Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Wedding Girl

I had no idea until a couple of weeks ago that Sophie Kinsella wrote books under her real name: Madeline Wickham. I noticed on Amazon that books my Wickham were suggestions for people who liked Kinsella and Jennifer Weiner, so I looked into her and realized she and Kinsella were one and the same! I immediately headed to the library and checked out
The Wedding Girl. This was written before the Shopaholic series, and the writing feels a little less polished. However, I really liked this book and was surprised by the ending, which usually doesn't happen this type of novel. Wickham is still quite funny here, just as she is in the Shopaholic series. It's a fast read and will keep you entertained. It's light and fluffy, but at the same time it's more serious than the Shopaholic books. If you're a fan of Kinsella, I would definitely suggest checking this out!

Monday, August 23, 2010

Jemima J

Jemima J is the first book I've read by by Jane Green. Green's name always pops up on Amazon when I look at books by authors I enjoy such as Sophie Kinsella and Jennifer Weiner, so I decided to give her a shot.

Jemima J is partially centered around internet dating. It was published in 1999. That makes it quite hilarious, in ways both intentional and not.

It's quite funny and amazing to think how far we've come in just over 10 years. Jemima and her friends are amazed at this shiny new thing called the internet and they can't wait to get on and try it out. Which takes a while since they're using dial up. No one in the book has a cell phone and they use calling cards for long distance. I remember thinking I was quite cool in high school because there was this boy I had a crush on who lived in Tulsa and got a calling card so he could call me. I thought it was all quite grown up. How much easier a long distance relationship between Tulsa and OKC would be today. I actually did have a cell phone at that time because my parents were totally paranoid about me driving by myself, but it didn't have long distance and I was one of the few teenagers I knew at that time that had one. That would have been my sophomore year of high school, 1997. Robbie and I also e-mailed back and forth with the few AOL minutes we had available. Which seemed so amazing at that time. I sit here looking at what I'm doing online right now and thinking about all of the other things we can do and it's just amazing how quickly it all exploded.

The first thing Jemima and her friends Ben and Geeraldine do online is look up porn simply because they're curious that it really exists out there. It's quite funny reading about them deciding what to type and then waiting patiently while a picture loads line by line. Remember when pictures used to load like that? Then they go to a chat room because that was about the only other thing you could at that time.

And yet how things stay the same. Once there, they create a profile for a young girl and promptly get hit on by an old man. Then Jemima comes back the next day and she and another guy start flirting and suddenly they are internet dating.

Jemima J is a rather large woman at the beginning of the book, but she doesn't want her hottie in LA that she's dating online to know that so they have the graphics guy at the newspaper they work for Photoshop the photo to make her skinny. Then of course the guy wants to meet her. What will she do? The book is about her struggle to lose weight and her huge crush on Ben, one of her coworkers, as well. Will she lose the weight? Will she choose Brad the internet hottie or Ben? Will she be happy?

You'll have to read the book to to find out. Overall, I really enjoyed this book, but there was one thing that would occasionally make me want to reach out and slap Green or perhaps her editor. The book goes back and forth from first person narratives to a third person omniscient narrator. At times this was jarring and felt like Green just couldn't make up her mind on which way to go and did both and for some reason her editor didn't make her pick one. Other times, and especially as a got further into the book, this became quite enjoyable. I like getting both perspectives, and the third person narrator was usually quite funny. I usually like having multiple narrators, but it just didn't flow naturally for me in the beginning of this book. If that annoys you this might not be the book for you. Otherwise, it's a good, quick read that will give you some good laughs and perhaps motivate you to get up and exercise and eat a little better.

Have you read any of Jane Green's other books? Any favorites?

Sunday, August 22, 2010

On Mystic Lake

I really love my cats, but sometimes I really don't enjoy being a pet owner. My cats decided they HAD to eat at 5:30 this morning. That's even earlier than I get up during the week. I tried ignoring them, but they sounded like they were breaking the bedroom door down and scratching it so I gave in, then couldn't go back to sleep so I decided to catch up on some blog posts.

I read Kristin Hannah's Firefly Lane last year and loved it so when I saw her On Mystic Lake on sale at The Strand bookstore in NYC in May I picked it up. It's a about a woman who drops her daughter off at the airport for a summer abroad immediately following her high school graduation and when she and her husband get home he promptly tells her he's leaving her for another woman. That's not a spoiler, it's on the back cover and happens on about page 3. Up until that point Annie had a seemingly perfect life and it all comes crashing down on her. She decides to leave LA while her daughter is gone and go back home her small hometown in the Pacific Northwest where she rekindles a romance with a boy from high school.

I read the first half of this book very quickly, on an airplace home from LA actually. At that point I was a fairly captive audience because the other unread books I had with me were more literary and it was very late at night and I couldn't concentrate on those. Once I got home though, the book sat untouched for two weeks. But again, once I picked it back up, I finished it quickly. It's got a nice story and you care about the small town characters. The problem was with Annie. I just didn't identify with her at all. I think most women would though, so take this with a grain of salt.

Annie is completed identified by her husband and daughter. She's lost who she really is and has no life separated from them. I absolutely can't identify with that, but I know that is a common issue for mothers, so this may be a great book for someone going through that. For me, I couldn't understand how she got to that point. I can't fathom losing my identity that way. That's one of the many reasons I don't want kids. This made it hard for me to emphathize with her. I could understand why her husband left, even though he was clearly a jerk and had a lot of other issues himself once we get to know him a little bit better. I'm certainly not saying that he was right to leave her, just that I understand wanting to. I wanted to leave her at several points. I do think a lot of moms would identify with her though, so I don't want to leave the impression that isn't worth reading. It just didn't work well for me. I'm still going to try more of Hannah's books, and I strongly recommend Firefly Lane if you haven't read it.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Espresso Tales

I finished Espresso Tales on the way to LA nearly two weeks ago but haven't had a chance to write about it! Oddly enough, I read Alexander McCall Smith's first book in this series, 44 Scotland Street, on a plane as well. They are good for plane rides since the chapters are so short it's easy to find a stopping place for all the frequent interruptions you experience while traveling.

McCall Smith's books all have a cozy feel to them. I sort of just want to hug them. The characters are all so wonderfully flawed and real. Although the coziness is broken by Bertie's evil mother, who I would take delight in torturing. I don't know how you can read about her without feeling the need to slap her on the back of her head. Fortunately Bertie's dad is beginning to stand up for himself, so perhaps the next book will feature her having to cave in on some things.

What's so awful about her? She has these firm beliefs in the fabrication of gender differences and so dresses Bertie in pink pants instead of jeans and paints his room pink. He goes to school for kids with crazy parents who name their kids things like Tofu. He's not allowed to do anything fun. Instead he learns Italian, takes yoga, learns music. He's six. Six! I'm all for focusing on education but wow she doesn't let him have any fun. And he can't go to a birthday party because it's at a bowling alley! Crazy.

And what's craziest of all? She takes Bertie to therapy. Where she and the doctor flirt and can't understand Bertie's problems. Because they all stem from his crazy mother and neither of them want to see that! It's all written so cleverly and is so funny though.

McCall Smith also just pokes in little asides on life and politics and consumerism and people in general that are hilarious. That's what I like most about the books, probably. I can't wait to check out the next one and I hope you all do too if you haven't read him before.

I need a little light-hearted reading right now - any suggestions of other funny books to read?

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Anna Karenina

I finally finished Anna Karenina! It took much, much longer than usual for me to read, but I loved it! I already wrote a post on the first half if you'd like to check it out.

I think one thing that really struck me in reading the book at this is time is how everyone in it feels trapped. I felt trapped in my own life recently, made a job change, and started my own businsess on the side. You can check out my business and blog on content marketing over at I've also jumped on Twitter, so feel free to follow me on Twitter @sparksmarks.

One thing that stayed consistent from my first post is my love for Levin. Seriously, he's now one my most favorite characters ever. I'm a little bit in love with him actually. As he reminds me of my husband I suppose this is good! I love how he works in the fields alongside his workers and respects them and doesn't have the typical aristocratic attitude.

I mentioned last time how he and Anna are foils of each other, which intensified in the second half. Both long for happiness and are searching to find it and think they find it at one point but then realize the were wrong, then both feel trapped but choose very different ways of handling that.

Some spoilers, although I think most people know about the "big" spoiler:
Anna feels trapped in her marriage and finds something she thinks will make her happy in Vronsky. You emphathize with her at this point because she didn't choose her first marriage and you can't help rooting for her to be happy, although the choice of abandoning her son is hard to understand. But leaving didn't make her happy, and having a second child made things worse. I think perhaps she had post-partum depression, understandable as she nearly died in childbirth and was most likely struggling with loving this child when she had abandoned her first. This led to her not bonding with the child. This continued and grew worse, and eventually she loses her mind. She becomes paranoid and feels there's no possibility of happiness for her except in death, leading to her suicide.

Levin, on the other hand, pursues his happiness in his land. He tries to find happiness with Kitty, but she rejects him and so he focuses entirely on his land and tries to believe he can be happy this way. Eventually he realizes he cannot be happy without Kitty and after learning of her change of heart they unite. But even then he still struggled - with fear, with uncertainty, with questions. He too considers suicide at one point, but instead chooses to believe in God and finds happiness that way.

I was surprised at how uplifting the book was in the end since I knew about Anna's suicide going in. I was surprised that it had hardly a ripple affect on the majority of the characters. I was surprised that so much of the book was about Levin. I was surprised that Anna Karenina is now on my top 10 list of favorite books.

Interesting quotes:
"It used to be that a freethinker was a man who had been brought up with notions of religion, law, morality, and had arrived at freethinking by himself, through his own toil and struggle. But now a new type of self=made freethinkers has appeared, who grow up and never even hear that there were laws of morality, religion, that there were authorities, but who grow up right into notions of the negation of everything - that, as wild men."

That rings true to today as well.

"And it occurred to her how incorrect the saying was about a curse being laid upon woman, that in pain she would bring forth children. 'Never mind giving birth, but being pregnant - that's the pain." This passage goes on to have a woman talking about how she was freed when her child died. She was free from the work, the worry, the bondage. Darya is horrified at this, but then thinks about the horrors of pregnancy, childbirth, nursing, sleepless nights, pain, cracked nipples, illnesses. I was surprised to see this addressed this long ago.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

How to Read a Novel

Not quite sure why I picked up a book called How to Read a Novel when I haven't even had time to read lately, but I did. The new job is going well, but I've got a longer commute I'm adjusting to and I'm simultaneously trying to start a new marketing focused blog and co-launch a leadership blog and write a book. And my high school reunion was last night. So it's been a little crazy, and I've clearly lost my mind. I think it's because I have so much more energy since quitting my old job and so I'm going crazy starting new projects but not actually finishing anything. I've even started a half dozen new books instead of finishing the ones I was already reading. Being able to walk to the library on my lunch break isn't helping in that area either. I can walk to our large downtown library and browse and read. Unfortunately I've been doing too much browsing and not enough reading.
One book I did manage to finish this week is How to Read a Novel by John Sutherland. I did enjoy this book, but let me tell you, the title is all wrong. It should be How to Buy a Novel or How to Try to Select Novels or something. Since I flipped through it before checking it out at the library I knew what I was getting, but I can see that being off putting to people if you didn't look inside a little more closely.
Sutherland gives suggestions on what to look for in a novel when you're browsing so you can decide if it's worth devoting your limited reading time too. My favorite tip was to turn to page 69 and read it and if you like it, you'll probably like the whole book. People tend to bring their A game to page 1, and by page 69 they've probably burned out if they're going to or hit their stride.
I'll be honest, most of the rest of the advice was kind of not helpful. He mainly said that you can't really trust anything - not the flap, certainly not the quotes, not reviews, not best seller lists. So, to be honest, I didn't really feel like this book was overly helpful in doing what it was supposed to do - tell me how to select novels I'll enjoy reading. And he seems rather anti-Harry Potter so I hold that against him.
However, I liked the book. Sutherland was at his best when he just rambled about books. He packed in a ton of examples of various books, and I enjoyed reading those portions, getting his take on different things. It made me think I would enjoy reading his book reviews. I think that's really where he is strength is. And I was quite happy to note that his one book he would take to a deserted island (excluding the Bible or Shakespeare) would be Vanity Fair. That's one of my all-time favorite books! I was a little surprised because his book tastes seem to run to the more recent, uber-literary types, so I was excited about his choice and explanation.
I found it interesting that during one of his ramblings, he said he thinks all fiction readers fall into one of two camps: you like either Thackeray or Dickens. He admits you can like both (which I indeed do) but that you'll tend to read books that are more like one or the other. He said Thackeray is more conversational, as though the author is telling you a story. Dickens is more theatrical, where you sit and watch the action unfold. That probably does explain why I do prefer Thackeray, and thinking about it, I do prefer books that are more conversational, like the author is sitting next to you telling a story. Swift does this, and Picoult, and Austen, and the Brontes. Those are some of my favorite authors. The Great Gatsby. I like narrators. With Dickens, you feel a little removed from the story. It's more like watching a play/TV show/movie. That may be why a lot of people don't enjoy him as much these days. I felt that way about the works I've read (which isn't much!) of Faulkner and Woolf.
Well, I feel like this blog post was rather a nice tribute to Sutherland since it rather rambles on as well. I'm not sure if this post is helpful in determining if you'll like this book or not. Maybe if you liked the post you'll like the book and vice versa. Regardless, I hope you find great books to read this week! And let me know what you think about the Dickens vs. Thackeray issue. I'm interested to know what you think!

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Anna Karenina - Part 1

Welcome to today's stop on the Classics Circuit Imperial Russian Literature tour, where I'll be reviewingAnna Karenina. Make sure to check out all of the other stops on the tour as well. I want to apologize for getting this post up late today instead of this morning. I'm trying to adjust to my new job and I haven't quite adjusted my schedule right yet. I also want to apologize for this being part 1 of a review instead of a whole review. I am only halfway through with Anna Karenina. I totally overestimated what I could get done in my time between jobs and trying to deal with all the things associated with a job change. I really just should have started it earlier though. But, it's such a big, dense book that doing two posts is probably a good idea anyway.

Despite my slowness in reading it, I'm loving Anna Karenina. And it's actually not as difficult a read as I expected. It's an interesting story with great characters. It really is a dense book though - lots of stuff going on, pages overflowing with characters, an abundance of details. And it's all meaningful. It's not a book you can read while mentally checking out. You really have to concentrate, which is something I've been lacking lately!

So, why is it worth the read? What they say is true - the Russians truly are the masters of the novel. In Anna Karenina, there are so many characters with overlapping stories that serve as a foil or foreshadowing of other characters and relationships. What surprised me so far is that despite the title and what I've heard back the book, Levin is the character I focus on the most and who seems the most alive. I'm a little bit in love with him actually. He's got his faults and certainly isn't some sort of Prince Charming/Mr. Perfect, but he's intelligent, rational, intense, insightful, and wise. I look forward to getting back to him each time the narration goes elsewhere. I'm rooting for him to live happily ever after. Hopefully his ending is a foil to Anna's!

I've also been surprised at how much I empathize with Anna. Going in, I knew she would cheat on her husband, and I expected to dislike her. I also expected that to happen much later in the book, but it happens right up front. Which makes it more interesting that I'm able to empathize with her. Tolstoy somehow makes you grasp the essence of his characters right from the start. With Anna, you instantly know she's not a bad person. You know her home life isn't happy, that she didn't chose to marry Karenin. That she deserves happiness and isn't going to get it. There is so much foreshadowing through the novel, which is another reason why the book is so dense. Every word could have an impact on later events, every action leads to reactions that resonate through the rest of the novel.

It's hard to describe the way Tolstoy crafts his novels. I feel like when I try to explain why I like them I can't come close to conveying what I mean. Clearly I'm not the wordsmith Tolstoy is. I know his books are intimidating, but I really do recommend giving them a try. Check out the Classics Circuit for other Imperial Russian writers and check back here for part two, hopefully soon!

Friday, July 2, 2010

Lady Susan, The Watsons, and Sanditon

It's both quite sad and satisfying that I've now read all of Jane Austen's fiction. I've out on reading Lady Susan, The Watsons, and Sanditon for years. The last time I read a new-to-me Austen novel was seven years ago, during my junior year of college when I read Persuasion. I had actually been holding out on reading that one because I thought that would finish her off, but was assigned it in one of my English classes. So I was quite happy to learn about these other three works.

Lady Susan is a complete short novel Austen wrote early in life. The Watsons and Sanditon are two fragments of unfinished novels. Together, they represent three phases of her writing styles.

Lady Susan is an epistolary novel, a novel written in letters. That form was quite popular in the eighteenth century, especially with writers such as Fanny Burney and Samuel Richardson, both of whose works Austen enjoyed. Austen's first drafts of Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility were also written in this format, but she revised them later on. Which was definitely a good thing. Although Lady Susan is quite enjoyable, it's not up to Austen's normal abilities. Which is completely understandable since it's an early work, and also because the epistolary novel doesn't stand the test of time as well. Although I personally really enjoyed Evelina by Fanny Burney and Pamela by Richardson, they clearly pale in comparison with Austen's other works. They are highly melodramatic and you have to suspend you disbelief at some of the stretches the author's take to make the form work. I remember writing a paper in the same college class where I read Persuasion about Evelina and Pamela and the epistolary novel's by nature unreliable narrators. You have to think, would a young girl really write that much about a guy she likes to her guardian, a reverend? Is Pamela proclaiming her innocence just because she's writing to parents? But in Lady Susan, Austen keeps the melodrama to a minimum and has the characters write more logically, but this ruins some of the fun of that medium. You also don't get as well-rounded characters, and since Austen has such wonderfully developed characters in her other works you feel like something's missing.

I'm not saying all of that to say I didn't enjoy Lady Susan. I did. Lady Susan is a great villainess, and again is a surprising turn for Austen, but in a good way. She's selfish, mistreats her daughter, flirts constantly, pursues married men, and just generally causes chaos. It's quite fun to read about her and the other characters responses to her. But the story is only about 100 pages, so there's not a lot to dig in to.

In The Watsons, you get more of your typical Austen fare. It's very similar in style and tone to her other novels. I couldn't read about Emma Watson without picturing Emma Watson, otherwise known as Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter movies, playing her. Emma was raised away from her family in the hopes of being an heiress, but that doesn't work out and she comes back home to her family, where some of her sisters are battling to get married so as not to become poor spinsters. Emma attends a ball and we're introduced to several young men who may vie for her hand. For just being a fragment, I really enjoyed this piece and wish it had been developed into a finished piece. In the introduction to my edition, they discuss reasons for this and don't land clearly on anything, but do comment on the fact that the similarities to both Emma and Pride and Prejudice may have caused her to stop writing it. Also, it's the only work dating from her time in Bath, and maybe she just didn't have the motivation to finish while there (she seems to have hated Bath and may not have had the creative power to concentrate there), and then she just didn't want to pick it back up years later after going to Chawton. One of the other interesting bits in the intro was a comparison of this fragment to Cranford. Having just finished Cranford, I thought that was interesting and can see that aspect of a small tight-knit community in both and that the overall tone is fairly similar.

Finally, we have Sanditon. Sanditon is the last piece she was working on before she died. Here you can see the progression from her early novels to the later novels such as Persuasion to something else. There's something darker in this fragment than her other novels, much like Persuasion has a different feel to it. But here there's a feeling that everything may not turn out alright. Mr. Parker is trying to turn Sanditon into the place to be, like Bath. There's a feeling that this might not work out so well hanging over the work. There's also a trio of hypochondriacs in the novel, who Charlotte, the main character, can't stand. Austen's own mother was a apparently a bit of a hypochondriac, and since Austen was most likely dealing her while trying to deal with her own very real illness, she chose to get her feelings out on paper.

Another interesting part of Sanditon is the introduction of a sickly, wealthy mulatto girl, Miss Lambe. I was quite surprised by her appearance, and that she is the richest of a group of students who come to visit Sanditon. I think that's a clue that something quite different was going to happen in this novel had Austen been able to finish it. The introduction says that Miss Lambe could have stepped right out of a Charlotte Bronte novel. So, it's interesting to read Austen's progression from mimicking the eighteenth-century styles, to developing her own, to then trying to build on that and keep pushing her limits and try for something that become more popular later in the century, long after her death. One can only imagine what works she could have pleased us with if she hadn't passed away so young.

If you haven't read these works because they aren't polished and two of them aren't even complete, I recommend that if you like Austen to go ahead and give them a try. It's worth it just for a little bit more Austen and to see her growth as an author through the three pieces.

Thursday, July 1, 2010


I had heard about Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson when it came out, but being an older young adult at the time, thought I was way to mature for it. :)

What's interesting is that I probably liked the book more now then I would have then. I think my 17-year-old self wouldn't have been very understanding of why Melinda stays quiet. I can't imagine not telling everything to the cops, my parents, everyone. I would have yelled at her for not standing up for herself. And I think that would have clouded my view of the book. I still feel that way now, but I'm much more understanding than I used to be. I also realize now how young 13 is and how someone of that age wouldn't stand up for themselves, especially if they aren't taught to do so. When you're younger, you tend to assume everyone grew up the same as you did, even though you know that's not true. My family so stressed standing up for yourself that I never thought to do otherwise. Whether it was standing up to second grade teacher about the assignments she gave me (which were the same ones I'd done in first grade) or today standing up to my now former boss and telling her she can't treat people the way she does, I've never had a problem speaking up. When I served on a jury a few years ago in a sexual assault case, I didn't have any problems sending the guy to jail with the maximum sentence. And I was the one to convince the on the fence jurors to do so too. Obviously those examples aren't the same as what happens in the book, and I don't mean to minimize what happens to her. And I've learned that many people aren't taught to stand up for themselves. They're taught only to obey authority, to stay quiet and out of trouble. And since Melinda's parents seem to be the type of people who would rather ignore a problem than solve it, it's no wonder she stays quiet.

I also think I would have been annoyed with Anderson's writing style as a teen. I was not a fan of modernism/post-modernism even back then, and just wrote off anyone who wrote that way at all. Although I'm still not a big fan, I appreciate those styles more now and something like Speak is just fine with me now, and I get that it works well for the story. I think the style probably speaks better to her target audience, I was just weird about things like that.

Overall, I did enjoy Speak, and it's a very quick read.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Cranford Part Two

It's time for part two of the Cranford read-a-hosted by Allie at A Literary Odyssey. I loved this book! I think this is a great book to start with if you're not sure if you like reading classics in general or the Victorians specifically. It really was easy to read and entertaining.

I found it interesting to blog about this in two posts. In doing so, I realized the first half of the book was mostly funny, with lots of events to make you like the characters and laugh out loud. The second half focused on Miss Matty losing most of her money from a bad investment in a bank that goes under. It focuses on how the people of Cranford band together to help Miss Matty, even though many of them don't have much either. It was very sweet and touching. I also thought the solutions to her money problems were interesting, since most Victorian books that handle that issue focus on the young woman, and how she must marry or become a governess. That's about it. I like how she becomes a little entrepreneur for a while, even though it's not very genteel.

Overall, I felt that Cranford was really about community. All of these different people come together. I wonder if Gaskell was worried about losing that feeling of community as people began flocking to cities during the Industrial Revolution. It also made me thankful for the community my Grandma has in her neighborhood, which I compared to Cranford in my first post. They all keep an eye on each other and help each other out, and I know if something happened to her they would take care of her until my family got there. It's interesting though that at the same time, I have zero desire to get to know my neighbors and if it wasn't for the expense and yard work, I'd prefer to live where I don't have neighbors too close. I still enjoy reading about tight-knit communities though, and I am grateful to live in a city where I know we band together when it counts, such as after the Murrah Building bombing and the May 3, 1999 tornado. Just as the women in Cranford are happy to live there, I'm happy to be an Okie!

Gulliver's Travels Part Four

We're at the end of our Gulliver's Travels read-a-long hosted by Allie at A Literary Odyssey. If you missed out of the rest of the discussion, you can read about part one, part two, and part three before checking out part four below.

In part four, Gulliver travels to the land of the Houyhnhnms, who rational, talking horses. There is a mutiny on Gulliver's boat and the men decide to become pirates, but first they must get rid of Gulliver. When he first arrives on land, he meets the Yahoos, who are barbaric humans. He recognizes that they are human-like, but doesn't see himself as of the same species as them. When he meets the Houyhnhms, he imagines that the people who domesticated and trained these creatures must be infinitely rational and wise and can't wait to meet them. He soon discovers that there are no such humans, and the Houyhnhnms are the rulers here.

Here again Gulliver trades stories with the creatures he meets, telling them about England and they sharing their culture with him. The Houyhnhnms can't believe he's actually a rational creature capable of learning, much in the way that we would be shocked to discover a talking, rational horse. The Houynhnms are purely rational - no emotions rule their lands. They have no wars, no real problems except for the a occasional Yahoo, and they live to think. At first, this land seems wonderful, I always start wanting to live in such a place, a place without drama and stress. But as Gulliver continues living there, we discover there's also no love and true joy either. Gulliver doesn't see that and continues wanting to be a Houyhnhnm, but as a reader, we see that Swift isn't advocating for a strictly rational society. Would we really want to live in a world with arranged marriages made solely for the purpose of breeding the best children? To have strictly two children, and if another couple loses one of there kids and aren't able to conceive, to give your child to them and then have another for yourself? To have no real emotional attachment to anyone? Sometimes, such as after losing a loved one, we may be tempted to think that life would be better that way, but do I really wish I had never loved so that I might never feel pain?

Although most readers probably come to see that they wouldn't really want that kind of life, Gulliver does, and goes a little crazy upon finally returning home. He converses with his horses for at least four hours a day and can't stand to be too close to other humans, even his family. Clearly Swift isn't promoting that! Again, I think he's promoting moderation. Society needs a lot more rational thought, but at the same time you can't swing to far and remove common human decency and love from the equation. A purely rational focus can lead to things such as believing it's okay to kill people who are physically or mentally handicapped or simply people who aren't contributing enough to society.

Lest you think that part four is entirely heavy, there were a few quite funny bits. Swift really rails against lawyers and doctors in this section. About lawyers, he says their job is to argue that white is black and black is white. He provides an example of a neighbor who tries to lay claim to one of his cows. Gulliver says he can't argue that the cow is rightfully is and that the neighbor has no claim because the lawyers and judges would never go for that, so he must either pay the neighbor's lawyer to lose the case or argue that the cow actually belongs to the neighbor and that Gulliver wants to take it from him! He also says that once they've twisted something once, it's a precedent and is therefore easy to do in the future.

One last thing I found interesting about the Houyhnhnms is that they educate their males and females the same, and could not understand why we would not do so. "And my Master thought it monstrous in us to give the Females a difference Kind of Education from the Males, except in some Articles of D
Domestic Management; whereby, as he truly observed, one Half of our Natives were good for nothing but bringing Children into the World: And to trust the Care of their Children to such useless Animals, he said was yet a greater Instance of Brutality." Well said.

I hope you enjoyed reading along. I may have to start doing multiple posts for larger books. It made it easier to delve into everything I wanted to discuss instead of leaving half of the things out so as to not have never-ending posts. Of course, that would require more time, so that may not happen. We'll see!

P.S. If you subscribe to this blog in a RSS feed, I'm sorry if you got a nearly blank post earlier today. I was creating a few templates for upcoming posts and accidentally hit "publish post" instead of "save now." Look for the actual post on the Lives of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence soon! Thank you!

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Ethan Frome

I've owned Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton since college but hadn't read it, despite loving The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth. When I read Summer recently for the Classics Circuit, I remembered Ethan Frome and figured it was about time to read it. It's really short and I read it in one day, so I'm not sure why I waited so long to give it a try.

However, it's definitely not up to Wharton's usual par in my opinion. I noticed several people seemed to share that opinion during the Circuit. A lot of them attributed that to the book not being set in NYC like most of Wharton's books. Since I enjoyed Summer, which was also not set in NYC, I thought perhaps I would enjoy Ethan Frome as well. But, it just didn't have anything that grabbed me. I'm usually much more attached to Wharton's characters than I was here. I finished this a week ago, and now I can't remember anyone's name except Ethan's. I still remember Lily Bart and Newland Archer even though it's been years since I've read The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence, whereas I doubt I'd remember Ethan's name if it wasn't the title!

Also, the book was depressing. Now, I think all of her other books are fairly depressing too, so that's not a deterrent, but since I didn't care about the characters, it was just depressing and boring instead of depressing and moving. I didn't hate or anything, I don't want to make you think that, it just wasn't Wharton's usual quality.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Three Musketeers vs. The Three Musketeers

Since I read The Three Musketeers for the Classics Circuit a few months ago, I decided to try out one of the movie versions. I knew going in the Disney version probably wasn't going to be the best. But with Keifer Sutherland, Charlie Sheen, Tim Curry, Oliver Platt, and Chris O'Donnell, how could it not be awesome. :) Well, it was definitely entertaining. Especially Chris O'Donnell's hair. That hair sort of stole the show. And then Keifer and Charlie had '80s hockey hair. And of course the whole book was compressed into not even two hours of action. Milady ended up being saved and a lot of other things were changed from the book as well. It's definitely not the movie version to see to get the whole story or to try to pass an English test without reading the book. But for some reason, I still sort of enjoyed it. I realize that probably means there's something wrong with me, but it was fun as long as you didn't focus on the fact that it should be good. And there's the awesome song performed by Bryan Adams, Sting, and Rod Stewart, forming their own set of three musketeers to perform the awesomeness that is "All for Love". It's totally not my normal musical fare, but it's cheesiness cracks me up and again, I some how enjoy it.

This is book/movie number one for the Read the Book, See the Movie challenge hosted by C.B. at Ready When You Are, C.B. I'm participating in.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Too Much Happiness

Do you ever read a book and watch a movie, and then think, "Wow. I can never get those two hours back."? Um, yeah. That's how I felt after finishing Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro. I've really tried to stop reading books I'm not enjoying, but for some reason I stuck with Too Much Happiness. Maybe it was because it was a collection of short stories, so each story was a small commitment and a new chance for enjoyment. But no. I didn't like any of them. And I don't really have anything to say about the collection. I didn't like the characters, the stories seemed very flat, I took a nap almost every time I picked it up. It won the Booker prize in 2009, so clearly others enjoyed it, but it just wasn't for me, and I didn't really see what was award winning about it.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Autobiography/Memoir Challenge

I decided to enjoy another challenge! Bobbie at Til We Read Again is hosting an autobiography/memoir challenge. You have to read four biographies or memoirs from June 20 to September 20. I have several biographies on my TBR list, so I'm hoping to get those knocked out for this challenge. I tend to pass them over for fiction, so hopefully this will inspire me to actually read them.

Gulliver's Travels Part Three

Okay, I'm just a day late this time for part three of the Gulliver's Travels read-a-long hosted by Allie at A Literary Odyssey. I'm slowly catching up, but I've been bombarded with e-mails from former co-workers and friends about my job change and have had lots of fun things to do like take a drug test and preparing for the new job. But it was quite nice to take a break a rejoin Gulliver on his travels.

A lot of critics talk about about how part three doesn't fit with the rest of the book and is sort of seen as a problem section. It is different from the others, but I love this part. All of the other three sections focus on a specific group of people. In part three, Gulliver travels to several different places and meets a variety of different people groups. I remember being enthralled with this section the first time I read because I had no idea what would happen next. I also feel like some of the things in this chapter are really creative. Flying islands, people trying to turn excrement into food (again with the crudeness!), immortals, visits to the dead, there's a little something for everyone.

Everything about the island of Laputa vividly stuck in my mind from the first time I read it. I think that's partly because I could identify with the people there while at the same time identifying with Swift's satire of them. The people there are highly intelligent and focused. They prefer to spend their time in thought, to the point that they forget about more practical matters. They have to have flappers to hit their ears when they need to listen and their mouths when they need to speak. They get so focused on their thoughts that they forget to interact with people. As someone who sometimes does that, I thought that section was hilarious because it was so familiar! But at the same time, I realize that's really sad, and quickly grew frustrated with them as they can't focus on anything practical. I hate it when people can't bring things back to practical matters at some point, and they were actually rather irrational. Their houses were falling apart and they couldn't grow food. I think Swift is partly saying here that everything needs to be done in moderation. Anything pursued to the point of everything else falling apart can't be good.

Also, the image of the flying island being able to crash down on the lands below to end any rebellions the people were plotting was quite striking. As I mentioned in the discussion on part one, this signified Swift's views on how England treated Ireland at the time.

I also like reading about the crazy experiments the Royal Academy was doing in Lagado. I thought all of the experiments were funny, like the one I mentioned earlier about attempting to turn excrement back into food, trying to turn ice into gunpowder, and building houses from the roof down. The absurdity of it all was amusing. But then I read that the Royal Society in Britain was doing similar types of research! Swift was mocking this reliance on experiments that clearly don't make any sense.

Finally, I enjoyed reading about the Struldbrugs and Gulliver's reaction to them. I've never wanted to have immortal life, and have never understood the desire in others. It was interesting to watch Gulliver go from excitement at the thought of meeting such educated and wise people to seeing the tragedy that is their lives. By the end, he actually wants to take a few back to England to use a reason for why we should not fear death.

I'll leave it at that and hope that some of these stories have inspired you to give Gulliver's Travels a try if you haven't read it before.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Gulliver's Travels Part Two

Well, it's almost time for part 3 of theGulliver's Travels read-a-long hosted by Allie at A Literary Odyssey and I'm just now writing about part one. I've had a crazy time personally, with both my husband and I looking for and accepting new jobs. I just turned in my resignation today and ugh, is that not a fun thing to do. I'm very excited about my new job though. However, all of the job searching, applying, interviewing, portfolio preparing, and stress has put a big dent into both my reading and blogging time. I hope to be a little more consistent soon, although settling into a new job will probably eat into some of that time too, especially since I will now have a longer commute. I'll be working downtown though, so I'm actually excited about that transition.

Anyway, on to Gulliver's Travels. Part two has Gulliver travelling to Brobdingnang, the land of the giants. It's a foil to the first part, so Gulliver goes from feeling like a giant to feeling like a Honey I Shrunk the Kids tiny person. It's interesting because he never changes, but others' perspective of him changes, which leads to a change in his own perspective.

The scene that always sticks with me from this section is rather crude. Gulliver is describing on of the giant women. He describes seeing a woman breast feeding with her six foot breast. Seeing the breast was so disgusting to him because he could see all of the imperfections and it just looked monstrous. I think it sticks with you because it's such a vivid image, and it's unexpected. Gulliver then goes on to say that it makes him think about his normal English ladies, and how they appeal beautiful because they are proportionate to him and therefore he can't spot all the tiny flaws in their skin for example, whereas the giants skin looks completely uneven, spotted with holes, and they smell gross. He then reflects on the fact that he found the Lillputians to be infinitely beautiful, probably because they were so small compared to him he couldn't see any flaws clearly. It's all about perspective. That also applies to how people treat him, with the Lilliputians viewing him as a weapon and the Brobdingnagians thinking he's a circus sideshow.

My favorite part of this section, however, is more political. Gulliver describes the politics and history of England, proud and boastful of his magnificent empire. The king of Brobdingnag thinks is laughable, at first because of his size and then because of his descriptions. After describing everything, Gulliver expects the king to be impressed, but instead he has several great quotes, including this one: "You have clearly proved that Ignorance, Idleness, and Vice are the proper Ingredients for qualifying a Legislator. That Laws are best explained, interpreted, and applied by those whose Interest and Abilities lie in perverting, confounding, and eluding them."

Um, how perfectly does that describe modern day America? America was still a colony at the time Swift wrote, and yet he nails it right on the head. Those are statements that are unfortunately true throughout history, through (probably) every country. Even those this is a negative example, this is one of the things I love most about reading. It's seeing how similar we are all, regardless of time and place. I also love reading about our differences, but the examples of sameness reminds me that we're all people. The Irish and English, the Protestants and the Catholics, the Lilliputians and the Brobdingnagians, they're all people.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Cranford Part One

It's time for part one of the Cranford read-a-hosted by Allie at A Literary Odyssey. I've heard lots of things about Cranford and Elizabeth Gaskell's other works, but have never actually read anything by her. Ryan took one look at the cover of my copy and said, "What is that? Why are you reading something so boring?" I said, "It's Judi Dench! DAME Judi Dench! It's clearly going to be awesome." But I have to admit, I was a little nervous. A book about bunch of old ladies in a little bitty town gossiping? I'm wasn't sure how exciting this book would be.
The good news is that I love it! It's hilarious. The narrator cracks me up, as do all the ladies. They're quite entertaining. And Gaskell's writing style feels modern, more like you're reading a historical fiction novel than an actual novel from history if you know what I mean. The one time she used a term I wasn't familiar with, she defined it! It certainly wasn't what I was expecting from a Victorian novel, especially since she worked for Dickens and praises him in the opening chapter. That's actually a pretty funny scene, with two characters duking it out over Dickens vs. Samuel Johnson.

The book also starts out with an image of a cow dressed in grey flannel. It was trapped and removed most of it's hair and couldn't keep warm, so they dressed it in grey flannel. I keep picturing that and cracking up. My parents went a little crazy a few years ago and bought some land and some animals and have a few cows, so I keep thinking about driving up to their house and seeing a cow just standing there eating grass, wearing her flannel. And trying to imagine getting the cow to get into the flannel? Pretty funny.

I also liked it when the book talked about the ladies' views on eating oranges. They love them, but don't feel like they should eat them in front of others because the best way to eat them is basically just to suck on them, which is horribly messy and unladylike. I do the same thing! And I hate eating them for that reason. It was interesting to think about people thinking the same thing back in the 1840s.

Finally, I'm getting an extra kick out of this book because my Grandma totally lives in Cranford. She may live in a suburban neighborhood and not a tiny English village, but it's totally like Cranford. There's a bunch of older ladies (and a few men) who sit around and gossip and are all up in each other's business and know everything about what's going on. My Grandma had to get a new roof recently, and all the neighbors kept coming and spying on the workers and letting them know they were watching, like some sort of septuagenarian mafia. And my Grandma's a little bit particular, just like Miss Jenkyns, although not nearly so uptight! So, the book makes me think of her and that makes it a little bit more fun. If you're participating in the read-a-long, I hope you're enjoying it as much as I am!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Gulliver's Travels Part 1

I'm very excited about part one of the Gulliver's Travels read-a-long hosted by Allie at A Literary Odyssey. Gulliver's Travels is one of my all-time favorite books. I first read it in college, then again while working on my Master's. At that time, I actually decided to focus on it and some of Swift's political writings for my thesis and did a done of research, but then decided to just do the test option instead of a thesis since I'd already written an undergrad thesis. I haven't read it since then, so I thought it would be nice to reread it while not in research mode.

If you haven't read it before, part 1 is the part you're probably familiar with anyway. It features Gulliver in the land of the Lilliputians, the little people who think he's a giant. What surprised me so much the first time I read this is that it's not a kid's book at all, so it's weird to me that the story somehow has been turned in that. If that's your perception of Gulliver's Travels, you need to read the actual book. It's a satire about politics and while their are many references to early eighteenth century politics and relations between Ireland and England, many of the overall comments are relevant today.

As Gulliver watches these tiny people fight over things such as the proper way to break an egg or the height of their shoe, he laughs at them and their wars and power struggles and basks in his own superiority. But Swift wants us to think about how we're like the little people. I'm sure God sometimes can't believe the stupid things we humans fight about and laughs at our power struggles when He is clearly so much more powerful than we could ever hope to be.

He also notes that essentially the Lilliputians and Blefuscans are the same, and it's silly that they're fighting each other and trying to take over the other. The same thing was happening with Ireland and England at the time. Swift was born to English parents but was raised in Ireland, so he was right in the middle of the fighting and was a case in point that the English had no right to try to take over the Irish or feel superior to them in anyway. Then of course even within Ireland you had religious fighting between the Catholics and the Protestants, causing yet more problems.

And yet Swift didn't just sit by and suggest everyone sing kumbaya. He wrote highly satirical and offensive pamphlets, letters, and essays to stir up the Irish to throw off the shackles of the English and for the English to realize they should leave the Irish alone. He wanted to get people to the point where they could all leave each other alone. I think this is something a lot of pacifists miss. They tend to think that if they stop fighting, others will stop too. And while that may work in some instances, in many, it doesn't. Trying to get terrorists to stop fighting by leaving them alone doesn't work. Both parties have to be willing to stop before this works. I think that's what Swift was trying to do with this section. I think he demonstrated this when he had Gulliver lift all of the enemy ships of Blefuscu out of the water, showing them they didn't have the power to overtake Lilliput. Then when the emperor of Lilliput wanted to take that opportunity to turn Blefuscu into basically a province of Lilliput, Gulliver convinces him otherwise and helps orchestrate a peace agreement between the two.

I'm probably making this sound rather boring, aren't I? Well, Gulliver's Travels is quite funny. Even when you miss some of the references to things of the time period, there are plenty of things you will get. And Gulliver pees on her Imperial Majesty's palace to put out a fire. That's pretty funny. And gross and crude. Apparently dirty and body fluid related humor just never go out of style. There's also the part made famous in the kid's version, with the tiny people tying the giant Gulliver down, which is pretty funny. And parts 2, 3, and 4 all see Gulliver traveling to new and exciting places, so make sure to follow along for the rest of the read-a-long or check out the book for yourself. For more thoughts on part 1, remember to go to A Literary Odyssey.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Hand That First Held Mine

I loved The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, so I was quite excited to hear about Maggie O'Farrell's newest book, The Hand That First Held Mine. In both of these two books I feel like O'Farrell does a great job of developing characters while still having a great plot. The book flap hints at a mystery that will be unfolded, but the main focus is on the characters. Even once the mystery is revealed, it's more about how it impacts the characters than the mystery itself.
In The Hand That First Held Mine, the story goes back and forth between Lexie's story in the 1950s and Elina and Ted's story in modern day London. Inevitably, the stories end up colliding, but she crafts both of them beautifully separately. What fascinated me most was how Lexie was so independent and free and much of her story focused on her dating and her career, while Elina is trapped at home with a baby. It turned the stereotype of the 50s on its head, and I enjoyed that. Elina also reinforced my desire to not have kids, although I don't think that was O'Farrell's point. She describes the never ending cycle of cleaning, laundry, and feeding in vivid detail though, not shying away from stories about exploding baby poop that somehow ends up all over the walls. I know from some of my friends with kids that this actually happens.
There is a lot of build up before we even know there is a mystery to unravel, but O'Farrell's storytelling is enrapturing even when she's describing everyday life. Or maybe that's why she is enrapturing, because she captures everyday life so well. I could clearly picture the characters and rooted for some and hated others, so by the end I really cared how they would react to everything they've learned.
O'Farrell has a few earlier books as well, and I can't wait to read those too.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Last Song

I know that Nicholas Sparks' books have become predictable and are overly saccharine. But the guy still knows how to write a love story, and I still enjoy his books. Although I felt a little silly reading the mass market paperback version of The Last Song with Miley Cyrus on the cover. And the fact that it seems like the movie was lined up before the book even came out. But inspite of that, I did enjoy the book. It made for a good, lazy Memorial Day read.

The Last Song is about a 17-year-old girl falling in love and dealing with her relationship with her dad, who left the family three years ago and whom she now has to spend her summer with. It's funny to me that when I was in junior high and high school and read about teenagers falling in love, even if they had just graduated high school, silly. Who actually falls in love at that age, I remember wondering, despite the fact that my still very happily married parents met and started dating in high school. But I just assumed that wasn't realistic anymore. I fully expected to go to college, have some fun, and then maybe during my junior year fall in love. Instead I met my husband on the second day of school, when we were both just 18. And now we've been together for nearly 10 years, and married for nearly 6. So now when I read a story of two teenagers who just graduated from high school falling in love, I don't scoff anymore, and instead I remember falling in love with my husband. And that's why I enjoyed The Last Song.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Father Brown

Welcome to the Golden Age of Detective Fiction blog tour hosted by the Classics Circuit. For today's stop, I'm reviewing
Father Brown by G.K. Chesterton. Before I start my review, I want to say that Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday is my husband's favorite book, and it's definitely up there on my list too. It's a great mind-tripping well-written mystery. I just want to preface my review with that so I don't steer you away from Chesterton entirely. You should read The Man Who Was Thursday; it's just around 150 pages and it's great.
But Father Brown is not. Too be far, I do see how other people could enjoy this collection of short stories. I know my husband does. But when I read a mystery, I want suspense. I want clues so that I can at least try to find the solution. And I want fun. I didn't get any of that out of Father Brown.
Father Brown is very literary. Even thought it's all short stories, half of each story has nothing to do with the mystery and is just more about life in general. I felt like the stories focused more on philosophy and things like how you never know when you're sitting right next to a murderer. The stories are all clever, but I just didn't find them interesting.
I had exactly the same feeling when I read Sherlock Holmes though. I only made it through two Holmes stories before deciding not to force myself to suffer through anymore, so I'm clearly not an expert, but the stories seem fairly similar on some level, and I think that if you enjoy the Holmes stories you would enjoy Father Brown. So I don't want to discourage everyone from reading them, I just want to explain why I didn't really care for them. I want my mysteries to keep me on the edge of my seat. Sherlock Holmes and Father Brown don't do that for me. They may actually be a lot more intelligent and literary reads than the mysteries I prefer, but when I read a mystery it's because I'm in the mood for an escape and I don't want something overly literary. (Now, I didn't really find Sir Conan Doyle's writing to be that great, but he's considered literary and his stories do have a more intelligent focus.) Maybe if I was better prepared going in and not expecting something lighter I would have enjoyed this more. I do want to point out that the characters of Sherlock Holmes and Father Brown are quite different though. Holmes is so egotistical, moody, and he overpowers the stories, while Father Brown hovers in the background, quiet, calm, supremely rational.
I did really enjoy this quote though: "It's part of something I've noticed more and more in the modern world...People readily swallow the untested claims of this, that, or the other...It's the first effect of not believing in God that you lose your common sense and can't see things as they are." That theme came up quite a lot, that people often accept what others say without thinking about it, yet the question what is right in front of them. If you don't believe in God, you still search for something to feel that void and don't have the moral compass to prevent you from doing things like killing people or stealing or other things for your own benefit. Clearly not everyone who doesn't believe in God does those things, but it's a lot easier to do those things if you don't think there's some sort of eternal punishment awaiting you for doing them. Father Brown also talks a lot about being both a man of faith and a man of science, like Chesterton himself was. He believed that the two worked together, and that common sense makes you belief in God and that if you abandon him you abandon common sense. Although he's not very popular anymore, Wikipedia lists numerous authors who cited him as an influence on them, including C.S. Lewis and Neil Gaiman. Wikipedia also had this quote I found quite entertaining: "The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected." So, while I didn't enjoy Father Brown as much as I had hoped, I'm still fond of Chesterton in general and hope you give The Man Who Was Thursday a try!

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Gulliver's Travels and Cranford Read-a-longs

A Literary Odyssey is hosting a read-a-long in June of one of my favorite books, Gulliver's Travels! It's about time I reread this, so I'm joining in on the fun, and I suggest you do too! You can sign up here. I hope to see you during the read-a-long!

A Literary Odyssey is also hosting a read-a-long on Cranford, and I decided to go ahead and sign up for that one as well. The sign up for that one is here if you're interested.

Friday, May 28, 2010


I usually prefer to review each book individually, but I'm so, so far behind I decided to do one post with a bunch of mini-reviews to catch up quickly. So, here's an overview of some of the books I've been reading recently. Enjoy!

The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag by Alan Bradley is the sequel to The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. I highly recommend both books. I loved this book for exactly the same reasons I loved The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, which was one of the best books I read last year.

Not My Daughter by Barbara Delinsky is about a group of high school girls who make a pact to get pregnant. When that actually happened a few years ago, I was horrified and shocked. I absolutely cannot comprehend that. At all. There are plenty of things I don't agree with or wouldn't do, but can still at least entertain the idea of how someone could do it. Even a lot of horrible things, like killing someone, you can comprehend on some level. But why on earth would a high school student get pregnant on purpose? The only reason I could come up with is to escape a molestation situation, believing that by getting pregnant the abuse would stop. But that's not what happens here. I hoped this book would bring me some perspective, but it didn't. I did enjoy the book for the most part, as you unravel exactly what happened with the pact and seeing how the main character, the mother of one of the girls and the high school principal, handles the situation. However, the way she reacts annoys me most of the time. Now, I'm not a mother, so I can't say with certainty how I would react. But, I'm pretty positive I would beat the crap out of the girl and take away any freedom and joy she had. I know that's what my mother would have done, which is one of the many reasons I would never have gotten pregnant in high school. I would react like Naomi on Private Practice. I loved the story with her daughter getting pregnant because I felt like she reacted like I would react. She just can't handle talking to her, or even seeing her, and she doesn't want to endanger her grandchild but wants to kill her daughter anyway. I felt like the parents in this book were for the most part too understanding, which probably helped lead to the bad behavior.

I never expected to read
How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. I thought it sounded tacky and used car salesman-y. But, we might be doing something with the Dale Carnegie institute with work next year so I thought I should read it. I was surprised to learn it was written in the 30s. It was actually pretty good. It's mainly common sense, but there were still some good lessons about being nice to people, how to listen to people, and how to show people that you value their thoughts.

The Girl She Used to Be by David Cristofano is about a girl in the witness protection program. Cristofano is a great writer and I identified with the main character, even though I clearly haven't been in her situation. She's basically doomed for a life of mediocrity because she can't draw attention to herself, and she hardly knows who she really is. I felt like there was something more literary to this book than the packaging implies, so it was a nice surprise.

Alexander McCall Smith is one of my new favorite authors.44 Scotland Street is well written, funny, and insightful. McCall Smith creates wonderful characters, who you love despite their faults. There's just something really real about them. I also found myself laughing out loud several times. This book was very different from the other McCall Smith book I read, La's Orchestra Saves the World, but I thoroughly enjoyed both of them.

American Nerd by Ben Nugent was not as good as I expected. I thought it would be more about things nerds enjoy, but it was more about why people become nerds, which I still didn't feel like he explained very well. He rambled a lot, and talked in circles. I didn't feel like it was very well written, and I didn't really get anything out of it. I nearly stopped reading at several points, but old habits die hard and I still haven't quite broken myself of not finishing every book I start, although I improving.

And on to something better. Anna Quidlen is one of my favorite modern writers, and she definitely delivers with Every Last One. Like McCall Smith, she creates wonderful, real characters. That makes this book all the more heart wrenching. I can't really say much about this book without giving too much away, so I'll just say that you should read it!

The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman has gotten a lot of buzz, and the last few books that were getting similar press just didn't do it for me (i.e. Let the Great World Spin, which I didn't finish), so I was a little skeptical, but the story about the old newspaper in Rome sounded intriguing. I'm glad I gave it a shot. It's sort of like Olive Kitteridge in that it is a novel, but is really a bunch of interconnected short stories about people connected with the paper. Rachman excels at drawing the different characters and making you want to know more. I was sad to come to the end of each section because I wanted to know what happens to them next. Sometimes they would show up briefly in another section, but you didn't get the full story. It's more like glimpses into parts of their lives. It's great when a book leaves you wanting to what happens next because you care about the people though, so I recommend this book as long as you're okay with not getting to know everything.

I did not enjoy The Language of Secrets by Dianne Dixon. Maybe it was because the overview I read made it sound wonderful: a man visits his parent's graves for the first time and finds his own tombstone, saying he died when he was three. Intriguing, yes? Well, it was a good idea for a story, but Dixon is not a strong writer. I should have paid more attention to the blurb by Sue Grafton on the back than the one by Kristin Hannah on the front. I like Hannah, but think Grafton is one of the worst writers I've had the misfortune to encounter. Dixon is much closer to Grafton than Hannah on my scale. The story was interesting enough for me to keep reading, although there's a rather stupid "twist" at the end that's just thrown in to be shocking but by that point you really just want the thing to be over and all of the characters to die a slow painful death anyway. Yep, in addition to the bad writing, I hated all of the characters. Not a pleasant one in the bunch. I especially wanted to strangle the main character's wife. She was completely obsessed with making her horrible father happy, even at the expense of her husband. And when she finally stands up to him, she expects some huge reward for how awesome she is for deciding not to treat her husband like crap. Anyway, clearly I would recommend skipping this one.

I've loved all of Emily Giffin's books, and Heart of Matter is no exception. Giffin is a masterful storyteller and character creator. Her characters always have strong faults and don't always do the right thing all the time, but she makes them real and lovable even when you don't approve of what they're doing. And in this book, one of the main characters is the sister to Dex, the main male character in Something Borrowed and Something Blue, and Rachel from those books is also present. I love when authors do that. It was fun getting to see them again.

Finally, I read Fall to Pieces by Mary Forsberg Weiland, Scott Weiland's ex-wife (or soon to be ex, I'm not sure if the divorce if final yet). I have had a major crush on Scott since I was 13. And it's still going quite strong. It was sad to read about their epic drug use, even though I clearly knew about that. It was interesting that they met before he became famous, when he was her driver and she was starting as a model. It made me like her more, that she wasn't some model who just hooked up with him because he was famous. It also made me feel quite sorry for her because being with him couldn't have been easy (although she has her own demons as well). She became close friends with Anthony Kiedis from the Red Hot Chili Peppers and roomed with Charlize Theron, so that was interesting to read about as well. I felt like the book was very well written, and offered what appears to be an honest glimpse into her life. She addresses her mental health issues as well, her struggles with being bi-polar and misdiagnosed for a long time. My mother-in-law is bi-polar, and reading about someone else's struggles with that helped me to understand her better. Overall, I thought this was a great read!

Whew! That was a lot of books to update you all on! I hope you enjoyed the mini-reviews!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

How Reading Changed My Life

How Reading Changed My Life is a collection of essays by Anna Quindlen, one of my favorite contemporary writers. I love reading about other people reading, so I jumped at the chance to read this book. I enjoyed all of the essays and seeing similarities between myself and someone I admire. If you enjoy reading about other readers and fell in love with Francie Nolan because she loves the library and makes plans to read through the whole thing alphabetically, this book’s for you. (Quindlen wrote an introduction to a recent edition of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, the wonderful book featuring Francie, which is one of my all-time favorite books and made me like Quindlen all the more.)

This book made me think about my own experience with reading. My first memories are of learning to read (although my very first memory is of me jumping of the counter and splitting my chin on a metal Carebears trash can). I remember realizing that the black marks on the pages meant something, that they were telling my mom what to say. And so since I wanted to be independent even at three, I begged my mom to teach me how to understand them. She thought it would be fun to teach me a little bit of the alphabet, expecting to get to about D and give up for the day, but I learned the entire alphabet that day. And then immediately began putting the new information into practice with Dr. Suess and a few other simple picture books. And I’ve never looked back! (And if you’re a mom reading this and you’re a bit jealous of my mom, don’t worry, she got major payback from my brother. And he still turned out just fine despite learning to read much later and never learning to enjoy it.)

I, on the other hand, can’t really remember not loving to read. In first grade when we had a reading contest, I won by hundreds of books. We got Easter eggs to put on the wall for every book we read, and the poor teacher could barely keep up with me. I read twice as many books as the rest of the class combined. Fortunately for me and my social standing for the rest of my schooling, when teased about my nerdiness I was rather quick with my fist and good at insulting people. This saved me from really getting slapped with the nerd label. Ironically, it was that mouth and stubborn streak that caused a huge a fight with a friend later on in elementary school that left me turning to books for comfort, befriending all of the girls in the Baby-Sitters Club series. And they stuck with me much longer the friend who I eventually made up with.

The first really literary book I read that wasn’t some sort of abridged kid’s version of Huck Finn was Wuthering Heights. Their moodiness struck a chord with me in junior high and introduced me to a whole new world of books: classics and books that don’t end with happily ever after. And I still love to read books that my mom always deems depressing. But they allow me to feel something I may not otherwise (hopefully never in some cases) feel. They teach us how different people react to things, guiding us in how we react when faced with something similar. They allow us to travel the world, experience other cultures, and try new things from the comfort of our arm chairs. Quindlen makes a similar comment in the book, and notes that actually traveling this way is many times preferable to actual travel. I think that’s one of the reasons why I wasn’t too disappointed when we decided to postpone our trip to London that we were supposed to take at the end of last year. With the crazy economy and uncertainty and layoffs happening at work, we decided it would be better to get a refund and have that cash on hand in case something happened on go later. A part of me was actually relieved because I’m afraid that the real London can’t possibly hold a candle to the one in my head. Especially since the one in my head is fairly Victorian only with a better sewage and trash system and air conditioning. Modern London, with teenagers in jeans with iPhones and business people hurrying to their next meeting, isn’t what I’m envisioning. I’ll still go someday, probably sooner than later, but until then I’ll always have my books.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Intimations of Jane Austen

Intimations of Austen is a collection of short stories related to the works of Jane Austen. I received a copy to review from the author, fellow book blogger Jane Greensmith, whose blog you can enjoy here.

Since Jane tends to read literary books and writes a literary, intelligent blog, I’m not sure why the literariness of the stories surprised me. Perhaps because most of the Austen-related fiction I’ve read is, well, not. Don’t get me wrong, I usually enjoy it, but most of it just isn’t what you would call literary. But Intimations of Austen is different.

Greensmith’s writing is truly exquisite. I’m always amazed when authors can write in such a poetic manner. Her words were like a dancer gliding over a smooth lake. I realize that’s not exactly possible, but for some reason that’s the image that comes to mind. That’s why I don’t usually write in metaphors and similes. I’m definitely more Hemingway than Tolstoy. But reading Greensmith’s work felt like reading poetry.

I also enjoyed that these stories were quite different from other Austen fan fiction I’ve read. Most of those tell exactly the same story from say, Darcy’s point of view, or are about what happens when Austen’s original books end. And there is a little bit of that here, but most of the stories offer something a little different. What if Darcy and Elizabeth don’t get married? What would happen when they meet 20 years later? What if Darcy reads words as colors, and connects those colors to the person’s soul? What if Jane Bennet loved someone before she met Charles Bingley? What is Mrs. Bennet really thinking?

Although I enjoyed all of the stories, even the one where Elizabeth and Darcy are not married (although at first I thought I was misreading something and had to start that story three times before it made sense, because I kept assuming that couldn’t be right!), I did have a few favorites. I really liked The Color of Love because it was so different. It mixed a little bit of science fiction with Mr. Darcy! In this story, Darcy reads in color based on the person writing. He can therefore judge people based solely on seeing their handwriting, causing him to make quick impressions of people. I enjoyed how Greensmith wove that into the existing story, giving us a fresh perspective on Darcy’s actions without simply telling the story from his point of view and having him tell us why he does what he does, she shows us why.

I also really liked the story told from Mrs. Bennet’s perspective, simply because she’s such a picked on character (well-deservedly for the most part), The Last Baby. She’s quite easy to tease, but here we get a quick glimpse into her mind and begin to understand her a bit more. You feel a little sorry for her because you learn she did want to learn new things, but after she started having babies Mr. Bennet wasn’t interested in teaching her anymore and her job became producing a boy so they wouldn’t lose their home.

There are seven other stories in this collection, and no, not all of them related to Pride and Prejudice, so make sure you check it out for yourself so that you can enjoy all of these enchanting stories!

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Judy Blume, Margaret, and Me

Every girl who grew up reading Judy Blume needs to read Everything I Thing I Needed to Know about Being a Girl I Learned from Judy Blume, edited by Jennifer O'Connell. It features essays from female writers such as Meg Cabot talking about what they learned from Judy Blume. I actually didn't recognize most of the authors, but loved most of the essays and will be going through the author list to fine new books to read!

The essays themselves reminded me about my own childhood growing up reading Judy Blume. My mom got me hooked on her books for younger kids first, starting with Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing. She probably thought I would identify with Peter, having a demon child of a little brother myself. He was only two when he learned how to climb on top of the kitchen cabinets. She likes to say now that until he started school he probably thought his name was "Dammit Dustin." I completely identified with Peter. Except Peter was actually better behaved than me. I usually responded to my brother's antics with violence. And of course then I got in trouble too. Fortunately both of my parents were older siblings as well and knew that he had probably done something to deserve it. But at the same time, I thought that surely they could control him a bit better. But after reading the rest of the Fudge books, I became quite thankful that my brother wasn't nearly as bad as Fudge and my parents weren't as complacent.

And then I moved on to the pinnacle of pre-teen required reading for girls: Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret. It's just one of those books that you never forget. I honestly didn't even identify with many of Margaret's desires and the book still meant a lot to me. Looking back, I think it taught me how to talk to other girls. It gave me the info I needed to fake it a bit. It also taught me what to do once my body started changing. I knew what to expect. I was a bit odd in that while I wanted to grow up, and I had crushes on boys starting from kindergarten and never stopping, there were other girly things I just didn't quite get. Like why boobs were so important. They seemed kind of uncomfortable to me, like they would get in the way. That opinion changed eventually, although they never did really concern me. One day I got them, and that was fine, and I still don't understand women who have breast implants. The thing that really got me with this book though, of course, is the other big womanly change. If any guys happen to be reading, look away now. :) This book taught me that most girls really, really want to get their periods. Me? It just completely grossed me out. Why on earth would you want that? And since we don't marry and start families at 13 anymore, why doesn't God help our bodies evolve so we don't start until we're 20? That would solve a lot of problems, although I guess it would take away the biggest consequence for teens having sex so maybe He knows what He's doing. Unlike Margaret, I pleaded with God to delay the whole thing. No such luck. Although I started a year later than Margaret, I was still one of the first of my friends. Boo. And then later on I started getting two a month. Lucky me. But I remember being 11, when I first read this book, and being terrified of the whole thing and really wishing their was a way to stop it, especially because I didn't want to have kids anyway. It seems a bit pointless for me to have to deal with this, but that's just life. But while Margaret didn't make me want to become a woman in that way, she did teach me that most of my friends did, and helped me to understand them better, and not to hold that against them. And she prepared me for the big event happening, although when it came I was confused about the lack of the belt Margaret used. I'm still not sure how that worked exactly. It seems like a lot changed in that area between 1970 and 1993. After reading the collection of essays, I re-read my very battered copy of Margaret and was surprised at how much of it focuses on religion this time around. Despite the title, I didn't really remember all of that part, with Margaret being raised to not be anything, her exploring Christianity and Judaism. It's interesting how many layers are in Blume's books.

After Margaret, I moved on to Deenie (shocking!), Iggie's House, Tiger Eyes, and finally, Forever.... Was this really Judy Blume? I had no idea this was The Sex Book before I picked it up at the library. I was shocked from the very first sentence, and continued that shock until the end. I probably missed a lot since I was 11 at the time and even though I had had the sex talk in general terms, there was a lot I didn't understand. Which is probably good since I was 11! I haven't read the book since then, so I stopped at Half-Price Books to grab a copy. I picked up a few other similar young adult books, since I'm trying to write a book for young adults that would fall into that same sort of grouping. Hopefully the books I picked up will inspire me to finish it, and help me with the dialogue becuase that's the hardest part for me.

I realized I haven't actually talked about the actual book I'm reviewing! I honestly enjoyed every essay. There were maybe three that I would say are just okay, probably because I didn't identify with them as much, but all of the others showed me a reflection of myself. It was wonderful to picture all of these different women growing with Judy, that we all shared part of the coming of age experience. So, for every girl who grew up with Judy, I highly recommend this book. And, make sure to share your favorite Judy Blume book in the comments!