laura Lippman with the GoodReads TuesBookTalk ReadAlongs group.  The only other Lippman novel that I'd read was The Girl in the Green Raincoat, which was the 11th in the author's Tess Monaghan series) and so I really didn't know what to expect as this one was not part of a series.

I hadn't read any reviews of Wilde Lake so the first thing I noticed was the connection to Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird.  At times Wilde Lake really reminded me of the Austen fanfic I used to read (and write)--the names were altered a bit and the setting modernized, but the characters, their relationships, and basic story arc was all there ready to be tweaked and poked and prodded in the process of exploring the themes that the characters and their story set out.

Lu Brant is Scout--and she tells her story both in the present and remembering when she was a child, mainly a nine-year old when her older brother, AJ, broke his arm.  We learn in flash backs the circumstances that led to the breaking of the arm.  We learn about Lu's and AJ's friendship with the precocious neighbor boy, Neil (i.e., Dill/Truman Capote), and the charges brought against AJ's friend Davey Robinson, an African American accused of a raping a white girl.  Lu is a newly elected state's attorney, following in the footsteps of revered father. The family, of course, has a devoted housekeeper, and Lu even has a chifferobe!

Honestly, I think I would have liked the book better if it wasn't a riff on TKaMB.  I read an interview with Lippman:
How did the idea for this book come to you?Well, it’s a little bit of a convoluted story. It began when the Woody Allen/Dylan Farrow story surfaced again. I read a lot, and I thought a lot about it. The conclusion I came to is that as an individual, I was going to believe people who said they were sexually assaulted. I just decided for my own humanity that I would start always at a place of saying, 'Yes, the victim is telling the truth' . . . But then I thought, if you really embrace this idea, how do you deal with the story told in To Kill A Mockingbird? Big disclaimer: I don’t think Tom Robinson is a rapist. He’s clearly innocent. But, I thought, what if you thought of it differently, but not in the pre-Civil Rights era? And where would this story be most interesting? It’s about an African-American man who is handsome and is generally seen as a good person. He is accused of raping a young woman who’s seen from being from the other side of the tracks, not as being a particularly well-thought-of member of society . . . I thought about the era in which I grew up, and the place I went to high school, and I began thinking, 'This is a story that really fits Columbia in the 1970s.' I took that and I ran with it...It was probably between April and May of 2014 when I started writing this book, and I can usually write a book in about 11 months. 
That's all well and good, but I have to wonder if the discovery of Lee's Go Set a Watchman and the resultant controversy that was bubbling in 2014 before the book was published in 2015 wasn't wasn't also a factor in the development of the story.  Without being too cynical, I have to wonder whether Lippman didn't think that perhaps she could provide a sequel to TKaMB too, because that's essentially what Wilde Lake is.

As a mystery it was okay--and I never really liked any of the characters and didn't feel invested in their story.  In a way, it seemed as if Lippman was intent on showing that all good, heroic people have a dark underbelly.  Maybe I just resented the characters I loved in TKaMB being treated so disrespectfully.  Sort of the way I felt when Kevin Sullivan trashed Anne and Gilbert in his final Anne of Green Gables movie.

The best thing about Wilde Lake was the nostalgia I felt for the flashbacks to the 70's.  I started junior high in the fall of 1970 and graduated from college in the spring of 1980, so I definitely enjoyed the trip down memory lane when Lu was remembering the time when she was a child and AJ was a teenager.  I also enjoyed learning about the planned community of Wilde Lake, which is a real place in Columbia, Maryland. That bit of social history was interesting, and I think a novel set in the time/place is a great premise.  But the TKaMB foundation undermined the whole book for me.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

First Chapter First Paragraph - Tuesday Intros: Blonde

Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea hosts First Chapter First Paragraph - Tuesday Intros, a meme that I like but that I don't often do.  I've been reading long books lately, so not too many opportunities to blog about finished books these days, so I thought I would share the intro to the book currently consuming my reading time.

I'm reading Blonde, by Joyce Carol Oates, a fictionalized account of the life of Marilyn Monroe.  It's good, it's sad, and not only because we all know the ending.  Interestingly, the novel begins at the end.

There came Death hurtling along the Boulevard in waning sepia light. 
There came Death flying as in a children’s cartoon on a heavy unadorned messenger’s bicycle.
There came Death unerring. Death not to be dissuaded. Death-in-a-hurry. Death furiously peddling. Death carrying a package marked *Special Delivery Handle with Care* in a sturdy wire basket behind his seat.
There came Death expertly threading his graceless bicycle through traffic at the intersection of Wiltshire and La Brea where, because of street repair, two westbound Wiltshire lanes were funnelled into one.

This is a pretty typical quote from the book, which is told from Norma Jeane's perspective.  I'm only 200 pages into this >700 page novel, and she is still 18, but Oates does a good job of maturing the language and the thought processes as the character develops.

Friday, June 10, 2016

2016 Big Book Summer Challenge

Sue of Book by Book reminded me of her annual Big Book Summer Challenge and I'm glad she did because I enjoy this challenge so much, being a lover of chunkster books.

The Details:Hey, it's summer, so we'll keep this low-key and easy!
  • Anything over 400 pages qualifies as a big book.
  • The challenge runs from Memorial Day weekend (May 27) through Labor Day weekend (Sep 5).
  • Choose however many big books you want as your goal. Just 1 is fine!

There's also a Goodreads group to sign up for the challenge, post updates, and show which Big Books you are reading!  I love Goodreads groups.

And, there's a Big Book Giveaway at the end of summer. 

Help spread the word on Twitter with #BigBookSummer (you can follow Sue at @suebookbybook).

So now to the nitty-gritty...what am I going to read for the challenge?  Trouble is, I just finished Roots, am close to finishing Dragonfly in Amber, and am already working on Centennial.  All books that clock in at well over 400 pages but started well before Memorial Day.  Luckily I have lots of big books on several 2016 reading lists to choose from.

Not sure how many I will finish, but from my TBR Pile Challenge list, here are the candidates:
  • Blonde, by Joyce Carol Oates 
  • The Forgotten Garden, by Kate Morton  
  • A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khaled Hosseini  
  • Time and Chance, by Sharon Kay Penman
From my Back to the Classics Challenge list, here are some possibilities for the summer:
  • The Custom of the Country, by Edith Wharton
  • The Small House at Allington, by Anthony Trollope 
  • Behind a Mask by Louisa May Alcott
  • The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  • Salem Chapel by Mrs. Oliphant
And then, of course, there are the new books that haven't distracted me from my reading lists but are sure to!

Happy summer reading and join me in the Summer Big Book Challenge!

Friday, June 03, 2016


When I heard that the History Channel was doing a remake of Roots, I decided that I better buckle down and read the Alex Haley blockbuster from the 1970s so that I could watch it.  I only saw bits and pieces of the original Roots, since mine was one of those families that didn't always have a TV while I was growing up.

Anyway, Alex Haley's Roots was one of the several chunkster books that I read in April and May and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

A few observations...
- I had no idea that more than half the book was Kunta Kinte's story, with a very large part taking place in Africa before he was captured and brought to America as a slave.  I really enjoyed reading about life and customs in the village of Juffure in the Gambia.  I blush to confess that I didn't know that the people in that part of the world at that time (mid 1700s) would be Muslim, but once I learned that it made sense.  Just had never thought of it before.
- The part of the original series that I watched and remember best was the story of Chicken George, and this was my favorite part of the book as well.  Such a colorful character, literally, though cockfighting is a truly appalling activity.
- The writing wasn't the best, even though Haley did win a Pulitzer prize for Roots.  For example, I thought it awkward and clumsy the way Haley told the history of the U.S. by having one of the slave characters recount what he or she overheard the white characters discuss. Although it did help to provide a timeline for the main characters.
- I thought it a bit frustrating although realistic how we didn't learn the full fate of Kunta Kinte and his wife Bell.  Once their daughter Kizzy was sold, she never saw them again or heard of their fate, and neither did the reader.
- Having read 12 Years a Slave last year and several novels about slavery, I was prepared for the violence and cruelty but it's never easy reading.  I couldn't help remembering how much I loved Gone With the Wind when I was young and what an insult I now consider that novel to the African-American experience.
- I've been doing a fair amount of genealogy work on my own family, so it was very interesting and moving to read about the author's journey of family discovery.  I love history, and I love stories, and so family history and individuals' stories are near and dear to my heart.
- Final quibble - I am reading the version I chose for my opening image, and there were a lot of typos.  Amazingly and disappointingly so.  How hard is it to get the words right in a 30th anniversary edition?

I've been recording the new series and look forward to starting it this weekend.  However, I have to say, 4 2-hour installments doesn't seem nearly long enough to do the book justice.  But then, I'm used to Outlander, which has been so faithful to the books that I'm afraid nothing else will be able to touch it in terms of getting it right.

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.