Sunday, March 21, 2010

Living Dead in Dallas

I read Living Dead in Dallas by Charlaine Harris this weekend. It's the second in the Sookie Stackhouse series, which True Blood is based on.

Living Dead in Dallas (Book 2) [Southern Vampire #2]
I honestly don't have a lot to say about it that I didn't say about the first one, Dead Until Dark. I did enjoy it, and it was great for a light Friday night/Saturday morning read. I started after watching a fantastic movie Friday night - (500) Days of Summer. I thoroughly enjoyed the movie. It was a lot more artistic than most movies, but it was still entertaining, which sometimes artsy movies tend to forget about. And then I finished Living Dead in Dallas Saturday morning before we headed out to the Stone Temple Pilots concert. Which was unbelievably awesome. They played four new songs, which haven't been released to the public yet. We were just the third show that got to hear them, so that was really exciting.

And again, I promise this isn't turning into STP fan blog. I just don't have a lot to say about this book, other than I do recommend it for some fun, light reading.

Also, I tried out Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters and just couldn't take it. I gave it 110 pages, more than fair, and while I think they did do a good job of writing in Austen's style, I just couldn't take the sea stuff dominating the entire story.

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

I am having a wonderful day off work today! I slept in, read, watched TV, read some more, and now I'm blogging. I even read outside a little bit and enjoyed the sunshine and beautiful 70+ degree weather this afternoon. And watched my cat Optimus Prime chase and "kill" leaves. After the unusually dreary winter we've had, it was nice to be outside a little bit, although in sterotypical nerdy reader fashion I have really bad allergies and hope I'm not going to pay for my hour of sunshine. I took extra medicine and showered immediately after coming inside so hopefully I'll be fine. And apparently we're getting another snowstorm tomorrow so maybe that will kill off any remaining allergens. That's one thing about living in Oklahoma - you never get bored with the weather! I do hope the snow stays in the northern part of the state though, because my husband and I are driving from OKC south to almost the Texas border for a concert tomorrow night. Stone Temple Pilots - Scott Weiland how I love thee! This will be the sixth time we've seen them in the last 18 months, and I'm hoping the play their new single that the debuted at SXSW last night.

But this blog is not about my complete obsession with Scott Weiland and company. So let's talk about the book I was reading out in the sunshine - The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie: A Novel (P.S.)
 I have to admit - I'm not a big fan of twentieth-century literature. Give me a classic written before that time and I'm rarely disappointed. But classics of the twentieth-century? Rarely enjoyable. They tend to either fall into the overly flowery and eccentric style of Woolf or into the overly simplified and boring style of Hemingway. There are of course exceptions. I love The Great Gatsby and I surprisingly enjoyed Drieser's Sister Carrie. But for the most part, they just aren't my cup of tea.

I felt that The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was hampered a bit by both styles. Her writing felt overly simplified for me and didn't sweep me along. She didn't seem to vary her sentence structures, and the overall language was somehow lacking. But, she didn't fall firmly in the Hemingway camp. She jumps around within sections to different time periods, making use of a style more in the Woolf camp. It was never really confusing, but it seemed out of place, and almost lazy. Lazy may actually describe the whole book rather well - it's like she just sat down for an afternoon and thought up a story, but didn't put any effort into the actual writing part of it, or story organization, or overall development. That may also be why it's so short. It's just 137 pages in my edition.

But despite the issues I had with it, I enjoyed reading about Jean Brodie and the Brodie set. Miss Brodie was a teacher during the 1930s and had a group of girls she picked out of her class to raise up above the rest. She taught them about art and culture and life instead of just English, history, and math. She went a bit off in telling her 10-year-olds about her own love life though, and years later in encouraging one of the girls to sleep with a teacher. That made me start identifying with the headmistress who wanted to rid of Miss Brodie instead of with Miss Brodie herself. I did like how the book doesn't seem to unabashedly praise Miss Brodie though. It does celebrate her teaching the girls culture, but I think Spark shows her going wrong a bit too.

Another aspect I found interesting was that Miss Brodie praised Mussolini and taught her students about the wonderful changes he was making in Italy, and later she praises Hitler, and she travels to both Italy and Germany throughout the book. The story takes place before the evil of those men was evident, and it was interesting to think about people who supported them early on.

In the end, I had mixed feelings about this book, and it's hard to really say if I liked it or not. I may check out the 1966 movie version - it stars Maggie Smith, who I absolutely adore, and she won an Oscar for it.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Alchemist

I was predisposed to dislike The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. It was so overhyped a few years ago, and I new it had to do with alchemy and the Philosopher's Stone and I honestly thought it was some sort of adult Harry Potter rip off. So why I picked it up at a library book sale, I don't know. But I had a nice surprise once I started reading!

The Alchemist

First of all, the book was actually written in 1988 and first pubilshed in English in 1993. So I was clearly way off base with the Harry Potter comment! Oops. And while it received newfound popularity here in the U.S. just a few years ago, he was doing fine before then.

It's also not really about alchemy. The whole book is more of an allegory than a novel, and alchemy represents using your dream to turn a regular life into a great one. I did feel the book was inspirational, and I loved the first half of it. But, then I got bored. I don't really enjoy allegory, and I got really annoyed by the words Personal Legend. They appeared approximately 298 times in the slight 167 pages.

There was a quote I thought was awesome though: "[E]very day was the same, and when each day is the same as the next, it's because people fail to recognize the good things that happen in their lives every day that the sun rises."

How great of a quote is that? And it relates to what I did like about the book - the idea of pursuing your dreams and valuing your opportunities. And yet overall it just fell flat. Part of it may have been the overly simplified writing style, which was very monotonous. That may be a translator issue, but it still bothered me.
So, overall, it wasn't a terrible book, but it didn't really grab me either. I'm glad I read it, but it's going in the sell to Half-Priced Books pile.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

La's Orchestra Saves the World

Finally! I feel like I've been in a bit of a reading slump lately, where I'm not really interested in whatever book I've picked up. I returned a bunch of half-read books to the library yesterday. They weren't bad necessarily, I've just had a hard time getting into them. Fortunately, I loved La's Orchestra Saves the World: A Novel by Alexander McCall Smith.

La's Orchestra Saves the World: A Novel

I've seen this book reviewed on a few book blogs and was struck by the title and the cover that doesn't seem to fit the title. It's about a woman in England during WWII and how her life must go on inspite of the war being fought. Although the war plays a role throughout the novel, it's not exactly a war novel. It's more like Little Women - you know the war's going and it clearly affects the characters and story, and yet it's in the background. And I think that's how many of our modern wars are. They affect us, but mostly in the background, unless you or a close loved one is in the military. And that's what a lot of the book is about. Life must go on, even during war. You have to keep living your life, even though it's hard because you know others are out there fighting for you. 

It's also about how the little things in life make a difference. La starts an orchestra to keep the local military and townspeople occupied and give them a bright spot to look forward to, and something beautiful in the midst of something ugly. Does her orchestra really save the world? No, but does it improve the lives of those involved? Absolutely.

It made me think of last year at work, when we went through layoffs. Seeing your friends laid off is terrible, and not being sure if you'll be next makes it even worse. You feel like you can't control anything, especially when the people you see losing their jobs are smart, hard working, wonderful people. We also had many projects cut or put on hold during that time, and everyone started doubting if they were making any kind of difference and wondering what the point of working hard is. I created a silly little sign for my office that simply said: Today is a good day if I helped a coworker and I helped something in the field. That's it. Look at the small things. Did I make a coworker's day better by asking her about something going on in her life or offering to help with something? Did I make someone laugh, or answer someone's question? Then I made a difference. It was a small thing, but that got me through that time and kept me from dwelling on all the things I couldn't change.

I also felt that McCall Smith does an excellent job writing with a woman as the main character. I completely identified with her, and she seemed really real to me. I think that can be hard to do period, so I'm always extra impressed when someone can write so strongly about the opposite sex.

Finally, I loved the relationships in the book. It tells a story about how someone can effect your life and be part of a powerful romantic relationship without ever actually dating/kissing/making love. I know I have someone like that in my past, and in so many ways he is so much more important that most of my actual ex-boyfriends or random guys I kissed. And yet we never went on a date and actually only saw each other in person a handful of times. We met at a camp when we were 15 and had this weird instant connection. I lived in a suburb of OKC, he lived in a suburb of Tulsa. We actually managed to stay in touch, surprising in the days before free long distance and high-speed internet. He sent me roses on my sixteenth birthday, we saw each other the next two years at camp, and he came to see me once.  And yet I was closer to him than I was to boyfriends I saw every day. Maybe it's because the other stuff wasn't there to get in the way and we actually had to talk. But this book reminded me of that, and I enjoyed reading a love story that felt more real to me than most fictional love stories. It also admitted the importance of relationships that are hard to define.

Oh, one more thing! This book made me want to go live in the English countryside. I already wanted to live in a cottage in England, but this book just added fuel to the fire. McCall Smith did a great job describing Suffolk and made me want to live there. I also thought it was interesting that he talked about how many of the people who live there have never been to London. How can you live in England and not have been to London? That seems crazy to me, but of course it's true that many of the country folk have probably never gone, especially back in the 30s and 40s.

I'm glad it McCall Smith has a fairly long list of other books, so I will definitely be checking those out soon!

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Shades of Grey

Shades of Grey: A Novel

I love Jasper Fforde, probably even more so because I discovered him at the City Lights book store in San Francisco, and I remember that each time I read one of his books. Shades of Grey got mixed reviews, so I lowered my expectations before reading it, which probably in part helped me enjoy it more.
Shades of Grey: A Novel
It is very different from Fforde's other novels, but it's still eccentric and satirical and funny and slightly absurd and mysterious. I do think his Thursday Next books are better, but of course those would be to any book lover since they feature so many much loved characters. I do feel like his writing might actually be stronger in this book though and that there was more of an overall plot instead of a lot of really weird instances that are tied together by a thread. But it didn't have quite the same charm, although I still really enjoyed it.

I noticed quite a few similarities between Shades of Grey and The Giver, which is one of my all-time favorite books. They are still very different books, don't get me wrong, but things just kept reminding me of The Giver.

For instance, the idea of color. In the future world of Shades of Grey, people only see one color. So, you have Reds who can only see shades of red, Purples who can only see purple (and blue or red depending on their percentage levels), and Greys who only get shades of grey. In The Giver, the people have forgotten how to see in color, and one of Jonah's memories that the Giver gives him is of color, especially red. The main character, Eddie, in Shades of Grey is a red, and both Jonah and Eddie see the girl they like has red hair at pivotal moments in their growth.

Also, the societal rules reminded of The Giver, and just the overall feeling more than a bunch of specific instances. Both books are about societies that have forgotten their pasts. I think that's one of the reasons why I like them both - I love history and think it's important to learn from the past. The societies in both books can't do that because they've forgotten their pasts. In Shades of Grey, they know that there was "Something That Happened" that caused the end of the Previous, but no one knows what that was now. In The Giver of course, all the memories are given only to the Giver because it would be too dangerous for everyone to know all of that information. I mean, we don't want people to potentially be sad or upset about anything right? Ignorance is bliss.

I'm glad I happened to flip to the back of the book before I started reading, and noticed that there will be a Shades of Grey II and III. If I hadn't known that going in, I might have been frustrated by the lack of answers. It's sort of like watching Lost. The more you read the more questions you have. So, hopefully we'll find out what the Something That Happened was. And why spoons are so stinking important. And hopefully we'll find out what the heck is going on with the Losties and have all 192 of our remaining questions answered in the next nine episodes.

Anyway, I do recommend this book if you're a fan of Fforde's, just know going in that it's quite different from his norm. If you're new to Fforde and maybe think he's a little too weird for you, you might actually like this one. And if you liked The Giver, and who doesn't, then give it a try. (Seriously, who doesn't like The Giver? I read it for the first time in English class when I was 14 and I've never seen a classroom of people debate something with such passion, not through my entire schooling, including getting my MA in English, and I can still discuss the ending with some of the same friends I read it with the first time. That's a powerful book.)

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Friday's Child

Hmmm. So I can't seem to get the name of this book right. I keep calling it Friday's Girl. Even when I'm looking at the cover. And that's the name I submitted to The Classics Circuit apparently. Oops. I'm actually reviewing Friday's Child by Georgette Heyer.

If you're a Heyer fan I would turn away now.

I hate to bash a book I read because of The Classics Circuit, and I don't want to cause others to turn away from the rest of the Circuit, so please view my review as just that - MY review. Others seem to be enjoying her, and you might too.

But I didn't. At all. I actually couldn't even force myself to finish it. I tried again tonight to actually finish it before I wrote the review because I didn't think it was fair to bash it when I haven't even read the whole thing. But I just can't take any more.

I hated everything about this book. Her writing. Her language. Her characters. Her lack of any sort of interesting plot. And the fact that she's constantly promoted as some sort of second coming of Jane Austen. How can anyone who has actually read Jane Austen say that?!?! That's completely asinine. She writes about the same time period, and that's the end of the similarities. Her writing style is dreadful. Dreadful! And her language just seems like she's trying to hard. She's billed as being historically detailed, but I feel like she just tried to cram as many random words from the time into each sentence as possible, to the point of being unreadable. (From dreadfulness, not from lack of understanding of the words) And she also uses a lot of words that I've never seen in any books actually from that time period, such as "ton." You see that in every romance novel set in the Regency period, but I've yet to come across it in an actual authentic book of the times. You do frequently see "Beau Monde" though, which means the same thing, or even the full French phrase "le bon ton" but never just "ton". That just seems odd to me, like they're trying to trick readers into thinking they're using words of time period when maybe they aren't and they're just trying to hard.
On to the characters. I read a 129 pages and still would forget who Sherry was. Sherry was the main character. How is it even possible to forget that, especially more than once?!?! I sometimes forgot twice in one sitting! I kept up with War and Peace in a bad translation, so I know that wasn't just poor reading on my part. All of her characters were entirely forgettable, and were either horribly boring or overdone caricatures. I wished I was reading one of those weird Austen-monster books and zombies were going to pop out and eat everyone. None of the characters were likable. They all seemed completely stupid, like the characters in a dumb slasher flick. Shallow, insipid, and boring. And apparently Heyer's known for her characters? I'm so confused. I kept thinking, since I keep getting the title wrong, maybe I've got the wrong author? No? Hmmm.
And finally the plot. Since I didn't care about any of the characters, the plot had little chance of interesting me, but still. It was awful, and fairly non-existent. Which could be fine, but it was written in a way that made it seem like things were happening constantly, because there was no inner portraits of the characters or anything else, only action, but then there was no actual plot to tie the action bits together. And the book starts by seeming to focus on one character, then abruptly switches gears, then switches gears again, sort of. It's just odd, and very disjointed.
If you want to read Regency-era romances about the Beau Monde, read Julia Quinn. She is a million times better than Georgette Heyer. She's a better writer, will make you laugh, creates actually memorable characters, and spins quite entertaining plots. She still uses the word "ton" a ton though. If you're interested in what others have to say about Heyer, check out The Classics Circuit.