Thursday, November 3, 2011

Sunstroke and Other Stories

I can’t remember what I read about Tessa Hadley’s collection of short fiction, Sunstroke and Other Stories, that inspired me to check out a copy. And after reading the collection, I still have no idea.

Hadley is a fine writer and carefully crafts her short stories, which take place in Britain, often in the 1960s and 70s. I enjoyed her writing, but her perspective on life was overall much bleaker than I subscribe to and enjoy.

The stories take an unromanticized look at life, love, relationships, and family. For example, many characters appear to unblinkingly engage in extra-marital affairs as if it is a natural, and not altogether pleasant, part of life. Other characters keep painful secrets from their loved ones. Even the characters who lose themselves in fantasies seem unsatisfied by their imaginations. Reading the stories, it was easy to feel pessimistic about life and the possibility of happiness.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

After years of listening to his grandfather’s stories of children who can float or make fire, sixteen-year-old Jacob travels to Wales to visit the orphanage his grandfather grew up in.

Who wouldn’t be intrigued by Ransom Riggs’s Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children? Not only is the book a bestseller, but it’s full of the creepiest old pictures I’ve ever seen. I had to read it.

And I did read it, although slog through it might be a better description. The premise is intriguing, but the execution is often excruciating. Riggs’ prose is dense and lacks any character or spark. The story oftentimes feels unnatural, as if Riggs is trying to craft around the pictures he found rather than use photos that fit the story. Not until 200 pages in did I feel invested enough in the story that I actually wanted to finish the book.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered this book is only the first in a series. There was no resolution, no conclusion, no payoff for all my time and hard work. I felt downright cheated, and I definitely will not be tuning in for the sequel.

Friday, October 7, 2011

The Most Beautiful Walk in the World

The few months I lived in Paris were the most ideal of my life. I was completely content—surrounded by beauty, history, and life—and still consider Paris my favorite city in the world. Naturally, I gravitated to John Baxter’s The Most Beautiful Walk in the World: A Pedestrian in Paris.

Walk is a combination of personal narrative and scholarly essay. Baxter relates experiences (sometimes non-walks) from his native Australia to Los Angeles to Paris and interweaves them with historical incidents, particularly from early-20th-century-literary Paris.

At times, Baxter, who lives in a post-Hemingway-post-Fitzgerald society, comes across as elitist. Some of the historical passages also read too much like a university assignment and tend to drag. Only when Baxter backs away from the history and prestige to share his own experiences does the narrative really glow with Paris’s energy.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Anya's Ghost

I enjoy graphic novels, though I’m certainly not a fanatic, and I was pleased to read Vera Brosgol's Anya’s Ghost, an interesting addition to the genre.

Anya is a teenager originally from Russia. She has worked hard to put her immigrant status behind her but still struggles to find her place in a private high school. Everything changes when, after an accident, she meets a ghost who appears to have the answers to all Anya’s problems.

Immigration and identity are nothing new to graphic novels (think American Born Chinese), but Brosgol brings an unexpected twist to the theme. The book is a fast read, with several turns, and quite enjoyable. Anya is only a semi-likable heroine, though I suspect most real teenagers are only semi-likable, but her interaction with the ghost helps her to mature in an intriguing way.

Vaclav & Lena

The only (free) copy of Haley Tanner's Vaclav & Lena I could get my hands on was the audio book. I’ve never been a fan of audio books outside of road trips. I have a hard time staying focused on the story and often find myself irritated with the choice of reader.

Vaclav & Lena was no exception. The reader, Kirby Heyborne, is a local “celebrity,” and I found his voice both distracting and annoying. Yet, I also found myself looking for opportunities to listen to the book. Generally, cooking/cleaning is my NPR time, but I forfeited my news to listen to Vaclav and Lena’s epic love story.

The book encompasses a lot and a little at the same time. It takes place over a brief time when the title characters are children and again when they are teenagers, but what those times represent is significant in both their struggles for identity. Vaclav and Lena are immigrants to the US from Russia and meet in ESL class: Vaclav’s parents brought him to the US for a better life; Lena isn’t even sure who her parents are.

I was attracted to this book because of my experience in Eastern Europe and as an ESL teacher, but anyone who has experienced love, change, and hurt can certainly relate to these characters.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Sisterhood Everlasting

Ann Brashares brings back the four young heroines from her popular Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series in Sisterhood Everlasting—except this time, it is ten years later, and the girls are no longer teenagers. Instead, they face problems common to young professionals on the brink of 30.

At first, I was put off by the book. I knew many fans might consider the novel a betrayal to their loyalty, and I wondered why Brashares found it necessary to return to these four characters instead of letting them rest peacefully in readers’ imaginations.

As I continued reading, though, I came to terms with this new edition. I haven’t felt so compelled to ignore life and read a book for a long time (i.e., since having my son). As a 30-something myself, I could relate to some of the struggles these women face in terms of relationships, work, and parenthood. I found myself emotional on more than one occasion.

Brashares does of good job of tying up loose ends from previous novels. That said, I wish some of the characters had matured more in ten years than they had. Carmen is still a whiner; Lena is still pathetically inert. I just hope I’ve changed more in the last decade than these women.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party

Some series are like old friends. They are comfortable, lack surprises, and just make you feel good. The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency is one of those series. The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party is the newest entry. This time, detective Precious Romotswe helps one of her husband’s apprentices, Charlie, with a personal problem and investigates for a man whose cattle is being killed. Like the other books, Saturday addresses real problems but in such a mild, inoffensive way that it is like coming home to a good friend.

Hunger Games

I am definitely behind the times. I lived internationally for a few years and then had a baby—both things severely curtailing my pleasure reading. But I’ve finally finished Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games series, months after everyone else.

I can see the initial appeal of the series. Hunger Games swept me in. Although I never really related to Katniss, who is rather abrasive and unlikeable, I was interested in the plot and felt attached to her fellow Hunger Games competitor Peeta. I’m not sure why so many authors insist of creating such unattractive (I don’t mean physically) female protagonists (think Bella Swan) that are inexplicably the center of male attention.

Hunger Games was plot driven, and I accepted that, going along for the ride. Catching Fire wasn’t quite as compelling, since the initial horror of what the Hunger Games are was long since revealed, but the plot was again interesting enough to keep me going.

The final entry, Mockingjay, though, failed to capitalize on the momentum of the first two (I know I’m not alone in these feelings). Moving from the Games to actual war lost much of the excitement and uniqueness of the series. Instead, the reader had to feel committed to Katniss and her success, and I struggled to care. She was often so weak, unlikable, selfish, and unfeeling that I wished someone else was the main character. I was also disappointed that Collins so casually disposed of so many characters. I felt particularly manipulated by the death of one whose life was the catalyst for the whole series. It made the entire series feel, in some ways, quite pointless.

Hunger Games was far from perfect and probably undeserving of much of its adoration and success. However, I am all for books that make young people read, and Collins definitely succeeded in inspiring a large following.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Cellist of Sarajevo

The Cellist of Sarajevo was inspired by real-life events. After 22 people were killed by mortar fire while waiting in a breadline during the Siege of Sarajevo, a cellist who witnessed the event commemorates their lives and deaths by playing at the site for 22 days, one for each victim.

Steven Galloway’s novel gives a glimpse into the lives of four characters during just a few days of the siege, days surrounding the cellist’s performance. One man makes the life-threatening trek to collect water for his family. Another seeks his daily ration of bread. A third is a reluctant sniper, recruited to fight the city’s attackers and protect the cellist. All try to adjust to life in a warzone and question how they can maintain their humanity in a world of sniper shootings and shellings.

Cellist is a moving, well-written novel. It is particularly thought-provoking considering recent political upheavals and violence. It’s hard to understand how the international community reacted so slowly to almost four years of genocide in Sarajevo, yet the debate continues today over if, when, and where peacekeepers should step in to prevent further violence.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Death of a Chimney Sweep

In the isolated villages of northern Scotland, the residents rely on chimney sweep Pete Ray. After Police Constable Hamish Macbeth finds a dead body stuffed inside a chimney, the entire town of Lochdubh suspects Pete. Then Pete’s body is found on the Scottish moors, and the mystery deepens.

I have a crush on Hamish Macbeth and look forward to every new book in the series. Since I long ago reconciled myself to the idea that Hamish will never progress in either his personal or professional life, I was able to enjoy Death of a Chimney Sweep without expectations. I found this 27th entry to be as light and charming a read as its predecessors.

My passion for Hamish lives on.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Beowulf on the Beach

With Beowulf on the Beach: What to Love and What to Skip in Literature’s 50 Greatest Hits, writer and professor Jack Murnighan says it’s time to give literature another look, but this time you’ll enjoy yourself. He claims that with a little help, you’ll see just how great the great books are: how they can make you laugh, moisten your eyes, and leave you awestruck and deeply moved. Beowulf on the Beach is your field guide for helping you read and relish fifty of the biggest (and most skipped) classics of all time. For each book, Murnighan reveals how to get the most out of your reading and provides a crib sheet that includes the Buzz, the Best Line, What’s Sexy, and What to Skip.

This book is probably most appealing to people who are already lovers of classic literature and would be little help for a non-reader looking for a quick summary of storylines. Although I rarely agreed with Murnighan’s What to Skip recommendations—the first chapters of Jane Eyre? the last chapters of Pride and Prejudice? really?—I did enjoy reminiscing over my favorite classic literature, and learning more about books I haven’t yet read, with someone who clearly enjoys reading the classics as well.

Friday, March 18, 2011

All in the Family: A Look-It-Up Guide to the In-laws, Outlaws, and Offspring of Mythology

What would Apollo's online profile look like? What would Aphrodite say if she had her own blog? Greek mythology hall of famers meet the modern age in a new series that brings the superstars of Greek myth to life with stories that put them in the pantheon. Complete with profiles, headshots, family trees, fascinating sidebars and irreverent surprises, Mythlopedia is for readers who love action, romance, power struggles and more.

This entry in the Mythlopedia series isn’t quite as exciting as the above promotional material makes it out to be.

All in the Family is directed at a young adult audience and profiles the lives (and usually deaths) of several non-Olympian heroes and mortals. At times, Otfinofski tries so hard to sound hip (Midas: “Aw, snap! Check this out, player—anything I touch turns to gold!”) that I found the narrative both irritating and distracting. Most of the relevant information, though, is provided in a concise, easy to understand format.

This book is a good resource for anyone trying to understand basic plots of Greek mythology, but despite its attempts to make family connections clear, I still find the Olympian family tree a muddled mess.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor's Baby

I had high hopes for this short story collection. For one, I couldn’t resist its title: There Once was a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor's Baby: Scary Fairy Tales. I also have an affinity for Eastern European literature.

Sadly, the first few stories left me disappointed. Although the author is Russian and the stories take place in Russia, I felt like I'd heard many of them before. In fact, some read like a rehash of scary stories I heard at sleepovers as a child. I also felt no spark in the writing—which, granted, might have been a problem with the translation.

The more I read, though, the more interesting the narratives became. I got into Ludmilla Petrushevskaya's rhythm and found the stories fascinating although traditional. I wouldn’t describe the book as scary, but it definitely leans towards the macabre.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Crossfire by Dick Francis and Felix Francis

I haven't read the last few books by the father and son pair. I think I started one and never got very far. I was slow to get into Crossfire by Dick Francis and Felix Francis also, but once hooked I had a hard time putting it down.

Like all of Dick Francis' books this one is centered around steeplechase racing. In this novel, Tom Forsyth who is a career army officer loses a foot in an IED explosion in Afghanistan. After months in the hospital he realizes that he has to face a future far different from the one he had planned. When Tom goes home to his mother's house and horse training stables, he discovers that his mother is in serious financial trouble and is being blackmailed.

Like all good Francis novels, the hero faces pain and death. He not only survives but Tom goes on to uncover the secrets behind his mother's problems. I particularly liked a paragraph at the beginning of the chapter when he finds himself bound and in darkness. "Whoever thought too much pain brought on unconsciousness was an idiot. My brain, now awake, clearly had no intention of switching off again. How much pain does it take to kill, I wondered. Surely it was time for me to die?" (Crossfire, p.179)

I have never been a soldier, have never been a hero, but I have woken from surgery without any medication to take the edge off the pain. Felix Francis has echoed my thoughts exactly. If he has not experienced the jarring pains of being a "jump jokey" like his father, he has certainly learned from his parent's tales of agony.

I like this book. It is up-to-date and deals with issues that many of us are aware of in our world around us, particularly if you have someone in your family who serves in the military. Computers, cell phones and war against terror are all part of our lives.

I wonder if Felix is going to continue to write under his own name and how he will do. He certainly has the ability to carry on his father's legacy, but will that be enough in the mystery writing world? I'll have to keep an eye on him.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Guest Blog - A Study in Valor

In the last few weeks, I have overheard at least two women recommend that their friends read The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom. It is a story of courage and hope. The Ten Boom family in the Netherlands sheltered Jewish people during WW II. Eventually the hiding place was discovered and the two sisters were sent to German concentration camps. It really is an amazing story. It has been years since I last read Ten Boom's book. I don't remember all of the details but I still remember the effect that it had on me. I had the same feeling when I read Viktor Frankl's book, Man's Search for Meaning, about his survival in a German concentration camp. I felt reverence and awe for these individuals who faced one of life's most horrible nightmares but retained their integrity and dignity. And in the case of the Ten Boom sisters, their faith.

Perhaps my curiousity about how people face unthinkable adversity and survive is what prompted me to read A Study in Valor: the Faith of a Bataan Death March Survivor. The story of Clarence Bramley's experience during WW II is retold by William T. Garner. Bramley actually was able to keep a small journal and his parents kept his letters. The book also has historical pictures that bring the reality forcefully to mind.

Bramley joined the Army anticipating that he would go to flight school and learn to fly an airplane. When he returned to the US, he found out that he had passed his tests and was accepted for training. However, he arrived in the Phillipines only about a month before Pearl Harbor and the susquent attack upon the Phillipines by the Japanese. Only a few months into the Japanese assault, McCarther left the island and left the men he could not evacuate to surrender to the Japanese.

Clarence was one of the men who was forced to march and to do hard labor in camps in the Phillipines. Although the narrative does not go into detail about fellow soldiers being killed by being beaten with a rifle or at the point of a bayonette or even beheaded as they struggled to walk next to Clarence, it takes little imagination to visualize the agony of these soldiers. Clarence was one of those who against all odds survived. When McCarther actually did return to Bataan, a peninsula in the Phillipines, Clarence was one of the captives who was put on a ship and transported to Japan. Although he had heard the sweet sound of American planes in the air, he was not there to be rescued from his prison.

The continuing faith of Clarence is inspiring. Throughout his imprisonment, he always believed not only that the US would win the war but that he would survive. Probably that faith is what motivated him to continue struggling against enormous odds.

One lesson I learned from this book was a greater understanding of why the US resorted to destroying two cities in Japan with atomic bombs. The devistation was so vast. Sixty-five years after the end of the war, one can easily weep for the loss of life of those people.

Garner tells of an incident early in the book when several Japanese soldiers who had surrendered to the Americans were returned to their company. There was no trial. No words were spoken. The soldiers who had surrendered were immediately executed. There was no shame greater than surrender. Clarence came to realize that his Japanese captors held the Americans in great contempt because they had surrendered instead of fighting to the death. They treated their captives accordingly.

Reading this book, was probably the first time that I understood why Truman felt that the only solution was to drop bombs on Japan. The US was convinced that Japan would never surrender otherwise and the human cost of the war in the Pacific was so staggeringly high already. Truman did not want the war to drag out for months with young Americans dying in such great numbers. He wanted the killing of American soldiers to stop.

Somewhere along the way in my life, I discovered that history does not remain the same. As years pass, history is reinterpreted as new facts are learned or perspective is altered. This is true whether the history is of a nation, the world or your personal life. It should motivate all of us to leave a bit of our history behind.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Guest Blog - A Comrade Lost and Found: A Beijing Memoir by Jan Wong

Several years ago I heard an interview with Jan Wong on the radio and became interested in finding out what happened to the comrade whom she betrayed while she was a student in Beijing. However, it was a long time before I came across a copy of her book A Comrade Lost and Found: A Beijing Memoir. In a couple of libraries the copy was missing.

In early December I had the chance to read the book. Note that I have not read Red China Blues. Both books are biographical. I found the experiences and the glimpse of Beijing in the pre-Olympic years interesting. Not to give away too much to those of you who might read this book - when by a series of chance encounters, Wong does find her fellow student, the resolution is so simple that I am disappointed in myself that it did not cross my mind.

I have not felt spurred on to check out Red China Blues even though it is presumably a good account of the tragedy at Tiananmen Square. Do I really want to know? However, I enjoyed this glimpse into Beijing during and after the Cultural Revolution. I could do worse than to take a bit of time to learn more about this rapidly emerging power. I have to admit that the mysteries written by Lisa See are more up my alley, square, sidestreet....