Monday, March 31, 2008

Sense and Sensibility, Part I

Finally, after weeks and weeks of making us wait and suffer, Masterpiece premiered another new Jane Austen adaptation last night: the first half of Sense and Sensibility. To be fair, I can’t review the movie until next week when I’ve seen the whole. However, I will say that I thoroughly enjoyed Part I (something I could not say about the other adaptations) and recommend any book or movie lover catch Part I (if possible) and Part II next week.

This version of Sense and Sensibility (and particularly the 1995 Emma Thompson version) does raise one of my literary adaptation pet peeves. Why can’t filmmakers actually cast actors who are the same age as the characters they play?

Sense and Sensibility’s Elinor and Marianne Dashwood are 19 and 17 years old, respectively. Colonel Brandon is over 35. The actors playing the Dashwoods, though, are clearly in their late 20s and Colonel Brandon in his 40s (Emma Thompson’s age has been talked to death, so I’ll only mention it here). I would love to see a literary adaptation where Jane Eyre is really played by an 18-year-old and Catherine Morland a 17-year-old.

Of course, Hollywood has a long tradition of casting older actors in young roles—just look at The O.C. and Beverly Hill 90210 for proof. Not long ago, though, I read an interesting article by USA Today’s Robert Bianco suggesting the sexual nature of these shows precludes age-accurate actors. The viewing population can only accept teens’ sexuality if the characters don’t actually look like teens.

Bianco makes a valid point. A 17-year-old Marianne Dashwood and 35-year-old Colonel Brandon smacks of pedophilia to a 21st-century audience. The same can be suggested for a Mr. Knightley who falls in love with Emma long before she turns 21 (or 18, for that matter) when he is 16 years her senior.

Although I long for an accurate film adaptation, perhaps my sanity is better off without it.

Friday, March 28, 2008

The Kitchen Boy

Robert Alexander’s The Kitchen Boy is a fictionalized account of the Romanovs’ last days. Several historical records mention a kitchen boy working for Tsar Nicholas and Tsarina Alexandra during their captivity in Yekaterinburg. These references inspired the novel.

Misha is the kitchen boy. In the late 1990s, he lives in the United States and has recently lost his wife. Before dying himself, he makes a tape for his granddaughter, explaining exactly what happened to the Romanovs on the days preceding and immediately following their murders.

I was fascinated by the account, particularly since most of my background on the topic comes directly from the animated feature Anastasia.

Alexander humanizes the royal family but also holds them accountable for much of Russia’s recent history. Indeed, Misha suggests if the royal family had acted differently, had been more in tune with the country, they could have prevented Stalin’s eventual reign of terror and spared the lives of millions.

Despite their heavy historical responsibility, despite knowing their fates, I irrationally hoped the family, particularly the children, would escape and was horrified by the manner of their deaths. The women had hidden jewels in their corsets. When the firing squad shot at the princesses, the bullets ricocheted off the gems, prolonging their deaths.

Unfortunately, the book’s ending goes astray, pushing reality so much I could no longer suspend my disbelief. Like Alexander’s Rasputin’s Daughter, though, Kitchen Boy inspired me to research further to discover how much of Alexander’s account was based on fact and what we really know about those last few days. Despite the obvious liberties Alexander takes, the book does not claim to be anything but fiction; it is well written and certainly entertaining.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Book Buzz

  • Last week, I caught an NPR report on book-centered social networking sites. I shouldn’t have listened. I already have LibraryThing, Goodreads, and Shelfari accounts, and now I’ll end up wasting hours playing with aNobii and BookJetty.
  • My father reminds me daily to watch the John Adams miniseries on HBO. Apparently, it’s worth watching since David McCullough’s book is back on the bestsellers at #31.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Guest Blog--And the Oscar for Best Picture goes to….

When I first told people that I was reading No Country for Old Men by Cormack McCarthy, they asked me about the extreme violence shown in the movie’s trailer and its ad campaign for Oscar.
I have to admit that I was excited to see the movie since I am a big fan of the Coen brother’s Fargo. I enjoyed the book, and the movie did it justice.

But what has perplexed me is the lack of discussion about the violence in the other Best Picture Nominee based on a bestselling book, Atonement.

Rape, pedophilia, and war are the conflicts faced by the characters in Ian McEwan’s Atonement. The extreme violence portrayed in the novel is often committed by aristocratic Brits. In a way, this lessens the impact and shock on the reader. This may be the Westerner in me, but I felt like a foreigner, an outsider, or mainly an American watching BBC-type violence, which is a little too romanticized for me.

There are copious levels of violence in both books, but I feel like McCarthy relates to the readers' own fears and resonates well with the common reader, while McEwan relates to Eastenders fans and lovers of other BBC-type shows, including PBS’s Mystery!.

This was one Academy Award that the Members got right.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Good-bye, Billy Radish

After reading The Circle of Blood, I did a little research on Alane Ferguson. I discovered two interesting things: first, her website could use some help; second, her mother is also a prolific young adult author, Gloria Skurzynski.

Good-bye, Billy Radish is my first Skurzynski novel and probably my last. The writing is adequate, but I found myself suffering from a mild case of ennui while reading the book.

The story should have been gripping. Hank is a preteen living in Pennsylvania during WWI. His family works at the local steel mill, and he is terrified at the prospect of working there when he grows up.

Over lunch on Saturday, though, contributor notaconnoisseur asked me what Billy Radish is really about. I pondered the question and came up with very little. Ultimately, I settled on two themes; however, I may have forced the interpretations because I wanted the book to have something deep to contribute.

First, I suggest that Hank struggles with the idea of heroism. Are only soldiers heroes? Can reluctant soldiers, or soldiers with questionable characters, still be heroes? And are those that stay behind—the men working in the steel mill—cowards or heroes?

Second, the book shows that even during war, death comes in many forms: battle, industry, influenza.

I shouldn’t have to work so hard to find meaning in a children’s book—and maybe I shouldn’t expect to find something deep. Good-bye, Billy Radish is an adequate read, and I respect Skurzynski for taking on an important historical issue. Overall, though, it is far from a thrilling book.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Guest Blog--Let's meet at the local diner

Just like CSI: Miami, Home to Harmony by Philip Gulley has a catchphrase at the end of every chapter.

Harmony is a collection of stories narrated by a pastor of the local Quaker congregation in fictional Harmony, Indiana. Sam Gardner returns to Harmony after attending Seminary school out of state. He faces the challenges of a new pastor in a small town that prefers the way things "used to be done." The congregation has the typical busybody member and gossiping women's group. But there's also a sweet couple who gives up all they have in order to save their niece from her deadbeat parents.

Although each chapter ends with a little saying or anecdote, which at times is pretty cheesy, I found myself feeling a little tearful after being reminded of how important my spouse is or the blessings of family - great, now I'm sounding like Pastor Gardner.

I've always loved TV shows about small towns - Gilmore Girls, Veronica Mars, and General Hospital. I secretly love the dynamics of a small town and its quirky interactions. Harmony fits in that genre, and I enjoyed the quick read.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Little White Lies

I was in need of a romantic fix, so I picked up Gemma Townley’s Little White Lies. Townley and Shopaholic’s Sophie Kinsella (Madeleine Wickham) are actually sisters, and they both excel in the “Chick Lit” genre. Kinsella’s books have better-developed characters and plots than White Lies, but Townley has the formula down.

White Lies' Natalie Raglan moves to London and finds herself alone and lonely. She’s jealous of the mail and phone calls Cressida, who used to live in Natalie’s flat, still receives and starts opening the letters. In a drunken stupor, Natalie calls Simon—one of Cressida’s contacts—and passes herself off as Cressida.

Not surprisingly, I found Natalie’s lies and deceptions frustrating, painful, and completely unnecessary. Then again, I always thought white lies were telling a friend you like her top and not assuming someone else’s identity.

Ultimately, Natalie and Simon fall in love with lightening speed, but she risks that relationship with her lies and an obligatory, Three’s Company-like eavesdropping scene.

Of course, in fine generic tradition, despite Natalie’s deceptions and mistakes, she ends up on top both professionally and romantically. Little White Lies is far from a literary masterpiece, but it does give love junkies a nice romantic fix.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Book Buzz

  • Last week, I mentioned the upcoming movie version of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. On Tuesday, Anthony Minghella, the film’s director, died of surgical complications.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Moby Clique

Miranda Tate returns to Bard Academy—a boarding school for delinquent teens—in Cara Lockwood’s third installment of the Bard Academy series, Moby Clique.

This time, Miranda has her younger sister, Lindsay, in tow. Lindsay quickly falls in love with Miranda’s ex, Ryan, and aligns with Miranda’s arch nemesis, Parker. Throw in some pirates, and Miranda is clearly in for a difficult semester.

Overall, the Bard Academy series is harmless. Miranda is an appealing heroine. She and her friends are likely the mildest and kindest high school delinquents in history, and I can’t help but root for her relationship with Heathcliff. I was never attracted to Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights because of his intense cruelty, but Lockwood’s Heathcliff is a teenage girl’s dream.

The major flaw of the series—and Moby—is Lockwood’s characterization of dead authors. In this case, she totally impugns Sylvia Plath. Clearly, Plath had severe emotional issues. However, it is quite a leap to make her a villain. If I were part of Plath’s estate, I may have a juicy lawsuit on my hands.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Reader

After reading Homecoming last week, I picked up Bernhard Schlink’s more famous (i.e., Oprah-endorsed) novel The Reader. Reader is clearly a precursor to Homecoming, particularly in its discussion of Schlink’s seemingly-favorite story, The Odyssey.

The novel’s plot is fairly straightforward. Fifteen-year-old Michael Berg has a brief affair with Hanna Schmitz, 21 years his senior. Years later, they are reunited when Hanna is tried for Nazi war crimes.

Although the story’s premise is interesting (and rather titillating), the moral questions Michael raises are the real substance of the novel. He only briefly mentions the effects of his underage relationship with Hanna. Instead, he dwells on the effects of and responsibility for Nazism on second-generation Germans (and perhaps all humanity). A few passages from the novel better express these issues than I ever could:

  • “What should our second generation have done, what should it do with the knowledge of the horrors of the extermination of the Jews?” (104).
  • “Today there are so many books and films that the world of the camps is part of our collective imagination and completes our ordinary everyday one. Our imagination knows its way around it, and since the television series Holocaust and movies like Sophie’s Choice and especially Schindler’s List, actually moves in it, not just registering but supplementing and embellishing it” (148).
  • “I [Michael] wanted simultaneously to understand Hanna’s crime and to condemn it. But it was too terrible for that. When I tried to understand it, I had the feeling I was failing to condemn it as it must be condemned. When I condemned it as it must be condemned, there was no room for understanding. . . . I could not resolve this. I wanted to pose myself both tasks—understanding and condemnation. But it was impossible to do both” (157).

Michael has no answers to the questions he raises—and rightfully so—but he does invite the reader to wrestle with these same issues.

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Circle of Blood

In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, I read Alane Ferguson’s The Circle of Blood. Okay, the book has nothing to do with Ireland, but Cameryn Mahoney’s grandmother (mammaw) is Irish. (Also, I wanted to acknowledge some-time contributor Wanna-Be Lit on her birthday.)

Circle is the third book in Ferguson’s young adult “Forensic Mystery” series. Cameryn is a senior in high school and works with her father, the local coroner. She dreams of becoming a medical examiner, but these dreams are put into jeopardy when she investigates the death of a young drifter. Cameryn believes her mother may be involved and compromises her professional integrity to help her.

I hate when female characters make stupid decisions, and it seems to happen in almost every book and movie. At times, Cameryn makes choices that are clearly dimwitted. However, she is 17 years old, and 17-year-olds (both male and female) can be very stupid.

Cameryn can also be frustrating, particularly in her relationship with Justin, the sheriff’s deputy. If I were her, I would be all over hottie Justin, but I guess successful romances don’t make for dramatic young adult novels.

Despite my criticisms, Circle’s last few pages—though not necessarily logical or consistent with the rest of the book—gave me the creeps: the good kind that sends a thrill of chills through your body.

I can hardly wait for the next book in the series.

Friday, March 14, 2008


I read Bernhard Schlink’s latest book, Homecoming, based on a brief blurb in USA Today’s Winter books preview: “Moral questions confront children of WWII parents; set in Germany.”

Based on this description, I was expecting something different than I found in Homecoming. Yes, the main character, Peter Debauer, does have parents who lived through WWII. Yes, the book takes place in Germany. But Schlink is a German himself, and the book was translated from German by Michael Henry Heim.

Although the novel is not what I expected—contemporary Germans confronting their cultural past (a topic addressed in Schlink's The Reader)—it does not disappoint.

Peter narrates his life, starting from his childhood visiting grandparents in Switzerland. The book has a leisurely pace; Peter is in no hurry to take the reader to a specific point or event. Yet, despite its meandering tone, I did not feel impatience with it because I did not know where the book was taking me. I have never been a fan of road trips, but the analogy applies with this book. It is not the destination that matters with Homecoming but the journey.

While visiting his grandparents, Peter obtains a partial galley copy of a “homecoming” story. He becomes obsessed with finding the end of the story and the book's author. The concept of homecoming drives the novel. Peter starts collecting tales of soldiers returning home from war, often to find their wives have moved on. The book constantly references the seminal homecoming story, The Odyssey.

The novel is also quite philosophical. Although I have never been a fan of philosophy and did not love The Odyssey when I read it in high school, I was not put off by these elements. In fact, I was intrigued by the concept of the “Iron Rule” introduced in the book. Whereas the Golden Rule is often stated as “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” the Iron Rule, which Peter suggests the Nazis lived by, is essentially be willing to endure yourself anything you would inflict on someone else.

With it’s emphasis on philosophy and the journey (another element of The Odyssey), Homecoming is not the kind of book I typically read. Yet, Schlink is a fine storyteller and, more than that, invites the reader to think beyond the book.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Book Buzz

  • With the news that yet another author (Margaret Seltzer) has faked her memoirs, The New York Times featured an article about the history of literary faking. Here’s my two cents: instead of lying about their memoirs, why don’t these authors release their books as fiction. Was A Million Little Pieces so poorly written that readers only liked it because they believed it was true? Couldn’t it have been a successful piece of fiction?
  • I fancy myself an avid reader, but I’m constantly reminded how little I know about the literary world. The Times reviewed Antonio Skarmata’s book The Dancer and the Thief this week. Several months ago, I reviewed Skarmata’s children’s book The Composition. At the time, I never made the connection between the picture book and Ardiente paciencia, which inspired the movie Il Postino.
  • A film based on Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is now in production. I love these books and hope the movie does them justice. At least it’s being filmed in Botswana.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Death of a Gentle Lady

I was half-way through another book when I got the call: My copy of the latest Hamish Macbeth was available at the library. I immediately put down my book, rushed to the library, and devoured Death of a Gentle Lady in one evening.

Every year, I look forward to the latest Hamish installment, and Gentle Lady did not disappoint. The Hamish series is not brilliant, but I still enjoy every moment of it. Hamish is a smart but “unambitious” local bobby in the Scottish Highlands. He loves his animals and his local community, and I love Hamish.

Gentle Lady refers to Mrs. Gentle, an “incomer” to the Highlands. Although Gentle curries popularity with the locals, Hamish immediately dislikes the woman when he interrupts her disparaging her daughter. He senses, as only Hamish came, that nothing good is going to come from Gentle’s presence in the community.

At the same time, Hamish must also confront the ever-present threat of his beat’s closure. This time, he decides to save it by getting married. Hamish, Hamish, Hamish.

Gentle Lady is not revolutionary. Hamish never really changes nor do the cases he faces. Yet, he is always charming, funny, and brilliant. What more could I want from a hero?

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Maisie Dobbs

A neighbor recommended Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs as one of the best books she’s read. The book cover boasts quotes from The New York Times (“Be prepared to be astonished”), NPR (“A quirky literary creation”), and Alexander McCall Smith (“[A] real gift”). Naturally, I had high expectations.

Maisie Dobbs is a detective and self-proclaimed psychologist in post-WWI London, and the novel splits its time between a case and detailing Maisie’s background. Only half the book is a mystery as Maisie investigates “The Retreat” where injured soldiers escape the stares of society.

In the other half, Winspear recounts Maisie’s past. She moves from being a greengrocer’s daughter to an aristocrat’s protégé to a WWI nurse to a private investigator. Maisie Dobbs is almost too good to be true: brilliant and dedicated, moving seamlessly between all ranks in society.

The book is well written, but the split-nature of its format backfires. Maisie is too perfect to be an appealing heroine (although a disturbing scene at the end of the book belies Maisie’s perfection). And Winspear does not fully develop the mystery, so its climax borders on the ridiculous.

Winspear has written several more books in the Maisie Dobbs series. Though I haven’t read them, they are apparently more consistent with the genre and concentrate more on mysteries and less on Maisie’s history. I will have to invest in the second novel before dismissing the series completely.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Guest Blog--Is Paris Burning? by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre

Since we lived in Paris last fall, we have spent a lot of time watching and reading subtitles for French movies. You will notice that I have to read the subtitles. My French is not on a level that I can actually listen to a movie in that language and follow what is going on.

Not long ago we watched the movie Is Paris Burning? The movie came out in 1966 with a cast of dozens of well-known stars from America, Britain, France, and Germany. Inspired by the movie, I decided that I was going to read the book. I have no idea when I last read a history book. This one did not disappoint me though. For me it was a wonderful journey into the past.

Despite the fact that the authors interviewed over 800 people and included the experiences of 536 of them in their history of the last few days of German occupation in Paris in August 1944, the story was both exciting and coherent. After introducing one character, the next reference to that individual refers back to an incident that will refresh the reader’s memory. For example: “Lieutenant Bob Woodrum, the American pilot, heard it as he sat on the steps of Louis Berty’s back porch wondering if his pork-butcher friend and host was still alive.”

I found myself deeply concerned about individuals who were mentioned only briefly. Even though I know that the veterans of WW II are dying of old age now, I cared very much as I read about moments in their lives over 60 years ago.

When I was surprised by historical facts new to me, I rushed to my husband (who just happens to have done his Ph.D. dissertation on Franco-Russian relations under de Gaulle) for more information. Had the Allies really preferred having the Communists take charge of France rather than de Gaulle? Apparently.

Lapierre and Collins succeed in making the events of that August come alive. I found myself respecting and admiring both French and German soldiers and at other times despairing over the cruelty of some members of both nations. More than anything I realized how grateful I am to Dietrich von Choltitz who courageously refused to destroy Paris when there was no military advantage in doing so. I have fond memories of looking out the bedroom window last fall and seeing the Eiffel Tower which stands today because of this man.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Ukrainian Reads

For the last several weeks, I’ve been attempting (attempt is the operative word here) to organize my possessions and my life. In the process, I’ve gathered all of my “to read” books in one place. Oh my. Somehow, I’ve let 55 books languish away unread (okay, I have started or skimmed a few of them).

Five of these books have been waiting and waiting for years for me to read them:

As you well know, I’m obsessed with reading about Ukraine. At some point, I also thought it would be a good idea to read books in Ukrainian, so I chose the Harry Potter series and Jane Eyre. After all, they are some of my favorites and couldn’t be that difficult to read, right? Yet, despite starting Harry several times, I’ve just never been able to finish it.

Does this mean that my Ukrainian is that bad? Possibly. Or am I just too lazy to make my brain work so hard? Definitely.

So, dear readers, what is your experience reading fiction in a foreign language? And do you have any tips to inspire me?

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Book Buzz

  • Oprah has taken over Amazon (not that it’s a new phenomenon). The top three bestsellers as of this morning are all Eckhart Tolle books. I confess I haven’t jumped on Oprah’s bandwagon, and I don’t plan to. If I can’t find inner and spiritual peace without the aid of an Oprah book selection, I don’t deserve it.
  • In semi-book related news, I was very disappointed this week to read that John Goodman and Joan Cusak will play Becky Bloomwood’s parents in the Confessions of a Shopaholic movie. Granted, I should reserve judgment since I haven’t seen the movie, but don’t the filmmakers realize the book takes place in London and the Bloomwoods are British?

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

The Witch of Portobello

Although The Witch of Portobello’s book jacket proclaims Paulo Coelho as “one of the most beloved writers of our time,” this is my first Coelho novel. Despite his past successes, Witch is one of those books that leaves me thinking: Meh.

Witch explores the life—and death—of Sherine “Athena” Khalil, a woman dubbed by the London media as the titular “Witch of Portobello.” Athena’s story is told through a series of interviews: her mother, her protégé, her teacher/“protector.”

Despite centering the novel around Athena, Coelho never fully develops the character. Instead, as my high school English teacher would say, Athena is flat and static.

The characters reporting on Athena are slightly more developed, but they still lack flesh, detail, and individual voices. At times, I lost track of whether I was reading the protégé’s testimony or the journalist’s. Their voices are practically identical.

Coehlo explores interesting territory—spirituality, Mother Earth, and authenticity. And despite not caring for or about Athena as an individual, I was interested in what led to her demise.

If the book jacket is to be believed, Witch wants to be profound, to be revolutionary, to be thought provoking. Overall, though, I was left feeling vaguely interested in the plot but mostly unsatisfied with novel’s craft. Meh.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

I’m a little late jumping on The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian bandwagon. Sherman Alexie’s young adult novel has won awards left and right, so it took me longer than I liked to get my hands on a (free) copy.

I love reading a book that actually deserves its acclaim, and Absolutely True Diary is certainly worthy.

Junior is a teenager from the Spokane Indian Reservation. He faces physical, emotional, and social challenges both on the “rez” and off. (His difficulties and attitude are reminiscent of Brady Udall’s Edgar Mint.) But Junior is a talented cartoonist and good student with a sharp wit.

Junior is honest about the difficulties both he and his tribe face, particularly in terms of death and alcoholism. His life is often brutal and the challenges he encounters feel almost insurmountable.

Yet, the book has a positive tone. Although he does not revel in his trials, Junior also does not despair in them. He has a cheerful, though realistic, outlook and uses humor to endure the struggles he faces.

Alexie is a talented writer. Absolutely True Diary is a delight to read and both entertaining and educational. Add this book to your “to read” list.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Finding Daddy

Louis Plummer’s The Unlikely Romance of Kate Bjorkman is one of my all-time favorite young adult novels. The writing is delightful, Kate is a charming character, and the romance is every girl’s dream.

I was surprised and delighted to come across Finding Daddy in the library last week. It’s been years since Plummer released a new book, so I felt as if I’d stumbled across a treasure.

Although not nearly as appealing as Unlikely Romance, Finding Daddy starts with a similarly light tone. Mira Kent is a teenager with a loyal best friend, a dreamy boyfriend, and a strong desire to find her biological father.

The writing is a bit awkward, and I felt like I’d fallen into a time warp with teenagers named Barry, Ted, and Joe, but I was willing to forgive these weaknesses in hopes of some charm and romance.

SPOILER ALERT: I was in for a huge disappointment. The book’s tone and content change dramatically midway through. The magic of teenage love is suddenly replaced with terror, torture, and bloodshed. Mira makes incredibly stupid and frustrating mistakes, and I found it difficult to like and sympathize with her.

Overall, I found the novel’s tone and content disturbing. This reaction may be because I was expecting an entirely different book, but a sense of unease followed me for several hours after finishing Finding Daddy.

If you are looking for a disturbing YA novel, this is the book for you. If you want a romantic romp, pick up The Unlikely Romance of Kate Bjorkman instead.