Friday, May 30, 2008

Guest Blog--Tara. Home.

I can hear the music playing as Scarlett O'Hara looks across the horizon and utters those few words. I have watched the film Gone with the Wind several times in my life. Each time the ending credits play, I breathe a deep sigh of remorse that the over two hours of film has ended.

I don't know why it took me this many years to read the novel (maybe it was the 1000 pages), but I'm glad I finally did it. I LOVE Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind. Not only do I have a major crush on Captain Rhett Butler, the rogue entrepreneur from Charleston with a shady past and ungentlemanly ways, but I love the detailed history of the Civil War.

I've always had a love for the history of this great American war, so it was very interesting to hear the political views leading up to the war, the battles during, and later on the reconstruction, all from a Southern perspective. It was a thrill to read about these historic battles and to know I had visited and walked on the same ground. As I reflected on my visits, I was saddened to think of a whole generation of men wiped out within one battle and to wonder what the world would be like now if the Civil War had never occurred.

Although Scarlett O'Hara can be frustrating because she thinks more with her change purse and less with her heart, I believe she is a feminist before her time. Scarlett lives in a time when women are supposed to be beautiful, dumb, and show no interest in "manly" matters of business or politics. Scarlett is shunned by Southern society because she is strong, speaks her mind, and runs a successful business. Her downfall is that her motives for doing so are fueled by pride and greed. It is difficult for the reader to pity Scarlett based on her actions and choices.

I feel Mitchell's first novel is miscategorized as a story for female readers. Yes, there is romance and yes, I do love Rhett Butler (wait, did I already mention that?), but there is so much more to this epic. After discussing the novel with my husband and impressing him with my new Civil War knowledge, he was tempted to dive into the thousand-page read himself.

My vast knowledge of the South during this time period was useful as I recently ran into some Confederate soldier reenactors and discussed the daily hardships a Southern soldier faced. Little did they know that I was neither from the North nor the South but from the Wild West. They would have been shocked.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Book Buzz

  • I often bemoan Oprah’s influence on the book industry. According to this blurb in USA Today, though, Oprah does not have the most bookselling power. Who does? Jon Stewart.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Alberta Bound

Contributor notaconnoisseur is currently living in Canada and kindly sent me a collection of short stories she found there: Alberta Bound: Thirty Stories by Alberta Writers.

The stories range in length, topic, and tenor. In “Harris” by Shirlee Matheson, the narrator recounts childhood experiences at a Ukrainian country school. Nancy Holmes’s “Bugs” is told from the perspective of a daughter of immigrant parents. She watches her family manipulated and taken advantage of by their Canadian landlords. Two women from a retirement home “paint the town red” in Edna Alford’s “Half Past Eight.”

Not too surprisingly, I was most drawn to the stories featuring Ukrainian-Canadian characters as Alberta has a significant population. Many stories tackle the issue of immigration, a recurring topic in both Canadian and American culture and literature.

Although the collection was published in the 1980s, it has a much older feel. The settings and characters are often reminiscent of American pioneer literature. The land is a significant character in the stories as the humans struggle with taming or succumbing to the wilderness. This theme reminds me of American short stories from a century ago by Willa Cather or even Jack London.

I would be interested in reading stories written in the last decade to track the evolution of Alberta’s literature.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Host

I haven’t exactly been a proponent of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series. In fact, at times I have been downright unpleasant about the books. Not surprisingly, I had extremely low expectations before reading Meyer’s first “adult” novel, The Host. Perhaps because I was expecting the worst, I was pleasantly surprised by how entertaining the novel is.

Meyer’s has an amazing imagination, and The Host is certainly creative—sometimes excessively so. The titular host is Melanie Stryder, a young human woman. Her body, like most of our species, has been taken over by an alien population.

What could be a typical Invasion of the Body Snatchers plot is saved by a nice twist: the story is told from the perspective of Melanie’s invader, Wanderer. Wanderer is a sympathetic character who understands the good and bad of both humans and her own species.

I’ve complained in the past about Meyer’s writing ability. However, The Host is a sci-fi romance novel, and her skills are perfectly adequate for the genre, no better or worse than the average popular fiction writer.

As with her other novels, though, the book is outrageously long, over 600 pages, and could easily have been half that length. The story drags at times, and Meyer’s often gets too involved in the minutia of the fantastic universes she creates. She also makes some rather uncomfortable choices considering her characters’ ages.

Despite these flaws, The Host is not simply another addition to the Twilight series. It is an engrossing and engaging romance and the perfect choice for a summer beach read.

Friday, May 23, 2008


For the last several days, I’ve contemplated taking a job in Turkey.


I know nothing about the country and had never even considered working there before receiving the job offer.

So, what does a so-called librarian do when she faces such a conundrum? She searches every website she can and checks out every book she finds on the country.

In addition to a few out-of-date travel guides, I found some simple series books best suited for a young audience: Cultures of the World: Turkey, Enchantment of the World: Turkey, Visual Geography Series: Turkey in Pictures.

These books contain many lovely pictures and basic information about the country: Turks eat lamb, rice, and tea; Turkey borders the Black, Aegean, and Mediterranean Seas; soccer/football is the most popular sport. For a simple overview of culture, religion, and history, these books are ideal.

They would also be ideal if I were a fifth grader writing a book report. I am learning, though, that if you may move to a specific city, an overview isn’t enough. It’s like trying to find out about Kansas City from a book about the United States. The book may hit on American culture and major cities like New York, Los Angeles, or Miami, but what does it really reveal about Kansas City?

I hate to admit it, but there are some things you can’t learn from a book. Instead, sometimes you just have to take the leap and find out firsthand.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Book Buzz

  • Kathy Freston appeared on Oprah this week promoting her all-natural lifestyle. Shockingly, her book Quantum Wellness is now #3 on Amazon (behind two other Oprah recommendations). I tried to follow Freston’s diet yesterday. It lasted until I had a Brownie Attack around 9 pm.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Bobby Gold Stories

I am addicted to Anthony Bourdain No Reservations on the Travel Channel. I am particularly attracted to Bourdain’s narration of the program. He is insightful, humorous, and eloquent.

Last night, I caught a rerun of Bourdain’s visit to London. During the program, he refers to one of his novels. Hmm, a novel? I headed to the library today and picked up Bourdain’s The Bobby Gold Stories: A Novel.

Bobby Gold is a good-hearted thug who falls for a cook, Nikki, who dreams of life on the lam. Nikki has no attractive qualities—apart from a nice body—and I had difficulty imagining why Bobby would willingly give up everything for her.

I had hoped for an intelligent novel similar to No Reservations. I wanted to experience more of Bourdain’s witticisms and cultural insights. Instead, I found a by-the-book gangster novel oozing with crude scenes and foul language. The profanity wouldn’t have been an issue if it were used to enhance a smart novel. Instead, the book feels gratuitous for the sake of being gratuitous. In fact, I am almost embarrassed to admit I even read it.

The only time I enjoyed the novel was when I imagined the narrative in Bourdain’s voice. Suddenly, the words sounded more intelligent, almost elegant. Perhaps I am simply mesmerized by the sound of his voice. However, I did not have the mental fortitude to read the entire book in this manner, so ultimately I was thoroughly disappointed by the novel.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Romonov Bride

Robert Alexander returns again to the Romanovs in his most recent novel, The Romanov Bride. This time, he focuses on the Grand Duchess Elisabeth “Ella” Fyodorovna, the older sister of Tsarina Alexandra, and Pavel, a fictional revolutionary.

The book alternates chapters between Ella and Pavel’s perspectives. Ella reacts to the Russian Revolution and the assassination of her husband, the Governor General of Moscow, by retreating from her aristocratic roots and founding an abbey, hospital, and orphanage. Pavel reacts to the poverty of the peasant and the murder of his wife by becoming a revolutionary and assassinator.

Although Ella and Pavel come from different worlds and follow different paths, Alexander presents them both realistically and sympathetically. Ella ultimately devotes herself to charity, yet she spent most of her life surrounded by extreme opulence while the common man rotted in poverty around her. Pavel hopes for a better, more equal Russia yet murders gratuitously to achieve this goal.

With Bride, Alexander once again crafts a fascinating historical narrative in the likes of The Kitchen Boy and Rasputin’s Daughter. In this case, though, he remains more faithful to the historical record and avoids the surprise endings of his previous novels. I was disappointed by Alexander’s manipulation of truth in these novels, but in this case, I hoped for a happy ending that simply does not exist.

I am continually intrigued by the tragic nature of Russian history. Millions have suffered—or inflicted suffering—whether governed by tsar or dictator. Considering the current political situation, I can’t help but wonder how much has really changed.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Guest Blog--This House is Nuts! by Linwood Barclay

I am still trying to read some Canadian mysteries while visiting Toronto. At the Robarts Library, which is only a block away, I picked up a book by Linwood Barclay. He is currently taking time off from his job as an editor and columnist at the Toronto Star to promote his mystery books. Unfortunately, all of his mysteries at the University of Toronto are housed at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library which does not actually allow anyone to check books out.

Instead, I picked up his book This House is Nuts! When I checked it out on Amazon, I discovered that there was one critique of the book, and the reader from Boston commented that she had read his column for years and did not think he was funny. Despite this, she read his book and apparently still did not think he was funny. After finishing the book, I have realized that he and his family travel to Boston several times in the book. Could this disparaging individual be a relative?

Whatever the case, I was not discouraged by the negative review and read the book and spent quite a bit of time laughing out loud. Some chapters were not so funny, but others captured parenthood and marriage so acurately that I recognized those feelings and wished I had the ability to record them so well.

He starts the book by telling this story: "...our friend Leslie was in a bookstore in Owen Sound, Ontario, when she spotted my first book, 'Father Knows Zilch: A Guide for Dumbfounded Dads,' on the shelf. She showed my photo on the back cover to her young daughter Sarah and infant son Jack and said: 'Look, there's Spencer's and Paige's daddy.'

"A woman standing next to her turned and said, 'Your kids actually KNOW Spencer and Paige? I read about them all the time in the paper in that man's column, and I always thought they were fictional.'"

Whether they are real or not, Barclay certainly paints a lovely picture of family life and marriage. I came away wishing I had tucked my own children in more often at night and had laughed at my mistakes a little more often. Although some of it feels dated, most of it is just good fun. Who hasn't fallen asleep in front of the TV or talked to friends on the doorstep for half an hour before letting them leave to go home? Or refereed a territorial dispute in the back seat? Something in the book will hit your funny bone.

Friday, May 16, 2008

The Invention of Hugo Cabret

Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret has been racking in the awards. It was a 2007 National Book Award finalist and won the mother of all children’s awards: the 2008 Caldecott Medal.

Hugo Cabret is a young French orphan with many secrets. He lives in a Paris train station where he keeps the clocks running, but his life changes when he meets a toy seller and his goddaughter.

The book’s thickness, at over 500 pages, is initially intimidating. Physically, the tome is unwieldy and difficult to handle for an adult, so I can only imagine the troubles a child might have. Ultimately, though, a majority of the book is illustrations, so reading it is not difficult.

Unfortunately, for a Caldecott winner, I was more interested in the story than the illustrations. I cared more about what happened to Hugo Cabret than looking at pictures about him. And I was confused by some of the book’s choices, particularly its use of white space in the textual areas. In a green era, it feels inappropriate to waste so much paper and space.

I was also a bit disappointed that Selznick does not take greater advantage of the Parisian setting. The city could have been another character in the novel; instead, the story easily could have taken place in any city. I always long for scenes and illustrations of Paris, and this book did not satisfy my cravings. Indeed, I was more interested in the illustrations not created by Selznick—clips from films, drawings by Georges Méliès, a photo of a train wreck.

The book is interesting, the illustrations nice, and the story intriguing, but I am not convinced any of it is award-winning caliber. I wonder if the book was chosen based on volume.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Book Buzz

  • Speaking of Harry Potter, The New York Times Sunday Book Review devoted an entire section to the fall of Harry from its bestsellers lists. The books first appeared on the list in December 1998 and dramatically altered the Times’ bestsellers categories. Good-bye, Harry.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008


A few days ago, a friend instant messaged me from Ukraine. I was terrified. I often email in the language—when I can take the time to check my grammar and spelling—but have never before engaged in a real-time written conversation.

Not only was I trying to remember vocabulary and declensions, but I was also dealing with typing in an entirely different alphabet. My deficiencies were mortifying, and I was sure my friend thought I was a complete moron.

At the same time, I was reading Anya Ulinich’s debut novel Petropolis. Ulinich is a native Russian who migrated to the United States, without speaking any English, when she was 17. The book is delightful, and I was impressed with Ulinich’s control of English—and even more depressed with my own Ukrainian skills.

Granted, Ulinich has now lived in the United States longer than she lived in Russia. Yet, she still deserves credit for absorbing a language to the extent that she can not only write a novel but a good novel, a humorous novel, in that language—something most native speakers could never do.

The novel’s protagonist is Sasha, a Russian girl with African ancestry and a Jewish last name. She struggles to fit into the Soviet mold, particularly in her small Siberian mining town of Asbestos 2 (perhaps the greatest place name ever). Sasha eventually immigrates to Arizona as a mail-order bride and ultimately finds herself in Chicago and New York.

I lived in Arizona for a year and experienced terrible culture shock as an American. Not surprisingly, Sasha experiences similar feelings. Her escapades in both Russia and the United States range from the tragic to the hilarious.

Ulinich is a skilled writer who balances brutal honesty (about both Russians and Americans) with humor. The novel ends a bit too satisfactorily—particularly since it's written by someone raised in the Russian literary tradition—but I thoroughly enjoyed the ride.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Your Own, Sylvia

I mentioned Stephanie Hemphill’s Your Own, Sylvia: A Verse Portrait of Sylvia Plath last week. This biography of poet Sylvia Plath is written in poetry, and each poem is told from a different perspective: Plath’s mother, friends, husband.

At first, I was put off by the book’s style. Reading a biography in poetry felt awkward. In fact, I was more interested in the footnotes that accompany each poem. The footnote explains the biographical context of the poem. In fact, I was tempted to skip the poems altogether and just read the footnotes since they provided the salient information about Plath’s life.

The inconsistency in the poetry also worried me. The speakers’ voices are not unique, and Hemphill does not consistently use the same style of poem to represent an individual.

Like a film with subtitles, though, I soon grew accustomed to the poems. I was no longer distracted by the form and found myself absorbing the content. Some lines feel absolutely spot on. In the poem “Temptation,” the speaker, a poetry editor, describes Plath’s poetry as “smooth and pointed, icicles” (11). Plath’s words “ax and burn” him (10). In “What She Left Behind,” a fictional Ted Hughes says that “[h]er poetry cuts me to the spine” (12). Painfully good.

I thought I was familiar with Plath’s biography, but I learned one interesting/disturbing item from this book. I knew Hughes left Plath for another woman. I did not know, though, that in an ironic twist, this woman eventually killed herself and their daughter—by gas.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Guest Blog--Murder on Location by Howard Engel

While visiting my sister in the Seattle area, we stopped at a local bookstore to browse. A stranger approached me and recommended that I read local writer Earl Emerson. Emerson is a Seattle firefighter who writes mysteries. Emerson turned out to write some of the best mysteries I had read in quite awhile. While living in Virginia, I picked up Laura Lippman and began reading mysteries located in Baltimore. Now that I am spending some time in Toronto, it seemed only natural to look for a local author.

At the small library attached to our lodging, I found Howard Engel. Engel has written a series of mysteries featuring a private detective named Benny Cooperman. The one I picked off the shelf has a copyright date of 1982. It was written when electric typewriters were used to make script changes instead of a laptop. In Murder on Location, Benny goes looking for a missing wife and ends up in Niagara Falls where organized crime has become involved in movie making. Organized Crime is almost enough for me to close any mystery book, but I hung in there and enjoyed Benny’s efforts as he followed the clues to the solution of a crime rooted in local history – not too distant history.

Before I recommend that anyone start reading the handful of books by Engel, I think I will try another of his novels. There were so many characters in the book that I sometimes had a hard time keeping track of them. Added to that, a filmography was attached to each of the characters who was an actor in the story. I did sort out all of them by the end of the book and was very impressed with Cooperman’s ability as a detective.

I’ll let you know if Engel’s later books mature along with Cooperman.

In a side note, I learned that an ice bridge forms across Niagara Falls from the Canadian to the American side during severe winters. Without Howard Engel, I never would have known this fascinating fact.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Sailing Alone Around the Room

I referred to a Billy Collins poem on Monday so decided it was only fitting to review his collection Sailing Alone Around the Room today. Although Collins has since published two other collections (Nine Horses and The Trouble with Poetry and Other Poems), I am a particular fan of Sailing Alone since it was published the same year Collins became U.S. Poet Laureate (Charles Simic, the current Poet Laureate, is another favorite).

Collins is an accessible poet, which is a major part of his attraction. His poems tend to be humorous and approachable. Yet, they are anything but simple or pandering.

For example, I’ve recently been thinking about his poem “Another Reason Why I Don’t Keep a Gun in the House.” The poem starts: “The neighbor’s dog will not stop barking. / He is barking the same high, rhythmic bark / that he barks every time they leave the house. / They must switch him on on their way out.” Unfortunately, I am currently surrounded by barking dogs, including in my own house, and I sometimes wonder when I will reach my breaking point.

Since I’m on a dog kick, I will also mention his poem “Dharma.” Any pet owner can relate to a dog who “trots out the front door / every morning / without a hat or umbrella” but also “shove[s] the cat aside” and thinks his owner is a “god” (1-3, 19, 28).

Anyone who thinks she cannot understand or relate to poetry, who thinks the genre is outdated and inaccessible, should pick up a collection of Billy Collins. He proves that poetry can be current, modern, and enjoyable.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Book Buzz

  • Last week, I mentioned adult crime novels. Here is Booklist’s “Top 10 Crime Fiction for Youth.” According to the article, half the books take place in London. I always knew, based on BBC programs, that the city is a scary hotbed for crime. Speaking of crime, the 2008 Edgar Award novel winner is Down River by John Hart. (USA's Burn Notice won for television episode. I love that show.)

Wednesday, May 7, 2008


There was one exception to my poetry aversion as a teenager: Sylvia Plath. Her poems, particularly those in her collection Ariel, seemed to transcend the evil poetry game.

I wanted to stand and cheer after reading “Daddy” for the first time, not because I think my father is a “bastard,” but because the imagery stayed with me—images of a “Ghastly statue with one grey toe / big as a Frisco seal” and a man with “A cleft in [his] chin instead of [his] foot / But no less a devil for that” (56-59). The speaker’s bare emotion drew me in, and I knew that I could care about a poem and not fear it. Her poems were more than just symbols, tone, and irony.

I particularly enjoy using her poem “Lady Lazarus” in my introductory English classes. I can see the amazement on students faces when they actually enjoy and understand poetry. We revel together in the language (“They had to call and call / And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls” (41-42)) and explore the poem’s mythological, historical, and psychological context.

Plath’s life is arguably as interesting as her poetry. For more information about Plath, read her autobiographical novel The Bell Jar or the 2008 Printz Honor Book Your Own, Sylvia: A Verse Portrait of Sylvia Plath by Stephanie Hemphill.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Without End

Adam Zagajewski’s collection of poems, Without End, was the first poetry to remind me that I can, indeed, enjoy poetry. Zagajewski is originally from Poland, and though he currently resides and teaches in the U.S., the collection was translated by Clare Cavanagh.

Not surprisingly, I was first attracted to Zagajewski because of his Polish heritage. He was born in the city of Lwów, which is now Lviv, Ukraine. His first poem I read was “To Go to Lvov.” The poem begins: “To go to Lvov. Which station / for Lvov, if not in a dream, at dawn, when dew / gleams on a suitcase, when express / trains and bullet trains are being born. To leave / in haste for Lvov, night or day, in September or in March.” These words expressed precisely my own feelings for the city, my desire to be there. I was immediately hooked.

More than anything, though, I am attracted to Zagajewski’s imagery. I can see his poems. “Try to Praise the Mutilated World” appeared in The New Yorker following the 9-11 attacks. The poem starts with the lines “Try to praise the mutilated world. / Remember June’s long days, / and wild strawberries, drops of wine, the dew.” The image of damage and destruction juxtaposed with the peace and beauty of summer is startling yet comforting.

Zagajewski’s poetry my not “speak” to everyone the same way it does to me. Yet, I am a firm believer that everyone can find a poet who touches her in a similar manner. For those that do enjoy Zagajewski, his most recent collection, Eternal Enemies, was released in March. Unfortunately, I have yet to get my hands on a copy.

Monday, May 5, 2008


Somehow, I let National Poetry Month pass without reviewing a single collection of poetry. In fact, I have never reviewed a single poem for this website. This omission is particularly glaring since at one point, many moons ago, I fancied myself a bit of a budding poet. In fact, I actually wrote an entire collection of poetry for my master’s thesis.

In honor of poetry, then, I have decided to dedicate this entire week to poetry reviews. I know that many people, including myself, dislike poetry or feel intimidated by it. So, to jumpstart the week, here’s a blurb from my thesis about my relationship with poetry:

[S]omewhere between junior high and my freshman year at [college], I learned to despise poetry. Poetry was no longer something to listen to, to memorize, or to enjoy. Instead, it became a sadistic game between poets and students. Billy Collins describes the process in his poem “Introduction to Poetry.”

I decided that only brilliant students or students with emotional depths deeper than my own could understand poetry, and I hated it for making me feel stupid and shallow. . . . [I thought] poets were members of an otherworldly realm. They saw things in life and knew things about life that I could not see and did not know.

Ten years ago . . . I believed good poetry was dense and impenetrable. I have learned, though, that is not necessarily the case. I can read poems and enjoy the images, the rhythms, and the sounds without dissecting them.

For the rest of the week, then, I will review a few collections of poetry I believe even normal people, if you can consider me normal, will enjoy without falling into the depths of despair or exhausting their mental capacities.

Friday, May 2, 2008

The Lonely Doll

I recently stumbled across Dare Wright’s The Lonely Doll at my public library. My nieces (ages 4 and 6) and I immediately fell in love.

Edith is the titular lonely doll. She has a lovely house but no companionship, so she prays for friends. One day two bears arrive at her house: Mr. Bear is an adult, and Little Bear is a child like Edith. The two apparently are not related since Little Bear refers to the other bear as “Mr. Bear.” Mr. Bear makes sure Edith and Little Bear do their lessons; Edith and Little Bear get into all kinds of mischief.

Wright both wrote and “photographed” the book using a real doll and toy bears. The dolls are posed at home, on the street, in the park. As a child, I remember imagining what life would be like if my toys could actually move, think, and feel. This book answers those questions.

Lonely Doll was published originally in the 1950s, and the dolls and story feel dated—but that is major part of the book’s charm. I've always had a fear of old toys, and this book plays on those fears, in a good way. My nieces particularly enjoy the scene where Mr. Bear spanks Edith and Little Bear. The photographs produce torrents of giggles; clearly, corporal punishment is far outside the realm of their own personal experience.

According to the official website, Wright wrote and photographed ten books in the Lonely Doll series, but only three are currently in print: The Lonely Doll, Edith and Mr. Bear, and A Gift from the Lonely Doll.

I haven’t been this delighted by a series of retro picture books since meeting Kay Thompson‘s Eloise. They make me feel like I am a little girl again (without actually having to be a little girl again).

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Book Buzz

  • Ron Paul’s book The Revolution is currently #1 on Amazon’s bestsellers list. Did he appear on Oprah without me hearing about it?
  • List-lovers can check out Booklist’s “The Year’s Best Crime Novels: 2008” and the Telegraph’s “50 best cult books.” I’m definitely not a crime novel fan, and I must not be a cult fan, either, because I’ve only read three from the list.