Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Almost Moon

I mentioned a few weeks ago that Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones is a disappointing and overrated book. Imagine my pleasure and delight (I always like to feel justified) when I read several reviews (The New York Times Sunday Book Review and USA Today) absolutely trashing her latest book The Almost Moon. However, Almost Moon sounded so bad that I just had to find out how bad it is for myself.

First, do not read this book. The protagonist (if I dare use that word), Helen, kills her mother. I am not giving away any plot details since Helen announces the murder in the book’s first sentence.

I am not sure what Sebold intends with Helen and her plot. Are we meant to sympathize with her? Should we feel murder is justified because her mother was not nurturing? Or is the book intended to be a glimpse inside the mind of a murderer? I suspect the first. However, I have absolutely no sympathy for Helen.

The rest of the book is a mishmash of events from Helen’s life: meeting her husband, divorcing her husband, the death of a neighbor. All these episodes, I’m sure, are meant to illuminate Helen’s psyche. Personally, they just leave me bored.

Sebold seems to delight in shocking her reader. Helen is a murderer, she uses the “f”-word as if it is sexy, she seduces her best friend’s son. Yet none of these actions is really shocking. Instead, they read like clichés.

Like I said, do not read this book. But I will also say it was not as terrible as the book reviews made it out to be. Or maybe it is, but reading the reviews took away much of the pleasure of discovering for myself how earth-shakingly awful the book really is.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Shopaholic & Baby

I started reading Sophie Kinsella’s Shopaholic & Baby several months ago and gave up in disgust. I had simply overdosed on Becky Bloomwood. I could not handle her shopping, flippancy, and lies anymore.

However, after basically drowning myself in depressing books for the last several weeks, I needed something light and humorous—I needed a dose of Becky Bloomwood.

This time around, I found Becky’s foibles entertaining and endearing—rather than irritating and annoying. She does deal with serious issues—problems with work and worries about her husband’s fidelity when he reunites with an ex-girlfriend.

However, readers can rest easy, knowing that all Becky’s problems will magically resolve themselves due to her cleverness and good luck. As such, not even the threat of an affair gave me anxiety or produced a single tear.

I have been a bit hard on Becky Bloomwood in the past. I am now discovering there is a time and a season for all reading. It simply is not healthy to consume too many frivolous books at one time, nor is it wise to bombard myself with depressing tomes. From now on, I commit to alternating fluff with substance.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Sports Books

I spent my day watching tennis matches. Naturally, my thoughts turned to sports-themed books. Despite working for a sports website, despite enjoying tennis, despite considering myself a wide (not a commentary on my physical appearance) reader, I cannot think of a single sports-themed book I’ve actually read from cover-to-cover.

  • It’s Not About the Bike: I started this book while waiting for someone at the library. The story was interesting, and at the time I was a huge Lance Armstrong fan. However, one problem with autobiographies—especially those written early in a subject’s life—is the subject has plenty of time to disappoint and disillusion his readers. The moment I heard Armstrong was chasing Paris Hilton (and I believe every bit of gossip), I lost all respect for anything he may have accomplished at any point in his life.
  • The Moves Make the Man: As a child, I had a rabid crush on a basketball player. I started this book to prove my devotion (to whom, I am unsure). However, although I remember starting it, I can’t remember finishing it. I suppose I didn’t adore him enough to finish a basketball-themed book. (Yet, in high school, I read a horrible Edgar Rice Burrows’s book to impress a boy. Don’t I have any self respect? And it did not work.) The Moves Make the Man is a Newbery Honor book, though, which should be recommendation enough.
  • The Legend of Bagger Vance: I lied. I read this book from cover-to-cover. Not only did I read this book about golf, but I actually enjoyed it. (The movie version is not nearly as good.) The story takes place in the early 1930s and has the feel of other books actually written during the era (think The Great Gatsby).

My sports reading is clearly anorexic. However, I’m not so sure I need to remedy the situation.

Friday, October 26, 2007

The Lost

My cousin, who I have never been close to, lent me The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million on her recent visit to France. At the time, she had no idea how interested in this book I would be.

The memoir recounts Daniel Mendelsohn’s search for information about the lives and deaths of his great uncle and his family. His journey starts with only one sure fact: his Uncle Shmiel and family were killed during the Nazi occupation of eastern Poland (now Ukraine).

As a Ukraine-phile, I was particularly interested that from his childhood, Mendelsohn’s grandfather (Uncle Shmiel’s brother) teaches him that Ukrainians are the worst people alive—much worse than the Nazis themselves. Yet, when he returns to his family’s ancestral village, Mendelsohn discovers the Ukrainians there are kind and gracious.

These sections resonate with me as I, too, struggle with similar feelings (though, of course, not on such a personal level as Mendelsohn). How can I love Ukraine so much knowing many Ukrainians collaborated with the Nazis?

I had an epiphany as I read Mendelsohn’s hypothesis that both Ukrainians and Jews, at this time, are at the bottom of the food chain. As such, the two groups struggle to gain ground on each other. For example, when the Russians are in power, the Jewish community is relieved because they alleviate some of its suffering. Yet, the Ukrainians are tortured at the Russian’s hands. Conversely, when the Germans take over, the Ukrainians are happy, while the Jews suffer unimaginably.

I read this section, had my epiphany, on a flight from Slovakia to France and wept furtively on the plane.

Yet, the book also includes graphic accounts of Ukrainian abuse that is simply irreconcilable. I found myself constantly shaking my head as I read descriptions of torture—of children smashed against rocks and men’s eyes cut out. I instinctively tried to shake these images from my mind.

Although the book is long, over 500 pages, and often meanders and is repetitive, I was completely invested in knowing for myself what happens to Uncle Shmiel, his wife, and four daughters.

Yet, I also sense that Mendelsohn is disingenuous in some of his writing. For example, he shares a family narrative about his great aunt being sold into marriage. In an earlier book, Mendelsohn writes about discovering this family story is not true. Yet, he never shares this fact with the readers of The Lost. I finished the book wondering if what Mendelsohn leaves out of the book is just as important as what he includes.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Guest Blog--Caldecott Again

Our latest Caldecott read was So You Want to Be President by Judith St. George and David Small.

This is a fascinating, non-fiction winner from 2000 (pre-George W.) that looks at those who have served as U.S. president. The great thing about the book is that it does so in a very non-boring way. For example, the authors cover several characterisitics shared by past presidents. For example, many past Commanders in Chief share common first names (William, John), common professions (lawyers, military men), common birth places, namely being born in a log cabin (obviously a claim of early presidents rather than later), etc.

My sister could not believe I was reading such a dry book to my girls, but it really wasn't bad. We read the book in two sittings as it is rather hearty; but I think my girls paid enough attention to learn a few things about past U.S. presidents. I know I did.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Eats, Shoots & Leaves

Somehow—I’m still trying to figure out how—I became the “editor-in-chief” of a website. I enjoy editing, it fits my extra-anal personality, but the ironic (I hope I’m using this word correctly) part of my “job” is that I work for a sports website. Let’s just say, I am not an expert on the topic. However, I am trying to become an expert on editing.

Unfortunately, reading about things like grammar and punctuation is almost as boring as reading about Heisman trophy candidates. The one book, as most everyone knows, that broke the snore factor is Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation.

I was excited to read this book when it first came out. I’d read great reviews in the New York Times, saw it was on the bestseller list, and wanted to know how Lynne Truss could make grammar sexy.

And she does a fine job. The book is entertaining—at least as entertaining as grammar can be. But Truss has a huge flaw: she’s British.

Okay, that is a bold and prejudiced statement. I don’t dislike Truss for her Britishness, but because of her nationality, her book is potentially dangerous. Another bold statement.

An American audience should only read Eat, Shoots & Leaves for entertainment—and not for educational—purposes. I read it for enjoyment and for punctuation insights, which drove me absolutely crazy. British English and American English simply are not the same. And neither are British punctuation rules and American. I almost lost my mind as Truss kept reinforcing rules like placing punctuation outside quotation marks. I cringe to think of it.

I am not blaming Truss for being British. But I do wonder how many American readers learned “improper” punctuation rules from her book. That being said, if you see any errors on the website I edit, or this one, blame it on Eats, Shoots & Leaves.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Third Reich Literature

I am currently reading Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost, but that will be a later review. However, reading this book, combined with my recent trip to Central Europe, has me thinking about other “Third Reich Literature.”

I recently came across this description. I have more commonly heard these books referred to as “Holocaust Literature,” but I feel hesitant to use the phrase (and felt disturbed using “Genocide Literature” in my recent research) because it seems to almost diminish the importance of the term. Yet, using Third Reich feels equally inappropriate.

That being said, Holocaust or Third Reich Literature is prolific. Because of my interest in Ukraine, which was occupied by the Nazis, I have read a lot of it. You cannot be interested in one topic without the other.

Here are a few books I would highly recommend on the topic:

  • The Book Thief: I reviewed this masterpiece (yes, masterpiece) a few weeks ago. You can read more about it here.
  • Behind the Secret Window: This memoir is a shorter and perhaps less upsetting read. Behind the Secret Window is Nelly Toll’s memoir of being a child in hiding during the German invasion.
  • Everything is Illuminated: I have referred to this novel by Jonathan Safran Foer several times. It is one of those books, though, that is so good it has stayed with me since I first read it in 2002. The book is told in two alternating parts. In one part, Jonathan Safran Foer (the fictionalized author) returns to Ukraine to visit his family’s shtetl. In the other section, Foer recounts the history of his grandfather. To be perfectly honest, I am not nearly as interested in the sections about the grandfather. The writing is very stylistic and the grandfather's exploits as a great lover do not interest me. But the parts about Jonathan, as narrated by his tour guide Alex, are so “premium” I could read them over and over again.
  • A Strange and Unexpected Love: A Teenage Girl’s Holocaust Memoirs: One of the difficulties of learning about genocides is trying to comprehend how people could and can act so viciously. Fanya Gottsfeld Heller’s memoir is a moving account of these atrocities. However, Heller also pays tribute to those few people who risk their lives to save hers. She reveals small glimpses of humanity in the most inhumane of circumstances.

Monday, October 22, 2007

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

This weekend, I visited Prague where Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, the creator of the golem, is buried in the Jewish Cemetery.

My first introduction to the golem came when I read Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.

My initial reaction is that this is a “guy” book. The two main characters, cousins Samuel Klayman and Joseph Kavalier, get involved in magic and comic books—two pastimes I associate with males. Despite not feeling a strong connection to the characters or their interests, the book is a valuable read for its historical context.

Joe escapes from Prague during the Nazi occupation. Unfortunately, the rest of his family was not so lucky. It wasn’t until reading this book that I was motivated to do further research on Jewish refugees in the United States. I was shocked and ashamed to discover the United States had refused entry to a ship carrying Jewish refugees, sending them all to their deaths back in Europe.

I was also fascinated by Joe’s involvement in magic, and Chabon gives away several magicians’ “secrets.” For example, Joe hollows out his cheek so he can hide keys there.

Although I found much of the subtext interesting, the book is overly long (656 pages) and, as I’ve mentioned, so male-oriented I often felt alienated as a female reader.

If you are interested in literature about WWII and the Third Reich, rather than read Kavalier & Clay, check my recommendations in tomorrow’s review.

Friday, October 19, 2007


I have been frantically preparing the last few days for a little trip/adventure I’m about to embark on in the morning.

Since moving to France, I’ve discovered that tourists live and die by their guidebooks. A friend visited a few weeks ago, and every night she would pour over multiple guidebooks—Frommer’s, Lonely Planet, and Michelin—to prepare for her next day’s activities.

Not surprisingly, Rick Steves is the god of tourists. I’ve heard dozens of people drop his name, as if he is a close and personal friend: “Rick Steves says to eat at this restaurant”; “I just went on the Rick Steves walking tour”; “What does Rick have to say about this museum?”

It’s terrifying to actually consider how much power Rick Steves has over the tourism industry in Europe. Guess what? Rick Steves says to pass on Giverny and Monet’s gardens, and Rick Steves is wrong.

I, of course, have read a travel book or two in my day. However, I am more attracted to the culture guides. Instead of recommending tourist attractions, hotels, or restaurants, these guides give the outsider a glimpse at what makes natives tick.

At one point, I considered moving to Hungary to work for a year, so I read Culture Shock! Hungary: A Guide to Customs and Etiquette before making my decision. I was struck by how harsh Zsuzsanna Ardo, the author, is on her fellow Hungarians. She criticizes how fatty the foods are and how disgusting some of the men can be. Though both criticisms may be accurate, she, herself, has clearly been acculturated by living in Western Europe.

I also recently read Culture Smart! Ukraine: A Quick Guide to Customs and Etiquette. Anna Shevchenko gives tips on socializing with Ukrainians, doing business with them, and warns about cultural taboos. The only problem with reading these guides after visiting a country is discovering how offensive I may acted. I just hope the natives chalk it up to crazy Americanism.

So, naturally, I turned to the library where I work to find books for my latest trip. Unfortunately, the library’s most recent book on Prague is from 2004, Budapest from 2002, and it doesn’t even carry a guidebook to Bratislava. When it comes to tourism, currency is everything.

Libraries complain that users now rely too much on the internet and not enough on the library. Guidebooks are the perfect example why. Libraries can’t afford to buy every guidebook every year, and tourists simply can’t afford to rely on anything but the latest.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Guest Blog--Australian Mysteries

My mother introduced me to Arthur Upfield's Australian mystery novels. She left The New Shoe at my house, and I found it while searching for something to read.

Upfield's mysteries take place after WWII and feature a part-Aboriginal detective, Napoleon Bonaparte, or "Bony." I thoroughly enjoyed The New Shoe, a novel giving me the feel of an Agatha Christie. (Agatha Christie is my favorite mystery author, and I love "cozy" mysteries.)

With warm memories of The New Shoe in mind, I searched for other Upfield novels. Most of them are now out of print, so I did some Ebay shopping to come up with others. The results have most definitely been mixed. Some delve too far into mystical aspects of Aboriginal life, and one even featured prisoners held captive in a cavern--not exactly my idea of a cozy mystery.

My latest read was The Widows of Broome. Widows fell somewhere in the middle of the Upfield genre, giving me enough traditional mystery to be satsifying while not overly annoying me with Bonaparte's sleuthing tactics.

Widows begins with two murdered widows in a small town in northwestern Australia. Bony is forced to use his tracking and deduction skills to find the murderer before he takes another victim. The read isn't stellar, but it's a good novel when you need some relaxation (assuming you aren't a widow living alone).

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Ethan Frome

I watched a movie adaptation of Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome a few years ago that I found thoroughly depressing. As such, I had no desire to ever actually read the book. However, I just found a Dover edition at my apartment and discovered the text is less than 80 pages. I figured I could cope with depressing for that long.

Maybe it’s because I knew the basic plot, because I was prepared to be overwhelmingly depressed, that I actually enjoyed the story.

The reader knows from the outset that Ethan Frome has a miserable life, that his body is horribly mangled from an accident years before. The rest of the story reveals why. If you don’t want any hints, stop reading now.

Ethan falls in love with his wife’s cousin, Mattie. I was intrigued by their relationship. Neither character shows any hesitation about or remorse for falling in love. The question of morals, the idea that they would be committing adultery, never really seems to cross their minds.

I have a tendency to suspend my own beliefs when I read. How often have I wished for two characters to become romantically involved, regardless of their marital status? As such, I wasn’t disturbed by Ethan’s desire to commit adultery. After all, his wife is a harridan. Doesn’t that make it okay?

The book is tragic but does not wallow in misfortune. Instead, Wharton presents the story in a straightforward manner. This is what happens, this is what motivated the characters, and these are the results of their decisions. She shows great respect for her reader by not trying to manipulate his emotions.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Nature Reads

Since finishing Into the Wild and after spending the weekend at Monet’s gardens, I’ve been thinking about naturalistic writing. I am not a huge fan of the genre. I’d rather read about relationships between humans than with landscapes. This being said, here are three books I would recommend to nature enthusiasts:

  • The Second John McPhee Reader: I would include the John McPhee Reader on this list, but I haven’t read it. The second reader, though, includes several creative nonfiction essays documenting McPhee’s fascinating (and sometimes not-so-fascinating) experiences with nature. For example, in one essay he travels through Alaska and in another follows the Swiss Army. At times, his essays can be too dry and full of facts—particularly the one on plate tectonics—but I can relate to McPhee’s wanderlust.
  • Refuge: Terry Tempest Williams is not to everyone’s taste because her nature writing is clearly motivated by politics and activism. However, in Refuge, she elegantly weaves changes in wildlife at the Great Salt Lake with her family history of breast cancer.
  • Teaching a Stone to Talk: Annie Dillard, of course, is the quintessential nature writer—and just a good writer, in general. When I taught English, I always used Dillard to exemplify figurative language. She has an amazing eye for detail and ability to bring that detail to life. Her description of a weasel in “Living like Weasels” as “thin as a curve, a muscled ribbon” is almost unbearably good.

Monday, October 15, 2007

The Green Library

Janice Kulyk Keefer is the Ukrainian-Canadian writer. This distinction may not mean much to most readers, but I feel obligated to read her. As such, I started her memoirs Honey and Ashes several months ago but found the writing sluggish and inaccessible. I tried Kulyk Keefer again this weekend with her novel The Green Library.

At first, I found The Green Library equally difficult to read. I am not an expert on contemporary Canadian writers. However, my experience is that many of them favor stylistic writing. Kulyk Keefer is no exception. At first, her writing felt dense and self-conscious. I was more aware of the words on the page—of trying to decipher her meaning—than actually comprehending or enjoying the story itself.

Eventually, though, I grew more accustomed to Kulyk Keefer’s writing and found myself more absorbed in the story and less distracted by the writing.

Eva is a middle-aged woman who unexpectedly discovers she has Ukrainian heritage. She visits Ukraine and becomes reacquainted with a boy (now a man) she knew as a child.

Although I’m not as young as I’d like to be, I still have difficulty enjoying and relating to stories about middle-aged women who experience relationship crises. Kulyk Keefer continually describes Eva as an extraordinarily caring and sympathetic woman. Yet, she alienates her longtime lover, seems complacent about cutting off ties with her lover’s child whom she raised, and rarely appears concerned about her own biological son. As a person, I found her unattractive and unappealing.

But I am in love with Ukraine, and I enjoyed Kulyk Keefer’s descriptions of a 1993 Kiev. The book has too much Ukrainian history, something that could be incredibly boring to the average reader, but I was fascinated by it.

Ultimately, the book held my interest, but The Green Library may not be to everyone’s taste.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Guest Blog--Steeped in Murder by Linda French

I recently read Linda French's murder mystery Steeped in Murder. An acquaintance suggested the book since I lived in the Northwest for four years.

The result was disappointing. This is definitely one of the more mediocre mysteries I have read. The main character, and "detective," is a history professor in Bellingham, Washington, specializing in Northwest History. Professor Morelli's chair dies suspiciously and she gets tied up in trying to find out why.

The problem with this novel is that it is full of unnecessary information relating to the professor's career: investigating Native American burial ruins, delving into the past of a Civil War general--you get the idea. These things are not totally boring, but they are far too detailed and detract from the story.

It's no surprise--Linda French is a history professor living in Washington. I think this is a case of someone's personal life getting too involved in her murder mystery.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Tortured Noble

At work on Tuesday, I walked past Tortured Noble: The Story of Leo Tolstoy by Neil Heims. Normally, I wouldn’t have paid too much attention to this biography. Although I'm addicted to all things Eastern European, I haven’t really gotten into Tolstoy. I’ve never read War and Peace. And although I enjoyed a Masterpiece Theatre adaptation of Anna Karenina, I’ve started the book several times without finishing.

However, on Tuesday I also finished Into the Wild (see my previous post), and Chris McCandless was obsessed with Tolstoy. Tolstoy, in theory, had inspired McCandless to abandon his family, his possessions, and to burn all his money before embarking into the wilderness.

I was intrigued, then, by what kind of man could inspire such a loyal follower. I know I would be better served to actually read War and Peace, but Heims’ short biography was more accessible.

And the book is short—less than 150 pages with generous-sized print. As such, I suspect the text is actually meant for young people. Tolstoys’s life, though, was definitely juicy. Although he preached chastity, self-sacrifice, and poverty, Tolstoy had a difficult time actually following his own precepts.

Tolstoy went through periods of intense gambling and had a voracious sexual appetite (did I really just write that?). Even in his 60s, while preaching abstinence, he impregnated his wife for the thirteenth time.

Tolstoy did not inspire me, and I have no plans to abandon money and comforts. Yet, I do understand the feelings of guilt he experienced over his bad behavior. Fortunately, my guilt has nothing to do with gambling away my inheritance or visiting prostitutes.

Of course, what I think of Tolstoy himself has little to do with the book. It was a fast and informative, though I’m sure extremely edited, read—and that’s all I really required.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Into the Wild

My sister-in-law recently recommended Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, and since the movie just came out, I decided I better read it.

The book recounts the events that led to Chris McCandless’s death in the Alaska wilderness. Krakauer is a journalist (and outdoors enthusiast) and thoroughly researched his subject, tracing McCandless’s steps and interviewing those who knew him and met him on his journey.

Krakauer is not an elegant writer. However, his straightforward, journalistic style is appropriate for the content. He does not place words in McCandless’s mouth, assign motivations for his conduct, nor overly speculate on what happened or why.

I appreciate Krakauer’s willingness to let the reader come to his/her own conclusions about McCandless and his decisions. Not everyone is so willing to trust his audience.

(For example, although the movie got good reviews, I strongly disliked Open Water because it is full of speculation. The movie claims to be based on a true story. Yet, no one actually knows what happened to the two stranded divers because no one else was there as a witness. How, then, can the movie be true?)

Krakauer also includes several histories of other “adventurers” and part of his own story. I felt a bit impatient during these scenes. They are supposedly meant to parallel, and perhaps shed light on, McCandless’s journey, but they feel more like unnecessary filler.

I’ve heard some critics suggest that McCandless was mentally ill. I was surprised, then, with how much I could relate to him. No, I have never wanted to hitchhike across the United States or forage for berries in the Alaskan wilderness. But I have had such strong desires to travel, to see things, to have adventures that I ache inside. Perhaps, this simply means I am also mentally disturbed.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Guest Blog--More Caldecott

Smoky Night, by Eve Bunting and David Diaz, was the second Caldecott winner I read to my daughters. The book and the subsequent questions were eye-opening.

Smoky Night recounts the events of a riot from the perspective of a young boy. The boy tells about his fears, his family's removal to a shelter when their apartment building is set on fire, and finally how the events helped the neighborhood overcome some racial prejudices.

The topic was far heavier than I expected from a children's book. The looting and burning in the book provoked many questions from my six-year-old: "Why are they stealing things?" "Could that happen to us?" The fact that they did an earthquake drill in her class that day didn't help matters. "What if there was an earthquake?" "What would we do?"

I admit that I found myself a bit unprepared for such deep questions. I still need to do more research so that I can explain the issues better to my daughter.

However, despite the awkwardness of our reading Smoky Night, I feel the book provoked good questions and taught good lessons.

Oh, and the artwork is fascinating. The text is backed by real-life objects relating to each part of the story. It's worthwhile to pick up the book just to see it.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Guest Blog--Suffer the Children by Donna Leon

I don't always read two books by the same author back to back. However, this novel was published this year and I have been on a waiting list at the library hoping for it to become available. And of course, when it did, I had to read it right away.

Suffer the Children is a little different from past books. Commissario Brunetti becomes interested in a case where a child who was illegally "adopted" is taken away from his parents at the age of 18 months. Since he was sold by his birth mother who does not want him, the baby is destined for an orphanage under the state's care instead of living in the warmth of his adopted parents' love. The story has lots of emotional conflict.

However, more than anything I enjoyed the glimpses into life in Venice; a city without streets or automobiles. At one point in the story Brunetti and another policeman, Vianello, find themselves in a taxi in another city. The description of their terror at being seat belted into an automobile that is zigzagging through traffic is delightful. They can hardly wait to return to their own city where they walk everywhere or travel by boat. Leon tells also of the cobblestones being lifted in Venice while construction work is done to raise the streets as a defense against the annual flooding. When the stones are laid again they are precut stones that are exactly alike. What happened to the cobblestones that had lain in the streets of Venice for centuries? Has someone in a minor public office sold them to someone for some extra money under the table? I think that these small pictures of life in a very different world from my own intrigue me as much as the mysteries themselves. Like most of Leon's stories this one has no clear black or white judgements, only questions about how we see the world and what we value in our own lives.

Friday, October 5, 2007

The Thirteenth Tale

Occasionally, I peruse the New York Times and bestsellers lists to see what the kids are reading. Diane Setterfield’s novel The Thirteenth Tale popped out from the rest. Words like “ghost story” and “haunted” intrigued me. It is now October—the perfect time to read a haunted ghost story.

I kept waiting for the book to be spooky, scary, frightening—anything Halloween-like. I was disappointed. In fact, I almost abandoned the book after the first 100 pages. The story is about masochism, extreme cruelty, and incest—not exactly my favorite topics.

I persisted, but I’m not sure it was worth it. I found Setterfield’s writing irritatingly, unnecessarily, and unnaturally verbose. She refers continually to Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and The Woman in White (I wonder if she’s ever read any other books), so her wordiness might be a tribute to an earlier style. However, she is no Brontë or Wilkie Collins, does not live in the nineteenth century, and can not pull it off. Indeed, four different characters narrate the book, and they all drag on endlessly.

The main character, Margaret Lea, also lacks appeal. She should be my ideal character—she works in an antique books store and is obsessed with nineteenth-century literature—but I actually feel repulsed by her. Setterfield tries so hard to make Margaret into the perfect reader that the character lacks authenticity and appeal.

And don’t get me started on the anachronisms. The book appears to take place in modern times, yet Margaret, a researcher, never uses a cell phone, makes no mention of a computer (she writes her book by hand and uses archives for all her research), and communicates using snail mail. Excuse me?

Before starting this review, I thought I had luke-warm feelings about the book. Apparently not.

Thursday, October 4, 2007


After finishing The Book Thief, I decided to read something light and inconsequential. Instead, I chose Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis.

is another one of those books I had heard about for a long time but was slow to read.

The graphic novel recounts Satrapi's experiences as a child during the Islamic Revolution in Iran. Fundamentalists oust the Shah's repressive regime and replace it with an equally oppressive religious one.

Satrapi's artwork is engaging, and she tells the story with both humor and blunt honesty. Marji is a precocious and endearing child, but her childhood is far from representative of the Iranian experience.

Marji's grandfather was a prince, ousted by the Shah. Her parents, relatives, and acquaintances are politically active. Some are imprisoned and some killed for their stances. Marji is adored and coddled by her family and allowed freedoms few other girls enjoy.

Satrapi is a fine storyteller and her history is worth telling. Yet, perhaps because my emotions were tightly wound after finishing The Book Thief only a few hours earlier, Persepolis seems to lack the depths of emotional honesty and the resonating truths of a Deogratias.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Guest Blog--The Anonymous Venetian by Donna Leon

An acquaintance recommended Donna Leon several years ago. After reading one of her novels about Commissario Brunetti, I began looking for them in all of the local libraries. The Anonymous Venetian is actually Donna Leon's third novel; copyrighted in 1994. How I missed reading it earlier, I have no idea. Once again I was so impressed with her writing style. And I am secretly much in love with the Commissario. Fortunately he is very devoted to his beautiful wife Paolo, a professor of English literature in Venice. Of course, this only makes him a more attractive, fictitious character.

In this novel a body dressed in a red dress and red high-heeled shoes is found dead near an industrial area. The body turns out to be that of a man and it doesn't take long for Brunetti to realize that the legs must have been shaved after his death since none of the nicks on his legs bled. Of course, the victim is not at all what he seems to be.

Too often Leon's novels end on an unsatisfactory note because of corruption in Italian society and government. I won't give away the ending on this one. Most of her novels follow the investigator's thought processes and his gathering of information and move rather slowly. This one has enough violence and action that I can actually understand why apparently the novels have been adapted for German television. Leon has never disappointed me and this one certainly did not. Her mysteries are always worth reading.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

The Book Thief

I have written a lot lately about less-than-stellar books. Sometimes, though, I come across a book that makes me thank God I can read.

I am late jumping on The Book Thief bandwagon. The book has been receiving praise for months and recently came out in paperback, but I was slow to pick it up.

Now that I've finished, I find it difficult to describe what the book is about. Perhaps it is enough to say the story takes place in Nazi Germany and is narrated by Death. As Death explains, humans can be both beautiful and devastating to each other. I sobbed, heart-aching sobs, for the last 200 pages.

The book is long, 550 pages, and the writing dense. It is not a quick or easy read because of both content and style, yet I would not delete or alter a word of the text.

I haven't read such innovative writing since Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything is Illuminated.

Having death as a narrator is a bold gimmick that could have easily backfired. But Zusak's Death is eloquent and appealing. I feel a similar attachment and attraction to all the book's characters, a difficult feat to accomplish.

This review feels short, unfinished, and inadequate. But all I can really write is read this book.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Guest Blog--Caldecott Efforts

I recently made the goal of reading all of the Caldecott books to my girls. My goal is to check out one or two Caldecott winners each time we go to the library.

Our first book was Rapunzel by Paul O. Zelinsky. Zelinsky is an incredible artist, and his renaissance-style illustrations are incredible and detailed. I gloried in the illustrations as we began the tale of Rapunzel. And then I was a bit shocked. This is not the tame Rapunzel I was expecting.

Apparently this Rapunzel is true to its origins, being traced through various countries until it reached the Brothers Grimm. I shouldn't be surprised that the Grimm version is a bit shocking. In this tale, Rapunzel meets a male (the prince) for the very first time when he climbs her hair to her tower prison. The prince convinces her to marry him then and there in a ceremony concocted by the two of them. The prince returns each night, and suddenly Rapunzel is confused by her swelling belly.

Oh my! Fortunately, my six-year-old did not ask for any detailed explanation. However, this isn't a fairy tale I want sitting on the bookshelf of my small children.