Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Flavorwire's best of 2011

So there have been a lot of amazing book debuts in 2011. I've had trouble deciding what to read because there are so many great new authors this year.  If you're like me, and you've felt overwhelmed with such a rich list of possibilities, Flavorwire again has come to our rescue.  Here is their list of the Best Debut Novels of 2011.  Top 10 lists are hard to make, especially when it comes to books, and while my list of best books from 2011 may not match up with theirs exactly, it should at least give you some ideas as to where to start.  And while I have not read many of the books on this list yet, most of them are sitting on my bookshelf waiting to be read.

Friday, December 23, 2011

A Christmas Story by Jean Shepherd

   We've all seen the classic Holiday film, A Christmas know, with Ralphie and his BB gun, "you'll shoot your eye out," etc.  Though Jean Shepherd admitted that much of his tales of childhood in northern Indiana are embellished, they are at least based on a true story (or rather stories).  His original collection of these tales appeared in the book In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash, which was published in 1966.  Nearly 20 years later in 1983, a handful of Shepherd's essays were the inspiration for the classic film.  And in 2003, the book A Christmas Story was published, which includes 5 essays from the original collection.

   Even though things occurred in a much different chronological order in the book, it's still a very funny bunch of stories that are (mostly) true.  However, fans of the movie may be a little disappointed to find that, in reality, many scenes from the movie did not actually occur at Christmastime.  For example, the scene where the dogs eat the family's Christmas turkey was adapted from Shepherd's original story about the neighbors' dogs eating their Easter ham.  And Ralphie's infamous fight with Farkus actually happened during the summer months.  So Christmastime plays a much smaller role in this book, but the essays are still funny and entertaining.

   I read this book aloud to my husband and we both laughed out loud quite a bit, but I will warn you that this book is not as kid-friendly as the film.  The Old Man's language is not censored here as it is in the movie, so it may not be great to read with a child, but adults may read this collection and get that same feeling of nostalgia and bubbly feel-good Christmas memories that the film offers.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall

   Golden Richards may have 4 wives and nearly 30 kids, but he still feels like something is missing.  That something is happiness, fulfillment, and a sense of control, and his search for these elusive emotions lead him down some very unexpected paths.  In the meantime, Golden's quest for personal validation requires him to make a few sacrifices, tell a whole bunch of lies, and keep a lot of secrets, which of course, leads to the slow detachment from his family.  With a large cast of interesting characters, The Lonely Polygamist is not really about Mormonism or polygamy - it's about a family pushed to their breaking point, facing challenges and struggles that many families deal with at one point or another - finances, time management, identity crises, health problems, marital stress, and communication barriers to name a few.  The Richards clan is just like any other dysfunctional family, except on a much larger scale, which means extensive consequences rippling through each member of the family in a way that makes balance and control nearly impossible. 

   I really loved reading this book.  I probably would have enjoyed it even more if I hadn't taken three months to read it. I know I know...but it's been a busy semester and the 600+ pages of this novel sometimes seemed very intimidating.  So I put this book on hold for a while and picked it up again a few days ago.  I sped through the last 400 pages and then kicked myself for ever thinking that reading this chunkster would be a chore.  The Lonely Polygamist is an unforgettable family saga and yes, it is epic, but it moves very quickly unless you set it down for 2 1/2 months like I did.  I'm so ashamed! I don't even deserve a book blog!

   Anyway...Brady Udall grew up in a Mormon family and did extensive research on the aspects of polygamy (an estimated 40,000 people live polygamist lifestyles in the U.S.), so the story feels raw and grounded.  The characters are prismatic, but the novel only fully develops a handful of them (understandably).  My favorite character is Rusty Richards, Golden's 12 year old son who is kind of the oddball of the bunch.  His behavior includes: storing multiple objects in the waistband of his pants, snooping around in his sisters' underwear drawers, an affinity for romance novels, bombs, and guns, and a pretty big crush on his aunt Trish. In short, Rusty is curious, mischievous, and defiant - all characteristics of a boy beginning puberty in the midst of family chaos.  Rusty provides most of the comic relief in the story as his sense of physical awakening and self-discovery parallels his father's own journey.

   We all know how the world sees polygamists (just look at the buzz around TLC's show, Sister Wives or the public interest in the Warren Jeffs trial).  Polygamy harbors a fundamental aspect of marriage and family life that is so foreign and unknown to most of us.  So what do we do when we don't understand something as a society?  We become voyeurs.  Well, Brady Udall has put this family under a microscope for the voyeur in us all, and they're really not so different from the rest of us.  And while I don't think that writing (or reading) this book should be synonymous with condoning the polygamist lifestyle, I think Brady Udall has attempted to and succeeded in providing us with a new perspective on family dynamics.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

My Top 5 Books of 2011

So many good books have been published this year, but it is the time of year where we choose our favorites, so in keeping with the fashion, here are my top 5 books from 2011.

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Worst Noel: Hellish Holiday Tales

   The Worst Noel is a collection of holiday-themed essays that cumulatively assert that Christmastime is the worst time of year.  Authors such as Ann Patchett, Cynthia Kaplan, and Joni Rogers have made contributions to this collection, which makes for quite a mixed bag of hellish holiday experiences.  This book started off really strong for me as I read it aloud to my husband (who also really liked it at first).  There were some funny stories about a Christmas Eve encounter with a deer (Cynthia Kaplan), getting into a car wreck with a mall Santa (Joni Rogers), applying for a job at the mall as Rudy the Reindeer (Louis Bayard), and several tales of silly/embarrassing family holiday traditions.  I enjoyed these, but then the book took a different turn about 50 pages in.  The tone changed from good-humored and lightly sarcastic to depressing, whiny, and offensive.  Apparently most of these authors really dislike the south/southerners (except for Ann Patchett) because it's boring and Nashville didn't have any organic peanut butter (Neal Pollack). Oh goodness! No organic peanut butter?? Well bless your heart...that does sound like the worst Christmas ever!  And by the way, Nashville is my home town. We have organic peanut butter thank you very much!

   Anyway, I guess I just thought I was getting something along the lines of David Sedaris's Holidays on Ice, but unfortunately, I was mistaken.  The majority of the book comes from the perspective of rich white folks complaining about why their holiday experiences were the worst of the worst.  Some of these reasons include: too much food, Christmas carols, Christmas trees, holiday traditions, crappy presents, and Christmas decorations.  I felt like I was missing something.  Even though I agree that retail-style Christmas music is obnoxious and lots of decorations end up looking forced and cheesy, these things are primary characteristics of the holiday season.  I know you're probably upset that I didn't mention baby Jesus and all, but the majority of these authors are actually Jewish (or have Jewish heritage), so the nativity didn't come up that much.  However, there was much whining and carrying on about how Hanukkah is sooooo boring and Christmas presents are better than Hannukah presents, but Christmas is still the worst!! Good grief Charlie Brown!

   After a while, the tone of the book became so overwhelmingly snotty that it was no longer funny or amusing...just irritating.  The first few essays are really hilarious and worth reading, but if you forge ahead with the other 150 pages or so, you may find yourself rolling your eyes at these little brats and getting a little pissed off at the constant whining and self-pitying over things like having to receive presents and eat holiday cookies.  Seriously, who is such a Scrooge that they won't even eat a damn sugar cookie?? Next year, I think I'll return to Holidays on Ice.  David Sedaris never disappoints!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Shakespeare's Christmas by Charlaine Harris

   Lily Bard is headed to her hometown of Bartley for her sister's wedding, but she just can't seem to leave trouble behind and always ends up in the wrong place at the wrong time.  On second thought, considering her sharp intuitions and extensive karate training, maybe it's the right place at the right time.  When she arrives in Bartley, she finds that two prominent members of the town have been brutally murdered, and on top of that, her private detective boyfriend has just informed her that he has chased an 8 year-old kidnapping case to the not-so-sleepy little town.  When Lily suspects that the murderer may be closely involved with her family, she works overtime to discover the true identity of the killer.

   This is the third book in the Lily Bard Mysteries series following amateur sleuth Lily Bard in her small town of Shakespeare, Arkansas.  While you don't necessarily have to read these books in order, Lily's personal story makes much more sense if you can at least read the first one in the series (The first book is Shakespeare's Landlord).  But that shouldn't be too hard to do considering that these books are around 200 pages each and very fast-paced.  Shakespeare's Christmas is light and entertaining but I must say, the Christmas theme is pretty weak.  Other than a few brief mentions of cold weather, town decorations and carols, Christmastime is not very apparent.  You really could read this book any time of year, which was a disappointment to me considering how much I love holiday/seasonal themes in literature.  But, Lily is not exactly a sentimental character, so the continuity is preserved with the lack of holiday cheer.  Still, this book is a quick and easy read, which is good for this busy time of year, and if you're familiar with Charlaine Harris's caliber of storytelling (The HBO show True Blood is based on her novels), then you know that she can weave together a very engaging plot with just enough sex, violence, and surprises to keep you on your toes!

Monday, December 12, 2011

More Holiday Gift Ideas!

 If my Holiday Gifts for Book Lovers post didn't give you enough ideas for this season (or if you're low on cash), here are some great DIY gift ideas courtesy of Huffington Post.  Now many of these exceed my level of craftiness, but a few of them I think I could actually make.

Some of these DIY crafts include homemade bookmarks, dust jackets, journals, and step-by-step instructions on how to bind your own books with pretty fabrics.  Most of the designs are geared toward teens, but some of them could work for any age group.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

In Red by Magdalena Tulli

   In Red is not a book you want to read if you're looking for a linear plot - it's a book to read if you like lots of metaphors and descriptive imagery.  Magdalena Tulli tells the story of the fictional town of Stitchings in wartime Poland, and while the inhabitants of the town make appearances, In Red is more about the town of Stitchings itself.  The story is told through elements of folklore and fairy tales, but the implications are far from the realm of fantasy.

   These little vignettes about Stitchings sometimes seem as though they were written by the town - by the crumbling walls, the cobblestone streets, or the cold, unforgiving landscape.  The narrative style is observant and uninvolved, as if none of these characters ever knew that their stories were being absorbed into something much more permanent than their own brief lives.

   While In Red is not always engaging as far as the plot is concerned, the writing is incredibly beautiful and unique.  Even the simplest phrases resound with poignancy and careful grace.  Here is a passage from the last few pages of the novel:

The town of Stitchings survived the fire.  Stories are indestructible...They endured, sewn together any old how, so long as the thick threads held cause and effect in the right order.  Memory yields most easily to the shape of ready-made patterns.  Even if the decayed fabric has gotten overstretched and tears with a loud noise, never mind the rips, for they are not what the eye lingers upon. (p.157)
Magdalena Tulli has a way with words.  She can verbalize those translucent feelings and ideas that people have but can't explain.  It's like when you're trying to remember a dream and you can't recall anything specific other than the way it made you feel - Magdalena Tulli is remembering the dreams of Stitchings, yet she can turn these fleeting bursts of memory into words that manage to retain the integrity of their origins. 

   And for this wonderful writing we must also give credit to the translator, Bill Johnston, who obviously knows exactly what he is doing!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Full Dark House by Christopher Fowler

   Arthur Bryant and John May have worked together for 60 years as detectives for London's Peculiar Crimes Unit until a mysterious explosion abruptly ends Arthur's life.  John is heartbroken over the loss of his best friend and decides to personally investigate the strange and unexpected circumstances of his friend's death.  The clues he finds lead him back to the first case he investigated with Arthur Bryant - a string of murders in a London theatre in the throes of WWII.  It is a case that both Arthur and John had considered closed - until now - leading John to believe that something incredibly dangerous was overlooked 60 years ago.

   This book is like 2 mysteries for the price of 1!  As John relives his first investigation from the 1940s, he also begins to unravel the mystery of his partner's tragic death.  Christopher Fowler is a great writer and did a great job with the organization and juxtaposition of these two stories.  There are so many diverse elements in Full Dark House I can't imagine why it wouldn't appeal to everyone in some way or another.  It includes elements of mystery, history, botany, chemistry, Greek mythology, literature, and even a little bit of romance!  This may sound overwhelming, but Fowler weaves them all together perfectly, and then the story unravels in very unexpected and (dare I say) peculiar ways.  I read this book for my book club and I'm really looking forward to discussing it with the rest of the group later this week.

   Full Dark House is the first in the Bryant and May mystery series (a.k.a the Peculiar Crimes Unit mystery series).  So far there are 10 books in the series, and if you want to know more about the Bryant and May mysteries you can visit Christopher Fowler's blog.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Holiday Gifts for Book Lovers

Now that the Holiday season has officially begun, it's time to start thinking about buying presents. Gifts may not be the reason for the season but we all know how important the perfect gift is.  So here's my gift-giving advice for those of you who have serious book lovers on your list!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Stardust by Neil Gaiman

   Tristran Thorn is a young man in love, and young men in love often make crazy promises.  One night, Tristran and his beloved Victoria see a star fall from the sky, and Victoria says she will give Tristran anything he desires only if he can find the fallen star and bring it back to her.  The star has fallen in the land of Faerie, and Tristran sets off on a magical journey where he encounters an unexpected friend.  He does indeed find the star, which turns out to be a beautiful young woman.  Tristran is unprepared for this encounter and is unprepared for the fact that he is not the only person in pursuit of the fallen star.  The star needs his protection, but this strange land is new for Tristran so he can only rely on his instincts to bring them both to safety.

   I really like Neil Gaiman, but this just is not my favorite of his works.  I really liked the storyline and the imagery, but the plot seemed a little unbalanced to me.  It started very slowly, and then it seemed like all of the action was packed into the last 75 pages or so.  But this is really my only complaint.  It's hard not to be mesmerized by talking trees, unicorns, and evil witches.  I read this book out loud to my husband (who is a huge Sandman fan), and he was a little bored at the beginning too, but we both were believers in Faerie by the end.

   Stardust is a rather short book intended for ages 13 and up, so it's a pretty quick read (unless you're reading aloud...then it's a little longer), but just so you know, there is a fairly graphic sex scene in the first part of the novel, so it may not be appropriate for all teens.  Overall, though, I'd say Stardust is a shining star of a book (sorry...I couldn't help myself)!  :)

Sunday, November 27, 2011

100 Notable Books from 2011

The New York Times just released their list of Notable Books of 2011.  Check it out to see if you've missed any of this year's "must reads."

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Little Town on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder

    Every year around the start of the holiday season I read at least one book from Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House  series.  Something about the quiet domestic scenes and the description of the isolated landscape is calming for me.  Also, the holidays are all about memories and nostalgia...and there's nothing more nostalgic than reading a Laura Ingalls Wilder book.  However, if I were reading this book to a child, I would edit out some of the less than flattering portrayals of Native Americans and African Americans.  They are few and brief, but still...

   Usually I read The Long Winter, which is perfect for this time of year since the nights are getting colder and longer.  It just makes me want to snuggle up under the blankets with nothing but a hot brick and dwindling fire to keep me warm!  This year, I started with Little Town on the Prairie, which is the 7th book in the original Little House series (of which there are 9 books total).  According to wikipedia, Little Town on the Prairie takes place between 1881 and 1882, but was not published until 1941.  At this point in the series, Laura is 15-16 years old and living in the town of De Smet, South Dakota.  She has a job as a seamstress and is saving money to send her sister, Mary, to a school for the blind.  Laura also desperately wants to be a schoolteacher, so she studies very hard as well.  It is in this book that Laura begins her courtship with Almonzo Wilder, the man who would become her husband in 1885.

   Something about these books makes me long for simpler times, but honestly, I don't think I'd last a week of winter in South Dakota without electricity!  While much of these books are autobiographical for the Ingalls family, Laura did sweeten things a bit for her readers.  But overall, they are pretty accurate portrayals of the lives of early American pioneers.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Anya's Ghost by Vera Brosgol

   Anya is kind of a loner.  She doesn't have many friends at school and she longs for a change.  One day while walking in the woods, Anya accidentally falls down an abandoned well shaft.  It's the last place she expected to find a friend, but down at the bottom of the well, Anya meets a ghost named Emily.  When Anya is rescued from the well she brings Emily's ghost with her, and together they go to school, talk about boys, share secrets, and Emily becomes Anya's new "roommate."  But Anya soon realizes that Emily's story is more sinister than she could have imagined, and that her new "friend" isn't much of a friend at all.

   This story is written in graphic novel format, so it was a very quick read.  Vera Brosgol is the writer and illustrator for Anya's Ghost and she did an amazing job.  Neil Gaiman even gave it his stamp of approval.  This book provides a unique take on the lonely/outcast teen story as Anya learns important life lessons through her experience with death, and it's a great read for just about any age.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

NPR's controversial interview with Amy Greene

I had the wonderful opportunity to meet Amy Greene last week, who is the author of Bloodroot.  Her writing is incredibly powerful, and if you have not had the chance to read Bloodroot yet I highly recommend that you make some time!  A couple of months ago I mentioned the debut novel in my Southern Lit Rant, and I still think it is one of the best books I have ever read.

Anyway, Amy Greene mentioned last week that in early 2010 she was interviewed on NPR, and that it ended up being a very controversial show. Jacki Lyden was the host, and though she may not have done this on purpose, she came across as very condescending, even going so far as to suggest that the south is not a part of the "real world."  Apparently this pissed off a lot of people (not just southerners) and NPR received many letters and calls of complaint.

I was very disappointed when I read the transcript of the interview.  I listen to NPR almost every day, and I was appalled at Lyden's ignorance and lack of respect for Amy Greene as a writer.  If you're a southerner, you have probably dealt this kind of stereotyping before, but seriously??? I expected more from NPR.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Hallowe'en Party by Agatha Christie

   Monsieur Hercule Poirot has been asked by a friend, Adriadne Oliver, to assist in solving a tragic murder.  At a recent children's Halloween party a young girl of 13, Joyce, bragged to other party-goers that she once witnessed a murder.  Joyce was known for embellishing stories, so no one took her seriously.  But after the party, Joyce is found dead and Ms Oliver wonders if Joyce may have been telling the truth this time.  So she enlists the help of England's greatest detective - Hercule Poirot.

   This book made me remember how much I enjoy Agatha Christie mysteries.  I hadn't read one in several years, so I'm glad I picked it up.  It may not pack as much punch as some of her earlier masterpieces (Hallowe'en was published in 1969), but it's still an Agatha Christie book nonetheless, which means it is well-written and entertaining.  Plus, it is about a murder at a Halloween party...perfect for this time of year!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Lost by Gregory Maguire

   Winnie, a novelist, is traveling to London to do some research for a book she is writing about a girl named Wendy who is obsessed with the story of Jack the Ripper.  When Winnie arrives at her stepcousin's flat in London she is surprised to find that the house is under construction and her cousin, John, is nowhere to be found.  According to old family stories, Winnie is the direct descendant of Ebenezer Scrooge, or rather the man who inspired Charles Dickens's timeless character, and John is living in their ancestor's house.

   After a few days in the house, Winnie and the construction workers have reason to believe that the old house is haunted.  A loud knocking sound is coming from the chimney, and further inspection reveals a false wall built hastily around the origin of the noise.  Winnie is unsure if the house is inhabited by the ghost of Jack the Ripper, one of his victims, or her scrooge-like ancestor.  Or, she begins to wonder if her cousin's disappearance has more terrifying implications than she first imagined.

   This book was a quick read, but it took some strange, unexpected turns and ended on a much different note than I thought it would.  The many literary/folklore references never really came together coherently, especially the references to Jack the Ripper.  It's almost like Gregory Maguire decided to write a different story midway through the novel but using the same characters.  It's not his best work and fans of the Wicked series might be disappointed, but it is entertaining.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Creepers by David Morrell

   If you ever thought it might be fun to explore an abandoned building, Creepers will make you think again.  While they prefer to call themselves "Urban Explorers," creepers are people who like to roam abandoned old buildings - not to take anything, just to observe.  They have an obsession with the past, and for them, entering old empty structures is like entering a time capsule.

   In this novel, five people conspire to explore the Paragon hotel - an abandoned building that was once an extravagant hotel often frequented by celebrities, mobsters, and other rich and powerful people.  Even though these creepers are well-practiced and experienced, they did not anticipate the fact that the Paragon Hotel is not as empty as they first presumed.  They could have never imagined the horrors that await them in the once majestic building that time forgot.

   I read most of this book in one sitting with my feet tucked underneath me.  It is seriously disturbing.  As the creepers fight the evil that reside in the Paragon, they experience a few things that could have come straight out of a Quentin Tarantino film - sadistic, disturbing things that would render the majority of people trembling, mindless versions of themselves.  But (much like Tarantino movies), the villain of Creepers underestimates the victims' will to survive.

   By close to the end of the book, I had my suspicions about what was really going on in this hotel, and while some of them were confirmed, others were completely extinguished by some very unexpected plot twists.  Creepers is a well-organized, successful thriller, but I don't recommend reading it at home alone in one sitting or you may end up like I did - sweaty, nervous, hungry, and stiff from 4 hours of not moving.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Hangman's Daughter by Oliver Potzsch

   It's the middle of the 17th century, and Jakob Kuisl is one of the most feared and despised men in his small town of Schongau (Bavaria, Germany).  As the town's executioner, he is responsible for ending the lives of the worst criminals, and while this gives him much power, it also causes him to be socially shunned as it is considered bad luck to be seen with the hangman.  Kuisl lives on the outskirts of town with his wife and children, but when the body of a brutally slain child appears on the riverbank with a mysterious symbol on his shoulder, rumors of witchcraft swirl, and Jakob's quiet life on the edge of society is over.  The town suspects a local midwife to be the murderous witch and demand that she be executed.  However, Jakob believes that the midwife is innocent, and he and his family are forced to become more involved in the social and political realms of Schongau than they ever could have imagined.  As more bodies appear, Jakob must work quickly with the help of his daughter, Magdalena, and the town physician, Simon, to avoid another mass hysteria/ witch hunt and find the real killer.

   I'm still not quite sure why this book is called The Hangman's Daughter, as Magdalena doesn't exactly have a starring role in the novel.  Even though she is intelligent and strong, she is also a woman in the 17th century, meaning that no one really takes her that seriously.  I really wish she had been given a bigger role in the book.  Anyway, I really enjoyed the premise of the plot, but the translation seemed pretty sloppy at times.  Also, there were a few too many cliches for me, especially regarding the ending.  The final chapters were reminiscent of Scooby-Doo to be honest...mass confessions and long monologues wrapped everything up in a nice neat bow.  So while I was disappointed by the writing, I will say that the plot was engaging - especially considering that the plot is based on family stories that have been passed down for generations to the author, who is a direct descendant of the famous Kuisl executioners.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Halloween books for all ages

Tis the season to be scary!...

Updated on 10/5/12:

With Halloween coming up in a few weeks, I know a lot of people are ready for some spooky stories.  Here are a few books I would recommend to anyone looking to get into the spirit of Halloween.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte

   Agnes Grey is not a very long books, (barely over 200 pages), and it reads like 3 small novellas.  It's not actually divided into separate sections, but Agnes Grey tells 3 main stories.  Miss Grey's family is facing hardship, so she takes a job as a governess for the Bloomfield family.  The Bloomfield children are pretty much the worst kids ever.  They are rude, destructive, defiant, and mean to Agnes.  And of course, the young governess gets no support from their parents.  Instead, they often tend to blame Agnes for their children's deplorable behavior.

   It's no surprise that Agnes does not stay with the Bloomfield family for very long.  She soon moves in as the governess for the Murray family.  Their children are much more manageable, but still unpleasant due to their immense wealth and pampering.  The eldest daughter is an eligible bachelorette, yet her spoiled behavior reveals tremendous immaturity.  Despite the unpleasant life of living with the Murray family, it is in this position where she meets Mr. Weston, a man who works as a pastor in the town's small church.

   This brings us to the third aspect of Agnes Grey: Romance.  Miss Grey and Mr. Weston enter into a completely rational and tame romance, but for Agnes, it's more than enough.  I thought their relationship was the most unconvincing aspect of the novel.  This is likely because the book is semi-autobiographical for Anne Bronte, and she probably didn't want to portray herself as passionate or lusty - characteristics that were not conventional for 19th century women to embody.  I liked reading about Agnes's experience as a governess, as it provided an interesting glimpse into mid 19th century domestic life.  However, I think Anne Bronte may have overdone it a bit in the attempt to portray a quiet good girl.  For me, she often just came across as a pious, naive goody two-shoes.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Banned Books Week - September 24 - October 1

From the American Library Association:
Banned Books Week (BBW) is an annual event celebrating the freedom to read and the importance of the First Amendment.  Held during the last week of September, Banned Books Week highlights the benefits of free and open access to information while drawing attention to the harms of censorship by spotlighting actual or attempted bannings of books across the United States.
 Intellectual freedom—the freedom to access information and express ideas, even if the information and ideas might be considered unorthodox or unpopular—provides the foundation for Banned Books Week.  BBW stresses the importance of ensuring the availability of unorthodox or unpopular viewpoints for all who wish to read and access them.
Celebrate this intellectual freedom by reading a banned book this week! Here's a list of ALA's 100 most frequently challenged books from the last decade.

Some of my favorites include:

A Wrinkle in Time - Madeline L'Engle
A Prayer for Owen Meany - John Irving
Song of Solomon - Toni Morrison
Speak - Laurie Halse Anderson
Bridge to Terabithia - Katherine Paterson
The Perks of Being a Wallflower - Stephen Chbosky

And here is a list of ALA's most frequently challenged classic literature books.

Some of my favorite banned classics include:

The Catcher in the Rye - J.D. Salinger
The Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck
To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee
Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov
The Awakening - Kate Chopin

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer

   It's the early 1960s, and Charlotte is the new girl in a boarding school.  As if making friends and getting used to a new home isn't hard enough, Charlotte is dumbfounded when she wakes up on her second morning at the school and finds that everything is different.  The furniture is different.  The scenery is different.  The people are even different.  Everyone seems to know who she is, but they all call her Clare for some reason.  After asking a few inconspicuous questions, Charlotte realizes that she has switched bodies with someone named Clare and has traveled back in time to 1918.  Only Clare's sister, Emily, knows about the switch, and together they must come up with a plan to switch Charlotte and Clare back to themselves before this change becomes permanent.

   For a children's book, Charlotte Sometimes has some surprisingly adult themes.  Being that Charlotte's second life takes place during WWI, the children in this book must deal with war, death, and loneliness at an early age.  At one point, there is even a seance, which I did not expect at all (especially for a book written in 1969).  I did not expect the book to be quite so serious, but I liked it anyway.  It book became kind of a cult classic when The Cure recorded the song "Charlotte Sometimes" in 1981. Here's the song if you're interested:

Friday, September 9, 2011

The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine by Alina Bronsky

   Rosa is the type of person who believes she has never made a mistake - that all of life's misfortunes can be attributed to the stupidity and carelessness of others (especially members of her own family).  But when her daughter, Sulfia, gives birth to a baby girl, Rosa's life takes on a new meaning.  She spends all her time and efforts on her beautiful granddaughter, Aminat, in hopes that she will someday make her grandmother proud.  All Rosa asks is that Aminat become a rich and/or famous Tartar woman.  However, Rosa is so cold-hearted and impersonal that she has no idea how to develop and maintain relationships, especially with a child.  She is sometimes hilariously clueless, and sometimes tragically so.

   Rosa knows that her family cannot survive in Soviet Russia, so when an older German man takes an inappropriate interest in Aminat (who is only 12), Rosa interprets this as their opportunity to move to the west, where she truly believes her daughter and granddaughter will thrive.  But Rosa, who has never understood sympathy and compassion, is baffled when she finds that her family is unhappy in Germany.  Of course she sees this as typical ungrateful adolescent behavior for which she is in no way responsible.  In turn, she becomes increasingly isolated and alone, and she has no idea why.

   Rosa is one of the most unreliable narrators I have ever come across.  She believes that she loves her family and is doing what is best for them, but her ego and pride are what really control her decisions.  She holds family loyalty and respect in high regard, but is incapable of bestowing these sentiments upon others.  Alina Bronsky's portrayal of a mother who completely lacks maternal instincts is funny and entertaining, but is also a disturbing window into the tragic outcome of failed relationships in a world where human connection has become an art that requires talent.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Decatur Book Festival Report.

   Hey everybody sorry I've been away from my computer for a while, but I've been at the Decatur Book Festival in Decatur, GA with my mother-in-law and sister-in-law. There was a lot going on, but we managed to hear a few author readings and get some books signed! I got the opportunity to meet Karen Russell, author or Swamplandia! and St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves.  She read from the first chapter of Swamplandia!, which I have not read yet but am looking forward to.  We also got to hear from Tom Perrotta, author of the new book The Leftovers, which is about the people who are left behind in a strange rapture-like event.  A lot of children's book authors were there, including Judy Schachner and Eric Litwin.  I really wanted a copy of Wildwood, which is by the lead singer of The Decemberists, Colin Meloy and illustrated by his wife, Carson Ellis, but since he was the keynote speaker, all the signed copies of his book were snatched up pretty early. But my sister-in-law is going to check some local bookstores for me to see if she can find a few strays.

   The Decatur Book Festival had way more activities than we could attend, but the highlight of the even for me was getting to see (and meet) Clyde Edgerton, author of the new book The Night Train.
If you ever get a chance to see Clyde Edgerton at an author event, you seriously better go. It was one of the most entertaining author readings I have ever attended.  He told stories and jokes, sang, danced, played live music, music recordings, and even read to us a little.  It was hilarious and I cannot wait to read The Night Train (which Mr. Edgerton signed for me! Eeek!)  We got to see a lot of really talented people on this book binge and I would definitely recommend taking this trip to any bibliophile. I hope to return next year (and take more money with me as Atlanta shopping is pretty much the best).

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Nectar by Lily Prior

   Ramona Drottoveo  may not be the most beautiful woman in Italy, but there's something about her that makes her irresistible to men.  She is an overweight, albino servant, yet she emits a scent that all men find intoxicating, and this allows her to manipulate people into giving her whatever her cold little heart desires.  Ramona is used to special treatment, and is also accustomed to countless lovers, daily marriage proposals, and oh so many gifts.

   But there's just one problem: when Ramona gives birth to a child, Blandina, her scent disappears and takes the magic of her aroma with it.  Yet Ramona is greedy and spoiled and determined to get what she wants with or without the enchanting scent, so she must be a bit more creative in her manipulations in order to maintain the lifestyle to which she is accustomed.

   This is a very quirky little book, but Lily Prior's simple and straightforward prose makes Nectar read like an anti-fairy tale.  While I was reading this novel I was continuously reminded of The Princess Bride (the movie).  Nectar exudes a similar sense of sarcasm and witty humor, with a fuzzy dreamlike quality.  In fact, I would not have been surprised if Ramona had come across an ROUS or two in the Italian countryside.  Just to give you an idea, here's an excerpt from chapter 37, in which a man who has lost his sense of smell in a terrible accident believes he is still affected by Ramona's scent, despite that fact that the aroma disappeared with Blandina's birth long ago:
And when he couldn't sit with his head buried in her lap, he insisted on carrying an item of her clothing around with him, like a child with a comfort blanket.  He had started talking to the aroma, having identified it with a particularly soft female voice inside his head.  He wrote poetry to the scent and recited it.  He had taken up painting and started painting pictures of it. (page 217)
    Recently, a few friends and I started a book club, and Nectar is our first official book club choice.  We haven't met to discuss the novel yet, but I hope everyone else liked it as much as I did.  Nectar is charming and funny, and through this novel, Lily Prior provides us with an ironic and entertaining portrayal of the effects of temptation and desire.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Decatur Book Festival

Hey Everybody! For those of you who live in the south, I thought you might want to know about the Decatur Book Festival, which will be Sept 2-4 this year in Decatur, Georgia.  There will be authors from all genres there, but the festival will include mostly children's and YA literature. I'll be going so you can expect a full report afterwards, but if you think you might be interested, here's the link to their events site.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Dearest Dorothy...

I was going to write a post in honor of Dorothy Parker's birthday today, but flavorwire beat me to it!  Here is their birthday tribute to Ms. Parker.  It's ironic to be celebrating the birthday of someone who attempted suicide several times, but I'm sure she would find this hilarious if she were alive today.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Happy Birthday, Jackie dahling!

   Jacqueline Susann wrote several novels, but she is probably best known for her cult classic, Valley of the Dolls, a novel that chronicles the lives of 3 women as they attempt to climb the social ladder into stardom.  The women are connected through their involvement in a  Broadway play, but the pressure of the glitz and glamor of Broadway and Hollywood are too much, and they fall prey to pill addiction (a.k.a. "dolls").  I read Valley of the Dolls in high school, and I loved it.  It's kind of a long, epic story, but the characters' descent into depression and addiction is one of those disasters you can't look away from.

   If Valley of the Dolls is too heavy for you, one of her other books that I enjoyed very much is called Every Night, Josephine!, Susann's biographical work about life with her very spoiled poodle.  I understand that dog narratives have been very popular recently, but I'm guessing that this book was one of the firsts to conquer the subject of pampered pets with big personalities.  Even if you're not a dog person, Every Night, Josephine! is a good read.  It's a quick, funny little memoir that touches on companionship, marriage, compromises, and (of course) spoiled little poodles.

   Jacqueline Susann died of cancer in 1973, but her legacy as a writer, and a controversial social presence remains.  In her lifetime, Valley of the Dolls was often criticized for being obscene and trashy.  In turn, rumors persisted that Susann herself was of low moral standards and possibly even a lesbian.  Either way, I think we will continue to see this book on bedside tables, in subways and airplanes for a long time.  The fact is, Jacqueline Susann knew that there is something that attracts us to social disasters and the fall of celebrities.  Based on the amount of celebrity gossip that dominates newsstands and tv shows today, I'd say she was right on the mark with Valley of the Dolls in assuming that the book's subject matter would always have an audience.

Happy Birthday, Jackie Doll!

Friday, August 19, 2011

Model Home by Eric Puchner

   Set in the mid 1980s, Model Home tells the story of a family unraveling in the midst of an economic crisis.  Warren Ziller works as a housing developer, selling poorly constructed homes to unsuspecting families.  The Zillers have lived very privileged lives until Warren's real estate bubble bursts and he is forced to move his crumbling family into the desert - into the very same neighborhood he has been trying to sell.

   But even before Warren is struck down by karma, his family was already slipping away from him.  Camille, his wife, believes he has been having an affair so she gives up on their relationship altogether.  Warren's two teenagers, Dustin and Lyle are involved in a strangely magnetic push and pull social scene, and the youngest, Jonas, is usually ignored due to his morbid eccentricities.  When a tragic accident forces them to move into the run-down house in the middle of nowhere, each family member's downward spiral is chronicled, and their individual and collective stories are painful reminders of how close they came to happiness.

   I was particularly heartbroken by Jonas's story.  At 11 years old, he is introverted and quirky, which is why his family finds him so easy to ignore.  When the tragedy that befalls the Ziller family is wrongly blamed on Jonas, he must descend the ranks of his family even further.  Believing that Jonas is the cause of their misfortunes, the Zillers are cruel to him - they ignore him mostly, but when he tries to make peace with them by bringing gifts and other subtle offerings, he is mocked and chastised.  Jonas becomes the family's scapegoat in every sense of the word, yet their problems remain.

   Model Home represents the other side of the American coin, confronting the question "What happens if we cannot achieve the American Dream?"  Well, nothing really.  You live in mediocrity.  In reality.  The living situation is not ideal, but you are still living.  The problem with the Zillers is that they blame all of their problems on one single event and live their lives in mourning over the loss of wealth, success, and happiness.  But in reality, they weren't that happy in the first place.  But more importantly, Puchner's novel is about our painstaking efforts to communicate with each other.  Despite tragedy, poverty, disappointment, and shattered expectations, we cannot stop our impulses to maintain human connection.  Even when relationships are toxic, there is something magnetic in our desires to stay connected to each other, and therefore, loneliness is one of the greatest tragedies that can befall a human being.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

A tribute to Jonthan Franzen, on his birthday.

   Y'all know I love to celebrate authors' birthdays, and today we celebrate Jonathan Franzen's 52nd birthday.  While I enjoyed his newest novel, Freedom, my favorite of his novels is definitely The Corrections.  Many people remember this book from the Oprah scandal that surrounded its release.  Basically, The Corrections was chosen to be a part of Oprah's Book Club, and Jonathan Franzen was hesitant about how that might affect potential readers, especially males.  Of course, it was blown waaayy out of proportion in the media and Mr. Franzen was portrayed as an ungrateful snob.  Oprah fans were pissed.  But I definitely understand his concern.  While I love the fact that Oprah's Book Club gets people reading who might not normally pick up a book, it also attaches a certain stigma to whichever book is chosen.

   Anyway, for those who have not had the opportunity to read The Corrections, I encourage you to do so.  This book contains some of the most well-developed, multidimensional characters that I have ever encountered.  The novel is about the Lambert family - a group of cynical, dysfunctional, and detached people (at least when it comes to each other).  But due to their father's declining health, the scattered Lambert children are asked to re-converge for one last family Christmas together, where they must face each others' flaws and confront their own imperfections both individually, and collectively as a family.  I know my description can in no way accurately describe how amazing this book really is, but you'll just have to take my word.  It's definitely more character-driven than plot-driven, but the Lamberts are so familiarly dysfunctional that it is hard not to sympathize on many different levels and become involved in their histories.  I read this book 5 years ago, but it has really stuck with me, and I will never stop recommending it to others.

 Happy Birthday, Jonathan Franzen.  Please write forever!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Bukowski's Big Day

   If you've ever read anything by Charles Bukowski, then you know he had some serious problems.  He mostly wrote about drugs, alcohol, sex, and work - well, how much he hated to work.  Despite Bukowski's depression and addictions, he managed to become a highly respected poet and novelist.  For me, his work would probably fall into the "naturalist" category (even though the timeline doesn't quite match up. I know), writing about the down and out members of a hopeless society - those hardworking men and women of the lower class who enjoy few pleasures in life other than drink and sex. least according to Charles Bukowski.  His world was a dismal one, yet the raw, crude honesty of his writing is what will continue to keep him relevant.

   On this day in 1920, Mr. Bukowski was born in Germany, but his family moved to America when he was only 2 years old, so I guess that's how we can claim him as an American.  Anyway, in Bukowski's more autobiographical works he reveals a tumultuous childhood riddled with poverty, and emotional and physical abuse from his father.  It's no wonder why he developed such severe depression, and if you want to read more about his childhood, you can pick up a copy of Ham on Rye, his book that documents this time period in great detail.

   A few years ago, I read Post Office, which is Bukowski's semi-autobiographical tale of Henry Chinaski, a bored, self-destructive, yet funny and sarcastic postal worker. who does that remind us of?  Post Office is not for the faint of heart or those who are easily offended.  The book is full of profanity, violence, and sexually explicit content.  Needless to say, Charles Bukowski was often (and still is) criticized for being a bad influence on readers.  But he seemed to believe that humans are the most corruptible beings ever to exist and that, as creatures of discontent, we deserve to be a little devious from time to time - to suck a little fun out of life before life sucks all the fun out of us.

   Whatever your personal sentiments toward him may be, there is no denying Bukowski's tremendous influence on American culture and literature.  He died in 1994, but today would be his 91st birthday if he were still alive.  So wherever you are, Mr. Bukowski, know that world raises its dirty shot glass to you and toasts your memory today.  Happy Birthday.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Reading Promise by Alice Ozma

   Alice and her father, Jim, both share an intense love and appreciation for books.  Jim is a school librarian and Alice is a nine year-old with a big imagination when they complete their first reading streak.  The challenge was that Jim had to read aloud to Alice for at least ten minutes a day for 100 consecutive days.  When "the streak" is completed, both decide that 100 days of reading was hardly a challenge at all , so why not try for 1000 days?  Neither Alice nor her father had any idea that this tradition would continue for almost 9 years - until Alice would leave home for college.

   This is a really sweet story.  This book is about much more than a family tradition - it chronicles her relationship with her father and how they managed to stay connected through their commitment to reading together.  They even read together when they were in an argument and otherwise not on speaking terms, which is pretty remarkable for a teenage girl.  Considering that Jim is an elementary school librarian, Alice was probably predestined to become a reader (and writer).  Much of The Reading Promise is about Jim's career as a librarian, which I found to be particularly interesting since I am currently in Library Science school.  Jim is adamant that young children need to be read to, as it improves their development and skills, and makes them more likely to read on their own.  In a world where it seems like reading is being phased out of schools, or at least less emphasized, The Reading Promise serves as a wonderful reminder of what a difference books make in our level of education.

   What I did not like about this book was Alice's over-exaggerated and often cheesy description of her father.  I get that she admires him and appreciates what he did for her, but she was sometimes a bit overzealous in referring to him as a superhero, and emphasizing that he is the most unique man in the world and the best father ever. Sometimes I felt like the book was her way of buttering him up before asking for a new car or something.

   Overall, though, I enjoyed this book.  We see so many stories about young girls and their relationships with their mothers, but Alice's story is about her father who raised her as a single dad and remained dedicated to his children - dedicated enough to read to his daughter every single day for 3218 days.  While my dad didn't read to me every night for 9 years, as a child, I remember bringing stacks of picture books to him, and he would read to me until my little heart was content.  I am grateful for that, because I do believe that played  a big role in the development of my love for literature.  So I did feel quite nostalgic while reading this memoir, and it made me feel like giving my dad a hug.

   The Reading Promise is a great reminder of why we need books in our lives (especially children), and that you're never too old to be read to.  Just ask my husband.  He still loves for me to read to him.  And look at the popularity of audio books.  It just proves that storytelling is still one of the most important aspects of language and communication that we have, and whether you're a small child or an adult, everybody likes to hear a good story.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Edinburgh Book Festival

Flavorwire reviews the Edinburgh National book festival, complete with the festival's list of book recommendations

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Happy Birthday, Mr Slim!

   If Robert Beck (AKA Iceberg Slim) were alive today, he would be 93 years old.  Even though he died in 1992, Iceberg Slim is still known as one of the world's most famous pimps!  I's kind of a strange claim to fame, but Iceberg Slim documented his life as a pimp through his literature, which gave an experienced voice to the sex-trade industry in the 1960s during a time when prostitution and sexuality were not exactly discussed openly.

   His first book, Pimp, is an autobiographical (but somewhat fictionalized) account of life on the streets.  I read this book a few years ago, and the reality of the violence, poverty, and misogyny involved in the prostitution business is heartbreaking.  I mean, I wasn't expecting it to be a super sweet, heartwarming tale or anything, it's just a little more jarring when you know that Iceberg Slim's accounts are based in the reality of his experience as a pimp for over 20 years.  After several imprisonments, Iceberg Slim changed his name to Robert Beck, got married and left the pimping business behind.  The book was written years after Slim left the business, and in retrospect, he seems incredibly regretful about many of the decision he made that led to his life of crime.  Some of the book even feels like an apology to his wife and the women he employed.  Iceberg Slim went on to write several more books, some of the more famous titles being Mama Black Widow, and Trick Baby.
    The book includes a glossary of lesser known pimping terms to aide readers unfamiliar with the business, which I had to refer to many many times...similar to the Clockwork Orange reading experience.  But be warned, this book contains graphically violent and sexual content.  Still, Pimp is an incredibly valuable piece of literature as it gave a voice to a different facet of the black community and continues to be influential to writers, filmmakers, and artists all over the world.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

A Visit from the Goon Squad
Jennifer Egan's Pulitzer Prize wining novel reads like a mixed tape of characters so there's something for everyone.  And seriously...this book should come with a soundtrack.