Saturday, July 30, 2011

White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi

   It is difficult for me to write a summary of this book because I could never really decide what it was about.  The best I can do is to say that the story revolves around 16 year old Miranda and her twin brother, Eliot.  They live with their father in Dover - in a house that has belonged to their family for generations.  The twins are grieving over the death of their mother, and their father has converted the house into a bed and breakfast, so they are constantly surrounded by strangers.  Miranda suffers from pica, an eating disorder that compels her to eat strange things, namely chalk.  But Miranda's eccentricities don't end there.  She has also inherited some abnormal abilities from the women in her family which often yield psychologically disturbing outcomes.  Oh and I should also mention that the house is haunted (and evil) and serves as a narrator in the story.  From the beginning of the story, the house is an ominous force as it informs readers that something is wrong with Miranda and asks, "Is Miranda alive?"  When she enters an intense relationship with a girls she meets in college, Miranda angers the house and it must retaliate - out of jealousy and the need for control.

   This book is a whirlwind of crazy, but nonetheless, it is one of the most beautifully written books I've ever read.  Helen Oyeyemi's prose often reads like poetry, even if the subject is disturbing.  Her writing is complex, sensual, and disjointed, but it all comes together in the end.  Mostly.  The style of writing is so fast-paced and abnormal that it forces you to forget everything you know about storytelling and start reading without any expectations.

   It is difficult to know whether or not we can even believe Miranda's story.  Each of the narrators is obsessed with her in some way, which makes me wonder if the happenings in this book are ways for the people who are consumed by her to justify some sort of psychological demise that is too traumatic for them to comprehend.  Either way, White is for Witching is entrancing and will stay with me for a very long time.  When I first started reading it I didn't like it, mostly because I couldn't make sense of it.  But my confusion turned into wonderment  quickly, as Helen Oyeyemi's book is full of little surprises.  Her writing is so intense and evocative that it makes up for the challenging parts.  I'm curious now to read some of her other works just to see if the experience matches this level of intensity.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Maine by J. Courtney Sullivan

   Maine is J. Courtney Sullivan's second novel, and it is a spectacular book.  I had a feeling I might like it after I saw that Gloria Steinem, Amy Greene, and Meg Wolitzer have praised her writing...I was correct.

   Maine alternates between the voices of 4 women in the Kelleher family.  Alice, the matriarch, has been a widow for 10 years, and she is struggling with her loneliness coupled with the pressure of keeping up appearances.  At times, she is cruel and bitter, but through her story, it is evident that Alice has struggled throughout her entire life with guilt, depression, and the overwhelming duty of motherhood.  Kathleen is Alice's first daughter.  In her late 50s now, she has (understandably) chosen to separate herself from the rest of the Kelleher family by moving to California with her boyfriend where they run an organic worm farm.  Kathleen is a recovered alcoholic but is still plagued by the memories of her addiction.  Maggie is Kathleen's daughter who is dealing with an unexpected pregnancy in the midst of a bad relationship.  Even though she is in her early 30s and is a successful writer in New York, the realization of motherhood is terrifying for Maggie - especially the prospect of raising her child without a father.  Ann Marie is not a Kelleher woman by birth, but she married into the family 35 years ago and has always dealt with rivalries that ensue from her presence as an "outsider."  She is seen by the rest of the family as an over-eager snob, but Ann Marie has issues of her own - she is just better at concealing them.

   These 4 women think they have nothing in common, but whether they like it or not, they are all united by the Kelleher name and by the family's summer cottage in Maine, which is where they have vacationed every year for their entire lives.  For them, the house is both a place of turmoil and of refuge, and the characters that pass through it are as vivid and distinct as the setting itself.  Maine is perfect for someone who enjoys character-driven, multi-generational family sagas.  Sullivan's book reminds me of Jonathan Franzen's novel in the way that the characters are so detailed and multidimensional that it seems like they must be a real family.  Even the setting is so incredibly vivid that it is easy to visualize what the Kellehers are up to now as they spend another summer on the Maine shore, just as they have for many generations.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Celebrity sumer reading lists

More magazine's website features a list of "celebrity summer reading picks" published earlier this month.  Most of the celebrities are authors, but even so, it's always fun to know what famous people are reading right?

Monday, July 18, 2011

Reading Vacations recently posted an article about what sounds like THE BEST VACATION EVER!  According to Laura Miller, more and more people are taking "reading retreats," which are vacations that are taken for the specific purpose of holing yourself up and reading as much as possible. Ummm....I want this! I know I just got back from vacation and all, but (like this time), I did not get as much read as I had planned.  It would be great to take a break from everything, head to a cabin or a nice bed and breakfast and just read for a week (and maybe eat, too), but at the same time, I might feel a little guilty about it, too.  After all, for those of us who are on limited budgets and only get to take a vacation once a year (or less), it seems wasteful to travel without seeing as much as possible of your vacation spot.  But the article did mention that the best time to do this is in the winter or fall, when you're not tempted to spend as much time outside.  And for me, I would want to go somewhere that is pretty isolated - maybe a cabin in the woods or even a beach in the fall would be nice since you wouldn't be tempted to swim or tan.  But either way, I would still need to go somewhere that at least has wifi, a coffee shop, book store, and restaurants within a reasonable driving distance.  Maybe someday I'll be a rich librarian and can afford such luxuries as reading retreats.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley

   I know I'm probably one of the last people in the world to read this book, but I finally finished The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, and I must say, it is a very charming little mystery novel.  The story takes place at Buckshaw mansion in 1950.  Flavia de Luce is the youngest of 3 sisters, but at only 11 years old, she is by far the smartest of the de Luce sisters.  Flavia has a great affinity for chemistry, and even has her own laboratory in the mansion.  She is most interested in poisons and their different varieties, including recipes and antidotes. When strange things begin to happen at Buckshaw, such as a dead bird mysteriously appearing at their doorstep with a stamp stuck to its beak, and the death of a stranger in the de Luce's back yard, Flavia uses her knowledge of science and chemistry to solve these mysteries.

   Flavia is one of the best new literary characters that I have encountered.  She is both a curious child, and a wise, unbelievably intelligent scientist.  But this dynamic makes the book appealing to a wide range of readers.  I've even seen this book included on a few summer reading lists for middle school and high school students this year.  Lucky for us, Alan Bradley has written 2 other follow up novels starring Miss Flavia de Luce.  I look forward to reading both The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag and A Red Herring Without Mustard.  And according to Amazon, the 4th book in the series, I Am Half-Sick of Shadows will be available on November 1 of this year.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children
This new YA novel incorporates literature and photography to host a stunning, visually appealing, and entertaining reading experience.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Brothers Grimm Illustrations

This is very cool.  Noel Daniel has put together a book of illustrations from different printings of The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm.  According to the Flavorwire article, Daniel has compiled illustrations from all the way back in the 1820s. As someone who enjoys fairy tales (old and new) and art, I'm looking forward to this book's publication in September.  Anyway, click on the link and you can check out the article, which features several illustrations that Daniel includes in his book.

Keeping the House by Ellen Baker

   It is 1950, and Dolly Magnuson is a twenty year old suburban housewife.  When her husband moves them to Pine Rapids, Wisconsin, Dolly is faced with the harsh realization that her marriage is not what she thought it would be.  She is overwhelmed with boredom until she stumbles upon the old Mickelson mansion - a once magnificent home of a well-established family that is now abandoned and in ruins.  Dolly begins asking neighbors about the house's history, and thus begins the interwoven tale of Dolly Magnuson and the Mickelson family.  This novel is both an epic family saga and an intimate portrayal of one woman's life during the churchgoing, apple pie-eating, nuclear family days of the 1950s.

   I really enjoyed this book.  The Mickelson family story is absorbing, and Ellen Baker does an excellent job of weaving together the past and the present, so Dolly's story fits seamlessly in with their own.  I was a little disappointed by the way things turned out for a few of the main characters, but overall, Keeping the House is a wonderful story that encourages readers to reexamine our own domestic lives and consider the communication it takes to maintain them.  This book encompasses passion, sorrow, guilt, tragedy, and the compromises that are made within families and relationships.

   It's a rather long story (530 pages), but definitely worth the time, especially for someone who enjoys accounts of late 19th and early 20th century domestic life.  As a society, we tend to look back on the 1950s as such a calm, peaceful, and happy time in American history, but through this book, Ellen Baker shows us that during this era, our country was still recovering from both World War I and World War II, and the importance of marriage and children was reinforced to serve as a distraction to the emotional, physical, and mental devastation that plagued returning soldiers and their families.  Female readers should really take the time to appreciate what the feminist movement has done for us after reading this novel.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Happy Birthday, America (and Nathaniel Hawthorne)

   Happy 4th of July to everyone! I hope y'all are eating hot dogs and potato chips and watching a spectacular fireworks show. I (unfortunately) will be working late tonight, so no fireworks for me. Oh well.

   As you reflect upon the birth of our nation, you may also reflect upon the birth of one of America's most celebrated writers, Nathaniel Hawthorne, who would be 207 years old if he were alive today.  while I can appreciate and respect Mr. Hawthorne, I must admit, I am not a huge fan.  I read The Scarlet Letter in high school , but did not enjoy it as much as I probably should have.  Maybe this is because the book's symbolism was discussed beyond recognition, which is always a turn-off.

   However, I did find his family's involvement in the Salem witch trials interesting (one of his ancestors was a judge at the trials) and I did enjoy one of his short stories, The Minister's Black Veil.  It's about a Puritan minister, Mr. Hooper, who one day gives his congregation a sermon while wearing a black veil over his face.  The veil is meant to symbolize sins and the way they can never be hidden by God, but Mr. Hooper wears it his entire life, and this is unnerving and sobering for the townspeople.  His obsession with sin eventually causes him to lose his fiance,  and he lives much of the rest of his life in isolation.  Written during a very religiously conservative time in American history, The Minister's Black Veil serves as a very bold commentary on those who succumb to obsession, even if it is in the name of God.

   Anyway, so there's a little piece of American literary history for you!  And what better way to celebrate our country than with adultery and obsession? If you're interested in reading the story, it is included in most anthologies of his work, including the Norton Critical Edition.

   I hope you all have a safe and happy 4th of July! :)

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Vacation books

One week from today, my husband and I will be taking a week-long vacation to Phoenix, Arizona to spend time with family (and hopefully enjoy some poolside reading time).  For the trip, I will be on an airplane for close to 9 hours total, so I want to take a few books with me to get me through the long flights. My husband has a stack of graphic novels to take, and here are the books I think I've finally settled on: